Mrs. Boyce was shown into my study, her comely Dresden china face very white and her hands shaking. She held a telegram. I had seen faces like that before. Every day in England there are hundreds thus stricken. I feared the worst. It was a relief to read the telegram and find that Boyce was only wounded. The message said seriously wounded, but gave consolation by adding that his life was not in immediate danger. Mrs. Boyce was for setting out for France forthwith. I dissuaded her from a project so embarrassing to the hospital authorities and so fatiguing to herself. In spite of the chivalry and humanity of our medical staff, old ladies of seventy are not welcome at a busy base hospital. As soon as he was fit to be moved, I assured her, he would be sent home, before she could even obtain her permits and passes and passport and make other general arrangements for her journey. There was nothing for it but her Englishwoman's courage. She held up her hand at that, and went away to live, like many another, patiently through the long hours of suspense.
For two or three days no news came. I spent as much time as I could with my old friend, seeking to comfort her.
On the third morning it was announced in the papers that the King had been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on Lt. Colonel Leonard Boyce for conspicuous gallantry in action. It did not occur in a list of honours. It had a special paragraph all to itself. Such isolated announcements generally indicate immediate recognition of some splendid feat. I was thrilled by the news. It was a grand achievement to win through death to the greatest of all military rewards deliberately coveted. Here, as I had strange reason for knowing, was no sudden act of sublime valour. The final achievement was the result of months of heroic, almost suicidal daring. And it was repayment of a terrible debt, the whole extent of which I knew not, owed by the man to his tormented soul.
I rang up Mrs. Boyce, who replied tremulously to my congratulations. Would I come over and lunch?
I found a very proud and tearful old lady. She may not have known the difference between a platoon and a howitzer, and have conceived the woolliest notions of the nature of her son's command, but the Victoria Cross was a matter on which her ideas were both definite and correct. She had spent the morning at the telephone receiving calls of congratulation. A great sheaf of telegrams had arrived. Two or three of them were from the High and Mighty of the Military Hierarchy. She was in such a twitter of joy that she almost forgot her anxiety as to his wounds.
"Do you think he knows? I telegraphed to him at once."
"So did I."
She glanced at the ormolu clock on the mantelpiece.
"How long would it take for a telegram to reach him?"
"You may be sure he has it by now," said I, "and it has given him a prodigious appetite for lunch."
Her face clouded over. "That horrid tinned stuff. It's so dangerous. I remember once Mary's aunt—or was it Cook's aunt—one of them any way—nearly died of eating tinned lobster—ptomaine poisoning. I've always told Leonard not to touch it.
"They don't give Colonels and V.C.s tinned lobster at Boulogne," I answered cheerfully. "He's living now on the fat of the land."
"Let us hope so," she sighed dubiously. "It's no use my sending out things for him, as they always go wrong. Some time ago I sent him three brace of grouse and three brace of partridges. He didn't acknowledge them for weeks, and then he said they were most handy things to kill Germans with, but were an expensive form of ammunition. I don't quite know what he meant—but at any rate they were not eatable when they arrived. Poor fellow!" She sighed again. "If only I knew what was the matter with him."
"It can't be much," I reassured her, "or you would have heard again. And this news will act like a sovereign remedy."
She patted the back of my hand with her plump palm. "You're always so sympathetic and comforting."
"I'm an old soldier, like Leonard," said I, "and never meet trouble halfway."
At lunch, the old lady insisted on opening a bottle of champagne, a Veuve Clicquot which Leonard loved, in honour of the glorious occasion. We could not drink to the hero's health in any meaner vintage, although she swore that a teaspoonful meant death to her, and I protested that a confession of champagne to my medical adviser meant a dog's rating. We each, conscience-bound, put up the tips of our fingers to the glasses as soon as Mary had filled them with froth, and solemnly drank the toast in the eighth of an inch residuum. But by some freakish chance or the other, there was nothing left in that quart bottle by the time Mary cleared the table for dessert. And to tell the honest truth, I don't think the health of either my hostess or myself was a penny the worse. Let no man despise generous wine. Treated with due reverence it is a great loosener of human sympathy.
Generous ale similarly treated produces the same effect. Marigold, driving me home, cocked a luminous eye on me and said:
"Begging your pardon, sir, would you mind very much if I broke the neck of that there Gedge?"
"You would be aiding the good cause," said I, "but I should deplore the hanging of an old friend. What has Gedge been doing?"
Marigold sounded his horn and slowed down round a bend, and, as soon as he got into a straight road, he replied.
"I'm not going to say, sir, if I may take the liberty, that I was ever sweet on Colonel Boyce. People affect you in different ways. You either like 'em or you don't like 'em. You can't tell why. And a Sergeant, being, as you may say, a human being, has as much right to his private feelings regarding a Colonel as any officer."
"Undoubtedly," said I.
"Well, sir, I never thought Colonel Boyce was true metal. But I take it all back—every bit of it."
"For God's sake," I cried, stretching out a foolish but instinctive hand to the wheel, "for God's sake, control your emotions, or you'll be landing us in the ditch."
"That's all right, sir," he replied, steering a straight course. "She's a bit skittish at times. I was saying as how I did the Colonel an injustice. I'm very sorry. No man who wasn't steel all through ever got the V.C. They don't chuck it around on blighters."
"That's all very interesting and commendable," said I, "but what has it to do with Gedge?"
"He has been slandering the Colonel something dreadful the last few months, sneering at him, saying nothing definite, but insinuatingly taking away his character."
"In what way?" I asked.
"Well, he tells one man that the Colonel's a drunkard, another that it's women, another that he gambles and doesn't pay, another that he pays the newspapers to put in all these things about him, while all the time in France he's in a blue funk hiding in his dugout."
"That's moonshine," said I. And as regards the drinking, drabbing, and gaming of course it was. But the suggestion of cowardice gave me a sharp stab of surprise and dismay.
"I know it is," said Marigold. "But the people hereabouts are so ignorant, you can make them believe anything." Marigold was a man of Kent and had a poor opinion of those born and bred in other counties. "I met Gedge this morning," he continued, and thereupon gave me the substance of the conversation. I hardly think the adjectives of the report were those that were really used.
"So your precious Colonel has got the V.C.," sneered Gedge.
"He has," said Marigold. "And it's too great an honour for your inconsiderable town."
"If this inconsiderable town knew as much about him as I do, it would give him the order of the precious boot."
"And what do you know?" asked Marigold.
"That's what all you downtrodden slaves of militarism would like to find out," replied Gedge. "The time will come when I, and such as I, will tear the veils away and expose them, and say 'These be thy gods, O Israel.'"
"The time will come," retorted Marigold, "when if you don't hold your precious jaw, I and such as I will smash it into a thousand pieces. For twopence I'd knock your ugly head off this present minute."
Whereupon Gedge apparently wilted before the indignant eye of Sergeant Marigold and faded away down the High Street.
All this in itself seemed very trivial, but for the past year the attitude of Gedge had been mysterious. Could it be possible that Gedge thought himself the sole repository of the secret which Boyce had so desperately confided to me? But when had the life of Gedge and the military life of Leonard Boyce crossed? It was puzzling.
Well, to tell the truth, I thought no more about the matter. The glow of Mrs. Boyce's happiness remained with me all the evening. Rarely had I seen her so animated, so forgetful of her own ailments. She had taken the rosiest view of Leonard's physical condition and sunned herself in the honour conferred on him by the King. I had never spent a pleasanter afternoon at her house. We had comfortably criticised our neighbours, and, laudatores temporis acti, had extolled the days of our youth. I went to bed as well pleased with life as a man can be in this convulsion of the world.
The next morning she sent me a letter to read. It was written at Boyce's dictation. It ran:
"I'm sorry to say I am knocked out pro tem. I was fooling about where a C.O. didn't ought to, and a Bosch bullet got me so that I can't write. But don't worry at all about me. I'm too tough for anything the Bosches can do. To show how little serious it is, they tell me that I'll be conveyed to England in a day or two. So get hot-water bottles and bath salts ready.
"Your ever loving Leonard."
This was good news. Over the telephone wire we agreed that the letter was a justification of our yesterday's little merrymaking. Obviously, I told her, he would live to fight another day. She was of opinion that he had done enough fighting already. If he went on much longer, the poor boy would get quite tired out, to say nothing of the danger of being wounded again. The King ought to let him rest on his laurels and make others who hadn't worked a quarter as hard do the remainder of the war.
"Perhaps," I said light-heartedly, "Leonard will drop the hint when he writes to thank the King for the nice cross."
She said that I was laughing at her, and rang off in the best of spirits.
In the evening came Betty, inviting herself to dinner. She had been on night duty at the hospital, and I had not seen her for some days. The sight of her, bright-eyed and brave, fresh and young, always filled me with happiness. I felt her presence like wine and the sea wind and the sunshine. So greatly did her vitality enrich me, that sometimes I called myself a horrid old vampire.
As soon as she had greeted me, she said in her downright way:
"So Leonard Boyce has got his V.C."
"Yes," said I. "What do you think of it?"
A spot of colour rose to her cheek. "I'm very glad. It's no use, Majy, pretending that I ignore his existence. I don't and I can't. Because I loved and married someone else doesn't alter the fact that I once cared for him, does it?"
"Many people," said I, judicially, "find out that they have been mistaken as to the extent and nature of their own sentiments."
"I wasn't mistaken," she replied, sitting down on the piano stool, her hands on the leathern seat, her neatly shod feet stretched out in front of her, just as she had sat on her wedding eve talking nonsense to Willie Connor. "I wasn't mistaken. I was never addicted to silly school-girl fancies. I know my own mind. I cared a lot for Leonard Boyce."
"Eh bien?" said I.
"Well, don't you see what I'm driving at?"
"I don't a bit."
She sighed. "Oh, dear! How dull some people are! Don't you see that, when an affair like that is over, a woman likes to get some evidence of the man's fine qualities, in order to justify her for having once cared for him?"
"Quite so. Yet—" I felt argumentative. The breach, as you know, between Betty and Boyce was wrapped in exasperating obscurity. "Yet, on the other hand," said I, "she might welcome evidence of his worthlessness, so as to justify her for having thrown him over."
"If a woman isn't a dam-fool already," said Betty, "and I don't think I'm one, she doesn't like to feel that she ever made a dam-fool of herself. She is proud of her instincts and her judgments and the sensitive, emotional intelligence that is hers. When all these seem to have gone wrong, it's pleasing to realise that originally they went right. It soothes one's self-respect, one's pride. I know now that all these blind perceptions in me went straight to certain magnificent essentials—those that make the great, strong, fearless fighting man. That's attractive to a woman, you know. At any rate, to an independent barbarian like myself—"
"My dear Betty," I interrupted with a laugh. "You a barbarian? You whom I regard as the last word, the last charming and delightful word, in modern womanhood?"
"Of course I'm the child of my century," she cried, flushing. "I want votes, freedom, opportunity for expansion, power—everything that can develop Betty Connor into a human product worthy of the God who made her. But how she could fulfil herself without the collaboration of a man, has baffled her ever since she was a girl of sixteen, when she began to awake to the modern movement. On one side I saw women perfectly happy in the mere savage state of wifehood and motherhood, and not caring a hang for anything else, and on the other side women who threw babies back into limbo and preached of nothing but intellectual and political and economic independence. Oh, I worried terribly about it, Majy, when I was a girl. Each side seemed to have such a lot to say for itself. Then it dawned upon me that the only way out of the dilemma was to combine both ideals—that of the savage woman in skins and the lady professor in spectacles. That is what, allowing for the difference of sex, a man does. Why shouldn't a woman? The woman, of course, has to droop a bit more to the savage, because she has to produce the babies and suckle them, and so forth, and a man hasn't. That was my philosophy of life when I entered the world as a young woman. Love came into it, of course. It was a sanctification of the savagery. I've gone on like this," she laughed, "because I don't want you to protest in your dear old-fashioned way against my calling myself an independent barbarian. I am, and I glory in it. That's why, as I was saying, I'm deeply glad that Leonard Boyce has made good. His honour means a good deal to me—to my self-esteem. I hope," she added, rising and coming to me with a caressing touch. "I hope you've got the hang of the thing now."
Within myself I sincerely hoped I had. If her sentiments were just as she analysed them, all was well. If, on the other hand, the little demon of love for Boyce still lurked in her heart, in spite of the marriage and widowhood, there might be trouble ahead. I remembered how once she had called him a devil. I remembered, too, uncomfortably, the scrap of conversation I had overheard between Boyce and herself in the hall. She had lashed him with her scorn, and he had taken his whipping without much show of fight. Still, a woman's love, especially that of a lady barbarian, was a curiously complex affair, and had been known to impel her to trample on a man one minute and the next to fall at his feet. Now the worm she had trampled on had turned; stood erect as a properly authenticated hero. I felt dubious as to the ensuing situation.
"I wrote to old Mrs. Boyce," she added after a while. "I thought it only decent. I wrote yesterday, but only posted the letter to-day, so as to be sure I wasn't acting on impulse."
The latter part of the remark was by way of apology. The breach of the engagement had occasioned a cessation of social relations between Betty and Mrs. Boyce. Betty's aunts had ceased calling on Mrs. Boyce and Mrs. Boyce had ceased calling on Betty's aunts. Whenever the estranged parties met, which now and then was inevitable in a little town, they bowed with distant politeness, but exchanged no words. Everything was conducted with complete propriety. The old lady, knowing how beloved an intimate of mine was Betty, alluded but once to the broken engagement. That was when Betty got married.
"It has been a great unhappiness to me, Major," she said. "In spite of her daring ways, which an old woman like myself can't quite understand, I was very fond of her. She was just the girl for Leonard. They made such a handsome couple. I have never known why it was broken off. Leonard won't tell me. It's out of the question that it could be his fault, and I can't believe it is all Betty Fairfax's. She's a girl of too much character to be a mere jilt."
I remember that I couldn't help smiling at the application of the old-fashioned word to my Betty.
"You may be quite certain she isn't that," said I.
"Then what was the reason? Do you know?"
I didn't. I was as mystified as herself. I told her so. I didn't mention that a few days before she had implied that Leonard was a devil and she wished that he was dead, thereby proving to me, who knew Betty's uprightness, that Boyce and Boyce only was to blame in the matter. It would have been a breach of confidence, and it would not have made my old friend any the happier. It would have fired her with flaming indignation against Betty.
"Young people," said I, "must arrange their own lives." And we left it at that. Now and then, afterwards, she enquired politely after Betty's health, and when Willie Connor was killed, she spoke to me very feelingly and begged me to convey to Betty the expression of her deep sympathy. In the unhappy circumstances, she explained, she was naturally precluded from writing.
So Betty's letter was the first direct communication that had passed between them for nearly two years. That is why to my meddlesome-minded self it appeared to have some significance.
"You did, did you?" said I. Then I looked at her quickly, with an idea in my head. "What did Mrs. Boyce say in reply?"
"She has had no time to answer. Didn't I tell you I only posted the letter to-day?"
"Then you've heard nothing more about Leonard Boyce except that he has got the V.C.?"
"No. What more is there to hear?"
Even Bettys are sly folk. It behooved me to counter with equal slyness. I wondered whether she had known all along of Boyce's mishap, or had been informed of it by his mother. Knowledge might explain her unwonted outburst. I looked at her fixedly.
"What's the matter?" she asked, bending slightly down to me.
"You haven't heard that he is wounded?"
She straightened herself. "No. When?"
"Five days ago."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I haven't seen you."
"I mean—this evening."
I reached for her hand. "Will you forgive me, my dear Betty, for remarking that for the last twenty minutes you have done all the talking?"
"Is he badly hurt?"
She ignored my playful rejoinder. I noted the fact. Usually she was quick to play Beatrice to my Benedick. Had I caught her off her guard?
I told her all that I knew. She seated herself again on the piano-stool.
"I hope Mrs. Boyce did not think me unfeeling for not referring to it," she said calmly. "You will explain, won't you?"
Marigold entered, announcing dinner. We went into the dining-room. All through the meal Bella, my parlour-maid, flitted about with dishes and plates, and Marigold, when he was not solemnly pouring claret, stood grim behind my chair, roasting, as usual, his posterior before a blazing fire, with soldierly devotion to duty. Conversation fell a little flat. The arrival of the evening newspapers, half an hour belated, created a diversion. The war is sometimes subversive of nice table decorum. I read out the cream of the news. Discussion thereon lasted us until coffee and cigarettes were brought in and the servants left us to ourselves.
One of the curious little phenomena of human intercourse is the fact that now and again the outer personality of one with whom you are daily familiar suddenly strikes you afresh, thus printing, as it were, a new portrait on your mind. At varying intervals I had received such portrait impressions of Betty, and I had stored them in my memory. Another I received at this moment, and it is among the most delectable. She was sitting with both elbows on the table, her palms clasped and her cheek resting on the back of the left hand. Her face was turned towards me. She wore a low-cut black chiffon evening dress—the thing had mere straps over the shoulders—an all but discarded vanity of pre-war days. I had never before noticed what beautiful arms she had. Perhaps in her girlhood, when I had often seen her in such exiguous finery, they had not been so shapely. I have told you already of the softening touch of her womanhood. An exquisite curve from arm to neck faded into the shadow of her hair. She had a single string of pearls round her neck. The fatigue of last week's night duty had cast an added spirituality over her frank, sensitive face.
We had not spoken for a while. She smiled at me.
"What are you thinking of?"
"I wasn't thinking at all," said I. "I was only gratefully admiring you."
"Oughtn't one to be grateful to God for the beautiful things He gives us?"
She flushed and averted her eyes. "You are very good to me, Majy."
"What made you attire yourself in all this splendour?" I asked, laughing. The wise man does not carry sentiment too far. He keeps it like a little precious nugget of pure gold; the less wise beats it out into a flabby film.
"I don't know," she said, shifting her position and casting a critical glance at her bodice. "All kinds of funny little feminine vanities. Perhaps I wanted to see whether I hadn't gone off. Perhaps I wanted to try to feel good-looking even if I wasn't. Perhaps I thought my dear old Majy was sick to death of the hospital uniform perfumed with disinfectant. Perhaps it was just a catlike longing for comfort. Anyhow, I'm glad you like me."
"My dear Betty," said I, "I adore you."
"And I you," she laughed. "So there's a pair of us."
She lit a cigarette and sipped her coffee. Then, breaking a short silence:
"I hope you quite understand, dear, what I said about Leonard Boyce. I shouldn't like to leave you with the smallest little bit of a wrong impression."
"What wrong impression could I possibly have?" I asked disingenuously.
"You might think that I was still in love with him."
"That would be absurd," said I.
"Utterly absurd. I should feel it to be almost an insult if you thought anything of the kind. Long before my marriage things that had happened had killed all such feelings outright." She paused for a few seconds and her brow darkened, just as it had done when she had spoken of him in the days immediately preceding her marriage with Willie Connor. Presently it cleared. "The whole beginning and end of my present feelings," she continued, "is that I'm glad the man I once cared for has won such high distinction, and I'm sorry that such a brave soldier should be wounded."
I could do nothing else than assure her of my perfect understanding. I upbraided myself as a monster of indelicacy for my touch of doubt before dinner; also for a devilish and malicious suspicion that flitted through my brain while she was cataloguing her possible reasons for putting on the old evening dress. The thought of Betty's beautiful arm and the man's bull-neck was a shivering offence. I craved purification.
"If you've finished your coffee," I said, "let us go into the drawing-room and have some music."
She rose with the impulsiveness of a child told that it can be excused, and responded startlingly to my thought.
"I think we need it," she said.
In the drawing-room I swung my chair so that I could watch her hands on the keys. She was a good musician and had the well-taught executant's certainty and grace of movement. It may be the fancy of an outer Philistine, but I love to forget the existence of the instrument and to feel the music coming from the human finger-tips. She found a volume of Chopin's Nocturnes on the rest. In fact she had left it there a fortnight before, the last time she had played for me. I am very fond of Chopin. I am an uneducated fellow and the lyrical mostly appeals to me both in poetry and in music. Besides, I have understood him better since I have been a crock. And I loved Betty's sympathetic interpretation. So I sat there, listening and watching, and I knew that she was playing for the ease of both our souls. Once more I thanked God for the great gift of Betty to my crippled life. Peace gathered round my heart as Betty played.
The raucous buzz of the telephone in the corner of the room knocked the music to shatters. I cried out impatiently. It was the fault of that giant of ineptitude Marigold and his incompetent satellites, whose duty it was to keep all upstairs extensions turned off and receive calls below. Only two months before I had been the victim of their culpable neglect, when I was forced to have an altercation with a man at Harrod's Stores, who seemed pained because I declined to take an interest in some idiotic remark he was making about fish.
"I'll strangle Marigold with my own hands," I cried.
Betty, unmoved by my ferocity, laughed and rose from the piano.
"Shall I take the call?"
To Betty I was all urbanity. "If you'll be so kind, dear," said I.
She crossed the room and stopped the abominable buzzing.
"Yes. Hold on for a minute. It's the post-office"—she turned to me—"telephoning a telegram that has just come in. Shall I take it down for you?"
More urbanity on my part. She found pencil and paper on an escritoire near by, and went back to the instrument. For a while she listened and wrote. At last she said:
"Are you sure there's no signature?"
She got the reply, waited until the message had been read over, and hung up the receiver. When she came round to me—my back had been half turned to her all the time—I was astonished to see her looking rather shaken. She handed me the paper without a word.
The message ran:
"Thanks yesterday's telegram. Just got home. Queen Victoria Hospital, Belton Square. Must have talk with you before I communicate with my mother. Rely absolutely on your discretion. Come to-morrow. Forgive inconvenience caused, but most urgent."
"It's from Boyce," I said, looking up at her.
"I suppose he omitted the signature to avoid any possible leakage through the post-office here."
She nodded. "What do you think is the matter?"
"God knows," said I. "Evidently something very serious."
She went back to the piano seat. "It's odd that I should have taken down that message," she said, after a while.
"I'll sack Marigold for putting you in that abominable position," I exclaimed wrathfully.
"No, you won't, dear. What does it signify? I'm not a silly child. I suppose you're going to-morrow?"
"Of course—for Mrs. Boyce's sake alone I should have no alternative."
She turned round and began to take up the thread of the Nocturne from the point where she had left off; but she only played half a page and quitted the piano abruptly.
"The pretty little spell is broken, Majy. No matter how we try to escape from the war, it is always shrieking in upon us. We're up against naked facts all the time. If we can't face them we go under either physically or spiritually. Anyhow—" she smiled with just a little touch of weariness,—"we may as well face them in comfort."
She pushed my chair gently nearer to the fire and sat down by my side. And there we remained in intimate silence until Marigold announced the arrival of her car.