"Major Boyce has gone, sir," said Marigold, the next morning, as I was tapping my breakfast egg.
"Gone?" I echoed. Boyce had made no reference the night before to so speedy a departure.
"By the 8.30 train, sir."
Every train known by a scheduled time at Wellingsford goes to London. There may be other trains proceeding from the station in the opposite direction but nobody heeds them. Boyce had taken train to London. I asked my omniscient sergeant:
"How did you find that out?"
It appeared it was the driver of the Railway Delivery Van. I smiled at Boyce's ostrich-like faith in the invisibility of his hinder bulk. What could occur in Wellingsford without it being known at once to vanmen and postmen and barbers and servants and masters and mistresses? How could a man hope to conceal his goings and comings and secret actions? He might just as well expect to take a secluded noontide bath in the fountain in Piccadilly Circus.
"Perhaps that's why the matter of those repairs was so pressing, sir," said Marigold.
"No doubt of it," said I.
Marigold hung about, his finger-tips pushing towards me mustard and apples and tulips and everything that one does not eat with egg. But it was no use. I had no desire to pursue the conversation. I continued my breakfast stolidly and read the newspaper propped up against the coffee-pot. So many circumstances connected with Boyce's visit were of a nature that precluded confidential discussion with Marigold,—that precluded, indeed, confidential discussion with anyone else. The suddenness of his departure I learned that afternoon from Mrs. Boyce, who sent me by hand a miserable letter characteristically rambling. From it I gathered certain facts. Leonard had come into her bedroom at seven o'clock, awakening her from the first half-hour's sleep she had enjoyed all night, with the news that he had been unexpectedly summoned back. When she came to think of it, she couldn't imagine how he got the news, for the post did not arrive till eight o'clock, and Mary said no telegram had been delivered and there had been no call on the telephone. But she supposed the War Office had secret ways of communicating with officers which it would not be well to make known. The whole of this war, with its killing off of the sons of the best families in the land, and the sleeping in the mud with one's boots on, to say nothing of not being able to change for dinner, and the way in which they knew when to shoot and when not to shoot, was all so mysterious that she had long ago given up hope of understanding any of its details. All she could do was to pray God that her dear boy should be spared. At any rate, she knew the duty of an English mother when the country was in danger; so she had sent him away with a brave face and her blessing, as she had done before. But, although English mothers could show themselves Spartans—(she spelt it "Spartians," dear lady, but no matter)—yet they were women and had to sit at home and weep. In the meanwhile, her palpitations had come on dreadfully bad, and so had her neuritis, and she had suffered dreadfully after eating some fish at dinner which she was sure Pennideath, the fishmonger—she always felt that man was an anarchist in disguise—had bought out of the condemned stock at Billingsgate, and none of the doctor's medicines were of the slightest good to her, and she was heartbroken at having to part so suddenly from Leonard, and would I spare half an hour to comfort an old woman who had sent her only son to die for his country and was ready, when it pleased God, if not sooner, to die in the same sacred cause?
So of course I went. The old lady, propped on pillows in an overheated room, gave me tea and poured into my ear all the anguish of her simple heart. In an abstracted, anxious way, she ate a couple of crumpets and a wedge of cake with almond icing, and was comforted.
We continued our discussion of the war—or rather Leonard, for with her Leonard seemed to be the war. She made some remark deliciously inept—I wish I could remember it. I made a sly rejoinder. She sat bolt upright and a flush came into her Dresden-china cheek and her old eyes flashed.
"You may think I'm a silly old woman, Duncan. I dare say I am. I can't take in things as I used to do when I was young. But if Leonard should be killed in the war—I think of it night and day—what I should like to do would be to drive to the Market Square of Wellingsford and wave a Union Jack round and round and fall down dead."
I made some sort of sympathetic gesture.
"And I certainly should," she added.
"My dear friend," said I, "if I could move from this confounded chair, I would kiss your brave hands."
And how many brave hands of English mothers, white and delicate, coarse and toil-worn, do not demand the wondering, heart-full homage of us all?
And hundreds of thousands of them don't know why we are fighting. Hundreds of thousands of them have never read a newspaper in their lives. I doubt whether they would understand one if they tried, I doubt whether all could read one in the literal sense of the word. We have had—we have still—the most expensive and rottenest system of primary education in the world, the worst that squabbling sectarians can devise. Arab children squatting round the courtyard of a Mosque and swaying backwards and forwards as they get by heart meaningless bits of the Koran, are not sent out into life more inadequately armed with elementary educational weapons than are English children. Our state of education has nominally been systematised for forty-five years, and yet now in our hospitals we have splendid young fellows in their early twenties who can neither read nor write. I have talked with them. I have read to them. I have written letters for them. Clean-cut, decent, brave, honourable Englishmen—not gutter-bred Hooligans dragged from the abyss by the recruiting sergeant, but men who have thrown up good employment because something noble inside them responded to the Great Call. And to the eternal disgrace of governments in this disastrously politician-ridden land such men have not been taught to read and write. It is of no use anyone saying to me that it is not so. I know of my own certain intimate knowledge that it is so.
Even among those who technically have "the Three R's," I have met scores of men in our Wellingsford Hospital who, bedridden for months, would give all they possess to be able to enjoy a novel—say a volume of W. W. Jacobs, the writer who above all others has conferred the precious boon of laughter on our wounded—but to whom the intellectual strain of following the significance of consecutive words is far too great. Thousands and thousands of men have lain in our hospitals deprived, by the criminal insanity of party politicians, of the infinite consolation of books.
Christ, whom all these politicians sanctimoniously pretend to make such a fuss of, once said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And yet we regard this internecine conflict between our precious political parties as a sacred institution. By Allah, we are a funny people!
Of course your officials at the Board of Education—that beautiful timber-headed, timber-hearted, timber-souled structure—could come down on me with an avalanche of statistics. "Look at our results," they cry. I look. There are certain brains that even our educational system cannot benumb. A few clever ones, at the cost of enormously expensive machinery, are sent to the universities, where they learn how to teach others the important things whereby they achieved their own unimportant success. The shining lights are those whom we turn out as syndicalist leaders and other kinds of anti-patriotic demagogues. We systematically deny them the wine of thought, but give them the dregs. But in the past we did not care; they were vastly clever people, a credit to our national system. It gave them chances which they took. We were devilish proud of them.
On the other hand, the vast mass are sent away with the intellectual equipment of a public school-boy of twelve, and, as I have declared, a large remnant have not been taught even how to read and write. The storm of political controversy on educational matters has centred round such questions as whether the story of Joseph and his Brethren and the Parable of the Prodigal Son should be taught to little Baptists by a Church of England teacher, and what proportion of rates paid by Church of England ratepayers should go to giving little Baptists a Baptistical training. If there was a Christ who could come down among us, with what scorching sarcasm would he not shrivel up the Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, who in His Name have prevented the People from learning how to read and write.
Look through Hansard. There never has been a Debate in the House of Commons devoted to the question of Education itself. If the War can teach us any lessons, as a nation—and sometimes I doubt whether it will—it ought at least to teach us the essential vicious rottenness of our present educational system.
This tirade may seem a far cry from Mrs. Boyce and her sister mothers. It is not. I started by saying that there are hundreds of thousands of British mothers, with sons in the Army, who have never read a line of print dealing with the war, who have the haziest notion of what it is all about. All they know is that we are fighting Germans, who for some incomprehensible reason have declared themselves to be our enemies; that the Germans, by hearsay accounts, are dreadful people who stick babies on bayonets and drop bombs on women and children. They really know little more. But that is enough. They know that it is the part of a man to fight for his country. They would not have their sons be called cowards. They themselves have the blind, instinctive, and therefore sacred love of country, which is named patriotism—and they send forth their sons to fight.
I stand up to kiss the white and delicate hand of the gentlewoman who sends her boy to the war, for its owner knows as well as I do (or ought to) all that is involved in this colossal struggle. But to the toil-worn, coarse-handed mother I go on bended knees; nothing intellectual comes within the range of her ideas. Her boy is fighting for England. She would be ashamed if he were not. Were she a man she would fight too. He has gone "with a good 'eart"—the stereotyped phrase with which every English private soldier, tongue-tied, hides the expression of his unconquerable soul. How many times have I not heard it from wounded men healed of their wounds? I have never heard anything else. "The man who says he WANTS to go back is a liar. But if they send me, I'll go WITH A GOOD 'EART"—The phrase which ought to be immortalized on every grave in Flanders and France and Gallipoli and Mesopotamia.
So, you see, I looked at this rather silly malade imaginaire of an old lady with whom I was taking tea, and suddenly conceived for her a vast respect—even veneration. I say "rather silly." I had many a time qualified the adjective much more forcibly. I took her to have the intellectual endowment of a hen. But then she flashed out suddenly before me an elderly Jeanne d'Arc. That to me Leonard Boyce was suspect did not enter at all into the question. To her—and that was all that mattered—he was Sir Galahad, Lancelot, King Arthur, Bayard, St. George, Hector, Lysander, Miltiades, all rolled into one. The passion of her life was spent on him. To do him justice, he had never failed to display to her the most tender affection. In her eyes he was perfection. His death would mean the wiping out of everything between Earth and Heaven. And yet, paramount in her envisagement of such a tragedy was the idea of a public proclamation of the cause of England in which he died.
In this war the women of England—the women of Great Britain and Ireland—the women of the far-flung regions of the British Empire, have their part.
Now and then mild business matters call me up to London. On these occasions Marigold gets himself up in a kind of yachting kit which he imagines will differentiate him from the ordinary chauffeur and at the same time proclaim the dignity of the Meredyth-Marigold establishment. He loves to swagger up the steps of my Service Club and announce my arrival to the Hall Porter, who already, warned by telephone of my advent, has my little wicker-work tricycle chair in readiness. I think he feels, dear fellow, that he and I are keeping our end up; that, although there are only bits of us left, we are there by inalienable right as part and parcel of the British Army—none of your Territorials or Kitcheners, but the old original British Army whose prestige and honour were those of his own straight soul. The Hall Porter is an ex-Sergeant-Major, and he and Marigold are old acquaintances, and the meeting of the two warriors is acknowledged by a wink and a military jerk of the head. I think it is Marigold that impresses Bunworthy with a respect for me, for that august functionary never fails to descend the steps and cross the pavement to my modest little two-seater; an act of graciousness which (so I am given to understand by my friends) he will only perform in the case of Royalty Itself. A mere Field-marshal has to mount the steps unattended like any subaltern.
These red-letter days when I drive through the familiar (and now exciting) hubbub of London, I love (strange taste!) every motor omnibus, every pretty woman, every sandwich-man, every fine young fellow in khaki, every car-load of men in blue hospital uniform. I love the smell of London, the cinematographic picture of London, the thrill of London. To understand what I mean you have only got to get rid of your legs and keep your heart and nerves and memories, and live in a little country town.
Yes, my visits to London are red-letter days. To get there with any enjoyment to myself involves such a fussification, and such an unauthorised claim on the services of other people, that my visits are few and far between.
A couple of hours in a club smoking-room—to the normal man a mere putting in of time, a vain surcease from boredom, a vacuous habit—is to me, a strange wonder and delight. After Wellingsford the place is resonant with actualities. I hear all sorts of things; mostly lies, I know; but what matter? When a man tells me that his cousin knows a man attached as liaison officer to the staff of General Joffre, who has given out confidentially that such and such a thing is going to happen I am all ears. I feel that I am sucked into the great whirlpool of Vast Events. I don't care a bit about being disillusioned afterwards. The experience has done me good, made a man of me and sent me back to Wellingsford as an oracle. And if you bring me a man who declares that he does not like being an oracle, I will say to his face that he is an unblushing liar.
All this is by way of preface to the statement that on the third of May (vide diary) I went to the club. It was just after lunch and the great smoking-room was full of men in khaki and men in blue and gold, with a sprinkling of men, mostly elderly, in mufti; and from their gilt frames the full-length portraits of departed men of war in gorgeous uniforms looked down superciliously on their more sadly attired descendants. I got into a corner by the door, so as to be out of the way, for I knew by experience that should there be in the room a choleric general, he would inevitably trip over the casually extended front wheel of my chair, greatly to the scandal of modest ears and to my own physical discomfiture.
Various seniors came up and passed the time of the day with me—one or two were bald-headed retired colonels of sixty, dressed in khaki, with belts like equators on a terrestrial globe and with a captain's three stars on their sleeves. Gallant old boys, full of gout and softness, they had sunk their rank and taken whatever dull jobs, such as guarding internment camps or railway bridges, the War Office condescendingly thought fit to give them. They listened sympathetically to my grievances, for they had grievances of their own. When soldiers have no grievances the Army will perish of smug content.
"Why can't they give me a billet in the Army Pay and let me release a man sounder of wind and limb?" I asked. "What's the good of legs to a man who sits on his hunkers all day in an office and fills up Army forms? I hate seeing you lucky fellows in uniform."
"We're not a pretty sight," said the most rotund, who was a wag in his way.
Then we discussed what we knew and what we didn't know of the Battle of Ypres, and the withdrawal of our Second Army, and shook our heads dolorously over the casualty lists, every one of which in those days contained the names of old comrades and of old comrades' boys. And when they had finished their coffee and mild cigars they went off well contented to their dull jobs and the room began to thin. Other acquaintances on their way out paused for a handshake and a word, and I gathered scraps of information that had come "straight from Kitchener," and felt wonderfully wise and cheerful.
I had been sitting alone for a few minutes when a man rose from a far corner, a tall soldierly figure, his arm in a sling, and came straight towards me with that supple, easy stride that only years of confident command can give. He had keen blue eyes and a pleasant bronzed face which I knew that I had seem somewhere before. I noticed on his sleeve the crown and star of a lieutenant-colonel. He said pleasantly:
"You're Major Meredyth, aren't you?"
"Yes," said I.
"You don't remember me. No reason why you should. But my name's Dacre—Reggie Dacre, brother of Johnnie Dacre in your battery. We met in Cape Town."
I held out my hand.
"Of course," said I. "You took me to a hospital. Do sit down for a bit. You a member here?"
"No. I belong to the Naval and Military. Lunching with old General Donovan, a sort of god-father of mine. He told me who you were. I haven't seen you since that day in South Africa."
I asked for news of Johnnie, who had been lost to my ken for years. Johnnie had been in India, and was now doing splendidly with his battery somewhere near La Bassee. I pointed to the sling. Badly hurt? No, a bit of flesh torn by shrapnel. Bone, thank God, not touched. It was only horny-headed idiots like the British R. A. M. C. that would send a man home for such a trifle. It was devilish hard lines to be hoofed away from the regiment practically just after he had got his command. However, he would be back in a week or two. He laughed.
"Lucky to be alive at all."
"Or not done in for ever like myself," said I.
"I didn't like to ask—" he said. Men would rather die than commit the indelicacy of appearing to notice my infirmity.
"You haven't been out there?"
"No such luck," said I. "I got this little lot about a fortnight after I saw you. Johnnie was still on sick leave and so was out of that scrap."
He commiserated with me on my ill-fortune, and handed me his cigarette case. We smoked.
"You've been on my mind for months," he said abruptly.
He nodded. "I thought I recognised you. I asked the General who you were. He said 'Meredyth of the Gunners.' So I knew I was right and made a bee line for you. Do you remember the story of that man in the hospital?"
"Perfectly," said I.
"About Boyce of the King's Watch?"
"Yes," said I. "I saw Boyce, home on leave, about a fortnight ago. I suppose you saw his D.S.O. gazetted?"
"I did. And he deserves a jolly sight more," he exclaimed heartily. "I've come to the conclusion that that fellow in the hospital—I forget the brute's name—"
"Somers," said I.
"Yes, Somers. I've come to the conclusion that he was the damn'dest, filthiest, lyingest hound that ever was pupped."
"I'm glad to hear it," said I. "It was a horrible story. I remember making your brother and yourself vow eternal secrecy."
"You can take it from me that we haven't breathed a word to anybody. As a matter of fact, the whole damn thing had gone out of my head for years. Then I begin to hear of a fellow called Boyce of the Rifles doing the most crazy magnificent things. I make enquiries and find it's the same Leonard Boyce of the Vilboek Farm story. We're in the same Brigade.
"You don't often hear of individual men out there—your mind's too jolly well concentrated on your own tiny show. But Boyce has sort of burst out beyond his own regiment and, with just one or two others, is beginning to be legendary. He has done the maddest things and won the V.C. twenty times over. So that blighter Somers, accusing him of cowardice, was a ghastly liar. And then I remembered taking you up to hear that damnable slander, and I felt that I had a share in it, as far as you were concerned, and I longed to get at you somehow and tell you about it. I wanted to get it off my chest. And now," said he with a breath of relief, "thank God, I've been able to do so."
"I wish you would tell me of an incident or two," said I.
"He has got a life-preserver that looks like an ordinary cane—had it specially made. It's quite famous. Men tell me that the knob is a rich, deep, polished vermilion. He'll take on any number of Boches with it single-handed. If there's any sign of wire-cutting, he'll not let the men fire, but will take it on himself, and creep like a Gurkha and do the devils in. One night he got a whole listening post like that. He does a lot of things a second in command hasn't any business to do, but his men would follow him anywhere. He bears a charmed life. I could tell you lots of things—but I see my old General's getting restive." He rose, stretched out his hand. "At any rate, take my word for it—if there's a man in the British Army who doesn't know what fear is, that man is Leonard Boyce."
He nodded in his frank way and rejoined his old General. As I had had enough exciting information for one visit to town, I motored back to Wellingsford.