For a week or two the sluggish stream of Wellingsfordian life flowed on undisturbed. The chief incident was a recruiting meeting held on the Common. Sir Anthony Fenimore in his civic capacity, a staff-officer with red tabs, a wounded soldier, an elderly, eloquent gentleman from recruiting headquarters in London, and one or two nondescripts, including myself, were on the platform. A company of a County Territorial Battalion and the O.T.C. of the Godbury Grammar School gave a semblance of military display. The Town Band, in a sort of Hungarian uniform, discoursed martial music. Old men and maidens, mothers and children, and contented young fellows in khaki belonging to all kinds of arms, formed a most respectable crowd. The flower of Wellingsfordian youth was noticeably absent. They were having too excellent a time to be drawn into the temptation of a recruiting meeting, in spite of the band and the fine afternoon and the promiscuity of attractive damsels. They were making unheard-of money at the circumjacent factories; their mothers were waxing fat on billeting-money. They never had so much money to spend on moving-picture-palaces and cheap jewellery for their inamoratas in their lives. As our beautiful Educational system had most scrupulously excluded from their school curriculum any reference to patriotism, any rudimentary conception of England as their sacred heritage, and as they had been afforded no opportunity since they left school of thinking of anything save their material welfare and grosser material appetites, the vague talk of peril to the British Empire left them unmoved. They were quite content to let others go and fight. They had their own comfortable theories about it. Some fellows liked that sort of thing. They themselves didn't. In ordinary times, it amused that kind of fellow to belong to a Harriers Club, and clad in shorts and zephyrs, go on Sundays for twenty-mile runs. It didn't amuse them. A cigarette, a girl, and a stile formed their ideal of Sunday enjoyment. They had no quarrel with the harrier fellow or the soldier fellow for following his bent. They were most broad-minded. But they flattered themselves that they were fellows of a superior and more intelligent breed. They were making money and living warm, the only ideal of existence of which they had ever heard, and what did anything else matter?
If a man has never been taught that he has a country, how the deuce do you expect him to love her—still less to defend her with his blood? Our more than damnable governments for the last thirty years have done everything in their power to crush in English hearts the national spirit of England. God knows I have no quarrel with Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. I speak in no disparagement of them. Quite the reverse. In this war they have given freely of their blood. I only speak as an Englishman of England, the great Mother of the Empire. Scot, Irishman, Welshman, Canadian, Australian are filled with the pride of their nationality. It is part of their being. Wisely they have been trained to it from infancy. England, who is far bigger, far more powerful than the whole lot of them put together—it's a statistical fact—has deliberately sunk herself in her own esteem, in her own pride. Only one great man has stood for England, as England, the great Mother, for the last thirty years. And that man is Rudyard Kipling. And the Little Folk in authority in England have spent their souls in rendering nugatory his inspired message.
This criminal self-effacement of England is at the root of the peril of the British Empire during this war.
I told you at the beginning that I did not know how to write a story. You must forgive me for being led away into divagations which seem to be irrelevant to the dramatic sequence. But when I remember that the result of all the pomp and circumstance of that meeting was seven recruits, of whom three were rejected as being physically unfit, my pen runs away with my discretion, and my conjecturing as to artistic fitness.
Yes, the Major spoke. Sir Anthony is a peppery little person and the audience enjoyed the cayenne piquancy of his remarks. The red-tabbed Lieutenant-Colonel spoke. He was a bit dull. The elderly orator from London roused enthusiastic cheers. The wounded sergeant, on crutches, displaying a foot like a bandaged mop, brought tears into the eyes of many women and evoked hoarse cheers from the old men. I spoke from my infernal chair, and I think I was quite a success with the good fellows in khaki. But the only men we wanted to appeal to had studiously refrained from being present. The whole affair was a fiasco.
When we got home, Marigold, who had stood behind my chair during the proceedings, said to me:
"I think I know personally about thirty slackers in this town, sir, and I'm more than a match for any three of them put together. Suppose I was to go the rounds, so to speak, and say to each of them, 'You young blighter, if you don't come with me and enlist, I 'll knock hell out of you!'—and, if he didn't come, I did knock hell out of him—what exactly would happen, sir?"
"You would be summoned," said I, "for thirty separate cases of assault and battery. Reckoning the penalty at six months each, you would have to go to prison for fifteen years."
Marigold's one eye grew pensive and sad.
"And they call this," said he, "a free country!"
I began this chapter by remarking that for a week or two after my second interview with Randall Holmes, nothing particular happened. Then one afternoon came Sir Anthony Fenimore to see me, and with a view to obtaining either my advice or my sympathy, reopened the story of his daughter Althea found drowned in the canal eleven months before.
What he considered a most disconcerting light had just been cast on the tragedy by Maria Beccles. This lady was Lady Fenimore's sister. A deadly feud, entirely of Miss Beccles' initiating and nourishing, had existed between them for years. They had been neither on speaking nor on writing terms. Miss Beccles, ten years Lady Fenimore's senior, was, from all I had heard, a most disagreeable and ill-conditioned person, as different from my charming friend Edith Fenimore as the ugly old sisters were from Cinderella. Although she belonged to a good old South of England family, she had joined, for reasons known only to herself, the old Free Kirk of Scotland, found a congenial Calvinistic centre in Galloway, and after insulting her English relations and friends in the most unconscionable way, cut herself adrift from them for ever. "Mad as a hatter," Sir Anthony used to say, and, never having met the lady, I agreed with him. She loathed her sister, she detested Anthony, and she appeared to be coldly indifferent to the fact of the existence of her nephew Oswald. But for Althea, and for Althea alone, she entertained a curious, indulgent affection, and every now and then Althea went to spend a week or so in Galloway, where she contrived to obtain considerable amusement. Aunt Maria did both herself and her visitors very well, said Althea, who had an appreciative eye for the material blessings of life. Althea walked over the moors and fished and took Aunt Maria's cars out for exercise and, except whistle on the Sabbath, seemed to do exactly what she liked.
Now, in January 1914, Althea announced to her parents that Aunt Maria had summoned her for a week to Galloway. Sir Anthony stuffed her handbag with five-pound notes, and at an early hour of the morning sent her up in the car to London in charge of the chauffeur. The chauffeur returned saying that he had bought Miss Althea's ticket at Euston and seen her start off comfortably on her journey. A letter or two had been received by the Fenimores from Galloway, and letters they had written to Galloway had been acknowledged by Althea. She returned to Wellingsford in due course, with bonny cheeks and wind-swept eyes, and told us all funny little stories about Aunt Maria. No one thought anything more about it until one fine afternoon in May, 1915, when Maria Beccles walked unexpectedly into the drawing-room of Wellings Park, while Sir Anthony and Lady Fenimore were at tea.
"My dear Edith," she said to her astounded hostess, who had not seen her for fifteen years. "In this orgy of hatred and strife that is going on in the world, it seems ridiculous to go on hating and fighting one's own family. We must combine against the Germans and hate them. Let us be friends."
"Mad as Crazy Jane," said Sir Anthony, telling me the story. But I, who had never heard Aunt Maria's side of the dispute, thought it very high-spirited of the old lady to come and hold out the olive-branch in so uncompromising a fashion.
Lady Fenimore then said that she had never wished to quarrel with Maria, and Sir Anthony declared that her patriotic sentiments did her credit, and that he was proud to receive her under his roof, and in a few minutes Maria was drinking tea and discussing the war in the most contented way in the world.
"I didn't write to you on the occasion of the death of your two children because you knew I didn't like you," said this outspoken lady. "I hate hypocrisy. Also I thought that tribulation might chasten you in the eyes of the Lord. I've discussed it with our Minister, a poor body, but a courageous man. He told me I was unchristian. Now, what with all this universal massacre going on and my unregenerate longing, old woman as I am, to wade knee-deep in German blood, I don't know what the devil I am."
The more Anthony told me of Aunt Maria, the more I liked her.
"Can't I come round and make her acquaintance?" I cried. "She's the sort of knotty, solid human thing that I should love. No wonder Althea was fond of her."
"This happened a week ago. She only stayed a night," replied Sir Anthony. "I wish to God we had never seen her or heard of her."
And then the good, heart-wrung little man, who had been beating about the bush for half an hour, came straight to the point.
"You remember Althea's visit to Scotland in January last year?"
"Perfectly," said I.
He rose from his chair and looked at me in wrinkled anguish.
"She never went there," he said.
That was what he had come to tell me. A natural reference to the last visit of Althea to her aunt had established the stupefying fact.
"Althea's last visit was in October, 1913," said Miss Beccles.
"But we have letters from your house to prove she was with you in January," said Sir Anthony.
Most methodical and correspondence-docketing of men, he went to his library and returned with a couple of letters.
The old lady looked them through grimly.
"Pretty vague. No details. Read 'em again, Anthony."
When he had done so, she said: "Well?"
Lady Fenimore objected: "But Althea did stay with you. She must have stayed with you."
"All right, Edith," said Maria, sitting bolt upright. "Call me a liar, and have done with it. I've come here at considerable dislocation of myself and my principles, to bury the hatchet for the sake of unity against the enemy, and this is how I'm treated. I can only go back to Scotland at once."
Sir Anthony succeeded in pacifying her. The letters were evidence that Edith and himself believed that Althea was in Galloway at the time. Maria's denial had come upon them like a thunderclap, bewildering, stunning. If Althea was not in Galloway, where was she?
Maria Beccles did not reply for some time to the question. Then she took the pins out of her hat and threw it on a chair, thus symbolising the renunciation of her intention of returning forthwith to Scotland.
"Yes, Maria," said Lady Fenimore, with fear in her dark eyes, "we don't doubt your word—but, as Anthony has said, if she wasn't with you, where was she?"
"How do I know?"
Maria Beccles pointed a lean finger—she was a dark and shrivelled, gipsy-like creature. "You might as well ask the canal in which she drowned herself."
"But, my God, Anthony!" I cried, when he had got thus far, "What did you think? What did you say?"
I realised that the old lady had her social disqualifications. Plain-dealing is undoubtedly a virtue. But there are several virtues which the better class of angel keeps chained up in a dog-kennel. Of course she was acute. A mind trained in the acrobatics of Calvinistic Theology is, within a narrow compass, surprisingly agile. It jumped at one bound from the missing week in Althea's life into the black water of the canal. It was incapable, however, of appreciating the awful horror in the minds of the beholders.
"I don't know what I said," replied Sir Anthony, walking restlessly about my library. "We were struck all of a heap. As you know, we never had reason to think that the poor dear child's death was anything but an accident. We were not narrow-minded old idiots. She was a dear good girl. In a modern way she claimed her little independence. We let her have it. We trusted her. We took it for granted—you know it, Duncan, as well as I do—that, a hot night in June—not able to sleep—she had stuck on a hat and wandered about the grounds, as she had often done before, and a spirit of childish adventure had tempted her, that night, to walk round the back of the town and—and—well, until in the dark, she stepped off the tow-path by the lock gates, into nothing—and found the canal. It was an accident," he continued, with a hand on my shoulder, looking down on me in my chair. "The inquest proved that. I accepted it, as you know, as a visitation of God. Edith and I sorrowed for her like cowards. It took the war to bring us to our senses. But, now, this damned old woman comes and upsets the whole thing."
"But," said I, "after all, it was only a bow at a venture on the part of the old lady."
"I wish it were," said he, and he handed me a letter which Maria had written to him the day after her return to Scotland.
The letter contained a pretty piece of information. She had summarily discharged Elspeth Macrae, her confidential maid of five-and-twenty years' standing. Elspeth Macrae, on her own confession, had, out of love for Althea, performed the time-honoured jugglery with correspondence. She had posted in Galloway letters which she had received, under cover, from Althea, and had forwarded letters that had arrived addressed to Althea to an accommodation address in Carlisle. So have sentimental serving-maids done since the world began.
"What do you make of it?" asked Sir Anthony.
What else could I make of it but the one sorry theory? What woman employs all this subterfuge in order to obtain a weeks liberty for any other purpose than the one elementary purpose of young humanity?
We read the inevitable conclusion in each other's eyes.
"Who is the man, Duncan?"
"I suppose you have searched her desk and things?"
"Last year. Everything most carefully. It was awful—but we had to. Not a scrap of paper that wasn't innocence itself."
"It can't be anyone here," said I. "You know what the place is. The slightest spark sends gossip aflame like the fumes of petrol."
He sat down by my side and rubbed his close-cropped grey head.
"It couldn't have been young Holmes?"
The little man had a brave directness that sometimes disconcerted me. I knew the ghastly stab that every word cost him.
"She used to make mock of Randall," said I. "Don't you remember she used to call him 'the gilded poet'? Once she said he was the most lady-like young man of her acquaintance. I don't admire our young friend, but I think you're on the wrong track, Anthony."
"I don't see it," said he. "That sort of flippancy goes for nothing. Women use it as a sort of quickset hedge of protection." He bent forward and tapped me on my senseless knee. "Young Holmes always used to be in and out of the house. They had known each other from childhood. He had a distinguished Oxford career. When he won the Newdigate, she came running to me with the news, as pleased as Punch. I gave him a dinner in honour of it, if you remember."
"I remember," said I.
I did not remind him that he had made a speech which sent cold shivers down the spine of our young Apollo; that, in a fine rhetorical flourish—dear old fox-hunting ignoramus—he declared that the winner of the Newdigate carried the bays of the Laureate in his knapsack; that Randall, white-lipped with horror, murmured to Betty Fairfax, his neighbour at the table: "My God! The Poet-Laureate's unhallowed grave! I must burn the knapsack and take to a hod!" It was too tragical a conversation for light allusion.
"The poor dear child—Edith and I have sized it up—was all over him that evening."
"What more youthfully natural," said I, "than that she should carry off the hero of the occasion—her childhood's playfellow?"
"All sorts of apparently insignificant details, Duncan, taken together—especially if they fit in—very often make up a whole case for prosecution."
"You're a Chairman of Quarter Sessions," I admitted, "and so you ought to know."
"I know this," said he, "that Holmes only spent part of that Christmas vacation with his mother, and went off somewhere or the other early in January." I cudgelled back my memory into confirmation of his statement. To remember trivial incidents before the war takes a lot of cudgelling. Yes. I distinctly recollected the young man's telling me that Oxford being an intellectual hothouse and Wellingsford an intellectual Arabia Petrea, he was compelled, for the sake of his mental health, to find a period of repose in the intellectual Nature of London. I mentioned this to Sir Anthony.
"Yet," I said, "I don't think he had anything to do with it."
"It would have been far too much moral exertion—"
"You call it moral?" Sir Anthony burst out angrily.
I pacified him with an analysis, from my point of view, of Randall's character. Centripetal forces were too strong for the young man. I dissertated on his amours with Phyllis Gedge.
"No, my dear old friend," said I, in conclusion, "I don't think it was Randall Holmes."
Sir Anthony rose and shook his fist in my face. As I knew he meant me no bodily harm, I did not blench.
"Who was it, then?"
"Althea," said I, "often used to stay in town with your sister. Lady Greatorex has a wide circle of acquaintances. Do you know anything of the men Althea used to meet at her house?"
"Of course I don't," replied Sir Anthony. Then he sat down again with a gesture of despair. "After all, what does it matter? Perhaps it's as well I don't know who the man was, for if I did, I'd kill him!"
He set his teeth and glowered at nothing and smote his left palm with his right fist, and there was a long silence. Presently he repeated:
"I'd kill him!"
We fell to discussing the whole matter over again. Why, I asked, should we assume that the poor child was led astray by a villain? Might there not have been a romantic marriage which, for some reason we could not guess, she desired to keep secret for a tune? Had she not been bright and happy from January to June? And that night of tragedy... What more likely than that she had gone forth to keep tryst with her husband and accidentally met her death? "He arrives," said I, "waits for her. She never comes. He goes away. The next day he learns from local gossip or from newspapers what has happened. He thinks it best to keep silent and let her fair name be untouched...What have you to say against that theory?"
"Possible," he replied. "Anything conceivable within the limits of physical possibility is possible. But it isn't probable. I have an intuitive feeling that there was villainy about—and if ever I get hold of that man—God help him!"
So there was nothing more to be said.