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Authors: James Hilton

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That afternoon they motored about the town and district. Stella took the
wheel, and he watched her, brown-faced and eager-eyed, as she picked her way
cautiously round corners and drove swiftly along the straight vistas of
Fenland road. There was some thing vital and passionate in even the least
thing she did, the least movement of her head and hand—the clasp of her
fingers on the rim of the steering-wheel, the quivering blade-like glance she
gave at every cross-roads, and, above all, the slight smile that played about
her lips as she thrilled to the sensation of speed. They drove through
Girton, Impington, and Milton, to old Chesterton village, where the road
creeps along by the riverside and broadens in front of The Pike and Eel inn.
Here they meditated tea, and as they were climbing out of the car two
“Rob-Roy” skiffs came flashing down the stream with the men in them paddling
at top speed.

“Look—look!” cried Stella, in ecstasy. She was like a child when she
saw swiftly moving things.

Her eyes kindled as she watched the approaching figures, and Philip smiled
calmly, seeing nothing extraordinary in the spectacle. Then as the two men
came nearer he exclaimed: “Why, one of them’s Ward—a fellow I’ve asked
in for to-morrow. Awfully nice chap—I’m sure you’ll like him He’s
turning now—perhaps he’ll see us.”

As the skiffs curved back Philip shouted, and one of the men looked up,
smiled shyly, and drew in at the bank. Then, as he clambered out (a somewhat
risky business where the bank was steep) a not un usual accident occurred. A
tuft of grass by which he was hauling himself on to the bank gave way, and
with a mighty splash and a not too polite ejaculation he fell backwards into
the water.

Philip turned very pale and looked first this way and then that, as if
uncertain whether to attempt a rescue himself or to summon aid from the inn
near by. “It’s dangerous—” he cried excitedly. “The current is swift
and there are reeds.”

Stella, meanwhile, was roaring with laughter. It was the sort of thing
that always amused her in kinema pictures. She was helpless with
merriment.

Before she had finished laughing and before Philip had decided what, if
anything, he should do, the victim had swum to an easy landing-place and was
climbing to land. Voices from within the Pike and Eel gave an uproarious and
ironical cheer.

The victim advanced towards Philip, shaking himself and smiling. “That’s
saved me a bath when I get home,” he said. His smile was winsome and rather
shy, and he laughingly declined to shake hands with them because he was both
wet and muddy.

“It was very—very funny,” said Stella, looking at him.

He laughed again, a laugh that was rather like the bark of a happy dog.
“Here’s my friend coming along. He’s got a motor-bike. I’d better get home
and change, I think.”

“Then we shall see you again to-morrow?” said Mrs. Monsell.

“I shall be very pleased to come.”

He smiled apologetically and then, bidding them good-bye, went off to join
his friend.

Over tea in the Pike and Eel he was discussed: “Did you notice, Stella,”
said Mrs. Monsell, “how shy he was?—Really, to be embarrassed so
charmingly is almost an accomplishment. It puts you at your ease.”

Stella said: “He’s like a Hungarian. He’s big and he swims and he—he
laughs at danger. I told you I’d tell you when I met an Englishman like a
Hungarian. Well, he is.”

Philip smiled. “You seem to have summed him up very quickly.”

“Yes, I always do. And I know he’s like a Hungarian. But I
don’t
know whether I like him or not.”

VI

The lunch-party was neither a success nor a failure, but a
phenomenon. Mrs. Monsell, discussing the matter afterwards, declared that she
had never been so completely bored in her life. The men whom Philip had
invited were clever and interesting, but somehow they mixed badly. Ward,
especially, was rather grimly silent, though he became charming as soon as
the demand for coffee gave him a chance to be up and doing something.

Philip, leaning back in his chair, looked from face to face and wondered
what was the matter. Was his mother over-aweing them? It did not seem
probable, for Stella, whom nobody could over-awe, was just as silent as the
others. Then what was it? There was certainly a queer something in the
atmosphere—a something, moreover, that had to do with Stella.

While they sat over their coffee Stella went to the piano and sang. She
seemed strangely nervous or else uninterested, and accompanied herself very
badly. After singing two verses of an old Danubian folk-tune that Philip knew
to possess many more than two, she stopped, swung round suddenly on the
stool, and exclaimed: “Sorry, but I don’t feel much like singing.. But I’ll
recite you a little Hungarian poem about springtime. You won’t understand the
words, but perhaps the sound of them will give you the sense.” She began to
recite very beautifully and softly, but she rather spoilt the effect by a
laugh and a shrug of the shoulders at the end.

VII

Philip had another year at Cambridge. It became his ambition
to console himself for a third-class degree by taking one of the big
University prizes. Work for this, in the form of a thesis, could be done at
leisure, and without the nerve-racking tension of the examination-room. He
entered for the Albert Historical Prize, and was asked to submit the subject
on which he proposed to write a thesis. He chose “The Political Aspects of
the Industrial Revolution.” After a year of careful work he sent in his
thesis and waited eagerly for the result.

It came, and he learned that he had got an “honourable mention.” “Your
work was very sound and painstaking,” he was told privately, “but several of
the examiners found it a little tedious. It would have been a good thing if
you had compelled yourself to compress it to two-thirds of its length. The
winning thesis was very short—and also very brilliant.”

Stella, of course, understood nothing of all this. Neither degrees nor
University Prizes meant anything to her. And in a way, this was a
slight—a very slight consolation.

CHAPTER IV
I

At one of his mother’s dinner-parties Philip met a certain
Sir Charles Maddison, M.P., and this gentle man listened to him with a
patience and sympathy unusual in Mrs. Monsell’s guests, most of whom were
bent on exploding their own carefully prepared bombs of brilliance.

Sir Charles, however, had a special reason for taking notice of Philip. He
was chairman of the Northern Political Association, and as such was
responsible for providing party candidates for some of the less promising
industrial constituencies between the Irwell and the Tyne. When he heard that
Philip hankered after a political career, and above all, when he learned that
Philip was prepared to put up a thousand pounds at the service of any local
association that chose him as their candidate, he immediately asked him if he
would care to become Member of Parliament for Loamport.

True there were difficulties, chief among which was a hostile majority of
some eleven thousand votes. “But you have youth,” said Sir Charles,
optimistically, “and Loamport folks like young ‘uns. There’s no knowing what
you might do if you had a try.”

Philip, torn betwixt the fires of his ambition and his doubts as to his
own capabilities, promised that he would give the matter his earnest
consideration.

II

Philip had never been to Loamport until the day on which he
delivered his first speech there. Sir Charles Maddison, the local magnate of
those parts had asked him, his mother, and Stella to Loamport Hall for the
week-end, and on the Saturday night of their arrival there was to be a
“monster” political rally at which Sir Charles had arranged for Philip to
speak. It was to be his “début,” as Sir Charles optimistically put it, before
his future constituents. And, since Loamport politics were apt to be
turbulent, the sooner he got into the swing of them the better.

The huge industrial city, grim enough at any time, was especially grim
upon the first Saturday in December. The train brought them in four hours
from Euston, and as they stepped out on to the platform Sir Charles’s
chauffeur was waiting to drive them through the darkening streets to the
Hall. Even the country-side when they reached it was dour and unbeautiful,
with gaunt chimney-stacks and mining-gear disfiguring the landscape and blur
ring the horizon with smoke. Loamport Hall was a house in sympathy with its
surroundings—gloomy and forbidding, with vast empty gardens and
smoke-stained conservatories.

“If you get in Parliament for Loamport will you have to live there?” asked
Stella, as they drove up to the porch.

Philip laughed. “Don’t you trouble about that. I’ve got to get elected
first, and I don’t think I’ve a dog’s chance. Loamport’s one of the hardest
constituencies in England.”

“Then why bother with it? Why not try an easy one?—Chassingford
would be rather nice, and everybody would vote for you there.”

“Very possibly. But you see, Colonel Dumbleby mightn’t like being turned
out to make room for me. Otherwise, it’s a splendid idea.”

She made a grimace and then, deliberately imitating her famous remark of
years before, added: “It is a joke, eh?—Ah, well, Philip, it seems to
me you’ve been given Loamport because nobody else will have it.”

“Exactly. In politics they have the curious habit of giving you the most
difficult job right at the beginning.”

The meeting was to be held in the Town Hall at eight o’clock, with Sir
Charles Maddison in the chair. Other speakers were to be neighbouring M.P.‘s,
but whereas they were restricted to a time-limit, Sir Charles gave Philip to
understand that he could go on as long as he liked. “And I’ve no doubt that
if you manage pretty well our Association will be pleased to have you. I’ve
given them excellent reports of you, so they’re anticipating something
good.”

Philip said quietly: “You oughtn’t to have told me that. If will make me
nervous.”

Sir Charles laughed. “Oh, you needn’t be afraid. A Loamport audience may
be a bit rough, but they’re decent fellows—even the other side. Once
when a heckler kept worrying me I ran down off the platform to him, hauled
him up by the scruff of the neck, and made him address the meeting himself.
I’ve always had decent hearings since then…Good old Loamport—they
keep on voting the wrong man in, but still, I don’t care what you
say—there’s not a fairer, decenter set of people in all England.”

He spoke of them affectionately, as an indulgent father might speak of his
children.

“Anyhow, Sir Charles,” remarked Mrs. Monsell, decisively. “Nothing will
induce me to go to the meeting. I hate politics. I shall stay here and play
billiards with your butler, if he’ll give me a game…”

III

The Town Hall was the only building in Loamport that had any
pretensions to art. It had been built about the middle of the nineteenth
century, in a style which its architect had imagined to be Gothic and at
various times since then a succession of borough surveyors had added a
doorway here, an extension there, and so on. If the result was a trifle
chaotic, at least the chaos had been given a certain purposeful grimness by
half a century of Loamport smoke, which had mercifully obliterated the
features of the female Justice, with scales complete, who balanced herself
acrobatically in a niche above the main entrance. Further along the side of
the building were the twin-sisters Science and Art, with their corners
encrusted with dirt and only their breasts washed streaky by fifty years of
Loamport rain.

The interior was, if that were possible, less pre possessing than the
exterior. Round the painted walls of the public hall were ranged huge
gilt-framed full-length portraits of all the mayors that Loamport had ever
had—a fearsome and almost terrible array, resplendent in robes of
office and complete with the usual scroll. Through windows in the roof a
pungent, sinister-looking fog floated in and downwards; it hung over the
mayoral portraits like a dim, im palpable shroud; it swayed in languid
melancholy in front of the blazing, hissing arc-lights that hung from the
roof; it even descended on to the platform and heaped itself against a
three-manual organ of incredible and devastating ugliness. This organ, on
which anything besides “God Save the King” was very rarely played, was
painted like a roundabout, and had immense pipes—chiefly dummy
ones—on each of which was inscribed in ornate letters the name of some
composer—Gounod, Beethoven, etc.

The scene, however, was quite animated at five minutes past eight on the
evening of the political rally. The notables had just seated themselves at
the green-baize trestle-tables on the platform, and Philip was among them,
looking rather pale under the dazzling incandescent roof-lights. Floor and
gallery were packed, and the space at the back of the hall was crowded with
men and women standing three and four deep. Sir Charles was obviously
pleased. “A much bigger audience than I had ever expected,” he whispered with
enthusiasm, leaning across to Philip. Philip smiled wanly.

Stella was in one of the shilling reserved seats in the front of the hall.
He followed along the rows with his eyes until he saw her, and saw that she
was watching him. She smiled, and he smiled back very faintly, not knowing
quite whether he ought to or not. Curiously, perhaps, he could not take his
eyes off her for long, now that he knew where she was. He kept looking at the
red-robed mayors on the walls, at a certain shabby-looking wild-eyed man who
leaned forward in the gallery with his head resting on his hands, at the
stewards forming a phalanx at the doors, and then, inevitably, his eyes would
be on Stella again, and he would see her smiling…Sir Charles rose. What a
fat, bloated little man he looked when he stood up and you looked at him
sideways! But he was evidently popular. The huge audience cheered for moments
on end, and then only desisted when, with smiling face, he held up his hand
in protest. But when the sound died down, another could be heard, faint yet
sinister, the sound of hissing. Philip looked around trying to locate it. It
seemed to come at once from everywhere and from nowhere, from the shilling
rows in front (this was unlikely), from the crowd at the back of the hall,
from the side-galleries, even (most unlikely of all) from the little group of
dazzlingly rosetted stewards by the doorways. And at last when he looked at
Stella he could almost imagine that she too had set her teeth together to
produce that sibilant, menacing murmur.

BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
10.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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