WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
AUTHOR OF "LIZA OF LAMBETH," "THE MAKING Of A SAINT," "ORIENTATIONS"
London . . . . . HUTCHINSON & CO. Paternoster Row. 1901
"Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves." "Alfred": a Masque. By James Thomson.
"O Sophonisba, Sophonisba, O!" "Sophonisba": a Tragedy. By the same Author.
MISS JULIA MAUGHAM
Colonel Parsons sat by the window in the dining-room to catch the last glimmer of the fading day, looking through his Standard to make sure that he had overlooked no part of it. Finally, with a little sigh, he folded it up, and taking off his spectacles, put them in their case.
"Have you finished the paper?" asked his wife
"Yes, I think I've read it all. There's nothing in it."
He looked out of window at the well-kept drive that led to the house, and at the trim laurel bushes which separated the front garden from the village green. His eyes rested, with a happy smile, upon the triumphal arch which decorated the gate for the home-coming of his son, expected the next day from South Africa. Mrs. Parsons knitted diligently at a sock for her husband, working with quick and clever fingers. He watched the rapid glint of the needles.
"You'll try your eyes if you go on much longer with this light, my dear."
"Oh, I don't require to see," replied his wife, with a gentle, affectionate smile. But she stopped, rather tired, and laying the sock on the table, smoothed it out with her hand.
"I shouldn't mind if you made it a bit higher in the leg than the last pair."
"How high would you like it?"
She went to the window so that the Colonel might show the exact length he desired; and when he had made up his mind, sat down again quietly on her chair by the fireside, with hands crossed on her lap, waiting placidly for the maid to bring the lamp.
Mrs. Parsons was a tall woman of fifty-five, carrying herself with a certain diffidence, as though a little ashamed of her stature, greater than the Colonel's; it had seemed to her through life that those extra inches savoured, after a fashion, of disrespect. She knew it was her duty spiritually to look up to her husband, yet physically she was always forced to look down. And eager to prevent even the remotest suspicion of wrong-doing, she had taken care to be so submissive in her behaviour as to leave no doubt that she recognised the obligation of respectful obedience enjoined by the Bible, and confirmed by her own conscience. Mrs. Parsons was the gentlest of creatures, and the most kind-hearted; she looked upon her husband with great and unalterable affection, admiring intensely both his head and his heart. He was her type of the upright man, walking in the ways of the Lord. You saw in the placid, smooth brow of the Colonel's wife, in her calm eyes, even in the severe arrangement of the hair, parted in the middle and drawn back, that her character was frank, simple, and straightforward. She was a woman to whom evil had never offered the smallest attraction; she was merely aware of its existence theoretically. To her the only way of life had been that which led to God; the others had been non-existent. Duty had one hand only, and only one finger; and that finger had always pointed definitely in one direction. Yet Mrs. Parsons had a firm mouth, and a chin square enough to add another impression. As she sat motionless, hands crossed, watching her husband with loving eyes, you might have divined that, however kind-hearted, she was not indulgent, neither lenient to her own faults nor to those of others; perfectly unassuming, but with a sense of duty, a feeling of the absolute rightness of some deeds and of the absolute wrongness of others, which would be, even to those she loved best in the world, utterly unsparing.
"Here's a telegraph boy!" said Colonel Parsons suddenly. "Jamie can't have arrived yet!"
Mrs. Parsons sprang from her chair, and a colour brightened her pale cheeks. Her heart beat painfully, and tears of eager expectation filled her eyes.
"It's probably only from William, to say the ship is signalled," said the Colonel, to quieten her; but his own voice trembled with anxiety.
"Nothing can have happened, Richmond, can it?" said Mrs. Parsons, her cheeks blanching again at the idea.
"No, no! Of course not! How silly you are!" The telegram was brought in by the servant. "I can't see without a light," said the Colonel.
"Oh, give it me; I can see quite well."
Mrs. Parsons took it to the window, and with trembling hand tore it open.
"Arriving to-night; 7.25.—JAMIE."
Mrs. Parson looked for one moment at her husband, and then, unable to restrain herself, sank on a chair, and hiding her face with her hands, burst into tears.
"Come, come, Frances," said the Colonel, trying to smile, but half choked with his own emotion, "don't cry! You ought to laugh when you know the boy's coming home."
He patted her on the shoulder, and she took his hand, holding it for comfort. With the other, the Colonel loudly blew his nose. At last Mrs Parsons dried her eyes.
"Oh, I thank God that it's all over! He's coming home. I hope we shall never have to endure again that anxiety. It makes me tremble still when I think how we used to long for the paper to come, and dread it; how we used to look all through the list of casualties, fearing to see the boy's name."
"Well, well, it's all over now," said the Colonel cheerily, blowing his nose again. "How pleased Mary will be!"
It was characteristic of him that almost his first thought was of the pleasure this earlier arrival would cause to Mary Clibborn, the girl to whom, for five years, his son had been engaged.
"Yes," said Mrs. Parson, "but she'll be dreadfully disappointed not to be here; she's gone to the Polsons in Tunbridge Wells, and she won't be home till after supper."
"That is a pity. I'm afraid it's too late to go and meet him; it's nearly seven already."
"Oh, yes; and it's damp this evening. I don't think you ought to go out."
Then Mrs. Parsons roused herself to household matters.
"There's the supper to think of, Richmond," she said; "we've only the rest of the cold mutton, and there's not time to cook one of to-morrow's chickens."
They had invited three or four friends to dinner on the following day to celebrate the return of their son, and Mrs. Parsons had laid in for the occasion a store of solid things.
"Well, we might try and get some chops. I expect Howe is open still."
"Yes, I'll send Betty out. And we can have a blanc-mange for a sweet."
Mrs. Parsons went to give the necessary orders, and the Colonel walked up to his son's room to see, for the hundredth time, that everything was in order. They had discussed for days the question whether the young soldier should be given the best spare bedroom or that which he had used from his boyhood. It was wonderful the thought they expended in preparing everything as they fancied he would like it; no detail slipped their memory, and they arranged and rearranged so that he should find nothing altered in his absence. They attempted to satisfy in this manner the eager longing of their hearts; it made them both a little happier to know that they were actually doing something for their son. No pain in love is so hard to bear as that which comes from the impossibility of doing any service for the well-beloved, and no service is so repulsive that love cannot make it delightful and easy. They had not seen him for five years, their only child; for he had gone from Sandhurst straight to India, and thence, on the outbreak of war, to the Cape. No one knew how much the lonely parents had felt the long separation, how eagerly they awaited his letters, how often they read them.
* * *
But it was more than parental affection which caused the passionate interest they took in Jamie's career. They looked to him to restore the good name which his father had lost. Four generations of Parsons had been in the army, and had borne themselves with honour to their family and with credit to themselves. It was a fine record that Colonel Parsons inherited of brave men and good soldiers; and he, the truest, bravest, most honourable of them all, had dragged the name through the dust; had been forced from the service under a storm of obloquy, disgraced, dishonoured, ruined.
Colonel Parsons had done the greater portion of his service creditably enough. He had always put his God before the War Office, but the result had not been objectionable; he looked upon his men with fatherly affection, and the regiment, under his command, was almost a model of propriety and seemliness. His influence was invariably for good, and his subordinates knew that in him they had always a trusty friend; few men had gained more love. He was a mild, even-tempered fellow, and in no circumstance of life forgot to love his neighbour as himself; he never allowed it to slip his memory that even the lowest caste native had an immortal soul, and before God equal rights with him. Colonel Parsons was a man whose piety was so unaggressive, so good-humoured, so simple, that none could resist it; ribaldry and blasphemy were instinctively hushed in his presence, and even the most hardened ruffian was softened by his contact.
But a couple of years before he would naturally have been put on half-pay under the age limit, a little expedition was arranged against some unruly hill-tribes, and Colonel Parsons was given the command. He took the enemy by surprise, finding them at the foot of the hills, and cut off, by means of flanking bodies, their retreat through the two passes behind. He placed his guns on a line of hillocks to the right, and held the tribesmen in the hollow of his hand. He could have massacred them all, but nothing was farther from his thoughts. He summoned them to surrender, and towards evening the headmen came in and agreed to give up their rifles next day; the night was cold, and dark, and stormy. The good Colonel was delighted with the success both of his stratagem and of his humanity. He had not shed a single drop of blood.
"Treat them well," he said, "and they'll treat you better."
He acted like a gentleman and a Christian; but the enemy were neither. He never dreamed that he was being completely overreached, that the natives were using the delay he had unsuspectingly granted to send over the hills urgent messages for help. Through the night armed men had been coming stealthily, silently, from all sides; and in the early morning, before dawn, his flanking parties were attacked. Colonel Parsons, rather astonished, sent them help, and thinking himself still superior in numbers to the rebellious tribesmen, attacked their main body. They wanted nothing better. Falling back slowly, they drew him into the mountain defiles until he found himself entrapped. His little force was surrounded. Five hours were passed in almost blind confusion; men were shot down like flies by an enemy they could not see; and when, by desperate fighting, they managed to cut their way out, fifty were killed and over a hundred more were wounded.
Colonel Parsons escaped with only the remnants of the fine force he had commanded, and they were nerveless, broken, almost panic-stricken. He was obliged to retreat. The Colonel was a brave man; he did what he could to prevent the march from becoming a disorderly rout. He gathered his men together, put courage into them, risked his life a dozen times; but nothing could disguise the fact that his failure was disastrous. It was a small affair and was hushed up, but the consequences were not to be forgotten. The hill-tribes, emboldened by their success, became more venturesome, more unruly. A disturbance which might have been settled without difficulty now required a large force to put it down, and ten times more lives were lost.
Colonel Parsons was required to send in his papers, and left India a broken man.... He came back to England, and settled in his father's house at Little Primpton. His agony continued, and looking into the future, he saw only hideous despair, unavailing regret. For months he could bear to see no one, imagining always that he was pointed out as the man whose folly had cost so many lives. When he heard people laugh he thought it was in scorn of him; when he saw compassion in their eyes he could scarcely restrain his tears. He was indeed utterly broken. He walked in his garden, away from the eyes of his fellows, up and down, continually turning over in his mind the events of that terrible week. And he could not console himself by thinking that any other course would have led to just as bad results. His error was too plain; he could put his finger exactly on the point of his failure and say, "O God! why did I do it?" And as he walked restlessly, unmindful of heat and cold, the tears ran down his thin cheeks, painful and scalding. He would not take his wife's comfort.
"You acted for the best, Richmond," she said.
"Yes, dear; I acted for the best. When I got those fellows hemmed in I could have killed them all. But I'm not a butcher; I couldn't have them shot down in cold blood. That's not war; that's murder. What should I have said to my Maker when He asked me to account for those many souls? I spared them; I imagined they'd understand; but they thought it was weakness. I couldn't know they were preparing a trap for me. And now my name is shameful. I shall never hold up my head again."
"You acted rightly in the sight of God, Richmond."
"I think and trust I acted as a Christian, Frances."
"If you have pleased God, you need not mind the opinion of man."
"Oh, it's not that they called me a fool and a coward—I could have borne that. I did what I thought was right. I thought it my duty to save the lives of my men and to spare the enemy; and the result was that ten times more lives have been lost than if I had struck boldly and mercilessly. There are widows and orphans in England who must curse me because I am the cause that their husbands are dead, and that their fathers are rotting on the hills of India. If I had acted like a savage, like a brute-beast, like a butcher, all those men would have been alive to-day. I was merciful, and I was met with treachery; I was long-suffering, and they thought me weak; I was forgiving, and they laughed at me."
Mrs. Parsons put her hand on her husband's shoulder.
"You must try to forget it, Richmond," she said. "It's over, and it can't be helped now. You acted like a God-fearing man; your conscience is clear of evil intent. What is the judgment of man beside the judgment of God? If you have received insult and humiliation at the hands of man, God will repay you an hundredfold, for you acted as his servant. And I believe in you, Richmond; and I'm proud of what you did."
"I have always tried to act like a Christian and a gentleman, Frances."
At night he would continually dream of those days of confusion and mortal anxiety. He would imagine he was again making that horrible retreat, cheering his men, doing all he could to retrieve the disaster; but aware that ruin only awaited him, conscious that the most ignorant sepoy in his command thought him incapable and mad. He saw the look in the eyes of the officers under him, their bitter contempt, their anger because he forced them to retire before the enemy; and because, instead of honour and glory, they had earned only ridicule. His limbs shook and he sweated with agony as he recalled the interview with his chief: "You're only fit to be a damned missionary," and the last contemptuous words, "I shan't want you any more. You can send in your papers."
But human sorrow is like water in an earthen pot. Little by little Colonel Parsons forgot his misery; he had turned it over in his mind so often that at last he grew confused. It became then only a deep wound partly healed, scarring over; and he began to take an interest in the affairs of the life surrounding him. He could read his paper without every word stabbing him by some chance association; and there is nothing like the daily and thorough perusal of a newspaper for dulling a man's brain. He pottered about his garden gossiping with the gardener; made little alterations in the house—bricks and mortar are like an anodyne; he collected stamps; played bezique with his wife; and finally, in his mild, gentle way, found peace of mind.
But when James passed brilliantly out of Sandhurst, the thought seized him that the good name which he valued so highly might be retrieved. Colonel Parsons had shrunk from telling the youth anything of the catastrophe which had driven him from the service; but now he forced himself to give an exact account thereof. His wife sat by, listening with pain in her eyes, for she knew what torture it was to revive that half-forgotten story.
"I thought you had better hear it from me than from a stranger," the Colonel said when he had finished. "I entered the army with the reputation of my father behind me; my reputation can only harm you. Men will nudge one another and say, 'There's the son of old Parsons, who bungled the affair against the Madda Khels.' You must show them that you're of good stuff. I acted for the best, and my conscience is at ease. I think I did my duty; but if you can distinguish yourself—if you can make them forget—I think I shall die a little happier."
The commanding officer of Jamie's regiment was an old friend of the Colonel's, and wrote to him after a while to say that he thought well of the boy. He had already distinguished himself in a frontier skirmish, and presently, for gallantry in some other little expedition, his name was mentioned in despatches. Colonel Parsons regained entirely his old cheerfulness; Jamie's courage and manifest knowledge of his business made him feel that at last he could again look the world frankly in the face. Then came the Boer War; for the parents at Little Primpton and for Mary Clibborn days of fearful anxiety, of gnawing pain—all the greater because each, for the other's sake, tried to conceal it; and at last the announcement in the paper that James Parsons had been severely wounded while attempting to save the life of a brother officer, and was recommended for the Victoria Cross.
The Parsons sat again in their dining-room, counting the minutes which must pass before Jamie's arrival. The table was laid simply, for all their habits were simple; and the blanc-mange prepared for the morrow's festivities stood, uncompromising and stiff as a dissenting minister, in the middle of the table. I wish someone would write an invective upon that most detestable of all the national dishes, pallid, chilly, glutinous, unpleasant to look upon, insipid in the mouth. It is a preparation which seems to mark a transition stage in culture; just as the South Sea Islanders, with the advance of civilisation, forsook putrid whale for roast missionary, the great English middle classes complained that tarts and plum-puddings were too substantial, more suited to the robust digestions of a past generation. In the blanc-mange, on the other hand, they found almost an appearance of distinction; its name, at least, suggested French cookery; it was possible to the plainest cook, and it required no mastication.
"I shall have to tell Betty to make a jelly for dinner to-morrow," said Mrs. Parsons.
"Yes," replied the Colonel; and after a pause: "Don't you think we ought to let Mary know that Jamie has come back? She'd like to see him to-night."
"I've sent over already."
It was understood that James, having got his Company, would marry Mary Clibborn almost at once. His father and mother had been delighted when he announced the engagement. They had ever tried to shield him from all knowledge of evil—no easy matter when a boy has been to a public school and to Sandhurst—holding the approved opinion that ignorance is synonymous with virtue; and they could imagine no better safeguard for his innocence in the multi-coloured life of India than betrothal with a pure, sweet English girl. They looked upon Mary Clibborn already as a daughter, and she, in Jamie's absence, had been their only solace. They loved her gentleness, her goodness, her simple piety, and congratulated themselves on the fact that with her their son could not fail to lead a happy and a godly life.
Mary, during those five years, had come to see them every day; her own mother and father were rather worldly people, and she felt less happy with them than with Colonel Parsons and his wife. The trio talked continually of the absent soldier, always reading to one another his letters. They laughed together over his jokes, mildly, as befitted persons for whom a sense of humour might conceivably be a Satanic snare, and trembled together at his dangers. Mary's affection was free from anything so degrading as passion, and she felt no bashfulness in reading Jamie's love-letters to his parents; she was too frank to suspect that there might be in them anything for her eyes alone, and too candid to feel any delicacy.
But a lumbering fly rolled in at the gate, and the good people, happy at last, sprang to the door.
Trembling with joy, they brought him in and sat him down; they knew no words to express their delight, and stood looking at him open-mouthed, smiling.
"Well, here you are! We were surprised to get your telegram. When did you land?"
When they found their tongues, it was only to say commonplace things such as they might have spoken to a casual friend who had come from London for the day. They were so used to controlling themselves, that when their emotion was overpowering they were at a loss to express it.
"Would you like to go upstairs and wash your hands?"
They both accompanied him.
"You see it's all just as it was. We thought you'd like your old room. If you want anything you can ring the bell."
They left him, and going downstairs, sat opposite one another by the fire. The dining-room was furnished with a saddle-bag suite; and Colonel Parsons sat in the "gentleman's chair," which had arms, while Mrs. Parsons sat in the "lady's chair," which had none; nor did either dream, under any circumstances, of using the other's seat. They were a little overcome.
"How thin he is!" said Mrs. Parsons.
"We must feed him up," answered the Colonel.
And then, till the soldier came, they remained in silence. Mrs. Parsons rang the bell for the chops as soon as he appeared, and they sat down; but James ate alone. His people were too happy to do anything but watch him.
"I have had tea made," said Mrs. Parsons, "but you can have some claret, if you prefer it."
Five years' absence had not dulled Jamie's memory of his father's wine, and he chose the tea.
"I think a strong cup of tea will do you most good," said his mother, and she poured it out for him as when he was a boy, with plenty of milk and sugar.
His tastes had never been much consulted; things had been done, in the kindest manner possible, solely for his good. James detested sweetness.
"No sugar, please, mother," he said, as she dived into the sugar-basin.
"Nonsense, Jamie," answered Mrs. Parsons, with her good-humoured, indulgent smile. "Sugar's good for you." And she put in two big lumps.
"You don't ask after Mary," said Colonel Parsons.
"How is she?" said James. "Where is she?"
"If you wait a little she'll be here."
Then Mrs. Parsons broke in.
"I don't know what we should have done without her; she's been so good and kind to us, and such a comfort. We're simply devoted to her, aren't we, Richmond?"
"She's the nicest girl I've ever seen."
"And she's so good. She works among the poor like a professional nurse. We told you that she lived with us for six months while Colonel and Mrs. Clibborn went abroad. She was never put out at anything, but was always smiling and cheerful. She has the sweetest character."
The good people thought they were delighting their son by these eulogies. He looked at them gravely.
"I'm glad you like her," he said.
Supper was finished, and Mrs. Parsons went out of the room for a moment. James took out his case and offered a cigar to his father.
"I don't smoke, Jamie," replied the Colonel.
James lit up. The old man looked at him with a start, but said nothing; he withdrew his chair a little and tried to look unconcerned. When Mrs. Parsons returned, the room was full of smoke; she gave a cry of surprise.
"James!" she said, in a tone of reproach. "Your father objects to smoking."
"It doesn't matter just this once," said the Colonel, good-humouredly.
But James threw his cigar into the fire, with a laugh.
"I quite forgot; I'm so sorry."
"You never told us you'd started smoking," observed Mrs. Parsons, almost with disapprobation, "Would you like the windows open to let the smell out, Richmond?"
There was a ring at the door, and Mary's voice was heard.
"Has Captain Parsons arrived?"
"There she is, Jamie!" said the Colonel, "Rush out to her, my boy!"
But James contented himself with rising to his feet; he turned quite pale, and a singular expression came over his grave face.
"I ran round as soon as I got your note," she said. "Well, Jamie!"
She stopped, smiling, and a blush brightened her healthy cheeks. Her eyes glistened with happiness, and for a moment, strong as she was, Mary thought she must burst into tears.
"Aren't you going to kiss her, Jamie?" said the father. "You needn't be bashful before us."
James went up to her, and taking her hands, kissed the cheek she offered.
The impression that Mary Clibborn gave was of absolute healthiness, moral and physical. Her appearance was not distinguished, but she was well set up, with strong hands and solid feet; you knew at once that a ten-mile walk invigorated rather than tired her; her arms were muscular and energetic. She was in no way striking; a typical, country-bred girl, with a fine digestion and an excellent conscience; if not very pretty, obviously good. Her face showed a happy mingling of strength and cheerfulness; her blue eyes were guileless and frank; her hair even was rather pretty, arranged in the simplest manner; her skin was tanned by wind and weather. The elements were friendly, and she enjoyed a long walk in a gale, with the rain beating against her cheeks. She was dressed simply and without adornment, as befitted her character.
"I am sorry I wasn't at home when you arrived, Jamie," she said; "but the Polsons asked me to go and play golf at Tunbridge Wells. I went round in bogy, Colonel Parsons."
"Did you, my dear? That's very good."
The Colonel and his wife looked at her with affectionate satisfaction.
"I'm going to take off my hat."
She gave James to put in the hall her sailor hat and her rough tweed cloak. She wore a bicycling skirt and heavy, square-toed boots.
"Say you're glad to see us, Jamie!" she cried, laughing.
Her voice was rather loud, clear and strong, perhaps wanting variety of inflection. She sat by Jamie's side, and broke into a cheerful, rather humorous, account of the day's excursion.
"How silent you are, Jamie!" she cried at last.
"You haven't given me a chance to get a word in yet," he said, smiling gravely.
They all laughed, ready to be pleased at the smallest joke, and banter was the only form of humour they knew.
"Are you tired?" asked Mary, her cheerful eyes softening.
"Well, I won't worry you to-night; but to-morrow you must be put through your paces."
"Mary will stand no nonsense," said the Colonel, laughing gently. "We all have to do as she tells us. She'll turn you round her little finger."
"Will she?" said James, glancing down at the solid boots, which the short bicycle skirt rather obtrusively exposed to view.
"Don't frighten him the moment he comes home," cried Mary. "As a matter of fact, I shan't be able to come to-morrow morning; I've got my district-visiting to do, and I don't think Jamie is strong enough to go with me yet. Does your wound hurt you still, Jamie?"
"No," he said, "I can't use my arm much, though. It'll be all right soon."
"You must tell us about the great event to-morrow," said Mary, referring to the deed which had won him the decoration. "You've put us all out by coming sooner than you were expected."
"Have I? I'm sorry."
"Didn't you notice anything when you drove in this evening?"
"No, it was quite dark."
"Good heavens! Why, we've put up a triumphal arch, and there was going to be a great celebration. All the school children were coming to welcome you."
"I'm very glad I missed it," said James, laughing. "I should have hated it."
"Oh, I don't know that you have missed it yet. We must see."
Then Mary rose to go.
"Well, at all events, we're all coming to dinner to-morrow at one."
They went to the door to let her out, and the elder couple smiled again with pleasure when James and Mary exchanged a brotherly and sisterly kiss.
* * *
At last James found himself alone in his room; he gave a sigh of relief—a sigh which was almost a groan of pain. He took out his pipe unconsciously and filled it; but then, remembering where he was, put it down. He knew his father's sensitiveness of smell. If he began to smoke there would quickly be a knock at the door, and the inquiry: "There's such a smell of burning in the house; there's nothing on fire in your room, is there, Jamie?"
He began to walk up and down, and then in exhaustion sank on a chair. He opened the window and looked into the night. He could see nothing. The sky was dark with unmoving clouds, but the fresh air blew gratefully against his face, laden with the scent of the vernal country; a light rain was falling noiselessly, and the earth seemed languid and weary, accepting the moisture with little shuddering gasps of relief.
After an event which has been long expected, there is always something in the nature of reaction. James had looked forward to this meeting, partly with terror, partly with eagerness; and now that it was over, his brain, confused and weary, would not help him to order his thoughts. He clenched his hands, trying to force himself to think clearly; he knew he must decide upon some course at once, and a terrible indecision paralysed his ideas. He loved his people so tenderly, he was so anxious to make them happy, and yet—and yet! If he loved one better than the other it was perhaps his father, because of the pitiful weakness, because of the fragility which seemed to call for a protective gentleness. The old man had altered little in the five years. James could not remember him other than thin and bent and frail, with long wisps of silvery hair brushed over the crown to conceal his baldness, with the cheeks hollow and wrinkled, and a white moustache ineffectually concealing the weak, good-natured mouth. Ever since James could recollect his father had appeared old and worn as now; and there had always been that gentle look in the blue eyes, that manner which was almost painful in its diffidence. Colonel Parsons was a man who made people love him by a modesty which seemed to claim nothing. He was like a child compelling sympathy on account of its utter helplessness, so unsuited to the wear and tear of life that he aroused his fellows' instincts of protection.
And James knew besides what a bitter humiliation it was to his father that he had been forced to leave the service. He remembered, like a deadly, incurable pain suffered by a friend, the occasion on which the old soldier had told him the cause of his disgrace, a sweat of agony standing on his brow. The scene had eaten into Jamie's mind alongside of that other when he had first watched a man die, livid with pain, his eyes glazed and sightless. He had grown callous to such events since then.
Colonel Parsons had come to grief on account of the very kindness of heart, on account of the exquisite humanity which endeared him to the most casual acquaintance. James swore that he would do anything to save him from needless suffering. Nor did he forget his mother, for through the harder manner he saw her gentleness and tender love. He knew that he was all in the world to both of them, that in his hands lay their happiness and their misery. Their love made them feel every act of his with a force out of reason to the circumstance. He had seen in their letters, piercing through the assumed cheerfulness, a mortal anxiety when he was in danger, an anguish of mind that seemed hardly bearable. They had gone through so much for his sake; they deprived themselves of luxury, so that, in the various expenses of his regiment, he should not need to economise. All his life they had surrounded him with loving care. And what their hearts were set upon now was that he should marry Mary Clibborn quickly.
James turned from the window and put his head between his hands, swaying to and fro.
"Oh, I can't," he groaned; "I can't!"
In the morning, after breakfast, James went for a walk. He wanted to think out clearly what he had better do, feeling that he must make up his mind at once. Hesitation would be fatal, and yet to speak immediately seemed so cruel, so brutally callous.
Wishing to be absolutely alone, he wandered through the garden to a little wood of beech-trees, which in his boyhood had been a favourite haunt. The day was fresh and sweet after the happy rain of April, the sky so clear that it affected one like a very beautiful action.
James stood still when he came into the wood, inhaling the odour of moist soil, the voluptuous scents of our mother, the Earth, gravid with silent life. For a moment he was intoxicated by the paradise of verdure. The beech-trees rose very tall, with their delicate branches singularly black amid the young leaves of the spring, tender and vivid. The eye could not pierce the intricate greenery; it was more delicate than the summer rain, subtler than the mists of the sunset. It was a scene to drive away all thought of the sadness of life, of the bitterness. Its exquisite fresh purity made James feel pure also, and like a little child he wandered over the undulating earth, broken by the tortuous courses of the streamlets of winter.
The ground was soft, covered with brown dead leaves, and he tried to see the rabbit rustling among them, or the hasty springing of a squirrel. The long branches of the briar entangled his feet; and here and there, in sheltered corners, blossomed the primrose and the violet He listened to the chant of the birds, so joyous that it seemed impossible they sang in a world of sorrow. Hidden among the leaves, aloft in the beeches, the linnet sang with full-throated melody, and the blackbird and the thrush. In the distance a cuckoo called its mysterious note, and far away, like an echo, a fellow-bird called back.
All Nature was rejoicing in the delight of the sunshine; all Nature was rejoicing, and his heart alone was heavy as lead. He stood by a fir-tree, which rose far above the others, immensely tall, like the mast of a solitary ship; it was straight as a life without reproach, but cheerless, cold, and silent. His life, too, was without reproach, thought James—without reproach till now.... He had loved Mary Clibborn. But was it love, or was it merely affection, habit, esteem? She was the only girl he knew, and they had grown up together. When he came from school for his holidays, or later from Sandhurst, on leave, Mary was his constant friend, without whom he would have been miserably dull. She was masculine enough to enter into his boyish games, and even their thoughts were common. There were so few people in Little Primpton that those who lived there saw one another continually; and though Tunbridge Wells was only four miles away, the distance effectually prevented very close intimacy with its inhabitants. It was natural, then, that James should only look forward to an existence in which Mary took part; without that pleasant companionship the road seemed long and dreary. When he was appointed to a regiment in India, and his heart softened at the prospect of the first long parting from all he cared for, it was the separation from Mary that seemed hardest to bear.
"I don't know what I shall do without you, Mary," he said.
"You will forget all about us when you've been in India a month."
But her lips twitched, and he noticed that she found difficulty in speaking quite firmly. She hesitated a moment, and spoke again.
"It's different for us," she said, "Those who go forget, but those who stay—remember. We shall be always doing the same things to remind us of you. Oh, you won't forget me, Jamie?"
The last words slipped out against the girl's intention.
"Mary!" he cried.
And then he put his arms round her, and Mary rested her face on his shoulder and began to cry. He kissed her, trying to stop her tears; he pressed her to his heart. He really thought he loved her then with all his strength.
"Mary," he whispered, "Mary, do you care for me? Will you marry me?"
Then quickly he explained that it would make it so much better for both if they became engaged.
"I shan't be able to marry you for a long time; but will you wait for me, Mary?"
She began to smile through her tears.
"I would wait for you to the end of my life."
During the first two years in India the tie had been to James entirely pleasurable; and if, among the manifold experiences of his new life, he bore Mary's absence with greater equanimity than he had thought possible, he was always glad to receive her letters, with their delicate aroma of the English country; and it pleased him to think that his future was comfortably settled. The engagement was a sort of ballast, and he felt that he could compass his journey without fear and without disturbance. James did not ask himself whether his passion was very ardent, for his whole education had led him to believe that passion was hardly moral. The proper and decent basis of marriage was similarity of station, and the good, solid qualities which might be supposed endurable. From his youth, the wisdom of the world had been instilled into him through many proverbs, showing the advisability of caution, the transitoriness of beauty and desire; and, on the other hand, the lasting merit of honesty, virtue, domesticity, and good temper....
But we all know that Nature is a goddess with no sense of decency, for whom the proprieties are simply non-existent; men and women in her eyes have but one point of interest, and she walks abroad, with her fashioning fingers, setting in order the only work she cares for. All the rest is subsidiary, and she is callous to suffering and to death, indifferent to the Ten Commandments and even to the code of Good Society.
James at last made the acquaintance of a certain Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace, the wife of a man in a native regiment, a little, dark-hatred person, with an olive skin and big brown eyes—rather common, but excessively pretty. She was the daughter of a riding-master by a Portuguese woman from Goa, and it had been something of a scandal when Pritchard-Wallace, who was an excellent fellow, had married her against the advice of all the regimental ladies. But if those charitable persons had not ceased to look upon her with doubtful eyes, her wit and her good looks for others counterbalanced every disadvantage; and she did not fail to have a little court of subalterns and the like hanging perpetually about her skirts. At first Mrs. Wallace merely amused James. Her absolute frivolity, her cynical tongue, her light-heartedness, were a relief after the rather puritanical atmosphere in which he had passed his youth; he was astonished to hear the gay contempt which she poured upon all the things that he had held most sacred—things like the Tower of London and the British Constitution. Prejudices and cherished beliefs were dissipated before her sharp-tongued raillery; she was a woman with almost a witty way of seeing the world, with a peculiarly feminine gift for putting old things in a new, absurd light. To Mrs. Wallace, James seemed a miracle of ingenuousness, and she laughed at him continually; then she began to like him, and took him about with her, at which he was much flattered.
James had been brought up in the belief that women were fashioned of different clay from men, less gross, less earthly; he thought not only that they were pious, sweet and innocent, ignorant entirely of disagreeable things, but that it was man's first duty to protect them from all knowledge of the realities of life. To him they were an ethereal blending of milk-and-water with high principles; it had never occurred to him that they were flesh and blood, and sense, and fire and nerves—especially nerves. Most topics, of course, could not be broached in their presence; in fact, almost the only safe subject of conversation was the weather.
But Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace prided herself on frankness, which is less common in pretty women than in plain; and she had no hesitation in discussing with James matters that he had never heard discussed before. She was hugely amused at the embarrassment which made him hesitate and falter, trying to find polite ways of expressing the things which his whole training had taught him to keep rigidly to himself. Then sometimes, from pure devilry, Mrs. Wallace told stories on purpose to shock him; and revelled in his forced, polite smile, and in his strong look of disapproval.
"What a funny boy you are!" she said. "But you must take care, you know; you have all the makings of a perfect prig."
"D'you think so?"
"You must try to be less moral. The moral young man is rather funny for a change, but he palls after a time."
"If I bore you, you have only to say so, and I won't bother you again."
"And moral young men shouldn't get cross; it's very bad manners," she answered, smiling.
Before he knew what had happened, James found himself madly in love with Mrs. Wallace. But what a different passion was this, resembling not at all that pallid flame which alone he had experienced! How could he recognise the gentle mingling of friendship and of common-sense which he called love in that destroying violence which troubled his days like a fever? He dreamed of the woman at night; he seemed only to live when he was with her. The mention of her name made his heart beat, and meeting her he trembled and turned cold. By her side he found nothing to say; he was like wax in her hands, without will or strength. The touch of her fingers sent the blood rushing through his veins insanely; and understanding his condition, she took pleasure in touching him, to watch the little shiver of desire that convulsed his frame. In a very self-restrained man love works ruinously; and it burnt James now, this invisible, unconscious fire, till he was consumed utterly—till he was mad with passion. And then suddenly, at some chance word, he knew what had happened; he knew that he was in love with the wife of his good friend, Pritchard-Wallace; and he thought of Mary Clibborn.
There was no hesitation now, nor doubt; James had only been in danger because he was unaware of it. He never thought of treachery to his friend or to Mary; he was horror-stricken, hating himself. He looked over the brink of the precipice at the deadly sin, and recoiled, shuddering. He bitterly reproached himself, taking for granted that some error of his had led to the catastrophe. But his duty was obvious; he knew he must kill the sinful love, whatever pain it cost him; he must crush it as he would some noxious vermin.
James made up his mind never to see Mrs. Wallace again; and he thought that God was on his side helping him, since, with her husband, she was leaving in a month for England. He applied for leave. He could get away for a few weeks, and on his return Mrs. Wallace would be gone. He managed to avoid her for several days, but at last she came across him by chance, and he could not escape.
"I didn't know you were so fond of hide-and-seek," she said, "I think it's rather a stupid game."
"I don't understand," replied James, growing pale.
"Why have you been dodging round corners to avoid me as if I were a dun, and inventing the feeblest excuses not to come to me?"
James stood for a moment, not knowing what to answer; his knees trembled, and he sweated with the agony of his love. It was an angry, furious passion, that made him feel he could almost seize the woman by the throat and strangle her.
"Did you know that I am engaged to be married?" he asked at length.
"I've never known a sub who wasn't. It's the most objectionable of all their vicious habits. What then?" She looked at him, smiling; she knew very well the power of her dark eyes, fringed with long lashes. "Don't be silly," she added. "Come and see me, and bring her photograph, and you shall talk to me for two hours about her. Will you come?"
"It's very kind of you. I don't think I can."
"Why not? You're really very rude."
"I'm extremely busy."
"Nonsense! You must come. Don't look as if I were asking you to do something quite horrible. I shall expect you to tea."
She bound him by his word, and James was forced to go. When he showed the photograph, Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace looked at it with a curious expression. It was the work of a country photographer, awkward and ungainly, with the head stiffly poised, and the eyes hard and fixed; the general impression was ungraceful and devoid of charm, Mrs. Wallace noticed the country fashion of her clothes.
"It's extraordinary that subalterns should always get engaged to the same sort of girl."
James flushed, "It's not a very good one of her."
"They always photograph badly," murmured Mrs. Wallace.
"She's the best girl in the world. You can't think how good, and kind, and simple she is; she reminds me always of an English breeze."
"I don't like east winds myself," said Mrs. Wallace. "But I can see she has all sorts of admirable qualities."
"D'you know why I came to see you to-day?"
"Because I forced you," said Mrs. Wallace, laughing.
"I came to say good-bye; I've got a month's leave."
"Oh, but I shall be gone by the time you come back."
"I know. It is for that reason."
Mrs. Wallace looked at him quickly, hesitated, then glanced away.
"Is it so bad as that?"
"Oh, don't you understand?" cried James, breaking suddenly from his reserve. "I must tell you. I shall never see you again, and it can't matter. I love you with all my heart and soul. I didn't know what love was till I met you. God help me, it was only friendship I had for Mary! This is so different. Oh, I hate myself! I can't help it; the mere touch of your hand sends me mad with passion. I daren't see you again—I'm not a blackguard. I know it's quite hopeless. And I've given my word to Mary."
The look of her eyes, the sound of her voice, sent half his fine intentions flying before the wind. He lost command over himself—but only for a moment; the old habits were strong.
"I beg your pardon! I oughtn't to have spoken. Don't be angry with me for what I've said. I couldn't help it. You thought me a fool because I ran away from you. It was all I could do. I couldn't help loving you. You understand now, don't you? I know that you will never wish to see me again, and it's better for both of us. Good-bye."
He stretched out his hand.
"I didn't know it was so bad as that," she said, looking at him with kindly eyes.
"Didn't you see me tremble when the hem of your dress touched me by accident? Didn't you hear that I couldn't speak; the words were dried up in my throat?" He sank into a chair weakly; but then immediately gathering himself together, sprang up. "Good-bye," he said. "Let me go quickly."
She gave him her hand, and then, partly in kindness, partly in malice, bent forward and kissed his lips. James gave a cry, a sob; now he lost command over himself entirely. He took her in his arms roughly, and kissed her mouth, her eyes, her hair—so passionately that Mrs. Wallace was frightened. She tried to free herself; but he only held her closer, madly kissing her lips.
"Take care," she said. "What are you doing? Let me go!" And she pushed him away.
She was a cautious woman, who never allowed flirtation to go beyond certain decorous lengths, and she was used to a milder form of philandering.
"You've disarranged my hair, you silly boy!" She went to the glass to put it in order, and when she turned back found that James had gone. "What an odd creature!" she muttered.
To Mrs. Pritchard-Wallace the affair was but an incident, such as might have been the love of Phaedra had she flourished in an age when the art of living consists in not taking things too seriously; but for Hippolitus a tragedy of one sort or another is inevitable. James was not a man of easy affections; he made the acquaintance of people with a feeling of hostility rather than with the more usual sensation of friendly curiosity. He was shy, and even with his best friends could not lessen his reserve. Some persons are able to form close intimacies with admirable facility, but James felt always between himself and his fellows a sort of barrier. He could not realise that deep and sudden sympathy was even possible, and was apt to look with mistrust upon the appearance thereof. He seemed frigid and perhaps supercilious to those with whom he came in contact; he was forced to go his way, hiding from all eyes the emotions he felt. And when at last he fell passionately in love, it meant to him ten times more than to most men; it was a sudden freedom from himself. He was like a prisoner who sees for the first time in his life the trees and the hurrying clouds, and all the various movement of the world. For a little while James had known a wonderful liberty, an ineffable bliss which coloured the whole universe with new, strange colours. But then he learnt that the happiness was only sin, and he returned voluntarily to his cold prison.... Till he tried to crush it, he did not know how strong was this passion; he did not realise that it had made of him a different man; it was the only thing in the world to him, beside which everything else was meaningless. He became ruthless towards himself, undergoing every torture which he fancied might cleanse him of the deadly sin.
And when Mrs. Wallace, against his will, forced herself upon his imagination, he tried to remember her vulgarity, her underbred manners, her excessive use of scent. She had merely played with him, without thinking or caring what the result to him might be. She was bent on as much enjoyment as possible without exposing herself to awkward consequences; common scandal told him that he was not the first callow youth that she had entangled with her provoking glances and her witty tongue. The epithet by which his brother officers qualified her was expressive, though impolite. James repeated these things a hundred times: he said that Mrs. Wallace was not fit to wipe Mary's boots; he paraded before himself, like a set of unread school-books, all Mary's excellent qualities. He recalled her simple piety, her good-nature, and kindly heart; she had every attribute that a man could possibly want in his wife. And yet—and yet, when he slept he dreamed he was talking to the other; all day her voice sang in his ears, her gay smile danced before his eyes. He remembered every word she had ever said; he remembered the passionate kisses he had given her. How could he forget that ecstasy? He writhed, trying to expel the importunate image; but nothing served.
Time could not weaken the impression. Since then he had never seen Mrs. Wallace, but the thought of her was still enough to send the blood racing through his veins. He had done everything to kill the mad, hopeless passion; and always, like a rank weed, it had thriven with greater strength. James knew it was his duty to marry Mary Clibborn, and yet he felt he would rather die. As the months passed on, and he knew he must shortly see her, he was never free from a sense of terrible anxiety. Doubt came to him, and he could not drive it away. The recollection of her was dim, cold, formless; his only hope was that when he saw her love might rise up again, and kill that other passion which made him so utterly despise himself. But he had welcomed the war as a respite, and the thought came to him that its chances might easily solve the difficulty. Then followed the months of hardship and of fighting; and during these the image of Mrs. Wallace had been less persistent, so that James fancied he was regaining the freedom he longed for. And when he lay wounded and ill, his absolute weariness made him ardently look forward to seeing his people again. A hotter love sprang up for them; and the hope became stronger that reunion with Mary might awaken the dead emotion. He wished for it with all his heart.
But he had seen Mary, and he felt it hopeless; she left him cold, almost hostile. And with a mocking laugh, James heard Mrs. Wallace's words:
"Subalterns always get engaged to the same type of girl. They photograph so badly."
* * *
And now he did not know what to do. The long recalling of the past had left James more uncertain than ever. Some devil within him cried, "Wait, wait! Something may happen!" It really seemed better to let things slide a little. Perhaps—who could tell?—in a day or two the old habit might render Mary as dear to him as when last he had wandered with her in that green wood, James sighed, and looked about him.... The birds still sang merrily, the squirrel leaped from tree to tree; even the blades of grass stood with a certain conscious pleasure, as the light breeze rustled through them. In the mid-day sun all things took pleasure in their life; and all Nature appeared full of joy, coloured and various and insouciant. He alone was sad.
When James went home he found that the Vicar of Little Primpton and his wife had already arrived. They were both of them little, dried-up persons, with an earnest manner and no sense of humour, quite excellent in a rather unpleasant way; they resembled one another like peas, but none knew whether the likeness had grown from the propinquity of twenty years, or had been the original attraction. Deeply impressed with their sacred calling—for Mrs. Jackson would never have acknowledged that the Vicar's wife held a position inferior to the Vicar's—they argued that the whole world was God's, and they God's particular ministrants; so that it was their plain duty to concern themselves with the business of their fellows—and it must be confessed that they never shrank from this duty. They were neither well-educated, nor experienced, nor tactful; but blissfully ignorant of these defects, they shepherded their flock with little moral barks, and gave them, rather self-consciously, a good example in the difficult way to eternal life. They were eminently worthy people, who thought light-heartedness somewhat indecent. They did endless good in the most disagreeable manner possible; and in their fervour not only bore unnecessary crosses themselves, but saddled them on to everyone else, as the only certain passport to the Golden City.
The Reverend Archibald Jackson had been appointed to the living of Little Primpton while James was in India, and consequently had never seen him.
"I was telling your father," said Mrs. Jackson, on shaking hands, "that I hoped you were properly grateful for all the mercies that have been bestowed upon you."
James stared at her a little. "Were you?"
He hated the fashion these people had of discussing matters which he himself thought most private.
"Mr. Jackson was asking if you'd like a short prayer offered up next Sunday, James," said his mother.
"I shouldn't at all."
"Why not?" asked the Vicar, "I think it's your duty to thank your Maker for your safe return, and I think your parents should join in the thanksgiving."
"We're probably none of us less grateful," said James, "because we don't want to express our feelings before the united congregation."
Jamie's parents looked at him with relief, for the same thought filled their minds; but thinking it their duty to submit themselves to the spiritual direction of the Vicar and his wife, they had not thought it quite right to decline the proposal. Mrs. Jackson glanced at her husband with pained astonishment, but further argument was prevented by the arrival of Colonel and Mrs. Clibborn, and Mary.
Colonel Clibborn was a tall man, with oily black hair and fierce eyebrows, both dyed; aggressively military and reminiscent He had been in a cavalry regiment, where he had come to the philosophic conclusion that all men are dust—except cavalry-men; and he was able to look upon Jamie's prowess—the prowess of an infantryman—from superior heights. He was a great authority upon war, and could tell anyone what were the mistakes in South Africa, and how they might have been avoided; likewise he had known in the service half the peers of the realm, and talked of them by their Christian names. He spent three weeks every season in London, and dined late, at seven o'clock, so he had every qualification for considering himself a man of fashion.
"I don't know what they'd do in Little Primpton without us," he said. "It's only us who keep it alive."
But Mrs. Clibborn missed society.
"The only people I can speak to are the Parsons," she told her husband, plaintively. "They're very good people—but only infantry, Reggie."
"Of course, they're only infantry," agreed Colonel Clibborn.
Mrs. Clibborn was a regimental beauty—of fifty, who had grown stout; but not for that ceased to use the weapons which Nature had given her against the natural enemies of the sex. In her dealings with several generations of adorers, she had acquired such a habit of languishing glances that now she used them unconsciously. Whether ordering meat from the butcher or discussing parochial matters with Mr. Jackson, Mrs. Clibborn's tone and manner were such that she might have been saying the most tender things. She had been very popular in the service, because she was the type of philandering woman who required no beating about the bush; her neighbour at the dinner-table, even if he had not seen her before, need never have hesitated to tell her with the soup that she was the handsomest creature he had ever seen, and with the entree that he adored her.
On coming in, Mrs. Clibborn for a moment looked at James, quite speechless, her head on one side and her eyes screwing into the corner of the room.
"Oh, how wonderful!" she said, at last "I suppose I mustn't call you Jamie now." She spoke very slowly, and every word sounded like a caress. Then she looked at James again in silent ecstasy. "Colonel Parsons, how proud you must be! And when I think that soon he will be my son! How thin you look, James!"
"And how well you look, dear lady!"
It was understood that everyone must make compliments to Mrs. Clibborn; otherwise she grew cross, and when she was cross she was horrid.
She smiled to show her really beautiful teeth.
"I should like to kiss you, James. May I, Mrs. Parsons?"
"Certainly," replied Jamie's mother, who didn't approve of Mrs. Clibborn at all.
She turned her cheek to James, and assumed a seraphic expression while he lightly touched it with his lips.
"I'm only an old woman," she murmured to the company in general.
She seldom made more than one remark at a time, and at the end of each assumed an appropriate attitude—coy, Madonna-like, resigned, as the circumstances might require. Mr. Jackson came forward to shake hands, and she turned her languishing glance on him.
"Oh, Mr. Jackson, how beautiful your sermon was!"
* * *
They sat down to dinner, and ate their ox-tail soup. It is terrible to think of the subtlety with which the Evil One can insinuate himself among the most pious; for soup at middle-day is one of his most dangerous wiles, and it is precisely with the simple-minded inhabitants of the country and of the suburbs that this vice is most prevalent.
James was sitting next to Mrs. Clibborn, and presently she looked at him with the melancholy smile which had always seemed to her so effective.
"We want you to tell us how you won your Victoria Cross, Jamie."
The others, eager to hear the story from the hero's lips, had been, notwithstanding, too tactful to ask; but they were willing to take advantage of Mrs. Clibborn's lack of that quality.
"We've all been looking forward to it," said the Vicar.
"I don't think there's anything to tell," replied James.
His father and mother were looking at him with happy eyes, and the Colonel nodded to Mary.
"Please, Jamie, tell us," she said. "We only saw the shortest account in the papers, and you said nothing about it in your letters."
"D'you think it's very good form of me to tell you about it?" asked James, smiling gravely.
"We're all friends here," said the Vicar.
And Colonel Clibborn added, making sheep's eyes at his wife:
"You can't refuse a lady!"
"I'm an old woman," sighed Mrs. Clibborn, with a doleful glance. "I can't expect him to do it for me."
The only clever thing Mrs. Clibborn had done in her life was to acknowledge to old age at thirty, and then she did not mean it. It had been one of her methods in flirtation, covering all excesses under a maternal aspect. She must have told hundreds of young officers that she was old enough to be their mother; and she always said it looking plaintively at the ceiling, when they squeezed her hand.
"It wasn't a very wonderful thing I did," said James, at last, "and it was completely useless."
"No fine deed is useless," said the Vicar, sententiously.
James looked at him a moment, but proceeded with his story.
"It was only that I tried to save the life of a sub who'd just joined—and didn't."
"Would you pass me the salt?" said Mrs. Clibborn.
"Mamma!" cried Mary, with a look as near irritation as her gentle nature permitted.
"Go on, Jamie, there's a good boy," said Mrs. Parsons.
And James, seeing his father's charming, pathetic look of pride, told the story to him alone. The others did not care how much they hurt him so long as they could gape in admiration, but in his father he saw the most touching sympathy.
"It was a chap called Larcher, a boy of eighteen, with fair hair and blue eyes, who looked quite absurdly young. His people live somewhere round here, near Ashford."
"Larcher, did you say?" asked Mrs. Clibborn, "I've never heard the name. It's not a county family."
"Go on, Jamie," said Mary, with some impatience.
"Well, he'd only been with us three or four weeks; but I knew him rather well. Oddly enough, he'd taken a sort of fancy to me. He was such a nice, bright boy, so enthusiastic and simple. I used to tell him that he ought to have been at school, rather than roughing it at the Cape."
Mrs. Clibborn sat with an idiotic smile on her lips, and a fixed expression of girlish innocence.
"Well, we knew we should be fighting in a day or so; and the evening before the battle young Larcher was talking to me. 'How d'you feel?' I said. He didn't answer quite so quickly as usual. 'D'you know,' he said, 'I'm so awfully afraid that I shall funk it.' 'You needn't mind that,' I said, and I laughed. 'The first time we most of us do funk it. For five minutes or so you just have to cling on to your eyelashes to prevent yourself from running away, and then you feel all right, and you think it's rather sport.' 'I've got a sort of presentiment that I shall be killed,' he said. 'Don't be an ass,' I answered. 'We've all got a presentiment that we shall be killed the first time we're under fire. If all the people were killed who had presentiments, half the army would have gone to kingdom come long ago.'"
"You should have told him to lay his trust in the hands of Him who has power to turn the bullet and to break the sword," said Mrs. Jackson.
"He wasn't that sort," replied James, drily, "I laughed at him, thinking it the better way.... Well, next day we did really fight. We were sent to take an unoccupied hill. Our maxim was that a hill is always unoccupied unless the enemy are actually firing from it. Of course, the place was chock full of Boers; they waited till we had come within easy range for a toy-pistol, and then fired murderously. We did all we could. We tried to storm the place, but we hadn't a chance. Men tumbled down like nine-pins. I've never seen anything like it. The order was given to fire, and there was nothing to fire at but the naked rocks. We had to retire—we couldn't do anything else; and presently I found that poor Larcher had been wounded. Well, I thought he couldn't be left where he was, so I went back for him. I asked him if he could move. 'No,' he said, 'I think I'm hurt in the leg.' I knelt down and bandaged him up as well as I could. He was simply bleeding like a pig; and meanwhile brother Boer potted at us for all he was worth. 'How d'you feel?' I asked. 'Bit dicky; but comfortable. I didn't funk it, did I?' 'No, of course not, you juggins!' I said. 'Can you walk, d'you think?' 'I'll try.' I lifted him up and put my arm round him, and we got along for a bit; then he became awfully white and groaned, 'I do feel so bad, Parsons,' and then he fainted. So I had to carry him; and we went a bit farther, and then—and then I was hit in the arm. 'I say, I can't carry you now,' I said; 'for God's sake, buck up.' He opened his eyes, and I prevented him from falling. 'I think I can stand,' he said, and as he spoke a bullet got him in the neck, and his blood splashed over my face. He gave a gasp and died."
James finished, and his mother and Mary wiped the tears from their eyes. Mrs. Clibborn turned to her husband.
"Reggie, I'm sure the Larchers are not a county family."
"There was a sapper of that name whom we met at Simla once, my dear," replied the Colonel.
"I thought I'd heard it before," said Mrs. Clibborn, with an air of triumph, as though she'd found out a very difficult puzzle. "Had he a red moustache?"
"Have you heard from the young man's people, Captain Parsons?" asked Mrs. Jackson.
"I had a letter from Mrs. Larcher, the boy's mother, asking me to go over and see her."
"She must be very grateful to you, Jamie."
"Why? She has no reason to be."
"You did all you could to save him."
"It would have been better if I'd left him alone. Don't you see that if he had remained where he was he might have been alive now. He would have been taken prisoner and sent to Pretoria, but that is better than rotting on the veldt. He was killed because I tried to save him."
"There are worse things than death," said Colonel Parsons. "I have often thought that those fellows who surrendered did the braver thing. It is easy to stand and be shot down, but to hoist the white flag so as to save the lives of the men under one—that requires courage."
"It is a sort of courage which seemed not uncommon," answered James, drily. "And they had a fairly pleasant time in Pretoria. Eventually, I believe, wars will be quite bloodless; rival armies will perambulate, and whenever one side has got into a good position, the other will surrender wholesale. Campaigns will be conducted like manoeuvres, and the special correspondents will decide which lot has won."
"If they were surrounded and couldn't escape, it would have been wicked not to hoist the white flag," said Mrs. Jackson.
"I daresay you know more about it than I," replied James.
But the Vicar's lady insisted:
"If you were so placed that on one hand was certain death for yourself and all your men, and on the other hand surrender, which would you chose?"
"One can never tell; and in those matters it is wiser not to boast. Certain death is an awful thing, but our fathers preferred it to surrender."
"War is horrible!" said Mary, shuddering.
"Oh, no!" cried James, shaking himself out of his despondency. "War is the most splendid thing in the world. I shall never forget those few minutes, now and then, when we got on top of the Boers and fought with them, man to man, in the old way. Ah, life seemed worth living then! One day, I remember, they'd been giving it us awfully hot all the morning, and we'd lost frightfully. At last we rushed their position, and, by Jove, we let 'em have it! How we did hate them! You should have heard the Tommies cursing as they killed! I shall never forget the exhilaration of it, the joy of thinking that we were getting our own again. By Gad, it beat cock-fighting!"
Jamie's cheeks were flushed and his eyes shone; but he had forgotten where he was, and his father's voice came to him through a mist of blood and a roar of sound.
"I have fought, too," said Colonel Parsons, looking at his son with troubled eyes—"I have fought, too, but never with anger in my heart, nor lust of vengeance. I hope I did my duty, but I never forgot that my enemy was a fellow-creature. I never felt joy at killing, but pain and grief. War is inevitable, but it is horrible, horrible! It is only the righteous cause that can excuse it; and then it must be tempered with mercy and forgiveness."
"Cause? Every cause is righteous. I can think of no war in which right has not been fairly equal on both sides; in every question there is about as much to be said on either part, and in none more than in war. Each country is necessarily convinced of the justice of its own cause."
"They can't both be right."
"Oh, yes, they can. It's generally six to one and half a dozen of the other."
"Do you mean to say that you, a military man, think the Boers were justified?" asked Colonel Clibborn, with some indignation.
"You must remember that if any nation but ourselves had been engaged, our sympathies would have been entirely with the sturdy peasants fighting for their independence. The two great powers in the affairs of the world are sentiment and self-interest. The Boers are the smaller, weaker nation, and they have been beaten; it is only natural that sympathy should be with them. It was with the French for the same reason, after the Franco-Prussian War. But we, who were fighting, couldn't think of sentiment; to us it was really a matter of life and death, I was interested to see how soon the English put aside their ideas of fair play and equal terms when we had had a few reverses. They forgot that one Englishman was equal to ten foreigners, and insisted on sending out as many troops as possible. I fancy you were badly panic-stricken over here."
James saw that his listeners looked at him with surprise, even with consternation; and he hastened to explain.
"Of course, I don't blame them. They were quite right to send as many men as possible. The object of war is not to do glorious actions, but to win. Other things being equal, it is obviously better to be ten to one; it is less heroic, but more reasonable."
"You take from war all the honour and all the chivalry!" cried Mary. "The only excuse for war is that it brings out the noblest qualities of man—self-sacrifice, unselfishness, endurance."
"But war doesn't want any excuse," replied James, smiling gently. "Many people say that war is inhuman and absurd; many people are uncommonly silly. When they think war can be abolished, they show a phenomenal ignorance of the conditions of all development. War in one way and another is at the very root of life. War is not conducted only by fire and sword; it is in all nature, it is the condition of existence for all created things. Even the wild flowers in the meadow wage war, and they wage it more ruthlessly even than man, for with them defeat means extermination. The law of Nature is that the fit should kill the unfit. The Lord is the Lord of Hosts. The lame, and the halt, and the blind must remain behind, while the strong man goes his way rejoicing."
"How hard you are!" said Mary. "Have you no pity, James?"
"D'you know, I've got an idea that there's too much pity in the world. People seem to be losing their nerve; reality shocks them, and they live slothfully in the shoddy palaces of Sham Ideals. The sentimentalists, the cowards, and the cranks have broken the spirit of mankind. The general in battle now is afraid to strike because men may be killed. Sometimes it is worth while to lose men. When we become soldiers, we know that we cease to be human beings, and are merely the instruments for a certain work; we know that sometimes it may be part of a general's deliberate plan that we should be killed. I have no confidence in a leader who is tender-hearted. Compassion weakens his brain, and the result, too often, is disaster."
But as he spoke, James realised with a start how his father would take what he was saying. He could have torn out his tongue, he would have given anything that the words should remain unspoken. His father, in pity and in humanity, had committed just such a fatal mistake, and trying tender-heartedly to save life had brought about death and disaster. He would take the thoughtless words as a deliberate condemnation; the wound, barely closed, was torn open by his very son, and he must feel again the humiliation which had nearly killed him.
Colonel Parsons sat motionless, as though he were stunned, his eyes fixed on James with horror and pain; he looked like some hunted animal, terror-stricken, and yet surprised, wondering that man should be so cruel.
"What can I do?" thought James. "How can I make it good for him?"
The conversation was carried on by the Clibborns and by the Vicar, all happily unconscious that a tragedy was acting under their noses. James looked at his father. He wanted to show how bitterly he regretted the pain he had caused, but knew not what to say; he wanted to give a sign of his eager love, and tortured himself, knowing the impossibility of showing in any way his devotion.
Fortunately, the maid came in to announce that the school children were without, to welcome Captain Parsons; and they all rose from the table.
Colonel Parsons and his wife had wished no function to celebrate the home-coming of James; but gave in to the persuasions of Mary and of Mr. Dryland, the curate, who said that a public ceremony would be undoubtedly a stimulus to the moral welfare of Little Primpton. No man could escape from his obligations, and Captain Parsons owed it to his fellow-countrymen of Little Primpton to let them show their appreciation of his great deed.
The Vicar went so far as to assert that a hearty greeting to the hero would be as salutory to the parishioners as a sermon of his own, while it would awaken James, a young man and possibly thoughtless, to a proper sense of his responsibilities. But the sudden arrival of James had disturbed the arrangements, and Mr. Dryland, in some perplexity, went to see Mary.
"What are we to do, Miss Clibborn? The school children will be so disappointed."
The original plan had been to meet the hero as he drove towards Primpton House from the station, and the curate was unwilling to give it up.
"D'you think Captain Parsons would go into Tunbridge Wells and drive in at two o'clock, as if he were just arriving?"
"I'm afraid he wouldn't," replied Mary, doubtfully, "and I think he'd only laugh if I asked him. He seemed glad when he thought he had escaped the celebration."
"Did he, indeed? How true it is that real courage is always modest! But it would be an eternal disgrace to Little Primpton if we did not welcome our hero, especially now that everything is prepared. It must not be said that Little Primpton neglects to honour him whom the Empire has distinguished."
After turning over many plans, they decided that the procession should come to Primpton House at the appointed hour, when Captain Parsons would receive it from the triumphal arch at the gate.... When the servant announced that the function was ready to begin, an announcement emphasised by the discordant notes of the brass band, Mary hurriedly explained to James what was expected of him, and they all made for the front door.
Primpton House faced the green, and opposite the little village shops were gay with bunting; at the side, against the highroad that led to Groombridge, the church and the public-house stood together in friendly neighbourhood, decorated with Union Jacks. The whole scene, with its great chestnut-trees, and the stretch of greenery beyond, was pleasantly rural, old-fashioned and very English; and to complete it, the sun shone down comfortably like a good-natured, mild old gentleman. The curate, with a fine sense of order, had arranged on the right the school-boys, nicely scrubbed and redolent of pomatum; and on the left the girls, supported by their teachers. In the middle stood the choir, the brass band, and Mr. Dryland. The village yokels were collected round in open-mouthed admiration. The little party from the house took their places under the triumphal arch, the Clibborns assuming an expression of genteel superciliousness; and as they all wore their Sunday clothes, they made quite an imposing group.
Seeing that they were ready, Mr. Dryland stepped forward, turned his back so as to command the musicians, and coughed significantly. He raised above his head his large, white clerical hand, stretching out the index-finger, and began to beat time. He bellowed aloud, and the choir, a bar or so late, followed lustily. The band joined in with a hearty braying of trumpets.
"See, the conquering Hero comes, Sound the trumpets; beat the drums."
But growing excited at the music issuing from his throat, the curate raised the other hand which held his soft felt hat, and beat time energetically with that also.
At the end of the verse the performers took a rapid breath, as though afraid of being left behind, and then galloped on, a little less evenly, until one by one they reached the highly-decorated Amen.
When the last note of the last cornet had died away on the startled air, Mr. Dryland made a sign to the head boy of the school, who thereupon advanced and waved his cap, shouting:
"Three cheers for Capting Parsons, V.C.!"
Then the curate, wiping his heated brow, turned round and cleared his throat.
"Captain Parsons," he said, in a loud voice, so that none should miss his honeyed words, "we, the inhabitants of Little Primpton, welcome you to your home. I need not say that it is with great pleasure that we have gathered together this day to offer you our congratulations on your safe return to those that love you. I need not remind you that there is no place like home. ("Hear, hear!" from the Vicar.) We are proud to think that our fellow-parishioner should have gained the coveted glory of the Victoria Cross. Little Primpton need not be ashamed now to hold up its head among the proudest cities of the Empire. You have brought honour to yourself, but you have brought honour to us also. You have shown that Englishmen know how to die; you have shown the rival nations of the Continent that the purity and the godliness of Old England still bear fruit. But I will say no more; I wished only to utter a few words to welcome you on behalf of those who cannot, perhaps, express themselves so well as I can. I will say no more. Captain Parsons, we hope that you will live long to enjoy your honour and glory, side by side with her who is to shortly become your wife. I would only assure you that your example has not been lost upon us; we all feel better, nobler, and more truly Christian. And we say to you, now that you have overcome all dangers and tribulation, now that you have returned to the bosom of your beloved family, take her who has also given us an example of resignation, of courage, and of—and of resignation. Take her, we say, and be happy; confident in the respect, esteem, and affection of the people of Little Primpton. James Brown, who has the honour to bear the same Christian name as yourself, and is also the top boy of the Parish School, will now recite a short poem entitled 'Casabianca.'
Mr. Dryland had wished to compose an ode especially for the occasion. It would evidently have been effective to welcome the hero, to glorify his deed, and to point the moral in a few original verses; but, unhappily, the muse was froward, which was singular, since the elite of Little Primpton had unimpeachable morals, ideals of the most approved character, and principles enough to build a church with; nor was an acquaintance with literature wanting. They all read the daily papers, and Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, in addition, read the Church Times. Mary even knew by heart whole chunks of Sir Lewis Morris, and Mr. Dryland recited Tennyson at penny readings. But when inspiration is wanting, a rhyming dictionary, for which the curate sent to London, will not help to any great extent; and finally the unanimous decision was reached to give some well-known poem apposite to the circumstance. It shows in what charming unity of spirit these simple, God-fearing people lived, and how fine was their sense of literary excellence, that without hesitation they voted in chorus for "Casabianca."
The head boy stepped forward—he had been carefully trained by Mr. Dryland—and with appropriate gestures recited the immortal verses of Felicia Hemans:
"The boy stood on the burning deck, Whence all but 'e 'ad fled; The flame that lit the battle's wreck, Shone round 'im o'er the dead."
When he finished, amid the discreet applause of the little party beneath the archway, Mr. Dryland again advanced.
"Polly Game, the top girl of the Parish School, will now present Miss Clibborn with a bouquet. Step forward, Polly Game."
This was a surprise arranged by the curate, and he watched with pleasure Mary's look of delighted astonishment.
Polly Game stepped forward, and made a little speech in the ingenuous words which Mr. Dryland had thought natural to her character and station.
"Please, Miss Clibborn, we, the girls of Little Primpton, wish to present you with this bouquet as a slight token of our esteem. We wish you a long life and a 'appy marriage with the choice of your 'eart."
She then handed a very stiff bunch of flowers, surrounded with frilled paper like the knuckle of a leg of mutton.
"We will now sing hymn number one hundred and thirty-seven," said Mr. Dryland.
The verses were given vigorously, while Mrs. Clibborn, with a tender smile, murmured to Mrs. Parsons that it was beautiful to see such a nice spirit among the lower classes. The strains of the brass band died away on the summer breeze, and there was a momentary pause. Then the Vicar, with a discreet cough to clear his throat, came forward.
"Captain Parsons, ladies and gentlemen, parishioners of Little Primpton, I wish to take the opportunity to say a few words."
The Vicar made an admirable speech. The sentiments were hackneyed, the observations self-evident, and the moral obvious. His phrases had the well-known ring which distinguishes the true orator. Mr. Jackson was recognised everywhere to be a fine platform speaker, but his varied excellence could not be appreciated in a summary, and he had a fine verbosity. It is sufficient to say that he concluded by asking for more cheers, which were heartily given.
James found the whole affair distasteful and ridiculous; and indeed scarcely noticed what was going on, for his thoughts were entirely occupied with his father. At first Colonel Parsons seemed too depressed to pay attention to the ceremony, and his eyes travelled every now and again to James, with that startled, unhappy expression which was horribly painful to see. But his age and weakness prevented him from feeling very intensely for more than a short while; time had brought its own good medicine, and the old man's mind was easily turned. Presently he began to smile, and the look of pride and happiness returned to his face.
But James was not satisfied. He felt he must make active reparation. When the Vicar finished, and he understood that some reply was expected, it occurred to him that he had an opportunity of salving the bitter wound he had caused. The very hatred he felt at making open allusion to his feelings made him think it a just punishment; none knew but himself how painful it was to talk in that strain to stupid, curious people.
"I thank you very much for the welcome you have all given me," he said.
His voice trembled in his nervousness, so that he could hardly command it, and he reddened. It seemed to James a frightful humiliation to have to say the things he had in mind, it made them all ugly and vulgar; he was troubled also by his inability to express what he felt. He noticed a reporter for the local newspaper rapidly taking notes.
"I have been very much touched by your kindness. Of course, I am extremely proud to have won the Victoria Cross, but I feel it is really more owing to my father than to any deed of mine. You all know my father, and you know what a brave and gallant soldier he was. It was owing to his fine example, and to his teaching, and to his constant, loving care, that I was able to do the little I did. And I should like to say that it is to him and to my mother that I owe everything. It is the thought of his unblemished and exquisite career, of the beautiful spirit which brightly coloured all his actions, that has supported me in times of difficulty. And my earnest desire has always been to prove myself worthy of my father and the name he has handed on to me. You have cheered me very kindly; now I should like to ask you for three cheers for my father."
Colonel Parsons looked at his son as he began to speak. When he realised Jamie's meaning, tears filled his eyes and streamed down his cheeks—tears of happiness and gratitude. All recollection of the affront quickly vanished, and he felt an ecstatic joy such as he had never known before. The idea came to him in his weakness: "Now I can die happy!" He was too overcome to be ashamed of his emotion, and taking out his handkerchief, quite unaffectedly wiped his eyes.
The band struck up "Rule, Britannia" and "God Save the Queen"; and in orderly fashion, as Mr. Dryland had arranged, they all marched off. The group under the triumphal arch broke up, and the Jacksons and Colonel and Mrs. Clibborn went their ways.
Mary came into the house. She took Jamie's hands, her eyes wet with tears.
"Oh, Jamie," she said, "you are good! It was charming of you to speak as you did of your father. You don't know how happy you've made him."
"I'm very glad you are pleased," he said gravely, and bending forward, put his arm round her waist and kissed her.
For a moment she leant her head against his shoulder; but with her emotion was a thing soon vanquished. She wished, above all things, to be manly, as befitted a soldier's wife. She shook herself, and withdrew from Jamie's arms.
"But I must be running off, or mamma will be angry with me. Good-bye for the present."
* * *
James went into the dining-room, where his father, exhausted by the varied agitations of the day, was seeking composure in the leading articles of the morning paper. Mrs. Parsons sat on her usual chair, knitting, and she greeted him with a loving smile. James saw that they were both pleased with his few awkward words, which still rang in his own ears as shoddy and sentimental, and he tasted, somewhat ruefully, the delight of making the kind creatures happy.
"Has Mary gone?" asked Mrs. Parsons.
"Yes. She said her mother would be angry if she stayed."
"I saw that Mrs. Clibborn was put out. I suppose because someone besides herself attracted attention. I do think she is the wickedest woman I've ever known."
"Frances, Frances!" expostulated the Colonel.
"She is, Richmond. She's a thoroughly bad woman. The way she treats Mary is simply scandalous."
"Poor girl!" said the Colonel.
"Oh, Jamie, it makes my blood boil when I think of it. Sometimes the poor thing used to come here quite upset, and simply cry as if her heart was breaking."
"But what does Mrs. Clibborn do?" asked James, surprised.
"Oh, I can't tell you! She's dreadfully unkind. She hates Mary because she's grown up, and because she sometimes attracts attention. She's always making little cruel remarks. You only see her when she's on her good behaviour; but when she's alone with Mary, Mrs. Clibborn is simply horrible. She abuses her; she tells her she's ugly, and that she dresses badly. How can she dress any better when Mrs. Clibborn spends all the money on herself? I've heard her myself say to Mary: 'How stupid and clumsy you are! I'm ashamed to take you anywhere.' And Mary's the very soul of goodness. She teaches in the Sunday School, and she trains the choir-boys, and she visits the poor; and yet Mrs. Clibborn complains that she's useless. I wanted Richmond to talk to Colonel Clibborn about it."
"Mary particularly asked me not to," said Colonel Parsons. "She preferred to bear anything rather than create unhappiness between her father and mother."
"She's a perfect angel of goodness!" cried Mrs. Parsons, enthusiastically. "She's simply a martyr, and all the time she's as kind and affectionate to her mother as if she were the best woman in the world. She never lets anyone say a word against her."
"Sometimes," murmured Colonel Parsons, "she used to say that her only happiness was in the thought of you, Jamie."
"The thought of me?" said James; and then hesitatingly: "Do you think she is very fond of me, mother?"
"Fond of you?" Mrs Parsons laughed. "She worships the very ground you tread on. You can't imagine all you are to her."
"You'll make the boy vain," said Colonel Parsons, laughing.
"Often the only way we could comfort her was by saying that you would come back some day and take her away from here."
"We shall have to be thinking of weddings soon, I suppose?" said Colonel Parsons, looking at James, with a bantering smile.