E-text prepared by Al Haines
HERMAN CYRIL McNEILE
"No Man's Land," "Men, Women and Guns," "The Human Touch," "The Lieutenant and Others," "Sergeant Michael Cassidy," etc.
Hodder and Stoughton London — New York — Toronto MCMXIX
To P. B. D.
The officer lying back in the home-made chair tilted the peak of his cap over his eyes and let his book slip gently to the ground. A few moments later, after various unavailing waves of the hand, he pulled out a handkerchief of striking design and carefully adjusted it over his face. Then, with his hands dug deep in his pockets to remove even a square inch of skin from the ubiquitous fly, he prepared to slumber. And shortly afterwards a gentle rise and fall of the centre bulldog, so wonderfully portrayed on the bandana, announced that he had succeeded.
To anyone fresh from England who desired to see War the scene would have been disappointing. There were no signs of troops swinging down a road, singing blithely, with a cheery smile of confidence on their faces and demanding to be led back forthwith to battle with the Huns. There were no guns belching forth: the grim Panoply of War, whatever it may mean, was conspicuous by its absence. Only a very fat quartermaster-sergeant lay asleep in the sun and snored, while an ancient and dissolute old warrior, near by, was engaged in clearing out a drain as part of his Field Punishment, and had just discovered a dead dog in it. He was not singing blithely: he had no cheery smile of confidence on his face: he was just talking—gently to himself.
The field was on a slight ridge. Above the camp there floated one of a line of sausage balloons, and the cable to which it was attached stretched up taut from some point near the farmhouse behind. A triangular flag, like a burgee, flew straight out in the breeze from half-way up the cable, and the basket, looking absurdly small, hung down like a black dot below the balloon.
Peace was the keynote of the whole situation. In front the country lay stretched out, with its hedges and trees, its fields and farmhouses. In certain places there ran long rows of poles with strips of brown material stretched between them, which a spectator would rightly conclude was camouflage erected to screen the roads. Only from what? Where was the Boche in this atmosphere of sleep and quiet?
Beyond the silent countryside rose a line of hills. They seemed to start and finish abruptly—an excrescence in the all-pervading flatness. On the top of the near end of the line, clear cut against the sky, the tower and spires of a great building; at the far end, on a hill separated—almost isolated—from the main ridge, a line of stumps, gaunt tooth-pick stumps standing stiffly in a row. There was no sign of life on the hills, no sign of movement. They were dead and cold even in the warm glow of the afternoon sun. Especially the isolated one at the far end with its row of sentinel trees. There was something ghostly about it—something furtive.
And then suddenly a great column of yellow smoke rose slowly from its centre and spread like a giant mushroom. Another and another appeared, and the yellow pall rolled down the side twisting and turning, drifting into the air and eddying over the dark, grim slope. Gradually it blotted out that isolated hill, like fog reeking round a mountain top, and as one watched it, fascinated, a series of dull booms came lazily through the air.
"Jerry gettin' it in the neck on Kemmel." Two men passing by were regarding the performance with perfunctory interest, while the purple bulldog still rose and fell, and the dissolute old warrior did not cease talking to himself.
"Derek scooped the bally lot as usual." An officer appeared at the entrance of a tin structure in one corner of the field with a bundle of letters in his hand. "Look at the dirty dog there—sleeping like a hog—in the only decent chair."
He disappeared inside to emerge again in a moment with a badminton racket and a shuttlecock. "On the bulldog—one round rapid fire." He fired and with a loud snort the sleeper awoke.
"You are charged with conduct to the prejudice, etc.," said the marksman severely, "in that you did spread alarm and despondency amongst the troops by disguising yourself as a disease and making noises indicative of pain."
Derek Vane stretched himself and stood up. "We are feeling well, thank you—and require nourishment. Does tea await me, and if not—why not?" He took his mail and glanced through it. "How they love me, dear old boy! What it is to be young and good looking, and charm. . . ."
There was a loud shout and the deck chair became the centre of a struggling mob. Shortly afterwards a noise of ripping canvas announced that it had acted as deck chairs have acted before when five people sit on them at the same moment.
"Look out, you mugs, you've broken it." Vane's voice came dimly from the ground. "And my face is in an ants' nest."
"Are you good looking and charming?" demanded an inexorable voice.
"No. Get off, Beetle; you've got bones on you like the human skeleton at Barnum's."
"What are you like?" pursued the same inexorable voice.
"Horrible," spluttered Vane. "A walking nightmare; a loathly dream."
"It is well—you may arise."
The mass disintegrated, and having plucked the frame of the chair from the body of an officer known to all and sundry as the Tank—for obvious reasons—they moved slowly towards the mess for tea.
In all respects an unwarlike scene, and one which would disappoint the searcher after sensation. Save for the lorries which bumped ceaselessly up and down the long straight road below, and the all-pervading khaki it might have been a scene at home before the war. The yellow fog had cleared away from Kemmel, and over the flat country the heat haze rose, shimmering and dancing in the afternoon sun. In the field next to the camp an ancient Belgian was ploughing, his two big Walloon horses guided by a single cord, while from behind the farm there came the soft thud-thud of a football.
And then it came. In a few seconds the air was filled with the thumping of Archie and the distant crackle of machine-guns.
"By Jove! there he is," cried the Tank. "He's got him too."
The officers halted and stared over the dead town of Poperinghe, where flash after flash of bursting shrapnel proclaimed a Boche aeroplane. They saw him dive at a balloon—falling like a hawk; then suddenly he righted and came on towards the next. From the first sausage two black streaks shot out, to steady after a hundred feet or so, and float down, supported by their white parachutes. But the balloon itself was finished. From one end there glowed for an instant a yellow furnace of fire. Then a flame shot up, followed by clouds of black smoke. Like a stone, the basket crashed down, passing the two white, drifting specks on the way, and leaving behind it a long streak of black.
Rolling from side to side like a drunken man, the aeroplane was coming towards its next quarry. Lewis guns, machine-guns, Archies were now all firing full blast, but the pilot continued on his course. Tracer bullets shot up like lines of light, but so far he had come through untouched. From the balloons the observers dived out until at one moment there were ten in the air. And each balloon in turn followed its owners, a flaming, smoking remnant . . .
Then came the end—as suddenly as it had begun. A tracer bullet seemed to pass right through the aeroplane. Like a tiny ball of fire the bullet struck it, and then went out. The plane swerved violently, righted and swerved again. Then it spun down, rocking from side to side, while a burst of white flame roared all round it. And, falling a little faster than the plane, two black spots, which did not steady after a hundred feet. They crashed fifty yards from the tin hut, and almost before they reached the ground the officers were on the spot. A little distance away the aeroplane was blazing, and they could feel the heat as they bent over the pilot and his observer. They were both dead, and the pilot was unrecognisable; a bullet had entered the base of his skull from behind. But the observer was not much damaged outwardly. He lay—arms outstretched—looking up at the sky, on the ground that the farmer had just ploughed. He seemed to smile cynically at the hoarse cheering now spreading from field to field, from camp to camp. Perhaps even then he had realised the futility of it all . . .
For a few seconds Derek Vane looked at him gravely, while close by two excited men from different units argued raucously as to which battalion had brought the aeroplane down.
"I tell yer I saw the ruddy bullet hit the perisher right in the middle," cried one claimant. "It were old Ginger's gun, I tell yer. E's a fair corker is Ginger with a Lewis."
The smile spread till it was almost a grin on the dead man's face. Muscular contraction, of course, but. . . . With a sudden movement Vane stooped down and covered the face.
"Sergeant-Major." He turned to the N.C.O. beside him. "Armed guard round the plane at once till the Flying Corps arrive. Bring these two bodies into the camp on stretchers."
Five minutes later they sat down to tea and an unopened mail. The farmer had resumed his ploughing—the football enthusiasts their game. Twenty-five Lewis guns and twelve Vickers sections were all composing reports stating that their particular weapon had done the deed, and somebody was putting another fog cloud on Kemmel.
In fact, the only real difference in the scene after those ten short minutes was that by the ruins of a deck chair two German airmen with their faces covered lay very still on stretchers. . . .
Two hours later. Vane handed his steel helmet to his batman and swung himself into the saddle on his old grey mare. There was touch of Arab in her, and she had most enormous feet. But she fulfilled most of the requirements a man looks for in a war horse, which are not of necessity those he requires in a mount with the Grafton. She scorned guns—she repudiated lorries, and he could lay the reins on her neck without her ceasing to function. She frequently fell down when he did so; but—c'est la guerre. The shadows were beginning to lengthen as he hacked out of the camp, waving a farewell hand at a badminton four, and headed for Poperinghe.
Poperinghe lay about a mile up the road towards his destination, and Vane had known it at intervals for over three years. He remembered it when it had been shelled in April '15 at the time of the first gas attack, and the inhabitants had fled in all directions. Then gradually it had become normal again, until, after the Passchendaele fighting of 1917, it had excelled itself in gaiety. And now in May 1918 it was dead once more, with every house boarded up and every window shuttered. The big cobbled square; the brooding, silent churches, the single military policeman standing near his sand-bagged sentry-box—and in the distance the rumble of a wagon going past the station—such was Poperinghe as Vane saw it that evening.
A city of ghosts—deserted and empty, and as the old grey mare walked sedately through the square. Vane felt that he understood the dead airman's smile.
Sometimes a random shot would take effect, but the bag was soon removed. That very afternoon a driver with his two horses had been hit direct. The man, or what was left of him, had been removed—only the horses remained, and a red pool coated with grey dust. The mare edged warily around them, and a swarm of flies, bloated, loathsome brutes—buzzed angrily up as she passed.
"It's not fair, old girl," said Vane bending over and patting her neck; "but I s'pose it's only in keeping with everything else these days—it's not fairness that counts; it's just luck—fatuous idiotic luck. It's not even a game; it's a wild-cat gamble all over the world. And may Heaven help us all when the bottom does drop out of the market."
The grey mare ambled placidly on up the main Ypres road undisturbed by his philosophy. The dead of her kind were already forgotten, and the nose-bag on the saddle would be all the better for emptying. On each side of the road were gun positions, and Vane kept a sharp look out as he trotted on. If there was one thing he loathed above all others it was the gunner humorist who, with malice aforethought, deliberately waited to fire his gun until some helpless passer by was about a yard from the muzzle. But at the moment everything seemed quiet. The evening hate was not due yet; and Vane reached Brandhoek cross roads without having his eardrums burst.
On the Decauville track close by stood eight trains, stacked with rows and rows of cylinders, and he contemplated them grimly. Each train was drawn by an ugly-looking petrol electric engine. The whole eight would shortly run at close intervals to the nearest point to the front line. Then Vane, with a large pushing party, could man-handle the trains into the position decided on—a few hundred yards behind the outpost line. And as a method of fighting it struck him as poor.
Whatever may be said about Might and Right, there is an element which must appeal to every normal being in the triumph of strength and hardihood over weakness. It may be wrong; it happens, however, to be natural. But there is nothing whatever to appeal to the average man in the ability of some professor of science, working in his laboratory miles away, to produce a weapon which strikes down alike the strong and the weakling with an agony which makes death a blessed relief. Gas—just a refinement of modern war introduced by the brains of many eminent gentlemen. And it must be in the nature of a personal triumph for them to realise that their exhaustive experiments with guinea pigs and rabbits have caused thousands to fear at first they were going to die, and later to fear still more that they were not. . . .
Vane nodded to the gas officer and got on board the little tractor which was to take him to the front trenches.
Chugging along through screen after screen of brown camouflage which hid the little railway line from the watchful gaze of Kemmel, he seemed to be passing through some mysterious land. By day it was hideous enough; but in the dusk the flat dullness of it was transfigured. Each pond with the shadows lying black on its unruffled surface seemed a fairy lake; each gaunt and stunted tree seemed to clothe itself again with rustling leaves. The night was silent; only the rattle of the little train, as it rumbled over bridges which spanned some sluggish brook or with a warning hoot crossed a road—broke the stillness. Great shell-holes filled with rotting debris flashed by, the mouldering ruins of an old chateau frowned down as they twisted and turned through the grounds where once men had flirted and women had sighed. Now the rose garden was used as a rubbish heap for tins; and by the over-grown sundial, chipped and scarred by a stray shell, two wooden crosses stuck out of the long rank grass. At last they reached the Canal, and the engine stopped near the Lille road.
Close by, the flares lobbed up, green against the night; and a white mist covered the low-lying ground. Across the road lay trees in all directions, while, through the few that remained standing, a cold bright moon threw fantastic shadows. On each side of the road, screened by the embankment from machine-gun fire, sat groups of men waiting for the trains.
At last Vane heard the first one—faintly in the distance. It loomed up suddenly out of the mist and crept across the road. Without a word the men detailed to push it seemed to rise out of the ground. Silently they disappeared with it, like ghouls at some mysterious ceremony. With muffled couplings it made no sound; and in a few minutes it was ready in position, with its leading truck where once the owner of a farm had sat before the fire, after the day's work.
And so they came—eight in all. Any noise—any suspicion on the part of the Boche, a bare quarter of a mile away, and a machine-gun would have swept the ground. But the night was silent, the flares still went peacefully up, and the wind had not changed. It blew gently and steadily towards the German lines. Only there was now just a faint smell of pineapple in the air; one of the cylinders was leaking. . . .
Figures loomed up unexpectedly out of the mist; occasionally a low curse could be heard as a man stumbled into a shell hole. . . .
"Everything all right; everybody clear?" The gas expert peered at Vane in the darkness. "Right! well, let her go."
A series of reports sounded deafeningly loud, as the detonators of the cylinders were fired by electricity; a steady, hissing noise as a great wall of white vapour mingled with the mist and rolled forward towards the Germans. The gas attack had begun. To an airman returning from a bombing raid, who circled for a moment above, it looked like a sheet being slowly spread over the country below; a beautiful—an eerie—picture. To those on the ground who watched it, it seemed as a solid wall of dense fog moving relentlessly forward—like the mist that comes creeping over the Downs till those caught in it can scarce see their hand in front of their face. To the Boche it was death. . . .
Patrols going out the next night found men twisted and blackened with the smell of pineapple still on their swollen lips; in the hospitals behind, men writhed and muttered hoarsely, struggling for breath and struggling in vain. The attack had been successful—and all was as it should be. Undoubtedly the Germans started gas in a country where the prevalent wind was south-west—and it doesn't pay in war to be a fool. . . .
Vane wished that one or two German men of science had been occupying the Boche outpost line instead of. . . . War—modern war!
"It will go clean through their helmets," said the gas expert. "One hour in most cases, and when it gets weaker, twenty-four—or even more. That's the stuff to give 'em."
At last the performance was over, and the trains having delivered the goods returned to their own place.
"Most successful." The gas expert, rubbing his hands together, came up to Vane as he stood on the Lille road. "I think we've got quite a number of the blighters. And not a single casualty!"
"Good," said Vane. "But what a filthy method of fighting."
"The Germans started it," returned the other.
"I know they did," laughed Vane. "That's probably why it's so filthy."
The gas officer looked thoughtful. "I'm not certain that I agree with you, Vane. War is such a filthy business, however you look at it, that one would be a fool not to harness science in every possible way . . ."
"Don't you believe it," scoffed Vane. "Science has harnessed us. We've started the bally motor with the gear in, and now we're running after it trying to catch up. Can I give you a lift back on my private stink machine? . . ."
They strolled up the road together to where the tractor was waiting.
"Man no longer the master of his destiny, you mean?" said his companion.
"Don't make me laugh too loud," returned Vane, "or the Boche might hear; unless you've killed 'em all . . ."
"You're wrong, my friend—utterly wrong." They came to where the railway track crossed the road and he halted to pull out his pipe, before getting on to the little engine.
"I tell you, Vane . . ."
And at that moment a flight of cockchafers seemed to sweep down the road. Vane felt the stinging pain in his right shoulder, and then he looked foolishly at the gas expert . . .
"You were saying," he began . . .
But his late companion had taken a machine-gun bullet through his heart.
The beach at Paris Plage is associated in the minds of most people who went there before the war with a certain amount of gaiety. There were bands, and fair ladies, and various other delights generally connected with popular French watering-places. Incidentally the beach is a beach—not a collection of sharp boulders. There is real sand—lots of it; the sort that gets hot and comforting in the sun, and invites people who have eaten too much luncheon to sleep. And during the war, though the bands and other delights have departed, the sand has remained a source of pleasure to hundreds of people in need of a temporary rest cure. They have come from the big hospitals at Etaples; they have come from the officers' rest-house. Some have even come in motor cars from the trenches just for the day, and one and all they have lain on the beach and slept and then departed the better for it.
On a certain afternoon during the height of the German offensive in the spring of 1918 a girl was sitting on the beach staring out to sea. On the horizon a black smudge of smoke stood up against the vivid blue of the sky; while, close in shore, a small sailing boat was barely making headway in the faint breeze.
The girl was a V.A.D., and the large French family which had planted itself close by cast little curious glances at her from time to time. And she was worth looking at, with her fair hair, deep blue eyes and that wonderful complexion which seems to be the exclusive property of the British. Madame remarked on it to Monsieur, glancing at the white faces of her own daughters three, and Monsieur grunted an assent. Personally he was more occupied with the departed glories of Paris Plage than with a mere skin of roses and milk; at least the worthy man may have deemed it desirable to appear so.
"Pauvre petite," went on the kindly matron, "but she looks tired . . . so tired." She heaved a deep sigh. "Mais que voulez-vous? c'est la guerre." She watched her offspring preparing to paddle, and once again she sighed. There was no band, no amusement—"Mon Dieu! but it was triste. This accursed war—would it never end?"
Margaret Trent's looks did not lie; she was tired. The rush of work just lately had almost broken her physical endurance, and there seemed but little chance of any slackening in the near future. She felt that all she wanted was rest—utter, complete rest, where such things as bandages and iodine were unknown. And even as the longing came to her she knew that a week of it would be all that she could stand. She could see beyond the craving ache to stop—the well-nigh irresistible cry of her body for rest. She could feel the call of spirit dominating mere bodily weariness. And it drove her on—though every muscle cried a halt.
Before the war she had been in that set which drifted pleasantly through life, and yet she had not been of it. She danced perfectly; she played tennis and golf and went to the proper places at the proper times—but she was different. She had in her a certain idealistic dreaminess, an intense love of the beautiful in life. Sordid things filled her with a kind of horror, and when the war came she tried to banish it from her mind like a dreadful nightmare. But there were stories in the papers, and there were letters from friends telling of losses and unspeakable sufferings. There was war all round her and one day the great unrest got hold of her, and would not be put aside. She felt she had to do something . . .
And so she became a V.A.D. and in the fulness of time arrived in France. Her friends prophesied that she would last a month—that she would never stand the sight of blood and wounds. Her answer had been two years at Etaples. And to those who know, that is an answer conducive of many things.
At times she tried to recall her outlook on life four years ago. She had enjoyed herself up to a point, but all the time she had been groping towards something she did not possess. She had read carefully and with discrimination, and the reading had only filled her with an added sense of her own futility. She felt that she wanted to do something—but what was there for her to do?
Marriage, naturally, had come into her mental horizon. But there had only been one man who had ever attracted her sufficiently to make it anything but an idle speculation. There had been a time, one season in London, when this man had been her constant companion, and she had been far from disliking it. At times he had seemed to be serious, and as a matter of fact the subtle difference between her and the stock pattern crowd had interested him more than he admitted even to himself. Then one day she discovered that a certain flat and its occupant were very closely connected with his bank account. It was by pure accident that she found it out. A chance remark which she overheard at a dinner party. . . . And the night before at the Grafton Galleries she had allowed him to kiss her as she had never before allowed a man . . .
It revolted her; and the man, astonished at first at her sudden change of manner, finally became annoyed, and the episode ceased. They still met; there was no quarrel—but they met only as casual acquaintances.
It was at that stage of her reflections that a shadow fell across her and she looked up. For a moment the coincidence failed to strike her, and then with a surprised little laugh she held out her hand.
"Why, Derek," she said, "I was just thinking of you."
Vane, his right arm tightly bound in a sling, sat down beside her.
"I thought you looked pretty weary," he laughed. "Jove! but it's great seeing you again, Margaret . . .! And the peace of it all." He waved his left hand round the deserted beach. "Why, it's like old times—before the world went mad" . . . He fumbled with his cigarette case, until she took it out of his hand, and struck a match for him.
"What ward are you in?" she asked, when he had made himself comfortable.
"Number 13; got here yesterday."
"I come on night duty there to-night. What's your trouble?"
"Machine-gun," he answered briefly. "A nice clean one through the shoulder. And the man beside me took the next bullet through his heart." He laughed shortly. "What a gamble—what a dam silly gamble, isn't it?"
She looked thoughtfully out to sea. The train of ideas his sudden appearance had interrupted was still half consciously occupying her mind.
"Four years, isn't it, since we met?" she said after a while.
"Four centuries, you mean. Four wasted centuries. Nothing will ever be the same again."
"Of course it won't. But don't you think it's just as well?" She faced him smilingly. "There was so much that was all wrong, Derek; so much that was rotten."
"And do you think that four years' insanity is going to prove the remedy?" Vane laughed cynically. "Except that there are a few million less men to carry on the rottenness"—
Margaret shook her head. "We wanted something to wake us up; it's been drastic, but we're awake."
"And what most of us want is to go to sleep again. Don't you feel tired, Margaret, sometimes?"
"Yes—I suppose I do. But it's the tiredness that comes with doing—not drifting. . . . It's we who have got to make the new Heaven and the new Earth, Derek . . ."
Again Vane laughed. "Still as idealistic as ever, I see. Six months after peace we shall be scrambling and fighting and snarling again—after jobs and money and work."
Margaret Trent was silent, tracing a pattern in the sand with her finger. "The worry of scrambling after a job is not likely to hit you very hard," she said at length.
"Which is perhaps as well," he returned lightly; "for I'm certainly too weary to take the trouble. I shall go away, if I'm alive to do it, to the South Sea Islands and live on fruit. The only proviso is that it should be sufficiently ripe to drop into my mouth, and save me the trouble of picking it."
The girl turned and looked at him suddenly. "You've got it rather bad, old boy, haven't you?"
"Got what?" he asked slowly.
"Mental jaundice," she answered. "Your world askew."
"Do you wonder?" he returned grimly. "Isn't the world askew?"
"And if it is, someone has got to put it back."
"That's what the little boy said when he pulled the chest of drawers over on top of him and lay struggling under it. But he couldn't do it himself. It's got beyond us, Margaret—and God seems to have forgotten. There is just a blind, malignant Fate running the show."
She looked at him gravely. "You're wrong, Derek—utterly wrong. The game is still in our hands, and we've got to keep it there. What are you smiling at?"
"I was wondering," he answered, "whether the last time I was told I was wrong, the sentence would have been concluded similarly. Unfortunately, the speaker died in the middle, thereby proving his contention."
"Oh! but you're little," she cried, striking her hands together. "Don't you see that you've got to look beyond the individual—that you've got to think Big?"
"We leave that to the newspaper men," he retorted cynically. "Our smiling heroes; our undaunted soldiers! They are heroes, those Tommies; they are undaunted, but it's because they've got to be. They're up against it—and the Juggernaut of Fate knows he's got 'em. And they know he's got 'em. They just eat and drink and are merry for to-morrow they. . . . Ah! no; that's wrong. We never die out here, Margaret; only the other fellow does that. And if we become the other fellow, it's so deuced unexpected I don't suppose it matters much."
"But, we've got to go through with it, haven't we?" she said quietly.
"Of course we have," he answered with a laugh; "and the knowledge of that fact cuts about as much ice with the men in the mud holes up there as brave little Belgium or suffering little Serbia. I tell you we're all dazed, Margaret—just living in a dream. Some of us take it worse than others, that's all. You want the constitution of an elephant combined with the intelligence of a cow to fight these days."
"And yet," she said with a grave little smile, "under-lying it all, there's the big ideal surely. . . . If I didn't think that, if I didn't know that, I . . . I couldn't go on."
"To which particular ideal do you allude?" he asked cynically. "The League of Nations; or the triumph of Democracy, or the War to end War. They all sound so topping, don't they? received with howls of applause by the men who haven't had their boots off for a week." He thumped the sand savagely. "Cut the cackle, my dear girl; cut the cackle. This little performance was started by a few of the puppets who thought they had a winning hand, and the other puppets called a show down. And then the game passed out of their hands. They write books about it, and discover new Gods, and pass new Acts of Parliament—but the thing takes no notice. It just goes on—inexorably. Man has been dabbling with stakes that are too big for him, Margaret. And the trouble is that the cards up in the trenches are getting mighty tattered."
She looked at him curiously. "I'd never have thought it would have taken you like that, Derek . . . Not quite as badly."
"You formed your opinion in the bad old days, didn't you?" he said lightly. "When we danced and made love at the Grafton Galleries." She flushed a little, but did not lower her eyes. "Such a serious girl you were too, Margaret; I wonder how you ever put up with a brainless sort of ass like me."
"Because I liked you," she answered quietly, and suddenly it struck Vane, almost with a feeling of surprise, that the girl sitting beside him was more than attractive. He wondered why he had let her slip so easily out of his life. And the train of thought once started seemed a not unpleasant one. . . . "You'll get it back soon, Derek—your sense of proportion. You've got to."
"So that I can help build the new Heaven and the new Earth," he laughed.
"So that you may help build the new Heaven and the new Earth," she repeated gravely rising to her feet. "I must go back or I'll miss my tea."
"Have a cup with me in the village." Vane scrambled up and fell into step beside her. They passed Monsieur still snoring, and Madame nodding peacefully over her knitting, and crossed the deserted promenade. Then in silence they walked up into the main street of the little town in search of a tea shop.
"Do you realise, Margaret," he remarked as they sat down at a small marble-topped table, "that I haven't seen or spoken to a woman for six months? . . . Heaven help us! Aren't there any cakes?"
"Of course not," laughed Margaret, "nor milk, nor sugar. There's a war on up the road. You want about ten drops of that liquid saccharine." In the sunny street outside, soldiers in various stages of convalescence, strolled aimlessly about. An occasional motor car, containing officers—on duty, of course—slowed down at the corner opposite and disgorged its load. A closer inspection of one of them might have revealed a few suspicious looking gashes in the upholstery and holes in the mud-guards. Of course—shrapnel—but, then shrapnel did not occur by the sea. And on what duty could officers from the shrapnel area be engaged on at Paris Plage? . . . However, let us be discreet in all things.
In a few hours that shrapnel scarred car would be carrying its freight back to Boulogne, where a table at the restaurant Mony had already been secured for dinner. Then back through the night, to call at various dilapidated farms and holes in the ground, in the area where shrapnel and crumps are not unknown. . . . But just for a few brief hours the occupants of the car were going to soak themselves in the Waters of Forgetfulness; they were going to live—even as the tripper from the slums lives his little span at Margate. And they were no whit less excited at the thought . . .
They did not show it by an excessive consumption of indigestible fruit, or by bursting into unmelodious song. True, the greatest of all the "Q" men, who had come officially from a Nissen hut near Poperinghe to study the question of salvaged materials at the base, had waved a friendly hand at all the ladies—beautiful and otherwise—whom they met. But then save for salvage he was much as other men. And with that exception they just lay back in the car and thought; while the trees that were green rushed past them, and war was not.
Thus had they come to the sea. To-morrow once more the flat, dusty country with the heat haze shimmering over it and every now and then the dull drone of some bursting crump, or the vicious crack of high explosive. Behind, the same old row of balloons; in front, the same old holes in the ground. . . . But to-day—peace. . . .
Vane thoughtfully stirred the pale straw-coloured concoction reputed to be tea on the table in front of him. The remark Margaret had made to him on the beach was running through his mind—"The new Heaven and the new Earth." Yes, but on what foundations? And would they be allowed to anyway? Reconstruction is work for the politician—not for the soldier. . . . Most certainly not. . . . The soldier's ignorance on every subject in the world except fighting is complete. And even over that he's not all he might be: he requires quite a lot of help from lawyers, doctors, and successful grocers. . . . In fact, the only thing he is allowed to do quite on his own is to die . . .
Vane smiled a little bitterly, and Margaret leaned across the table towards him. "You'll get it back soon, Derek—believe me, old boy."
"That's very possible. But will the people at home? I'm jangled, Margaret, I know it—just for the time. . . . However, don't let's talk about me. Tell me about yourself. . . ."
The girl shrugged her shoulders slightly. "I don't know that there's much to tell. I've never been so happy in my life as I am at present . . ."
"In spite of all that?" He pointed out of the window to two soldiers limping painfully by on sticks.
"Yes—in spite of all that. One gets accustomed to that—and one's doing something. After all, Derek, you get accustomed to death and mutilation up there in front. It doesn't affect you. . . ."
"No, not to the same extent as it did. In a way, I suppose not at all. But you—you were so different." He thoughtfully drained his tea cup, and set it down again, and for a space neither of them spoke.
"I can't help laughing at the comparison," said Margaret suddenly. "Five years ago you and I were sitting in Rumpolmayer's, surrounded by sugar cakes, being smart."
"They're doing that now in London except for the sugar cakes."
"We shouldn't have been silent for a moment, and we should have enjoyed ourselves thoroughly . . . I wonder—"
"It was our only standard, wasn't it?"
"And now we can sit over a cup of weak and nasty tea—without milk and not talk for effect. . . . What's going to happen, Derek, to you and me afterwards? We can never go back to it?"
"No—you can't put back the clock—and we've grown, Margaret, years and years older. So have thousands of others—the boys up yonder, their people at home. But what about the business train to Brighton, and the occupants thereof? . . . Have they felt this war, except to make a bit more boodle out of it?"
"They're only a small minority."
"Are they? They're a damned powerful one." He laughed a little bitterly. "And they're artificial—just like we were before the war."
"That's why it's we who have got to do the rebuilding. Even if it's only the rebuilding the house in our own little tiny circle, with simplicity and reality as the keystones. . . . You see, if you get enough tiny circles sound and good, in time the others may follow. . . ."
"Dear lady, you've become very optimistic." Vane's eyes smiled at her. "Let's hope you're right." He paused and looked at her quietly. "Margaret. I've never asked you before—but you're different now—so different. Incidentally so am I. What was it, that made you alter so suddenly?"
Margaret rose to her feet, and shook her head. "I'll tell you some day, Derek, perhaps. Not just now. I must be getting back to the hospital."
"Will you come out and have tea with me to-morrow?" For a few moments she looked at him as if undecided, and then suddenly she seemed to make up her mind.
"All right," she said with a smile. "I'll come, I want to deal with this jaundice of yours. One must live up to a professional reputation."
A hospital is much the same anywhere, and number 13 General at Etaples was no exception. On each side of the big marquee ran a row of beds in perfect dressing. The sheets were turned down on the design so ably portrayed in the War Office Sealed Pattern X.B.451.—"Method of turning down sheets on Beds Hospital." On "Beds Barrack" the method is slightly different and is just as ably shown on Sealed pattern X.B.452. During moments of intense depression one is apt to fear the war-winning properties of X.B.451 and 452 have not been sufficiently appreciated by an unintelligent public.
The period of strain incurred on entrance was over as far as Vane was concerned. For the sixth time since leaving his battalion he had, in a confidential aside, informed a minion of the B.A.M.O. that he was a Wee Free Presbyterian Congregationalist; and for the sixth time the worthy recipient of this news had retired to consult War Office Sealed List of Religions A.F.31 to find out if he was entitled to be anything of the sort. In each case the answer had been in the negative, and Vane had been entered as "Other Denominations" and regarded with suspicion. One stout sergeant had even gone so far as to attempt to convert him to Unitarianism; another showed him the list, and asked him to take his choice.
In the bed next to him was a young Gunner subaltern, with most of his right leg shot away, and they talked spasmodically, in the intervals of trying to read month old magazines.
"Wonderful sight," remarked the Gunner, interrupted for a moment in his story by the eternal thermometer. "Firing at 'em over open sights: shrapnel set at 0. Seemed to cut lanes through 'em; though, God be praised, they came on for a bit, and didn't spoil our shooting."
Vane, sucking a thermometer under his tongue, nodded sympathetically.
"A bit better than sitting in a bally O.P. watchin' other fellows poop at the mud."
"How did you get yours?" he queried, as the Sister passed on.
"Crump almost at my feet, just as I was going into my dug-out. . . . Mouldy luck, and one splinter smashed the last bottle of whisky." The gunner relapsed into moody silence at the remembrance of the tragedy.
Two beds further along the Padre was playing a game of chess with a Major in the Devons; and on the opposite side of the tent another chaplain, grey haired and clean shaven, was talking and laughing with a boy, whose face and head were swathed in bandages.
The R.C. and the C. of E. exponents hunting in couples as these two always did. . . . They are not the only two who before the war would have relegated the other to the nethermost depths of the deepest Hell; but whose eyes have been opened to wisdom now.
Vane was no theologian—no more than are the thousands of others across the water. Before the war he had been in the habit of dismissing any religious question by the comforting assertion that if all one's pals are in Hell, one might as well join them. But in the Game of Death the thoughts of many men have probed things they passed over lightly before. It is not doctrine they want; faith and belief in beautiful formulas have become less and less satisfying. They are beginning to think for themselves, which is anathema to the Church. Of old she prevented such a calamity by a policy of terrorising her followers; of later years she has adopted the simpler one of boring them. And yet it is only simplicity they want; the simple creeds of helping on the other fellow and playing the game is what they understand. But they will have to be reminded of it from time to time. One wonders whether the Church will be big enough to seize the opportunity that stares her in the face.
Vane nodded to the grey-haired Roman Catholic as he paused at the foot of his bed.
"Shoulder painful?" The priest held out a lighted match for Vane's cigarette.
"Throbs a bit, Padre; but it might be worse." He smiled and lay back on his pillows. "An arm makes one feel so helpless."
"I think I'd sooner lose an arm than a leg," remarked the Gunner from the next bed. For a while they pursued this debatable point, much as men discuss politics, and incidentally with far less heat. . . . It was a question of interest, and the fact that the Gunner had lost his leg made no difference to the matter at all. An onlooker would have listened in vain for any note of complaint. . . .
"Time you were getting to sleep—both of you." Margaret's voice interrupted the conversation, and Vane looked up with a smile. She was shaking an admonitory finger at Father O'Rourke, and with a sudden quickening of the pulse he realised how perfectly charming she looked.
"Sister, dear," said the Gunner, "you're on my side, aren't you? It's better to lose an arm than a leg, isn't it?"
For a moment she affected to consider the point. Then suddenly she smiled, and came between their beds. "Unless you both of you go to sleep at once I'll come and wash you again."
With a groan of horror the Gunner hid himself under the bed-clothes, and Margaret, still smiling, turned to Vane.
"Good night, Derek," she said very low. "Sometimes I just want to sit down and howl. . . ." And Vane, looking up into her face, saw that her eyes were a little misty. . . .
Gradually the ward settled down into silence. Right at the other end a man was groaning feebly; while just opposite, looking ghastly in the dim light, a boy was staring round the tent with eyes that did not see. For hours on end he lay unconscious, breathing the rattling breath of the badly gassed; then suddenly he would lift his head, and his eyes, fixed and staring, would slowly turn from bed to bed. He looked as a man looks who is walking in his sleep, and Vane knew he was very near the Great Divide. He had been hit in the chest by a piece of shell, and a bit of his coat impregnated with mustard gas had been driven into his lungs. . . . Every now and then Margaret passed noiselessly down the centre between the two rows of beds. Once she lent over Vane and he closed his eyes pretending to be asleep. But every time as she came to the boy opposite she stopped and looked at him anxiously. Once she was joined by a doctor, and Vane heard their muttered conversation . . .
"I can't get him to take his medicine, Doctor. He doesn't seem able to do anything."
"It doesn't much matter, Nurse," he whispered—why is it that the sick-room whisper seems to travel as far as the voice of the Sergeant-Major on parade? "He won't get through to-night, and I'm afraid we can't do anything."
The doctor turned away, and Margaret went to the end of the tent and sat down at her table. A reading lamp threw a light on her face, and for a while Vane watched her. Then his eyes came back to the boy opposite, and rested on him curiously. He was unconscious once again, and it suddenly struck Vane as strange that whereas, up in front, he had seen death and mutilation in every possible and impossible form—that though he had seen men hit by a shell direct, and one man crushed by a Tank—yet he had never been impressed with the same sense of the utter futility of war as now, in face of this boy dying in the bed opposite. To have come so far and then to pay the big price; it was so hard—so very pitiful; and Vane turned over to shut out the sight. He felt suddenly frightened of the thing that was coming nearer and nearer to the dying boy; furious at the inability of the science which had struck him down to save him. . . .
Vane closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but sleep was far away that night. Whenever he opened them he saw Margaret writing at her table; and once there came to him an irresistible temptation to speak to her. He felt that he wanted her near him, if only for a moment; he wanted to lean on her—he wanted to be taken in her arms like a little child. Angrily he closed his eyes again. It was ridiculous, absurd, weak. . . . But there have been times in this war when the strongest man has sobbed like a child in his weakness. . . .
"Sister!" Vane hardly recognised it as his own voice calling. "Sister!" Margaret came towards him down the ward. "Could you get me something to drink?"
In a moment she had returned with some lemonade. "I thought you were asleep, Derek," she whispered. "Are you feeling feverish?"
She put a cool hand on his forehead, and with a sigh of relief Vane lay back. "I'm frightened, Margaret," he said so low that she scarce could hear him. "Just scared to death . . . of that boy opposite. Ain't I a damned fool?"
Her only answer was the faintest perceptible pressure on his forehead. Then his hand came up and took hers, and she felt the touch of his lips on it. For a moment she let it rest there, and then gently withdrew it, while with a tired sigh Vane closed his eyes. . . .
He slept maybe for two hours, and then he found himself wide awake again—every nerve intent, like a man aroused by a sudden noise. Margaret was reading at her table; the man at the other end still groaned feebly in his sleep; the boy was staring dazedly at nothing in particular—but there was something else. He knew it.
Suddenly Margaret put down her book, and half rose from her chair, as if listening; and at the same moment the Gunner woke up. Then they all heard it together—that high pitched, ominous drone which rises and falls in a manner there is no mistaking.
"Boche," said the Gunner, "Boche, for a tanner. And lots of them."
"Damn the swine," muttered Vane. "Can't they even leave a hospital alone?" The next minute any lingering hope was destroyed. Both men heard it—the well-known whistling whooce of the bomb—the vicious crack as it burst; both men felt the ground trembling through their beds. That was the overture . . . the play was about to commence. . . .
All around them bombs rained down till the individual bursts merged into one continuous roar. The earth shook and palpitated, and, to make matters worse, the lights suddenly went out. The last thing Vane saw was Margaret as she made her way, calmly and without faltering, to the boy's bed. He had a picture, printed indelibly on his brain, of a girl with a sweet set face, of a gaping boy, stirred into some semblance of remembrance by the familiar noise around him. And then, in the darkness, he made his way towards her.
There was a deafening crash close to him, and a fragment tore through the side of the tent. He could see the blinding flash, and involuntarily he ducked his head. Then, running and stumbling, he reached her. He felt her standing rigid in the darkness, and even at such a moment he felt a sudden rush of joy as her hands come out to meet him.
"Lie down," he shouted, "lie down at once. . . ."
"The boy," she cried. "Help me with him, Derek."
Together they picked him up, fumbling in the darkness, and laid him on the ground beside his bed. Then Vane took her arm, and shouted in her ear, "Lie down, I tell you, lie down . . . quite flat." Obediently she lay down, and he stretched himself beside her on the ground. To the crashing of the bombs were now added the shouts and curses of men outside; and once Margaret made an effort to rise.
"The patients, Derek. Let me go."
With his one sound arm he kept her down by force. "You can do nothing," he said roughly. He felt her trembling against him, and a wave of fury against the airmen above took hold of him. He was no novice to bombing; there had been weeks on end when the battalion had been bombed nightly. But then it had been part of the show—what they expected; here it was so different.
A sense of utter impotence filled his mind, coupled with a raging passion at the danger to the girl beside him. And suddenly his lips sought hers.
"It's all right, my dear," he kept on saying, "quite all right. It'll be over soon." And so almost unconscious of what they said or did, they lay and listened to the tornado of Death around them. . . .
It is on record that one man once said that he thought it was rather amusing to be in a raid. That man was a liar. He was also a fool. . . . To be bombed is poisonous, rather more poisonous than to be shelled. If there are no dug-outs there is only one thing to be done, and that is what Vane was doing.
To lie flat on the ground minimises the danger except from a direct hit; and a direct hit is remarkably sudden. And so—since every occupant of Number 13 was well aware of this fact, approximately five seconds elapsed after the light went out before all the patients who could move, and most of those who couldn't, were lying on the floor beside their beds.
Gradually the explosions became fewer and fewer; though the earth still shook and throbbed like a living thing, and at last it seemed to Vane that the raid was over. He was lifting himself on his elbow preparatory to going outside and exploring, when an ominous whistling noise seemed to pierce his very brain. He had just time to throw himself on to the girl beside him so that he partially covered her, when the last bomb came. He heard the top of the marquee rip: there was a deafening roar in his ears: a scorching flame enveloped him. He lay stiff and rigid, and the thought flashed through him that this was the end. The next moment he knew he was safe, and that it was merely another close shave such as he had not been unaccustomed to in the past. The bomb had burst in the tent, but the Fate which ordained things had decided it should miss him. It had done so before, and Vane laughed to himself . . .
"Close, my lady, very close," he whispered—"but not quite close enough." With a quick, savage movement he turned Margaret's face towards him, and kissed her on the lips. For a while she clung to him, and then he felt her relax in his arms. She had fainted, and as he realised this, he felt something pressing down on him. With his sound arm he fumbled above his head, and found it was the canvas of the tent.
Tugging and scrambling, he half dragged, half carried Margaret through the entrance which still remained intact, and laid her down on the grass outside. Men and nurses were moving about in the darkness, stumbling over guy ropes and tent pegs. For the moment every one was too intent on his own affairs to bother over a mere faint, and Vane left her lying against the side of the tent. Then he cautiously felt his way round to investigate the damage. A great crater midway between Number 13 and the next tent showed where the first close one had fallen, but he had no wish to explore that any further. He stumbled round the edge and went on. Then in the faint light given by the moon, he saw what had happened when the last bomb had burst. It was nothing worse than many similar sights he had seen, but Vane as he looked at the wreckage cursed bitterly and fluently. And then of a sudden he stopped cursing, and drew a deep breath. . . . Staring up at him in the cold white light was what was left of the Gunner subaltern. The bomb had burst at the foot of his bed . . . A cheery soul . . . A bitter end . . .
Opposite, the bed blown in half, the boy who would not have lasted through the night sprawled uncouthly on to the floor. God knows! a merciful release. . . . A few hours sooner—that's all. . . . And to both—Kismet.
All around lay fragments and debris. For a few seconds he stood there motionless, while every now and then the canvas heaved where it lay on the ground, and someone crawled out into the open. Then he felt a touch on his arm, and, turning, he saw Margaret. Dry-eyed, she watched with him, while the wounded dragged themselves painfully past the still smoking crater, and the acrid smell of high explosive tainted the air.
In the far distance the drone of aeroplanes was getting fainter and fainter. Success had crowned the raider's daring exploit; they were entitled to their well-earned rest. And so for a space did Vane and Margaret stand. . . . It was only when very gently he slipped his arm round her waist that a hard dry sob shook her.
"Oh! the devils," she whispered—"the vile devils."
The following afternoon Vane turned his steps once again towards the beach at Paris Plage. The wreckage in the hospital had been cleared away, and there were rows laid side by side in the mortuary. Over everyone there breathed a sense of restless excitement and fierce anger, and Vane wanted to get away by himself. He felt that he had to think.
For suddenly and quite unexpectedly Margaret Trent had become a factor in his life. After long years their paths had touched again, and Vane found that he could not turn away with the same careless indifference as he had in the past. Though she had always attracted him, he had never seriously contemplated the final step; he had had far too good a time as a bachelor. And then when she had so unaccountably cooled towards him, he had shrugged his shoulders and sought distraction elsewhere.
Before the war Derek Vane had been what is generally described as a typical Englishman. That is to say, he regarded his own country—whenever he thought about it at all—as being the supreme country in the world. He didn't force his opinion down anyone's throat; it simply was so. If the other fellow didn't agree, the funeral was his, not Vane's. He had to the full what the uninitiated regard as conceit; on matters connected with literature, or art, or music his knowledge was microscopic. Moreover, he regarded with suspicion anyone who talked intelligently on such subjects. On the other hand, he had been in the eleven at Eton, and was a scratch golfer. He had a fine seat on a horse and rode straight; he could play a passable game of polo, and was a good shot. Possessing as he did sufficient money to prevent the necessity of working, he had not taken the something he was supposed to be doing in the City very seriously. He had put in a periodical appearance at a desk and drawn pictures on the blotting paper; for the remainder of the time he had amused himself. He belonged, in fact, to the Breed; the Breed that has always existed in England, and will always exist till the world's end. You may meet its members in London and in Fiji; in the lands that lie beyond the mountains and at Henley; in the swamps where the stagnant vegetation rots and stinks; in the great deserts where the night air strikes cold. They are always the same, and they are branded with the stamp of the breed. They shake your hand as a man shakes it; they meet your eye as a man meets it. Just now a generation of them lie around Ypres and La Bassee; Neuve Chapelle and Bapaume. The graves are overgrown and the crosses are marked with indelible pencil. Dead—yes; but not the Breed. The Breed never dies. . . .
We have it on reliable evidence that the breed has its faults; its education is rotten. Men of great learning and understanding have fulminated on the subject; women with their vast experience have looked upon the Breed with great clarity of vision and have written as their eyes have seen; even boys themselves who doubtless must be right, as the question concerns them most, have contributed to current literature one or two damning indictments.
It may well be that hunting butterflies or dissecting rats are more suitable pursuits for young Percival Johnson than doing scram practice up against the playground wall. It may well be that it would be a far, far better thing for mob adoration to be laid at the feet of the composer of the winning Greek Iambic rather than at the cricketing boots of the Captain of the Eleven. It may be so, but, then, most assuredly it may not. . . .
The system which has turned out hundreds of the Breed, and whose object is to mould all who pass through it on the model of the Breed, is not one to be dismissed lightly. Doubtless it has its faults; a little more latitude both in games and work might be allowed; originality encouraged more. But let us be very certain before we gaily pull the system to pieces that the one we erect in its place will stand the strain, and produce the one great result beside which everything else is as nothing. For if, at the price of team work and playing for the side, we can only buy two or three more years of individualism—at an age when the value of individualism is, at best, a doubtful blessing and, at worst, sheer blatant selfishness—we shall indeed have messed things up. The cranks will be delighted; but the Empire will gnash its teeth.
And now after nearly four years in the fiercest forcing house of character Derek Vane found himself trying to take an inventory of his own stock. And since the material question of money did not come in to cloud the horizon, he felt he could do it impartially. There are many now who, having sacrificed every prospect, find their outlook haunted by the spectre of want; there are many more, formerly engaged in skilled trades such as engineering or mining, who find that they have four years of leeway to make up in their profession—four years of increased knowledge and mechanical improvements—unknown to them, but not to their competitors, who remained behind. But such prospects did not trouble him. The future, as far as money was concerned, was assured.
Vane thoughtfully lit a cigarette. It seemed to him that he had wasted four of the best years of his life, sitting, save for brief intervals, on the same filthy piece of ground, with the sole object of killing complete strangers before they killed him. In this laudable pastime he had succeeded to the extent of two for certain and one doubtful. The only man whom he had really wanted to slaughter—a certain brother subaltern who offended him daily—he had been forced to spare owing to foolish regulations. . . . And now this youth was at home as a Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel in sole control of an ante-chamber in one of the large hotels, with a staff of four flappers, who presented papers for his signature every other Tuesday from 2.30 to 4.
With a short laugh he got up and shook himself. In the distance some sand dunes beckoned invitingly—sand dunes which reminded him of the width of Westward Ho! and a certain championship meeting there long ago. Slowly he strolled towards them, going down nearer the sea where the sand was finer. And all the time he argued it out with himself. Four years wasted! But had they been wasted? What had he got out of them anyway? Wasn't he twice the man that he had been four years ago? Or had it all been futile and useless? . . .
No man who has been through the rapids can find his feet in an hour's self-analysis. It takes time; and during that time much may happen, good or ill, according to the manner of the finder. The great unrest of the world is not felt by the men in the trenches. It seethes and boils outside, and only when a man comes back to so-called peace does he reach the whirlpool, which lies at the end of the rapids. Then, if he be of the type of Vane, is the time of danger. To lose one's sense of proportion in France is dangerous; to lose it in England may be fatal. One has so much more freedom.
At intervals during the War Vane had sampled the whirlpool, while on leave, and the effect it had produced in him had been transitory. The contrast was so immense that it had failed to move him permanently. The time that he had been in its clutches was too short. He retained just a fleeting picture of feverish gaiety which seemed out of perspective; of profound bores who discussed the mistakes of the Higher Command in the arm chairs of the Club; of universal chatter concerning rations and meat coupons. Then he had left, and in a few short hours had been back once more in the mud holes. A good leave? Oh! undoubtedly, just as it should have been, where the one thing necessary was contrast. But even then it had irritated him at times to realise how completely they failed to understand. He would not have had them understand—true. If the alternative had been put to him; if he had been told that it was in his power to make these people see the things that he had seen, and hear the things that he had heard, he would not have done so. They were better as they were—affording the contrast; enabling men to forget.
But leave is one thing, permanence is another. And at the moment Vane was faced with the latter. The doctor had talked airily of three or four months, and after that in all probability a spell of light duty, and to Vane that seemed like a permanency. It is one thing to drug oneself in the waters of Lethe for a fortnight of one's own free will: it is altogether different to be drugged by others for good. And dimly he felt that either he or they would have to go under. Two totally incompatible people cannot sit next one another at dinner for long without letting some course get cold. Unless one of them happens to be dumb. . . .
But were they totally incompatible? That seemed to be the crux of the whole matter. To the soldiers, pulling together, unselfishness, grinning when the sky is black, that is the new philosophy. One hesitates to call it new. It existed once, we are given to understand—or at any rate it was preached and practised in days gone by. Since then it has become unfashionable. . . .
And what about les autres—who have kept the home fires burning? For a moment Vane stopped and stared in front of him; then he laughed aloud. As has been said, he was jangled—so perhaps he may be forgiven.
It was on the other side of the dunes that he suddenly found Margaret. She had her back towards him as he came over the top, and in the sand his footsteps made no noise. And so she continued her pursuit of throwing stones at a bottle a few yards away, in ignorance of the fact that she had an audience. It is a lazy occupation at the best of times and her rendering of it was no exception to the rule. For whole minutes on end she would sit quite still gazing out to sea; and then, as if suddenly realising her slackness, she would continue the bombardment furiously.
For a while Vane watched her thoughtfully. Was she the answer? To go right away with her somewhere—right away from the crowd and the strife of existence: to be with her always, watching her grow from the wife to the mother, seeing her with his children, feeling that she was his and no one else's. God! but to think of the peace of it. . . .
He watched the soft tendrils of hair curling under the brim of her hat; the play of her body as she picked up the stones and threw them. Around him the coarse grass bent slightly in the breeze and the murmur of the sea came faintly over the dunes. Away in front of him stretched the sand, golden in the warm sun, the surface broken every now and then by the dark brown wooden groins. Not a soul was in sight, and save for some gulls circling round they two seemed the only living things. . . . With a sudden smile he stooped down and picked up a stone—several, in fact, and fired a volley. There was a tinkling noise, and the bottle fell. Then he waited for her to look round. For just a little while there was silence, and then she turned towards him with a smile. . . . And in that moment it seemed to him that he had found the answer he sought. Surely it was just a dream, and in a moment he would wake up and see the dreadful face of the mess waiter appearing down the dug-out steps. It is impossible to stumble over sand dunes and find Margarets in France. These things simply do not happen. One merely stumbles over the cobbles and sees the woman who keeps the estaminet round the corner washing the floor. And her lips do not part in the dawn of a smile—mercifully; her eyes are not big and blue. It was all a dream! last night was all a dream. Just one of those pictures he had seen sometimes in the candle light, when it guttered in the draught, as the big crump burst outside. . . .
"Derek, that wasn't fair." With an effort he pulled himself together and regarded her gravely. Then he scrambled down the sandy bank to her side.
"Do you mind pinching me?" he remarked, holding out his hand. "Hard—very hard. . . . I want to make certain I'm not dreaming."
"Why should you be?" Her voice was faintly tremulous. "And why have you got your eyes shut?"
"Pinch me, please, at once." Vane's hand was still held out, and she gave it a gentle nip. "Go on, harder . . . Ah! that's better. Now promise me you won't disappear if I open my eyes."
"I promise," she answered solemnly, but struggling to withdraw her hand from both of his, where he had caught it. . . .
"Oh! my dear, my dear," he whispered. "It's just too wonderful to be true. The peace of it, and the glory, and you. . . . I'll be waking up in a minute, my lady, and find myself crawling round the outpost line."
He laughed gently and triumphantly, and drew her towards him. Only when his arm was round her, did he pause. . . . And then it was the look in her eyes, as much as her two hands pressed against his chest, that stopped him. "What is it, Margaret, my lady? Aren't you going to kiss me?"
"No, Derek—not yet. Perhaps once before we go. . . . Please, take your arm away."
For a moment he hesitated. "Even after last night."
She nodded. "Principally because of last night."
With a little lift of his eyebrows Vane did as he was bid. "I knew there was a catch somewhere," he murmured plaintively. "You don't want me to go away and leave you, do you?"
She shook her head and smiled. Then she patted the ground beside her. "Come and sit down; I want to talk to you. No—not too near."
"Don't you trust me?" he demanded half sullenly, as he took a seat somewhat further removed from temptation.
"My dear Derek, it would take more than a mere European war to make some leopards I know of change their spots."
In spite of himself Vane laughed. "Well, dash it, Margaret, there was a distinct flavour of the pre-war about you last night."
She closed her eyes, and her hands clenched. "Oh! don't, Derek; don't, please. As long as I live I shall never forget it. It was too horrible." She turned away from him shuddering.
"Dear—I'm sorry." He leaned forward and took her hand. "I didn't realise quite what it must mean to you. You see it was that poor boy who was dying in the bed opposite mine that made me jumpy . . . frightened . . . God knows what! The smash up of the raid itself left me almost cold by comparison. . . . I suppose it was the other way round with you. . . . It's just a question of what one is used to—anyway, don't let's talk about it."
For a while they sat in silence, and then Vane spoke again. "You know I'm crossing to-morrow, I suppose?"
"Yes." Margaret nodded. "I didn't think you'd stop long."
"Are you sorry I'm going?"
"Of course I am," she answered simply. "You know that. . . . But I think perhaps it's just as well."
"Just as well!" repeated Vane. "Why?"
"Because . . . oh! because of a lot of things. You'd interfere with my work for one."
"How dreadful," said Vane with mock gravity. "You'd mix the medicines and all that, I suppose." Then he turned to her impulsively. "Margaret, my dear, what does it matter? This work of yours won't go on for ever. And after the War, what then?"
"That's just it," she said slowly. "What then?"
"Well, as a preliminary suggestion—why not marry me?"
She laughed—a low, rippling laugh.
"Do you remember what you said to me in the tea shop yesterday about not having seen a girl for six months?"
"What on earth has that got to do with it?" said Vane frowning. "I'm not a child or a callow boy. Do you suppose at my age I don't know my own mind? Why, my dear girl. . . ." Her eyes met his, and the words died away on his lips.
"Don't, dear, don't. You're insulting both our intelligences." With a slight laugh she leaned over and rested her hand on his. "You know perfectly well what I mean."
Vane grunted non-committally. He undoubtedly did know what she meant, but at that moment it was annoying to find she knew it too. . . .
"Listen, Derek; I want to put things before you as I see them." With her elbows on her knee, and her chin cupped in the palms of her hand, she was staring across the stretch of tumbled, grass-grown hillocks.
"We know one another too well not to be perfectly frank. How much of last night was just—what shall I say—nervous tension? Supposing some other girl had been in my place?"
Impetuously he started to speak, but once again the words died away on his lips as he saw the half-tender, half-humorous look in her eyes.
"Dear," she went on after a moment. "I don't want to hurt you. I know you think you're in love with me to-day; but will you to-morrow? You see, Derek, this war has given a different value to things. . . . Whether one likes it or not, it's made one more serious. It hasn't destroyed our capacity for pleasure, but it's altered the things we take pleasure in. My idea of a good time, after it's over, will never be the same as it was before."
Vane nodded his head thoughtfully. "I'm not certain, dear, that that's anything to worry about."
"Of course it isn't—I know that. But don't you see, Derek, where that leads us to? One can't afford to fool with things once they have become serious. . . . And to kiss a man, as I kissed you last night, seems to mean very much more to me than it did once upon a time. That's why I want to make sure. . . ." She hesitated, and then, seeming to make up her mind, she turned and faced him. "I would find it easier now to live with a man I really loved—if that were the only way—than to be kissed by two or three at a dance whom I didn't care about. Do you understand?"
"My dear, I understand perfectly," answered Vane. "The one is big—the other is petty. And when we live through an age of big things we grow ourselves."
"I gave you that as a sort of example of what I feel, Derek," Margaret continued after a time. "I don't suppose there is anything novel in it, but I want you so frightfully to understand what I am going to say. You have asked me to marry you—to take the biggest step which any woman can take. I tell you quite frankly that I want to say 'Yes.' I think all along that I've loved you, though I've flirted with other men. . . . I was a fool five years ago. . . ."
He looked at her quickly. "Tell me; I want to know."
"I found out about that girl you were keeping."
Vane started slightly. "Good Lord! But how?"
"Does it matter, old man?" Margaret turned to him with a smile. "A chance remark by Billy Travers, if you want to know. And then I asked a few questions, and put two and two together. It seemed a deliberate slight to me. It seemed so sordid. You see I didn't understand—then."
"And now? Do you understand now?" He leaned towards her eagerly.
"Should I have said to you what I have if I didn't?" She held out her hand to him, and with a quick movement he put it to his lips. "I've grown, you see . . . got a little nearer the true value of things. I've passed out of the promiscuous kissing stage, as I told you. . . . And I think I realise rather more than I did what men are. . . . One doesn't make them up out of books now. All this has taught one to understand a man's temptations—to forgive him when he fails." Then a little irrelevantly—"They seem so petty, don't they—now?"
Vane gently dropped the hand he was holding, and his face as he looked at her was inscrutable. Into his mind there had flashed Lear's question: "And goes thy heart with this?" Then irritably he banished it. . . . God bless her! She was all heart: of course she was.
"Will you tell me where exactly you have arrived at?" he asked quietly.
"At the certainty that there lies in front of you and me work to be done. I don't know what that work will prove to be—but, Derek, we've got to find out. It may be that we shall do it together. It may be that my work is just to be with you. And it may be that it isn't that you won't want me. Ah! yes, dear," as he made a quick, impatient movement. "There is always the possibility. I want you to go and find out, Derek, and I want you to make sure that you really want me—that it isn't just six months in Flanders. Also," she added after a pause, "I want to be quite sure about myself." For a while Vane stared out to sea in silence.
"Supposing," he said slowly, "the work in front of me is back to Flanders again, as it probably will be. And supposing I'm not so lucky next time. What then?"
She turned and faced him. "Why then, dear, Fate will have decided for us, won't she?"
"A deuced unsatisfactory decision," grumbled Vane. "Margaret, I don't want to worry you; I don't want to force myself on you . . . but won't you give me some sort of a promise?"
She shook her head. "I'll give you no promise at all, Derek. You've got to find yourself, and I've got to find myself; and when we've both done that we shall know how we stand to one another. Until then . . . well just give it a miss in baulk, old man."
Vane regarded her curiously. "If last night and this afternoon had happened before the war, I wonder what your decision would have been?"
"Does it matter?" she answered gently. "Before the war is just a different age." For a while she was silent; then she drew a deep breath. "Don't you feel it as I feel it?" she whispered. "The bigness of it, the wonder of it. Underneath all the horror, underlying all the vileness—the splendour of it all. The glory of human endurance. . . . People wondered that I could stand it—I with my idealism. But it seems to me that out of the sordid brutality an ideal has been born which is almost the greatest the world has ever known. Oh! Derek, we've just got to try to keep it alive."
"It's the devil," said Vane whimsically. "Jove! lady dear, isn't the blue of the sky and the sea and the gold of the sand just crying out to be the setting of a lovers' paradise? Aren't we here alone just hidden from the world, while the very gulls themselves are screaming: 'Kiss her, kiss her?' And then the fairy princess, instead of being the fairy princess to the wounded warrior, orders him to go back and look for work. It's cruel. I had hoped for tender love and pity, and behold I have found a Labour Bureau."
Margaret laughed. "You dear! But you understand?" She knelt beside him on the sand, and her face was very tender.
"I understand," answered Vane gravely. "But, oh! my lady, I hope you're not building fairy castles on what's going to happen after the war. I'm afraid my faith in my brother man is a very, very small flame."
"All the more reason why we should keep it alight," she cried fiercely. "Derek, we can't let all this hideous mutilation and death go for nothing afterwards."
"You dear optimist," Vane smiled at her eager, glowing face so close to his own. "Do you suppose that we and others like us will have any say in the matter?"
She beat her hands together. "Derek, I hate you when you talk like that. You've got it in you to do big things—I feel it. You mustn't drift like you did before the war. You've got to fight, and others like you have got to fight, for everything that makes life worth living in our glorious, wonderful England."
"Would the staff be a little more explicit in their Operation Orders, please?" murmured Vane. "Whom do you propose I should engage in mortal combat?" He saw the slight frown on her face and leant forward quickly. "My dear, don't misunderstand me. I don't want to be flippant and cynical. But I'm just a plain, ordinary man—and I'm rather tired. When this show is over I want peace and rest and comfort. And I rather feel that it's up to the damned fools who let us in for it to clear up the mess themselves for a change."
"But you won't later, old boy," said the girl; "not after you've found yourself again. You'll have to be up and doing; it will stifle you to sit still and do nothing." She looked thoughtfully out to sea and then, as he kept silent, she went on slowly, "I guess we all sat still before this war; drifted along the line of least resistance. We've got to cut a new way, Derek, find a new path, which will make for the good of the show. And before we can find the path, we've got to find ourselves."
She turned towards him and for a long minute they looked into one another's eyes, while the gulls circled and screamed above them. Then slowly she bent forward and kissed him on the mouth. . . . "Go and find yourself, my dear," she whispered. "Go and make good. And when you have, if you still want me, I'll come to you."
* * * * *
At the touch of her lips Vane closed his eyes. It seemed only a few seconds before he opened them again, but Margaret was gone. And then for a while he sat, idly throwing stones at the overturned bottle. Just once he laughed, a short, hard laugh with no humour in it, before he turned to follow her. But when he reached the top of the sand dune, Margaret was almost out of sight in the distance.
Next day he crossed to England in the Guildford Castle.
Derek Vane did not remain long in hospital. As soon as the dressings for his shoulder had become quite straightforward, the machine, in the shape of two doctors from Millbank who formed the Board, took him in its clutches once more and deposited him at a convalescent home. Not one of the dreary, routine-like places which have been in the past associated with convalescence, but a large country house, kindly placed at the disposal of the War Office by its owner.
"Rumfold Hall for you, Vane," said the senior of the two doctors. "A charming house; Lady Patterdale—a charming woman."
"Rumfold Hall!" echoed Vane. "Good Heavens! I know it well. Danced there often during the old regime."
"The old regime?" The doctor looked puzzled.
"Yes. It used to belong to the Earl of Forres. He couldn't afford to keep it up and his other places as well, so he sold it to Sir John Patterdale. . . . Made his money in hardware, did Sir John. . . . Surely you know Patterdale's Patent Plate."
The Board opined that it did not, and departed to the next case. It even seemed to regard such flippancy with a certain amount of suspicion; but then Medical Boards are things of some solemnity. . . .
And so in the course of two or three days Vane drove up to the historic gates of Rumfold Hall in an ambulance. The house, situated in the heart of Surrey, was surrounded by extensive grounds. The view from it was magnificent, stretching away for miles and miles to the south, and terminating in the purple downs: and Vane, as the car waited for the gates to be opened, felt that indefinable thrill of pride that comes to every man when he looks on some glorious stretch of his own country. He noticed that the lodge-keeper had changed since he was there last, and not, it struck him, for the better. How well he remembered old John, with his sweet old wife, and their perfectly kept patch of garden and spotless little kitchen. . . . He had had two sons, both in the Grenadiers, magnificent, strapping fellows—and Vane wondered what had become of them. . . .
Somehow he couldn't quite imagine old John not touching his hat as the ambulance came in; whereas his successor merely gazed curiously at the occupants, and then slouched back into the lodge. . . . Of course hat-touching is a relic of feudalism, and, as such, too hideous to contemplate in this age of democracy; but still—like a smile—it costs little and gives much pleasure.
From the condition of the grounds it did not seem that the present owner had been very greatly troubled by the labour shortage. The flower beds were a riot of colour; the grass was short and beautifully kept. And as the ambulance rounded a corner of the drive and the house opened up in front Vane saw that tennis was in full swing on the lawns.
"Say—what sort of a guy is this fellow?" asked a New Zealander opposite him suddenly. "It seems to me to be some house."
Vane looked at him thoughtfully for a moment before replying, and the car was already slowing down before he finally spoke. "He's a substitute for the old order of things. And according to the labels of all substitutes, they are the last word in modern efficiency."
The car pulled up at that moment, and they stepped out to find Lady Patterdale standing on the steps to welcome them.
Let it be said at once that Lady Patterdale was a perfect dear. One lost sight of her incredible vulgarity in view of the charming kindliness of her heart. And, after all, vulgarity is only comparative. In the sanctity of the little shop in Birmingham where Sir John had first laid the foundations of his fortune, aspirates could drop unheeded. What mattered then, as always, was whether the heart was in the right place. With Lady Patterdale it was. . . .
And because au fond, she was such a dear, it made it all the more pathetic to see her in such surroundings. One felt, and one felt that in the bottom of her heart she felt, that she would have been far more happy in the kitchen. Except that in the kitchen her lost aspirates would probably have been handed back to her on a salver, whereas in the drawing-room they were ground into the carpet. . . . The spread of education has made the kitchen a very dangerous place.
In appearance Lady Patterdale was short and stout; eminently the type of woman who, if clothed according to the dictates of common sense, would be called a "comfortable old party." One could imagine her in a cotton dress, with her sleeves rolled up above her elbows, displaying a pair of plump forearms and wielding a rolling pin in front of a good hot fire. Covered with flour—her face very red—she would have been in her element. . . . As it was, the dictates of fashion had cast their blight over the proceedings.
The name of her dressmaker is immaterial. Originally Smith & Co. in all probability, it had now become Smythe et Cie, and advertised in all the most exclusive papers. Unfortunately, in the case of Lady Patterdale they did not stop at advertising. They carried out their dreadful threats and clothed her. The result was incredible. She resembled nothing so much as a bursting melon. Onlookers shuddered at times when they thought of the trust reposed by Providence and Lady Patterdale in a few paltry hooks and eyes. The strain appeared so terrific—the consequences of a disaster so appalling.
As Vane stepped out of the ambulance Lady Patterdale, supported on either side by one of the nursing staff, advanced to meet him. Her jolly old face was wreathed in smiles; cordiality and kindliness oozed from her.
"Welcome, both of you," she cried. "Welcome to Rumfold 'all."
The Sister on her left started as if a serpent had stung her, and Vane decided that he did not like her. Then he turned to the kindly old woman, and smiled.
"Thank you, Lady Patterdale," he said, taking her outstretched hand. "I'm sure it's going to be topping."
"You're just in nice time for luncheon," she continued, as she turned to welcome the New Zealander. "And after that you'll be able to find your way about the 'ouse."
Lunch was the only meal where all the convalescents met, as, generally, some of them had retired before dinner. It was served in the old banqueting hall, which, when Vane remembered it, had been used for dancing. The officers had it to themselves, the nursing staff feeding elsewhere. . . .
The contrast struck Vane forcibly as he sat down at the long table. The last time he had been in the room he and three or four kindred spirits had emptied a fruit salad into a large wind instrument just before the band played the final gallop. . . .
"Beer, sir, or cider?" He half turned to answer, when suddenly the voice continued, "Why, but surely, sir, it's Mr. Vane?"
He looked up and saw the same butler who had been at the Hall in the old days.
"Why, Robert," he said delightedly, "you still here? Jove! but I'm glad to see you. I thought Sir John had made a clean sweep of all the staff."
The butler nodded his head sadly. "All except me, sir—me and Mrs. Hickson. She was the housekeeper, if you remember. And she couldn't stand it—that is, she had to leave after a year."
"Ah!" Vane's tone was non-committal. "And what's become of old John—at the Lodge?"
"He went, sir. Sir John found him too slow." Robert poured out a glass of beer. "He's in the village, sir. One of his sons was killed at Noove Chappel."
"I'm sorry about that. I must go and see him."
"He'd be proud, sir, if you'd be so kind. I often goes down there myself for a bit of a chat about the old days." With a sigh the old butler passed on, and Vane returned to his lunch. . . .
"You seem to know our archaic friend," remarked the officer sitting next him. "He's a dear old thing. . . ."
"He's one of a dying breed," said Vane shortly. "I would trust old Robert with everything in the world that I possessed. . . ."
"That so?" returned the other. "Has he been here long?"
"To my certain knowledge for twenty-five years, and I believe longer. It almost broke his heart when he heard that Lord Forres was going to sell the place." Vane continued his lunch in silence, and suddenly a remark from the other side of the table struck his ears.
"I say, old Side-whiskers hasn't given me my fair whack of beer." It was a youngster speaking, and the remark was plainly audible to the old butler two places away. For a moment his face quivered, and then he returned to the speaker.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he remarked quietly. "Let me fill your glass."
"Thanks, old sport. That's a bit better looking." Vane turned to his neighbour with an amused smile.
"Truly the old order changeth," remarked the other thoughtfully. "And one's inclined to wonder if it's changing for the better."
"Unfortunately in any consideration of that sort one is so hopelessly biassed by one's own personal point of view," returned Vane.
"Do you think so?" He crumbled the bread beside him. "Don't you think one can view a little episode like that in an unbiassed way? Isn't it merely in miniature what is going on all over the country? . . . The clash of the new spirit with the one that is centuries old."
"And you really regard that youth as being representative of the new spirit?"
"No one man can be. But I regard him as typical of a certain phase of that spirit. In all probability a magnificent platoon commander—there are thousands like him who have come into being with this war. The future of the country lies very largely in their hands. What are they going to make of it?"
The same question—the same ceaseless refrain. Sometimes expressed, more often not. ENGLAND in the melting pot—what was going to happen? Unconsciously Vane's eyes rested on the figure of the old butler standing at the end of the room. There was something noble about the simplicity of the old man, confronted by the crashing of the system in which he and his father, and his father's father had been born. A puzzled look seemed ever in his eyes: the look of a dog parted from a beloved master, in new surroundings amongst strange faces. And officially, at any rate, the crash was entirely for the benefit of him and his kind . . . . wherein lay the humour.
Vane laughed shortly as he pushed back his chair. "Does anything matter save one's own comfort? Personally I think slavery would be an admirable innovation."
Sir John Patterdale was everything that his wife was not. The unprecedented success of his Patent Plate had enabled him to pay the necessary money to obtain his knighthood and blossom into a county magnate. At one time he had even thought of standing for Parliament as an old and crusted Tory; but up to date the War had prevented the realisation of such a charming idyll. Instead he sat on the bench and dispensed justice.
In appearance he was an exact counterpart of his wife—short and fat; and his favourite attitude was standing with his legs wide apart and his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat. Strong men had been known to burst into tears on seeing him for the first time arrayed as the sporting squire; but the role was one which he persistently tried to fill, with the help of a yellow hunting waistcoat and check stockings. And when it is said that he invariably bullied the servants, if possible in front of a third person, the picture of Sir John is tolerably complete. He was, in short, a supreme cad, with not a single redeeming feature. Stay—that is wrong. He still retained the love of his wife, which may perhaps—nay, surely shall—be accounted to him for righteousness. . . .
To her he was never the vain, strutting little bounder, making himself ridiculous and offensive by turn. She never got beyond the picture of him when, as plain John Patterdale, having put up the shutters and locked the door of the shop, he would come through into their little living-room behind for his supper. First he would kiss her, and then taking off his best coat, he would put on the old frayed one that always hung in readiness behind the door. And after supper, they would draw up very close together, and dream wonderful dreams about the future. All sorts of beautiful things danced in the flames; but the most beautiful thing of all was the reality of her John, with his arm round her waist, and his cheek touching hers.
Sometimes now, when the real truth struck her more clearly than usual—for she was a shrewd old woman for all her kindness of heart—sometimes when she saw the sneers of the people who ate his salt and drank his champagne her mind went back with a bitter stab of memory to those early days in Birmingham. What had they got in exchange for their love and dreams over the kitchen fire—what Dead Sea Fruit had they plucked? If only something could happen; if only he could lose all his money, how willingly, how joyfully would she go back with him to the niche where they both fitted. They might even be happy once again. . . .
He had needed her in those days: turned to her for comfort when business was bad, taken her out on the burst—just they two alone—when things looked up and there had been a good day's takings. The excitement over choosing her best hat—the one with the bunches of fruit in it. . . . As long as she lived she would never forget the morning she tried it on, when he deserted the shop and cheered from the bedroom door, thereby losing a prospective customer.