I shrink morbidly from visiting strange houses. I shrink from the unknown discomforts and trivial humiliations they may hold for me. I hate, for instance, not to know what kind of a chair may be provided for me to sit on. I hate to be carried up many stairs even by my steel-crane of a Marigold. Just try doing without your legs for a couple of days, and you will see what I mean. Of course I despise myself for such nervous apprehensions, and do not allow them to influence my actions—just as one, under heavy fire, does not satisfy one's simple yearning to run away. I would have given a year's income to be able to refuse Boyce's request with a clear conscience; but I could not. I shrank all the more because my visit in the autumn to Reggie Dacre had shaken me more than I cared to confess. It had been the only occasion for years when I had entered a London building other than my club. To the club, where I was as much at home as in my own house, all those in town with whom I now and then had to transact business were good enough to come. This penetration of strange hospitals was an agitating adventure. Apart, however, from the mere physical nervousness against which, as I say, I fought, there was another element in my feelings with regard to Boyce's summons. If I talk about the Iron Hand of Fate you may think I am using a cliche of melodrama. Perhaps I am. But it expresses what I mean. Something unregenerate in me, some lingering atavistic savage instinct towards freedom, rebelled against this same Iron Hand of Fate that, first clapping me on the shoulder long ago in Cape Town, was now dragging me, against my will, into ever thickening entanglement with the dark and crooked destiny of Leonard Boyce.
I tell you all this because I don't want to pose as a kind of apodal angel of mercy.
I was also deadly anxious as to the nature of the communication Boyce would make to me, before his mother should be informed of his arrival in London. In spite of his frank confession, there was still such a cloud of mystery over the man's soul as to render any revelation possible. Had his hurt declared itself to be a mortal one? Had he summoned me to unburden his conscience while yet there was time? Was it going to be a repetition, with a difference, of my last interview with Reggie Dacre? I worried myself with unnecessary conjecture.
After a miserable drive through February rain and slush, I reached my destination in Belton Square, a large mansion, presumably equipped by its owner as a hospital for officers, and given over to the nation. A telephone message had prepared the authorities for my arrival. Marigold, preceded by the Sister in charge, carried me across a tesselated hall and began to ascend the broad staircase.
I uttered a little gasp and looked around me, for in a flash I realised where I was. Twenty years ago I had danced in this house. I had danced here with my wife before we were married. On the half landing we had sat out together. It was the town house of the late Lord Madelow, with whose wife I shared the acquaintance of a couple of hundred young dancing men inscribed on her party list. Both were dead long since. To whom the house belonged now I did not know. But I recognised pictures and statuary and a conservatory with palms. And the place shimmered with brilliant ghosts and was haunted by hot perfumes and by the echo of human voices and by elfin music. And the cripple forgot that he was being carried up the stairs in the grip of the old soldier. He was mounting them with heart beating high and the presence of a beloved hand on his arm.... You see, it was all so sudden. It took my breath away and sent my mind whirling back over twenty years.
It was like awaking from a dream to find a door flung open in front of me and to hear the Sister announce my name. I was on the threshold not of a ward, but of a well-appointed private room fairly high up and facing the square, for the first thing I saw was the tops of the leafless trees through the windows. Then I was conscious of a cheery fire. The last thing I took in was the bed running at right angles to door and window, and Leonard Boyce lying in it with bandages about his face. For the dazed second or two he seemed to be Reggie Dacre over again. But he had thrown back the bedclothes and his broad chest and great arms were free. His pleasant voice rang out at once.
"Hallo! Hallo! You are a good Samaritan. Is that you, Marigold? There's a comfortable chair by the bedside for Major Meredyth."
He seemed remarkably strong and hearty; far from any danger of death. Stubs of cigarettes were lying in an ash-tray on the bed. In a moment or two they settled me down and left me alone with him.
As soon as he heard the click of the door he said:
"I've done more than I set out to do. You remember our conversation. I said I should either get the V.C. or never see you again. I've managed both."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I shall never see you or anybody else again, or a dog or a cat, or a tree or a flower."
Then, for the first time the dreadful truth broke upon me.
"Good Heavens!" I cried. "Your eyes—?"
"Done in. Blind. It's a bit ironical, isn't it?" He laughed bitterly.
What I said by way of sympathy and consolation is neither here nor there. I spoke sincerely from my heart, for I felt overwhelmed by the tragedy of it all. He stretched out his hand and grasped mine.
"I knew you wouldn't fail me. Your sort never does. You understand now why I wanted you to come?—To prepare the old mother for the shock. You've seen for yourself that I'm sound of wind and limb—as fit as a fiddle. You can make it quite clear to her that I'm not going to die yet awhile. And you can let her down easy on the real matter. Tell her I'm as merry as possible and looking forward to going about Wellingsford with a dog and string."
"You're a brave chap, Boyce," I said.
He laughed again. "You're anticipating. Do you remember what I said when you asked me what I should do if I won all the pots I set my heart on and came through alive? I said I should begin to try to be a brave man. God! It's a tough proposition. But it's something to live for, anyway."
I asked him how it happened.
"I got sick," he replied, "of bearing a charmed life and nothing happening. The Bosch shell or bullet that could hit me wasn't made. I could stroll about freely where it was death for anyone else to show the top of his head. I didn't care. Then suddenly one day things went wrong. You know what I mean. I nearly let my regiment down. It was touch and go. And it was touch and go with my career. I just pulled through, however. I'll tell you all about it one of these days—if you'll put up with me."
Again the familiar twitch of the lips which looked ghastly below the bandaged eyes. "No one ever dreamed of the hell I went through. Then I found I was losing the nerve I had built up all these months. I nearly went off my head. At last I thought I would put an end to it. It was a small attack of ours that had failed. The men poured back over the parapet into the trench, leaving heaven knows how many dead and wounded outside. I'm not superstitious and I don't believe in premonitions and warnings, and so forth; but in cases of waiting like mine a man suddenly gets to know that his hour has come.... I got in six wounded. Two men were shot while I was carrying them. How I lived God knows. It was cold hell. My clothes were torn to rags. As I was going for the seventh, the knob of my life-preserver was shot away and my wrist nearly broken. I wore it with a strap, you know. The infernal thing had been a kind of mascot. When I realised it was gone I just stood still and shivered in a sudden, helpless funk. The seventh man was crawling up to me. He had a bloody face and one dragging leg. That's my last picture of God's earth. Before I could do anything—I must have been standing sideways on—a bullet got me across the bridge of the nose and night came down like a black curtain. Then I ran like a hare. Sometimes I tripped over a man, dead or wounded, and fell on my head. I don't remember much about this part of it. They told me afterwards. At last I stumbled on to the parapet and some plucky fellow got me into the trench. It was the regulation V.C. business," he added, "and so they gave it to me."
"Specially," said I.
"Consolation prize, I suppose, for losing my sight. They had just time to get me away behind when the Germans counter attacked. If I hadn't brought the six men in, they wouldn't have had a dog's chance. I did save their lives. That's something to the credit side of the infernal balance."
"There can be no balance now, my dear chap," said I. "God knows you've paid in full."
He lifted his hand and dropped it with a despairing gesture.
"There's only one payment in full. That was denied me. God, or whoever was responsible, had my eyes knocked out, and made it impossible for ever. He or somebody must be enjoying the farce."
"That's all very well," said I. "A man can do no more than his utmost—as you've done. He must be content to leave the rest in the hands of the Almighty."
"The Almighty has got a down on me," he replied. "And I don't blame Him. Of course, from your point of view, you're right. You're a normal, honourable soldier and gentleman. Anything you've got to reproach yourself with is of very little importance. But I'm an accursed freak. I told you all about it when you held me up over the South African affair. There were other affairs after that. Others again in this war. Haven't I just told you I let my regiment down?"
"Don't, my dear man, don't!" I cried, in great pain, for it was horrible to hear a man talk like this. "Can't you see you've wiped out everything?"
"There's one thing at any rate I can't ever wipe out," he said in a low voice. Then he laughed. "I've got to stick it. It may be amusing to see how it all pans out. I suppose the very last passion left us is curiosity."
"There's also the unconquerable soul," said I.
"You're very comforting," said he. "If I were in your place, I'd leave a chap like me to the worms." He drew a long breath. "I suppose I'll pull through all right."
"Of course you will," said I.
"I feel tons better, thanks to you, already."
"That's right," said I.
He fumbled for the box of cigarettes on the bed. Instinctively I tried to help him, but I was tied to my fixed chair. It was a trivial occasion; but I have never been so terrified by the sense of helplessness. Just think of it. Two men of clear brain and, to all intents and purposes, of sound bodily health, unable to reach an object a few feet away. Boyce uttered an impatient exclamation.
"Get hold of that box for me, like a good chap," he said, his fingers groping wide of the mark.
"I can't move," said I.
"Good Lord! I forgot."
He began to laugh. I laughed, too. We laughed like fools and the tears ran down my cheeks. I suppose we were on the verge of hysterics.
I pulled myself together and gave him a cigarette from my case. And then, stretch as I would, I could not reach far enough to apply the match to the end of the cigarette between his lips. He was unable to lift his head. I lit another match and, like an idiot, put it between his fingers. He nearly burned his moustache and his bandage, and would have burned his fingers had not the match—a wooden one—providentially gone out. Then I lit a cigarette myself and handed it to him.
The incident, as I say, was trivial, but it had deep symbolic significance. All symbols in their literal objectivity are trivial. What more trivial than the eating of a bit of bread and the sipping from a cup of wine? This trumpery business with the cigarette revolutionised my whole feelings towards Boyce. It initiated us into a sacred brotherhood. Hitherto, it had been his nature which had reached out towards me tentacles of despair. My inner self, as I have tried to show you, had never responded. It was restrained by all kinds of doubts, suspicions, and repulsions. Now, suddenly, it broke through all those barriers and rushed forth to meet him. My death in life against which I had fought, I hope like a brave man (it takes a bit of fighting) for many years, would henceforth be his death in life, at whose terrors he too would have to snap a disdainful finger. I had felt deep pity for him; but if pity is indeed akin to love, it is a very poor relation. Now I had cast pity and such like superior sentiment aside and accepted him as a sworn brother. The sins, whatever they were, that lay on the man's conscience mattered nothing. He had paid in splendid penance and in terrible penalty.
I should have liked to express to him something of this surge of emotion. But I could find no words. As a race, our emotions are not facile, and therefore we lack the necessary practice in expressing them. When they do come, they come all of a heap and scare us out of our wits and leave us speechless. So the immediate outcome of all this psychological upheaval was that we went on smoking and said nothing more about it. As far as I remember we started talking about the recruiting muddle, as to which our views most vigorously coincided.
We parted cheerily. It was only when I got outside the room that the ghastly irony of the situation again made my heart as lead. We passed by the conservatory and the statuary and down the great staircase, but the ghosts had gone. Yet I cast a wistful glance at the spot—it was just under that Cuyp with the flashing white horse—where we had sat twenty years ago. But the new tragedy had rendered the memory less poignant.
"It's a dreadful thing about the Colonel, sir," said Marigold as we drove off.
"More dreadful than anyone can imagine," said I.
"What he's going to do with himself is what I'm wondering," said Marigold.
What indeed? The question went infinitely deeper than the practical dreams of Marigold's philosophy. My honest fellow saw but the outside—the full-blooded man of action cabined in his lifelong darkness. I, to whom chance had revealed more, trembled at the contemplation of his future. The man, goaded by the Furies, had rushed into the jaws of death. Those jaws, by some divine ordinance, had ruthlessly closed against him. The Furies meanwhile attended him unrelenting. Whither now would they goad him? Into madness? I doubted it. In spite of his contradictory nature, he did not seem to be the sort of man who would go mad. He could exercise over himself too reasoned a control. Yet here were passions and despairs seething without an outlet. What would be the end? It is true that he had achieved glory. To the end of his life, wherever he went, he would command the honour and admiration of men. Greater achievement is granted to few mortals. In our little town he would be the Great Hero. But would all that human sympathy and veneration could contrive keep the Furies at bay and soothe the tormented spirit?
I tried to eat a meal at the club, but the food choked me. I got into the car as soon as possible and reached Wellingsford with head and heart racked with pain. But before I could go home I had to execute Boyce's mission.
If I accomplished it successfully, my heart and not my wearied mind deserves the credit. At first Mrs. Boyce broke down under the shock of the news, for all the preparation in the world can do little to soften a deadly blow; but breed and pride soon asserted themselves, and she faced things bravely. With charming dignity she received Marigold's few respectful words of condolence. And she thanked me for what I had done, beyond my deserts. To show how brave she was, she insisted on accompanying us downstairs and on standing in the bleak evening air while Marigold put me in the car.
"After all, I have my son alive and in good strong health. I must realise how merciful God has been to me." She put her hand into mine. "I shan't see you again till I bring him home with me. I shall go up to London early to-morrow morning and stay with my old friend Lady Fanshawe—I think you have met her here—the widow of the late Admiral Fanshawe. She has a house in Eccleston Street, which is, I think, in the neighbourhood of Belton Square. If I haven't thanked you enough, dear Major Meredyth, it is that, when one's heart is full, one can't do everything all at once."
She waved to me very graciously as the car drove off—a true "Spartian" mother, dear lady, of our modern England.
Oh! the humiliation of possessing a frail body and a lot of disorganized nerves! When I got home Marigold, seeing that I was overtired, was all for putting me to bed then and there. I spurned the insulting proposal in language plain enough even to his wooden understanding. Sometimes his imperturbability exasperated me. I might just as well try to taunt a poker or sting a fire-shovel into resentment of personal abuse.
"I'll see you hanged, drawn, and quartered before I'll go to bed," I declared.
"Very good, sir." The gaunt wretch was carrying me. "But I think you might lie down for half an hour before dinner."
He deposited me ignominiously on the bed and left the room. In about ten minutes Dr. Cliffe, my inveterate adversary who has kept life in me for many a year, came in with his confounded pink smiling face.
"What's this I hear? Been overdoing it?"
"What the deuce are you doing here?" I cried. "Go away. How dare you come when you're not wanted?"
He grinned. "I'm wanted right enough, old man. The good Marigold's never at fault. He rang me up and I slipped round at once."
"One of these days," said I, "I'll murder that fellow."
He replied by gagging me with his beastly thermometer. Then he felt my pulse and listened to my heart and stuck his fingers into the corners of my eyes, so as to look at the whites; and when he was quite satisfied with himself—there is only one animal more self-complacent than your medical man in such circumstances, and that is a dog who has gorged himself with surreptitious meat—he ordained that I should forthwith go properly to bed and stay there and be perfectly quiet until he came again, and in the meanwhile swallow some filthy medicine which he would send round.
"One of these days," said he, rebukingly, "instead of murdering your devoted Sergeant, you'll be murdering yourself, if you go on such lunatic excursions. Of course I'm shocked at hearing about Colonel Boyce, and I'm sorry for the poor lady, but why you should have been made to half kill yourself over the matter is more than I can understand."
"I happen," said I, "to be his only intimate friend in the place."
"You happen," he retorted, "to be a chronic invalid and the most infernal worry of my life."
"You're nothing but an overbearing bully," said I.
He grinned again. That is what I have to put up with. If I curse Marigold, he takes no notice. If I curse Cliffe, he grins. Yet what I should do without them, Heaven only knows.
"God bless 'em both," said I, when my aching body was between the cool sheets.
Although it was none of his duties, Marigold brought me in a light supper, fish and a glass of champagne. Never a parlour-maid would he allow to approach me when I was unwell. I often wondered what would happen if I were really ill and required the attendance of a nurse. I swear no nurse's touch could be so gentle as when he raised me on the pillows. He bent over the tray on the table by the bed and began to dissect out the back-bone of the sole.
"I can do that," said I, fretfully.
He cocked a solitary reproachful eye on me. I burst out laughing. He looked so dear and ridiculous with his preposterous curly wig and his battered face. He went on with his task.
"I wonder, Marigold," said I, "how you put up with me."
He did not reply until he had placed the neatly arranged tray across my body.
"I've never heard, sir," said he, "as how a man couldn't put up with his blessings."
A bit of sole was on my fork and I was about to convey it to my mouth, but there came a sudden lump in my throat and I put the fork down.
"But what about the curses?"
A horrible contortion of the face and a guttural rumble indicated amusement on the part of Marigold. I stared, very serious, having been profoundly touched.
"What are you laughing at?" I asked.
The idiot's merriment increased in vehemence. He said: "You're too funny, sir," and just bolted, in a manner unbecoming not only to a sergeant, but even to a butler.
As I mused on this unprecedented occurrence, I made a discovery,—that of Sergeant Marigold's sense of humour. To that sense of humour my upbraidings, often, I must confess, couched in picturesque and figurative terms so as not too greatly to hurt his feelings, had made constant appeal for the past fifteen years. Hitherto he had hidden all signs of humorous titillation behind his impassive mask. To-night, a spark of sentiment had been the match to explode the mine of his mirth. It was a serious position. Here had I been wasting on him half a lifetime's choicest objurgations. What was I to do in the future to consolidate my authority?
I never enjoyed a fried sole and a glass of champagne more in my life.
He came in later to remove the tray, as wooden as ever.
"Mrs. Connor called a little while ago, sir."
"Why didn't you ask her to come in to see me?"
"Doctor's orders, sir."
After the sole and champagne, I felt much better. I should have welcomed my dear Betty with delight. That, at any rate, was my first impulsive thought.
"Confound the doctor!" I cried. And I was going to confound Marigold, too, but I caught his steady luminous eye. What was the use of any anathema when he would only take it away, as a dog does a bone, and enjoy it in a solitary corner? I recovered myself.
"Well?" said I, with dignity. "Did Mrs. Connor leave any message?"
"I was to give you her compliments, sir, and say she was sorry you were so unwell and she was shocked to hear of Colonel Boyce's sad affliction."
This was sheer orderly room. Such an expression as "sad affliction" never passed Betty's lips. I, however, had nothing to say. Marigold settled me for the night and left me.
When I was alone and able to consider the point, I felt a cowardly gratitude towards the doctor who had put me to bed like a sick man and forbidden access to my room. I had been spared breaking the news to Betty. How she received it, I did not know. It had been impossible to question Marigold. After all, it was a matter of no essential moment. I consoled myself with the reflection and tried to go to sleep. But I passed a wretched night, my head whirling with the day's happenings.
The morning papers showed me that Boyce, wishing to spare his mother, had been wise to summon me at once. They all published an official paragraph describing the act for which he had received his distinction, and announcing the fact of his blindness. They also gave a brief and flattering sketch of his career. One paper devoted to him a short leading article. The illustrated papers published his photograph. Boyce was on the road to becoming a popular hero.
Cliffe kept me in bed all that day, to my great irritation. I had no converse with the outside world, save vicariously with Betty, who rang up to enquire after my health. On the following morning, when I drove abroad with Hosea, I found the whole town ringing with Boyce. It was a Friday, the day of publication of the local newspaper. It had run to extravagant bills all over the place:
"Wellingsford Hero honoured by the King. Tragic End to Glorious Deeds."
The word—Marigold's, I suppose—had gone round that I had visited the hero in London. I was stopped half a dozen times on my way up the High Street by folks eager for personal details. Outside Prettilove the hairdresser's I held quite a little reception, and instead of moving me on for blocking the traffic, as any of his London colleagues would have done, the local police sergeant sank his authority and by the side of a butcher's boy formed part of the assembly.
When I got to the Market Square, I saw Sir Anthony Fenimore's car standing outside the Town Hall. The chauffeur stopped me.
"Sir Anthony was going to call on you, sir, as soon as he had finished his business inside."
"I'll wait for him," said I. It was one of the few mild days of a wretched month and I enjoyed the air. Springfield, the house agent, passed and engaged me in conversation on the absorbing topic, and then the manager of the gasworks joined us. Everyone listened so reverently to my utterances that I began to feel as if I had won the Victoria Cross myself.
Presently Sir Anthony bustled out of the Town Hall, pink, brisk, full of business. At the august appearance of the Mayor my less civically distinguished friends departed. His eyes brightened as they fell on me and he shook hands vigorously.
"My dear Duncan, I was just on my way to you. Only heard this morning that you've been seedy. Knocked up, I suppose, by your journey to town. Just heard of that, too. Must have thought me a brute not to enquire. But Edith and I didn't know. I was away all yesterday. These infernal tribunals. With the example of men like Leonard Boyce before their eyes, it makes one sick to look at able-bodied young Englishmen trying to wriggle out of their duty to the country. Well, dear old chap, how are you?"
I assured him that I had recovered from Cliffe and was in my usual state of health. He rubbed his hands.
"That's good. Now give me all the news. What is Boyce's condition? When will he be able to be moved? When do you think he'll come back to Wellingsford?"
At this series of questions I pricked a curious ear.
"Am I speaking to the man or the Mayor?"
"The Mayor," said he. "I wish to goodness I could get you inside, so that you and I and Winterbotham could talk things over."
Winterbotham was the Town Clerk. Sir Anthony cast an instinctive glance at his chauffeur, a little withered elderly man. I laughed and made a sign of dissent. When you have to be carried about, you shy at the prospect of little withered, elderly men as carriers. Besides—
"Unless it would lower Winterbotham's dignity or give him a cold in the head," said I, "why shouldn't he come out here?"
Sir Anthony crossed the pavement briskly, gave a message to the doorkeeper of the Town Hall, and returned to Hosea and myself.
"It's a dreadful thing. Dreadful. I never realised till yesterday, when I read his record, what a distinguished soldier he was. A modern Bayard. For the last year or so he seemed to put my back up. Behaved in rather a curious way, never came near the house where once he was always welcome, and when I asked him to dinner he turned me down flat. But that's all over. Sometimes one has these pettifogging personal vanities. The best thing is to be heartily ashamed of 'em like an honest man, and throw 'em out in the dung-heap where they belong. That's what I told Edith last night, and she agreed with me. Don't you?"
I smiled. Here was another typical English gentleman ridding his conscience of an injustice done to Leonard Boyce.
"Of course I do," said I. "Boyce is a queer fellow. A man with his exceptional qualities has to be judged in an exceptional way."
"And then," said Sir Anthony, "it's that poor dear old lady that I've been thinking of. Edith went to see her yesterday afternoon, but found she had gone up to London. In her frail health it's enough to kill her."
"It won't," said I. "A woman doesn't give birth to a lion without having something of the lion in her nature."
"I've never thought of that," said Sir Anthony.
His face turned grave and he looked far away over the red-brick post-office on the opposite side of the square. Then he sighed, looked at me with a smile, and nodded.
"You're right, Duncan."
"I know I am," said I. "I broke the news to Mrs. Boyce. That's why he asked me to go up and see him."
Winterbotham appeared—a tall, cadaverous man in a fur coat and a soft felt hat. He shook hands with me in a melancholy way. In a humbler walk of life, I am sure he would have been an undertaker.
"Now," said Sir Anthony, "tell us all about your interview with Boyce."
"Before I commit myself," said I, "with the Civic Authorities, will you kindly inform me what this conference coram publico is all about?"
"Why, my dear chap, haven't I told you?" cried Sir Anthony. "We're going to give Colonel Boyce a Civic Reception."