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Authors: James Hilton

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Sir Charles was speaking. He seemed to be holding the audience fairly
well. Sometimes there were cheers, mutterings of approval, isolated “hear
hear’s!” Once the wild-eyed man in the gallery opened his mouth and shouted
shatteringly “Liar.” Philip almost expected the roof to fall. But
no—Sir Charles did not seem to be in the least perturbed. “I wish my
friend in the gallery would not keep shouting out his name,” he said. Roars
of laughter…

What a stupid little joke, thought Philip. Did people really think it
funny?—What did the man in the gallery think?—What did
Stella—why, Stella was laughing also. Then he looked round and saw that
everybody on the platform was laughing. Perhaps he had better laugh
himself—it would look strange if he were the only one not to laugh. He
laughed—suddenly—but by that time everybody else had stopped
laughing, and now they looked at him. His laugh had sounded ridiculously like
a guffaw…Stella, too, was looking at him, but she was not laughing any
more; she was dreadfully serious.

The clock at the back of the hall crawled to the half-hour, and a muffled
chime boomed in the belfry somewhere above them. The mayors all stared at
him, one behind the other, like men in picture-posters that follow you with
their eyes wherever you go. One of them close to the platform looked almost
venomous; he had cold, fishy eyes, and must have been a very terrible mayor
indeed. “Sir Samuel Blatherwick, M.P., K.C.V.O., thrice Mayor of
Loamport.”…Thrice, indeed!

Suddenly Sir Charles sat down, and there was another deafening,
roof-raising burst of applause. And in the midst of it Sir Charles leaned
over and whispered loudly: “Now then, Philip, do your best and take your
time. They’re an easy lot to night…”

The cheering died away and he felt himself rising from his chair and
leaning his knuckles on the table. He felt a cold spot on his hand; he looked
down curiously: somebody, it seemed, had upset the ink-bottle, and the funny
little black liquid was spreading all over the cloth. Stupid of
somebody…The lady next to him moved backward, away from the threatening
tide…“Never mind,” somebody said close to him. “Don’t let it worry
you.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen…” he shouted, clear ing his throat. He shouted,
because he knew that in a large hall you must shout, even if you seem to be
deafening everybody.

The river of ink toppled over the edge and dripped on to the floor of the
platform. Somebody in the gallery tittered. He looked up, and saw the
wild-eyed man wilder-eyed than ever, crouching there with his chin sunk on
his hands like an animal meditating a spring. Then he looked at Stella; and
for the first time caught her when she was not look ing at him.

“Ladies and Gentlemen…It gives me very great pleasure to be here this
evening…visiting Loamport for the first time in my life…”

A voice, a woman’s shrill voice with its menacing northern accent,
screamed at him from somewhere: “Speak up, young man…”

Loud laughter.

The man in the gallery suddenly sat up with eyes blazing…

IV

As soon as Philip began to speak Stella thought with a sort
of calm horror: Oh, Philip, Philip, this will
never
do…Somehow,
right from his first words, she knew that he was going to fail. He was
nervous, and after upsetting the ink-bottle his nervousness seemed to
increase to panic. Then, also he simply had no idea how to talk to a Loamport
audience. He was not speaking to them; he was lecturing, coldly, unfeelingly,
as he might have done to a classroom of tired undergraduates. Oh, for some
fire in his voice, something, however untrue or ridiculous, that the audience
could cheer or laugh at!—She moved uneasily in her seat, every second
making her feel more uncomfortable. Others round about her were moving
similarly; she could feel a wave of uneasiness passing over the entire
audience, not due to anything Philip was saying, but to the mere way in which
he was saying it. He was—the metaphor occurred to her
spontaneously—he was stroking them the wrong way. And her inmost being
was crying out protestingly: Oh, Philip, why
are
you talking like
this?—If only
I
were talking, I, with all my ignorance, could do
far better! I would make them laugh, and then make them cry (if I could), and
then make them cheer the roof off…But you, you are so cold, so distant, so
austere…

He had started by a fierce shout of “Ladies and Gentlemen” that had led
the audience to expect something dramatic. Yet by the end of his opening
sentence his voice had sunk so low as to be scarcely audible. Then somebody
had called out to him to speak up, and after that he had pitched his voice at
a tone of level monotony from which he did not afterwards vary. It was
terrible…Sir Charles fidgeted on the platform, staring uneasily at his
hands; two or three people in the gallery walked out noisily; even the babies
scattered throughout the hall seemed curiously discomfited and began to cry.
Nevertheless, the prevailing mood was one of patience under difficulties;
Loamport was going to give the newcomer at least fair play. But after Philip
had been speaking for five minutes (quite grammatically and sensibly, but oh,
how irritatingly I) Stella’s unspoken prayer was merely that he should stop
as soon as he could and on whatever pretext he could find.

But he did not stop. On the contrary, his voice rose a semitone, like the
hum of a motor-engine when speed is accelerated. And at once, with such
suddenness and unanimity that it was almost as if a signal had been given for
them, interruptions began. Cries came simultaneously from the side-galleries,
from the back and body of the hall, even from a few rows not far behind
Stella. “Hey, mister, what part of the country do you come from?” a bass
voice called out from somewhere. “Y’ mother oughtn’t to let ye stop out so
late!” a shrill-voiced girl shouted down from the gallery, amidst the
piercing laughter of her companions. “Ye’ll never get in for Loamport,”
declared a man quite close to Stella, in a voice that was hardly unkind.

Philip at first took no notice, except perhaps to raise his voice a shade
of a tone higher in the scale. But at last a group in the gallery nearest him
gave a deafening and evidently preconcerted shout of “Sit down.” Then, as if
unable to ignore this final and most uncompromising provocation, he stopped.
He was very pale. He looked fixedly at the interrupters in the gallery. “I
d-don’t know if those gentlemen in, the g-gallery are speaking only for
themselves, or for a c-considerable section of the audience, but if the
l-latter is the case I sh-shall—”

A curious thrill came over Stella. Oh, for him to stand there proud and
defiant—to challenge them, as it were, to shout him down if they
could!—“But if the latter is the case I shall just go on talking,
whether you like it or not, till I have finished all I have to say. I’m not
going to be intimidated by a handful of hooligans. I’ve come here to make a
speech and I shall make it…” Would he talk like that!—The words rose
fiercely to her lips, and she had hard work to keep herself from speaking
them aloud. If only she were on the platform instead of him!

But the voice went on coldly: “I sh-shall then be obliged to b-bow to the
g-general will and b-bring my remarks to an end.”

A great sinking sensation enveloped her He was giving in: he was
surrendering to them ignominiously. A swelling hubbub arose all over the
hall; voices shouted to him to sit down, to continue, to take no notice of
interruptions, to go home…

Then all at once she saw him stagger back, deathly pale, and almost fall
into the arms of Sir Charles Maddison. He had fainted. They put him in a
chair and gave him some water. He seemed to revive. Two of them took him by
the arms and guided him slowly off the platform. All this in front of the
shouting, gesticulating audience…

Sir Charles rose and held up his hand. “I am sure,” he began, when the
tumult was partially stilled, “I am sure we are all very sorry…”

She must go to him. She could not stop away any longer. She got up,
squirmed her way out of the crowded hall, and went round to the side-door
leading to the platform.

V

“Oh, Philip,” she cried, rushing forward to him. “Are you
better?”

He was sitting in an arm-chair in the mayoral anteroom, and two men were
there with him. One was standing in front of the fire with his hands in his
pockets, and the other was mixing and consuming brandies and sodas. Stella’s
sudden entrance surprised them both, but not Philip; he said smilingly: “I
thought you’d c-come, Stella.”

He spoke very sadly, and then rallied a little and remembered to introduce
her to the two others. “Mr. Henry Crayford…Sir Thomas
Hayling…my—s-sister…” (He always introduced her as his sister, to
avoid misunderstandings.)

A muffled roar enveloped them suddenly like the sound of a railway train
passing overhead. “Maddison’s finished,” said Crayford, nodding towards the
door. “Perhaps we’d better get back.”

The other smiled approvingly. “Perhaps we may leave Mr. Monsell in your
capable hands,” he said, addressing Stella.

Somehow she disliked both of them instinctively. She nodded curtly, and
they bowed to her and went out. Not a word or a sign to Philip. She saw him
flush as he realised the significance of the omission.

As soon as they had gone she flung herself down on the carpet and knelt by
the side of him with her cheek against his hand. “Oh, Philip—Philip you
mustn’t mind them—they’re nothing, they’re nobodies—they don’t
count—you mustn’t let them hurt you—you mustn’t, you
mustn’t
, Philip!”

“I d-don’t,” he said, bravely.

She did not know what to say after that. She was almost crying, and a
renewal of the cheering outside in the hall brought the tears swimming into
her eyes. If only Philip could have made them cheer like that! If only…She
exclaimed, passionately: “Oh, Philip,
dear
Philip, you mustn’t worry
about it—it doesn’t matter—doesn’t matter a tiny
scrap—”

He answered, stroking her hair gently: “Ah, but you know it d-does matter.
And I know t-too. Stella, you think I’ve Mailed, don’t you? You’re s-sorry
for me, eh? “—He brushed back the hair that was straggling down over
his forehead and went on in a changed tone: “B-but I’ll win yet, Stella. I
know I will. I won’t be beaten.”

She flung her arms round his neck and drew his head down to hers. “Oh,
Philip, I love you to say that—and I love you
when
you say
it—yes, I
do
love you, Philip—ever so much—and I
mean
that!”

She stopped, seeing that he had turned very pale again. “I have l-loved
you for a long t-time, Stella,” he answered calmly, “but I did not g-guess
that you l-loved me.”

“Oh, you poor old Philip—” she said, pressing her face to his so
that her tears wet his cheek. It was just like him, to be shy of telling her,
and then, when she had told him, to be so calm about it. She added,
half-sobbing “Didn’t you ever wonder if I did?”

He nodded quaintly. “Yes, I s-sometimes wondered. And I—I m-made up
my mind I would ask you when I had—when I had s-succeeded.”

His mouth twisted into a wry smile over that final word.

CHAPTER V
I

Chassingford is an old town, less important to-day than
formerly; it consists mainly of a single long street, fringed with
old-fashioned houses and shops, and a fifteenth-century parish church with a
crocketed spire. There is also a famous old coaching inn, slowly winning back
some of its former splendour, a village stocks, a market-place with
cattle-pens, and a railway station where for some reason or other many
important main-line trains make a halt.

“Hardly an exciting place to live in,” commented Aubrey Ward, when Philip
met him one bright spring morning in the High Street.

“Perhaps not,” Philip admitted with a laugh. “But that makes it all the
more remarkable why you should be here. Has London become too hot for you
since the last hospital ‘rag’? I saw your exploits photographed in all the
picture papers, by the way.”

Ward shrugged his shoulders and smiled, his bright finely-set teeth
gleaming healthfully. If ever a man seemed to radiate energy in the manner
illustrated in patent medicine advertisements, that man was Ward, and Philip,
tall, stooping, almost cadaverous, was a perfect foil to him.

Ward’s smile became a laugh. “I’m on a visit,” he replied simply. “In fact
I’ve discovered in Chassingford something I didn’t think I possessed in all
the world.”

“What’s that?”

“A relative…” He stopped short, as if checked by an innate reticence in
dealing with his private affairs. “I have no father or mother, you know,” he
said, hastily, “nor—so far as I knew up to last week—any
relative. Then I—I got into touch with somebody who told me that I had
a great-uncle living in Chassingford.” His voice became bantering again.
“Extraordinary how precious a great-uncle can be when he’s the nearest thing
you’ve got!”

The sun had disappeared behind the folds of heavy black clouds, and a few
big drops of rain heralded the coming of an April shower. “Haven’t you got a
café of some sort in Chassingford?” Ward continued, looking at the sky
apprehensively. “It’s going to rain like the dickens in a minute, and I I
could talk to you for hours.”

He said that in a sudden burst of boyish enthusiasm that made him seem for
the moment more like a happy, brown-faced youngster than a grown man. As he
stood there on the Chassingford pavement he looked virility personified, and
kindled by an affection that had just very shyly broken its bounds.

“We don’t have cafés in Chassingford,” answered Philip, smiling, “except
on market-day, and then we call them eating-houses. But we can go in the
Greyhound and chat, if you like. And perhaps, if you’re not doing anything
for lunch, you can walk with me up to the Hall when the shower’s over. I’m
sure my mother would be delighted to see you.”

BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
2.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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