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Authors: James Hilton

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The next thing she knew was that she was lying stretched out amidst the
tall grasses of the sea wall, and that a man was bending over her, raising
her arms up and down and staring at her intently.

“Ah,” he said.

Her ears, rather than her eyes (which did not yet seem to be working quite
properly) told her that the man was Ward. Why on earth was he here,
though?—What could possibly have brought him to such a place?


You?
” she gasped.

“Yes,
me
,” he answered grimly.

He bustled around her, saying nothing and doing a great deal. The grim
look on his face never once lightened into a smile. The sun, as if obedient
to some mystic change of atmosphere, had disappeared behind thick banks of
vapoury cloud that had drifted up from the sea. She noticed—all these
things very gradually—that he was sopping wet from head to
feet—that he wore no boots, and that his short-cropped hair still
dripped water on to his forehead.

At last he said quietly: “You must get back to the car. Can you walk or
shall I carry you?”

“I’ll walk.”

“Very well. Hold on to my arm.”

After about ten yards through the thick, tough grasses on the sea wall she
gasped weakly: “I—I don’t think I—I can walk any more.”

“Very well. I’ll carry you.”

He picked her up as matter-of-factly as he might have done a rather bulky
parcel. “You’ll be more comfortable if you hang on round my neck,” he
remarked.

She took no notice, but after a while the strain of the position made her
realise the soundness of his advice. She put her arm round his neck.

He said nothing, and after a while she could not endure his silence. She
felt she must say something, however stupid, to break the intolerable
silence.

“You’re wet through,” she whispered.

The grim face did not relax, but the lips just moved. “Swimming with one’s
clothes on has a habit of making one wet through.”

“There was no need for you to come in,” she answered coldly. “I didn’t ask
you to.”

Silence again. Was he never going to reply? She went on impetuously, after
a long pause: “I wasn’t in any danger. I was swimming in quite well on my
own. When I was a girl I used to swim across the Danube often.”

He said slowly and calculatingly: “I don’t care if you used to swim across
the Atlantic—you’re a damned little fool and you deserve a good
hiding.”

III

While she changed into her clothes and dried her self behind
the closed hood of the car, he went off amongst the marshes and somehow or
other managed to remove most of the water from his person. Then he came back
and drove her very grimly home to Chassingford.

He said nothing until they were almost in the village. Then he began
suddenly: “I was visiting a case at Marsh Farm. I saw your car unattended and
your clothes inside it, and guessed you’d be stupid enough to swim…In
March…and at ebb-tide!…Are you quite mad?”

“Quite,” she answered. “Aren’t you?”

He ignored her.

“I want you to realise that but for pure chance you would have been
drowned…Now you’re almost home. I shan’t come in with you, and you needn’t
tell your adventure to anybody if you don’t want—I never shall. Have a
glass of brandy when you get in—I suppose you’ve got plenty of the
filthy stuff in the house…It’ll steady you. And don’t swim again till
June…Good-bye. You can take the car up the drive yourself, no doubt…Good
bye…”

He opened the door and stepped out, raised his hat perfunctorily and was
off.

IV

She pleaded a bad headache and went to bed early that
evening. Rather to her astonishment Philip, whom she had expected to be too
deeply immersed in his books to take much notice of her indisposition, showed
himself greatly concerned about it. “There’s so rarely anything the matter
with you, Stella,” he said uneasily. “Suppose I ‘phone Ward to come
round?”

She could not help smiling at the thought.

“No, no, Philip. I’m all right, really. Just a headache, that’s all. I
shall be fit as anything after a night’s sleep.”

When she was left alone she thought things out very carefully. She
decided, not without reluctance, that she had been abominably rude and
ungrateful to Ward for what had undoubtedly been the saving of her life. To
balance matters he had been abominably rude to her, treating her exactly like
a misbehaving child. That may have excused, but it did not altogether justify
her own rudeness. Very gradually, as her mind pondered on it, she became
sorry. And she was sorry that she was sorry, she told herself quaintly,
because she hated apologising.

It had come to that. She knew she would have to apologise. Whether she
liked or disliked him (and she was by no means sure which), he had saved her
life at great discomfort and perhaps risk to himself, and she had rewarded
him by surliness. She must apologise, even if she detested him.

>

 

The next morning, after about an hour at the writing-desk in
her bedroom, she evolved the following:


Dear Dr. Ward
,—I feel I
must write and tell you how sorry I am for being such a beast yesterday. You
certainly saved my life, and though you don’t want any thanks for it, it was
rather wicked of me to be so rude to you. I hope you’ll forgive me, and in
return I promise I won’t bathe any more till the weather’s much warmer. I
have adopted your suggestion and not told anybody about my extremely naughty
escapade.—Yours sincerely,

Stella Monsell
.

“P.S.—I hope your suit dried all right—if not,
you really ought to let me have the pleasure of buying you another.”

 

She read it over several times and decided that it possessed exactly the
right mixture of contrition and jauntiness. After all, an apology did not
necessarily mean a humiliation.

After completing her dressing she went down stairs. Mrs. Monsell was
talking to a caller, and the subject of the discussion was, as she could
overhear, Ward.

“He’s going away almost immediately,” said Mrs. Monsell. “He’s joined an
expedition to the South Pole. Now isn’t that just the sort of hare-brained
thing you’d expect him to do?”

Stella descended upon them. “The South Pole?” she echoed incredulously,
and Mrs. Monsell smiled.

“Yes, my dear, the South Pole. He was offered the job three weeks ago and
asked for time to decide. Last night he sent a telegram accepting. The sister
of Doctor Challis’s butler told my maid, so it’s absolutely authentic.”

“And when did you say he was going?” Stella’s voice, perfectly controlled,
sounded no more than one of casual interest.

“As soon as he can get away, I suppose. The expedition sets out in a week
or two. You’d better ask him the details yourself, my dear, if you want to
see him off.”

V

What did it matter to her whether he were going to the South
Pole or not? She tried to think.

Of course it might be no more than a rumour. She could not help wondering
about it. Was he
really
going? She felt that if she knew for certain
she could let the matter drop, but that as long as the question was unsettled
she must go on pondering over it.

She said to Philip as soon as she saw him: “I say, have you heard the
latest rumour—Ward’s going to the South Pole?”

Philip looked up with his usual attitude of slow astonishment. “Good
heavens! You don’t say so! What for?”

“To discover it, of course,” she replied succinctly. “What else should he
go there for?”

Philip slowly realised the situation. “You mean to say he’s joined that
expedition they’re talking about in all the papers?”

“I don’t know anything about the expedition they’re talking about in the
papers. But, according to a rumour round the town, Ward has got a job of
doctor to the party. Do you mean to say you haven’t heard anything about it
at all?”

Even yet he had not completely conquered his astonishment. He sank into an
easy chair and scratched his head with an expression of bewilderment that was
increased rather than decreased by further reflection.

“I certainly haven’t. He never mentioned any thing of the kind to me.
Though I must confess—it’s just the sort of thing he
would
do.”


Is
it?—
Is
it?” Her query was almost plaintive.

Philip went on: “He’s keen on danger and excitement. Personally I question
whether information about the Pole is worth the expenditure of human life and
energy.”

“Life?—But you don’t necessarily die, do you?”

“Many men have died. I—yes, I question whether it’s worth it. It was
different in the days of Frobisher and Magellan when—”

She replied a trifle impatiently: “My dear Philip, it’s not a bit of use
talking like that to me—you know I’ve never heard of Frobisher
and—and the other fellow.”

“Really?—Well, I can soon explain. Frobisher was—”

“Oh, don’t—not now,” she said hastily. “Some other time,
Philip—when I’m more in the mood for learning things.”

He glanced at her oddly and resumed his books.

VI

Gradually she formed a plan of action. It was Wednesday, and
Wednesday was Doctor Challis’s day for giving consultations. She was a great
favourite of his, and he, moreover, was the sort of doctor to whom you could
go and complain very vaguely of being just “not quite up to the mark,”
whereupon he would be immediately sympathetic, and would dismiss you with a
pontifical blessing and a battle of iron and quinine. And at a hint about his
young assistant’s plans for the future he would most probably tell the
complete story.

Hence Stella’s visit that afternoon. Over an hour she sat in the gloomy
waiting-room of the surgery, endeavouring to extract a forlorn interest from
the two-year-old
Graphics
that lay in a tumbled and dog-eared heap on
the table. She had not reckoned on having to wait. Usually Doctor Challis was
avail able straightaway, but this afternoon the waiting-room was full when
she entered it; there were women with children and babies, and one or two
rather shabbily-dressed men, not at all the kind of clientêle that she had
expected Doctor Challis to possess.

She sat down on the edge of the table, since none of the chairs were
vacant. The room was fearfully depressing. It seemed to her that there was a
hostility to her in the room; that the people in it were all disliking her.
She knew that many of them were politically opposed to Philip; and she knew
also that during the election campaign a good deal of play had been made out
of the fact that she was a “foreigner.” She dangled her legs nonchalantly,
not caring about the dour looks that she received. These people seemed to
think that a surgery waiting-room was like a church—a sacred edifice.
After she had waited half an hour she wished fervently that she hadn’t come.
But she thought that, having waited so long, she might as well stay on.

At last it came her turn, and the trimly-dressed maid conducted her along
devious corridors of the doctor’s old house, and finally to the glass door of
what looked like a conservatory. The door was opened for her and she stepped
inside.

The man facing her was not Doctor Challis, but Ward himself.

VII

“Good afternoon,” he began, in the abrupt voice that was so
wildly different from Doctor Challis’s suave mellifluous tones.

His grey eyes narrowed till he seemed almost to be closing them tightly.
She noticed little insignificant things about him—that he wore a brown
suit (not the one that had been drenched the day before), that he had had his
hair cut shorter than ever, and that his teeth as he showed them momentarily
were white as chalk.

“I—I thought it was Doctor Challis’s day,” she said, hardly
conquering her surprise.

“Doctor Challis has given up seeing patients. Have you any objection to
seeing me instead?”

“Oh no, not at all.”

“Very well, please sit down, and tell me what is the matter.”

She took the chair nearest her, and he sat down in a swivel office chair
behind a pedestal desk and fingered a pencil.

“I’m not feeling very—great just at present,” she began,
hesitatingly.

He answered briskly: “I should think not. You oughtn’t to expect to feel
great the day after you’ve been half drowned.”

The opportunity came. She lurched forward to take it “By the way, I ought
to tell you—I’m I’m sorry for the way I behaved yesterday. It was
very—ungrateful of me—to—to—”

He held up his hand imperiously. “No, no, you mustn’t do that. I’m not
here to receive apologies. So far as I’m concerned, none are needed…I’m
here to attend to your physical ailments. Tell me exactly what they are.”

She was floundering. She said the first thing that came into her head. “I
get—palpitation. Here.” She touched her heart. Some sudden perception
of comedy assailed her for the moment, so that she was hard put to it to
prevent herself from bursting into peals of laughter.

“Probably due to your adventure yesterday. Or else indigestion…I’ll
sound your heart if you like.”

He reached out his hand and was on the point of pressing the bell-knob to
summon the nurse. Panic seized her. “No—it—it doesn’t matter. I’m
sure my heart’s all right.”

“In the right place, for instance?”

She stared at him and saw the narrow slits of his eyes screwed round into
the tiniest of wrinkles. He was laughing at her. That drove away her panic
and made her righteously indignant. What right had a doctor to poke fun at
his patients?

“I’ll write you out a prescription,” he went on, opening a note-book. “It
is what we call ‘the usual.’ It is for people who suffer from the distressing
complaint of having nothing at all the matter with them. Quite an epidemic of
it in Chassingford since I came.”

“Then perhaps it’s a good thing you’re going. You
are
going, aren’t
you?”

BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
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ads

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