The dawn of reckoning, p.1
The Dawn of Reckoning, p.1James Hilton
THE DAWN OF RECKONING
US TITLE: RAGE IN HEAVEN
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First published by Thornton Butterworth, London, 1925
First US edition: Alfred H. King, New York, 1932, as Rage in Heaven
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“Heaven hath no rage like love to hatred turned.” —Milton
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
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A splash disturbed the throbbing mystery of the twilight and Philip Monsell heard it, wondered idly what it was, and proceeded to light a Turkish cigarette. He was quite alone at the stern of the little paddle-boat, where the canvas awning protected him from smuts from the funnel but not from the various cooking smells that came from the saloon. Most of the other passengers, indeed, were at “second” dinner; he himself had taken the less popular “first” in order to be free to watch the darkness falling over the shadowy river. Already daylight had almost vanished and the boat was ploughing its way through what seemed endless rolls of glistening frothy snakes, silvery in the dusk.
The sound of commotion came from the other end of the boat. Voices were raised sharply, and jabbered in a high-pitched language that Philip guessed to be Hungarian; then came the sudden tingling of bells and the unmistakable jogging caused by the reversal of the boat’s engines. Something had happened. He rose lazily from his deck-chair and stared about him. The boat was in mid-stream, churning up great eddies of foam in the effort to check its pace; the banks of the river, about a quarter of a mile away on each side, presented a dull violet blur without a flicker of light to indicate human habitation.
He strode along the narrowing gangway past the windows of the saloon. The three long tables inside were crowded with diners of almost every nationality, and at one of them he could see his mother, brilliant-looking as ever, conversing animatedly with a group of Americans. They were all laughing, and occasion ally one or other of them peered out of the window into the blackness, as if wondering why the boat had stopped. The stewards, passing each other swiftly about the saloon, exchanged remarks mysteriously…
The chatter in the forepart of the ship grew noisier as he approached, and became almost a roar as he pulled open the door that separated the first from the second class, the luxury from the comparative squalor. Here the lighting was dim and fitful; old peasant women sat on boxes with babies on their knees; young men, brown-faced, hatless, and bare-chested, checked their lilting songs and chattered together eagerly in corners. Something strange, something a little sinister, was happening. The crew were rushing about with ropes and tackle, and now and then an officer came among them, barked a brisk guttural order, and went away again.
“Wal?” said a voice, almost in Monsell’s ear. “D’ye think they’ll get her?”
Monsell turned, and saw close to him a man whom he had met previously at lunch—an elderly retired business-man from Chicago, globe-trotting with quiet alertness. “Get her?” exclaimed Monsell, puzzled. “What do you mean—get her?”
The other examined his cigar. “You dunno what the fuss is about then, eh?”
“Not in the least. What is it?”
The man from Chicago flicked off his cigar-ash against the engine-room stairway.
“Girl overboard,” he said laconically. And he added thoughtfully: “Hungarian girl…”
Accidents are rare upon the Danube boats. For that reason they cause all the more commotion when they occur. Monsell and the American stood talking calmly while the noise and commotion increased all around them. “These fellers make too much noise,” said the American, chewing his cigar. “Too much talk—not enough action. Now in America…or “—he added as a concession to his neighbour “in England…”
Monsell had thrown away his cigarette and was tapping his foot irritably on the deck. “Surely some body will go in and rescue her,” he said, more to himself than to the other. “Or throw a lifebelt…or something…”
“Have you seen a lifebelt anywhere on this gol darned boat?—Because I haven’t…Now on the Mississippi…”
“Well, damn it all,” Monsell interrupted, “I’d go in and have a try myself if—if—” He shrugged his shoulders and added lamely: “If I could swim and—heaps of other things.”
“No,” said Monsell curtly.
“Do you know that in every high-school and college in America swimmun is—”
The impact of a huge-limbed member of the crew knocked the cigar from his lips amidst a jet of sparks. Interest seemed suddenly to be converging on the part of the boat where Monsell and the American were standing; blue-jerseyed sailors hurried to the deck-rail, threw ropes over, and shouted shrill and deafening instructions. An officer, vibrating with gold-lace and self-importance, ordered away all the second-class passengers, but gave the American a salute and a smile as he passed.
“Curious fellers,” remarked the latter to Monsell, choosing another cigar.
Suddenly the men at the deck-rail gave a loud cry, evidently of satisfaction, and began lifting something up from over the side. The huge-limbed man who had collided with the American was the one to whom fell the actual honour of rescue. He came away from the deck-rail with a huddled and dripping bundle in his arms; it might have been as light as a feather from the way he carried it. The gold-laced officer rapped out an order, and he laid the bundle gently upon a sheet of tarpaulin, almost at Monsell’s feet. The crew thronged round, chattering more loudly than ever, while the water made a dull lead-coloured pool, a pool that grew and grew and then trickled over the boards to the Danube again…
The dapper little ship’s officer approached the American and addressed him a few words in German. The latter nodded and turned to Monsell.
“This gentleman wants to know if you’re a doctor—or if you know of one on board. I don’t.”
“Nor do I, but—but—perhaps my mother—she has been a nurse—I’ll fetch her, anyway…”
He raced back towards the saloon, and when he had gone the American said to the officer in German “That young English kid’s gone to fetch his mother. Says she’s been a nurse. I quite believe it. I’d believe anything of her. She’s a most remarkable woman—most remarkable…”
Mrs. Monsell hastened out of the saloon, with Philip leading her and telling her what had happened. The American had spoken correctly; she was a remarkable woman. Finely built, finely dressed, fifty years old and looking twenty years younger, the possessor of a keen brain, a ripe experience, and an inexhaustible supply of energy, she was distinctly the kind of woman whom all other women dislike and whom men do not easily forget. Wherever she went, at home or abroad, she could not fail to be a planet of whom others were delighted to be satellites; and as she spoke French and German perfectly, and loved scandal of every type and nationality, it was easy for her to enjoy herself amidst the cosmopolitan crowd on the Danube steamers.
Philip led her to the huddled figure on the tarpaulin.
“Anything I can do, mother?” he asked eagerly.
She replied: “There’s a bottle of sal volatile in my bag in the cabin. You might go and get it for me.”
“Wal,” he said, still chewing his cigar, “I guess you’re too late.”
“Too late?—What do you mean?”
“She’s all right now. They’ve taken her to a cabin an’ put her to bed. An’ your mother don’t need the sal volatile—she borrowed it off somebody. By the way, did you know—”
The man from Chicago paused and spat vehemently on deck. Monsell looked up eagerly. “Do I know what?”
“Do you know it wasn’t an accident?”
“Not an accident?—No, I don’t know…Then what—what was it?”
The other answered gruffly: “Attempted suicide. That’s what it was.”
All through the summer night the boat throbbed its way up the Danube, and in the morning the dawn rose on a wide green plain which the river split into halves. At intervals during the night, calls had been made at sleeping villages by the river-side; passengers had embarked and disembarked; once Monsell had been awakened by the slight bump of the boat against a pier.
He rose fairly early and breakfasted alone, for his mother never left her cabin until lunch-time. The dark-coloured rye bread and bitter coffee were at once refreshing and unsatisfying, but he lingered long over them, with the August sunlight pouring on him through the windows of the saloon. He was quite happy. This idea of his mother’s—to take the slow comfortable journey by river-steamer instead of the quicker uncomfortable journey by rail—was proving an excellent one. He smiled, thinking what a remark able woman she was, how all the most interesting people everywhere clustered round her, and how supremely competent she was to decide everything for herself.
After he had paid the waiter he took a notebook and pen from his pocket and continued a letter to a friend in England.
“I am writing this on the Danube boat some where between Mohacs and Buda-Pesth. We ought to reach Buda about eight this evening, and what we shall do when we get there I don’t know. Probably we shall stay a few days, or, if mother really takes a fancy to the place, a few weeks or months—you know how everything depends on her. She’s enjoying herself immensely, and so am I. The scenery and the weather are both delightful.
“We had quite an adventure yesterday when a young Hungarian girl tried to drown herself by diving into the river at night. One of the crew jumped in after her, but eventually she saved herself by swimming to the boat and being hauled up. Rather ignominious, eh?—Shows how hard it is for a swimmer to commit suicide by drowning. There was no doctor on board, so mother had to attend to her…”
Through the saloon windows he could see the shore rapidly approaching, and in the near distance a quaint little brown-roofed village basking in the sun. It was too good to be missed, so he interrupted his letter and climbed on to the upper-deck, whence he could view the interesting and sometimes amusing scene of embarkation. Scrubby little brown-faced children stood barefooted on the beach, cheering and waving coloured handkerchiefs; a single blue-uniformed gendarme guarded the pier and examined the papers of those who wanted to land. From the faces that filled every available window-space, it was obvious that the arrival of the bi-weekly boat was an important event. For those on board, of course, it was a mere pause in the peaceful monotony of the journey. Admiring remarks were passed in a variety of languages; cameras clicked; and then, after a few moments of bustle and chatter from down below, the gangways were hauled up and the paddles began to chug their way into midstream again.
Monsell went down the stairway into the steerage quarters, for the scene there was always interesting after a halt. Brightly-dressed peasants who had just come aboard were hurrying about with their bundles, finding places where they could curl up and sleep, and chattering shrilly all the while. A group of tall dark-skinned youths were singing a sleepy ballad to the music of a mandolin, and the remorseless chug-chug of the engines beat out a calm monotonous rhythm as the boat crawled slowly against the stream. The sun was rising high in the sky, and it was already very hot. The whole mingling of colour and sound fascinated Monsell, and he passed intricately amongst the crowd, smiling apologetically when once or twice he collided with somebody. The extreme forepart of the boat was cooler, with the breeze blowing through it, but it stank abominably with the various crates of perishables that had been loaded up during the journey. And it was there, almost hidden behind a huge packing-case, that he saw a girl sitting disconsolately on a heap of rope.
Her feet and legs were bare, and she was leaning forward with her chin resting on her hands, so that her face was shaded. There was something so instinctively despairing in her attitude that Monsell stopped, too acutely embarrassed to go any nearer. For almost a minute he stood watching, expecting her to move, but she did not. The half-sad, half-passionate lilt of the ballad-singers kept coming to him faint and then full on the changing breeze…
He started at the interruption. One of the stewards had come up just behind him—a fat greasy fellow whose smattering of half a dozen languages made him one of the most important officials on board. He smiled at Monsell with a magnificent array of gold-filled teeth.
“M’sieur regard the—the girl, hein?…Gestern—yaisterday she—” he made a gesture with his arms over the rail of the boat. “Comprenez?”
“I understand,” replied Monsell coldly.
The girl looked up, hearing the sound of voices. Monsell could see that she was hardly more than a child, but a child of astonishing beauty. And she was angry, with pouting rosebud lips and dark violet eyes stained by weeping. For a moment she stared back at the two men who were staring at her; then without any warning, broke into a passionate torrent of words that seemed to rise tempestuously up to the final syllable, which rang out like a pistol-shot.
The steward said something in reply, and Monsell turned to him and spoke rather curtly. “What did she say?” he asked.
The other’s greasy forehead puckered as he prepared himself for the effort of translation. “She say,” he began cautiously, with his gold teeth gleaming in the sunlight, “She say—she wish—to be dead…And she say—also—she wish—that nobody—see her…”
Monsell turned away and looked hard at the rivet, glaring under the sun’s fierce rays. “Tell her I’m sorry,” he answered uncomfortably, moving away amongst the litter of the deck.
He heard the steward muttering something in that strange incomprehensible language, and then, as he turned a corner, another sound was on him like a flood. All the men and women in the steerage, excepting those asleep, were joining in some wild and throbbing refrain to which the thrumming of the mandolin added a final touch of weirdness.
“Teli van a Duna,
Tán még ki is szalad.
Szivemben is alig
Fér meg az indulat…”*
* From the Reszket a bokor (The Tembling Bush) by Sándor Petöfi (01.01.1823-ca. July 1849).
High water in the Danube,
Enough, perhaps, to breast the banks.
So full also is my heart
With feelings nigh to overflow.
Buda, crowning the rocky hill-side, with its towers and minarets gleaming in the red-gold sunset; the Last City of the East. And Pesth, hot, dusty and bustling, with its outdoor cafés and beer-gardens, wharves and warehouses, the First City of the West. At the quayside, alive with chattering and gesticulating porters, the
Mrs. Monsell and Philip still lingered in the saloon over a bottle of golden Hungarian wine. It was her habit, born of long travelling experience, always to wait till the last before leaving a boat. “For one thing, the customs people get tired before they come to you. And then, also, if there’s a boat-train and it’s full when you get to it, they put on a special carriage for you if you complain loud enough Any way, it’s much pleasanter to wait till the crush is over.” Almost for the first time since the beginning of the journey she and Philip were alone together. The other passengers were busy with their luggage elsewhere, and the saloon was empty save for them selves and a steward clearing the tables.
“By the way, Philip, I sent our address to that unfortunate girl—”
“Yes. Why not? I wrote it out on a visiting-card and told the steward to take it to her.”
“Bet you she can’t read.”
“Even if she can’t, she can ask someone who can.”
“Oh, yes, I dare say…But what made you think of all this?”
“My dear Philip, my natural intelligence. I’m quite aware that you haven’t a great deal yourself—”
“Oh, haven’t I? Anyhow, I don’t need it, with a mother who can decide everything, arrange every thing, talk five languages, read foreign railway time tables, give first-aid to the drowning—”
“Rubbish,” she interrupted him. “I didn’t give first-aid. There was no need to. The girl wasn’t anywhere near drowning. She was just sick with misery because she hadn’t had pluck enough to drown herself.”
“But why on earth should she want to drown herself?”
“Goodness knows…She seemed cheerful enough after I’d been with her about ten minutes. She had no money—only the steamer ticket. The few crowns I gave her won’t last long in Buda. That’s why I sent her the address of our hotel, so that if she finds herself in difficulties she can…”
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