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Title: The Right Thing
Author: A.E.W. Mason
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Language: English
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The Right Thing

by

A.E.W. Mason

Written in 1899
(MS in the Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah)
Published in The Argus, Melbourne, Australia, Mar 28, 1900



IT had been the universal opinion that nothing could come of it, since on the one side Mrs. Wildring was extremely ambitious for her daughter, while on the other Sir Henry Mardale lived in a small dowerhouse, and could leave to his son George only an estate mortgaged to its last farm. So that no one was in the least surprised when George Mardale left England for that country of will-o'-the-wisps, South Africa, and Julia Wildring kept her room for a week. The inevitable end had come, and a compassionate shrug of the shoulders was all that the occasion demanded.

From Africa George wrote home to his father, who found that cramped dowerhouse strangely large and solitary, and at the end of each letter turned to his magnum opus on the Labrador sea-fisheries with a sigh of impatience because that fortune from the gold-fields had still only the solidity of an inspiration. At the close of the third year, however, George wrote in better spirits; at the close of the fourth he had acquired a competency. Then, at the beginning of the fifth, occurred the Raid and the Matabele war, through which George Mardale served as a volunteer.

Sir Henry received in March of this year the letter wherein Harley Burke's name was for the first time mentioned. It was mentioned only briefly, for the letter was no more than a reassuring scrawl, written from the Red Cross hospital in Bulawayo. Enough, however, was said to enable Sir Henry to understand that George owed his life to Harley Burke. He heard nothing more of any consequence until October.

But in the month of October Mrs. Aylward, a widow, who was Sir Henry's neighbour, while she sat at breakfast with her daughter, saw her elderly friend capering wildly up her gravel path, with a sheet of paper flourishing in his hand.

"From George!" he cried through the window.

"He is coming back?" said Mrs. Aylward.

"He is on his way," returned Sir Henry.

"I am glad," exclaimed Muriel. Mrs. Aylward looked with approval at her daughter, who had spoken merely from a frank impulse of friendliness for Sir Henry. Mrs. Aylward had her own views and intentions. The mortgaged estate, plus the competency acquired in South Africa, satisfied her aspirations, however insufficient they might appear to the ambitious Mrs. Wildring; and to her daughters exclamation she added—

"We shall all be delighted to see the dear boy again. When may we expect him? Very soon, since he started so close upon his letter. This week, perhaps."

"Not so soon as that, Mrs. Aylward, I am afraid," answered Sir Henry; and, leaning on the window sill, he read aloud his letter of which the following extract is all that need be quoted:—

"Harley Burke is coming with me. Everything is at a standstill in Africa, and is likely to remain so for some while to come, so that there is nothing to keep us. We propose to stop a few days at Madeira. I hear that the Wildrings are there."

Mrs. Aylward's lips tightened. On the other hand, Muriel's relaxed into a smile.

"Now, who in the world told him the Wildrings were at Madeira?" she asked demurely.

"I am sure I didn't," said Sir Henry.

"I am sure Mrs. Wildring didn't," added Mrs. Aylward, with some asperity.

"And since I didn't—" said Muriel.

"The answer is obvious," added Sir Henry with a laugh. "I wish the boy had come straight home, though. Heaven only knows how long he will stay at Madeira."

"Perhaps Mr. Burke is a rich man," said Mrs. Aylward suddenly and with too open a cheerfulness. "In that case—"

"Yes, in that case," said Sir Henry, interpreting the abrupt breaking off of Mrs. Aylwards sentence, "we may expect George sooner, I suppose."

George arrived, in fact, within a fortnight. He had stayed only five days in Madeira, as he informed Mrs. Aylward and her daughter at dinner on the night of his arrival.

"And your friend, Mr. Burke?" asked Mrs. Aylward.

"Oh, he stayed behind," said George curtly.

"But he is coming down to us as soon as he reaches England," interposed Sir Henry.

Mrs. Aylward, however, was not to be diverted.

"I suppose that Mr. Burke," she continued, "has been longer in Africa than you."

"Yes. He has been up and down the world all his life."

Mrs. Aylward was disappointed.

"A rolling stone," said she, with a barely perceptible hitch of the shoulders.

"A rolling stone with a deal of moss," answered George, a trifle bitterly—"the sort of moss that grows in a bank. But he deserves all he can get," he continued, forcing himself to cheeriness. "I should never grudge him anything. I mean,"—and he coloured with confusion as he sought to cover up his slip—"he saved my life at the risk of his own, and I was a stranger to him. You mustn't forget that."

George Mardale told the story of his rescue that evening as the small party sat round the drawing-room fire. It appeared that he and Burke had gone out from Bulawayo as members of the same patrol. The patrol advanced some miles within the Matopo Hills, and then, turning an angle of a ravine, was received with a scattered fire from the stone hillsides and the long grass in the bed of the valley. The patrol retreated precipitately, leaving half a dozen men dead and George Mardale wounded. Burke saw Mardale fall, and saw, too, that he was still alive. He pushed his way through the grass until he came upon the wounded man, and then sat down upon a boulder, laid his rifle on his knees, and lit his pipe. There was a Red Cross doctor with the rear of the patrol, who would be sure to come to the front. There must be a chance of saving Mardale's life, if Burke could only protect him meanwhile from the tender mercies of the Matabele. Burke did so protect him by the mere act of sitting by his side upon the boulder, with his rifle across his knees. He could see no one, the grass was too high; and the valley was very silent but for one incessantly reiterated explosion. But that explosion came from a spot in the grass some 20 yards from where Burke sat, and with each explosion a charge of potleg whizzed past Burke's head. One Matabele with an antique elephant-gun was somewhere crouched in the grass about 20 yards behind Burke's back. Burke did not dare to leave Mardale. He could not return his enemy's fire, since he was only aware of its vague direction; he could do nothing but sit in that tiny open space, smoke his pipe, and trust to the inaccuracy of the elephant-gun. For 15 minutes he sat there, and then the doctor crawled up to him.

"Here's a man wounded," said Burke. "If you can fix him up, we might together get him out of the ravine."

The doctor cut away Mardale's coat, and began to bandage the wound. The next moment he sprung back on to his feet; then he dropped again on to his knees, ducking his head as he dropped. It seemed to him that the drum of his ear was broken, and he most certainly felt the wind of the potleg. Burke knocked out the ashes of his pipe against the boulder, and remarked quietly—

"I think we ought to be getting along as soon as we can, for I rather fancy that there is some one shooting at us from the long grass."

The remark and the composure with which it was spoken had the designed effect of steadying the doctor's nerves. He bound the wound and the two men, stumbling and crawling through the towering grass, carried their burden out of that valley of death.

"And how old is Mr. Burke?" asked Muriel, who had listened to the story with parted lips.

"Thirty-seven," answered Mardale.

"Thirty-seven," repeated Muriel, with a deprecating droop of the lips. She was at an age when heroism must be never more than twenty-five.

Mrs. Aylward went home that evening very well content with what she had heard, and yet more content with what George Mardale's manner had suggested. Harley Burke had stayed at Madeira; Harley Burke was rich; Harley Burke would have a strenuous ally in Mrs. Wildring. He would return to England engaged to Julia. Nothing could be more likely, and nothing more suitable and appropriate. There would be left George Mardale and Muriel. That, too, would be very appropriate.

Mrs. Aylward was justified of her foresight. A letter from Burke came in due time to George Mardale. It announced his engagement to Julia Wildring, postponed his visit on the ground that he was making arrangements to build a house in Park-lane, and added that he might, however, see George soon, since he would be coming down to the Wildrings' house near by. Mrs. Aylward lost no necessary time. George was pinned, she soothed his wounded vanity discreetly; she led him unconsciously to recognise the propinquity of Muriel.

Mardale acted under the influence of pique and proposed marriage. Muriel had known him from childhood. She felt for him a sincere friendliness, and had felt nothing stronger for any other man. She slid, as it were, into an engagement to him.

It was soon after this that the Wildrings returned to their home, bringing Harley Burke with them. George Mardale walked across to the house the next afternoon, and chanced to find Julia alone. They stood facing one another for a few moments in silence—the girl with her hand pressed upon her heart; the man suddenly grown angry.

"So you are engaged," he began in a hard voice; and the girl lifted her hand and made no other answer.

"You could not wait," he continued "Of course not. I was a fool to expect it."

"There was no use in waiting," she answered faintly. "You know. It would never have been allowed." And the sound of her words seemed to give her strength. For the faintness went from her voice and her attitude "And you?" she said, drawing herself up, "you speak the first word of blame! Surely you have not the right to be so quick."

"It was not until after I heard that you—" he began with something of a stammer.

"Five minutes after, then," she interrupted bitterly, and her brightness brought him to her side in an instant.

"Julia. You know. There's only one woman for me."

"Yes, only one woman," she exclaimed, drawing quickly away from him. "Only one—Muriel;" and at that the door opined, and Burke entered.

Burke walked back that afternoon with Mardale, who, now that he was recovered from his outburst, had become remorseful.

"You will look after her, old man, won't you?" he said. "She hasn't had a very good time, taking all things together."

"No, I don't think she has," said Burke slowly. "But are you afraid that I won't do my best for her? Why?"

"No, not at all," returned Mardale eagerly. "Only, you see, I have known her for a long while, and you don't seem to be very enthusiastic."

"You don't expect me to rave, I hope," said Burke with a laugh. "I take things quietly. As you say, Julia has not had a very good time—"

Burke's placidity jarred upon his companion's overstrung nerves, and he broke in upon him with a view to change the drift of their talk.

"And how is the house growing in Park-lane?"

Burke shrugged his shoulders.

"It will be all right, I think. There'll be cupids on the ceilings, and a winter garden. I don't hanker much after that sort of thing. But I suppose it's the right thing to do, though sometimes I—" and he stopped.

"Well?"

"Well, sometimes I think there's a certain vulgarity in doing the right thing to do—don't you?" and he repeated slowly. "As you say, Julia hasn't had the best sort of time."

Mardale construed the remark in his own way.

"Mrs. Wildring is looking after the house, then?"

"Precisely."

Burke stopped and held out his hand. Mardale shook it and walked away. When he had walked twenty yards he ran back again.

"Burke!" he cried, and Burke returned to him.

"You have got to come and stay with us, you know," said Mardale. "When will you come?"

"I can come in a month's time, if I may. The Wildrings will be away on visits. I shall be glad to come to you."

Mardale walked homewards, quite at a loss to account for Burke's passivity, and indignant at it as a slight upon Julia. If he did not care for her, why was he now engaged to her? Mardale found himself considering that question and discovering answers. Burke had spoken of marriage fairly often in Africa, and had spoken with a sort of abstract desire for the state of marriage. Had he proposed marriage for marriage's sake rather than for Julia's? Certain words he had spoken, too, this afternoon, came quickly back to Mardale—words which Burke had repeated. Had compassion anything to do with his proposal? Mardale communicated his doubts to Muriel Aylward; but since she had not as yet met Harley Burke, she was unable to throw any light upon them.

Muriel, however, met Harley Burke the next evening. She remarked that he looked his thirty-seven years to the full. Anecdotes drawn from the well of his experiences, and stray reminiscences of his varied life, left her to all appearances uninstructed and indifferent. On the other hand, she could not but admit that Burke was no less apathetic towards her. At times, indeed, he seemed to evince an actual reluctance for her company. He was never so much at Julia's side as when Muriel Aylward happened to be of the company. He even made a pretext to excuse himself from his promised visit to Mardale; but the pretext was not allowed, he was pressed by Mardale for the reason of his wish to avoid the house, and he escaped from an answer by agreeing hurriedly to come.

The second evening of that visit he walked into the library about 9 o'clock, and there found Muriel alone. A map was spread out upon the table before her, and as she talked with Burke, she covered it with her arms and hands. Their conversation was interrupted by a footman, who brought a salver to Burke, on which there lay a telegram and a letter. Burke took the telegram and opened it.

"There is no answer," he said, and took up the letter.

"The letter is for Mr. George," said the footman.

"No, for me," said Burke, for he had recognised the handwriting of Julia. The footman, however, was right; the letter was for George Mardale. It did not occur to Burke to feel any jealousy; Mardale and Julia were old friends. Why should they not write each to the other?

He turned back to Muriel as the footman passed out of the door. The map lay now uncovered before his eyes, and upon the map were marks. Burke noticed the marks. There was a town marked at which he had lived for some six months, and he spoke of it. There was a country in the east through which he had travelled, and on the map a line was drawn.

"The line follows my route pretty nearly," he said, and Muriel covered the map again, but not so quickly but that he was able to distinguish that a journey he had taken as first mate upon a coasting tramp had been marked out too. He looked quickly, only for a second, at Muriel, and her face told him what he wanted most of all to know.

He turned away towards the window, and Muriel with an impulse of shame flung the map into the fire. It blazed up, the draught lifted it from the grate on to the hearth. Burke ran to the fire and stamped the flames out.

"That's done with," he said quietly.

Muriel nodded and said nothing. Burke looked at her for a moment, went to the door, and turned back. Muriel was still seated at the table, looking at the black ashes on the hearth. Burke began to walk restlessly about the room, and in a little he spoke. He spoke in praise of his friend at great length, and with extreme earnestness. In the end he said,—

"Did you know that he once saved my life?"

Muriel raised her head towards him.

"How?" she asked, and kept her eyes upon him while he told her again that story of the Matopo. Only this time the characters were reversed. It was he was wounded; it was Mardale who sat on the boulder with his rifle on his knees. Muriel heard the story to the end and then—

"That is not true," she said.

"Then, for God's sake, think it true!" he exclaimed.

He took a step towards her, and that step roused her.

"You must go," she whispered. "You will go?"

"I can go to-night. This telegram will serve as an excuse."

"Yes, please, please!" she cried.

There was a train for London at midnight, and Burke travelled by it. But he was to meet Muriel Aylward again at a dance which Mrs. Wildring gave some three months later. They danced together once, but stopped in the middle of the dance, and coming out of the ball-room found the great hall empty except of one person. The one person was George Mardale. He did not notice them, for he was standing upon a chair adjusting the clock. They did not interrupt him, but watched him curiously from the doorway. Later on during the evening, Burke was asked by Mrs. Wildring to find Mardale. He failed. Attention being once directed to Mardale's absence, it was immediately noticed that Julia Wildring had vanished too. Mrs. Wildring gave one frightened look at the clock, and was reassured. Both Mardale and Julia had been seen within the half-hour, and the clock marked twenty minutes to 1. Mrs. Wildring led the way in to supper, relieved of a horrible fear that the pair had eloped. Burke and Muriel were left alone in the hall, and each drew out a watch, and compared it with the clock.

"They caught the train which you—" said Muriel.

"They might have caught that train," interrupted Burke. He added, "May I take you into supper?"

"I was going in with—" said Muriel, and stopped.

"Yes, and I was taking in—" said Burke, and he stopped too. "Do you know, I think it would be unwise to wait."

They went up the stairs together.

"We may congratulate ourselves upon having done the right thing," said Burke. "You remember that evening in the library. There's nothing like doing the right thing."

"So long as some else does the wrong thing," the girl added, upon a moment's reflection.


THE END