THE RED PLANET
WILLIAM J. LOCKE
AUTHOR OF "THE WONDERFUL YEAR," "JAFFERY," "THE BELOVED VAGABOND," ETC.
Not only over death strewn plains, Fierce mid the cold white stars, But over sheltered vales of home, Hides the Red Planet Mars.
THE RED PLANET
"Lady Fenimore's compliments, sir, and will you be so kind as to step round to Sir Anthony at once?"
Heaven knows that never another step shall I take in this world again; but Sergeant Marigold has always ignored the fact. That is one of the many things I admire about Marigold. He does not throw my poor paralysed legs, so to speak, in my face. He accepts them as the normal equipment of an employer. I don't know what I should do without Marigold.... You see we were old comrades in the South African War, where we both got badly knocked to pieces. He was Sergeant in my battery, and the same Boer shell did for both of us. At times we join in cursing that shell heartily, but I am not sure that we do not hold it in sneaking affection. It initiated us into the brotherhood of death. Shortly afterwards when we had crossed the border-line back into life, we exchanged, as tokens, bits of the shrapnel which they had extracted from our respective carcases. I have not enquired what he did with his bit; but I keep mine in a certain locked drawer.... There were only the two of us left on the gun when we were knocked out.... I should like to tell you the whole story, but you wouldn't listen to me. And no wonder. In comparison with the present world convulsion in which the slaughtered are reckoned by millions, the Boer War seems a trumpery affair of bows and arrows. I am a back-number. Still, back-numbers have their feelings—and their memories.
I sometimes wonder, as I sit in this wheel-chair, with my abominable legs dangling down helplessly, what Sergeant Marigold thinks of me. I know what I think of Marigold. I think him the ugliest devil that God ever created and further marred after creating him. He is a long, bony creature like a knobbly ram-rod, and his face is about the colour and shape of a damp, mildewed walnut. To hide a bald head into which a silver plate has been fixed, he wears a luxuriant curly brown wig, like those that used to adorn waxen gentlemen in hair-dressing windows. His is one of those unhappy moustaches that stick out straight and scanty like a cat's. He has the slit of a letter-box mouth of the Irishman in caricature, and only half a dozen teeth spaced like a skeleton company. Nothing will induce him to procure false ones. It is a matter of principle. Between the wearing of false hair and the wearing of false teeth he makes a distinction of unfathomable subtlety. He is an obstinate beast. If he wasn't he would not, with four fingers of his right hand shot away, have remained with me on that gun. In the same way, neither tears nor entreaties nor abuse have induced him to wear a glass eye. On high days and holidays, whenever he desires to look smart and dashing, he covers the unpleasing orifice with a black shade. In ordinary workaday life he cares not how much he offends the aesthetic sense. But the other eye, the sound left eye, is a wonder—the precious jewel set in the head of the ugly toad. It is large, of ultra-marine blue, steady, fearless, humorous, tender—everything heroic and beautiful and romantic you can imagine about eyes. Let him clap a hand over that eye and you will hold him the most dreadful ogre that ever escaped out of a fairy tale. Let him clap a hand over the other eye and look full at you out of the good one and you will think him the Knightliest man that ever was—and in my poor opinion, you would not be far wrong.
So, out of this nightmare of a face, the one beautiful eye of Sergeant Marigold was bent on me, as he delivered his message.
I thrust back my chair from the writing-table.
"Is Sir Anthony ill?"
"He rode by the gate an hour ago looking as well as either you or me, sir."
"That's not very reassuring," said I.
Marigold did not take up the argument. "They've sent the car for you, sir."
"In that case," said I, "I'll start immediately."
Marigold wheeled my chair out of the room and down the passage to the hall, where he fitted me with greatcoat and hat. Then, having trundled me to the front gate, he picked me up—luckily I have always been a small spare man—and deposited me in the car. I am always nervous of anyone but Marigold trying to carry me. They seem to stagger and fumble and bungle. Marigold's arms close round me like an iron clamp and they lift me with the mechanical certainty of a crane.
He jumped up beside the chauffeur and we drove off.
Perhaps when I get on a little further I may acquire the trick of telling a story. At present I am baffled by the many things that clamour for prior record. Before bringing Sir Anthony on the scene, I feel I ought to say something more about myself, to explain why Lady Fenimore should have sent for me in so peremptory a fashion. Following the model of my favourite author Balzac—you need the awful leisure that has been mine to appreciate him—I ought to describe the house in which I live, my establishment—well, I have begun with Sergeant Marigold—and the little country town which is practically the scene of the drama in which were involved so many bound to me by close ties of friendship and affection.
I ought to explain how I come to be writing this at all.
Well, to fill in my time, I first started by a diary—a sort of War Diary of Wellingsford, the little country town in question. Then things happened with which my diary was inadequate to cope. Everyone came and told me his or her side of the story. All through, I found thrust upon me the parts of father-confessor, intermediary, judge, advocate, and conspirator.... For look you, what kind of a life can a man lead situated as I am? The crowning glory of my days, my wife, is dead. I have neither chick nor child. No brothers or sisters, dead or alive. The Bon Dieu and Sergeant Marigold (the latter assisted by his wife and a maid or two) look after my creature comforts. What have I in the world to do that is worth doing save concern myself with my country and my friends?
With regard to my country, in these days of war, I do what I can. Until finally flattened out by the War Office, I pestered them for such employment as a cripple might undertake. As an instance of what a paralytic was capable I quoted Couthon, member of the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety. You can see his chair, not very unlike mine, in the Musee Carnavalet in Paris. Perhaps that is where I blundered. The idea of a shrieking revolutionary in Whitehall must have sent a cold shiver down their spines. In the meanwhile, I serve on as many War Committees in Wellingsford as is physically possible for Sergeant Marigold to get me into. I address recruiting meetings. I have taken earnest young Territorial artillery officers in courses of gunnery. You know they work with my own beloved old fifteen pounders, brought up to date with new breeches, recoils, shields, and limbers. For months there was a brigade in Wellings Park, and I used to watch their drill. I was like an old actor coming once again before the footlights.... Of course it was only in the mathematics of the business that I could be of any help, and doubtless if the War Office had heard of the goings on in my study, they would have dropped severely on all of us. Still, I taught them lots of things about parabolas that they did not know and did not know were to be known—things that, considering the shells they fired went in parabolas, ought certainly to be known by artillery officers; so I think, in this way, I have done a little bit for my country.
With regard to my friends, God has given me many in this quiet market town—once a Sleepy Hollow awakened only on Thursdays by bleating sheep and lowing cattle and red-faced men in gaiters and hard felt hats; its life flowing on drowsily as the gaudily painted barges that are towed on the canal towards which, in scattered buildings, it drifts aimlessly; a Sleepy Hollow with one broad High Street, melting gradually at each end through shops, villas, cottages, into the King's Highway, yet boasting in its central heart a hundred yards or so of splendour, where the truculent new red brick Post Office sneers across the flagged market square at the new Portland-stone Town Hall, while the old thatched corn-market sleeps in the middle and the Early English spire of the Norman church dreams calmly above them. Once, I say, a Sleepy Hollow, but now alive with the tramp of soldiers and the rumble of artillery and transport; for Wellingsford is the centre of a district occupied by a division, which means twenty thousand men of all arms, and the streets and roads swarm with men in khaki, and troops are billeted in all the houses. The War has changed many aspects, but not my old friendships. I had made a home here during my soldiering days, long before the South African War, my wife being a kinswoman of Sir Anthony, and so I have grown into the intimacy of many folks around. And, as they have been more than good to me, surely I must give them of my best in the way of sympathy and counsel. So it is in no spirit of curiosity that I have pried into my friends' affairs. They have become my own, very vitally my own; and this book is a record of things as I know them to have happened.
My name is Meredyth, with a "Y," as my poor mother used proudly to say, though what advantage a "Y" has over an "I," save that of a swaggering tail, I have always been at a loss to determine; Major Duncan Meredyth, late R.F.A., aged forty-seven; and I live in a comfortable little house at the extreme north end of the High Street, standing some way back from the road; so that in fine weather I can sit in my front garden and watch everybody going into the town. And whenever any of my friends pass by, it is their kindly habit to cast an eye towards my gate, and, if I am visible, to pass the time of day with me for such time as they can spare.
Years ago, when first I realised what would be my fate for the rest of my life, I nearly broke my heart. But afterwards, whether owing to the power of human adaptability or to the theory of compensation, I grew to disregard my infirmity. By building a series of two or three rooms on to the ground floor of the house, so that I could live in it without the need of being carried up and down stairs, and by acquiring skill in the manipulation of my tricycle chair, I can get about the place pretty much as I choose. And Marigold is my second self. So, in spite of the sorrow and grief incident to humanity of which God has given me my share, I feel that my lot is cast in pleasant places and I am thankful.
The High Street, towards its southern extremity, takes a sudden bend, forming what the French stage directions call a pan coupe. On the inner angle are the gates of Wellings Park, the residence of Sir Anthony Fenimore, third baronet, and the most considerable man in our little community. Through these gates the car took me and down the long avenue of chestnut trees, the pride of a district braggart of its chestnuts and its beeches, but now leafless and dreary, spreading out an infinite tracery of branch and twig against a grey February sky. Thence we emerged into the open of rolling pasture and meadow on the highest ground of which the white Georgian house was situated. As we neared the house I shivered, not only with the cold, but with a premonition of disaster. For why should Lady Fenimore have sent for me to see Sir Anthony, when he, strong and hearty, could have sent for me himself, or, for the matter of that, could have visited me at my own home? The house looked stark and desolate. And when we drew up at the front door and Pardoe, the elderly butler, appeared, his face too looked stark and desolate.
Marigold lifted me out and carried me up the steps and put me into a chair like my own which the Fenimores have the goodness to keep in a hall cupboard for my use.
"What's the matter, Pardoe?" I asked.
"Sir Anthony and her ladyship will tell you, sir. They're in the morning room."
So I was shewn into the morning room—a noble square room with French windows, looking on to the wintry garden, and with a log fire roaring up a great chimney. On one side of the fire sat Sir Anthony, and on the other, Lady Fenimore. And both were crying. He rose as he saw me—a short, crop-haired, clean-shaven, ruddy, jockey-faced man of fifty-five, the corners of his thin lips, usually curled up in a cheery smile, now piteously drawn down, and his bright little eyes now dim like those of a dead bird. She, buxom, dark, without a grey hair in her head, a fine woman defying her years, buried her face in her hands and sobbed afresh.
"It's good of you to come, old man," said Sir Anthony, "but you're in it with us."
He handed me a telegram. I knew, before reading it, what message it contained. I had known, all along, but dared not confess it to myself.
"I deeply regret to inform you that your son, Lieutenant Oswald Fenimore, was killed in action yesterday while leading his men with the utmost gallantry."
I had known him since he was a child. By reason of my wife's kinship, I was "Uncle Duncan." He was just one and twenty, but a couple of years out of Sandhurst. Only a week before I had received an exuberant letter from him extolling his men as "super-devil-angels," and imploring me if I loved him and desired to establish the supremacy of British arms, to send him some of Mrs. Marigold's potted shrimp.
And now, there he was dead; and, if lucky, buried with a little wooden cross with his name rudely inscribed, marking his grave.
I reached out my hand.
"My poor old Anthony!"
He jerked his head and glance towards his wife and wheeled me to her side, so that I could put my hand on her shoulder.
"It's bitter hard, Edith, but—"
"I know, I know. But all the same—"
"Well, damn it all!" cried Sir Anthony, in a quavering voice, "he died like a man and there's nothing more to be said."
Presently he looked at his watch.
"By George," said he, "I've only just time to get to my Committee."
"What Committee?" I asked.
"The Lord Lieutenant's. I promised to take the chair."
For the first time Lady Fenimore lifted her stricken face.
"Are you going, Anthony?"
"The boy didn't shirk his duty. Why should I?"
She looked at him squarely and the most poignant simulacrum of a smile I have ever seen flitted over her lips.
"Why not, darling? Duncan will keep me company till you come back."
He kissed his wife, a trifle more demonstratively than he had ever done in alien presence, and with a nod at me, went out of the room.
And suddenly she burst into sobbing again.
"I know it's wrong and wicked and foolish," she said brokenly. "But I can't help it. Oh, God! I can't help it."
Then, like an ass, I began to cry, too; for I loved the boy, and that perhaps helped her on a bit.
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The tag has been all but outworn during these unending days of death; it has become almost a cant phrase which the judicious shrink from using. Yet to hundreds of thousands of mourning men and women there has been nothing but its truth to bring consolation. They are conscious of the supreme sacrifice and thereby are ennobled. The cause in which they made it becomes more sacred. The community of grief raises human dignity. In England, at any rate, there are no widows of Ashur. All are silent in their lamentations. You see little black worn in the public ways. The Fenimores mourned for their only son, the idol of their hearts; but the manifestation of their grief was stoical compared with their unconcealed desolation on the occasion of a tragedy that occurred the year before.
Towards the end of the preceding June their only daughter, Althea, had been drowned in the canal. Here was a tragedy unrelieved, stupid, useless. Here was no consoling knowledge of glorious sacrifice; no dying for one's country. There was no dismissing it with a heroic word that caught in the throat.
I have not started out to write this little chronicle of Wellingsford in order to weep over the pain of the world. God knows there is in it an infinity of beauty, fresh revelations of which are being every day unfolded before my eyes.
If I did not believe with all my soul that out of Darkness cometh Light, I would take my old service revolver from its holster and blow out my brains this very minute. The eternal laughter of the earth has ever since its creation pierced through the mist of tears in which at times it has been shrouded. What has been will be. Nay, more, what has been shall be. It is the Law of what I believe to be God.... As a concrete instance, where do you find a fuller expression of the divine gaiety of the human spirit than in the Houses of Pain, strewn the length and breadth of the land, filled with maimed and shattered men who have looked into the jaws of Hell? If it comes to that, I have looked into them myself, and have heard the heroic jests of men who looked with me.
For some years up to the outbreak of the war which has knocked all so-called modern values silly, my young friends, with a certain respectful superciliousness, regarded me as an amiable person hopelessly out of date. Now that we are at grip with elementals, I find myself, if anything, in advance of the fashion. This, however, by the way. What I am clumsily trying to explain is that if I am to make this story intelligible I must start from the darkness where its roots lie hidden. And that darkness is the black depths of the canal by the lock gates where Althea Fenimore's body was found.
It was high June, in leafy England, in a world at peace. Can one picture it? With such a wrench of memory does one recall scenes of tender childhood. In the shelter of a stately house lived Althea Fenimore. She was twenty-one; pretty, buxom, like her mother, modern, with (to me) a pathetic touch of mid-Victorian softness and sentimentality; independent in outward action, what we call "open-air"; yet an anomaly, fond at once of games and babies. I have seen her in the morning tearing away across country by the side of her father, the most passionate and reckless rider to hounds in the county, and in the evening I have come across her, a pretty mass of pink flesh and muslin—no, it can't be muslin—say chiffon—anyhow, something white and filmy and girlish—curled up on a sofa and absorbed in a novel of Mrs. Henry Wood, borrowed, if one could judge by the state of its greasy brown paper cover, from the servants' hall. I confess that, though to her as to her brother I was "Uncle Duncan," and loved her as a dear, sweet English girl, I found her lacking in spirituality, in intellectual grasp, in emotional distinction. I should have said that she was sealed by God to be the chaste, healthy, placid mother of men. She was forever laughing—just the spontaneous laughter of the gladness of life.
On the last afternoon of her existence she came to see me, bringing me a basket of giant strawberries from her own particular bed. We had tea in the garden, and with her young appetite she consumed half the fruit she had brought. At the time I did not notice an unusual touch of depression. I remember her holding by its stalk a great half-eaten strawberry and asking me whether sometimes I didn't find life rather rotten. I said idly:
"You can't expect the world to be a peach without a speck on it. Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven. The wise person avoids the specks."
"But suppose you've bitten a specky bit by accident?"
"Spit it out," said I.
She laughed. "You think you're like the wise Uncle in the Sunday School books, don't you?"
"I know I am," I said.
Whereupon she laughed again, finished the strawberry, and changed the conversation.
There seemed to be no foreshadowing of tragedy in that. I had known her (like many of her kind) to proclaim the rottenness of the Universe when she was off her stroke at golf, or when a favourite young man did not appear at a dance. I attributed no importance to it. But the next day I remembered. What was she doing after half-past ten o'clock, when she had bidden her father and mother goodnight, on the steep and lonely bank of the canal, about a mile and a half away? No one had seen her leave the house. No one, apparently, had seen her walking through the town. Nothing was known of her until dawn when they found her body by the lock gate. She had been dead some hours. It was a mysterious affair, upon which no light was thrown at the inquest. No one save myself had observed any sign of depression, and her half-bantering talk with me was trivial enough. No one could adduce a reason for her midnight walk on the tow-path. The obvious question arose. Whom had she gone forth to meet? What man? There was not a man in the neighbourhood with whom her name could be particularly associated. Generally, it could be associated with a score or so. The modern young girl of her position and upbringing has a drove of young male intimates. With one she rides, with another she golfs, with another she dances a two-step, with another she Bostons; she will let Tom read poetry to her, although, as she expresses it, "he bores her stiff," because her sex responds to the tribute; she plays lady patroness to Dick, and tries to intrigue him into a soft job; and as for Harry she goes on telling him month after month that unless he forswears sack and lives cleanly she will visit him with her high displeasure. Meanwhile, most of these satellites have affaires de coeur of their own, some respectable, others not; they regard the young lady with engaging frankness as a woman and a sister, they have the run of her father's house, and would feel insulted if anybody questioned the perfect correctness of their behaviour. Each man has, say, half a dozen houses where he is welcomed on the same understanding. Of course, when one particular young man and one particular young woman read lunatic things in each other's eyes, then the rest of the respective quasi-sisters and quasi-brothers have to go hang. (In parenthesis, I may state that the sisters are more ruthlessly sacrificed than the brothers.) At any rate, frankness is the saving quality of the modern note.
In the case of Althea, there had been no sign of such specialisation. She could not have gone forth, poor child, to meet the twenty with whom she was known to be on terms of careless comradeship. She had gone from her home, driven by God knows what impulse, to walk in the starlight—there was no moon—along the banks of the canal. In the darkness, had she missed her footing and stepped into nothingness and the black water? The Coroner's Jury decided the question in the affirmative. They brought in a verdict of death by misadventure. And up to the date on which I begin this little Chronicle of Wellingsford, namely that of the summons to Wellings Park, when I heard of the death of young Oswald Fenimore, that is all I knew of the matter.
Throughout July my friends were like dead people. There was nothing that could be said to them by way of consolation. The sun had gone out of their heaven. There was no light in the world. Having known Death as a familiar foe, and having fought against its terrors; having only by the grace of God been able to lift up a man's voice in my hour of awful bereavement, and cry, "O Death, where is thy sting, O Grave, thy Victory?" I could suffer with them and fear for their reason. They lived in a state of coma, unaware of life, performing, like automata, their daily tasks.
Then, in the early days of August, came the Trumpet of War, and they awakened. In my life have I seen nothing so marvellous. No broken spell of enchantment in an Arabian tale when dead warriors spring into life was ever more instant and complete. They arose in their full vigour; the colour came back to their cheeks and the purpose into their eyes. They laughed once more. Their days were filled with work and cheerfulness. In November Sir Anthony was elected Mayor. Being a practical, hard-headed little man, loved and respected by everybody, he drove a hitherto contentious Town Council into paths of high patriotism like a flock of sheep. And no less energy did Lady Fenimore exhibit in the sphere of her own activities.
A few days after the tidings came of Oswald's death, Sir Anthony was riding through the town and pulled up before Perkins' the fishmonger's. Perkins emerged from his shop and crossed the pavement.
"I hear you've had bad news."
"Yes, indeed, Sir Anthony."
"I'm sorry. He was a fine fellow. So was my boy. We're in the same boat, Perkins."
Perkins assented. "It sort of knocks one's life to bits, doesn't it?" said he. "We've nothing left."
"We have our country."
"Our country isn't our only son," said the other dully.
"No. She's our mother," said Sir Anthony.
"Isn't that a kind of abstraction?"
"Abstraction!" cried Sir Anthony, indignantly. "You must be imbibing the notions of that poisonous beast Gedge."
Gedge was a smug, socialistic, pacifist builder who did not hold with war—and with this one least of all, which he maintained was being waged for the exclusive benefit of the capitalist classes. In the eyes of the stalwarts of Wellingsford, he was a horrible fellow, capable of any stratagem or treason.
Perkins flushed. "I've always voted conservative, like my father before me, Sir Anthony, and like yourself I've given my boy to my country. I've no dealings with unpatriotic people like Gedge, as you know very well."
"Of course I do," cried Sir Anthony. "And that's why I ask you what the devil you mean by calling England an abstraction. For us, she's the only thing in the world. We're elderly chaps, you and I, Perkins, and the only thing we can do to help her is to keep our heads high. If people like you and me crumple up, the British Empire will crumple up."
"That's quite true," said Perkins.
Sir Anthony bent down and held out his hand.
"It's damned hard lines for us, and for the women. But we must keep our end up. It's doing our bit."
Perkins wrung his hand. "I wish to God," said he, "I was young enough—"
"By God! so do I!" said Sir Anthony.
This little conversation (which I afterwards verified) was reported to me by my arch-gossip, Sergeant Marigold.
"And I tell you what, sir," said he after the conclusion, "I'm of the same way of thinking and feeling."
"So am I."
"Besides, I'm not so old, sir. I'm only forty-two."
"The prime of life," said I.
"Then why won't they take me, sir?"
If there had been no age limit and no medical examination Marigold would have re-enlisted as John Smith, on the outbreak of war, without a moment's consideration of the position of his wife and myself. And Mrs. Marigold, a soldier's wife of twenty years' standing, would have taken it, just like myself, as a matter of course. But as he could not re-enlist, he pestered the War Office (just as I did) and I pestered for him to give him military employment. And all in vain.
"Why don't they take me, sir? When I see these fellows with three stripes on their arms, and looking at them and wondering at them as if they were struck three stripes by lightning, and calling themselves Sergeants and swanking about and letting their men waddle up to their gun like cows—and when I see them, as I've done with your eyes—watch one of their men pass by an officer in the street without saluting, and don't kick the blighter to—to—to barracks—it fairly makes me sick. And I ask myself, sir, what I've done that I should be loafing here instead of serving my country."
"You've somehow mislaid an eye and a hand and gone and got a tin head. That's what you've done," said I. "And the War Office has a mark against you as a damned careless fellow."
"Tin head or no tin head," he grumbled, "I could teach those mother's darlings up there the difference between a battery of artillery and a skittle-ally."
"I believe you've mentioned the matter to them already," I observed softly.
Marigold met my eye for a second and then looked rather sheepish. I had heard of a certain wordy battle between him and a Territorial Sergeant whom he had set out to teach. Marigold encountered a cannonade of blasphemous profanity, new, up-to-date, scientific, against which the time-worn expletives in use during his service days were ineffectual. He was routed with heavy loss.
"This is a war of the young," I continued. "New men, new guns, new notions. Even a new language," I insinuated.
"I wish 'em joy of their language," said Marigold. Then seeing that I was mildly amusing myself at his expense, he asked me stiffly if there was anything more that he could do for me, and on my saying no, he replied "Thank you, sir," most correctly and left the room.
On the 3d of March Betty Fairfax came to tea.
Of all the young women of Wellingsford she was my particular favourite. She was so tall and straight, with a certain Rosalind boyishness about her that made for charm. I am not yet, thank goodness, one of the fossils who hold up horror-stricken hands at the independent ways of the modern young woman. If it were not for those same independent ways the mighty work that English women are doing in this war would be left undone. Betty Fairfax was breezily independent. She had a little money of her own and lived, when it suited her, with a well-to-do and comfortable aunt. She was two and twenty. I shall try to tell you more about her, as I go on.
As I have said, and as my diary tells me, she came to tea on the 3d of March. She was looking particularly attractive that afternoon. Shaded lamps and the firelight of a cosy room, with all their soft shadows, give a touch of mysterious charm to a pretty girl. Her jacket had a high sort of Medici collar edged with fur, which set off her shapely throat. The hair below her hat was soft and brown. Her brows were wide, her eyes brown and steady, nose and lips sensitive. She had a way of throwing back her head and pointing her chin fearlessly, as though in perpetual declaration that she cared not a hang either for black-beetles or Germans. And she was straight as a dart, with the figure of a young Diana—Diana before she began to worry her head about beauty competitions. A kind of dark hat stuck at a considerable angle on her head gave her the prettiest little swaggering air in the world.... Well, there was I, a small, brown, withered, grizzled, elderly, mustachioed monkey, chained to my wheel-chair; there were the brave logs blazing up the wide chimney; there was the tea table on my right with its array of silver and old china; and there, on the other side of it, attending to my wants, sat as brave and sweet a type of young English womanhood as you could find throughout the length and breadth of the land. Had I not been happy, I should have been an ungrateful dog.
We talked of the war, of local news, of the wounded at the hospital.
And here I must say that we are very proud of our Wellingsford Hospital. It is the largest and the wealthiest in the county. We owe it to the uneasy conscience of a Wellingsford man, a railway speculator in the forties, who, having robbed widows and orphans and, after trial at the Old Bailey, having escaped penal servitude by the skin of his teeth, died in the odour of sanctity, and the possessor of a colossal fortune in the year eighteen sixty-three. This worthy gentleman built the hospital and endowed it so generously that a wing of it has been turned into a military hospital with forty beds. I have the honour to serve on the Committee. Betty Fairfax entered as a Probationer early in September, and has worked there night and day ever since. That is why we chatted about the wounded. Having a day off, she had indulged in the luxury of pretty clothes. Of these I had duly expressed my admiration.
Tea over, she lit a cigarette for me and one for herself and drew her chair a trifle nearer the fire. After a little knitting of the brow, she said:—
"You haven't asked me why I invited myself to tea."
"I thought," said I, "it was for my beaux yeux."
"Not this time. I rather wanted you to be the first to receive a certain piece of information."
I glanced at her sharply. "You don't mean to say you're going to be married at last?"
In some astonishment she retorted:—
"How did you guess?"
"Holy simplicity!" said I. "You told me so yourself."
She laughed. Suddenly, on reflection, her face changed.
"Why did you say 'at last'?"
"Well—" said I, with a significant gesture.
She made a defiant announcement:—
"I am going to marry Willie Connor."
It was my turn to be astonished. "Captain Connor?" I echoed.
"Yes. What have you to say against him?"
"Nothing, my dear, nothing."
And I hadn't. He was an exemplary young fellow, a Captain in a Territorial regiment that had been in hard training in the neighbourhood since August. He was of decent family and upbringing, a barrister by profession, and a comely pink-faced boy with a fair moustache. He brought a letter or two of introduction, was billeted on Mrs. Fairfax, together with one of his subs, and was made welcome at various houses. Living under the same roof as Betty, it was natural that he should fall in love with her. But it was not at all natural that she should fall in love with him. She was not one of the kind that suffer fools gladly.... No; I had nothing against Willie Connor. He was merely a common-place, negative young man; patriotic, keen in his work, an excellent soldier, and, as far as I knew, of blameless life; but having met him two or three times in general company, I had found him a dull dog, a terribly dull dog,—the last man in the world for Betty Fairfax.
And then there was Leonard Boyce. I naturally had him in my head, when I used the words "at last."
"You don't seem very enthusiastic," said Betty.
"You've taken me by surprise," said I. "I'm not young enough to be familiar with these sudden jerks."
"You thought it was Major Boyce."
"I did, Betty. True, you've said nothing about it to me for ever so long, and when I have asked you for news of him your answers have shewed me that all was not well. But you've never told me, or anyone, that the engagement was broken off."
Her young face was set sternly as she looked into the fire.
"It's not broken off—in the formal sense. Leonard thought fit to let it dwindle, and it has dwindled until it has perished of inanition." She flashed round. "I'm not the sort to ask any man for explanations."
"Boyce went out with the first lot in August," I said. "He has had seven awful months. Mons and all the rest of it. You must excuse a man in the circumstances for not being aux petits soins des dames. And he seems to be doing magnificently—twice mentioned in dispatches."
"I know all that," she said. "I'm not a fool. But the war has nothing to do with it. It started a month before the war broke out. Don't let us talk of it."
She threw the end of her cigarette into the fire and lit a fresh one. I accepted the action as symbolical. I dismissed Boyce, and said:—
"And so you're engaged to Captain Connor?"
"More than that," she laughed. "I'm going to marry him. He's going out next week. It's idiotic to have an engagement. So I'm going to marry him the day after to-morrow."
Now here was a piece of news, all flung at my head in a couple of minutes. The day after to-morrow! I asked for the reason of this disconcerting suddenness.
"He's going out next week."
"My dear," said I, "I have known you for a very long time—and I suppose it's because I'm such a very old friend that you've come to tell me all about it. So I can talk to you frankly. Have you considered the terrible chances of this war? Heaven knows what may happen. He may be killed."
"That's why I'm marrying him," she said.
There was a little pause. For the moment I had nothing to say, as I was busily searching for her point of view. Then, with pauses between each sentence, she went on:—
"He asked me two months ago, and again a month ago. I told him to put such ideas out of his head. Yesterday he told me they were off to the front and said what a wonderful help it would be to him if he could carry away some hope of my love. So I gave it to him."—She threw back her head and looked at me, with flushed cheeks. "The love, not the hope."
"I don't think it was right of him to press for an immediate marriage," said I, in a grandfatherly way—though God knows if I had been mad for a girl I should have done the same myself when I was young.
"He didn't" said Betty, coolly. "It was all my doing. I fixed it up there and then. Looked up Whitaker's Almanack for the necessary information, and sent him off to get a special license."
I nodded a non-committal head. It all seemed rather mad. Betty rose and from her graceful height gazed down on me.
"If you don't look more cheerful, Major, I shall cry. I've never done so yet, but I'm sure I've got it in me."
I stretched out my hand. She took it, and, still holding it, seated herself on a footstool close to my chair.
"There are such a lot of things that occur to me," I said. "Things that your poor mother, if she were alive, would be more fitted to touch on than myself."
She knelt by me and gave me both her hands. It was a pretty way she had. She had begun it soon after her head overtopped mine in my eternal wheelbarrow. There was a little mockery in her eyes.
"Well—" said I. "You know what marriage means. There is the question of children."
She broke into frank laughter.
"My darling Majy—" That is the penalty one pays for admitting irresponsible modern young people into one's intimacy. They miscall one abominably. I thought she had outgrown this childish, though affectionate appellation of disrespect. "My darling Majy!" she said. "Children! How many do you think I'm going to have?"
I was taken aback. There was this pure, proud, laughing young face a foot away from me. I said in desperation:—
"You know very well what I mean, young woman. I want to put things clearly before you—" It is the most difficult thing in the world for a man—even without legs—to talk straight about the facts of life to a young girl. He has no idea how much she knows about them and how much she doesn't. To tear away veils and reveal frightening starkness is an act from which he shrinks with all the modesty of a (perhaps) deluded sex. I took courage. "I want," I repeated, "to put things clearly before you. You are marrying this young man. You will have a week's married life. He goes away like a gallant fellow to fight for his country. He may be killed in the course of the next few weeks. Like a brave girl you've got to face it. In the course of time a child may be born—without a father to look after him. It's a terrific responsibility."
She knelt upright and put both her hands on my shoulders, almost embracing me, and the laughter died away from her eyes, giving place to something which awakened memories of what I had seen once or twice in the eyes of the dearest of all women. She put her face very close to mine and whispered:
"Don't you see, dear, it's in some sort of way because of that? Don't you think it would be awful for a strong, clean, brave English life like his to go out without leaving behind him someone to—well, you know what I mean—to carry on the same traditions—to be the same clean brave Englishman in the future?"
I smiled and nodded. Quite a different kind of nod from the previous one.
"Thousands of girls are doing it, you dear old Early Victorian, and aren't ashamed to say so to those who really love and can understand them. And you do love and understand, don't you?"
She set me off at arm's length, and held me with her bright unflinching eyes.
"I do, my dear," said I. "But there's only one thing that troubles me. Marriage is a lifelong business. Captain Connor may win through to a green old age. I hope to God the gallant fellow will. Your present motives are beautiful and heroic. But do you care for him sufficiently to pass a lifetime with him—after the war—an ordinary, commonplace lifetime?"
With the same clear gaze full on me she said:—
"Didn't I tell you that I had given him my love?"
"Then," she retorted with a smile, "my dear Major Didymus, what more do you want?"
"Nothing, my dear Betty."
I kissed her. She threw her arms round my neck and kissed me again. Sergeant Marigold entered on the sentimental scene and preserved a face of wood. Betty rose to her feet slowly and serenely and smiled at Marigold.
"Miss Fairfax's car," he announced.
"Marigold," said I, "Miss Fairfax is going to be married the day after to-morrow to Captain Connor of the—"
"I know, sir," interrupted my one-eyed ramrod. "I'm very glad, if I may be permitted to say so, Miss. I've made it my duty to inspect all the troops that have been quartered hereabouts during the last eight months. And Captain Connor is one of the few that really know their business. I shouldn't at all mind to serve under him. I can't say more, Miss. I wish you happiness."
She flushed and laughed and looked adorable, and held out her hand, which he enclosed in his great left fist.
"And you'll come to my wedding, Sergeant?"
"I will, Miss," said he. "With considerable pleasure."
When I want to shew how independent I am of everybody, I drive abroad in my donkey carriage. I am rather proud of my donkey, a lithe-limbed pathetically eager little beast, deep bay with white tips to his ears. Marigold bought him for me last spring, from some gipsies, when his predecessor, Dan, who had served me faithfully for some years, struck work and insisted on an old-age pension. He is called Hosea, a name bestowed on him, by way of clerical joke, and I am sure with a profane reminiscence of Jorrocks, by the Vicar, because he "came after Daniel." At first I thought it rather silly; but when I tried to pull him up I found that "Whoa-Ho-sea!" came in rather pat; so Hosea he has remained. He has quite a fast, stylish little trot, and I can square my elbows and cock my head on one side as I did in the days of my youth when the brief ownership of a tandem and a couple of thoroughbreds would have landed me in the bankruptcy court, had it not mercifully first landed me in the hospital.
The afternoon after Betty's visit, I took Hosea to Wellings Park. The Fenimores shewed me a letter they had received from Oswald's Colonel, full of praise of the gallant boy, and after discussing it, which they did with brave eyes and voices, Sir Anthony said:—
"I want your advice, Duncan, on a matter that has been worrying us both. Briefly it is this. When Oswald came of age I promised to allow him a thousand a year till I should be wiped out and he should come in. Now I'm only fifty-five and as strong as a horse. I can reasonably expect to live, say, another twenty years. If Oswald were alive I should owe him, in prospectu, twenty thousand pounds. He has given his life for his country. His country, therefore, is his heir, comes in for his assets, his twenty years' allowance—"
"And the whole of your estate at your death?" I interposed.
"No. Not at all," said he. "At my death, it would have been his to dispose of as he pleased. Up to my death, he would have had no more claim to deal with it than you have. Look at things from my point of view, and don't be idiotic. I am considering my debt to Oswald, and therefore, logically, my debt to the country. It is twenty thousand pounds. I'm going to pay it. The only question is—and the question has kept Edith and myself awake the last two nights—is what's the best thing to do with it? Of course I could give it to some fund,—or several funds,—but it's a lot of money and I should like it to be used to the best advantage. Now what do you say?"
"I say," said I, "that you Croesuses make a half-pay Major of Artillery's head reel. If I were like you, I should go into a shop and buy a super-dreadnought, and stick a card on it with a drawing pin, and send it to the Admiralty with my compliments."
"Duncan," said Lady Fenimore, severely, "don't be flippant."
Heaven knows I was in no flippant mood; but it was worth a foolish jest to bring a smile to Sir Anthony's face. Also this grave, conscientious proposition had its humorous side. It was so British. It reminded me of the story of Swift, who, when Gay and Pope visited him and refused to sup, totted up the cost of the meal and insisted on their accepting half-a-crown apiece. It reminded me too of the rugged old Lancashire commercial blood that was in him—blood that only shewed itself on the rarest and greatest of occasions—the blood of his grandfather, the Manchester cotton-spinner, who founded the fortunes of his house. Sir Anthony knew less about cotton than he did about ballistics and had never sat at a desk in a business office for an hour in his life; but now and again the inherited instinct to put high impulses on a scrupulously honest commercial basis asserted itself in the quaintest of fashions.
"There's some sense in what he says, Edith," remarked Sir Anthony. "It's only vanity that prompted us to ear-mark this sum for something special."
"Vanity!" cried Lady Fenimore. "You weren't by any chance thinking of advertising our gift or contribution or whatever you like to call it in the Daily Mail?"
"Heaven forbid, my dear," Sir Anthony replied warmly; and he stood, his hands under his coat-tails and his gaitered legs apart, regarding her with the air of a cock-sparrow accused of murdering his young, or a sensitive jockey repudiating a suggestion of crooked riding. "Heaven forbid!" he repeated. "Such an idea never entered my head."
"Then where does the vanity come in?" asked Lady Fenimore.
They had their little argument. I lit a cigarette and let them argue. In such cases, every married couple has its own queer and private and particular and idiosyncratic way of coming to an agreement. The third party who tries to foist on it his own suggestion of a way is an imbecile. The dispute on the point of vanity, charmingly conducted, ended by Sir Anthony saying triumphantly:—
"Well, my dear, don't you see I'm right?" and by his wife replying with a smile:—
"No, darling, I don't see at all. But since you feel like that, there's nothing more to be said."
I was mildly enjoying myself. Perhaps I'm a bit of a cynic. I broke in.
"I don't think it's vanity to see that you get your money's worth. There's lots of legitimate fun in spending twenty thousand pounds properly. It's too big to let other people manage or mis-manage. Suppose you decided on motor-ambulances or hospital trains, for instance, it would be your duty to see that you got the best and most up-to-date ambulances or trains, with the least possible profits, to contractors and middle-men."
"As far as that goes, I think I know my way about," said Sir Anthony.
"Of course. And as for publicity—or the reverse, hiding your light under a bushel—any fool can remain anonymous."
Sir Anthony nodded at me, rubbed his hands, and turned to his wife.
"That's just what I was saying, Edith."
"My dear, that is just what I was trying to make you understand."
Neither of the two dear things had said, or given the other to understand, anything of the kind. But you see they had come in their own quaint married way to an agreement and were now receptive of commonsense.
"The motor ambulance is a sound idea," said Sir Anthony, rubbing his chin between thumb and forefinger.
"So is the hospital train," said Lady Fenimore.
What an idiot I was to suggest these alternatives! I looked at my watch. It was getting late. Hosea, like a silly child, is afraid of the dark. He just stands still and shivers at the night, and the more he is belaboured the more he shivers, standing stock-still with ears thrown back and front legs thrown forward. As I can't get out and pull, I'm at the mercy of Hosea. And he knows it. Since the mount of Balaam, there was never such an intelligent idiot of an ass.
"What do you say?" asked Sir Anthony. "Ambulance or train?"
"Donkey carriage," said I. "This very moment minute."
I left them and trotted away homewards.
Just as I had turned a bend of the chestnut avenue near the Park gates, I came upon a couple of familiar figures—familiar, that is to say, individually, but startlingly unfamiliar in conjunction. They were a young man and girl, Randall Holmes and Phyllis Gedge. Randall had concluded a distinguished undergraduate career at Oxford last summer. He was a man of birth, position, and, to a certain extent, of fortune. Phyllis Gedge was the daughter, the pretty and attractive daughter, of Daniel Gedge, the socialistic builder who did not hold with war. What did young Randall mean by walking in the dark with his arm round Phyllis's waist? Of course as soon as he heard the click-clack of Hosea's hoofs he whipped his arm away; but I had already caught him. They tried to look mighty unconcerned as I pulled up. I took off my hat politely to the lady and held out my hand to the young man.
"Good evening, Randall," said I. "I haven't seen you for ages."
He was a tall, clean-limbed, clear-featured boy, with black hair, which though not long, yet lacked the military trimness befitting the heads of young men at the present moment. He murmured something about being busy.
"It will do you good to take a night off," I said; "drop in after dinner and smoke a pipe with an old friend."
I smiled, bowed again politely, whipped up Hosea and trotted off. I wondered whether he would come. He had said: "Delighted, I'm sure," but he had not looked delighted. Very possibly he regarded me as a meddlesome, gossiping old tom-cat. Perhaps for that reason he would deem it wise to adopt a propitiatory attitude. Perhaps also he retained a certain affectionate respect for me, seeing that I had known him as a tiny boy in a sailor suit, and had fed him at Harrow (as I did poor Oswald Fenimore at Wellington) with Mrs. Marigold's famous potted shrimp and other comestibles, and had put him up, during here and there holidays and later a vacation, when his mother and aunts, with whom he lived, had gone abroad to take inefficacious cures for the tedium of a futile life. Oxford, however, had set him a bit off my plane.
As an ordinary soldierman, trained in the elementary virtues of plain-speaking and direct dealing, love of country and the sacredness of duty, I have had no use for the metaphysician. I haven't the remotest notion what his jargon means. From Aristotle to William James, I have dipped into quite a lot of them—Descartes, Berkeley, Kant, Schopenhauer (the thrice besotted Teutonic ass who said that women weren't beautiful), for I hate to be thought an ignorant duffer—and I have never come across in them anything worth knowing, thinking, or doing that I was not taught at my mother's knee. And as for her, dear, simple soul, if you had asked her what was the Categorical Imperative (having explained beforehand the meaning of the words), she would have said, "The Sermon on the Mount."
Of course, please regard this as a criticism not of the metaphysicians and the philosophers, but of myself. All these great thinkers have their niches in the Temple of Fame, and I'm quite aware that the consensus of human judgment does not immortalise even such an ass as Schopenhauer, without sufficient reason. All I want to convey to you is that I am only a plain, ordinary God-fearing, law-abiding Englishman, and that when young Randall Holmes brought down from Oxford all sorts of highfalutin theories about everything, not only in God's Universe, but in the super-Universe that wasn't God's, and of every one of which he was cocksure, I found my homely self very considerably out of it.
Then—young Randall was a poet. He had won the Newdigate. The subject was Andrea del Sarto, one of my favourite painters—il pittore senza errore—and his prize poem—it had, of course, to be academic in form—was excellent. It said just the things about him which Browning somehow missed, and which I had always been impotently wanting to say. And a year or so afterwards—when I praised his poem—he would shrink in a more than deprecating attitude: I might just as well have extolled him for seducing the wife of his dearest friend. His later poems, of which he was immodestly proud—"Sensations Captured on the Wing," he defined them—left me cold and unsympathetic. So, for these reasons, the boy and I had drifted apart. Until I had caught him in flagrante delicto of walking with his arm round the waist of pretty Phyllis Gedge, I had not seen him to speak to for a couple of months.
He came, however, after dinner, looking very sleek and handsome and intellectual, and wearing a velvet dinner jacket which I did not like. After we had gossiped awhile:—
"You said you were very busy?" I remarked.
He flicked off his cigarette ash and nodded.
"War poetry," he replied. "I am trying to supply the real note. It is badly wanted. There are all kinds of stuff being written, but all indifferent and valueless. If it has a swing, it's merely vulgar, and what isn't vulgar is academic, commonplace. There's a crying need for the high level poetry that shall interpret with dignity and nobility the meaning of the war."
"Have you written much?"
"I have an ode every week in the Albemarle Review. I also write the political article. Didn't you know? Haven't you seen them?"
"I don't take in that periodical," said I. "The omniscience of the last copy I saw dismayed me. I couldn't understand why the Government were such insensate fools as not to move from Downing Street to their Editorial offices."
Randall, with a humouring smile, defended the Albemarle Review.
"It is run," said he, "by a little set of intellectuals—some men up with me at Oxford—who must naturally have a clearer vision than men who have been living for years in the yellow fog of party politics."
He expounded the godlike wisdom of young Oxford at some length, replying vividly to here and there a Socratic interpolation on my part. After a while I began to grow irritated. His talk, like his verse, seemed to deal with unrealities. It was a negation of everything, save the intellectual. If he and his friends had been in power, there would never have been a war; there never would have been a German menace; the lamb would have lain down in peace, outside the lion. He had an airy way of dismissing the ruder and more human aspects of the war. Said I:—
"Anyone can talk of what might have been. But that's all over and done with. We're up against the tough proposition of the present. What are you doing for it?"
He waved a hand. "That's just the point. The present doesn't matter—not in the wide conception of things. It is the past and the future that count. The present is mere fluidity."
"The poor devils up to their waists in water in the trenches would agree with you," said I.
"They would also agree with me," he retorted, "if they had time to go into the reconstruction of the future that we are contemplating."
At this juncture Marigold came in with the decanters and syphons. I noticed his one eye harden on the velvet dinner-jacket. He fidgeted about the room, threw a log on the fire, drew the curtains closer, always with an occasional malevolent glance at the jacket. Then Randall, like a silly young ass, said, from the depths of his easy chair, a very silly thing.
"I see you've not managed to get into khaki yet, Sergeant."
Marigold took a tactical pace or two to the door.
"Neither have you, sir," he said in a respectful tone, and went out.
Randall laughed, though I saw his dark cheek flush. "If Marigold had his way he would have us all in a barrack square."
"Preferably in those fluid trenches of the present," said I. "And he wouldn't be far wrong."
My eyes rested on him somewhat stonily. People have complained sometimes—defaulters, say, in the old days—that there can be a beastly, nasty look in them.
"What do you mean, Major?" he asked.
"Sergeant Marigold," said I, "is a brave, patriotic Englishman who has given his country all he can spare from the necessary physical equipment to carry on existence; and it's making him hang-dog miserable that he's not allowed to give the rest to-morrow. You must forgive his plain speaking," I continued, gathering warmth as I went on, "but he can't understand healthy young fellows like you not wanting to do the same. And, for the matter of that, my dear Randall, neither do I. Why aren't you serving your country?"
He started forward in his chair and threw out his arms, and his dark eyes flashed and a smile of conscious rectitude overspread his clear-cut features.
"My dear Major—serving my country? Why, I'm working night and day for it. You don't understand."
"I've already told you I don't."
The boy was my guest. I had not intended to hold a pistol to his head in one hand and dangle a suit of khaki before his eyes in the other. I had been ill at ease concerning him for months, but I had proposed to regain his confidence in a tactful, fatherly way. Instead of which I found myself regarding him with my beastly defaulter glare. The blood sometimes flies to one's head.
He condescended to explain.
"There are millions of what the Germans call 'cannon fodder' about. But there are few intellects—few men, shall I say?—of genius, scarcely a poet. And men like myself who can express—that's the whole vital point—who can EXPRESS the higher philosophy of the Empire, and can point the way to its realisation are surely more valuable than the yokel or factory hand, who, as the sum-total of his capabilities, can be trained merely into a sort of shooting machine. Just look at it, my dear Major, from a commonsense point of view—" He forgot, the amazing young idiot, that he was talking not to a maiden aunt, but to a hard-bitten old soldier. "What good would it serve to stick the comparatively rare man—I say it in all modesty—the comparatively rare man like myself in the trenches? It would be foolish waste. I assure you I'm putting all my talents at the disposal of the country." Seeing, I suppose, in my eyes, the maintained stoniness of non-conviction, he went on, "But, pay dear sir, be reasonable." ... Reasonable! I nearly choked. If I could have stood once more on my useless legs, I should have swung my left arm round and clouted him on the side of the head. Reasonable indeed! This well-fed, able-bodied, young Oxford prig to tell me, an honourable English officer and gentleman, to be reasonable, when the British Empire, in peril of its existence, was calling on all its manhood to defend it in arms! I glared at him. He continued:—
"Yes, be reasonable. Everyone has his place in this World conflict. We can't all be practical fighters. You wouldn't set Kitchener or Grey or Lord Crewe to bayonet Germans—"
"By God, sir," I cried, smiting one palm with the fist of the other hand. "By God, sir, I would, if they were three and twenty." I had completely lost my temper. "And if I saw them doing nothing, while the country was asking for MEN, but writing rotten doggerel and messing about with girls far beneath them in station, I should call them the damnedest skunks unskinned!"
He had the decency to rise. "Major Meredyth," said he, "you're under a terrible misapprehension. You're a military man and must look at everything from a military point of view. It would be useless to discuss the philosophy of the situation with you. We're on different planes."
Just what I said.
"You," said I, "seem to be hovering near Tophet and the Abyss."
"No, no," he answered with an indulgent smile. "You are quoting Carlyle. You must give him up."
"Damned pro-German, I should think I do," I cried. I had forgotten where my phrase came from.
"I'm glad to hear it. He's a back-number. I'm a modern. I represent equilibrium—" He made a little rocking gesture with his graceful hand. "I am out for Eternal Truth, which I think I perceive."
"In poor little Phyllis Gedge, I suppose?"
"Why not? Look. I am the son, grandson, great-grandson, of English Tories. She is the daughter of socialism, syndicalism, pacifism, internationalism—everything that is most apart from my traditions. But she brings to me beauty, innocence, the feminine solution of all intellectual concepts. She, the woman, is the soul of conflicting England. She is torn both ways. But as she has to breed men, some day, she is instinctively on our side. She is invaluable to me. She inspires my poems. You may not believe it, but she is at the back of my political articles. You must really be a little more broad-minded, Major, and look at these things from the right point of view. From the point of view of my work, she is merely a symbol."
"And you?" said I, wrathfully. "What are you to her? Do you suppose she takes you for a symbol? I wish to Heaven she did. A round cipher of naught, the symbol of inanity. She takes you for an honourable gentleman. I've known the child since she was born. As good a little girl as you could wish to meet."
He drew himself up. "That's the opinion of her I am endeavouring to express."
"Quite so. You win a good decent girl's affection,—if you hadn't, she would never have let you walk about with her at nightfall, with your arm round her waist,—and you have the cynical audacity to say that she's only a symbol."
"When you asked me to come in this evening," said he, "I naturally concluded you would broach this subject. I came prepared to give you a complete explanation of what I am ready to admit was a compromising situation."
"There is only one explanation," said I angrily. "What are your intentions regarding the girl?"
He smiled. "Quite honourable."
"You mean marriage?"
"Oh, no," said he, emphatically.
"Then the other thing? That's not honourable."
"Of course not. Certainly not the other thing. I'm not a blackguard."
"Then what on earth are you playing at?"
He sighed. "I'm afraid you will never understand."
"I'm afraid I won't," said I. "By your own confession you are neither a lusty blackguard nor an honourable gentleman. You're a sort of philanderer, somewhere in between. You neither mean to fight like a man nor love like a man. I'm sorry to say it, but I've no use for you. As I can't do it myself, will you kindly ring the bell?"
"Certainly," said he, white with anger, which I was glad to see, and pressed the electric button beside the mantelpiece. He turned on me, his head high. There was still some breeding left in him.
"I'm sorry we're at such cross-purposes, Major. All my life long I've owed you kindnesses I can't ever repay. But at present we're hopelessly out of sympathy!"
"It seems so," said I. "I had hoped your father's son would be a better man!"
"My father," said he, "was a successful stockbroker, without any ideas in his head save the making of money. I don't see what he has got to do with my well-considered attitude towards life."
"Your callow attitude towards life, my poor boy," said I, "is a matter of profound indifference to me. But I shall give orders that you are no longer admitted to this house except in uniform."
"That's absurd," said he.
"Not at all," said I.
In obedience to the summons of the bell Sergeant Marigold appeared and stood in his ramrod fashion by the door.
Randall came forward to my wheel-chair, with hand outstretched.
"I'm desperately sorry, Major, for this disastrous misunderstanding."
I thrust my hands beneath the light shawl that covered my legs.
"Don't be such a self-sufficient fool, Randall," I said, "as to think I don't understand. In the present position there are no subtleties and no complications. Good-night."
Marigold, with a wooden face, opened wide the door, and Randall, with a shrug of the shoulders, went out.
I stayed awake the whole of that livelong night.
When I learned the death of young Oswald Fenimore, whom I loved far more dearly than Randall Holmes, I went to bed and slept peacefully. A gallant lad died in battle; there is nothing more to be said, nothing more to be thought. The finality, heroically sublime, overwhelms the poor workings of the brain. But in the case of a fellow like Randall Holmes—well, as I have said, I did not get a wink of sleep the whole night long.
Someone, a few months ago, told me of a young university man—Oxford or Cambridge, I forget—who, when asked why he was not fighting, replied; "What has the war to do with me? I disapprove of this brawling."
Was that the attitude of Randall, whom I had known all his life long? I shivered, like a fool, all night. The only consolation I had was to bring commonsense to my aid and to meditate on the statistical fact that the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were practically empty.
But my soul was sick for young Randall Holmes.
On the wedding eve Betty brought the happy young man to dine with me. He was in that state of unaccustomed and somewhat embarrassed bliss in which a man would have dined happily with Beelzebub. A fresh-coloured boy, with fair crisply set hair and a little moustache a shade or two fairer, he kept on blushing radiantly, as if apologising in a gallant sort of fashion for his existence in the sphere of Betty's affection. As I had known him but casually and desired to make his closer acquaintance, I had asked no one to meet them, save Betty's aunt, whom a providential cold had prevented from facing the night air. So, in the comfortable little oak-panelled dining-room, hung round with my beloved collection of Delft, I had the pair all to myself, one on each side; and in this way I was able to read exchanges of glances whence I might form sage conclusions. Bella, spruce parlour-maid, waited deftly. Sergeant Marigold, when not occupied in the mild labour of filling glasses, stood like a guardian ramrod behind my chair—a self-assigned post to which he stuck grimly like a sentinel. As I always sat with my back to the fire there must have been times when, the blaze roaring more fiercely than usual up the chimney, he must have suffered martyrdom in his hinder parts.
As I talked—for the first time on such intimate footing—with young Connor, I revised my opinion of him and mentally took back much that I had said in his disparagement. He was by no means the dull dog that I had labelled him. By diligent and sympathetic enquiry I learned that he had been a Natural Science scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had taken a first-class degree—specialising in geology; that by profession (his father's) he was a mining-engineer, and, in pursuit of his vocation, had travelled in Galicia, Mexico and Japan; furthermore, that he had been one of the ardent little band who of recent years had made the Cambridge Officers Training Corps an effective school. Hitherto, when I had met him he had sat so agreeably smiling and modestly mumchance that I had accepted him at his face value.
I was amused to see how Betty, in order to bring confusion on me, led him to proclaim himself. And I loved the manner in which he did so. To hear him, one would have thought that he owed everything in the world to Betty—from his entrance scholarship at the University to the word of special commendation which his company had received from the General of his Division at last week's inspection. Yes, he was the modest, clean-bred, simple English gentleman who, without self-consciousness or self-seeking, does his daily task as well as it can be done, just because it is the thing that is set before him to do. And he was over head and ears in love with Betty.
I took it upon myself to dismiss her with a nod after she had smoked a cigarette over her coffee. Mrs. Marigold, as a soldier's wife, I announced, had a world of invaluable advice to give her. Willie Connor opened the door. On the threshold she said very prettily:
"Don't drink too much of Major Meredyth's old port. It has been known before now to separate husbands and wives for years and years."
He looked after her for a few seconds before he closed the door.
Oh, my God! I've looked like that, in my time, after one dear woman.... Humanity is very simple, after all. Every generation does exactly the same beautiful, foolish things as its forerunner. As he approached the table, I said with a smile:—
"You're only copying your great-great-grandfather."
"In what way, sir?" he asked, resuming his place.
I pushed the decanter of port. "He watched the disappearing skirt of your great-great-grandmother."
"She was doubtless a very venerable old lady," said he, flushing and helping himself to wine. "I never knew her, but she wasn't a patch on Betty!"
"But," said I, "when your great-great-grandfather opened the door for her to pass out, she wasn't venerable at all, but gloriously young."
"I suppose he was satisfied, poor old chap." He took a sip. "But those days did not produce Betty Fairfaxes." He laughed. "I'm jolly sorry for my ancestors."
Well—that is the way I like to hear a young man talk. It was the modern expression of the perfect gentle knight. In so far as went his heart's intention and his soul's strength to assure it, I had no fear for Betty's happiness. He gave it to her fully into her own hands; whether she would throw it away or otherwise misuse it was another matter.
Though I have ever loved women, en tout bien et tout honneur, their ways have never ceased from causing me mystification. I think I can size up a man, especially given such an opportunity as I had in the case of Willie Connor—I have been more or less trained in the business all my man's life; but Betty Fairfax, whom I had known intimately for as many years as she could remember, puzzled me exceedingly. I defy anyone to have picked a single fault in her demeanour towards her husband of to-morrow. She lit a cigarette for him in the most charming way in the world, and when he guided the hand that held the match, she touched his crisp hair lightly with the fingers of the other. She was all smiles. When we met in the drawing-room, she retailed with a spice of mischief much of Mrs. Marigold's advice. She had seated herself on the music stool. Swinging round, she quoted:
"'Even the best husband,' she said, 'will go on swelling himself up with vanity just because he's a man. A sensible woman, Miss, lets him go on priding of himself, poor creature. It sort of helps his dignity when the time comes for him to eat out of your hand, and makes him think he's doing you a favour.'"
"When are you going to eat out of my hand, Willie?" she asked.
"Haven't I been doing it for the past week?"
"Oh, they always do that before they're married—so Mrs. Marigold informed me. I mean afterwards."
"Don't you think, my dear," I interposed, "it depends on what your hands hold out for him to eat?"
Her eyes wavered a bit under mine.
"If he's good," she answered, "they'll be always full of nice things."
She sat, flushed, happy, triumphant, her arms straight down, her knuckles resting on the leathern seat, her silver-brocaded, slender feet, clear of the floor, peeping close together beneath her white frock.
"And if he isn't good?"
"They'll be full of nasty medicine."
She laughed and pivoted round and, after running over the keys of the piano for a second or two, began to play Gounod's "Death March of a Marionette." She played it remarkably well. When she had ended, Connor walked from the hearth, where he had been standing, to her side. I noticed a little puzzled look in his eyes.
"Delightful," said he. "But, Betty, what put that thing suddenly into your head?"
"We had been talking nonsense," she replied, picking out a chord or two, without looking al him. "And I thought we ought to give all past vanities and frivolities and lunacies a decent burial."
He put both hands very tenderly on her shoulders.
"Requiescat," said he.
She spread out her fingers and struck the two resonant chords of an "Amen," and then glanced up at him, laughing.
After a while, Marigold announced her car, or, rather, her aunt's car. They took their leave. I gave them my benediction. Presently, Betty, fur-coated, came running in alone. She flung herself down, in her impetuous way, beside my wheel-chair. No visit of Betty's would have been complete without this performance.
"I haven't had a word with you all the evening, Majy, dear. I've told Willie to discuss strategy with Sergeant Marigold in the hall, till I come. Well—you thought I was a damn little fool the other day, didn't you? What do you think now?"
"I think, my dear," said I, with a hand on her forehead, "that you are marrying a very gallant English gentleman of whose love any woman in the land might be proud."
She clutched me round the neck and brought her young face near mine—and looked at me—I hesitate to say it,—but so it seemed,—somewhat haggardly.
"I love to hear you say that, it means so much to me. Don't think I haven't a sense of proportion. I have. In all this universal slaughter and massacre, a woman's life counts as much as that of a mosquito." She freed an arm and snapped her fingers. "But to the woman herself, her own life can't help being of some value. Such as it is, I want to give it all, every bit of it, to Willie. He shall have everything, everything, everything that I can give him."
I looked into the young, drawn, pleading face long and earnestly. No longer was I mystified. I remembered her talk with me a couple of days before, and I read her riddle.
She had struck gold. She knew it. Gold of a man's love. Gold of a man's strength. Gold of a man's honour. Gold of a man's stainless past. Gold of a man's radiant future. And though she wore the mocking face and talked the mocking words of the woman who expected such a man to "eat out of her hand," she knew that never out of her hand would he eat save that which she should give him in honourable and wifely service. She knew that. She was exquisitely anxious that I should know it too. Floodgates of relief were expressed when she saw that I knew it. Not that I, personally, counted a scrap. What she craved was a decent human soul's justification of her doings. She craved recognition of her action in casting away base metal forever and taking the pure gold to her heart.
"Tell me that I am doing the right thing, dear," she said, "and to-morrow I'll be the happiest woman in the world."
And I told her, in the most fervent manner in my power.
"You quite understand?" she said, standing up, looking very young and princess-like, her white throat gleaming between her furs and up-turned chin.
"You will find, my dear," said I, "that the significance of your Dead March of a Marionette will increase every day of your married life."
She stiffened in a sudden stroke of passion, looking, for the instant, electrically beautiful.
"I wish," she cried, "someone had written the Dead March of a Devil."
She bent down, kissed me, and went out in a whirr of furs and draperies.
Of course, all I could do was to scratch my thin iron-grey hair and light a cigar and meditate in front of the fire. I knew all about it—or at any rate I thought I did, which, as far as my meditation in front of the fire is concerned, comes to the same thing.
Betty had cast out the base metal of her love for Leonard Boyce in order to accept the pure gold of the love of Willie Connor. So she thought, poor girl. She had been in love with Boyce. She had been engaged to Boyce. Boyce, for some reason or the other, had turned her down. Spretae injuria formae—she had cast Boyce aside. But for all her splendid surrender of her womanhood to Willie Connor, for the sake of her country, she still loved Leonard Boyce. Or, if she wasn't in love with him, she couldn't get him out of her head or her senses. Something like that, anyhow. I don't pretend to know exactly what goes on in the soul or nature, or whatever it is, of a young girl, who has given her heart to a man. I can only use the crude old phrase: she was still in love (in some sort of fashion) with Leonard Boyce, and she was going to marry, for the highest motives, somebody else.
"Confound the fellow," said I, with an irritable gesture and covered myself with cigar ash.
She had called Boyce a devil and implied a wish that he were dead. For myself I did not know what to make of him, for reasons which I will state. I never approved of the engagement. As a matter of fact, I knew—and was one of the very few who knew—of a black mark against him—the very blackest mark that could be put against a soldier's name. It was a puzzling business. And when I say I knew of the mark, I must be candid and confess that its awful justification lies in the conscience of one man living in the world to-day—if indeed he be still alive.
Boyce was a great bronzed, bull-necked man, with an overpowering personality. People called him the very model of a soldier. He was always admired and feared by his men. His fierce eye and deep, resonant voice, and a suggestion of hidden strength, even of brutality, commanded implicit obedience. But both glance and voice would soften caressingly and his manner convey a charm which made him popular with men—brother officers and private soldiers alike—and with women. With regard to the latter—to put things crudely—they saw in him the essential, elemental male. Of that I am convinced. It was the open secret of his many successes. And he had a buoyant, boyish, disarming, chivalrous way with him. If he desired a woman's lips he would always begin by kissing the hem of her skirt.
Had I not known what I did, I, an easy-going sort of Christian temperamentally inclined to see the best in my fellow-creatures, and, as I boastingly said a little while ago, a trained judge of men, should doubtless have fallen, like most other people, under the spell of his fascination. But whenever I met him, I used to look at him and say to myself: "What's at the back of you anyway? What about that business at Vilboek's Farm?"
Now this is what I knew—with the reservation I have made above—and to this day he is not aware of my knowledge.
It was towards the end of the Boer War. Boyce had come out rather late; for which, of course, he was not responsible. A soldier has to go when he is told. After a period of humdrum service he was sent off with a section of mounted infantry to round up a certain farm-house suspected of harbouring Boer combatants. The excursion was a mere matter of routine—of humdrum commonplace. As usual it was made at night, but this was a night of full dazzling moon. The farm lay in a hollow of the veldt, first seen from the crest of a kopje. There it lay below, ramshackle and desolate, a rough wall around; flanked by outbuildings—barn and cowsheds. The section rode down. The stoep led to a shuttered front. There was no sign of life. The moonlight blazed full on it. They dismounted, tethered their horses behind the wall, and entered the yard. The place was deserted, derelict—not even a cat.
Suddenly a shot rang out from somewhere in the main building, and the Sergeant, the next man to Boyce, fell dead, shot through the brain. The men looked at Boyce for command and saw a hulking idiot paralysed by fear.
"His mouth hung open and his eyes were like a silly servant girl's looking at a ghost." So said my informant.
Two more shots and two men fell. Boyce still stood white and gasping, unable to move a muscle or utter a sound. His face looked ghastly in the moonlight. A shot pierced his helmet, and the shock caused him to stagger and lose his legs. A corporal rushed up, thinking he was hit, and, finding him whole, rose, in order to leave him there, and, in rising, got a bullet through the neck. Thus there were four men killed, and the Commanding Officer, of his own accord, put out of action. It all happened in a few confused moments. Then the remaining men did what Boyce should have commanded as soon as the first shot was fired—they rushed the house.
It contained one solitary inmate, an old man with a couple of Mauser rifles, whom they had to shoot in self-defence.
Meanwhile Boyce, white and haggard-eyed, had picked himself up; revolver in hand he stood on the stoep. His men came out, cursed him to his face while giving him their contemptuous reports brought the dead bodies of their comrades into the house and laid them out decently, together with the body of the white-bearded Boer. After that they mounted their horses without a word to him and rode off. And he let them ride; for his authority was gone; and he knew that they justly laid the deaths of their comrades at the door of his cowardice.
What he did during the next few awful hours is known only to God and to Boyce himself. The four dead men, his companions, have told no tales. But at last, one of his men—Somers was his name—came riding back at break-neck speed. When he had left the moon rode high in the heavens; when he returned it was dawn—and he had a bloody tunic and the face of a man who had escaped from hell. He threw himself from his horse and found Boyce, sitting on the stoep with his head in his hands. He shook him by the shoulder. Boyce started to his feet. At first he did not recognise Somers. Then he did and read black tidings in the man's eyes.
"What's the matter?"
"They're all wiped out, sir. The whole blooming lot."
He told a tale of heroic disaster. The remnant of the section had ridden off in hot indignation and had missed their way. They had gone in a direction opposite to safety, and after a couple of hours had fallen in with a straggling portion of a Boer Commando. Refusing to surrender, they had all been killed save Somers, who, with a bullet through his shoulder, had prudently turned bridle and fled hell for leather.
Boyce put his hands up to his head and walked about the yard for a few moments. Then he turned abruptly and stood toweringly over the scared survivor—a tough, wizened little Cockney of five foot six.
"Well, what's going to happen now?" he asked, in his soft, dangerous voice.
Somers replied, "I must leave that to you, sir."
Boyce regarded him glitteringly for a long time. A scheme of salvation was taking vivid shape in his mind....
"My report of this occurrence will be that as soon as, say, three men dropped here, the rest of the troop got into a panic and made a bolt of it. Say the Sergeant and myself remained. We broke into the house and did for the old Boer, who, however, unfortunately did for the Sergeant. Then I alone went out in search of my men and following their track found they had gone in a wrong direction, and eventually scented danger, which was confirmed by my meeting you, with your bloody tunic and your bloody tale."
"But good God! sir," cried the man, "You'd be having me shot for running away. I could tell a damned different story, Captain Boyce."
"Who would believe you?"
The Cockney intelligence immediately appreciated the situation. It also was ready for the alternative it guessed at the back of Boyce's mind.
"I know it's a mess, sir," he replied, with a straight look at Boyce. "A mess for both of us, and, as I have said, I'll leave it to you, sir."
"Very well," said Boyce. "It's the simplest thing in the world. There were four killed at once, including Sergeant Oldham. You remained faithful when the others bolted. You and I tackled the old Boer and you got wounded. You and I went on trek for the rest of the troop. We got within breathing distance of the Commando—how many strong?"
"About a couple of hundred, sir."
"And of course we bolted back without knowing anything about the troop, except that we are sure that, dead or alive, the Boers have accounted for them. If you'll agree to this report, we can ride back to Headquarters and I think I can promise you sergeant's stripes in a very short time!"
"I agree to the report, sir," said Somers, "because I don't see that I can do anything else. But to hell with the stripes under false pretences and don't you try playing that sort of thing off on me."
"As you like," replied Boyce, unruffled. "Provided we understand each other on the main point."
So they left the farm and rode to Headquarters and Boyce made his report, and as all save one of his troop were dead, there were none, save that one, to gainsay him. On his story no doubt was cast; but an officer who loses his whole troop in the military operation of storming a farm-house garrisoned by one old man does not find peculiar favour in the eyes of his Colonel. Boyce took a speedy opportunity of transference, and got into the thick of some fighting. Then he served with distinction and actually got mentioned in dispatches for pluckily rescuing a wounded man under fire.
For a long time Somers kept his mouth shut; but at last he began to talk. The ugly rumour spread. It even reached my battery which was a hundred miles away; for Johnny Dacre, one of my subs, had a brother in Boyce's old regiment. For my own part I scouted the story as soon as I heard it, and I withered up young Dacre for daring to bring such abominable slander within my Rhadamanthine sphere. I dismissed the calumny from my mind. Providentially, (as I heard later), the news came of Boyce's "mention," and Somers was set down as a liar. The poor devil was had up before the Colonel and being an imaginative and nervous man denied the truth of the rumour and by dexterous wriggling managed to exculpate himself from the charge of being its originator.
I must, parenthetically, crave indulgence for these apparently irrelevant details. But as, in this chronicle, I am mainly concerned with the career of Leonard Boyce, I have no option but to give them. They are necessary for a conception of the character of a remarkable man to whom I have every reason and every honourable desire to render justice. It is necessary, too, that I should state clearly the manner in which I happened to learn the facts of the affair at Vilboek's Farm, for I should not like you to think that I have given a credulous ear to idle slander.
It was in Cape Town, whither I had been despatched, on a false alarm of enteric. I was walking with Johnny Dacre up Adderley Street, dun with kahki, when he met his brother Reginald, who was promptly introduced to Johnny's second in command. Reggie was off to hospital to see one of his men who had been badly hurt.
"It's the chap," he said to his brother, "who was with Boyce through that shady affair at Vilboek's Farm."
"I don't know why you call it a shady affair," said I, somewhat acidly. "I know Captain Boyce—he is a near neighbour of mine at home—and he has proved himself to be a gallant officer and a brave man."
The young fellow reddened. "I'm awfully sorry, sir. I withdraw the word 'shady.' But this poor chap has something on his mind, and everyone has a down on him. He led a dog's life till he was knocked out, and he has been leading a worse one since. I don't call it fair." He looked at me squarely out of his young blue eyes—the lucky devil, he is commanding his regiment now in Flanders, with the D.S.O. ribbon on his tunic. "Will you come with me and see him, sir?"
"Certainly," said I, for I had nothing to do, and the boy's earnestness impressed me.
On our way he told me of such mixture of rumour and fact as he was acquainted with. It was then that I heard the man Somers's name for the first time. We entered the hospital, sat by the side of the man's bed, and he told us the story of Vilboek's Farm which I have, in bald terms, just related. Shortly afterwards I returned to the front, where the famous shell knocked me out of the Army forever.
What has happened to Somers I don't know. He was, I learned, soon afterwards discharged from the Army. He either died or disappeared in the full current of English life. Perhaps he is with our armies now. It does not matter. What matters is my memory of his nervous, sallow, Cockney face, its earnestness, its imprint of veracity, and the damning lucidity of his narrative.
I exacted from my young friends a promise to keep the unsavoury tale to themselves. No good would arise from a publicity which would stain the honour of the army. Besides, Boyce had made good. They have kept their promise like honest gentlemen. I have never, personally, heard further reference to the affair, and of course I have never mentioned it to anyone.
Now, it is right for me to mention that, for many years, I lived in a horrible state of dubiety with regard to Boyce. There is no doubt that, after the Vilboek business, he acted in an exemplary manner; there is no doubt that he performed the gallant deed for which he got his mention. But what about Somers's story? I tried to disbelieve it as incredible. That an English officer—not a nervous wisp of a man like Somers, but a great, hulking, bull-necked gladiator—should have been paralysed with fear by one shot coming out of a Boer farm, and thereby demoralised and incapacitated from taking command of a handful of men; that, instead of blowing his brains out, he should have imposed his Mephistophelian compact upon the unhappy Somers and carried off the knavish business successfully—I could not believe it. On the other hand, there was the British private. I have known him all my life, God bless him! Thank God, it is my privilege to know him now, as he lies knocked to bits, cheerily, in our hospital. It was inconceivable that out of sheer funk he could abandon a popular officer. And his was not even a scratch crowd, but a hard-bitten regiment with all sorts of glorious names embroidered on its colours....
I hope you see my difficulty in regard to my Betty's love affairs. I had nothing against Boyce, save this ghastly story, which might or might not be true. Officially, he had made an unholy mess of such a simple military operation as rounding up a Boer farm, and the prize of one dead old Boer had covered him with ridicule; but officially, also, he had retrieved his position by distinguished service. After all, it was not his fault that his men had run away. On the other hand...well, you cannot but appreciate the vicious circle of my thoughts, when Betty, in her frank way, came and told me of her engagement to him. What could I say? It would have been damnable of me to hint at scandal of years gone by. I received them both and gave them my paralytic blessing, and Leonard Boyce accepted it with the air of a man who might have been blessed, without a qualm of conscience, by the Third Person of the Trinity in Person.
This was in April, 1914. He had retired from the Army some years before with the rank of Major, and lived with his mother—he was a man of means—in Wellingsford. In the June of that year he went off salmon fishing in Norway. On the outbreak of war he returned to England and luckily got his job at once. He did not come back to Wellingsford. His mother went to London and stayed there until he was ordered out to the front. I had not seen him since that June. And, as far as I am aware, my dear Betty had not seen him either.
"Well?" said I.
"I thought you rang, sir."
"You didn't," I said. "You thought I ought to have rung, But you were mistaken."
I have on my mantelpiece a tiny, corroded, wooden Egyptian bust, of so little value that Mr. Hatoun of Cairo (and every visitor to Cairo knows Hatoun) gave it me as Baksheesh; it is, however, a genuine bit from a poor humble devil's tomb of about five thousand years ago. And it has only one positive eye and no expression.
Marigold was the living replica of it—with his absurd wig.
"In a quarter of an hour," said I, "I shall have rung."
"Very good, sir," said Marigold.
But he had disturbed the harmonical progression of my reflections. They all went anyhow. When he returned, all I could say was:
"It's Miss Betty's wedding to-morrow. I suppose I've got a morning coat and a top hat."
"You have a morning coat, sir," said Marigold. "But your last silk hat you gave to Miss Althea, sir, to make a work-bag out of the outside."
"So I did," said I.
It was an unpleasant reminiscence. A hat is about as symbolical a garment as you may be pleased to imagine. I wanted to wear at the live Betty's wedding the ceremonious thing which I had given, for purposes of vanity, to the dead Althea. I was cross with Marigold.
"Why did you let me do such a silly thing? You might have known that I should want it some day or other. Why didn't you foresee such a contingency?"
"Why," asked Marigold woodenly, "didn't you or I, sir, or many wiser than us, foresee the war?"
"Because we were all damned fools," said I.
Marigold approached my chair with his great inexorable tentacles of arms. It was bed time.
"I'm sorry about the hat, sir," said he.
In due course Captain Connor's regiment went off to France; not with drums beating and colours flying—I wish to Heaven it had; if there had been more pomp and circumstance in England, the popular imagination would not have remained untouched for so long a time—but in the cold silent hours of the night, like a gang of marauders. Betty did not go to bed after he had left, but sat by the fire till morning. Then she dressed in uniform and resumed her duties at the hospital. Many a soldier's bride was doing much the same. And her days went on just as they did before her marriage. She presented a smiling face to the world; she said:
"If I'm as happy as can be expected in the circumstances, I think it my duty to look happier."
It was a valiant philosophy.
The falling of a chimney-stack brought me up against Daniel Gedge, who before the war did all my little repairs. The chimney I put into the hands of Day & Higgins, another firm of builders.