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Authors: James Hilton

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BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
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She must have dozed from time to time, for the chiming of the quarters
seemed to follow closely upon each other, awakening her with a spasm of pain
and recollection. Eight o’clock came, and then half-past, and then a quarter
to nine…

Once she went to the window and dared to pull aside the blind. The theatre
was still ablaze…

Then she went back to her chair and fell half-asleep again—a sleep
full of fears and spectres and strange torturing phantoms. She dreamed that
she saw the blue blaze coming nearer to her, that at last its walls opened
and admitted her inside it, that she lay stretched out on the table beneath
the grim pitiless light. And Ward was above her, dissecting not her body, but
her soul.

A sharp sound awakened her. To her self-conscious senses it was like the
roar of doom. The door opened, not silently this time, but with such force as
a tornado might have made.

III

The first thing she noticed was the extraordinary size of
him. The small room made him seem monstrous, and his surgeon’s overalls, once
spotlessly white, but now stained and crumpled, added even a touch of the
sinister.

He came into the room with bent shoulders and huge sombre strides, his
long arms hanging down like those of a gorilla. His face was smeared and
streaked with perspiration, and even his close-cropped hair looked
dishevelled. But it was his eyes that she noticed most of all. There was a
terrible tragic tiredness in them, a strained sullen glare that never once
left the ground as he entered. He did not see her, did not seem to see
anything. But he banged the door ferociously, took off his soiled overalls,
and strode over to the wash-basin.

“I’ve come,” she said.

It was only then that he looked up and saw her.

“Good God!” he exclaimed under his breath.

He had already turned on the hot water in the basin and was holding his
hands under the tap. He withdrew them now, dripping and steaming, and gazed
at her in wild astonishment.

“What have you come for?”

His voice was almost brutal in its directness. She did not flinch under
it, but spoke out bravely as if it were the sort of treatment she had
expected. “I came here because I couldn’t bear to be anywhere else.”

“What d’you mean?

“Exactly what I have said.”

“Come here.”

She approached him with a simplicity that suggested both meekness and
defiance. She reached barely up to the level of his stooping shoulders, but
there was no flinching of the serene stare that her eyes bestowed.

“‘Why couldn’t—couldn’t you bear to—to be anywhere else?”

“Because you can help me and nobody else can.”

“Nobody?”

“No.”

He seized a towel and wiped his still dripping hands. “That’s queer…I
mean—it sounds a queer thing to say…” He crumpled the towel into a
heap and flung it to the farthest corner of the room. “Now then—”

“What are you going to do?” she asked quietly. “Kill me?”

“Kill you? And why should I do that?”

“I don’t know. But you told me once that you were afraid of getting drunk
in case you killed somebody. And you look drunk now.”

“Do I? Well, you needn’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. But I’m going
to—I want to—Come here—don’t go away.”

“I haven’t moved yet.”

“Why not? Aren’t you afraid?”

“No. I’m interested.”

“Interested? In what?”

“In what you’re going to do.”

“What d’you think I’m going to do?”

“I don’t know.” And with her voice still calm, though her eyes were all
but overflowing with tears, she added: “And I don’t care either.”

He suddenly put his two hands on her shoulders. “You poor little wild,
foreign thing! What does all this seem to you—all this?” He waved one
hand vaguely about him. “What does it seem like—Bethnal Green after
Chassingford—poverty after plenty—hardness after luxury? Don’t
you feel strange?”

“No stranger than I feel anywhere else in England.”

“No?”

“I’ve told you the truth. Are we to have an argument? If so, I’d like to
sit down. I’m tired.”

His eyes lit with a sudden vivid brightness. “No, you can’t sit down. Not
yet…See?…Kiss me…Go on. Kiss me…Do you mind?”

His voice was a strange incongruous mingling of the embarrassed and the
peremptory. But the light in his eyes was blazing more fiercely than
ever.

“I don’t mind anything.”

He seized her in both his strong ape-like arms and nearly crushed the life
out of her. Her body winced with the sudden sharp pain of it, but her eyes
were still unflinching. She offered her lips simply and calmly, without
either eagerness or reluctance. Only when his mouth pressed down upon hers
did she give way, and then because the power of his body was beginning to
overwhelm her. She felt a sudden slackening of resistance in her knees; she
knew then that he was holding her from falling.

But it was only in his body that there was fierceness. At the moment that
his lips touched hers the light in his eyes changed to one of almost
frightened calm. “Oh, you beauty—you beauty!” he whispered, and his
voice was like a shy boy’s. “You wild little thing—why shouldn’t I love
you—why shouldn’t I?”

He stayed on her lips for seconds—minutes, it seemed—and then,
very slowly, he pushed her away from him.

He was silent. She sat down in a chair with her eyes still fixed on him.
He walked to the wash-basin and turned off the tap, which had been running
all the time. “I’m sorry,” he said, gruffly. Then, with an odd little
gesture, he straightened his hair, rolled up his sleeves, and began to
wash..

She could not see his face, but every now and then she caught the
reflection of it in a small mirror on the wall above the basin. There was
nothing that she could interpret.

He suddenly swung round. “I’m sorry…I can’t say more, can I?”

She did not answer immediately, simply because she could not think of
anything to say. But her silence seemed to make him furiously angry.

“If you
will
come and see me on an evening like this…” he went on
roughly, seizing a clean towel from a cupboard and banging the door.

“After all, if
you’d
been paddling about inside a cancerous stomach
for two hours and a half, you’d feel the lure of something
strong—and—and pure—and—and clean—”

“You overlook one thing,” she said quietly.

“Well?”

She answered, still with her eyes fixed on his: “That I’m not
complaining…And now since we’ve settled that, may I tell you what I came to
tell you?”

He did not answer, but she went on without waiting: “I’m going to leave
Philip…That’s what I came to tell you.”

IV

He seemed stupefied. He sat down heavily in a chair and
closed his eyes. It was only then that she lost all her fear of him, for she
saw the marks of the strain he had endured, and she was sorry. A quiet,
infinite motherliness crept into her feeling for him, but it was a different
motherliness from the kind she had felt for Philip. There was no pity in it,
but the deeper stauncher comradeship of strength.

He opened his eyes and set his lips in a grim purposeful severity. “Now,
tell me,” he said, without preamble. “What’s all this about leaving
Philip?”

The second storm was threatening.

“I am going to leave him.”

“Why?”

“Because to stay with him would drive me mad.”

“No?” He seemed vaguely protestant. Then, after a pause, he went on:
“Please tell me exactly what you mean.”

“I mean just what I say. I’m miserable. And if I stay at Chassingford with
Philip I shall go mad.”

“But—but why?”

His persistent question seemed to irritate her. “Isn’t that plain enough?
Don’t you believe me? Or do you think I’m mad already?”

He leaned forward and spoke to her very earnestly. “I want you to be very
calm and tell me just what is the matter,” he said.

She lowered her voice to a whisper.

“Yes, I’ll tell you. But first of all, let me tell you this. He’s been
watching us—you and me. He’s been watching us for weeks and months.
Ever since he was ill, and you came to the flat at Kensington. Ever since you
came home from the expedition. Ever since that election when we were both
working for him. Maybe, for all I know, ever since that afternoon we first
met by the riverside at Cambridge. He’s been watching us every minute of the
time. And he says queer things to me when we’re alone, because he wants me to
give myself away. He-frightens me by following me about the house
and—and hiding and—and doing strange things. And he tells me,
with his eyes as well as with curious half-meaning words, that he
knows—he knows—”


Knows
?” The storm had broken. “
Knows
, you say?
What
does he know? What
is
there to know? What have we done? What are we
guilty of?”

She answered with level melancholy: “
He
knows, if
we
don’t.
He knows far more than we give him credit for. He’s clever. He’s got the sort
of cleverness that nobody realizes. Nobody except me. And that’s because I
feel
.”

His voice was quieter now. “I don’t understand you. I don’t understand you
at all. But go on explaining.”

“Oh, yes.” She assented as if he had reminded her of something she had
forgotten. “I’ll go on explaining, even if you go on disbelieving. I must
tell you about my kitten. You remember that, don’t you?”

Suddenly she broke into sobs. “He
did
have it drowned,” she cried
fiercely. “He hated it—and so he had it killed. I met one of the men
yesterday in Chassingford. He told me that Philip had made it worth his
while…Philip…”

“Let’s get to details,” His voice was hard and metallic. “You say you met
this man—the man who had been a gardener at your place and whom Philip
dismissed?”

“Yes.”

“What do you mean by saying that Philip made it worth his while?”

“He gave him money to say nothing after he had been dismissed. It was an
unjust dismissal, and probably he could have made trouble about it.”

“Why did he tell you this?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps he wanted to help me. Perhaps Philip hadn’t given
him enough money. Perhaps—oh, perhaps anything.”

“And your theory is that Philip gave orders that the kitten should be
drowned? Why do you suppose he didn’t drown it himself? Surely that would
have been far easier.”

“Drown it himself? he’d have fainted! Why, he couldn’t kill a fly even! He
used to go out of the room while Venner went in to do it.”

“I see. And you think his motive was spite—just spite?”

“Jealousy,” she interrupted. “He hated my little kitten because he knew
how I loved it, just as now he hates you because he knows—”

She stopped, scared suddenly by his appearance. For a spasm of pain passed
over his face, and he almost closed his eyes for a moment. When he spoke it
was with both voice and words carefully under control. “You—you must
not talk like that,” he said, biting his lips. “I’m afraid it is partly my
own fault…I—I most sincerely regret what—what took place a
little while since…No, no, you must never talk like that.” He seemed in the
end almost soliloquising. “Besides—” He recollected himself. “Besides,
it’s absurd to say that Philip hates me. He and I are old
friends—‘varsity friends—”

“And therefore you must always stick up for him, eh? Very well, I
understand. You don’t believe me; you believe him. Even still? Never
mind…I’ll go now. I’ve said all I can say. I’ll go. But not back to
him
.”

That seemed to electrify him.

“No? What d’you mean? You’re not going back to Chassingford?”

“No.”

“Where are you going?”

“That’s my business.”

“And mine.”

“Very well, I don’t mind. Let’s discuss it. Where do you suggest that I
should go?”

He began to pace up and down the small room. She smiled slightly as she
watched him, although in her heart there was a gradually increasing pain. The
clock outside chimed the half-hour.

At last he said very quietly: “I’ll tell you where you will go. You will
go back to Chassingford. No—don’t interrupt. I’ll tell you why. When
does the bye-election take place?”

“Next Wednesday.”

“Good. Then you will not have long to wait. You must stay at Chassingford
with Philip until next Wednesday. It’s only fair. Think what the effect would
be if it got about that the candidate’s wife had left him? No, you must not
leave him until then.”

“And then?” she said. “What then?”

“Well, what do you suggest?”

“I shall leave him, I suppose.”

“I suppose so. Have you any money of your own?”

“Not a penny. But I’m prepared to earn some.”

“Yes…yes…” He sprawled himself out in a chair and stared vaguely at
the ceiling. “These affairs are apt to have rather troublesome details. It
seems a pity that you and Philip can’t—”

“Can’t kiss and be friends, eh?” she interrupted witheringly. “As if this
were just a delightful little lovers’ quarrel? The fact is, you don’t believe
me
. Be honest and admit it.”

He replied slowly: “I
will
be honest. I’ll tell you quite frankly
that I find all that you have said damnably hard to believe. Mind you, I
don’t
dis
-believe it. Oh, hang it all—I’m
fogged—absolutely—I don’t know what to believe. I’ve thought and
thought about it—”

“Ah, that’s where you go wrong. I don’t
think—I feel
!”

He stopped suddenly and relapsed into silence. At last he rose, stretched
himself, and walked to the window. “Well,” he said, heavily, “carry on as
best you can until next Wednesday. That’s my advice, and you’ll admit there’s
some sense in it. And now I’ll ‘phone for a cab and you’ll be able to reach
Liverpool Street in time for the 10.12…You can”—he paused and cleared
his throat as if the words were difficult to say—“you can always count
on me to help you…always.” He went over to the window and pulled the blind
slightly aside. “Ha, it’s raining…Now then, before we say good-bye
for—for perhaps a short while, is there—is there anything you’d
like to ask me?”

BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
6.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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