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Authors: James Hilton

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Monsell went down the stairway into the steerage quarters, for the scene
there was always interesting after a halt. Brightly-dressed peasants who had
just come aboard were hurrying about with their bundles, finding places where
they could curl up and sleep, and chattering shrilly all the while. A group
of tall dark-skinned youths were singing a sleepy ballad to the music of a
mandolin, and the remorseless chug-chug of the engines beat out a calm
monotonous rhythm as the boat crawled slowly against the stream. The sun was
rising high in the sky, and it was already very hot. The whole mingling of
colour and sound fascinated Monsell, and he passed intricately amongst the
crowd, smiling apologetically when once or twice he collided with somebody.
The extreme forepart of the boat was cooler, with the breeze blowing through
it, but it stank abominably with the various crates of perishables that had
been loaded up during the journey. And it was there, almost hidden behind a
huge packing-case, that he saw a girl sitting disconsolately on a heap of
rope.

Her feet and legs were bare, and she was leaning forward with her chin
resting on her hands, so that her face was shaded. There was something so
instinctively despairing in her attitude that Monsell stopped, too acutely
embarrassed to go any nearer. For almost a minute he stood watching,
expecting her to move, but she did not. The half-sad, half-passionate lilt of
the ballad-singers kept coming to him faint and then full on the changing
breeze…

“M’sieur…”

He started at the interruption. One of the stewards had come up just
behind him—a fat greasy fellow whose smattering of half a dozen
languages made him one of the most important officials on board. He smiled at
Monsell with a magnificent array of gold-filled teeth.

“M’sieur regard the—the girl,
hein
?…Gestern—yaisterday she—” he made a gesture with
his arms over the rail of the boat. “
Comprenez
?”

“I understand,” replied Monsell coldly.

The girl looked up, hearing the sound of voices. Monsell could see that
she was hardly more than a child, but a child of astonishing beauty. And she
was angry, with pouting rosebud lips and dark violet eyes stained by weeping.
For a moment she stared back at the two men who were staring at her; then
without any warning, broke into a passionate torrent of words that seemed to
rise tempestuously up to the final syllable, which rang out like a
pistol-shot.

The steward said something in reply, and Monsell turned to him and spoke
rather curtly. “What did she say?” he asked.

The other’s greasy forehead puckered as he prepared himself for the effort
of translation. “She say,” he began cautiously, with his gold teeth gleaming
in the sunlight, “She say—she wish—to be dead…And she
say—also—she wish—that nobody—see her…”

Monsell turned away and looked hard at the rivet, glaring under the sun’s
fierce rays. “Tell her I’m sorry,” he answered uncomfortably, moving away
amongst the litter of the deck.

He heard the steward muttering something in that strange incomprehensible
language, and then, as he turned a corner, another sound was on him like a
flood. All the men and women in the steerage, excepting those asleep, were
joining in some wild and throbbing refrain to which the thrumming of the
mandolin added a final touch of weirdness.

 

“Teli van a Duna,
Tán még ki is szalad.
Szivemben is alig
Fér meg az indulat…”*

* From the
Reszket a bokor
(The Tembling Bush) by
Sándor Petöfi (01.01.1823-ca. July 1849).
   
High water in the Danube,
   Enough, perhaps, to breast the banks.
   So full also is my heart
   With feelings nigh to overflow.

 

V

Buda, crowning the rocky hill-side, with its towers and
minarets gleaming in the red-gold sunset; the Last City of the East. And
Pesth, hot, dusty and bustling, with its outdoor cafés and beer-gardens,
wharves and warehouses, the First City of the West. At the quayside, alive
with chattering and gesticulating porters, the steamer tilted steeply with
the press of people that fought and jostled to disembark as soon as the
gangways were lowered.

Mrs. Monsell and Philip still lingered in the saloon over a bottle of
golden Hungarian wine. It was her habit, born of long travelling experience,
always to wait till the last before leaving a boat. “For one thing, the
customs people get tired before they come to you. And then, also, if there’s
a boat-train and it’s full when you get to it, they put on a special carriage
for you if you complain loud enough Any way, it’s much pleasanter to wait
till the crush is over.” Almost for the first time since the beginning of the
journey she and Philip were alone together. The other passengers were busy
with their luggage elsewhere, and the saloon was empty save for them selves
and a steward clearing the tables.

“By the way, Philip, I sent our address to that unfortunate
girl—”

“You did?”

“Yes. Why not? I wrote it out on a visiting-card and told the steward to
take it to her.”

“Bet you she can’t read.”

“Even if she can’t, she can ask someone who can.”

“Oh, yes, I dare say…But what made you think of all this?”

“My dear Philip, my natural intelligence. I’m quite aware that you haven’t
a great deal yourself—”

“Oh, haven’t I? Anyhow, I don’t need it, with a mother who can decide
everything, arrange every thing, talk five languages, read foreign railway
time tables, give first-aid to the drowning—”

“Rubbish,” she interrupted him. “I didn’t give first-aid. There was no
need to. The girl wasn’t anywhere near drowning. She was just sick with
misery because she hadn’t had pluck enough to drown herself.”

“But why on earth should she want to drown herself?”

“Goodness knows…She seemed cheerful enough after I’d been with her about
ten minutes. She had no money—only the steamer ticket. The few crowns I
gave her won’t last long in Buda. That’s why I sent her the address of our
hotel, so that if she finds herself in difficulties she can…”

The steward approached. “Pardon, madame, but de ozzers are all
gone…”

“Come on then, Philip,” said Mrs. Monsell. She gave the steward his
expected
trinkgeld
, adding: “Did you deliver my message?”

“Yes, madame.”

“What did she say?”

“She say zank-you,’ madame.”

“Nothing else?”

“Nothing else, madame.”

VI

That was how Philip Monsell and his mother came to Buda-
Pesth upon a golden August evening. They took a cab from the quayside to
their hotel in the Andrassy-Ut, where Mrs. Monsell promptly examined the
visitors’ book to see if they were to have interest ing fellow-guests. A
German baron and an Italian from Perugia looked the most promising, though
Mrs. Monsell was clearly doubtful about them. “I guess if it isn’t
interesting enough here we can go some where else,” she remarked. Interest
for her was almost entirely a matter of interesting conversation.

Philip was different. Slower, less communicative, and inclined to be
easily embarrassed, he was always a trifle bored at his mother’s
dinner-parties. He was interested in people, not merely in interesting
people, and Buda-Pesth, with its curious meeting of East and West, was quick
to exert a fascination over him. While his mother spent the mornings
conversing animatedly in the hotel-lounge, he went out into the streets and
by-ways, braving the smells and the dust-storms and the fierce heat of the
sun. And sometimes he took the funicular up to Buda and sipped iced beer in
the cafes on the hill. He enjoyed travelling, and his mother’s annual
pilgrimages on which he had accompanied her since his early years, had given
him a fairly extensive knowledge of the world. Last year it had been Asia
Minor and Egypt; this year Roumania and the Danubian provinces.

He was twenty years old, rather tall, quite good-looking, with blue eyes
and brown hair and small, delicate features. An adolescent heart had taught
him to be cautious in his movements; his speech, too, was somewhat slow and
precise, but his brain was sound enough, though perhaps a shade too coldly
intellectual. Already, in his freshman’s year at Cambridge he had done
moderately well, and most likely he would enter the diplomatic service on
leaving the University. “For there,” as his mother observed cynically, “your
ignorance of life will be a positive asset to you.”

During the lazy, drowsy hours of the afternoon, when all good Pesthians
were asleep, he used to climb the pathway up the hill of Buda, on whose
summit the cool Danubian breeze played softly beneath the glare of the sun.
And it was there that, on the third day after his arrival, he met the
Hungarian girl again.

VII

He was resting in the shadow of a rock, and she came
suddenly round the corner of it and stood before him. A bright-coloured scarf
bound back her hair and straggled over her shoulders; she was stockingless
but wore a pair of exceedingly shabby sandals that were too large for her.
And she held out her hand and displayed his mother’s visiting-card, crumpled
and limp with perspiration.

He rose, startled, and smiled at her. She smiled back. He really did not
know what on earth to do. Finally he took the proffered visiting-card and
read on it, in his mother’s pencilled handwriting smudged almost into
illegibility: “Hotel Europeen, Andrassy Ut.” And here he showed what Mrs.
Monsell would have termed a lamentable deficiency in common sense. He pointed
down in the valley in the rather vague direction of the city and the
hotel.

Still smiting at him, the girl nodded, yet seemed unsatisfied. He asked
her in German if anything was the matter, but she did not understand. Then
she came nearer, touched first him and then herself, and pointed downwards
over the city. At last he divined a possible meaning—that she wanted
him to take her back with him to the hotel. When he nodded and made signs
that they should descend the steep, rocky path together, she smiled eagerly.
That seemed to confirm the supposition.

They began the scramble down over the sharp stones, and at the foot of the
hill, by the greatest of good fortune, an open droschky was plying for hire.
The driver stared curiously as Monsell helped the girl inside and gave his
directions. A smartly-dressed foreigner with a Hungarian girl, tattered and
shabby, but diabolically pretty—it was something to be curious
about.

Driving over the suspension-bridge from Buda into Pesth, Monsell had time
and opportunity to observe the girl more closely than he had done before. She
was, undoubtedly, as beautiful as any girl he had ever seen; and hers,
moreover, was a vital, not a languid beauty. The sunlight, split by the
chains of the bridge, threw her small brown face into ever-changing light and
shadow; she shut her eyes, and opened them again as soon as the droschky
turned into a shady side-street. Then her foot seemed to be troubling her,
and she bent down to adjust the sandal.

She looked up and saw that Monsell was watching her. And he, again
embarrassed, smiled and pointed interrogatively to her foot, as if inquiring
whether it were hurt. The carriage swept into a wide and sunlit boulevard,
crowded with promenaders seeking the stuffy shade of the shop-awnings. And
the girl suddenly kicked off her sandal, and with a quick movement of her leg
showed Monsell a foot that was desperately torn and bleeding.

A queer thrill went over him. He hated physical pain, and the girl’s
nonchalant revelation of what must have been the acute torture of that
scramble up and down the hill, affected him with a strange mingling of pity
and indignation. Involuntarily he moved closer, not knowing how else to
indicate his instinctive sympathy.

But she laughed—a silvery cascade of laughter that echoed curiously
amongst the clatter of the boulevard. And, out of pure devilment, as it were,
she kicked off the other sandal and showed the second foot, as bad as, or
worse than, the first. Something in his shocked face evidently amused her.
And she shrugged her shoulders, still laughing at him.

VIII

An hour later Mrs. Monsell came down to the lounge. “I’ve
sent for a doctor and made arrangements with the hotel people,” she
announced. “I don’t think there’s much the matter, except her feet, which are
badly cut about. By the way, I’ve found out a bit of her history. Her name’s
Srolta and some other name that’s quite unpronounceable, so I think we shall
have to call her Stella. She’s been ill-treated by a brutal father, and he
wanted to marry her to somebody—she’s fifteen, by the way—and she
ran off rather than submit…That’s the kind she is…No nonsense about
her…”

“But, mother, how on earth did you find out all that? You don’t know any
Hungarian, do you?”

“Not a word of it. But I use my intelligence…I also found out why she
didn’t come here straight away. She was frightened of being turned off by the
hotel people, and when you went out she followed you till she could get a
chance of meeting you alone. Of course it was like you to drag her up to the
top of a mountain!”

“Do you mean to say that you understood all
that
too?”

“My dear Philip, as I said before, I used my intelligence. So did the
girl—she has plenty—and between us…Perhaps she will encourage
you to use yours when we get back to England.”

“England?”

“Yes, England. I have decided to take the girl back home with us.”

“But why?”

“Well, why not? Am I to understand that you have any objection?”

Philip stared vacantly in front of him, and did not answer for several
moments. Then at last he replied: “I have certainly no objection, but the
idea surprises me, I must admit. I suppose you have taken a fancy to
her?”

“Well?”

He glanced at her with a strange mingling of despair and admiration. She
was so capable, so managerial, and, unlike himself, so quick to make
decisions of all kinds.

BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
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