‘But we have already established, have we not, that I am particularly deficient in that respect.’
‘Miss Kenton, if you are under the impression you have already at your age perfected yourself, you will never rise to the heights you are no doubt capable of. I might point out, for instance, you are still often unsure of what goes where and which item is which.’
This seemed to take the wind out of Miss Kenton’s sails somewhat. Indeed, for a moment, she looked a little upset. Then she said:
‘I had a little difficulty on first arriving, but that is surely only normal.’
‘Ah, there you are, Miss Kenton. If you had observed my father who arrived in this house a week after you did, you will have seen that his house knowledge is perfect and was so almost from the time he set foot in Darlington Hall.’
Miss Kenton seemed to think about this before saying a little sulkily:
‘I am sure Mr Stevens senior is very good at his job, but I assure you, Mr Stevens, I am very good at mine. I will remember to address your father by his full title in future. Now, if you would please excuse me.’
After this encounter, Miss Kenton did not attempt to introduce further flowers into my pantry, and in general, I was pleased to observe, she went about settling in impressively. It was clear, furthermore, she was a housekeeper who took her work very seriously, and in spite of her youth she seemed to have no difficulty gaining the respect of her staff.
I noticed too that she was indeed proceeding to address my father as ‘Mr Stevens’. However, one afternoon perhaps two weeks after our conversation in my pantry, I was doing something in the library when Miss Kenton came in and said:
‘Excuse me, Mr Stevens. But if you are searching for your dust-pan, it is out in the hall.’
‘I beg your pardon, Miss Kenton?’
‘Your dust-pan, Mr Stevens. You’ve left it out here. Shall I bring it in for you?’
‘Miss Kenton, I have not been using a dust-pan.’
‘Ah, well, then forgive me, Mr Stevens. I naturally assumed you were using your dust-pan and had left it out in the hall. I am sorry to have disturbed you.’
She started to leave, but then turned at the doorway and said:
‘Oh, Mr Stevens. I would return it myself but I have to go upstairs just now. I wonder if you will remember it?’
‘Of course, Miss Kenton. Thank you for drawing attention to it.’
‘It is quite all right, Mr Stevens.’
I listened to her footsteps cross the hall and start up the great staircase, then proceeded to the doorway myself. From the library doors, one has an unbroken view right across the entrance hall to the main doors of th Most conspicuously, in virtually the central spot otherwise empty and highly polished floor, lay the a pan Miss Kenton had alluded to.
It struck me as a trivial, but irritating error; the dust-pan would have been conspicuous not only from the five ground-floor doorways opening on to the hall, but also from the staircase and the first-floor balconies. I crossed the hall and had actually picked up the offending item before realizing its full implication; my father, I recalled, had been brushing the entrance hall a half-hour or so earlier. At first, I found it hard to credit such an error to my father. But I soon reminded myself that such trivial slips are liable to befall anyone from time to time, and my irritation soon turned to Miss Kenton for attempting to create such unwarranted fuss over the incident.
Then, not more than a week later, I was coming down the back corridor from the kitchen when Miss Kenton came out of her parlour and uttered a statement she had clearly been rehearsing; this was something to the effect that although she felt most uncomfortable drawing my attention to errors made by my staff, she and I had to work as a team, and she hoped I would not feel inhibited to do similarly should I notice errors made by female staff. She then went on to point out that several pieces of silver had been laid out for the dining room which bore clear remains of polish. The end of one fork had been practically black. I thanked her and she withdrew back into her parlour. It had been unnecessary, of course, for her to mention that the silver was one of my father’s main responsibilities and one he took great pride in.
It is very possible there were a number of other instances of this sort which I have now forgotten. In any case, I recall things reaching something of a climax one grey and drizzly afternoon when I was in the billiard room attending to Lord Darlington’s sporting trophies. Miss Kenton had entered and said from the door:
‘Mr Stevens, I have just noticed something outside which puzzles me.’
‘What is that, Miss Kenton?’
‘Was it his lordship’s wish that the Chinaman on the upstairs landing should be exchanged with the one outside this door?’
‘The Chinaman, Miss Kenton?’
‘Yes, Mr Stevens. The Chinaman normally on the landing you will now find outside this door.’
‘I fear, Miss Kenton, that you are a little confused.’
‘I do not believe I am confused at all, Mr Stevens. I make it my business to acquaint myself with where objects properly belong in a house. The Chinamen, I would suppose, were polished by someone then replaced incorrectly. If you are sceptical, Mr Stevens, perhaps you will care to step out here and observe for yourself.’
‘Miss Kenton, I am occupied at present.’
‘But, Mr Stevens, you do not appear to believe what I am saying. I am thus asking you to step outside this door and see for yourself.’
‘Miss Kenton, I am busy just now and will attend to the matter shortly. It is hardly one of urgency.’
You accept then, Mr Stevens, that I am not in error on this point.’
‘I will accept nothing of the sort, Miss Kenton, until I have had a chance to deal with the matter. However, I am occupied at present.’
I turned back to my business, but Miss Kenton remained in the doorway observing me. Eventually, she said:
I can see you will be finished very shortly, Mr Stevens. I will await you outside so that this matter may be finalized when you come out.’
‘Miss Kenton, I believe you are according this matter an urgency it hardly merits.’
But Miss Kenton had departed, and sure enough, as I continued with my work, an occasional footstep or some other sound would serve to remind me she was still there outside the door. I decided therefore to occupy myself with some further tasks in the billiard room, assuming she would after a while see the ludicrousness of her position and leave. However, after some time had passed, and I had exhausted the tasks which could usefully be achieved with the implements I happened to have at hand, Miss Kenton was evidently still outside. Resolved not to waste further time on account of this childish affair, I contemplated departure via the french windows. A drawback to this plan was the weather – that is to say, several large puddles and patches of mud were in evidence – and the fact that one would need to return to the billiard room again at some point to bolt the french windows from the inside. Eventually, then, I decided the best strategy would be simply to stride out of the room very suddenly at a furious pace. I thus made my way as quietly as possible to a position from which I could execute such a march, and clutching my implements firmly about me, succeeded in propelling myself through the doorway and several paces down the corridor before a somewhat astonished Miss Kenton could recover her wits. This she did, however, rather rapidly and the next moment I found she had overtaken me and was standing before me, effectively barring my way.
‘Mr Stevens, that is the incorrect Chinaman, would you not agree?’
‘Miss Kenton, I am very busy. I am surprised you have nothing better to do than stand in corridors all day.’
‘Mr Stevens, is that the correct Chinaman or is it not?’
‘Miss Kenton, I would ask you to keep your voice down.’
‘And I would ask you, Mr Stevens, to turn around and look at that Chinaman.’
‘Miss Kenton, please keep your voice down. What would employees below think to hear us shouting at the top of our voices about what is and what is not the correct Chinaman?’
‘The fact is, Mr Stevens, all the Chinamen in this house have been dirty for some time! And now, they are in incorrect positions!’
‘Miss Kenton, you are being quite ridiculous. Now if you will be so good as to let me pass.’
‘Mr Stevens, will you kindly look at the Chinaman behind you?’
‘If it is so important to you, Miss Kenton, I will allow that the Chinaman behind me may well be incorrectly situated. But I must say I am at some loss as to why you should be so concerned with these most trivial of errors.’
‘These errors may be trivial in themselves, Mr Stevens, but you must yourself realize their larger significance.’
‘Miss Kenton, I do not understand you. Now if you would kindly allow me to pass.’
The fact is, Mr Stevens, your father is entrusted with far more than a man of his age can cope with.’
‘Miss Kenton, you clearly have little idea of what you are suggesting.’
‘Whatever your father was once, Mr Stevens, his powers are now greatly diminished. This is what these “trivial errors” as you call them really signify and if you do not heed them, it will not be long before your father commits an error of major proportions.’
‘Miss Kenton, you are merely making yourself look foolish.’
‘I am sorry, Mr Stevens, but I must go on. I believe there are many duties your father should now be relieved of. He should not, for one, be asked to go on carrying heavily laden trays. The way his hands tremble as he carries them into dinner is nothing short of alarming. It is surely only a matter of time before a tray falls from his hands on to a lady or gentleman’s lap. And furthermore, Mr Stevens, and I am very sorry to say this, I have noticed your father’s nose.’
‘Have you indeed, Miss Kenton?’
‘I regret to say I have, Mr Stevens. The evening before last I watched your father proceeding very slowly towards the dining room with his tray, and I am afraid I observed clearly a large drop on the end of his nose dangling over the soup bowls. I would not have thought such a style of waiting a great stimulant to appetite.’
But now that I think further about it, I am not sure Miss Kenton spoke quite so boldly that day. We did, of course, over the years of working closely together come to have some very frank exchanges, but the afternoon I am recalling was still early in our relationship and I cannot see even Miss Kenton having been so forward. I am not sure she could actually have gone so far as to say things like: ‘these errors may be trivial in themselves, but you must yourself realize their larger significance’. In fact, now that I come to think of it, I have a feeling it may have been Lord Darlington himself who made that particular remark to me that time he called me into his study some two months after that exchange with Miss Kenton outside the billiard room. By that time, the situation as regards my father had changed significantly following his fall.
The study doors are those that face one as one comes down the great staircase. There is outside the study today a glass cabinet displaying various of Mr Farraday’s ornaments, but throughout Lord Darlington’s days, there stood at that spot a bookshelf containing many volumes of encyclopedia, including a complete set of the Britannica. It was a ploy of Lord Darlington’s to stand at this shelf studying the spines of the encyclopedias as I came down the staircase, and sometimes, to increase the effect of an accidental meeting, he would actually pull out a volume and pretend to be engrossed as I completed my descent. Then, as I passed him, he would say:
‘Oh, Stevens, there was something I meant to say to you.’
And with that, he would wander back into his study, to all appearances still thoroughly engrossed in the volume held open in his hands. It was invariably embarrassment at what he was about to impart which made Lord Darlington adopt such an approach, and even once the study door was closed behind us, he would often stand by the window and make a show of consulting the encyclopedia throughout our conversation.
What I am now describing, incidentally, is one of many instances I could relate to you to underline Lord Darlington’s essentially shy and modest nature. A great deal of nonsense has been spoken and written in recent years concerning his lordship and the prominent role he came to play in great affairs, and some utterly ignorant reports have had it that he was motivated by egotism or else arrogance. Let me say here that nothing could be further from the truth. It was completely contrary to Lord Darlington’s natural tendencies to take such public stances as he came to do and I can say with conviction that his lordship was persuaded to overcome his more retiring side only through a deep sense of moral duty. Whatever may be said about his lordship these days – and the great majority of it is, as I say, utter nonsense – I can declare that he was a truly good man at heart, a gentleman through and through, and one I am today proud to have given my best years of service to.
On the particular afternoon to which I am referring, his lordship would still have been in his mid-fifties; but as I recall, his hair had greyed entirely and his tall slender figure already bore signs of the stoop that was to become so pronounced in his last years. He barely glanced up from his volume as he asked.
‘Your father feeling better now, Stevens?’
‘I’m glad to say he has made a full recovery, sir.
‘Jolly pleased to hear that. Jolly pleased.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Look here, Stevens, have there been any – well – signs at all? I mean signs to tell us your father may be wishing his burden lightened somewhat? Apart from this business of him falling, I mean.’
‘As I say, sir, my father appears to have made a full recovery and I believe he is still a person of considerable dependability. It is true one or two errors have been noticeable recently in the discharging of his duties, but these are in every case very trivial in nature.’
‘But none of us wish to see anything of that sort happen ever again, do we? I mean, your father collapsing and all that.’
‘Indeed not, sir.’
‘And of course, if it can happen out on the lawn, it could happen anywhere. And at any time.’
‘It could happen, say, during dinner while your father was waiting at table.’
‘It is possible, sir.’
‘Look here, Stevens, the first of the delegates will be arriving here in less than a fortnight.’
‘We are well prepared, sir.’
‘What happens within this house after that may have considerable repercussions.’
‘I mean considerable repercussions. On the whole course Europe is taking. In view of the persons who will be present, I do not think I exaggerate.’
‘Hardly the time for taking on avoidable hazards.’
‘Indeed not, sir.’
‘Look here, Stevens, there’s no question of your father leaving us. You’re simply being asked to reconsider his duties.’
And it was then, I believe, that his lordship said as he looked down again into his volume and awkwardly fingered an entry:
‘These errors may be trivial in themselves, Stevens, but you must yourself realize their larger significance. Your father’s days of dependability are now passing. He must not be asked to perform tasks in any area where an error might jeopardize the success of our forthcoming conference.’
‘Indeed not, sir. I fully understand.’
‘Good. I’ll leave you to think about it then, Stevens.’
Lord Darlington, I should say, had actually witnessed my father’s fall of a week or so earlier. His lordship had been entertaining two guests, a young lady and gentleman, in the summerhouse, and had watched my father’s approach across the lawn bearing a much welcome tray of refreshments. The lawn climbs a slope several yards in front of the summerhouse, and in those days, as today, four flagstones embedded into the grass served as steps by which to negotiate this climb. It was in the vicinity of these steps that my father fell, scattering the load on his tray – teapot, cups, saucers, sandwiches, cakes – across the area of grass at the top of the steps. By the time I had received the alarm and gone out, his lordship and his guests had laid my father on his side, a cushion and a rug from the summerhouse serving as pillow and blanket. My father was unconscious and his face looked an oddly grey colour. Dr Meredith had already been sent for, but his lordship was of the view that my father should be moved out of the sun before the doctor’s arrival; consequently, a bath-chair arrived and with not a little difficulty, my father was transported into the house. By the time Dr Meredith arrived, he had revived considerably and the doctor soon left again, making only vague statements to the effect that my father had perhaps been ‘Over-working’.
The whole episode was clearly a great embarrassment to my father, and by the time of that conversation in Lord Darlington’s study, he had long since returned to busying himself as much as ever. The question of how one could broach the topic of reducing his responsibilities was not, then, an easy one. My difficulty was further compounded by the fact that for some years my father and I had tended – for some reason I have never really fathomed – to converse less and less. So much so that after his arrival at Darlington Hall, even the brief exchanges necessary to communicate information relating to work took place in an atmosphere of mutual embarrassment.
In the end, I judged the best option to be to talk in the privacy of his room, thus giving him the opportunity to ponder his new situation in solitude once I took my leave. The only times my father could be found in his room were first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Choosing the former, I climbed up to his small attic room at the top of the servants’ wing early one morning and knocked gently.
I had rarely had reason to enter my father’s room prior to this occasion and I was newly struck by the smallness and starkness of it. Indeed, I recall my impression at the time was of having stepped into a prison cell, but then this might have had as much to do with the pale early light as with the size of the room or the bareness of its walls. For my father had opened his curtains and was sitting, shaved and in full uniform, on the edge of his bed from where evidently he had been watching the sky turn to dawn. At least one assumed he had been watching the sky, there being little else to view from his small window other than roof-tiles and guttering. The oil lamp beside his bed had been extinguished, and when I saw my father glance disapprovingly at the lamp I had brought to guide me up the rickety staircase, I quickly lowered the wick. Having done this, I noticed all the more the effect of the pale light coming into the room and the way it lit up the edges of my father’s craggy, lined, still awesome features.
‘Ah,’ I said, and gave a short laugh, ‘I might have known Father would be up and ready for the day.’
‘I’ve been up for the past three hours,’ he said, looking me up and down rather coldly.
‘I hope Father is not being kept awake by his arthritic troubles.’
‘I get all the sleep I need.’
My father reached forward to the only chair in the room, a small wooden one, and placing both hands on its back, brought himself to his feet. When I saw him stood upright before me, I could not be sure to what extent he was hunched over due to infirmity and what extent due to the habit of accommodating the steeply sloped ceilings of the room.
‘I have come here to relate something to you, Father.’
Then relate it briefly and concisely. I haven’t all morning to listen to you chatter.’
‘In that case. Father, I will come straight to the point.’
‘Come to the point then and be done with it. Some of us have work to be getting on with.’
Very well. Since you wish me to be brief, I will do my best to comply. The fact is, Father has become increasingly infirm. So much so that even the duties of an under-butler are now beyond his capabilities. His lordship is of the view, as indeed I am myself, that while Father is allowed to continue with his present round of duties, he represents an ever-present threat to the smooth running of this household, and in particular to next week’s important international gathering.’
My father’s face, in the half-light, betrayed no emotion whatsoever.
‘Principally,’ I continued, ‘it has been felt that Father should no longer be asked to wait at table, whether or not guests are present.’
‘I have waited at table every day for the last fifty-four years,’ my father remarked, his voice perfectly unhurried.
‘Furthermore, it has been decided that Father should not carry laden trays of any sort for even the shortest distances. In view of these limitations, and knowing Father’s esteem for conciseness, I have listed here the revised round of duties he will from now on be expected to perform.’
I felt disinclined actually to hand to him the piece of paper I was holding, and so put it down on the end of his bed. My father glanced at it then returned his gaze to me. There was still no trace of emotion discernible in his expression, and his hands on the back of the chair appeared perfectly relaxed. Hunched over or not, it was impossible not to be reminded of the sheer impact of his physical presence – the very same that had once reduced two drunken gentlemen to sobriety in the back of a car. Eventually, he said:
‘I only fell that time because of those steps. They’re crooked. Seamus should be told to put those right before someone else does the same thing.’
‘Indeed. In any case, may I be assured Father will study that sheet?’
‘Seamus should be told to put those steps right. Certainly before these gentlemen start arriving from Europe.’
‘Indeed. Well, Father, good morning.’
That summer evening referred to by Miss Kenton in her letter came very soon after that encounter – indeed, it may have been the evening of that same day. I cannot remember just what purpose had taken me up on to the top floor of the house to where the row of guest bedrooms line the corridor. But as I think I have said already, I can recall vividly the way the last of the daylight was coming through each open doorway and falling across the corridor in orange shafts. And as I walked on past those unused bedrooms, Miss Kenton’s figure, a silhouette against a window within one of them, had called to me.
When one thinks about it, when one remembers the way Miss Kenton had repeatedly spoken to me of my father during those early days of her time at Darlington Hall, it is little wonder that the memory of that evening should have stayed with her all of these years. No doubt, she was feeling a certain sense of guilt as the two of us watched from our window my father’s figure down below. The shadows of the poplar trees had fallen across much of the lawn, but the sun was still lighting up the far corner where the grass sloped up to the summerhouse. My father could be seen standing by those four stone steps, deep in thought. A breeze was slightly disturbing his hair. Then, as we watched, he walked very slowly up the steps. At the top, he turned and came back down, a little faster. Turning once more, my father became still again for several seconds, contemplating the steps before him. Eventually, he climbed them a second time, very deliberately. This time he continued on across the grass until he had almost reached the summerhouse, then turned and came walking slowly back, his eyes never leaving the ground. In fact, I can describe his manner at that moment no better than the way Miss Kenton puts it in her letter; it was indeed ‘as though he hoped to find some precious jewel he had dropped there’.
But I see I am becoming preoccupied with these memories and this is perhaps a little foolish. This present trip represents, after all, a rare opportunity for me to savour to the full the many splendours of the English countryside, and I know I shall greatly regret it later if I allow myself to become unduly diverted. In fact, I notice I have yet to record here anything of my journey to this city – aside from mentioning briefly that halt on the hillside road at the very start of it. This is an omission indeed, given how much I enjoyed yesterday’s motoring.
I had planned the journey here to Salisbury with considerable care, avoiding almost entirely the major roads; the route might have seemed unnecessarily circuitous to some, but then it was one that enabled me to take in a fair number of the sights recommended by Mrs J. Symons in her excellent volumes, and I must say I was well pleased with it. For much of the time it took me through farmland, amidst the pleasant aroma of meadows, and often I found myself slowing the Ford to a crawl to better appreciate a stream or a valley I was passing. But as I recall, I did not actually disembark again until I was quite near Salisbury.
On that occasion, I was moving down a long, straight road with wide meadows on either side of me. In fact, the land had become very open and flat at that point, enabling one to see a considerable distance in all directions, and the spire of Salisbury Cathedral had become visible on the skyline up ahead. A tranquil mood had come over me, and for this reason I believe I was again motoring very slowly – probably at no more than fifteen miles per hour. This was just as well, for I saw only just in time a hen crossing my path in the most leisurely manner. I brought the Ford to a halt only a foot or two from the fowl, which in turn ceased its journey, pausing there in the road in front of me. When after a moment it had not moved, I resorted to the car horn, but this had no effect other than to make the creature commence pecking at something on the ground. Rather exasperated, I began to get out and had one foot still on the running board when I heard a woman’s voice calclass=”underline”
‘Oh, I do beg your pardon, sir.’
Glancing round, I saw I had just passed on the roadside a farm cottage – from which a young woman in an apron, her attention no doubt aroused by the horn, had come running. Passing me, she swooped up the hen in her arms and proceeded to cradle it as she apologized to me again. When I assured her no harm had been done, she said:
‘I do thank you for stopping and not running poor Nellie over. She’s a good girl, provides us with the largest eggs you’ve ever seen. It’s so good of you to stop. And you were probably in a hurry too.’
‘Oh, I’m not in a hurry at all,’ I said with a smile. ‘For the first time in many a year, I’m able to take my time and I must say, it’s rather an enjoyable experience. I’m just motoring for the pleasure of it, you see.’
‘Oh, that’s nice, sir. And you’re on your way to Salisbury, I expect.’
‘I am indeed. In fact, that’s the cathedral we can see over there, isn’t it? I’m told it’s a splendid building.’
‘Oh, it is, sir, it’s very nice. Well, to tell you the truth, I hardly go into Salisbury myself, so I couldn’t really say what it’s like at close quarters. But I tell you, sir, day in day out we have a view of the steeple from here. Some days, it’s too misty and it’s like it’s vanished altogether. But you can see for yourself, on a fine day like this, it’s a nice sight.’
‘I’m so grateful you didn’t run over our Nellie, sir. Three years ago a tortoise of ours got killed like that and on just about this very spot. We were all very upset over that.’
‘How very tragic,’ I said, sombrely.
‘Oh, it was, sir. Some people say we farm people get used to animals being hurt or killed, but that’s just not true. My little boy cried for days. It’s so good you stopped for Nellie, sir. If you’d care to come in for a cup of tea, now that you’ve got out and everything, you’d be most welcome. It would set you on your way.’
‘That’s most kind, but really, I feel I should continue. I’d like to reach Salisbury in good time to take a look at the city’s many charms.’
‘Indeed, sir. Well, thank you again.’
I set off again, maintaining for some reason – perhaps because I expected further farm creatures to wander across my path – my slow speed of before. I must say, something about this small encounter had put me in very good spirits; the simple kindness I had been thanked for, and the simple kindness I had been offered in return, caused me somehow to feel exceedingly uplifted about the whole enterprise facing me over these coming days. It was in such a mood, then, that I proceeded here to Salisbury.
But I feel I should return just a moment to the matter of my father; for it strikes me I may have given the impression earlier that I treated him rather bluntly over his declining abilities. The fact is, there was little choice but to approach the matter as I did – as I am sure you will agree once I have explained the full context of those days. That is to say, the important international conference to take place at Darlington Hall was by then looming ahead of us, leaving little room for indulgence or ‘beating about the bush’. It is important to be reminded, moreover, that although Darlington Hall was to witness many more events of equal gravity over the fifteen or so years that followed, that conference of March 1923 was the first of them; one was, one supposes, relatively inexperienced, and inclined to leave little to chance. In fact, I often look back to that conference and, for more than one reason, regard it as a turning point in my life. For one thing, I suppose I do regard it as the moment in my career when I truly came of age as a butler. That is not to say I consider I became, necessarily, a ‘great’ butler; it is hardly for me, in any case, to make judgements of this sort. But should it be that anyone ever wished to posit that I have attained at least a little of that crucial quality of ‘dignity’ in the course of my career, such a person may wish to be directed towards that conference of March 1923 as representing the moment when I first demonstrated I might have a capacity for such a quality. It was one of those events which at a crucial stage in one’s development arrive to challenge and stretch one to the limit of one’s ability and beyond, so that thereafter one has new standards by which to judge oneself. That conference was also memorable, of course, for other quite separate reasons, as I would like now to explain.