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Authors: James Hilton

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BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
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Something sagged in her mind; she could have struck him then, for raising
such hopes in her and dashing them to pieces.

“That little boy I told you about has pulled through,” he went on. “I
thought it was hopeless this morning, but an hour ago…he seemed to turn the
corner. I’ve been with him nearly all day…didn’t have time to vote
even…awfully sorry…”

The electric lights and the cigarette smoke and the trestle tables and
Ward himself trailed away into vagueness again…

Then all at once a cry went up, only to be immediately hushed by a clamour
of voices. “Monsell’s in…Monsell’s in…”

She rushed over to Philip and buried her head against his shoulder. She
could not speak. Neither could he. People rushed round him, seizing his hand
and shouting: “Congrats…old man…Splendid…In by seven…Seven…Majority
of seven…”

Above the hubbub came the sharp, exquisitely controlled voice of Grainger
addressing his agent. “Demand a recount…”

“Recount—recount. There’s going to be a re count…” Stella found
herself near to Kemp. “What does it mean, a recount?” she whispered. “Does it
mean there’s been a mistake?”

“It means,” he answered churlishly, “exactly what it says—a

A slow subsiding of the clamour and then silence again, broken only by the
occasional bursts of cheering from outside. The rain was falling faster than
ever. The clock struck the half-hour, then the three-quarters, then one
o’clock, then a quarter-past…

Stella was white as chalk when the end came. Clamour once more, sickening
and hideous, and all the air throbbing and buzzing in her ears. “Grainger
in…Grainger in. In by three.” Ward was next to her, holding her, speaking
to her quietly, profoundly: “Don’t be alarmed…Don’t let go…Shall I get
you some water?”

“Take me to Philip…” she gasped.

But she could not get near Philip, could not see where he was, could not
see him anywhere in the room. All she could hear was Kemp’s voice snarl ing
and defiant: “Another recount…I demand another recount…”

Clamour more than ever, and then silence, more throbbing, palpitating
silence than before. Half-past one, a quarter to two, two o’clock…

“Grainger…Grainger…Majority of two…majority of two…”

She would have fainted then, had not Ward held her. She could hardly
realise anything that had happened. “Philip’s not got in?” she whispered
hazily, and Ward slowly shook his head. “Bad luck…bad luck…” was all he
could say.


She sat in a tiny cupboard-like room while noise and
commotion went on outside. Ward had been with her and had left her for a
while. Then he came back with face clouded. “I’ve been out there,” he said,
pointing vaguely to the window. “It’s raining hard. Poor old Philip!…It’s a
hard blow to him. He—he couldn’t speak when his turn came, but old Kemp
got up and said something for him. It seems cruel—to miss it by so
little. And—and the curious thing is—” He paused, and looked as
if he were wondering whether to proceed.

“What is curious?” she whispered.

He went on pensively: “I’ve just been working it out. It looks just like
fate. Down at the house I’ve been visiting there were three voters, and but
for the boy being so ill they’d have voted for Philip. Then, with my vote as
well, that would have been four more—just enough to turn the
scale…It’s rather maddening to think of, isn’t it?”

She nodded, and the clock somewhere in the build ing above startled them
by chiming the quarter.

“Anyway,” she said, in a different tone, “I’m glad the little boy’s
better.” She spoke as if she were remembering something strange and

For a long moment they stared at each other in silence, and then all at
once it was as if a great calm had come to both of them, healing their
disappointment and making them sane for the future.

He suddenly grasped her hand and squeezed it till she winced
involuntarily. “That’s the way to talk,” he said gruffly. “That’s the way to
talk…After all, do—do these things “—he gave a little gesture
with his hand—“do they matter such—such a very great deal?”

She answered: “
don’t think they do. Neither do I…But

“Yes,” he interrupted. “I’m damned sorry for Philip.”


She did not tell Philip of the four lost votes that had made
all the difference. But somebody else, apparently, gave him the details, for
he mentioned the matter very calmly when he got home.

“It seems ironical,” he remarked, “that I should have lost because my
greatest friend didn’t vote for me.”

“Couldn’t,” she insisted. “Not didn’t.”

He seemed perplexed by her reminder. “Oh, of course…Why, did you think
for a moment that I supposed—?” He paused and finished with a new note
altogether. “Never mind, Stella. I shall succeed—some
day—somehow. I’m not easy to dishearten. With every defeat I get
stronger…fight harder…I—I live for my ambitions, and some day, when
I have won through, I shall be happy…”


Stella kept her promise that, if Philip lost the bye-
election, she would tell Mrs. Monsell of their engagement. She did so, and
Mrs. Monsell received the news with half-cynical incredulity. “Do you mean to
tell me that Philip has at last done what any other young man would have done
as soon as he met you?” she asked, and added, when Stella looked puzzled: “Do
you mean to say he has fallen in love with you?”

“He says he has.”

“Then you can take it from me it’s the truth. Philip wouldn’t say he loved
anybody till he’d analysed himself to the last atom…I suppose, by the way,
that you’re in love with him?”



Stella shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. I don’t analyse

Behind her usual mask of raillery Mrs. Monsell seemed quite pleased with
the turn of events. She suggested, and Stella agreed to, a dinner-party to
celebrate the announcement; Philip was not enthusiastic, but he acquiesced
when he saw that Stella wanted it. They spent a rather baffling half-hour
deciding who should be invited. “Ward, of course,” said Philip, when the list
was nearly complete. And Stella replied: “Oh, yes, of course.”

The day of the party arrived, but towards tea-time a messenger-boy brought
a note from Ward apologising and regretting that he could not come because of
an urgent case. Stella was half-glad, half-sorry; Philip was deeply
disappointed. Nevertheless, the party went off without a hitch; Stella was
brilliantly vivacious and scored an immense success with a few Hungarian
songs in the drawing-room afterwards, and Mrs. Monsell shone with her usual
hard, opalescent glitter. Even Philip talked animatedly—about

The guests were taking their farewell whiskies before departure when
Stella heard a sharp ring at the front door. Venner was engaged elsewhere, so
she went into the hall and turned the lock herself, leaving Philip in the
drawing-room with the others. A curious inward premonition warned her whom
she might expect to see, so that when the door swung open she was not in the
least surprised: He was standing there on the top step in a leather motoring
coat and leggings, carrying his gauntlet gloves in his hand, and with his
goggles pushed upwards from his eyes over his forehead.

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t come earlier,” he said, smiling. “But I thought
I’d run round at the last minute and congratulate you…both of you.”

Outside the drive lost itself in the white icy mist that crept in from the
marshes on these winter evenings, and the head-lamp of Ward’s motor-bicycle
shone like a dull yellow globe, lighting up the swathes of vapour that passed
ghost-like in front of it. Stella, clad in a light evening frock, shivered as
she stood.

“Thank you very much,” she replied, with her teeth chattering. “So good of
you to call. I wish you could have come to dinner. Philip would have been
pleased…It’s cold to-night, isn’t it?…You’ll come in and have a drink to
warm you, won’t you?…Oh, I forgot—you’re teetotal…How
unfortunate—but there’s lemonade…Do come in…”

“Sorry, but I’d best get back. I’ve work to do before I go to bed.”

“But come in and see Philip, anyway. Or let me go in and fetch him.”

“No, really, I’d rather you didn’t. I don’t want to make any fuss. Just
tell him I called to congratulate you both, that’s all…”

“You’re shy of coming in,” she said.

“Yes. I’m always shy of meeting a crowd of people I don’t know. Stupid of
me, isn’t it?…Well, you’ll be catching cold if you stop here any longer.
Good-bye…See you again some time.”

He smiled boyishly and sprang on to his machine and was off. The noise
attracted Philip from the drawing-room.

“Who was that, Stella?”

She answered: “Ward. He came to give us his—his

“Why didn’t he come in?”

She replied: “I asked him to, but he said he was in a great hurry and
couldn’t stop.”

He took her by the arm and led her back into the hall.

“We must ask him round some evening by himself,” he said slowly. “He’ll
come then, I’m sure. You’ve got over your old dislike of him, I suppose?”

She answered simply: “Yes.”


She was passionately fond of sea-bathing, and Chassingford
was only seven or eight miles from the sea. She used to drive herself down in
the two-seater car to a lonely part of the coast, change behind the closed
hood, and then run down into the water and splash and swim about to her
heart’s content. The sea was almost always calm, and the land, segmented into
huge dyke-bound marshes, was protected from it by a high turf sea wall. At
low tide the sands and mud-flats ran out evenly for over a mile.

Towards the close of March there came an afternoon so rich with warmth and
sunlight that she was tempted to indulge in her first bathe of the year. The
hint of spring was in the air, thrilling all who breathed it with a rare and
intoxicating joy, and to Stella, more than to most living creatures, it was
irresistible. As she drove through the decaying villages to the marshes the
tang of the sea assailed her and made her immensely eager to shed her clothes
and be breasting the sunlit waves. She took the car as far as she could along
a sandy uneven road that led nowhere in particular, and then, after changing
into a bathing costume and mackintosh, raced for nearly a mile over the
marshlands to the ridge of sea wall that had seemed only a few hundred yards
away. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky, and by the time she doffed her
mackintosh and ran down the sands to the water she was warm from

The tide was high and almost on the turn. Not a soul was in sight, nor was
there likely to be a living person anywhere round about, for the marshes were
uncultivated and the nearest village was several miles away. She loved the
loneliness as well as the sunshine, for it reminded her of the sun-baked
shores of the Danube, with just such another turf wall as this to protect it
from the turmoil of the water. Indeed this part of the coast, to which hardly
the most pertinacious tripper penetrated, made her almost homesick, despite
the years she had been in England. When she had first discovered it, during
the course of a long and solitary cycling expedition, she had actually cried,
so poignant had been the reminder of things half-forgotten.

She did not cry now, but was rapturously and ecstatically happy at the
thought of a glorious bathe and swim at least two months earlier than she had
dared to hope. She walked out into the sea till the water reached her waist,
and then struck out with all her limbs, swimming as hard as she could. The
water was very cold, much colder than she had expected, but she hoped that
the effort of hard swimming would warm her. After about a quarter-of-an-hour
she felt decidedly less chilly, and then, for the first time, lifted her head
and tried to see exactly where she was.

It seemed that she was in the midst of the wide and open sea, with no land
for miles. She could not discern the low-lying fringe of sea wall in any
direction, nor could she have believed that she had swum so far out. Then she
recognised a little pin point on the horizon which she knew was the steeple
of Marshhaven Church, the nearest village to the coast. It looked miles
farther away than from the sea wall, but it gave her a direction, at any
rate. She smiled to herself quite confidently, though even a few seconds’
cessation of movement was enough to give her a strange, tight sensation of
cold in her limbs. She must swim back in the direction of the land, and as
quickly as possible. She knew herself to be an excellent swimmer, and was not
in the least afraid.

But a few strokes in the homeward direction sent the first thrill of fear
through her. She understood now why she had been able to swim so far out in
so short a time. The tide was racing out, as it did in these wide estuaries,
and the ebb-current, though not a perfidious one, was like a great icy wall
pushing her back as she battered herself against it.

Afterwards she remembered that she deliberately told herself to keep calm,
speaking the words aloud, and paying for her foolishness by a mouthful of
water. Then she set herself grimly and resolutely to the task of swimming
ashore against the current. It was the only thing to do, and therefore there
was nothing of the mental struggle involved in making a desperate decision.
Just iron grit, that was all, fortified by the knowledge that she had often
swum against the stream of the Danube years before.

A quarter-of-an-hour later she saw or thought she saw that the coast was
coming nearer. She could see the sea wall very faintly on the horizon, and
the point of Marshhaven steeple seemed a little higher in the sky. She swam
on without a pause, telling herself that she was winning and that she would
soon be safe.

Ten minutes after that she counted her victory won. The sea wall was plain
now, and there was a man walking along it—she could see him quite
distinctly. Probably he was a farm labourer using the wall as a short cut to
some remote little place…The current was much stronger near the land, and
the water seemed colder too. Only another few hundred yards and she would be
able to put her feet down and walk…Then a sharp pain gripped her round the
thighs and spread down her legs in a long burning wave. She was calm enough
even then to say to herself: I suppose this is the “cramp” they talk

BOOK: The Dawn of Reckoning
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