There was another awkward pause before Sir David said, rather uncertainly:
‘We English have often had a different way of looking at such things from the French, Mr Lewis.’
‘Ah. A kind of temperamental difference, you might say.’
Mr Lewis’s smile seemed to broaden slightly as he said this. He nodded to himself, as though many things had now become clear to him, and drew on his cigar. It is possible this is a case of hindsight colouring my memory, but I have a distinct feeling that it was at that moment I first sensed something odd, something duplicitous perhaps, about this apparently charming American gentleman. But if my own suspicions were aroused at that moment, Lord Darlington evidently did not share them. For after another second or two of awkward silence, his lordship seemed to come to a decision.
‘Mr Lewis,’ he said, ‘let me put it frankly. Most of us in England find the present French attitude despicable. You may indeed call it a temperamental difference, but I venture we are talking about something rather more. It is unbecoming to go on hating an enemy like this once a conflict is over. Once you’ve got a man on the canvas, that ought to be the end of it. You don’t then proceed to kick him. To us, the French behaviour has become increasingly barbarous.’
This utterance seemed to give Mr Lewis some satisfaction. He muttered something in sympathy and smiled with contentment at his fellow diners through the clouds of tobacco smoke by now hanging thickly across the table.
The next morning brought more early arrivals; namely, the two ladies from Germany – who had travelled together despite what one would have imagined to have been the great contrast in their backgrounds – bringing with them a large team of ladies-in-waiting and footmen, as well as a great many trunks. Then in the afternoon, an Italian gentleman arrived accompanied by a valet, a secretary, an ‘expert’ and two bodyguards. I cannot imagine what sort of place this gentleman imagined he was coming to in bringing the latter, but I must say it struck something of an odd note to see in Darlington Hall these two large silent men staring suspiciously in all directions a few yards from wherever the Italian gentleman happened to be. Incidentally, the working pattern of these bodyguards, so it transpired over the following days, entailed one or the other of them going up to sleep at unusual hours so as to ensure at least one was on duty throughout the night. But when on first hearing of this arrangement I tried to inform Miss Kenton of it, she once again refused to converse with me, and in order to accomplish matters as quickly as possible I was actually obliged to write a note and put it under the door of her parlour.
The following day brought several more guests and with two days yet to go to the start of the conference, Darlington Hall was filled with people of all nationalities, talking in rooms, or else standing around, apparently aimlessly, in the hall, in corridors and on landings, examining pictures or objects. The guests were never less than courteous to one another, but for all that, a rather tense atmosphere, characterized largely by distrust, seemed to prevail at this stage. And reflecting this unease, the visiting valets and footmen appeared to regard one another with marked coldness and my own staff were rather glad to be too busy to spend much time with them.
It was around this point, in the midst of dealing with the many demands being made on my attention, that I happened to glance out of a window and spotted the figure of the young Mr Cardinal taking some fresh air around the grounds. He was clutching his attaché case as usual and I could see he was strolling slowly along the path that runs the outer perimeter of the lawn, deeply absorbed in thought. I was of course reminded of my mission regarding the young gentleman and it occurred to me that an outdoor setting, with the general proximity of nature, and in particular the example of the geese close at hand, would not be an unsuitable setting at all in which to convey the sort of message I was bearing. I could see, moreover, that if I were quickly to go outside and conceal my person behind the large rhododendron bush beside the path, it would not be long before Mr Cardinal came by. I would then be able to emerge and convey my message to him. It was not, admittedly, the most subtle of strategies, but you will appreciate that this particular task, though no doubt important in its way, hardly took the highest priority at that moment.
There was a light frost covering the ground and much of the foliage, but it was a mild day for that time of the year. I crossed the grass quickly, placed my person behind the bush, and before long heard Mr Cardinal’s footsteps approaching. Unfortunately, I misjudged slightly the timing of my emergence. I had intended to emerge while Mr Cardinal was still a reasonable distance away, so that he would see me in good time and suppose I was on my way to the summerhouse, or perhaps to the gardener’s lodge. I could then have pretended to notice him for the first time and have engaged him in conversation in an impromptu manner. As it happened, I emerged a little late and I fear I rather startled the young gentleman, who immediately pulled his attaché case away from me and clutched it to his chest with both arms.
‘I’m very sorry, sir.’
‘My goodness, Stevens. You gave me a shock. I thought things were hotting up a bit there.’
‘I’m very sorry, sir. But as it happens, I have something to convey to you.’
‘My goodness, yes, you gave me quite a fright.’
‘If I may come straight to the point, sir. You will notice the geese not far from us.’
‘Geese?’ He looked around a little bewildered. ‘Oh yes. That’s what they are.’
‘And likewise the flowers and shrubs. This is not, in fact, the best time of year to see them in their full glory, but you will appreciate, sir, that with the arrival of spring, we will see a change – a very special sort of change – in these surroundings.’
‘Yes, I’m sure the grounds are not at their best just now. But to be perfectly frank, Stevens, I wasn’t paying much attention to the glories of nature. It’s all rather worrying. That M. Dupont’s arrived in the foulest mood imaginable. Last thing we wanted really.’
‘M. Dupont has arrived here at this house, sir?’
‘About half an hour ago. He’s in the most foul temper.’
‘Excuse me, sir. I must attend to him straight away.’
‘Of course, Stevens. Well, kind of you to have come out to talk to me.’
‘Please excuse me, sir. As it happened, I had a word or two more to say on the topic of – as you put it yourself – the glories of nature. If you will indulge me by listening, I would be most grateful. But I am afraid this will have to wait for another occasion.’
‘Well, I shall look forward to it, Stevens. Though I’m more of a fish man myself. I know all about fish, fresh water and salt.’
‘All living creatures will be relevant to our forthcoming discussion, sir. However, you must now please excuse me. I had no idea M. Dupont had arrived.’
I hurried back to the house to be met immediately by the first footman saying:
‘We’ve been looking all over for you, sir. The French gentleman’s arrived.’
M. Dupont was a tall, elegant gentleman with a grey beard and a monocle. He had arrived in the sort of clothes one often sees continental gentlemen wearing on their holidays, and indeed, throughout his stay, he was to maintain diligently the appearance of having come to Darlington Hall entirely for pleasure and friendship. As Mr Cardinal had indicated, M. Dupont had not arrived in a good temper; I cannot recall now all the various things that had upset him since his arrival in England a few days previously, but in particular he had obtained some painful sores on his feet while sightseeing around London and these, he feared, were growing septic. I referred his valet to Miss Kenton, but this did not prevent M. Dupont snapping his fingers at me every few hours to say:
‘Butler! I am in need of more bandages.’
His mood seemed much lifted on seeing Mr Lewis. He and the American senator greeted each other as old colleagues and they were to be seen together for much of the remainder of that day, laughing over reminiscences. In fact, one could see that Mr Lewis’s almost constant proximity to M. Dupont was proving a serious inconvenience to Lord Darlington, who was naturally keen to make close personal contact with this distinguished gentleman before the discussions began. On several occasions I witnessed his lordship make attempts to draw M. Dupont aside for some private conversation, only for Mr Lewis smilingly to impose himself upon them with some remark like: ‘Pardon me, gentlemen, but there’s something that’s been greatly puzzling me,’ so that his lordship soon found himself having to listen to some more of Mr Lewis’s jovial anecdotes. Mr Lewis apart, however, the other guests, perhaps through awe, perhaps through a sense of antagonism, kept a wary distance from M. Dupont, a fact that was conspicuous even in that generally guarded atmosphere, and which seemed to underline all the more the feeling that it was M. Dupont who somehow held the key to the outcome of the following days.
The conference began on a rainy morning during the last week of March 1923 in the somewhat unlikely setting of the drawing room – a venue chosen to accommodate the ‘off the record’ nature of many of the attendances. In fact, to my eyes, the appearance of informality had been taken to a faintly ludicrous degree. It was odd enough to see that rather feminine room crammed full with so many stern, dark-jacketed gentlemen, sometimes sitting three or four abreast upon a sofa; but such was the determination on the part of some persons to maintain the appearance that this was nothing more than a social event that they had actually gone to the lengths of having journals and newspapers open on their knees.
I was obliged during the course of that first morning to go constantly in and out of the room, and so was unable to follow the proceedings at all fully. But I recall Lord Darlington opening the discussions by formally welcoming the guests, before going on to outline the strong moral case for a relaxing of various aspects of the Versailles treaty, emphasizing the great suffering he had himself witnessed in Germany. Of course, I had heard these same sentiments expressed by his lordship on many occasions before, but such was the depth of conviction with which he spoke in this august setting that I could not help but be moved afresh. Sir David Cardinal spoke next, and though I missed much of his speech, it seemed to be more technical in substance, and quite frankly, rather above my head. But his general gist seemed to be close to his lordship’s, concluding with a call for a freezing of German reparation payments and the withdrawal of French troops from the Ruhr region. The German countess then began to speak, but I was at this point, for some reason I do not recollect, obliged to leave the drawing room for an extended period. By the time I reentered, the guests were in open debate, and the discussion – with much talk of commerce and interest rates – was quite beyond me.
M. Dupont, so far as I could observe, was not contributing to the discussions, and it was hard to tell from his sullen demeanour if he was attending carefully to what was being said or else deeply engrossed in other thoughts. At one stage, when I happened to depart the room in the midst of an address by one of the German gentlemen, M. Dupont suddenly rose and followed me out.
‘Butler,’ he said, once we were in the hall, ‘I wonder if I could have my feet changed. They are giving me so much discomfort now, I can hardly listen to these gentlemen.’
As I recall, I had conveyed a plea to Miss Kenton for assistance – via a messenger, naturally – and had left M. Dupont sitting in the billiard room awaiting his nurse, when the first footman had come hurrying down the staircase in some distress to inform me that my father had been taken ill upstairs.
I hurried up to the first floor and on turning at the landing was met by a strange sight. At the far end of the corridor, almost in front of the large window, at that moment filled with grey light and rain, my father’s figure could be seen frozen in a posture that suggested he was taking part in some ceremonial ritual. He had dropped down on to one knee and with head bowed seemed to be pushing at the trolley before him, which for some reason had taken on an obstinate immobility. Two chambermaids were standing at a respectful distance, watching his efforts in some awe. I went to my father and releasing his hands from their grip on the edge of the trolley, eased him down on to the carpet. His eyes were closed, his face was an ashen colour, and there were beads of sweat on his forehead. Further assistance was called, a bath-chair arrived in due course, and my father was transported up to his room.
Once my father had been laid in his bed, I was a little uncertain as to how to proceed; for while it seemed undesirable that I leave my father in such a condition, I did not really have a moment more to spare. As I stood hesitating in the doorway, Miss Kenton appeared at my side and said:
‘Mr Stevens, I have a little more time than you at the moment. I shall, if you wish, attend to your father. I shall show Dr Meredith up and notify you if he has anything noteworthy to say.’
‘Thank you, Miss Kenton,’ I said, and took my leave.
When I returned to the drawing room, a clergyman was talking about the hardships being suffered by children in Berlin. I immediately found myself more than occupied replenishing the guests with tea and coffee. A few of the gentlemen, I noticed, were drinking spirits, and one or two, despite the presence of the two ladies, had started to smoke. I was, I recall, leaving the drawing room with an empty teapot in my hand when Miss Kenton stopped me and said:
‘Mr Stevens, Dr Meredith is just leaving now.’
As she said this, I could see the doctor putting on his mackintosh and hat in the hall and so went to him, the teapot still in my hand. The doctor looked at me with a disgruntled expression.
‘Your father’s not so good,’ he said. ‘If he deteriorates, call me again immediately.’
‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.’
‘How old is your father, Stevens?’
Dr Meredith thought about this, then said again:
‘If he deteriorates, call me immediately.’
I thanked the doctor again and showed him out.
It was that evening, shortly before dinner, that I overheard the conversation between Mr Lewis and M Dupont. I had for some reason gone up to M. Dupont’s room and was about to knock, but before doing so, as is my custom, I paused for a second to listen at the door. You may not yourself be in the habit of taking this small precaution to avoid knocking at some highly inappropriate moment, but I always have been and can vouch that it is common practice amongst many professionals. That is to say, there is no subterfuge implied in such an action, and I for one had no intention of overhearing to the extent I did that evening. However, as fortune would have it, when I put my ear to M. Dupont’s door, I happened to hear Mr Lewis’s voice, and though I cannot recall precisely the actual words I first heard, it was the tone of his voice that raised my suspicions. I was listening to the same genial, slow voice with which the American gentleman had charmed many since his arrival and yet it now contained something unmistakably covert. It was this realization, along with the fact that he was in M. Duponf’s room, presumably addressing this most crucial personage, that caused me to stop my hand from knocking, and continue to listen instead.
The bedroom doors of Darlington Hall are of a certain thickness and I could by no means hear complete exchanges; consequently, it is hard for me now to recall precisely what I overheard, just as, indeed, it was for me later that same evening when I reported to his lordship on the matter. Nevertheless, this is not to say I did not gain a fairly clear impression of what was taking place within the room. In effect, the American gentleman was putting forward the view that M. Dupont was being manipulated by his lordship and other participants at the conference; that M. Dupont had been deliberately invited late to enable the others to discuss important topics in his absence; that even after his arrival, it was to be observed that his lordship was conducting small private discussions with the most important delegates without inviting M. Dupont. Then Mr Lewis began to report certain remarks his lordship and others had made at dinner on that first evening after his arrival.
‘To be quite frank, sir,’ I heard Mr Lewis say, ‘I was appalled at their attitude towards your countrymen. They actually used words like ‘‘barbarous” and “despicable”. In fact, I noted them in my diary only a few hours afterwards.’
M. Dupont said something briefly which I did not catch, then Mr Lewis said again:
‘Let me tell you, sir, I was appalled. Are these words to use about an ally you stood shoulder to shoulder with only a few years back?’
I am not sure now if I ever proceeded to knock; it is quite possible, given the alarming nature of what I heard, that I judged it best to withdraw altogether. In any case, I did not linger long enough – as I was obliged to explain to his lordship shortly afterwards – to hear anything that would give a clue as to M. Dupont’s attitude to Mr Lewis’s
The next day, the discussions in the drawing room appeared to reach a new level of intensity and by lunch-time, the exchanges were becoming rather heated. My impression was that utterances were being directed accusingly, and with increasing boldness, towards the armchair where M. Dupont sat fingering his beard, saying little. Whenever the conference adjourned, I noticed, as no doubt his lordship did with some concern, that Mr Lewis would quickly take M. Dupont away to some corner or other where they could confer quietly. Indeed, once, shortly after lunch, I recall I came upon the two gentlemen talking rather furtively just inside the library doorway, and it was my distinct impression they broke off their discussion upon my approach.
In the meantime, my father’s condition had grown neither better nor worse. As I understood, he was asleep for much of the time, and indeed, I found him so on the few occasions I had a spare moment to ascend to that little attic room. I did not then have a chance actually to converse with him until that second evening after the return of his illness.
On that occasion, too, my father was sleeping when I entered. But the chambermaid Miss Kenton had left in attendance stood up upon seeing me and began to shake my father’s shoulder.
‘Foolish girl!’ I exclaimed. ‘What do you think you are doing?’
‘Mr Stevens said to wake him if you returned, sir.’
‘Let him sleep. It’s exhaustion that’s made him ill.’
‘He said I had to, sir,’ the girl said, and again shook my father’s shoulder.
My father opened his eyes, turned his head a little on the pillow, and looked at me.
‘I hope Father is feeling better now,’ I said.
He went on gazing at me for a moment, then asked:
‘Everything in hand downstairs?’
The situation is rather volatile. It is just after six o’clock, so Father can well imagine the atmosphere in the kitchen at this moment.’
An impatient look crossed my father’s face.
‘But is everything in hand?’ he said again.
‘Yes, I dare say you can rest assured on that. I’m very glad Father is feeling better.’
With some deliberation, he withdrew his arms from under the bedclothes and gazed tiredly at the backs of his hands. He continued to do this for some time.
‘I’m glad Father is feeling so much better,’ I said again eventually. ‘Now really, I’d best be getting back. As I say, the situation is rather volatile.’
He went on looking at his hands for a moment. Then he said slowly:
‘I hope I’ve been a good father to you.’
I laughed a little and said:
‘I’m so glad you’re feeling better now.’
‘I’m proud of you. A good son. I hope I’ve been a good father to you. I suppose I haven’t.’
‘I’m afraid we’re extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning.’
My father was still looking at his hands as though he were faintly irritated by them.
‘I’m so glad you’re feeling better now,’ I said again and took my leave.
On descending, I found the kitchen on the brink of pandemonium, and in general, an extremely tense atmosphere amongst all levels of staff. However, I am pleased to recall that by the time dinner was served an hour or so later, nothing but efficiency and professional calm was exhibited on the part of my team.
It is always something of a memorable sight to see that magnificent banqueting hall employed to its full capacity and that evening was no exception. Of course, the effect produced by unbroken lines of gentlemen in evening suits, so outnumbering representatives of the fairer sex, was a rather severe one; but then again, in those days, the two large chandeliers that hang over the table still ran on gas – resulting in a subtle, quite soft light pervading the room – and did not produce the dazzling brightness they have done ever since their electrification. On that second and final dinner of the conference – most guests were expected to disperse after lunch the following day – the company had lost much of the reserve that had been noticeable throughout the previous days. Not only was the conversation flowing more freely and loudly, we found ourselves serving out wine at a conspicuously increased rate. At the close of dinner, which from a professional viewpoint had been executed without any significant difficulties, his lordship rose to address his guests.
He opened by expressing his gratitude to all present that the discussions during the previous two days, ‘though at times exhilaratingly frank’, had been conducted in a spirit of friendship and the desire to see good prevail. The unity witnessed over the two days had been greater than he could ever have hoped for, and the remaining morning’s session of ‘rounding up’ would, he trusted, be rich in commitments on the part of participants concerning action each would be taking before the important international conference in Switzerland. It was around this point – and I have no idea if he had planned to do so beforehand – that his lordship began to reminisce about his late friend, Herr Karl-Heinz Bremann. This was a little unfortunate, the topic being one close to his lordship’s heart and one he was inclined to explicate at some length. It should also be said, perhaps, that Lord Darlington was never what might be called a natural public speaker, and soon all those small sounds of restlessness that betray that an audience’s attention has been lost grew steadily around the room. Indeed, by the time Lord Darlington had finally come round to bidding his guests rise and drink to ‘peace and justice in Europe’, the level of such noises – perhaps on account of the liberal amounts of wine that had been consumed – struck me as bordering on the ill-mannered.
The company had seated themselves again, and conversation was just beginning to resume, when there came an authoritative rapping of knuckles upon wood and M. Dupont had risen to his feet. At once, a hush fell over the room. The distinguished gentleman glanced around the table with a look almost of severity. Then he said:
‘I hope I am not trespassing over a duty ascribed to someone else present here, but then I had heard no proposals for anyone to give a toast in thanks to our host, the most honourable and kind Lord Darlington.’
There was a murmur of approval. M. Dupont went on:
‘Many things of interest have been said in this house over the past days. Many important things.’
He paused, and there was now utter stillness in the room.
‘There has been much,’ he continued, ‘which has implicitly or otherwise criticized – it is not so strong a word – criticized the foreign policy of my country.’ He paused again, looking rather stern. One might even have thought him to be angry. ‘We have heard in these two days several thorough and intelligent analyses of the present very complex situation in Europe. But none of them, may I say, has fully comprehended the reasons for the attitude France has adopted towards her neighbour. However’ – he raised a finger – ‘this is not the time to enter into such debates.
In fact, I deliberately refrained from entering into such debates during these past days because I came principally to listen. And let me say now that I have been impressed by certain of the arguments I have heard here. But how impressed, you may be asking.’ M. Dupont took another pause during which his gaze travelled in an almost leisurely manner around all the faces fixed upon him. Then at last he said: ‘Gentlemen – and ladies, pardon me – I have given much thought to these matters and I wish to say here in confidence to you, that while there remain between myself and many of those present differences of interpretation as to what is really occurring in Europe at this moment, despite this, as to the main points that have been raised in this house, I am convinced, gentlemen, convinced both of their justice and their practicality.’
A murmur which seemed to contain both relief and triumph went around the table, but this time M. Dupont raised his voice slightly and pronounced over it:
‘I am happy to assure you all here that I will bring what modest influence I have to encourage certain changes of emphasis in French policy in accordance with much of what has been said here. And I will endeavour to do so in good time for the Swiss conference.’
There was a ripple of applause, and I saw his lordship exchange a look with Sir David. M. Dupont held up his hand, though whether to acknowledge the applause or to stem it was not clear.
‘But before I go on to thank our host, Lord Darlington, I have some small thing I would wish to remove from my chest. Some of you may say it is not good manners to be removing such things from one’s chest at the dinner table.’ This brought enthusiastic laughter. ‘However, I am for frankness in these matters. Just as there is an imperative to express gratitude formally and publicly to Lord Darlington, who has brought us here and made possible this present spirit of unity and goodwill, there is, I believe, an imperative to openly condemn any who come here to abuse the hospitality of the host, and to spend his energies solely in trying to sow discontent and suspicion. Such persons are not only socially repugnant, in the climate of our present day they are extremely dangerous.’
He paused again and once more there was utter stillness. M. Dupont went on in a calm, deliberate voice:
‘My only question concerning Mr Lewis is this. To what extent does his abominable behaviour exemplify the attitude of the present American administration? Ladies and gentlemen, let me myself hazard a guess as to the answer, for such a gentleman capable of the levels of deceit he has displayed over these past days should not be relied upon to provide a truthful reply. So, I will hazard my guess. Of course, America is concerned about our debt payments to her in the event of a freeze in German reparations. But I have over the last six months had occasion to discuss this very matter with a number of very highly placed Americans, and it seems to me that thinking in that country is much more far-sighted than that represented by their countryman here. All those of us who care for the future well-being of Europe will take comfort from the fact that Mr Lewis is now – how shall we put it? – hardly the influence he once was. Perhaps you think me unduly harsh to express these things so openly. But the reality is, ladies and gentlemen, I am being merciful. You see, I refrain from outlining just what this gentleman has been saying to me – about you all. And with a most clumsy technique, the audacity and crudeness of which I could hardly believe. But enough of condemnations. It is time for us to thank. Join me then, please, ladies and gentlemen, in raising your glasses to Lord Darlington.’
M. Dupont had not once looked over in Mr Lewis’s direction during the course of this speech, and indeed, once the company had toasted his lordship and were seated again, all those present seemed to be studiously avoiding looking towards the American gentleman. An uneasy silence reigned for a moment, and then finally Mr Lewis rose to his feet. He was smiling pleasantly in his customary manner.
‘Well, since everyone’s giving speeches, I may as well take a turn,’ he said, and it was at once apparent from his voice that he had had a good deal to drink. ‘I don’t have anything to say to the nonsense our French friend has been uttering. I just dismiss that sort of talk. I’ve had people try to put one over on me many times, and let me tell you, gentlemen, few people succeed. Few people succeed.’ Mr Lewis came to a halt and for a moment seemed at a loss as to how he should go on. Eventually he smiled again and said: ‘As I say, I’m not going to waste my time on our French friend over there. But as it happens, I do have something to say. Now we’re all being so frank, I’ll be frank too. You gentlemen here, forgive me, but you are just a bunch of naïve dreamers. And if you didn’t insist on meddling in large affairs that affect the globe, you would actually be charming. Let’s take our good host here. What is he? He is a gentleman. No one here, I trust, would care to disagree. A classic English gentleman. Decent, honest, well-meaning. But his lordship here is an amateur.’ He paused at the word and looked around the table. ‘He is an amateur and international affairs today are no longer for gentlemen amateurs. The sooner you here in Europe realize that the better. All you decent, well-meaning gentlemen, let me ask you, have you any idea what sort of place the world is becoming all around you? The days when you could act out of your noble instincts are over. Except of course, you here in Europe don’t yet seem to know it. Gentlemen like our good host still believe it’s their business to meddle in matters they don’t understand. So much hog-wash has been spoken here these past two days. Well-meaning, naïve hog-wash. You here in Europe need professionals to run your affairs. If you don’t realize that soon you’re headed for disaster. A toast, gentlemen. Let me make a toast. To professionalism.’