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Title: The Mark of Honor
Author: Arthur Gask
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1202441h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: June 2012
Date most recently updated: June 2012

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The Mark of Honor
by
Arthur Gask



Published in The Mail, Adelaide, S.A., Saturday 3 June, 1944.


IN the year after the end of the Much Greater War, Dr. Julius Revire was upon a visit to his compatriot, Count Bornski. One of the few members of the Polish aristocracy to have survived the war with any means at all, the count was living in Devonshire. He was married to a beautiful young girl still in her teens, and they had been blessed with as lovely a little son as ever gladdened any parents' hearts.

Yet, after only a few hours with them, the doctor realised there was a shadow over the house. Certainly it was obvious the count worshipped his young wife and that she was devoted to him. Also, the wife's mother, who lived with them, was held in affectionate regard. Still, they were not a happy family, they seldom smiled, and in repose their faces were grave and solemn. The glorious little son, too, seemed to have brought them no happiness, and they received the doctor's praises of the child's beauty with no pride or enthusiasm.

One night at dinner the count opened a bottle of fine old French Burgundy, and, as it were, forced himself into an appearance of gaiety. He related to his wife and her mother how the doctor had once saved his life.

"It was in a jungle in the heart of the Belgian Congo," he said, "and I was literally sick unto death. Two days before I had trodden on a scorpion and it had bitten me in the sole of the foot. I had no one by me except an incapable native bearer. I was in agony and could do nothing to the wound, because of its position and my leg being enormously swollen right up to the hip. I am sure I was about to shoot myself, for I had my loaded revolver in my hand—when lo and behold! out into the clearing marched the doctor, with a whole army of bearers, carrying stores." He shuddered. "Oh, he was cruel, this doctor here! He lanced me every five minutes with his wicked little knife."

"But I had to," laughed the doctor, "or you wouldn't have been here now." He made a grimace. "Never have I seen such a dreadful foot, before or since. It was swollen as big as a bison's head, and in the night it used to haunt me in my dreams. For months I couldn't get it out of my mind, and I have always thought since that it was one of the best remembered objects of that long journey of mine."

The air of gloom over the house continuing to be so depressing, the doctor taxed his friend about it. "What's the matter with you all, Edmond?" he asked sharply. "You all seem as if you were in some great trouble. What is it?"

The Count started. "You've noticed it?" he asked.

"Noticed it!" exclaimed the doctor. "Why, you are all going about as if you were under sentence of death. Tell me what it means? Don't forget I'm a medical man as well as your friend."

"Ah, so you are!" exclaimed the count. "I had forgotten that." He hesitated a moment and then burst out, "Listen, Julius. I'll tell you as terrible a story as any husband could ever tell."

He went on slowly: "Now, you know something of the part I played in that army raised among us prisoners by the Soviet Union. Well, I had been given my regiment, and, about two months before the war ended, was in the advance, as part of a battalion driving back the Huns. One evening we arrived at a little town which had been evacuated by the enemy a few days previously. They had not gone far away, but, with a broad river running between us and all the bridges blown up, were considering themselves safe, at any rate for the moment. The wretches had left the usual trail of blood and torture behind them, with women and children butchered and a score or so of old men hanged in the market-place.

"Darkness had fallen, and I had just finished my last meal in the ruined house I was occupying, when an orderly came in to tell me a peasant woman wanted to speak to me. She wouldn't state her business, but said it was private and important. I had her brought in, and she stood before me. Though she was roughly dressed, I was impressed by her bearing.

"'Monsieur,' she said, 'will you do a very unhappy woman a favor? In the chivalry of your great country will you help me?'

"I asked her what she wanted, and she told me a harrowing story. It appeared that when in possession of the town some German officers had taken her daughter away and subjected her to horrible ill-treatment. The girl, however, had managed to escape from them and hidden herself in the forest until she had seen them drive away. Then she had returned home.

"'But she will not believe they are gone for good, Monsieur.' choked the woman, 'and is terrified they will come for her again. She will not eat or sleep, and she will go mad unless we can convince her she is safe. If you will come and speak to her and let her see you, as the colonel in your uniform, she will realise everything is all right.'"

The Count shrugged his shoulders. "I was good-natured and I went. She led me to a little house and took me into a room where her daughter was in bed." The Count heaved a big sigh. "My friend, I was astounded. Never had I seen such a beautiful young creature before! Certainly she looked ill, and her expression was of one haunted by a great fear. Nothing however, could hide the loveliness which was hers, the perfect features, the glorious eyes, the exquisitely moulded lips, and the beautifully poised little head. I knew she could be only about seventeen.

"I sat down and talked to her. I stroked her hair and I patted her hands. I told her she had nothing to be afraid of now, for never would the vile Hun pollute that sacred soil again, except as a slave. She was very brave and choked back her tears, thanking me so prettily for having come to reassure her. She said she would be able to sleep, now she knew I was near her. I bade her good-bye, and her mother led me outside. Then I got another surprise.

"'Monsieur, le Conte,' said the mother, and her voice was hard as steel, 'will you do me another favor? Will you avenge my daughter's shame?'

"She went on fiercely, 'I want those men killed. There are five of them, and they lie tonight not seven miles from here. They are in a house by themselves on the outskirts of a village. I have a man ready who will guide you across the river by a secret ford. Oh, go and kill them!' she pleaded. 'You are brave and I know adventure will not frighten you.'

"I liked the idea, and, after a few moments' consideration, asked, 'But this guide of yours, how do you know he can be trusted?'

"'Trusted!' she scoffed. Her eyes blazed. 'Why, he would as soon betray his God as be false to me! He has served my family all his life.'

"Well, to make a long story short, I did as she asked me. We took the five German officers prisoners without arousing the village. One by one, bound and gagged, I had them led out behind the house. I whispered a few words into the ear of each, so that he should know for what he was being killed, and then butchered him with my dagger like a sheep. The next morning I sent the girl's mother five blood-fouled swastikas cut from the wretches' uniforms, so that she should know that her daughter's shame had been avenged."

The Count went on with a frown: "The next night the mother came to me again. 'Monsieur,' she said, 'you have done me two favors and I want you to do me a third, a greater one this time,' and then, to my amazement, she asked me to marry her daughter.

"'I know you are not married or even affianced,' she said quickly, seeing I was too dumbfounded to speak, 'for I have ways of learning many things in this unhappy country, and I have made inquiries. So, if you are heart-whole, Monsieur, take pity, for it is probably a matter of life or death for my child.'

"'But she is in no danger now!' I exclaimed in bewilderment. Then what is she afraid of?'

"'She is afraid, Monsieur'—she hesitated—'she is afraid that, as a girl unwed, she may become——"

"'Good God!' I exclaimed, 'it is most improbable.'

"'Improbable, but not impossible,' said the mother, 'and it has become the only thought in her mind. She does not eat, she does not sleep, and I hear her sobbing in the night. Remember, she is convent-reared, Monsieur, and is fearing Heaven will be denied her if what she so dreads should happen, when her motherhood has not been sanctified by the rites of the Church.'

"'But Madame,' I remonstrated, 'however beautiful your daughter may be, and I admit I cannot conceive anyone more lovely, I could not bring into a proud family such as mine a bride of whom I know so little.'

"Instantly she smiled, and bending over to me whispered who she was. It is not necessary for me to give you her name, but I assure you, Julius, she was not very far from the steps of a throne. She went on quickly, 'With you, Monsieur, I know it will make no difference, but another might be influenced by learning that her dowry will be a hundred thousand crowns. We have property in England and it cannot be taken from us.'

"I still hesitated, and she urged pleadingly, 'Oh, do have pity on the child! If you do not wish it you can leave her at the church door and never see her again.' She raised her hand warningly. 'And don't forget, Monsieur, a soldier's life is never sure. You may be killed in the next battle, even in the next few hours, and then at the Day of Judgment you will stand blessed by this crowning act of pity.'"

The Count nodded. "She had touched the right chord. Any hour we might be hurled against the Hun again and my good fortune might not always hold. Yes, I would bring comfort to this child, and one man should, in part, at all events, atone for the wrong done by others. I told the mother I would do as she wished, and, thanking me tearfully, she said Anna would be at the church in twenty minutes."

"Anna!" exclaimed the doctor. "The Countess! But I thought it must be she!"

The Count nodded and went on: "It was a strange wedding in that ruined church, and the only lights were the candles on the altar." He smiled. "I would not swear the priest was not our guide of the previous night, as both in figure and voice they were very similar. Well, the service over, I reverently kissed my bride. 'Good-bye, little one,' I whispered, 'and the best of fortune to you.'

"'Good-bye!' she laughed, 'but it is not going to be good-bye yet. There's our wedding supper to be eaten and a bottle of rare wine to toast ourselves with. No, my husband, you are coming home with me. The good things are all laid out and ready.'"

The Count shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "What could I do? Of course, I went and—stayed. We had a week's honeymoon before my regiment was sent forward again, and during those few days I came to love my child-wife devotedly. Every hour I seemed to find more endearing qualities in her. She reciprocated my affection, too, and hated me to be out of her sight. When we parted she was heartbroken, but we had the hope the war would end soon and that then I should join them in England, to which they were expecting to escape any day. They had great influence.

"You know most of the rest. Shortly afterwards I was wounded, and lay in hospital for nearly two months. Then one day I received a letter from my wife, written from here, and imploring me to come to her as soon as I possibly could. Her mother enclosed a short note, explaining everything.

"A fortnight later I arrived, and then, notwithstanding all the happiness of reunion, began an anxious time for us all. We never dared to speak our thoughts, but you can realise what was always in our minds. Oh, how we prayed the child would be like me! It was agony to think——"

"I know, I know, my poor friend," broke in the doctor. "You need not put it into words."

The Count heaved a big sigh. "And you see what has happened—a perfect child, a most beautiful baby, but exactly like his mother, all his mother and with no features of mine. We all want to love him, to snatch him up and cover him with caresses. We long to give him the fondness which every little child should have, and yet every time I take him in my arms I have to repress a shudder. And I can see it is the same with my poor wife and her mother. They dare not let their feelings go." He gripped the doctor by the arm. "And the tragedy is it will go on for ever. We shall never be certain. We shall never know. We are a stricken family and our unhappiness is without end."

The doctor was most grieved at his friends distress, but, seeing he could give no consolation, privately determined to make his visit as short as possible. The following afternoon the child was lying on a rug, stretched out upon the lawn, gurgling and cooing and kicking out his little legs as all babies do. The Count was kneeling on the rug, by his side. The mother, the grandmother, and the doctor were seated near, watching all that was going on. The expressions upon the faces of the two women were inscrutable.

Suddenly the doctor started, he frowned heavily, and then, rising quickly to his feet, moved over and picked up the baby. "Now that's funny!" he exclaimed, and his voice rose in excitement as he held out one little pink foot for them all to inspect. "You've all noticed that haven't you?" he went on, pointing to a small, star-shaped mole on the outer edge of the sole, just in front of the heel.

"I should say we have," commented the grandmother, rather irritably. "One doesn't bath a baby every day for nearly six months and not notice every mark he's got."

"Well," smiled the doctor, "it's exactly the same shape as the mole his father has on the sole of HIS foot, and, funnily enough it's exactly in the same place." He chuckled gleefully. "There's a wonderful case of heredity, if you like, the child being stamped with his father's seal! Really, I've never seen anything so exactly similar before!"

A stunned silence followed. The two women were pale as death and stared saucer-eyed, first at the doctor and then at the baby's foot.

The Count stammered incredulously: "Have I a mole there, too? I've never seen it."

"I don't suppose you have," laughed the doctor, "for you couldn't without a looking-glass. But I've seen it hundreds of times. It was part of those dreadful dreams your awful foot gave me after you had been bitten by that scorpion." He thrust the baby into his mother's arms. "Here, Edmond, off with that left shoe and sock. I'll show everybody I've not forgotten those dreadful nightmares."

Pushing the Count down on to his back upon the lawn, in a trice Dr. Revire was holding up his friend's naked foot. "There it is, as plain as a pikestaff!" he exclaimed triumphantly, "and exactly where the baby's got his. I knew my recollection was good, even after all these years. See, too, where I was, as he says, so cruel with my wicked little knife?"

The Countess and her mother had darted forward, for a few seconds to stare down open-mouthed at the upturned sole of the Count's foot. Then, with a loud cry, the young wife clutched the baby tightly to her and began covering him with fierce and passionate kisses. The grandmother tottered back, half-fainting, and sank into her chair.

"Here, Edmond," called out the doctor, laughingly, "if you want your shoe you'll have to come and catch me for it," and he ran across the lawn and pretended to hide among the trees. He thought it kindest to leave the family to recover their composure by themselves.


THE END

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