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Title: The Love-a-Duck and Other
Author: Stacy Aumonier
eBook No.: 2200181h.html
Date first posted: 2022
Most recent update: 2022
This eBook was produced by: Colin Choat
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1. The Landlord of
2. The Great Unimpressionable
3. Just the Same
4. The Golden Windmill
5. A Source of Irritation
6. Little White Frock
7. A Good Action
8. Them Others
9. The Bent Tree
10. An Adventure in Bed
11. The White Flower of a Blameless Life
12. Old Iron
13. The Brothers
I forget the name of the wag in our town who first called him Mr. Seldom Right, but the name caught on. His proper name was James Selden Wright, and the inference of this obvious misnomer was too good to drop. James was invariably wrong, but so lavishly, outrageously, magnificently wrong that he invariably carried the thing through with flying colours. He was a kind of Tartarin of Tibbelsford, which was the name of the town.
Everything about Mr. Seldom Right was big, impressive, expansive. He himself was an enormous person, with fat, puffy cheeks with no determinate line between them and his innumerable chins. His large grey eyes with their tiny pupils seemed to embrace the whole universe in a glance. Upon his pendulous front there dangled thick gold chains with signets and seals like miniature flat-irons. His fingers were ribbed with gold bands like curtain-rings. His wife was big; his daughter was big; the great shire horses which worked on his adjoining farm seemed quite normal creatures in this Gargantuan scheme of things.
Above all, "The Love-a-duck" was big. It appeared to dominate the town. It was built at the top of the hill, with great rambling corridors, bars, coffee-rooms, dilapidated ball-rooms, staircases of creaking deal, bedrooms where a four-post bed was difficult to find, a cobbled courtyard with a covered entrance drive where two brewer's drays could have driven through abreast. There was no social function, no town council, no committee of importance that was not driven to meet at "The Love-a-duck." But the biggest thing in Tibbelsford was the voice of the landlord. At night amidst the glittering taps and tankards he would "preside." By this you must understand that the word be taken liberally. He was no ordinary potman to hand mugs of ale across the bar to thirsty carters, or nips of gin to thin-lipped clerks. He would not appear till the evening was well advanced, and then he would stroll in and lean against the bar, his sleepy eyes adjusting the various phenomena of this perspective to a comfortable focus.
And then the old cronies and characters of Tibbelsford would touch their hats and say:
"'Evening, Mr. Wright!"
And he would nod gravely, like an Emperor receiving the fealty of his serfs. And a stranger might whisper:
"Who is this fat old guy?"
And the answer would be "H'sh!" for the eyes of Mr. Seldom Right missed nothing. Bumptious strangers were treated with complete indifference. If they addressed him, he looked right through them, and breathed heavily. But for the cronies and characters there was a finely-adjusted scale of treatment, a subtle undercurrent of masonry. To get into favour with Mr. Seldom Right one had to work one's way up, and any bad mistake would land one back among the strangers. In which case one would be served fairly and squarely, but there the matter would end. For it should be stated at this point that everything about "The Love-a-duck" was good in quality, and lavish in quantity, and the rooms, in spite of their great size, were always spotlessly clean.
Having carefully considered the relative values of this human panorama, the landlord would single out some individual fortunate enough to catch his momentary favour, and in a voice which seemed to make the glasses tremble and the little Chelsea figures on the high mantelshelf gasp with surprise, he would exclaim:
"Well, Mr. Topsmith, and how are we? Right on the top o' life? Full of beans, bone, blood and benevolence, eh? Ha, ha, ha!"
And the laugh would clatter among the tankards, twist the gas-bracket, go rolling down the corridor, and make the dogs bark in the kennels beyond the stables. And Mr. Topsmith would naturally blush, and spill his beer, and say:
"Oh, thank you, sir, nothin' to grumble about; pretty good goin' altogether."
"That's right! that's RIGHT!"
There were plenty of waitresses and attendants at "The Love-a-duck," but however busy the bars might be, the landlord himself always dined with his wife and daughter, at seven-thirty precisely, in the oblong parlour at the back of the saloon bar. And they dined simply and prodigiously. A large steaming leg of mutton would be carried in, and in twenty minutes' time would return a forlorn white fragment of bone. Great dishes of fried potatoes, cabbages, and marrow, would all vanish. A Stilton cheese would come back like an over-explored ruin of some ancient Assyrian town. And Mine Host would mellow these simple delicacies with three or four tankards of old ale. Occasionally some of the cronies and characters were invited to join the repast, but whoever was there, the shouts and laughter of the landlord rang out above everything, only seconded by the breezy giggles of Mrs. Wright, whose voice would be constantly heard exclaiming:
"Oh, Jim, you are a fule!"
It was when the dinner was finished that the landlord emerged into the president. He produced a long churchwarden and ambled hither and thither, with a pompous, benevolent, consciously proprietary air. The somewhat stilted formality of his first appearance expanded into a genial but autocratic courtliness. He was an Edwardian of Edwardians. He would be surprisingly gracious, tactful and charming, and he also had that Hanoverian faculty of seeing right through one—a perfectly crushing mannerism.
By slow degrees he would gently shepherd his favourite flock around the fire in the large bar-parlour, decorated with stags' heads, pewter and old Chelsea. Then he would settle himself in the corner of the inglenook by the right side of the fire. Perhaps at this time I may be allowed to enumerate a few of the unbreakable rules which the novice had to learn by degrees. They were as follows:
You must always address the landlord as "sir."
You must never interrupt him in the course of a story.
You must never appear to disbelieve him.
You must never tell a bigger lie than he has just told.
If he offers you a drink you must accept it.
You must never, under any circumstances, offer to stand him a drink in return.
You may ask his opinion about anything, but never any question about his personal affairs.
You may disagree with him, but you must not let him think that you're not taking him seriously.
You must not get drunk.
These were the broad, abstract rules. There were other bye-laws and covenants allowing for variable degrees of interpretation. That, for instance, which governed the improper story. A story could be suggestive but must never be flagrantly vulgar or profane. Also one might have had enough to drink to make one garrulous, but not enough to be boisterous, or maudlin, or even over-familiar.
I have stated that the quality of fare supplied at "The Love-a-duck" was excellent; and so it was. Beyond that, however, our landlord had his own special reserves. There was a little closet just off the central bar where on occasions he would suddenly disappear, and when in the humour produce some special bottle of old port or liqueur. He would come toddling with it back to his seat and exclaim:
"Gentlemen, this is the birthday of Her Imperial Highness the Princess Eulalie of Spain. I must ask you to drink her good health and prosperity!"
And the bar, who had never heard of the Princess Eulalie of Spain, would naturally do so with acclamation.
Over the little glasses he would tell most impressive and incredible stories. He had hunted lions with the King of Abyssinia. He had dined with the Czar of Russia. He had been a drummer-boy during the North and South war in America. He had travelled all over Africa, Spain, India, China and Japan. There was no crowned head in either of the hemispheres with whom he was not familiar. He knew everything there was to know about diamonds, oil, finance, horses, politics, Eastern religions, ratting, dogs, geology, women, political economy, tobacco, corn or rubber. He was a prolific talker, but he did not object to listening, and he enjoyed an argument. In every way he was a difficult man to place. Perhaps in thinking of him one was apt not to make due allowance for the rather drab background against which his personality stood out so vividly. One must first visualise the company of "The Love-a-duck."
There was old Hargreaves, the local estate agent: a snuffy, gingery, pinched old ruffian, with a pretty bar-side manner, an infinite capacity for listening politely; one whose nature had been completely bowdlerised by years of showing unlikely tenants over empty houses, and keeping cheerful in draughty passages. There was Mr. Bean, the corn-merchant, with a polished red-blue face and no voice. He would sit leaning forward on a thin gold-knobbed cane, and as the evening advanced he seemed to melt into one vast ingratiating smile. One dreaded every moment that the stick would give way and that he would fall forward on his face. There was an argumentative chemist, whose name I have forgotten; he was a keen-faced man, and he wore gold-rimmed spectacles which made him look much cleverer than he really was. There was old Phene Sparfitt. Nobody knew how he lived. He was very old, much too old to be allowed out at night, but quite the most regular and persistent customer. He drank quantities of gin and water, his lower lip was always moist, and he professed an intimate knowledge of the life of birds. Dick Toom, the owner of the local livery-stables, was a spasmodic visitor. He generally came accompanied by several horsey-looking gentlemen. He always talked breezily about some distressing illness he was suffering from, and would want to make a bet with anyone present about some quite ridiculous proposition: for instance, that the distance from the crossroads to the stone wall by Jenkins' black-pig farm was greater than the distance from the fountain in the middle of Piccadilly Circus to the tube station in Dover Street. A great number of these bets took place in the bar, and the fact that the landlord always lost was one of the reasons of his nickname.
It cannot be said that the general standard of intelligence reached a very high level, and against it it was difficult to tell quite how intelligent the landlord was. If he were not a well-educated man he certainly had more than a veneer of education. In an argument he was seldom extended. Sometimes he talked brilliantly for a moment, and then seemed to talk out of his hat. He had an extravagant theatrical way of suddenly declaiming a statement, and then sinking his voice and repeating it. Sometimes he would be moodish and not talk at all. But at his best he was very good company.
It would be idle to pretend that the frequenters of the bar believed the landlord's stories. On the contrary, I'm afraid we were a very sceptical lot. Most of us had never been further than London or the seaside, and our imagination shied at episodes in Rajahs' palaces and receptions in Spanish courts. It became a byword in the town: "Have you heard old Seldom Right's latest?" Nevertheless he was extremely popular. At the time of which I write the landlord must have been well over sixty years of age, and his wife was possibly forty-five. They appeared to be an extremely happy and united family.
And then Septimus Stourway appeared on the scene. He was an acid, angular, middle-aged man, with sharp features, a heavy black moustache, and eyes too close together. He was a chartered accountant and he came to the town to audit the books of a large brewery near by, and one or two other concerns. He brought his wife and his son, who was eleven years old. He was a man whom everybody disliked from the very beginning. He was probably clever at his job, quick-thinking, self-opinionated, precise, argumentative, aggressively assertive, and altogether objectionable.
The very first occasion on which he visited "The Love-a-duck" he broke every rule of the masonic ring except the one which concerned getting drunk. The company was in session under its president, and he bounced into the circle and joined in the conversation. He interrupted the landlord in the middle of a story, and plainly hinted that he didn't believe him. He called him "old chap," and offered to stand him a drink. He then told a long, boring story about some obscure episode in his own life. The effect of this intrusion was that the landlord, who never replied to him at all, rose heavily from his seat and disappeared. The rest of the company tried to show by their chilling unresponsiveness that they disapproved of him. But Mr. Stourway was not the kind of person to be sensitive to this. He rattled on, occasionally taking tiny sips of his brandy-and-water. He even had the audacity to ask old Hargreaves who the fat disagreeable old buffer was! And poor old Hargreaves was so upset that he nearly cried. He could only murmur feebly:
"He's the landlord."
"H'm! a nice sort of landlord! Now, I know a landlord at—"
The company gradually melted away and left the stranger to sip his brandy-and-water alone.
Everybody hoped, of course, that the first visit would also be the last. But oh, no! The next evening, at the same time, in bounced Mr. Septimus Stourway, quite uncrushed. Again the landlord disappeared, and the company melted away. The third night some of them tried snubbing him and being rude, but it had no effect at all. At every attempt of this sort he merely laughed in his empty way, and exclaimed:
"My dear fellow, just listen to me—"
Before a week was out Mr. Septimus Stourway began to get on the nerves of the town. He swaggered about the streets as though he was doing us a great honour by being there at all. His wife and son were also seen. His wife was a tall, vinegary looking woman in a semi-fashionable, semi-sporting get-up. She wore a monocle and a short skirt, and carried a cane. The boy was a spectacled, round-shouldered, unattractive-looking youth, more like the mother than the father in appearance. He never seemed to leave his mother's side for an instant.
It appeared that his name was Nick, and that he was the most remarkable boy for his age who had ever lived. He knew Latin, and Greek, and French, and history, and mathematics, and philosophy, and science. Also he had a beautiful nature. Mr. Stourway spent hours boring anyone he could get to listen, with the narration of his son's marvellous attributes. If the habitués of "The Love-a-duck" tired of Mr. Stourway, they became thoroughly fed up with his son.
It was on the following Wednesday evening that the dramatic incident happened in the bar-parlour of the famous inn. The landlord had continued his attitude of utter indifference to the interloper. He had been just as cheerful and entertaining, only when Mr. Stourway entered the bar he simply dried up. But during the last two days he appeared to be thinking abstractedly about something. He was annoyed.
On this Wednesday evening the usual company had again assembled, and the landlord appeared anxious to resume his former position of genial host, when in came Mr. Septimus Stourway again. He had not been in the previous evening, and everyone was hoping that at last he had realised that he was not wanted. Up rose the landlord at once, and went away. There was an almost uncontrolled groan from the rest. Mr. Stourway took his seat, and began to talk affably.
It was then observed that the landlord instead of going right away, was hovering about behind the bar. I don't know how the conversation got round to poetry, but after a time, Mr. Stourway started talking about his son's marvellous memory for poetry.
"That boy of mine, you know," he said, "he would simply astound you. He remembers everything. The poetry he's learnt off by heart! Miles and miles of it! I don't suppose there's another boy of his age in the country who could quote half as much."
It was then that the bombshell fell. The landlord was leaning across the bar, and suddenly his enormous voice rang out:
"I'll bet you five pounds to one that I know a little boy of five who could quote twice as much poetry as your son!"
There was a dead silence, and everybody looked from the landlord to Mr. Stourway. That gentleman grinned superciliously, then he rubbed his hands together and said:
"Well, well, that's interesting. I can't believe it. My son's eleven. A boy of five? Ha, ha! I'd like to get a wager like that!"
The landlord's voice, louder than ever, exclaimed:
"I'll bet you a hundred pounds to five!"
Mr. Stourway looked slightly alarmed, but his eyes glittered.
"A hundred pounds to five! I'm not a betting man, but, by God! I'll take that."
"Is your son shy?"
"Oh, no, he enjoys reciting poetry."
"Would he come here and have an open competition?"
"H'm. Well, well, I don't know. He might. I should have to ask his mother. Who is this wonderful boy you speak of?"
"My nephew over at Chagham. They could drive him over in the dog-cart."
It need hardly be said that the members of "The Love-a-duck" fraternity were worked up to a great state of excitement over this sudden challenge. What did it all mean? No one knew that old Seldom Right had any relatives in the country. But then he was always such a secretive old boy about his own affairs. Could a little boy of five possibly remember and repeat more poetry—twice as much!—than this phenomenal Nick Stourway? How was it all to be arranged?
It became evident, however, that the landlord was very much in earnest. He had apparently thought out all the details. It should be an open competition. It could take place in the ball-room of the hotel. The two boys should stand on the platform with their parents, and should recite poems or blank verse in turn. A small committee of judges should count the lines. When one had exhausted his complete répertoire the other, of course, would have won; but it would be necessary for Stephen—that was the name of old Wright's nephew—to go on for double the number of lines that Nick had spoken to win the wager for his uncle.
When it was first put to him, Mr. Stourway looked startled but on going into the details he soon became eager. It was the easiest way of making a hundred pounds he had ever encountered. Of course the little boy might be clever and have a good memory, but that he could possibly recite twice as much as the wonderful Nick was unthinkable. Moreover his back was up, and he hated the landlord. He knew that he snubbed him on every occasion, and this would be an opportunity to score. There was just the mild risk of losing a fiver, and his wife to be talked over, but—he thought he could persuade her. The rumour of the competition spread like wildfire all over the town.
It was not only the chief topic of conversation at "The Love-a-duck" but at all places where men met and talked. It cannot be denied that a considerable number of bets were made. Mr. Seldom Right's tremendous optimism found him many supporters, but the great odds and the fact that he invariably lost in wagers of this sort drove many into the opposing camp of backers.
A committee of ways and means was appointed the following night after Mrs. Septimus Stourway had given her consent and Nick had signified his willingness to display his histrionic abilities to a crowd of admirers.
Old Hargreaves, Mr. Bean, and a schoolmaster named McFarlane were appointed the judges. The ball-room was to be open to anyone, and there was to be no charge for admission. The date of the competition was fixed for the following Saturday afternoon, at five o'clock.
I must now apologise for intruding my own personality into this narrative. I would rather not do so, but it is inevitable. It is true my part in the proceedings was only that of a spectator, but from your point of view—and from mine—it was an exceedingly important part. I must begin with the obvious confession that I had visited "The Love-a-duck" on occasions, and that is the kind of adventure that one naturally doesn't make too much of. Nevertheless I can say with a clear conscience that I was not one of the inner ring. I had so far only made the most tentative efforts to get into the good graces of the landlord. But everyone in Tibbelsford was talking of the forthcoming remarkable competition, and I naturally made a point of turning up in good time.
I managed to get a seat in the fourth row, and I was very fortunate, for the ball-room was packed, and a more remarkable competition I have never attended. The three judges sat in the front row, facing the platform. The Stourway party occupied the right side of the platform and the Wrights the left. The landlord sat with his party, but in the centre, so that he could act as a kind of chairman. He appeared to be in high good-humour, and he came on first and made a few facetious remarks before the performance began. In the first place, he apologised for the lighting. It was certainly very bad. There originally had been footlights, but it was so long since they had been used that they were out of repair. The large room was only lighted by a gas chandelier in the centre, so that the stage was somewhat dim, but, as he explained, this would only help to obscure the blushes of the performers when they received the plaudits of such a distinguished gathering.
The Stourway party entered first. They came in from a door at the back of the platform, Mr. Stourway noisily nonchalant, talking to everyone at random, in a tailcoat, with grey spats; his wife in a sports skirt and a small hat, looking rather bored and disgusted; and the boy in an Eton jacket and collar with a bunchy tie, and his hair neatly brushed. He looked very much at home and confident. It was obvious that he was out to enjoy himself. Numerous prize-distributions at which he had played a conspicuous part had evidently inured him to such an ordeal.
And then the other party entered, and the proceedings seemed likely to end before they had begun. Mrs. Wright came on first, followed by a lady dressed in black, leading a most diminutive boy. They only reached the door when apparently the sight of the large audience frightened the small person, and he began to cry. The landlord and his wife rushed up and with the mother tried to encourage him, and after a few minutes they succeeded in doing so. The lady in black, however—who was presumably the widowed mother—picked him up and carried him in and sat him on her knee.
The audience became keenly excited, and everyone was laughing and discussing whether the affair would materialise or not. At length they seemed to be arranged, and the landlord came forward and said:
"Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to the competitors—Master Nick Stourway, Master Stephen Wright. Good gracious! It sounds as though I were announcing the competitors in a prize-ring. But this is to be a very peaceful competition—at least, I hope so! I think you all know the particulars. We're simply going to enjoy ourselves, aren't we, Nick? Aren't we, Stephen?"
Nick smiled indulgently, and said, "Yes, sir."
Stephen glanced up at him for a second, and then buried his face in his mother's lap.
"Well, well," said the landlord, "I will now call on Master Nick to open the ball."
Master Nick was nothing loth. He stood up and bowed, and holding his right arm stiff, and twiddling a button of his waistcoat with his left, he declaimed in ringing tones:
"It was the schooner Hesperus
That sailed the wintry sea;
And the skipper had taken his little daughter
To bear him company."
There were twenty-two verses of this, of four lines each, and the audience were somewhat impatient, because they had not come there to hear Master Nick recite. They had come for the competition, and it was still an open question whether there would be any competition. They were anxiously watching Master Stephen. He spent most of the period of his rival's recitation of this long poem with his face buried in his mother's lap, in the dark corner of the platform. His mother stroked his hair and kept on whispering a word to him, and occasionally he would peer round at Nick and watch him for a few seconds; then he glanced at the audience, and immediately ducked out of sight again.
When Nick had finished, he bowed and sat down, and there was a mild round of applause. The judges consulted, and agreed that he had scored 88 lines.
Now, what was going to happen?
The small boy seemed to be shaking his head and stamping his feet, and his mother was talking to him. The landlord coughed. He was obviously a little nervous. He went over to the group and said in a cheerful voice:
"Now, Stephen, tell us a poem!"
A little piping voice said, "No!" and there were all the wriggles and shakes of the recalcitrant youngster. Murmurs ran round the room, and a lot of people were laughing. The Stourway party was extremely amused. At length the landlord took a chair near him, and produced a long stick of barley-sugar.
"Now, Stephen," he said, "if you won't talk to these naughty people, tell me a poem. Tell me that beautiful 'Hymn to Apollo' that you told me last winter."
The little boy looked up at him and grinned; then he looked at his mother. Her widow's veil covered the upper part of her face. She kissed him, and said:
"Go on, dear; tell Uncle Jim."
There was a pause; the small boy looked up and down, and then, fixing his eyes solemnly on the landlord's face, he suddenly began in a queer little lisping voice:
God of the golden bow,
And of the golden lyre,
And of the golden hair,
And of the golden fire;
Round the patient year,
Where—where slept thine ire?
It was a short poem, but its rendering was received with vociferous applause. There was going to be a competition, after all! People who had money at stake were laughing and slapping their legs, and people who hadn't were doing the same. Everyone was on the best of terms with each other. There was a certain amount of trouble with the judges, as they didn't know the poem, and they didn't grasp the length of the lines. Fortunately the schoolmaster had come armed with books, and after some discussion the poem was found to have been written by Keats, and Master Stephen was awarded thirty-six lines. He was cheered, clapped, and kissed by the landlord, and his aunt, and his mother.
Master Nick's reply to this was to recite "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," a performance which bored everyone to tears, especially as he would persist in gesticulating and doing it in a manner as though he thought that the people had simply come to hear his performance. "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" is 195 lines. This made his score 283.
The small boy was still very shy, and seemed disinclined to continue, but the landlord said:
"Now come on, Stephen; I'm sure you remember some more beautiful poetry."
At last, to everyone's surprise, he began to lisp:
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more—"
It was screamingly funny. He went right through the speech, and when he got to:
"Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"
the applause was deafening. People were calling out, and some of the barrackers had to be rebuked by the landlord. King Henry's speech was only 35 lines, so Master Stephen's total was 71. Nick then retaliated with an appalling poem, which commenced:
She stood at the bar of Justice,
A creature wan and wild,
In form too small for a woman,
In feature too old for a child.
Fortunately, it was not quite as long as the other two, and only brought him 60 lines, making a total of 343.
Stephen, who seemed to be gaining a little more confidence and entering into the spirit of the thing, replied with Robert Herrick's "Ode to a Daffodil," a charming little effort, although it only brought in 20 lines.
Master Nick now broke into Shakespeare, and let himself go on:
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears."
He only did twenty-three lines, however, before he broke down and forgot. The committee had arranged for this. It was agreed, that in the event of either competitor breaking down, he should still score the lines up to where he broke down, and at the end he should be allowed to quote odd lines, provided there were more than one.
At this point there was a very amusing incident. Master Stephen hesitated for some time, and then he began "Friends Romans, countrymen," etc., and he went right through the same speech without a slip! It was the first distinct score for the landlord's party, and Master Stephen was credited with 128 lines. The scores, however, were still 366 to 219 in Nick's favour, and he proceeded to pile on the agony by reciting "Beth Gelert." However, at the end of the twelfth verse he again forgot, and only amassed 48 lines.
Balanced against his mother's knee, and looking unutterably solemn—as far as one could see in the dim light—and only occasionally glancing at the audience, Stephen then recited a charming poem by William Blake called "Night," which also contained 48 lines.
Nick then collected 40 lines with "Somebody's Darling," and as a contrast to this sentimental twaddle Stephen attempted Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality." Unfortunately it was his turn to break down, but not till he had notched 92 lines. It was quite a feature of the afternoon that whereas Nick's contributions for the most part were the utmost trash, Stephen only did good things.
It would perhaps be tedious to chronicle the full details of the poems attempted and the exact number of lines scored, although, as a matter of fact, at the time I did keep a careful record. But on that afternoon it did not appear tedious, except when Nick let himself go rather freely over some quite commonplace verse. Even then there was always the excitement as to whether he would break down. The audience indeed found it thrilling, and it became more and more exciting as it went on, for it became apparent that both boys were getting to the end of their tether. They both began to forget, and the judges were kept very busy, and the parents were as occupied as seconds in a prize-ring. It must have been nearly half-past six when Master Nick eventually gave out. He started odds and ends, and forgot, and his parents were pulled up for prompting. He collected a few odd lines, and amassed a total of 822, a very considerable amount for a boy of his age.
At this point he was leading by 106 lines. So for Stephen to win the wager for the landlord he would not only have to score that odd 106 but he would have to remember an additional 822 lines! And he already gave evidence of forgetting! There was a fresh burst of betting in odd parts of the hall, and Dick Toom was offering 10 to 1 against the landlord's protégé and not getting many takers. The great thing in his favour was that he seemed to have quite lost his nervousness. He was keen on the job, and he seemed to realise that it was a competition, and that he had got to do his utmost. The landlord's party were allowed to talk to him and to make suggestions, but not to prompt if he forgot. There was a short interval, in which milk and other drinks were handed round. The landlord had one of the other drinks, and then he said:
"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to ask your indulgence to be as quiet as possible. My small nephew has to recall 928 lines, to win the competition, and he is going to try to do it."
The announcement was received with cheers. And then Stephen started again. He began excellently with Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale," and scored 80 lines, and without any pause went on to Milton's "L'Allegro," of which he delivered 126 lines before breaking down. He paused a little, and then did odds and ends of verses, some complete, and some not. Thomas Hood's "Departure of Summer" (14 lines), Shelley's "To Night" (35) and a song by Shelley commencing:
Rarely, rarely comest thou
Spirit of Delight! (48 lines)
I will not enumerate all these poems but he amassed altogether 378 lines in this way. Then he had another brief rest, and reverted once more to Shakespeare. In his little sing-song voice, without any attempt at dramatic expression, he reeled off 160 lines of the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet; 96 lines of the scene between Hamlet and the Queen; 44 lines of the Brutus and Cassius quarrel; 31 of Jaques' speech on "All the world's a stage." It need hardly be said that by this time the good burghers of Tibbelsford were in a state of the wildest excitement.
The schoolmaster announced that Master Stephen had now scored 689 of the requite 928, so that he only wanted 240 more to win. Mr. Stourway was biting his nails and looking green. Mrs. Stourway looked as though she was disgusted with her husband for having brought her among these common people. Nick sneered superciliously.
But, in the meantime, there was no question but that Master Stephen himself was getting distressed. His small voice was getting huskier and huskier, and tears seemed not far off. I heard Mrs. Rusbridger, sitting behind me, remark:
"Poor little mite! I calls it a shime!"
It was also evident that he was getting seriously to the end of his quoting répertoire. He had no other long speeches. The landlord's party gathered round him and whispered. He tried again, short stanzas and odd verses, sometimes unfinished. He kept the schoolmaster very busy but he blundered on. By these uncertain stages he managed to add another 127 lines; and then he suddenly brought off a veritable tour de force. It was quite uncanny. He quoted 109 lines of Spenser's Faerie Queen! The matter was quite unintelligible to the audience, and they were whispering to each other and asking what it was. When he broke down, the schoolmaster announced that it was quite in order, and that Master Stephen's total lines quoted now amounted to 1640, and therefore he only required four lines to win!
Even then the battle was apparently not over. Everyone was cheering and making such a noise that the small boy could not understand it, and he began crying. A lot of people in the audience were calling out "Shame!" and there was all the appearance of a disturbance. The landlord's party were very occupied. It was several minutes before order was restored, and then the landlord rapped on the table and called out "Order! Order!"
He drank a glass of water, and there was dead silence. Stephen's mother held the little boy very tight, and smiled at him. At last, raising his voice for this last despairing effort, he declaimed quite loudly:
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss'd
Of the two Worlds so wisely—they are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter'd, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.
The cheers which greeted this triumphant climax were split by various disturbances, the most distressing coming from Stephen himself for almost as he uttered the last word he gave a yell, and burst into sobs. And he sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed. And his mother picked him up and rocked him, and the landlord and his wife did what they could. But it was quite hopeless. Stephen was finished. His mother picked him up and hurried out of the door at the back with him. The Stourway party melted away. There were no more speeches, but people crowded on to the platform, and a lot of the women wanted to just kiss Stephen before he went away; but Mrs. Wright came back and said the poor child was very upset. She was afraid they ought not to have let him do it. His mother was putting him to bed in one of the rooms, and they were giving him some sal volatile. He would be all right soon. Of course it was a tremendous effort—such a tiny person, too!
Someone offered to go for the doctor, but Mrs. Wright said they would see how he was, and if he wasn't better in half-an-hour's time they'd send over to Dr. Winch.
Everyone was congratulating the landlord, and he was clasping hands and saying:
"A marvellous boy! a marvellous boy! I knew he would do it!"
The party gradually broke up.
I must now again revert to myself. I was enormously impressed by what I had seen and heard, and for the rest of the evening I could think of nothing else. After dinner I went out for a stroll. It was early March, and unseasonably cold. When I got down to the bridge, over which the high-road runs across the open country to Tisehurst, large snow-flakes were falling. I stood there for some time, looking at our dim little river, and thinking of the landlord and Stephen. And as I gazed around me I began to wonder what it was about the snow-flakes which seemed to dovetail with certain subconscious movements going on within me.
And suddenly a phrase leapt into my mind. It was:
"Rotten cotton gloves!"
Rotten cotton gloves! What was the connection? The snow, the mood, something about Stephen's voice quoting "The Faerie Queene." Very slowly the thing began to unfold itself. And when I began to realise it all, I said to myself, "Yes, my friend, it was the Faerie Queene which gave the show away. The rest might have been possible. You were getting rather hard put to it!" The snow was falling heavily. It was Christmas-time—good Lord! I did not like to think how long ago. Thirty years? Forty years? My sister and I at Drury Lane pantomine. "Rotten cotton gloves!" Yes, that was it! I could remember nothing at all of the performance. But who was that great man they spoke of? The star attraction?—Some name like "The Great Borodin," the world's most famous humourist and ventriloquist. We were very excited, Phyllis and I, very small people then, not, surely, much older than Stephen himself. I could not remember the great Borodin, but I remembered that one phrase. There was a small lay figure which said most amusing things. It was called— No, I have forgotten. It was dressed in an Eton suit and it wore rather dilapidated-looking white cotton gloves. And every now and then, in the middle of a dialogue or discourse, it broke off, looked at its hands, and muttered:
"Rotten cotton gloves!"
It became a sort of catch-phrase in London in those days. On 'buses and trains people would murmur "Rotten cotton gloves!" A certain vague something about the way that Stephen recited Spenser's Faerie Queen...Was it possible?
And then certain very definite aspects of the competition presented themselves to my mind's eye. It had all been very cleverly stage-managed. It must be observed that Stephen neither walked on nor walked off. He did not even stand. He hardly looked at the audience. And then the lighting was inexcusably bad. Even some of the lights in the central chandelier had unaccountably failed. And the landlord's party had chosen the darkest side of the stage. No one had spoken to the boy. No one had seen him arrive, and immediately after the competition he had gone straight to bed.
I tried to probe my memory for knowledge of "The Great Borodin," but at eight or nine one does not take great interest in these details. I know there was something....I remember hearing my parents talking about it—some great scandal soon after I had seen him. He was disgraced, I am sure. I have a vague idea he was in some way well-connected. He was to marry a great lady, and then perhaps he eloped with a young barmaid? I cannot be certain. It was something like that. I know he disappeared from public life, for in after years, when people had been to similar performances I had heard our parents say:
"Ah, but you should have seen 'The Great Borodin.'"
These memories, the peculiar thrill of the competition, the cold air, the lazy snow-flakes drifting hither and thither, all excited me. I walked on further and further into the country trying to piece it all together. I liked the landlord, and I shared the popular dislike of Mr. Stourway.
After a time I returned, and making my way towards the north of the town, I started to walk quickly in the direction of "The Love-a-duck." If I hurried I should be there ten minutes or so before closing time.
When I entered the large bar-parlour the place was very crowded. I met old Hargreaves by the door. I'm afraid a good many of the rules of the society had been broken that evening. Old Hargreaves was not the only one who had had quite enough liquid refreshment. Everybody was in high spirits, and they were still all talking about the competition. I met Mr. Bean near the fireplace, and I said:
"Well, Mr. Bean, and have you heard how the boy is?"
"Oh, ay," he replied. "He soon got all right. Mrs. Wright says he were just a bit upset. He went off home not an hour since."
"Did you see him?"
"Eh? Oh, no, I didn't see'm. Mrs. Wright says he looked quite hisself."
The landlord was moving ponderously up and down behind the bar. I thought he looked tired and there were dark rims round his eyes. I moved up towards the bar, and he did not notice me. The noise of talking was so loud that one could speak in a normal voice without being heard. Everything had apparently gone off quite successfully. Mr. Stourway had sent along his cheque for five pounds and it was not reckoned that he would ever show his face in "The Love-a-duck" again. I waited.
At last I noticed that the landlord was quite alone. He was leaning against the serving-hatch, flicking some crumbs from his waistcoat, as though waiting for the moment of release. I took my glass and sidled up to him. I leant forward as though to speak. He glanced at me, and inclined his head with a bored movement. When his ear was within a reasonable distance, I said quietly:
"Rotten cotton gloves!"
I shall never forget the expression on the face of the landlord as he slowly raised his head. I was conscious of being a pinpoint in a vast perspective. His large, rather colourless eyes appeared to sweep the whole room. They were moreover charged with a perfectly controlled expression of surprise, and a kind of uncontrolled lustre of ironic humour. I had a feeling that if he laughed it would be the end of all things. He did not laugh; he looked lugubriously right through my face, and breathed heavily. Then he swayed slightly from side to side, and looking at my hat, said:
"I've got some cherry-brandy here you'd like. You must have a glass, Mr.—"
Now, I do not wish to appear to you either as a prig, a traitor, or a profiteer. I am indeed a very ordinary, perhaps over-human member of Tibbelsford society. If I have taken certain advantages of the landlord, you must at any rate give me the credit of being the only member of a large audience who had the right intuitions at the right moment. In all other respects you must acknowledge that I have treated him rather well.
In any case, I became prominent in the inner circle without undergoing the tortuous novitiateship of the casual stranger.
The landlord and I are the best of friends to-day, although we exchange no confidences. I can break all the rules of the masonic understanding without getting into trouble. Some of the others are amazed at the liberties I take.
And in these days, when licensing restrictions are so severe, when certain things are not to be got (officially), and when I see my friends stealing home to a bone-dry supper, I only have to creep into the bar of "The Love-a-duck" and whisper "Rotten cotton gloves!" and lo! all these forbidden luxuries are placed at my disposal! Can you blame me?
I have said that we exchange no confidences, and indeed I feel that that would be going too far, taking too great an advantage of my position. There is only one small point I would love to clear up, and I dare not ask. Presuming my theory to be right about "The Great Borodin"—which was he?
The landlord? Or the widow?
Ned Picklekin was a stolid chunk of a young man, fair, blue-eyed, with his skin beaten to a uniform tint of warm red by the sun and wind. For he was the postman at the village at Ashalton. Except for two hours in the little sorting-office, he spent the whole day on his bicycle, invariably accompanied by his Irish terrier, Toffee. Toffee was as well-known on the countryside as Ned himself. He took the business of delivering letters as seriously as his master. He trotted behind the bicycle with his tongue out, and waited panting outside the gates of gardens while the important government business was transacted. He never barked, and had no time for fighting common, unofficial dogs. When the letters were delivered, his master would return to his bicycle, and say: "Coom ahn, boy!" and Toffee would immediately jump up, and fall into line. They were great companions.
Ned lived with his mother, and also he walked out with a young lady. Her name was Ettie Skinner, and she was one of the three daughters of old Charlie Skinner, the corn-merchant. Charlie Skinner had a little establishment in the station-yard. He was a widower, and he and his three daughters lived in a cottage in Neap's Lane. It was very seldom necessary to deliver letters at the Skinners' cottage, but every morning Ned had to pass up Neap's Lane, and so, when he arrived at the cottage, he dismounted, and rang his bicycle bell. The signal was understood by Ettie, who immediately ran out to the gate, and a conversation somewhat on this pattern usually took place:
"Ay. Mendin' some old cla'es."
"Looks like mebbe a shower."
"Comin' along to-night?"
"Ay, if it doan't rain."
"Well, so long!"
"So long, Ned."
In the evenings the conversation followed a very similar course. They waddled along the lanes side by side, and occasionally gave each other a punch. Ned smoked his pipe all the time, and Toffee was an unembarrassed cicerone. He was a little jealous of this unnecessary female, but he behaved with a resigned acquiescence. His master could do no wrong. His master was a god, a being apart from all others.
It cannot be said that Ned was a romantic lover. He was solemn, direct, imperturbable. He was a Saxon of Saxons, matter-of-fact, incorruptible, unimaginative, strong-willed, conscientious, not very ambitious, and suspicious of the unusual and the unknown. When the war broke out, he said:
"Ay, but this is a bad business!"
And then he thought about it for a month. At the end of that time he made up his mind to join. He rode up Neap's Lane one morning and rang his bell. When Ettie appeared the usual conversation underwent a slight variant:
"Oo—mendin' pa's nightgown."
"Oh! I be goin' to jine up."
"Oo-oh! Be 'ee?"
"When be goin'?"
"Monday with Dick Thursby and Len Cotton. An' I think young Walters, and Binnie Short mebbe."
"Oh, I say!"
"Ay. Comin' along to-night?"
"Ay, if it doan't rain."
"Well, see you then."
"So long, Ned."
On the following Monday Ned said good-bye to his mother, and sweetheart, and to Toffee, and he and the other four boys walked over to the recruiting-office at Carchester. They were drafted into the same unit, and sent up to Yorkshire to train. (Yorkshire being one hundred and fifty miles away was presumably the most convenient and suitable spot).
They spent five months there, and then Len Cotton was transferred to the machine Gun Corps, and the other four were placed in an infantry regiment and sent out to India. They did get an opportunity of returning to Ashalton, but the night before they left Ned wrote to his mother:
"Dear Mother, I think we are off to-morrow. They don't tell us where we are going but they seem to think it's India because of the Eastern kit served out and so on. Everything all right, the grub is fine. Young Walters has gone sick with a bile on his neck. Hope you are all right. See Toffee don't get into Mr. Mears yard for this is about the time he puts down that poison for the rats. Everything all O.K. love from Ned."
He wrote a very similar letter to Ettie, only leaving out the instructions about Toffee, and adding, "don't get overdoing it now the warm weathers on."
They touched at Gibraltar, Malta, Alexandria, and Aden. At all these places he merely sent the cryptic postcard. He did not write a letter again until he had been three weeks up in the hills in India. As a matter of fact it had been a terribly rough passage nearly all the way, especially in the Mediterranean, and nearly all the boys had been seasick most of the time. Ned had been specially bad and in the Red Sea had developed a slight fever. In India he had been sent to a rest-camp up in the hills. He wrote:
"Dear mother, everything all right. The grub is fine. I went a bit sick coming out but nothing. Quite all O.K. now. This is a funny place. The people would make you laugh to look at. We beat the 2nd Royal Scots by two goals to one. I wasn't playing but Binnie played a fine game at half-back. He stopped their centre forward an old league player, time and again. Hope you are keeping all right. Does Henry Thatcham take Toffee out regler. Everything serene. love from Ned."
In this letter the words "2nd Royal Scots" were deleted by the censor.
India at that time was apparently a kind of training-ground for young recruits. There were a few recalcitrant hill-tribes upon whom to practise the latest developments of military science, and Ned was mixed up in one or two of these little scraps. He proved himself a good soldier, doing precisely what he was told and being impervious to danger. They were five months in India, and then the regiment was suddenly drafted back to Egypt. Big things were afoot. No one knew what was going to happen. They spent ten days in a camp near Alexandria. They were then detailed for work in connection with the protection of the banks of the Canal, and Ned was stationed near the famous pyramid of Gizeh. He wrote to his mother:
"everything all right. Pretty quiet so far. This is a funny place. Young Walters has gone sick again. We had the regimental sports Thursday. Me and Bert Carter won the three-legged race. The grub is fine and we get dates and figs for nuts. Hope your cold is all right by now. Thanks for the parcel which I got on the 27th. Everything all right. Glad to hear about Mrs. Parsons having the twins and that. Glad to hear Toffee all right and so with love your loving son Ned."
They had not been at Gizeh for more than a week before they were sent back to Alexandria and placed on a transport. In fifteen days after touching at Imbros, Ned and his companions found themselves on Gallipoli peninsula. Heavy fighting was in progress. They were rushed up to the front line. For two days and nights they were in action and their numbers were reduced to one-third their original size. For thirty hours they were without water and were being shelled by gas, harried by flame-throwers, blasted by shrapnel and high-explosive. At the end of that time they crawled back to the beach at night through prickly brambles which poisoned them and set up septic wounds if they scratched them. They lay there dormant for two days, but still under shell-fire, and then were hurriedly re-formed into a new regiment, and sent to another part of the line. This went on continuously for three weeks, and then a terrible storm and flood occurred. Hundreds of men—some alive and some partly alive—were drowned in the ravines. Ned and his company lost all their kit, and slept in water for three nights running. At the end of four weeks he obtained five days' rest at the base. He wrote to Ettie:
"A long time since I had a letter from you. Hope all right. Everything all right so far. We had a bad storm but the weather now keeps fine. Had a fine bathe this morning. There was a man in our company could make you laugh. He is an Irish Canadian. He plays the penny whistle fine and sings a bit too. Sorry to say young Walters died. He got enteric and phewmonnia and so on. I expect his people will have heard all right. How is old Mrs. Walters? Dick Thursby got a packet too and Mrs. Quinby's boy I forget his name. How are them white rabbits of yours. I met a feller as used to take the milk round for Mr. Brand up at Bodes farm. Funny wasn't it. Well nothing more now. I hope this finds you as it leaves me your affectionate Ned."
Ned was three months on Gallipoli peninsula, but he left before the evacuation. During the whole of that time he was never not under shell-fire. He took part in seven attacks. On one occasion he went over the top with twelve hundred others, of whom only one hundred and seven returned. Once he was knocked unconscious by a mine explosion which killed sixty-seven men. At the end of that period he was shot through the back by a sniper. He was put in a dressing-station, and a gentleman in a white overall came and stuck a needle into his chest and left him there in a state of nudity for twelve hours. Work at the field hospitals was very congested just then. He became a bit delirious and was eventually put on a hospital ship with a little tag tied to him. After some vague and restless period he found himself again at Imbros and in a very comfortable hospital. He stayed there six weeks and his wound proved to be slight. The bone was only grazed. He wrote to his mother:
"Everything all right. I had a scratch but nothing. I hope you enjoyed the flower show. How funny meeting Mrs. Perks. We have a fine time here. The grub is fine. Sorry to say Binnie Short went under. He got gassed one night when he hadn't his mask on. The weather is mild and pleasant. Glad to hear Henry takes Toffee out all right. Have not heard from Ettie for some time. We had a fine concert on Friday. A chap played the flute lovely. Hope you are now all right again.
"Your loving son, Ned."
In bed in the hospital at Imbros a bright idea occurred to Ned. He made his will. Such an idea would never have occurred to him had it not been forced upon him by the unusual experiences of the past year. He suddenly realised that of all the boys who had left the village with him only Len Cotton, as far as he knew, remained. So one night he took a blunt-pointed pencil, and laboriously wrote on the space for the will at the end of his pay-book:
"I leave everything Ive got to my mother Anne Picklekin including Toffee. I hope Henry Thatcham will continue to look after Toffee except the silver bowl which I won at the rabbit show at Oppleford. This I leave to Ettie Skinner as a memorial of me."
One day Ned enjoyed a great excitement. He was under discharge from the hospital, and a rumour got round that he and some others were to be sent back to England. They hung about the island for three days, and were then packed into an Italian fruit-steamer—which had been converted into a transport. It was very overcrowded and the weather was hot. They sailed one night and reached another island before dawn. They spent three weeks doing this. They only sailed at night, for the seas about there were reported to be infested with submarines. Every morning they put in at some island in the Greek archipelago, or at some port on the mainland. At one place there was a terrible epidemic of illness, owing to some Greek gentleman having sold the men some doped wine. Fifteen of them died. Ned escaped from this, as he had not had any of the wine. He was practically a teetotaller except for an occasional glass of beer. But he was far from happy on that voyage. The seas were rough and the transport ought to have been broken up years ago, and this didn't seem to be the right route for England.
At length they reached a large port called Salonika. They never went into the town, but were sent straight out to a camp in the hills ten miles away. The country was very wild and rugged, and there was great difficulty with water. Everything was polluted and malarial. There was very little fighting apparently, but plenty of sickness. He found himself in a Scottish regiment. At least, it was called Scottish, but the men came from all parts of the world, from Bow Street to Hong-Kong.
There was to be no Blighty after all, but still—there it was! He continued to drill, and march, and clean his rifle and play the mouth-organ and football. And then one morning he received a letter from his mother, which had followed him from Imbros. It ran as follows:
My Dear Ned,—
"How are you, dear? I hope you keep all right. My corf is now pretty middlin otherwise nothin to complain of. Now dear I have to tell you something which greives me dear. Im afraid its no good keepin it from you ony longer dear. Ettie is walkin out with another feller. A feller from the air station called Alf Mullet. I taxed her with it and she says yes it is so dear. Now dear you mustnt take on about this. I told her off I says it was a disgraceful and you out there fightin for your country and that. And she says nothin excep yes there it was and she couldnt help it and her feelins had been changed you being away and that. Now dear you must put a good face on this and remember theres just as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it as they say dear. One of Mr. Beans rabbits died Sunday they think it over-eating you never know with rabbits. Keep your feet warm dear I hope you got them socks I sent. Lizzie was at chapel Sunday she had on her green lawn looked very nice I thought but I wish she wouldnt get them spots on her face perhaps its only the time of year. Toffee is all right he had a fight with a hairdale Thursday Henry says got one of his eres bitten but nothin serous. So now dear I must close as Mrs. Minchin wants me to go and take tea with her has Florrie has gone to the schooltreat at Furley. And so dear with love your lovin Mother."
When he had finished reading this letter he uttered an exclamation, and a cockney friend sitting on the ground by his side remarked:
"What's the matter, mate?"
Ned took a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and lighted one. Then he said:
"My girl's jilted me."
The cockney laughed and said:
"Gawd! is that all? I thought it was somethin' serious!"
He was cleaning his rifle with an oil rag, and he continued: "Don't you worry, mate. Women are like those blinkin' little Greek islands, places to call at but not to stay. What was she like?"
"'As she got another feller?"
"Oh, well, it's all in the gime. If you will go gallivanting about these foreign parts enjoyin' yerself, what d'yer expect? What time's kick-off this afternoon?"
"Reckon we're goin' to win?"
"I doan't know. 'Pends upon whether McFarlane turns out."
"Yus, 'e's a wonderful player. Keeps the team together like."
"Are you playin'?"
"Ay. I'm playin' right half."
"Are yer? Well, you'll 'ave yer 'ands full. You'll 'ave to tackle Curly Snider."
Ned's team won the match that afternoon, and he wrote to his mother afterwards:
"We just had a great game against 15 Royal South Hants. McFarlane played centre half and he was in great form. We lead 2—0 at half-time and they scored one at the beginnin of the second half but Davis got thro towards the end and we beat them by 3-1. I was playin quite a good game I think but McFarlane is a real first class. I got your letter all right, am glad your corf is getting all right. I was sorry about Ettie but of course she knows what she wants I spose. You dont say what Toffee did to the other dog. You might tell Henery to let me have a line about this. Fancy Liz being at chapel. I almos forget what shes like. Everything is all right. The grub is fine. This is a funny place all rocks and planes. The Greeks are a stinkin lot for the most part so must now close with love.
Having completed this letter, Ned got out his pay-book and revised his will. Ettie Skinner was now deleted, and the silver bowl won at the rabbit-show at Oppleford was bequeathed to Henry Thatcham in consideration of his services in taking Toffee out for runs.
They spent a long and tedious eight months on the plains of Macedonia, dodging malaria and bullets, cracking vermin in their shirts, playing football, ragging, quarrelling, drilling, manoeuvring, and, most demoralising of all, hanging about. And then a joyous day dawned. This hybrid Scottish regiment were ordered home! They left Salonica in a French liner and ten days later arrived at Malta. But in the meantime the gods had been busy. The wireless operators had been flashing their mysterious signals all over the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. At Malta the order was countermanded. They remained there long enough to coal, but the men were not even given shore leave. The next day they turned Eastwards again and made for Alexandria.
The cockney was furious. He had the real genius of the grouser, with the added venom of the man who in the year of grace had lived by his wits and now found his wits enclosed in an iron cylinder. It was a disgusting anticlimax.
"When I left that filthy 'ole," he exclaimed, "I swore to God I'd try and never remember it again. And now I'm darned if we ain't goin' back there. As if once ain't enough in a man's lifetime! It's like the blooming cat with the blankety mouse!"
"Eh, well, mon," interjected a Scotsman, "there's ane thing. They canna keel ye no but once."
"It ain't the killing I mind. It's the blooming mucking about. What d'yer say, Pickles?"
"Ah, well...there it is," said Ned sententiously.
There was considerable "mucking about" in Egypt, and then they started off on a long trek through the desert, marching on wire mesh that had been laid down by the engineers. There was occasional skirmishing, sniping, fleas, delay, and general discomfort. One day, in Southern Palestine, Ned was out with a patrol party just before sundown. They were trekking across the sand between two oases when shots rang out. Five of the party fell. The rest were exposed in the open to foes firing from concealment on two sides. The position was hopeless. They threw up their hands. Two more shots rang out and the cockney next to Ned fell forward with a bullet through his throat. Then dark figures came across the sands towards them. There were only three left, Ned, a Scotsman, and a boy who had been a clerk in a drapery store at Lewisham before the war. He said:
"Well, are they going to kill us?"
"No," said the Scotsman. "Onyway, keep your hands weel up and pray to God."
A tall man advanced, and to their relief beckoned them to follow. They fell into single file.
"These are no Tur-r-ks at all," whispered the Scotsman. "They're some nomadic Arab tribe."
The Scotsman had attended evening continuation classes at Peebles, and was rather fond of the word "nomadic."
They were led to one of the oases, and instructed to sit down. The Arabs sat round them, armed with rifles. They remained there till late at night, when another party arrived, and a rope was produced. They were handcuffed and braced together, and then by gesticulation told to march. They trailed across the sand for three hours and a half. There was no moon, but the night was tolerably clear. At length they came to another oasis, and were bidden to halt. They sat on the sand for twenty minutes, and one of the Arabs gave them some water. Then a whistle blew, and they were kicked and told to follow. The party wended its way through a grove of cedar-trees. It was pitch-dark. At last they came to a halt by a large hut. There was much coming and going. When they entered the hut, in charge of their guard, they were blinded by a strong light. The hut was comfortably furnished and lighted by electric light. At a table sat a stout, pale-faced man, with a dark moustache—obviously a German. By his side stood a tall German orderly. The German official looked tired and bored. He glanced at the prisoners and drew some papers towards him.
"Come and stand here in front of my desk," he said in English.
They advanced, and he looked at each one carefully. Then he yawned, dipped his pen in ink, tried it on a sheet of paper, swore, and inserted a fresh nib.
"Now, you," he said, addressing the Scotchman, when he had completed these operations. "Name, age, profession, regiment. Smartly."
He obtained all these particulars from each man. Then he got up and came round the table, and looking right into the eyes of the clerk from Lewisham, he said:
"We know, of course, in which direction your brigade is advancing, but from which direction is the brigade commanded by Major-General Forbes Fittleworth advancing?"
The three of them all knew this, for it was common gossip of the march. But the clerk from Lewisham said:
"I don't know."
The German turned from him to the Scotsman and repeated the question.
"I don't know," answered the Scotsman.
"From which direction is the brigade commanded by Major-General Forbes Fittleworth advancing?" he said to Ned.
"Naw! I doan't know," replied Ned.
And then a horrible episode occurred. The German suddenly whipped out a revolver and shot the clerk from Lewisham through the body twice. He gave a faint cry and crumbled forward. Without taking the slightest notice of this horror, the German turned deliberately and held the revolver pointed at Ned's face. In a perfectly unimpassioned, toneless voice he repeated:
"From which direction is the brigade commanded by Major-General Forbes Fittleworth advancing?"
In the silence which followed, the only sound seemed to be the drone of some machine, probably from the electric-light plant. The face of Ned was mildly surprised but quite impassive. He answered without a moment's hesitation:
"Naw! I doan't know."
There was a terrible moment in which the click of the revolver could almost be heard. It seemed to hover in front of his face for an unconscionable time, then suddenly the German lowered it with a curse, and leaning forward, he struck Ned on the side of his face with the flat of his hand. He treated the Scotsman in the same way, causing his nose to bleed. Both of the men remained quite impassive. Then he walked back to his seat, and said calmly:
"Unless you can refresh your memories within the next two hours you will both share the fate of—that swine. You will now go out to the plantation at the back and dig your graves. Dig three graves."
He spoke sharply in Arabic to the guards, and they were led out. They were handed a spade each, two Arabs held torches for them to work by, and four others hovered in a circle twelve paces away. The soil was light sand, and digging was fairly easy. Each man dug his own grave, making it about four feet deep. When it came to the third grave the Scotsman whispered:
"Dig deep, mon."
"Deeper than others?"
"Ay, deep enough to make a wee trench."
They made it very deep, working together and whispering. When it was practically completed, apparently a sudden quarrel arose between the men. They swore at each other, and the Scotsman sprang out of the trench and gripped Ned by the throat. A fearful struggle began to take place on the edge of the grave. The guard ran up and tried to separate them. And then, during the brief confusion there was a sudden dramatic development. Simultaneously they snatched their spades. Both the men with the torches were knocked senseless, and one of them fell into the third grave. The torches were stamped out and a rifle went off. It was fired by a guard near the hut, and the bullet struck another Arab who was trying to use his bayonet. Ned brought a fourth man down with his spade and seized his rifle, and the Scotsman snatched the rifle of the man who had been shot, and they both leapt back into their purposely prepared trench.
"We shallna be able to hold this long, but we'll give them a grand run for their money," said the Scotsman.
The body of one Arab was lying on the brink of their trench and the other in the trench itself. Fortunately they both had bandoliers, which Ned and his companion instantly removed.
"You face east and I'll take west," said the Scotsman, his eyes glittering in the dim light. "I'm going to try and scare that Boche devil."
He peppered away at the hut, putting bullets through every window and smashing the telephone connection, which was a fine target at the top of a post against the sky. Bullets pinged over their heads from all directions, but there was little chance of them being rushed while their ammunition held out. However, it became necessary to look ahead. It was the Scotsman's idea in digging the graves to plan them in zig-zag formation. The end of the furthest one was barely ten paces from a clump of aloes. He now got busy with his spade whilst Ned kept guard in both directions, occasionally firing at the hut and then in the opposite direction into the darkness. In half-an-hour the Scotsman had made a shallow connection between the three graves, leaving just enough room to crawl through. They then in turn donned the turbans of the two fallen Arabs, who were otherwise dressed in a kind of semi-European uniform.
They ended up with a tremendous fusillade against the hut, riddling it with bullets; then they crept to the end of the furthest grave, and leaving their rifles, they made a sudden dash across the open space to the group of aloes, bending low and limping like wounded Arabs. They reached them in safety, but there were many open spaces to cover yet. As they emerged from the trees Ned stumbled on a dark figure. He kicked it and ran. They both ran zig-zag fashion, and tore off their turbans as they raced along. They covered nearly a hundred yards, and then bullets began to search them out again. They must have gone nearly a mile before the Scotsman gave a sudden slight groan.
"I'm hit," he said.
He stumbled on into a clump of bushes, and fell down.
"Is it bad?" asked Ned.
"Eh, laddie, I'm doon," he said quietly. He put his hand to his side. He had been shot through the lungs. Ned stayed with him all night, and they were undisturbed. Just before dawn the Scotsman said:
"Eh, mon, but yon was a bonny fight," and he turned on his back and died.
Ned made a rough grave with his hands, and buried his companion. He took his identification disc and his pocket-book and small valuables, with the idea of returning them to his kin if he should get through himself. He also took his water-flask, which still fortunately contained a little water. He lay concealed all day, and at night he boldly donned his turban, issued forth and struck a caravan-trail. He continued this for four days and nights, hiding in the daytime and walking at nights. He lived on figs and dates, and one night he raided a village and caught a fowl, which also nearly cost him his life.
On the fourth night his water gave out, and he was becoming light-headed. He stumbled on into the darkness. He was a desperate man. All the chances were against him, and he felt unmoved and fatalistic. He drew his clasp-knife and gripped it tightly in his right hand. He was hardly conscious of what he was doing, and where he was going. The moon was up, and after some hours he suddenly beheld a small oblong hut. He got it into his head that this was the hut where his German persecutor was. He crept stealthily towards it.
"I'll kill that swine," he muttered.
He was within less than a hundred yards of the hut, when a voice called out:
"'Alt! Who goes there?"
"It's me," he said. "Doan't thee get in my way. I want to kill him. I'm going to kill him. I'm going to stab him through his black heart."
"What the hell—!"
The sentry was not called upon to use his rifle, for the turbaned figure fell forward in a swoon.
Three weeks later Ned wrote to his mother from Bethlehem (where Christ was born), and this is what he said:
"Everything going on all right. I got three parcels here altogether as I had been away copped by some black devils an unfriendly tribe. I got back all right though. The ointment you sent was fine and so was them rock cakes. What a funny thing about Belle getting lost at the picnick. We got an awful soaking from the Mid-Lancs Fusiliers on Saturday. They had two league cracks playing one a wonderful centreforward. He scored three goals. They beat us by 7-0. The weather is hot but quite plessant at night. We have an old sergeant who was born in America does wonderful tricks with string and knots and so on. He tells some very tall yarns. You have to take them with a pinch of salt. Were getting fine grub here pretty quiet so far. Hope Henry remembers to wash Toffee with that stuff every week or so. Sorry to hear Len Cotton killed. Is his sister still walking out with that feller at Aynham. I never think he was much class for her getting good money though. Hope you have not had any more trouble with the boiler. That was a good price to get for that old buck rabbit. Well there's nothing more just now and so with love your loving son.
Ned went through the Palestine campaign and was slightly wounded in the thigh. After spending some time in hospital he was sent to the coast and put on duty looking after Turkish prisoners. He remained there six months and was then shipped to Italy. On the way the transport was torpedoed. He was one of a party of fifty-seven picked up by French destroyers. He had been for over an hour in the water in his life-belt. He was landed in Corsica and there he developed pneumonia. He only wrote his mother one short note about this:
"Have been a bit dicky owing to falling in the water and getting wet. But going on all right. Nurses very nice and one of the doctors rowed for Cambridge against Oxford. I forget the year but Cambridge won by two and a half lengths. We have very nice flowers in the ward. Well not much to write about and so with love your loving son,
Ned was fit again in a few weeks and he was sent up to the Italian front. He took part in several engagements and was transferred to the French front during the last months of the war. He was in the great retreat in March, 1918, and in the advance in July. After the armistice he was with the army of occupation on the banks of the Rhine. His mother wrote to him there:
My Dear Ned,—
"Am glad that the fightin us now all over dear. How relieved you must be. Mr. Filter was in Sunday. He thinks there will be no difficulty about you gettin your job back when you come back dear. Miss Siffkins as been deliverin but as Mr. Filter says its not likely a girl is going to be able to deliver letters not like a man can and that dear. So now you will be comin home soon dear. That will be nice. We had a pleesant afternoon at the Church needlewomens gild. Miss Barbary Banstock sang very pleesantly abide with me and the vicar told a very amusing story about a little girl and a prince she didn't know he was a prince and talked to him just as though he was a man it was very amusin dear. I hear Ettie is goin to get married next month they wont get me to the weddin was it ever so I call it disgraceful and I have said so. Maud Bean is expectin in April that makes her forth in three years. Mr. Bean as lost three more rabbits they say its rats this time. The potaters are a poor lot this time but the runners and cabbidge promiss well. So now dear I will close. Hoppin to have your back dear soon.
"Your loving mother."
It was, however, the autumn before Ned was demobilised. One day in early October he came swinging up the village street carrying a white kit-bag slung across his left shoulder. He looked more bronzed and perhaps a little thinner, but otherwise little altered by his five years of war experiences. The village of Ashalton was quite unaltered, but he observed several strange faces; he only met two acquaintances on the way to his mother's cottage, and they both said:
"Hullo, Ned! Ye're home agen then!"
In each case he replied:
"Ay," and grinned, and walked on.
He entered his mother's cottage, and she was expecting him. The lamp was lighted and a grand tea was spread. There was fresh boiled beetroot, tinned salmon, salad, cake, and a large treacle tart. She embraced him and said:
"Well, Ned! Ye're back then."
He replied: "Ay."
"Ye're lookin' fine," she said. "What a fine suit they've given ye!"
"Ay," he replied.
"I expect you want yer tea?"
He had dropped his kit-bag, and he moved luxuriously round the little parlour, looking at all the familiar objects. Then he sat down, and his mother brought the large brown teapot from the hob and they had a cosy tea. She told him all the very latest news of the village, and all the gossip of the countryside, and Ned grinned and listened. He said nothing at all. The tea had progressed to the point when Ned's mouth was full of treacle tart, when his mother suddenly stopped, and said:
"Oh, dear, I'm afraid I have somethin' distressin' to tell ye, dear."
"O-oh? what's that?"
"Poor Toffee was killed."
Ned stopped suddenly in the mastication of the treacle tart. His eyes bulged and his cheeks became very red. He stared at his mother wildly, and repeated:
"What's that? What's that ye say, Mother?"
"Poor Toffee, my dear. It happened right at the crossroads. Henry was takin' him out. It seems he ran round in front of a steam-roller, and a motor came round the corner sudden. Henry called out, but too late. Went right over his back. Poor Henry was quite upset. He brought him home. What's the matter, dear?"
Ned had pushed his chair back, and he stood up. He stared at his mother like a man who has seen horror for the first time.
"Where is—where was—" he stammered.
"We buried 'im, dear, under the little mound beyond the rabbit hutches."
Ned staggered across the room like a drunken man, and repeated dismally:
"The little mound beyond the rabbit hutches!"
He lifted the latch, and groped his way into the garden. His mother followed him. He went along the mud path, past the untenanted hutches covered with tarpaulin. Some tall sunflowers stared at him insolently. A fine rain was beginning to fall. In the dim light he could just see the little mound—signifying the spot where Toffee was buried. He stood there bare-headed, gazing at the spot. His mother did not like to speak. She tiptoed back to the door. But after a time she called out:
He did not seem to hear, and she waited patiently. At the end of several minutes she called again:
"Ned!...Ned dear, come and finish your tea."
He replied quite quietly:
"All right, Mother."
But he kept his face averted, for he did not want his mother to see the tears which were streaming down his cheeks.
It is given to few of us to realise the dreams of our youth. Nevertheless, as the train rumbled across Waterloo Bridge, Jake O'Neal glowed with the quiet satisfaction of a man who is attaining an almost fantastic realisation. The river was suffused with the golden light of the setting sun. He caught a glimpse of St. Paul's and of the city familiar to his youth. His wife and daughter were dozing in opposite corners of the luxurious Pullman.
It was thirty-one years since he had visited London. Jake O'Neal had been a somewhat reckless youth. Left a small fortune by his father, a successful ship-broker, he had squandered the lot in four years. And then of course he did the usual thing. He cleared out. He went to Canada to seek his fortune. He was then twenty-six. For a long time he became a rolling-stone. One day in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he was drugged and robbed in a disreputable establishment on the river-side. After that, strange to relate, he pulled himself together. As he once explained it, he "held a committee meeting of one." From that day to this he had not touched alcohol. Neither had he betted, or gambled, or indulged in outrageous pleasures. He worked hard and got on. He went in for engineering, and was one of the first to foresee the commercial possibilities of automobile accessories. He avoided the business of the car, but concentrated on accessories. It had taken him twenty-five years t? make a fortune, but he had done so. In the meantime he had married happily. His two sons were now carrying on his business. His wife was dozing in the corner of the Pullman, and his daughter was—yawning, and saying:
"Why, poppa, we're there!"
At Waterloo, they piled a few of their more portable trunks on to a taxi, and drove to the Carlton, where Jake had engaged rooms. Both the womenfolk were very tired with the journey, and after a bath they dined quietly in a private room. After dinner they sat talking for nearly an hour, and then Jake said:
"Well, what do you say to a stroll round to see what little old London looks like?"
"I'm too tired, dear," answered his good spouse, "but if you like, you go with Maisie."
Maisie said she would "be tickled to death just to have a peep round," and then afterwards exercised her woman's prerogative of changing her mind. She decided to leave the tickling till the morrow. So Jake went off on his own.
He lighted a cigar and strolled up the Haymarket. It was only a quarter past nine, and the streets were full of life and movement.
Thirty-one years ago! How very strange and yet how very familiar! He, an elderly colonial gentleman, broad and well-knit, holding his figure very erect for fifty-seven, ambling along, curiously conscious of his youth. Three young officers of the Royal Air Force, in dove-grey blue, came along armin-arm, and the middle one was indulging in spasmodic song. There were many relics of the great war. More officers than privates apparently. Brass hats and jaunty subs, American, Canadian and Australian, French, Italian and—what were they? Czecho-Slovak?—and women. The same women, hundreds and hundreds of them. It only seemed the other day that he was a young man, just like one of these smooth-faced boys hurrying hither and thither, eagerly intent on what he called "life."
At the corner of Cranbourn Street a crowd had collected. There had been a "scene" and the police had arrived. No one knew what it was all about. Two women were shouting at the same time in high-pitched voices, and a soldier was standing limply with his back to a shutter, and blood running down his right cheek. Jake passed on and went up Shaftesbury Avenue. Women looked at him furtively, and a sallow-faced man with a yellowy-white beard stopped him, and asked him how he could get to St. Albans. He said he had lost his railway-ticket, and had no money. Jake gave him a shilling.
He took a turning to the left and wandered into Soho. He had not gone a hundred yards before he heard a woman screaming. Another crowd had collected. He joined it. He caught sight of a woman's face. It was perfectly white; her eyes were glassy and expressionless. She had no hat, and her hair was hanging all over the place. She was screaming and giving alternate groans. A tall man with a moustache was shaking her, and patting her hands, and saying, "All right, all right, all right!"
Jake spoke to a woman on the edge of the crowd.
"What is it?" he said.
"Suicide," answered the woman simply. "Tried to commit suicide, drinking kümmels. She's been round everywhere. They say she had fourteen."
A boy drove up in a taxi, and the woman was pushed into it, accompanied by the man with the moustache and another man who looked like an Italian. They drove off.
At the corner of Wardour Street an elderly man with a blotchy face, and a voice of which three notes in the upper register were extraordinarily good, was singing a song about "Thy lily hands," accompanied by a young man in a bowler-hat, on a small piano-organ.
Jake went back to Shaftesbury Avenue. Through the crowd a tall man in a shabby top-hat hurried. As he passed he muttered breathlessly to everyone:
"God is Love! Turn to the Lord Jesus! God is Love. Turn to the Lord Jesus!"
He went into the Café Monico and managed to secure a seat at a table near the further wall. The place was packed. Jake ordered some coffee and puffed at a cigar. Somewhere out of sight a band was playing rag-time. Groups of Frenchmen and women and Italians were talking excitedly. An Australian soldier was leaning forward on a table, holding the hands of a girl. The friction of these various entities stirred Jake profoundly. It was like the aroma of past days. Two people got up from his table and left. The only other occupant was a young officer.
After a time a peculiar circumstance struck him. He had only glanced at the young officer once—their proximity would have made it embarrassing to do more than that—and he had envisaged a fair, rather distinguished-looking young man, who appeared extremely bored and tired with his surroundings. It suddenly dawned on Jake that the young man had just ordered his fourth cup of black coffee. He glanced at him again, and noticed that he was leaning his face on his hands and staring at the marble-topped table. His head nodded occasionally, and he seemed to be breathing in a way that suggested that the action gave him pain. When the fourth cup of coffee was brought, he sipped it and pushed the cup away. Jake watched him closely for some moments, and then he said:
"Excuse me—can I be of any service? I fear you're not well."
The young man raised his head and frowned. He stared at his interlocutor for some seconds, and then buried his eyes in his knuckles. And in a low rumble of voice he said:
"I'm in awful trouble."
Jake leaned forward again and whispered:
"Unless I'm under a wrong impression, you've been doped. You must excuse me again. The fact is, I have had experience of these things. I could tell by your eyes. I have lived a long time in the Western States of Canada. In a district where men carry pouches of gold-dust it is by no means uncommon."
The young man muttered, "Yes."
"If you will allow me to accompany you to a chemist; I know of a prescription which seldom fails."
He stood up and shook the other vigorously by the arm. The young man didn't speak. In a dazed way he groped for his cane, and stood up. Jake was relieved to find that he could walk, although rather unsteadily. In the street he bade him lean upon his arm. Fortunately there is a chemist's shop almost next-door to the Monico. They went in and Jake put the young man in a seat. He then ingratiated himself with the assistant. So persuasive were his manners that in a few minutes he was himself behind the little glass screen at the end, holding up bottles, and tapping powders. Under the promise of liberal remuneration he was allowed to make up the prescription himself.
He took it back into the shop and made the young man drink it. He then allowed him to remain seated for five minutes. At the end of that time he took his arm and led him out into the street. Jake then gripped him firmly and made him walk at a tremendous pace up and down Glasshouse Street. At the end of ten minutes he said:
"Well, how do you feel?"
"Extraordinarily better, and ever so much worse."
"Oh! how's that?"
"I'm getting clearer in the head, and the clearer in the head I get the more appalling the whole thing gets."
"Don't worry. That'll be all right. We all make mistakes."
"Not mistakes like this."
"You'll be all right in a few hours."
"I'm ruined for ever."
"Have you been robbed?"
"Yes, but not of money."
"Well, well, we must—"
"I wouldn't mind that. I wish they had taken every penny I've got in the world, if they had only left the other thing."
"Perhaps we can find the other thing, whatever it is."
The young man suddenly stopped by a lamp-post and took hold of Jake's forearms, and looked into his eyes.
"I don't know who you are," he said, "but you're a decent chap."
"My name is Jake O'Neal, and I've—been a young man myself."
"You can cut all that out. It isn't that sort of thing. It's far worse. It may mean—almost anything. I can't tell you here, and my nerves are all shaken by that stuff. These bally lamp-posts may be listening. Come over to my roams at the Albany, and for the love of God try and help me!"
He crossed Regent Street with a firmer step, and in a few minutes they had entered a commodious suite of rooms in the Albany, furnished in old walnut and tapestry. An elderly butler appeared, but the young man called out:
"It's all right. We shan't want you, Morniment." He waved his hand to a tall Charles the Second chair by the fireplace, and sank into one opposite. "It's extraordinary how much better I feel," he remarked.
"If you have it in the place, it would be good for you to have a little neat brandy now," said Jake.
The young man thought for a moment, then he said:
"I've got some old liqueur brandy my father bought from part of a lot that belonged to King Edward."
"That sounds a good recommendation."
He went out of the room and in a few minutes returned with a bottle. He placed it on the table and took two liqueur-glasses from a cupboard.
"Will you join me?" he asked.
Jake shook his head and smiled, and then, suddenly succumbing to a whim, he replied:
"It's exactly—twenty-seven years since I touched alcohol. But to your good health and the hope that we may recover what you have lost, I will take a glass."
The young man sipped the brandy. Old Jake held the little glass beneath his nostrils, then putting it to his lips, he threw the whole lot into his mouth, and drank at a gulp.
"King Edward was an excellent connoisseur," he remarked.
"Yes; so was my father. Please help yourself."
Silver gleamed on a side-table. In a panel above the fireplace was a full-length portrait of a young man in Jacobean costume—possibly a Vandyke. Jake suddenly warmed to the juxta-position of these comfortable luxuries. After all, there was something in this heritage of civilisation. He had felt it all intensely when he was a young man, the intoxication of these quiet rooms with their modulated lights and the atmosphere of wealth, and mystery, and romance. He helped himself to some more of the old brandy and remarked:
"Please do not distress yourself. If it would relieve you to give me your confidence, I think you may rely on my discretion. If you would rather not do so, let us talk of—art, or dogs, or politics!"
"If the time were not so urgent I should enjoy a discussion of all these things," replied the young man, "but this must be a night of action."
He stared dreamily at the fire, and rested his hands between his knees. With his delicate pale face and his dreamy eyes he did not give the impression of being a man of action at all. He appeared more like a poet or some romantic spirit that had leapt across the ages just to pander to Jake's wild desire to live again in the realms of his youth. Indeed, at that moment he felt absurdly young. He enjoyed a momentary conviction that he was the young man, and this frail person was an old and withered ancestor. It was most peculiar. So concerned was he with this illusion that the young man spoke for several minutes before Jake listened to him intelligently. He was saying something about politics. He referred rather excitedly to a certain Baron Shen-Sang. Then he stopped and, leaning forward, he said in his quiet voice:
"Perhaps I had better put the matter to you in a more hypothetical way, Mr. O'Neil. One must begin with a theory. The great war produced endless theories and destroyed more...But there is one great fact it produced which it couldn't destroy. That is that a great war costs money which has to be paid. And it does not just cost merely forty or fifty millions like it did in the old days. It costs thousands of millions...Now, assuming that some power or combination of powers became convinced that a war was inevitable in—say—twenty years' time, and that that war was going to cost them four or five thousand million pounds, would it not be good policy to spend a hundred million now to help quicken the decision?"
"It would undoubtedly be a good investment," said or thought Jake. "But how? In armaments? secret laboratories?"
"No; the day for that is over. There are more powerful weapons. And the most powerful weapon of all is—education."
"When I say education, I mean very largely—public conscience, the conscience which is moulded by the press."
"Now, let us assume that there is a great power in the Far East which is convinced that the day will come when it will have war with the United States."
"The United States has what amounts to a virtual alliance with England. This Far-Eastern State has an actual alliance with England. It's like one of these triangle dramas you see at a cinema. No power or combination of powers would challenge England and America united. Consequently the problem is to detach England from America. Do you take me?"
"Now, if this Far Eastern power had got to spend four or five thousand million pounds twenty years hence on a war with America, it stands to reason that it would be a very good investment to spend a hundred million now on trying to stir up trouble between England and America, not merely with the idea of making England neutral but of getting her on their side in the struggle."
"By purchasing the press?"
"By purchasing and controlling the press of both countries in the most subtle and indirect way. By staging thousands of petty grievances, by magnifying any actual grievance, by a systematic propaganda of pin-pricks, by a continual flaunting of each other's national pride, and by organising definite breaches of international faith."
Through the open window Jake could hear the sound of an orchestra, probably in the great hotel at the back. The young man's face moved in and out of the firelight. His eyes were shining. He was no longer the dreamer. He said abruptly:
"We will leave the realms of theory. Such a contract exists. It is signed by Baron Shen-Sang on behalf of the Imperial Far Eastern Power on one side, and two men on the other. One is Mark O'Dea, the notorious Irish-American Sinn Feiner in Chicago. He is to act in America. The other is Isaac Braun, the biggest owner of paper-mills in the world. He is to act in England and the colonies. Both these men are given practically a free hand."
"How do you know it exists?"
"Because this morning I had it in my hand. And this afternoon I lost it!'
"Help yourself to some more brandy. My name is Arthur St. John Cellier, and my father is Lord Froddiesham. I am acting secretary to Mr. Stryve, the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I cannot tell you how this contract got into the hands of His Majesty's Ministers, but it did. There is to be a cabinet meeting to-morrow at twelve, and the American Ambassador has been invited to attend, and I've lost the contract! Now you see why I'm in trouble."
A curious lingering, haunting air that, that came wailing from the strings across the way!
Jake sucked the end of his moist cigar, and said: "How did it happen?"
"After the Cabinet meeting this morning I returned with Mr. Stryve to Cavendish Square. When we got into the library, he took the contract out of the attaché-case and handed it to me, and said, 'Cellier, take this straight up to the strong-room and lock it in the safe.'I always keep the keys of the safe. As I was crossing the hall, a servant said I was wanted on the 'phone. I stuffed the contract into my breast-pocket, and went to the 'phone in the little room off the hall. I must apologise for intruding a very personal matter here. I am engaged to the best and most beautiful girl in the world. And it was she who rang me up. I must acknowledge I was rather excited. You see, she had been away and had turned up suddenly, and wanted me to lunch with her in town. Of course I agreed, and I met her at the Piccadilly Hotel. While I was waiting in the lounge of the Piccadilly I suddenly remembered that I still had the secret contract in my pocket. I was just going to dash out, and take a taxi, and return, when Coralie turned up; and then—well, I put it off, you see. We had lunch and afterwards strolled in the park. At four o'clock Coralie had to meet her mother. I went into my Club and telephoned to Peters at Mr. Stryve's to see that everything was all right. He said it was. Mr. Stryve was out, but someone had rung up and asked for me, or where I should be likely to be, but he couldn't catch the name. I went into the reading-room and wrote some letters. After a time a boy came in and told me someone wanted to speak to me in the hall. I went out. There was a curious half-caste-looking person who grinned and handed me a note. It was from Mr. Stryve, written hurriedly on the note-paper of the Bath Club. He said, would I go at once in the car that was waiting, collect the contract from Cavendish Square, and take it to the private house of Mr. Tringham of the American Embassy. The chauffeur knew the address. I smiled when I thought how angry the guv'nor would be if he knew that I had the contract on me all the time! I went outside. There was a long-bodied khaki-coloured car waiting, with a chauffeur who looked like a Russian. The messenger disappeared. I asked him where the house was, and he touched his hat and said, 'The other side of Regent's Park, sir.' In order to keep myself right with the guv'nor, I let him call at Cavendish Square, and I went in for a few minutes. Then I went back into the car. He bowled along. He was a frightfully good driver. We seemed to go round that inner circle of the park two or three times. It is very confusing. I don't know that part very well. Suddenly we took a sharp turning and went up a drive. A lot of the houses round there are remarkably similar, neither did I pay much attention to them. I wanted to deliver my paper and get away, for I had promised to meet Coralie at half-past six. I went into the hall and was shown into a small gaily-furnished boudoir overlooking a little garden. A tall, dark, extremely beautiful woman was alone in the room, drinking tea. She got up, and said, in a soft American voice:
"'Oh, Mr. Cellier, I'm so sorry. My husband will be here in a few minutes. He's just had a call from the Ambassador. Won't you sit down?'
"I thanked her, and threw off a few platitudes about the room and the weather, and she handed me a cup of tea, and said:
"'Please be neighbourly, and have a cup of tea with me.'
"Of course I was neighbourly. I drank the tea." The young man stopped and pinched his knees.
"And the tea was doped!" remarked Jake.
"It was all frightfully confused. If you have been through the experience you will know. I heard voices and had incredible dreams, and I seem t? remember running, and running, and running to escape from someone. I know that when at last I became reasonably conscious I found myself kneeling on the grass in the darkness, staring at a large brown bear."
"A brown bear!"
"Yes. I was inside Regent's Park. As you know, the park gates shut at dusk, so I was alone in the park, staring through some railings into the Zoo. I must have been put over from some garden adjoining the park, probably carried, for there was no such garden anywhere near where I was. My jacket was torn and there was a scratch down my left leg. My money and watch and pocket-book were untouched, but the contract was gone!
"The realisation of the loss of the contract spurred me to a frenzy of action. I felt very queer, but I managed to reach the park railings. I waited till no one was about, and then I swarmed over. I don't know how I managed it. They are very high and have spikes along the top. They say there's a special providence looks after—fools like me. When I got out into the streets I could not think how to act. I dared not go back and report the matter to Mr. Stryve. I was not in a fit state t? see anyone. It occurred to me that black coffee might be a good thing. I crawled down Portland Place and Regent Street. I went into the Monico. I met you. And here I am!"
Arthur St. John Cellier sighed, and sat back in his chair. Jake O'Neal was no longer an old man. He was a boy, with his eyes sparkling with the light of adventure. He stood up and walked briskly up and down the thick carpet. He went to the window and looked up at the heavy mantle of the moonless night. The strains of the orchestra still reached him. Suddenly he said:
"Could you find your way back to the spot in the park where you recovered your consciousness?"
"Come, then, let us be going. But in ther first place I must have a rope—twelve to fifteen yards of rope."
Cellier rang the bell, and the imperturbable butler entered.
"Morniment, get fifteen yards of rope."
"Yes, sir," said the butler in a voice which suggested that fifteen yards of rope was the most ordinary and usual request in the world.
When he had retired Jake whipped a revolver out of his hip-pocket and examined the barrel.
"You carry one of those things, then," remarked the young man sleepily.
"Sir," replied Jake, "if you like to stand at the other end of your passage and balance this grapefruit on your head, I will promise to do the William Tell stunt for your benefit."
"Thanks! I'm sure you would perform your part of the contract. But for my part, I'm still feeling a little shaky. I'd rather have another brandy."
"Very well. I will join you."
They raised their glasses.
"Bonne chance!" exclaimed Jake.
"Good luck!" replied the Minister's secretary. "Ah! here is Morniment with the rope. Morniment, will you please get us a taxi."
Within ten minutes the cab drew up at a quiet spot, on the outer circle of the park. Jake paid the driver, and the two men walked off, Cellier leading the way. Fortunately the night was exceptionally dark. They passed a few couples and an odd policeman. When they reached the inner railings, Cellier said:
"It was somewhere about here that I got over."
They hung about till the road was quite deserted, and then Jake quickly made a slip-knot and a kind of step ladder with the rope. The entry was comparatively easy. They crept across the grass and took cover behind the trees. It seemed very quiet. The only sound was the distant hum of London's nocturnal activities. Cellier went on ahead, walking quickly, and peering to right and left.
"Ah!" he exclaimed at last. "We're coming to it. I know by that band-stand."
He hesitated for some time by the band-stand, and then made a direct line for an iron fencing.
"I haven't the faintest idea what your plan is," he whispered. "I'm leaving it all to you."
"That's all right," answered Jake. "Try and find the exact spot where you were lying."
He groped along the rails, occasionally stopping and looking round. Suddenly Jake gripped his shoulder.
"Look," he whispered. "Just above that pit through the rails, isn't that the head of a grizzly?" The young man paused.
"Yes," he whispered back. "It's about ten yards further on."
They reached the spot, and Jake said:
"Now I want you to remain against the railing. Lie there as though you had collapsed. The point is, they are bound to come and see whether you are still there."
He spread himself on the ground, lying huddled up against the wires. Jake glided away into the darkness.
"They will have come from the other side of the park," thought the exhilarated Jake. He walked for thirty yards, carefully taking his depositions. And then he came across the very thing he hoped to find. It was the bare thick stump of a dead tree without branches. He was about to kneel behind it, when he became conscious of someone else in the vicinity. In one direction he could just see the dim shape of Cellier's figure, but the sound of movement came from the other direction. He crouched behind the tree, and watched, and listened. Instantly he became aware of two small dark figures creeping stealthily along in his direction. One was close to the railing, the other perhaps six yards to the right. Just before they reached his tree he heard one give an exclamation and point in the direction of Cellier. He could just see their yellow faces, the narrow slits of eyes, and the short, wiry figures. It was fortunate that they had observed Cellier so soon, as their attention was distracted from the tree, which did not quite conceal him. He allowed them t? pass him for nearly ten yards, when suddenly a rope lashed the air, and the nearer man was jerked off his feet, neatly pinioned. Jake sprang out, and the other man rushed towards him, only t? find himself looking down the barrel of Jake's revolver. He said quietly:
"Put up your hands!"
By this time Cellier was very much alive to the sudden disruption. Jake called him and he ran up.
"Take this gun, and cover these two guys, whilst I bind this one up," he commanded.
Cellier obeyed, and in a few minutes one of the Orientals was bound securely to the iron railings.
"Now, you," said Jake to the other. "All you've got to do is to take us to the house you came from. In the meantime we'll bind your hands, in case you make yourself in any way objectionable. I've kept enough rope for that, and a little for your ankles later on."
Neither of the Eastern gentlemen uttered a word, and the face of the second one was quite expressionless as he allowed his wrists to be tied.
Jake took the revolver from Cellier and said:
"Now, carry on, and be quick, because I'm keeping the missus up!"
They walked across the path, Jake occasionally jabbing his prisoner in the back with the revolver, and muttering:
"Go on; get a move on, Stephen!"
At length they came t? a low iron railing, and hedge, enclosing a piece of cultivated land. On the further side was a garden surrounding a small white stucco house. Their guide stopped and nodded his head.
"So this is it?" said Jake. "Now, look here, Horace, I'm going to string you up to this railing. And understand, if you've been lying, or up to any hanky-panky, I shall come back. I shan't shoot you, because that would make a nise. I shall just—" Jake made a suggestive twisting movement with his hands. "Savee?"
The dark head nodded three times, and in a few minutes he was pinioned to the railings.
"We're leaving these mementoes all over the park," remarked Jake as he climbed over the railing. The two men groped their way across the vegetable plot, clambered over another railing and let themselves down among the shrubs of the garden. Several windows of the house were lighted up.
"This is the place," whispered Cellier. "I recognise the French window where the light is leading on to the lawn. That's the room where I—drank the tea."
"Good! Will you stay here while I reconnoitre?"
He crept away among the bushes and was gone nearly a quarter of an hour. Cellier was startled to feel the touch of his friend's hand on his arm.
"We've got visitors," said Jake. "A large car is waiting outside in the drive. In the drawing-room where the French window is are two ladies and three men. I recognise one as the woman who overdid the hospitality, the other is a fair girl, quite young. We don't know who else may be in the house, but this rather upsets my plans. I think the best game now will be a little conflagration."
"Yes. You see that building away there on the side. It's a garage with wooden walls, tarred. Some fool has left the door of the garage open. There's a quarter of a tin of paraffin near the door, and a packing-case full of straw."
"But, my dear chap, this might be very serious. We don't want to burn the house down."
"It's better to have a little conflagration like this than a world-conflagration in years to come."
"Quite. But how can this stop it?"
"It stands to reason that when the fire starts, everybody in the house will rush out to either help or watch. It will certainly mean destroying a very fine car in there. It looks to me like a Mors. But that's a trifle. While they are all so occupied, we will be busy in the drawing-room and elsewhere. But, see here; it doesn't take two to start that fire. My idea is this. I'll go round and approach the house from the drive. I'll ring the bell like an ordinary visitor. When I'm in I'll make up some yarn. In the meantime you've started the fire. There will be an instant panic, and I shall have an excuse for being in the house. They will probably forget about me in the excitement and I will let you in by the French window. Of course we shall have to take our chance of—several things."
"It sounds a bit desperate, but we'll try it. Have you any matches?"
"How long do you want?"
"Let us say—operations to commence in fifteen minutes."
The two conspirators separated, Jake going to the left and Cellier to the right. Jake worked his way round into the drive. He took a deep breath of air. His senses were tingling with the excitement of the hunter. He determined to play the boldest, and most hazardous game of his life. He looked at his wristwatch and waited for twelve minutes to expire. Then he walked deliberately up to the door of the house and rang the bell.
He waited barely two minutes when a neat little maid opened the door. Jake stepped in and got into the body of the hall. His hand was holding the trigger of a revolver in his right jacket-pocket. He said casually:
"Is Mr. Tringham in?"
And then Jake had the surprise of his life. The maid replied equally as casually:
"Yes, sir. What name shall I say?"
Jake started. He had not expected this. He glanced rapidly round the hall and replied:
"Oh, will you say, Mr. Peterborough of the Universal Press Association."
"Yes, sir. Will you wait in here?"
She showed him in to a tiny reception-room, containing a mahogany bureau, a book-case and a few chairs. She had hardly closed the door before Jake's fingers were busy among the pigeon-holes and drawers of the bureau. When she opened the door again, he was examining a Bartolozzi print above the fireplace.
"If you please, sir, Mr. Tringham says will you state your business?"
"Certainly. Will you kindly tell Mr. Tringham I have called on behalf of the Press Association to enquire whether there is any truth in a rumour which is going round the city that a secret contract of far-reaching consequences has come to light?"
She retired and Jake had not had time to complete his searches before she returned, and said:
"Will you kindly come this way, sir?"
The mystified Jake followed her into the drawing-room. When he arrived there, the five people he had observed through the French window were all seated. They looked very solemn. A thick-set grey-eyed man—obviously Mr. Tringham—came forward and shook his hand.
"Mr. Peterborough?" he said. "I'm glad you've called. We've heard about this rumour, and you can take it from me as representing the United States embassy that there is no truth in it whatever. We shall be glad if you will give it an emphatic denial in the press. If you require any further corroboration, I have merely to introduce you to Mr. Stryve, the British Minister for Foreign Affairs." And he waved his hand in the direction of a tall, distinguished-looking man with a pointed beard.
"What!" almost screamed Jake.
"What!...Not Mr. Strive! What! No, no!"
"What's the matter with you?"
"Fire! I could almost swear I smelt fire!"
Jake dashed to the French window and opened it. Mr. Tringham was at his heels.
"Steady on!" he exclaimed. "What is this all about?"
"Fire! fire! I swear there's a fire!"
The three men ran out after him into the garden.
Jake was leading, and as he dashed through the bushes he stumbled over a figure; a white face looked up into his, a voice said:
"You damn fool! you never gave me the matches, after all!"
The three men came on them, and someone seized Jake with a peculiarly strong grip from behind. Almost instantaneously Mr. Stryve's voice called out:
"By God! it's Cellier."
Cellier was undoubtedly overwrought by the evening's proceedings. He hardly seemed to know what he was doing. He mumbled:
"He never gave me the matches."
"Matches! What matches?" Mr. Stryve put his hand under the boy's head and said gently: "It's all right, my boy. You've been queer. Thank God we've found you. But tell us first, who is this—gentleman?"
"That's old Jake O'Neal. He's a good chap. He's all right."
Mr. Stryve led Cellier back, and Jake walked between the other two men. He felt very much under arrest, and realised that there was a lot of explaining to do yet, and his young friend was hardly to be relied on.
When they re-entered the drawing-room, the fair girl jumped up and threw her arms round Cellier.
"Darling!" she exclaimed. "They've found you!"
And the young man muttered,
The tall dark lady came up and grasped Cellier's hand. "My dear Mr. Cellier," she said, "we've been scared to death about you. At this moment two servants whom my husband brought from Japan are scouring the park for you."
"What happened? What happened?" muttered Cellier.
"You really were doped. It was most unfortunate. It all came about through the sugar-rationing business. In order that the servants shan't have all the sugar, each member of the household has their own little pot, and we keep one for visitors. To-day I had a new parlourmaid. She had filled the visitors' pot from a packet in the cupboard, but the stuff wasn't sugar at all. It 'vas some Japanese chemical that my husband brought from the East, where we have lived for nearly twenty years. You drank your tea, and suddenly began to sway about. I was terrified. My husband came, and we got Dr. Pears over at once. You were quite unconscious. He examined you, and gave it as his opinion that you were only drugged, not poisoned. He stayed some time, and did what he could for you, and you eventually sank into a tranquil sleep. He said you must have plenty of air. We put you on a couch by the open French window. Owing to the scare of this contract business we were all very distracted. Once we left you for about ten minutes, and when we returned you had vanished. It was dark then, and you must have got up in a semiconscious state and crawled away into the park. You have given us a fright!"
"But the contract! What about the contract?" Mr. Stryve came forward, and patted Cellier on the shoulder.
"Don't worry, my boy; it is quite all right. I arrived soon after this had happened, and as there was nothing else we could do for you, we took the contract out of your pocket, and Mr. Tringham translated it. In the meantime we telephoned for your fiancée, who arrived just after your disappearance."
"Ah! and the contract, sir? Have you acted?" Everyone in the room, with the exception of Jake, appeared to be unaccountably amused. The third man, who had not yet spoken, stepped forward and said:
"May I explain this, Mr. Stryve?"
Mr. Strive nodded, and the other continued:
"I'm afraid I am rather the culpable one, Mr. Cellier. My name is Blansittart, of the Foreign Office, and the document came into my possession. To put it crudely, there is no denying the fact that I have been simply the victim of some bright wit, probably in our own department. As you know, the document was in Japanese characters, and it had three signatures. Appended to it was what purported to be a translation. It was pinned to it with all the stamps, ciphers and check numbers which we are accustomed to. The nature of this translation you know. It threatened a very serious international embroilment. My chief immediately communicated with Mr. Stryve, who brought it to the notice of the Cabinet. The American Ambassador was communicated with. He suggested that the translation should be checked by Mr. Tringham, who is a Japanese expert. While you were lying unconscious in front of the window, Mr. Tringham did so. He discovered that it was a contract between two agents over here to supply gramophone records to a firm in Tokio!"
"What!" exclaimed Cellier. "Gramophone records!"
"Gramophone records!" echoed Jake. "Gramophone records!" And he slapped his leg and burst into a tornado of laughter. The others laughed too, and Mr. Tringham remarked:
"I am not quite clear, sir, whether your name is Peterborough or O'Neal, how you come to know Mr. Cellier, and why you became excited about a fire when there is no suspicion of fire."
Jake looked down at his hands and sighed. Then he answered:
"Sir, I only arrived from Canada two hours ago, and I'm keeping the missus up. One day I would like to tell you all about it, but in the meantime I have some important business to transact in the park, and I can only bid you adieu and thank you for a most enjoyable and entertaining evening."
And before anyone had had time to interfere, he had vanished through the window. He darted through the bushes and across the strip of vegetable garden, and found his first prisoner. He untied his legs, and then produced two one-pound Treasury notes.
"Stephen," he said, "listen here. Nothing said about this. You not find the gen'l'man. In the meantime he return. Savee?"
The Jap nodded, and Jake untied his hands and thrust the notes into them.
"If you pliss!" said the Eastern gentleman when he was free, and walked calmly off.
Jake made his way across the park and found prisoner number two.
"Horace," he said, "I shall have to borrow the rope from you, as I want it for getting over the park railings. In the meantime, nothing said, savee? You not find the gen'l'man. He return while you gone. Yes?"
He handed over another two pounds, and the Jap said:
"If you pliss!" and vanished.
It was just after twelve when Jake entered his room at the Carlton Hotel. His wife was in bed, dozing. She said:
"Hullo, dear! It's very late, isn't it? I've been asleep, I think."
"Ay," he answered. "It's a bit later than I meant. I'm sorry."
She yawned, and said sleepily:
"How is little old London?"
"Oh," he answered, leisurely undressing. "It's all right. It's all exactly the same as it was thirty-one years ago."
At the top of the hill the party halted. It had been a long trek up and the sun was hot. Monsieur Roget fanned himself with his hat, and his eye alighted on a large pile of cut fern-leaves.
"But this will suit me admirably!" he remarked, and he plumped his squat little figure down, and taking out his large English pipe he began to stuff tobacco into it.
"My little one," said his stout wife, "I should not advise you to go to sleep. You know that to do so in the afternoon always gives you an indisposition."
"Oh, la la! No, no, no. I do not go to sleep, but—this position suits me admirably!" he replied.
"Oh, papa, papa!...lazybones!" exclaimed his pretty daughter Louise. "And if we leave you, you will sleep like a dormouse."
"It is very hot!" rejoined the father.
"Leave him alone," said Madame Roget, "and we will go down to that place that looks like an inn, and see whether they will sell us milk. Where is Lisette?"
"Lisette! Where should she be?"
And of course it was foolish to ask. Lisette, the younger daughter, had been lost in the wood on the way up, with her fiancé, Paul Fasquelle. Indeed, the party had all become rather scattered. It is a peculiarity of picnics. Monsieur Roget's eldest son, Anton, was playing at see-saw with his three children on the trunk of a fallen tree. His wife was talking to Madame Aubert, and occasionally glancing up to exclaim:
"Careful, my darlings!"
Monsieur Roget was left alone.
He lighted his pipe, and blinked at the sun. One has to have reached a mature age to appreciate to the full the narcotic seductiveness of good tobacco on the system, when the sun is shining and there is no wind. If there is wind all the pleasant memories and dreams are blown away, but if there is no wind the sun becomes a kind, confidential old fellow. He is very, very mature. And Monsieur Roget was mature. He was fifty-nine years old, given to corpulence, rather moist and hot, but eminently comfortable leaning against the pile of ferns. A glorious view across the woods of Fontainebleau lay stretched before him, the bees droned in the young gorse, his senses tingled with a pleasureable excitement, and, as a man will in such moments, he enjoyed a sudden crystallised epitome of his whole life. His struggles, and failures, and successes. On the whole he had been a successful man. If he died to-morrow, his beloved ones would be left in more than comfort. Many thousand francs carefully invested, some house property in the Rue Renoir, the three comestibles establishments all doing reasonably well.
Things had not always been like that. There had been long years of anxiety, worry, and even poverty. He had worked hard and it had been a bitter struggle. When the children were children, that had been the anxious time. It made Monsieur Roget shudder to look back on it. But, God be praised! he had been fortunate, very fortunate in his life-companion. During that anxious time, Madame Roget had been patient, encouraging, incredibly thrifty, competent, resourceful, a loyal wife, a very—Frenchwoman. And they had come through. He was now a proud grandfather. Both his sons were doing well, and were married. Lisette was engaged to a very desirable young advocate. Of Louise there need be no apprehension. In fact, everything...
"Name of a dog! that's very curious," suddenly thought Monsieur Roget, interrupting his own pleasant reflections.
And for some minutes he could not determine exactly what it was that was curious. He had been idly gazing at the clump of buildings lower down the hill, whither his wife and daughter had gone in search of milk. Perhaps the perfume of the young gorse had something to do with it, but as he looked at the buildings, he thought:
"It's very familiar, and it's very unfamiliar. In fact, it's gone wrong. They've been monkeying with that gable on the east side, and they've built a new loft over the stables."
But how should he know? What was the gable to him? or he to the gable? He drew in a large mouthful of smoke, held it for some seconds, and then blew it out in a cloud round his head. Where was this? When had he been here before? They had driven out to a village called Pavane-en-Bois, and from there they had walked, and walked, and walked. He may have been here before, and have come from another direction...
Monsieur Roget was glad that he was alone when he uttered this exclamation, which cannot convey what it is meant to in print. Of course, across there on the other side of the clearing was the low stone wall, and the reliquary with the figure of the Virgin, and doubtless at the bottom of the slope the other side would be—the well!
It was exactly on this spot that he had met Diane—God in heaven! how long ago? Ten, twenty, thirty...Exactly thirty-seven years ago!
And how vividly it could all come back to one!
He was twenty-two, then, a slim young man—considered elegant and rather distinguished-looking by some people—an orphan without either brothers or sisters, the inheritor of a quite substantial competence from his father, who had been a shipbroker at Marseilles. He had gone to Paris to educate himself and to prepare for a commercial career. He was a serious young man, with modest ambitions, rather moody and given to abstract speculations. Paris bewildered him, and he used to escape when he could, and seek solitude in the country. At length he decided that he must settle down to some definite career, and he became articled to a firm of chartered accountants: Messrs. Manson et Cie. He took rooms at a quiet pension near the Luxembourg, and there fell in love with his patron's daughter, Lucile, a demure and modest brunette. The affair was almost settled, but not quite. Monsieur Roget, even in those days, was a man who never put his leg over the wall till he had seen the other side. He was circumspect, cautious, and there was indeed plenty of time.
And then one day he had found himself on this identical hillock. He could not quite clearly remember how he came to be there. Probably he had come for the day, to escape the clamour of Paris. He certainly had no luggage. He was seated on this spot, dreaming and enjoying the view, when he heard a cry coming from the other side of the low stone wall. He jumped up and ran to it, and lo! on the other side he beheld—Diane! The name was peculiarly appropriate. She was lying there on her side like a wounded huntress. When she caught sight of him she called out:
"Ah, monsieur, will you be so kind to help me? I fear I have sprained my ankle."
Paul Roget leapt the wall and ran to her assistance (the thought of leaping a wall now made him gasp!) He lifted her up, trembling himself, and making sympathetic little clucks with his tongue.
"Pardon, pardon! very distressing!" he murmured, when she stood erect.
"If monsieur will be good enough to allow me to rest my hand on his shoulder, I shall be able to hop back to the auberge."
"With the greatest pleasure. Allow me."
On the ground was an upturned pail. He remarked:
"Would it distress mademoiselle to stand for one minute, whilst I refill the pail?"
"Oh, no, no," she exclaimed. "Do not inconvenience yourself."
"Then perhaps mademoiselle will allow me to return for the pail?"
"Oh, no, if you please! My father will do it."
She leant on his shoulder and hopped a dozen paces.
"How did it happen, mademoiselle?"
"Imbecile that I am! I think I was dreaming. I had filled the pail and was descending the embankment when I slipped. I tried to step across the pail, but caught my foot in the rim. And then—I don't know quite what happened. I fell. It is the other ankle which I fear I have sprained."
"I am indeed most desolated. Is it far to the inn?"
"You see it yonder, monsieur. It is perhaps ten minutes' walk, but twenty minutes' hop."
She laughed gaily, and Monsieur Roget said solemnly:
"If I might suggest it—I think it would be more comfortable for Mademoiselle if she would condescend to place her arm round my neck."
"It is too good of you."
They proceeded another hundred paces in silence, and then rested against a stile. Suddenly she gave him one of her quick glances, and said:
"You are very silent, monsieur."
"I was thinking—how very beautiful the day is."
As a matter of fact, he was not thinking anything of the sort. He was in a fever. He was thinking how very beautiful, adorable, attractive this lovely wild creature was hanging round his neck. He had never before adventured such an experience. He had never kissed Lucile. Women were an unopened book to him, and lo! suddenly the most captivating of her sex was clinging to him. He felt the pressure of her soft brown forearm on the back of his neck. Her little teeth were parted with smiles, and she panted gently with the exertion of hopping. Her dark eyes searched his, and appeared to be slightly mocking, amused, interested.
"If only I might pick her up and carry her," he thought, but he did not dare to make the suggestion.
Once she remarked:
"Oh, but I am tired," and he thought she looked at him slily.
The journey must have occupied half-an-hour, and she told him a little about herself. She lived with her father. Her mother had died when she was a baby. It was quite a small inn, frequented by charcoal-burners and woodmen, and occasionally by visitors from Paris. She liked the country very much, but sometimes it was dull—oh, dull, dull, dull!
"Ah, it is sometimes dull, even in Paris!" sighed Monsieur Roget.
"You must come and speak to my father, and take a glass of wine," she remarked.
In the forecourt of the inn the father appeared.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "What is all this?"
He was a rubicund, heavy-jowled gentleman, who by the wheezy exhalations coming from his chest gave the impression of being a chronic sufferer from asthma. Diane laughed.
"I have been through fire and water, my dear," she said, "and this is my deliverer."
She explained the whole episode to the landlord, who shook hands with Paul, and they led the girl into a sitting-room at the back of the café. Paul was somewhat diffident about entering this private apartment, but the landlord wheezed:
"Come in, come in, monsieur."
They sat Diane down on a sofa, and the landlord pulled off her stocking. In doing so he revealed his daughter's leg as far as the knee. She had a very pretty leg, but the ankle was considerably swollen.
"The ankle is sprained," said the landlord.
"Will you allow me to go and fetch a doctor?" asked Paul.
"It is not necessary," replied the landlord. "I know all about sprained ankles. When I was in the army I served in the ambulance brigade. We will just bind it up very tight with cold linen bandages. Does it hurt, little one?"
"Not very—yet. It tingles. I feel that it may. Won't you offer Monsieur—I do not know his name—some refreshment?"
"Monsieur Paul Roget," said that gentleman, bowing. "But please do not consider me. The sufferer must be attended first. Later on, I would like to be permitted to partake of a little lunch in the inn."
While the landlord, whose name was Jules Courturier, was binding up his daughter's ankle, Paul slipped out and returned to the well, filled the pail, and brought it back to the yard of the inn.
"But this is extremely agreeable of you, monsieur," exclaimed the landlord, as he came bustling through the porch. "She will do well. I know all about sprained ankles. Oh, yes! I have had great experience. I beg you to share a little lunch with us. We are quite simple folk, but I think we may find you an omelette and a ragout. Quite country people, you know; nothing elaborate."
The lunch was excellent, and Diane had the sofa drawn up to the table, and in spite of the pain she must have been suffering, she laughed and joked, and they were quite a merry party. After lunch he helped to wheel her out into the crab-apple orchard at the back, and he told her all about himself, his life and work, and ambitions. He told her everything, except perhaps about Lucile. And he felt very strange, elevated, excited.
When the evening came he left it till too late to catch the train back to Paris, and the landlord lent him some things and he stayed the night.
He stayed three nights, and wrote to Messrs. Manson et Cie, and explained that he had gone to Pavane-en-Bois, and had been taken ill. He wrote the same thing to Lucile. And during the day he talked to Diane, and listened to the landlord. Sometimes he would wander into the woods, but he could not bring himself to stay away for long. He brought back armfuls of flowers, which he flung across her lap. He touched her hands, and trembled, and at night in bed he choked with a kind of ecstasy and regret. It was horribly distracting. He did not know how to act. He was behaving badly to Lucile, and dishonourably to Manson et Cie. His conscience smote him, but the other little fiend was dancing at the back of his mind. Nothing else seemed to matter. He was mad—madly in love with this little dark-eyed huntress.
At the end of three days he returned to Paris but not till he had promised to come back at the earliest opportunity.
"Perhaps I will go again in August," he sighed in the train. It was then the seventh of June.
On the fifteenth of June he was back again in the "Moulin d'Or." Diane was already much better. She could hobble about alone with the help of two sticks. She was more bewitching than ever. He stayed three weeks, till her ankle was quite well, and they could go for walks together in the woods. And he called her Diane, and she called him Paul. And one day, as the sun was setting, he flung his arms round her and gasped:
"Diane...Diane! I love you!"
And he kissed her on the lips, and her roguish eyes searched his.
"Oh, you!" she murmured. "You bad boy...you!"
"But I love you, Diane. I want you. I can't live without you. You must come away with me. We will get married. We will build a world of our own. Oh, you beautiful! Tell me you love me, or I shall go mad!"
She laughed that low, gurgling, silvery laugh of hers.
"What are you saying?" she said. "How should I know? I think you are—a nice boy. But I cannot leave my father."
"My dear, he managed all the time you had to lie with your foot up. Don't torture me! Oh, you must love me, Diane. I couldn't love you so much if you didn't love me a little in return."
"Perhaps I do," she said, smiling.
"What is it, then, Diane?"
"Oh, I don't know. I do not want to marry. I want to be free, to see the world. I am ambitious. I have been to the conservatoire at Souboise. They say I can sing and dance. My father has spent his savings on me."
"Darling, if you marry me, you shall be free. You shall do as you like. You shall dance and sing and see the world. Everything of mine shall be yours if only you will love me. You must, you must, Diane!"
"Well...we shall see. Come; father will be anxious."
In July he left his pension and moved out to Montmartre. He had never definitely proposed to Lucile, but his expressions of affection had been so definite that he felt ashamed. He spent his holiday in August at the "Moulin d'Or." And Diane promised to marry him "one day."
"Diane," he said, "I will work for you. You have inspired me. I shall go back to Paris and think of you all day, and dream of you all night."
"That won't give you much time to make your fortune, my little cabbage."
"Do not mock me. Where would you like to live?"
"In Paris, in Nice, in Rome, in Vienna. And then, one day, I would like to creep back here and just live in the 'Moulin d'Or.'"
"'The Moulin d'Or?'"
"Oh, we could improve it. We could build an extra wing, with a dancing-hall, and more nice bedrooms, and a garage. We could improve the inn, but we could not improve these beautiful hills. Isn't that true, little friend?"
"Nothing could be improved where you are. You are perfection."
In September Diane came to Paris. She stayed with an aunt in Parnasse, and attended a conservatoire of dancing. And every evening Paul called on her, and took her flowers and chocolates and trinkets. And in the daytime, when the image of Diane's face did not interpose between his eyes and his desk, he worked hard. He meant to work hard and become a rich man, and take Diane to Nice, and Rome, and Vienna, and make the structural alterations to the "Moulin d'Or."
In a few months' time Diane made such progress that she was offered an engagement in the ballet at Olympia. She accepted it and Paul was consumed with a fever of apprehension. Every night he went to the performance, waited for her, and escorted her home. But he disliked the atmosphere of the music-hall intensely, and the other girls, Diane's companions—Heaven defend her!
And then she quarrelled with her aunt, and Paul besought her to marry him so that he might protect her. But she prevaricated, and in the end he took some rooms for her, and she consented to allow him to pay for them. She lived there for several weeks alone, only attended by an old concierge, and then she took a friend, Babette Baroche, to share the rooms with her, and Paul still continued to pay. Paul disliked Babette. She was a frivolous, vain, empty-headed little cocotte, and no fit companion for Diane. On occasions Paul discovered other men enjoying the hospitality of the rooms, and they were always of an objectionable sort. And Diane got into debt, and he lent her four hundred francs.
At Christmas-time she was dismissed from her engagement, and in a pervicacious mood she promised to marry him in the spring. Paul was delirious. Nothing was good enough for his Diane, and he engaged a complete flat for her, with the services of an elderly bonne. Diane was very grateful and loving, and in the transition Babette was dropped. However, a few weeks after he had signed the lease, she was offered an engagement for a tour, and after a lengthy dispute and many tears, she had her way and accepted it. She was away three months, and Paul was consumed with dread, and doubt, and gloomy forebodings. On occasions he dashed down to Lyons, or Grenoble, or wherever she happened to be, for the week-end. And he thought that the company she was with were a very fast lot.
"But, my angel," he would exclaim, "only another month or two, and all this will be over. You will be mine for ever and ever."
He was still paying the rent of the flat in Paris, and it was necessary to send Diane flowers and presents wherever she was. It was an expensive time, particularly as, owing to Diane having had her purse stolen just when she was paying off a debt, he had to send her another four hundred francs. She returned at the end of March, and so great had been her success on tour that an egregious, oily manager named Bonnat offered her a part in a new revue. She received a good salary, but the management would not supply her frocks. It was necessary to dress well for this part. It was her first real chance. She ransacked shops in the Rue de Tivoli, and Paul accompanied her. Eventually she spent twelve hundred francs on them, and Paul advanced the money. She only allowed him to do so on the understanding that she paid him back by instalments out of her salary. It is needless to say that she never did so. However, the frocks were a great success, and Diane made a hit. She was undoubtedly talented. She danced beautifully, and she had a gift of imitation. She very quickly became a star, and of course a star could not scintillate in the poky little flat she had so far occupied. She moved to a more fashionable quarter, and occupied a flat the rent of which was rather more than her salary alone. She developed more expensive tastes, and nearly always kept a taxi-cab waiting for her at stage-doors and restaurants.
At this time Paul began to realise that he was living considerably above his income. It would be necessary to reduce it by breaking into his capital. He sold some house property and paid Diane's debts and bought her a pearl pendant.
"Next month she will be my wife," he thought, "and then I shall be able more easily to curb these extravagancies."
But when the next month came Diane was at the height of her success. She had been given more to do in the revue, and her imitations were drawing the town. The management raised her salary. Her head was completely turned.
"Oh, no, no, no! dear heart," she exclaimed. "Not this month. At the end of the season. It would be imbecile when I have all Paris at my feet."
Paul begged and urged her to re-consider, but she was obdurate. She continued the same life, only that her tastes became more and more extravagant. And one day Paul took her to task.
"My angel-flower," he said, "we must not go on like this. All the savings for our wedding are vanishing. I am eating into my capital. We shall be ruined."
"But, my little love," replied Diane, "I spend so little. Why, you should see the electric brougham Zénie at the Folies Bergères has. Besides, next year, or perhaps before, they will have to double my salary."
"Yes, but in the meantime—?"
"In the meantime your little girl shall kiss away your naughty fears."
And of course Diane soon had an electric brougham of her own. The more salary she had, the more it seemed to cost Paul. He was receiving merely a nominal salary himself from Messrs. Manson et Cie, where he was little more than a pupil. However, at that time he managed to get a small increase, and invested a good bulk of his patrimony in a rubber company that a very astute business friend advised him about. If the shares went up considerably he might sell out, and reimburse himself for all these inroads on his capital.
In the meantime a disturbing element crept into his love affair. A depraved young fop, the Marquis de Lavernal, appeared on the scene. He was one of these young men who have plenty of money and frequent stage-doors. He was introduced by Babette, whom he almost immediately forsook for Diane. He called upon her, left more expensive flowers and chocolates than Paul could afford, and one day took her to Longchamps in his car.
Paul was furious.
"This man must not come here," he exclaimed. "I shall kill him!"
"Oo-oh! but why? He is quite a nice boy. He is nothing to me. He is Babette's friend."
"I don't trust him. I won't have him here. Do you understand, Diane? I love you so, I am distracted when that kind of person speaks to you!"
Diane promised not to see him again alone, but Paul was dubious. The trouble was that he did not know what went on in the daytime. In the evening he could to a certain extent protect her. But in the daytime—that raven! that ogre! that blood-sucker! He was the kind of man who had the entrée of all theatres, both the back and the front. He went about with parties of girls. Diane explained that it was impossible sometimes not to meet him. He was always with her friends.
At the end of July Paul had a stroke of fortune. The rubber shares he had bought went up with a great boom, quite suddenly. He sold out and netted a considerable sum. And then he had a brilliant inspiration. He would tell Diane nothing of this. He had plans of his own.
One day he took the train and went down to see his prospective father-in-law at the "Moulin d'Or." The old man was wheezier than ever, but very cordial and friendly.
"Well, my boy, how goes it?" he asked.
"Excellently," said Paul. "Now, father-in-law, I have a proposition to make. Diane and I are to be married after the summer season. It has always been her ambition to live at the 'Moulin d'Or.' But she has spoken of improvements. I want to suggest to you with all respect that you allow me to make those improvements. I would like to do it without her knowing it, and then to bring her down as a great surprise."
"Well, well, very agreeable, I'm sure. And why not? It would be very charming!"
"I suggest building a new wing, with a dancing-hall and several nice bedrooms, and a garage; and laying out the gardens more suitably."
"Well, good! It would be very desirable, and conducive to good business. You may rely upon me to assist you in your project, Monsieur Paul."
"I am indeed grateful to you, Monsieur Couturier."
Paul returned to Paris in high spirits. He made plans of the suggested alterations on the back of an envelope, in the train. The next morning he went to an eminent firm of contractors. So feverish was he in his demands that he persuaded them to send a manager down that very day to take particulars and prepare the estimate. The work was commenced the same week.
In the meantime, Diane had bought some expensive little dogs, because Fleurie at the Odéon kept expensive little dogs, and a new silver tea-service because Lucie Castille at the Moulin Rouge had a silver tea-service. And Paul was surprised because neither of the accounts for these luxuries was sent to him. Diane said she had paid for them herself, but the little demons of jealousy were still gnawing away at his heart.
The revue was to terminate at the end of the third week in August, and Paul said:
"And then, my love, we will marry quietly in Paris, and then we will do the grand tour. We will go to Nice, and Rome, and Vienna, and commence our eternal honeymoon at the 'Moulin d'Or.'"
Diane clapped her hands.
"Won't that be beautiful, my beloved!" she exclaimed, and she twined her sinuous arms around his neck. "Fancy! just you and I alone at the dear 'Moulin d'Or'! Ah! and then we will go to Venice, and to Munich. Good gracious! it will be soon time to think about the frocks and trousseau!"
Paul's heart swelled. The trousseau! Diane was becoming serious. There had been moments when he had doubted whether she meant to marry him at all, but—the trousseau! Why, yes, the matter must be attended to at once. They spent three weeks buying Diane's trousseau. Nearly every day she thought of something fresh, some little trifle that was quite indispensable. When the bills came in they amounted to twenty-two thousand francs! Paul was aghast. He had no idea it was possible to spend so much on those flimsy fabrics. And furniture had yet to be purchased. He went to his astute business friend again, and begged for some enticing investment. He was recommended a Nicaraguan Company that was just starting. They had acquired the rights of a new method of refining oil. It was going to be a big thing. With the exception of a sum of money to pay for the improvements at the "Moulin d'Or" Paul put practically the whole of his capital into the Nicaraguan Company.
Nearly every day he called at the contractor's, or sent frenzied telegrams to Monsieur Couturier to inquire how the work was progressing. At length he received a verbal promise that the whole thing would be completed by about the twentieth of September.
Excellent! That would fit in admirably. It would give him a month's honeymoon with his beautiful Diane, and then, one glorious September evening, he would drive up the hill, and jumping out of the car in the new drive he would be able to exclaim:
"Behold! Do not all your dreams come true?"
And Diane would fling her arms round his neck, and the old father would come toddling out and find them in that position, and he would probably weep, and it would all be very beautiful.
A few days later there was a rather distressing incident. Quite on her own responsibility Diane ordered a suite of Louis XVI furniture. They were fabulously expensive copies. Paul had nothing like enough money to pay for it. He did not want to sell his Nicaraguan shares. In fact, he had only just applied for them. He protested vehemently:
"But, my dear, you ought not to have done this! It is ruinous. We cannot afford it."
"But, my Carlo, one must sit down!"
"One need not pay fifteen thousand francs to sit down!"
Paul knew the evidence of approaching tears, and he endeavoured to stem the tide. In the end he went to a money-lender and borrowed the money at an abnormal rate of interest, and then he went to Diane and said:
"My beloved, you must promise me not to spend any more money without my consent. The consequences may be serious. My affairs are already getting very involved. You must promise me."
Diane promised, and the next day drove up to his office in a great state of excitement. Bonnat had been to see her. They wanted to take the revue for a two months' tour to Brittany and Normandy, commencing at Dinard on August 22nd. He had offered her dazzling terms. She simply must go. It might be her last chance. The wedding must be postponed till the end of October. Paul protested, and they both became angry and cried before two other clerks in Messrs. Manson's office. They parted without anything being settled. When he saw her at night after the theatre, she had signed the contract. And Paul returned to his rooms, and bit his pillow with remorse and grief.
On the twenty-first of August Diane locked up her trousseau, and the furniture, and left with the company for Dinard. And Paul wrote to her every day, and she replied once a week, and occasionally sent him a telegram announcing a prodigious success. Only occasionally did he get an opportunity of going to her over a week-end. The journeys were very long and he resented spending the money. In only one way did he derive any satisfaction from that tour. The building work—like all building work—could not possibly be completed in the time specified. If they had arrived there on the 21st September, his beautiful Diane would have found the place all bricks and mortar and muddle. As it was, it would be comfortably finished by the middle of October.
When not going to Diane he would spend Sunday with Monsieur Couturier, who was keenly excited about the improvement to his inn. It was going to be very good for the business. All the countryside spoke of it. The patron of the "Colonne de Bronze," further down the hill, was furious, and this was naturally a matter of satisfaction to Monsieur Couturier. He was proud of and devoted to his future son-in-law.
At the end of September came the great blow. Paul heard of it first through the newspapers. The Nicaraguan Company had failed. The refining process had proved efficient, but far more expensive to work than any other refining process. The company was wound up, and the shareholders received about 2�?Ĺ per cent on their investments. Paul was practically ruined. He would have to pay for the building of the "Moulin d'Or." Beyond that he had only a few thousand francs, and he had to meet the promissory note of the money-lenders. He wrote to Diane and confessed the whole story. She sent him a telegram which simply said: "Courage! courage!"
He wore the telegram inside his shirt for three days, till it got rather too dilapidated. Then he concentrated on his work. Yes! he would have courage. He would build up again. Diane trusted him. In any case, they could sell the furniture and go and live at the "Moulin d'Or." He wrote her long letters full of his schemes. On October the twelfth the work was completed, and he went down and spent two days and nights with Monsieur Couturier. Diane was to return to Paris on the fifteenth. Monsieur Couturier was full of sympathy and courage. They talked far into the night of how they would manage. With the increase of business assured, the inn would no doubt support the three of them. There were great possibilities, and Paul was young and energetic. Nothing mattered so long as his Diane believed in him.
The night before he returned to Paris he went for a walk in the woods by himself. He visualised the days to come, the walks with Diane, the tender moments when they held each other's hands; he could see their children toddling hand in hand through the woods, picking flowers. In an ecstasy he rushed to a thick bush, and picked a bunch of red berries. He would take them to Diane. They would be the symbols of their new life. Wild flowers from their home, not exotic town-bred things. It was all going to be joy...joy...joy!
He ran back to the inn, and spent a sleepless night, dreaming of Diane and the days and nights to come.
In the morning came a letter from Messrs. Manson et Cie. His dealings with the money-lenders had been disclosed. His services were no longer desirable.
Well, there it was! It would take more than that to crush him in ecstatic mood. He would start again. He would begin by helping Monsieur Couturier to run the inn.
He returned to Paris late in the evening. He would go to Diane's flat after she had returned from the theatre. She would be a little sleepy, and comfortable, and comforting. She would wear one of those loose, clinging, silky things, and she would take him in her arms, and he would let down her beautiful dark blue-black hair, and then he would make her a coronet of the red berries. He would make her his queen...
He was too agitated to dine that evening. He walked the streets of Paris, clasping the red berries wrapped in tissue paper. He kept thinking:
"Now she is resting between the acts. Now she is dancing a pas seul in the second act. Now she is giving her imitation of Yvette Guilbert. Now she is taking a call. Now the manager speaks to her, congratulating her—curse him! Now she awaits her cue to go on again."
He was infinitely patient. He restrained his wild impetus to rush to the theatre. He hung about the streets. He meant to stage-manage his effect with discretion. He waited some time after the theatre was closed. Then, very slowly, he walked in the direction of her flat. As he mounted the stairs, he began to realise that he was very exhausted. He wished that he had not foregone his dinner. However, after the first rapturous meeting with Diane, he would take a glass of wine. Very quietly he slipped the key in the lock, and let himself in. (He had always had a key of Diane's flat, which was in effect his flat.) Directly he had passed the door he heard loud sounds of laughter. He swore inwardly. How aggravating! Diane had brought home some of her friends! There were evidently a good many of them, from the noise and ribaldry. In the passage were several bottles and glasses. He crept along silently to the portière concealing the salon. He could hear Diane's voice. She was speaking, and between each sentence the company screamed with laughter. Ah! she was entertaining them with one of her famous imitations. He stood there and listened. He made a tiny crack in the curtain and peeped through. Diane was doing a funny little strut, and speaking in a peculiar way. He listened and watched for three or four minutes before he realised the truth of what he saw and heard. And when he did realise it, he had to exert his utmost will-power to prevent himself from fainting.
The person that Diane was imitating was—himself!
The realisation seemed to be bludgeoned into him, assisted by a round of ironic cheers. People were calling out:
"Brava! brava! Diane!"
He heard Babette say:
"Where is the little end-of-a-man?"
And Diane's voice reply:
"Oh, he is coming back soon, I believe. I forget when."
A man's voice—he believed it was the Marquis de Lavernal's—exclaimed:
"And when is our Diane going to marry it?"
Diane, very emphatically:
"Do not distress yourself, my dear; he's lost all his money."
A roar of laughter drowned conversation, and Paul groped his way along the passage, still clutching the red berries. He reached the door. Then he re-considered the matter. He crept back to her bedroom. He placed the berries under the coverlet, and taking a sheet of paper, he wrote one word on it: "Good-bye."
He placed this on the berries, and then stole out into the night.
Paul was then twenty-two, and his life was finished. He was a crushed and broken man. He wandered the streets of Paris all night. He spent hours grimly watching the enticing waters of the Seine, the friend and comforter of so many broken hearts. At dawn he returned to his own apartment. He slept for several hours, and then woke up in a fever. He was very ill for some weeks.
But one must not despair for ever. At the end of that time, he pulled himself together, and went out and sought employment. He eventually got a situation as a junior clerk in a wholesale stores, and he went back to live at the old pension near the Luxembourg, and he resumed his friendship with Lucille. And in two years' time he married Lucile. And then his life began. His life began. His life began. And lo! here was Lucile walking slowly up the hill, arm in arm with her daughter Louise. Yes, his life began...
"Ah! there you are! What did I say?" exclaimed Louise. "He's been asleep!"
"And we've had such an interesting time," added Madame Roget, panting with exertion. "We've been to the inn."
"And there's such a pretty girl there," continued the daughter. "You'd fall in love with her, papa."
"Is she very dark?" asked Monsieur Roget.
"Yes; she has blue-black hair and beautiful dark eyes."
"I knew he would be interested. She gave us some milk, and she has been telling us her story. She's quite young, and she owns the inn, although it's very hard work to run it, she says. She only has one woman and a potman. Her mother was a famous actress, who made a lot of money and bought the inn and improved it. She died when Mademoiselle was fifteen."
"Who was her father?"
"I don't know. I rather gather that her father was a bad lot. He died, too."
"How old is she?"
"Not much more than twenty."
"Then her mother must have been thirty-nine when she died."
"What makes you say so?"
"Of course she must have been. What happened to the old man?"
"What old man?"
"What are you talking about, papa? I don't believe you're quite awake yet."
"She must have had a grandfather. Everybody has a grandfather."
"Well, of course. But—"
"Then he must be either dead or alive."
"How tiresome you are! We must be going. The others are waiting for us lower down the hill."
Monsieur Roget struggled to his feet, and shook the little dead fronds of fern from his clothes, and his wife dusted him down behind.
"We shall be going back past the inn," she said.
"The inn! Why can't we go the other way? The way we came?"
"Don't be so absurd. What does it matter? The others are awaiting us."
They went slowly down the hill, and came in sight of the "Moulin d'Or."
"Isn't it disgusting," remarked Louise, "how these speculative builders are always spoiling these old inns?"
"I don't see it's spoilt," answered her father petulantly.
"You are ridiculous, papa! Anyone can see the inn isn't half so nice as it was."
As they approached the forecourt of the inn, a girl came out carrying a pail. She had dark eyes, blue-black hair, and a swinging carriage. Yes, yes, there was no doubt about it. She was the spit and image of her mother.
As she approached she smiled pleasantly, and said:
"Good evening, mesdames; a pleasant journey. Good evening, monsieur."
The ladies returned a friendly greeting, and Monsieur Roget suddenly turned to the girl and said:
"Is your grandfather alive or dead?"
She continued smiling, and replied:
"I do not remember my grandfather, monsieur."
No, perhaps not; it was thirty-seven years ago, and old Couturier was an old man then. Perhaps not.
"Papa, can't you see she's going to the well to fetch water? Why don't you offer to help her?"
"Eh? No, I'm not going. Let her fetch it herself!"
They walked on in silence till well out of hearing, when Louise exclaimed:
"Really, papa, I can't understand you. So ungallant! It's not like you. You ought to have offered to fetch the water for her, even if she refused."
"Eh? Oh, no! I wasn't going. Very dangerous. You might fall down and sprain your ankle. Oh, no! Or she might fall down, or something. It's very slippery up there by the well. You're not going to get me to do it. Let her fetch her own water. Oh, no! no, no, no, no!"
"Louise, dear," remarked Madame Roget. "Let us hurry. Your father is most queer. I always warn him, but it is no good. If he sleeps in the afternoon he always gets an indisposition."
To look at old Sam Gates you would never suspect him of having nerves. His sixty-nine years of close application to the needs of the soil had given him a certain earthy stolidity. To observe him hoeing, or thinning out a broad field of turnips, hardly attracted one's attention. He seemed so much part and parcel of the whole scheme. He blended into the soil like a glorified swede. Nevertheless, the half-dozen people who claimed his acquaintance knew him to be a man who suffered from little moods of irritability.
And on this glorious morning a little incident annoyed him unreasonably. It concerned his niece Aggie. She was a plump girl with clear blue eyes and a face as round and inexpressive as the dumplings for which the county was famous. She came slowly across the long sweep of the downland and putting down the bundle wrapped up in a red handkerchief which contained his breakfast and dinner, she said:
"Well, Uncle, is there any noos?"
Now this may not appear to the casual reader to be a remark likely to cause irritation, but it affected old Sam Gates as a very silly and unnecessary question. It was, moreover, the constant repetition of it which was beginning to anger him. He met his niece twice a day. In the morning she brought his bundle of food at seven, and when he passed his sister's cottage on the way home to tea at five she was invariably hanging about the gate. And on each occasion she always said, in exactly the same voice:
"Well, Uncle, is there any noos?"
"Noos!" What "noos" should there be? For sixty-nine years he had never lived further than five miles from Halvesham. For nearly sixty of those years he had bent his back above the soil. There were indeed historic occasions: once, for instance, when he had married Annie Hachet. And there was the birth of his daughter. There was also a famous occasion when he had visited London. Once he had been to a flower show at Market Roughborough. He either went or didn't go to church on Sundays. He had had many interesting chats with Mr. James at "The Cowman," and three years ago had sold a pig to Mrs. Waig. But he couldn't always have interesting "noos" of this sort up his sleeve. Didn't the silly gaffir know that for the last three weeks he had been thinning out turnips for Mr. Dodge on this very same field? What "noos" could there be?
He blinked at his niece, and didn't answer. She undid the parcel, and said:
"Mrs. Goping's fowl got out again last night."
He replied, "Ah!" in a non-committal manner, and began to munch his bread and bacon. His niece picked up the handkerchief, and humming to herself, walked back across the field. It was a glorious morning, and a white sea-mist added to the promise of a hot day. He sat there munching, thinking of nothing in particular, but gradually subsiding into a mood of placid content. He noticed the back of Aggie disappear in the distance. It was a mile to the cottage, and a mile and a half to Halvesham. Silly things, girls! They were all alike. One had to make allowances. He dismissed her from his thoughts and took a long swig of tea out of a bottle. Insects buzzed lazily. He tapped his pocket to assure himself that his pouch of shag was there, and then he continued munching. When he had finished, he lighted his pipe and stretched himself comfortably. He looked along the line of turnips he had thinned, and then across the adjoining field of swedes. Silver streaks appeared on the sea below the mist. In some dim way he felt happy in his solitude amidst this sweeping immensity of earth and sea and sky.
And then something else came to irritate him. It was one of "these dratted airyplanes." "Airyplanes" were his pet aversion. He could find nothing to be said in their favour. Nasty, noisy, vile-smelling things that seared the heavens, and make the earth dangerous. And every day there seemed to be more and more of them. Of course "this old war" was responsible for a lot of them, he knew. The war was "a plaguey noosance." They were short-handed on the farm. Beer and tobacco were dear, and Mrs. Stevens' nephew had been and got wounded in the foot.
He turned his attention once more to the turnips. But an "airyplane" has an annoying genius for gripping one's attention. When it appears on the scene, however much we dislike it it has a way of taking stage-centre; we cannot help constantly looking at it. And so it was with old Sam Gates. He spat on his hands, and blinked up at the sky. And suddenly the aeroplane behaved in a very extraordinary manner. It was well over the sea when it seemed to lurch in a drunken manner, and skimmed the water. Then it shot up at a dangerous angle and zigzagged. It started to go farther out, and then turned and made for the land. The engines were making a curious grating noise. It rose once more, and then suddenly dived downwards and came plump down right in the middle of Mr. Dodge's field of swedes!
Finally, as if not content with this desecration, it ran along the ground, ripping and tearing up twenty-five yards of good swedes, and then came to a stop. Old Sam Gates was in a terrible state. The aeroplane was more than a hundred yards away, but he waved his arms, and called out:
"Hi! you there, you mustn't land in they swedes! They're Mister Dodge's."
The instant the aeroplane stopped a man leapt out, and gazed quickly round. He glanced at Sam Gates, and seemed uncertain whether to address him or whether to concentrate his attention on the flying-machine. The latter arrangement appeared to be his ultimate decision. He dived under the engine, and became frantically busy. Sam had never seen anyone work with such furious energy. But all the same, it was not to be tolerated. It was disgraceful. Sam started out across the field, almost hurrying in his indignation. When he approached within earshot of the aviator, he cried out again:
"Hi! you mustn't rest your old airyplane here. You've kicked up all Mr. Dodge's swedes. A nice thing you've done!"
He was within five yards when suddenly the aviator turned and covered him with a revolver! And, speaking in a sharp, staccato voice, he said:
"Old Grandfather, you must sit down. I am very occupied. If you interfere or attempt to go away, I shoot you. So!"
Sam gazed at the horrid glittering little barrel, and gasped. Well he never! To be threatened with murder when you're doing your duty in your employer's private property! But, still, perhaps the man was mad. A man must be more or less mad to go up in one of those crazy things. And life was very sweet on that summer morning, in spite of sixty-nine years. He sat down among the swedes.
The aviator was so busy with his cranks and machinery that he hardly deigned to pay him any attention, except to keep the revolver handy. He worked feverishly, and Sam sat watching him. At the end of ten minutes he seemed to have solved his troubles with the machine, but he still seemed very scared. He kept on glancing round and out to sea. When his repairs were completed, he straightened his back and wiped the perspiration from his brow. He was apparently on the point of springing back into the machine and going off, when a sudden mood of facetiousness, caused by relief from the strain he had endured, came to him. He turned to old Sam, and smiled; at the same time remarking:
"Well, old grandfather, and now we shall be all right, isn't it?"
He came close up to Sam, and then suddenly started back.
"Gott!" he cried. "Paul Jouperts!"
Sam gazed at him, bewildered, and the madman started talking to him in some foreign tongue. Sam shook his head.
"You no right," he remarked, "to come bargin' through they swedes of Mr. Dodge's."
And then the aviator behaved in a most peculiar manner. He came up and examined his face very closely, and gave a gentle tug at his beard and hair, as if to see whether it were real or false.
"What is your name, old man?" he said.
The aviator muttered some words that sounded something like "mare vudish!" and then turned to his machine. He appeared to be dazed and in a great state of doubt. He fumbled with some cranks, but kept glancing at old Sam. At last he got into the car and started the engine. Then he stopped, and sat there deep in thought. At last he suddenly sprang out again, and, approaching Sam, he said very deliberately:
"Old grandfather, I shall require you to accompany me."
"Eh?" he said. "What be talkin' about? 'company? I got these here lines o' tarnips—I be already behoind—"
The disgusting little revolver once more flashed before his eyes.
"There must be no discussion," came the voice. "It is necessary that you mount the seat of the car without delay. Otherwise I shoot you like the dog you are. So!"
Old Sam was hale and hearty. He had no desire to die so ignominiously. The pleasant smell of the downland was in his nostrils. His foot was on his native heath. He mounted the seat of the car, contenting himself with a mutter:
"Well, that be a noice thing, I must say! Flyin' about the country with all they tarnips on'y half thinned—"
He found himself strapped in. The aviator was in a fever of anxiety to get away. The engines made a ghastly splutter and noise. The thing started running along the ground. Suddenly it shot upwards, giving the swedes a last contemptuous kick. At twenty minutes to eight that morning old Sam found himself being borne right up above his fields and out to sea! His breath came quickly. He was a little frightened.
"God forgive me!" he murmured.
The thing was so fantastic and sudden, his mind could not grasp it. He only felt in some vague way that he was going to die, and he struggled to attune his mind to the change. He offered up a mild prayer to God, Who, he felt, must be very near, somewhere up in these clouds. Automatically he thought of the vicar at Halvesham, and a certain sense of comfort came to him at the reflection that on the previous day he had taken a "cooking of runner beans" to God's representative in that village. He felt calmer after that, but the horrid machine seemed to go higher and higher. He could not turn in his seat and he could see nothing but sea and sky. Of course the man was mad, mad as a March hare. Of what earthly use could he be to anyone? Besides, he had talked pure gibberish, and called him Paul Something, when he had already told him that his name was Sam. The thing would fall down into the sea soon, and they would both be drowned. Well, well! He had reached the three-score years and ten.
He was protected by a screen, but it seemed very cold. What on earth would Mr. Dodge say? There was no one left to work the land but a fool of a boy named Billy Whitehead at Deric's Cross. On, on, on they went at a furious pace. His thoughts danced disconnectedly from incidents of his youth, conversations with the vicar, hearty meals in the open, a frock his sister wore on the day of the postman's wedding, the drone of a psalm, the illness of some ewes belonging to Mr. Dodge. Everything seemed to be moving very rapidly, upsetting his sense of time. He felt outraged and yet at moments there was something entrancing in the wild experience. He seemed to be living at an incredible pace. Perhaps he was really dead, and on his way to the Kingdom of God? Perhaps this was the way they took people?
After some indefinite period he suddenly caught sight of a long strip of land. Was this a foreign country? or were they returning? He had by this time lost all feeling of fear. He became interested, and almost disappointed. The "airyplane" was not such a fool as it looked. It was very wonderful to be right up in the sky like this. His dreams were suddenly disturbed by a fearful noise. He thought the machine was blown to pieces. It dived and ducked through the air, and things were bursting all round it and making an awful din; and then it went up higher and higher. After a while these noises ceased, and he felt the machine gliding downwards. They were really right above solid land, trees, and fields, and streams, and white villages. Down, down, down they glided. This was a foreign country. There were straight avenues of poplars and canals. This was not Halvesham. He felt the thing glide gently and bump into a field. Some men ran forward and approached them, and the mad aviator called out to them. They were mostly fat men in grey uniforms, and they all spoke this foreign gibberish. Someone came and unstrapped him. He was very stiff, and could hardly move. An exceptionally gross-looking man punched him in the ribs, and roared with laughter. They all stood round and laughed at him, while the mad aviator talked to them and kept pointing at him. Then he said:
"Old grandfather, you must come with me."
He was led to a zinc-roofed building, and shut in a little room. There were guards outside with fixed bayonets. After a while the mad aviator appeared again, accompanied by two soldiers. He beckoned him to follow. They marched through a quadrangle and entered another building. They went straight into an office where a very important-looking man, covered with medals, sat in an easy chair. There was a lot of saluting and clicking of heels.
The aviator pointed at Sam and said something, and the man with the medals started at sight of him, and then came up and spoke to him in English.
"What is your name? Where do you come from? Your age? The name and birthplace of your parents?"
He seemed intensely interested, and also pulled his hair and beard to see if they came off. So well and naturally did he and the aviator speak English that after a voluble cross-examination they drew apart, and continued the conversation in that language. And the extraordinary conversation was of this nature:
"It is a most remarkable resemblance," said the man with medals. "Unglaublich! But what do you want me to do with him, Hausemann?"
"The idea came to me suddenly, excellency," replied the aviator, "and you may consider it worthless. It is just this. The resemblance is so amazing. Paul Jouperts has given us more valuable information than anyone at present in our service. And the English know that. There is an award of twenty-five thousand francs on his head. Twice they have captured him, and each time he escaped. All the company commanders and their staff have his photograph. He is a serious thorn in their flesh."
"Well?" replied the man with the medals.
The aviator whispered confidently:
"Suppose, your excellency, that they found the dead body of Paul Jouperts?"
"Well?" replied the big man.
"My suggestion is this. To-morrow, as you know, the English are attacking Hill 701, which we have for tactical reasons decided to evacuate. If after the attack they find the dead body of Paul Jouperts in, say, the second lines, they will take no further trouble in the matter. You know their lack of thoroughness. Pardon me, I was two years at Oxford University. And consequently Paul Jouperts will be able to—prosecute his labours undisturbed."
The man with the medals twirled his moustache and looked thoughtfully at his colleague.
"Where is Paul at the moment?" he asked.
"He is acting as a gardener at the Convent of St. Eloise at Mailleton-en-haut, which, as you know, is one hundred metres from the headquarters of the British central army staff."
The man with the medals took two or three rapid turns up and down the room. Then he said:
"Your plan is excellent, Hausemann. The only point of difficulty is that the attack started this morning."
"This morning?" exclaimed the other.
"Yes. The English attacked unexpectedly at dawn. We have already evacuated the first line. We shall evacuate the second line at eleven-fifty. It is now ten-fifteen. There may be just time."
He looked suddenly at old Sam in the way that a butcher might look at a prize heifer at an agricultural show, and remarked casually:
"Yes, it is a remarkable resemblance. It seems a pity not to...do something with it."
Then, speaking in German, he added:
"It is worth trying, and if it succeeds, the higher authorities shall hear of your lucky accident and inspiration, Herr Hausemann. Instruct Oberleutnant Schutz to send the old fool by two orderlies to the east extremity of trench 38. Keep him there till the order of evacuation is given. Then shoot him, but don't disfigure him, and lay him out face upwards."
The aviator saluted and withdrew, accompanied by his victim. Old Sam had not understood the latter part of the conversation, and he did not catch quite all that was said in English, but he felt that somehow things were not becoming too promising, and it was time to assert himself. So he remarked when they got outside:
"Now, look'ee here, mister, when be I goin' back to my tarnips?"
And the aviator replied with a pleasant smile:
"Do not be disturbed, old grandfather; you shall...get back to the soil quite soon."
In a few moments he found himself in a large grey car, accompanied by four soldiers. The aviator left him. The country was barren and horrible, full of great pits and rents, and he could hear the roar of artillery and the shriek of shells. Overhead, aeroplanes were buzzing angrily. He seemed to be suddenly transported from the Kingdom of God to the Pit of Darkness. He wondered whether the vicar had enjoyed the runner beans. He could not imagine runner beans growing here, runner beans, ay! or anything else. If this was a foreign country, give him dear old England.
Gr-r-r-r—Bang! Something exploded just at the rear of the car. The soldiers ducked, and one of them pushed him in the stomach and swore.
"An ugly-looking lout," he thought. "If I was twenty years younger I'd give him a punch in the eye that 'ud make him sit up."
The car came to a halt by a broken wall. The party hurried out and dived behind a mound. He was pulled down a kind of shaft and found himself in a room buried right underground, where three officers were drinking and smoking. The soldiers saluted and handed a typewritten despatch. The officers looked at him drunkenly, and one came up and pulled his beard and spat in his face, and called him "an old English swine." He then shouted out some instructions to the soldiers, and they led him out into the narrow trench. One walked behind him and occasionally prodded him with the butt-end of a gun. The trenches were half-full of water, and reeked of gases, powder, and decaying matter. Shells were constantly bursting overhead, and in places the trenches had crumbled and were nearly blocked up. They stumbled on, sometimes falling, sometimes dodging moving masses, and occasionally crawling over the dead bodies of men. At last they reached a deserted-looking trench, and one of the soldiers pushed him into the corner of it and growled something, and then disappeared round the angle. Old Sam was exhausted. He lay panting against the mud wall, expecting every minute to be blown to pieces by one of those infernal things that seemed to be getting more and more insistent. The din went on for nearly twenty minutes, and he was alone in the trench. He fancied he heard a whistle amidst the din. Suddenly one of the soldiers who had accompanied him came stealthily round the corner. And there was a look in his eye old Sam did not like. When he was within five yards the soldier raised his rifle and pointed it at Sam's body. Some instinct impelled the old man at that instant to throw himself forward on his face. As he did so, he was conscious of a terrible explosion, and he had just time to observe the soldier falling in a heap near him, when he lost consciousness.
His consciousness appeared to return to him with a snap. He was lying on a plank in a building, and he heard someone say:
"I believe the old boy's English."
He looked round. There were a lot of men lying there, and others in khaki and white overalls were busy amongst them. He sat up and rubbed his head, and said:
"Hi, mister, where be I now?"
Someone laughed, and a young man came up and said:
"Well, old thing, you were very nearly in hell. Who the devil are you?"
Someone else came up, and the two of them were discussing him. One of them said:
"He's quite all right. He was only knocked out. Better take him to the colonel. He may be a spy."
The other came up, and touched his shoulder, and remarked:
"Can you walk, uncle?"
"Ay, I can walk all right."
"That's an old sport!"
The young man took his arm and helped him out of the room, into a courtyard. They entered another room, where an elderly, kind-faced officer was seated at a desk. The officer looked up, and exclaimed:
"Good God! Bradshaw, do you know who you've got there?"
The younger one said, "No. Who, sir?"
"By God! it's Paul Jouperts!" exclaimed the colonel.
"Paul Jouperts! Great Scott!"
The older officer addressed himself to Sam. He said:
"Well, we've got you once more, Paul. We shall have to be a little more careful this time."
The young officer said:
"Shall I detail a squad, sir?"
"We can't shoot him without a court-martial," replied the kind-faced senior.
Then Sam interpolated:
"Look'ee, here, sir. I'm fair sick of all this. My name bean't Paul. My name's Sam. I was a-thinnin' a line of tarnips—"
Both officers burst out laughing, and the younger one said:
"Good! damn good! Isn't it amazing, sir, the way they not only learn the language, but even take the trouble to learn a dialect?"
The older man busied himself with some papers.
"Well, Sam," he remarked, "you shall be given a chance to prove your identity. Our methods are less drastic than those of your Boche masters. What part of England are you supposed to come from? Let's see how much you can bluff us with your topographical knowledge."
"Oi was a-thinnin' a loine o' tarnips this morning at 'alf-past seven on Mr. Dodge's farm at Halvesham, when one o' these 'ere airyplanes come roight down among the swedes. I tells e' to get clear o' that, when the feller gets out o' the car, 'e drahs a revowlver and e' says, 'You must 'company—I—'"
"Yes, yes," interrupted the senior officer; "that's all very good. Now, tell me—Where is Halvesham? What is the name of the local vicar? I'm sure you'd know that."
Old Sam rubbed his chin.
"I sits under the Reverend David Pryce, mister, and a good God-fearin' man he be. I took him a cookin' o' runner beans only yesterday. I works for Mr. Dodge what owns Greenway Manor and 'as a stud farm at Newmarket they say."
"Charles Dodge?" asked the younger officer.
"Ay, Charlie Dodge. You write and ask 'un if he knows old Sam Gates."
The two officers looked at each other, and the older one looked at Sam more closely.
"It's very extraordinary," he remarked.
"Everybody knows Charlie Dodge," added the younger officer.
It was at that moment that a wave of genius swept over old Sam. He put his hand to his head, and suddenly jerked out:
"What's more, I can tell 'ee where this yere Paul is. He's acting a gardener in a convent at—"
He puckered up his brow and fumbled with his hat, and then got out:
The older officer gasped:
"Mailleton-en-haut! Good God! What makes you say that, old man?"
Sam tried to give an account of his experience, and the things he had heard said by the German officers. But he was getting tired, and he broke off in the middle to say:
"Ye haven't a bite o' somethin' to eat, I suppose, mister, and a glass o' beer? I usually 'as my dinner at twelve o'clock."
Both the officers laughed, and the older said:
"Get him some food, Bradshaw, and a bottle of beer from the mess. We'll keep this old man here. He interests me."
While the younger man was doing this, the chief pressed a button and summoned another junior officer.
"Gateshead," he remarked, "ring up G.H.Q. and instruct them to arrest the gardener in that convent at the top of the hill, and then to report."
The officer saluted and went out, and in a few minutes a tray of hot food and a large bottle of beer was brought to the old man, and he was left alone in the corner of the room to negotiate this welcome compensation. And in the execution he did himself and his county credit. In the meanwhile the officers were very busy. People were coming and going and examining maps and telephone-bells were ringing furiously. They did not disturb old Sam's gastronomic operations. He cleaned up the mess tins and finished the last drop of beer. The senior officer found time to offer him a cigarette, but he replied:
"Thank'ee kindly, but I'd rather smoke my pipe."
"Oh, all right. Smoke away."
He lighted up, and the fumes of the shag permeated the room. Someone opened another window, and the young officer who had addressed him at first suddenly looked at him and exclaimed:
"Innocent, by God! You couldn't get snag like that anywhere but in Norfolk."
It must have been over an hour later when another officer entered, and saluted.
"Message from G.H.Q., sir," he said.
"They have arrested the gardener at the convent of St. Eloise, and they have every reason to believe that he is the notorious Paul Jouperts."
The colonel stood up, and his eyes beamed. He came over to old Sam and shook his hand.
"Mr. Gates," he said, "you are an old brick. You will probably hear more of this. You have probably been the means of delivering something very useful into our hands. Your own honour is vindicated. A loving government will probably award you five shillings or a Victoria Cross, or something of that sort. In the meantime, what can I do for you?"
Old Sam scratched his chin.
"Oi want to get back 'ome," he said.
"Well, even that might be arranged."
"Oi want to get back 'ome in toime for tea."
"What time do you have tea?"
"Foive o'clock or thereabouts."
A kindly smile came into the eyes of the colonel. He turned to another officer standing by the table, and said:
"Raikes, is anyone going across this afternoon with despatches?"
"Yes, sir," replied the other officer. "Commander Jennings is leaving at three o'clock."
"You might ask him to come and see me."
Within ten minutes a young man in a flight-commander's uniform entered.
"Ah, Jennings," said the colonel, "here is a little affair which concerns the honour of the British army. My friend here, Sam Gates, has come over from Halvesham in Norfolk in order to give us valuable information. I have promised him that he shall get home to tea at five o'clock. Can you take a passenger?"
The young man threw back his head and laughed.
"Lord!" he exclaimed. "What an old sport! Yes, I expect I could just manage it. Where is the Godforsaken place?"
A large ordnance-map of Norfolk (which had been captured from a German officer) was produced, and the young man studied it closely.
At three o'clock precisely old Sam, finding himself something of a hero and quite glad to escape from the embarrassment which this position entailed, once more sped skywards in an "airyplane."
At twenty minutes to five he landed once more amongst Mr. Dodge's swedes. The breezy young airman shook hands with him and departed inland. Old Sam sat down and surveyed the field.
"A noice thing, I must say," he muttered to himself, as he looked along the lines of unthinned turnips. He still had twenty minutes, and so he went slowly along and completed a line which he had commenced in the morning. He then deliberately packed up his dinner-things and his tools, and started out for home.
As he came round the corner of Stillway's Meadow, and the cottage came in view, his niece stepped out of the copse with a basket on her arm.
"Well, Uncle," she said, "is there any noos?"
It was then that old Sam became really irritated.
"Noos!" he said. "Noos! drat the girl! What noos should there be? Sixty-nine year I live in these here parts, hoein' and weedin' and thinnin' and mindin' Charlie Dodge's sheep. Am I one o' these here story-book folk havin' noos 'appen to me all the time? Ain't it enough, ye silly dab-faced zany, to earn enough to buy a bite o' some'at to eat, and a glass o' beer, and a place to rest a's head o'night, without always wantin' noos, noos, noos! I tell 'ee, it's this that leads 'ee to 'alf the troubles in the world. Devil take the noos!"
And turning his back on her, he went fuming up the hill.
When their careers are finished, the painter, the author, the architect, the sculptor, may point to this or that, and say "Lo, this is my handiwork. Future generations shall rejoice in me."
But to the actor and the executive musician there is nothing left but—memories.
Their permanence lies in the memories of the people who loved them. They cannot pass it on. Someone may say to you: "Ah! my boy, you should have heard Jean de Reske." Or: "You should have seen Macready play that part." And you are bound in all politeness to accept this verdict, but if you have not heard Jean de Reske, nor seen Macready, it leaves no definite impression on you at all. Indeed the actor is in worse case than the musician. For at the present time there are ingenious mechanical devices for caging the performance of a musican with varying degrees of success, but no mechanism could ever imprison the electric thrill of Joseph Jefferson or Henry Irving on their great nights of triumph. They are gone for ever, cast away among the limbo of the myths. These melancholy reflections occurred to me on the first occasion when I visited Colin Brancker. I met the old chap first of all in the public library. He had a fine distinguished head with long, snow-white hair. He was slim, and in spite of a pronounced stoop, he carried himself with a certain distinction and alertness. I was a fairly regular visitor to the library, and I always found him devouring the magazines and newspapers which I particularly wanted to read myself. A misunderstanding about a copy of "The Saturday Review" lead to a few formal expressions of courtesy, on the following day to a casual nod, later on to a few words about the weather, then to a profound bow on his part, and an inquiry after his health from me. Once we happened to be going out at the same time and I walked to the end of the road with him.
He interested me at once. His clear, precise diction, with its warm timbre of restrained emotion, was very arresting. His sympathy about the merest trifles stirred you to the depths. If he said "What a glorious day it is to-day!" it was not merely a conventional expression, but a kind of paean of all the joy and ecstasy of spring life, sunshine and young lambs frisking in the green meadows.
If he said: "Oh! I'm so sorry," in reply to your announcement that you had lost your 'bus ticket coming along and had had to pay twice, the whole dread incident appeared to you envisaged through a mist of tears. The grief of Agamemnon weeping over the infidelity of Clytemnestra seemed but a trite affair in comparison.
One day with infinite tact he invited me to "his humble abode." He occupied the upper part of a small house in Talbot Road. He lived alone, but was apparently tended by a gaunt middle-aged woman who glided about the place in felt slippers.
The rooms were as he expressed it "humble" but not by any means poverty-stricken. He had several pieces of old furniture and bric-a-brac, innumerable mementos and photographs. It was then that I realised the peculiar position of the actor. If he had been a painter I could have looked at some of his work and have "placed" him, but what could you do with an old actor who lived so much in the past? The position seemed to me pitiable.
Doubtless in his day he had been a fine and distinguished actor and here was I, who knew nothing about him, and did not like to ask what parts he had played because I felt that I ought to know. Neither was he very informing. Not that he was diffident in speech—he talked well and volubly—but I had to gather what he had done by his various implications. There was a signed photograph of himself in the character of Malvolio and in many other Shakespearian parts. There were also signed photographs of J. L. Toole, and Henry Irving, and innumerable actors, some of whom were famous and others whose names were unfamiliar to me. By slow degrees I patched together some of the romantic tissues of his life. Whatever position he may have held in the theatrical world, he certainly still had the faculty of moving one person profoundly—myself. Everything in that little room seemed to vibrate with romance. One of Irving's photographs was inscribed: "To my dear old friend, Colin Brancker." On the circular table was an enamel snuff-box given him by Nellie Farren.
When he spoke of his mother his voice sounded like some distant organ with the vox humana stop pulled out. I gathered that his mother had been a famous French actress. On the piano was a fan given her by the Empress Eugenie. He never spoke of his father. Nearly everything had some intimate association. I formed a habit of calling on old Brancker on Thursday evenings when my wife usually visited an invalid aunt. The experience was always a complete entertainment. He knew nothing of my world and I knew nothing of his. I came completely under the spell of his imagery. I had only to touch some trinket on the mantel-piece to set the whole machinery of retrospection on the move. He came haltingly to his subject as though he were feeling for it through the lavender-scented contents of some old drawer. But when the subject was discovered, he brought the whole picture vividly before my mind. I could see those people strutting before the footlights, hear them laugh and joke in their stuffy lodgings and their green rooms, follow their hard life upon the road, their struggles and adversities, and successes, and above all the moving throb of their passions and romances.
And then the picture would die out. It had no beginning and no end. It was just an impression. The angle of vision would alter. Something else would appear upon the scene.
After a time, touched with pity for this lonely and derelict old actor, my wife and I occasionally sent him little presents of game and port wine, when such things came our way. I would like to explain at this point that my wife is younger than I. Her outlook is less critical and introspective. To use her own expression, she is out to have a good time. She enjoys dances and theatres and gay parties. And after all, why shouldn't she? She is young and beautiful and full of life. Her hair—but I digress! In spite of the pheasants and the port she had never met old Brancker. But one day we all happened to meet at the corner of the Talbot Road. I then enjoyed an entirely novel vision of my hero. He was magnificent. The bow he made, the long sweep of the hat would have put D'Artagnan to shame. When I introduced them, he held her hand for a moment and said:
"It is indeed a great pleasure!"
It doesn't sound very much in print, but Alice completely went under. She blushed with pleasure and told me afterwards that she thought he was "a perfect old dear!" The affair lapsed for several weeks. I still continued to call upon him, and we nearly exhausted the whole gamut of his belongings. We even routed through old drawers where faded remnants of ancient fustian would recall some moving episode of the past. I became greedy for these visionary adventures.
One night rather late I found the little white frock. So familiar had I become with my old friend that I was allowed to poke about his rooms on my own and ask him questions. It was a child's frock and it lay neatly folded on the top of a chest in the passage. I brought it into the room, where he was sipping his rum and water, and said:
"What's this, Mr. Brancker?"
He fixed his eyes upon the frock and instantly I was aware that he was strangely moved. At first an expression of surprise and bewilderment crept over his face, then I observed a look of utter dejection and remorse. He did not speak, and rather confusedly I went up to him and touched him on the shoulder.
"I'm sorry," I said. "Doubtless there is some story....I ought not to have—"
Instantly he patted my arm in return and muttered:
"No, no. It's quite all right, old boy. And I will tell you, only not to-night. No, not to-night."
He stood up and took one or two turns up and down the room in silence. I did not dare to intrude into the secret chamber of his memories. Suddenly he turned to me, and putting his arm round my shoulder, he exclaimed:
"Old boy, come in to-morrow. Come to dinner. Bring the wife. Yes, you must both come. Come to dinner at seven-thirty. And then—I will tell you the story of that little white frock."
It happened that a dance my wife had intended going to the following night had fallen through. To my surprise she jumped at Mr. Brancker's invitation. She said that she thought it would be extremely interesting. I felt a little nervous of taking her. An invitation to dinner for the first time is always a doubtful number. The social equation varies so alarmingly and unexpectedly. My wife frequently dined at what she called "smart" houses. How could old Brancker possibly manage a dinner in his poky rooms? I warned her to wear her oldest and shabbiest, and to have a sandwich before we started. Needless to say my advice was ignored. She appeared in a wonderful gown of pearl-grey. Experience told me it was useless to protest, and I jogged along the street by her side in my tweed suit. And then I had my second surprise. Old Brancker was in immaculate evening dress. Cunningly modulated lights revealed a table glittering with silver and glass. I mumbled some apology for my negligence but in his most courtly way he expressed his pleasure that I had treated him with such friendly lack of ceremony. Nevertheless this question of dress—as so often happens—exercised a very definite effect upon my whole evening. I felt a little out of it. My wife and old Brancker seemed to belong to one world and I to another. Moreover, their conversation flowed easily and naturally. The old actor was in his most brilliant mood, and Alice sparkled and gurgled in response. Although she was younger and Brancker older than I, I felt at times that I was the oldest of the three, and that they were just children playing an absorbing game. And the dinner was the third surprise.
The gaunt woman served it, gliding in and out of the room with a quiet assurance. It was no lodging-house dinner, but the artful succession of little dishes which symbolises the established creed of superior living creatures. Wine, too, flowed from long-necked bottles, and coffee was served in diminutive cups. At length Mrs. Windsor collected the last vestiges of this remarkable feast, but left on the table a silver tray on which were set four liqueur glasses and a decanter of green Chartreuse.
"Let us all sit round the fire," said our host. "But first, let me press you to have a little of this excellent beverage. It was given me by a holy brother, a man who led a varied life, but who, alas! died in disgrace."
He passed his hand across his brow as though the memory were too sacred to be discussed. I sighed involuntarily, and my wife said brightly:
"Not for me, Mr. Brancker, but you help yourself. And now you're going to tell us the story of the white frock!"
He raised his fine head and looked at her. Then he stretched out his long arm across the table and gently pressed her hand.
"I beg of you, dear lady," he said gently, "just one drop—in memory of my friend."
The implied sanctity of the appeal could not be denied. Both my wife and I partook of half a glass, and though I am by nature an abstainer, I must acknowledge that it tasted very good. Old Brancker's hand trembled as he poured out the Chartreuse. He drank his at a gulp, and as though the emotion were not yet stilled he had another one. Then he rose and taking my wife's arm he led her to the easy chair by the fire. I was rather proud of my intimate knowledge of the old actor's possessions, and I pointed out the snuff-box which Nellie Farren had given him, and the photograph of Irving with its inscription: "To my dear old friend."
Brancker sighed and shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps one does not boast of these associations. Perhaps it is vulgar, but I knew how interested Alice would be. When we had done a round of the rooms, whither in his fatherly way he had conducted my wife by the arm, and occasionally rested his hand ever so lightly on her shoulder, we returned to the dining-room and Alice said:
"Now, show me this little white frock!"
He bowed and without a word went out into the hall and returned with the frock, which he spread reverently over the back of a chair.
"How perfectly sweet!" said my wife.
For a few moments he buried his head in his hands, and Alice and I were silent. I could not but observe the interesting mise-en-scène in which I found myself. The dim recesses of the room heavy with memories. My wife cosily curled up in the high arm-chair, the firelight playing on her fresh—almost childlike—face, a simple ring sparkling on her finger, and on the pearly glint of her diaphanous gown. On the other side of the table where the little glasses stood, the clear-cut features and long snow-white hair of the old actor, silhouetted against a dark cabinet. And then like some fragile ghost recalled to bear witness to its tragic past, the dim outline of the child's white frock.
"It was before your time, mes enfants, long long before your time," he said suddenly. "You would not remember the famous Charles Carside Company who starred the provinces. We became known as the Capacity Company. The title was doubly-earned. We always played to full houses and in those days—"
He turned to me with a penetrating, almost challenging, look and added:
"There were actors. Comedy, and tragedy, history, everything worth doing in the legitimate was in our repertoire. We changed our bill every night and sometimes twice a day. Ay, and we changed our parts, sir. I remember Terry O'Bane and I reversing the parts of Othello and Iago on alternate nights for two weeks at a stretch. I played Lord Stamford to his Puttick in 'The Golden Dawn.' He played Shylock to my Bassanio. I will not bore you with these details. Ah! Poor old Terry! Poor dear old Terry!"
He stopped and looked down at his hands, and neither of us spoke.
"When I say that Terry O'Bane and I were friends I want to tell you that we were friends as only artists can be friends. We loved each other. For three years we worked together side by side—never a suspicion of envy, never a suspicion of jealousy. I remember one night after Terry's delivery of Jacques's speech on the fool he did not get a hand. I found him weeping in the wings. 'Old fellow!' I said, but he gripped me by the arm. 'Colly boy,' he answered, 'I was thinking of you. I knew how distressed you would be!' Think of that! His only concern was that I should be distressed. Ah! in those days..."
He stretched his long white fingers and examined them, then turning suddenly to my wife he said:
"I want to ask you, mademoiselle" (he persisted in calling her mademoiselle all the evening) "to make allowances in what I am about to tell you for the tempora et mores. In my young days love had a different significance to what it has now. In this modern world I observe nothing but expedience and opportunism. No one is prepared to sacrifice, to run risks. The love between O'Bane and me was an epic of self-sacrifice, and it ran its full course. It found its acid test on the day when Sophie Wiles joined our company at Leeds."
He stood up and his voice trembled in a low whisper. Looking at Alice he said:
"She was as beautiful, as fragile, as adorable as you are, mademoiselle. Strange how these great secrets are conveyed imperceptibly. O'Bane and I looked at each other, and instinctively we understood. We said nothing. We made no comment about her. We were entirely solicitous of each other's feelings. We referred to her as 'Miss Wiles' and we addressed her as 'Miss Wiles.' Before we had been three weeks on the road I know that if I had not known O'Bane's feelings I should have gone to her and said, 'Sophie, my darling, my angel, I love you, I adore you. Will you marry me?' But would it have been chivalrous to do this, knowing O'Bane's sentiments? We were two months on the road before the matter reached its climax. And during that time—under an unspoken compact—neither of us made love to Sophie. And then one night I could bear it no longer. I saw the drawn and hungry look on my colleague's eye as he watched her from the wings. I went up to him and whispered: 'Old fellow, go in and win. She's worthy of you.' He understood me at once and he pressed my hand. 'Colly,' he said, 'you're right. This can't go on. Meet me after the show and come round to my rooms.'"
The old actor's lips were trembling. He drew his chair nearer to my wife's. "I cannot tell you of the heartburning interview I had with my old friend that night. Each tried to give way to the other. It was very terrible, very moving. At length we decided that the only solution would be to put the matter to a hazard. We could not cut cards or throw dice. It seemed profane. We decided to play a game of chess. We set out the pieces and began. But at the end of a few moments it was apparent that each was trying to let the other win. 'Stay' I said, 'we must leave the verdict to impartial destiny after all,' and I rose. On the sideboard—as it might be here—was a large bowl of gloire-de-Dijon roses. I took the largest bloom and said 'Terry, old boy, if there are an odd number of petals in this rose she is yours. If an even number, I will pay her court.' He agreed. Slowly and deliberately, petal by petal, I destroyed the beautiful bloom. There were fifty-eight petals. When Terry saw the last petal fall he turned white and swayed. I helped him to the easy chair and handed him a little grog. It was nearly dawn. Already the birds were twittering on the window-sill."
He turned and gazed at the window as though even now the magic of that early morning was upon him.
"The dawn was clear for me, but for my friend how dark and foreboding! Or so it seemed to both of us at that hour. But as Mahomet said 'With women, life is a condition of flux.' At eleven o'clock that morning I was on my bended knees to Sophie. I poured out all my pent-up feelings of the two months. There are some things too sacred to repeat even to those who are—dear to us."
He gasped and stretching out his arm poured out another glass of the Chartreuse.
"She refused me, or if she did not actually refuse me—indeed she did not; she was sympathetic almost loving, but so—indeterminate that I was almost driven to a frenzy of despair. When one is young, one is like that. One must have all and at once, or go crazy with despair. For a week I courted her day and night, and I could not make her decide. She liked me, but she did not love me. At the end of that time I went to O'Bane and I said, 'Old man, it is your call. My part is played!' Under great pressure from me he consented to enter the lists and I withheld my hand as he had done. Even now the memory of that week of anguish when I knew that my greatest friend was making love to my adored is almost unbearable. At the end of the week he came to me and said, 'Old boy, I don't know how I stand. She likes me but I hardly think she loves me.' I will not burden you with the chronicle of our strange actions which followed. We decided that as the position was identical it should be an open fight in a fair field, otherwise between us we should lose her altogether. We would both pay court to her wherever and whenever the opportunity occurred. And we would do so without animosity or ill-will. The tour lasted three months and I knew that O'Bane was winning. There was no question about it. He was the favourite. Every minute I expected to hear the dread glad tidings. And then a strange thing happened."
He leant back in his chair and passed his hands through his hair with a graceful gesture.
"An uncle in Australia died and left O'Bane an enormous fortune. He was rich beyond the dreams of avarice. The company all knew of it and were delighted, all—all except one person."
He glanced towards my wife and sighed.
"I have lived a good many years and yet I seem to find the heart of woman as unfathomable, as unexplorable as ever. They are to me the magic casements opening on the night. There is no limit...every subtle human experience is capable of endless variation. Sophie refused to marry O'Bane because people would think she married him for his money. The anguish of those last weeks I shall never forget. She definitely refused him, and I was torn between my love for O'Bane and my love for Sophie. I can say with perfect truth—literal truth—that the fortune killed O'Bane. When we arrived in London he began to squander. He drank, gambled, and led a depraved life, all because the woman he loved would not marry him. In the spring he left the company and took a house in town. It became the happy hunting ground of loose characters. It is needless to say that if Sophie wouldn't marry him there were plenty of other women willing to marry a young millionaire. He became entangled with a fast and pretty creature called Annabel Peacock. He married her and in the following year they had a child."
The fire crackled on the hearth; my wife did not take her eyes from the old actor's face. A black cat strolled leisurely across the room and stretched itself before the fire. He continued:
"It was then that I experienced an entirely novel vision of woman's character. Sophie who would not marry O'Bane because he was rich and who shivered with disgust in the presence of Annabel Peacock, developed an amazing affection and interest for their child. We were out again in the Capacity Company. I had her all to myself. I laid siege to her heart. I was patient, tactful, importunate, imploring, passionate. But it was all no good, my boy...no good at all. Heigho! would you believe it for ten years of my life from that date I was that woman's slave, and she was the slave of Terry's child. Company after company I joined in order to be with her. I gave up good parts. I sacrificed leads and in place I even accepted a walk-on—anything to be with Sophie. Sophie, who would not listen to me, who treated me like a little pet, to run hither and thither, and who spent all her money and time on toys and clothes for Terry's child. Would you believe it?"
To my surprise my wife spoke for the first time. She said: "Yes."
Brancker looked at her keenly and nodded.
"Yes. In any affair between a man and a woman, a man finds himself at a disadvantage. Mademoiselle, you see, understands. Women have all kinds of mysterious intuitions and senses which we wot not of. She is armed at every point. She has more resources. She is better equipped than man. Sophie even made a friend of Annabel. She wrote her loving letters and called her 'my dearest.' For you must know that two years after his marriage my old friend Terry O'Bane went under. He awakened one night feeling ill; he groped in a chest where he usually kept a flask of brandy. He took a gulp. The liquid he drew into his throat was pure liquid ammonia which Annabel had been using for photographic work. She was a keen photographer. He rushed out into the street in his pyjamas and died in the arms of a policeman at the corner."
The horror of this episode was written plainly in the old man's face. He delivered it with a kind of dramatic despair, as though he knew it had to be told and he could not control himself. Then he seemed to fall to pieces, and lay huddled at the back of his chair. I looked at Alice furtively and I could see a tear swimming on the brink of her eye. It was some moments before he could continue.
"These were all the best years of my life, mes enfants, when my powers were at their highest. My old friend Toole offered me a good part in London. He said to me, 'Brancker, old man, you're wasting yourself in the provinces. Come to town and take a lead.' I could only press his hand and thank him. In another week or two I was on the road again with Sophie. As the years went by she became more and more absorbed by Terry's unattractive child, and more and more distressed concerning it. For you must know that in spite of his profligate life, Terry still had left a considerable fortune, and Annabel continued to live in the same way. And it was the worst possible atmosphere to bring a young child up in. Annabel was kind to the child in a spasmodic way, passionate and unreliable. She would pet it and coax it, and buy it expensive toys and dresses and then suddenly neglect or scold it. Sophie knew this, and all the time she could spare she went to London and tried to help the situation. She humoured and flattered Annabel, who was quite manageable if you treated her like this, and she did what she could to influence the early training of the child for good. But as you may imagine, the little minx grew up the spit and image of her mother. She was vain, fickle and spoilt. By the time she was ten she thought of nothing but her looks and her frocks, and she was indeed a very pretty child. She all had the prettiness of her mother, with something of her father's grace and charm. She was encouraged to amuse the vulgar people who came to the house, and she was allowed to listen to all the loose talk, and to sit up to any hour she liked, unless Annabel happened to be in a contrary mood, when she would slap the child and lock her in her room.
"'Aunt Sophie' as she called her was a favourite with Lucy, but only, I'm afraid, because 'Aunt Sophie' gave her expensive toys, and lavished her love persistently upon the child. She wrote to her nearly every day wherever she happened to be, and sent her little gifts."
The old man mopped his forehead. He was evidently labouring under the severe strain which the invoking of these memories put upon him. He walked to the sideboard and poured himself out a glass of water, into which he poured—as an afterthought—a tiny drop of rum. After taking two long meditative gulps he resumed his seat. He seemed to have forgotten all about our presence. He was living in the past. But suddenly he turned to my wife and said:
"I have many of the beautiful frocks which Sophie made for little Lucy. They have come down to me. If it would not bore you to call one afternoon, mademoiselle, I could show you some that might interest you." There was a strange eager appeal in his voice. It seemed a matter of tremendous moment that Alice should go and inspect the frocks. My heart bled for him. "Of course she will go," I thought, but to my surprise she said nothing. She just looked at him with that queer watchful expression that women alone are capable of. Perhaps it is part of what the old chap referred to—their equipment. She toyed with the chain on her frock and his eye meditated upon her movements. He hesitated, and then rather nervously proceeded, as though talking to himself.
"Frocks! What a part they play in our lives. Carlyle was right. Sophie was extraordinarily clever with her needle. She had a genius for combining materials. Her theatrical experience helped her. She made the most alluring frocks. The child adored 'Aunt Sophie's' frocks, They always looked so striking and so professional. The crisis in my life, and which I am about to tell you of, was indeed occasioned by one of the frocks which Sophie made for Lucy. It came about in this way."
He paused again, and tapped the top of the table with his beautiful white hands.
"That last year—that year when Lucy reached her tenth birthday, the excesses in Annabel's house reached their zenith. The place became notorious. Annabel had taken to herself a drunken lord, Lord Starborough. He was a dissipated young roué. He rather took a fancy to Lucy and he spoilt her in the same way that Annabel did. We heard stories of the goings on. The child was taken to houses to dance. I believe she was even taught to put on rouge. There was a rich family called the Arkwrights who also had children and who had lived a similar life. These children were Lucy's great friends. They vied with each other in their infantile snobbery. The parents gave elaborate parties and tried to outshine each other in the lavishness of their entertainment, and the overdressing of the children. It was very, very painful. Even I, whose life was being wrecked by Sophie's adulation of this child, felt sorry. My heart bled for my old friend's daughter."
"We had a long tour that autumn, Sophie and I. We were out in 'The Woman Who Failed.' Sophie had a lead, but I was only playing the part of a butler. It was a long and trying tour up North. The weather was very bitter. There was a good deal of sickness, and our chief was a hard man. Early in December Sophie caught a cold which rapidly developed into bronchitis. She had a narrow escape. She was, however, only out of the bill for ten days. She insisted on returning and struggling on. The tour was to end on Christmas Eve. One day she had a letter from Lucy. I remember the exact words to this day. 'Dear Aunt Sophie, do make me a lovely frock for Christmas Eve. The Arkwrights are having a lovely ball and I know Irene is having a gold and green with a sparkling veil. Your loving Lucy.'
"When Sophie got this letter she smiled. She was happy. She was always happy when doing a service. Ah me...! For nearly a week she thought and dreamt about the frock she was going to make for Lucy for the Arkwrights' party. She knew what the child wanted—a frock to outshine all the others. Then another story reached us. I have forgotten what it was; some distressing record of these Arkwright people. One night after the show she sent for me. I could tell she was very agitated. She clutched my arm and said: 'Old man, I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to make Lucy a frock which will outshine all the others. And it will be just a plain white frock with no adornment of any sort. Just think of it, amongst all those vulgar, overdressed children, one little girl, as pretty as Lucy—in plain white. And they will be bound to appreciate it. It will tell. And perhaps she will realise—what it means. Good taste and refinement will always tell against vulgarity.' I applauded Sophie's idea, and I went with her to get the material. But she fainted in the shop. During those last few days I began to realise that Sophie was very ill. She was simply living on her nervous force, keeping herself going in order to complete the tour, and to deliver Lucy's frock in time for the ball.
"Our last journey back was from Nottingham. We arrived in London at five o'clock on Christmas Eve. I was in a fever of dread. I believed that Sophie was dying. She kept swaying in the train as though she was going to drop. Her face was deadly white, her eyes unnaturally bright, and her fingers were still busy on the frock. So absorbed had I been in Sophie's affairs, I had made no arrangements about lodgings in town. Neither had she. But my old friend, Joe Gadgers, seeing my distress, said: 'Old boy, leave it to me. I know a snug little place where they'll take you in. I'm not stopping. I'm going straight through to Hastings.' I thanked my old friend and embraced him. When we got to Euston, we got Sophie into a four-wheeled cab, and Joe Gadgers came with us to arrange the introduction. I hardly noticed where the lodgings were—somewhere in Clapham, I think. We arrived there and a good lady took us in without hesitation. We put Sophie to bed. She was almost delirious, but still the frock was not quite finished. Joe left us, and I sat by her bedside, watching her busy fingers. I knew it was useless to protest. The clock on the mantel-piece ticked and outside the snow was beginning to fall."
Colin Brancker stood up, and suddenly picked up the little white frock from the back of the chair. He held it in his arms reverently and tenderly. His voice was strong and resonant. He stood there and acted the scene vividly before my eyes.
"At ten minutes to seven I left the house holding the frock in my arms. I rushed out without a hat, without a coat. I flew along the street, calling out for a cab like a madman...At last I got one. I told the driver to drive like the furies to the address I gave him in Kensington. In the cab I stamped my feet and rocked the dress in my arms as though it were a fevered child. I don't know how we got there. It seemed an eternity. I flung into the house, calling out 'Lucy! Lucy!' I found her in the drawing-room. She was dressed in a flaming orange and silver dress with a sparkling tiara in her hair. She was looking in a mirror and putting finishing touches to her hair. She cried out when she saw me: 'Hullo, I thought Aunt Sophie had forgotten me. I've hired a frock from Rocos.' 'Child,' I said, 'your Aunt Sophie has been working out her life's blood for you. Here is the frock!' She grabbed it and examined it. 'Frock!' she said. 'It looks more like a nightdress. I don't want the beastly old thing,' and she threw it across the room. I believe at that moment I could have struck the child. I was blind with fury. Fortunately, I remembered in time that she was my old friend Terry O'Bane's daughter. I picked up the frock. 'Ungrateful child!' I exclaimed. 'You don't know what you're doing. You're murdering an ideal. You're killing your aunt.' She tossed her insolent head and actually pressed the bell for the butler to see me out! Just like a grown-up person! Dazed and baffled I clutched the little white frock and staggered out into the street. The night was dark, and the snow was still falling. Christmas bells were beginning to peal...I plunged on and on my heart beating against my ribs. People stared at me but I was too distressed to care. How could I go back to Sophie with the insulting message? Suddenly, at the corner of Hyde Park, a most appalling realisation flashed through my mind. I had made no note of the address of the lodgings where Sophie and I were staying!...God in heaven! What was I to do? The only man who could help me, my old friend, Joe Gadgers, had gone to Hastings. What could I do? Could I go to the police and say, 'Will you help me to find the address of some lodgings where an actress is staying. I think it's somewhere round about Clapham. I don't know the name of the landlady, or the name of the street, or the number?' They would have thought I was mad. Perhaps I was mad. Should I go back to Lucy? The child wouldn't know...and all this time Sophie was dying. Ah! merciful God! perhaps she would die. If she died before I found her she would die in the happy belief that the frock had been worn. Her last hours would be blessed with dreams, visions of purity and joy...whilst I...I should have no place in them, perhaps...but I, too, after all I'd suffered for her sake. Who knows?...Who knows?..."
His voice broke off in a low sob. I leant forward watching his face, wracked with anguish. The room was extraordinarily still. I dare not look at Alice, but I was conscious of the pearly sheen of her frock under the lamp. Away in the distance one could hear the rumble of the traffic on the High-road. The remorseless tick of the clock was the only sound in the room. Once I thought it ticked louder and then I realised that it was someone tapping gently at the door. The door opened a little way and against the dim light in the passage appeared the gaunt face of the old serving woman, phantom like, unreal...
"Excuse me, sir." She peered into the room. The old actor gazed at her with unseeing eyes. He stood with one hand on the back of the chair, and across the other arm lay the white frock, a dignified and pathetic figure.
"I'm sorry to trouble you, sir."
"Yes, Mrs. Windsor?"
"My little niece 'as just called. I can't find it anywhere. That little white frock I made for 'er last week. I put it in the chest. I thought perhaps you might 'ave. Ah! there it is, sir. Do you mind—? Thank you very much sir. I'm sorry to have disturbed the company."
In the sanctuary of our bedroom that night, my wife said:
"Did you really believe that that writing on the photograph was by Henry Irving?"
"My dear," I answered. "When their careers are finished, the painter, the author, the architect or the sculptor may point to this or that and say 'Lo, this is my handiwork.' But to the actor nothing remains but—memories. Their permanence lies in the memories of those who loved them. Are we to begrudge them all the riches of imagination? After all, what is the line of demarcation between what we call reality and what we call imagination? Is not the imagery invoked by Shelley when he sings of dubious myths as real a fact as the steel rivets in the Forth Bridge? What is reality? Indeed, what is life?"
"I don't know what life is," answered my wife, switching off the light. "But I know what you are. You're a dear old, perfect old—BOOB!"
"Alice, what do you mean?" I said.
She laughed softly. "Women are 'equipped,' you know," she replied enigmatically, and insisted on going to sleep.
It is undoubtedly true that the majority of us perform the majority of our actions through what are commonly known as mixed motives.
It would certainly have been quite impossible for Mr. Edwin Pothecary to analyze the concrete impulse which eventually prompted him to perform his good action. It may have been a natural revolt from the somewhat petty and cramped punctilio of his daily life; his drab home life, the bickering, wearing, grasping routine of the existence of fish-and-chips dispenser. A man who earns his livelihood by buying fish and potatoes in the cheapest market, and selling them in the Waterloo Hoad cannot afford to indulge his altruistic fancies to any lavish extent. It is true that the business of Mr. Edwin Pothecary was a tolerably successful one—he employed three assistants and a boy named Scales who was not so much an assistant as an encumbrance and wholesale plate-smasher. Mr. Pothecary engaged him because he thought his name seemed appropriate to the fish-trade. In a weak moment he pandered to this sentimental whim, another ingredient in the strange composition which influences us to do this, that, and the other. But it was not by pandering to whims of this nature that Mr. Pothecary had built up this progressive and odoriferous business with its gay shopfront of blue and brown tiles. It was merely a minor lapse. In tbe fish-and-cbip trade one has to be keen, pushful, self-reliant, ambidexterous, a student of human nature, forbearing, far-seeing, imaginative, courageous, something of a controversialist with a streak of fatalism as pronounced as that of a high-priest in a Brahmin temple. It is better, moreover, to have an imperfect nasal organism, and to be religious.
Edwin had all these qualities. Every day he went from Quince Villa at Buffington to London—forty minutes in the train—and back at night. On Sunday he took the wife and three children to the Methodist Chapel at the corner of the street to both morning and evening services. But even this religious observance does not give us a complete solution for the sudden prompting of an idea to do a good action. Edwin had attended chapel for fifty-two years and such an impulse had never occurred to him before. He may possibly have been influenced by some remark of the preacher, or was it that twinge of gout which set him thinking of the unwritten future? Had it anything to do with the Boy-Scout movement? Some one at some time had told him of an underlying idea—that every day in one's life one should do one pure, good and unselfish action.
Perhaps after all it was all due to the gayety of a spring morning. Certain it is that as he swung out of the garden gate on that morning in April something stirred in him. His round puffy face blinked heavenwards. Almond blossoms fluttered in the breeze above the hedgerows. Larks were singing...Suddenly his eye alighted upon the roof of the Peels' hen-house opposite and Mr. Edwin Pothecary scowled. Lord! How he hated those people! The Peels were Pothe-cary's b�?™tes-noires. Snobs! Pirates! Rotters!
The Peels' villa was at least three times as big as the Pothecarys'. It was, in fact, not a villa at all. It was a "Court"—whatever that was. It was quite detached, with about fourteen rooms in all, a coachhouse, a large garden, and two black sheds containing forty-five fowls, leading an intensive existence. The Pothecarys had five fowls which sometimes did and sometimes didn't supply them with two or three eggs a day, but it was known that the Peels sent at least two hundred and fifty eggs to market every week, besides supplying their own table. Mr. Peel was a successful dealer in quills and bristles. His wife was the daughter of a post office official and they had three stuck up daughters who would have no truck at all with the Pothecarys. You may appreciate then the twinge of venom which marked the face of Edwin as he passed through his front gate and observed the distant roof of the Peels' fowl-house. And still the almond blossoms nodded at him above the hedge. The larks sang...After all, was it fair to hate any one because they were better off than oneself? Strange how these moods obsess one. The soft air caressed Edwin's cheek. Little flecks of cloud scudded gayly into the suburban panorama. Small green shoots were appearing everywhere. One ought not to hate any one at all—of course. It is absurd. So bad for oneself, apart from tbe others. One ought rather to be kind, forgiving, loving all mankind. Was that a lark or a thrush? He knew little about birds. Dish now!...A not entirely unsatisfactory business really the fried fish trade—when things went well. When customers were numerous and not too cantankerous. Quite easy to run, profitable. A boy came singing down the road. The villas clustered together more socially. There was a movement of spring life...
As Edwin turned the corner of the Station Road, the impulse crystallized. One good action. To-day he would perform one good, kind, unselfish, unadvertised action. No one should ever know of it. Just one today. Then perhaps one to-morrow. And so on; in time it might become a habit. That is how one progressed. He took his seat in the crowded third-class smoker and pretended to read his newspaper, but his mind was too actively engaged with the problems of his new resolution. How? When? Where? How does one do a definitely good action? WEat is the best way to go to work? One could, of course, just quietly slip some money into a poor-box if one could be found. But would this be very good and self-sacrificing? Who gets money put in a poor-box? Surely his own family were poor enough, as far as that went. But he couldn't go back home and give his wife a sovereign. It would be advertising his charity, and he would look silly doing it. His business? He might turn up and say to his assistants: "Boys, you shall all have a day's holiday. We'll shut up, aud here's your pay for the day." Advertising again; besides, what about the hundreds of poor workers in the neighborhood who relied for their mid-day sustenance on "Pothecary's Pride-of-the-Ocean Popular Plaice to Eat?" It would be cruel, cruel and—bad for business in the future. The public would lose confidence in that splendid gold-lettered tablet in the window which said "Cod, brill, halibut, plaice, pilchards always on hand. Eat them or take them away."
The latter sentence did not imply that if you took them away you did not eat them; it simply meant that you could either stand at the counter and eat them from a plate with the aid of a fork and your fingers (or at one of the wooden benches if you could find room—an unlikely contingency, alternatively you could wrap them up in a piece of newspaper and devour them without a fork at the corner of the street.
No, it would not be a good action in any way to close the Popular Plaice to eat. Edwin came to the conclusion that to perform this act satisfactorily it were better to divorce the proceeding entirely from any connection with home or business. The two things didn't harmonize. A good action must be a special and separate effort in an entirely different setting. He would take the day off himself and do it thoroughly.
Mr. Pothecary was known in the neighborhood of the Waterloo Eoad as "The Stinker," a title easily earned by the peculiar qualities of his business and the obvious additional fact that a Pothecary was a chemist. He was a very small man, bald-headed with yellowy-white side whiskers, a blue chin, a perambulating nostril with a large wart on the port side. He wore a square bowler hat which seemed to thrust out the protruding flaps of his large ears. His greeny-black clothes were always too large for him and ended in a kind of thick spiral above his square-toed boots. He always wore a flat white collar—more or less clean—and no tie. This minor defect was easily atoned for by a heavy silver chain on his waistcoat from which hung gold seals and ribbons connecting with watches, knives, and all kinds of ingenious appliances in his waistcoat pockets.
The noble intention of his day was a little chilled on his arrival at the shop. In the first place, although customers were then arriving for breakfast, the boy Scales was slopping water over the front step. Having severely castigated the miscreant youth and prophesied that his chances of happiness in the life to come were about as remote as those of a dead dog-fish in the upper reaches of the Thames, he made his way through the customers to the room at the back, and there he met Dolling.
Dolling was Edwin's manager, and he cannot be overlooked. In the first place, he was remarkably like a fish himself. He had the same dull expressionless eyes and the drooping mouth and drooping mustache. Everything about him drooped and dripped. He was always wet. He wore a gray flannel shirt and no collar or tie. His braces, trousers, and hair all seemed the same color. He hovered in the background with a knife, and did the cutting up and dressing. He had, moreover, all the taciturnity of a fish, and its peculiar ability for getting out of a difficulty. He never spoke. He simply looked lugubrious, and pointed at things with his knife. And yet Edwin knew that he was an excellent manager. For it must be observed that in spite of the gold-lettered board outside with its fanfare of cod, brill, halibut, plaice and pilchards, whatever the customer asked for, by the time it had passed through Dolling's hand it was just fish. No nonsense about it at all. Just plain fish leveled with a uniform brown crust. If you asked for cod you got fish. If you asked for halibut you also got fish. Dolling was something of an artist.
On this particular morning, as Edward entered the back room, Dolling was scratching the side of his head with the knife he used to cut up the fish; a. sure sign tha t he was perplexed about something. It was not customary to exchange greetings in this business, and when he observed "the guv'nor" enter he just withdrew the knife from his hair and pointed it at a packing case on the side table. Edwin knew what this meant. He went up and pressed his flat nose against the chest of what looked like an over-worked amphibian that had been turned down by its own Trades Union. Edwin sneezed before he had had time to withdraw his nose.
"Yes, that's a dud lot," he said. And then suddenly an inspirational moment nearly overwhelmed him. Here was a chance. He would turn to Dolling and say:
"Dolling, this fish is slightly tainted. We must throw it away. We bought it at our risk. Yesterday morning when it arrived it was just all right, hut keeping it in that hot room downstairs where you and your wife sleep has probably finished it. We mustn't give it to our customers. It might poison them—ptomaine poison, you know...eh, Dolling?" It would be a good action, a self-sacrificing action, eh? But when he glanced at the face of Dolling he knew that such an explosion would be unthinkable. It would be like telling a duck it mustn't swim, or an artist that he mustn't paint, or a boy on a beach that he mustn't throw stones in the sea. It was the kind of job that Dolling enjoyed. In the course of a few hours he knew quite well that whatever he said, the mysterious and evil-smelling monster would be served out in dainty parcels of halibut, cod, brill, plaice, etc.
Business was no place for a good action. Too many others depended on it, were involved in it. Edwin went up to Dolling and shouted in his ear—he was rather deaf:
"I'm going out. I may not be back to-day."
Dolling stared at the wall. He appeared about as interested in the statement as a cod might be that had just been informed that a Chinese coolie had won the Calcutta sweep-stake. Edwin crept out of the shop abashed. He felt horribly uncomfortable. He heard some one mutter: " Where's The Stinker off to?" and he realized how impossible it would be to explain to any one there present that he was off to do a good action.
"I will go to some outlying suburb," he thought. Once outside in the sunshine he tried to get back into the benign mood. He traveled right across London and made for Golders Green and Hendon, a part of the world foreign to him. By the time he had boarded the Golders Green 'bus he had quite recovered himself. It was still a brilliant day. "The better the day the better the deed," he thought aptly. He hummed inaudibly; that is to say, he made curious crooning noises somewhere behind his silver chain and signets; the sound was happily suppressed by the noise of the 'bus.
It seemed a very long journey. It was just as they were going through a rather squalid district near Cricklewood that the golden chance occurred to him. The fares had somewhat thinned. There were scarcely a dozen people in the 'bus. Next to him barely a yard away he observed a poor woman with a baby in her arms. She had a thin, angular, wasted face, and her clothes were threadbare but neat. A poor, thoroughly honest and deserving creature, making a bitter fight of it against the buffets of a cruel world. Edwin's heart was touched. Here was his chance. He noticed that from her wrist was suspended a shabby black bag, and the bag was open. He would slip up near her and drop in a half-crown. What joy and rapture when she arrived home and found the unexpected treasure! An unknown benefactor! Edwin chuckled and wormed his way surreptitiously along the seat. Stealthily he fingered his half-crown and hugged it in the palm of his left hand. His heart beat with the excitement of his exploit. He looked out of the window opposite and fumbled bis band towards tbe opening in tbe bag. He touched it. Suddenly a sharp voice rang out:
"That man's picking your pocket!"
An excited individual opposite was pointing at him. Tbe woman uttered an exclamation and snatched at her bag. Tbe baby cried. Tbe conductor rang the bell. Every one seemed to be closing in on Edwin. Instinctively be snatched bis hand away and thrust it in bis pocket (tbe most foolish thing be could have done). Every one was talking. A calm muscular-looking gentleman who bad not spoken seized Edwin by tbe wrist and said calmly:
"Look in your bag, Madam, and see whether be has taken anything."
Tbe 'bus came to a halt. Edwin muttered:
"I assure you—nothing of tbe sort—"
How could be possibly explain that be was doing just tbe opposite? Would a single person believe a word of his yarn about the half-crown? The woman whimpered:
"No, 'e ain't taken nothin', bad luck to 'im. There was only four pennies and a 'alfpenny anyway. Dirty thief!"
"Are you goin' to give 'im in charge?" asked the conductor.
"Yer can't if 'e ain't actually taken nothin', can yer? The dirty thievin' swine tryin' to rob a 'ard workin' 'onest woman!"
"I wasn't! I wasn't!" feebly spluttered Edwin, blushing a ripe beetroot color.
"Shame! Shame! Chuck 'im off the 'bus! Dirty sneak! Call a copper!" were some of the remarks being hurled about.
The conductor was losing time and patience. He beckoned vigorously to Edwin and said:
"Come on, off you go!"
There was no appeal. He got up and slunk out. Popular opinion was too strong against him. As he stepped off the back hoard, the conductor gave him a parting kick which sent him flying on to the pavement. It was an operation received with shrieks of laughter and a round of applause from the occupants of the vehicle, taken up by a small band of other people who had been attracted by the disturbance. He darted down a back street to the accompaniment of boos and jeers.
It says something for Edwin Pothecary that this unfortunate rebuff to his first attempt to do a good action did not send him helter-skelter back to the fried fish shop in the Waterloo Road. He felt crumpled, bruised, mortified, disappointed, discouraged; but is not the path of all martyrs and reformers strewn with similar débris? Are not all really disinterested actions liable to misconstruction? He went into a dairy and partook of a glass of milk and a bun. Then he started out again. He would see more rural, less sophisticated people. In the country there must be simple, kindly people, needing his help. He walked for several hours with but a vague sense of direction. At last he came to a public park.
A group of dirty boys were seated on the grass. They were apparently having a banquet. They did not seem to require him. He passed on, and came to an enclosure. Suddenly between some rhododendron bushes he looked into a small dell. On a seat by himself was an elderly man in a shabby suit. He looked the picture of misery and distress. His hands were resting on his knees, and his eyes were fixed in a melancholy scrutiny on the ground. It was obvious that some great trouble obsessed him. He was as still as a shadow. It was the figure of a man lost in the past or—contemplating suicide? Edwin's breath came quickly. He made his way to him. In order to do this it was necessary to climb a railing. There was probably another way round, but was there time? At any minute there might be a sudden movement, the crack of a revolver. Edwin tore his trousers and scratched his forearm, but he managed to enter the dell unobserved. He approached the seat. The man never looked up. Then Edwin said with sympathetic tears in his voice:
"My poor fellow, may I be of any assistance—?"
There was a disconcerting jar. The melancholy individual started and turned on him angrily:
"Blast you! I'd nearly got it! What the devil are you doing here?"
And without waiting for an answer he darted away among the trees. At the same time a voice called over the park railings:
"Ho! you, there, what are you doing over there? You come back the way you came. I saw yer."
The burly figure of a park-keeper with gaiters and stout stick beckoned him. Edwin got up and clambered back again, scratching his arm.
"Now then," said the keeper. "Name, address, age, and occupation, if you please."
a I was only—" began Edwin. But what was he only doing? Could he explain to a park-keeper that he was only about to do a kind action to a poor man? He spluttered and gave his name, address, age, and occupation.
"Oh," exclaimed the keeper. "Fried fish, eh? And what were you trying to do? Get orders? Or were you begging from his lordship?"
"That man you was speaking to was Lord Budleigh-Salterton, the great scientist. He's thinkin' out 'is great invention, otherwise I'd go and ask 'im if 'e wanted to prosecute yer for being in 'is park on felonious intent or what."
"I assure you—" stammered Mr. Pothecary.
The park-keeper saw him well off the premises, and gave him much gratuitous advice about his future behavior, darkened with melancholy prophecies regarding the would-be felon's strength of character to live up to it.
Leaving the park he struck out towards the more rural neighborhood. He calculated that he must be somewhere in the neighborhood of Hendon. At the end of a lane he met a sallow-faced young man walking rapidly. His eyes were bloodshot and restless. He glanced at Edwin and stopped.
"Excuse me, sir," he said.
Edwin drew himself to attention. The young man looked up and down nervously. He was obviously in a great state of distress.
"What can I do for you?"
"I—I—h-hardly like to ask you, sir, I—"
He stammered shockingly. Edwin turned on his most sympathetic manner.
"You are suffering. What is it?"
At last! Some heroic reflex of the war darted through Edwin's mind. Here was his real chance at last. A poor fellow broken by the war and in need, neglected by an ungrateful country. Almost hidden by his outer coat he observed one of those little strips of colored ribbon, which implied more than one campaign.
"Where did you meet your trouble?" he asked.
"P—P—P-Palestine, sir, capturing a T-T-Turkish redoubt. I was through Gallipoli, too, sir, but I won't d-d-distress you. I am in a—in a—hospital at St. Albans, came to see my g-g-g-girl, but she's g-g-g-gone—v-v-vanished..."
"You don't say so!"
"T-t-trouble is I l-l-l-lost my p-pass back. N-not quite enough m-mon—"
"Dear me! How much short are you?"
"Six shillings? Well, I' m very sorry. Look here, my good fellow, here's seven-and-sixpence and God bless you!"
"T-T-thank you very much, sir. W-will you give me your n-name and—"
"No, no, no, that's quite all right. I'm very pleased to be of assistance. Please forget all about it."
He pressed the soldier's hand and hurried on. It was done. He had performed a kind, unselfish action and no one should ever hear of it. Mr. Pothecary's eyes glowed with satisfaction. Poor fellow! even if the story were slightly exaggerated, what did it matter? He was obviously a discharged soldier, ill, and in need. The seven-and-sixpence would make an enormous difference. He would always cherish the memory of his kind, unknown benefactor. It was a glorious sensation! Why had he never thought of doing a kindly act? It was inspiring, illuminating, almost intoxicating! He recalled with zest the delirious feeling which ran through him when he said, "No, no, no!" He would not give his name. He was the good Samaritan, a ship passing in the night. And now he would be able to go home, or go back to his business. He swung down the lane, singing to himself. As he turned the corner he came to a low bungalow-building. It was in a rather deserted spot. It had a board outside which announced "Tea, cocoa, light refreshments. Cyclists catered for."
It was past mid-day, and although tea and cocoa had never made any great appeal to the gastronomic fancies of Edwin Pothecary, he felt in his present spiritually elevated mood that here was a suitable spot for a well-merited rest and lunch.
He entered a deserted room, filled with light oak chairs, and tables with green-tiled tops on which were placed tin vases containing dried ferns. A few bluebottles darted away from the tortuous remains of what had once apparently been a ham, lurking behind tall bottles of sweets on the counter. The room smelt of soda and pickles. Edwin rapped on the table for some time, but no one came. At last a woman entered from the front door leading to the garden. She was fat and out of breath.
Edwin coughed and said:
"Good-mornin', madam. May I have a bite of somethin'?"
The woman looked at him and continued panting. When her pulmonary contortions had somewhat subsided she said:
"I s'pose you 'aven't seen a pale young man up the lane?"
It was difficult to know what made him do it, but Edwin lied. He said:
"Oh!" she replied. "I don't know where 'e's got to. 'E's not s'posed to go out of the garden. 'E's been ill, you know."
"'E's my nefyer, hut I can't always keep an eye on 'im. 'E's a bright one, 'e is. I shall 'ave 'im sent back to the 'ome."
"Ah, poor fellow! I suppose he was—injured in the war?"
"War!" The plump lady snorted. She became almost aggressive and confidential. She came close up to Edwin and shook her finger backwards and forwards in front of his eyes.
"I'll tell yer 'ow much war 'e done. When they talked about conscription, 'e got that frightened, 'e went out every day and tried to drink himself from a A1 man into a CIII man, and by God! 'e succeeded."
"You don't say so!"
"I do say so. And more. When 'is turn came, 'e was in the 'orspital with Delirious Trimmings."
"'E's only just come out. 'E's all right as long as 'e don't get 'old of a little money."
"What do you mean?"
"If 'e can get 'old of the price of a few whiskies, 'e'll 'ave another attack come on! What are yer goin' ter 'ave—tea or cocoa?"
"I must go! I must go!" exclaimed the only customer Mrs. Boggins had had for two days, and gripping his umbrella he dashed out of the shop.
"Good Lord! there's another one got 'em!" ejaculated the good landlady. "I wonder whether 'e pinched anything while I was out? 'Ere! Come back, you dirty little bow-legged swipe!"
But Mr. Pothecary was racing down the lane, muttering to himself: "Yes, that was a good action! A very good action indeed!"
A mile further on he came to a straggling village, a forlorn unkempt spot, only relieved by a gaudy inn called "The Two Tumblers." Edwin staggered into the private bar and drank two pints of Government ale and a double gin as the liquid accompaniment to a bunk of bread and cheese.
It was not till he bad lighted bis pipe after the negotiation of these delicacies that he could again focus his philosophical outlook. Then he thought to himself: "It's a rum thing 'ow difficult it is to do a good action. You'd think it 'd be dead easy, but everythin' seems against yer. One must be able to do it somewhere. P'raps one ought to go abroad, among foreigners and black men. That's it! That's why all these 'ere Bible Society people go out among black people, Chinese and so on. They find there's nothin' doin' over 'ere."
Had it not been for the beer and gin it is highly probable that Edwin would have given up the project, and have returned to fish and chips. But lying back in a comfortable seat in "The Two Tumblers" his thoughts mellowed. He felt broad-minded, comfortable, tolerant...one had to make allowances. There must be all sorts of ways. Money wasn't the only thing. Besides, he was spending too much. He couldn't afford to go on throwing away seven-and-six-pences. One must be able to help people—by helping them. Doing things for them which didn't cost money. He thought of Sir Walter Raleigh throwing down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth to walk over. Romantic but—extravagant and silly, really a shrewd political move, no doubt; not a good action at all. If he met an ill-clad tramp he could take off his coat and wrap round his shoulders and then—? Walk home to Quince Villa in his braces? What would Mrs. Pothecary have to say? Phew! One could save people from drowning, but he didn't know how to swim. Fire! Perhaps there would be a fire. He could swarm up a ladder and save a woman from the top bedroom window. Heroic, but hardly inconspicuous; not exactly what he had meant. Besides, the firemen would never let him; they always kept these showy stunts for themselves. There must he something...
He walked out of "The Two Tumblers."
Crossing the road, he took a turning off the High Street. He saw a heavily-built woman carrying a basket of washing. He hurried after her, and raising his hat, said: "Excuse me, madam, may I carry your basket for you?"
She turned on him suspiciously and glared:
"No, thanks, Mr. Bottle-nose. I've 'ad some of that before. You 'op it! Mrs. Jaggs 'ad 'ers pinched last week that way."
"Of course," he thought to himself as he hurried away. "The trouble is I'm not dressed for the part. A bloomin' swell can go about doin' good actions all day and not arouse suspicions. If I try and 'elp a girl off a tram-car I get my face slapped."
Mr. Pothecary was learning. He was becoming a complete philosopher, but it was not till late in the afternoon that he suddenly realized that patience and industry are always rewarded. He was appealed to by a maiden in distress.
It came about fn this way. He found the atmosphere of Northern London entirely unsympathetic to good deeds. All his action appeared suspect. lie began to feel at last like a criminal. He was convinced that he was being watched and followed. Once he patted a little girl's head in a paternal manner. Immediately a woman appeared at a doorway and bawled out:
"'Ere, Lizzie, you come inside!"
At length in disgust he boarded a south-bound 'bus. He decided to experiment nearer home. He went to the terminus and took a train to the station just before his own. It was a small town called Uplingham. This should be the last dance of the moral philanderer. If there was no one in Uplingham upon whom he could perform a good action, he would just walk home—barely two miles—and go to bed and forget all about it. To-morrow he would return to Eish-and-chips, and the normal behavior of the normal citizen.
Uplingham was a dismal little town, consisting mostly of churches, chapels and pubs, and apparently quite deserted. As Edwin wandered through it there crept over him a sneaking feeling of relief. If he met no one—well, there it was, he had done his best; and he could go home with a clear conscience. After all it was the spirit that counted in these things...
He was passing a small stone church, standing back on a little frequented lane. The maiden was seated alone in the porch and she was crying. Edwin bustled through the gate and as he approached her he had time to observe that she was young, quietly dressed, and distinctly pretty.
"You are in trouble," he said in his most feeling manner.
She looked up at him quickly, and dabbed her eyes.
"I've lost my baby! I've lost my baby!" she cried.
"Dear, dear, that's very unfortunate! How did it happen?"
She pointed at an empty perambulator in the porch.
"I waited an hour here for my friends and husband and the clergyman. My baby was to be christened." She gasped incoherently. "No one turned up. I went across to the Vicarage. The Vicar was away. I believe I ought to have gone to St. Bride's. This is St. Paul's. They didn't know anything about it. They say people often make that mistake. When I got back the baby was gone. O-o-o-oh!"
"There, there, don't cry," said Mr. Pothecary. "Now I'll go over to St. Bride's and find out about it."
"Oh, sir, do you mind waiting here with the perambulator while I go? I want my baby. I want my baby."
"Why, yes, of course, of course."
She dashed up the lane and left Mr. Pothecary in charge of an empty perambulator. In fifteen minutes' time a thick-set young man came hurrying up to the porch. He looked at Edwin and pointing to the perambulator said:
"Is this Mrs. Frank's or Mrs. Fred's? "
"I don't know," said Edwin, rather testily.
"You don't know! But you're old Binns, ain't you?"
"No, I'm not."
The young man looked at him searchingly and then disappeared. Ten minutes elapsed and then a small boy rode up on a bicycle. He was also out of breath.
"Has Mrs. George been 'ere?" be asked.
"I don't know," replied Edwin.
"Mr. Henderson says he's awfully sorry but he won't be able to get away. You are to kiss the baby for 'im."
"I don't know anything about it."
"This is St. Bride's, isn't it?"
"No, this is St. Paul's."
"Oh!" The boy leapt on to the bicycle and also vanished.
"This is absurd," thought Edwin. "Of course, the whole thing is as plain as daylight. The poor girl has come to the wrong church. The whole party is at St. Bride's, somebody must have taken the baby on there. I might as well take the perambulator along. They'll be pleased. Now I wonder which is the way."
He wheeled the perambulator into the lane. There was no one about to ask. He progressed nearly two hundred yards till he came to a field with a pond in it. This was apparently the wrong direction. He was staring about when he suddenly became aware of a hue and cry. A party of people came racing down the lane headed by the thick-set man, who was exclaiming:
"There he is! There he is!"
Edwin felt his heart beating. This was going to he a little embarrassing. They closed on him. The thickset man seized his wrists and at the same time remarked:
"See he hasn't any firearms on him, Frank."
The large man alluded to as Frank gripped him from behind.
"What have you done with my baby?" he demanded fiercely.
"I 'aven't seen no baby," yelped Mr. Pothecary.
"Oh! 'Aven't yer! What are yer doin' with my perambulator then?"
"I'm takin' it to St. Bride's Church."
"Goin' in the opposite direction."
"I didn't know the way."
"Where's the baby?"
"I 'aven't seen it, I tell yer. The mother said she'd lost it."
"What the hell! Do you know the mother's in bed sick? You're a liar, my man, and we're goin' to take you in charge. If you've done anything to my baby I'll kill you with my hands."
"That's it, Frank. Let 'im 'ave it. Throw 'im in the pond!"
"I tell yer I don't know anythin' about it all, with yer Franks, Freds and Georges! Go to the devil, all of yer!"
In spite of his protestations, some one produced a rope and they handcuffed him and tied him to the gate of the field. A small crowd had collected and began to boo and jeer. A man from a cottage bard by produced a drag, and between them they dragged the pond, as the general belief was that Edwin had tied a stone to the baby and thrown it in and was then just about to make off.
The uproar continued for some time, mud and stones being thrown about rather carelessly.
The crowd became impatient that no baby was found in the pond. At length another man turned up on a bicycle and called out:
"What are you doing, Frank? You've missed the christening!"
"Old Binns turned up with the nipper all right. He'd come round the wrong way."
The crowd was obviously disappointed at the release of Edwin, and the father's only solatium was:
"Well, it's lucky for you, old bird!"
He and his friends trundled the perambulator away rapidly across the fields. Edwin had hardly time to give a sigh of relief before he found himself the center of a fresh disturbance. He was approaching the church when another crowd assailed him, headed by the forlorn maiden. She was still in a state of distress, but she was hugging a baby to her.
"Ah! You've found the baby!" exclaimed Edwin, trying to be amiable.
"Where is the perambulator?" she demanded.
"Your 'usband 'as taken it away, madam. He seemed to think I—"
A tall frigid young man stepped forward and said:
"Excuse me, I am the lady's husband. Will you please explain yourself?"
Then Edwin lost his temper.
"Well, damn it, I don't know who you all are!" Ihe case is quite clear. You volunteered to take charge of the perambulator while my wife was absent. On her return you announce that it is spirited away. I shall hold you responsible for the entire cost—nearly ten pounds."
"Make it a thousand," roared Edwin. "I'm 'aving a nice cheap day."
"I don't wish for any more of your insolence, either. My wife has had a very trying experience. The baby has been christened Fred."
"Well, what's the matter with that?' 1 '
"Nothing," screamed the mother. "Only that it is a girl! It's a girl and it has been duly christened Fred in a Christian church. Oh! there's been an awful muddle."
"It's not this old fool's fault," interpolated the elderly woman quietly. "You see, Mrs. Frank and Mrs. Fred Smith were both going to have their babies christened to-day. Only Mrs. Frank was took sick, and sent me along with the child. I went to the wrong church and thinkin' there was some mistake, went back home. Mrs. Frank's baby's never been christened at all. In the meantime, the ceremony was ready to start at St. Paul's and Frank 'isself was there. No baby. They sends old Binns to scout around at other churches.
People do make mistakes—finds this good lady's child all primed up for christening in the church door, and no one near, carries it off. In the meantime, the father had gone on the ramp. It's him that probably went off with the perambulator and trounced you up a bit, old sport. It'll learn you not to interfere so much in future perhaps."
"And the baby's christened Fred!" wailed the mother. "My baby! My Gwendoline!" And she looked at Edwin with bitter recrimination in her eyes.
There was still a small crowd following and boys were jeering, and a fox-terrier, getting very excited, jumped up and bit Mr. Pothecary through the seat of his trousers. He struck at it with his stick, and hit a small boy, whose mother happened to be present. The good lady immediately entered the lists.
"Baby-killer...Hun!" were the last words he heard as he was chased up the street and across the fields in the direction of his own village.
When he arrived it was nearly dark. Mr. Pothecary was tired, dirty, battered, tom, outraged, bruised and hatless. And his spirit hardened. The forces of reaction surged through him. He was done with good actions. He felt vindictive, spiteful, wicked. Slowly he took the last turning and his eye once more alighted on—the Peels's fowl house.
And there came to him a vague desire to end his day by performing some action the contrary to good, something spiteful, petty, malign. His soul demanded some recompense for its abortive energies. And then he remembered that the Peels were away. They were returning late that evening. The two intensive fowl-houses were at the end of the kitchen garden, where all the young spring cabbages and peas had just been planted. They could be approached between a slit in the narrow black fence adjacent to a turnip field. Rather a long way round. A simple and rather futile plan sprang into his mind, but he was too tired to think of anything more criminal or diabolic.
He would creep round to the back, get through the fence, force his way into the fowl-house. Then he would kick out all those expensive Rhode Island pampered hens and lock them out. Inside he would upset everything and smash the place to pieces. The fowls would get all over the place. They would eat the young vegetables. Some of them would get lost, stolen by gypsies, killed by rats. What did he care? The Peels would probably not discover the outrage till the morrow, and they would never know who did it. Edwin chuckled inwardly, and rolled his eyes like the smooth villain of a fit-up melodrama. He glanced up and down to see that no one was looking, then he got across a gate and entered the turnip field.
Within five minutes he was forcing the door of the fowl-house with a spade. The fowls were already settling down for the night, and they clucked rather alarmingly, but Edwin's blood was up. He chased them all out, forty-five of them, and made savage lunges at them with his feet. Then he upset all the corn he could find, and poured water on it and jumped on it. He smashed the complicated invention suspended from the ceiling, whereby the fowls had to reach up and get one grain of corn at a time. To his joy he found a pot of green paint, which he flung promiscuously over the walls and floor (and incidentally his clothes).
Then he crept out and bolted both of the doors.
The sleepy creatures were standing about outside, some feebly pecking about on the ground. He chased them through into the vegetable garden; then he rubbed some of the dirt and paint from his clothes and returned to the road.
When he arrived home he said to his wife:
"I fell off a tram on Waterloo Bridge. Lost my hat."
He was cold and wet and his teeth were chattering. His wife bustled him off to bed and gave him a little hot grog.
Between the sheets he recovered contentment. He gurgled exultantly at this last and only satisfying exploit of the day. He dreamed lazily of the blind rage of the Peels...
It must have been half-past ten when his wife came up to bring him some hot gruel. He had been asleep. She put the cup by the bedside and rearranged his pillow.
"Feeling better?" she asked.
"Yes. I'm right," he murmured.
She sat on a chair by the side of the bed and after a few minutes remarked:
"You've missed an excitement while you've been asleep."
"Yes. A fire!"
"The Peels came home about an hour and a half ago and found the place on fire at the back."
"Their cook Lizzie has been over. She said some straw near the wash-house must have started it. It's burnt out the wash-house and both the fowl-houses. She says Mr. Peel says he don't care very much because he was heavily insured for the lot. But the funny thing is, the fowls wasn't insured and they've found the whole lot down the field on the rabbit-hutches. Somebody must have got in and let the whole lot out. It was a fine thing to do, or else the poor things would have been burnt up. What's the matter, Ned? Is the gruel too hot?"
It is always disturbing to me when things fall into pattern form, when in fact incidents of real life dovetail with each other in such a manner as to suggest the shape of a story. A story is a nice neat little thing with what is called a "working-up" and a climax, and life is a clumsy, ungraspable thing, very incomplete in its periods, and with a poor sense of climax. In fact, death—which is a very uncertain quantity—is the only definite note it strikes, and even death has an uncomfortable way of setting other things in motion. If, therefore, in telling you about my friend Mrs. Ward, I am driven to the usual shifts of the story-teller, you must believe me that it is because this narrative concerns visions: Mrs. Ward's visions, my visions, and your visions. Consequently I am dependent upon my own poor powers of transcription to mould these visions into some sort of shape, and am driven into the position of a story-teller against my will.
The first vision, then, concerns the back view of the Sheldrake Road, which, as you know, butts on to the railway embankment near Dalston Junction station. If you are of an adventurous turn of mind you shall accompany me, and we will creep up on to the embankment together and look down into these back yards. (We shall be liable to a fine of £2, according to a bye-law of the Railway Company, for doing so, but the experience will justify us.)
There are twenty-two of these small buff-brick houses huddled together in this road, and there is surely no more certain way of judging not only the character of the individual inhabitants but of their mode of life, than by a survey of these somewhat pathetic yards. Is it not, for instance, easy to determine the timid, well-ordered mind of little Miss Porson, the dressmaker at number nine, by its garden of neat mud paths, with its thin patch of meagre grass, and the small bed of skimpy geraniums? Cannot one read the tragedy of those dreadful Alleson people at number four? The garden is a wilderness of filth and broken bottles, where even the weeds seem chary of establishing themselves. In fact, if we listen carefully—and the trains are not making too much noise—we can hear the shrill crescendo of Mrs. Alleson's voice cursing at her husband in the kitchen, the half-empty gin-bottle between them.
The methodical pushfulness and practicability of young Mr. and Mrs. Andrew MacFarlane is evident at number fourteen. They have actually grown a patch of potatoes, and some scarlet-runners, and there is a chicken run near the house.
Those irresponsible people, the O'Neals, have grown a bed of hollyhocks, but for the rest the garden is untidy and unkempt. One could almost swear they were connected in some obscure way with the theatrical profession.
Mrs. Abbot's garden is a sort of playground. It has asphalt paths, always swarming with small and not too clean children, and there are five lines of washing suspended above the mud. Every day seems to be Mrs. Abbot's washing day. Perhaps she "does" for others. Sam Abbot is certainly a lazy, insolent old rascal, and such always seem destined to be richly fertile. Mrs. Abbot is a pleasant "body," though.
The Greens are the swells of the road. George Green is in the grocery line, and both his sons are earning good money, and one daughter has piano lessons. The narrow strip of yard is actually divided into two sections, a flower-garden and a kitchen-garden. And they are the only people who have flower-boxes in the front.
Number eight is a curious place. Old Mr. Bilge lives there. He spends most of his time in the garden, but nothing ever seems to come up. He stands about in his shirt-sleeves, and with a circular paper hat on his head, like a printer. They say he was formerly a corn-merchant, but has lost all his money. He keeps the garden very neat and tidy, but nothing seems to grow. He stands there staring at the beds, as though he found their barrenness quite unaccountable.
Number eleven is unoccupied, and number twelve is Mrs. Ward's.
We come now to an important vision, and I want you to come down with me from the embankment and to view Mrs. Ward's garden from inside, and also Mrs. Ward as I saw her on that evening when I had occasion to pay my first visit.
It had been raining, but the sun had come out. We wandered round the paths together, and I can see her old face now, lined and seamed with years of anxious toil and struggle; her long bony arms, slightly withered, but moving restlessly in the direction of snails and slugs.
"O dear! O dear!" she was saying. "What with the dogs, and the cats, and the snails, and the trains, it's wonderful anything comes up at all!"
Mrs. Ward's garden has a character of its own, and I cannot account for it. There is nothing very special growing—a few pansies and a narrow border of London Pride, several clumps of unrecognisable things that haven't flowered, the grass patch in only fair order, and at the end of the garden an unfinished rabbit-hutch. But there is about Mrs. Ward's garden an atmosphere. There is something about it that reflects in her placid eye, the calm, somewhat contemplative way she has of looking right through things, as though they didn't concern her too closely. As though, in fact, she were too occupied with her own inner visions.
"No," she says in answer to my query. "We don't mind the trains at all. In fact, me and my Tom we often come out here and sit after supper. And Tom smokes his pipe. We like to hear the trains go by."
She gazes abstractedly at the embankment.
"I like to hear things...going on and that. It's Dalston Junction a little further on. The trains go from there to all parts, right out into the country they do...ever so far...My Ernie went from Dalston."
She adds the last in a changed tone of voice. And now perhaps we come to the most important vision of all—Mrs. Ward's vision of "my Ernie."
I ought perhaps to mention that I had never met "my Ernie." I can only see him through Mrs. Ward's eyes. At the time when I met her, he had been away at the war for nearly a year. I need hardly say that "my Ernie" was a paragon of sons. He was brilliant, handsome, and incredibly clever. Everything that "my Ernie" said was treasured. Every opinion that he expressed stood. If "my Ernie" liked anyone, that person was always a welcome guest. If "my Ernie" disliked anyone they were not to be tolerated, however plausible they might appear.
I had seen Ernie's photograph, and I must confess that he appeared a rather weak, extremely ordinary-looking young man, but then I would rather trust to Mrs. Ward's visions than the art of any photographer.
Tom Ward was a mild, ineffectual-looking old man, with something of Mrs. Ward's placidity but with nothing of her strong individual poise. He had some job in a gasworks. There was also a daughter named Lily, a brilliant person who served in a tea-shop, and sometimes went to theatres with young men. To both husband and daughter Mrs. Ward adopted an affectionate, mothering, almost pitying attitude. But with "my Ernie," it was quite a different thing. I can see her stooping figure, and her silver-white hair gleaming in the sun as we come to the unfinished rabbit-hutch, and the curious wistful tones of her voice as she touches it and says:
"When my Ernie comes home..."
The war to her was some unimaginable but disconcerting affair centred round Ernie. People seemed to have got into some desperate trouble, and Ernie was the only one capable of getting them out of it. I could not at that time gauge how much Mrs. Ward realised the dangers the boy was experiencing. She always spoke with conviction that he would return safely. Nearly every other sentence contained some reference to things that were to happen "when my Ernie comes home." What doubts and fears she had were only recognisable by the subtlest shades in her voice.
When we looked over the wall into the deserted garden next door, she said:
"O dear! I'm afraid they'll never let that place. It's been empty since the Stellings went away. Oh, years ago, before this old war."
It was on the occasion of my second visit that Mrs. Ward told me more about the Stellings. It appeared that they were a German family, of all things! There was a Mr. Stelling, and a Mrs. Frow Stelling, and two boys.
Mr. Stelling was a watchmaker, and he came from a place called Bremen. It was a very sad story Mrs. Ward told me. They had only been over here for ten months when Mr. Stelling died, and Mrs. Frow Stelling and the boys went back to Germany.
During the time of the Stellings' sojourn in the Sheldrake Road it appeared that the Wards had seen quite a good deal of them, and though it would be an exaggeration to say that they ever became great friends, they certainly got through that period without any unpleasantness, and even developed a certain degree of intimacy.
"Allowing for their being foreigners," Mrs. Ward explained, "they were quite pleasant people."
On one or two occasions they invited each other to supper, and I wish my visions were sufficiently clear to envisage those two families indulging this social habit.
According to Mrs. Ward, Mr. Stelling was a kind little man with a round fat face. He spoke English fluently, but Mrs. Ward objected to his table manners.
"When my Tom eats," she said, "you don't hear a sound—I look after that! But that Mr. Stelling...O dear!"
The trouble with Mrs. Stelling was that she could only speak a few words of English, but Mrs. Ward said "she was a pleasant enough little body," and she established herself quite definitely in Mrs. Ward's affections for the reason that she was so obviously and so passionately devoted to her two sons.
"Oh, my word, though, they do have funny ways—these foreigners," she continued. "The things they used to eat! Most peculiar! I've known them eat stewed prunes with hot meat!"
Mrs. Ward repeated, "Stewed prunes with hot meat!" several times, and shook her head, as though this exotic mixture was a thing to be sternly discouraged. But she acknowledged that Mrs. Frow Stelling was in some ways a very good cook; in fact, her cakes were really wonderful, "the sort of thing you can't ever buy in a shop."
About the boys there seemed to be a little divergence of opinion. They were both also fat-faced, and their heads were "almost shaved like convicts." The elder one wore spectacles and was rather noisy, but:
"My Ernie liked the younger one. Oh, yes, my Ernie said that young Hans was quite a nice boy. It was funny the way they spoke, funny and difficult to understand."
It was very patent that between the elder boy and Ernie, who were of about the same age, there was an element of rivalry which was perhaps more accentuated in the attitude of the mothers than in the boys themselves. Mrs. Ward could find little virtue in this elder boy. Most of her criticism of the family was levelled against him. The rest she found only a little peculiar. She said she had never heard such a funny Christian name as Frow. Florrie she had heard of, and even Flora, but not Frow. I suggested that perhaps Frow might be some sort of title, but she shook her head and said that that was what she was always known as in the Sheldrake Road, "Mrs. Frow Stelling."
In spite of Mrs. Ward's lack of opportunity for greater intimacy on account of the language problem, her own fine imaginative qualities helped her a great deal. And in one particular she seemed curiously vivid. She gathered an account from one of them—I'm not sure whether it was Mr. or Mrs. Frow Stelling or one of the boys—of a place they described near their home in Bremen. There was a narrow street of high buildings by a canal, and a little bridge that led over into a gentleman's park. At a point where the canal turned sharply eastwards there was a clump of Linden-trees, where one could go in the summertime, and under their shade one might sit and drink light beer, and listen to a band that played in the early part of the evening.
Mrs. Ward was curiously clear about that. She said she often thought about Mr. Stelling sitting there after his day's work. It must have been very pleasant for him, and he seemed to miss this luxury in Dalston more than anything. Once Ernie, in a friendly mood, had taken him into the four-ale bar of "The Unicorn" at the corner of the Sheldrake Road, but Mr. Stelling did not seem happy. Ernie acknowledged afterwards that it had been an unfortunate evening. The bar had been rather crowded, and there was a man and two women who had all been drinking too much. In any case, Mr. Stelling had been obviously restless there, and he had said afterwards:
"It is not that one wishes to drink only..."
And he had shaken his fat little head, and had never been known to visit "The Unicorn" again.
Mr. Stelling died quite suddenly of some heart trouble, and Mrs. Ward could not get it out of her head that his last illness was brought about by his disappointment and grief in not being able to go and sit quietly under the Linden-trees after his day's work and listen to a band.
"You know, my dear," she said, "when you get accustomed to a thing, it's bad for you to leave it off."
When poor Mr. Stelling died, Mrs. Frow Stelling was heart-broken, and I have reason to believe that Mrs. Ward went in and wept with her, and in their dumb way they forged the chains of some desperate understanding. When Mrs. Frow Stelling went back to Germany they promised to write to each other. But they never did, and for a very good reason. As Mrs. Ward said, she was "no scholard," and as for Mrs. Frow Stelling, her English was such a doubtful quantity, she probably never got beyond addressing the envelope.
"That was three years ago," said Mrs. Ward. "Them boys must be eighteen and nineteen now."
If I have intruded too greatly into the intimacy of Mrs. Ward's life, one of my excuses must be—not that I am "a scholard" but that I am in any case able to read a simple English letter. I was in fact on several occasions "requisitioned." When Lily was not at home, someone had to read Ernie's letters out loud. The arrival of Ernie's letters was always an inspiring experience. I should perhaps be in the garden with Mrs. Ward, when Tom would come hurrying out to the back, and call out:
"Mother! a letter from Ernie!"
And then there would be such excitement and commotion. The first thing was always to hunt for Mrs. Ward's spectacles. They were never where she had put them. Tom would keep on turning the letter over in his hands, and examining the postmark, and he would reiterate:
"Well, what did you do with them, mother?"
At length they would be found in some unlikely place, and she would take the letter tremblingly to the light. I never knew quite how much Mrs. Ward could read. She could certainly read a certain amount. I saw her old eyes sparkling and her tongue moving jerkily between her parted lips, as though she were formulating the words she read, and she would keep on repeating:
"T'ch! T'ch! O dear, O dear, the things he says!"
And Tom impatiently by the door would say:
"Well, what does he say?"
She never attempted to read the letter out loud, but at last she would wipe her spectacles and say:
"Oh, you read it, sir. The things he says!"
They were indeed very good letters of Ernie's, written apparently in the highest spirits. There was never a grumble, not a word. One might gather that he was away with a lot of young bloods on some sporting expedition, in which football, rags, sing-songs, and strange feeds played a conspicuous part. I read a good many of Ernie's letters, and I do not remember that he ever made a single reference to the horrors of war, or said anything about his own personal discomforts. The boy must have had something of his mother in him in spite of the photograph.
And between the kitchen and the yard Mrs. Ward would spend her day placidly content, for Ernie never failed to write. There was sometimes a lapse of a few days, but the letter seldom failed to come every fortnight.
It would be difficult to know what Mrs. Ward's actual conception of the war was. She never read the newspapers, for the reason, as she explained, that "there was nothing in them these days except about this old war." She occasionally dived into Reynold's newspaper on Sundays to see if there were any interesting law cases or any news of a romantic character. There was nothing romantic in the war news. It was all preposterous. She did indeed read the papers for the first few weeks, but this was for the reason that she had some vague idea that they might contain some account of Ernie's doings. But as they did not, she dismissed them with contempt.
But I found her one night in a peculiarly preoccupied mood. She was out in the garden, and she kept staring abstractedly over the fence into the unoccupied ground next door. It appeared that it had dawned upon her that the war was to do with "these Germans," that in fact we were fighting the Germans, and then she thought of the Stellings. Those boys would now be about eighteen and nineteen. They would be fighting too. They would be fighting against Ernie. This seemed very peculiar.
"Of course," she said, "I never took to that elder boy—a greedy rough sort of boy he was. But I'm sure my Ernie wouldn't hurt young Hans."
She meditated for a moment as though she were contemplating what particular action Ernie would take in the matter. She knew he didn't like the elder boy, but she doubted whether he would want to do anything very violent to him.
"They went out to a music-hall one night together," she explained, as though a friendship cemented in this luxurious fashion could hardly be broken by an unreasonable display of passion.
It was a few weeks later that the terror suddenly crept into Mrs. Ward's life. Ernie's letters ceased abruptly. The fortnight passed, then three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, and not a word. I don't think that Mrs. Ward's character at any time stood out so vividly as during those weeks of stress. It is true she appeared a little feebler, and she trembled in her movements, whilst her eyes seemed abstracted as though all the power in them were concentrated in her ears, alert for the bell or the knock. She started visibly at odd moments, and her imagination was always carrying her tempestuously to the front door only to answer—a milkman or a casual hawker. But she never expressed her fear in words. When Tom came home—he seemed to have aged rapidly—he would come bustling into the garden, and cry out tremblingly:
"There ain't been no letter to-day, mother?"
And she would say quite placidly:
"No, not to-day, Tom. It'll come to-morrow, I expect."
And she would rally him and talk of little things, and get busy with his supper. And in the garden I would try and talk to her about her clumps of pansies, and the latest yarn about the neighbours, and I tried to get between her and the rabbit-hutch with its dumb appeal of incompletion. And I would notice her staring curiously over into the empty garden next door, as though she were being assailed by some disturbing apprehensions. Ernie would not hurt that eldest boy...but suppose...if things were reversed...there was something inexplicable and terrible lurking in this passive silence.
During this period the old man was suddenly taken very ill. He came home one night with a high temperature and developed pneumonia. He was laid up for many weeks, and she kept back the telegram that came while he was almost unconscious, and she tended him night and day, nursing her own anguish with a calm face.
For the telegram told her that her Ernie was "missing and believed wounded."
I do not know at what period she told the father this news, but it was certainly not till he was convalescent. And the old man seemed to sink into a kind of apathy. He sat feebly in front of the kitchen fire, coughing and making no effort to control his grief.
Outside the great trains went rushing by, night and day. Things were "going on," but they were all meaningless, cruel.
We made enquiries at the War Office, but they could not amplify the laconic telegram.
And then the winter came on, and the gardens were bleak in the Sheldrake Road. And Lily ran away and married a young tobacconist, who was earning twenty-five shillings a week. And old Tom was dismissed from the gasworks. His work was not proving satisfactory. And he sat about at home and moped. And in the meantime the price of foodstuffs was going up, and coals were a luxury. And so in the early morning Mrs. Ward would go off and work for Mrs. Abbot at the wash-tub, and she would earn eight or twelve shillings a week.
It is difficult to know how they managed during those days, but one would see that Mrs. Ward was buoyed up by some poignant hope. She would not give way. Eventually old Tom did get some work to do at a stationer's. The work was comparatively light, and the pay equally so, so Mrs. Ward still continued to work for Mrs. Abbot.
My next vision of Mrs. Ward concerns a certain winter evening. I could not see inside the kitchen, but the old man could be heard complaining. His querulous voice was rambling on, and Mrs. Ward was standing by the door leading into the garden. She had returned from her day's work and was scraping a pan out into a bin near the door. A train shrieked by, and the wind was blowing a fine rain against the house. Suddenly she stood up and looked at the sky; then she pushed back her hair from her brow, and frowned at the dark house next door. Then she turned and said:
"Oh, I don't know, Tom, if we've got to do it, we must do it. If them others can stand it, we can stand it. Whatever them others do, we can do."
And then my visions jump rather wildly. And the war becomes to me epitomised in two women. One in this dim doorway in our obscure suburb of Dalston, scraping out a pan, and the other perhaps in some dark high house near a canal on the outskirts of Bremen. Them others! These two women silently enduring. And the trains rushing by, and all the dark, mysterious forces of the night operating on them equivocally.
Poor Mrs. Frow Stelling! Perhaps those boys of hers are "missing, believed killed." Perhaps they are killed for certain. She is as much outside "the things going on" as Mrs. Ward. Perhaps she is equally as patient, as brave.
And Mrs. Ward enters the kitchen, and her eyes are blazing with a strange light as she says:
"We'll hear to-morrow, Tom. And if we don't hear to-morrow, we'll hear the next day. And if we don't hear the next day, we'll hear the day after. And if we don't...if we don't never hear...again...if them others can stand it, we can stand it, I say."
And then her voice breaks, and she cries a little, for endurance has its limitations, and—the work is hard at Mrs. Abbot's.
And the months go by, and she stoops a little more as she walks, and—someone has thrown a cloth over the rabbit-hutch with its unfinished roof. And Mrs. Ward is curiously retrospective. It is useless to tell her of the things of the active world. She listens politely but she does not hear. She is full of reminiscences of Ernie's and Lily's childhood. She recounts again and again the story of how Ernie when he was a little boy ordered five tons of coal from a coal merchant to be sent to a girls' school in Dalston High Road. She describes the coal carts arriving in the morning, and the consternation of the head-mistress.
"O dear, O dear," she says; "the things he did!"
She does not talk much of the Stellings, but one day she says meditatively:
"Mrs. Frow Stelling thought a lot of that boy Hans. So she did of the other, as far as that goes. It's only natural like, I suppose."
As time went on Tom Ward lost all hope. He said he was convinced that the boy was killed. Having arrived at this conclusion he seemed to become more composed. He gradually began to accustom himself to the new point of view. But with Mrs. Ward the exact opposite was the case.
She was convinced that the boy was alive, but she suffered terribly.
There came a time—it was in early April—when one felt that the strain could not last. She seemed to lose all interest in the passing world and lived entirely within herself. Even the arrival of Lily's baby did not rouse her. She looked at the child queerly, as though she doubted whether any useful or happy purpose was served by its appearance.
It was a boy.
In spite of her averred optimism she lost her tremulous sense of apprehension when the bell went or the front door was tapped. She let the milkman—and even the postman—wait.
When she spoke it was invariably of things that happened years ago.
Sometimes she talked about the Stellings, and on one Sunday she made a strange pilgrimage out to Finchley and visited Mr. Stelling's grave. I don't know what she did there, but she returned looking very exhausted and unwell. As a matter of fact, she was unwell for some days after this visit, and she suffered violent twinges of rheumatism in her legs.
I now come to my most unforgettable vision of Mrs. Ward.
It was a day at the end of April, and warm for the time of year. I was standing in the garden with her and it was nearly dark. A goods train had been shunting, and making a great deal of noise in front of the house, and at last had disappeared. I had not been able to help noticing that Mrs. Ward's garden was curiously neglected for her for the time of year. The grass was growing on the paths, and the snails had left their silver trail over all the fences.
I was telling her a rumour I had heard about the railway porter and his wife at number twenty-three, and she seemed fairly interested, for she had known John Hemsley, the porter, fifteen years ago, when Ernie was a baby. There were two old broken Windsor chairs in the garden, and on one was a zinc basin in which were some potatoes. She was peeling them, as Lily and her husband were coming to supper. By the kitchen door was a small sink. When she had finished the potatoes, she stood up and began to pour the water down the sink, taking care not to let the skins go too. I was noticing her old bent back, and her long bony hands gripping the sides of the basin, when suddenly a figure came limping round the bend of the house from the side passage, and two arms were thrown round her waist, and a voice said:
"Mind them skins don't go down the sink, mother. They'll stop it up!"
As I explained to Ernie afterwards, it was an extremely foolish thing to do. If his mother had had anything wrong with her heart, it might have been very serious. There have been many cases of people dying from the shock of such an experience.
As it was, she merely dropped the basin and stood there trembling like a leaf, and Ernie laughed loud and uproariously. It must have been three or four minutes before she could regain her speech, and then all she could manage to say was:
And the boy laughed, and ragged his mother, and pulled her into the house, and Tom appeared and stared at his son, and said feebly:
"Well, I never!"
I don't know how it was that I found myself intruding upon the sanctity of the inner life of the Ward family that evening. I had never had a meal there before, but I felt that I was holding a sort of watching brief over the soul and body of Mrs. Ward. I had had a little medical training in my early youth, and this may have been one of the reasons which prompted me to stay.
When Lily and her husband appeared we sat down to a meal of mashed potatoes and onions stewed in milk, with bread and cheese, and very excellent it was.
Lily and her husband took the whole thing in a boisterous, high comedy manner that fitted in with the mood of Ernie. Old Tom sat there staring at his son, and repeating at intervals:
"Well, I never!"
And Mrs. Ward hovered round the boy's plate. Her eyes divided their time between his plate and his face, and she hardly spoke all the evening.
Ernie's story was remarkable enough. He told it disconnectedly and rather incoherently. There were moments when he rambled in a rather peculiar way, and sometimes he stammered, and seemed unable to frame a sentence. Lily's husband went out to fetch some beer to celebrate the joyful occasion, and Ernie drank his in little sips, and spluttered. The boy must have suffered considerably, and he had a wound in the abdomen, and another in the right forearm which for a time had paralysed him.
As far as I could gather, his story was this:
He and a platoon of men had been ambushed and had had to surrender. When being sent back to a base, three of them tried to escape from the train, which had been held up at night. He did not know what had happened to the other two men, but it was on this occasion that he received his abdominal wound at the hands of a guard.
He had then been sent to some infirmary where he was fairly well treated, but as soon as his wound had healed a little, he had been suddenly sent to some fortress prison, presumably as a punishment. He hadn't the faintest idea how long he had been confined there. He said it seemed like fifteen years. It was probably nine months. He had solitary confinement in a cell, which was like a small lavatory. He had fifteen minutes' exercise every day in a yard with some other prisoners, who were Russians he thought. He spoke to no one. He used to sing and recite in his cell, and there were times when he was quite convinced that he was "off his chump." He said he had lost "all sense of everything" when he was suddenly transferred to another prison. Here the conditions were somewhat better and he was made to work. He said he wrote six or seven letters home from there, but received no reply. The letters certainly never reached Dalston. The food was execrable, but a big improvement on the dungeon. He was only there a few weeks when he and some thirty prisoners were sent suddenly to work on the land at a kind of settlement. He said that the life there would have been tolerable if it hadn't been for the fact that the Commandant was an absolute brute. The food was worse than in the prison, and they were punished severely for the most trivial offences.
It was here, however, that he met a sailor named Martin, a Royal Naval reservist, an elderly thick-set man with a black beard and only one eye. Ernie said that this Martin "was an artist. He wangled everything. He had a genius for getting what he wanted. He would get a beef-steak out of a stone." In fact, it was obvious that the whole of Ernie's narrative was coloured by his vision of Martin. He said he'd never met such a chap in his life. He admired him enormously, and he was also a little afraid of him.
By some miraculous means peculiar to sailors, Martin acquired a compass. Ernie hardly knew what a compass was, but the sailor explained to him that it was all that was necessary to take you straight to England. Ernie said he "had had enough of escaping. It didn't agree with his health," but so strong was his faith and belief in Martin that he ultimately agreed to try with him.
He said Martin's method of escape was the coolest thing he'd ever seen. He planned it all beforehand. It was the fag-end of the day, and the whistle had gone, and the prisoners were trooping back across a potato-field. Martin and Ernie were very slow. They lingered apparently to discuss some matter connected with the soil. There were two sentries in sight, one near them and the other perhaps a hundred yards away. The potato field was on a slope, at the bottom of the field were two lines of barbed wire entanglements. The other prisoners passed out of sight, and the sentry near them called out something, probably telling them to hurry up. They started to go up the field when suddenly Martin staggered and clutched his throat. Then he fell over backwards and commenced to have an epileptic fit. Ernie said it was the realest thing he'd ever seen. The sentry ran up, at the same time whistling to his comrade. Ernie released Martin's collar-band and tried to help him. Both the sentries approached, and Ernie stood back. He saw them bending over the prostrate man, when suddenly a most extraordinary thing happened. Both their heads were brought together with fearful violence. One fell completely senseless, but the other staggered forward and groped for his rifle.
When Ernie told this part of the story he kept dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief.
"I never seen such a man as Martin I don't think," he said. "Lord! He had a fist like a leg of mutton. He laid 'em out neatly on the grass, took off their coats and most of their other clothes, and flung 'em over the barbed wire, and then swarmed over like a cat. I had more difficulty, but he got me across too, somehow. Then we carted the clothes away to the next line.
"We got up into a wood that night, and Martin draws out his compass and he says: 'We've got a hundred and seven miles to do in night shifts, cully. And if we make a slip we're shot as safe as a knife.' It sounded the maddest scheme in the world, but I somehow felt that Martin would get through it. The only thing that saved me was that—that I didn't have to think. I simply left everything to him. If I'd started thinking I should have gone mad. I had it fixed in my mind, 'either he does it or he doesn't do it. I can't help it.' I reely don't remember much about that journey. It was all a dream like. We did all our travellin' at night by compass, and hid by day. Neither of us had a word of German. But Gawd's truth! that man Martin was a marvel! He turned our trousers inside out, and made 'em look like ordinary labourers' trousers. He disappeared the first night and came back with some other old clothes. We lived mostly on raw potatoes we dug out of the ground with our hands, but not always. I believe Martin could have stole an egg from under a hen without her noticing it. He was the coolest card there ever was. Of course there was a lot of trouble one way and another. It wasn't always easy to find wooded country or protection of any sort. We often ran into people and they stared at us, and we shifted our course. But I think we were only addressed three or four times by men, and then Martin's methods were the simplest in the world. He just looked sort of blank for a moment, and then knocked them clean out, and bolted. Of course they were after us all the time, and it was this constant tacking and shifting ground that took so long. Fancy! he had never a map, you know, nothing but the compass. We didn't know what sort of country we were coming to, nothing. We just crept through the night like cats. I believe Martin could see in the dark...He killed a dog one night with his hands...It was necessary."
It was impossible to discover from Ernie how long this amazing journey lasted—the best part of two months, I believe. He was himself a little uncertain with regard to many incidents, whether they were true or whether they were hallucinations. He suffered greatly from his wound and had periods of feverishness. But one morning, he said, Martin began "prancing." He seemed to develop some curious sense that they were near the Dutch frontier. And then, according to Ernie, "a cat wasn't in it with Martin."
He was very mysterious about the actual crossing. I gathered that there had been some "clumsy" work with sentries. It was at that time that Ernie got a bullet through his arm. When he got to Holland he was very ill. It was not that the wound was a serious one, but, as he explained:
"Me blood was in a bad state. I was nearly down and out."
He was very kindly treated by some Dutch Sisters in a convent hospital. But he was delirious for a long time, and when he became more normal they wanted to communicate with his people in England, but this didn't appeal to the dramatic sense of Ernie.
"I thought I'd spring a surprise packet on you," he said, grinning.
We asked about Martin, but Ernie said he never saw him again. He went away while Ernie was delirious, and they said he had gone to Rotterdam to take ship somewhere. He thought Holland was a dull place.
During the relation of this narrative my attention was divided between watching the face of Ernie and the face of Ernie's mother.
I am quite convinced that she did not listen to the story at all. She never took her eyes from his face, and although her tongue was following the flow of his remarks, her mind was occupied with the vision of Ernie when he was a little boy, and when he ordered five tons of coal to be sent to the girls' school.
When he had finished she said:
"Did you meet either of them young Stellings?"
And Ernie laughed rather uproariously and said no, he didn't have the pleasure of renewing their acquaintance.
On his way home, it appeared, he had reported himself at headquarters, and his discharge was inevitable.
"So now you'll be able to finish the rabbit-hutch," said Lily's husband, and we all laughed again, with the exception of Mrs. Ward.
I found her later standing alone in the garden. It was a warm spring night. There was no moon, but the sky appeared restless with its burden of trembling stars. She had an old shawl drawn round her shoulders, and she stood there very silently, with her arms crossed.
"Well, this is splendid news, Mrs. Ward," I said.
She started a little, and coughed, and pulled the shawl closer round her.
She said, "Yes, sir," very faintly.
I don't think she was very conscious of me. She still appeared immersed in the contemplation of her inner visions. Her eyes settled upon the empty house next door, and I thought I detected the trail of a tear glistening on her cheeks. I lighted my pipe. We could hear Ernie, and Lily, and Lily's husband still laughing and talking inside.
"She used to make a very good puddin'," Mrs. Ward said suddenly, at random. "Dried fruit inside, and that. My Ernie liked it very much..."
Somewhere away in the distance—probably outside "The Unicorn"—someone was playing a cornet. A train crashed by and disappeared, leaving a trail of foul smoke which obscured the sky. The smoke cleared slowly away. I struck another match to light my pipe.
It was quite true. On either side of her cheek a tear had trickled. She was trembling a little, worn out by the emotions of the evening.
There was a moment of silence, unusual for Dalston.
"It's all very...perplexin' and that," she said quietly.
And then I knew for certain that in that great hour of her happiness her mind was assailed by strange and tremulous doubts. She was thinking of "them others" a little wistfully. She was doubting whether one could rejoice—when the thing became clear and actual to one—without sending out one's thoughts into the dark garden to "them others" who were suffering too. And she had come out into this little meagre yard at Dalston and had gazed through the mist and smoke upwards to the stars, because she wanted peace intensely, and so she sought it within herself, because she knew that real peace is a thing which concerns the heart alone.
And so I left her standing there, and I went my way, for I knew that she was wiser than I.
The call was irresistible. I had tramped for nearly two hours along the white road, when suddenly a long stretch of open heath with sparsely-scattered trees and high gorse bushes invited me to break my journey and to seek the shade of a wood that fringed it on the western side. The ground sloped upwards at a steep gradient and I was soon among the cool shadows of the larch trees. After climbing for nearly half-an-hour I found myself on a kind of plateau, looking down upon one of the most beautiful sights in the world, the Weald of Sussex trembling in a grey heat mist framed through a thin belt of trees. I pushed forward, determining to rest in this most attractive spot. Nearing the fringe of this little clump, I observed a bent tree in a clearing. As I approached it it occurred to me that the subject before me was curiously like Corot's famous masterpiece. It was indeed a wonderful and romantic spot. Beneath me a river rambled through the meadows and became lost in the grey-blue distances. There was no sign of civilisation except sleepy cattle and the well-kept fields, and occasionally a village nestling in the hollow of the downs. The only sound was the movement of leaves, the drone of bees and the lowing of cattle in the distant meadows.
I sat down on the bent tree, and as I looked around it occurred to me that the spot I had chosen was like a little arbour. It might have been the home of some God of ancient Britain, who could have lived here undisturbed through all the generations. I was wondering whether anyone else had ever penetrated to this glorious retreat from the world when my eye caught a small square of white paper pinned on the trunk of the bent tree. I examined it, and lo! on it was written in ink: "GONE TO LUNCH, BACK IN 20 MINUTES."
Now if there is one thing that makes me wretchedly unhappy it is the action of people who find pleasure in disfiguring nature, in carving their initials on tree-trunks, in scattering paper and orange peel about the countryside; but somehow, when I caught sight of this absurd city office formula pinned to a tree in this most inaccessible and romantic spot, I must confess that "my lungs did crow like Chanticleer." I felt that here indeed was the work of a vast and subtle humorist. The formula was so familiar. How often had I waited hours in murky passages, buoyed up by this engaging promise! It seemed so redolent of drab staircases, and files and roll-top desks, that its very mention out here struck a fantastic note. That anyone should suggest that he carried on a business here, that his time was precious, that after gulping down a cup of coffee, he would rush back, cope with increasing press of affairs, seemed to me wonderfully and amazingly funny. I must acknowledge that I made myself rather ridiculous. I laughed till the tears streamed down my face, and my only desire was for a companion with whom to share the manna of this gigantic jest. I looked at the card again. It was comparatively clean, so I presumed that the joke had been perpetrated quite recently.
And then I began to wonder whether the jester would return, whether, after all, the slip had any significance. Was it the message of a poacher to a friend? Or was this the secret meeting place of some gods of High Finance? I determined in any case to wait the allotted span, and in the meantime I stretched myself on the stem of the bent tree, and, lighting a cigarette, prepared to enjoy the tranquillity of the scene.
It was barely ten minutes before my siesta was disturbed by a man coming stealthily up the slope. He was a medium-sized, sallow-faced fellow, with small tired eyes set in dark hollows. He was wearing a tailcoat and a bowler hat. He shuffled quickly through the wood, pushing the branches of the trees away from him. His eyes fixed me furtively, and as he entered the little arbour, he took off his hat and fidgetted with it, as though looking for a customary hook on which to hang it.
"I hope I haven't kept you waiting?" was his greeting.
"Not at all," I found myself answering, for lack of a more suitable reply.
"Did Binders send you?" he asked tentatively.
"No," I replied, pulling myself together. "I just happened to come here."
A look of disappointment passed over his face. "Oh!" he said, walking up and down. "I sometimes do a bit with Binders and his friends, you know"—he waved his arms vaguely—"you know, from Corlesham."
Corlesham I knew to be a village rather more than two miles away, a sleepy hamlet of less than fifty souls.
"Oh, I see," I replied, more with the idea of not discouraging him than because any particular light had come to me.
He looked at me searchingly for some moments, and then, going over to a thick gorse bush, he knelt down and groped underneath and presently produced a thick pile of papers and circulars.
"I wonder whether you would like to do anything in these? These West Australians are good. They're right down to 65. If you can hold on, a sure thing. If you would like a couple of thousand now..." he was nervously biting his nails; then he said, "Could you spare me a cigarette?"
I produced my case and handed him one.
"Thanks very much," he said. "They don't like me to smoke at home," and he waved his hand towards the north. I followed the direction, and just caught sight of the top of a gable of a large red-brick building through the trees.
So this was a solution.
"This is a glorious place," I said.
This seemed a very harmless platitude and one not likely to drive a being to despair. But it had a strange effect on my individual, for he sat down on a broken branch and burst into a paroxysm of invective.
"Oh, Gawd!" he said. "I hate it, hate the sight of it! Day after day—all the same! All these blinkin' trees and fields—all the same, nothing happenin' ever."
I found it very difficult to meet this outburst. I could think of nothing to say, so I kept silent. After a time he got up, puffing feverishly at the cigarette, and walked round the little arbour. Every now and then he would stop and make a gesture towards the shrubs. I believe he was visualising files and folios, ledgers, and typewriters. He made a movement of opening and shutting drawers.
"You've been a bit run down, haven't you?" I said at last, with a feeble attempt to bridge the gulf.
He looked at me uncertainly, and wiped the perspiration from his brow.
"I was unlucky," he said sullenly. "I worked like a nigger for thirty years, but so do the others—lots of them—and they're all right. Just sheer bad luck, if you know what I mean. I can do it now when they let me. That's why I come here. Binders helps me a bit. He sends me people. And, do you know?" he whispered to me confidentially, "I've got the postman on my side. He delivers me letters here at twopence a time. Look! here is my mail-box!" He stooped down and lifted a large stone and produced a further pole of correspondence and circulars. "Would you like to buy some of these Trinidads? I could work it for you."
He looked at me anxiously, and I made some elaborate excuse for not seizing such a splendid opportunity. He sighed, and placed the papers back under the stone.
"Have you ever dealt in big things?" he asked.
"I'm afraid not—in your sense," I answered, nurturing an instinctive sense of outraged superiority against this person who, I felt, despised me.
"You know what I mean by big things," he said fiercely. "Millions and millions, and the lives and works of millions of people! Do you know why I come down here to this rotten little clearing? Because it sometimes reminds me of my office off Throgmorton Street. Look! It was just this size. I had my desk over there. Horswall, my secretary, had his desk here. Here was the fireplace. The press just here by the window. Here the shelves with all the files. Can you imagine what it's like to have been there all those years, to have worked up what I did—all out of nothing, mark you!—to have got the whole rubber market in the hollow of my hand!—and then, oh, God! to be condemned to—this!" and he made a gesture of fierce contempt towards the Weald of Sussex.
"For nearly two years now," he continued, "I've been living in this hole."
"Nature has a way," I said, in my most sententious manner, "of coming back on us."
"Naycher! Naycher!" he almost screamed. "Don't talk to me about Naycher! What sort of friend is Naycher to me or you? Naycher gives you inclinations and then breaks you for following them! Two men fall into a pond—what does Naycher care that one man was trying to drown his enemy while the other was trying to save a dog? They both stand their chance of death. Naycher leads you up blind alleys and into marshes and lets you rot. Besides, isn't man Naycher? Isn't it Naycher for me to work and make money, as it is for these blighting birds to sing? Aren't roll-top desks as much Naycher as—these blasted trees?"
He blinked savagely at the surrounding scene. The smoke from a distant hamlet drifted sleepily heavenwards, like incense to the gods of the Downs.
"My father was a turner in Walham Green, and he apprenticed me to the joinery, but I had my ambitions even in those times." He nodded knowingly, and mopped his brow. "At eighteen I was a clerk in a wholesale house in St. Paul's Churchyard. For three years I worked there underground, by artificial light. Then I got made sub-manager of a wharf at the South end of Lower Thames Street. I was there for five years, and saved nearly three hundred pounds out of a salary of £120 a year. Then I met Jettison, and we started that office together, Jettison & Gateshead, Commission Agents. Work and struggle, work and struggle, year after year. But it was not till I got on to rubber that I began to make things move. That was eight years after. Do you remember the boom? I got in with Gayo, who had lived out in the Malay Straits—knew everything—we got the whole game at our fingers' ends. We knew just when to buy and just when to sell. Do you know, I've made as much as four thousand pounds in one afternoon, just talking on the telephone! And we done it all in that little room"—he gazed jealously round the little arbour in the hills, and scowled at me. Then he produced a packet of cigarettes and lighted one from the stump of the last one.
"In those days, through Gayo's friends, we followed the whole course of the raw stuff. Then Gayo went out to Malay, and he used to cable me every few days, putting me on to the right thing. My God, he was a man! It went on for two years, when suddenly a cable came to say he was dead—fever, or something, up-country. That was the end. The slump came soon after. I worked hard, but I never got control back. Down and down and down they went, as though Gayo was dragging them through the earth." His lower lip trembled as he rolled the emaciated cigarette over.
"Lord, what a fight I had, though I sat in that office there, in my shirt-sleeves, day and night for months on end, checking tapes, cabling, lying, faking, bluffing"—he chuckled with a meditative intensity. "I'd have done it then, if they'd given me time. But they closed in; there were two Scotch firms, and a man named Klaus. I knew they meant to do me down. There was a set against me. I wasn't there in the end. I was sitting in the office one night..." He passed his hand over his brow and swept away a wasp that had settled there. He sat silent for some moments, as though trying to recall things, and twice started to speak without framing a sentence.
"My brother was very good to me," he said suddenly, waving his hand towards the red-brick gable in the trees. "He was very good to me all through." Then he added, with a sort of contemptuous shrug, "In the cabinet-making he was; got a little works at Bow—made about four hundred a year—married, and five children."
He sat for some minutes with his head in his hands, and then he sat up and gazed upon the joyous landscape with unseeing eyes.
I ventured to remark, "Well, I'm sure this place ought to do you good." He turned his melancholy eyes upon me, and sighed.
"Yes," he said, after a pause. "You're just the sort. I've seen so many of you about. Some of you have butterfly nets." He kept repeating at intervals, "Butterfly nets!" One felt that the last word in contumely had been uttered. He sank into an apathy of indifference. Then he broke out again.
"I tell you," he uttered fiercely, "that I had millions and millions. I controlled the work and the lives of millions of men, and you come here and talk to me of Naycher. Look at these damned trees! They go green in the summer, yellow in the autumn, and bare in the winter. Year after year, exactly the same thing, and that's all there is in it. I'm sick of the sight of them. But look at men! Think of their lives, the variety! What they can do! Their clothes, their furniture, their houses, their cities! Think of their power! The power of making and marring!"
"You mean the power of buying and selling," I ventured.
"Yes, that's just it!" he said, feeling that he was converting me.
"The power of buying and selling! Of making men rich or poor!" He stood up and waved his thin arms and gazed wildly round him. "Not chasing butterflies!"
At the moment we both became aware that a third person was on the scene. He was a well set-up man, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. He was dressed in a dark-blue serge suit and a tweed cap. He stepped quietly through the trees, and went up to my companion, and said:
"Ah! there you are, Mr. Gateshead. I'm afraid it's almost time for your afternoon nap, sir." And then, turning to me, he nodded and remarked: "A warm afternoon, sir!" He spoke with a quiet, suave voice that somehow conveyed the feeling of the 'iron hand in the velvet glove.' His voice seemed to have a sedative effect on Mr. Gateshead. My companion did not look at him, but he seemed to shrink within himself. A certain flush that had accompanied his excitement vanished, and his face looked old and set. He drew his narrow shoulders together and his figure bent. He stood abstractedly for a few moments, gazing at the trees around him, and then, with a vague gesture that was characteristic of him, he clutched the lapels of his coat, and with his head bent forward he walked away towards the building. He did not cast a glance in my direction, and the man in the serge suit nodded to me and followed him leisurely.
I clambered down the slope of the wood, and for some reason felt happy to get once more upon the road.
About half a mile from Corlesham I met the postman coming up the hill, wheeling his bicycle. He was a sandy-haired man, splendidly Saxon, with grey-blue eyes and broad mouth. I asked him if there was a foot-path to Corlesham, and he directed me.
"Do you have a long round?" I asked.
"Three or four mile, maybe," he said, looking at me narrowly.
"It's a good pull up to the Institution," I ventured.
"What institution might that be?" he said, and his mild blue eyes disarmed me with their ingenuousness.
"The house with the three red gables," I answered.
"Oh!" came the reply. "You mean old Gateshead's."
"Does he own it?" I said incredulously.
"Ay, and he could own six others for all the difference it would make to his money. He owns half the county."
"And yet what a strange idea," I murmured insinuatingly. "To own a large house and yet to have one's letters delivered in a wood!"
The postman swung his bag into a more comfortable position and looked across his machine at me with a grin.
"Those as has money can afford to have any ideas they like," he said at last.
"I'm afraid his money doesn't make him very happy," I ventured, still groping for further enlightenment.
The postman gave his right pedal a vigorous twirl as a hint of departure. He then took out a packet of Navy Cut cigarettes and lighted one. This action seemed to stimulate his mental activities, and he leant on the handle-bars and said:
"Ay, if one has no money maybe one can make oneself happy thinking one has. And if one has money, maybe one can make oneself happy by thinking one hasn't." He blinked at me, and then added, by way of solving all life's mysteries: "If one—puts too much store by these things."
I could find no remark to complement the postman's sententious conclusions, and, dismissing me with a nod, he mounted his bicycle and rode off up the hill.
There was something essentially Chinese about the appearance of George as he lay there propped up against the pillows. His large flabby face had an expression of complete detachment. His narrowing eyes regarded me with a fatalistic repose. Observing him, I felt that nothing mattered, nothing ever had mattered, and nothing ever would matter. And I was angry. Pale sunlight filtered through the curtains.
"Good Lord!" I exclaimed. "Still in bed! Do you know it's nearly twelve o'clock?"
An almost inaudible sigh greeted my explosion. George occupied the maisonette below me. Some fool of an uncle had left him a small private income, and he lived alone, attended by an old housekeeper. He did nothing absolutely nothing at all, not even amuse himself, and whenever I went in to see him he was invariably in bed. There was nothing wrong with his health. It was sheer laziness. But not laziness of a negative kind, mark you, but the outcome of a calm and studied policy. I knew this, and it angered me the more.
"What would happen if the whole world went on like you?" I snapped.
He sighed again, and then replied in his thin, mellow voice:
"We should have a series of ideal states. There would be no wars, no crimes, no divorce, no competition, no greed, envy, hatred or malice."
"Yes, and no food."
He turned slightly on one side. His accents became mildly expostulating, the philosopher fretted by an ignorant child.
"How unreasonable you are, dear boy. How unthinking! The secret of life is complete immobility. The tortoise lives four hundred years; the fox-terrier wears itself out in ten. Wild beasts, fishes, savages, and stockbrokers fight and struggle and eat each other up. The only place for a cultivated man is—bed. In bed he is supreme—the arbiter of his soul. His limbs and the vulgar carcase of his being constructed for purely material functioning are concealed. His head rules him. He is the autocrat of the bolster, the gallant of fine linen, the master of complete relaxation. Believe me, there are a thousand tender attitudes of repose unknown to people like you. The four corners of a feather-bed are an inexhaustible field of luxurious adventure. I have spent more than half my life in bed, and even now I have not explored all the delectable crannies and comforts that it holds for me."
"No," I sneered, "and in the meantime other people have to work to keep you there."
"That is not my fault. A well-ordered state should be a vast caravanserai of dormitories. Ninety-nine per cent. of these activities you laud so extravagantly are gross and unnecessary. People should be made to stay in bed till they have found out something worth doing. Who wants telephones, and cinemas, and safety-razors? All that civilisation has invented are vulgar luxuries and time-saving devices. And when they have saved the time, they don't know what to do with it. All that is required is bread, and wine, and fine linen. I—even I would not object to getting up for a few hours every week to help to produce these things."
He stroked the three-weeks' growth on his chin, and smiled magnanimously. Then he continued:
"The world has yet to appreciate the real value of passivity. In a crude form the working classes have begun to scratch the edge of the surface. They have discovered the strike. Now, observe, that the strike is the most powerful political weapon of the present day. It can accomplish nearly everything it requires, and yet it is a condition of immobility. So you see already that immobility may be more powerful than activity. But this is only the beginning. When the nations start going to bed, and stopping there, then civilisation will take a leap forward. You can do nothing with a man in bed—not even knock him down. My ambition is to form a League of Bedfellows. So that if one day some busy-body or group of busybodies says: 'We're going to war with France, or Germany, or America,' we can reply, 'Very well. Then I'm going to bed.' Then after a time, they would have to go to bed too. And they would eventually succumb to the gentle caresses of these sheets and eiderdowns. All their evil intentions would melt away. The world should be ruled not by Governments or Soviets, but by national doss-houses."
He yawned, and I pulled up the blind.
"What about the good activities?" I replied.
For a moment I thought I had stumped him, or that he was not going to deign to reply. Then the thin rumble of his voice reached me from across the sheets.
"What you call the good activities can all be performed in bed. That is to say, they can be substituted by a good immobility. The activities of man are essentially predatory. He has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. He is a hunter and slayer and nothing else at all. All his activities are diversions of this instinct. Commerce is war, capital is a sword, labour is a stomach. Progress means either filling the stomach or chopping someone else's head off with the sword. Science is an instrument that speeds up the execution. Politics is a game. Colonisation is straightforward daylight burglary."
"I'm not going to waste my morning talking to a fool like you," I said. "But what about art, and beauty, and charity, and love?"
"In bed," he mumbled. "All in bed...They are all spiritual things. Bed is the place for them. Was Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' any finer because he got up and wrote it down and sent it off to a fool of a publisher? Charity! Give a man a bed, and charity ceases to have any significance. Love! What a fool you are! Is a bed a less suitable place for love than a County Council tramcar?"
His voice died away above the coverlet. I was about to deliver a vitriolic tirade against his ridiculous theories, but I did not know where to begin, and before I had framed a suitable opening, the sound of gentle snoring reached me.
I record this conversation as faithfully as I can recollect because it will help you to share with me the sense of extreme surprise at certain events which followed, two months later. Of course George did occasionally get up. Sometimes he went for a gentle stroll in the afternoon, and he belonged to a club down town where he would go and dine in the evening. After dinner he would watch some of the men play billiards, but he invariably returned to his bed about ten o'clock. He never played any game himself, neither did he apparently write or receive letters. Occasionally he read in bed, but he never looked at a newspaper or a magazine. He once said to me that if you read the newspapers you might as well play golf, and the tremulous shiver of disgust in his voice when he uttered the word "golf" is a thing I shall never forget.
I ask you, then, to imagine my amazement when, two months later, George shaved himself, got up to breakfast, reached a city office at nine o'clock, worked all day, and returned at seven in the evening. You will no doubt have a shrewd idea of the reason, and you are right. She was the prettiest little thing you can imagine, with chestnut hair and a solemn, babyish pucker of the cheeks. She was as vital as he was turgid. Her name was Maisie Brand. I don't know how he met her, but Maisie, in addition to being pretty and in every way attractive, was a practical modern child. George's two hundred a year might be sufficient to keep him in bed, but it wasn't going to be enough to run a household on. Maisie had no use for this bed theory. She was a daughter of sunshine and fresh air, and frocks and theatres, and social life. If George was to win her he must get up in the morning.
On the Sunday after this dramatic change I visited him in his bedroom. He was like a broken man. He groaned when he recognised me.
"I suppose you'll stop in bed all day to-day?" I remarked jauntily.
"I've got to get up this afternoon," he growled. "I've got to take her to a concert."
"Well, how do you like work?" I asked.
"It's torture...agony, hell. It's awful. Fortunately, I found a fellow-sufferer. He works next to me. We take it in turn to have twenty-minute naps, while the other keeps watch."
I laughed, and quoted: "Custom lies upon us with a weight, heavy as frost and deep almost as night." Then I added venomously: "Well, I haven't any sympathy for you. It serves you right for the way you've gone on all these years."
I thought he was asleep again, but at last his drowsy accents proclaimed:
"What a perfect fool you are! You always follow the line of least resistance."
I laughed outright at that, and exclaimed: "Well, if ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black!"
There was a long interval, during which I seemed to observe a slow, cumbrous movement in the bed. Doubtless he was exploring. When he spoke again, there was a faint tinge of animation in his voice.
"You are not capable I suppose, of realising the danger of it all. You fool! Do you think I follow the line of least resistance in bed? Do you think I haven't often wanted to get up and do all those ridiculous things you and your kind indulge in? Can't you see what might happen? Suppose these dormant temptations were thoroughly aroused! Good God! It's awful to contemplate. Habit, you say? Yes, I know. I know quite well the risk I am running. Am I to sacrifice all the epic romance of this life between the sheets for the sordid round of petty actions you call life? I was a fool to get up that day. I had a premonition of danger when I awoke at dawn. I said to myself, 'George, restrain yourself. Do not be deceived by the hollow sunlight. Above all things, keep clear of the park.' But, like a fool, I betrayed my sacred trust. The premonitions which come to one in bed are always right. I got up. And now...My God! it's too late."
Smothered sobs seemed to shake the bed.
"Well," I said, "if you feel like that about it; if you think more of your bed than of the girl, I should break it off. She won't be missing much."
He suddenly sat up, and exclaimed:
"Don't you dare—"
Then he sank back on the pillow, and added dispassionately:
"There you see, already the instinct of activity. A weak attitude. I could crush you more successfully with complete immobility. But these movements are already beginning. They shake me at every turn. Nothing is secure."
Inwardly chuckling at his discomfiture, I left him.
During the months that followed I did not have the opportunities of studying George to the extent that I should have liked, as my work carried me to various parts of the country, but what opportunities I did have I found intriguing. He certainly improved in health. A slight colour tinged his cheeks. He seemed less puffy and turgid. His movements were still slow, but they were more deliberate than of old. His clothes were neat and brushed. The girl was delightful. She came up and chatted with me, and we became great friends. She talked to me quite frankly about George. She laughed about his passion for bed, but declared she meant to knock all that sort of thing out of him. She was going to thoroughly wake him up. She said laughingly that she thought it was perfectly disgusting the way he had been living. I used to try and visualise George making love to her, but somehow the picture would never seem convincing. I do not think it could have been a very passionate affair. Passion was the last thing you would associate with George. I used to watch them walking down the street, the girl slim and vivid, swinging along with broad strides, George, rather flustered and disturbed, pottering along by her side, like a performing bear that is being led away from its bun. He did not appear to look at her, and when she addressed him vivaciously, he bent forward his head and held his large ear close to her head. It was as though he was timid of her vitality.
At first this spectacle amused me, but after a time it produced in me another feeling altogether.
"This girl is being thrown away on him. It's horrible. She's much too good for George."
And when I was away I was constantly thinking of her, and dreading the day of the wedding, praying that something would happen to prevent it. But to my deep concern nothing did happen to prevent it, and they were duly married the following April. They went for a short honeymoon to Brittany, and then returned and occupied George's old maisonnette below me. The day after their return I had to face a disturbing realisation. I was falling hopelessly in love with Maisie myself. I could not think of George or take any interest in him. I was always thinking of her. Her face haunted me. Her charm and beauty, and the pathos of her position, gripped me. I made up my mind that the only thing to do was to go away. I went to Scotland, and on my return took a small flat in another part of London. I wrote to George and gave him my address, and wished him all possible luck. I said I hoped "some day" to pay them a visit, but if at any time I could be of service, would he let me know.
I cannot describe to you the anguish I experienced during the following twelve months. I saw nothing of George or Maisie at all, but the girl was ever present in my thoughts. I could not work. I lived in a state of feverish restlessness. Time and again I was on the point of breaking my resolve, but I managed to keep myself in hand.
It was in the following June that I met Maisie herself walking down Regent Street. She looked pale and worried. Dark rings encircled her eyes. She gave a little gasp when she saw me, and clutched my hand. I tried to be formal, but she was obviously labouring under some tense emotion.
"My flat is in Baker Street," I said. "Will you come and visit me?"
She answered huskily, "Yes, I will come to-morrow afternoon. Thank you."
She slipped away in the crowd. I spent a sleepless night. What had happened? Of course I could see it all. George had gone back to bed. Having once secured her, his efforts had gradually flagged. He had probably left his business—or been sacked—and spent the day sleeping. The poor girl was probably living a life of loneliness and utter poverty. What was I to do? All day long I paced up and down my flat. I dreaded that she might not come. It was just after four that the bell went. I hastened to answer it myself. It was she. I led her into the sitting-room, and tried to be formal and casual. I made some tea and chatted impersonally about the weather and the news of the day. She hardly answered me. Suddenly she buried her face in her hands, and broke into tears. I sprang to her and patted her shoulder.
"There, there," I said. "What is it? Tell me all about it, Maisie."
"I can't live with him! I can't live with him any longer!" she sobbed.
I must acknowledge that my heart gave a violent bump, not entirely occasioned by contrition. I murmured as sympathetically as I could, but with prophetic assurance:
"He's gone back to bed."
"Oh, no, no," she managed to stammer. "It's not that. It's just the opposite."
"Just the opposite?"
"He's so restless, so exhausting. Oh, dear! Yes, please Mr. Wargrave, give me a cup of tea, and I will tell you all about it."
For a moment I wondered whether the poor girl's mental balance had been upset. I poured her out the tea in silence. George restless! George exhausting! Whatever did she mean? She sipped the tea meditatively; then she dabbed her beautiful eyes, and told me the following remarkable story:
"It was all right at first, Mr. Wargrave. We were quite happy. He was still—you know, very lazy, very sleepy. It all came about gradually. Every week, however, he seemed to get a little more active and vital. He began to sleep shorter hours and work longer. He liked to be entertained in the evening or go to the theatre. On Sunday he would go for quite long walks. It went on like that for months. Then they raised his position in the firm. He seemed to open out. It was as though during all those years he had spent in bed he had been hoarding up remarkable stores of energy. And suddenly some demon of restlessness got possession of him. He began to work frenziedly. At first he was pleasant to me; then he became so busy he completely ignored me. At the end of six months they made him manager of a big engineering works at Walham Green. One of the directors, a Mr. Sturge, said to me one day, 'That husband of yours is a remarkable man. He is the most efficient and forceful person we have ever employed. What has he been doing all these years? Why haven't we heard of him before!' He would get up at six in the morning, have a cold bath, and study for two hours before he went off to work. He would work all day, like a fury. They say he was a perfect slave-driver in the works. Only last week he sacked a man for taking a nap five minutes over his lunch hour. He would get home about eight o'clock, have a hurried dinner, and then insist on going to the opera or playing bridge. When we got back he would read till two or three in the morning. Oh, Mr. Wargrave, he has got worse and worse. He never sleeps at all. He terrifies me. On Sunday it is just the same. He works all the morning. After lunch he motors out to Northwood, and plays eighteen holes before tea, and eighteen after."
"What!" I exclaimed. "Golf!"
"Golf, and science, and organisation are his manias. They say he's invented some wonderful labour-saving appliances on the plant, and he's planning all kinds of future activities. The business of the firm is increasing enormously. They pay him well, but he still persists in living in that maisonnette. He says he's too busy to move."
"Is he cruel to you?"
"If complete indifference and neglect is cruelty, he is most certainly cruel. Sometimes he gives me a most curious look, as though he hated me, and yet he can't account for me. He allows me no intimacy of any sort. If I plead with him he doesn't answer. I believe he holds me responsible for all these dormant powers which have got loose and which he cannot now control. I do not think his work gives him any satisfaction. It is as though he were driven on by some blind force. Oh, Mr. Wargrave, I can't go on. It is killing me. I must run away and leave him."
"Maisie!" I murmured, and I took her hand.
The immediate subsequent proceedings are not perhaps entirely necessary to record in relating this story, which is essentially George's story. The story of Maisie and myself could comfortably fill a stout volume, but as it concerns two quite unremarkable people, who were just human and workaday, I do not expect that you would be interested to read it. In any case, we have no intention of writing it, so do not be alarmed. I can only tell you that during that year of her surprising married life, Maisie had thought of me not a little, and this dénouement rapidly brought things to a head. After this confession we used to meet every day. We went for rambles and picnics, and to matinées, and of course that kind of thing cannot go on indefinitely. We both detested the idea of an intrigue. And eventually we decided that we would cut the Gordian knot and make full confession. Maisie left him and went to live with a married sister. That same morning I called on George. I arrived at the maisonnette just before six o'clock as I knew that that was the most likely time to catch him. Without any preliminary ceremony I made my way into the familiar bedroom. George was in bed. I stood by the door and called out:
Like a flash he was out of bed, and standing in his pyjamas, facing me. He had changed considerably. His face was lined and old, but his eyes blazed with a fury of activity. He awed me. I stammered out my confession.
"George, I'm awfully sorry, old chap. I have a confession to make to you. It comes in the first place from Maisie. She has decided that she cannot live with you any longer. She thinks you have neglected her, and treated her badly. She refuses to come back to you under any circumstances. Indeed, she—she and I—er—"
I tailed off dismally, and looked at him. For a moment I thought he was going to bear down on me. I know that if he had I should have been supine. I should have stood there and let him slaughter me. I felt completely overpowered by the force of his personality. I believe I shivered. He hovered by the edge of the bed, then he turned and looked out of the window. He stood there solemnly for nearly a minute; then he emitted a profound sigh. Without more ado, he got back into bed. There was an immense upheaval of the sheets. He seemed to be burrowing down into some vast and as yet unexplored cave of comfort. He rolled and heaved, and at length became inert. I stood there, waiting for my answer. Sparrows twittered outside on the windowbox. I don't know how long I waited. I felt that I could not go until he had spoken.
At length his voice came. It seemed to reach me across dim centuries of memory, an old, tired, cosy, enormously contented, sleep-encrusted voice.
"'S'all right," said the voice. "Tell Mrs. Chase she needn't bring up my shaving-water this morning."
I have never attended anything more impressive than the funeral of Pierre Curvellier. Autumn in Brittany is always beautiful, and that year it seemed more beautiful than ever. St. Cyr-en-Bois lies at a sharp angle of the Rinse. Sleepy old white buildings with grey stone roofs nestle around the hill capped by the splendid dome of the Sacred Heart. The narrow cobbled streets are steep and winding, and are always crowded with slow-moving and quick-talking people, in blue, and grey and white; pigs and cattle wander indiscriminately, and sometimes you meet an ox-cart. The air has a tang of apples and salt, and burning peat, and the products of people who live by the soil. The woods are turning brown and crimson and golden. Everything goes slowly at St. Cyr-en-Bois.
And up the winding streets the funeral cort�?®ge of my old friend went very slowly. Everyone walked. The coffin covered by a deep purple pall was carried by priests. Acolytes carried the Sacred Image. Censers swung, and the priests chanted in unison. Madame Curvellier, tall, distinguished, and in deepest mourning, leant, on the arm of her handsome son, Léon. The procession must have been a quarter of a mile in length. The men stood bareheaded, the women wept, and making the sign of the cross, exclaimed:
"God be merciful to our wise man."
All around one heard the muttered words of love and praise.
"Mother of God, but he was a good man. When my little Jeanne was sick, he sat all night applying lotions..."
"He loved the poor. Who is there to take his place?"
"They say he lent that rascal Couperin the money to rebuild his house, which he had burnt down in a drunken orgy."
"He forgave the boy who stole his fowls. Five times he forgave him."
"He worketh for the poor, but he never took money from the poor."
At the top of the hill the procession halted. In front of the church a platform had been erected by the side of a catafalque. Deputy Longuet, wearing the ribbon of the Legion of Honour, mounted the platform and prayed. The crowd stood with bowed heads. Then deputy Longuet stood up and addressed them. He was a short, pale-faced man with a square black beard. He spoke in a rich vibrant voice, charged with deep emotion. His voice carried across the square.
"Before committing the body of our friend to the last solemn rites of the holy Church, you have done me the honour to invite me to address you," he began.
"Your request fills me with pride and humility. Pride at the honour you confer on me, humility at my power t? carry it out worthily. You called him 'The Wise Man of St. Cyr-en-Bois' and you were right. Today we proclaim him not only the Wise Man of St. Cyr-en-Bois, but one of the wise men of France. Today the whole heart of France bleeds with St. Cyren-Bois. She mourns the loss of one of her most distinguished sons.
"He was my friend for thirty years or more. It is easy for me to extol his virtues, but to pay tribute t? the genius of his intellect is a task of which I am not capable. It will take time—perhaps a century—before the full measure of his worth shall be proclaimed. He wrote many books, and many that have not yet been published or adjudged. A lawyer, a scientist, a philosopher, a man of letters, for a time a member of the Senate, his whole life was consecrated to the betterment of his fellow-creatures. The fruits of his intellect are the heritage of us all. His works adorn our libraries, his teachings on ethics remain a standard, the influence of his legislation still colours our actions. He was a member of the Académie, and France does not forget. And France will not forget. His name shall be written in letters of gold upon her scrolls through all posterity. The fragrance of his memory shall survive the living episodes of our time.
"Well, may you weep, my friends! Well may France weep! ... and then when our hearts are filled to overflowing we will turn to God and rejoice. Rejoice that in our time so great and good a man should live; rejoice that France still sends forth into the world noble spirits like Pierre Curvellier to work for her eternal good. If I speak of his work in faltering terms, hesitating for the right expression, it is only because it is not yet adjudged. I may say too little or too much. But when I speak of the man himself, his character and life, I have no misgiving. I may say too little, but I cannot say too much. His life was crystal-clear, ennobled by a great simplicity. His mind was an open book for anyone to read. At an early age God granted him the greatest boon He can give to man—a good wife. A loving husband, an affectionate father, a loyal citizen, he was one of those men of whom it may be truly said that no breath of scandal ever marred the serene nobility of his name. He stood for all that was best and purest in this town, for all that was best and purest in France. For the vile he had compassion, for the poor charity, for the ignorant knowledge, and for everyone—help and comfort. His great intellect was an instrument used by him for the advancement of his moral precepts.
"Holding high office in the town he served the poor with equal consideration to the rich. Blessed with a home life of irreproachable purity and beauty, he set it before men without any ostentation, a place of comfort and welcome to all, a living example to those less fortunate. Of him no evil word was spoken, no envy, hatred, or malice engendered. He made no enemies. He lost no friends.
"And so he passes on. Supreme in the councils of his country, courageous in her adversities, steeped in her erudition, tolerant of her faults, we commit his body reverently to the sacred dust of St. Cyr-en-Bois, where he was born and where he spent the great energies of his life, confident that his spirit rides on in triumph to the glory of his country, to the glory of God."
Deputy Longuet bowed, and a low murmur of approval rippled across the square. The procession continued its way to the church. As the librarian of the Municipal Library and an intimate friend of Monsieur Curvellier, many of the townspeople knew me, and came forward to press my hand and to mutter a word of sympathy.
"It is an hour of desolation for St. Cyr-en-Bois," said one.
Old Gabriel Fabre, who had closed his épicerie establishment for the day as a token of respect, gripped my hand.
"The deputy spoke well," he said. "Sublime...sublime. As he said, 'not one word of scandal.' A pure life...a perfect life. God rest his soul."
I was a secessionist from the Roman Church, but I had no intention on that account to omit any respect which I could pay to the memory of my old friend. Nevertheless, in the congestion which occurred by the church doors, a sudden mood came to me to escape from all the ceremony for a time and to enjoy a few moments' solitary reflection. I wandered on into the cemetery and listened to the deep notes of the organ. The leaden sky was reflected in the dim waters of the Rinse. Nature appeared to be attuning itself to the melancholy hour. I leant against the wall beneath the cypress tree and my heart was heavy within me. Not a word of scandal!...How blessed is the rain which falls, and the wind which blows the yellowing leaves away and time which purifies the brown hills against the coming of another spring, another cycle of birth and life and death again. In the mausoleums of history, you may read the records of great men inscribed in deathless marble. Loaded with honours and dignity they go to their rest "without a breath of scandal." Their lives are still to be read like an open book. The purity of their domestic state, the love of their children, the cleanliness, and honour, and chastity of their actions. And yet—was there ever a garden, however fair, where the weeds did not grow?...
I remember when he first came to St. Cyr-en-Bois, the young notary, with a large brass plate in the little street off the market-place. His coming attracted little attention. He was already married to his tall, graceful wife, and they had two young babies. The peasants and tradespeople of our province have no great love for lawyers. They fear them and avoid them as much as possible. They admired the erect figure of Monsieur Curvellier, his charm of manner, his classic distinguished features with the penetrating eyes. But perhaps his whole bearing savoured too much of the actor. It was foreign to them. They preferred snuffly old Boyson, who robbed them but did it with a certain amount of bluntness which they mistook for candour. It was the skill with which he handled the case of the widow La Roche against the depredations of an overbearing landlord that first drew public attention to him. And then after that a remarkable fact was discovered concerning him. He had a genius for forgetting to send in an account to a poor client.
I was one of the first people t? make his acquaintance, for the library was almost the first place he visited, and he remained an indefatigable patron till the end of his days. I was immediately impressed by the restless energy of the man. He absorbed books as greedily as a cocotte will absorb scandal or petits-fours. He appeared to have read everything and yet to thirst for more. He was particularly interested in science and metaphysics, but he did not despise history, or fiction, even the work of modern writers.
"I want to know everything, Monsieur Barzac," he said to me one day. "Everything there is to know, and then I want to co-ordinate it."
He invited me to his house and we became great friends. The ménage of Monsieur and Madame Curvellier was a model of what a home should be.
Madame Curvellier was a charming hostess, devoted to her husband and the two children. The house was furnished in the best of taste. I often dined there, and afterwards we would sit talking till a late hour upon the evolution of literature, the wonders of life, the mysteries of science, when Madame Curvellier would go and place her arms around his shoulders and say:
"Now, my dear..."
I knew the sign and I would jump up and say:
"A thousand pardons! I am keeping you up."
And Madame would smile at me and say:
"It is a great delight to have you, Monsieur Barzac, but you spoil my husband. You are bad men, both of you. These late hours!"
And Monsieur Curvellier would pat her hand and say:
"Tyrant! One must talk. Life is to be talked about!"
And she would reply:
"It is more important to live than to talk about life."
Then we would all laugh, and I would seek my hat.
She was a pretty woman with chestnut hair and dark reflective eyes. Her adoration of Pierre was an experience merely to have observed. She understood him profoundly. She studied his every little move, and wish and fancy. She gave him everything which she thought right for him to have, but she did not spoil him. I was conscious of her ever managing him, like a mother with a clever child.
One day when we were alone she said to me:
"Pierre is a genius. It is very difficult. A genius can never stand alone. It has to be supported."
I did not understand her at the time, but in after years I often thought over this remark. All the "difficulties" of Pierre Curvellier were hidden from the world. They were packed around with cotton-wool by his wife. He adored her, but he had no idea how he relied upon her.
That he was a genius was a fact that was not proclaimed for many years. His zeal for social progress soon inveigled him into politics. At the age of thirty-three, when his son and daughter were aged respectively eleven and ten, he was elected as a member of the Senate for our department. The family left for Paris, where they remained for nine years, in the meantime paying constant visits to St. Cyr-en-Bois. Political life worried Monsieur Curvellier considerably. He fought hard for his ideals, but he was not happy. Whenever he came to Si. Cyr-en-Bois he always visited me. His eyes sparkled when he beheld the covers of the old volumes.
"Lucky fellow! Lucky fellow!" he would mutter. "I am becoming embittered." He had little time for literature or scientific research, but some essays on various ethical and scientific subjects were already attracting attention.
One evening he arrived unexpectedly from Paris and came straight to my house. His face was pale and drawn, but his eyes were shining with a new excitement.
"It is finished," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"I have resigned. It has taken me nine years, old friend, to discover that I am not fitted for a political life. Possibly...it has not all been wasted. I have done what I could."
I pressed his hand. "They spike of you as the coming man. There is no office you might not have filled."
"I know. I know. But I am tired of them. It is all machinery and corruption. One does not get down to essentials. One tinkers and potters. The people one is most anxious to help are the people who understand one least. There is an eternal impasse of misunderstanding. But now..."
"Now, what are your plans, Monsieur Curvellier?"
He was very agitated, almost mysterious.
"My wife and daughter and I are coming back to St. Cyr-en-Bois. My son is remaining in Paris to study architecture. I shall resume my practice to a limited extent. And then I have other ambitions."
Suddenly taking me by the shoulders he continued:
"This is a secret just between ourselves, Monsieur Barzac. I have the ambition to write a complete history and analysis of philosophy. And I do not wish the world to know. I shall do it in secret. And I shall crave your help and encouragement."
I naturally expressed my keen anxiety to assist in this noble project, and thanked him profusely for his confidence and friendly trust.
It was then that the wise man became established at St. Cyr-en-Bois. It was for me one of the happiest periods of my life. During the ensuing five years the character of Monsieur Curvellier seemed to reach its apotheosis. His finely modelled face, marked by years of struggle and spiritual turmoil, assumed a placid, almost saintly, mien. His hair was turning grey, but his figure was still very erect. His eyes were the eyes of a dreamer, a seer. But when addressed, they lighted up with quick sympathy. It was at this time that the peasants first began to call him: "The wise man of St. Cyr-en-Bois." They worshipped him. Every important dispute was submitted to his decision. His word was never doubted, his opinion never disputed.
He found time to help the poorest of them. With their instincts of reverence and their ready faith in superstitions, they began to attribute to him almost divine powers. No man in the province had such power over them.
And Madame Curvellier still watched him, and managed him, and mothered him. Proud of his genius, but not blinded by it. Proud of his character, but never relaxing her gentle control. Their pretty daughter Louise married the son of an Italian diplomatist and went to live in Milan, and so Monsieur and Madame Curvellier were alone, except for occasional visits of their son or daughter. Madame Curvellier interested herself on various committees of charitable institutions, assisted her husband in some of his work, kept house for him, and unostentatiously shaped the course of his life.
The great work on the evolution of philosophy proceeded apace. In three years' time he had completed two long volumes. It was to be a five-volume work with an exhaustive index. He made an arrangement with me that for certain hours in the afternoon he worked in my house. I set apart a room for him specially for this purpose. The arrangement had many advantages. For one thing, he was never interrupted there by clients. It was a kind of hiding place. The clerks in his office were instructed to say that they did not know where Monsieur Curvellier was. In addition to that, mine was a very quiet house just outside the town, in a secluded dell, and the room I lent him was one that had been built on by a former client and used as a laboratory. It had a separate entrance through a small vegetable garden. I gave Monsieur Curvellier a latch-key so that he was quite free to come and go whenever he wished. Madame Curvellier approved of this scheme, and instructions were given that when occupying this sanctum, consecrated to so noble a purpose, under no circumstances was he to be disturbed.
Occasionally he invited me in to discuss some point of reference, and when he did I always glowed with pride to observe the steadily-growing pile of manuscript, and to think that my humble abode should be the workshop of what might prove to be an epoch-making composition.
The whole thing worked most satisfactorily. Those were halcyon days. Love and community of interest, charming friendships, the growing fame of our "wise man," pleasant social diversions, glorious nights of talk, the eternal beauty of our Brittany landscapes, occasional new friends to stimulate our mental outlook, and always life going on and on, growing, improving, leading to finer ends...
Summers and winters passed almost imperceptibly. And then one summer there happened what I should have imagined to be an almost unbelievable episode. It shook all the foundations of my belief. It threatened to destroy the delicate fabric of happiness of a whole community of people. It was unreasonable, improbable, terrifying, like an inexplicable cyclone on a cloudless day in summer.
A quarter of a mile from my house on the main road to St. Cyr-en-Bois was an obscure café called the Cafe à la Colonne de Bronze. Occasionally on a summer's evening I and some of my friends would take a glass of syrup and seltzer or a cup of coffee, and sit and enjoy the sunset over the Rinse. It happened that summer that the café changed hands and was occupied by a Monsieur and Madame Bonzard, and their daughter Pauline. For my part I was disappointed at this change, for I had always liked old Poiret, who owned the place before and who had died after a seizure, and I did not like these Bonzards at all. They were a greedy, quarrelsome couple, and the daughter was a vain, frivolous, consciously pretty little coquette. She had masses of fair hair, and a furtive, supplicating feline manner. She was one of those women, not uncommon in our big cities, who always seem t? carry on their persons the aroma of a possible romance. She spoke very little, but her deep grey eyes were ever watchful, as though you or I might possess the key t? unlock the gates of some mysterious paradise for which she yearned. She was very appealing. I detested her.
I ask you then to conceive of my surprise when one night, returning home from the library, I found Monsieur Curvellier and Pauline Bonzard sitting facing each other at one of the little tables overlooking the river. The actual event might not in itself have been very surprising—the Wise Man of St. Cyr-en-Bois talked to everyone—but there was just something, a certain attitude of interest and absorption which arrested my attention. I joined Monsieur Curvellier and the girl arose and went inside. He greeted me in the usually friendly manner, but there was something a little distracted and self-conscious about it. I naturally made no comment and shortly afterwards we arose and went on to my house, talking about the book.
I dismissed the incident from my mind, but a week later I found them there again at a table inside. Even then I did not attach much importance to the occurrence. My friend was now forty-seven, grey-haired, married to a woman he adored, the father of two charming children, a man of unique reputation for honour and integrity, incapable of an evil thought.
It must have been another coincidence when I beheld him—I believe it was, but I could not swear to it—strolling with a girl who looked like Pauline Bonzard in a lane near my house an hour after sun-fall.
It was indeed not till two months later—the end of July—that my suspicions could no longer remain dormant. I had thrust them back again and again. I simply would not listen to their ugly voice. But one evening coming home a little earlier than usual, I had cone into my garden to smoke a pipe before dinner. I strolled about idly examining my roses and calceo-larias, and listening to the pleasant drone of bees. When I reached the edge of the vegetable garden I heard the sudden click of the little gate connecting the laboratory with the garden. I looked over the hedge. A figure came stealthily from beneath the porch and elided down the path into the road. It was Pauline Bonzard.
Then suddenly I felt my heart beating rapidly. It was unthinkable. Pierre! what possible interests could he and this girl have in common? I refused to believe that there could be anything in the nature of an intrigue. The girl must be in trouble of some sort and Pierre was helping her. I waited till she was well out of sight, then I walked round and tapped on the laboratory door. After a brief interval a voice said: "Come in." When I entered the room I could no longer persuade myself that the affair was entirely insignificant. My old friend blushed and looked confused like a school-boy caught stealing apples. He was feverishly spreading out his manuscript on the table. He glanced at me and at once became boisterously affable. What was I to do? Should I show him that I had observed the visit? With anyone else I might have resented this abuse of my hospitality, but with Pierre Curvellier the case was different. As Madame said—he was a genius. My dearest friend, destined perhaps to be one of the greatest men in France. My mission obviously was to try and protect him. Madame Curvellier was right. Genius was unable to look after itself. I said nothing, but I'm afraid by my confusion I showed that I knew. Perhaps, after all, it was the best way. We sat and chatted for a little while about the events of the day, and then I left him.
That night I gave the matter mature consideration. I'm afraid my conclusions were entirely Pagan. My friends, although my life has been spent among books, I try to persuade myself that I am a man of the world. We all know that these things go on. Let us be honest. I decided that there was no great harm in Monsieur Curvellier's little love affair, provided it did not become too serious, that it did not compromise either of the parties, that it was kept quite secret. Indeed the idea intrigued me a little, that so saintly and intellectual a man should succumb to the wiles of a worthless little minx.
"In a couple of weeks it will be all over," I thought to myself.
But in a month's time it was not all over, and the case began to alarm me. I feared these Bonzards who would not hesitate to cause a scandal if it served their purpose. The couple were frequently together, and my housekeeper informed me that she had seen the girl go into the laboratory nearly every afternoon and stay several hours. I tried to allay her suspicions by remarking that I believed she was doing some work for Monsieur Curvellier, though what the nature of the work might be I had not sufficient imagination to suggest. Moreover, at this time the character of Monsieur Curvellier was undergoing a change. He appeared restless and distraught. In the occasions when I went to dine with him and his wife, he assumed an attitude of jovial good-fellowship which did not seem real. It was overdone. And then he would have sudden periods of abstraction when he hardly seemed conscious of our presence. I observed Madame Curvellier watching him closely, but her face gave no impression of doubt or suspicion.
One day I decided on a very bold step. I went one morning and visited Pauline. I asked her for a few moments' discussion of an important matter alone. She looked a little apprehensive, but she walked out into the road with me. When we were out of sight of the inn, I said:
"My dear girl, I want to be quite frank with you. Monsieur Curvellier is an old friend of mine. It is not for me to criticize the actions of either him or you. I only want to implore you for both your sakes to be circumspect. Do you not think that the time has come when this friendship might end without dishonour or scandal?"
She turned her languorous eyes to mine, and her bosom heaved. Then she said in a breathless whisper: "I love him."
"The devil you do!" I thought, and I was completely nonplussed. I did not like it at all. This catlike little creature looked tenacious. She would take a lot of disengaging from her victim if once she had her claws in. I offered her a considerable sum of money to leave the town and she refused. I could do nothing with her at all.
My worst suspicions were now confirmed. There was nothing left but to tackle Monsieur Curvellier himself. It was a task I did not relish. I let the weeks drift by hoping against hope that the affair would end. I knew that he knew that I knew what was going on. We never once referred to Pauline, but we became a little self-conscious in each other's society. On occasions he avoided me. It could not go on.
At last one evening I could stand it no longer. The girl had been again. It was late in the evening. Hardly had she disappeared down the road before I burst into his room.
"Pierre," I exclaimed, "I implore you, by all that you hold sacred, by our old friendship, let this thing cease."
He gave me a quick pleading look, then suddenly he sat down and buried his face in his hands. His voice came hoarsely through a bosom struggling t? choke down the sobs.
"I love her! I live her."
"The devil you do!" I thought.
This was appalling. That Pauline should love Monsieur Curvellier was quite conceivable. But that Monsieur Curvellier should love Pauline was a midsummer madness. What could they have in common? What could he find to talk to her about? Where was that strength of character which had raised him where he was, and made his name a byword for honour and integrity in the town? I was very distressed. I sat down and gazed at him, and muttered helplessly:
"I cannot believe it, Pierre. I cannot believe it."
He stood and paced the room, throwing at me glances of mingled anger and contrition. He was obviously nonplussed how to act. I pleaded with him once more, but he suddenly turned on me and said:
"I beg you leave me t? think this out alone."
I shrugged my shoulders and left him.
I hoped the next day to have a visit from him and a frank acknowledgment of his unseemly lapse, but to my astonishment he acted in just the opposite way. He wrote me a curt note. He thanked me for my kindness in having lent him the laboratory for so long, but under the circumstances he did not feel that he could abuse my hospitality any longer. He was taking a room to work in The Café à la Colonne de Bronze!
"He is mad!" I thought. "Something has affected the poor man's brain! He has been working too hard. It is this book 'The Evolution of Philosophy!' Philosophy! Bah! What a grim travesty! The Wise Man of St. Cyr-en-Bois!...a fool! An utter fool!"
I could not leave him like this. I could not let the matter drift. I called on Madame Curvellier. She still did not apparently suspect anything. She was quite calm and placid. She invited me to dinner the following night and I accepted. Everything appeared to be quite normal. Monsieur Curvellier was a little late, but he was quite friendly to me. He apologized for his lateness and joked, and talked as brilliantly as usual.
It was a complete revelation to me. I could hardly speak, but I watched and listened. I saw my friends in a new light. The highbrow of Monsieur Curvellier, the intellectual cast of countenance, the brilliant eyes, the superb manner. I could find nothing lacking, not even weakness, and yet—he had not appeared quite like that the day before. When I again asked myself, "Where was the strength of character which had raised him to where he was?" my eye involuntarily turned in the direction of the calm woman facing me. She was not perhaps a brilliantly, clever woman, but she possessed something which Monsieur Curvellier lacked. She knew it, and he didn't know it.
I cannot tell you how I suffered during the ensuing month. I felt that I was losing my friend, that any minute a terrible catastrophe might envelop us all, that all joy in life was oozing away. I could not work or think coherently. I knew that the wretched business was still going on, and I could do nothing to stop it. The affair reached its climax on the last day of September.
On the twenty-third of the month Pauline suddenly left St. Cir-en-Bois, and my spirits arose accordingly. I was very much on the watch, however, for signs and portents. I could not discover where she had gone. I called at the Bonzards and Madame Bonzard said that her daughter had gone to stay with some cousins, she believed. She was not very interested or communicative. Nevertheless I persisted in my campaign of watchfulness. Every evening I called at the Bonzards and took a glass of groseille or vermouth, and I continued my importunate advances to Monsieur Curvellicr.
One evening I was alone in the café. Monsieur Bonzard was out in the yard at the back chopping wood; Madame Bonzard was not to be seen. The postman came and dumped a few letters down on the bar, and singing out "Post!" he went away. A sudden uncontrollable temptation came over me. I tiptoed to the bar and glanced at the letters. One was addressed to Monsieur Curvellier and was in Pauline's handwriting. Almost without thinking, I slipped the letter into my pocket. I remained on a decent length of time, and then hurried home.
My next operation was not a difficult one. I went into the deserted laboratory and boiled a kettle of water. I opened the letter quite easily. It was brief and fateful. It was written from an address at Dinan, and ran as follows:
"Everything is arranged. I shall expect you here on the thirtieth, but will write again. Till then, all my love, your own P."
I could hardly get my breath when I read this. On thinking it over, I decided that there was no point in my destroying the letter. If he did not answer she would be sure to write again. I could not intercept all their correspondence, but I meant to have one more desperate interview with Monsieur Curvellier. I resealed the letter, and put it back in the post. On the evening of the twenty-eighth I again dined with the Curvelliers. There was still no sign of the impending disruption. Madame Curvellier informed me that her husband was going to Paris on the thirtieth on business, and would be away three weeks.
I thought to myself:
"Oh, is he! Poor dear lady, if you only knew!"
On the evening of the twenty-ninth I had one of the most trying experiences of my life. I tracked Monsieur Curvellier to the room at the Colonne de Bronze, where he kept his manuscripts and a few other odds and ends. I went straight in and seized him by the shoulder.
"Pierre," I said, "I know your plans. To-morrow you mean to run away to that girl."
For a moment he appeared startled, then suddenly his face changed. It bore an expression I had never seen on it before. It was weak, and desperate, and angry.
"What the devil business is it of yours?" he cried.
"My dear old friend," I said, "I am not thinking of myself, I assure you. I am thinking of you and of Madame, your wife, and of your son and daughter, and your good name."
He threw up his arms and snapped:
"Oh, you!...you can't understand. Leave me, for Heaven's sake."
"Pierre," I answered, as calmly as I could, "I have known you now for fifteen years. I had hoped to continue our friendship till the end of our days. But even that I would sacrifice for the sake of your wife. Permit me to picture to you—she is now a middle-aged woman. She has been loyal and true to you. She loves you as no woman has ever loved a man before. She will be getting old. Think! think of the years approaching. She will sit there alone, her hair turning white, her children scattered, her heart broken. She will have nothing...nothing but memories, desolation, despair. And all this for a mad infatuation for a worthless chit."
"I will not allow you to speak of Mademoiselle Bonzard in that way. Get out of the room!"
"But I will speak and you know that I speak the truth. You, who are spoken of as the Wise Man of St. Cyr, with this mighty work on philosophy to come from your hands. How will France be able to reconcile the work with the man?"
I do not know whether I could have adopted a more reasonable attitude, but in any case I could hardly have adopted one that had more disastrous results. A sudden fury seemed to seize my friend. He dashed across the room and picked up a whole armful of the manuscript, and rushing to the stove he tried to squeeze the lot in.
"Philosophy!" he cried. "Don't talk to me of philosophy. There's no such thing. We are all fools."
I screamed when I saw what he was doing and dashed forward and gripped his arm. But it was too late, for a great part of the work. We struggled by the stove. I managed to save a fair portion from being completely burnt, the burning leaves were fluttering about the room, and I was seizing what I could and stamping out the fire. Monsieur Curvellier uttered a low hysterical laugh and left me to do the best I could. The second volume was completely destroyed and half the third. The Wise Man of St. Cyr was on his way to the little flame in Dinan.
On the evening of the thirtieth I was in a perfect fever. I could not keep still. My mind was constantly occupied with the vision of that poor woman sitting by her lonely fireside, innocently dreaming of that perfect man who had betrayed her. At half-past eight I waked into the town and visited her.
She was sitting alone in her little salon.
"Good evening, Monsieur Barzac," she said. "It is kind of you to pay me a little visit."
Her voice was steady, but her face looked strained and wistful. We exchanged little banalities, and kept watching each other. After a time I gradually experienced one of those curious telepathic communications to which we are all subject at times, especially when under great stress. I knew that she knew. And she knew that I knew. We hovered round the brink of the dismal subject, and then—I must have been very unstrung by my experiences of the last few days—I gave an involuntary sob, and buried my face in my hands.
She behaved with charming simplicity. She arose and touched me gently on the shoulder.
"I know, I know," she said, for all the world as though I was the one to be commiserated with.
I pressed her hand and said:
"What can we do? What can we do?"
"There is nothing to be done," she answered.
Then this remarkable woman sat down and took up some knitting.
"Monsieur Barzac," she said, "you must not distress yourself. He will come back."
"How do you know?"
"He always does!"
I stared at her as though I could not believe my senses. He always does! What was this grim intimatun lying at the back of so simple a phrase?
I dared not ask. I sat there watching her as though she were something entirely novel, which I had never seen before. In her gentle voice she continued:
"I could almost tell you to the day when he will come back!"
"When he changes his pants!"
"Good God!" I thought, "the shock has turned her brain!"
She looked at me understandingly, and a pathetic smile played round her mouth.
"Monsieur Barzac," she said, "you have been so good a friend to us, so loyal to my husband, I do not feel any compunction in telling you a little episode in our past life. You are one of those men, I think, that if you see a fine horse racing along the road you do not think any the less of it because its body is splashed with mud."
I nodded anxiously and waited for her to continue.
"We spent our honeymoon in the Ardennes. We camped out among the trees. It was surely the happiest, most beautiful honeymoon ever spent. It was spring and the woods were carpeted with hyacinths and bluebells. We had very little luggage. We were right away from the world. On the third day when Monsieur Curvellier went to change his pants he found that one leg had been cut off just below the knee. I never quite knew how this had come about. Whether it was a practical joke played on him by one of his friends, or whether someone in an emergency had cut the leg off to make a bandage, I cannot say. As you may imagine, the reason of it did not greatly disturb us. My husband said it was uncomfortable, but a great joke. We have laughed over the incident all our lives. Very trivial, you may think, but one of those little incidents which make a bond. For all that week, the most gloriously happy week of our lives, he went about with the leg of one pant half a metre shorter than the other. So absurd!...oh, so absurd!"
The humour of it still seemed to affect Madame Curvellier. She buried her face in her hands and laughed weakly.
"But pray, Madame Curvellier, how do you think his little incident will affect your husband's return in this case?"
She dabbed her eyes and looked up at me.
"I packed his bag the other day. I knew, oh yes, I knew quite well where he was going, believe me. I have known everything all along. Only...when Monsieur Curvellier goes to change his pants he will find one leg cut away just below the knee. And then, Monsieur Barzac, he will come back."
I sat there stupefied. Monsieur Curvellier owed everything to this woman. At last I haltingly remarked:
"Is it possible? Do I understand you to say—should I be taking too great an advantage of the confidence you have honoured me with, if I ask...there have been, you say...other episodes?"
Madame Curvelier looked at me squarely. Her proud face did not flinch.
"Monsieur Barzac," she said, "experience has taught me that life is neither all joy nor all sorrow, neither all laughter nor all tears, neither all purity nor all vice; but a commingling of these things. And through them we grope our way to God...My husband is a genius."
Her eyes seemed to challenge me; then she shrugged her shoulders with an air of finality. I pressed her hand; my heart was too full for words.
Five days later, Monsieur Curvellier returned from "Paris," and soon after the Bonzards left the town fir good. We resumed our normal life. The day after he returned he called upon me at the library. He held out both hands to me.
"Ah, old friend," he said. "You were going to get me that volume of Descartes." As he went down the library steps, I watched his firm elastic step, the poise of his saintly head, the winning smile he turned upon the old beggar as he handed him a franc.
* * *
Was it all a dream? The solemn chanting, the pomp and ceremony, the utter stillness, the catafalque piled with all the symbols of honour and respect? The peasants moving in awed reverence amidst the trophies and the garlands of an honoured life? My eye, fascinated by this heaped tribute, in which bays and laurels abound with the ribbons of the Académie, the Sorbonne, and other learned Societies, Immortelles and wreaths from every corner of France? A bird fluttering screaming above the laurel wreaths, as though in search of berries, then swinging in a half-circle and disappearing, beyond the wall? Is it all a dream? The ice-cold voice of Abbé Foulard cuts the air with its stern note of reality:
"Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda: Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra: Dum veneris judicare sacculum per ignem."
In that tremendous day! In the end we are all humble. However great and honourable we may be, we crave for mercy. We fear this judgment of the world by fire. I, too...have I not concealed the vicious actions of my heart? Have I always been honourable in word and thought to my beloved but unbalanced friend?
She comes forward, apart from the rest, her pale face perfectly controlled, this woman that I have loved in secret for thirty years or more. With an inaudible murmur, she drops upon the grave a small bunch of pure white flowers.
I turn my back and gaze across the wall, to where a village slumbers in the autumn mist, and the steel-grey waters of the Rinse go hurrying towards the open sea.
You know how the story goes, of course. Husband and wife just about to retire to bed. Wife yawns, husband knocks out his pipe on the grate and remarks:
"Well, better turn in, I suppose."
"Yes"; then adds languidly:
"I meant to call round to ask the Cartwrights to dinner on Thursday."
Husband, after prolonged pause:
"I'll pop round and ask them now, if you like. They never go to bed till very late."
"I wish you would, dear."
Husband pulls on a cloth cap and goes out. Wife yawns again, and picks up "The Ladies' Boudoir," and idly examines charmeuse gown, and notes the prices of gloves at Foxtrot's & Fieldfern's. Yawns again more audibly. Collects sewing and places it in work-basket. Takes the kitten out and locks it up in the scullery. Yawns, and walks languidly upstairs. Turns on the light and spends fifteen minutes examining face at various angles in the glass. Begins to disrobe. Thinks sleepily: "Tom's a long time." Brushes out her hair and admires it considerably. Conceives a new way of dressing it for future festivities. Disrobes farther. Yawns. Disrobes completely and re-robes—dressing-gown.
"It's too bad being all this time!"
Vitality slightly stirred in the direction of resentment and a kind of mild apprehension. Lies on the bed and drowsily reviews the experiences of the day. Dreams...Suddenly starts with a consciousness of cold. Gropes for her wrist watch. A quarter past one! Jumps from the bed, feeling the cold hand of fear on her heart. Runs downstairs and stares helplessly out of the front door. Pauses to consider a thousand possible eventualities. Returns to bedroom and completely re-robes, not forgetting to do her hair neatly and powder her nose. Puts on cloak and goes out. Cartwright's house all in darkness. Bangs on the front door and rings bell. Head of old Mr. Cartwright at first-floor window:
"Who's the devil that?"
"It's me! Where's Tom?"
"Tom! Haven't seen him for weeks!"
"Good God! Let me in."
Cartwright family aroused. Panic. Fainting scene in drawing-room. Brandy, smelling-salts and eau-de-cologne. Young George Cartwright mounts his bicycle—rides to the police-station; on the way talks to policeman on point duty. No, no one heard anything of a thin man with a snuff-coloured moustache. At police-station, no accidents so far reported. Chief Inspector will make a note and await developments. Night passes, and the following day. No news.
Weeks, months, years elapse. Eight years slide easily by. The wife survives her grief. She marries the local organist, a blond and commendable young man. They continue to live in the wife's house. Children gather round her knee. One, two, three, twins, an interval, six, seven handsome blond children. They grow up.
Twenty-two years elapse. They are sitting at tea. The father, the mother and the eldest son, a handsome young man in a grey flannel suit. He kisses his mother and says:
"I must go now, mother dear. I have to take a Bible-class."
He goes out (presumably to the Bible-class). The mother smiles with pride, the father glows with benignity and helps himself to another buttered muffin. Everything perfect.
Suddenly the door opens, and an old man in a long grey beard and a perambulating manner wanders into the room. He stares at the wife, and mumbles:
"Did you say Thursday or Friday?...My memory is not what it was."...
And the wife stares at the old man, and then at the blond organist. And the blond organist stares at the mother of his beautiful children, and then at the bearded interloper. And they all stare at each other and feel very embarrassed.
The story is familiar to you? Well, perhaps so. It is the story of the eternal triangle, the most useful of geometrical forms in the construction of a romantic pattern.
Heigho! the trouble with human triangles is that they are never equilateral. Two sides together are invariably greater than the third side.
Jim Canning was the third side of a triangle, and he got flattened out. In fact, his wife used to flatten him out on every possible occasion. She was bigger than he, and she was aided by the tertium quid, Ted Woollams, who was nothing more or less than a professional pugilist. What was Jim to do? In every well-conducted epic the hero performs physical feats which leave you breathless. He is always tall and strong, and a bit too quick with the rapier for any villain who crosses his path. But what about a hero who is small and elderly, of poor physique, shortsighted, asthmatical, with corns which impede his gait? You may say that he has no place in the heroic arena. He should clear out, go and get on with his job, and leave heroism to people who know how to manage the stuff. And yet there was something heroic in the heart of Jim Canning: a quick sympathy, and an instinct for self-sacrifice.
He used to keep a second-hand furniture shop, which, you must understand, is a very different thing from an antique shop. Jim's furniture had no determinate character such as that which goes by the name of Chippendale, Sheraton or Heppelwhite. It was just "furniture." Well-worn sofas, broken chairs and tables, mattresses with the stuffing exuding from holes, rusty brass beds with the knobs missing, broken pots and mirrors and dumbbells; even clothes, and screws, false teeth and birdcages, and ancient umbrellas. But his speciality was old iron. Trays and trays and baskets filled with scraps of old iron.
His establishment used to be known in Camden Town at that time as "The Muck Shop." At odd times of the day you might observe his small pathetic figure trundling a barrow laden with the spoils of some hard-pressed inhabitant. What a tale the little shop seemed to tell! Struggle and poverty, homes broken up, drink, ugly passions, desperate sacrifices—a battered array of the symbols of distress. And, somehow, in his person these stories seemed to be embodied. One felt that he was sorry for the people whose property he bought. He was always known as a fair dealer. He paid a fair price and never took advantage of ignorance.
His marriage was a failure from the very first. She was a big, strapping woman, the daughter of a local greengrocer. Twelve years younger than Jim, vain, frivolous, empty-headed and quarrelsome. Her reasons for marrying him were obscure. Probably she had arrived at the time when she wanted to marry, and Jim was regarded as a successful shopkeeper who could keep her in luxury. He was blinded by her physical attractions, and tried his utmost to believe that his wife was everything to be desired. Disillusionment came within the first month of their married life, at the moment, indeed, when Clara realised that her husband's business was not so thriving as she had been led to believe. She immediately accused him of deceiving her. Then she began to sulk and neglect him. She despised his manner of conducting business—his conscientiousness and sense of fair dealing.
"If you'd put some ginger into it," she once remarked, "and not always be thinking about the feelings of the tripe you buy from, we might have a house in the Camden Road and a couple of servants."
This had never been Jim's ambition. Many years ago he had attended a sale at Shorwell Green, on the borders of Sussex, a glorious spot near the downs, amidst lime-trees and little running streams. It had been the dream of his life that one day he would retire there, with the woman he loved—and her children. When he put the matter to Clara, she laughed him to scorn.
"Not half!" she said. "Catch me living among butterflies and blinking cows. The Camden Road is my game."
Jim sighed, and went on trundling his barrow. Well, there it was! If the woman he had married desired it, he must do what she wanted. In any case it was necessary to begin to save. But with Clara he found it exceedingly difficult to begin to save. She idled her day away, bought trinkets, neglected her domestic offices, went to the pictures, and sucked sweets. Any attempt to point out to her the folly of her ways only led to bitter recriminations, tears and savage displays of temper, even physical violence to her husband.
Then there came a day when Jim fondly believed that the conditions of their married life would be ameliorated. A child was born, a girl, and they called her Annie. Annie became the apple of his eye. He would hurry back from the shop to attend at Annie's bath. He would creep in at night and kiss the warm skin of her little skull. He would think of her as he pottered around amidst his broken chairs and tables, and utter little croons of anticipatory pleasure. Annie! She would grow up and be the mainstay of his life. He would work and struggle for her. Her life should be a path of roses and happiness. For a time his wife, too, appeared to improve upon the advent of Annie. The baby absorbed her. She displayed a kind of wild animal joy in its existence. She nursed it and fondled it, and did not seem to resent the curtailment of her pleasures. It was an additional mouth to feed; nevertheless, their expenses did not seem to greatly increase, owing probably to Clara's modified way of living.
Four years of comparative happiness followed. Jim began to save. Oh! very slowly; very, very slowly. He still had less than three hundred pounds put on one side for—that vague future of settled security. But still it was a solid beginning. In another ten or fifteen years he would still be—well, not quite an old man; an active man, he hoped. If he could save only one hundred pounds a year!
It was at this point that Ted Woollams appeared on the scene. He was the son of a manager of a Swimming Bath. On Sundays he used to box in "Fairyland" for purses of various amounts—he was a redoubtable middle-weight. During the week he swaggered about Camden Town in new check suits, his fingers glittering with rings. He met Clara one evening at a public dance. The mutual attraction appears to have been instantaneous. They danced together the whole evening, and he saw her home.
And then began the squeezing out of the third side of the triangle. Jim was not strong enough for them. At first he professed to see nothing in the friendship. He described Ted as "a jolly young fellow, a great pal of my wife's." And Ted treated him with a certain amount of respect. He called in at odd times, stayed to meals, drank Jim's beer, and smoked Jim's tobacco. The triangle was quite intact. It was Annie who caused the first disruption. She disliked the prize-fighter, and screamed at the sight of him. This led to reprisals when he had gone, and Jim's championship of the child did not help to cement the always doubtful nature of the affection between husband and wife. There were cross words and tears, and once she pushed him over a chair, and, in the fall, cut his temple.
A few days later, Ted Woollams called in a great state of agitation. He wished to see Jim alone. It appeared that a wonderful opportunity had occurred to him. It was a complicated story about a quantity of bonded brandy which he had a chance of acquiring and selling at an enormous profit. He wanted to borrow fifty pounds till Saturday week, when he would pay Jim back sixty. Jim said he would lend him the fifty, but he didn't want any interest.
When Saturday week came, Ted said the deal had fallen through, but he would let him have the money back the following Saturday. In the meantime he came to supper nearly every night. Sometimes he drank too much beer.
Then Clara began to dress for the part. She bought expensive frocks, and had the account sent in to Jim. She neglected the child.
The months drifted by, and Ted was always going to pay, but he became more and more part and parcel of the household. Jim's savings began to dwindle. He protested to both his wife and Ted, but they treated him with indifference. The boxer began to abuse his familiarity. He would frequently tell Jim that he was not wanted in the drawing-room after supper. When spoken to about the money he laughed and said:
"Oh, you've got plenty, old 'un. Lend us another fiver."
On one occasion Jim was foolish enough to lend him another ten pounds, under the spell of some heartrending story about a poor woman in the street where Woollams lived. This lopsided triangle held together for nearly four years. Jim was unhappy and distracted. He did not know how to act. He could not leave his wife for the sake of the child. If he turned her out—and he had no legal power to do so—she would probably take Annie with her. And the child was devoted to him. They were great friends, and it was only this friendship which prevented him indulging in some mad act. Several times he ordered Woollams out of the house and forbade him to come again, but the boxer laughed at him and called him an old fool. He knew that his wife was practically keeping the man. They went to cinemas together, and often disappeared for the whole day, but she always returned at night, although it was sometimes two or three in the morning before she did so. Jim had no proof of actual unfaithfulness. Neither could he afford to hire detectives, a course of action which in any case appeared to him distasteful. Far from saving a hundred pounds a year, he was spending more than his income. His savings had dwindled to barely forty pounds. His business was stagnant, but still he trundled his barrow hither and thither, calling out, "Old iron! Old iron!" and he struggled to pay the fair price.
During a great period of his life Jim had enjoyed an unaccountable but staunch friendship with a gentleman named Isaac Rubens. Isaac Rubens was a Jew in a slightly similar way of business to himself, and he conducted a thriving business at the corner of Holy Angel Road. Isaac was in many respects a very remarkable man. Large, florid and puffy, with keen eagle eyes and an enormous nose, he was a man of profound knowledge of the history and value of objets d'art. He was, moreover, a man of his word. He was never known to give or accept a written contract, and never known to break a verbal one. The friendship between these two was in many respects singular. Isaac was a keen man of business, and Jim was of very little use to him. Isaac's furniture was the real thing, with names and pedigrees. He did not deal in old iron but in stones and jewels and ornaments. Nevertheless, he seemed to find in Jim's society a certain pleasure. Jim would call on his rounds and, leaving his barrow out in the road, would spend half-an-hour or so chatting with the Jew across the counter.
Sometimes after supper they would call on each other and smoke a pipe and discuss the vagaries of their calling, or the more abstract problems of life and death.
When this trouble came upon Jim he immediately repaired to his friend's house and told him the whole story.
"Oh, dear! oh, dear! This is a bad business! a bad business!" exclaimed Isaac, when it was over. His moist eyes glowed amidst the general humidity of his face. "How can I advise you? An erring wife is the curse of God. You cannot turn her away without knowledge. Thank God, my Lena...But there! among my people such lapses are rare. You have no evidence of unfaithfulness?"
"You must be gentle with her, gentle but firm. Point out the error of her ways."
"I am always doing that, Isaac."
"She may get over it—a passing infatuation. Such things happen."
"If it wasn't for the child!"
"Yes, yes, I understand. Oh, dear! oh, dear! very distressing, my friend. If I can be of any assistance—"
He thrust out his large hands helplessly. It is the kind of trouble in which no man can help another, and each knew it. Jim hovered by the door.
"It's nice to have someone to—talk to, anyway," he muttered; then he picked up his cap and shuffled away, calling out:
"Old iron! Old iron!"
Annie was nine when the climax came. An intelligent, pretty child, with dark hair and quick, impulsive manners. Her passionate preference for her father did not tend to smooth the troubles of the household. She attended the grammar-school and had many girl-friends. She saw very little of her mother.
One evening Jim returned home late. He had been on a visit to his friend, Isaac. He found Annie seated on the bottom stair, in her nightdress. Her face was very pale and set, her eyes bright. She had been crying. When she saw her father she gasped:
He seized her in his arms and whispered:
"What is it, my dear?"
Then she cried quietly while he held her. He did not attempt to hurry her. At last she got her voice under control and gasped quietly:
"I had gone to bed. I don't know why it was. I got restless in bed. I came down again softly. I peeped into the sitting-room...Oh, Daddy!"
"What? What, my love?"
"That man...that man and—"
"He was kissing her and—oh!"
Jim clutched his child and pressed her head against his breast.
"I went in...He struck me."
"He struck me because I wouldn't promise not to tell."
"He struck you, eh? He struck you! That man struck you, eh?"
"Where is he?"
"They're—up there now. I'm frightened."
"Go to bed, my love. Go to bed."
He carried her up the stairs and fondled her, and put her into bed.
"It's all right, my love. Go to sleep. Pleasant dreams. It's all right. Daddy will look after you."
Then he went downstairs.
A shout of laughter greeted him through the door of the sitting-room. He gripped the handle and walked deliberately in. Ted Woollams was stretching himself luxuriously on the sofa. His heavy sensual face appeared puffy and a little mussed. Clara was lying back in an easy chair, smoking a cigarette. Jim did not speak. He walked up to Ted and without any preliminary explanation struck him full on the nose with his clenched fist. For a moment the boxer appeared more surprised than anything. His eyes narrowed, then the pain of the blow appeared to sting him. He rose from the sofa with a growl. As he advanced upon Jim, the latter thought:
"He's going to kill me. What a fool I was not to strike him with a poker!"
He thrust out his arms in an ineffectual defence. There was something horribly ugly, ugly and revolting in the animal-like lurch of the man bearing down on him...the demon of an inevitable doom. Jim struck wildly at the other's arms, at the same time thinking:
"My little girl! I promised to look after her."
A jarring blow above the heart staggered him, and as he began to crumple forward he had a quick vision of the more destroying fate, the something which came crashing to his jaw. He heard his wife scream; then darkness enveloped him.
A long and very confused period followed. His glimpses of consciousness were intermittent and accompanied by pain. He heard people talking, and they appeared strangers to him. There was a lot of talking going on, quarrelling, perhaps. When he was once more a complete master of his brain he realised abruptly that he was in the ward of a hospital. His jaw was strapped up tight and was giving him great pain; a nurse was feeding him through a silver tube. Two of his teeth were missing. He wanted to talk to her, but found he could not speak. Then he recalled the incident of his calamity. Well, there it was. He had been brought up in a hard school. Old iron! The instinct of self-preservation prompted him to bide his time. Doubtless his jaw was broken; a long job, but he would get well again. At the end of the journey Annie awaited him. What was the child doing now? Who was looking after her? He passed through periods of mental anguish and misgiving, and then long periods of drowsy immobility. Night succeeded day. To his surprise, on the following afternoon, his wife appeared. She came and sat by the bed, and said:
"Going on all right?"
He nodded. She looked uneasily round, then whispered:
"You needn't have taken on like that. Ted's going off to America, to-morrow—fulfilling engagements."
Jim stared at the ceiling, then closed his eyes. Ted no longer interested him. He wanted Annie, and he could not ask for her. Clara stayed a few moments, chatted with the nurse, and vanished. Why had she come? Later on, he was removed to the operating theatre, and they re-set his jaw. The shift of time again became uncertain. A long while later he remembered a kindly-faced man in a white overall saying:
"Well, old chap, who struck you this blow?"
He bent his ear down to Jim's lips, and the latter managed to reply:
Isaac came, humid and concerned, and pressed his hand.
"Well, well, I've found you, old friend! A neighbour told me. Distressing, indeed. They say you must not talk. Well, what can I do?"
Jim indicated with his hands that he wished to write something down. Isaac produced an envelope and a pencil, and he wrote:
"Go and see my little gal Annie send her to me keep an eye on her."
Isaac nodded gravely, and went away.
There appeared an eternity of time before the child came, but when she did all his dark forebodings vanished. She came smiling up the ward, and kissed him. They held each other's hands for a long time before she spoke.
"They would not tell me where you were. It was old Mr. Rubens. Oh, Daddy, are you getting better?"
Yes, he was getting better. Much better. During the last two minutes he had improved enormously. He felt that he could speak. He managed to mumble:
"How are you, my love?"
"All right. Mother has been very cross. That horrid man has gone away. Mr. Rubens said you hurt your face. How did it happen, Daddy?"
"I slipped on the stairs, my dear, and fell."
Annie's eyes opened wide very, but she did not speak. He knew by her manner that she did not believe him. At the back of her eyes there still lurked something of that horror which haunted them on the night when she had discovered "that horrid man" embracing her mother. It was the same night that her father "slipped on the stairs." The child was too astute to dissociate the two incidents, but she did not want to distress him.
"I shall come every day," she announced.
He smiled gratefully, and she stayed and chatted with him until the sister proclaimed that visitors were to depart.
From that day the convalescence of Jim Canning, although slow, was assured. Apart from the broken jaw, he had suffered a slight concussion owing to striking the back of his head against the wall when he fell. The hospital authorities could not get out of him how the accident happened. Annie and Isaac Rubens were regular visitors, but during the seven weeks he remained in hospital Clara only visited him twice, and that was to arrange about money. On the day that he was discharged he had drawn his last five pounds from the bank.
"Never mind, never mind," he thought to himself; "we'll soon get that back."
And within a few days he was again trundling his barrow along the streets, calling out in his rather high tremolo voice, "Old iron! Old iron!"
There followed after that a long period in the life of the Canning family which is usually designated as "humdrum." With the departure of Ted Woollams Clara settled down into a listless prosecution of her domestic routine. She seldom spoke to her husband except to nag him, or to grumble about their reduced circumstances, and these for a time were in a very serious state. Debts had accumulated, and various odds and ends in the house had disappeared while he had been in hospital. Clara was still smartly dressed, but Annie's clothes, particularly her boots, were in a deplorable condition. But Jim set to work, leaving home in the morning at seven o'clock and often not returning till eight or nine at night. For months the financial position remained precarious. A period of hunger, and ill-temper, and sudden ugly brawls. But gradually he began again to get it under control. Clara had not lost her taste for good living, but she was kept in check by the lack of means. She was furtive, sullen and resentful. Jim insisted that whatever they had to go without, Annie was to continue with her schooling.
They never spoke of Ted Woollams, but Jim knew that he had only gone away for four or five months. Jim struggled on through the winter months, out in all weathers in his thin and battered coat. Sometimes twinges of rheumatism distorted his face, but he mentioned it to no one, not even Isaac.
It was in April that a sudden and dramatic change came into Jim's life. One morning he was alone in the shop. It was raining, and no customers had been in for several hours. Jim was struggling with the unsolvable problem of getting things straight and sorted out. Beneath a bed he came across a jumble of indescribable things, bits of iron and broken pots, odd boots, sections of brackets, nameless odd-shaped remnants covered with dust and grime. He sighed. He remembered this lot quite well. They had been a great disappointment to him. He had trundled his barrow all the way down to a sale in Greenwich, where he had been given the tip that there were some good things going. Owing to losing his way, he had arrived late, and all the plums had been devoured by rival dealers. He had picked up this lot at the end of the sale for a few shillings, not that they appealed to him as a good bargain, but because he did not want to feel that he had completely wasted his day. He had brought them back and dumped them under the bed, intending to go through them later on. That was many months ago, long before he had been to the hospital, and there they had remained ever since.
Jim's ideas of dusting were always a little perfunctory. With a small feather brush he flicked clouds of dust from one object to another. No; there was nothing here of any value, though that piece of torn embroidery might fetch five shillings, and the small oblong iron box which someone had painted inside and out a dark green might be worth a little more. He picked it up and examined it. A ridiculous notion to paint iron; but there, people were fools, particularly his customers. Of course it might be copper or brass. In that case it would be worth more. He pulled out a long jack-knife and scraped the surface. The paint was old but incredibly thick. It must have had a dozen coats or so. When he eventually got down to the surface he found a dark-blue colour.
"Um!" thought Jim. "That's a funny thing."
And he scraped a little more, and found some brown and white.
"That's enamel," he said out loud. "An enamel box. Um! I'll show that to Isaac. An enamel box might be worth several pounds."
He put the box on one side, and continued tidying up. That evening, after supper, he wrapped the box up in a piece of newspaper and took it round to his friend.
Isaac adjusted his thickest glasses and examined the spot where Jim had scratched. Then he went to the door and called out:
"Lizzie, bring me some turpentine."
When the turpentine was brought, Isaac began to work away at the surface with a rag and penknife. His face was very red, but he made no remark except once to mutter:
"This paint alone is twenty or thirty years old."
It took him nearly half an hour to reveal a complete corner of the box. Then he sat back and examined it through a microscope. Jim waited patiently. At last Isaac put it down and tapped the table.
"This," he said deliberately, "is a Limoges enamel box of the finest period. It is an amazing find! Where did you obtain it?"
"I bought it at a sale of the effects of an old lady named Brandt, at Greenwich. She died intestate, and had no relatives."
"You are in luck's way, Jim Canning."
"But why was it painted dark green?"
"There are many mysteries in our profession. It was probably stolen many years ago—possibly a century ago. The thief knew that the piece was too well-known to attempt to dispose of it for some time. So for security he painted it in order to hide it. Then something happened. He may have died or been sent to prison. The box passed into other hands. Nobody worried about it. It was just an old iron box. It has probably been lying in a lumber-room for years."
"It's been lying in my shop for five months. Is it worth a great deal, Isaac?"
Isaac thoughtfully stroked his chin.
"I am of opinion that if it is undamaged, and if the rest of it is up to the standard of this part we have disclosed, it is worth many thousand pounds."
Jim looked aghast.
"But I only gave six-and-six for the lot!"
"It is the fortune of our profession."
The upshot of it was that Jim left the box in Isaac's hands to deal with as he thought fit. At first Isaac wished to waive the question of commission, but when Jim pointed out that but for Isaac's superior knowledge he would probably have sold it for a five-pound note, the Jew agreed to sell it on a ten per cent basis. Fair bargaining on both sides.
Jim returned home, almost dazed by the news. Was it fair to obtain such a large sum of money in such a way? He had done nothing to deserve it. And yet—who should have it, if not he? The old lady had not even any relations. She was an eccentric who lived alone with a crowd of cats. An enamel box has no attraction to a cat.
He said nothing about his find to his wife or to Annie. He did not wish to buoy them up with false hopes. Perhaps, after all, Isaac might be mistaken, or he may have overvalued the object. A thousand pounds! A dazzling sum. Why, he could almost retire upon it to—Shorwell Green, where it was so quiet and peaceful. But no! Clara would not agree to that—the Camden Road! He detested the Camden Road, but still, there it was. Clara was his wife. It was only fair to consider her wishes, although they were so unhappy together. In any case, it would be a great relief; security for years to come.
He went back to his work as though nothing had happened. Weeks went by, and Jim heard nothing about the enamel box; and then, one morning, he received a note from Isaac asking him to call round at once.
When he entered his friend's shop he knew that something exceptional had happened. Isaac was excited. He glowed and smiled, and was almost jocular.
"Come into my little room," he said.
When they were seated, he elaborately produced a cheque from his vest pocket, and handed it across the table to Jim.
"Here is your little share. I have kept my commission."
It was a cheque for £4,140. Isaac had sold it for £4,600 to a well-known collector.
The rest of the day was like a dream to Jim. Truly, he returned and pretended to be busy. In the afternoon, he even went out and trundled his barrow, calling out, "Old iron! Old iron!" but he did it more by force of habit.
"I need not do this any more," he kept on thinking. His mind was occupied with many visions. It was a bright Spring day, with light fleecy clouds scudding above the chimney-pot. How beautiful it would be in that Sussex vale! The flowers would be out, and the young pollard-willows reflected in the cool streams. Pleasant to lie on the bank and fish, and forget this grimy life. And Annie, racing hither and thither, picking the buttercups and marguerites, and nestling by his side. He could do all this! Freedom, by one of those queer twists of fate.
The day wore on, and he still continued his work in a dazed, preoccupied manner. When the evening came, a feeling of exhaustion crept over him. Yes, probably he was tired. He wanted a rest and change. How fortunate he was. And yet he dreaded breaking the news to Clara. She would immediately demand a complete social upheaval. A new house, new furniture, luxuries, and parties, and social excitements. He arrived home late. During supper he was very silent.
"I will tell her afterwards," he thought. Annie was in bed. She should be told to-morrow. But to-night it must be broken to Clara. After all, it was true, she was his wife. It was the fair thing to do. He tried to recall the moments of passion and tenderness of the early days of their honeymoon, but all the other ugly visions kept dancing before his eyes. He lighted his pipe and gazed around the untidy room. Perhaps she would improve. Perhaps the changed conditions would soften her, and make her more amenable. But still, she was his wife, and if she wished to live in the Camden Road, well...
It was nearly dark, and Clara went out of the room, humming. She seemed peculiarly cheerful to-night. Almost as if she knew...He fingered the cheque in his breast pocket. She had gone upstairs—probably to fetch a novel. When she came down, he would lay the cheque on the table, and say:
"Look, Clara; see what has happened to us!"
And then he would be a little tender with her, try and make her understand how he felt. They would start all over again.
And then happened a variant of that hypothetical case described at the beginning of this story. Only, in this case it was the woman who went out.
Jim was sitting there with his fingers on the cheque that was to be their means of reconciliation, and with the tears already banked in his unuttered speech, when Clara put her head in the door. She had her hat on. She said:
"I'm going to the post."
Jim removed his hand from his breast pocket. He sat back, and heard the door slam.
"I'll tell her when she comes in."
But Clara never came in. He waited half-an-hour, and then he thought:
"She's gone to some dissipation with a friend. Oh, well, I must wait up till she returns, I suppose. I'm sorry she has disappointed me on—a night like this, though."
He sat dreaming in the chair, till he became suddenly painfully aware of cold. It was quite dark. He lighted the gas. It was one o'clock. He felt his heart beating with a physical dread. Something had happened to Clara. Perhaps she had been run over, at the very moment when everything was going to change for the better for her. He blundered his way out into the hall, where a gas-jet flickered feebly, and groped for his overcoat. On it he found a note pinned. He turned up the gas higher, and read:
"I'm going off to Ted Woollams. I'm sick of you,
and the stinking little house. Ted's made a bit in America, and I
give you the address. You can do what you like about it, but it's
no good you ever trying to get me back.
It was characteristic of Jim Canning that this note made him cry. He was so sensitive to its utter callousness and ingratitude. Then he dabbed his eyes with his old red handkerchief, and went upstairs. He tapped on Annie's door, then he opened it and said quietly:
"Annie, it's all right, my dear. It's only me. May I come in?"
The sleeping child was awake abruptly. She held out her arms.
"I ought not to have woken you up, my love, only I felt a little—lonely. Annie, would you like to come away with me to a beautiful place in the country, where it's all woods and flowers, and little streams?"
"Oh, Daddy, yes! And would there be lambs, too, and little black pigs, and brown calves?"
"Yes, my dear; all those things; and birds, too, and quietness, and freedom."
"But, Daddy, could we?"
"Yes, dear; I've had some good fortune."
Annie was very wide awake now, and she sat up and clapped her hands.
"Oh, Daddy, when can we go?"
"Quite soon, my dear. Perhaps in a few weeks."
When he had closed the door, he dabbed his eyes again, and thought:
"It was unthinking of me. I oughtn't to have woken her up, but—she is all I have."
A week later he wrote to Clara:
"I understand that for the last week you have been living with Ted Woollams. I do not critticize your action. We are all as God made us. I shall in the dew course take divorse proceedings not as a act of hostility to you but that you may marry the man of your choice and be respectable. I also shall share with you the result of a good deal last week in order that you may not want and so close with check for £2020. I think this fair.
It was Isaac who helped him over all the difficult problems which occurred at that time, and it was Isaac who persuaded him that he was overdoing the "fairness" to Clara. He said that under the circumstances he had no moral obligation to Clara, and that £500 would be lavish. So in the end Jim altered the cheque to that amount. It was Isaac who took over the little shop, which he used as a kind of dumping ground of his superfluous stock. And it was Isaac who a year after returned letters addressed to Jim in a handwriting he recognised, "Gone away. Address not known." And it was he who in later years bore the brunt of the wild invective of a drunken harridan who said that her husband had deserted her, and would not hand her any of the fortune he must have inherited. He shook his head sadly, and replied that he knew nothing. Mr. Canning and his daughter had left London. He thought they had gone to Australia.
When she had gone, he said to himself:
"It would distress Jim to know that a woman who had once been his wife had sunk to such a condition."
As he passed through the room at the back he smiled and thought:
"How fortunate she did not come in here!"
On the table was a large bowl of red and white roses, with the label and card still lying on the table. On the card was inscribed, "With love to Uncle Isaac. A."
The postmark on the label was a village in Sussex.
In the twilight of his mind there stirred the dim realization of pain. He could not account for this nor for his lack of desire to thrust the pain back. It was moreover mellowed by the alluring embraces of an enveloping darkness, a darkness which he idly desired to pierce, and yet which soothed him with its caliginous touch. Some subconscious voice, too, kept repeating that it was ridiculous, that he really had control, that the darkness was due to the fact that it was night, and that he was in his own bed. In the room across the passage his mother was sleeping peacefully. And yet the pain, which he could not account for, seemed to press him down and to rack his lower limbs. There was a soothing interval of utter darkness and forgetfulness, and then the little waves of febrile consciousness began to lap the shores of distant dreams, and visions of half-forgotten episodes became clear and pregnant.
He remembered standing by the French window in their own dining-room, his mother's dining-room, rapping his knuckles gently on the panes. Beneath the window was the circular bed of hollyhocks just beginning to flower, and below the terrace the great avenue of elms nodding lazily in the sun. He could hear the coffee-urn on its brass tripod humming comfortably behind him while lie waited for his mother to come down to breakfast. He was alone, and the newspaper in his hand was shaking. War! He could not grasp the significance of the mad news that lay trembling on the sheets. His mother entered the room, and as he hurried across to kiss her he noted the pallor of her cheeks.
They sat down, and she poured him out his coffee as she had done ever since he could remember. Then, fixing her dark eyes on his and toying restlessly with the beads upon her breast, she said:
"It's true, then, Robin?"
He nodded, and his eyes wandered to the disfiguring newspaper. He felt as though he were in some way responsible for the intrusion of the world calamity into the sanctity of his mother's life; he muttered:
"It's a dreadful business, mother."
His gaze wandered again out of the window between the row of elms. Geddes, the steward, was walking briskly, followed by two collies. Beyond the slope was a hay-cart lumbering slowly in the direction of the farm. "Parsons is rather late with the clover," he thought. He felt a desire to look at things in little bits; the large things seemed overpowering, insupportable. Above all, his mother must not suffer. It was dreadful that any one should suffer, but most of all his mother. He must devote himself to protecting her against the waves of foreboding that were already evident on her face. But what could he say? He knew what was uppermost in her mind—Giles! He had no illusions. He knew that his mother adored his elder brother more passionately than she did himself. It was only natural. He too adored Giles. Everybody did. Giles was his hero, his god. Ever since he could remember, Giles had epitomized to him everything splendid, brave, and chivalrous. He was so glorious to look at, so strong, so manly. The vision of that morning merged into other visions of the sun-lit hours with Giles—his pride when quite a little boy if Giles would play with him; his pride when he saw Giles in flannels, going in to bat at cricket; the terror in his heart when one day he saw Giles thrown from a horse, and then the passionate tears of love and thankfulness when he saw him rise and run laughing after the beast. He remembered that when Giles went away to school his mother found him crying, and told him he must not be sentimental. But he could not help it. He used to visualize the daily life of Giles and write to him long letters which his brother seldom answered. Of course he did not expect Giles to answer; he would have no time. He was one of the most popular boys at school and a champion at every sport.
Then the vision of that morning when the newspaper brought its disturbing news vanished with the memory of his mother standing by his side, her arm round his waist, as they gazed together across a field of nodding corn...
Troubled visions, then, of Giles returning post-haste from Oxford, of himself in the village talking to every one he met about "the dreadful business," speaking to the people on the farm, and to old Joe Walters, the wheelwright, whose voice he could remember saying:
"Ay, tha' woan't tak' thee, Master Robin."
He remembered talking to Mr. Meads at the general shop, and to the Reverend Quirk, whose precious voice he could almost hear declaiming:
"I presume your brother will apply for a commission."
He had wandered then up on to the downs and tried to think about "the dreadful business" in a detached way, but it made him tremble. He listened to the bees droning on the heather, and saw the smoke from the hamlet over by Wodehurst trailing peacefully to the sky. "The dreadful business" seemed incredible.
It was some days later that he met his friend Jerry Lawson wandering up there, with a terrier at his heels. Lawson was a sculptor, a queer chap, whom most people thought a fanatic. Jerry blazed down on him:
"This is hell, Robin. Hell let loose. It could have been avoided. It's a trade war. At the back of it all is business, business, business. And millions of boys will be sacrificed for commercial purposes. Our policy is just as much at fault as—theirs. Look what we did at—"
For an hour he listened to the diatribe of Lawson, tremulously silent. He had nothing to reply. He detested politics and the subtleties of diplomacy. He had left school early owing to an illness which had affected his heart. He had spent his life upon these downs and among his books. He could not adjust the gentle impulses of his being to the violent demands of that foreboding hour. When Lawson had departed, he had sat there a long time. Was Lawson right?
He wandered home, determining that he would read more history, more political economy; he would get to the root of "this dreadful business."
He wanted to talk to Giles, to find out what he really thought, but the radiant god seemed unapproachable; or rode roughshod over the metaphysical doubts of his brother, and laughed. Giles had no misgivings. His conscience was dynamically secure. Besides, there was "the mater."
"When I go, Rob, you must do all you can to buck the mater up." He had looked so splendid when he said that, with his keen, strong face, alert and vibrant, Robin had not had it in his heart to answer. And then had come lonely days, reading news books and occasionally talking with Lawson. When Giles went off to his training he spent more time with his mother, but they did not discuss the dreadful thing which had come into their lives. His mother became restlessly busy, making strange garments, knitting, attending violently to the demands of the household. Sometimes in the evening he would read to her, and they would sit trying to hide from each other the sound of the rain pattering on the leaves outside. He had not dared talk to her of the misgivings in his heart or of his arguments with Lawson...
And then a vision came of a certain day in October. The wind was blowing the rain in fitful gusts from the sea. He was in a sullen, perverse mood. Watching his mother's face that morning, a sudden fact concerning her had come home to him. It had aged, aged during those three months, and the gray hair on that distinguished head had turned almost white. He felt within him a surging conflict of opposing forces. The hour of climacteric had arrived. He must see it once and for all clearly and unalterably. He had put on his mackintosh then and gone out into the rain. He walked up to the long wall by Gray's farm, where on a fine day he could see the sea; but not to-day, it was too wet and misty; but he could be conscious of it, and feel its breath beating on his temples.
He stood there, then, for several hours, under the protection of the wall, listening to the wind and to the gulls who went shrieking before it. He could not remember where he had wandered to after that, except that for some time he was leaning on a rock, watching the waves crashing over the point at Youlton Bay. And then in the evening he had written to Lawson.
"I want to see this thing in its biggest, broadest sense, dear Terry."
He knew he had commenced the letter in this way, for it was a phrase he had repeated to himself at intervals.
"Like you, I hate war and the thought of war. But, good heaven! need I say that? Every one must hate war, I suppose. I agree with you that human life is sacred...But would it be sacred if it stood still?—if it were stagnant?—if it were just a mass affair? It is only sacred because it is an expression of spiritual evolution. It must change, go on, lead somewhere...
"Don't you think that we on this island have as great a right to fight for what we represent as any other nation? With all our faults and poses and hypocrisies, haven't we subscribed something to the commonwealth of humanity?—something of honor, and justice, and equity? I don't believe you will deny all this. But even if you did, and even if I agreed with you, I still should not be convinced that it was not right to fight. As I walked up by the chalk-pit near Gueldstone Head, and saw the stone-gray cottages at Lulton nestling in the hollow of the downs, and smelt the dear salt dampness of it all, and felt the lovely tenderness of the evening light, I thought of Giles and what he represents, and of my mother, and what she represents, and of all the people I know and love with all their faults, and I made up my mind that I would fight for it in any case, in the same way that I would fight for a woman I loved, even if I knew she were a harlot..."
Lying there in his bed, these ebullient thoughts reacted on him. Drowsiness stole over his limbs, and he felt his heart vibrating oddly. There seemed to be a sound of drums, beating a tattoo, of a train rumbling along an embankment. And in fancy he was on his way to London again, with the memory of his mother's eyes as she had said:
"Come back safely, Robin boy."
The memory of that day was terrifying indeed. He was wandering about a vast building near Whitehall, tremulously asking questions, wretchedly conscious that people looked at him and laughed. And then that long queue of waiting men! Some were so dirty, so obscene, and he felt that most of them were sniggering at him. A sergeant spoke sharply, and he shuddered and spilt some ink on one of the many forms he had to fill up. Every one seemed rough and violent. After many hours of waiting he was shown into another room and told to strip. He sat on a form with a row of other men, feeling incredibly naked and very much ashamed. The window was open and his teeth chattered with the cold and the nervous tension of the desperate experience. A doctor spoke kindly to him, and an old major at a table asked him one or two questions. He was dismissed and waited interminably in another room. At last an orderly entered and called his name among some others, and handed him a card. He was rejected.
He returned to Wodehurst that evening shivering and in a mood of melancholy dejection. He was an outcast among his fellows, a being with a great instinct towards expression, but without the power to back it up. The whole thing appeared so utterly unlieroic, almost sordid. He wondered about Giles. If presenting oneself at a recruiting office was such a terrifying ordeal, what must the actual life of a soldier be? Of course Giles was different, but—the monotony, the cheerlessness of barrack life! And then the worse things beyond.
After that he would devour the papers and tramp feverishly on the downs; he tried to obtain work at a munition factory, and was refused; made himself ill sewing bandages and doing chaotic odd jobs. And all the time he thought of Giles, Giles, Giles. What Giles was doing, how Giles was looking, whether he was un-happy, and whether they spoke to him brusquely, like the sergeant had to himself in London.
Then came the vision of the day when Giles came and bade farewell, on his way to France‚�?�?a terrible day. He could not bring himself to look into his mother's eyes. He felt that if he did so he would be a trespasser peering into the forbidden sanctuary of a holy place. He hovered around her and murmured little banalities about Giles's kit, the train he was to catch, the parcel he was to remember to pick up in London. When it came to parting time, he left those two alone and fled out to the trap that was to take his brother to the station. He had waited there till Giles came, running and laughing and waving his hand. He drove with him to the station, and dared not look back to see his mother standing by the window. They were silent till the trap had passed a mile beyond the village; then Giles had laughed, and talked, and rallied him on his gloomy face.
"I'll soon be back, old man. Buck the mater up, won't you? Whoa, Tommy, what are you shying at?...By jove! won't it be grand on the sea to-night!"
Oh, Giles! Giles! was there ever any one so splendid, so radiant, so uncrushable? His heart went out to his brother at that moment, and he could not answer.
So closely were his own sympathies interwoven with the feelings of his brother that he hardly noticed the moment of actual separation on the platform. His heart was with Giles all the way up to London, then in the train again, and upon the sea with him that night.
In his imagination, quickened by a close study of all the literature he could get hold of on the actual conditions out there, he followed his brother through every phase of his new life. He was with him at the base, in rest camps, and in dug-outs, and more especially was he with him in those zig-zagging trenches smelling of dampness and decay. On dark nights he would hear the scuttle of rats dashing through the wet holes. He would hear the shriek of shells, and the tearing and ripping of the earth. He would start up and try to make his way through the slime of a battered trench which always seemed to be crumbling, crumbling. In his nostrils would hang the penetrating smell of gases that had the quality of imparting terror. So vivid were his impressions of these things that he could not detach his own suffering from that of his brother. There were times when he became convinced that either he or Giles was a chimera. One of them did not exist...He seemed to stand for an eternity peering through a slit in a mud wall and gazing at another mud wall, and feeling the penetrating ooze of dying vegetation creeping into his body. Above his head would loom dark poles and barbarous entanglements. It was as though everything had vanished from the world but symbols of fear and cruelty, which rioted insanely against the heavens, as though everything that man had ever learnt had been forgotten and destroyed; and he growled there in the wet earth, flaunting the feral passions of his remote ancestry. And the cold!—the cold was terrible...He remembered a strange thing happening at that time. During some vague respite from the recurring horror of these imaginings, he had, he believed, been walking out through the meadows, when a numbness seemed to creep over his lower limbs. He could not get back. He had lain helpless in a field when George Carter, one of the farm hands, had found him and helped him home. He had been very ill then, and his mother had sent for Doctor Ewing. He could not remember exactly what the doctor said or what treatment he prescribed, or how long he had lain there in a semi-conscious state, but he vividly remembered hearing the doctor say one day: "It's very curious, madam. I was, as you know, out at the Front for some time with the Red Cross, and this boy has a fever quite peculiar to the men at the Front. Has he been out standing in the wet mud?" He could not remember what his mother answered. He wanted to say: "Ho, no, it's not I. It's Giles," but he had not the strength, and afterwards wondered whether it were an illusion.
He knew that many weeks went by, and still they would not let him walk. That was his greatest trouble, for walking helped him. When he could walk, he could sometimes live in a happier world of make-believe, but in bed the epic tragedy unfolded itself in every livid detail, intensely real.
Long periods of time went by, and still he was not allowed to leave bis room. His mother would come and sit with him and read him Giles's letters. They were wonderful letters, full of amusing stories of "rags" and tales of splendid feeds obtained under difficult circumstances. Of the conditions that existed so vividly in Robin's mind there was not one word. To read Giles's letters one would imagine that he was away on a holiday with a party of young undergraduates, having the time of their lives. But the letters had no reality to him. He knew. He had seen it all.
Time became an unrecognizable factor. Eaces came and went. His mother was always there, and there appeared another kind face whom he believed to be a nurse; and sometimes Jerry Lawson would come and sit by the bed, and talk to him about the beauties of the quattrocento and other things he had forgotten, things which belonged to a dead world...
Lying there in bed, he could not detach these impressions very clearly, nor determine how long ago they had taken place. There appeared to be an unaccountable shifting of the folds of darkness, a slipping away of vital purposes, and a necessity for focusing upon some immediate development. This necessity seemed, somehow, emphasized by the overpowering pain that had begun to rack his limbs, more especially his right foot. He wanted to call out, but some voice told him that it would be useless. The night was too impenetrable and heavy, his voice would only die away against its inky pall. There was besides a certain soothing tenderness about it, as though it were caressing him and telling him that he must wait in patience, and all would be well. He knew now that he was sleeping in the open, and that would account for the chilling coldness. At the same time it was not exactly the open. There were walls about and jagged profiles, but apparently no roof or distances. The ground was hard like concrete. He must be infinitely patient and pray for the dawn...He began to feel the dawn before he saw it. It came like the caressing sigh of a woman as she wakes and thinks of her lover in some foreign clime. Somewhere at hand a bird was twittering, aware too of the coming miracle. Almost imperceptibly things began to form themselves. He was certainly behind a wall, but there was a door, with the upper part leaning in. A phrase occurred to his mind: "The white arm of dawn is creeping over the door." A lovely passage! He had read it in some Irish book. The angle at the top of the door was like a bent elbow. It was very, very like the white am—of some Irish queen, perhaps, or of the Mother of men—a white arm creeping over the door, and in its whiteness delicately touching the eyelids of the sleeping inmates, whilst a voice in a soft cadence whispered: "Awake! pull back the door, and let me show you the silver splendors of the unborn day."
A heavy dew was falling, and the cold seemed bitter, whilst all around he became aware of the slow unfolding of desolation; except for the leaning door, nothing seemed to take a recognizable shape, everything was jagged and violent in its form and exuded the cloying odors of death. Somewhere faintly he thought he heard the sound of a cornet, bizarre and fantastic, and having no connection with the utter stillness of this place of sorrow.
His eye searched the broken darkness in fugitive pursuit of a solution of the formless void. Quite near him, apparently, was an oblong board which amidst this wilderness of destruction seemed to have escaped untouched. As the dim violet light began to reveal certain definite concrete things, he became aware that on the board were some Roman letters. He looked at them for some time unseeingly. The word written there stamped itself without meaning on his brain. The word was: "FILLES." He repeated it to himself over and over again. The earth seemed to rock again with a sullen, vibrating passion, as though irritated that the work of destruction was not entirely complete. Things already destroyed seemed to be subjected to further transmutation of formlessness. But still the board remained intact, and he fixed his eyes on it. It imbued him with a strange sense of tranquillity. Ftiles! A little word, but it became to him a link to cosmic things. The desire to reason passed, as the ability to suffer passed. Across the mists of time he seemed to hear the laughter of children. He could almost see them pass. There were Jeannette and Marie, with long black pigtails and check frocks, and just behind them, struggling with a heavy satchel, little fair-haired Ba-bette. How they laughed, those children! and yet he could not determine whether their laughter came from the years that had passed or from the years that were to come. But wherever the laughter came from, it seemed the only thing the powers of darkness could not destroy. He lay then for a long time, conscious of a peace greater than any he could have conceived. And the white arm of dawn crept over the door.
The crowd who habitually came down by the afternoon train trickled out of the station and vanished. The master of Wodehurst came limping through the doorway. His face was bronzed and perhaps a little thinner, but his eyes laughed, and his voice rang out to the steward waiting in the dog-cart:
"Hullo! Sam, how are you? "
He was leaning on two sticks, and a porter followed with his trunks.
"Can I help you up, sir?"
"No, it's all right, old man; I can manage."
He pulled himself up and laughed because he hit his knee upon the mudguard.
"It's good to be home, Sam."
"Yes; I expect your mother will be glad, sir," answered Geddes, touching up the horse. "And so will we all, I'm thinking."
They clattered down the road, and the high spirits of the wounded warrior rose. He asked a thousand questions, and insisted on taking the reins before they had gone far. It was dusk when they began to draw near Wodehurst; a sudden silence had fallen on Giles. The steward realized the reason. He coughed uncomfortably. They were passing within a hundred yards of Wodehurst Church. Suddenly he said in his deep burr:
"We were all very sorry, sir, about Master Robin."
The eyes of the soldier softened; he murmured:
"Poor old chap!"
"I feel I ought to tell you, sir. It was a very queer thing. But one day that young Mr. Lawson—you know, the sculptor—about a week after it all happened, he must have got up at daybreak, I should say—nobody saw him do it. He must have gone down there to the churchyard with his tools, and what do you think? He carved something on the stone—on Mr. Robin's stone."
Giles said quickly: "Carved! What?"
"He carved just under the name and date, 'He died for England.'"
"'He died for England!' He carved that on Robin's grave? What did he mean?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Really! What a rum chap he must be!"
"We didn't know what to do about it, sir. I saw it, and I didn't like to tell your mother, and nobody likes to interfere with a tombstone, it seems profanelike. So there it is to this day."
"Thank you, Sam. I'll think about it."
"Have you had much pain with your foot, sir?"
Giles laughed, and flicked the horse.
"Oh, nothing to write home about, Sam. I had a touch of fever, you know. I didn't tell the mater, It was later on that I got this smash of my right foot. It happened at—I've forgotten the name; some damned little village on the Flemish border. I was lucky in a way, the shrapnel missed me. It was falling stonework that billed up my foot. There was a building, a sort of school, I should think. It got blown to smithereens. It was rather a nasty mess-up. I was there for seven hours before they found me—Hullo! I see the mater standing at the gate."
The horse nearly bolted with the violence of Giles's waving arms...
The dinner—all the dishes that Giles specially loved—was finished. With his arm round his mother's waist and a cigar in the corner of his mouth, he led her into the warm comfort of the white-paneled drawing- room.
"You won't mind my smoking in here to-night, mater?"
"My dear boy!"
They sat in silence, watching the red glow of the log fire. Suddenly Giles said:
"I say, mater, do you know an awfully rum thing Geddes told me? "
His mother looked up.
"I think perhaps I know. Do you mean in the cemetery?"
Giles nodded, puffing at his cigar in little nervous inhalations.
"Yes. I knew. I saw it, of course. I've sat and wondered."
"Such a rum thing to do! What do you think we ought to do about it, mater?"
He saw his mother lean forward; the waves of silver hair seemed to enshrine the beautiful lines of her drawn face; her voice came whispering:
"Hadn't we better leave it, Giles?...Perhaps he really did die for England?"
The young man glanced at her quickly. He saw her aged and broken by the war. He thought of his brother...Then he caught sight of his own face in the mirror, lean, youthful, vigorous. The old tag flashed through his mind:
"They also serve who only stand and wait."
He thrust away that emotional expression, and in the manner of his kind stayed silent, rigid, with his back to the fire. And suddenly he said:
"I say, mater, won't you play me something? Chopin, or one of those Russian Johnnies you play so rippingly?"
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