Leonard Boyce had received me on sufferance. I had come upon him while he was imprudently exposing himself to view. There had been no way out of it. But he made it clear that he desired no other Wellingsfordian to invade his privacy. Secretly he had come to see his mother and secretly he intended to go. I remembered that before he went to the front he had not come home, but his mother had met him in London. He had asked me for no local news. He had inquired after the welfare of none of his old friends. Never an allusion to poor Oswald Fenimore's gallant death—he used to run in and out of Wellings Park as if it were his own house. What had he against the place which for so many years had been his home?
With regard to Betty Fairfax, he had loved and ridden away, it is true, leaving her disconsolate. But though everyone knew of the engagement, no one had suspected the defection. Betty was a young woman who could keep her own counsel and baffle any curiosity-monger or purveyor of gossip in the country. So when she married Captain Connor, a little gasp went round the neighbourhood, which for the first time remembered Leonard Boyce. There were some who blamed her for callous treatment of Boyce, away and forgotten at the front. The majority, however, took the matter calmly, as we have had to take far more amazing social convulsions. The fact remained that Betty was married, and there was no reason whatever, on the score of the old engagement, for Boyce to manifest such exaggerated shyness with regard to Wellingsford society.
If it had been any other man than Boyce, I should not have worried about the matter at all. Save that I was deeply attached to Betty, what had her discarded lover's attitude to do with me? But Boyce was Boyce, the man of the damnable story of Vilboek's Farm. And he, of his own accord, had revived in my mind that story in all its intensity. A chance foolish question, such as thousands of gentle, sheltered women have put to their suddenly, uncomprehended, suddenly deified sons and husbands, had obviously disturbed his nervous equilibrium. That little reflex twitch at the corner of his lips—I have seen it often in the old times. I should like to have had him stripped to the waist so that I could have seen his heart—the infallible test. At moments of mighty moral strain men can keep steady eyes and nostrils and mouth and speech; but they cannot control that tell-tale diaphragm of flesh over the heart. I have known it to cause the death of many a Kaffir spy.... But, at any rate, there was the twitch of the lips ... I deliberately threw weight into the scale of Mrs. Boyce's foolish question. If he had not lost his balance, why should he have launched into an almost passionate defence of the physical coward?
My memory went back to the narrative of the poor devil in the Cape Town hospital. Boyce's description of the general phenomenon was a deadly corroboration of Somers's account of the individual case. They had used the same word—"paralysed." Boyce had made a fierce and definite apologia for the very act of which Somers had accused him. He put it down to the sudden epilepsy of fear for which a man was irresponsible. Somers's story had never seemed so convincing—the first part of it, at least—the part relating to the paralysis of terror. But the second part—the account of the diabolical ingenuity by means of which Boyce rehabilitated himself—instead of blowing his brains out like a gentleman—still hammered at the gates of my credulity.
Well—granted the whole thing was true—why revive it after fifteen years' dead silence, and all of a sudden, just on account of an idle question? Even in South Africa, his "mention" had proved his courage. Now, with the D. S. O. a mere matter of gazetting, it was established beyond dispute.
On the other hand, if the Vilboek story, more especially the second part, was true, what reparation could he make in the eyes of honourable men?—in his own eyes, if he himself had succeeded to the status of an honourable man? Would not any decent soldier smite him across the face instead of grasping him by the hand? I was profoundly worried.
Moreover Betty, level-headed Betty, had called him a devil. Why?
If the second part of Somers's story were true, he had acted like a devil. There is no other word for it. Now, what concrete diabolical facts did Betty know? Or had her instinctive feminine insight pierced through the man's outer charm and merely perceived horns, tail, and cloven hoof cast like a shadow over his soul?
How was I to know?
She came to dine with me the next evening: a dear way she had of coming uninvited, and God knows how a lonely cripple valued it. She was in uniform, being too busy to change, and looked remarkably pretty. She brought with her a cheery letter from her husband, received that morning, and read me such bits as the profane might hear, her eyes brightening as she glanced over the sections that she skipped. Beyond doubt her marriage had brought her pleasure and pride. The pride she would have felt to some extent, I think, if she had married a grampus; for when a woman has a husband at the front she feels that she is taking her part in the campaign and exposing herself vicariously to hardship and shrapnel; and in the eyes of the world she gains thereby a little in stature, a thing dear to every right-minded woman. But Betty's husband was not a grampus, but a very fine fellow, a mate to be wholly proud of: and he loved her devotedly and expressed his love beautifully loverwise, as her tell-tale face informed me. Gratefully and sturdily she had set herself out to be happy. She was succeeding.... Lord bless you! Millions of women who have married, not the wretch they loved, but the other man, have lived happy ever after. No: I had no fear for Betty now. I could not see that she had any fear for herself.
After dinner she sat on the floor by my side and smoked cigarettes in great content. She had done a hard day's work at the hospital; her husband had done a hard day's work—probably was still doing it—in Flanders. Both deserved well of their country and their consciences. She was giving a poor lonely paralytic, who had given his legs years ago to the aforesaid country, a delightful evening. ... No, I'm quite sure such a patronising thought never entered my Betty's head. After all, my upper half is sound, and I can talk sense or nonsense with anybody. What have one's legs to do with a pleasant after-dinner conversation? Years ago I swore a great oath that I would see them damned before they got in the way of my intelligence.
We were getting on famously. We had put both war and Wellingsford behind us, and talked of books. I found to my dismay that this fair and fearless high product of modernity had far less acquaintance with Matthew Arnold than with the Evangelist of the same praenomen. She had never heard of "The Forsaken Merman," one of the most haunting romantic poems in the English language. I pointed to a bookcase and bade her fetch the volume. She brought it and settled down again by my chair, and, as a punishment of ignorance, and for the good of her soul, I began to read aloud. She is an impressionable young person and yet one of remarkable candour. If she had not been held by the sea-music of the poem, she would not have kept her deep, steady brown eyes fixed on me. I have no hesitation in repeating that we were getting on famously and enjoying ourselves immensely. I got nearly to the end:
"... Here came a mortal, But faithless was she, And alone dwell forever The Kings of the sea. But, children at midnight—"
The door opened wide. Topping his long stiff body, Marigold's ugly one-eyed head appeared, and, as if he was tremendously proud of himself, he announced:
Boyce strode quickly past him and, suddenly aware of Betty by my side, stopped short, like a private suddenly summoned to attention. Marigold, unconscious of the blackest curses that had ever fallen upon him during his long and blundering life, made a perfect and self-satisfied exit. Betty sprang to her feet, held her tall figure very erect, and faced the untimely visitor, her cheeks flushing deep red. For an appreciable time, say, thirty seconds, Boyce stood stock still, looking at her from under heavy contracted brows. Then he recovered himself, smiled, and advanced to her with outstretched hand, But, on his movement, she had been quick to turn and bend down in order to pick up the book that had fallen from my fingers on the further side of my chair. So, swiftly he wheeled to me with his handshake. It was very deft manoeuvring on both sides.
"The faithful Marigold didn't tell me that you weren't alone, Meredyth," he said in his cordial, charming way. "Otherwise I shouldn't have intruded. But my dear old mother had an attack of something and went to bed immediately after dinner, and I thought I'd come round and have a smoke and a drink in your company."
Betty, who had occupied herself by replacing Matthew Arnold's poems in the bookcase, caught up the box of cigars that lay on the brass tray table by my side, and offered it to him.
"Here is the smoke," she said.
And when, after a swift, covert glance at her, he had selected a cigar, she went to the bell-push by the mantelpiece.
"The drinks will be here in a minute."
In order to do something to save this absurd situation, I drew from my waistcoat pocket a little cigar-cutter attached to my watch-chain, and clipped the end of his cigar. I also lit a match from my box and handed it up to him. When he had finished with the match he threw it into the fireplace and turned to Betty.
"My congratulations are a bit late, but I hope I may offer them."
She said, "Thank you." Waved a hand. "Won't you sit down?"
"Wasn't it rather sudden?" he asked.
"Everything in war time is sudden—except the action of the British Government. Your own appearance to-night is sudden."
He laughed at her jest and explained, much as he had done to me, his reasons for wishing to keep his visit to Wellingsford a secret. Meanwhile Marigold had brought in decanters and syphons. Betty attended to Boyce's needs with a provoking air of nonchalance. If a notorious German imbrued in the blood of babes had chanced to be in her hospital, she would have given him his medicine with just the same air. Although no one could have specified a lack of courtesy towards a guest—for in my house she played hostess—there was an indefinable touch of cold contumely in her attitude. Whether he felt the hostility as acutely as I did, I cannot say; but he carried it off with a swaggering grace. He bowed to her over his glass.
"Here's to the fortunate and gallant fellow over there."
I saw her knuckles whiten as, with an inclination of the head, she acknowledged the toast.
"By the way," said he, "what's his regiment? My good mother told me his name. Captain Connor, isn't it? But for the rest she is vague. She's the vaguest old dear in the world. I found out to-day that she thought there was a long row of cannons, hundreds of them, all in a line, in front of the English Army, and a long row in front of the German Army, and, when there was a battle, that they all blazed away. So when I asked her whether your husband was in the Life Guards or the Army Service Corps, she said cheerfully that it was either one or the other but she wasn't quite sure. So do give me some reliable information."
"My husband is in the 10th Wessex Fusiliers, a Territorial battalion," she replied coldly.
"I hope some day to have the pleasure of making his acquaintance."
"Stranger things have happened," said Betty. She glanced at the clock and rose abruptly. "It's time I was getting back to the hospital."
Boyce rose too. "How are you going?" he asked.
He advanced a step towards her. "Won't you let me run you round in the car?"
"I prefer to walk."
Her tone was final. She took affectionate leave of me and went to the door, which Boyce held open.
"Good-night," she said, without proffering her hand.
He followed her out into the hall.
"Betty," he said in a low voice, "won't you ever forgive me?"
"I have no feelings towards you either of forgiveness or resentment," she replied.
They did not mean to be overheard, but my hearing is unusually acute, and I could not help catching their conversation.
"I know I seem to have behaved badly to you."
"You have behaved worse to others," said Betty. "I don't wonder at your shrinking from showing your face here." Then, louder, for my benefit. "Good-night, Major Boyce. I really can walk up to the hospital by myself."
Evidently she walked away and Boyce after her, for I heard him say:
"You shan't go till you've told me what you mean."
What she replied I don't know. To judge by the slam of the front door it must have been something defiant. Presently he entered debonair, with a smile on his lips.
"I'm afraid I've left you in a draught," he said, shutting the door. "I couldn't resist having a word with her and wishing her happiness and the rest of it. We were engaged once upon a time."
"I know," said I.
"I hope you don't think I did wrong in releasing her from the engagement. I don't consider a man has a right to go on active service—especially on such service as the present war—and keep a girl bound at home. Still less has he a right to marry her. What happens in so many cases? A fortnight's married life. The man goes to the front. Then ping! or whizz-bang! and that's the end of him, and so the girl is left."
"On the other hand," said I, "you must remember that the girl may hold very strong opinions and take pings and whizz-bangs very deliberately into account."
Boyce helped himself to another whisky and soda. "It's a matter for the individual conscience. I decided one way. Connor obviously decided another, and, like a lucky fellow, found Betty of his way of thinking. Perhaps I have old-fashioned notions." He took a long pull at his drink. "Well, it can't be helped," he said with a smile. "The other fellow has won, and I must take it gracefully. ... By George! wasn't she looking stunning to-night—in that kit? ... I hope you didn't mind my bursting in on you—"
"Of course not," said I, politely.
He drained his glass. "The fact is," said he, "this war is a nerve-racking business. I never dreamed I was so jumpy until I came home. I hate being by myself. I've kept my poor devoted mother up till one o'clock in the morning. To-night she struck, small blame to her; but, after five minutes on my lones, I felt as if I should go off my head. So I routed out the car and came along. But of course I didn't expect to see Betty. The sight of Betty in the flesh as a married woman nearly bowled me over. May I help myself again?" He poured out a very much stiffer drink than before, and poured half of it down his throat. "It's not a joyous thing to see the woman one has been crazy over the wife of another fellow."
"I suppose it isn't," said I.
Of course I might have made some subtle and cunning remark, suavely put a leading question which would have led him on, in his unbalanced mood, to confidential revelations. But the man was a distinguished soldier and my guest. To what he chose to tell me voluntarily I could listen. I could do no more. He did not reply to my last unimportant remark, but lay back in his armchair watching the blue spirals of smoke from the end of his cigar. There was a fairly long silence.
I was worried by the talk I had overheard through the open door. "You have behaved worse to others. I don't wonder at your shrinking from showing your face here." Betty had, weeks ago, called him a devil. She had treated him to-night in a manner which, if not justified, was abominable. I was forced to the conclusion that Betty was fully aware of some discreditable chapter in the man's life which had nothing to do with the affair at Vilboek's Farm, which, indeed, had to do with another woman and this humdrum little town of Wellingsford. Otherwise why did she taunt him with hiding from the light of Wellingsfordian day?
Now, please don't think me little-minded. Or, if you do think so, please remember the conditions under which I have lived for so many years and grant me your kind indulgence for a confession I have to make. Besides being worried, I felt annoyed. Wellingsford was my little world. I knew everybody in it. I had grown to regard myself as the repository of all its gossip. The fraction of it that I retailed was a matter of calculated discretion. I made a little hobby—it was a foible, a vanity, what you will—of my omniscience. I knew months ahead the dates of the arrivals of young Wellingsfordians in this world of pain and plenitude. I knew of maidens who were wronged and youths who were jilted; of wives who led their husbands a deuce of a dance, and of wives who kept their husbands out of the bankruptcy court. When young Trexham, the son of the Lord Lieutenant of the county, married a minor light of musical comedy at a registrar's office, I was the first person in the place to be told; and I flatter myself that I was instrumental in inducing a pig-headed old idiot to receive an exceedingly charming daughter-in-law. I loved to look upon Wellingsford as an open book. Can you blame me for my resentment at coming across, so to speak, a couple of pages glued together? The only logical inference from Betty's remark was that Boyce had behaved abominably and even notoriously to a woman in Wellingsford. To do him justice, I declare I had never heard his name associated with any woman or girl in the place save Betty herself. I felt that, in some crooked fashion, or the other, I had been done out of my rights.
And there, placidly smoking his cigar and watching the wreaths of blue smoke with the air of an idle seraph contemplating a wisp of cirrus in Heaven's firmament, sat the man who could have given me the word of the enigma.
He broke the silence by saying:
"Have you ever seriously considered the real problems of the Balkans?"
Now what on earth had the Balkans to do with the thoughts that must have been rolling at the back of the man's mind? I was both disappointed and relieved. I expected him to resume the personal talk, and I dreaded lest he should entrust me with embarrassing confidences. After three strong whiskies and sodas a man is apt to relax hold of his discretion.... Anyhow, he jerked me back to my position of host. I made some sort of polite reply. He smiled.
"You, my dear Meredyth, like the rest of the country, are half asleep. In a few months' time you'll get the awakening of your life."
He began to discourse on the diplomatic situation. Months afterwards I remembered what he had said that night and how accurate had been his forecast. He talked brilliantly for over an hour, during which, keenly interested in his arguments, I lost the puzzle of the man in admiration of the fine soldier and clear and daring thinker. It was only when he had gone that I began to worry again.
And before I went to sleep I had fresh cause for anxious speculation.
"Marigold," said I, when he came in as usual to carry me to bed, "didn't I tell you that Major Boyce particularly wanted no one to know that he was in the town?"
"Yes, sir," said Marigold. "I've told nobody."
"And yet you showed him in without informing him that Mrs. Connor was here. Really you ought to have had more tact."
Marigold received his reprimand with the stolidity of the old soldier. I have known men who have been informed that they would be court-martialled and most certainly shot, make the same reply.
"Very good, sir," said he.
I softened. I was not Marigold's commanding officer, but his very grateful friend. "You see," said I, "they were engaged before Mrs. Connor married—I needn't tell you that; it was common knowledge—and so their sudden meeting was awkward."
"Mrs. Marigold has already explained, sir," said he.
I chuckled inwardly all the way to my bedroom.
"All the same, sir," said he, aiding me in my toilet, which he did with stiff military precision, "I don't think the Major is as incognighto" (the spelling is phonetic) "as he would like. Prettilove was shaving me this morning and told me the Major was here. As I considered it my duty, I told him he was a liar, and he was so upset that he nicked my Adam's apple and I was that covered with blood that I accused him of trying to cut my throat, and I went out and finished shaving myself at home, which is unsatisfactory when you only have a thumb on your right hand to work the razor."
I laughed, picturing the scene. Prettilove is an inoffensive little rabbit of a man. Marigold might sit for the model of a war-scarred mercenary of the middle ages, and when he called a man a liar he did it with accentuaton and vehemence. No wonder Prettilove jumped.
"And then again this evening, sir," continued Marigold, slipping me into my pyjama jacket, "as I was starting the Major's car, who should be waiting there for him but Mr. Gedge."
"Gedge?" I cried.
"Yes, sir. Waiting by the side of the car. 'Can I have a word with you, Major Boyce?' says he. 'No, you can't,' says the Major. 'I think it's advisable,' says he. 'Those repairs are very pressing.' 'All right,' says the Major, 'jump in.' Then he says: 'That'll do, Marigold. Good-night.' And he drives off with Mr. Gedge. Well, if Mr. Gedge and Prettilove know he's here, then everyone knows it."
"Was Gedge inside the drive?" I asked. The drive was a small semicircular sort of affair, between gate and gate.
"He was standing by the car waiting," said Marigold. "Now, sir." He lifted me with his usual cast-iron tenderness into bed and pulled the coverings over me. "It's a funny time to talk about house repairs at eleven o'clock, at night," he remarked.
"Nothing is funny in war-time," said I.
"Either nothing or everything," said Marigold. He fussed methodically about the room, picked up an armful of clothes, and paused by the door, his hand on the switch.
"Anything more, sir?"
"Nothing, thank you, Marigold."
The room was in darkness. Marigold shut the door. I was alone.
What the deuce was the meaning of this waylaying of Boyce by Daniel Gedge?