Red Planet, The


On the first of July there was forwarded to me from the club a letter in an unknown handwriting. I had to turn to the signature to discover the identity of my correspondent. It was Reggie Dacre, Colonel Dacre, whom I had met in London a couple of months before. As it tells its own little story, I transcribe it.

"Dear Major Meredyth:

"I should like to confirm by the following anecdote, which is going the round of the Brigade, what I recently told you about our friend Boyce. I shouldn't worry you, but I feel that if one has cast an unjustifiable slur on a brother-officer's honour—and I can't tell you how the thing has lain on my conscience—one shouldn't leave a stone unturned to rehabilitate him, even in the eyes of one person.

"There has been a good deal of scrapping around Ypres lately—that given away by the communiques; but for reasons which both the Censor and yourself will appreciate, I can't be more explicit as to locality. Enough to say that somewhere in this region—or sector, as we call it nowadays—there was a certain bit of ground that had been taken and retaken over and over again. B.'s Regiment was in this fighting, and at one particular time we were holding a German front trench section. A short distance further on the enemy held a little farm building, forming a sort of redoubt. They sniped all day long. They also had a machine gun. I can't give you accurate details, for I can only tell you what I've heard; but the essentials are true. Well, we got that farmhouse. We got it single-handed. Boyce put up the most amazing bluff that has ever happened in this war. He crawls out by himself, without anybody knowing—it was a pitch-black night—gets through the barbed wire, heaven knows how, up to the house; lays a sentry out with his life-preserver; gives a few commands to an imaginary company; and summons the occupants—two officers and fifteen men—to surrender. Thinking they are surrounded, they obey like lambs, come out unarmed, with their hands up, officers and all, and are comfortably marched off in the dark, as prisoners into our trenches. They say that when the German officers discovered how they had been done, they foamed so hard that we had to use empty sandbags as strait waistcoats.

"Now, it's picturesque, of course, and being picturesque, it has flown from mouth to mouth. But it's true. Verb. sap.

"Hoping some time or other to see you again,

"Yours sincerely,
     "R. DACRE,
     "Lt. Col."

I quote this letter here for the sake of chronological sequence. It gave me a curious bit of news. No man could have performed such a feat without a cold brain, soundly beating heart, and nerves of steel. It was not an act of red-hot heroism. It was done in cold blood, a deliberate gamble with death on a thousand to one chance. It was staggeringly brave.

I told the story to Mrs. Boyce. Her comment was characteristic:

"But surely they would have to surrender if called upon by a British Officer."

To the Day of Judgment I don't think she will understand what Leonard did. Leonard himself, coming home slightly wounded two or three weeks afterwards, pooh-poohed the story as one of no account and only further confused the dear lady's ill-conceived notions.

In the meanwhile life at Wellingsford flowed uneventfully. Now and again a regiment or a brigade, having finished its training, disappeared in a night, and the next day fresh troops arrived to fill its place. And this great, silent movement of men went on all over the country. Sometimes our hearts sank. A reserve Howitzer Territorial Brigade turned up in Wellings Park with dummy wooden guns. The officers told us that they had been expecting proper guns daily for the past two months. Marigold shook a sad head. But all things, even six-inch howitzers, come to him who waits.

Little more was heard of Randall Holmes. He corresponded with his mother through a firm of London solicitors, and his address and his doings remained a mystery. He was alive, he professed robust health, and in reply to Mrs. Holmes's frantically expressed hope that he was adopting no course that might discredit his father's name, he twitted her with intellectual volte-face to the views of Philistia, but at the same time assured her that he was doing nothing which the most self-righteous bourgeois would consider discreditable.

"But it IS discreditable for him to go away like this and not let his own mother know where he is," cried the poor woman.

And of course I agreed with her. I find it best always to agree with mothers; also with wives.

After her own lapse from what Mrs. Boyce would have called "Spartianism," Betty kept up her brave face. When Willie Connor's kit came home she told me tearlessly about the heartrending consignment. Now and then she spoke of him—with a proud look in her eyes. She was one of the women of England who had the privilege of being the wife of a hero. In this world one must pay for everything worth having. Her widowhood was the price. All the tears of a lifetime could not bring him back. All the storms of fate could not destroy the glory of those few wonderful months. He was laughing, so she heard, when he met his death. So would she, in honour of him, go on laughing till she met hers.

"And that silly little fool, Phyllis, is still crying her eyes out over Randall," she said. "Don't I think she was wrong in sending him away? If she had married him she might have influenced him, made him get a commission in the army. I've threatened to beat her if she talks such nonsense. Why can't people take a line and stick to it?"

"This isn't a world of Bettys, my dear," said I.

"Rubbish! The outrageous Mrs. Tufton's doing it."

Apparently she was. She followed Betty about as the lamb followed Mary. Tufton, after a week or two at Wellington Barracks, had been given sergeant's stripes and sent off with a draft to the front. Betty's dramatic announcement of her widowhood seemed to have put the fear of death into the woman's soul. As soon as her husband landed in France she went scrupulously through the closely printed casualty lists of non-commissioned officers and men in The Daily Mail, in awful dread lest she should see her husband's name. Betty vainly assured her that, in the first place, she would hear from the War Office weeks before anything could appear in the papers, and that, in the second, his name would occur under the heading "Grenadier Guards," and not under "Royal Field Artillery," "Royal Engineers," "Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry," "R.A.M.C.," or Australian and Canadian contingents. Mrs. Tufton went through the lot from start to finish. Once, indeed, she came across the name, in big print, and made a bee-line through the wards for Betty—an offence for which the Matron nearly threw her, there and then, into the street. It was that of the gallant Colonel of a New Zealand Regiment at Gallipoli. Betty had to point to the brief biographical note to prove to the distracted woman that the late Colonel Tufton of New Zealand could not be identical with Sergeant Tufton of the Grenadiers. She regarded Mrs. Tufton as a brand she had plucked from the burning and took a great deal of trouble with her. On the other hand, I imagine Mrs. Tufton looked upon herself as a very important person, a sergeant's wife, and the confidential intimate of a leading sister at the Wellingsford Hospital. In fact, Marigold mentioned her notorious vanity.

"What does it matter," cried Betty, when I put this view before her, "how swelled her head may be, so long as it isn't swollen with drink?"

And I could find no adequate reply.

Towards the end of the month comes Boyce to Wellingsford, this time not secretly; for the day after his arrival he drove his mother through the town and incidentally called on me. A neglected bullet graze on the neck had turned septic. An ugly temperature had sent him to hospital. The authorities, as soon as the fever had abated and left him on the high road to recovery, had sent him home. A khaki bandage around his bull-throat alone betokened anything amiss. He would be back, he said, as soon as the Medical Board at the War Office would let him.

On this occasion, for the first time since South African days, I met him without any mistrust. What had passed between Betty and himself, I did not know. Relations between man and woman are so subtle and complicated, that unless you have the full pleadings on both sides in front of you, you cannot arbitrate; and, as often as not, if you deliver the most soul-satisfying of judgments, you are hopelessly wrong, because there are all important, elusive factors of personality, temperament, sex, and what not which all the legal acumen in the world could not set down in black and white. So half unconsciously I ruled out Betty from my contemplation of the man. I had been obsessed by the Vilboek Farm story, and by that alone. Reggie Dacre—to say nothing of personages in high command—had proved it to be a horrible lie. He had Marshal Ney's deserved reputation—le brave des braves—and there is no more coldly critical conferrer of such repute than the British Army in the field. To win it a man not only has to do something heroic once or twice—that is what he is there for—but he has to be doing it all the time. Boyce had piled up for himself an amazing record, one that overwhelmed the possibility of truth in old slanders. When I gripped him by the hand, I felt immeasurable relief at being able to do so without the old haunting suspicion and reservation.

He spoke, like thousands of others of his type—the type of the fine professional English soldier—with diffident modesty of such personal experiences as he deigned to recount. The anecdotes mostly had a humorous side, and were evoked by allusion. Like all of us stay-at-homes, I cursed the censorship for leaving us so much in the dark. He laughed and cursed the censorship for the opposite reason.

"The damned fools—I beg your pardon, Mother, but when a fool is too big a fool even for this world, he must be damned—the damned fools allow all sorts of things to be given away. They were nearly the death of me and were the death of half a dozen of my men."

And he told the story. In a deserted brewery behind the lines the vats were fitted up as baths for men from the trenches, and the furnaces heated ovens in which horrible clothing was baked. This brewery had been immune from attack until an officially sanctioned newspaper article specified its exact position. A few days after the article appeared, in fact, as soon as a copy of the paper reached Germany, a thunderstorm of shells broke on the brewery. Out of it poured a helter-skelter stream of stark-naked men, who ran wherever they could for cover. From one point of view it was vastly comic. In the meanwhile the building containing all their clothes, and all the spare clothing for a brigade, was being scientifically destroyed. That was more comic still. The bather cut off from his garments is a world-wide joke. The German battery, having got the exact range, were having a systematic, Teutonic afternoon's enjoyment. But from another point of view the situation was desperate. There were these poor fellows, hordes of them, in nature's inadequate protection against the weather, shivering in the cold, with the nearest spare rag of clothing some miles away. Boyce got them together, paraded them instantly under the shell fire, and led them at a rush into the blazing building to salve stores. Six never came out alive. Many were burned and wounded. But it had to be done, or the whole crowd would have perished from exposure. Tommy is fairly tough; but he cannot live mother-naked through a March night of driving sleet.

"No," said Boyce, "if you suffered daily from the low cunning of Brother Bosch, you wouldn't cry for things to be published in the newspapers."

At the end of their visit I accompanied my guests to the hall. Marigold escorted Mrs. Boyce to the car. Leonard picked up his cap and cane and turned to shake hands. I noticed that the knob of the cane was neatly cased in wash-leather. Idly I enquired the reason. He smiled grimly as he slipped off the cover and exposed the polished deep vermilion butt of the life-preserver which Reggie Dacre had described.

"It's a sort of fetish I feel I must carry around with me," he explained. "When I've got it in my hand, I don't seem to care a damn what I do. When I haven't, I miss it. Remember the story of Sir Walter Scott's boy with the butter? Something like that, you know. But in its bare state it's not a pretty sight for the mother."

"It ought to have a name," said I. "The poilu calls his bayonet Rosalie."

He looked at it darkly for a moment, before refitting the wash-leather.

"I might call it The Reminder," said he. "Good-bye." And he turned quickly and strode out of the door.

The Reminder of what? He puzzled me. Why, in spite of all my open-heartedness, did he still contrive to leave me with a sense of the enigmatic?

Although he showed himself openly about the town, he held himself aloof from social intercourse with the inhabitants. He called, I know, on Mrs. Holmes, and on one or two others who have no place in this chronicle. But he refused all proposals of entertainment, notably an invitation to dinner from the Fenimores. Sir Anthony met him in the street, upbraided him in his genial manner for neglect of his old friends, and pressingly asked him to dine at Wellings Park. Just a few old friends. The duties of a distinguished soldier, said he, did not begin and end on the field. He must uplift the hearts of those who had to stay at home. Sir Anthony had a nervous trick of rattling off many sentences before his interlocutor could get in a word. When he had finished, Boyce politely declined the invitation.

"And with a damned chilly, stand-offish politeness," cried Sir Anthony furiously, when telling me about it. "Just as if I had been Perkins, the fish-monger, asking him to meet the Prettiloves at high tea. It's swelled head, my dear chap; that's what it is. Just swelled head. None of us are good enough for him and his laurels. He's going to remain the modest mossy violet of a hero blushing unseen. Oh, damn the fellow!"

I did my best to soothe my touchy and choleric friend. No soldier, said I, likes to be made a show of. Why had he suggested a dinner party? A few friends. Anyone in Boyce's position knew what that meant. It meant about thirty gawking, gaping people for whom he didn't care a hang. Why hadn't Anthony asked the Boyces to dine quietly with Edith and himself—with me thrown in, for instance, if they wanted exotic assistance? Let me try, I said, to fix matters up.

So the next day I called on Boyce and told him, with such tact as I have at command, of Sir Anthony's wounded feelings.

"My dear Meredyth," said he. "I can only say to you what I tried to explain to the irascible little man. If I accepted one invitation, I should have to accept all invitations or give terrible offence all over the place. I'm here a sick man and my mother's an invalid. And I merely want to be saved from my friends and have a quiet time with the old lady. Of course if Sir Anthony is offended, I'm only too sorry, and I beg you to assure him that I never intended the slightest discourtesy. The mere idea of it distresses me."

The explanation was reasonable, the apology frank. Sir Anthony received them both grumpily. He had his foibles. He set his invitations to dinner in a separate category from those of the rag-tag and bobtail of Wellingsford society. So for the sake of principle he continued to damn the fellow.

On the other hand, for the sake of principle, reparation for injustice, I continued to like the fellow and found pleasure in his company. For one thing, I hankered after the smoke and smell and din of the front, and Boyce succeeded more than anyone else in satisfying my appetite. While he talked, as he did freely with me alone, I got near to the grim essence of things. Also, with the aid of rough military maps, he made actions and strategical movements of which newspaper accounts had given me but a confused notion, as clear as if I had been a chief of staff. Often he went to considerable trouble in obtaining special information. He appeared to set himself out to win my esteem. Now a cripple is very sensitive to kindness. I could not reject his overtures. What interested motive could he have in seeking out a useless hulk like me? On the first opportunity I told Betty of the new friendship, having a twinge or two of conscience lest it might appear to her disloyal.

"But why in the world shouldn't you see him, dear?" she said, open-eyed. "He brings the breath of battle to you and gives you fresh life. You're looking ever so much better the last few days. The only thing is," she added, turning her head away, "that I don't want to run the risk of meeting him again."

Naturally I took precautions against such an occurrence. The circumstances of their last meeting at my house lingered unpleasantly in my mind. Perhaps, for Betty's sake, I ought to have turned a cold shoulder on Boyce. But when you have done a man a foul injustice for years, you must make him some kind of secret reparation. So, by making him welcome, I did what I could.

Now I don't know whether I ought to set down a trivial incident mentioned in my diary under the date of the 15th August, the day before Boyce left Wellingsford to join his regiment in France. In writing an account of other people's lives it is difficult to know what to put in and what to leave out. If you bring in your own predilections or prejudices or speculations concerning them, you must convey a distorted impression. You lie about them unconsciously. A fact is a fact, and, if it is important, ought to be recorded. But when you are not sure whether it is a fact or not, what are you to do?

Perhaps I had better narrate what happened and tell you afterwards why I hesitate.

Marigold had driven me over to Godbury, where I had business connected with a County Territorial Association, and we were returning home. It was a moist, horrible, depressing August day. A slimy, sticky day. Clouds hung low over the reeking earth. The honest rain had ceased, but wet drops dribbled from the leaves of the trees and the branches and trunks exuded moisture. The thatched roofs of cottages were dank. In front gardens roses and hollyhocks drooped sodden. The very droves of steers coming from market sweated in the muggy air. The good slush of the once dusty road, broken to bits by military traffic, had stiffened into black grease. Round a bend of the road we skidded alarmingly. Marigold has a theory that in summer time a shirt next the skin is the only wear for humans and square-tread tyres the only wear for motor-cars. With some acerbity I pointed out the futility of his proposition. With the blandness of superior wisdom he assured me that we were perfectly safe. You can't knock into the head of an artilleryman who has been trained to hang on to a limber by the friction of his trousers, that there can be any danger in the luxurious seat of a motor-car.

There is a good straight half mile of the Godbury Road which is known in the locality as "The Gut." It is sunken and very narrow, being flanked on one side by the railway embankment, and on the other by the grounds of Godbury Chase. A most desolate bit of road, half overhung by trees and oozing with all the moisture of the country-side. On this day it was the wettest, slimiest bit of road in England. We had almost reached the end of it, when it entered the head of a stray puppy dog to pause in the act of crossing and sit down in the middle and hunt for fleas. To spare the abominable mongrel, Marigold made a sudden swerve. Of course the car skidded. It skidded all over the place, as if it were drunk, and, aided by Marigold, described a series of ghastly half-circles. At last he performed various convulsive feats of jugglery, with the result that the car, which was nosing steadily for the ditch, came to a stand-still. Then Marigold informed me in unemotional tones that the steering gear had gone.

"It's all the fault of that there dog," said he, twisting his head so as to glare at the little beast, who, after a yelp and a bound, had calmly recaptured his position and resumed his interrupted occupation.

"It's all the fault of that there Marigold," I retorted, "who can't see the sense of using studded tyres on a greasy surface. What's to be done now?"

Marigold thrust his hand beneath his wig and scratched his head. He didn't exactly know. He got out and stared intently at the car. If mind could have triumphed over matter, the steering gear would have become disfractured. But the good Marigold's mind was not powerful enough. He gave up the contest and looked at me and the situation. There we were, broadside on to the narrow road, and only manhandling could bring us round to a position of safety by the side. He was for trying it there and then; but I objected, having no desire to be slithered into the ditch.

"I would just as soon," said I, "ride a giraffe shod with roller skates."

He didn't even smile. He turned his one reproachful eye on me. What was to be done? I told him. We must wait for assistance. When I had been transferred into the vehicle of a passing Samaritan, it was time enough for the manhandling.

Fate brought the Samaritan very quickly. A car coming from Godbury tooted violently, then slowed down, stopped, and from it jumped Leonard Boyce. As he was to rescue me from a position of peculiar helplessness, I regarded his great khaki-clad figure as that of a ministering angel. I beamed on him.

"Hallo! What's the matter?" he asked cheerily.

I explained. Being merciful, I spared Marigold and threw the blame on the dog and on the County Council for allowing the roads to get into such a filthy condition.

"That's all right," said Boyce. "We'll soon fix you up. First we'll get you into my car. Then Marigold and I will slue this one round, and then we'll send him a tow."

Marigold nodded and approached to lift me out.

Then, what happened next, happened in the flash of a few breathless seconds. There was the dull thud of hoofs. A scared bay thoroughbred, coming from Godbury, galloping hell for leather, with a dishevelled boy in khaki on his back. The boy had lost his stirrups; he had lost his reins; he had lost his head. He hung half over the saddle and had a death grip on the horse's mane. And the uncontrolled brute was thundering down on us. There was my infernal car barring the narrow road. I remember bracing myself to meet the shock. An end, thought I, of Duncan Meredyth. I saw Boyce leap aside like a flash and appear to stand stock-still. The next second I saw Marigold semaphore a few yards in front of the car and then swing sickeningly at the horse's bit; and then the whole lot of them, Marigold, horse and rider, come down in a convulsive heap on the greasy road. To my intense relief I saw Marigold pick himself up and go to the head of the plunging, prostrate horse. In a moment or two he had got the beast on his feet, where he stood quivering. It was a fine, smart piece of work on the part of the old artilleryman. I was so intent on his danger that I forgot all about Boyce: but as soon as the three crashed down, I saw him run to assist the young subaltern who had rolled himself clear.

"By Jove, that was a narrow shave!" he cried cordially, giving him a hand.

"It was indeed, sir," said the young man, scraping the mud off his face. "That's the second time the brute has done it. He shies and bucks and kicks like a regular devil. This time he shied at a steam lorry and bucked my feet out of the stirrups. Everybody in the squadron has turned him down, and I'm the junior, I've had to take him." He eyed the animal resentfully. "I'd just like to get him on some grass and knock hell out of him!"

"I'm glad to see you're not hurt," said Boyce with a smile.

"Oh, not a bit, sir," said the boy. He turned to Marigold. "I don't know how to thank you. It was a jolly plucky thing to do. You've saved my life and that of the gentleman in the car. If we had busted into it, there would have been pie." He came to the side of the car. "I think you're Major Meredyth, sir. I must have given you an awful fright. I'm so sorry. My name is Brown. I'm in the South Scottish Horse."

He had a courteous charm of manner in spite of his boyish desire to appear unshaken by the accident. A little bravado is an excellent thing. I laughed and held out my hand.

"I'm glad to meet you—although our meeting might have been contrived less precipitously. This is Sergeant Marigold, late R.F.A., who does me the honour of looking after me. And this is Major Boyce."

Observe the little devil of malice that made me put Marigold first.

"Of the Rifles?"

A quick gleam of admiration showed in the boy's eyes as he saluted. No soldier could be stationed at Wellingsford without hearing of the hero of the neighbourhood. A great hay waggon came lumbering down the road and pulled up, there being no room for it to pass. This put an end to social amenities. Brown mounted his detested charger and trotted off. Marigold transferred me to Boyce's car. Several pairs of brawny arms righted the two-seater and Boyce and I drove off, leaving Marigold waiting with his usual stony patience for the promised tow. On the way Boyce talked gaily of Marigold's gallantry, of the boy's spirit, of the idiotic way in which impossible horses were being foisted on newly formed cavalry units. When we drew up at my front door, it occurred to me that there was no Marigold in attendance.

"How the deuce," said I, "am I going to get out?"

Boyce laughed. "I don't think I'll drop you."

His great arms picked me up with ease. But while he was carrying me I experienced a singular physical revolt. I loathed his grip. I loathed the enforced personal contact. Even after he had deposited me—very skilfully and gently—in my wheel-chair in the hall, I hated the lingering sense of his touch. He owed his whisky and soda to the most elementary instinct of hospitality. Besides, he was off the next day, back to the trenches and the hell of battle, and I had to bid him good-bye and God-speed. But when he went, I felt glad, very glad, as though relieved of some dreadful presence. My old distrust and dislike returned increased a thousandfold.

It was only when he got my frail body in his arms, which I realized were twice as strong as my good Marigold's, that I felt the ghastly and irrational revulsion. The only thing to which I can liken it, although it seems ludicrous, is what I imagine to be the instinctive recoil of a woman who feels on her body the touch of antipathetic hands. I know that my malady has made me a bit supersensitive. But my vanity has prided itself on keeping up a rugged spirit in a fool of a body, so I hated myself for giving way to morbid sensations. All the same, I felt that if I were alone in a burning house, and there were no one but Leonard Boyce to save me, I should prefer incineration to rescue.

And now I will tell you why I have hesitated to give a place in this chronicle to the incident of the broken-down car and the runaway horse.

It all happened so quickly, my mind was so taken up with the sudden peril, that for the life of me I cannot swear to the part played by Leonard Boyce. I saw him leap aside, and had the fragment of an impression of him standing motionless between the radiator of his car and the tail of mine which was at right angles. The next time he thrust himself on my consciousness was when he was lugging young Brown out of reach of the convulsive hoofs. In the meanwhile Marigold, single-handed, had rushed into the jaws of death and stopped the horse. But as it was a matter of seconds, I had no reason for believing that, but for adventitious relative positions on the road, Boyce would not have done the same.... And yet out of the corner of my eye I got an instantaneous photograph of him standing bolt upright between the two cars, while the abominable bay brute, with distended red nostrils and wild eyes, was thundering down on us.

On the other hand, the swift pleasure in the boy's eyes when he realised that he was in the presence of the popular hero, proved him free of doubts such as mine. And when Marigold, having put the car in hospital, came to make his report, and lingered in order to discuss the whole affair, he said, in wooden deprecation of my eulogy:

"If Major Boyce hadn't jumped in, sir, young Mr. Brown's head would have been kicked into pumpkin-squash."

Well, I have known from long experience that there are no more untrustworthy witnesses than a man's own eyes; especially in the lightning dramas of life.

I was kept awake all night, and towards the dawn I came into thorough agreement with Sir Anthony and I heartily damned the fellow.

What had I to do with him that he should rob me of my sleep?

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