I haven't that universal sympathy which is the most irritating attribute of saints and other pacifists. When, for instance, anyone of the fraternity arguing from the Sermon on the Mount tells me that I ought to love Germans, either I admit the obligation and declare that, as I am a miserable sinner, I have no compunction in breaking it, or, if he is a very sanctimonious saint, I remind him that, such creatures as modern Germans not having been invented on or about the year A.D. 30, the rule about loving your enemies could not possibly apply. At least I imagine I do one of these two things (sometimes, indeed, I dream gloatfully over acts of physical violence) when I read the pronouncements of such a person; for I have to my great good fortune never met him in the flesh. If there are any saintly pacifists in Wellingsford, they keep sedulously out of my way, and they certainly do not haunt my Service Club. And these are the only two places in which I have my being. Even Gedge doesn't talk of loving Germans. He just lumps all the belligerents together in one conglomerate hatred, for upsetting his comfortable social scheme.
As I say, I lack the universal sympathy of the saint. I can't like people I don't like. Some people I love very deeply; others, being of a kindly disposition, I tolerate; others again I simply detest. Now Wellingsford, like every little country town in England, is drab with elderly gentlewomen. As I am a funny old tabby myself, I have to mix with them. If I refuse invitations to take tea with them, they invite themselves to tea with me. "The poor Major," they say, "is so lonely." And they bait their little hooks and angle for gossip of which I am supposed—Heaven knows why—to be a sort of stocked pond. They don't carry home much of a catch, I assure you.... Well, of some of them I am quite fond. Mrs. Boyce, for all her shortcomings, is an old crony for whom I entertain a sincere affection. Towards Betty's aunt, Miss Fairfax, a harmless lady with a passion for ecclesiastical embroidery, I maintain an attitude of benevolent neutrality. But Mrs. Holmes, Randall's mother, and her sisters, the daughters of an eminent publicist who seems to have reared his eminence on bones of talk flung at him by Carlisle, George Eliot, Lewes, Monckton Milnes, and is now, doubtless, recording their toe-prints on the banks of Acheron, I never could and never can abide. My angel of a wife saw good in them, and she loved the tiny Randall, of whom I too was fond; so, for her sake, I always treated them with courtesy and kindness. Also for Randall's father's sake. He was a bluff, honest, stock-broking Briton who fancied pigeons and bred greyhounds for coursing, and cared less for literature and art than does the equally honest Mrs. Marigold in my kitchen. But his wife and her sisters led what they called the intellectual life. They regarded it as a heritage from their pompous ass of a father. Of course they were not eighteen-sixty, or even eighteen-eighty. They prided themselves on developing the hereditary tradition of culture to its extreme modern expression. They were of the semi-intellectual type of idiot—and, if it destroys it, the great war will have some justification—which professes to find in the dull analysis of the drab adultery and suicide of a German or Scandinavian rabbit-picker a supreme expression of human existence. All their talk was of Hauptmann and Sudermann (they dropped them patriotically, I must say, as outrageous fellows, on the outbreak of war), Strindberg, Dostoievsky—though I found they had never read either "Crime and Punishment" or "The Brothers Karamazoff"—Tolstoi, whom they didn't understand; and in art—God save the mark!—the Cubist school. That is how my poor young friend, Randall, was trained to get the worst of the frothy scum of intelligent Oxford. But even he sometimes winced at the pretentiousness of his mother and his aunts. He was a clever fellow and his knowledge was based on sound foundations. I need not say that the ladies were rather feared than loved in Wellingsford.
All this to explain why it was that when Marigold woke me from an afternoon nap with the information that Mrs. Holmes desired to see me, I scowled on him.
"Why didn't you say I was dead?"
"I told Mrs. Holmes you were asleep, sir, and she said: 'Will you be so kind as to wake him?' So what could I do, sir?"
I have never met with an idiot so helpless in the presence of a woman. He would have defended my slumbers before a charge of cavalry; but one elderly lady shoo'd him aside like a chicken.
Mrs. Holmes was shewn in, a tall, dark, thin, nervous woman wearing pince-nez and an austere sad-coloured garment.
She apologised for disturbing me.
"But," she said, sitting down on the couch, "I am in such great trouble and I could think of no one but you to advise me."
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"It's Randall. He left the house the day before yesterday, without telling any of us good-bye, and he hasn't written, and I don't know what on earth has become of him."
"Did he take any luggage?"
"Just a small suit-case. He even packed it himself, a thing he has never done at home in his life before."
This was news. The proceedings were unlike Randall, who in his goings and comings loved the domestic brass-band. To leave his home without valedictory music and vanish into the unknown, betokened some unusual perturbation of mind.
I asked whether she knew of any reason for such perturbation.
"He was greatly upset," she replied, "by the stoppage of The Albemarle Review for which he did such fine work."
I strove politely to hide my inability to condole and wagged my head sadly:
"I'm afraid there was no room for it in a be-bombed and be-shrapnelled world."
"I suppose the still small voice of reason would not be heard amid the din," she sighed. "And no other papers—except the impossible ones—would print Randall's poems and articles."
More news. This time excellent news. A publicist denied publicity is as useful as a German Field Marshal on a desert island. I asked what The Albemarle died of.
"Practically all the staff deserted what Randall called the Cause and dribbled away into the army," she replied mournfully.
As to what this precious Cause meant I did not enquire, having no wish to enter into an argument with the good lady which might have become exacerbated. Besides, she would only have parroted Randall. I had never yet detected her in the expression of an original idea.
"Perhaps he has dribbled away too?" I suggested grimly. She was silent. I bent forward. "Wouldn't you like him to dribble into the great flood?"
She lifted her lean shoulders despairingly.
"He's the only son of a widow. Even in France and Germany they're not expected to fight. But if he were different I would let him go gladly—I'm not selfish and unpatriotic, Major," she said with an unaccustomed little catch in her throat—and for the very first time I found in her something sympathetic—"but," she continued, "it seems so foolish to sacrifice all his intellectual brilliance to such crudities as fighting, when it might be employed so much more advantageously elsewhere."
"But, good God, my dear lady!" I cried. "Where are your wits? Where's your education? Where's your intelligent understanding of the daily papers? Where's your commonsense?"—I'm afraid I was brutally rude. "Can't you give a minute's thought to the situation? If there's one institution on earth that's shrieking aloud for intellectual brilliance, it's the British Army! Do you think it's a refuge for fools? Do you think any born imbecile is good enough to outwit the German Headquarters Staff? Do you think the lives of hundreds of his men—and perhaps the fate of thousands—can be entrusted to any brainless ass? An officer can't have too much brains. We're clamouring for brains. It's the healthy, brilliant-brained men like Randall that the Army's yelling for—simply yelling for," I repeated, bringing my hand down on the arm of my chair.
Two little red spots showed on each side of her thin face.
"I've never looked at it in that light before," she admitted.
"Of course I agree with you," I said diplomatically, "that Randall would be more or less wasted as a private soldier. The heroic stuff of which Thomas Atkins is made is, thank God, illimitable. But intellect is rare—especially in the ranks of God's own chosen, the British officer. And Randall is of the kind we want as officers. As for a commission, he could get one any day. I could get one for him myself. I still have a few friends. He's a good-looking chap and would carry off a uniform. Wouldn't you be proud to see him?"
A tear rolled down her cheek. I patted myself on the back for an artful fellow. But I had underrated her wit. To my chagrin she did not fall into my trap.
"It's the uncertainty that's killing me," she said. And then she burst out disconcertingly: "Do you think he has gone off with that dreadful little Gedge girl?"
Phyllis! I was a myriad miles from Phyllis. I was talking about real things. The mother, however, from her point of view, was talking of real things also. But how did she come to know about her son's amours? I thought it useless to enquire. Randall must have advertised his passion pretty widely. I replied:
"It's extremely improbable. In the first place Phyllis Gedge isn't dreadful, but a remarkably sweet and modest young woman, and in the second place she won't have anything to do with him."
"That's nonsense," she said, bridling.
A gesture and a smile completed the sentence. That a common young person should decline to have dealings with her paragon was incredible.
"I can find out in a minute," I smiled, "whether she is still in Wellingsford."
I wheeled myself to the telephone on my writing-table and rang up Betty at the hospital.
"Do you know where Phyllis Gedge is?"
Betty's voice came. "Yes. She's here. I've just left her to come to speak to you. Why do you want to know?"
"Never mind so long as she is safe and sound. There's no likelihood of her running away or eloping?"
Betty's laughter rang over the wires. "What lunacy are you talking? You might as well ask me whether I'm going to elope with you."
"I don't think you're respectful, Betty," I replied. "Good-bye."
I rang off and reported Betty's side of the conversation to my visitor.
"On that score," said I, "you can make your mind quite easy."
"But where can the boy have gone?" she cried.
"Into the world somewhere to learn wisdom," I said, and in order to show that I did not speak ironically, I wheeled myself to her side and touched her hand. "I think his swift brain has realised at last that all his smart knowledge hasn't brought him a little bit of wisdom worth a cent. I shouldn't worry. He's working out his salvation somehow, although he may not know it."
"Do you really think so?"
"I do," said I. "And if he finds that the path of wisdom leads to the German trenches—will you be glad or sorry?"
She grappled with the question in silence for a moment or two. Then she broke down and, to my dismay, began to cry.
"Do you suppose there's a woman in England that, in her heart of hearts, doesn't want her men folk to fight?"
I only allow the earlier part of this chapter to stand in order to show how a man quite well-meaning, although a trifle irascible, may be wanting in Christian charity and ordinary understanding; and of how many tangled knots of human motive, impulse, and emotion this war is a solvent. You see, she defended her son to the last, adopting his own specious line of argument; but at the last came the breaking-point....
The rest of our interview was of no great matter. I did my best to reassure and comfort her; and when I next saw Marigold, I said affably:
"You did quite well to wake me."
"I thought I was acting rightly, sir. Mr. Randall having bolted, so to speak, it seemed only natural that Mrs. Holmes should come to see you."
"You knew that Mr. Randall had bolted and you never told me?"
I glared indignantly. Marigold stiffened himself—the degree of stiffness beyond his ordinary inflexibility of attitude could only have been ascertained by a vernier, but that degree imparted an appreciable dignity to his demeanour.
"I beg pardon, sir, but lately I've noticed that my little bits of local news haven't seemed to be welcome."
"Marigold," said I, "don't be an ass."
"Very good, sir."
"My mind," said I, "is in an awful muddle about all sorts of things that are going on in this town. So I should esteem it a favour if you would tell me at once any odds and ends of gossip you may pick up. They may possibly be important."
"And if I have any inferences to draw from what I hear," said he gravely, fixing me with his clear eye, "may I take the liberty of acquainting you with them?"
"Very good, sir," said Marigold.
Now what was Marigold going to draw inferences about? That was another puzzle. I felt myself being drawn into a fog-filled labyrinth of intrigue in which already groping were most of the people I knew. What with the mysterious relations between Betty and Boyce and Gedge, what with young Dacre's full exoneration of Boyce, what with young Randall's split with Gedge and his impeccable attitude towards Phyllis, things were complicated enough; Sir Anthony's revelations regarding poor Althea and his dark surmises concerning Randall complicated them still more; and now comes Mrs. Holmes to tell me of Randall's mysterious disappearance.
"A plague on the whole lot!" I exclaimed wrathfully.
I dined that evening with the Fenimores. My dear Betty was there too, the only other guest, looking very proud and radiant. A letter that morning from Willie Connor informed her that the regiment, by holding a trench against an overwhelming German attack, had achieved glorious renown. The Brigadier-General had specially congratulated the Colonel, and the Colonel had specially complimented Willie on the magnificent work of his company. Of course there was a heavy price in casualties—poor young Etherington, whom we all knew, for instance, blown to atoms—but Willie, thank God! was safe.
"I wonder what would happen to me, if Willie were to get the V.C. I think I should go mad with pride!" she exclaimed with flushed cheeks, forgetful of poor young Etherington, a laughter-loving boy of twenty, who had been blown to atoms. It is strange how apparently callous this universal carnage has made the noblest and the tenderest of men and women. We cling passionately to the lives of those near and dear to us. But as to those near and dear to others, who are killed—well—we pay them the passing tribute not even of a tear, but only of a sign. They died gloriously for their country. What can we say more? If we—we survivors, not only invalids and women and other stay-at-homes, but also comrades on the field—were riven to our souls by the piteous tragedy of splendid youth destroyed in its flower, we could not stand the strain, we should weep hysterically, we should be broken folk. But a merciful Providence steps in and steels our hearts. The loyal hearts are there beating truly; and in order that they should beat truly and stoutly, they are given this God-sent armour.
So, when we raised our glasses and drank gladly to the success of Willie Connor the living, and put from our thoughts Frank Etherington the dead, you must not account it to us as lack of human pity. You must be lenient in your judgment of those who are thrown into the furnace of a great war.
Lady Fenimore smiled on Betty. "We should all be proud, my dear, if Captain Connor won the Victoria Cross. But you mustn't set your heart on it. That would be foolish. Hundreds of thousands of men deserve the V.C. ten times a day, and they can't all be rewarded."
Betty laughed gaily at good Lady Fenimore's somewhat didactic reproof. "You know I'm not an absolute idiot. Fancy the poor dear coming home all over bandages and sticking-plaster. 'Where's your V. C?' 'I haven't got it.' 'Then go back at once and get it or I shan't love you.' Poor darling!" Suddenly the laughter in her eyes quickened into something very bright and beautiful. "There's not a woman in England prouder of her husband than I am. No V.C. could possibly reward him for what he has done. But I want it for myself. I'd like my babies to cut their teeth on it."
When I went out to the Boer War, the most wonderful woman on earth said to me on parting:
"Wherever you are, dear, remember that I am always with you in spirit and soul and heart and almost in body."
And God knows she was. And when I returned a helpless cripple she gathered me in her brave arms on the open quay at Southampton, and after a moment or two of foolishness, she said:
"Do you know, when I die, what you'll find engraven on my heart?"
"No," said I.
"Your D.S.O. ribbon."
So when Betty talked about her babies and the little bronze cross, my eyes grew moist and I felt ridiculously sentimental.
Not a word, of course, was spoken before Betty of the new light, or the new darkness, whichsoever you will, that had been cast on the tragedy of Althea. I could not do otherwise than agree with the direct-spoken old lady who had at once correlated the adventure in Carlisle with the plunge into the Wellingsford Canal. And so did Sir Anthony. They were very brave, however, the little man and Edith, in their dinner-talk with Betty. But I saw that the past fortnight had aged them both by a year or more. They had been stabbed in their honour, their trust, and their faith. It was a secret terror that stalked at their side by day and lay stark at their side by night. It was only when the ladies had left us that Sir Anthony referred to the subject.
"I suppose you know that young Randall Holmes has bolted."
"So his mother informed me to-day."
He pricked his ears. "Does she know where he has gone to?"
"No," said I.
"What did I tell you?" said Sir Anthony.
I held up my glass of port to the light and looked through it.
"A lot of damfoolishness, my dear old friend," said I.
He grew angry. A man doesn't like to be coldly called a damfool at his own table. He rose on his spurs, in his little red bantam way. Was I too much of an idiot to see the connection? As soon as the Carlisle business became known, this young scoundrel flies the country. Couldn't I see an inch before my blind nose? Forbearing to question this remarkable figure of speech, I asked him how so confidential a matter could have become known.
"Everything gets known in this infernal little town," he retorted.
"That's where you're mistaken," said I. "Half everything gets known—the unimportant half. The rest is supplied by malicious or prejudiced invention."
We discussed the question after the futile way of men until we went into the drawing-room, where Betty played and sang to us until it was time to go home.
Marigold was about to lift me into the two-seater when Betty, who had been lurking in her car a little way off, ran forward.
"Would it bore you if I came in for a quarter of an hour?"
"Bore me, my dear?" said I. "Of course not."
So a short while afterwards we were comfortably established in my library.
"You rang me up to-day about Phyllis Gedge."
"I did," said I.
She lit a cigarette and seated herself on the fender-stool. She has an unconscious knack of getting into easy, loose-limbed attitudes. I said admiringly:
"Do you know you're a remarkably well-favoured young person?"
And as soon as I said it, I realised what a tremendous factor Betty was in my circumscribed life. What could I do without her sweet intimacy? If Willie Connor's Territorial regiment, like so many others, had been ordered out to India, and she had gone with him, how blank would be the days and weeks and months! I thanked God for granting me her graciousness.
She smiled and blew me a kiss. "That's very gratifying to know," she said. "But it has nothing to do with Phyllis."
"Well, what about Phyllis?"
"I'll tell you," she replied.
And she told me. Her story was not of world-shaking moment, but it interested me. I have since learned its substantial correctness and am able to add some supplementary details.
You see, things were like this.... In order to start I must go back some years.... I have always had a warm corner in my heart for little Phyllis Gedge, ever since she was a blue-eyed child. My wife had a great deal to do with it. She was a woman of dauntless courage and clear vision into the heart of things. I find many a reflection of her in Betty. Perhaps that is why I love Betty so dearly.
Some strange, sweet fool feminine of gentle birth and deplorable upbringing fell in love with a vehemently socialistic young artisan by the name of Gedge and married him. Her casual but proud-minded family wiped her off the proud family slate. She brought Phyllis into the world and five years afterwards found herself be-Gedged out of existence. They were struggling people in those days, and before her death my wife used to employ her, when she could, for household sewing and whatnot. And tiny Phyllis, in a childless home, became a petted darling. When my great loneliness came upon me, it was a solace to have the little dainty prattling thing to spend an occasional hour in my company. Gedge, an excellent workman, set up as a contractor. He took my modest home under his charge. A leaky tap, a broken pane, a new set of bookshelves, a faulty drainpipe—all were matters for Gedge. I abhorred his politics but I admired his work, and I continued, with Mrs. Marigold's motherly aid, to make much of Phyllis.
Gedge, for queer motives of his own, sent her to as good a school as he could afford, as a matter of fact an excellent school, one where she met girls of a superior social class and learned educated speech and graceful manners. Her holidays, poor child, were somewhat dreary, for her father, an anti-social creature, had scarce a friend in the town. Save for here and there an invitation to tea from Betty or myself, she did not cross the threshold of a house in Wellingsford. But to my house, all through her schooldays and afterwards, Phyllis came, and on such occasions Mrs. Marigold prepared teas of the organic lusciousness dear to the heart of a healthy girl.
Now, here comes the point of all this palaver. Young Master Randall used also to come to my house. Now and then by chance they met there. They were good boy and girl friends.
I want to make it absolutely clear that her acquaintance with Randall was not any vulgar picking-up-in-the-street affair.
When she left school, her father made her his book-keeper, secretary, confidential clerk. Anybody turning into the office to summon Gedge to repair a roof or a burst boiler had a preliminary interview with Phyllis. Young Randall, taking over the business of the upkeep of his mother's house, gradually acquired the habit of such preliminary interviews. The whole imbroglio was very simple, very natural. They had first met at my own rich cake and jam-puff bespread tea-table. When Randall went into the office to speak, presumably, about a defective draught in the kitchen range, and really about things quite different, the ethics of the matter depended entirely on Randall's point of view. Their meetings had been contrived by no unmaidenly subterfuge on the part of Phyllis. She knew him to be above her in social station. She kept him off as long as she could. But que voulez-vous? Randall was a very good-looking, brilliant, and fascinating fellow; Phyllis was a dear little human girl. And it is the human way of such girls to fall in love with such fascinating, brilliant fellows. I not only hold a brief for Phyllis, but I am the judge, too, and having heard all the evidence, I deliver a verdict overwhelmingly in her favour. Given the circumstances as I have stated them, she was bound to fall in love with Randall, and in doing so committed not the little tiniest speck of a peccadillo.
My first intimation of tender relations between them came from my sight of them in February in Wellings Park. Since then, of course, I have much which I will tell you as best I may.
So now for Betty's story, confirmed and supplemented by what I have learned later. But before plunging into the matter, I must say that when Betty had ended I took up my little parable and told her of all that Randall had told me concerning his repudiation of Gedge. And Betty listened with a curiously stony face and said nothing.
When Betty puts on that face of granite I am quite unhappy. That is why I have always hated the statues of Egypt. There is something beneath their cold faces that you can't get at.