The Remains of the Day  Author:Kazuo Ishiguro

Moscombe, near Tavistock, Devon

I feel I should perhaps return a moment to the question of his lordship's attitude to Jewish persons, since this whole issue of anti-Semitism, I realize, has become a rather sensitive one these days. In particular, let me clear up this matter of a supposed bar against Jewish persons on the staff at Darlington Hall. Since this allegation falls very directly into my own realm, I am able to refute it with absolute authority. There were many Jewish persons on my staff throughout all my years with his lordship, and let me say furthermore that they were never treated in any way differently on account of their race. One really cannot guess the reason for these absurd allegations – unless, quite ludicrously, they originate from that brief, entirely insignificant few weeks in the early thirties when Mrs Carolyn Barnet came to wield an unusual influence over his lordship.

Mrs Barnet, the widow of Mr Charles Barnet, was at that point in her forties – a very handsome, some might say glamorous lady. She had a reputation for being formidably intelligent, and in those days one often tended to hear of how she had humiliated this or that learned gentleman at dinner over some important contemporary issue. For much of the summer of 1932, she was a regular presence at Darlington Hall, she and his lordship often spending hour after hour deep in conversation, typically of a social or political nature. And it was Mrs Barnet, as I recall, who took his lordship on those ‘guided inspections’ of the poorest areas of London's East End, during which his lordship visited the actual homes of many of the families suffering the desperate plight of those years. That is to say, Mrs Barnet, in all likelihood, made some sort of contribution to Lord Darlington's developing concern for the poor of our country and as such, her influence cannot be said to have been entirely negative. But she was too, of course, a member of Sir Oswald Mosley's ‘blackshirts’ organization, and the very little contact his lordship ever had with Sir Oswald occurred during those few weeks of that summer. And it was during those same weeks that those entirely untypical incidents took place at Darlington Hall which must, one supposes, have provided what flimsy basis exists for these absurd allegations.

I call them ‘incidents’ but some of these were extremely minor. For instance, I recall overhearing at dinner one evening, when a particular newspaper had been mentioned, his lordship remarking: ‘Oh, you mean that Jewish propaganda sheet.’ And then on another occasion around that time, I remember his instructing me to cease giving donations to a particular local charity which regularly came to the door on the grounds that the management committee was ‘more or less homogeneously Jewish’. I have remembered these remarks because they truly surprised me at the time, his lordship never previously having shown any antagonism whatsoever towards the Jewish race.

Then, of course, came that afternoon his lordship called me into his study. Initially, he made rather general conversation, inquiring if all was well around the house and so on. Then he said:

‘I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking, Stevens. A great deal of thinking. And I've reached my conclusion. We cannot have Jews on the staff here at Darlington Hall.’


‘It's for the good of this house, Stevens. In the interests of the guests we have staying here. I've looked into this carefully, Stevens, and I'm letting you know my conclusion.’

‘Very well, sir.’

‘Tell me, Stevens, we have a few on the staff at the moment, don't we? Jews, I mean.’

‘I believe two of the present staff members would fall into that category, sir.’

‘Ah.’ His lordship paused for a moment, staring out of his window. ‘Of course, you'll have to let them go.’

‘I beg your pardon, sir?’

‘It's regrettable, Stevens, but we have no choice. There's the safety and well-being of my guests to consider. Let me assure you, I've looked into this matter and thought it through thoroughly. It's all in our best interests.’

The two staff members concerned were, in fact, both housemaids. It would hardly have been proper, then, to have taken any action without first informing Miss Kenton of the situation, and I resolved to do just this that same evening when I met her for cocoa in her parlour. I should perhaps say a few words here concerning these meetings in her parlour at the end of each day. These were, let me say, overwhelmingly professional in tone – though naturally we might discuss some informal topics from time to time. Our reason for instituting such meetings was simple: we had found that our respective lives were often so busy, several days could go by without our having an opportunity to exchange even the most basic of information. Such a situation, we recognized, seriously jeopardized the smooth running of operations, and to spend fifteen minutes or so together at the end of the day in the privacy of Miss Kenton's parlour was the most straightforward remedy. I must reiterate, these meetings were predominantly professional in character; that is to say, for instance, we might talk over the plans for a forthcoming event, or else discuss how a new recruit was settling in.

In any case, to return to my thread, you will appreciate I was not unperturbed at the prospect of telling Miss Kenton I was about to dismiss two of her maids. Indeed, the maids had been perfectly satisfactory employees and – I may as well say this since the Jewish issue has become so sensitive of late – my every instinct opposed the idea of their dismissal. Nevertheless, my duty in this instance was quite clear, and as I saw it, there was nothing to be gained at all in irresponsibly displaying such personal doubts. It was a difficult task, but as such, one that demanded to be carried out with dignity. And so it was that when I finally raised the matter towards the end of our conversation that evening, I did so in as concise and businesslike a way as possible, concluding with the words:

‘I will speak to the two employees in my pantry tomorrow morning at ten thirty. I would be grateful then, Miss Kenton, if you would send them along. I leave it entirely to yourself whether or not you inform them beforehand as to the nature of what I am going to say to them.’

At this point, Miss Kenton seemed to have nothing to say in response. So I continued: ‘Well, Miss Kenton, thank you for the cocoa. It's high time I was turning in. Another busy day tomorrow.’

It was then Miss Kenton said: ‘Mr Stevens, I cannot quite believe my ears. Ruth and Sarah have been members of my staff for over six years now. I trust them absolutely and indeed they trust me. They have served this house excellently.’

‘I am sure that is so, Miss Kenton. However, we must not allow sentiment to creep into our judgement. Now really, I must bid you good night …’

‘Mr Stevens, I am outraged that you can sit there and utter what you have just done as though you were discussing orders for the larder. I simply cannot believe it. You are saying Ruth and Sarah are to be dismissed on the grounds that they are Jewish?’

‘Miss Kenton, I have just this moment explained the situation to you fully. His lordship has made his decision and there is nothing for you and I to debate over.’

‘Does it not occur to you, Mr Stevens, that to dismiss Ruth and Sarah on these grounds would be simply – wrong? I will not stand for such things. I will not work in a house in which such things can occur.’

‘Miss Kenton, I will ask you not to excite yourself and to conduct yourself in a manner befitting your position. This is a very straightforward matter. If his lordship wishes these particular contracts to be discontinued, then there is little more to be said.’

‘I am warning you, Mr Stevens, I will not continue to work in such a house. If my girls are dismissed, I will leave also.’

‘Miss Kenton, I am surprised to find you reacting in this manner. Surely I don't have to remind you that our professional duty is not to our own foibles and sentiments, but to the wishes of our employer.’

‘I am telling you, Mr Stevens, if you dismiss my girls tomorrow, it will be wrong, a sin as any sin ever was one and I will not continue to work in such a house.’

‘Miss Kenton, let me suggest to you that you are hardly well placed to be passing judgements of such a high and mighty nature. The fact is, the world of today is a very complicated and treacherous place. There are many things you and I are simply not in a position to understand concerning, say, the nature of Jewry. Whereas his lordship, I might venture, is somewhat better placed to judge what is for the best. Now, Miss Kenton, I really must retire. I thank you again for the cocoa. Ten thirty tomorrow morning. Send the two employees concerned, please.’

It was evident from the moment the two maids stepped into my pantry the following morning that Miss Kenton had already spoken to them, for they both came in sobbing. I explained the situation to them as briefly as possible, underlining that their work had been satisfactory and that they would, accordingly, receive good references. As I recall, neither of them said anything of note throughout the whole interview, which lasted perhaps three or four minutes, and they left sobbing just as they had arrived.

Miss Kenton was extremely cold towards me for some days following the dismissal of the employees. Indeed, at times she was quite rude to me, even in the presence of staff. And although we continued our habit of meeting for cocoa in the evening, the sessions tended to be brief and unfriendly. When there had been no sign of her behaviour abating after a fortnight or so, I think you will understand that I started to become a little impatient. I thus said to her during one of our cocoa sessions, in an ironic tone of voice:

‘Miss Kenton, I'd rather expected you to have handed in your notice by now,’ accompanying this with a light laugh. I did, I suppose, hope that she might finally relent a little and make some conciliatory response or other, allowing us once and for all to put the whole episode behind us. Miss Kenton, however, simply looked at me sternly and said:

‘I still have every intention of handing in my notice, Mr Stevens. It is merely that I have been so busy, I have not had time to see to the matter.’

This did, I must admit, make me a little concerned for a time that she was serious about her threat. But then as week followed week, it became clear that there was no question of her leaving Darlington Hall, and as the atmosphere between us gradually thawed, I suppose I tended to tease her every now and again by reminding her of her threatened resignation. For instance, if we were discussing some future large occasion to be held at the house, I might put in: ‘That is, Miss Kenton, assuming you are still with us at that stage.’ Even months after the event, such remarks still tended to make Miss Kenton go quiet – though by this stage, I fancy, this was due more to embarrassment than anger.

Eventually, of course, the matter came to be, by and large, forgotten. But I remember it coming up one last time well over a year after the dismissal of the two maids.

It was his lordship who initially revived the matter one afternoon when I was serving his tea in the drawing room. By then, Mrs Carolyn Barnet's days of influence over his lordship were well over – indeed, the lady had ceased to be a visitor at Darlington Hall altogether. It is worth pointing out, furthermore, that his lordship had by that time severed all links with the ‘blackshirts’, having witnessed the true, ugly nature of that organization.

‘Oh, Stevens,’ he said to me. ‘I’ve been meaning to say to you. About that business last year. About the Jewish maids. You recall the matter?’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘I suppose there's no way of tracing them now, is there? It was wrong what happened and one would like to recompense them somehow.’

‘I will certainly look into the matter, sir. But I am not at all certain it will be possible to ascertain their whereabouts at this stage.’

‘See what you can do. It was wrong, what occurred.’

I assumed this exchange with his lordship would be of some interest to Miss Kenton, and I decided it only proper to mention it to her – even at the risk of getting her angry again. As it turned out, my doing so on that foggy afternoon I encountered her in the summerhouse produced curious results.

I recall a mist starting to set in as I crossed the lawn that afternoon. I was making my way up to the summerhouse for the purpose of clearing away the remains of his lordship's tea there with some guests a little while earlier. I can recall spotting from some distance – long before reaching the steps where my father had once fallen – Miss Kenton's figure moving about inside the summerhouse. When I entered she had seated herself on one of the wicker chairs scattered around its interior, evidently engaged in some needlework. On closer inspection, I saw she was performing repairs to a cushion. I went about gathering up the various items of crockery from amidst the plants and the cane furniture, and as I did so, I believe we exchanged a few pleasantries, perhaps discussed one or two professional matters. For the truth was, it was extremely refreshing to be out in the summerhouse after many continuous days in the main building and neither of us was inclined to hurry with our tasks. Indeed, although one could not see out far that day on account of the encroaching mist, and the daylight too was rapidly fading by this stage, obliging Miss Kenton to hold her needlework up to the last of it, I remember our often breaking off from our respective activities simply to gaze out at the views around us. In fact, I was looking out over the lawn to where the mist was thickening down around the poplar trees planted along the cart-track, when I finally introduced the topic of the previous year's dismissals. Perhaps a little predictably, I did so by saying:

‘I was just thinking earlier, Miss Kenton. It's rather funny to remember now, but you know, only this time a year ago, you were still insisting you were going to resign. It rather amused me to think of it.’ I gave a laugh, but behind me Miss Kenton remained silent. When I finally turned to look at her, she was gazing through the glass at the great expanse of fog outside.

‘You probably have no idea, Mr Stevens,’ she said eventually, ‘how seriously I really thought of leaving this house. I felt so strongly about what happened. Had I been anyone worthy of any respect at all, I dare say I would have left Darlington Hall long ago.’ She paused for a while, and I turned my gaze back out to the poplar trees down in the distance. Then she continued in a tired voice: ‘It was cowardice, Mr Stevens. Simple cowardice. Where could I have gone? I have no family. Only my aunt. I love her dearly, but I can't live with her for a day without feeling my whole life is wasting away. I did tell myself, of course, I would soon find myself some new situation. But I was so frightened, Mr Stevens. Whenever I thought of leaving, I just saw myself going out there and finding nobody who knew or cared about me. There, that's all my high principles amount to. I feel so ashamed of myself. But I just couldn't leave, Mr Stevens, I just couldn't bring myself to leave.’

Miss Kenton paused again and seemed to be deep in thought. I thus thought it opportune to relate at this point, as precisely as possible, what had taken place earlier between myself and Lord Darlington. I proceeded to do so and concluded by saying:

‘What's done can hardly be undone. But it is at least a great comfort to hear his lordship declare so unequivocally that it was all a terrible misunderstanding. I just thought you'd like to know, Miss Kenton, since I recall you were as distressed by the episode as I was.’

‘I'm sorry, Mr Stevens,’ Miss Kenton said behind me in an entirely new voice, as though she had just been jolted from a dream, ‘I don't understand you.’ Then as I turned to her, she went on: ‘As I recall, you thought it was only right and proper that Ruth and Sarah be sent packing. You were positively cheerful about it.’

‘Now really, Miss Kenton, that is quite incorrect and unfair. The whole matter caused me great concern, great concern indeed. It is hardly the sort of thing I like to see happen in this house.’

‘Then why, Mr Stevens, did you not tell me so at the time?’

I gave a laugh, but for a moment was rather at a loss for an answer. Before I could formulate one, Miss Kenton put down her sewing and said:

‘Do you realize, Mr Stevens, how much it would have meant to me if you had thought to share your feelings last year? You knew how upset I was when my girls were dismissed. Do you realize how much it would have helped me? Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?’

I gave another laugh at the ridiculous turn the conversation had suddenly taken. ‘Really, Miss Kenton,’ I said, ‘I'm not sure I know what you mean. Pretend? Why, really …’

‘I suffered so much over Ruth and Sarah leaving us. And I suffered all the more because I believed I was alone.’

‘Really, Miss Kenton …’ I picked up the tray on which I had gathered together the used crockery. ‘Naturally, one disapproved of the dismissals. One would have thought that quite self-evident.’

She did not say anything, and as I was leaving I glanced back towards her. She was again gazing out at the view, but it had by this point grown so dark inside the summerhouse, all I could see of her was her profile outlined against a pale and empty background. I excused myself and proceeded to make my exit.

Now that I have recalled this episode of the dismissing of the Jewish employees, I am reminded of what could, I suppose, be called a curious corollary to that whole affair: namely, the arrival of the housemaid called Lisa. That is to say, we were obliged to find replacements for the two dismissed Jewish maids, and this Lisa turned out to be one of them.

This young woman had applied for the vacancy with the most dubious of references, which spelt out to any experienced butler that she had left her previous situation under something of a cloud. Moreover, when Miss Kenton and I questioned her, it became clear that she had never remained in any position for longer than a few weeks. In general, her whole attitude suggested to me that she was quite unsuitable for employment at Darlington Hall. To my surprise, however, once we had finished interviewing the girl, Miss Kenton began to insist we take her on. ‘I see much potential in this girl,’ she continued to say in the face of my protests. ‘She will be directly under my supervision and I will see to it she proves good.’

I recall we became locked in disagreement for some time, and it was perhaps only the fact that the matter of the dismissed maids was so recent in our minds that I did not hold out as strongly as I might against Miss Kenton. In any case, the result was that I finally gave way, albeit by saying:

‘Miss Kenton, I hope you realize that the responsibility for taking on this girl rests squarely with yourself. There is no doubt as far as I am concerned that at this present moment she is far from adequate to be a member of our staff. I am only allowing her to join on the understanding that you will personally oversee her development.’

‘The girl will turn out well, Mr Stevens. You will see.’

And to my astonishment, during the weeks that followed, the young girl did indeed make progress at a remarkable rate. Her attitude seemed to improve by the day, and even her manner of walking and going about tasks – which during the first days had been so slovenly that one had to avert one's eyes – improved dramatically.

As the weeks went on, and the girl appeared miraculously to have been transformed into a useful member of staff, Miss Kenton's triumph was obvious. She seemed to take particular pleasure in assigning Lisa some task or other that required a little extra responsibility, and if I were watching, she would be sure to try and catch my eye with her rather mocking expression. And the exchange we had that night in Miss Kenton's parlour over cocoa was fairly typical of the sort of conversation we tended to have on the topic of Lisa.

‘No doubt, Mr Stevens,’ she said to me, ‘you will be extremely disappointed to hear Lisa has still not made any real mistake worth speaking of.’

‘I'm not disappointed at all, Miss Kenton. I'm very pleased for you and for all of us. I will admit, you have had some modest success regarding the girl thus far.’

‘Modest success! And look at that smile on your face, Mr Stevens. It always appears when I mention Lisa. That tells an interesting story in itself. A very interesting story indeed.’

‘Oh, really, Miss Kenton. And may I ask what exactly?’

‘It is very interesting, Mr Stevens. Very interesting you should have been so pessimistic about her. Because Lisa is a pretty girl, no doubt about it. And I've noticed you have a curious aversion to pretty girls being on the staff.’

‘You know perfectly well you are talking nonsense, Miss Kenton.’

‘Ah, but I've noticed it, Mr Stevens. You do not like pretty girls to be on the staff. Might it be that our Mr Stevens fears distraction? Can it be that our Mr Stevens is flesh and blood after all and cannot fully trust himself?’

‘Really, Miss Kenton. If I thought there was one modicum of sense in what you are saying I might bother to engage with you in this discussion. As it is, I think I shall simply place my thoughts elsewhere while you chatter away.’

‘Ah, but then why is that guilty smile still on your face, Mr Stevens?’

‘It is not a guilty smile at all, Miss Kenton. I am slightly amused by your astonishing capacity to talk nonsense, that is all.’

‘It is a guilty little smile you have on, Mr Stevens. And I've noticed how you can hardly bear to look at Lisa. Now it is beginning to become very clear why you objected so strongly to her.’

‘My objections were extremely solid, Miss Kenton, as you very well know. The girl was completely unsuitable when she first came to us.’

Now of course, you must understand we would never have carried on in such a vein within the hearing of staff members. But just around that time, our cocoa evenings, while maintaining their essentially professional character, often tended to allow room for a little harmless talk of this sort – which did much, one should say, to relieve the many tensions produced by a hard day.

Lisa had been with us for some eight or nine months – and I had largely forgotten her existence by this point – when she vanished from the house together with the second footman. Now, of course, such things are simply part and parcel of life for any butler of a large household. They are intensely irritating, but one learns to accept them. In fact, as far as these sorts of ‘moonlight’ departures were concerned, this was among the more civilized. Aside from a little food, the couple had taken nothing that belonged to the house, and furthermore, both parties had left letters. The second footman, whose name I no longer recall, left a short note addressed to me, saying something like: ‘Please do not judge us too harshly. We are in love and are going to be married.’ Lisa had written a much longer note addressed to ‘the Housekeeper’, and it was this letter Miss Kenton brought into my pantry on the morning following their disappearance. There were, as I recall, many misspelt, ill-formed sentences about how much in love the couple were, how wonderful the second footman was, and how marvellous the future was that awaited them both. One line, as I recall it, read something to the effect of: ‘We don't have money but who cares we have love and who wants anything else we've got one another that's all anyone can ever want.’ Despite the letter being three pages long, there was no mention of any gratitude towards Miss Kenton for the great care she had given the girl, nor was there any note of regret at letting all of us down.

Miss Kenton was noticeably upset. All the while I was running my eye over the young woman's letter, she sat there at the table before me, looking down at her hands. In fact – and this strikes one as rather curious – I cannot really recall seeing her more bereft than on that morning. When I put the letter down on the table, she said:

‘So, Mr Stevens, it seems you were right and I was wrong.’

‘Miss Kenton, this is nothing to upset yourself over,’ I said. ‘These things happen. There really is little the likes of us can ever do to prevent these things.’

‘I was at fault, Mr Stevens. I accept it. You were right all along, as ever, and I was wrong.’

‘Miss Kenton, I really cannot agree with you. You did wonders with that girl. What you managed with her proved many times over that it was in fact I who was in error. Really, Miss Kenton, what has happened now might have happened with any employee. You did remarkably well with her. You may have every reason to feel let down by her, but no reason at all to feel any responsibility on your own part.’

Miss Kenton continued to look very dejected. She said quietly: ‘You're very kind to say so, Mr Stevens. I'm very grateful.’ Then she sighed tiredly and said: ‘She's so foolish. She might have had a real career in front of her. She had ability. So many young women like her throw away their chances, and all for what?’

We both looked at the notepaper on the table between us, and then Miss Kenton turned her gaze away with an air of annoyance.

‘Indeed,’ I said. ‘Such a waste, as you say.’

‘So foolish. And the girl is bound to be let down. And she had a good life ahead of her if only she'd persevered. In a year or two, I could have had her ready to take on a housekeeper's post in some small residence. Perhaps you think that farfetched, Mr Stevens, but then look how far I came with her in a few months. And now she's thrown it all away. All for nothing.’

‘It really is most foolish of her.’

I had started to gather up the sheets of notepaper before me, thinking I might file them away for reference. But then as I was doing so, I became a little uncertain as to whether Miss Kenton had intended me to keep the letter, or if she herself wished to do so, and I placed the pages back down on the table between the two of us. Miss Kenton, in any case, seemed far away.

‘She's bound to be let down,’ she said again. ‘So foolish.’

But I see I have become somewhat lost in these old memories. This had never been my intention, but then it is probably no bad thing if in doing so I have at least avoided becoming unduly preoccupied with the events of this evening – which I trust have now finally concluded themselves. For these last few hours, it must be said, have been rather trying ones.

I find myself now in the attic room of this small cottage belonging to Mr and Mrs Taylor. That is to say, this is a private residence; this room, made so kindly available to me tonight by the Taylors, was once occupied by their eldest son, now long grown and living in Exeter. It is a room dominated by heavy beams and rafters, and the floorboards have no carpet or rug to cover them, and yet the atmosphere is surprisingly cosy. And it is clear Mrs Taylor has not only made up the bed for me, she has also tidied and cleaned; for aside from a few cobwebs near the rafters, there is little to reveal that this room has been unoccupied for many years. As for Mr and Mrs Taylor themselves, I have ascertained that they ran the village green grocery here from the twenties until their retirement three years ago. They are kind people, and though I have on more than one occasion tonight offered remuneration for their hospitality, they will not hear of it.

The fact that I am now here, the fact I came to be to all intents and purposes at the mercy of Mr and Mrs Taylor's generosity on this night, is attributable to one foolish, infuriatingly simple oversight: namely, I allowed the Ford to run out of petrol. What with this and the trouble yesterday concerning the lack of water in the radiator, it would not be unreasonable for an observer to believe such general disorganization endemic to my nature. It may be pointed out, of course, that as far as long-distance motoring is concerned, I am something of a novice, and such simple oversights are only to be expected. And yet, when one remembers that good organization and foresight are qualities that lie at the very heart of one's profession, it is hard to avoid the feeling that one has, somehow, let oneself down again.

But it is true, I had been considerably distracted during the last hour or so of motoring prior to the petrol running out. I had planned to lodge the night in the town of Tavistock, where I arrived a little before eight o'clock. At the town's main inn, however, I was informed all the rooms were occupied on account of a local agricultural fair. Several other establishments were suggested to me, but though I called at each, I was met every time with the same apology. Finally, at a boarding house on the edge of the town, the landlady suggested I motor on several miles to a roadside inn run by a relative of hers – which, she assured me, was bound to have vacancies, being too far out of Tavistock to be affected by the fair.

She had given me thorough directions, which had seemed clear enough at the time, and it is impossible to say now whose fault it was that I subsequently failed to find any trace of this roadside establishment. Instead, after fifteen minutes or so of motoring, I found myself out on a long road curving across bleak, open moorland. On either side of me were what appeared to be fields of marsh, and a mist was rolling across my path. To my left, I could see the last glow of the sunset. The skyline was broken here and there by the shapes of barns and farmhouses some way away over the fields, but otherwise, I appeared to have left behind all signs of community.

I recall turning the Ford round at about this stage and doubling back some distance in search of a turning I had passed earlier. But when I found it, this new road proved, if anything, more desolate than the one I had left. For a time, I drove in near-darkness between high hedges, then found the road beginning to climb steeply. I had by now given up hope of finding the roadside inn and had set my mind on motoring on till I reached the next town or village and seeking shelter there. It would be easy enough, so I was reasoning to myself, to resume my planned route first thing in the morning. It was at this point, half-way up the hill road, that the engine stuttered and I noticed for the first time that my petrol was gone.

The Ford continued its climb for several more yards, then came to a halt. When I got out to assess my situation, I could see I had only a few more minutes of daylight left to me. I was standing on a steep road bound in by trees and hedgerows; much further up the hill, I could see a break in the hedges where a wide barred gate stood outlined against the sky. I began to make my way up to it, supposing that a view from this gate would give me some sense of my bearings; perhaps I had even hoped to see a farmhouse near by where I could gain prompt assistance. I was a little disconcerted then by what eventually greeted my eyes. On the other side of the gate a field sloped down very steeply so that it fell out of vision only twenty yards or so in front of me. Beyond the crest of the field, some way off in the distance – perhaps a good mile or so as the crow would fly – was a small village. I could make out through the mist a church steeple, and around about it, clusters of dark-slated roofs; here and there, wisps of white smoke were rising from chimneys. One has to confess, at that moment, to being overcome by a certain sense of discouragement. Of course, the situation was not by any means hopeless; the Ford was not damaged, simply out of fuel. A walk down to the village could be accomplished in a half-hour or so and there I could surely find accommodation and a can of petrol. And yet it was not a happy feeling to be up there on a lonely hill, looking over a gate at the lights coming on in a distant village, the daylight all but faded, and the mist growing ever thicker.

There was little to be gained in growing despondent, however. In any case, it would have been foolish to waste the few remaining minutes of daylight. I walked back down to the Ford where I packed a briefcase with some essential items. Then, arming myself with a bicycle lamp, which cast a surprisingly good beam, I went in search of a path by which I could descend to the village. But no such path offered itself, though I went some distance up the hill, a good way past my gate. Then when I sensed that the road had ceased to climb, but was beginning to curve slowly down in a direction away from the village – the lights of which I could glimpse regularly through the foliage – I was overcome again by a sense of discouragement. In fact, for a moment I wondered if my best strategy would not be to retrace my steps to the Ford and simply sit in it until another motorist came by. By then, however, it was very close to being dark, and I could see that if one were to attempt to hail a passing vehicle in these circumstances, one might easily be taken for a highwayman or some such. Besides, not a single vehicle had passed since I had got out of the Ford; in fact, I could not really remember having seen another vehicle at all since leaving Tavistock. I resolved then to return as far as the gate, and from there, descend the field, walking in as direct a line as possible towards the lights of the village, regardless of whether or not there was a proper path.

It was not, in the end, too arduous a descent. A series of grazing fields, one after the next, led the way down to the village and by keeping close to the edge of each field as one descended, one could be ensured of reasonable walking. Only once, with the village very close, could I find no obvious way to gain access to the next field down, and I had to shine my bicycle lamp to and fro along the hedgerow obstructing me. Eventually, I discovered a small gap through which I proceeded to squeeze my person, but only at some cost to the shoulder of my jacket and the turn-ups of my trousers. The last few fields, furthermore, became increasingly muddy and I deliberately refrained from shining my lamp on to my shoes and turn-ups for fear of further discouragement.

By and by I found myself on a paved path going down into the village, and it was while descending this path that I met Mr Taylor, my kind host of this evening. He had emerged out of a turning a few yards in front of me, and had courteously waited for me to catch up, whereupon he had touched his cap and asked if he could be of any assistance to me. I had explained my position as succinctly as possible, adding that I would be most gratified to be guided towards a good inn. At this, Mr Taylor had shaken his head, saying: ‘I'm afraid there's no inn as such in our village, sir. John Humphreys usually takes in travellers at the Crossed Keys, but he's having work done to the roof at the moment.’ Before this distressing piece of information could have its full effect, however, Mr Taylor said: ‘If you didn't mind roughing it a little, sir, we could offer you a room and a bed for the night. It's nothing special, but the wife will see to it everything's clean and comfortable enough in a basic sort of way.’

I believe I uttered some words, perhaps in a rather half-hearted way, to the effect that I could not inconvenience them to such an extent. To which Mr Taylor had said: ‘I tell you, sir, it would be an honour to have you. It's not often we get the likes of yourself passing through Moscombe. And quite honestly, sir, I don't know what else you could do at this hour. The wife would never forgive me if I were to let you away into the night.’

Thus it was that I came to accept the kind hospitality of Mr and Mrs Taylor. But when I spoke earlier of this evening's events being ‘trying’, I was not referring simply to the frustrations of running out of petrol and of having to make such an uncouth journey down into the village. For what occurred subsequently – what unfolded once I sat down to supper with Mr and Mrs Taylor and their neighbours – proved in its own way far more taxing on one's resources than the essentially physical discomforts I had faced earlier. It was, I can assure you, a relief indeed to be able at last to come up to this room and to spend some moments turning over these memories of Darlington Hall from all those years ago.

The fact is, I have tended increasingly of late to indulge myself in such recollections. And ever since the prospect of seeing Miss Kenton again first arose some weeks ago, I suppose I have tended to spend much time pondering just why it was our relationship underwent such a change. For change it certainly did, around 1935 or 1936, after many years in which we had steadily achieved a fine professional understanding. In fact, by the end, we had even abandoned our routine of meeting over a cup of cocoa at the end of each day. But as to what really caused such changes, just what particular chain of events was really responsible, I have never quite been able to decide.

In thinking about this recently, it seems possible that that odd incident the evening Miss Kenton came into my pantry uninvited may have marked a crucial turning point. Why it was she came to my pantry I cannot remember with certainty. I have a feeling she may have come bearing a vase of flowers ‘to brighten things up’, but then again, I may be getting confused with the time she attempted the same thing years earlier at the start of our acquaintanceship. I know for a fact she tried to introduce flowers to my pantry on at least three occasions over the years, but perhaps I am confused in believing this to have been what brought her that particular evening. I might emphasize, in any case, that notwithstanding our years of good working relations, I had never allowed the situation to slip to one in which the housekeeper was coming and going from my pantry all day. The butler's pantry, as far as I am concerned, is a crucial office, the heart of the house's operations, not unlike a general's headquarters during a battle, and it is imperative that all things in it are ordered – and left ordered – in precisely the way I wish them to be. I have never been that sort of butler who allows all sorts of people to wander in and out with their queries and grumbles. If operations are to be conducted in a smoothly co-ordinated way, it is surely obvious that the butler's pantry must be the one place in the house where privacy and solitude are guaranteed.

As it happened, when she entered my pantry that evening, I was not in fact engaged in professional matters. That is to say, it was towards the end of the day during a quiet week and I had been enjoying a rare hour or so off duty. As I say, I am not certain if Miss Kenton entered with her vase of flowers, but I certainly do recall her saying:

‘Mr Stevens, your room looks even less accommodating at night than it does in the day. The electric bulb is too dim, surely, for you to be reading by.’

‘It is perfectly adequate, thank you, Miss Kenton.’

‘Really, Mr Stevens, this room resembles a prison cell. All one needs is a small bed in the corner and one could well imagine condemned men spending their last hours here.’

Perhaps I said something to this, I do not know. In any case, I did not look up from my reading, and a few moments passed during which I waited for Miss Kenton to excuse herself and leave. But then I heard her say:

‘Now I wonder what it could be you are reading there, Mr Stevens.’

‘Simply a book, Miss Kenton.’

‘I can see that, Mr Stevens. But what sort of book – that is what interests me.’

I looked up to see Miss Kenton advancing towards me. I shut the book, and clutching it to my person, rose to my feet.

‘Really, Miss Kenton,’ I said, ‘I must ask you to respect my privacy.’

‘But why are you so shy about your book, Mr Stevens? I rather suspect it may be something rather racy.’

‘It is quite out of the question, Miss Kenton, that anything “racy”, as you put it, should be found on his lordship's shelves.’

‘I have heard it said that many learned books contain the most racy of passages, but I have never had the nerve to look. Now, Mr Stevens, do please allow me to see what it is you are reading.’

‘Miss Kenton, I must ask you to leave me alone. It is quite impossible that you should persist in pursuing me like this during the very few moments of spare time I have to myself.’

But Miss Kenton was continuing to advance and I must say it was a little difficult to assess what my best course of action would be. I was tempted to thrust the book into the drawer of my desk and lock it, but this seemed absurdly dramatic. I took a few paces back, the book still held to my chest.

‘Please show me the volume you are holding, Mr Stevens,’ Miss Kenton said, continuing her advance, ‘and I will leave you to the pleasures of your reading. What on earth can it be you are so anxious to hide?’

‘Miss Kenton, whether or not you discover the title of this volume is in itself not of the slightest importance to me. But as a matter of principle, I object to your appearing like this and invading my private moments.’

‘I wonder, is it a perfectly respectable volume, Mr Stevens, or are you in fact protecting me from its shocking influences?’

Then she was standing before me, and suddenly the atmosphere underwent a peculiar change – almost as though the two of us had been suddenly thrust on to some other plane of being altogether. I am afraid it is not easy to describe clearly what I mean here. All I can say is that everything around us suddenly became very still; it was my impression that Miss Kenton's manner also underwent a sudden change; there was a strange seriousness in her expression, and it struck me she seemed almost frightened.

‘Please, Mr Stevens, let me see your book.’

She reached forward and began gently to release the volume from my grasp. I judged it best to look away while she did so, but with her person positioned so closely, this could only be achieved by my twisting my head away at a somewhat unnatural angle. Miss Kenton continued very gently to prise the book away, practically one finger at a time. The process seemed to take a very long time – throughout which I managed to maintain my posture – until I finally heard her say:

‘Good gracious, Mr Stevens, it isn't anything so scandalous at all. Simply a sentimental love story.’

I believe it was around this point that I decided there was no need to tolerate any more. I cannot recall precisely what I said, but I remember showing Miss Kenton out of my pantry quite firmly and the episode was thus brought to a close.

I suppose I should add a few words here concerning the matter of the actual volume around which this small episode revolved. The book was, true enough, what might be described as a ‘sentimental romance’ – one of a number kept in the library, and also in several of the guest bedrooms, for the entertainment of lady visitors. There was a simple reason for my having taken to perusing such works; it was an extremely efficient way to maintain and develop one's command of the English language. It is my view – I do not know if you will agree – that in so far as our generation is concerned, there has been too much stress placed on the professional desirability of good accent and command of language; that is to say, these elements have been stressed sometimes at the cost of more important professional qualities. For all that, it has never been my position that good accent and command of language are not attractive attributes, and I always considered it my duty to develop them as best I could. One straightforward means of going about this is simply to read a few pages of a well-written book during odd spare moments one may have. This had been my own policy for some years, and I often tended to choose the sort of volume Miss Kenton had found me reading that evening simply because such works tend to be written in good English, with plenty of elegant dialogue of much practical value to me. A weightier book – a scholarly study, say – while it might have been more generally improving would have tended to be couched in terms likely to be of more limited use in the course of one's normal intercourse with ladies and gentlemen.

I rarely had the time or the desire to read any of these romances cover to cover, but so far as I could tell, their plots were invariably absurd – indeed, sentimental – and I would not have wasted one moment on them were it not for these aforementioned benefits. Having said that, however, I do not mind confessing today – and I see nothing to be ashamed of in this – that I did at times gain a sort of incidental enjoyment from these stories. I did not perhaps acknowledge this to myself at the time, but as I say, what shame is there in it? Why should one not enjoy in a light-hearted sort of way stories of ladies and gentlemen who fall in love and express their feelings for each other, often in the most elegant phrases?

But when I say this, I do not mean to imply the stance I took over the matter of the book that evening was somehow unwarranted. For you must understand, there was an important principle at issue. The fact was, I had been ‘off duty’ at that moment Miss Kenton had come marching into my pantry. And of course, any butler who regards his vocation with pride, any butler who aspires at all to a ‘dignity in keeping with his position’, as the Hayes Society once put it, should never allow himself to be ‘off duty’ in the presence of others. It really was immaterial whether it was Miss Kenton or a complete stranger who had walked in at that moment. A butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully; he cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as though it were nothing more than a pantomime costume. There is one situation and one situation only in which a butler who cares about his dignity may feel free to unburden himself of his role; that is to say, when he is entirely alone. You will appreciate then that in the event of Miss Kenton bursting in at a time when I had presumed, not unreasonably, that I was to be alone, it came to be a crucial matter of principle, a matter indeed of dignity, that I did not appear in anything less than my full and proper role.

However, it had not been my intention to analyse here the various facets of this small episode from years ago. The main point about it was that it alerted me to the fact that things between Miss Kenton and myself had reached – no doubt after a gradual process of many months – an inappropriate footing. The fact that she could behave as she had done that evening was rather alarming, and after I had seen her out of my pantry, and had had a chance to gather my thoughts a little, I recall resolving to set about re-establishing our professional relationship on a more proper basis. But as to just how much that incident contributed to the large changes our relationship subsequently underwent, it is very difficult now to say. There may well have been other more fundamental developments to account for what took place. Such as, for instance, the matter of Miss Kenton's days off.

From the time she arrived at Darlington Hall right up until perhaps a month or so before that incident in my pantry, Miss Kenton's days off had followed a predictable pattern. She would, once every six weeks, take two days off to visit her aunt in Southampton; otherwise, following my own example, she would not really take days off as such unless we were going through a particularly quiet time, in which case she might spend a day strolling around the grounds and doing a little reading in her parlour. But then, as I say, the pattern changed. She began suddenly to take full advantage of her contracted time off, disappearing regularly from the house from early in the morning, leaving no information other than the hour she might be expected back that night. Of course, she never took more time than her entitlement, and thus I felt it improper to inquire further concerning these outings of hers. But I suppose this change did perturb me somewhat, for I remember mentioning it to Mr Graham, valet-butler to Sir James Chambers – a good colleague who, incidentally, I seem now to have lost touch with – as we sat talking by the fire one night during one of his regular visits to Darlington Hall.

In fact, all I had said was something to the effect that the housekeeper had been ‘a little moody of late’ and so had been rather surprised when Mr Graham nodded, leaned towards me and said knowingly:

‘I’d been wondering how much longer it would be.’

When I asked him what he meant, Mr Graham went on: ‘Your Miss Kenton. I believe she's now what? Thirty-three? Thirty-four? Missed out on the best of her mothering years, but it's not too late yet.’

‘Miss Kenton’, I assured him, ‘is a devoted professional. I happen to know for a fact that she has no wish for a family.’

But Mr Graham had smiled and shook his head, saying: ‘Never believe a housekeeper who tells you she doesn't want a family. Indeed, Mr Stevens, I should think you and I could sit here now and count up at least a dozen between us that once said as much, then got married and left the profession.’

I recall I dismissed Mr Graham's theory with some confidence that evening, but thereafter, I must admit, I found it hard to keep out of my mind the possibility that the purpose of these mysterious outings of Miss Kenton was to meet a suitor. This was indeed a disturbing notion, for it was not hard to see that Miss Kenton's departure would constitute a professional loss of some magnitude, a loss Darlington Hall would have some difficulty recovering from. Furthermore, I was obliged to recognize certain other little signs which tended to support Mr Graham's theory. For instance, the collection of mail being one of my duties, I could not help noticing that Miss Kenton had started to get letters on a fairly regular basis – once a week or so – from the same correspondent, and that these letters bore a local postmark. I should perhaps point out here that it would have been well nigh impossible for me not to have noticed such things, given that throughout all her preceding years at the house, she had received very few letters indeed.

Then there were other more nebulous signs to support Mr Graham's view. For instance, although she continued to discharge her professional duties with all her usual diligence, her general mood tended to undergo swings of a sort I had hitherto never witnessed. In fact the times when she became extremely cheerful for days on end – and for no observable reason – were almost as disturbing to me as her sudden, often prolonged sullen spells. As I say, she remained utterly professional throughout it all, but then again, it was my duty to think about the welfare of the house in the long term, and if indeed these signs tended to support Mr Graham's notion that Miss Kenton was contemplating departing for romantic purposes, I clearly had a responsibility to probe the matter further. I did then venture to ask her one evening during one of our sessions over cocoa:

‘And will you be going off again on Thursday, Miss Kenton? On your day off, I mean.’

I had half expected her to be angry at this inquiry, but on the contrary, it was almost as though she had been long awaiting an opportunity to raise the very topic. For she said in something of a relieved way:

‘Oh, Mr Stevens, it's just someone I knew once when I was at Granchester Lodge. As a matter of fact, he was the butler there at the time, but now he's left service altogether and is employed by a business near by. He somehow learnt of my being here and started writing to me, suggesting we renew our acquaintance. And that, Mr Stevens, is really the long and short of it.’

‘I see, Miss Kenton. No doubt, it is refreshing to leave the house at times.’

‘I find it so, Mr Stevens.’

There was a short silence. Then Miss Kenton appeared to make some decision and went on:

‘This acquaintance of mine. I remember when he was butler at Granchester Lodge, he was full of the most marvellous ambitions. In fact, I imagine his ultimate dream would have been to become butler of a house like this one. Oh, but when I think now of some of his methods! Really, Mr Stevens, I can just imagine your face if you were to be confronted by them now. It really is no wonder his ambitions remained unfulfilled.’

I gave a small laugh. ‘In my experience,’ I said, ‘too many people believe themselves capable of working at these higher levels without having the least idea of the exacting demands involved. It is certainly not suited to just anybody.’

‘So true. Really, Mr Stevens, what would you have said if you had observed him in those days!’

‘At these sorts of levels, Miss Kenton, the profession isn't for everybody. It is easy enough to have lofty ambitions, but without certain qualities, a butler will simply not progress beyond a certain point.’

Miss Kenton seemed to ponder this for a moment, then said:

‘It occurs to me you must be a well-contented man, Mr Stevens. Here you are, after all, at the top of your profession, every aspect of your domain well under control. I really cannot imagine what more you might wish for in life.’

I could think of no immediate response to this. In the slightly awkward silence that ensued, Miss Kenton turned her gaze down into the depths of her cocoa cup as if she had become engrossed by something she had noticed there. In the end, after some consideration, I said:

‘As far as I am concerned, Miss Kenton, my vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself. The day his lordship's work is complete, the day be is able to rest on his laurels, content in the knowledge that he has done all anyone could ever reasonably ask of him, only on that day, Miss Kenton, will I be able to call myself, as you put it, a well-contented man.’

She may have been a little puzzled by my words; or perhaps it was that they had for some reason displeased her. In any case, her mood seemed to change at that point, and our conversation rapidly lost the rather personal tone it had begun to adopt.

It was not so long afterwards that these meetings over cocoa in her parlour came to an end. In fact, I recall quite clearly the very last time we met like that; I was wishing to discuss with Miss Kenton a forthcoming event – a weekend gathering of distinguished persons from Scotland. It is true the event was still a month or so away, but then it had always been our habit to talk over such events from an early stage. On this particular evening, I had been discussing various aspects of it for a little while when I realized Miss Kenton was contributing very little; indeed, after a time, it became perfectly obvious her thoughts were somewhere else altogether. I did on a few occasions say things like: ‘Are you with me, Miss Kenton?’ particularly if I had been making a lengthy point, and though whenever I did so she would become a little more alert, within seconds I could see her attention drifting again. After several minutes of my talking and her contributing only statements such as, ‘Of course, Mr Stevens,’ or, ‘I quite agree, Mr Stevens,’ I finally said to her:

‘I am sorry, Miss Kenton, but I see little point in our continuing. You simply do not seem to appreciate the importance of this discussion.’

‘I'm sorry, Mr Stevens,’ she said, sitting up a little. ‘It's simply that I'm rather tired this evening.’

‘You are increasingly tired now, Miss Kenton. It used not to be an excuse you needed to resort to.’

To my astonishment, Miss Kenton responded to this in a sudden burst:

‘Mr Stevens, I have had a very busy week. I am very tired. In fact, I have been wishing for my bed for the last three or four hours. I am very, very tired, Mr Stevens, can you not appreciate that?’

It is not as though I had expected an apology from her, but the stridency of this reply did, I must say, take me aback a little. However, I decided not to get drawn into an unseemly argument with her and made sure to pause for a telling moment or two before saying quite calmly:

‘If that is how you feel about it, Miss Kenton, there is no need at all for us to continue with these evening meetings. I am sorry that all this time I had no idea of the extent to which they were inconveniencing you.’

‘Mr Stevens, I merely said that I was tired tonight …’

‘No, no, Miss Kenton, it's perfectly understandable. You have a busy life, and these meetings are a quite unnecessary addition to your burden. There are many alternative options for achieving the level of professional communication necessary without our meeting on this basis.’

‘Mr Stevens, this is quite unnecessary. I merely said …’

‘I mean it, Miss Kenton. In fact, I had been wondering for some time if we should not discontinue these meetings, given how they prolong our already very busy days. The fact that we have met here now for years is no reason in itself why we should not seek a more convenient arrangement from here on.’

‘Mr Stevens, please, I believe these meetings are very useful …’

‘But they are inconvenient for you, Miss Kenton. They tire you out. May I suggest that from now on, we simply make a special point of communicating important information during the course of the normal working day. Should we not be able to find each other readily, I suggest we leave written messages at one another's doors. That seems to me a perfectly fine solution. Now, Miss Kenton, I apologize for keeping you up so long. Thank you very kindly for the cocoa.’

Naturally – and why should I not admit this? – I have occasionally wondered to myself how things might have turned out in the long run had I not been so determined over the issue of our evening meetings; that is to say, had I relented on those several occasions over the weeks that followed when Miss Kenton suggested we reinstitute them. I only speculate over this now because in the light of subsequent events, it could well be argued that in making my decision to end those evening meetings once and for all, I was perhaps not entirely aware of the full implications of what I was doing. Indeed, it might even be said that this small decision of mine constituted something of a key turning point; that the decision set things on an inevitable course towards what eventually happened.

But then, I suppose, when with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one's past for such ‘turning points’, one is apt to start seeing them everywhere. Not only my decision in respect of our evening meetings, but also that episode in my pantry, if one felt so inclined, could be seen as such a ‘turning point’. What would have transpired, one may ask, had one responded slightly differently that evening she came in with her vase of flowers? And perhaps – occurring as it did around the same time as these events – my encounter with Miss Kenton in the dining room the afternoon she received the news of her aunt's death might be seen as yet another ‘turning point’ of sorts.

News of the death had arrived some hours earlier; indeed, I had myself knocked on the door of her parlour that morning to hand her the letter. I had stepped inside for a brief moment to discuss some professional matter, and I recall we were seated at her table and in mid-conversation at the moment she opened the letter. She became very still, but to her credit she remained composed, reading the letter through at least twice. Then she put the letter carefully back in its envelope and looked across the table to me.

‘It is from Mrs Johnson, a companion of my aunt. She says my aunt died the day before yesterday.’ She paused a moment, then said: ‘The funeral is to take place tomorrow. I wonder if it might be possible for me to take the day off.’

‘I am sure that could be arranged, Miss Kenton.’

‘Thank you, Mr Stevens. Forgive me, but perhaps I may now have a few moments alone.’

‘Of course, Miss Kenton.’

I made my exit, and it was not until after I had done so that it occurred to me I had not actually offered her my condolences. I could well imagine the blow the news would be to her, her aunt having been, to all intents and purposes, like a mother to her, and I paused out in the corridor, wondering if I should go back, knock and make good my omission. But then it occurred to me that if I were to do so, I might easily intrude upon her private grief. Indeed, it was not impossible that Miss Kenton, at that very moment, and only a few feet from me, was actually crying. The thought provoked a strange feeling to rise within me, causing me to stand there hovering in the corridor for some moments. But eventually I judged it best to await another opportunity to express my sympathy and went on my way.

As it turned out, I did not see her again until the afternoon, when, as I say, I came across her in the dining room, replacing crockery into the sideboard. By this point, I had been preoccupied for some hours with the matter of Miss Kenton's sorrow, having given particular thought to the question of what I might best do or say to ease her burden a little. And when I had heard her footsteps entering the dining room – I was busy with some task out in the hall – I had waited a minute or so, then put down what I was doing and followed her in.

‘Ah, Miss Kenton,’ I said. ‘And how might you be this afternoon?’

‘Quite well, thank you, Mr Stevens.’

‘Is everything in order?’

‘Everything is in order, thank you.’

‘I had been meaning to ask you if you were experiencing any particular problems with the new recruits.’ I gave a small laugh. ‘Various small difficulties are apt to arise when so many new recruits arrive all at once. I dare say the best of us can often profit by a little professional discussion at such times.’

‘Thank you, Mr Stevens, but the new girls are very satisfactory to me.’

‘You don't consider any changes necessary to the present staff plans on account of the recent arrivals?’

‘I don't think any such changes will be necessary, Mr Stevens. However, if I change my view on this, I will let you know immediately.’

She turned her attention back to the sideboard, and for a moment, I thought about leaving the dining room. In fact, I believe I actually took a few steps towards the doorway, but then I turned to her again and said:

‘So, Miss Kenton, the new recruits are getting on well, you say.’

‘They are both doing very well, I assure you.’

‘Ah, that is good to hear.’ I gave another short laugh. ‘I merely wondered, because we had established that neither girl had worked previously in a house of this size.’

‘Indeed, Mr Stevens.’

I watched her filling the sideboard and waited to see if she would say anything further. When after several moments it became clear she would not, I said: ‘As a matter of fact, Miss Kenton, I have to say this. I have noticed one or two things have fallen in standard just recently. I do feel you might be a little less complacent as regards new arrivals.’

‘Whatever do you mean, Mr Stevens?’

‘For my part, Miss Kenton, whenever new recruits arrive, I like to make doubly sure all is well. I check all aspects of their work and try to gauge how they are conducting themselves with other staff members. It is, after all, important to form a clear view of them both technically and in terms of their impact on general morale. I regret to say this, Miss Kenton, but I believe you have been a little remiss in these respects.’

For a second, Miss Kenton looked confused. Then she turned towards me and a certain strain was visible in her face.

‘I beg your pardon, Mr Stevens?’

‘For instance, Miss Kenton, although the crockery is being washed to as high a standard as ever, I have noticed it is being replaced on the kitchen shelves in a manner which, while not obviously dangerous, would nevertheless over time result in more breakages than necessary.’

‘Is that so, Mr Stevens?’

‘Yes, Miss Kenton. Furthermore, that little alcove outside the breakfast room has not been dusted for some time. You will excuse me, but there are one or two other small things I might mention.’

‘You needn't press your point, Mr Stevens. I will, as you suggest, check the work of the new maids.’

‘It is not like you to have overlooked such obvious things, Miss Kenton.’

Miss Kenton looked away from me, and again an expression crossed her face as though she was trying to puzzle out something that had quite confused her. She did not look upset so much as very weary. Then she closed the sideboard, said: ‘Please excuse me, Mr Stevens,’ and left the room.

But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one's life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one's relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.

But I see I am becoming unduly introspective, and in a rather morose sort of way at that. No doubt, this has to do with the late hour, and the trying nature of the events I have had to endure this evening. No doubt, too, my present mood is not unconnected with the fact that tomorrow – provided I am supplied with petrol by the local garage, as the Taylors assure me I will be – I should arrive in Little Compton by lunch-time and will, presumably, see Miss Kenton again after all these years. There is, of course, no reason at all to suppose our meeting will be anything but cordial. In fact, I would expect our interview – aside from a few informal exchanges quite proper in the circumstances – to be largely professional in character. That is to say, it will be my responsibility to determine whether or not Miss Kenton has any interest, now that her marriage, sadly, appears to have broken down and she is without a home, in returning to her old post at Darlington Hall. I may as well say here that having reread her letter again tonight, I am inclined to believe I may well have read more into certain of her lines than perhaps was wise. But I would still maintain there is more than a hint of nostalgic longing in certain parts of her letter, particularly when she writes such things as: ‘I was so fond of that view from the second floor bedrooms overlooking the lawn with the downs visible in the distance.’

But then again, what is the purpose in endlessly speculating as to Miss Kenton's present wishes when I will be able to ascertain these from her own person tomorrow? And in any case, I have drifted considerably from the account I was giving of this evening's events. These last few hours, let me say it, have proved unreasonably taxing ones. One would have thought that having to abandon the Ford on some lonely hill, having to walk down to this village in near-darkness by the unorthodox route one did, would be sufficient inconvenience to befall one for a single evening. And my kind hosts, Mr and Mrs Taylor, would never, I am certain, have knowingly put me through what I have just endured. But the fact is, once I had sat down to supper at their table, once a number of their neighbours had come calling, a most discomforting set of events began to unfold around me.

The room downstairs at the front of this cottage would appear to serve Mr and Mrs Taylor as both dining room and general living quarters. It is a rather cosy room, dominated by a large, roughly hewn table of the sort one might expect to see in a farmhouse kitchen, its surface unvarnished and bearing many small marks left by choppers and breadknives. These latter I could see quite clearly despite the fact that we were sitting in a low yellow light cast by an oil lamp on a shelf in one corner.

‘It's not as though we don't have electricity out here, sir,’ Mr Taylor remarked to me at one point, nodding towards the lamp. ‘But something went wrong with the circuit and we've been without it now for almost two months. To tell you the truth, we don't miss it so much. There's a few houses in the village that's never had electricity at all. Oil gives a warmer light.’

Mrs Taylor had served us with a good broth, which we had eaten with helpings of crusty bread, and at that point, there had been little to suggest the evening held for me anything more daunting than an hour or so of pleasant conversation before retiring to bed. However, just as we had finished supper and Mr Taylor was pouring for me a glass of ale brewed by a neighbour, we heard footsteps approaching on the gravel outside. To my ears, there was something a little sinister in the sound of feet coming ever closer in the darkness up to an isolated cottage, but neither my host nor hostess seemed to anticipate any menace. For it was with curiosity and nothing else in his voice that Mr Taylor said: ‘Hello, now who could this be?’

He had said this more or less to himself, but then we heard, as though in reply, a voice call outside: ‘It's George Andrews. Just happened to be walking by.’

The next moment, Mrs Taylor was showing in a well-built man, perhaps in his fifties, who judging from his dress had spent the day engaged in agricultural work. With a familiarity which suggested he was a regular visitor, he placed himself on a small stool by the entrance and removed his Wellington boots with some effort, exchanging a few casual remarks with Mrs Taylor as he did so. Then he came towards the table and stopped, standing to attention before me as though reporting to an officer in the army.

‘The name's Andrews, sir,’ he said. ‘A very good evening to you. I'm very sorry to hear about your mishap, but I hope you're not too put out to be spending the night here in Moscombe.’

I was a little puzzled as to how this Mr Andrews had come to hear of my ‘mishap’, as he termed it. In any case, I replied with a smile that far from being ‘put out’, I felt extremely indebted for the hospitality I was receiving. By this I had of course been referring to Mr and Mrs Taylor's kindness, but Mr Andrews seemed to believe himself included by my expression of gratitude, for he said immediately, holding up defensively his two large hands:

‘Oh no, sir, you're most welcome. We're very pleased to have you. It's not often the likes of yourself comes through here. We're all very pleased you could stop by.’

The way he said this seemed to suggest the whole village was aware of my ‘mishap’ and subsequent arrival at this cottage. In fact, as I was soon to discover, this was very close to being the case; I can only imagine that in the several minutes after I had first been shown up to this bedroom – while I was washing my hands and doing what I could to make good the damage inflicted upon my jacket and trouser turn-ups – Mr and Mrs Taylor had conveyed news of me to passers-by. In any case, the next few minutes saw the arrival of another visitor, a man with an appearance much like that of Mr Andrews – that is to say, somewhat broad and agricultural, and wearing muddy Wellington boots, which he proceeded to remove in much the way Mr Andrews had just done. Indeed, their similarity was such that I supposed them to be brothers, until the newcomer introduced himself to me as, ‘Morgan, sir, Trevor Morgan.’

Mr Morgan expressed regret concerning my ‘misfortune’, assuring me all would be well in the morning, before going on to say how welcome I was in the village. Of course, I had already heard similar sentiments a few moments earlier, but Mr Morgan actually said: ‘It's a privilege to have a gentleman like yourself here in Moscombe, sir.’

Before I had had any time to think of a reply to this, there came the sound of more footsteps on the path outside. Soon, a middle-aged couple were shown in, who were introduced to me as Mr and Mrs Harry Smith. These people did not look at all agricultural; she was a large, matronly woman who rather reminded me of Mrs Mortimer, the cook at Darlington Hall through much of the twenties and thirties. In contrast, Mr Harry Smith was a small man with a rather intense expression that furrowed his brow. As they took their places around the table, he said to me: ‘Your car would be the vintage Ford up there on Thornley Bush Hill, sir?’

‘If that is the hill road overlooking this village,’ I said. ‘But I'm surprised to hear you've seen it.’

‘I’ve not seen it myself, sir. But Dave Thornton passed it on his tractor a short while ago as he was coming home. He was so surprised to see it sitting there, he actually stopped and got out.’ At this point, Mr Harry Smith turned to address the others around the table. ‘Absolute beauty, it is. Said he'd never seen anything like it. Put the car Mr Lindsay used to drive completely in the shade!’

This caused laughter around the table, which Mr Taylor explained to me by saying: ‘That was a gent used to live in the big house not far from here, sir. He did one or two odd things and wasn't appreciated around here.’

This brought a general murmur of assent. Then someone said: ‘Your health, sir,’ lifting one of the tankards of ale Mrs Taylor had just finished distributing, and the next moment I was being toasted by the whole company.

I smiled and said: ‘I assure you the privilege is all mine.’

‘You're very kind, sir,’ Mrs Smith said. ‘That's the way a real gentleman is. That Mr Lindsay was no gentleman. He may have had a lot of money, but he was never a gentleman.’

Again, there was agreement all round. Then Mrs Taylor whispered something in Mrs Smith's ear, causing the latter to reply: ‘He said he'd try to be along as soon as he could.’ They both turned towards me with a self-conscious air, then Mrs Smith said: ‘We told Dr Carlisle you were here, sir. The doctor would be very pleased to make your acquaintance.’

‘I expect he has patients to see,’ Mrs Taylor added apologetically. ‘I'm afraid we can't say for certain he'll be able to call in before you'd be wanting to retire, sir.’

It was then that Mr Harry Smith, the little man with the furrowed brow, leaned forward again and said: ‘That Mr Lindsay, he had it all wrong, see? Acting the way he did. Thought he was so much better than us, and he took us all for fools. Well, I can tell you, sir, he soon learnt otherwise. A lot of hard thinking and talking goes on in this place. There's plenty of good strong opinion around and people here aren't shy about expressing it. That's something your Mr Lindsay learnt quickly enough.’

‘He was no gentleman,’ Mr Taylor said quietly. ‘He was no gentleman, that Mr Lindsay.’

‘That's right, sir,’ Mr Harry Smith said. ‘You could tell just watching him he was no gentleman. All right, he had a fine house and good suits, but somehow you just knew. And so it proved in good time.’

There was a murmur of agreement, and for a moment all present seemed to be considering whether or not it would be proper to divulge to me the tale concerning this local personage. Then Mr Taylor broke the silence by saying:

‘That's true what Harry says. You can tell a true gentleman from a false one that's just dressed in finery. Take yourself, sir. It's not just the cut of your clothes, nor is it even the fine way you've got of speaking. There's something else that marks you out as a gentleman. Hard to put your finger on it, but it's plain for all to see that's got eyes.’

This brought more sounds of agreement around the table.

‘Dr Carlisle shouldn't be long now, sir,’ Mrs Taylor put in. ‘You'll enjoy talking with him.’

‘Dr Carlisle's got it too,’ Mr Taylor said. ‘He's got it. He's a true gent, that one.’

Mr Morgan, who had said little since his arrival, bent forward and said to me: ‘What do you suppose it is, sir? Maybe one that's got it can better say what it is. Here we are all talking about who's got it and who hasn't, and we're none the wiser about what we're talking about. Perhaps you could enlighten us a bit, sir.’

A silence fell around the table and I could sense all the faces turn to me. I gave a small cough and said:

‘It is hardly for me to pronounce upon qualities I may or may not possess. However, as far as this particular question is concerned, one would suspect that the quality being referred to might be most usefully termed “dignity”.’

I saw little point in attempting to explain this statement further. Indeed, I had merely given voice to the thoughts running through my mind while listening to the preceding talk and it is doubtful I would have said such a thing had the situation not suddenly demanded it of me. My response, however, seemed to cause much satisfaction.

‘There's a lot of truth in what you say there, sir,’ Mr Andrews said, nodding, and a number of other voices echoed this.

‘That Mr Lindsay could certainly have done with a little more dignity,’ Mrs Taylor said. ‘The trouble with his sort is they mistake acting high and mighty for dignity.’

‘Mind you,’ put in Mr Harry Smith, ‘with all respect for what you say, sir, it ought to be said. Dignity isn't just something gentlemen have. Dignity's something every man and woman in this country can strive for and get. You'll excuse me, sir, but like I said before, we don't stand on ceremony here when it comes to expressing opinions. And that's my opinion for what it's worth. Dignity's not just something for gentlemen.’

I perceived, of course, that Mr Harry Smith and I were rather at cross purposes on this matter, and that it would be far too complicated a task for me to explain myself more clearly to these people. I thus judged it best simply to smile and say: ‘Of course, you're quite correct.’

This had the immediate effect of dispelling the slight tension that had built in the room while Mr Harry Smith had been speaking. And Mr Harry Smith himself seemed to lose all inhibitions, for now he leaned forward and continued:

‘That's what we fought Hitler for, after all. If Hitler had had things his way, we'd just be slaves now. The whole world would be a few masters and millions upon millions of slaves. And I don't need to remind anyone here, there's no dignity to be had in being a slave. That's what we fought for and that's what we won. We won the right to be free citizens. And it's one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you're rich or poor, you're born free and you're born so that you can express your opinion freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out. That's what dignity's really about, if you'll excuse me, sir.’

‘Now now, Harry,’ Mr Taylor said. ‘I can see you're warming up to one of your political speeches.’

This brought laughter. Mr Harry Smith smiled a little shyly, but went on:

‘I'm not talking politics. I'm just saying, that's all. You can't have dignity if you're a slave. But every Englishman can grasp it if only he cares to. Because we fought for that right.’

‘This may seem like a small, out of the way place we have here, sir,’ his wife said. ‘But we gave more than our share in the war. More than our share.’

A solemnness hung in the air after she said this, until eventually Mr Taylor said to me: ‘Harry here does a lot of organizing for our local member. Give him half a chance and he'll tell you everything that's wrong with the way the country's run.’

‘Ah, but I was just saying what was right about the country this time.’

‘Have you had much to do with politics yourself, sir?’ Mr Andrews asked.

‘Not directly as such,’ I said, ‘And particularly not these days. More so before the war perhaps.’

‘It's just that I seem to remember a Mr Stevens who was a member of parliament a year or two ago. Heard him on the wireless once or twice. Had some very sensible things to say about housing. But that wouldn't be yourself, sir?’

‘Oh no,’ I said with a laugh. Now I am not at all sure what made me utter my next statement; all I can say is that it seemed somehow called for in the circumstances in which I found myself. For I then said: ‘In fact, I tended to concern myself with international affairs more than domestic ones. Foreign policy, that is to say.’

I was a little taken aback by the effect this seemed to have upon my listeners. That is to say, a sense of awe seemed to descend on them. I added quickly: ‘I never held any high office, mind you. Any influence I exerted was in a strictly unofficial capacity.’ But the hushed silence remained for several more seconds.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ Mrs Taylor said eventually, ‘but have you ever met Mr Churchill?’

‘Mr Churchill? He did come to the house on a number of occasions. But to be quite frank, Mrs Taylor, during the time I was most involved in great affairs, Mr Churchill was not such a key figure and was not really expected to become one. The likes of Mr Eden and Lord Halifax were more frequent visitors in those days.’

‘But you have actually met Mr Churchill, sir? What an honour to be able to say that.’

‘I don't agree with many things Mr Churchill says,’ Mr Harry Smith said, ‘but there's no doubt about it, he's a great man. It must be quite something, sir, to be discussing matters with his like.’

‘Well, I must reiterate,’ I said, ‘I didn't have a great deal to do with Mr Churchill. But as you rightly point out it's rather gratifying to have consorted with him. In fact, all in all, I suppose I have been very fortunate, I would be the first to admit that. It has been my good fortune, after all, to have consorted not just with Mr Churchill, but with many other great leaders and men of influence – from America and from Europe. And when you think that it was my good fortune to have had their ear on many great issues of the day, yes, when I think back, I do feel a certain gratitude. It's a great privilege, after all, to have been given a part to play, however small, on the world's stage.’

‘Excuse me asking, sir,’ Mr Andrews said, ‘but what sort of man is Mr Eden? I mean, at the personal level. I've always had the impression he's a jolly decent sort. The sort that can talk to anyone high or low, rich or poor. Am I right, sir?’

‘I would say that is, by and large, an accurate picture. But of course I have not seen Mr Eden in recent years, and he may have been much changed by pressures. One thing I have witnessed is that public life can change people unrecognizably in a few short years.’

‘I don't doubt that, sir,’ said Mr Andrews. ‘Even Harry here. Got himself involved with his politics a few years back and he's never been the same man since.’

There was laughter again, while Mr Harry Smith shrugged and allowed a smile to cross his face. Then he said:

‘It's true I've put a lot into the campaigning work. It's only at a local level, and I never meet anyone half as grand as the likes you associate with, sir, but in my own small way I believe I'm doing my part. The way I see it, England's a democracy, and we in this village have suffered as much as anyone fighting to keep it that way. Now it's up to us to exercise our rights, every one of us. Some fine young lads from this village gave their lives to give us that privilege, and the way I see it, each one of us here now owes it to them to play our part. We've all got strong opinions here, and it's our responsibility to get them heard. We're out of the way, all right, a small village, we're none of us getting younger, and the village is getting smaller. But the way I see it we owe it to the lads we lost from this village. That's why, sir, I give so much of my time now to making sure our voice gets heard in high places. And if it changes me, or sends me to an early grave, I don't mind.’

‘I did warn you, sir,’ Mr Taylor said with a smile. ‘There was no way Harry was going to let an influential gentleman like yourself come through the village without giving you his usual earful.’

There was laughter again, but I said almost immediately:

‘I think I understand your position very well, Mr Smith. I can well understand that you wish the world to be a better place and that you and your fellow residents here should have an opportunity to contribute to the making of a better world. It is a sentiment to be applauded. I dare say it was a very similar urge which led me to become involved in great affairs before the war. Then, as now, world peace seemed something we had only the most fragile grasp of, and I wished to do my part.’

‘Excuse me, sir,’ said Mr Harry Smith, ‘but my point was a slightly different one. For the likes of yourself, it's always been easy to exert your influence. You can count the most powerful in the land as your friends. But the likes of us here, sir, we can go year in year out and never even lay eyes on a real gentleman – other than maybe Dr Carlisle. He's a first-class doctor, but with all respect, he doesn't have connections as such. It gets easy for us here to forget our responsibility as citizens. That's why I work so hard at the campaigning. Whether people agree or disagree – and I know there's not one soul in this room now who'd agree with everything I say – at least I'll get them thinking. At least I'll remind them of their duty. This is a democratic country we're living in. We fought for it. We've all got to play our part.’

‘I wonder what could have happened to Dr Carlisle,’ Mrs Smith said. ‘I'm sure the gentleman could just about use some educated talk now.’

This provoked more laughter.

‘In fact,’ I said, ‘although it has been extremely enjoyable to meet you all, I must confess I'm beginning to feel rather exhausted …’

‘Of course, sir,’ Mrs Taylor said, ‘you must be very tired. Perhaps I'll fetch another blanket for you. It's getting much chillier at night now.’

‘No, I assure you, Mrs Taylor, I'll be most comfortable.’

But before I could rise from the table, Mr Morgan said:

‘I just wondered, sir, there's a fellow we like to listen to on the wireless, his name's Leslie Mandrake. I wondered if you'd happened to have met him.’

I replied that I had not, and was about to make another attempt to retire only to find myself detained by further inquiries regarding various persons I may have met. I was, then, still seated at the table when Mrs Smith remarked:

‘Ah, there's someone coming. I expect that's the doctor at last.’

‘I really ought to be retiring,’ I said. ‘I feel quite exhausted.’

‘But I'm sure this is the doctor now, sir,’ said Mrs Smith. ‘Do wait a few more minutes.’

Just as she said this, there came a knock and a voice said: ‘It's just me, Mrs Taylor.’

The gentleman who was shown in was still fairly young – perhaps around forty or so – tall and thin; tall enough, in fact, that he was obliged to stoop to enter the doorway of the cottage. No sooner had he bade us all a good evening than Mrs Taylor said to him:

‘This is our gentleman here, Doctor. His car's stuck up there on Thornley Bush and he's having to endure Harry's speeches as a result.’

The doctor came up to the table and held out his hand to me.

‘Richard Carlisle,’ he said with a cheerful smile as I rose to shake it. ‘Rotten bit of luck about your car. Still, trust you're being well looked after here. Looked after rather too well, I imagine.’

‘Thank you,’ I replied. ‘Everyone has been most kind.’

‘Well, nice to have you with us.’ Dr Carlisle seated himself almost directly across the table from me. ‘Which part of the country are you from?’

‘Oxfordshire,’ I said, and indeed, it was no easy task to suppress the instinct to add ‘sir’.

‘Fine part of the country. I have an uncle lives just outside Oxford. Fine part of the country.’

‘The gentleman was just telling us, Doctor,’ Mrs Smith said, ‘he knows Mr Churchill.’

‘Is that so? I used to know a nephew of his, but I've rather lost touch. Never had the privilege of meeting the great man, though.’

‘And not only Mr Churchill,’ Mrs Smith went on. ‘He knows Mr Eden. And Lord Halifax.’


I could sense the doctor's eyes examining me closely. I was about to make some appropriate remark, but before I could do so, Mr Andrews said to the doctor:

‘Gentleman was just telling us he's had a lot to do with foreign affairs in his time.’

‘Is that so indeed?’

It seemed to me that Dr Carlisle went on looking at me for an inordinate length of time. Then he regained his cheerful manner and asked:

‘Touring around for pleasure?’

‘Principally,’ I said, and gave a small laugh.

‘Plenty of nice country around here. Oh, by the way, Mr Andrews, I'm sorry not to have returned that saw yet.’

‘No hurry at all, Doctor.’

For a little time, the focus of attention left me and I was able to remain silent. Then, seizing what seemed a suitable moment, I rose to my feet, saying: ‘Please excuse me. It has been a most enjoyable evening, but I really must now retire.’

‘Such a pity you have to retire already, sir,’ Mrs Smith said. ‘The doctor's only just arrived.’

Mr Harry Smith leaned across his wife and said to Dr Carlisle: ‘I was hoping the gentleman would have a few words to say about your ideas on the Empire, Doctor.’ Then turning to me, he went on: ‘Our doctor here's for all kinds of little countries going independent. I don't have the learning to prove him wrong, though I know he is. But I'd have been interested to hear what the likes of yourself would have to say to him on the subject, sir.’

Yet again, Dr Carlisle's gaze seemed to study me. Then he said: ‘A pity, but we must let the gentleman go off to bed. Had a tiring day, I expect.’

‘Indeed,’ I said, and with another small laugh, began to make my way round the table. To my embarrassment, everyone in the room, including Dr Carlisle, rose to their feet.

‘Thank you all very much,’ I said, smiling. ‘Mrs Taylor, I did enjoy a splendid supper. I wish you all a very good night.’

There came a chorus of, ‘Good night, sir,’ in reply. I had almost left the room when the doctor's voice caused me to halt at the door.

‘I say, old chap,’ he said, and when I turned, I saw he had remained on his feet. ‘I have a visit to make in Stanbury first thing in the morning. I'd be happy to give you a lift up to your car. Save you the walk. And we can pick up a can of petrol from Ted Hardacre's on the way.’

‘That is most kind,’ I said. ‘But I don't wish to put you to any trouble.’

‘No trouble at all. Seven thirty all right for you?’

‘That would be most helpful indeed.’

‘Right then, seven thirty it is. Make sure your guest's up and breakfasted for seven thirty, Mrs Taylor.’ Then turning back to me, he added: ‘So we can have our talk after all. Though Harry here won't have the satisfaction of witnessing my humiliation.’

There was laughter, and another exchange of good nights before I was at last allowed to ascend to the sanctuary of this room.

I trust I need hardly underline the extent of the discomfort I suffered tonight on account of the unfortunate misunderstanding concerning my person. I can only say now that in all honesty I fail to see how I might reasonably have prevented the situation developing as it did; for by the stage I had become aware of what was occurring, things had gone so far I could not have enlightened these people without creating much embarrassment all round. In any case, regrettable as the whole business was, I do not see that any real harm has been done. I will, after all, take my leave of these people in the morning and presumably never encounter them again. There seems little point in dwelling on the matter.

However, the unfortunate misunderstanding aside, there are perhaps one or two other aspects to this evening's events which warrant a few moments’ thought – if only because otherwise they may come to niggle one throughout the coming days. For instance, there is the matter of Mr Harry Smith's pronouncements on the nature of ‘dignity’. There is surely little in his statements that merits serious consideration. Of course, one has to allow that Mr Harry Smith was employing the word ‘dignity’ in a quite different sense altogether from my own understanding of it. Even so, even taken on their own terms, his statements were, surely, far too idealistic, far too theoretical, to deserve respect. Up to a point, no doubt, there is some truth in what he says: in a country such as ours, people may indeed have a certain duty to think about great affairs and form their opinions. But life being what it is, how can ordinary people truly be expected to have ‘strong opinions’ on all manner of things – as Mr Harry Smith rather fancifully claims the villagers here do? And not only are these expectations unrealistic, I rather doubt if they are even desirable. There is, after all, a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know, and to demand that each and every one of them contribute ‘strong opinions’ to the great debates of the nation cannot, surely, be wise. It is, in any case, absurd that anyone should presume to define a person's ‘dignity’ in these terms.

As it happens, there is an instance that comes to mind which I believe illustrates rather well the real limits of whatever truth may be contained in Mr Harry Smith's views. It is, as it happens, an instance from my own experience, an episode that took place before the war, around 1935.

As I recall, I was rung for late one night – it was past midnight – to the drawing room where his lordship had been entertaining three gentlemen since dinner. I had, naturally, been called to the drawing room several times already that night to replenish refreshments, and had observed on these occasions the gentlemen deep in conversation over weighty issues. When I entered the drawing room on this last occasion, however, all the gentlemen stopped talking and looked at me. Then his lordship said:

‘Step this way a moment, will you, Stevens? Mr Spencer here wishes a word with you.’

The gentleman in question went on gazing at me for a moment without changing the somewhat languid posture he had adopted in his armchair. Then he said:

‘My good man, I have a question for you. We need your help on a certain matter we've been debating. Tell me, do you suppose the debt situation regarding America is a significant factor in the present low levels of trade? Or do you suppose this is a red herring and that the abandonment of the gold standard is at the root of the matter?’

I was naturally a little surprised by this, but then quickly saw the situation for what it was; that is to say, it was clearly expected that I be baffled by the question. Indeed, in the moment or so that it took for me to perceive this and compose a suitable response, I may even have given the outward impression of struggling with the question, for I saw the gentlemen in the room exchange mirthful smiles.

‘I'm very sorry, sir,’ I said, ‘but I am unable to be of assistance on this matter.’

I was by this point well on top of the situation, but the gentlemen went on laughing covertly. Then Mr Spencer said:

‘Then perhaps you will help us on another matter. Would you say that the currency problem in Europe would be made better or worse if there were to be an arms agreement between the French and the Bolsheviks?’

‘I'm very sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance on this matter.’

‘Oh dear,’ said Mr Spencer. ‘So you can't help us here either.’

There was more suppressed laughter before his lordship said: ‘Very well, Stevens. That will be all.’

‘Please, Darlington, I have one more question to put to our good man here,’ Mr Spencer said. ‘I very much wanted his help on the question presently vexing many of us, and which we all realize is crucial to how we should shape our foreign policy. My good fellow, please come to our assistance. What was M. Laval really intending, by his recent speech on the situation in North Africa? Are you also of the view that it was simply a ruse to scupper the nationalist fringe of his own domestic party?’

‘I'm sorry, sir, but I am unable to assist in this matter.’

‘You see, gentlemen,’ Mr Spencer said, turning to the others, ‘our man is unable to assist us in these matters.’

This brought fresh laughter, now barely suppressed.

‘And yet,’ Mr Spencer went on, ‘we still persist with the notion that this nation's decisions be left in the hands of our good man here and to the few million others like him. Is it any wonder, saddled as we are with our present parliamentary system, that we are unable to find any solution to our many difficulties? Why, you may as well ask a committee of the mothers’ union to organize a war campaign.’

There was open, hearty laughter at this remark, during which his lordship muttered: ‘Thank you, Stevens,’ thus enabling me to take my leave.

While of course this was a slightly uncomfortable situation, it was hardly the most difficult, or even an especially unusual one to encounter in the course of one's duties, and you will no doubt agree that any decent professional should expect to take such events in his stride. I had, then, all but forgotten the episode by the following morning, when Lord Darlington came into the billiard room while I was up on a step-ladder dusting portraits, and said:

‘Look here, Stevens, it was dreadful. The ordeal we put you through last night.’

I paused in what I was doing and said: ‘Not at all, sir. I was only too happy to be of service.’

‘It was quite dreadful. We'd all had rather too good a dinner, I fancy. Please accept my apologies.’

‘Thank you, sir. But I am happy to assure you I was not unduly inconvenienced.’

His lordship walked over rather wearily to a leather armchair, seated himself and sighed. From my vantage point up on my ladder, I could see practically the whole of his long figure caught in the winter sunshine pouring in through the french windows and streaking much of the room. It was, as I recall it, one of those moments that brought home how much the pressures of life had taken their toll on his lordship over a relatively small number of years. His frame, always slender, had become alarmingly thin and somewhat misshapen, his hair prematurely white, his face strained and haggard. For a while, he sat gazing out of the french windows towards the downs, then said again:

‘It really was quite dreadful. But you see, Stevens, Mr Spencer had a point to prove to Sir Leonard. In fact, if it's any consolation, you did assist in demonstrating a very important point. Sir Leonard had been talking a lot of that old-fashioned nonsense. About the will of the people being the wisest arbitrator and so on. Would you believe it, Stevens?’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘We're really so slow in this country to recognize when a thing's outmoded. Other great nations know full well that to meet the challenges of each new age means discarding old, sometimes well-loved methods. Not so here in Britain. There's still so many talking like Sir Leonard last night. That's why Mr Spencer felt the need to demonstrate his point. And I tell you, Stevens, if the likes of Sir Leonard are made to wake up and think a little, then you can take it from me your ordeal last night was not in vain.’

‘Indeed, sir.’

Lord Darlington gave another sigh. ‘We're always the last, Stevens. Always the last to be clinging on to outmoded systems. But sooner or later, we'll need to face up to the facts. Democracy is something for a bygone era. The world's far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like. For endless members of parliament debating things to a standstill. All fine a few years ago perhaps, but in today's world? What was it Mr Spencer said last night? He put it rather well.’

‘I believe, sir, he compared the present parliamentary system to a committee of the mothers’ union attempting to organize a war campaign.’

‘Exactly, Stevens. We are, quite frankly, behind the times in this country. And it's imperative that all forward-looking people impress this on the likes of Sir Leonard.’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘I ask you, Stevens. Here we are in the midst of a continuing crisis. I've seen it with my own eyes when I went north with Mr Whittaker. People are suffering. Ordinary, decent working people are suffering terribly. Germany and Italy have set their houses in order by acting. And so have the wretched Bolsheviks in their own way, one supposes. Even President Roosevelt, look at him, he's not afraid to take a few bold steps on behalf of his people. But look at us here, Stevens. Year after year goes by, and nothing gets better. All we do is argue and debate and procrastinate. Any decent idea is amended to ineffectuality by the time it's gone half-way through the various committees it's obliged to pass through. The few people qualified to know what's what are talked to a standstill by ignorant people all around them. What do you make of it, Stevens?’

‘The nation does seem to be in a regrettable condition, sir.’

‘I'll say. Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it's allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there. If your house is on fire, you don't call the household into the drawing room and debate the various options for escape for an hour, do you? It may have been all very well once, but the world's a complicated place now. The man in the street can't be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you. And why should he? In fact, you made a very good reply last night, Stevens. How did you put it? Something to the effect that it was not in your realm? Well, why should it be?’

It occurs to me in recalling these words that, of course, many of Lord Darlington's ideas will seem today rather odd – even, at times, unattractive. But surely it cannot be denied that there is an important element of truth in these things he said to me that morning in the billiard room. Of course, it is quite absurd to expect any butler to be in a position to answer authoritatively questions of the sort Mr Spencer had put to me that night, and the claim of people like Mr Harry Smith that one's ‘dignity’ is conditional on being able to do so can be seen for the nonsense it is. Let us establish this quite clearly: a butler's duty is to provide good service. It is not to meddle in the great affairs of the nation. The fact is, such great affairs will always be beyond the understanding of those such as you and me, and those of us who wish to make our mark must realize that we best do so by concentrating on what is within our realm; that is to say, by devoting our attention to providing the best possible service to those great gentlemen in whose hands the destiny of civilization truly lies. This may seem obvious, but then one can immediately think of too many instances of butlers who, for a time anyway, thought quite differently. Indeed, Mr Harry Smith's words tonight remind me very much of the sort of misguided idealism which beset significant sections of our generation throughout the twenties and thirties. I refer to that strand of opinion in the profession which suggested that any butler with serious aspirations should make it his business to be forever reappraising his employer – scrutinizing the latter's motives, analysing the implications of his views. Only in this way, so the argument ran, could one be sure one's skills were being employed to a desirable end. Although one sympathizes to some extent with the idealism contained in such an argument, there can be little doubt that it is the result, like Mr Smith's sentiments tonight, of misguided thinking. One need only look at the butlers who attempted to put such an approach into practice, and one will see that their careers – and in some cases they were highly promising careers – came to nothing as a direct consequence. I personally knew at least two professionals, both of some ability, who went from one employer to the next, forever dissatisfied, never settling anywhere, until they drifted from view altogether. That this should happen is not in the least surprising. For it is, in practice, simply not possible to adopt such a critical attitude towards an employer and at the same time provide good service. It is not simply that one is unlikely to be able to meet the many demands of service at the higher levels while one's attention is being diverted by such matters; more fundamentally, a butler who is forever attempting to formulate his own ‘strong opinions’ on his employer's affairs is bound to lack one quality essential in all good professionals: namely, loyalty. Please do not misunderstand me here; I do not refer to the mindless sort of ‘loyalty’ that mediocre employers bemoan the lack of when they find themselves unable to retain the services of high-calibre professionals. Indeed, I would be among the last to advocate bestowing one's loyalty carelessly on any lady or gentleman who happens to employ one for a time. However, if a butler is to be of any worth to anything or anybody in life, there must surely come a time when he ceases his searching; a time when he must say to himself: ‘This employer embodies all that I find noble and admirable. I will hereafter devote myself to serving him.’ This is loyalty intelligently bestowed. What is there ‘undignified’ in this? One is simply accepting an inescapable truth: that the likes of you and I will never be in a position to comprehend the great affairs of today's world, and our best course will always be to put our trust in an employer we judge to be wise and honourable, and to devote our energies to the task of serving him to the best of our ability. Look at the likes of Mr Marshall, say, or Mr Lane – surely two of the greatest figures in our profession. Can we imagine Mr Marshall arguing with Lord Camberley over the latter's latest dispatch to the Foreign Office? Do we admire Mr Lane any the less because we learn he is not in the habit of challenging Sir Leonard Gray before each speech in the House of Commons? Of course we do not. What is there ‘undignified’, what is there at all culpable in such an attitude? How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington's efforts were misguided, even foolish? Throughout the years I served him, it was he and he alone who weighed up evidence and judged it best to proceed in the way he did, while I simply confined myself, quite properly, to affairs within my own professional realm. And as far as I am concerned, I carried out my duties to the best of my abilities, indeed to a standard which many may consider ‘first rate’. It is hardly my fault if his lordship's life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste – and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account.

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