Iris realised dimly that Mrs. Barnes – who was keeping up England in limp brown lace – had seated herself beside her and was showing her the photograph of a naked baby.
She made a pretence of looking at it while she tried to listen to the vicar.
“Gabriel,” she repeated vaguely.
“Yes, after the Archangel. We named him after him.”
“How sweet. Did he send a mug?”
Mrs. Barnes stared incredulously, while her sensitive face grew scarlet. She believed that the girl had been intentionally profane and had insulted her precious little son, to avenge her boredom. Pressing her trembling lips together she rejoined her friends.
Iris was grateful when the humming in her ears ceased. She was unaware of her slip, because she had only caught a fragment of Mrs. Barnes’ explanation. Her interest was still held by the talk of presentiments.
“Say what you like,” declared Miss Rose, sweeping away the vicar’s argument, “I’ve common sense on my side. They usually try to pack too many passengers into the last good train of the season. I know I’ll be precious glad when I’m safely back in England.”
A spirit of apprehension quivered in the air at her words.
“But you aren’t really afraid of an accident?” cried Mrs. Barnes, clutching Gabriel’s photograph tightly.
“Of course not.” Miss Flood-Porter answered for her sister. “Only, perhaps we feel we’re rather off the beaten track here, and so very far from home. Our trouble is we don’t know a word of the language.”
“She means,” cut in Miss Rose, “we’re all right over reservations and coupons, so long as we stick to hotels and trains. But if some accident happened to make us break our journey, or lose a connection, and we were stranded in some small place, we should feel lost. Besides it would be awkward about money. We didn’t bring any travellers’ cheques.”
The elder sister appealed to the vicar.
“Do you advise us to take my sister’s dream as a warning and travel back to-morrow?”
“No, don’t,” murmured Iris under her breath.
She waited for the vicar’s answer with painful interest, for she was not eager to travel on the same train as these uncongenial people, who might feel it their duty to befriend her.
“You must follow your own inclinations,” said the vicar. “But if you do leave prematurely, you will not only give a victory to superstition, but you will deprive yourself of another day in these glorious surroundings.”
“And our reservations, are for the day after to-morrow,” remarked Miss Rose. “We’d better not risk any muddles…And now, I’m going up to pack for my journey back to dear old England.”
To the surprise of everyone her domineering voice suddenly blurred with emotion. Miss Flood-Porter waited until she had gone out of the lounge, before she explained.
“Nerves. We had a very trying experience, just before we came away. The doctor ordered a complete change so we came here, instead of Switzerland.”
Then the innkeeper came in, and, as a compliment to his guests, fiddled with his radio, until he managed to get London on the long wave. Amid a machine-gun rattle of atmospherics, a familiar mellow voice informed them, “You have just been listening to…”
But they had heard nothing.
Miss Flood-Porter saw her garden, silvered by the harvest moon. She wondered whether the chrysanthemum buds, three to a pot, were swelling, and if the blue salvias had escaped the slugs.
Miss Rose, briskly stacking shoes in the bottom of a suitcase, quivered at a recollection. Again she saw a gaping hole in a garden-bed, where overnight had stood a cherished clump of white delphiniums… It was not only the loss of their treasure, but the nerve-racking ignorance of where the enemy would strike next…
The Vicar and his wife thought of their baby, asleep in his cot. They must decide whether they should merely peep at him, or risk waking him with a kiss.
Iris remembered her friends in the roaring express, and was suddenly smitten with a wave of home-sickness.
England was calling.
Chapter five. The night express
Iris was awakened that night, as usual, by the express screaming through the darkness. Jumping out of bed, she reached the window in time to see it outline the curve of the lake with a fiery wire. As it rattled below the hotel, the golden streak expanded to a string of lighted windows, which, when it passed, snapped together again like the links of a bracelet.
After it had disappeared round the gorge, she followed its course by its pall of quivering red smoke. In imagination, she saw it shooting through Europe, as though it were an explosive shuttle ripping through the scorched fabric of the map. It caught up cities and threaded them on a gleaming whistling string. Illuminated names flashed before her eyes and were gone – Bucharest, Zagreb, Trieste, Milan, Basle, Calais.
Once again she was flooded with home-hunger, even though her future address were an hotel. Mixed with it was a gust of foreboding – which was a legacy from the mountains.
“Suppose – something – happened, and I never came back.”
At that moment she felt that any evil could block the way to her return. A railway crash, illness, or crime were possibilities, which were actually scheduled in other lives. They were happening all round her and at any time a line might give way in the protective square in her palm.
As she lay and tossed, she consoled herself with the reminder that this was the last time she would lie under the lumpy feather bed. Throughout the next two nights she, too, would be rushing through the dark landscape, jerked out of every brief spell of sleep by the flash of lights, whenever the express roared through a station.
The thought was with her when she woke, the next morning, to see the silhouette of mountain-peaks iced against the flush of sunrise.
“I’m going home to-day,” she told herself exultantly.
The air was raw when she looked out of her window. Mist was rising from the lake which gleamed greenly through yellowed fans of chestnut trees. But in spite of the blue and gold glory of autumn she felt indifferent to its beauty.
She was also detached from the drawbacks of her room, which usually offended her critical taste. Its wooden walls were stained a crude shade of raw sienna, and instead of running water there was a battered washstand which bore a tin can, covered with a thin towel.
In spirit, Iris had already left the hotel. Her journey was begun before she started. When she went down to the restaurant she was barely conscious of the other guests, who, only a few hours before, had inspired her with antipathy.
The Misses Flood-Porter, who were dressed for writing letters in the open, were breakfasting at a table by the window. They did not speak to her, although they would have bowed as a matter of courtesy, had they caught her eye.
Iris did not notice the omission, because they had gone completely out of her life. She drank her coffee in a silence which was broken by occasional remarks from the sisters, who wondered whether the English weather were kind for a local military wedding.
Her luck held, for she was spared contact with the other guests, who were engrossed by their own affairs. As she passed the bureau, Mrs. Barnes was calling a waiter’s attention to a letter in one of the pigeon-holes. Her grey jersey-suit, as well as her packet of sandwiches, advertised an excursion.
The vicar, who was filling his pipe on the veranda, was also in unconventional kit – shorts, sweater, nailed boots, and the local felt hat – adorned with a tiny blue feather – which he had bought as a souvenir of his holiday.
His smile was so happy that Iris thought he looked both