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Authors: James Hilton

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“I prefer the girl,” he said, “to the usual sort of souvenir we take home
with us. That awful Egyptian sarcophagus last year, for instance…Oh yes, I
much prefer the girl…”

Mrs. Monsell smiled.

CHAPTER II
I

The Monsells lived in the Essex market-town of Chassingford,
and had the reputation of being “peculiar.” Mr. Monsell, a high Foreign
Office official, had died when Philip was quite young, and his wife’s
managerial efficiency had made a fairish private income into a rather good
one. Philip had grown up amidst surroundings which only his mother’s
shrewdness had prevented from being luxurious.

The house was old without being historic, and he had learned everything
within its grey walls. His “everything” was rather extensive, for being too
weakly to play games or go to a boarding-school, he had begun the solemn
acquisition of learning at a very early age. Learning, however, did not
include wisdom. He lost as much as he gained by those lonely years, for he
grew nervous of strangers and fully upheld the Monsell tradition of being
“peculiar” Burly farmers who met him on market-day in the town found that he
could not look them straight in the face; there was something odd about
him—something that they scornfully associated with book-learning.

He was not very popular. Indeed, at one time he was definitely disgraced,
for he was publicly censured by a coroner. He had been walking along by the
river-bank, and had failed to rescue a child from drowning. He told the
coroner that he could not swim, and that he did all he could in running for
help, whereupon the latter had observed acidly that most men would have had a
try for it, whether they could swim or not. It was an unfair attack, and
Philip would have done better to ignore it. Instead of that, however, he
wrote a solemn letter to the local paper, explaining and protesting. Others
replied, and the whole ethical problem was remorselessly thrashed out, The
prevalent opinion was that Philip, though possibly justified, had not exactly
covered himself with glory.

People who knew him well liked him. He was courteous, extremely willing to
spend his time and energy in helping others, and a most reliable friend in
the smaller matters of friendship. In the larger ones he was prone to
embarrass by his partisanship. If, however, he made a promise, he kept to it.
So also if he made a mistake he kept to it—by defend ing himself, or
apologising unnecessarily, or in some way advertising the matter to those who
might never have heard about it.

Into this somewhat unusual family the advent of Stella was as a breath of
fresh air into a darkened room. Within a few months of Mrs. Monsell’s arrival
in England, rumour and exaggeration had done their utmost. People were saying
across dining-tables: “My dear, have you heard of Mrs. Monsell’s latest?
She’s kidnapped some girl from Roumania or Turkey or somewhere and brought
her to Chassingford—and a most fascinating little thing she is
too—the girl, I mean…”

Certainly Stella had caused something of a commotion during the journey
home. There had been customs and frontier difficulties, and her smiles had
helped to smooth them over. In every city they passed through men had stared
at her—in Innsbruck, Zurich, Basle, Paris, and now London…

II

Venner, for nearly half a century butler at Chassingford,
met Philip at the door of the library one bright October morning. “Miss
Stella has been up early to-day,” he said suggestively.

Philip looked puzzled. “Really?—Oh, well, it’s a nice morning for
early rising, eh?”

Venner stared severely at the ground. “I’m afraid, Mr. Philip, you will
find she has been meddling with a good many of your things. Not knowing
the—er language, sir, I did not know quite how to—to
interfere.”

“Oh, that’s all right, Venner…I’ll settle matters.”

He laughed, but really he was rather cross, and when he entered the
library and took a look round he was crosser still. For the library was his
own special preserve, his private and intimate sanctum, where all his books
and papers were arranged in neat and orderly fashion. Even his mother would
hardly have dared to upset any of those arrangements, much less to create the
appearance of utter confusion that now awaited him. To begin with, his desk
was heaped up with a miscellany of odd articles—an umbrella, a sporting
gun, a thermos flask, a bicycle pump, and what seemed to him the contents of
a dressing-table drawer from one of the bedrooms. A similar medley of
unclassifiable articles was heaped up round his chair and on the
settee…What on earth had she been doing? Was it a practical joke? If so, he
must somehow or other take steps to show her that such jokes were neither
appreciated nor allowed. If these were Hungarian manners, the sooner they
were eradicated the better.

At last she danced into the room, brimful of that triumphant vitality that
was somehow more fascinating than her beauty. Even amidst his clear
determination to rebuke her, he could not help noticing how the gloomy
book-lined library seemed to grow lighter and less funereal as she romped
into it. But he did not smile. He wanted her to see that he was angry.

She sat down quickly, laughing and looking about as if proud of her
handiwork. Then she held up the thing nearest her (a button-hook) and cried:
“Feelip, what—is—zees?”

Then it became clear to him. She had organised this medley in order to
learn new words. It had been his earliest way of teaching—holding up
something and telling her the name of it. Recently they had come to the
somewhat duller business of grammar, and this was no doubt her way of showing
preference for the earlier method of tuition. He was amused, but all the same
he must still show her that no reason could justify her taking such liberties
with his possessions.

“Stella!” he said severely, ignoring the button hook. He stood up so that
his tallness should have its full effect. How could he express
disapproval?

She stood before him quite demurely, looking perfectly unconscious that
she had done anything wrong. On the contrary, her long dark-lashed eyes
danced with suppressed glee, as if she imagined that his curious utterance of
her name was to be the prelude of something novel and exciting.

An idea struck him. Among the heap of articles on the settee was a short
hunting-crop. Supposing he…? Just in dumb-show, to indicate his
displeasure.

He waved his hands to indicate the disorder in the room, and frowned
heavily. Then he went over to the settee, took up the hunting-crop, and
brandished it threateningly.

It was the sort of stupid thing from which what ever cleverness he
possessed did not attempt to save him. A moment later he was bitterly
regretting it, as he regretted so many of his blunders. For he saw a sudden
change come over the girl, saw the joyousness leave her eyes and give place
to stark fear, saw her cringe back, forcing herself against the window and
holding up her hands in instinctive self-defence. It appalled him, and
appalled him so much that he did not even think to drop the weapon…

“Stella!” he cried, approaching her. “Stella—I didn’t mean
it—I was only—joking…” Then he remembered to drop the
hunting-crop. “Stella—my noor little girl—how could you, how
could you think I meant it?”

He did not realise the absurdity of speaking in English. And perhaps,
after all, it was not so very absurd, for the tone, if not the words,
conveyed a meaning. Gradually, at any rate, the fear left her eyes, though
the old joyousness did not immediately return. She looked
puzzled—relieved certainly, but still doubtful.

“Stella, I’m sorry.”

Suddenly her eyes darkened, and with a movement of lightning swiftness she
slipped aside her dress and showed him her bare shoulder—plump and
brown, but ridged with long dark weals.

“Stella!”

His face was quite white, twitching so much that he had to look away. The
spectacle or the revelation of cruelty always frightened him. It cast a spell
over him that was half-dreadful, half-fascinating. Some sensitive spot was
stirred by it and intoxicated.

Then she laughed—the sharp melodious laughter that he had heard once
before as he rode with her through the boulevards of Pesth.

“Stella, don’t—please—please—Stella—stop
it—” he cried hoarsely.

And she answered, holding up the button-hook which had all the time been
in her hand: “Fee-lip what—is—zees?”

The incident was closed.

III

But though it was closed it troubled and worried him, and
eventually he confided in his mother, telling her rather embarrassedly the
full details. When he had finished she smiled.

“What extraordinarily foolish things you do!” she exclaimed. “Really,
Philip, you have no tact at all. Didn’t I tell you at Buda that she had a
brute of a father and ran away from him? As for the marks on her shoulder,
you should have seen them when I examined her first.”

He nodded uncomfortably. “Do you think she will get over the
misunderstanding?

“My dear Philip, she will have forgotten the incident years before you do.
You don’t understand her.”

It was true. He could not forget the incident. Something lured him to it,
time after time; and once he tried to draw her to speak of those early
childhood days of cruelty and neglect.

To his intense surprise she replied: “Oh, I was—so—so
happee…I used to play all ze time…Ver nice…Happee ver nice…”
Evidently she had already forgotten.

IV

When he came home from Cambridge in December he found there
was no need for any more formal lessons. As the taxi curved along the drive
she came running out to him, shouting: “Hallo, Fee-lip Hallo!”

She was a child of amazing quickness and adaptability. Not only had she
learned in two months to chatter English coherently if not always
grammatically, but she had thoroughly acclimatised herself to the district in
which she lived and to the friends she met. She had, too, something of Mrs.
Monsell’s fond ness for company, as well as a passionate love of the
open-air.

Christmas, Stella’s first Christmas at Chassingford, was bitterly cold,
and the pond in the woods was frozen over. She clapped her hands in ecstasy
when Venner, reputed an expert on the subject, declared that skating was
possible. Philip was in the library as usual; he was working for some
University prize for which a good deal of research was necessary. She came
rushing in, making a draught that blew some of his papers off the desk on to
the floor. “Oh—Fee-lip—I’m sorry—I’ll pick them
up—Fee-lip, you come down to the pond to see me skate!—Oh, yes,
you
do
come, don’t you! I skate
beau
tiful…And I skate with
you, I do, eh?”

“I’m afraid I don’t skate at all, Stella,” he said, smiling ruefully at
his disturbed papers.

“Then I—I learn you, eh?”

“‘Teach,’ not ‘learn.’”

“‘Teach,’” she repeated dutifully.

He went on: “I’m afraid it wouldn’t be any good. Skating isn’t much in my
line.”

Her eyes flashed indignantly. “‘In your line,’ eh? What is
that?—What is ‘in your line’?”

“I mean I don’t do—I can’t do that sort of thing. It isn’t
my—” He paused, reflected, and finished up: “It wouldn’t suit me.”

She picked up a sheaf of his neatly typewritten notes. “This suit you
more—eh?” she exclaimed, with a touch of scorn in her voice.

He smiled. “I must work, Stella. I have a great deal to do. You don’t
understand.”

“Will you learn—teach me to understand?”

“Some time. Some evening when it’s raining and you’ve nothing to do, I’ll
tell you all about it.”

“If I come
this
evening?”

“Well, no, better not to-night. I’m rather too busy just now. Some night
soon—perhaps next week.”

“All right. And now I go—skate—
by myself
.”

One thing they discovered very quickly: she was intensely musical. She had
never had any instrument to play till she came to Chassingford, and by that
time she was almost too old to begin learning. But she taught herself to play
the piano just well enough to accompany herself when she sang; the
accompaniments were very simple, and always her own composition. Her voice
was a contralto, not at all powerful, but of fine quality, and on dark winter
afternoons when there was nothing to do, she used to sing scores of old
Hungarian tunes one after the other, solely for her own amusement. Neither
Philip nor his mother was especially musical, or thought these songs anything
more than queer and perhaps picturesque. But to Stella they were full of wild
passion or else of rocking melancholy, and sometimes she translated the words
into quaint English for the benefit of anybody who was interested. But the
tr

 

“Volt szeretom de mar nincsen
O volt az en draga kincsem…”

 

—she sang, and then stopped at the piano, puckered her
forehead, and went on: “That means ‘One day I loved, but now not any
more…My bride also—but now I have him not.’…Understand? But English
is not a language for a love-song.”

She played over the air softly and then added “You English have no
passion. Passion—is that right? At your concerts—I went to one
last week—everybody is bored. You are not full—as the Hungarians
are—of music—and love—and what is the word?” She paused,
and then said slowly and curiously: “Music—it means a nothing to
you…you do not think about love and death…oh, I cannot say it. But
this—this is what you English people are not full of.”

She played a wild rhythmic tune which, even with her inexpert handling,
conveyed something of its native restlessness.

Philip said sombrely “All Englishmen are not like me, Stella. Some are
more like—like what you played.”

“When I meet one I tell you so,” she answered, with lightning
rapidity.

V

Mrs. Monsell “ragged” her a good deal (as she ragged
everybody) but Stella did not mind, particularly as the witticisms were often
too subtle for her to understand. “Is it a choke?” she used to say,
interrogatively. And when somebody nodded, she would reply, tranquilly: “Ah,
yes, I thought it was a choke.”

BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
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