Thus over the sequestered vale of Wellingsford, far away from the sound of shells, even off the track of marauding Zeppelins, rode the fiery planet. Mars. There is not a homestead in Great Britain that in one form or another has not caught a reflection of its blood-red ray. No matter how we may seek distraction in work or amusement, the angry glow is ever before our eyes, colouring our vision, colouring our thoughts, colouring our emotions for good or for ill. We cannot escape it. Our personal destinies are inextricably interwoven with the fate directing the death grapple of the thousand miles or so of battle line, and arbitrating on the doom of colossal battleships.
Our local newspaper prints week by week its ever-lengthening Roll of Honour. The shells that burst and slew these brave fellows spread their devastation into our little sheltered town; in a thundering crash tearing off from the very trunk of life here a friend, there a son, there a father, there a husband. And I repeat, at the risk of wearisome insistence, that our sheltered homeland shares the calm, awful fatalism of the battlefield; we have to share it because every rood of our country is, spiritually, as much a battlefield as the narrow, blood-sodden wastes of Flanders and France.
Willie Connor, fine brave gentleman, was dead. My beloved Betty was a widow. No Victoria Cross for Betty. Even if there had been one, no children to be bred from birth on its glorious legend. The German shell left Betty stripped and maimed. With her passionate generosity she had given her all; even as his all had been nobly given by her husband. And then all of both had been swept ruthlessly away down the gory draught of sacrifice.
Poor Betty! "I'm a damned little coward," she said, as she bolted into the house. The brave, foolish words rang in my ears all that night. In the early morning I wondered what I should do. A commonplace message, written or telephoned, would be inept. I shrank from touching her, although I knew she would feel my touch to be gentle. You have seen, I hope, that Betty was dearer to me than anyone else in the world, and I knew that, apart from the stirring emotions in her own young life, Betty held me in the closest affection. When she needed me, she would fly the signal. Of that I felt assured. Still...
While I was in this state of perplexity, Marigold came in to rouse me and get me ready for the day.
"I've taken the liberty, sir," said he, "to telephone to Telford Lodge to enquire after Mrs. Connor. The maid said she had Mrs. Connor's instructions to reply that she was quite well."
The good, admirable fellow! I thanked him. While I was shaving, he said in his usual wooden way:
"Begging your pardon, sir, I thought you might like to send Mrs. Connor a few flowers, so I took upon myself to cut some roses, first thing this morning, with the dew on them."
Of course I cut myself and the blood flowed profusely.
"Why the dickens do you spring things like that on people while they're shaving?" I cried.
"Very sorry, sir," said he, solicitous with sponge and towel.
"All the same, Marigold," said I, "you've solved a puzzle that has kept me awake since early dawn. We'll go out as soon as I'm dressed and we'll send her every rose in the garden."
I have an acre or so of garden behind the house of which I have not yet spoken, save incidentally—for it was there that just a year ago poor Althea Fenimore ate her giant strawberries on the last afternoon of her young life; and a cross-grained old misanthropist, called Timbs, attends to it and lavishes on the flowers the love which, owing, I suspect, to blighted early affection, he denies to mankind. I am very fond of my garden and am especially interested in my roses. Do you know an exquisitely pink rose—the only true pink—named Mrs. George Norwood? ... I bring myself up with a jerk. I am not writing a book on roses. When the war is over perhaps I shall devote my old age to telling you what I feel and know and think about them....
I had a battle with Timbs. Timbs was about sixty. He had shaggy, bushy eyebrows over hard little eyes, a shaggy grey beard, and a long, clean-shaven, obstinate upper lip. Stick him in an ill-fitting frock coat and an antiquated silk hat, and he would be the stage model of a Scottish Elder. As a matter of fact he was Hampshire born and a devout Roman Catholic. But he was as crabbed an old wretch as you can please. He flatly refused to execute my order. I dismissed him on the spot. He countered with the statement that he was an old man who had served me faithfully for many years. I bade him go on serving me faithfully and not be a damned fool. The roses were to be cut. If he didn't cut them, Marigold would.
"He's been a-cutting them already," he growled. "Before I came."
Timbs loathed Marigold—why, I could never discover—and Marigold had the lowest opinion of Timbs. It was an offence for Marigold to desecrate the garden by his mere footsteps; to touch a plant or a flower constituted a damnable outrage. On the other side, Timbs could not approach my person for the purpose of rendering me any necessary physical assistance, without incurring Marigold's violent resentment.
"He'll go on cutting them," said I, "unless you start in at once."
He began. I sent off Marigold in search of a wheelbarrow. Then, having Timbs to myself, I summoned him to my side.
"Do you hold with a man sacrificing his life for his country?"
He looked at me for a moment or two, in his dour, crabbed way.
"I've got a couple of sons in France, trying their best to do it," he replied.
That was the first I had ever heard of it. I had always regarded him as a gnarled old bachelor without human ties. Where he had kept the sons and the necessary mother I had not the remotest notion.
"You're proud of them?"
"And if one was killed, would you grudge his grave a few roses? For the sake of him wouldn't you sacrifice a world of roses?"
His manner changed. "I don't understand, sir. Is anybody killed?"
"Didn't I say that all these roses were for Mrs. Connor?"
He dropped his secateur. "Good God, sir! Is it Captain Connor?"
The block-headed idiot of a Marigold had not told him! Marigold is a very fine fellow, but occasionally he manifests human frailties that are truly abominable.
"We are going to sacrifice all our roses, Timbs," said I, "for the sake of a very gallant Englishman. It's about all we can do."
Of course I ought to have entered upon all this explanation when I first came on the scene; but I took it for granted that Timbs knew of the tragedy.
"Need we cut those blooms of the Rayon d'Or?" asked Timbs, alluding to certain roses under conical paper shades which he had been breathlessly tending for our local flower show. "We'll cut them first," said I.
Looking back through the correcting prism of time, I fancy this slaughter of the innocents may have been foolishly sentimental. But I had a great desire to lay all that I could by way of tribute of consolation at Betty's feet, and this little sacrifice of all my roses seemed as symbolical an expression of my feelings as anything that my unimaginative brain could devise.
During the forenoon I superintended the packing of the baskets of roses in Pawling the florist's cart, which I was successful in engaging for the occasion,—neither wheelbarrow nor donkey carriage nor two-seater, the only vehicles at my disposal, being adequate; and when I saw it start for its destination, I wheeled myself, by way of discipline, through my bereaved garden. It looked mighty desolate. But though all the blooms had gone, there were a myriad buds which next week would burst into happy flower. And the sacrifice seemed trivial, almost ironical; for in Betty's heart there were no buds left.
After lunch I went to the hospital for the weekly committee meeting. To my amazement the first person I met in the corridor was Betty—Betty, white as wax, with black rings round unnaturally shining eyes. She waited for me to wheel myself up to her. I said severely:
"What on earth are you doing here? Go home to bed at once."
She put her hand on the back of my chair and bent down.
"I'm better here. And so are the dear roses. Come and see them."
I followed her into one of the military wards on the ground floor, and the place was a feast of roses. I had no idea so many could have come from my little garden. And the ward upstairs, she told me, was similarly beflowered. By the side of each man's bed stood bowl or vase, and the tables and the window sills were bright with blooms. It was the ward for serious cases—men with faces livid from gas-poisoning, men with the accursed trench nephritis, men with faces swathed in bandages hiding God knows what distortions, men with cradles over them betokening mangled limbs, men recovering from operations, chiefly the picking of bits of shrapnel and splinters of bone from shattered arms and legs; men with pale faces, patient eyes, and with cheery smiles round their lips when we passed by. A gramophone at the end of the room was grinding out a sentimental tune to which all were listening with rapt enjoyment. I asked one man, among others, how he was faring. He was getting on fine. With the death-rattle in his throat the wounded British soldier invariably tells you that he is getting on fine.
"And ain't these roses lovely? Makes the place look like a garden. And that music—seems appropriate, don't it, sir?"
I asked what the gramophone was playing. He looked respectfully shocked.
"Why, it's 'The Rosary,' sir."
After we had left him, Betty said:
"That's the third time they've asked for it to-day. They've got mixed up with the name, you see. They're beautiful children, aren't they?"
I should have called them sentimental idiots, but Betty saw much clearer than I did. She accompanied me back to the corridor and to the Committee Room door. I was a quarter of an hour late.
"I've kept the precious Rayon d'Ors for myself," she said. "How could you have the heart to cut them?"
"I would have cut out my heart itself, for the matter of that," said I, "if it would have done any good."
She smiled in a forlorn kind of way.
"Don't do that, for I shall want it inside you more than ever now. Tell me, how is Tufton?"
I must confess that my mind being so full of Betty, I had clean forgotten Tufton. But Betty remembered.
I smiled. "He's getting on fine," said I. I reached out my hand and held her cold, slim fingers. "Promise me one thing, my dear."
"All right," she said.
"Don't overdo things. There's a limit to the power of bearing strain. As soon as you feel you're likely to go FUT, throw it all up and come and see me and let us lay our heads together."
"I despise people who go FUT," said Betty.
"I don't," said I.
We nodded a mutual farewell. She opened the Committee Room door for me and walked down the corridor with a swinging step, as though she would show me how fully she had made herself mistress of circumstance.
Some evenings later she came in, as usual, unheralded, and established herself by my chair.
The scents of midsummer came in through the open windows, and there was a great full moon staring in at us from a cloudless sky. Letters from the War Office, from brother-officers, from the Colonel, from the Brigadier General himself, had broken her down. She gave me the letters to read. Everyone loved him, admired him, trusted him. "As brave as a lion," wrote one. "Perhaps the most brilliant company officer in my brigade," wrote the General. And his death—the tragic common story. A trench; a high-explosive shell; the fate of young Etherington; and no possible little wooden cross to mark his grave.
And Betty, on the floor by my side, gave way.
The proud will bent. She surrendered herself to a paroxysm of sorrow.
She was not in a fit state to return to the hospital, where, I learned, she shared a bedroom with Phyllis Gedge. I shrank from sending her home to the tactless comforting of her aunts. They were excellent, God-fearing ladies, but they had never understood Betty. All her life they had worried her with genteel admonitions. They had regarded her marriage with disfavour, as an act of foolhardiness—I even think they looked on her attitude as unmaidenly; and now in her frozen widowhood they fretted her past endurance. On the night when the news came they sent for the vicar of their parish—not my good friend who christened Hosea—a very worthy, very serious, very evangelistically religious fellow, to administer spiritual consolation. If Betty had sat devoutly under him on Sundays, there might have been some reason in the summons. But Betty, holding her own religious views, had only once been inside the church—on the occasion of her wedding—and had but the most formal acquaintance with the good man.... No, I could not send Betty home, unexpectedly, to have her wounds mauled about by unskilful fingers. Nothing remained but to telephone to the hospital and put her in Mrs. Marigold's charge for the night. So broken was my dear Betty, that she allowed herself to be carried off without a word.... Once before, years ago, she had behaved with the same piteous docility; and that was when, a short-frocked hoiden, she had fallen from an apple tree and badly hurt herself, and Marigold had carried her into the house and Mrs. Marigold had put her to bed....
In the morning I found her calm and sedate at the breakfast table.
"You've been and gone and done for both of us, Majy dear," she remarked, pouring out tea.
"What do you mean?"
"Our reputations. What a scandal in Wellingsford!"
She looked me clearly in the eyes and smiled, and her hand did not shake as she held my cup. And by these signs I knew that she had taken herself again in grip and forbade reference to the agony through which she had passed.
Quickly she turned the conversation to the Tuftons. What had happened? I told her meagrely. She insisted on fuller details. So, flogged by her, I related what I had gleaned from Marigold's wooden reports. He always conveyed personal information as though he were giving evidence against a defaulter. I had to start all over again. Apparently this had happened: Mrs. Tufton had arrayed herself, not in sackcloth and ashes, for that was apparently her normal attire, but in an equivalent, as far as a symbol of humility was concerned; namely, in decent raiment, and had sought her husband's forgiveness. There had been a touching scene in the scullery which Mrs. Marigold had given up to them for the sake of privacy, in which the lady had made tearful promises of reform and the corporal had magnanimously passed the sponge over the terrible reckoning on her slate. Would he then go home to his penitent wife? But the gallant fellow, with the sturdy common-sense for which the British soldier is renowned, contrasted the clover in which he was living here with the aridness of Flowery End, and declined to budge. High sentiment was one thing, snug lying was another. Next time he came back, if she had re-established the home in its former comfort, he didn't say as how he wouldn't—
"But," she cried—and this bit I didn't tell Betty—"the next time you may come home dead!"
"Then," replied Tufton, "let me see what a nice respectable coffin, with brass handles and lots of slap-up brass nails and a brass plate, you can get ready for me."
Since the first interview, I informed Betty, there had been others daily—most decorous. They were excellent friends. Neither seemed to perceive anything absurd in the situation. Even Marigold looked on it as a matter of course.
"I have an idea," said Betty. "You know we want some help in the servant staff of the hospital?"
I did. The matron had informed the Committee, who had empowered her to act.
"Why not let me tackle Mrs. Tufton while she is in this beautifully chastened and devotional mood? In this way we can get her out of the mills, out of Flowery End, fill her up with noble and patriotic emotions instead of whisky, and when Tufton returns, present her to him as a model wife, sanctified by suffering and ennobled by the consciousness of duty done. It would be splendid!"
For the first time since the black day there came a gleam of fun into Betty's eyes and a touch of colour into her cheeks.
"It would indeed," said I. "The only question is whether Tufton would really like this Red Cross Saint you'll have provided for him."
"In case he does not," said Betty, "you can provide him with a refuge as you are doing now."
She rose from the table, announcing her intention of going straight to the hospital. I realised with a pang that breakfast was over; that I had enjoyed a delectable meal; that, by some sort of dainty miracle, she had bemused me into eating and drinking twice my ordinary ration; that she had inveigled me into talking—a thing I have never done during breakfast for years—it is as much as Marigold's ugly head is worth to address a remark to me during the unsympathetic duty—why, if my poached egg regards me with too aggressive a pinkiness, I want to slap it—and into talking about those confounded Tuftons with a gusto only provoked by a glass or two of impeccable port after a good dinner. One would have thought, considering the anguished scene of the night before, that it would have been one of the most miserably impossible tete-a-tete breakfasts in the whole range of such notoriously ghastly meals. But here was Betty, serene and smiling, as though she had been accustomed to breakfast with me every morning of her life, off to the hospital, with a hard little idea in her humorous head concerning Mrs. Tufton's conversion.
The only sign she gave of last night's storm was when, by way of good-bye, she bent down and kissed my cheek.
"You know," she said, "I love you too much to thank you."
And she went off with her brave little head in the air.
In the afternoon I went to Wellings Park. Sir Anthony was away, but Lady Fenimore was in. She showed me a letter she had received from Betty in reply to her letter of condolence:
"It is good to realise one has such rocks to lean on. You long to help and comfort me. Well, I'll tell you how to do it. You just forget. Leave it to me to do all the remembering.