The next morning he strode in while I was at breakfast, handsome, erect, deep-chested, the incarnation of physical strength, with a glad light in his eyes.
"Congratulate me, old man," he cried, gripping my frail shoulder. "I've three days' extra leave. And more than that, I go out in command of the regiment. No temporary business but permanent rank. Gazetted in due course. Bannatyne—that's our colonel—damned good soldier!—has got a staff appointment. I take his place. I promise you the Fourth King's Rifles are going to make history. Either history or manure. History for choice. As I say, Bannatyne's a damned good soldier, and personally as brave as a lion, but when it comes to the regiment, he's too much on the cautious side. The regiment's only longing to make things hum, and I'm going to let 'em do it."
I congratulated him in politely appropriate terms and went on with my bacon and eggs. He sat on the window-seat and tapped his gaiters with his cane life-preserver. He wore his cap.
"I thought you'd like to know," said he. "You've been so good to the old mother while I've been away and been so charitable, listening to my yarns, while I've been here, that I couldn't resist coming round and telling you."
"I suppose your mother's delighted," said I.
He threw back his head and laughed, as though he had never a black thought or memory in the world.
"Dear old mater! She has the impression that I'm going out to take charge of the blessed campaign. So if she talks about 'my dear son's army,' don't let her down, like a good chap—for she'll think either me a fraud or you a liar."
He rose suddenly, with a change of expression.
"You're the only man in the world I could talk to like this about my mother. You know the sterling goodness and loyalty that lies beneath her funny little ways."
He strode to the window which looks out on to the garden, his back turned on me. And there he stood silent for a considerable time. I helped myself to marmalade and poured out a second cup of tea. There was no call for me to speak. I had long realized that, whatever may have been the man's sins and weaknesses, he had a very deep and tender love for the Dresden china old lady that was his mother. There was London of the clubs and the theatres and the restaurants and the night-clubs, a war London full and alive, not dead as in Augusts of far-off tradition, all ready to give him talk and gaiety and the things that matter to the man who escapes for a brief season from the never-ending hell of the battlefield; ready, too, to pour flattery into his ear, to touch his scars with the softest of its lingers. Yet he chose to stay, a recluse, in our dull little town, avoiding even the kindly folk round about, in order to devote himself to one dear but entirely uninteresting old woman. It is not that he despised London, preferring the life of the country gentleman. On the contrary, before the war Leonard Boyce was very much the man about town. He loved the glitter and the chatter of it. From chance words during this spell of leave, I had divined hankering after its various fleshpots. For the sake of one old woman he made reckless and gallant sacrifice. When he was bored to misery he came round to me. I learned later that in visiting Wellingsford he faced more than boredom. All of this you must put to the credit side of his ledger.
There he stood, his great broad shoulders and bull-neck silhouetted against the window. That broad expanse, a bit fleshy, below the base of the skull indicates brutality. Never before, to my eyes, had the sign asserted itself with so much aggression. I had often wondered why, apart from the Vilboek Farm legend, I had always disliked and distrusted him. Now I seemed to know. It was the neck not of a man, but of a brute. The curious repulsion of the previous evening, when he had carried me into the house, came over me again. From junction of arm and body protruded six inches of the steel-covered life-preserver, the washleather that hid its ghastly knob staring at me blankly. I hated the thing. The gallant English officer—and in my time I have known and loved a many of the most gallant—does not go about in private life fondling a trophy reeking with the blood of his enemies. It is the trait of a savage. That truculent knob and that truculent bull-neck correlated themselves most horribly in my mind. And again, with a shiver, I had the haunting flash of a vision of him, out of the tail of my eye, standing rigid and gaping between the two cars, while my rugged old Marigold, in a businesslike, old-soldier sort of way, without thought of danger or death, was swaying at the head of the runaway horse.
Presently he turned, and his brows were set above unfathomable hard eyes. The short-cropped moustache could not hide the curious twitch of the lips which I had seen once before. It was obvious that these few minutes of silence had been spent in deep thought and had resulted in a decision. A different being from the gay, successful soldier who had come in to announce his honours confronted me. He threw down cap and stick and passed his hand over his crisp brown hair.
"I don't know whether you're a friend of mine or not," he said, hands on hips and gaitered legs slightly apart. "I've never been able to make out. All through our intercourse, in spite of your courtesy and hospitality, there has been some sort of reservation on your part."
"If that is so," said I, diplomatically, "it is because of the defects of my national quality."
"That's possibly what I've felt," said he. "But it doesn't matter a damn with regard to what I want to say. It's a question not of your feelings towards me, but my feelings towards you. I don't want to make polite speeches—but you're a man whom I have every reason to honour and trust. And unlike all my other brother-officers, you have no reason to be jealous—"
"My dear fellow," I interrupted, "what's all this about? Why jealousy?"
"You know what a pot-hunter is in athletics? A chap that is simply out for prizes? Well, that's what a lot of them think of me. That I'm just out to get orders and medals and distinctions and so forth."
"That's nonsense," said I. "I happen to know. Your reputation in the brigade is unassailable."
"In the way of my having done what I'm credited with, it is," he answered. "But all the same, they're right."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"What I say. They're right. I'm out for everything I can get. Now I'm out for a V.C. I see you think it abominable. That's because you don't understand. No one but I myself could understand. I feel I owe it to myself." He looked at me for a second or two and then broke into a sardonic sort of laugh. "I suppose you think me a conceited ass," he continued. "Why should Leonard Boyce be such a vastly important person? It isn't that, I assure you."
I lit a cigarette, having waved an invitation to join me, which with a nod he refused.
"What is it, then?"
"Has it ever struck you that often a man's most merciless creditor is himself?"
Here was a casuistical proposition thrown at my head by the last person I should have suspected of doing so. It was immensely interesting, in view of my long puzzledom. I spoke warily.
"That depends on the man—on the nice balance of his dual nature. On the one side is the power to demand mercilessly; on the other, the instinct to respond. Of course, the criminal—"
"What are you dragging in criminals for?" he said sharply. "I'm talking about honourable men with consciences. Criminals haven't consciences. The devil who has just been hung for murdering three women in their baths hadn't any dual nature, as you call it. Those murders didn't represent to him a mountain of debt to God which his soul was summoned to discharge. He went to his death thinking himself a most unlucky and hardly used fellow."
His fingers went instinctively into the cigarette-box. I passed him the matches.
"Precisely," said I. "That was the point I was about to make."
He puffed at his cigarette and looked rather foolish, as though regretting his outburst.
"We've got away," he said, after a pause, "from what I was meaning to tell you. And I want to tell you because I mayn't have another chance." He turned to the window-seat and picked up his life-preserver. "I'm out for two things. One is to kill Germans—" He patted the covered knob—and there flashed across my mind a boyhood's memory of Martin—wasn't it Martin?—in "Hereward the Wake," who had a deliciously blood-curdling habit of patting his revengeful axe.—"I've done in eighty-five with this and my revolver. That, I consider, is my duty to my country. The other is to get the V.C. That's for payment to my creditor self."
"In full, or on account?" said I.
"There's only one payment in full," he answered grimly, "and that I've been offering for the past twelve months. And it's a thousand chances to one it will be accepted before the end of this year. And that, after all this palaver, is what I've just made up my mind to talk to you about."
"You mean your death?"
"Just that," said he. "A man pot-hunting for Victoria Crosses takes a thousand to one chance." He paused abruptly and shot an eager and curiously wavering glance at me. "Am I boring you with all this?"
"Good Heavens, no." And then as the insistence of his great figure towering over me had begun to fret my nerves—"Sit down, man," said I, with an impatient gesture, "and put that sickening toy away and come to the point."
He tossed the cane on the window-seat and sat near me on a straight-backed chair.
"All right," he said. "I'll come to the point. I shan't see you again. I'm going out in command. Thank God we're in the thick of it. Round about Loos. It's a thousand to one I'll be killed. Life doesn't matter much to me, in spite of what you may think. There are only two people on God's earth I care for. One, of course, is my old mother. The other is Betty Fairfax—I mean Betty Connor. I spoke to you once about her—after I had met her here—and I gave you to understand that I had broken off our engagement from conscientious motives. It was an awkward position and I had to say something. As a matter of fact I acted abominably. But I couldn't help it." The corners of his lips suddenly worked in the odd little twitch. "Sometimes circumstances, especially if a man's own damn foolishness has contrived them, tie him hand and foot. Sometimes physical instincts that he can't control." He narrowed his eyes and bent forward, looking at me intently, and he repeated the phrase slowly—"Physical instincts that he can't control-"
Was he referring to the incident of yesterday? I thought so. I also believed it was the motive power of this strangely intimate conversation.
He rose again as though restless, and once more went to the window and seemed to seek inspiration or decision from the sight of my roses. After a short while he turned and dragged up from his neck a slim chain at the end of which hung a round object in a talc case. This he unfastened and threw on the table in front of me.
"Do you know what that is?"
"Yes," said I. "Your identification disc."
"Look on the other side."
I took it up and found that the reverse contained the head cut out from some photograph of Betty. After I had handed back the locket, he slipped it on the chain and dropped it beneath his collar.
"I'm not a damned fool," said he.
I nodded understandingly. No one would have accused him of mawkish sentiment. The woman whose portrait he wore night and day next his skin was the woman he loved. He had no other way of proving his sincerity than by exhibiting the token.
"I see," said I. "What do you propose to do?"
"I've told you. The V.C. or—" He snapped his fingers.
"But if it's the V.C. and a Brigade, and perhaps a Division—if it's everything else imaginable except—" I snapped my fingers in imitation—"What then?"
Again the hateful twitch of the lips, which he quickly dissimulated in a smile.
"I'll begin to try to be a brave man." He lit another cigarette. "But all that, my dear Meredyth," he continued, "is away from the point. If I live, I'll ask you to forget this rotten palaver. But I have a feeling that I shan't come back. Something tells me that my particular form of extermination will be a head knocked into slush. I'm absolutely certain that I shall never see you again. Oh, I'm not morbid," he said, as I raised a protesting hand. "You're an old soldier and know what these premonitions are. When I came in—before I had finally made up my mind to pan out to you like this—I felt like a boy who has been made captain of the school. But all the same, I know I shan't see you again. So I want you to promise me two things—quite honourable and easy."
"Of course, my dear fellow," said I rather tartly, for I did not like the wind-up of his sentence. It was unthinkable that an officer and a gentleman should inveigle a brother-officer into a solemn promise to do anything dishonourable. "Of course. Anything you like."
"One is to look after the old mother—"
"That goes without promising," said I.
"The other is to—what shall I say?—to rehabilitate my memory in the eyes of Betty Connor. She may hear all kinds of things about me—some true, others false—I have my enemies. She has heard things already. I didn't know it till our last meeting here. There's no one else on God's earth can do what I want but you. Do you think I'm putting you into an impossible position?"
"I don't think so," said I. "Go on."
"Well—there's not much more to be said. Try to make her realise that, whatever may be my faults—my crimes, if it comes to that—I've done my damndest out there to make reparation. By God! I have," he cried, in a sudden flash of passion. "See that she realises it. And—" he thumped the hidden identification disc, "tell her that she is the only woman that has ever really mattered in the whole of my blasted life."
He threw his half-smoked cigarette into the fire-place and walked over to the sideboard, where stood decanters and syphon.
"May I help myself to a drink?"
"Certainly," said I.
He gulped down half a whisky and soda and turned on me.
"Of course," said I.
"She may have reasons to think the worst of me. But whatever I am there is some good in me. I'm not altogether a worthless hound. If you promise to make her think the best of me, I'll go away happy. I don't care a damn whether I die or live. That's the truth. As long as I'm alive I can take care of myself. I'm not dreaming of asking you to say a word to win her favour. That would be outrageous impudence. You clearly understand. I don't want you ever to mention my name unless I'm dead. If I feel that I've an advocate in you—advocatus diaboli, if you like—I'll go away happy. You've got your brief. You know my life at home. You know my record."
"My dear fellow," said I, "I promise to do everything in my power to carry out your wishes. But as to your record—are you quite certain that I know it?"
You must realise that there was a curious tension in the situation, at any rate as far as it affected myself. Here was a man with whom, for reasons you know, I had studiously cultivated the most formal social relations, claiming my active participation in the secret motives of his heart. Since his first return from the front a bluff friendliness had been the keynote of our intercourse. Nothing more. Now he came and without warning enmeshed me in this intimate net of love and death. I promised to do his bidding—I could not do otherwise. I was in the position of an executor according to the terms of a last will and testament. Our comradeship in arms—those of our old Army who survive will understand—forbade refusal. Besides, his intensity of purpose won my sympathy and admiration. But I loved him none the more. To my cripple's detested sensitiveness, as he stood over me, he loomed more than ever the hulking brute. His semi-confessions and innuendoes exacerbated my feelings of distrust and repulsion. And yet, at the same tune, I could not—nor did I try to—repress an immense pity for the man; perhaps less for the man than for the soul in pain. At the back of his words some torment burned at red heat, remorselessly. He sought relief. Perhaps he sought it from me because I was as apart as a woman from his physical splendour, a kind of bodiless creature with just a brain and a human heart, the ghost of an old soldier, far away from the sphere of poor passions and little jealousies.
I felt the tentacles of the man's nature blindly and convulsively groping after something within me that eluded them. That is the best way in which I can describe the psychology of these strange moments. The morning sun streamed into my little oak-panelled dining-room and caught the silver and fruit on the breakfast table and made my frieze of old Delft glow blue like the responsive western sky. With his back to the vivid window, Leonard Boyce stood cut out black like a silhouette. That he, too, felt the tension, I know; for a wasp crawled over his face, from cheek-bone, across his temples, to his hair, and he did not notice it.
Instinctively I said the words: "Your record. Are you quite certain that I know it?"
With what intensity, with what significance in my eyes, I may have said them, I know not. I repeat that I had a subconsciousness, almost uncanny, that we were souls rather than men, talking to each other. He sat down once more, drawing the chair to the table and resting his elbow on it.
"My record," said he. "What about it?"
Again please understand that I felt I had the man's soul naked before me. An imponderable hand plucked away my garments of convention.
"Some time ago," said I, "you spoke of my attitude towards you being marked by a certain reserve. That is quite true. It dates back many years. It dates back from the South African War. From an affair at Vilboek's Farm."
Again his lips twitched; but otherwise he did not move.
"I remember," he answered. "My men saw me run away. I came out of it quite clean."
I said: "I saw the man afterwards in hospital at Cape Town. His name was Somers. He told me quite a different story."
His face grew grey. He glanced at me for a fraction of a second. "What did he tell you?" he asked quietly.
In the fewest possible words I repeated what I have set down already in this book. When I had ended, he said in the same toneless way:
"You have believed that all these years?"
"I have done my best not to believe it. The last twelve months have disproved it."
He shook his head. "They haven't. Nothing I can do in this world can disprove it. What that man said was true."
I drew a deep breath and stared at him hard. His eyes met mine. They were very sad and behind them lay great pain. Although I expressed astonishment, it proceeded rather from some reflex action than from any realised shock to my consciousness. I say the whole thing was uncanny. I knew, as soon as he sat down by the table, that he would confess to the Vilboek story. And yet, at last, when he did confess and there were no doubts lingering in my mind, I gasped and stared at him.
"I was a bloody coward," he said. "That's frank enough. When they rode away and left me, I tried to shoot myself—and I couldn't. If the man Somers hadn't returned, I think I should have waited until they sent to arrest me. But he did come back and the instinct of self-preservation was too strong. I know my story about the men's desertion and my forcing him to back me up was vile and despicable. But I clung to life and it was my only chance. Afterwards, with the horror of the thing hanging over me, I didn't care so much about life. In the little fighting that was left for me I deliberately tried to throw it away. I ask you to believe that."
"I do," I said. "You were mentioned in dispatches for gallantry in action."
He passed his hand over his eyes. Looking up, he said:
"It is strange that you of all men, my neighbour here, should have heard of this. Not a whisper of its being known has ever reached me. How many people do you think have any idea of it?"
I told him all that I knew and concluded by showing him Reggie Dacre's letter, which I had kept in the letter-case in my pocket. He returned it to me without a word. Presently he broke a spell of silence. All this time he had sat fixed in the one attitude—only shifted once, when Marigold entered to clear away the breakfast things and was dismissed by me with a glance and a gesture.
"Do you remember," he said, "a talk we had about fear, in April, the first time I was over? I described what I knew. The paralysis of fear. Since we are talking as I never thought to talk with a human being, I may as well make my confession. I'm a man of strong animal passions. When I see red, I daresay I'm just a brute beast. But I'm a physical coward. Owing to this paralysis of fear, this ghastly inhibition of muscular or nervous action, I have gone through things even worse than that South-African business. I go about like a man under a curse. Even out there, when I don't care a damn whether I live or die, the blasted thing gets hold of me." He swung himself away from the table and shook his great clenched firsts. "By the grace of God, no one yet has seemed to notice it. I suppose I have a swift brain and as soon as the thing is over I can cover it up. It's my awful terror that one day I shall be found out and everything I've gained shall be stripped away from me."
"But what about a thing like this?" said I, tapping Colonel Dacre's letter.
"That's all right," he answered grimly. "That's when I know what I'm facing. That's deliberate pot-hunting. It's saving face as the Chinese say. It's doing any damned thing that will put me right with myself."
He got up and swung about the room. I envied him, I would have given a thousand pounds to do the same just for a few moments. But I was stuck in my confounded chair, deprived of physical outlet. Suddenly he came to a halt and stood once more over me.
"Now you know what kind of a fellow I am, what do you think of me?"
It was a brutal question to fling at my head. It gave me no time to co-ordinate my ideas. What was one to make of a man avowedly subject to fits of the most despicable cowardice from the consequences of which he used any unscrupulous craftiness to extricate himself, and yet was notorious in his achievement of deeds of the most reckless courage? It is a problem to which I have devoted all the months occupied in waiting this book. How the dickens could I solve it at a minute's notice? The situation was too blatant, too raw, too near bedrock, too naked and unashamed, for me to take refuge in platitudinous generalities of excuse. The bravest of men know Fear. They know him pretty intimately. But they manage to kick him to Hades by the very reason of their being brave men. I had to take Leonard Boyce as I found him. And I must admit that I found him a tragically miserable man. That is how I answered his question—in so many words.
"You're not far wrong," said he.
He picked up cap and stick.
"When I get up to town I shall make my will. I've never worried about it before. Can I appoint you my executor?"
"Certainly," said I.
"I'm very grateful. I'll assure you a fireworks sort of finish, so that you shan't be ashamed. And—I don't ask impossibilities—I can't hold you to your previous promise—but what about Betty Connor?"
"You may count," said I, "on my acting like an officer and a gentleman, and, if I may say so, like a Christian."
He said: "Thank you, Meredyth. Good-bye." Then he stuck on his cap, brought his fingers to the peak in salute and marched to the door.
"Boyce!" I cried sharply.
He turned. "Yes?"
"Aren't you going to shake hands with me?"
He retraced the few steps to my chair.
"I didn't know whether it would be—" he paused, seeking for a word—"whether it would be agreeable."
Then I broke down. The strain had been too great for my sick man's nerves. I forgot all about the brutality of his bull-neck, for he faced me in all his gallant manhood and there was a damnable expression in his eyes like that of a rated dog. I stretched out my hand.
"My dear good fellow," I cried, "what the hell are you talking about?"