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Authors: James Hilton

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The Dawn of Reckoning

BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
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THE DAWN OF RECKONING
US TITLE: RAGE IN HEAVEN

 

First published by Thornton Butterworth, London, 1925
First US edition: Alfred H. King, New York, 1932, as
Rage in
Heaven

 

“Heaven hath no rage like love to hatred turned.”

Milton

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

CHAPTER I
I

A splash disturbed the throbbing mystery of the twilight and
Philip Monsell heard it, wondered idly what it was, and proceeded to light a
Turkish cigarette. He was quite alone at the stern of the little paddle-boat,
where the canvas awning protected him from smuts from the funnel but not from
the various cooking smells that came from the saloon. Most of the other
passengers, indeed, were at “second” dinner; he himself had taken the less
popular “first” in order to be free to watch the darkness falling over the
shadowy river. Already daylight had almost vanished and the boat was
ploughing its way through what seemed endless rolls of glistening frothy
snakes, silvery in the dusk.

The sound of commotion came from the other end of the boat. Voices were
raised sharply, and jabbered in a high-pitched language that Philip guessed
to be Hungarian; then came the sudden tingling of bells and the unmistakable
jogging caused by the reversal of the boat’s engines. Something had happened.
He rose lazily from his deck-chair and stared about him. The boat was in
mid-stream, churning up great eddies of foam in the effort to check its pace;
the banks of the river, about a quarter of a mile away on each side,
presented a dull violet blur without a flicker of light to indicate human
habitation.

He strode along the narrowing gangway past the windows of the saloon. The
three long tables inside were crowded with diners of almost every
nationality, and at one of them he could see his mother, brilliant-looking as
ever, conversing animatedly with a group of Americans. They were all
laughing, and occasion ally one or other of them peered out of the window
into the blackness, as if wondering why the boat had stopped. The stewards,
passing each other swiftly about the saloon, exchanged remarks
mysteriously…

The chatter in the forepart of the ship grew noisier as he approached, and
became almost a roar as he pulled open the door that separated the first from
the second class, the luxury from the comparative squalor. Here the lighting
was dim and fitful; old peasant women sat on boxes with babies on their
knees; young men, brown-faced, hatless, and bare-chested, checked their
lilting songs and chattered together eagerly in corners. Something strange,
something a little sinister, was happening. The crew were rushing about with
ropes and tackle, and now and then an officer came among them, barked a brisk
guttural order, and went away again.

“Wal?” said a voice, almost in Monsell’s ear. “D’ye think they’ll get
her?”

Monsell turned, and saw close to him a man whom he had met previously at
lunch—an elderly retired business-man from Chicago, globe-trotting with
quiet alertness. “Get her?” exclaimed Monsell, puzzled. “What do you
mean—
get
her?”

The other examined his cigar. “You dunno what the fuss is about then,
eh?”

“Not in the least. What is it?”

The man from Chicago flicked off his cigar-ash against the engine-room
stairway.

“Girl overboard,” he said laconically. And he added thoughtfully:
“Hungarian girl…”

II

Accidents are rare upon the Danube boats. For that reason
they cause all the more commotion when they occur. Monsell and the American
stood talking calmly while the noise and commotion increased all around them.
“These fellers make too much noise,” said the American, chewing his cigar.
“Too much talk—not enough action. Now in America…or “—he added
as a concession to his neighbour “in England…”

Monsell had thrown away his cigarette and was tapping his foot irritably
on the deck. “Surely some body will go in and rescue her,” he said, more to
himself than to the other. “Or throw a lifebelt…or something…”

“Have you seen a lifebelt anywhere on this gol darned boat?—Because
I haven’t…Now on the Mississippi…”

“Well, damn it all,” Monsell interrupted, “I’d go in and have a try myself
if—if—” He shrugged his shoulders and added lamely: “If I could
swim and—heaps of other things.”

“Not swim?”

“No,” said Monsell curtly.

“Do you know that in every high-school and college in America swimmun
is—”

The impact of a huge-limbed member of the crew knocked the cigar from his
lips amidst a jet of sparks. Interest seemed suddenly to be converging on the
part of the boat where Monsell and the American were standing; blue-jerseyed
sailors hurried to the deck-rail, threw ropes over, and shouted shrill and
deafening instructions. An officer, vibrating with gold-lace and
self-importance, ordered away all the second-class passengers, but gave the
American a salute and a smile as he passed.

“Curious fellers,” remarked the latter to Monsell, choosing another
cigar.

Suddenly the men at the deck-rail gave a loud cry, evidently of
satisfaction, and began lifting something up from over the side. The
huge-limbed man who had collided with the American was the one to whom fell
the actual honour of rescue. He came away from the deck-rail with a huddled
and dripping bundle in his arms; it might have been as light as a feather
from the way he carried it. The gold-laced officer rapped out an order, and
he laid the bundle gently upon a sheet of tarpaulin, almost at Monsell’s
feet. The crew thronged round, chattering more loudly than ever, while the
water made a dull lead-coloured pool, a pool that grew and grew and then
trickled over the boards to the Danube again…

The dapper little ship’s officer approached the American and addressed him
a few words in German. The latter nodded and turned to Monsell.

“This gentleman wants to know if you’re a doctor—or if you know of
one on board. I don’t.”

“Nor do I, but—but—perhaps my mother—she has been a
nurse—I’ll fetch her, anyway…”

He raced back towards the saloon, and when he had gone the American said
to the officer in German “That young English kid’s gone to fetch his mother.
Says she’s been a nurse. I quite believe it. I’d believe anything of her.
She’s a most remarkable woman—
most
remarkable…”

III

Mrs. Monsell hastened out of the saloon, with Philip leading
her and telling her what had happened. The American had spoken correctly; she
was a remarkable woman. Finely built, finely dressed, fifty years old and
looking twenty years younger, the possessor of a keen brain, a ripe
experience, and an inexhaustible supply of energy, she was distinctly the
kind of woman whom all other women dislike and whom men do not easily forget.
Wherever she went, at home or abroad, she could not fail to be a planet of
whom others were delighted to be satellites; and as she spoke French and
German perfectly, and loved scandal of every type and nationality, it was
easy for her to enjoy herself amidst the cosmopolitan crowd on the Danube
steamers.

Philip led her to the huddled figure on the tarpaulin.

“Anything I can do, mother?” he asked eagerly.

She replied: “There’s a bottle of sal volatile in my bag in the cabin. You
might go and get it for me.”

The cabin was on the upper-deck, and when he reached it he remembered that
he had left the key in his raincoat-pocket, and that his raincoat was by his
deckchair in the stern. He ran back, and along the gangways: as he reached
his coat and got the key he felt the throb of the engines beginning again. It
was pitch-dark now, and the lights of the boat shone out weirdly over the
black river. Back again on the upper-deck he unlocked the cabin and sought
for the bottle in the bag, but without success. Possibly his mother had left
it in her handbag downstairs in the saloon; he would go and see. He did so,
found it after a search, and rushed back to the steerage. The American alone
stood where formerly the crowd had been.

“Wal,” he said, still chewing his cigar, “I guess you’re too late.”

“Too late?—What do you mean?”

“She’s all right now. They’ve taken her to a cabin an’ put her to bed. An’
your mother don’t need the sal volatile—she borrowed it off somebody.
By the way, did you know—”

The man from Chicago paused and spat vehemently on deck. Monsell looked up
eagerly. “Do I know what?”

“Do you know it wasn’t an accident?”

“Not an accident?—No, I don’t know…Then what—what was
it?”

The other answered gruffly: “Attempted suicide. That’s what it was.”

IV

All through the summer night the boat throbbed its way up
the Danube, and in the morning the dawn rose on a wide green plain which the
river split into halves. At intervals during the night, calls had been made
at sleeping villages by the river-side; passengers had embarked and
disembarked; once Monsell had been awakened by the slight bump of the boat
against a pier.

He rose fairly early and breakfasted alone, for his mother never left her
cabin until lunch-time. The dark-coloured rye bread and bitter coffee were at
once refreshing and unsatisfying, but he lingered long over them, with the
August sunlight pouring on him through the windows of the saloon. He was
quite happy. This idea of his mother’s—to take the slow comfortable
journey by river-steamer instead of the quicker uncomfortable journey by
rail—was proving an excellent one. He smiled, thinking what a remark
able woman she was, how all the most interesting people everywhere clustered
round her, and how supremely competent she was to decide everything for
herself.

After he had paid the waiter he took a notebook and pen from his pocket
and continued a letter to a friend in England.

 

“I am writing this on the Danube boat some where between
Mohacs and Buda-Pesth. We ought to reach Buda about eight this evening, and
what we shall do when we get there I don’t know. Probably we shall stay a few
days, or, if mother really takes a fancy to the place, a few weeks or
months—you know how everything depends on her. She’s enjoying herself
immensely, and so am I. The scenery and the weather are both delightful.

“We had quite an adventure yesterday when a young Hungarian
girl tried to drown herself by diving into the river at night. One of the
crew jumped in after her, but eventually she saved herself by swimming to the
boat and being hauled up. Rather ignominious, eh?—Shows how hard it is
for a swimmer to commit suicide by drowning. There was no doctor on board, so
mother had to attend to her…”

 

Through the saloon windows he could see the shore rapidly approaching, and
in the near distance a quaint little brown-roofed village basking in the sun.
It was too good to be missed, so he interrupted his letter and climbed on to
the upper-deck, whence he could view the interesting and sometimes amusing
scene of embarkation. Scrubby little brown-faced children stood barefooted on
the beach, cheering and waving coloured handkerchiefs; a single
blue-uniformed gendarme guarded the pier and examined the papers of those who
wanted to land. From the faces that filled every available window-space, it
was obvious that the arrival of the bi-weekly boat was an important event.
For those on board, of course, it was a mere pause in the peaceful monotony
of the journey. Admiring remarks were passed in a variety of languages;
cameras clicked; and then, after a few moments of bustle and chatter from
down below, the gangways were hauled up and the paddles began to chug their
way into midstream again.

BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
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