SNAKE AND SWORD
PERCIVAL CHRISTOPHER WREN
DEDICATED TO MY WIFE ALICE LUCILLE WREN
THE WELDING OF A SOUL
I. The Snake and the Soul
THE SEARING OF A SOUL
II. The Sword and the Snake
III. The Snake Appears
IV. The Sword and the Soul
VI. The Snake's "Myrmidon"
VII. Love—and the Snake
VIII. Troopers of the Queen
IX. A Snake avenges a Haddock and Lucille behaves in an un-Smelliean Manner
X. Much Ado about Almost Nothing—A Mere Trooper
XI. More Myrmidons
THE SAVING OF A SOUL
XII. Vultures and Luck—Good and Bad
XIV. The Snake and the Sword
Seven Years After
THE WELDING OF A SOUL.
THE SNAKE AND THE SOUL.
When Colonel Matthew Devon de Warrenne, V.C., D.S.O., of the Queen's Own (118th) Bombay Lancers, pinned his Victoria Cross to the bosom of his dying wife's night-dress, in token of his recognition that she was the braver of the twain, he was not himself.
He was beside himself with grief.
Afterwards he adjured the sole witness of this impulsive and emotional act, Major John Decies, never to mention his "damned theatrical folly" to any living soul, and to excuse him on the score of an ancient sword-cut on the head and two bad sun-strokes.
For the one thing in heaven above, on the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth, that Colonel de Warrenne feared, was breach of good form and stereotyped convention.
And the one thing he loved was the dying woman.
This last statement applies also to Major John Decies, of the Indian Medical Service, Civil Surgeon of Bimariabad, and may even be expanded, for the one thing he ever had loved was the dying woman....
Colonel Matthew Devon de Warrenne did the deed that won him his Victoria Cross, in the open, in the hot sunlight and in hot blood, sword in hand and with hot blood on the sword-hand—fighting for his life.
His wife did the deed that moved him to transfer the Cross to her, in darkness, in cold blood, in loneliness, sickness and silence—fighting for the life of her unborn child against an unseen foe.
Colonel de Warrenne's type of brave deed has been performed thousands of times and wherever brave men have fought.
His wife's deed of endurance, presence of mind, self-control and cool courage is rarer, if not unique.
To appreciate this fully, it must be known that she had a horror of snakes, so terrible as to amount to an obsession, a mental deformity, due, doubtless, to the fact that her father (Colonel Mortimer Seymour Stukeley) died of snake-bite before her mother's eyes, a few hours before she herself was born.
Bearing this in mind, judge of the conduct that led Colonel de Warrenne, distraught, to award her his Cross "For Valour".
One oppressive June evening, Lenore de Warrenne returned from church (where she had, as usual, prayed fervently that her soon-expected first-born might be a daughter), and entered her dressing-room. Here her Ayah divested her of hat, dress, and boots, and helped her into the more easeful tea-gown and satin slippers.
"Bootlair wanting ishweets for dinner-table from go-down, please, Mem-Sahib," observed Ayah, the change of garb accomplished.
"The butler wants sweets, does he? Give me my keys, then," replied Mrs. de Warrenne, and, rising with a sigh, she left the dressing-room and proceeded, via the dining-room (where she procured some small silver bowls, sweet-dishes, and trays), to the go-down or store-room, situate at the back of the bungalow and adjoining the "dispense-khana"—the room in which assemble the materials and ministrants of meals from the extra-mural "bowachi-khana" or kitchen. Unlocking the door of the go-down, Mrs. de Warrenne entered the small shelf-encircled room, and, stepping on to a low stool proceeded to fill the sweet-trays from divers jars, tins and boxes, with guava-cheese, crystallized ginger, kulwa, preserved mango and certain of the more sophisticated sweetmeats of the West.
It was after sunset and the hamal had not yet lit the lamps, so that this pantry, a dark room at mid-day, was far from light at that time. But for the fact that she knew exactly where everything was, and could put her hand on what she wanted, she would not have entered without a light.
For some minutes the unfortunate lady stood on the stool.
Having completed her task she stepped down backwards and, as her foot touched the ground, she knew that she had trodden upon a snake.
Even as she stood poised, one foot on the ground, the other on the stool, both hands gripping the high shelf, she felt the reptile whipping, writhing, jerking, lashing, flogging at her ankle and instep, coiling round her leg.... And in the fraction of a second the thought flashed through her mind: "If its head is under my foot, or too close to my foot for its fangs to reach me, I am safe while I remain as I am. If its head is free I am doomed—and matters cannot be any the worse for my keeping as I am."
And she kept as she was, with one foot on the stool, out of reach, and one foot on the snake.
No, called quietly and coolly for the butler, remembering that she had sent Nurse Beaton out, that her husband was at polo, that there were none but native servants in the house, and that if she raised an alarm they would take it, and with single heart consider each the safety of Number One.
"Boy!" she called calmly, though the room swam round her and a deadly faintness began to paralyse her limbs and loosen her hold upon the shelf—"Boy! Come here."
Antonio Ferdinand Xavier D'Souza, Goanese butler, heard and came.
"Mem-Sahib?" quoth he, at the door of the go-down.
"Bring a lamp quickly," said Lenore de Warrenne in a level voice.
The worthy Antonio, fat, spectacled, bald and wheezy, hurried away and peremptorily bade the hamal, son of a jungle-pig, to light and bring a lamp quickly.
The hamal, respectfully pointing out to the Bootlair Sahib that the daylight was yet strong and lusty enough to shame and smother any lamp, complied with deliberation and care, polishing the chimney, trimming the wick, pouring in oil and generally making a satisfactory and commendable job of it.
Lenore de Warrenne, sick, faint, sinking, waited ... waited ... waited ... gripping the shelf and fighting against her over-mastering weakness for the life of the unborn child that, even in that awful moment, she prayed might be a daughter.
After many cruelly long centuries, and as she swayed to fall, the good Antonio entered with the lamp. Her will triumphed over her falling body.
"Boy, I am standing on a snake!" said she coolly. "Put the lamp—"
But Antonio did not stay to "put" the lamp; incontinent he dropped it on the floor and fled yelling "Sap! Sap!" and that the Mem-Sahib was bitten, dying, dead—certainly dead; dead for hours.
And the brave soul in the little room waited ... waited ... waited ... gripping the shelf, and thinking of the coming daughter, and wondering whether she must die by snake-bite or fire—unborn—with her unhappy mother. For the fallen lamp had burst, the oil had caught fire, and the fire gave no light by which she could see what was beneath her foot—head, body, or tail of the lashing, squirming snake—as the flame flickered, rose and fell, burnt blue, swayed, roared in the draught of the door—did anything but give a light by which she could see as she bent over awkwardly, still gripping the shelf, one foot on the stool, further prevented from seeing by her loose draperies.
Soon she realized that in any case she could not see her foot without changing her position—a thing she would not do while there was hope—and strength to hold on. For hope there was, inasmuch as she had not yet felt the stroke of the reptile's fangs.
Again she reasoned calmly, though strength was ebbing fast; she must remain as she was till death by fire or suffocation was the alternative to flight—flight which was synonymous with death, for, as her other foot came down and she stepped off the snake, in that instant it would strike—if it had not struck already.
Meantime—to call steadily and coolly again.
This time she called to the hamal, a Bhil, engaged out of compassion, and likely, as a son of the jungle's sons, to be of more courage than the stall-fed butler in presence of dangerous beast or reptile.
"Hamal: I want you," she called coolly.
"Mem-Sahib?" came the reply from the lamp-room near by, and the man approached.
"That stupid butler has dropped a lamp and run away. Bring a pail of water quickly and call to the malli to bring a pail of earth as you get it. Hasten!—and there is baksheesh," said Mrs. de Warrenne quietly in the vernacular.
Tap and pail were by the door of the back verandah. In a minute the hamal entered and flung a pail of water on the burning pool of oil, reducing the mass of blue lambent flames considerably.
"Now hamal," said the fainting woman, the more immediate danger confronted, "bring another lamp very quickly and put it on the shelf. Quick! don't stop to fill or to clean it."
Was the pricking, shooting pain the repeated stabbing of the snake's fangs or was it "pins and needles"? Was this deadly faintness death indeed, or was it only weakness?
In what seemed but a few more years the man reappeared carrying a lighted lamp, the which he placed upon a shelf.
"Listen," said Mrs. de Warrenne, "and have no fear, brave Bhil. I have caught a snake. Get a knife quickly and cut off its head while I hold it."
The man glancing up, appeared to suppose that his mistress held the snake on the shelf, hurried away, and rushed back with the cook's big kitchen-knife gripped dagger-wise in his right hand.
"Do you see the snake?" she managed to whisper. "Under my foot! Quick! It is moving ... moving ... moving out."
With a wild Bhil cry the man flung himself down upon his hereditary dread foe and slashed with the knife.
Mrs. de Warrenne heard it scratch along the floor, grate on a nail, and crush through the snake.
"Are!! Dead, Mem-Sahib!! Dead!! See, I have cut off its head! Are!!!! Wah!! The brave mistress!——"
As she collapsed, Mrs. de Warrenne saw the twitching body of a large cobra with its head severed close to its neck. Its head had just protruded from under her foot and she had saved the unborn life for which she had fought so bravely by just keeping still.... She had won her brief decoration with the Cross by—keeping still. (Her husband had won his permanent right to it by extreme activity.) ... Had she moved she would have been struck instantly, for the reptile was, by her, uninjured, merely nipped between instep and floor.
Having realized this, Lenore de Warrenne fainted and then passed from fit to fit, and her child—a boy—was born that night. Hundreds of times during the next few days the same terrible cry rang from the sick-room through the hushed bungalow: "It is under my foot! It is moving ... moving ... moving ... out!"
* * * * *
"If I had to make a prophecy concerning this young fella," observed the broken-hearted Major John Decies, I.M.S., Civil Surgeon of Bimariabad, as he watched old Nurse Beaton performing the baby's elaborate ablutions and toilet, "I should say that he will not grow up fond of snakes—not if there is anything in the 'pre-natal influence' theory."
THE SEARING OF A SOUL.
THE SWORD AND THE SNAKE.
Colonel Matthew Devon De Warrenne, commanding the Queen's Own (118th) Bombay Lancers, was in good time, in his best review-order uniform, and in a terrible state of mind.
He strode from end to end of the long verandah of his bungalow with clank of steel, creak of leather, and groan of travailing soul. As the top of his scarlet, blue and gold turban touched the lamp that hung a good seven feet above his spurred heels he swore viciously.
Almost for the first time in his hard-lived, selfish life he had been thwarted, flouted, cruelly and evilly entreated, and the worst of it was that his enemy was—not a man whom he could take by the throat, but—Fate.
Fate had dealt him a cruel blow, and he felt as he would have done had he, impotent, seen one steal the great charger that champed and pawed there at the door, and replace it by a potter's donkey. Nay, worse—for he had loved Lenore, his wife, and Fate had stolen her away and replaced her by a squealing brat.
Within a year of his marriage his wife was dead and buried, and his son alive and—howling. He could hear him (curse him!).
The Colonel glanced at his watch, producing it from some mysterious recess beneath his belted golden sash and within his pale blue tunic.
Not yet time to ride to the regimental parade-ground and lead his famous corps to its place on the brigade parade-ground for the New Year Review and march-past.
As he held the watch at the length of its chain and stared, half-comprehending, his hand—the hand of the finest swordsman in the Indian Army—shook.
Lenore gone: a puling, yelping whelp in her place.... A tall, severe-looking elderly woman entered the verandah by a distant door and approached the savage, miserable soldier. Nurse Beaton.
"Will you give your son a name, Sir?" she said, and it was evident in voice and manner that the question had been asked before and had received an unsatisfactory, if not unprintable; reply. Every line of feature and form seemed to express indignant resentment. She had nursed and foster-mothered the child's mother, and—unlike the man—had found the baby the chiefest consolation of her cruel grief, and already loved it not only for its idolized mother's sake, but with the devotion of a childless child-lover.
"The christening is fixed for to-day, Sir, as I have kept reminding you, Sir," she added.
She had never liked the Colonel—nor considered him "good enough" for her tender, dainty darling, "nearly three times her age and no better than he ought to be".
"Name?" snarled Colonel Matthew Devon de Warrenne. "Name the little beast? Call him what you like, and then drown him." The tight-lipped face of the elderly nurse flushed angrily, but before she could make the indignant reply that her hurt and scandalized look presaged, the Colonel added:—
"No, look here, call him Damocles, and done with it. The Sword hangs over him too, I suppose, and he'll die by it, as all his ancestors have done. Yes—"
"It's not a nice name, Sir, to my thinking," interrupted the woman, "not for an only name—and for an only child. Let it be a second or third name, Sir, if you want to give him such an outlandish one."
She fingered her new black dress nervously with twitching hands and the tight lips trembled.
"He's to be named Damocles and nothing else," replied the Master, and, as she turned away with a look of positive hate, he added sardonically:—
"And then you can call him 'Dam' for short, you know, Nurse."
Nurse Beaton bridled, clenched her hands, and stiffened visibly. Had the man been her social equal or any other than her master, her pent-up wrath and indignation would have broken forth in a torrent of scathing abuse.
"Never would I call the poor motherless lamb Dam, Sir," she answered with restraint.
"Then call him Dummy! Good morning, Nurse," snapped the Colonel.
As she turned to go, with a bitter sigh, she asked in the hopeless tone of one who knows the waste of words:—
"You will not repent—I mean relent—and come to the christening of your only son this afternoon, Sir?"
"Good morning, Nurse," observed Colonel Matthew Devon de Warrenne, and resumed his hurried pacing of the verandah.
* * * * *
It is not enough that a man love his wife dearly and hold her the sweetest, fairest, and best of women—he should tell her so, morning and night.
There is a proverb (the unwisdom of many and the poor wit of one) that says Actions speak louder than Words. Whether this is the most untrustworthy of an untrustworthy class of generalizations is debateable.
Anyhow, let no husband or lover believe it. Vain are the deeds of dumb devotion, the unwearying forethought, the tender care, the gifts of price, and the priceless gifts of attentive, watchful guard and guide, the labours of Love—all vain. Silent is the speech of Action.
But resonant loud is the speech of Words and profitable their investment in the Mutual Alliance Bank.
"Love me, love my Dog?" Yes—and look to the dog for a dog's reward.
"Do not show me that you love me—tell me so." Far too true and pregnant ever to become a proverb.
Colonel de Warrenne had omitted to tell his wife so—after she had accepted him—and she had died thinking herself loveless, unloved, and stating the fact.
This was the bitterest drop in the bitter cup of the big, dumb, well-meaning man.
And now she would never know....
She had thought herself unloved, and, nerve-shattered by her terrible experience with the snake, had made no fight for life when the unwanted boy was born. For the sake of a girl she would have striven to live—but a boy, a boy can fend for himself (and takes after his father)....
Almost as soon as Lenore Seymour Stukeley had landed in India (on a visit with her sister Yvette to friends at Bimariabad), delighted, bewildered, depolarized, Colonel Matthew Devon de Warrenne had burst with a blaze of glory into her hitherto secluded, narrow life—a great pale-blue, white-and-gold wonder, clanking and jingling, resplendent, bemedalled, ruling men, charging at the head of thundering squadrons—a half-god (and to Yvette he had seemed a whole-god).
He had told her that he loved her, told her once, and had been accepted.
Once! Only once told her that he loved her, that she was beautiful, that he was hers to command to the uttermost. Only once! What could she know of the changed life, the absolute renunciation of pleasant bachelor vices, the pulling up short, and all those actions that speak more softly than words?
What could she know of the strength and depth of the love that could keep such a man as the Colonel from the bar, the bridge-table, the race-course and the Paphian dame? Of the love that made him walk warily lest he offend one for whom his quarter of a century, and more, of barrack and bachelor-bungalow life, made him feel so utterly unfit and unworthy? What could she know of all that he had given up and delighted to give up—now that he truly loved a true woman? The hard-living, hard-hearted, hard-spoken man had become a gentle frequenter of his wife's tea-parties, her companion at church, her constant attendant—never leaving the bungalow, save for duty, without her.
To those who knew him it was a World's Marvel; to her, who knew him not, it was nothing at all—normal, natural. And being a man who spoke only when he must, who dreaded the expression of any emotion, and who foolishly thought that actions speak louder than words, he had omitted to tell her daily—or even weekly or monthly—that he loved her; and she had died pitying herself and reproaching him.
Fate's old, old game of Cross Purposes. Major John Decies, reserved, high-minded gentleman, loving Lenore de Warrenne (and longing to tell her so daily), with the one lifelong love of a steadfast nature; Yvette Stukeley, reserved, high-minded gentlewoman, loving Colonel de Warrenne, and longing to escape from Bimariabad before his wedding to her sister, and doing so at the earliest possible date thereafter: each woman losing the man who would have been her ideal husband, each man losing the woman who would have been his ideal wife.
Yvette Stukeley returned to her uncle and guardian, General Sir Gerald Seymour Stukeley, K.C.B., K.C.S.I., at Monksmead, nursing a broken heart, and longed for the day when Colonel de Warrenne's child might be sent home to her care.
Major John Decies abode at Bimariabad, also nursing a broken heart (though he scarcely realized the fact), watched over the son of Lenore de Warrenne, and greatly feared for him.
The Major was an original student of theories and facts of Heredity and Pre-natal Influence. Further he was not wholly hopeful as to the effect of all the post-natal influences likely to be brought to bear upon a child who grew up in the bungalow, and the dislike of Colonel Matthew Devon de Warrenne.
Upon the infant Damocles, Nurse Beaton, rugged, snow-capped volcano, lavished the tender love of a mother; and in him Major John Decies, deep-running still water, took the interest of a father. The which was the better for the infant Damocles in that his real father had no interest to take and no love to lavish. He frankly disliked the child—the outward and visible sign, the daily reminder of the cruel loss he so deeply felt and fiercely resented.
Yet, strangely enough, he would not send the child home. Relations who could receive it he had none, and he declined to be beholden to its great-uncle, General Sir Gerald Seymour Stukeley, and its aunt Yvette Stukeley, in spite of the warmest invitations from the one and earnest entreaties from the other.
Nurse Beaton fed, tended, clothed and nursed the baby by day; a worshipping ayah wheeled him abroad, and, by night, slept beside his cot; a devoted sepoy-orderly from the regiment guarded his cavalcade, and, when permitted, proudly bore him in his arms.
Major John Decies visited him frequently, watched and waited, waited and watched, and, though not a youth, "thought long, long thoughts".
He also frequently laid his views and theories on paternal duties before Colonel de Warrenne, until pointedly asked by that officer whether he had no duties of his own which might claim his valuable time.
Years rolled by, after the incorrigible habit of years, and the infant Damocles grew and developed into a remarkably sturdy, healthy, intelligent boy, as cheerful, fearless, impudent, and irrepressible as the heart of the Major could desire—and with a much larger vocabulary than any one could desire, for a baby.
On the fifth anniversary of his birthday he received a matutinal call from Major Decies, who was returning from his daily visit to the Civil Hospital.
The Major bore a birthday present and a very anxious, undecided mind.
"Good morrow, gentle Damocles," he remarked, entering the big verandah adown which the chubby boy pranced gleefully to meet his beloved friend, shouting a welcome, and brandishing a sword designed, and largely constructed, by himself from a cleaning-rod, a tobacco-tin lid, a piece of wood, card-board and wire.
"Thalaam, Major Thahib," he said, flinging himself bodily upon that gentleman. "I thaw cook cut a fowl's froat vis morning. It squorked boofly."
"Did it? Alas, that I missed those pleasing-er-squorks," replied the Major, and added: "This is thy natal day, my son. Thou art a man of five."
"I'm a debble. I'm a norful little debble," corrected Damocles, cheerfully and with conviction.
"Incidentally. But you are five also," persisted the senior man.
"It's my birfday to-day," observed the junior.
"I just said so."
"That you didn't, Major Thahib. This is a thword. Father's charger's got an over-weach. Jumping. He says it's a dam-nuithanth."
"Oh, that's a sword, is it? And 'Fire' has got an over-reach. And it's a qualified nuisance, is it?"
"Yeth, and the mare is coughing and her thythe is a blathted fool for letting her catch cold."
"The mare has a cold and the syce is a qualified fool, is he? H'm! I think it's high time you had a look in at little old England, my son, what? And who made you this elegant rapier? Ochterlonie Sahib or—who?" (Lieutenant Lord Ochterlonie was the Adjutant of the Queen's Greys, a friend of Colonel de Warrenne, an ex-admirer of his late wife, and a great pal of his son.)
"'Tithn't a waper. It'th my thword. I made it mythelf."
"Nobody. At leatht, Khodadad Khan, Orderly, knocked the holes in the tin like I showed him—or elthe got the Farrier Thargeant to do it, and thaid he had."
"Yes—but who told you how to make it like this? Where did you see a hand-part like this? It isn't like Daddy's sword, nor Khodadad Khan's tulwar. Where did you copy it?"
"I didn't copy it.... I shot ten rats wiv a bow-and-arrow last night. At leatht—I don't think I shot ten. Nor one. I don't think I didn't, pwaps."
"But hang it all, the thing's an Italian rapier, by Gad. Some one must have shown you how to make the thing, or you've got a picture. It's a pukka mediaeval rapier."
"No it'th not. It'th my thword. I made it.... Have a jolly fight"—and the boy struck an extraordinarily correct fencing attitude—left hand raised in balance, sword poised, legs and feet well placed, the whole pose easy, natural, graceful.
Curiously enough, the sword was held horizontal instead of pointing upward, a fact which at once struck the observant and practised eye of Major John Decies, sometime champion fencer.
"Who's been teaching you fencing?" he asked.
"What ith 'fenthing'? Let'th have a fight," replied the boy.
"Stick me here, Dam," invited the Major, seating himself and indicating the position of the heart. "Bet you can't."
The boy lunged, straight, true, gracefully, straightening all his limbs except his right leg, rigidly, strongly, and the "sword" bent upward from the spot on which the man's finger had just rested.
"Gad! Who has taught you to lunge? I shall have a bruise there, and perhaps—live. Who's behind all this, young fella? Who taught you to stand so, and to lunge? Ochterlonie Sahib or Daddy?"
"Nobody. What is 'lunge'? Will you buy me a little baby-camel to play with and teach tricks? Perhaps it would sit up and beg. Do camelth lay eggth? Chucko does. Millions and lakhs. You get a thword, too, and we'll fight every day. Yeth. All day long——"
"Good morning, Sir," said Nurse Beaton, bustling into the verandah from the nursery. "He's as mad as ever on swords and fighting, you see. It's a soldier he'll be, the lamb. He's taken to making that black orderly pull out his sword when he's in uniform. Makes him wave and jab it about. Gives me the creeps—with his black face and white eyes and all. You won't encourage the child at it, will you, Sir? And his poor Mother the gentlest soul that ever stepped. Swords! Where he gets his notions I can't think (though I know where he gets his language, poor lamb!). Look at that thing, Sir! For all the world like the dressed-up folk have on the stage or in pictures."
"You haven't let him see any books, I suppose, Nurse?" asked the Major.
"No, Sir. Never a book has the poor lamb seen, except those you've brought. I've always been in terror of his seeing a picture of a you-know-what, ever since you told me what the effect might be. Nor he hasn't so much as heard the name of it, so far as I know."
"Well, he'll see one to-day. I've brought it with me—must see it sooner or later. Might see a live one anywhere—in spite of all your care.... But about this sword—where could he have got the idea? It's unlike any sword he ever set eyes on. Besides if he ever did see an Italian rapier—and there's scarcely such a thing in India—he'd not get the chance to use it as a copy. Fancy his having the desire and the power to, anyhow!"
"I give it up, Sir," said Nurse Beaton.
"I give it upper," added the Major, taking the object of their wonder from the child.
And there was cause for wonder indeed.
A hole had been punched through the centre of the lid of a tobacco tin and a number of others round the edge. Through the centre hole the steel rod had been passed so that the tin made a "guard". To the other holes wires had been fastened by bending, and their ends gathered, twisted, and bound with string to the top of the handle (of bored corks) to form an ornamental basket-hilt.
But the most remarkable thing of all was that, before doing this, the juvenile designer had passed the rod through a piece of bored stick so that the latter formed a cross-piece (neatly bound) within the tin guard—the distinctive feature of the ancient and modern Italian rapiers!
Round this cross-piece the first two fingers of the boy's right hand were crooked as he held the sword—and this is the one and only correct way of holding the Italian weapon, as the Major was well aware!
"I give it most utterly-uppermost," he murmured. "It's positively uncanny. No uninitiated adult of the utmost intelligence ever held an Italian-pattern foil correctly yet—nor until he had been pretty carefully shown. Who the devil put him up to the design in the first place, and the method of holding, in the second? Explain yourself, you two-anna marvel," he demanded of the child. "It's jadu—black magic."
"Ayah lothted a wupee latht night," he replied.
"Lost a rupee, did she? Lucky young thing. Wish I had one to lose. Who showed you how to hold that sword? Why do you crook your fingers round the cross-piece like that?"
"Chucko laid me an egg latht night," observed Damocles. "He laid it with my name on it—so that cook couldn't steal it."
"No doubt. Look here, where can I get a sword like yours? Where can I copy it? Who makes them? Who knows about them?"
"I don't know, Major Thahib. Gunnoo sells 'Fire's' gram to the methrani for her curry and chuppatties."
"But how do you know swords are like this? That thing isn't a pukka sword."
"Well, it'th like Thir Theymour Thtukeley's in my dweam."
"The one I'm alwayth dweaming. They have got long hair like Nurse in the night, and they fight and fight like anything. Norful good fighters! And they wear funny kit. And their thwords are like vis. Eggzackly. Gunnoo gave me a ride on 'Fire,' and he'th a dam-liar. He thaid he forgot to put the warm jhool on him when Daddy was going to fwash him for being a dam-fool. I thaid I'd tell Daddy how he alwayth thleepth in it himthelf, unleth he gave me a ride on 'Fire'. 'Fire' gave a norful buck and bucked me off. At leatht I think he didn't."
Major Decies' face was curiously intent—as of some midnight worker in research who sees a bright near glimpse of the gold his alchemy has so long sought to materialize in the alembic of fact.
"Come back to sober truth, young youth. What about the dream? Who are they, and what do they say and do?"
"Thir Theymour Thtukeley Thahib tellth Thir Matthew Thahib about the hilt-thwust. (What is 'hilt-thwust'?) And Lubin, the thervant, ith a white thervant. Why ith he white if he ith a Thahib's 'boy'?"
"Good Gad!" murmured the Major. "I'm favoured of the gods. Tell me all about it, Sonny. Then I'll undo this parcel for you," he coaxed.
"Oh, I don't wemember. They buck a lot by the tents and then Thir Theymour Thtukeley goes and fights Thir Matthew and kills him, and it'th awful lovely, but they dreth up like kids at a party in big collars and silly kit."
"Yes, I know," murmured the Major. "Tell me what they say when they buck to each other by the tents, and when they talk about the 'hilt-thrust,' old chap."
"Oh, I don't wemember. I'll listen next time I dweam it, and tell you. Chucko's egg was all brown—not white like those cook brings from the bazaar. He's a dam-thief. Open the parcel, Major Thabib. What's in it?"
"A picture-book for you, Sonny. All sorts of jolly beasts that you'll shikar some day. You'll tell me some more about the dream to-morrow, won't you?"
"Yeth. I'll wemember and fink, and tell you what I have finked."
Turning to Nurse Beaton, the Major whispered:—
"Don't worry him about this dream at all. Leave it to me. It's wonderful. Take him on your lap, Nurse, and—er—be ready. It's a very life-like picture, and I'm going to spring it on him without any remark—but I'm more than a little anxious, I admit. Still, it's got to come, as I say, and better a picture first, with ourselves present. If the picture don't affect him I'll show him a real one. May be all right of course, but I don't know. I came across a somewhat similar case once before—and it was not all right. Not by any means," and he disclosed the brilliantly coloured Animal Picture Book and knelt beside the expectant boy.
On the first page was an incredibly leonine lion, who appeared to have solved with much satisfaction the problem of aerial flight, so far was he from the mountain whence he had sprung and above the back of the antelope towards which he had propelled himself. One could almost hear him roar. There was menace and fate in eye and tooth and claw, yea, in the very kink of the prehensile-seeming tail wherewith he apparently steered his course in mid-air. To gaze upon his impressive and determined countenance was to sympathize most fully with the sore-tried Prophet of old (known to Damocles as Dannle-in-the-lines-den) for ever more.
The boy was wholly charmed, stroked the glowing ferocity and observed that he was a pukka Bahadur.
On the next page, burning bright, was a tiger, if possible one degree more terrible than the lion. His "fearful cemetery" appeared to be full, judging by its burgeoned bulge and the shocking state of depletion exhibited by the buffalo on which he fed with barely inaudible snarls and grunts of satisfaction. Blood dripped from his capacious and over-furnished mouth.
"Booful," murmured Damocles. "I shall go shooting tigerth to-mowwow. Shoot vem in ve mouth, down ve froat, so as not to spoil ve wool."
Turning over the page, the Major disclosed a most grievous grizzly bear, grizzly and bearish beyond conception, heraldic, regardant, expectant, not collared, fanged and clawed proper, rampant, erect, requiring no supporters.
"You could thtab him wiv a thword if you were quick, while he was doing that," opined Damocles, charmed, enraptured, delighted. One by one, other savage, fearsome beasts were disclosed to the increasingly delighted boy until, without warning, the Major suddenly turned a page and disclosed a brilliant and hungry-looking snake.
With a piercing shriek the boy leapt convulsively from Nurse Beaton's arms, rushed blindly into the wall and endeavoured to butt and bore his way through it with his head, screaming like a wounded horse. As the man and woman sprang to him he shrieked, "It'th under my foot! It'th moving, moving, moving out" and fell to the ground in a fit.
Major John Decies arose from his bachelor dinner-table that evening, lit his "planter" cheroot, and strolled into the verandah that looked across a desert to a mountain range.
Dropping into a long low chair, he raised his feet on to the long leg-rest extensions of its arms, and, as he settled down and waited for coffee, wondered why no such chairs are known in the West; why the trunks of the palms looked less flat in the moonlight than in the daylight (in which, from that spot, they always looked exactly as though cut out of cardboard); why Providence had not arranged for perpetual full-moon; why the world looked such a place of peaceful, glorious beauty by moonlight, the bare cruel mountains like diaphanous clouds of tenderest soothing mist, the Judge's hideous bungalow like a fairy palace, his own parched compound like a plot of Paradise, when all was so abominable by day; and, as ever—why his darling, Lenore Stukeley, had had to marry de Warrenne and die in the full flower and promise of her beautiful womanhood.
Having finished his coffee and lighted his pipe (vice the over-dry friable cheroot, flung into the garden) the Major then turned his mind to serious and consecutive thought on the subject of her son, his beloved little pal, Dammy de Warrenne.
Poor little beggar! What an eternity it had seemed before he had got him to sleep. How the child had suffered. Mad! Absolutely stark, staring, raving mad with sheer terror.... Had he acted rightly in showing him the picture? He had meant well, anyhow. Cruel phrase, that. How cuttingly his friend de Warrenne had observed, "You mean well, doubtless," on more than one occasion. He could make it the most stinging of insults.... Surely he had acted rightly.... Poor little beggar—but he was bound to see a picture or a real live specimen, sooner or later. Perhaps when there was no help at hand.... Would he be like it always? Might grow out of it as he grew older and stronger. What would have happened if he had encountered a live snake? Lost his reason permanently, perhaps.... What would happen when he did see one, as sooner or later, he certainly must?
What would be the best plan? To attempt gradually to inure him—or to guard him absolutely from contact with picture, stuffed specimen, model, toy, and the real thing, wild or captive, as one would guard him against a fell disease?
Could he be inured? Could one "break it to him gently" bye and bye, by first drawing a wiggly line and then giving it a head? One might sketch a suggestion of a snake, make a sort of dissimilar clay model, improve it, show him a cast skin, stuff it, make a more life-like picture, gradually lead up to a well-stuffed one and then a live one. Might work up to having a good big picture of one on the nursery wall; one in a glass case; keep a harmless live one and show it him daily. Teach him by experience that there's nothing supernatural about a snake—just a nasty reptile that wants exterminating like other dangerous creatures—something to shikar with a gun. Nothing at all supernatural....
But this was "super"-natural, abnormal, a terrible devastating agony of madness, inherited, incurable probably; part of mind and body and soul. Inherited, and integrally of him as were the colour of his eyes, his intelligence, his physique.... Heredity ... pre-natal influence ... breed....
Anyhow, nothing must be attempted yet awhile. Let the poor little chap get older and stronger, in mind and body, first. Brave as a little bull-dog in other directions! Absolutely devoid of fear otherwise, and with a natural bent for fighting and adventure. Climb anywhere, especially up the hind leg of a camel or a horse, fondle any strange dog, clamour to be put on any strange horse, go into any deep water, cheek anybody, bear any ordinary pain with a grin, thrill to any story of desperate deeds—a fine, brave, manly, hardy little chap, and with art extraordinary physique for strength and endurance.
Whatever was to be attempted later, he must be watched, day and night, now. No unattended excursions into the compound, no uncensored picture-books, no juggling snake-charmers.... Yet it must come, sooner or later.
Would it ruin his life?
Anyhow, he must never return to India when he grew up, or go to any snake-producing country, unless he could be cured.
Would it make him that awful thing—a coward?
Would it grow and wax till it dominated his mind—drive him mad?
Would succeeding attacks, following encounters with picture or reality, progressively increase in severity?
Her boy in an asylum?
No. He was exaggerating an almost expected consequence that might never be repeated—especially if the child were most carefully and gradually reintroduced to the present terror. Later though—much later on.
Meanwhile, wait and hope: hope and wait....
THE SNAKE APPEARS.
The European child who grows up in India, if only to the age of six or seven years, grows under a severe moral, physical, and mental handicap.
However wise, devoted, and conscientious its parents may be, the evil is great, and remains one of the many heavy costs (or punishments) of Empire.
When the child has no mother and an indifferent father, life's handicap is even more severe.
By his sixth birthday (the regiment being still in Bimariabad owing to the prevalence of drought, famine, and cholera elsewhere) Damocles de Warrenne, knowing the Urdu language and argot perfectly, knew, in theory also, more of evil, in some directions, than did his own father.
If the child who grows up absolutely straight-forward, honest, above-board and pure in thought, word, and deed, in England, deserves commendation, what does the child deserve who does so in India?
Understanding every word they spoke to one another, the training he got from native servants was one of undiluted evil and a series of object-lessons in deceit, petty villainy, chicanery, oppression, lying, dishonesty, and all immorality. And yet—thanks to his equal understanding of the words and deeds of Nurse Beaton, Major Decies, Lieutenant Ochterlonie, his father, the Officers of the Regiment, and the Europeans of the station—he had a clear, if unconscious, understanding that what was customary for native servants was neither customary nor possible for Sahibs....
But he knew too much....
He knew what percentage of his or her pay each servant had to hand to the "butler-sahib" monthly—or lose his or her place through false accusation.
He knew why the ayah was graciously exempted from financial toll by this autocrat. He knew roughly what proportion of the cook's daily bill represented the actual cost of his daily purchases. He knew what the door-peon got for consenting to take in the card of the Indian aspirant for an interview with Colonel de Warrenne.
He knew the terms of the arrangements between the head-syce and the grain-dealer, the lucerne-grass seller, the ghas-wallah who brought the hay (whereby reduced quantities were accepted in return for illegal gratifications). He knew of retail re-sales of these reduced supplies.
He knew of the purchase of oil, rice, condiments, fire-wood and other commodities from the cook, of the theft (by arrangement) of the poultry and eggs, of the surreptitious milking of the cow, and of the simple plan of milking her—under Nurse Beaton's eye—into a narrow-necked vessel already half full of water.
He knew that the ayah's husband sold the Colonel's soda-water, paraffin, matches, candles, tobacco, cheroots, fruit, sugar, etc., at a little portable shop round the corner of the road, and of the terms on which the hamal and the butler supplied these commodities to the ayah for transfer to her good man.
He knew too much of the philosophy, manners, habits, and morals of the dog-boy, of concealed cases of the most infectious diseases in the compound, of the sub-letting and over-crowding of the servants' quarters, of incredible quarrels, intrigues, jealousies, revenges, base villainies and wrongs, superstitions and beliefs.
He would hear the hatching of a plot—an hour's arrangement and wrangle—whereby, through far-sighted activity, perjury, malpractice and infinite ingenuity, the ringleader would gain a pice and the follower a pie (a farthing and a third of a farthing respectively).
Daily he saw the butler steal milk, sugar, and tea, for his own use; the hamal steal oil when he filled the lamps, for sale; the malli steal flowers, for sale; the coachman steal carriage-candles; the cook steal a moiety of everything that passed through his hands—every one in that black underworld stealing, lying, back-biting, cheating, intriguing (and all meanwhile strictly and stoutly religious, even the sweeper-descended Goanese cook, the biggest thief of all, purging his Christian soul on Sunday mornings by Confession, and fortifying himself against the temptations of the Evil One at early Mass).
Between these nowker log, the servant-people, and his own jat or class, the Sahib-log, the master-people, were the troopers, splendid Sikhs, Rajputs, Pathans and Punjabis, men of honour, courage, physique, tradition. Grand fighters, loyal as steel while properly understood and properly treated—in other words, while properly officered. (Men, albeit, with deplorably little understanding of, or regard for, Pagett, M.P., and his kind, who yearn to do so much for them.)
These men Damocles admired and loved, though even they were apt to be very naughty in the bazaar, to gamble and to toy with opium, bhang, and (alleged) brandy, to dally with houris and hearts'-delights, to use unkind measures towards the good bunnia and sowkar who had lent them monies, and to do things outside the Lines that were not known in the Officers' Mess.
The boy preferred the Rissaldar-Major even to some Sahibs of his acquaintance—that wonderful old man-at-arms, horseman, shikarri, athlete, gentleman. (Yet how strange and sad to see him out of his splendid uniform, in sandals, dhotie, untrammelled shirt-tails, dingy old cotton coat and loose puggri, undistinguishable from a school-master, clerk, or post-man; so un-sahib-like.)
And what a fine riding-master he made for an ambitious, fearless boy—though Ochterlonie Sahib said he was too cruel to be a good horse-master.
How could people be civilians and live away from regiments? Live without ever touching swords, lances, carbines, saddles?
What a queer feeling it gave one to see the regiment go past the saluting base on review-days, at the gallop, with lances down. One wanted to shout, to laugh—to cry. (It made one's mouth twitch and chin work.)
Oh, to lead the regiment as Father did—horse and man one welded piece of living mechanism.
Father said you couldn't ride till you had taken a hundred tosses, been pipped a hundred times. A hundred falls! Surely Father had never been thrown—it must be impossible for such a rider to come off. See him at polo.
By his sixth birthday Damocles de Warrenne, stout and sturdy, was an accomplished rider and never so happy (save when fencing) as when flogging his active and spirited little pony along the "rides" or over the dusty maidans and open country of Bimariabad. To receive a quarter-mile start on the race-course and ride a mile race against Khodadad Khan on his troop-horse, or with one of the syces on one of the Colonel's polo-ponies, or with some obliging male or female early morning rider, was the joy of his life. Should he suspect the competitor of "pulling" as he came alongside, that the tiny pony might win, the boy would lash at both horses impartially.
People who pitied him (and they were many) wondered as to how soon he would break his neck, and remonstrated with his father for allowing him to ride alone, or in charge of an attendant unable to control him.
In the matter of his curious love of fencing Major John Decies was deeply concerned, obtained more and more details of his "dweam," taught him systematically and scientifically to fence, bought him foils and got them shortened. He also interested him in a series of muscle-developing exercises which the boy called his "dismounted squad-dwill wiv'out arms," and performed frequently daily, and with gusto.
Lieutenant Lord Ochterlonie (Officers' Light-Weight Champion at Aldershot) rigged him up a small swinging sand-bag and taught him to punch with either hand, and drilled him in foot-work for boxing.
Later he brought the very capable ten-year-old son of a boxing Troop-Sergeant and set him to make it worth Dam's while to guard smartly, to learn to keep his temper, and to receive a blow with a grin.
(Possibly a better education than learning declensions, conjugations, and tables from a Eurasian "governess".)
He learnt to read unconsciously and automatically by repeating, after Nurse Beaton, the jingles and other letter-press beneath the pictures in the books obtained for him under Major Decies' censorship.
On his sixth birthday, Major John Decies had Damocles over to his bungalow for the day, gave him a box of lead soldiers and a schooner-rigged ship, helped him to embark them and sail them in the bath to foreign parts, trapped a squirrel and let it go again, allowed him to make havoc of his possessions, fired at bottles with his revolver for the boy's delectation, shot a crow or two with a rook-rifle, played an improvised game of fives with a tennis-ball, told him tales, and generally gave up the day to his amusement. What he did not do was to repeat the experiment of a year ago, or make any kind of reference to snakes....
A few days later, on the morning of the New-Year's-Day Review, Colonel Matthew de Warrenne once again strode up and down his verandah, arrayed in full review-order, until it should be time to ride to the regimental parade-ground.
He had coarsened perceptibly in the six years since he had lost his wife, and the lines that had grown deepest on his hard, handsome face were those between his eyebrows and beside his mouth—the mouth of an unhappy, dissipated, cynical man....
He removed his right-hand gauntlet and consulted his watch.... Quarter of an hour yet.
He continued the tramp that always reminded Damocles of the restless, angry to-and-fro pacing of the big bear in the gardens. Both father and the bear seemed to fret against fate, to suffer under a sense of injury; both seemed dangerous, fierce, admirable. Hearing the clink and clang and creak of his father's movement, Damocles scrambled from his cot and crept down the stairs, pink-toed, blue-eyed, curly-headed, night-gowned, to peep through the crack of the drawing-room door at his beautiful father. He loved to see him in review uniform—so much more delightful than plain khaki—pale blue, white, and gold, in full panoply of accoutrement, jackbooted and spurred, and with the great turban that made his English face look more English still.
Yes—he would ensconce himself behind the drawing-room door and watch. Perhaps "Fire" would be bobbery when the Colonel mounted him, would get "what-for" from whip and spur, and be put over the compound wall instead of being allowed to canter down the drive and out at the gate....
Colonel de Warrenne stepped into his office to get a cheroot. Re-appearing in the verandah with it in his mouth he halted and thrust his hand inside his tunic for his small match-case. Ere he could use the match his heart was momentarily chilled by the most blood-curdling scream he had ever heard. It appeared to come from the drawing-room. (Colonel de Warrenne never lit the cheroot that he had put to his lips—nor ever another again.) Springing to the door, one of a dozen that opened into the verandah, he saw his son struggling on the ground, racked by convulsive spasms, with glazed, sightless eyes and foaming mouth, from which issued appalling, blood-curdling shrieks. Just above him, on the fat satin cushion in the middle of a low settee, a huge half-coiled cobra swayed from side to side in the Dance of Death.
"It's under my foot—it's moving—moving—moving out," shrieked the child.
Colonel de Warrenne attended to the snake first. He half-drew his sword and then slammed it back into the scabbard. No—his sword was not for snakes, whatever his son might be. On the wall was a trophy of Afghan weapons, one of which was a sword that had played a prominent part on the occasion of the Colonel's winning of the Victoria Cross.
Striding to the wall he tore the sword down, drew it and, with raised arm, sprang towards the cobra. A good "Cut Three" across the coils would carve it into a dozen pieces. No. Lenore made that cushion—and Lenore's cushion made more appeal to Colonel de Warrenne than did Lenore's son. No. A neat horizontal "Cut Two," just below the head, with the deadly "drawing" motion on it, would meet the case nicely. Swinging it to the left, the Colonel subconsciously placed the sword, "resting flat on the left shoulder, edge to the left, hand in front of the shoulder and square with the elbow, elbow as high as the hand," as per drill-book, and delivered a lightning stroke—thinking as he did so that the Afghan tulwar is an uncommonly well-balanced, handy cutting-weapon, though infernally small in the hilt.
The snake's head fell with a thud upon the polished boards between the tiger-skins, and the body dropped writhing and twitching on to the settee.
Damocles appeared to be dead. Picking him up, the callous-hearted father strode out to where Khodadad Khan held "Fire's" bridle, handed him to the orderly, mounted, received him again from the man, and, holding him in his strong right arm, cantered to the bungalow of Major John Decies—since it lay on the road to the parade-ground.
Would the jerking hurt the little beggar in his present comatose state? Well, brats that couldn't stand a little jerking were better dead, especially when they screamed and threw fits at the sight of a common snake.
Turning into Major Decies' compound and riding up to his porch, the Colonel saw the object of his search, arrayed in pyjamas, seated in his long cane chair beside a tray of tea, toast, and fruit, in the verandah.
"Morning, de Warrenne," he cried cheerily.
"How's little—" and caught sight of the inanimate child.
"Little coward's fainted after throwing a fit—over a common snake," observed the Colonel coolly.
"Give him here," answered the Major, taking the boy tenderly in his arms,—"and kindly—er—clear out."
He did not wish to strike his friend and senior. How the black rage welled up in his heart against the callous brute who had dared to marry Lenore Seymour Stukeley.
Colonel de Warrenne wheeled his horse without a word, and rode out of Major Decies' life and that of his son.
Galloping to the parade-ground he spoke a few curt words to his Adjutant, inspected the rissala, and then rode at its head to the brigade parade-ground where it took up its position on the left flank of the Guns and the Queen's Greys, "sat at ease," and awaited the arrival of the Chief Commissioner at the saluting-base. A British Infantry regiment marched to the left flank of the 118th (Bombay) Lancers, left-turned and stood at ease. Another followed and was followed in turn by Native Infantry Regiments—grand Sikhs in scarlet tunics, baggy black breeches and blue putties; hefty Pathans and Baluchis in green tunics, crimson breeches and high white gaiters, sturdy little Gurkhas in rifle-green, stalwart Punjabi Mahommedans.
The great double line grew and grew, and stood patiently waiting, Horse, Foot, and Guns, facing the sun and a dense crowd of spectators ranked behind the rope-encircled, guard-surrounded saluting-base over which flew the Flag of England.
The Brigadier and his Staff rode on to the ground, were saluted by the mile of troops, and took up their position.
Followed the Chief Commissioner in his state carriage, accompanied by a very Distinguished Guest, and surrounded by his escort. The mile of men again came to attention and the review began. Guns boomed, massed bands played the National Anthem, the crackling rattle of the feu-de-joie ran up the front rank and down the rear.
After the inspection and the salutes came the march-past by the regiments.
Now the Distinguished Visitor's wife had told the Chief Commissioner that she "did not want to see the cavalry go past at the gallop as it raised such a dreadful dust". But her maid bungled, her toilette failed, and she decided not to accompany her husband to the Review at all. Her husband, the Distinguished Visitor, did desire to see the cavalry go past at the gallop, and so the Chief Commissioner's Distinguished Visitor's wife's maid's bungling had a tremendous influence upon the fate of Damocles de Warrenne, as will be seen.
Passed the massed Guns at the walk, followed by the Cavalry at the walk in column of squadrons and the Infantry in column of companies, each unit saluting the Chief Commissioner by turning "eyes right" as it passed the spot where he sat on horseback surrounded by the civil and military staffs.
Wheeling to the left at the end of the ground the Guns and Cavalry again passed, this time at the trot, while the Infantry completed its circular march to its original position.
Finally the Cavalry passed for the third time, and now at the gallop, an orderly whirlwind, a controlled avalanche of men and horses, with levelled lances, and the hearts of all men were stirred at one of the most stirring sights and sounds in the world—a cavalry charge.
At the head of the leading squadron galloped Colonel de Warrenne, cool, methodical, keeping a distant flag-staff in line with a still more distant church spire, that he might lead the regiment in a perfectly straight line. (Few who have not tried it realize the difficulty of leading a galloping line of men absolutely straight and at true right-angles to the line of their ranks.)
On thundered the squadrons unbending of rank, uncrowded, unopened, squadron-leaders maintaining distance, the whole mass as ordered, shapely, and precisely correct as when at the walk.
Past the saluting-base thundered the squadrons and in full career Colonel de Warrenne's charger put his near fore into ground honey-combed by insect, reptile, or burrowing beast, crashed on its head, rolled like a shot rabbit, and Colonel Matthew Devon de Warrenne lay dead—killed by his own sword.
Like his ancestors of that fated family, he had died by the sword, but unlike them, he had died by the hilt of it.
Major John Decies, I.M.S., Civil Surgeon of Bimariabad, executor of the will of the late Colonel de Warrenne and guardian of his son, cabled the sad news of the Colonel's untimely death to Sir Gerald Seymour Stukeley at Monksmead, he being, so far as Major Decies knew, the boy's only male relative in England—uncle of the late Mrs. de Warrenne.
The reply, which arrived in a day or two, appeared from its redundancy and incoherence to be the composition of Miss Yvette Seymour Stukeley, and bade Major Decies either send or bring the infant Damocles to Monksmead immediately.
The Major decided to apply forthwith for such privilege-leave and furlough as were due to him, and to proceed to England with the boy. It would be as well that his great-uncle should hear from him, personally, of the matter of the child's mental condition resultant upon the tragedy of his own birth and his mother's death. The Major was decidedly anxious as to the future in this respect—all might be well in time, and all might be very far indeed from well.
Nurse Beaton absolutely and flatly refused to be parted from her charge, and the curious party of three set sail for England in due course.
"Hm!—He's every inch a Stukeley," remarked the General when Damocles de Warrenne was ushered into his presence in the great library at Monksmead. "Hope he's Stukeley by nature too. Sturdy young fella! 'Spose he's vetted sound in wind and limb?"
The Major replied that the boy was physically rather remarkably strong, mentally very sound, and in character all that could be desired. He then did his best to convey to the General an understanding of the psychic condition that must be a cause of watchfulness and anxiety on the part of those who guarded his adolescence.
At dinner, over the General's wonderful Clos Vougeot, the Major again returned to the subject and felt that his words of advice fell upon somewhat indifferent and uncomprehending ears.
It was the General's boast that he had never feed a doctor in his life, and his impression that a sound resort for any kind of invalid is a lethal chamber....
The seven years since the Major had last seen her, seemed to have dealt lightly with the sad-faced, pretty Miss Yvette, gentle, good, and very kind. Over the boy she rhapsodized to her own content and his embarrassment. Effusive endearments and embraces were new to Dam, and he appeared extraordinarily ignorant of the art of kissing.
"Oh, how like his dear Father!" she would exclaim afresh every few minutes, to the Major's slight annoyance and the General's plain disgust.
"Every inch a Stukeley!" he would growl in reply.
But Yvette Seymour Stukeley had prayed for Colonel de Warrenne nightly for seven years and had idealized him beyond recognition. Possibly Fate's greatest kindness to her was to ordain that she should not see him as he had become in fact, and compare him with her wondrous mental image.... The boy was to her, must be, should be, the very image of her life's hero and beloved....
The depolarized and bewildered Damocles found himself in a strange and truly foreign land, a queer, cold, dismal country inhabited by vast quantities of "second-class sahibs," as he termed the British lower middle-class and poor, a country of a strange greenness and orderedness, where there were white servants, strangely conjoined rows of houses in the villages, dangerous-looking fires inside the houses, a kind of tomb-stones on all house-tops, strange horse-drawn vehicles, butlerless and ghari-less sahibs, and an utter absence of "natives," sepoys, byle-gharies, camels, monkeys, kites, squirrels, bulbuls, minahs, mongooses, palm-trees, and temples. Cattle appeared to have no humps, crows to have black heads, and trees to have no fruit. The very monsoon seemed inextricably mixed with the cold season. Fancy the rains coming in the cold weather! Perhaps there was no hot weather and nobody went to the hills in this strange country of strange people, strange food, strange customs. Nobody seemed to have any tents when they left the station for the districts, nor to take any bedding when they went on tour or up-country. A queer, foreign land.
But Monksmead was a most magnificent "bungalow" standing in a truly beautiful "compound"—wherein the very bhistis and mallis were European and appeared to be second-class sahibs.
Marvellous was the interior of the bungalow with its countless rooms and mountainous stair-cases (on the wall of one of which hung the Sword which he had never seen but instantly recognized) and its army of white servants headed by the white butler (so like the Chaplain of Bimariabad in grave respectability and solemn pompousness) and its extraordinary white "ayahs" or maids, and silver-haired Mrs. Pont, called the "house-keeper". Was she a pukka Mem-Sahib or a nowker or what? And how did she "keep" the house?
A wonderful place—but far and away the most thrilling and delightful of its wonders was the little white girl, Lucille—Damocles' first experience of the charming genus.
The boy never forgot his first meeting with Lucille.
On his arrival at Monksmead he had been "vetted," as he expressed it, by the Burra-Sahib, the General; and then taken to an attractive place called "the school-room" and there had found Lucille....
"Hullo! Boy," had been her greeting. "What's your name?" He had attentively scrutinized a small white-clad, blue-sashed maiden, with curling chestnut hair, well-opened hazel eyes, decided chin, Greek mouth and aristocratic cheek-bones. A maiden with a look of blood and breed about her. (He did not sum her up in these terms at the time.)
"Can you ride, Boy?"
"Can you fight?"
"Can you swim?"
"I can—ever so farther. D'you know French and German?"
"Not a word."
"Play the piano?"
"Never heard of it. D'you play it with cards or dice?"
"Lucky dog! It's music. I have to practise an hour a day."
"Nothing ... it's lessons. Beastly. How old are you?"
"So'm I—nearly. I've got to be six first though. I shall have a birthday next week. A big one. Have you brought any ellyfunts from India?"
"I've never seen a nellyfunt—only in pictures."
A shudder shook the boy's sturdy frame.
"Why do you go like that? Feel sick?"
"No. I don't know. I seemed to remember something—in a book. I dream about it. There's a nasty blue room with a mud floor. And Something. Beastly. Makes you yell out and you can't. You can't run away either. But the Sword dream is lovely."
Lucille appeared puzzled and put this incoherence aside.
"What a baby never to see ellyfunts! I've seen lots. Hundreds. Zoo. Circuses. Persessions. Camels, too."
"Oh, I used to ride a camel every day. There was one in the compound with his oont-wallah, Abdul Ghaffr; and Khodadad Khan used to beat the oont-wallah on cold mornings to warm himself."
"What's an oont-wallah?"
"Don't you know? Why, he's just the oont-wallah, of course. Who'd graze the camel or load it up if there wasn't one?"
At tea in the nursery the young lady suddenly remarked:—
"I like you, Boy. You're worth nine Haddocks."
This cryptic valuation puzzled Damocles the more in that he had never seen or heard of a haddock. Had he been acquainted with the fowl he might have been yet more astonished.
Later he discovered that the comparison involved the fat boy who sat solemnly stuffing on the other side of the table, his true baptismal name being Haddon.
Yes, Lucille was a revelation, a marvel.
Far quicker of mind than he, cleverer at games and inventing "make believe," very strong, active, and sporting, she was the most charming, interesting, and attractive experience in his short but eventful life.
How he loved to make her laugh and clap her hands! How he enjoyed her quaint remarks, speculations, fairy-tales and jokes. How he yearned to win her approval and admiration. How he strove to please her!
In Lucille and his wonderful new surroundings he soon forgot Major Decies, who returned to live (and, at a ripe old age, to die) at Bimariabad, where had lived and died the woman whom he had so truly and purely loved. The place where he had known her was the only place for him.
On each of his birthdays Damocles received a long fatherly letter and a handsome present from the Major, and by the time he went away to school at Wellingborough, he wondered who on earth the Major might be.
To his great delight Damocles found that he was not doomed to discontinue his riding, fencing, boxing, and "dismounted drill without arms".
General Seymour Stukeley sent for a certain Sergeant Havlan (once a trooper in his own regiment), rough-rider, swordsman, and boxer, now a professional trainer, and bade him see that the boy learned all he could teach him of arms and horsemanship, boxing, swimming, and general physical prowess and skill. Lucille and Haddon Berners were to join in to the extent to which their age and sex permitted.
The General intended his great-nephew to be worthy of his Stukeley blood, and to enter Sandhurst a finished man-at-arms and horseman, and to join his regiment, Cavalry, of course, with nothing much to learn of sword, lance, rifle, revolver, and horse.
Sergeant Havlan soon found that he had little need to begin at the beginning with Damocles de Warrenne in the matter of riding, fencing or boxing, and was unreasonably annoyed thereat.
In time, it became the high ambition and deep desire of Dam to overcome Sergeant Havlan's son in battle with the gloves. As young Havlan was a year his senior, a trained infant prodigy, and destined for the Prize Ring, there was plenty for him to learn and to do.
With foil or sabre the boy was beneath Dam's contempt.
Daily the children were in Sergeant Havlan's charge for riding and physical drill, Dam getting an extra hour in the evening for the more manly and specialized pursuits suitable to his riper years.
He and Lucille loved it all, and the Haddock bitterly loathed it.
Until Miss Smellie came Dam was a happy boy—but for queer sudden spasms of terror of Something unknown; and, after her arrival, he would have been well content could he have been assured of an early opportunity of attending her obsequies and certain of a long-postponed resurrection; well content, and often wildly happy (with Lucille) ... but for the curious undefinable fear of Something ... Something about which he had the most awful dreams ... Something in a blue room with a mud floor. Something that seemed at times to move beneath his foot, making his blood freeze, his knees smite together, the sunlight turn to darkness....
THE SWORD AND THE SOUL.
One of the very earliest of all Dam's memories in after life—for in a few years he forgot India absolutely—was of the Sword (that hung on the oak-panelled wall of the staircase by the portrait of a cavalier), and of a gentle, sad-eyed lady, Auntie Yvette, who used to say:—
"Yes, sonny darling, it is more than two-hundred-and-fifty years old. It belonged to Sir Seymour Stukeley, who carried the King's Standard at Edgehill and died with that sword in his hand ... You shall wear a sword some day."
(He did—with a difference.)
The sword grew into the boy's life and he would rather have owned it than the mechanical steamboat with real brass cannon for which he prayed to God so often, so earnestly, and with such faith. On his seventh birthday he preferred a curious request, which had curious consequences.
"Can I take the sword to bed with me to-night, Dearest, as it is my birthday?" he begged. "I won't hurt it."
And the sword was taken down from the oak-panelled wall, cleaned, and laid on the bed in his room.
"Promise you will not try to take it out of the sheath, sonny darling," said the gentle, sad-eyed lady as she kissed him "Good night".
"I promise, Dearest," replied the boy, and she knew that she need have no fear.
He fell asleep fondling and cuddling the sword that had pierced the hearts of many men and defended the honour of many ancestors, and dreamed, with far greater vividness and understanding, the dream he had so often dreamt before.
Frequently as he dreamed it during his chequered career, it was henceforth always most vivid and real. It never never varied in the slightest detail, and he generally dreamed it on the night before some eventful, dangerful day on which he risked his life or fought for it.
Of the early dreamings, of course, he understood little, but while he was still almost a boy he most fully understood the significance of every word, act, and detail of the marvellous, realistic dream.
It began with a view of a camp of curious little bell-tents about which strode remarkable, big-booted, long-haired, bedizened men—looking strangely effeminate and strangely fierce, with their feathered hats, curls, silk sashes, velvet coats, and with their long swords, cruel faces, and savage oaths.
Some wore steel breastplates, like that of the suit of armour in the hall, and steel helmets. The sight of the camp thrilled the boy in his dream, and yet he knew that he had seen it all before actually, and in real life—in some former life.
Beside one of a small cluster of tents that stood well apart from the rest sat a big man who instantly reminded the boy of his dread "Grandfather," whom he would have loved to have loved had he been given the chance.
The big man was even more strangely attired than those others who clumped and clattered about the lower part of the camp.
Fancy a great big strong man with long curls, a lace collar, and a velvet coat—like a kid going to a party!
The velvet coat had the strangest sleeves, too—made to button to the elbow and full of slits that seemed to have been mended underneath with blue silk. There was a regular pattern of these silk-mended slits about the body of the coat, too, and funny silk-covered buttons.
On his head the man had a great floppy felt hat with a huge feather—a hat very like one that Dearest wore, only bigger.
One of his long curls was tied with a bow of ribbon—like young Lucille wore—and the boy felt quite uncomfortable as he noted it. A grown man—the silly ass! And, yes! he had actually got lace round the bottoms of his quaint baggy knickerbockers—as well as lace cuffs!
The boy could see it, where one of the great boots had sagged down below the knee.
Extraordinary boots they were, too. Nothing like "Grumper's" riding-boots. They were yellowish in colour, and dull, not nicely polished, and although the square-toed, ugly foot part looked solid as a house, the legs were more like wrinkled leather stockings, and so long that the pulled-up one came nearly to the hip.
Spurs had made black marks on the yellow ankles, and saddle and stirrup-leather had rubbed the legs....
And a sash! Whoever heard of a grown-up wearing a sash? It was a great blue silk thing, wound round once or twice, and tied with a great bow, the ends of which hung down in front.
Of all the Pip-squeaks!
And yet the big man's face was not that of a Pip-squeak—far from it. It was very like Grumper's in fact.
The boy liked the face. It was strong and fierce, thin and clean-cut—marred only, in his estimation, by the funny little tuft of hair on the lower lip. He liked the wavy, rough, up-turned moustache, but not that silly tuft. How nice he would look with his hair cut, his lower lip shaved, and his ridiculous silks, velvet, and lace exchanged for a tweed shooting-suit or cricketing-flannels! How Grumper, Father, Major Decies, and even Khodadad Khan and the sepoys would have laughed at the get-up. Nay, they would have blushed for the fellow—a Sahib, a gentleman—to tog himself up so!
The boy also liked the man's voice when he turned towards the tent and called:—
"Lubin, you drunken dog, come hither," a call which brought forth a servant-like person, who, by reason of his clean-shaven face and red nose, reminded the boy of Pattern the coachman.
He wore a dark cloth suit, cotton stockings, shoes that had neither laces nor buttons, but fastened with a kind of strap and buckle, and, queer creature, a big Eton collar!
"Sword and horse, rascal," said the gentleman, "and warn Digby for duty. Bring me wine and a manchet of bread."
The man bowed and re-entered the tent, to emerge a moment later bearing the Sword.
How the cut-steel hilt sparkled and shone! How bright and red the leather scabbard—now black, dull, cracked and crumbling. But it was unmistakeably the Sword.
It hung from a kind of broad cross-belt and was attached to it by several parallel buckled straps—not like Father's Sam Browne belt at all.
As the gentleman rose from his stool (he must have been over six feet in height) Lubin passed the cross-belt over his head and raised left arm so that it rested on his right shoulder, and the Sword hung from hip to heel.
To the boy it had always seemed such a huge, unwieldy thing. At this big man's side it looked—just right.
Lubin then went off at a trot to where long lines of bay horses pawed the ground, swished their tails, tossed their heads, and fidgeted generally....
From a neighbouring tent came the sounds of a creaking camp-bed, two feet striking the ground with violence, and a prodigious, prolonged yawn.
A voice then announced that all parades should be held in Hell, and that it was better to be dead than damned. Why should gentlemen drill on a fine evening while the world held wine and women?
After a brief space, occupied with another mighty yawn, it loudly and tunefully requested some person or persons unknown to superintend its owner's obsequies.
"Lay a garland on my hearse Of the dismal yew; Maidens, willow branches bear; Say I died true. My love was false, but I was firm From my hour of birth. Upon my buried body lie Lightly, gentle earth...."
"May it do so soon," observed the tall gentleman distinctly.
"What ho, without there! That you, Seymour, lad?" continued the voice. "Tarry a moment. Where's that cursed ..." and sounds of hasty search among jingling accoutrements were followed by a snatch of song of which the boy instantly recognized the words. He had often heard Dearest sing them.
"Drink to me only with thine eyes And I will pledge with mine: Or leave a kiss within the cup And I'll not look for wine. The thirst that from the soul doth rise Doth ask a drink divine; But might I of Jove's nectar sup, I would not change for thine."
Lubin appeared, bearing a funny, fat, black bottle, a black cup (both appeared to be of leather), and a kind of leaden plate on which was a small funnily-shaped loaf of bread.
"'Tis well you want none," observed the tall gentleman, "I had asked you to help me crush a flask else," and on the word the singer emerged from the tent.
"Jest not on solemn subjects, Seymour," he said soberly, "Wine may carry me over one more pike-parade.... Good lad.... Here's to thee.... Why should gentlemen drill?... I came to fight for the King, not to ... But, isn't this thy day for de Warrenne? Oh, ten million fiends! Plague and pest! And I cannot see thee stick him, Seymour ..." and the speaker dashed the black drinking-vessel violently on the ground, having carefully emptied it.
The boy did not much like him.
His lace collar was enormous and his black velvet coat was embroidered all over with yellow silk designs, flowers, and patterns. It was like the silly mantel-borders and things that Mrs. Pont, the housekeeper, did in her leisure time. ("Cruel-work" she called it, and the boy quite agreed.)
This man's face was pink and fair, his hair golden.
"Warn him not of the hilt-thrust, Seymour, lad," he said suddenly. "Give it him first—for a sneering, bullying, taverning, chambering knave."
The tall gentleman glanced at his down-flung cup, raised his eyebrows, and drank from the bottle.
"Such would annoy you, Hal, of course," he murmured.
A man dressed in what appeared to be a striped football jersey under a leather waistcoat and steel breast-plate, high boots and a steel helmet led up a great horse.
The boy loved the horse. It was very like "Fire".
The gentleman (called Seymour) patted it fondly, stroked his nose, and gave it a piece of his bread.
"Well, Crony Long-Face?" he said fondly.
He then put his left foot in the great box-stirrup and swung himself into the saddle—a very different kind of saddle from those with which the boy was familiar.
It reminded him of Circuses and the Lord Mayor's Show. It was big enough for two and there was a lot of velvet and stuff about it and a fine gold C.R.—whatever that might mean—on a big pretty cloth under it (perhaps the gentleman's initials were C.R. just as his own were D. de W. and on some of his things).
The great fat handle of a great fat pistol stuck up on each side of the front of the saddle.
"Follow," said the gentleman to the iron-bound person, and moved off at a walk towards a road not far distant.
"Stap him! Spit him, Seymour," called the pink-faced man, "and warn him not of the hilt-thrust."
As he passed the corner of the camp, two men with great axe-headed spear things performed curious evolutions with their cumbersome weapons, finally laying the business ends of them on the ground as the gentleman rode by.
He touched his hat to them with his switch.
Continuing for a mile or so, at a walk, he entered a dense coppice and dismounted.
"Await me," he said to his follower, gave him the curb-rein, and walked on to an open glade a hundred yards away.
(It was a perfect spot for Red Indians, Smugglers, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe or any such game, the boy noted.)
Almost at the same time, three other men entered the clearing, two together, and one from a different quarter.
"For the hundredth time, Seymour, lad, mention not the hilt-thrust, as you love me and the King," said this last one quietly as he approached the gentleman; and then the two couples behaved in a ridiculous manner with their befeathered hats, waving them in great circles as they bowed to each other, and finally laying them on their hearts before replacing them.
"Mine honour is my guide, Will," answered the gentleman called Seymour, somewhat pompously the boy considered, though he did not know the word.
Sir Seymour then began to remove the slashed coat and other garments until he stood in his silk stockings, baggy knickerbockers, and jolly cambric shirt—nice and loose and free at the neck as the boy thought.
He rolled up his right sleeve, drew the sword, and made one or two passes—like Sergeant Havlan always did before he began fencing.
The other two men, meantime, had been behaving somewhat similarly—talking together earnestly and one of them undressing.
The one who did this was a very powerful-looking man and the arm he bared reminded the boy of that of a "Strong Man" he had seen recently at Monksmead Fair, in a tent, and strangely enough his face reminded him of that of his own Father.
He had a nasty face though, the boy considered, and looked like a bounder because he had pimples, a swelly nose, a loud voice, and a swanky manner. The boy disapproved of him wholly. It was like his cheek to resemble Father, as well as to have the same name.
His companion came over to the gentleman called Will, carrying the strong man's bared sword and, bowing ridiculously (with his hat, both hands, and his feet) said:—
"Shall we measure, Captain Ormonde Delorme?"
Captain Delorme then took the sword from Sir Seymour, bowed as the other had done, and handed him the sword with a mighty flourish, hilt first.
It proved to be half an inch shorter than the other, and Captain Delorme remarked that his Principal would waive that.
He and the strong man's companion then chose a spot where the grass was very short and smooth, where there were no stones, twigs or inequalities, and where the light of the setting sun fell sideways upon the combatants—who tip-toed gingerly, and rather ridiculously, in their stockinged feet, to their respective positions. Facing each other, they saluted with their swords and then stood with the right arm pointing downwards and across the body so that the hilt of the sword was against the right thigh and the blade directed to the rear.
"One word, Sir Matthew de Warrenne," said Sir Seymour as they paused in this attitude. "If my point rests for a second on your hilt you are a dead man."
Sir Matthew laughed in an ugly manner and replied:—
"And what is your knavish design now, Sir Seymour Stukeley?"
"My design was to warn you of an infallible trick of fence, Sir Matthew. It now is to kill you—for the insult, and on behalf of ... your own unhappy daughter."
The other yawned and remarked to his friend:—
"I have a parade in half an hour."
"On guard," cried the person addressed, drawing his sword and striking an attitude.
"Play," cried Captain Delorme, doing similarly.
Both principals crouched somewhat, held their swords horizontal, with point to the adversary's breast and hilt drawn back, arm sharply bent—for both, it appeared, had perfected the Art of Arts in Italy.
These niceties escaped the boy in his earlier dreamings of the dream—but the time came when he could name every pass, parry, invitation, and riposte.
The strong man suddenly threw his sword-hand high and towards his left shoulder, keeping his sword horizontal, and exposing the whole of his right side.
Sir Seymour lunged hard for his ribs, beneath the right arm-pit and, as the other's sword swooped down to catch his, twist it over, and riposte, he feinted, cleared the descending sword, and thrust at the throat. A swift ducking crouch let the sword pass over the strong man's head, and only a powerful French circular parry saved the life of Sir Seymour Stukeley.
As the boy realized later, he fought Italian in principle, and used the best of French parries, ripostes, and tricks, upon occasion—and his own perfected combination of the two schools made him, according to Captain Delorme, the best fencer in the King's army. So at least the Captain said to the other second, as they amicably chatted while their friends sought to slay each other before their hard, indifferent-seeming eyes.
To the boy their talk conveyed little—as yet.
The duellists stepped back as the "phrase" ended, and then Sir Seymour gave an "invitation," holding his sword-arm wide to the right of his body. Sir Matthew lunged, his sword was caught, carried out to the left, and held there as Sir Seymour's blade slid inward along it. Just in time, Sir Matthew's inward pressure carried Sir Seymour's sword clear to the right again. Sir Matthew disengaged over, and, as the sudden release brought Sir Seymour's sword springing in, he thrust under that gentleman's right arm and scratched his side.
As he recovered his sword he held it for a moment with the point raised toward Sir Seymour's face. Instantly Sir Seymour's point tinkled on his hilt, and Captain Delorme murmured "Finis" beneath his breath.
Sir Stukeley Seymour's blade shot in, Sir Matthew's moved to parry, and the point of the advancing sword flickered under his hand, turned upward, and pierced his heart.
"Yes," said Captain Delorme, as the stricken man fell, "if he parries outward the point goes under, if he anticipates a feint it comes straight in, and if he parries a lunge-and-feint-under, he gets feint-over before he can come up. I have never seen Stukeley miss when once he rests on the hilt. Exit de Warrenne—and Hell the worse for it——" and the boy awoke.
He kissed the sword and fell asleep again.
One day, when receiving his morning fencing and boxing lessons of Sergeant Havlan, he astonished that warrior (and made a bitter enemy of him) by warning him against allowing his blade to rest on the Sergeant's hilt, and by hitting him clean and fair whenever it was allowed to happen. Also, by talking of "the Italian school of fence" and of "invitations"—the which were wholly outside the fencing-philosophy of the French-trained swordsman. At the age of fifteen the boy was too good for the man who had been the best that Aldershot had known, who had run a salle d'armes for years, and who was much sought by ambitious members of the Sword Club.
The Sword, from the day of that newly vivid dream, became to the boy what his Symbol is to the religious fanatic, and he was content to sit and stare at it, musing, for hours.
The sad-eyed, sentimental lady encouraged him and spoke of Knights, Chivalry, Honour, Noblesse Oblige, and Ideals such as the nineteenth century knew not and the world will never know again.
"Be a real and true Knight, sonny darling," she would say, "and live to help. Help women—God knows they need it. And try to be able to say at the end of your life, 'I have never made a woman weep'. Yes—be a Knight and have 'Live pure, Speak true, Right wrong' on your shield. Be a Round Table Knight and ride through the world bravely. Your dear Father was a great swordsman. You may have the sword down and kiss it, the first thing every morning—and you must salute it every night as you go up to bed. You shall wear a sword some day."
(Could the poor lady but have foreseen!)
She also gave him over-copiously and over-early of her simple, fervent, vague Theology, and much Old and New Testament History, with the highest and noblest intentions—and succeeded in implanting a deep distrust and dislike of "God" in his acutely intelligent mind.
To a prattling baby, Mother should be God enough—God and all the angels and paradise in one ... (but he had never known a mother and Nurse Beaton had ever been more faithfully conscientious in deed than tenderly loving in manner).
She filled his soul with questionings and his mouth with questions which she could not answer, and which he answered for himself. The questions sometimes appalled her.
If God so loved the world, why did He let the Devil loose in it?
If God could do anything, why didn't He lay the Devil out with one hand?
If He always rewarded the Good and punished the Bad, why was Dearest so unhappy, and drunken Poacher Iggulsby so very gay and prosperously naughty?
He knew too that his dead Father had not been "good," for he heard servant-talk, and terrible old "Grandfather" always forgot that "Little Pitchers have Long Ears".
If God always answered devout and faith-inspired prayer, why did He not
1. Save Caiaphas the cat when earnestly prayed for—having been run over by Pattern in the dog-cart, coming out of the stables?
2. Send the mechanical steam-boat so long and earnestly prayed for, with Faith and Belief?
3. Help the boy to lead a higher and a better life, to eat up his crusts and fat as directed, to avoid chivvying the hens, inking his fingers, haunting the stables, stealing green apples in the orchard, tearing his clothes, and generally doing evil with fire, water, mud, stones and other tempting and injurious things?
And was it entirely decent of God to be eternally spying on a fellow, as appeared to be His confirmed habit?
As for that awful heart-rending Crucifixion, was that the sort of thing for a Father to look on at.... As bad as that brutal old Abraham with Isaac his son ... were all "Good" Fathers like that ...?
And nightmare dreams of Hell—a Hell in which there was a Snake—wrought no improvement.
And the Bible! How strangely and dully they talked, and what people! That nasty Jacob and Esau business, those horrid Israelites, the Unfaithful Steward; the Judge who let himself be pestered into action; those poor unfortunate swine that were made to rush violently down the steep place into the sea; Ananias and Sapphira. No—not a nice book at all.
The truth is that Theology, at the age of seven, is not commendable—setting aside the question of whether (at any age) Theology is a web of words, ritual, dogma, tradition, invention, shibboleth; a web originally spun by interested men to obscure God from their dupes.
So the boy worshipped Dearest and distrusted and disliked the God she gave him, a big sinister bearded Man who hung spread-eagled above the world, covering the entire roof of the Universe, and watched, watched, watched, with unwinking, all-seeing eye, and remembered with unforgetting, unrelenting mind. Cruel. Ungentlemanly. Jealous! Cold.
Also the boy fervently hoped it might never be his lot to go to Heaven—a shockingly dreary place where it was always Sunday and one must, presumably, be very quiet except when singing hymns. A place tenanted by white-robed Angels, unsympathetic towards dirty-faced little sinners who tore their clothes. Angels, cold, superior, unhuggable, haughty, given to ecstatic throes, singers of Hallelujah and other silly words—always praising.
How he loathed and dreaded the idea of Dearest being an Angel! Fancy sweet Dearest or his own darling Lucille with silly wings (like a beastly goose or turkey in dear old Cook's larder), with a long trumpet, perhaps, in a kind of night-gown, flying about the place, it wasn't decent at all—Dearest and Lucille, whom he adored and hugged—unsympathetic, cold, superior, unhuggable, haughty; and the boy who was very, very tender-hearted, would throw his arms round Dearest's neck and hug and hug and hug, for he abhorred the thought of her becoming a beastly angel.
Surely, if God knew His business, Dearest would be always happy and bright and live ever so long, and be ever so old, forty years and more.
And Dearest, fearing that her idolized boy might grow up a man like—well, like "Grumper" had been—hard, quarrelsome, adventurous, flippant, wicked, pleasure-loving, drunken, Godless ... redoubled her efforts to Influence-the-child's-mind-for-good by means of the Testaments and Theology, the Covenant, the Deluge, Miracles, the Immaculate Conception, the Last Supper, the Resurrection, Pentecost, Creeds, Collects, Prayers.
And the boy's mind weighed these things deliberately, pondered them, revolted—and rejected them one and all.
Dearest had been taken in....
He said the prayers she taught him mechanically, and when he felt the need of real prayer—(as he did when he had dreamed of the Snake)—he always began, "If you are there, God, and are a good, kind God" ... and concluded, "Yours sincerely, Damocles de Warrenne".
He got but little comfort, however, for his restless and logical mind asked:—
"If God knows best and will surely do what is best, why bother Him? And if He does not and will not, why bother yourself?"
But Dearest succeeded, at any rate, in filling his young soul with a love of beauty, romance, high adventure, honour, and all physical, mental, and moral cleanliness.
She taught him to use his imagination, and she made books a necessity. She made him a gentleman in soul—as distinct from a gentleman in clothes, pocket, or position.
She gave him a beautiful veneration for woman that no other woman was capable of destroying—though one or two did their best. Then the sad-eyed lady was superseded and her professional successor, Miss Smellie, the governess, finding the boy loved the Sword, asked Grumper to lock it away for the boy's Good.
Also she got Grumper to dismiss Nurse Beaton for impudence and not "knowing her place".
But Damocles entered into an offensive and defensive alliance with Lucille, on whom he lavished the whole affection of his deeply, if undemonstratively, affectionate nature, and the two "hunted in couples," sinned and suffered together, pooled their resources and their wits, found consolation in each other when harried by Miss Smellie, spent every available moment in each other's society and, like the Early Christians, had all things in common.
On birthdays, "high days and holidays" he would ask "Grumper" to let him have the Sword for an hour or two, and would stand with it in his hand, rapt, enthralled, ecstatic. How strange it made one feel! How brave, and anxious to do fine deeds. He would picture himself bearing an unconscious Lucille in his left arm through hostile crowds, while with the Sword he thrust and hewed, parried and guarded.... Who could fear anything with the Sword in his hand, the Sword of the Dream! How glorious to die wielding it, wielding it in a good cause ... preferably on behalf of Lucille, his own beloved little pal, staunch, clever, and beautiful. And he told Lucille tales of the Sword and of how he loved it!
"If you drinks a drop more, Miss Lucy, you'll just go like my pore young sister goed," observed Cook in a warning voice, as Lucille paused to get her second wind for the second draught.
(Lucille had just been tortured at the stake by Sioux and Blackfeet—thirsty work on a July afternoon.)
"And how did she go, Cookie-Bird—Pop?" inquired Lucille politely, with round eyes, considering over the top of the big lemonade-flagon as it rose again to her determined little mouth.
"No, Miss Lucy," replied Cook severely. "Pop she did not. She swole ... swole and swole."
"You mean 'swelled,' Cookoo," corrected Lucille, inclined to be a little didactic and corrective at the age of ten.
"Well, she were my sister after all, Miss Lucy," retorted Cook, "and perhaps I may, or may not, know what she done. I say she swole—and what is more she swole clean into a dropsy. All along of drinking water.... Drops of water—Dropsy."
"Never drink water," murmured Dam, absentmindedly annexing, and pocketing, an apple.
"Ah, water, but you see this is lemonade," countered Lucille. "Home-made, too, and not—er—gusty. It doesn't make you go——" and here it is regrettable to have to relate that Lucille made a shockingly realistic sound, painfully indicative of the condition of one who has imbibed unwisely and too well of a gas-impregnated liquor.
"No more does water in my experiants," returned Cook, "and I was not allooding to wulgarity, Miss Lucy, which you should know better than to do such. My pore young sister's systerm turned watery and they tapped her at the last. All through drinking too much water, which lemonade ain't so very different either, be it never so 'ome-made.... Tapped 'er they did—like a carksk, an' 'er a Band of 'Oper, Blue Ribander, an' Sunday Schooler from birth, an' not departin' from it when she grew up. Such be the Ways of Providence," and Cook sighed with protestive respectfulness....
"Tapped 'er systerm, they did," she added pensively, and with a little justifiable pride.
"Were they hard taps?" inquired Lucille, reappearing from behind the flagon. "I hate them myself, even on the funny-bone or knuckles—but on the cistern! Ugh!"
"Hard taps; they was silver taps," ejaculated Cook, "and drawed gallings and gallings—and nothing to laugh at, Master Dammicles, neether.... So don't you drink no more, Miss Lucy."
"I can't," admitted Lucille—and indeed, to Dam, who regarded his "cousin" with considerable concern, it did seem that, even as Cook's poor young sister of unhappy memory, Lucille had "swole"—though only locally.
"Does beer make you swell or swole or swellow when you swallow, Cooker?" he inquired; "because, if so, you had better be—" but he was not allowed to conclude his deduction, for cook, bridling, bristling, and incensed, bore down upon the children and swept them from her kitchen.
To the boy, even as he fled via a dish of tartlets and cakes, it seemed remarkable that a certain uncertainty of temper (and figure) should invariably distinguish those who devote their lives to the obviously charming and attractive pursuit of the culinary art.
Surely one who, by reason of unfortunate limitations of sex, age, ability, or property, could not become a Colonel of Cavalry could still find infinite compensation in the career of cook or railway-servant.
Imagine, in the one case, having absolute freedom of action with regard to raisins, tarts, cream, candy-peel, jam, plum-puddings and cakes, making life one vast hamper, and in the other case, boundless opportunity in the matter of leaping on and off moving trains, carrying lighted bull's-eye lanterns, and waving flags.
One of the early lessons that life taught him, without troubling to explain them, and she taught him many and cruel, was that Cooks are Cross.
"What shall we do now, Dam?" asked Lucille, and added, "Let's raid the rotten nursery and rag the Haddock. Little ass! Nothing else to do. How I hate Sunday afternoon.... No work and no play. Rotten."
The Haddock, it may be stated, owed his fishy title to the fact that he once possessed a Wealthy Relative of the name of Haddon. With far-sighted reversionary intent his mother, a Mrs. Berners nee Seymour Stukeley, had christened him Haddon.
But the Wealthy Relative, on being informed of his good fortune, had bluntly replied that he intended to leave his little all to the founding of Night-Schools for illiterate Members of Parliament, Travelling-Scholarships for uneducated Cabinet Ministers, and Deportment Classes for New Radical Peers. He was a Funny Man as well as a Wealthy Relative.