BenightedCategory: Land + People
By J. B. Priestley
Margaret was saying something, but he could not hear a word. The downpour and the noise of the engine were almost deafening. Suddenly he stopped the car and leaned back, relieved, relaxed, free for a moment from the task of steering a way through the roaring darkness. He had always felt insecure driving at night, staring out at a little lighted patch of road and groping for levers and switches, pressing pedals, had always been rather surprised when the right thing happened. But to-night, on these twisting mountain roads, some of them already awash, with storm after storm bursting upon them and the whole night now one black torrent, every mile was a miracle. It couldn’t last. Their rattling little box of mechanical tricks was nothing but a piece of impudence. He turned to Margaret.
“You needn’t havedone that,” she was saying now. She had had to raise her voice, of course, but it was as cool and clear as ever. She was still detached, but apparently, for once not amused.
“Done what?” Philip returned, but his heart sank, for he knew what she meant. Then he felt annoyed. Couldn’t he stop the damned thing for a minute? He was easily the coldest and wettest of the three of them.
“You needn’t have stopped the car,” Margaret replied. “I was only saying that we ought to have turned back before. It’s simply idiotic going on like this. Where are we?”
He felt an icy trickle going down his back and shook himself. “Hanged if I know,” he told her. “Somewhere in wildest Wales. That’s as near as I can get. I’ve never found my bearings since we missed that turning. But I think the direction’s vaguely right. He wriggled a little. He was even wetter than he had imagined. He had got wet when he had gone out to change the wheel and then later when she had stopped and he had had to look at the engine, and since then the rain had been coming in steadily. Not all the hoods and screens in the world could keep out this appalling downpour.
“This is hopeless.” Margaret was calmly condemning the situation. “What time is it?”
He was about to reach out to the switch when the light of a match at the back turned him round. Penderel, who had been dozing there for the last two hours, was now lighting a cigarette. ‘Hello,” he shouted back.
Penderel blew out smoke, held up the lighted match, and leaned forward, as vivid as a newly painted portrait. He grinned. “Where are we?” Then the match went out and he was nothing but a shadow.
“We don’t know,” Philip shouted back above the drumming rain. “We’ve missed the way. We’re somewhere in the Welsh mountains and it’s half-past nine. Sorry.”
“Don’t mention it.” Penderel seemed to be amused. “I say, this storm’s going on for ever. I believe it’s the end of the world.”
The road they were on now seemed little better than a track, twisting its way along the hillside. There were no lights to be seen, nothing but the flashing rain and the jumping scrap of lighted road ahead, full of deep ruts and stones and shining with water. He moved cautiously forward, shaking the raindrops from his eyes and gripping the wheel as hard as he could. This ring of metal seemed his only hold upon security now that everything was black and sliding and treacherous, and even then it rattled uselessly in his hand at times. One silly twist and they were bogged for the night or even over the edge.
There was another sharp bend in the road, not fifty yards away, and he decided to nose round it very cautiously. What a tremendous rumbling there was! Was it thunder? He shouted to the others. Margaret was leaning forward, peering out. “Look out,” he thought he heard Penderel shout. The bend was here, another corner as sharp‘as the last, and he pulled round and ran straight into the roaring chaos. A torrent of water was pouring down upon the road and something struck the car, a large clod of earth or a rock, with a resounding jolt. The entire slope above seemed to be rumbling and shuttering. In another minute they would be buried or sent flying over the other side of the road. Dazed as he was, he realised that there was just a chance of escape, and he pressed down the accelerator while he kept the other foot trembling on the brake for fear the joad in front should be blocked or should have fallen away. So far it seemed to be clear, though the whole hillside immediately behind them now seemed to be crashing down. The road ran back in a curve, probably be tween two spurs of the hill. Margaret was shrieking in his ear: “Lights! Look, Phil. Lights! Pull in there.” He saw them not far in front, where the road seemed to bend back again, beyond the centre of its horseshoe curve. Without thinking, he began to slow down. There seemed to be some sort of gateway there, an entrance to a drive perhaps. Then the rumbling and crashing and tearing behind, growing in volume every moment, awakened him to the danger of the situation.
It was obvious now that there was a house in front, and he could see the open entrance to the drive. But what kind of place was this to stay in, with the whole hillside threatening to descend upon them and tons of water coming down from somewhere? “We’d better go on while we can,” he shouted to Margaret. “It’s not safe here”. But at the same time he clapped on the brakes and brought the car down to a walking pace. They were now only a few yards from the gateway, were actually sheltered by the high wall of the garden. He felt a vague sense of safety, the sight of that wall keeping at bay the terror of the water and the crumbling slope.
From Benighted, Leipzig, 1930.