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Red Planet, The

CHAPTER IV

On the wedding eve Betty brought the happy young man to dine with me. He was in that state of unaccustomed and somewhat embarrassed bliss in which a man would have dined happily with Beelzebub. A fresh-coloured boy, with fair crisply set hair and a little moustache a shade or two fairer, he kept on blushing radiantly, as if apologising in a gallant sort of fashion for his existence in the sphere of Betty's affection. As I had known him but casually and desired to make his closer acquaintance, I had asked no one to meet them, save Betty's aunt, whom a providential cold had prevented from facing the night air. So, in the comfortable little oak-panelled dining-room, hung round with my beloved collection of Delft, I had the pair all to myself, one on each side; and in this way I was able to read exchanges of glances whence I might form sage conclusions. Bella, spruce parlour-maid, waited deftly. Sergeant Marigold, when not occupied in the mild labour of filling glasses, stood like a guardian ramrod behind my chair—a self-assigned post to which he stuck grimly like a sentinel. As I always sat with my back to the fire there must have been times when, the blaze roaring more fiercely than usual up the chimney, he must have suffered martyrdom in his hinder parts.

As I talked—for the first time on such intimate footing—with young Connor, I revised my opinion of him and mentally took back much that I had said in his disparagement. He was by no means the dull dog that I had labelled him. By diligent and sympathetic enquiry I learned that he had been a Natural Science scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he had taken a first-class degree—specialising in geology; that by profession (his father's) he was a mining-engineer, and, in pursuit of his vocation, had travelled in Galicia, Mexico and Japan; furthermore, that he had been one of the ardent little band who of recent years had made the Cambridge Officers Training Corps an effective school. Hitherto, when I had met him he had sat so agreeably smiling and modestly mumchance that I had accepted him at his face value.

I was amused to see how Betty, in order to bring confusion on me, led him to proclaim himself. And I loved the manner in which he did so. To hear him, one would have thought that he owed everything in the world to Betty—from his entrance scholarship at the University to the word of special commendation which his company had received from the General of his Division at last week's inspection. Yes, he was the modest, clean-bred, simple English gentleman who, without self-consciousness or self-seeking, does his daily task as well as it can be done, just because it is the thing that is set before him to do. And he was over head and ears in love with Betty.

I took it upon myself to dismiss her with a nod after she had smoked a cigarette over her coffee. Mrs. Marigold, as a soldier's wife, I announced, had a world of invaluable advice to give her. Willie Connor opened the door. On the threshold she said very prettily:

"Don't drink too much of Major Meredyth's old port. It has been known before now to separate husbands and wives for years and years."

He looked after her for a few seconds before he closed the door.

Oh, my God! I've looked like that, in my time, after one dear woman.... Humanity is very simple, after all. Every generation does exactly the same beautiful, foolish things as its forerunner. As he approached the table, I said with a smile:—

"You're only copying your great-great-grandfather."

"In what way, sir?" he asked, resuming his place.

I pushed the decanter of port. "He watched the disappearing skirt of your great-great-grandmother."

"She was doubtless a very venerable old lady," said he, flushing and helping himself to wine. "I never knew her, but she wasn't a patch on Betty!"

"But," said I, "when your great-great-grandfather opened the door for her to pass out, she wasn't venerable at all, but gloriously young."

"I suppose he was satisfied, poor old chap." He took a sip. "But those days did not produce Betty Fairfaxes." He laughed. "I'm jolly sorry for my ancestors."

Well—that is the way I like to hear a young man talk. It was the modern expression of the perfect gentle knight. In so far as went his heart's intention and his soul's strength to assure it, I had no fear for Betty's happiness. He gave it to her fully into her own hands; whether she would throw it away or otherwise misuse it was another matter.

Though I have ever loved women, en tout bien et tout honneur, their ways have never ceased from causing me mystification. I think I can size up a man, especially given such an opportunity as I had in the case of Willie Connor—I have been more or less trained in the business all my man's life; but Betty Fairfax, whom I had known intimately for as many years as she could remember, puzzled me exceedingly. I defy anyone to have picked a single fault in her demeanour towards her husband of to-morrow. She lit a cigarette for him in the most charming way in the world, and when he guided the hand that held the match, she touched his crisp hair lightly with the fingers of the other. She was all smiles. When we met in the drawing-room, she retailed with a spice of mischief much of Mrs. Marigold's advice. She had seated herself on the music stool. Swinging round, she quoted:

"'Even the best husband,' she said, 'will go on swelling himself up with vanity just because he's a man. A sensible woman, Miss, lets him go on priding of himself, poor creature. It sort of helps his dignity when the time comes for him to eat out of your hand, and makes him think he's doing you a favour.'"

"When are you going to eat out of my hand, Willie?" she asked.

"Haven't I been doing it for the past week?"

"Oh, they always do that before they're married—so Mrs. Marigold informed me. I mean afterwards."

"Don't you think, my dear," I interposed, "it depends on what your hands hold out for him to eat?"

Her eyes wavered a bit under mine.

"If he's good," she answered, "they'll be always full of nice things."

She sat, flushed, happy, triumphant, her arms straight down, her knuckles resting on the leathern seat, her silver-brocaded, slender feet, clear of the floor, peeping close together beneath her white frock.

"And if he isn't good?"

"They'll be full of nasty medicine."

She laughed and pivoted round and, after running over the keys of the piano for a second or two, began to play Gounod's "Death March of a Marionette." She played it remarkably well. When she had ended, Connor walked from the hearth, where he had been standing, to her side. I noticed a little puzzled look in his eyes.

"Delightful," said he. "But, Betty, what put that thing suddenly into your head?"

"We had been talking nonsense," she replied, picking out a chord or two, without looking al him. "And I thought we ought to give all past vanities and frivolities and lunacies a decent burial."

He put both hands very tenderly on her shoulders.

"Requiescat," said he.

She spread out her fingers and struck the two resonant chords of an "Amen," and then glanced up at him, laughing.

After a while, Marigold announced her car, or, rather, her aunt's car. They took their leave. I gave them my benediction. Presently, Betty, fur-coated, came running in alone. She flung herself down, in her impetuous way, beside my wheel-chair. No visit of Betty's would have been complete without this performance.

"I haven't had a word with you all the evening, Majy, dear. I've told Willie to discuss strategy with Sergeant Marigold in the hall, till I come. Well—you thought I was a damn little fool the other day, didn't you? What do you think now?"

"I think, my dear," said I, with a hand on her forehead, "that you are marrying a very gallant English gentleman of whose love any woman in the land might be proud."

She clutched me round the neck and brought her young face near mine—and looked at me—I hesitate to say it,—but so it seemed,—somewhat haggardly.

"I love to hear you say that, it means so much to me. Don't think I haven't a sense of proportion. I have. In all this universal slaughter and massacre, a woman's life counts as much as that of a mosquito." She freed an arm and snapped her fingers. "But to the woman herself, her own life can't help being of some value. Such as it is, I want to give it all, every bit of it, to Willie. He shall have everything, everything, everything that I can give him."

I looked into the young, drawn, pleading face long and earnestly. No longer was I mystified. I remembered her talk with me a couple of days before, and I read her riddle.

She had struck gold. She knew it. Gold of a man's love. Gold of a man's strength. Gold of a man's honour. Gold of a man's stainless past. Gold of a man's radiant future. And though she wore the mocking face and talked the mocking words of the woman who expected such a man to "eat out of her hand," she knew that never out of her hand would he eat save that which she should give him in honourable and wifely service. She knew that. She was exquisitely anxious that I should know it too. Floodgates of relief were expressed when she saw that I knew it. Not that I, personally, counted a scrap. What she craved was a decent human soul's justification of her doings. She craved recognition of her action in casting away base metal forever and taking the pure gold to her heart.

"Tell me that I am doing the right thing, dear," she said, "and to-morrow I'll be the happiest woman in the world."

And I told her, in the most fervent manner in my power.

"You quite understand?" she said, standing up, looking very young and princess-like, her white throat gleaming between her furs and up-turned chin.

"You will find, my dear," said I, "that the significance of your Dead March of a Marionette will increase every day of your married life."

She stiffened in a sudden stroke of passion, looking, for the instant, electrically beautiful.

"I wish," she cried, "someone had written the Dead March of a Devil."

She bent down, kissed me, and went out in a whirr of furs and draperies.

Of course, all I could do was to scratch my thin iron-grey hair and light a cigar and meditate in front of the fire. I knew all about it—or at any rate I thought I did, which, as far as my meditation in front of the fire is concerned, comes to the same thing.

Betty had cast out the base metal of her love for Leonard Boyce in order to accept the pure gold of the love of Willie Connor. So she thought, poor girl. She had been in love with Boyce. She had been engaged to Boyce. Boyce, for some reason or the other, had turned her down. Spretae injuria formae—she had cast Boyce aside. But for all her splendid surrender of her womanhood to Willie Connor, for the sake of her country, she still loved Leonard Boyce. Or, if she wasn't in love with him, she couldn't get him out of her head or her senses. Something like that, anyhow. I don't pretend to know exactly what goes on in the soul or nature, or whatever it is, of a young girl, who has given her heart to a man. I can only use the crude old phrase: she was still in love (in some sort of fashion) with Leonard Boyce, and she was going to marry, for the highest motives, somebody else.

"Confound the fellow," said I, with an irritable gesture and covered myself with cigar ash.

She had called Boyce a devil and implied a wish that he were dead. For myself I did not know what to make of him, for reasons which I will state. I never approved of the engagement. As a matter of fact, I knew—and was one of the very few who knew—of a black mark against him—the very blackest mark that could be put against a soldier's name. It was a puzzling business. And when I say I knew of the mark, I must be candid and confess that its awful justification lies in the conscience of one man living in the world to-day—if indeed he be still alive.

Boyce was a great bronzed, bull-necked man, with an overpowering personality. People called him the very model of a soldier. He was always admired and feared by his men. His fierce eye and deep, resonant voice, and a suggestion of hidden strength, even of brutality, commanded implicit obedience. But both glance and voice would soften caressingly and his manner convey a charm which made him popular with men—brother officers and private soldiers alike—and with women. With regard to the latter—to put things crudely—they saw in him the essential, elemental male. Of that I am convinced. It was the open secret of his many successes. And he had a buoyant, boyish, disarming, chivalrous way with him. If he desired a woman's lips he would always begin by kissing the hem of her skirt.

Had I not known what I did, I, an easy-going sort of Christian temperamentally inclined to see the best in my fellow-creatures, and, as I boastingly said a little while ago, a trained judge of men, should doubtless have fallen, like most other people, under the spell of his fascination. But whenever I met him, I used to look at him and say to myself: "What's at the back of you anyway? What about that business at Vilboek's Farm?"

Now this is what I knew—with the reservation I have made above—and to this day he is not aware of my knowledge.

It was towards the end of the Boer War. Boyce had come out rather late; for which, of course, he was not responsible. A soldier has to go when he is told. After a period of humdrum service he was sent off with a section of mounted infantry to round up a certain farm-house suspected of harbouring Boer combatants. The excursion was a mere matter of routine—of humdrum commonplace. As usual it was made at night, but this was a night of full dazzling moon. The farm lay in a hollow of the veldt, first seen from the crest of a kopje. There it lay below, ramshackle and desolate, a rough wall around; flanked by outbuildings—barn and cowsheds. The section rode down. The stoep led to a shuttered front. There was no sign of life. The moonlight blazed full on it. They dismounted, tethered their horses behind the wall, and entered the yard. The place was deserted, derelict—not even a cat.

Suddenly a shot rang out from somewhere in the main building, and the Sergeant, the next man to Boyce, fell dead, shot through the brain. The men looked at Boyce for command and saw a hulking idiot paralysed by fear.

"His mouth hung open and his eyes were like a silly servant girl's looking at a ghost." So said my informant.

Two more shots and two men fell. Boyce still stood white and gasping, unable to move a muscle or utter a sound. His face looked ghastly in the moonlight. A shot pierced his helmet, and the shock caused him to stagger and lose his legs. A corporal rushed up, thinking he was hit, and, finding him whole, rose, in order to leave him there, and, in rising, got a bullet through the neck. Thus there were four men killed, and the Commanding Officer, of his own accord, put out of action. It all happened in a few confused moments. Then the remaining men did what Boyce should have commanded as soon as the first shot was fired—they rushed the house.

It contained one solitary inmate, an old man with a couple of Mauser rifles, whom they had to shoot in self-defence.

Meanwhile Boyce, white and haggard-eyed, had picked himself up; revolver in hand he stood on the stoep. His men came out, cursed him to his face while giving him their contemptuous reports brought the dead bodies of their comrades into the house and laid them out decently, together with the body of the white-bearded Boer. After that they mounted their horses without a word to him and rode off. And he let them ride; for his authority was gone; and he knew that they justly laid the deaths of their comrades at the door of his cowardice.

What he did during the next few awful hours is known only to God and to Boyce himself. The four dead men, his companions, have told no tales. But at last, one of his men—Somers was his name—came riding back at break-neck speed. When he had left the moon rode high in the heavens; when he returned it was dawn—and he had a bloody tunic and the face of a man who had escaped from hell. He threw himself from his horse and found Boyce, sitting on the stoep with his head in his hands. He shook him by the shoulder. Boyce started to his feet. At first he did not recognise Somers. Then he did and read black tidings in the man's eyes.

"What's the matter?"

"They're all wiped out, sir. The whole blooming lot."

He told a tale of heroic disaster. The remnant of the section had ridden off in hot indignation and had missed their way. They had gone in a direction opposite to safety, and after a couple of hours had fallen in with a straggling portion of a Boer Commando. Refusing to surrender, they had all been killed save Somers, who, with a bullet through his shoulder, had prudently turned bridle and fled hell for leather.

Boyce put his hands up to his head and walked about the yard for a few moments. Then he turned abruptly and stood toweringly over the scared survivor—a tough, wizened little Cockney of five foot six.

"Well, what's going to happen now?" he asked, in his soft, dangerous voice.

Somers replied, "I must leave that to you, sir."

Boyce regarded him glitteringly for a long time. A scheme of salvation was taking vivid shape in his mind....

"My report of this occurrence will be that as soon as, say, three men dropped here, the rest of the troop got into a panic and made a bolt of it. Say the Sergeant and myself remained. We broke into the house and did for the old Boer, who, however, unfortunately did for the Sergeant. Then I alone went out in search of my men and following their track found they had gone in a wrong direction, and eventually scented danger, which was confirmed by my meeting you, with your bloody tunic and your bloody tale."

"But good God! sir," cried the man, "You'd be having me shot for running away. I could tell a damned different story, Captain Boyce."

"Who would believe you?"

The Cockney intelligence immediately appreciated the situation. It also was ready for the alternative it guessed at the back of Boyce's mind.

"I know it's a mess, sir," he replied, with a straight look at Boyce. "A mess for both of us, and, as I have said, I'll leave it to you, sir."

"Very well," said Boyce. "It's the simplest thing in the world. There were four killed at once, including Sergeant Oldham. You remained faithful when the others bolted. You and I tackled the old Boer and you got wounded. You and I went on trek for the rest of the troop. We got within breathing distance of the Commando—how many strong?"

"About a couple of hundred, sir."

"And of course we bolted back without knowing anything about the troop, except that we are sure that, dead or alive, the Boers have accounted for them. If you'll agree to this report, we can ride back to Headquarters and I think I can promise you sergeant's stripes in a very short time!"

"I agree to the report, sir," said Somers, "because I don't see that I can do anything else. But to hell with the stripes under false pretences and don't you try playing that sort of thing off on me."

"As you like," replied Boyce, unruffled. "Provided we understand each other on the main point."

So they left the farm and rode to Headquarters and Boyce made his report, and as all save one of his troop were dead, there were none, save that one, to gainsay him. On his story no doubt was cast; but an officer who loses his whole troop in the military operation of storming a farm-house garrisoned by one old man does not find peculiar favour in the eyes of his Colonel. Boyce took a speedy opportunity of transference, and got into the thick of some fighting. Then he served with distinction and actually got mentioned in dispatches for pluckily rescuing a wounded man under fire.

For a long time Somers kept his mouth shut; but at last he began to talk. The ugly rumour spread. It even reached my battery which was a hundred miles away; for Johnny Dacre, one of my subs, had a brother in Boyce's old regiment. For my own part I scouted the story as soon as I heard it, and I withered up young Dacre for daring to bring such abominable slander within my Rhadamanthine sphere. I dismissed the calumny from my mind. Providentially, (as I heard later), the news came of Boyce's "mention," and Somers was set down as a liar. The poor devil was had up before the Colonel and being an imaginative and nervous man denied the truth of the rumour and by dexterous wriggling managed to exculpate himself from the charge of being its originator.

I must, parenthetically, crave indulgence for these apparently irrelevant details. But as, in this chronicle, I am mainly concerned with the career of Leonard Boyce, I have no option but to give them. They are necessary for a conception of the character of a remarkable man to whom I have every reason and every honourable desire to render justice. It is necessary, too, that I should state clearly the manner in which I happened to learn the facts of the affair at Vilboek's Farm, for I should not like you to think that I have given a credulous ear to idle slander.

It was in Cape Town, whither I had been despatched, on a false alarm of enteric. I was walking with Johnny Dacre up Adderley Street, dun with kahki, when he met his brother Reginald, who was promptly introduced to Johnny's second in command. Reggie was off to hospital to see one of his men who had been badly hurt.

"It's the chap," he said to his brother, "who was with Boyce through that shady affair at Vilboek's Farm."

"I don't know why you call it a shady affair," said I, somewhat acidly. "I know Captain Boyce—he is a near neighbour of mine at home—and he has proved himself to be a gallant officer and a brave man."

The young fellow reddened. "I'm awfully sorry, sir. I withdraw the word 'shady.' But this poor chap has something on his mind, and everyone has a down on him. He led a dog's life till he was knocked out, and he has been leading a worse one since. I don't call it fair." He looked at me squarely out of his young blue eyes—the lucky devil, he is commanding his regiment now in Flanders, with the D.S.O. ribbon on his tunic. "Will you come with me and see him, sir?"

"Certainly," said I, for I had nothing to do, and the boy's earnestness impressed me.

On our way he told me of such mixture of rumour and fact as he was acquainted with. It was then that I heard the man Somers's name for the first time. We entered the hospital, sat by the side of the man's bed, and he told us the story of Vilboek's Farm which I have, in bald terms, just related. Shortly afterwards I returned to the front, where the famous shell knocked me out of the Army forever.

What has happened to Somers I don't know. He was, I learned, soon afterwards discharged from the Army. He either died or disappeared in the full current of English life. Perhaps he is with our armies now. It does not matter. What matters is my memory of his nervous, sallow, Cockney face, its earnestness, its imprint of veracity, and the damning lucidity of his narrative.

I exacted from my young friends a promise to keep the unsavoury tale to themselves. No good would arise from a publicity which would stain the honour of the army. Besides, Boyce had made good. They have kept their promise like honest gentlemen. I have never, personally, heard further reference to the affair, and of course I have never mentioned it to anyone.

Now, it is right for me to mention that, for many years, I lived in a horrible state of dubiety with regard to Boyce. There is no doubt that, after the Vilboek business, he acted in an exemplary manner; there is no doubt that he performed the gallant deed for which he got his mention. But what about Somers's story? I tried to disbelieve it as incredible. That an English officer—not a nervous wisp of a man like Somers, but a great, hulking, bull-necked gladiator—should have been paralysed with fear by one shot coming out of a Boer farm, and thereby demoralised and incapacitated from taking command of a handful of men; that, instead of blowing his brains out, he should have imposed his Mephistophelian compact upon the unhappy Somers and carried off the knavish business successfully—I could not believe it. On the other hand, there was the British private. I have known him all my life, God bless him! Thank God, it is my privilege to know him now, as he lies knocked to bits, cheerily, in our hospital. It was inconceivable that out of sheer funk he could abandon a popular officer. And his was not even a scratch crowd, but a hard-bitten regiment with all sorts of glorious names embroidered on its colours....

I hope you see my difficulty in regard to my Betty's love affairs. I had nothing against Boyce, save this ghastly story, which might or might not be true. Officially, he had made an unholy mess of such a simple military operation as rounding up a Boer farm, and the prize of one dead old Boer had covered him with ridicule; but officially, also, he had retrieved his position by distinguished service. After all, it was not his fault that his men had run away. On the other hand...well, you cannot but appreciate the vicious circle of my thoughts, when Betty, in her frank way, came and told me of her engagement to him. What could I say? It would have been damnable of me to hint at scandal of years gone by. I received them both and gave them my paralytic blessing, and Leonard Boyce accepted it with the air of a man who might have been blessed, without a qualm of conscience, by the Third Person of the Trinity in Person.

This was in April, 1914. He had retired from the Army some years before with the rank of Major, and lived with his mother—he was a man of means—in Wellingsford. In the June of that year he went off salmon fishing in Norway. On the outbreak of war he returned to England and luckily got his job at once. He did not come back to Wellingsford. His mother went to London and stayed there until he was ordered out to the front. I had not seen him since that June. And, as far as I am aware, my dear Betty had not seen him either.

Marigold entered.

"Well?" said I.

"I thought you rang, sir."

"You didn't," I said. "You thought I ought to have rung, But you were mistaken."

I have on my mantelpiece a tiny, corroded, wooden Egyptian bust, of so little value that Mr. Hatoun of Cairo (and every visitor to Cairo knows Hatoun) gave it me as Baksheesh; it is, however, a genuine bit from a poor humble devil's tomb of about five thousand years ago. And it has only one positive eye and no expression.

Marigold was the living replica of it—with his absurd wig.

"In a quarter of an hour," said I, "I shall have rung."

"Very good, sir," said Marigold.

But he had disturbed the harmonical progression of my reflections. They all went anyhow. When he returned, all I could say was:

"It's Miss Betty's wedding to-morrow. I suppose I've got a morning coat and a top hat."

"You have a morning coat, sir," said Marigold. "But your last silk hat you gave to Miss Althea, sir, to make a work-bag out of the outside."

"So I did," said I.

It was an unpleasant reminiscence. A hat is about as symbolical a garment as you may be pleased to imagine. I wanted to wear at the live Betty's wedding the ceremonious thing which I had given, for purposes of vanity, to the dead Althea. I was cross with Marigold.

"Why did you let me do such a silly thing? You might have known that I should want it some day or other. Why didn't you foresee such a contingency?"

"Why," asked Marigold woodenly, "didn't you or I, sir, or many wiser than us, foresee the war?"

"Because we were all damned fools," said I.

Marigold approached my chair with his great inexorable tentacles of arms. It was bed time.

"I'm sorry about the hat, sir," said he.





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