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.