In due course Captain Connor's regiment went off to France; not with drums beating and colours flying—I wish to Heaven it had; if there had been more pomp and circumstance in England, the popular imagination would not have remained untouched for so long a time—but in the cold silent hours of the night, like a gang of marauders. Betty did not go to bed after he had left, but sat by the fire till morning. Then she dressed in uniform and resumed her duties at the hospital. Many a soldier's bride was doing much the same. And her days went on just as they did before her marriage. She presented a smiling face to the world; she said:
"If I'm as happy as can be expected in the circumstances, I think it my duty to look happier."
It was a valiant philosophy.
The falling of a chimney-stack brought me up against Daniel Gedge, who before the war did all my little repairs. The chimney I put into the hands of Day & Higgins, another firm of builders.
A day or two afterwards Hosea shied at something and I discovered it was Gedge, who had advanced into the roadway expressing a desire to have a word with me. I quieted the patriotic Hosea and drew up by the kerb. Gedge was a lean foxy-faced man with a long, reddish nose and a long blunt chin from which a grizzled beard sprouted aggressively forwards. He had hard, stupid grey eyes.
"I hope you 'll excuse the liberty I take in stopping you, sir," he said, civilly.
"That's all right," said I. "What's the matter?"
"I thought I had given you satisfaction these last twenty years."
I assented. "Quite correct," said I.
"Then, may I ask, sir, without offence, why you've called in Day & Higgins?"
"You may," said I, "and, with or without offence, I'll answer your question. I've called them in because they're good loyal people. Higgins has joined the army, and so has Day's eldest boy, while you have been going on like a confounded pro-German."
"You've no right to say that, Major Meredyth."
"Not when you go over to Godbury"—the surging metropolis of the County some fifteen miles off—"and tell a pack of fools to strike because this is a capitalists' war? Not when you go round the mills here, and do your best to stop young fellows from fighting for their country? God bless my soul, in whose interests are you acting, if not Germany's?"
He put on his best platform manner. "I'm acting in the best interests of the people of this country. The war is wrong and incredibly foolish and can bring no advantage to the working man. Why should he go and be killed or maimed for life? Will it put an extra penny in his pocket or his widow's? No. Oh!"—he checked my retort—"I know everything you would say. I see the arguments every day in all your great newspapers. But the fact remains that I don't see eye to eye with you, or those you represent. You think one way, I think another. We agree to differ."
"We don't," said I. "I don't agree at all."
"At any rate," he said, "I can't see how a difference of political opinion can affect my ability now to put a new chimney-stack in your house, any more than it has done in the past."
"In the past," said I, "political differences were parochial squabbles in comparison with things nowadays. You're either for England, or against her."
He smiled wryly. "I'm for England. We both are. You think her salvation lies one way. I think another. This is a free country in which every man has a right to his own opinion."
"Exactly so," said I. "Therefore you'll admit that I've a right to the opinion that you ought to be locked up either in a gaol or a lunatic asylum as a danger to the state, and that, having that rightful opinion, I'm justified in not entrusting the safety of my house to one who, in my aforesaid opinion, is either a criminal or a lunatic."
Dialectically, I had him there. It afforded me keen enjoyment. Besides being a John Bull Englishman, I am a cripple and therefore ever so little malicious.
"It's all very well for you to talk, Major Meredyth," said he, "but your opinions cost you nothing—mine are costing me my livelihood. It isn't fair."
"You might as well say," I replied, "that I, who have never dared to steal anything in my life, live in ease and comfort, whereas poor Bill Sykes, who has devoted all his days to burglary, has seven years' penal servitude. No, Gedge," said I, gathering up the reins, "it can't be done. You can't have it both ways."
He put a detaining hand on Hosea's bridle and an evil flash came into his hard grey eyes.
"I'll have it some other way, then," he said. "A way you've no idea of. A way that'll knock all you great people of Wellingsford off your high horses. If you drive me to it, you'll see. I'll bide my time and I don't care whether it breaks me."
He stamped his foot and tugged at the bridle. Two or three passers-by halted wonderingly and Prettilove, the hairdresser, moved across the pavement from his shop door where he had been taking the air.
"My good fellow," said I, "you have lost your temper and are talking drivel. Kindly unhand my donkey."
Prettilove, who has a sycophantic sense of humour, burst into a loud guffaw. Gedge swung angrily away, and Hosea and I continued our interrupted progress down the High Street. Although I had called his dark menaces drivel, I could not help wondering what it meant. Was he going to guide a German Army to Wellingsford? Was he, a modern Guy Fawkes, plotting to blow up the Town Hall while Mayor and Corporation sat in council? He was not the man to utter purely idle threats. What the dickens was he going to do? Something mean and dirty and underhand. I knew his ways, He was always getting the better of somebody. The wise never let him put in a pane of glass without a specification and estimate, and if he had not been by far the most competent builder in the town—perhaps the only one who thoroughly knew his business in all its branches—no one would have employed him.
When I next saw Betty, it was in one of the corridors of the hospital, after a committee meeting; she stopped by my chair to pass the time of day. Through the open doorway of a ward I perceived a well-known figure in nurse's uniform.
"Why," said I, "there's Phyllis Gedge."
Betty nodded. "She has just come in as a probationer."
"I thought her father wouldn't let her. I've heard—Heaven knows whether it's true, but it sounds likely—that he said if men were such fools as to get shot he didn't see why his daughter should help to mend them."
"He has consented now," said Betty, "and Phyllis is delighted."
"No doubt it's a bid for popular favour," said I. And I told her of his dwindling business and of my encounter with him. When I came to his threat Betty's brows darkened.
"I don't like that at all," she said.
"Why? What do you think he means?"
"Mischief." She lowered her voice, for, it being visiting day at the hospital, people were passing up and down the corridor. "Suppose he has some of the people here in his power?"
"Blackmail—?" I glanced up at her sharply. "What do you know about it?"
"Nothing," she replied abruptly. Then she looked down and fingered her wedding-ring. "I only said 'suppose.'"
A Sister appeared at the door of the ward and seeing us together paused hoveringly.
"I rather think you're wanted," said I.
I left the hospital somewhat disturbed in mind. Summons to duty had cut our conversation short; but I knew that no matter how long I had cross-questioned Betty I should have got nothing further out of her. She was a remarkably outspoken young woman. What she said she meant, and what she didn't want to say all the cripples in the British Army could not have dragged out of her.
I tried her again a few days later. A slight cold, aided and abetted by a dear exaggerating idiot of a tyrannical doctor, confined me to the house and she came flying in, expecting to find me in extremis. When she saw me clothed and in my right mind and smoking a big cigar, she called me a fraud.
"Look here," said I, after a while. "About Gedge—" again her brow darkened and her lips set stiffly—"do you think he has his knife into young Randall Holmes?"
I had worried about the boy. Naturally, if Gedge found the relations between his daughter and Randall unsatisfactory, no one could blame him for any outbreak of parental indignation. But he ought to break out openly, while there was yet time—before any harm was done—not nurse some diabolical scheme of subterraneous vengeance. Betty's brow cleared, and she laughed. I saw at once that I was on a wrong track.
"Why should he have his knife into Randall? I suppose you've got Phyllis in your mind."
"I have. How did you guess?"
She laughed again.
"What other reason could he have? But how did you come to hear of Randall and Phyllis?"
"Never mind," said I, "I did. And if Gedge is angry, I can to some extent sympathize with him."
"But he's not. Not the least little bit in the world," she declared, lighting a cigarette. "Gedge and Randall are as thick as thieves, and Phyllis won't have anything to do with either of them."
"Now, my dear," said I. "Now that you're married, become a real womanly woman and fill my empty soul with gossip."
"There's no gossip at all about it," she replied serenely. "It's all sordid and romantic fact. The two men hold long discussions together at Gedge's house, Gedge talking anti-patriotism and Randall talking rot which he calls philosophy. You can hear them, can't you? Their meeting-ground is the absurdity of Randall joining the army."
"She is a loyal little soul and as miserable as can be. She's deplorably in love with Randall. She has told me so. And because she's in love with a man whom she knows to be a slacker she's eaten up with shame. Now she won't speak to him To avoid meeting him she lives entirely at the hospital—a paying probationer."
"That must be since the last Committee Meeting," I said.
"And Daniel Gedge pays a guinea a week?"
"He doesn't," said Betty. "I do."
I accepted the information with a motion of the head. She went on after a minute or so. "I have always been fond of the child"—there were only three or four years difference between them!—"and so I want to protect her. The time may come when she'll need protection. She has told me things—not now—but long ago—which frightened her. She came to me for advice. Since then I've kept an eye on her—as far as I could. Her coming into the hospital helps me considerably."
"When you say 'things which frightened her,' do you mean in connection with her father?"
Again the dark look in Betty's eyes.
"Yes," she said. "He's an evil, dangerous man."
That was all I could get out of her. If she had meant me to know the character of Gedge's turpitude, she would have told me of her own accord. But in our talk at the hospital she had hinted at blackmail—and blackmailers are evil, dangerous men.
I went to see Sir Anthony about it. Beyond calling him a damned scoundrel, a term which he applied to all pro-Germans, pacifists and half the Cabinet, he did not concern himself about Gedge. Young Randall Holmes's intimacy with the scoundrel seemed to him a matter of far greater importance. He strode up and down his library, choleric and gesticulating.
"A gentleman and a scholar to hob-nob with a traitorous beast like that! I know that he writes for a filthy weekly paper. Somebody sent me a copy a few days ago. It's rot—but not actually poisonous like that he must hear from Gedge. That's the reason, I suppose, he's not in the King's uniform. I've had my eye on him for some time. That's why I've not asked him to the house."
I told Sir Anthony of my interview with the young man. He waxed wroth. In a country with a backbone every Randall Holmes in the land would have been chucked willy-nilly into the army. But the country had spinal disorders. It had locomotor ataxy. The result of sloth and self-indulgence. We had the Government we deserved ... I need not quote further. You can imagine a fine old fox-hunting Tory gentleman, with England filling all the spaces of his soul, blowing off the steam of his indignation.
When he had ended, "What," said I, "is to be done?"
"I'll lay my horsewhip across the young beggar's shoulders the next time I meet him."
"Capital," said I. "If I were you I should never ride abroad except in my mayor's gown and chain, so that you can give an official character to the thrashing."
He glanced swiftly at me in his bird-like fashion, his brow creased into a thousand tiny horizontal lines—it always took him a fraction of a second to get clear of the literal significance of words—and then he laughed. Personal violence was out of the question. Why, the young beggar might summon him for assault. No; he had a better idea. He would put in a word at the proper quarter, so that every recruiting sergeant in the district should have orders to stop him at every opportunity.
"I shouldn't do that," said I.
"Then, I don't know what the deuce I can do," said Sir Anthony.
As I didn't know, either, our colloquy was fruitless. Eventually Sir Anthony said:
"Perhaps it's likely, after all, that Gedge may offend young Oxford's fastidiousness. It can't be long before he discovers Gedge to be nothing but a vulgar, blatant wind-bag; and then he may undergo some reaction."
I agreed. It seemed to be the most sensible thing he had said. Give Gedge enough rope and he would hang himself. So we parted.
I have said before that when I want to shew how independent I am of everybody I drive abroad in my donkey carriage. But there are times when I have to be dependent on Marigold for carrying me into the houses I enter; on these helpless occasions I am driven about by Marigold in a little two-seater car. That is how I visited Wellings Park and that is how I set off a day or two later to call on Mrs. Boyce.
As she took little interest in anything foreign to her own inside, she was not to most people an exhilarating companion. She even discussed the war in terms of her digestion. But we were old friends. Being a bit of a practical philosopher I could always derive some entertainment from her serial romance of a Gastric Juice, and besides, she was the only person in Wellingsford whom I did not shrink from boring with the song of my own ailments. Rather than worry the Fenimores or Betty or Mrs. Holmes with my aches and pains I would have hung on, like the idiot boy of Sparta with the fox, until my vitals were gnawed out—parenthetically, it has always worried me to conjecture why a boy should steal a fox, why it should have been so valuable to the owner, and to what use he put it. In the case of all my other friends I regarded myself as too much of an obvious nuisance, as it was, for me to work on their sympathy for infirmities that I could hide; but with Mrs. Boyce it was different. The more I chanted antistrophe to her strophe of lamentation the more was I welcome in her drawing-room. I had not seen her for some weeks. Perhaps I had been feeling remarkably well with nothing in the world to complain about, and therefore unequipped with a topic of conversation. However, hearty or not, it was time for me to pay her a visit. So I ordered the car.
Mrs. Boyce lived in a comfortable old house half a mile or so beyond the other end of the town, standing in half a dozen well-wooded acres. It was a fair April afternoon, all pale sunshine and tenderness. A dream of fairy green and delicate pink and shy blue sky melting into pearl. The air smelt sweet. It was good to be in it, among the trees and the flowers and the birds.
Others must have also felt the calls of the spring, for as we were driving up to the house, I caught a glimpse of the lawn and of two figures strolling in affectionate attitude. One was that of Mrs. Boyce; the other, khaki-clad and towering above her, had his arm round her waist. The car pulled up at the front door. Before we had time to ring, a trim parlour-maid appeared.
"Mrs. Boyce is not at home, sir."
Marigold, who, when my convenience was in question, swept away social conventions like cobwebs, fixed her with his one eye, and before I could interfere, said:
"I'm afraid you're mistaken. I've just seen Major Boyce and Madam on the lawn."
The maid reddened and looked at me appealingly.
"My orders were to say not at home, sir."
"I quite understand, Mary," said I. "Major Boyce is home on short leave, and they don't want to be disturbed. Isn't that it?"
"Marigold," said I. "Right about turn."
Marigold, who had stopped the car, got out unwillingly and went to the starting-handle. That I should be refused admittance to a house which I had deigned to honour with my presence he regarded as an intolerable insult. He also loved to have tea, as a pampered guest, in other folks' houses. When he got home Mrs. Marigold, as like as not, would give him plain slabs of bread buttered by her economical self. I knew my Marigold. He gave a vicious and ineffectual turn or two and then stuck his head in the bonnet.
The situation was saved by the appearance from the garden of Mrs. Boyce herself, a handsome, erect, elegantly dressed old lady in the late sixties, pink and white like a Dresden figure and in her usual condition of resplendent health. She held out her hand.
"I couldn't let you go without telling you that Leonard is back. I don't want the whole town to know. If it did, I should see nothing of him, his leave is so short. That's why I told Mary to say 'not at home.' But an old friend like you—Would you like to see him?"
Marigold closed the bonnet and stood up with a grimace which passed for a happy smile.
"I should, of course," said I, politely. "But I quite understand. You have everything to say to each other. No. I won't stay"—Marigold's smile faded into woodenness—"I only turned in idly to see how you were getting on. But just tell me. How is Leonard? Fit, I hope?"
"He's wonderful," she said.
I motioned Marigold to start the car.
"Give him my kind regards," said I. "No, indeed. He doesn't want to see an old crock like me." The engine rattled. "I hope he's pleased at finding his mother looking so bonny."
"It's only excitement at having Leonard," she explained earnestly. "In reality I'm far from well. But I wouldn't tell him for worlds."
"What's that you wouldn't tell, mother?" cried a soft, cheery voice, and Leonard, the fine flower of English soldiery, turned the corner of the house.
There he stood, tall, deep-chested, clear-eyed, bronzed, his heavy chin in the air, his bull-neck not detracting from his physical handsomeness, but giving it a seal of enormous strength.
"My dear fellow," he cried, grasping my hand heartily, "how glad I am to see you. Come along in and let mother give you some tea. Nonsense!" he waved away my protest. "Marigold, stop that engine and bring in the Major. I've got lots of things to tell you. That's right."
He strode boyishly to the front door, which he threw open wide to admit Marigold and myself and followed us with Mrs. Boyce into the drawing-room, talking all the while. I must confess that I was just a little puzzled by his exuberant welcome. And, to judge by the blank expression that flitted momentarily over her face, so was his mother. If he were so delighted by my visit, why had he not crossed the lawn at once as soon as he saw the car? Why had he sent his mother on ahead? I was haunted by an exchange of words overheard in imagination:
"Confound the fellow! What has he come here for?"
"Mary will say 'not at home.'"
"But he has spotted us. Do go and get rid of him."
"Such an old friend, dear."
"We haven't time for old fossils. Tell him to go and bury himself."
And (in my sensitive fancy) she had delivered the import of the message. I had gathered that my visit was ill-timed. I was preparing to cut it short, when Leonard himself came up and whisked me against my will to the tea-table. If my hypothesis were correct he had evidently changed his mind as to the desirability of getting rid, in so summary a fashion, of what he may have considered to be an impertinent and malicious little factor in Wellingsford gossip.
At any rate, if he was playing a part, he played it very well. It was not in the power of man to be more cordial and gracious. He gave me a vivid account of the campaign. He had been through everything, the retreat from Mons, the Battle of the Aisne, the great rush north, and the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on the 17th of March. I listened, fascinated, to his tale, which he told with a true soldier's impersonal modesty.
"I was glad," said I, after a while, "to see you twice mentioned in dispatches."
Mrs. Boyce turned on me triumphantly. "He is going to get his D. S. O."
"By Jove!" said I.
Leonard laughed, threw one gaitered leg over the other and held up his hands at her.
"Oh, you feminine person!" He smiled at me. "I told my dear old mother as a dead and solemn secret."
"But it will be gazetted in a few days, dear."
"One can never be absolutely sure of these things until they're in black and white. A pretty ass I'd look if there was a hitch—say through some fool of a copying clerk—and I didn't get it after all. It's only dear, silly understanding things like mothers that would understand. Other people wouldn't. Don't you think I'm right, Meredyth?"
Of course he was. I have known, in my time, of many disappointments. It is not every recommendation for honours that becomes effective. I congratulated him, however, and swore to secrecy.
"It's all luck," said he. "Just because a man happens to be spotted. If my regiment got its deserts, every Jack man would walk about in a suit of armour made of Victoria Crosses. Give me some more tea, mother."
"The thing I shall never understand, dear," she said, artlessly, looking up at him, while she handed him his cup, "is when you see a lot of murderous Germans rushing at you with guns and shells and bayonets, how you are not afraid."
He threw back his head and laughed in his debonair fashion; but I watched him narrowly and I saw the corners of his mouth twitch for the infinitesimal fraction of a second.
"Oh, sometimes we're in an awful funk, I assure you," he replied gaily. "Ask Meredyth."
"We may be," said I, "but we daren't shew it—I'm speaking of officers. If an officer funks he's generally responsible for the death of goodness knows how many men. And if the men funk they're liable to be shot for cowardice in the face of the enemy."
"And what happens to officers who are afraid?"
"If it's known, they get broke," said I.
Boyce swallowed his tea at a gulp, set down the cup, and strode to the window. There was a short pause. Presently he turned.
"Physical fear is a very curious thing," he said in a voice unnecessarily loud. "I've seen it take hold of men of proved courage and paralyse them. It's just like an epileptic fit—beyond a man's control. I've known a fellow—the most reckless, hare-brained daredevil you can imagine—to stand petrified with fear on the bank of a river, and let a wounded comrade drown before his eyes. And he was a good swimmer too."
"What happened to him?" I asked.
He met my gaze for a moment, looked away, and then met it again—it seemed defiantly.
"What happened to him? Well—" there was the tiniest possible pause—a pause that only an uneasy, suspicious repository of the abominable story of Vilboek's Farm could have noticed—"Well, as he stood there he got plugged—and that was the end of him. But what I—"
"Was he an officer, dear?"
"No, no, mother, a sergeant," he answered abruptly, and in the same breath continued. "What I was going to say is this. No one as far as I know has ever bothered to work out the psychology of fear. Especially the sudden thing that hits a man's heart and makes him stand stock-still like a living corpse—unable to move a muscle—all his willpower out of gear—just as a motor is out of gear. I've seen a lot of it. Those men oughtn't to be called cowards. It's as much a fit, say, as epilepsy. Allowances ought to made for them."
It was a warm day, the windows were closed, my valetudinarian hostess having a horror of draughts, and a cheery fire was blazing up the chimney. Boyce took out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead.
"Dear old mother," said he, "you keep this room like an oven."
"It is you who have got so excited talking, dear," said Mrs. Boyce. "I'm sure it can't be good for your heart. It is just the same with me. I remember I had to speak quite severely to Mary a week—no, to-day's Tuesday—ten days ago, and I had dreadful palpitations afterwards and broke out into a profuse perspiration and had to send for Doctor Miles."
"Now, that's funny," said I. "When I'm excited about anything I grow quite cold."
Boyce lit a cigarette and laughed. "I don't see where the excitement in the present case comes in. Mother started an interesting hare, and I followed it up. Anyhow—" he threw himself on the sofa, blew a kiss to his mother in the most charming way in the world, and smiled on me—"anyhow, to see you two in this dearest bit of dear old England is like a dream. And I'm not going to think of the waking up. I want all the cushions and the lavender and the neat maid's caps and aprons—I said to Mary this morning when she drew my curtains: 'Stay just there and let me look at you so that I can realise I'm at home and not in my little grey trench in West Flanders'—she got red and no doubt thought me a lunatic and felt inclined to squawk—but she stayed and looked jolly pretty and refreshing—only for a minute or two, after which I dismissed her—yes, my dears, I want everything that the old life means, the white table linen, the spring flowers, the scent of the air which has never known the taint of death, and all that this beautiful mother of England, with her knitting needles, stands for. I want to have a debauch of sweet and beautiful things."
"As far as I can give them you shall have them. My dear—" she dropped her knitting in her lap and looked over at him tragically—"I quite forgot to ask. Did Mary put bath-salts, as I ordered, into your bath this morning?"
Leonard threw away his cigarette and slapped his leg.
"By George!" he cried. "That explains it. I was wondering where the Dickens that smell of ammonia came from."
"If you use it every day it makes your skin so nice and soft," remarked Mrs. Boyce.
He laughed, and made the obvious jest on the use of bath-salts in the trenches.
"I wonder, mother, whether you have any idea of what trenches and dug-outs look like."
He told her, very picturesquely, and went on to a general sketch of life at the front. He entertained me with interesting talk for the rest of my visit. I have already said that he was a man of great personal charm.
He accompanied me to the car and saw me comfortably tucked in.
"You won't give me away, will you?" he said, shaking hands.
"How?" I asked.
"By telling any one I'm here."
I promised and drove off. Marigold, full of the tea that is given to a guest, strove cheerfully to engage me in conversation. I hate to snub Marigold, excellent and devoted fellow, so I let him talk; but my mind was occupied with worrying problems.