BY A.E.W. MASON
AUTHOR OF "THE FOUR FEATHERS," "THE TURNSTILE," ETC.
GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1920. BY GEORGE H. DORAN COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
TO THOSE WHO SERVED WITH ME ABROAD THROUGH THE FOUR YEARS
I THE OLYMPIC GAMES 11
II AN ANTHEM INTERVENES 18
III MARIO ESCOBAR 28
IV THE SECRET OF HARRY LUTTRELL 35
V HILLYARD'S MESSENGER 47
VI THE HONORARY MEMBER 55
VII IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN 65
VIII HILLYARD HEARS NEWS OF AN OLD FRIEND 70
IX ENTER THE HEROINE IN ANYTHING BUT WHITE SATIN 80
X THE SUMMONS 91
XI STELLA RUNS TO EARTH 100
XII IN BARCELONA 111
XIII OLD ACQUAINTANCE 121
XIV "TOUCHING THE MATTER OF THOSE SHIPS" 135
XV IN A SLEEPING-CAR 144
XVI TRICKS OF THE TRADE 155
XVII ON A CAPE OF SPAIN 163
XVIII THE USES OF SCIENCE 173
XIX UNDER GREY SKIES AGAIN 183
XX LADY SPLAY'S PREOCCUPATIONS 193
XXI THE MAGNOLIA FLOWERS 208
XXII JENNY PRASK 219
XXIII PLANS FOR THE EVENING 227
XXIV JENNY PRASK IS INTERESTED 235
XXV IN A LIBRARY 238
XXVI A FATAL KINDNESS 248
XXVII THE RANK AND FILE 257
XXVIII THE LONG SLEEP 263
XXIX JENNY PUTS UP HER FIGHT 273
XXX A REVOLUTION IN SIR CHICHESTER 287
XXXI JENNY AND MILLIE SPLAY 298
XXXII "BUT STILL A RUBY KINDLES IN THE VINE" 306
THE OLYMPIC GAMES
Sir Charles Hardiman stood in the corridor of his steam yacht and bawled the name through a closed door. But no answer was returned from the other side of the door. He turned the handle and went in. The night was falling, but the cabin windows looked towards the north and the room was full of light and of a low and pleasant music. For the tide tinkled and chattered against the ship's planks and, in the gardens of the town across the harbour, bands were playing. The town was Stockholm in the year nineteen hundred and twelve, and on this afternoon, the Olympic games, that unfortunate effort to promote goodwill amongst the nations, which did little but increase rancours and disclose hatreds, had ended, never, it is to be hoped, to be resumed.
"Luttrell," cried Hardiman again, but this time with perplexity in his voice. For Luttrell was there in the cabin in front of him, but sunk in so deep a contemplation of memories and prospects that the cabin might just as well have been empty. Sir Charles Hardiman touched him on the shoulder.
"Wake up, old man!"
"That's what I am doing—waking up," said Luttrell, turning without any start. He was seated in front of the writing-desk, a young man, as the world went before the war, a few months short of twenty-eight.
"The launch is waiting and everybody's on deck," continued Hardiman. "We shall lose our table at Hasselbacken if we don't get off."
Then he caught sight of a telegram lying upon the writing-table.
"Oh!" and the impatience died out of his voice. "Is anything the matter?"
Luttrell pushed the telegram towards his host.
"Read it! I have got to make up my mind—and now—before we start."
Hardiman read the telegram. It was addressed to Captain Harry Luttrell, Yacht The Dragonfly, Stockholm, and it was sent from Cairo by the Adjutant-General of the Egyptian Army.
"I can make room for you, but you must apply immediately to be transferred."
Hardiman sat down in a chair by the side of the table against the wall, with his eyes on Luttrell's face. He was a big, softish, overfed man of forty-five, and the moment he began to relax from the upright position, his body went with a run; he collapsed rather than sat. The little veins were beginning to show like tiny scarlet threads across his nose and on the fullness of his cheeks; his face was the colour of wine; and the pupils of his pale eyes were ringed with so pronounced an arcus senilis that they commanded the attention like a disfigurement. But the eyes were shrewd and kindly enough as they dwelt upon the troubled face of his guest.
"You have not answered this?" he asked.
"No. But I must send an answer to-night."
"You are in doubt?"
"Yes. I was quite sure when I cabled to Cairo on the second day of the games. I was quite sure, whilst I waited for the reply. Now that the reply has come—I don't know."
"Let me hear," said the older man. "The launch must wait, the table at the Hasselbacken restaurant must be assigned, if need be, to other customers." Hardiman had not swamped all his kindliness in good living. Luttrell was face to face with one of the few grave decisions which each man has in the course of his life to make; and Hardiman understood his need better than he understood it himself. His need was to formulate aloud the case for and against, to another person, not so much that he might receive advice as, that he might see for himself with truer eyes.
"The one side is clear enough," said Luttrell with a trace of bitterness. "There was a Major I once heard of at Dover. He trained his company in night-marches by daylight. The men held a rope to guide them and were ordered to shut their eyes. The Major, you see, hated stirring out at night. He liked his bridge and his bottle of port. Well, give me another year and that's the kind of soldier I shall become—the worst kind—the slovenly soldier. I mean slovenly in mind, in intention. Even now I come, already bored, to the barrack square and watch the time to see if I can't catch an earlier train from Gravesend to London."
"And when you do?" asked Hardiman.
"When I do," he agreed, "I get no thrill out of my escape, I assure you. I hate myself a little more—that's all."
"Yes," said Hardiman. He was too wise a man to ask questions. He just sat and waited, inviting Luttrell to spread out his troubles by his very quietude.
"Then there are these games," Luttrell cried in a swift exasperation, "—these damned games! From the first day when the Finns marched out with their national flag and the Russians threatened to withdraw if they did it again——" he broke off suddenly. "Of course you know soldiers have believed that trouble's coming. I used to doubt, but by God I am sure of it now. Just a froth of fine words at the opening and afterwards—honest rivalry and let the best man win? Not a bit of it! Team-running—a vile business—the nations parked together in different sections of the Stadium like enemies—and ill-will running here and there like an infection! Oh, there's trouble coming, and if I don't go I shan't be fit for it. There, that's the truth."
"The whole truth and nothing but the truth?" Hardiman asked with a smile. He leaned across the table and drew towards him a case of telegraph forms. But whilst he was drawing them towards him, Luttrell spoke again.
"Nothing but the truth—yes," he said. He was speaking shyly, uncomfortably, and he stopped abruptly.
"The whole truth—no." Hardiman added slowly, and gently. He wanted the complete story from preface to conclusion, but he was not to get it. He received no answer of any kind for a considerable number of moments and Luttrell only broke the silence in the end, to declare definitely,
"That, at all events, is all I have to say."
Sir Charles nodded and drew the case of forms close to him. There was something more then. There always is something more, which isn't told, he reflected, and the worst of it is, the something more which isn't told is always the real reason. Men go to the confessional with a reservation; the secret chamber where they keep their sacred vessels, their real truths and inspirations, as also their most scarlet sins—that shall be opened to no one after early youth is past unless it be—rarely—to one woman. There was another reason at work in Harry Luttrell, but Sir Charles Hardiman was never to know it. With a shrug of his shoulders he took a pencil from his pocket, filled up one of the forms and handed it to Luttrell.
"That's what I should reply."
He had written:
"I am travelling to London to-morrow to apply for transfer.—LUTTRELL."
Luttrell read the telegram with surprise. It was not the answer which he had expected from the victim of the flesh-pots in front of him.
"You advise that?" he exclaimed.
"Yes. My dear Luttrell, as you know, you are a guest very welcome to me. But you don't belong. We—Maud Carstairs, Tony Marsh and the rest of us—even Mario Escobar—we are the Come-to-nothings. We are the people of the stage door, we grow fat in restaurants. From three to seven, you may find us in the card-rooms of our clubs—we are jolly fine fellows—and no good. You don't belong, and should get out while you can."
Luttrell moved uncomfortably in his chair.
"That's all very well. But there's another side to the question," he said, and from the deck above a woman's voice called clearly down the stairway.
"Aren't you two coming?"
Both men looked towards the door.
"That side," said Hardiman.
Hardiman nodded his head.
"Stella Croyle doesn't belong either," he said. "But she kicked over the traces. She flung out of the rank and file. Oh, I know Croyle was a selfish, dull beast and her footprints in her flight from him were littered with excuses. I am not considering the injustice of the world. I am looking at the cruel facts, right in the face of them, as you have got to do, my young friend. Here Stella Croyle is—with us—and she can't get away. You can."
Luttrell was not satisfied. His grey eyes and thin, clean features were troubled like those of a man in physical pain.
"You don't know the strange, queer tie between Stella Croyle and me," he said. "And I can't tell you it."
Hardiman grew anxious. Luttrell had the look of a man overtrained, and it was worry which had overtrained him. His face was a trifle too delicate, perhaps, to go with those remorseless sharp decisions which must be made by the men who win careers.
"I know that you can't go through the world without hurting people," cried Hardiman. "Neither you nor any one else, except the limpets. And you won't escape hurting Stella Croyle, by abandoning your chances. Your love-affair will end—all of that kind do. And yours will end in a bitter, irretrievable quarrel after you have ruined yourself, and because you have ruined yourself. You are already on the rack—make no doubt about it. Oh, I have seen you twitch and jump with irritation—how many times on this yacht!—for trumpery, little, unimportant things she has said and done, which you would never have noticed six months ago; or only noticed to smile at with a pleased indulgence."
Luttrell's face coloured. "Why, that's true enough," he said. He was remembering the afternoon a week ago, when the yacht steamed between the green islands with their bathing stations and chalets, over a tranquil, sunlit sea of the deepest blue. Rounding a wooded corner towards sunset she came suddenly upon the bridges and the palace and the gardens of Stockholm. The women of the party were in the saloon. A rush was made towards it. They were summoned to this first wonderful view of the city of beauty. Would they come? No! Stella Croyle was in the middle of a game of Russian patience. She could play that game any day, every day, all day. This exquisite vision was vouchsafed to her but the once, and she had neglected it with the others. She had not troubled, even to move so far as the saloon door. For she had not finished her game.
Luttrell recalled his feeling of scorn; the scorn had grown into indignation; in the end he had made a grievance of her indifference to this first view of the city of Stockholm; a foolish, exasperating grievance, which would rankle, which would not be buried, which sprang to fresh life at each fresh sight of her. Yes, of a certainty, sooner or later Stella Croyle and he would quarrel, so bitterly that all the king's horses and all the king's men could never bring them again together; and over some utterly unimportant matter like the first view of Stockholm.
"Youth has many privileges over age," continued Hardiman, "but none greater than the vision, the half-interpreted recurring vision of wider spaces and greater things, towards which you sail on the wind of a great emotion. Sooner or later, a man loses that vision and then only knows his loss. Stay here, and you'll lose it before your time."
Luttrell looked curiously at his companion, wondering what manner of man he had been in his twenties. Hardiman answered the look with a laugh. "Oh, I, too, had my ambitions once."
Luttrell folded the cablegram which Hardiman had written out and placed it in the breast pocket of his dinner-jacket.
"I will talk to Stella to-night at dinner. Then, if I decide to send it, I can send it from the hotel over there at the landing-steps before we return to the yacht."
Sir Charles Hardiman rose cumbrously with a shrug of his shoulders. He had done his best, but since Luttrell would talk the question over with Stella Croyle, shoulder to shoulder with her amongst the lights and music, the perfume of her hair in his nostrils and the pleading of her eyes within his sight—he, Charles Hardiman, might as well have held his tongue.
So very likely it would have been. But when great matters are ripe for decisions one way or the other, the little accident as often as not decides. There was a hurrying of light feet in the corridor outside, a swift, peremptory knocking upon the door. The same woman's voice called in rather a shrill note through the panels! "Harry! Why don't you come? We are waiting for you."
And in the sound of the voice there was not merely impatience, but a note of ownership—very clear and definite; and hearing it Luttrell hardened. He stood up straight. He had the aspect of a man in revolt.
AN ANTHEM INTERVENES
Upon the entrance of Hardiman's party a wrinkle was smoothed away from the forehead of a maitre d'hotel.
"So! You have come!" he cried. "I began to despair."
"You have kept my table?" Sir Charles insisted.
"Yes, but with what an effort of diplomacy!"; and the maitre d'hotel led his guests to the very edge of the great balcony. Here the table was set endwise to the balustrade, commanding the crowded visitors, yet taking the coolness of the night. Hardiman was contented with his choice of its position. But when he saw his guests reading the cards which assigned them their places, he was not so contented with the order of their seating.
"If I had known an hour before!" he said to himself, and the astounding idea crept into his mind that perhaps it was, after all, a waste to spend so much time on the disposition of a dinner-table and the ordering of food.
However, the harm was done now. There was Luttrell already seated at the end against the balustrade. He had the noise of a Babel of tongues and the glitter of a thousand lights upon his left hand; upon his right, the stars burning bright in a cool gloom of deepest purple, and far below the riding-lamps of the yachts tossing on the water like yellow flowers in a garden; whilst next to him, midway between the fragrant darkness and the hard glitter, revealing, as she always did, a kinship with each of them, sat Stella Croyle.
"I should have separated them," Hardiman reflected uneasily as he raised and drank his cocktail. "But how the deuce could I without making everybody stare? This party wasn't got up to separate people. All the same——"
The hushed wonder of a summer night. The gaiety of a bright thronged restaurant! In either setting Stella Croyle was a formidable antagonist. But combine the settings and she took to herself, at once by nature, the seduction of both!
"Poor devil, he won't have a dog's chance!" the baronet concluded; and he watched approvingly what appeared to him to be Luttrell's endeavour to avoid joining battle on this unfavourable field. He could only trust feebly in that and in the strength of the "something else," the secret reason he was never to know.
It was about half-way through dinner when Stella Croyle, who had directed many a furtive, anxious glance to the averted face of her companion, attacked directly.
"What is the matter with you to-night?" she asked, interrupting him in the midst of a rattle of futilities. "Why should you recite to me from the guide-book about the University of Upsala?"
"It appears to be most interesting, and quaint," replied Luttrell hastily.
"Then we might hire a motor-car and run out there to luncheon. To-morrow! Just you and I."
"No." Harry Luttrell exclaimed suddenly and Stella Croyle drew back. Her face clouded. She had won the first round, but victory brought her no ease. She knew now from the explosion of his "No" and the swift alarm upon his face that something threatened her.
"You must tell me what has happened," she cried. "You must! Oh, you turn away from me!"
From the dark steep garden at their feet rose a clamour of cheers—to Luttrell an intervention of Providence.
"Listen," he said.
Here and there a man or a woman rose at the dinner tables and looked down. Upwards along a glimmering riband of path, a group of students bore one of their number shoulder-high. Luttrell leaned over the balustrade. The group below halted; speeches were made; cheers broke out anew.
"It is the Swedish javelin-thrower. He won the championship of the world this afternoon."
"Did he?" asked Stella Croyle in a soft voice at his side. "Does he throw javelins as well as you? You wound me every time."
Luttrell raised his head. It was not fear of defeat which had kept his looks averted from Stella's dark and starry eyes. No thought of lists set and a contest to be fought out had even entered his head. But he did fear to see those eyes glisten with tears—for she so seldom shed them! And even more than the evidence of her pain he feared the dreadful submission with which women in the end receive the stroke of fortune. He had to meet her gaze now, however.
"I put off telling you," he began lamely.
"So that this evening of mine with you might not be spoilt," she returned. "But, my dear, my evening was already spoilt before the launch left the yacht gangway. I am not so blind."
Stella Croyle was at this date twenty-six years old; and it was difficult to picture her any older. Partly because of her vivid colouring and because she was abrim with life; partly because in her straightness of limb and the clear treble of her voice, she was boyish. "What a pretty boy she would make!" was the first thought until you noticed the slim delicacy of her hands and feet, the burnish of gold on the dark wealth of her hair, the fine chiselling of brow and nose and chin. Then it was seen that she was all woman. She was tall and yet never looked tall. It seemed that you could pick her up with a finger, but try and she warned you of the weakness of your arm. She was a baffling person. She ran and walked with the joyous insolence of eighteen, yet at any moment some veil might be rolled up in her eyes and face to show you for one tragic instant a Lady of Sorrows.
She leaned towards Luttrell, and as Hardiman had foreseen the perfume of her hair stormed his senses.
"Tell me!" she breathed, and Luttrell, with his arguments and reasons cut and dried and conned over pat for delivery, began nevertheless to babble. There were the Olympic Games. She herself must have seen how they were fatal to their own purpose. Troubles were coming—battles behind the troubles. All soldiers knew! They knew this too—the phrase of a young Lieutenant-Colonel lecturing at the Staff College.
"Battles are not won either by sheer force or pure right, but by the one or the other of those two Powers which has Discipline as its Chief of Staff."
He was implying neither very tactfully nor clearly that he was on the way to dwindling into an undisciplined soldier. But it did not matter in the least. For Stella Croyle was not listening. All this was totally unimportant. Men always went about and about when they had difficult things to say to women. Her eyes never left his face and she would know surely enough when those words were rising to his lips which it was necessary that she should mark and understand. Meanwhile her perplexities and fears grew.
"Of course it can't be that," she assured herself again and again, but with a dreadful catch at her heart. "Oh no, it can't be that."
"That," was the separation which some day or another—after a long and wondrous period—both were agreed, must come. But, consoling herself with the thought that she would be prepared, she had always set the day on so distant an horizon that it had no terrors for her. Now it suddenly dismayed her, a terror close at hand. Here on this crowded balcony joyous with lights and gay voices and invaded by all the subtle invitations of a summer night above the water! Oh no, it was not possible!
Luttrell put his hand to his breast pocket and Stella watched and listened now with all her soul. More than once during dinner she had seen him touch that pocket in an abstraction. He drew from it two papers, one the cablegram which he had received from Cairo, the other Hardiman's reply. He handed her the first of the two.
"This reached me this morning."
Stella Croyle studied the paper with her heart in her mouth. But the letters would not be still.
"Oh, what does it mean?" she cried.
"It offers me service abroad."
Stella's face flushed and turned white. She bent her head over the cablegram.
"At Cairo," she said, with a little gasp of relief. After all Cairo was not so far. A week, and one was at Cairo.
"Further south, in the Sudan—Heaven knows where!"
"Too far then?" she suggested. "Too far."
"For you? Yes! Too far," Luttrell replied.
Stella lifted a tragic face towards him; and though he winced he met her eyes.
"But you are not going! You can't go!"
Luttrell handed to her the second paper.
"You never wrote this," she said very quickly.
"Yet it is what I would have written."
Stella Croyle shot one swift glance at Sir Charles Hardiman. She had recognised his handwriting. Hardiman was in Luttrell's cabin while the rest of the party waited on the deck and the launch throbbed at the gangway. If a woman's glance had power, he would have been stricken that instant. But she wasted no more than a glance upon the worldly-wiseman at the head of their table. She turned again to the first telegram.
"This is an answer, this cablegram from Cairo?"
"To a cable of yours?"
"Sent three days ago."
The answers she received were clear, unhesitating. It was a voice from a rock speaking! So utterly mistaken was she; and so completely Luttrell bent every nerve to the service of shortening the hour of misery. The appalling moment was then actually upon her. She had foreseen it—so she thought. But it caught her nevertheless unprepared as death catches a sinner on his bed.
She stared at the telegrams—not reading them. His arguments and prefaces—the Olympic Games, Discipline and the rest of it—what she had caught of them, she blew away as so much froth. She dived to the personal reason.
"You are tired of me."
"No," Luttrell answered hotly. "That's not true—not even a half-truth. If I were tired of you, it would all be so easy, so brutally easy."
"But you are!" Her voice rose shrill in its violence. "You know you are but you are too much of a coward to say so—oh, like all men!" and as Luttrell turned to her a face startled by her outcry and uttered a remonstrant "Hush!", she continued bitterly, "What do I care if they all hear? I am impossible! You know that, don't you? I am quite impossible! I have gone my own way. I am one of the people you hate—one of the Undisciplined."
Stella Croyle hardly knew in her passion what she was saying, and Luttrell could only wait in silence for the storm to pass. It passed with a quickness which caught him at loss; so quickly she swept from mood to mood.
He heard her voice at his ear, remorseful and most appealing. "Oh, Wub, what have I done that you should treat me so?"
Sir Charles Hardiman, watchful of the duel, guessed from the movement of her lips what she was saying.
"These nicknames are the very devil," he exclaimed, apparently about nothing, to his startled neighbour. "The first thing a woman does when she's fond of a man is to give him some ridiculous name, which doesn't belong to him. She worries her wits trying this one and that one, as a tailor tries on you a suit of clothes, and when she has got your fit, she uses it—publicly. So others use it too and so it no longer contents her. Then she invents a variation, a nickname within a nickname, and that she keeps to herself, for her own private use. That's the nickname I am referring to, my dear, when I say it's the very devil."
The lady to whom he spoke smiled vaguely and surmised that he might be very right. For herself, she said, she had invented no nicknames; which was to assert that she had never been in love. For the practice seems invariable, and probably Dido in times long since gone by had one for AEneas, and Virgil knew all about it. But since she was a woman, it would be a name at once so absurd and so intimate that it would never have gone with the dignified rhythm of the hexameter. "Wobbles" had been the first name which Stella Croyle had invented for Harry Luttrell, though by what devious process she had lighted upon it, psychology could not have discovered. "Wub" was the nickname within the nickname, the cherished sign that the two of them lived apart in a little close-hedged garden of their own. Luttrell's eyes were upon her as she spoke it. And she spoke it with a curious little wistful pursing of soft lips so that it came to him winged with the memory of all her kisses.
"Oh, Wub, must you leave me?" she pleaded in a breaking whisper. "What will be left to me if you do?"
Luttrell dropped his forehead in his hands. All the character which he had in those untried days bade him harden himself against the appeal. But his resolution was melting like metal in a furnace. He tried to realise the truth which Hardiman had uttered three or four hours before. There would be sooner or later a quarrel, a humiliating, hateful quarrel over some miserable trifle which neither Stella nor he would ever afterwards forgive. But her voice was breaking with a sob in a whisper at his ear and how could he look forward so far?
He turned impulsively towards her.
"The game's up," reflected Sir Charles Hardiman at the end of the table. "Calypso wins—no, by God!"
For before Luttrell could speak another word, the music crashed and all that assemblage was on its feet. The orchestra was playing the Swedish National Anthem; and upon that, one after the other, followed the hymns of the peoples who had taken part in the Games. In turn the representatives of each people stood and resumed their seat, the music underlining their individuality and parking them in sections, even as rivalry had parked them in the Stadium. The majestic anthem of Russia, the paean of the Marseillaise, the livelier march of Italy, the song of Germany, the Star-Spangled Banner; and long before the band struck into the solemn rhythm of "God save the King," Stella Croyle at all events knew that Calypso had lost. For she saw a flame illumine Luttrell's face and transfigure him. He had slipped out of her reach. The doubts and perplexities which had so troubled him during the last months were now resolved. As he listened to the Hymns, he saw as in a vision the nations advancing abreast over a vast plain like battalions in line with their intervals for manoeuvring spaced out between them. In front of each nation rolled a grey vapour, which gradually took shape before Luttrell's eyes; and there was made visible to him a shadowy legion of men marching in the van, the men who had left ease and women and all the grace of life behind them and had gone out to die in the harness of service—one in this, one in that corner of the untravelled world, and now all reunited in a strong fellowship. The vision remained with him after the last strains of music had died away, and faded slowly. He waked to the lights and clamour of the restaurant and turned to Stella Croyle.
"Stella," he began, and——
"I know," she interrupted in a small voice. She was sitting with her head downcast and her hands clenched upon her lap so tightly that the skin was white about the points where the tips of her fingers pressed. "Perhaps I shan't suffer so very much."
She was careful not to lift her head, and when a few moments later their host gave the signal to move, she rose quickly and turned her back on Luttrell.
The party motored back through the Dyurgarden, past the glimmering tents where the Boy-Scouts were encamped to the great hotel by the landing-stage. There a wait of a few minutes took place whilst Hardiman settled for the cars, and during that wait Luttrell disappeared. He rejoined his friends at the harbour steps and when the launch put off towards the Dragonfly, he found himself side by side with Stella Croyle. In the darkness she relaxed her guard. Luttrell saw the great tears glisten on her dark eyelashes and fall down her cheeks.
"I am sorry, Stella," he whispered, dropping his hand on hers, and she clutched it and let it go.
"Perhaps I shan't suffer so very much," she repeated and the next moment the gangway light shone down upon their faces. Stella dropped her head and furtively dried her cheeks.
"I want to go up last," she said, "and just behind you, so that no one shall see what a little fool I am making of myself."
But by some subtle understanding already it was felt amongst that group of people, quick to perceive troubles of the emotions, that something was amiss between the pair. They were left alone upon the deck. Stella by chance looking southwards to the starlit gloom, Luttrell to the north, where still the daylight played in blue and palest green and the delicate changing fires of the opal.
"What will you do, Stella?" Luttrell asked gently.
"I think I will go and live in the country," she replied.
"It will be lonely, child."
"There will be ghosts, my dear, to keep me company," she answered with a wan smile. "People like me always have to be a good deal alone, anyway. I shall be, of course, lonelier, now that I have no one to play with," and the smile vanished from her lips. She flung up her face towards the skies, letting her grief have its way upon that empty deck.
"So we shall never be together—just you and I—alone again," she said, forcing herself to realise that unintelligible thing. Her thoughts ran back over the year—the year of their alliance—and she saw all of its events flickering vividly before her, as they say drowning people do. "Oh, Wub, what a cruel mistake you made when you went out of your way to be kind," she cried, with the tears streaming down her face; and Luttrell winced.
"Yes, that's true," he admitted remorsefully. "I never dreamed what would come of it."
"You should have left me alone."
Amongst the flickering pictures of the year the first was the clearest. A great railway station in the West of England, a train drawn up at the departure platform, herself with a veil drawn close over her face, half running, half walking in a pitiful anguish towards the train; and then a man at her elbow. Harry Luttrell.
"I have reserved a compartment. I suspected that things were not going to turn out well. I thought the long journey to London alone would be terrible. If things had turned out right, you would not have seen me."
She had let him place her in a carriage, look after her wants as if she had been a child, hold her in his arms, tend her with the magnificent sympathy of his silence. That had been the real beginning. Stella had known him as the merest of friends before. She had met him here and there at a supper party, at a dancing club, at some Bohemian country house; and then suddenly he had guessed what others had not, and foolishly had gone out of his way to be kind.
"She would have died if I hadn't travelled with her," Luttrell argued silently. "She would have thrown herself out of the carriage, or when she reached home she would have——" and his argument stopped, and he glanced at her uneasily.
Undisciplined, was the epithet she had used of herself. You never knew what crazy thing she might do. There was daintiness but no order in her life; the only law she knew was given to her by a fastidious taste.
"Of course, Wub, I have always known that you never cared for me as I do for you. So it was bound to end some time." She caught his hand to her heart for a second, and then, dropping it, ran from his side.
Late in the autumn of the following year a new play, written by Martin Hillyard and named "The Dark Tower," was produced at the Rubicon Theatre in Panton Street, London. It was Hillyard's second play. His first, produced in April of the same year, had just managed to limp into July; and that small world which concerns itself with the individualities of playwrights was speculating with its usual divergencies upon Hillyard's future development.
"The Dark Tower" was a play of modern days, built upon the ancient passions. The first act was played to a hushed house, and while the applause which greeted the fall of the curtain was still rattling about the walls of the theatre, Sir Charles Hardiman hoisted himself heavily out of his stall and made his way to a box on the first tier, which he entered without knocking.
There was but one person in the box, a young man hidden behind a side curtain. Hardiman let himself collapse into a chair by the side of the young man.
"Seems all right," he said. "You have a story to tell. It's clear in every word, too, that you know where you are going. That makes people comfortable and inclined to go along with you."
Hillyard turned with a smile.
"We haven't come to the water jump yet," he said.
Hardiman remained in the box during the second act. He watched the stage for a while, took note of the laughter which welcomed this or that line, and of the silence which suddenly enclosed this or that scene from the rest of the play; and finally, with a certain surprise, and a certain amusement he fixed his attention upon the play's author. The act ended in laughter and Hillyard leaned back, and himself laughed, without pose or affectation, as heartily as any one in the theatre.
"You beat me altogether, my young friend," said Hardiman. "You ought to be walking up and down the pavement outside in the classical state of agitation. But you appear to be enjoying the play, as if you never had seen it before."
"And I haven't," Hillyard returned. "This isn't quite the play which we have been learning and rehearsing during the last month. Here's the audience at work, adding a point there, discovering an interpretation—yes, actually an interpretation—there, bringing into importance one scene, slipping over the next which we thought more important—altering it, in fact. Of course," and he returned to his earlier metaphor, "I know the big fences over which we may come a cropper. I can see them ahead before we come up to them and know the danger. We are over two of them, by the way. But on the whole I am more interested than nervous. It's the first time I have ever been to a first night, you see."
"Well, upon my word," cried Hardiman, "you are the coolest hand at it I ever saw." But he could have taken back his words the next moment.
In spite of Hillyard's aloof and disinterested air, the night had brought its excitement and in a strength of which he himself was unaware. It lifted now the veils behind which a man will hide his secret thoughts! He turned swiftly to Hardiman with a boyish light upon his face.
"Oh, I am not in doubt of what to-night means to me! Not for a moment. If it's failure, it means that I begin again to-morrow on something else; and again after that, and again after that, until success does come. Playwriting is my profession, and failures are a necessary part of it—just as much a part as the successes. But even if the great success were to come now, it wouldn't mean quite so much to me perhaps as it might to other people." He paused, and a smile broke upon his face. "I live expecting a messenger. There! That's my secret delivered over to you under the excitement of a first night."
And as he spoke the colour mounted into his face. He turned away in confusion. His play was nearer at his heart than he had thought; the enthusiasm which seemed to be greeting it had stirred him unwisely.
"Tell me," he said hurriedly, "who all these people in the stalls are."
He peeped down between the edge of the curtain and the side wall of the box whilst Hardiman stood up behind him.
"Yes, I will be your man from Cook's," said Hardiman genially.
His heart warmed to the young man both on account of his outburst and of the shame which had followed upon the heels of it. Few beliefs had survived in Hardiman after forty years of wandering up and down the flowery places of the earth; but one—he had lectured Harry Luttrell upon it on a night at Stockholm—continually gained strength in him. Youth must beget visions and man must preserve them if great work were to be done; and so easily the visions lost their splendour and their inspiration. Of all the ways of tarnishing the vision, perhaps talk was the most murderous. Hillyard possessed them. Hillyard was ashamed that he had spoken of them. Therefore he had some chance of retaining them.
"Yes, I will show you the celebrities." He pointed out the leading critics and the blue stockings of the day. His eyes roamed over the stalls. "Do you see the man with the broad face and the short whiskers in the fourth row? The man who looks just a little too like a country gentleman to be one? That is Sir Chichester Splay. He made a fortune in a murky town of Lancashire, and, thirsting for colour, came up to London determined to back a musical comedy. That is the way the craving for colour takes them in the North. His wish was gratified. He backed 'The Patchouli Girl,' and in that shining garden he got stung. He is now what they call an amateur. No first night is complete without him. He is the half-guinea Mecaenas of our days."
Hillyard looked down at Sir Chichester Splay and smiled at his companion's description.
"You will meet him to-night at supper, and if your play is a success—not otherwise—you will stay with him in Sussex."
"No!" cried Hillyard; but Sir Charles was relentless in his insistence.
"You will. His wife will see to that. Who the pretty girl beside him is I do not know. But the more or less young man on the other side of her, talking to her with an air of intimacy a little excessive in a public place, is Mario Escobar. He is a Spaniard, and has the skin-deep politeness of his race. He is engaged in some sort of business, frequents some sort of society into which he is invited by the women, and he is not very popular amongst men. He belongs, however, to some sort of club. That is all I know about him. One would think he had guessed we were speaking of him," Hardiman added.
For at that moment Mario Escobar raised his dark, sleek head, and his big, soft eyes—the eyes of a beautiful woman—looked upwards to the box. It seemed to Hillyard for a moment that they actually exchanged a glance, though he himself was out of sight behind the curtain, so direct was Escobar's gaze. It was, however, merely the emptiness of the box which had drawn the Spaniard's attention. He was neatly groomed, of a slight figure, tall, and with his eyes, his thin olive face, his small black moustache and clean-cut jaw he made without doubt an effective and arresting figure.
"Now turn your head," said Hardiman, "the other way, and notice the big, fair man in the back row of the stalls. He is a rival manager, and he is explaining in a voice loud enough to be heard by the first rows of the pit, the precise age of your leading lady. Now look down! There is a young girl flitting about the stalls. She is an actress, not very successful. But to-night she is as busy as a bee. She is crabbing your play. Yesterday her opinion on the subject was of no value, and it will be again of no value to-morrow. But as one of the limited audience on a first night, she can do just a tiny bit of harm. But don't hold it against her, Hillyard! She has no feeling against you. This is her little moment of importance."
Sir Charles rattled on through the interval—all good nature with just a slice of lemon—and it had happened that he had pointed out one who was to be the instrument of great trouble for Hillyard and a few others, with whom this story is concerned.
Hillyard interrupted Hardiman.
"Who is the girl at the end of the sixth row, who seems to have stepped down from a china group on a mantelpiece?"
"That one?" said Hardiman, and all the raillery faded from his face. "That is Mrs. Croyle. You will meet her to-night at my supper party." He hesitated as to what further he should say. "You might do worse than be a friend to her. She is not, I am afraid, very happy."
Hillyard was surprised at the sudden gentleness of his companion's voice, and looked quickly towards him. Hardiman answered the look as he got heavily up from his chair.
"I sometimes fear that I have some responsibility for her unhappiness. But there are things one cannot help."
The light in the auditorium went down while Hardiman was leaving the box, and the curtain rose on the third act of "The Dark Tower." Of that play, however, you may read in the files of the various newspapers, if you will. This story is concerned with Martin Hillyard, not his work. It is sufficient to echo the words of Sir Chichester Splay when Hillyard was introduced to him an hour and a half later in the private supper-room at the Semiramis Hotel.
"A good play, Mr. Hillyard. Not a great play, of course, but quite a good play," said Sir Chichester with just the necessary patronage to tickle Hillyard to an appreciation of Hardiman's phrases—a ten and six-penny Mecaenas.
"I am grateful that it has earned your good opinion," he replied.
"Oh, not at all!" cried Sir Chichester, and catching a lady who passed by the arm. "Stella, Mr. Hillyard should know you. This is Mrs. Croyle. I hope you will meet him some day at Rackham Park."
Sir Chichester trotted away to greet the manager of the Daily Harpoon, who was at that moment shaking hands with Hardiman.
"I congratulate you," said Stella Croyle, as she gave him her hand.
"Thank you. So you know Sir Chichester well?"
"His wife has been a friend of mine for a long time." Her eyes twinkled. "I wonder you have not been seen at his house."
"Oh, I am only just hatched out," said Hillyard. They both laughed. "I hardly know a soul here except my leading lady and our host."
They were summoned to the supper table. Hillyard found himself with the leading lady on one side of him and Stella Croyle opposite, and Mario Escobar a couple of seats away. Supper was half through when Escobar leaned suddenly forward.
"Mr. Hillyard, I have seen you before, somewhere and not in England."
"That is possible."
"Yes," answered Hillyard.
A certain curiosity in Escobar's voice, a certain reticence in Hillyard's, arrested the attention of those about.
"Let me see!" continued Escobar. "It was in the Opera House at Barcelona on the first performance of Manon Lescaut."
"No," replied Hillyard.
"Then—I know—it was under the palm-trees in front of the sea at Alicante one night."
"That may well have been. I was up and down the south coast of Spain for three years. Eighteen months of it were spent at Alicante."
He turned to his neighbour, but Escobar persisted.
"It was for your health?"
Hillyard did not answer directly.
"My lungs have always been my trouble," he said.
Hardiman bent towards Stella Croyle.
"I think our new friend has had a curious life, Stella. He should interest you."
Stella Croyle replied with a shrewd look towards the Spaniard.
"At present he is interesting Escobar. One would say Escobar was suspicious lest Mr. Hillyard should know too much of him."
Sir Charles laughed.
"The Mario Escobars are always suspicious. Let us see!" he said in a low voice, and leaning across the table, he shot a question sharply at the Spaniard.
"And what were you doing under the palm trees, in front of the sea at Alicante, Senor Escobar?"
Mario Escobar sat back. The challenge had startled him. He reflected, and as the recollection came he turned slowly very white.
"I?" he asked.
"Yes," said Hardiman, leaning forward. But it was not at Hardiman that Escobar was looking. His eyes were fixed warily on Hillyard. He answered the question warily too, fragment by fragment, ready to stop, ready to take the words back, if a sign of recollection kindled in Hillyard's face.
"It is what we should call here the esplanade—the sea and harbour on one side, the houses on the other. The band plays under the palms in front of the Casino on summer nights. I——" and he took the last words at a rush—"I was sitting in a lounge chair in front of the club, when I saw Mr. Hillyard pass. An Englishman is noticeable in Alicante. There are so few of them."
"Yes," Hillyard agreed. No recollection was stirred in him by Escobar's description. Escobar turned away, but he could not quite conceal the relief he felt.
"Yes, my friend," said Hardiman to himself, "you have taken your water-jump too. And you're uncommonly glad that you haven't come a cropper."
After that noticeable moment of tension, the talk swept on into sprightlier channels.
THE SECRET OF HARRY LUTTRELL
"Shall I take you home?"
"Oh, will you?" cried Stella Croyle, with a little burst of pleasure. After all, Hillyard was the great man of the evening, and that he should consider her out of all that company was pleasant. "I will get my cloak."
Throughout the supper-party Hillyard had been at a loss to discover in Stella Croyle the woman whom Hardiman had led him to expect. Her spirits were high, but unforced. She chattered away with more gaiety than wit, like the rest of Hardiman's guests, but the gaiety was apt to the occasion. She had the gift of a clear and musical laugh, and her small delicate face would wrinkle and pout into grimaces which gave to her a rather attractive air of gaminerie—Hillyard could find no word but the French one to express her on that evening. He drove her to a small house in the Bayswater Road, overlooking Kensington Gardens.
"Will you come in for a moment?" she asked.
Hillyard followed her up a paved pathway, through a tiny garden enclosed in a high wall, to her door. She led him into a room bright with flowers and pictures. Curtains of purple brocade were drawn across the window, a fire burned on the hearth, and thick soft cushions on broad couches gave the room a look of comfort.
"You live here alone?" Hillyard asked.
She turned suddenly towards him as he gazed about the room.
"I married a long while ago." She stood in front of him like a slim child. It seemed impossible. "Yes, before I knew anything—to get away from home. Our marriage did not go smoothly. After three years I ran away—oh, not with any one I cared for; he happened to be there, that was all. After a month he deserted me in Italy. I have fortunately some money of my own and a few friends who did not turn me down—Lady Splay, for instance. There!"
She moved to a table and poured out for Hillyard a whisky-and-soda.
"My question was thoughtless," he said. "I did not mean that you should answer it as you did."
"I preferred you to know."
"I am honoured," Hillyard replied.
Stella Croyle sat down upon a low stool in front of the fire. Hillyard sank into one of the deep-cushioned chairs. The day of tension was over, and there was no doubt about the success of "The Dark Tower." Stella Croyle sat very quietly, with the firelight playing upon her face and her delicate dress. Her vivacity had dropped from her like the pretty cloak she had thrown aside. Both became her well, but they were for use out-of-doors, and Hillyard was grateful that she had discarded them.
"You are tired, no doubt," he said, reluctantly. "I ought to go."
"No," she answered. "It is pleasant before the fire here."
"Thank you. I should like to stay for a little while. I did not know until I came into this room with how much anxiety I had been looking forward to this night."
He leaned forward with his hands clenched, and saw pass in the bright coals glimpses of the long tale of days when endeavour was fruitless and hopes were disappointed. "Success! Lord, how I wanted it!" he whispered.
Stella Croyle looked at him with a smile.
"It was sure to come to you, since you wanted it enough," she said.
"Yes, but in time?" exclaimed Hillyard.
"In time for what?"
Hillyard broke into a laugh.
"I don't know," he answered. He was silent for a little while, and the comfort of the room, the quiet of the night, the pleasant sympathy of Stella Croyle, all wrought upon him. "I don't know," he repeated slowly. "I am waiting. But out of my queer life something more has got to come—something more and something different. I have always been sure of it, but I used to be afraid that the opportunity would come while I was still chained to the handles of the barrow."
Hillyard's life, though within a short time its vicissitudes had been many and most divergent, had probably not been as strange as he imagined it to be. He looked back upon it with too intense an interest to be its impartial judge. Certainly its distinctive feature had escaped him altogether. At the age of twenty-nine he was a man absolutely without tradition.
His father, a partner in a small firm of shipping agents which had not the tradition of a solid, old-fashioned business, had moved in Martin's boyhood from a little semi-detached villa with its flight of front steps in one suburb, to a house in a garden of trees in another. The boy had been sent to a brand new day-school of excessive size, which gathered its pupils into its class-rooms at nine o'clock in the morning and dispersed them to their homes at four. No boy was proud that he went to school at St. Eldred's, or was deterred from any meanness by the thought that it was a breach of the school's traditions. The school meant so many lessons in so many class-rooms, and no more.
Hillyard was the only child. Between himself and his parents there was little sympathy and understanding. He saw them at meals, and fled from the table to his own room, where he read voraciously.
"You never heard of such a jumble of books," he said to Stella Croyle. "Matthew Arnold, Helps, Paradise Lost, Ten Thousand a Year, The Revolt of Islam, Tennyson. I knew the whole of In Memoriam by heart—absolutely every line of it, and pages of Browning. The little brown books! I would walk miles to pick one of them up. My people would find the books lying about the house, and couldn't make head or tail of why I wanted to read them. There were two red-letter days: one when I first bought the two volumes of Herrick, the second when I tumbled upon De Quincey. That's the author to bowl a boy over. The Stage-Coach, the Autobiography, the Confessions—I could never get tired of them. I remember buying an ounce of laudanum at a chemist's on London Bridge and taking it home, with the intention of following in the steps of my hero and qualifying to drink it out of a decanter."
Stella Croyle had swung round from the fireplace, and was listening now with parted lips.
"And did you?" she exclaimed, in a kind of eager suspense.
Hillyard shook his head.
"The taste was too unpleasant. I drank about half an ounce and threw the rest away. I was saved from that folly."
Stella Croyle turned again to the fire.
"Yes," she said rather listlessly.
Yet Hillyard might almost have become a consumer of drugs, such queer and wayward fancies took him in charge. It became a fine thing to him to stay up all night just for the sake of staying up, and many a night he passed at his open window, even in winter time, doing nothing, not even dreaming, simply waiting for the day to break. It seemed to him soft and wrong that a man should take his clothes off and lie comfortably between sheets. And then came another twist. When all the house was quiet, he would slip out of a ground-floor window and roam for hours about the lonely roads, a solitary boy revelling even then in the extraordinary conduct of his life. There was in the neighbourhood a footpath through a thick grove of trees which ran up a long, high hill, and, midway in the ascent, crossed a railway cutting by a rustic bridge.
"That was my favourite walk, though I always entered by the swing-gate in fear, and trembled at every movement of the branches, and continually expected an attack. I would hang over that railway bridge, especially on moonlit nights, and compose poems and thoughts—you know—great, short thoughts." Hillyard laughed. "I was going to be a poet, you understand—a clear, full voice such as had seldom been heard; my poems were all about the moon sailing in the Empyrean and Death. Death was my strong suit. I sent some of my poems to the local Press, signed 'Lethe,' but I could never hear that they were published."
Stella Croyle laughed, and Hillyard went on. "From the top of the hill I would strike off to the west, and see the morning break over London. In summer that was wonderful! The Houses of Parliament. St Paul's like a silver bubble rising out of the mist, then, as the mist cleared over the river, a London clean and all silver in the morning light! I was going to conquer all that, you know—I—
"'Silent upon a peak of Peckham Rye.'"
"I wonder you didn't kill yourself," cried Stella.
"I very nearly did," answered Hillyard.
"Didn't your parents interfere?"
"No. They never knew of my wanderings. They did know, of course, that I used not to go to bed. But they left me alone. I was a bitter disappointment in every way. They wanted a reasonable son, who would go into the agency business, and they had instead—me. I should think that I was pretty odious, too, and we were all of passionate tempers. Besides, with all this reading, I didn't do particularly well at school. How could I when day after day I would march off from the house, leaving a smooth bed behind me in my room? We were thorny people. Quarrels were frequent. My mother had a phrase which set my teeth on edge—'Don't you talk, Martin, until you are earning your living'—the sort of remark that stings and stays in a boy's memory as something unfair. There was a great row in the end, one night at ten o'clock, when I was sixteen, and I left the house and tramped into London."
"What in the world did you do?" cried Stella.
"I shipped as a boy on a fruit-tramp for Valencia in Spain. And I believe that saved my life. For my lungs were beginning to be troublesome."
The fruit-tramp had not been out more than two days when the fo'c'sle hands selected the lad, since he had some education, to be their spokesman on a deputation to the captain. Martin Hillyard went aft with the men and put their case for better food and less violence. He was not therefore popular with the old man, and at Valencia he thought it prudent to desert.
Stella Croyle had turned towards him again. There was a vividness in his manner, an enjoyment, too, which laid hold upon her. It was curious to her to realise that this man talking to her here in the Bayswater Road, had been so lately a ragged youth scouting for his living on the quays of Southern Spain.
"You were at that place—Alicante!" she cried.
"Part of the time."
"And there Mario Escobar saw you. I wonder why he was frightened lest you too should have seen him," she added slowly.
"Yes. He was sitting on the same side of the table as you, so you wouldn't have noticed. But he was opposite to me; and he was afraid."
Hillyard was puzzled.
"I can't think of a reason. I was a shipping clerk of no importance. I can't remember that I ever came across his name in all the eighteen months I spent in Alicante."
When Martin Hillyard was nineteen, Death intervened in the family feud. His parents died within a few weeks of each other.
"I was left with a thousand pounds."
"What did you do with them?"
"I went to Oxford."
"You? After those years of independence?"
"It had been my one passionate dream for years."
"The Scholar Gipsy," "Thyrsis," the Preface to the "Essays in Criticism," one or two glimpses of the actual city, its grey spires and towers, caught from the windows of a train, had long ago set the craving in his heart. Oxford had grown dim in unattainable mists, no longer a desire so much as a poignant regret, yet now he actually walked its sacred streets.
"And you enjoyed it?" asked Stella.
"I had the most wondrous time," Hillyard replied fervently. "There was one bad evening, when I realised that I couldn't write poetry. After that I cut my hair and joined the Wine Club. I stroked the Torpid and rowed three in my College Eight. I had friends for the first time. One above all"
He stopped over-abruptly. Stella Croyle had the impression of a careless sentinel suddenly waked, suddenly standing to attention at the door of a treasure-house of memories. She was challenged. Very well. It was her humour to take the challenge up just to prove to herself that she could slip past a man's guard if the spirit moved her. She turned on Hillyard a pair of most friendly sympathetic eyes.
"Tell me of your friend."
"Oh, there's not much to tell. He rowed in the same boat with me. He had just what I had not—traditions. From his small old brown manor-house in a western county to his very choice of a career, he was wrapped about in tradition. He went into the army. He had to go."
"What is his name?"
Stella Croyle interrupted him. She was not looking at him any more. She was staring into the fire, and her body was very still. But there was excitement in her voice.
"Harry Luttrell," replied Hillyard, and Stella Croyle did not move. "I don't know what has become of him. You see, I had ninety pounds left out of the thousand when I left Oxford. So I just dived."
"But you have come up again now. You will resume your friends at the point where you dived."
"Not yet. I am going away in a week's time."
"I am sorry," said Stella.
It had been the intention of Hillyard to use his first months of real freedom in a great wandering amongst wide spaces. The journey had been long since planned, even details of camp outfit and equipment and the calibre of rifles considered.
"I have been at my preparations for years," he said. "I lived in a cubbyhole in Westminster, writing and writing and writing, but when I thought of this journey to be, certain to be, the walls would dissolve, and I would walk in magical places under the sun."
"Now the New Year reviving old desires, The thoughtful soul to solitude retires"
Stella Croyle quoted the verses gaily, and Hillyard, lost in the anticipation of his journey, never noticed that the gaiety rang false.
"And where are you going?" she asked.
"To the Sudan."
It seemed that Stella expected just that answer and no other. She gazed into the fire without moving, seeking to piece together a picture in the coals of that unknown country which held all for which she yearned.
"I shall travel slowly up the White Nile to Renk," Hillyard continued, blissfully. He was delighted at the interest which Mrs. Croyle was taking in his itinerary. She was clearly a superior person. "From Renk, I shall cross to the Blue Nile at Rosaires, and travel eastward again to the River Dinder——"
"You are most fortunate," Stella interrupted wistfully.
"Yes, am I not?" cried Hillyard. It looked as if nothing would break through his obtuseness.
"I should love to be going in your place."
Hillyard smiled. She was for a mantelshelf in a boudoir, not for a camp.
"Yes—I," and her voice suddenly broke.
Hillyard sprang up from his chair, but Stella held up her hand to check him, and turned her face still further away. Hillyard resumed his seat uncomfortably.
"You may meet your friend Harry Luttrell in the Sudan," she explained. "He is stationed somewhere in that country—where exactly I would give a great deal to know."
They sat without speaking for a little while, Stella once more turning to the fire. Hillyard watching her wistful face and the droop of her shoulders understood at last the truth of Hardiman's description. The mask was lain aside. Here indeed was a Lady of Sorrows.
Stella Croyle was silent until she was quite sure that she had once more the mastery of her voice. It was important to her that her next words should not be forgotten. But even so she did not dare to speak above a whisper.
"I want you to do me a favour. If you should meet Harry, I should like him to have news of me. I should like him also—oh, not so often—but just every now and then to write me a little line."
There were tears glistening on her dark eyelashes. Hillyard fell into a sort of panic as he reflected upon his own vaunting talk. Compared with this woman's poignant distress, all the vicissitudes of his life seemed now quite trivial and small. Here were tears falling and Hillyard was unused to tears. Nor had he ever heard so poignant a longing in any human voice as that on which Stella's prayer to him was breathed. He was ashamed. He was also a little envious of Harry Luttrell. He was also a little angry with Harry Luttrell.
"You won't forget?"
Stella clasped her hands together imploringly.
"No," Hillyard replied. "Be very sure of that, Mrs. Croyle! If I meet Luttrell he shall have your message."
Stella Croyle dried the tears from her cheeks and stood up.
"I have been foolish. You won't find me like that again," she cried, and she helped Hillyard on with his coat. She went to the door to see him out, but stopped as she grasped the handle.
All Hillyard's talk about himself had passed in at one ear and out at the other. But every word which he had spoken about Harry Luttrell was written on her heart. And one phrase had kindled a tiny spark of hope. She had put it aside by itself, wanting more knowledge about it, and meaning to have that knowledge before Hillyard departed. She put her question now, with the door still closed and her back to it.
"You said that Harry had to join the army. What did you mean by that?"
"Did he not tell you himself?"
Hillyard stood between loyalty to his friend and the recollection of Stella Croyle's tears. If Luttrell had not told her—why then——
"Then I don't well see how I can," he said uncomfortably.
"But I want to know," said Stella, bending her brows at him in astonishment that he should refuse her so small a thing. Then her manner changed. "Oh, I do want to know," she cried, and Hillyard's obstinacy broke down.
Men have the strangest fancies which compel them to do out of all reason, even the things which they hate to do, and to put aside what they hold most dear. Fancies unintelligible to practical people like women—thus Stella Croyle's thoughts ran—but to be taken note of very carefully. High-flown motives from a world of white angels, where no doubt they are very suitable. But men will use them as working motives here below, with the result that they wreck women's hearts and cause themselves a great deal of useless misery.
Stella's hopes and her self-esteem had for long played with the thought that it might possibly be one of those impracticable notions which had whipped Harry Luttrell up to the rupture of their alliance; that after all, it was not that he was tired of a chain. Yes, she wanted to know.
"Luttrell only told me once, only spoke about it once," said Hillyard shifting from one foot to the other. "The week after the eights. We rowed down to Kennington Island in a racing pair, had supper there——"
"Yes, yes," Stella Croyle interrupted. Oh, how dense men could be to be sure! What in the world did it matter, how or when the secret was told?
"I beg your pardon," said Hillyard. "But really it does matter a little. You see, it was on our way back, when it was quite dark, so dark that really you could see little but the line of sky above the trees, and the flash of the water at the end of the stroke. I doubt if Luttrell would have ever told me at all, if it hadn't been for just that one fact, that we were alone together in the darkness and out on the river."
"Yes, I was wrong," said Stella penitently. "I was impatient. I am sorry."
More and more, just because of this detail, she was ready to believe that Harry Luttrell had left her for some reason quite outside themselves, for some other reason than weariness and the swift end of passion.
"Luttrell's father, his grandfather and many others of his name had served in the Clayford Regiment. It was his home regiment and the tradition of the family binding from father to son, was that there should always be Luttrells amongst its officers."
"And for that reason Harry——" Stella interrupted impetuously.
"No, there is more compulsion than that in Harry's case," Hillyard took her up. "Much more! The Clayfords ran in the South African War, and ran badly. They returned to England a disgraced regiment. Now do you see the compulsion?"
Stella Croyle turned the problem over in her mind.
"Yes, I think I do," she said, but still was rather doubtful. Then she looked at the problem through Harry Luttrell's eyes.
"Yes, I understand. The regiment must recover its good name in the next war. It was an obligation of honour on Harry to take his commission in it, to bear his part in the recovery."
"Yes. I told you, didn't I? Harry Luttrell was cradled in tradition."
Hillyard saw Mrs. Croyle's face brighten. Now she had the key to Harry Luttrell. He had joined the Clayfords. And what was his fear at Stockholm? The slovenly soldier! Yes, he had given her the real reason after all during that dinner on the balcony at Hasselbacken. He feared to become the slovenly soldier if he idled longer in England. It was not because he was tired of her, that the separation had come. Thus she reasoned, and she reasoned just in one little respect wrong. She had the real secret without a doubt, that "something else," which Sir Charles Hardiman divined but could not interpret. But she did not understand that Harry Luttrell saw in her, one of the factors, nay the chief of the factors which were converting him into that thing of contempt, the slovenly soldier.
"Thank you," she said to Hillyard with a smile. She stood aside now from the door. "It was kind of you to bring me home and talk with me for a little while."
But it seems that her recovery of spirits did not last out the night. Doubts assailed her—Harry Luttrell was beneath other skies with other preoccupations and no message from him had ever come to her. Even if his love was unchanged at Stockholm, it might not be so now. Hillyard rang her up on the telephone the next morning and warm in his sympathy asked her to lunch with him. But it was a pitiful little voice which replied to him. Stella Croyle answered from her bed. She was not well. She would stay in bed for a day and then go to a little cottage which she owned in the country. She would see Hillyard again next year when he returned from the East.
"Yes, that's her way," said Sir Charles Hardiman. He met Hillyard the day before he sailed for Port Said and questioned him about Stella Croyle discreetly. "She runs to earth when she's unhappy. We shall not see her for a couple of months. No one will."
Hillyard turned his back upon the pools of the Khor Galagu at the end of April and wandered slowly down the River Dinder. From time to time his shikari would lead his camels and camp-servants out on to an open clearing on the high river bank and announce a name still marked upon the maps. Once there had been a village here, before the Kalifa sent his soldiers and herded the tribes into the towns for his better security. Now there was no sign anywhere of habitation. The red boles of the mimosa trees, purple-brown cracked earth, yellow stubble of burnt grass, the skimming of myriads of birds above the tree-tops and shy wild animals gliding noiselessly in the dark of the forest—there was nothing more now. It seemed that no human foot had ever trodden that region.
Hillyard's holiday was coming to an end, for in a month the rainy season would begin and this great park become a marsh. He went fluctuating between an excited eagerness for a renewal of rivalry and the interchange of ideas and the companionship of women; and a reluctance to leave a country which had so restored him to physical well-being. Never had he been so strong. He had recaptured, after his five years of London confinement, the swift spring of the muscles, the immediate response of the body to the demand made upon it, and the glorious cessation of fatigue when after arduous hours of heat and exertion he stretched himself upon his camp-chair in the shadow of his tent. On the whole he travelled northwards reluctantly; until he came to a little open space ten days away from the first village he would touch.
He camped there just before noon, and at three o'clock on the following morning, in the company of his shikari, his skinner and his donkey-boy he was riding along a narrow path high above the river. It was very dark, so that even with the vast blaze of stars overhead, Hillyard could hardly see the flutter of his shikari's white robe a few paces ahead of him. They passed a clump of bushes and immediately afterwards heard a great shuffling and lapping of water below them. The shikari stopped abruptly and seized the bridle of Hillyard's donkey. The night was so still that the noise at the water's edge below seemed to fill the world. Hillyard slipped off the back of his donkey and took his rifle from his boy.
"Gamus!" whispered the shikari.
Hillyard almost swore aloud. There was a creek, three hours' march away, where the reed buck came down to drink in the morning. For that creek Hillyard was now making with a little Mannlicher sporting rifle—and he had tumbled suddenly upon buffalo! He was on the very edge of the buffalo country, he would see no more between here and the houses of Senga.
It was his last chance and he had nothing but a popgun! He was still reproaching himself when a small but startling change took place. The snuffling and lapping suddenly ceased; and with the cessation of all sound, the night became sinister.
The shikari whispered again.
"Now they in their turn know that we are here." He enveloped the donkey's head in a shawl that he was carrying. "Do not move," he continued. "They are listening."
Shikari, skinner, donkey-boy, donkey and Hillyard stood together, motionless, silent. Hillyard had come out to hunt. Down below the herd in its dumb parliament was debating whether he should be the hunted. There was little chance for any one of them if the debate went against them. Hillyard might bring down one—perhaps two, if by some miraculous chance he shot a bullet through both forelegs. But it would make no difference to the herd. Hillyard pictured them below by the water's edge, their heads lifted, their tails stiffened, waiting in the darkness. Once the lone, earth-shaking roar of a lion spread from far away, booming over the dark country. But the herd below never stirred. It no more feared the lion than it feared the four men on the river bank above. An hour passed before at last the river water plashed under the trampling hoofs.
Hillyard threw his rifle forward, but the shikari touched him on the arm.
"They are going," he whispered, and again the four men waited, until the shikari raised his hand.
"It will be good for us to move! They are very near." He looked towards the east, but there was no sign yet of the dawn.
"We will go very cautiously into the forest. We shall not know where they are, but they will know everything we are doing."
In single file they moved from the bank amongst the mimosas, the donkey with his head covered, still led by the boy. Under the cavern of the branches it was black as pitch—so black that Hillyard did not see the hand which the shikari quietly laid upon his shoulder.
On his left a branch snapped, ahead of them a bush that had been bent aside swished back on its release.
"They are moving with us. They are all round us," the shikari whispered. "They know everything we do. Let us wait here. When the morning breaks they will charge or they will go."
So once again the little party came to a halt. Hillyard stood listening and wondering if the morning would ever come; and even in that time of tension the habit of his mind reasserted its sway. This long, silent waiting for the dawn in the depths of an African forest with death at his very elbow—here was another sharp event of life in vivid contrast with all the others which had gone before. The years in London, the letter-box opposite the Abbey where he had posted his manuscripts at three in the morning and bought a cup of coffee at the stall by the kerb—times so very close to him—the terms at Oxford, the strange hungry days on the quays of Spain, the moonlit wanderings on the footpath over the rustic ridge and up the hill, when he composed poems to the moon and pithy short, great thoughts—here was something fresh to add to them if he didn't go down at daybreak under the hoofs of the herd! Here was yet a further token, that out of the vicissitudes of his life something more, something new, something altogether different and unimagined was to come, as the crown and ultimate reason of all that had gone before. Once more the shikari's hand touched him and pointed eastwards. The tree-trunks were emerging from the darkness. Beyond them the black cup of the sky was thinning to translucency. Very quickly the grey light widened beyond this vast palisade of trees. Even in here below the high branches, it began to steal vaporous and dim. About them on every side now the buffalo were moving. The shikari's grip tightened on Hillyard's arm. The moment of danger had come. It would be the smash of his breast-bone against the forehead of the beast, hoofs and knees kneading his broken body and the thrust and lunge of the short curled horns until long after he was dead, or—the new test and preparation to add to those which had gone before!
Suddenly the shikari cried aloud.
"They are off"; and while he spoke came a loud snapping of boughs, the sound of heavy bodies crashing against trees and for a moment against the grey light in that cathedral of a forest the huge carcases of the buffalo in mad flight were dimly visible. Then silence came again for a few moments, till the boughs above them shrilled with birds and the morning in a splendour of gold and scarlet, like a roar of trumpets stormed the stars.
Hillyard drew a breath.
"Let us go on," he said.
They advanced perhaps fifty yards before the second miracle of that morning smote upon his eyes. A solitary Arab, driving a tiny, overladen donkey, was advancing towards him, his white robes flickering in and out among the tree-boles.
Hillyard looked at his shikari. But the shikari neither spoke nor altered the regularity of his face. Hillyard put no question in consequence. The Arab was ten days' journey from the nearest village and, even so, his back was turned towards it. He was moving from solitude into solitude still more silent and remote. It was impossible. Hillyard's eyes were playing him false.
He shut them for an instant and opened them again, thinking that the vision would have gone. But there was the Arab still nearer to them and moving with a swift agility. A ray of sunlight struck through the branches of a tree and burned suddenly like a dancing flame on something the man carried—a carbine with a brass hammer. And the next moment a sound proved beyond all doubt to Hillyard that his eyes did not deceive him. For he heard the slapping of the Arab's loose slippers upon the hard-caked earth.
Oh yes, the man was real enough. For the shikari suddenly swerved from the head of the file towards the stranger and stopped. The two men talked together and meanwhile Hillyard and the rest of his party halted. Hillyard lit his pipe.
"Who is it, Hamet?" he cried, and the shikari turned with his companion and came back.
"It is the postman," he said as though the delivery of letters along the Dinder River were the most commonplace of events.
"The postman!" cried Hillyard. "What in the world do you mean?"
"Yes," Hamet explained. "He carries letters between Abyssinia and Senga on the Blue Nile. He is now on his way back to Abyssinia."
"But how long does it take him?" Hillyard asked in amazement.
"He goes and returns once a year. The journey takes him four months each way unless he meets with a party shooting. Then it takes longer for he goes with the party to get meat."
Hillyard stared at the Arab in amazement. He was a lean slip of a man, almost as black as a negro, with his hair running back above the temples, and legs like walking-sticks. He stood wreathed in smiles and nodding confirmation of Hamet's words. But to Hillyard, with the emotions of the dark hour just past still shivering about him, he seemed something out of nature. Hillyard leaned from his donkey and took the carbine from the postman's hand. It was an ancient thing of Spanish manufacture, heavy as a pig of lead.
"But this can't be of any use," he cried. "Is the man never attacked?"
Hamet talked with the Arab in a dialect Hillyard did not understand at all; and interpreted the conversation.
"No. He has only once fired his rifle. One night—oh, a long way farther to the south—he waked up to see an elephant fighting his little donkey in the moonlight and he fired his rifle and the elephant ran away. You must know that all these little Korans he carries on his arms and round his neck have been specially blessed by a most holy man."
The postman's shoulders, elbows, wrists and neck were circled about by chaplets on which little wooden Korans were strung. He fingered them and counted them, smiling like a woman displaying her jewels to her less fortunate friends.
"So he is safe," continued Hamet. "Yes, he will even have his picture taken. Yes, he can afford to suffer that. He will stand in front of the great eye and the machine shall go click, and it will not do him any harm at all. He has a letter for you." Hamet dropped from his enthusiasm over the wonderful immunity of the postman from the dangers of photography into a most matter-of-fact voice.
"A letter for me? That's impossible," cried Hillyard.
But the Arab was thrusting his hand here and there in the load on the donkey's back and finally drew out a goatskin bag. Hillyard, like other Englishmen, had been brought up in a creed which included the inefficiency of all Postmasters-general. A blight fell upon such persons, withering their qualities and shrivelling them into the meanest caricatures of bureaucrats. It could not be that the postal service was now to reveal resource and become the servant of romance. Yet the Arab drew forth a sealed envelope and handed it to Hillyard. And it bore the inscription of his name.
Oh, but it bore much more than that! It was written in a hand which Hillyard had not seen for seven years, and the mere sight of it swept him back in a glory of recollections to Oxford, its towers and tall roofs, which mean so much more to the man who has gone down than to the youth who is up. The forest, with its patterns of golden sunlight and its colonnades of trees crowding away into darkness, was less visible than those towers to Hillyard, as he stood with the envelope in his hand. Once more he swung down the High and across the Broad from a lecture with a ragged gown across his arm. Merton and the House, New College and Magdalen Tower—he saw the enchanted city across Christ Church meadows from the river, he looked down upon it from Headington, and again from those high fields where, at twilight, the scholar-gipsy used to roam. For the letter was in the hand of Harry Luttrell.
He tore it open and read:
"Some one in London is asking for you. Who it is I don't know. But the message came through in a secret cipher and it might be important. I think you should pack your affs. and hurry along to Senga, where I shall expect you."
Martin Hillyard folded the letter and put it away in his pocket.
"He will find food in our camp," he said to Hamet, with a nod towards the postman. "We may as well go on."
Even if he returned to camp at once, it would be too late to start that day. The sun would be high long before the baggage could be packed upon the camels. The little party went on to the creek and built a tiny house of reeds and boughs, in which Hillyard sat down to wait for the deer to gather. He had one of the green volumes of "The Vicomte de Bragelonne" in his pocket, but this morning the splendid Four for once did not enchain him. Who was it in London who wanted him—wanted him so much that cipher telegrams must find him out on the banks of the Dinder River? Was this letter the summons to the something more and something different? Was the postman to Abyssinia the expected messenger? The miracle of that morning predisposed him to think so.
He sat thus for an hour, and then stepping daintily, with timid eyes alert, a tall reed-buck and his doe came through the glade towards the water. But they did not drink; they waited, cropping the grass. Gradually, through a long hour, others gathered, tawny and yellow, and dappled-brown, and stood and fed until—perhaps a signal was given, perhaps a known moment had come—all like soldiers at a command, moved down to the water's edge.
Six nights later Hillyard camped at Lueisa, near to that big tree under which it is not wise to spread your bed. He took his bath at ten o'clock at night under the moon, and the water from the river was hot. He stretched himself out in his bed and waked again that night after the moon had set, to fix indelibly in his memory the blazing dome of stars above his head, and the Southern Cross burning in a corner of the sky. The long, wonderful holiday was ended. To-morrow night he would sleep in a house. Would he ever come this way again?
In the dark of the morning he struck westwards from the Dinder, across a most tedious neck of land, for Senga and the Blue Nile.
THE HONORARY MEMBER
At six o'clock in the evening Colin Rayne, a young civilian in the Sudan Service, heard, as he sat on the balcony of the mess at Senga, the rhythmical thud of camels swinging in to their rest in the freshness of the night air.
"There's our man," he exclaimed, and running downstairs, he reached the door just as Hillyard's twelve camels and his donkeys trooped into the light. Hillyard was riding bareheaded, with his helmet looped to his saddle, a young man, worn thin by sun and exercise, with fair burnt hair, and a brown clean shaven face. Colin Rayne went up to him as he dismounted.
"Captain Luttrell asked me to look after you. He has got some work on hand for the moment. We'll see after your affs."
"You might show me, by the way, where your cartridges are."
Hillyard selected the camel on which they were packed and Rayne called a Sudanese sergeant to take them into the mess.
"Now we will go upstairs. I expect that you can do with a whisky-and-soda," he said.
Hillyard was presented to a Doctor Mayle, who was conducting a special research into the cause of an obscure fever; and to the other officers of this headquarters of a Province. They were all young, Hillyard himself was older than any of them.
"Oh, we have got some married ones, too," said Rayne, "but they live in houses of their own like gentlefolk."
"There are some Englishwomen here then?" said Hillyard, and for an appreciable moment there was silence. Then a shortish, square man, with a heavy moustache explained, if explanation it could be called.
"No. They were sent off to Senaar this morning—to be out of the way. Wiser."
Hillyard asked no questions but drank his whisky-and-soda.
"I haven't seen Luttrell since we were at Oxford together," he said.
"And it's by an accident that you see him now," said Rayne. "The Governor of Senga was thrown from his horse and killed on the spot down by the bridge there six weeks ago. The road gave way suddenly under his horse's hoofs. Some one was wanted here immediately."
"Yes, there's no doubt of that," said Mr. Blacker, the short square man, with emphasis.
"Captain Luttrell had done very well in Kordofan," Rayne resumed. "He was fetched up here in a hurry as Acting-Governor. But no doubt the appointment will be confirmed."
Mr. Blacker added another croak.
"Oh, it'll be confirmed all right, if——" and he left his sentence in the air; but his gesture finished it.
"If there is any Luttrell left to confirm," Martin Hillyard interpreted, though he kept his interpretation to himself.
There certainly was in that room with the big balcony a grim expectation of trouble. It was apparent, not so much in words as in an attention to distant noises, and a kind of strained silence. The sound of a second caravan was heard. It was coming from the north. Rayne ran to the rail of the balcony and looked anxiously out. The street here was very broad and the huts upon the opposite side already dark except at one point, where an unshaded kerosene lamp cast through on open door a panel of glaring light upon the darkness. Rayne saw the caravan emerge spectrally into the light and disappear again.