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Red Planet, The

CHAPTER XIX

Thenceforward nothing was talked of but the home-coming of Colonel Boyce. He touched the public imagination. All kinds of stories, some apocryphal, some having a basis of truth, some authentic, went the round of the little place. It simmered with martial fervour. Elderly laggards enrolled themselves in the Volunteer Training Corps. Young married men who had not attested under the Derby Scheme rushed out to enlist. The Tribunal languished in idleness for lack of claimants for exemption. Exempted men, with the enthusiastic backing of employers, lost the sense of their indispensability and joined the colours. An energetic lady who had met the Serbian Minister in London conceived the happy idea of organising a Serbian Flag Day in Wellingsford, and reaped a prodigious harvest. We were all tremendously patriotic, living under Boyce's reflected glory.

At first I had deprecated the proposal, fearing lest Boyce might not find it acceptable. The reputation he had sought at the cannon's mouth was a bubble of a different kind from that which the good townsfolk were eager to celebrate. Vanity had no part in it. For what the outer world thought of his exploits he did not care a penny. He was past caring. His soul alone, for its own sore needs, had driven him to the search. Before his own soul and not before his fellow countrymen, had he craved to parade as a recipient of the Victoria Cross. His own soul, as I knew, not being satisfied, he would shrink from obtaining popular applause under false pretences. No unhappy man ever took sterner measure of himself. Of all this no one but myself had the faintest idea. In explaining my opinion I had to leave out all essentials. I could only hint that a sensitive man like Colonel Boyce might be averse from exhibiting in public his physical disabilities; that he had always shown himself a modest soldier with a dislike of self-advertisement; that he would prefer to seek immediate refuge in the quietude of his home. But they would not listen to me. Colonel Boyce, they said, would be too patriotic to refuse the town's recognition. It was part of the game which he, as a brave soldier, no matter how modest, could not fail to play. He would recognise that such public honourings of valour had widespread effect among the population. In face of such arguments I had to withdraw my opposition; otherwise it might have appeared that I was actuated by petty personal motives. God knows I only desired to save Boyce from undergoing a difficult ordeal. For the same reasons I could not refuse to serve on the Reception Committee which was immediately formed under the chairmanship of the Mayor.

Preliminaries having been discussed, the Mayor and the Town Clerk waited on Boyce in Belton Square, and returned with the triumphant tidings that they had succeeded in their mission.

"I can't make out what you were running your head against, Duncan," said Sir Anthony. "Of course, as you say, he's a modest chap and dislikes publicity. So do we all. But I quickly talked him out of that objection. I talked him out of all sorts of objections before he could raise them. At last what do you think he said?"

"I should have told you to go to blazes and not worry me."

"He didn't. He said—now I like the chap for it, it was so simple and honest—he said: 'If I were alone in the world I wouldn't have it, for I don't like it. But I'll accept on one condition. My poor old mother has had rather a thin time and she's going to have a thinner. She never gets a look in. Make it as far as possible her show, and I'll do what you like.' What do you think of that?"

"I think it's very characteristic," said I.

And it was. In my mental survey of the situation from Boyce's point of view I had not taken into account the best and finest in the man. His reason rang true against my exceptional knowledge of him. I had worked myself into so sympathetic a comprehension that I KNEW he would be facing something unknown and terrible in the proposed ceremony; I KNEW that for his own sake he would have unequivocably declined. But, ad najorem matris gloriam, he assented.

The main question, at any rate, was settled. The hero would accept the honour. It was for the Committee to make the necessary arrangements. We corresponded far and wide in order to obtain municipal precedents. We had interviews with the military and railway authorities. We were in constant communication with the local Volunteer Training Corps; with the Godbury Volunteers and the Godbury School O.T.C., who both desired to take a part in the great event. In compliance with the conditions imposed, we gave as much publicity as we could to Mrs. Boyce. Lieutenant Colonel Boyce, V.C., and Mrs. Boyce were officially associated in the programme of the reception. How to disentangle them afterwards, when the presentation of the address, engrossed on velluni and enclosed in a casket, should be made to the Colonel, was the subject of heated and confused discussion. Then the feminine elements in town and county desired to rally to the side of Mrs. Boyce. The Red Cross and Volunteer Aid Detachment Nurses claimed representation. So did the munitions workers of Godbury. The Countess of Laleham, the wife of the Lord Lieutenant of the County, a most imposing and masterful woman, signified (in genteel though incisive language) her intention to take a leading part in the proceedings and to bring along her husband, apparently as an unofficial ornament. This, of course, upset our plans, which had all to be reconsidered from the beginning.

"Who is giving the reception?" cried Lady Fenimore, who could stand upon her dignity as well as anybody. "The County or Wellingsford? I presume it's Wellingsford, and, so long as I am Mayoress, that dreadful Laleham woman will have to take a back seat."

So, you see, we had our hands full.

All this time I found Betty curiously elusive. Now and then I met her for a few fugitive moments at the hospital. Twice she ran in for dinner, in uniform, desperately busy, arriving on the stroke of the dinner hour and rushing away five minutes after her coffee and cigarette, alleging as excuse the epidemic of influenza, consequent on the vile weather, which had woefully reduced the hospital staff. She seemed to be feverish and ill at ease, and tried to cover the symptoms by a reversion to her old offhand manner. As I was so seldom alone with her I could find scant opportunity for intimate conversation. I thought that she might have regretted the frank exposition of her feelings regarding Leonard Boyce. But she showed no sign of it. She spoke in the most detached way of his blindness and the coming ceremony. Never once, even on the first occasion when I met her—in the hospital corridor—after my return from London, did her attitude vary from that of any kind-hearted Englishwoman who deplores the mutilation of a gallant social acquaintance. Sometimes I wanted to shake her, though I could scarcely tell why. I certainly would not have had her weep on my shoulder over Boyce's misfortune; nor would I have cared for her to exhibit a vindictive callousness. She behaved with perfect propriety. Perhaps that is what disturbed me. I was not accustomed to associate perfect propriety with my dear Betty.

The days went on. The reception arrangements were perfected. We only waited for the date of Boyce's arrival to be fixed. That depended on the date of the particular Investiture by the King which Boyce's convalescence should allow him to attend. At last the date was fixed.

A few days before the Investiture I went to London and called at Lady Fanshawe's in Eccleston Street, whither he had been removed after leaving the hospital. I was received in the dining-room on the ground floor by Boyce and his mother. He wore black glasses to hide terrible disfigurement—he lifted them to show me. One eye had been extracted. The other was seared and sightless. He greeted me as heartily as ever, made little jests over his infirmity, treating it lightly for his mother's sake. She, on her side, deemed it her duty to exhibit equal cheerfulness. She boasted of his progress in self-reliance and in the accomplishment of various little blind man's tricks. At her bidding he lit a cigarette for my benefit, by means of a patent fuse. He said, when he had succeeded:

"Better than the last time you saw me, eh, Meredyth?"

"What was that?" asked Mrs. Boyce.

"He nearly burned his fingers," said I, shortly. I had no desire to relate the incident.

We talked of the coming ceremony and I gave them the details of the programme. Boyce had been right in accepting on the score of his mother. Only once had she been the central figure in any public ceremony—on her wedding day, in the years long ago. Here was a new kind of wedding day in her old age. The prospect filled her with a tremulous joy which was to both of them a compensation. She bubbled over with pride and excitement at her inclusion in the homage that was to be paid to the valour of her only son.

"After all," she said, "I did bring him into the world. So I can claim some credit. I only hope I shan't cry and make a fool of myself. They won't expect me to keep on bowing, will they? I once saw Queen Victoria driving through the streets, and I thought how dreadfully her poor old neck must have ached."

On the latter point I reassured her. On the drive from the station Boyce would take the salute of the troops on the line of route. If she smiled charmingly on them, their hearts would be satisfied, and if she just nodded at them occasionally in a motherly sort of way, they would be enchanted. She informed me that she was having a new dress made for the occasion. She had also bought a new hat, which I must see. A servant was summoned and dispatched for it. She tried it on girlishly before the mirror over the mantelpiece, and received my compliments.

"Tell me what it looks like," said Boyce.

You might as well ask a savage in Central Africa to describe the interior of a submarine as the ordinary man to describe a woman's hat. My artless endeavours caused considerable merriment. To hear Boyce's gay laughter one would have thought he had never a care in the world ...

When I took my leave, Mrs. Boyce accompanied Marigold and myself to the front door.

"Did you ever hear of anything so dreadful?" she whispered, and I saw her lips quivering and the tears rolling down her cheeks. "If he weren't so brave and wonderful, I should break my heart."

"What do you suppose you are yourself, my dear old friend," said I over Marigold's shoulder.

I went away greatly comforted. Both of them were as brave as could be. For the first time I took a more cheerful view of Boyce's future.

On the evening before the Reception Betty was shown into the library. It was late, getting on towards my bedtime, and I was nodding in front of the fire.

"I'm just in and out, Majy dear," she said. "I had to come. I didn't want to give you too many shocks." At my expression of alarm, she laughed. "I've only run in to tell you that I've made up my mind to come to the Town Hall tomorrow."

I looked at her, and I suppose my hands moved in a slight gesture.

"By that," she said, "I suppose you mean you can never tell what I'm going to do next."

"You've guessed it, my dear," said I.

"Do you disapprove?"

"I couldn't be so presumptuous."

She bent over me and caught the lapels of my jacket.

"Oh, don't be so dreadfully dignified. I want you to understand. Everybody is going to pay honour to-morrow to a man who has given everything he could to his country. Don't you think it would be petty of me if I stood out? What have the dead things that have passed between us to do with my tribute as an Englishwoman?"

What indeed? I asked her whether she was attending in her private capacity or as one of the representatives of the V.A.D. nurses. I learned for the thousandth time that Betty Connor did not deal in half measures. If she went at all, it was as Betty Connor that she would go. Her aunts would accompany her. It was part of the municipal ordering of things that the Town Clerk should have sent them the special cards of invitation.

"I think it my duty to go," said Betty.

"If you think so, my dear," said I, "then it is your duty. So there's nothing more to be said about it."

Betty kissed the top of my head and went off.

We come now to the morning of the great day. Everything had been finally settled. The Mayor and Aldermen, Lady Fenimore and the Aldermen's wives, the Lord Lieutenant (in unofficial mufti) and Lady Laleham (great though officially obscure lady), the General of the Division quartered in the neighbourhood and officers of his staff, and a few other magnates to meet the three o'clock train by which the Boyces were due to arrive. The station hung with flags and inscriptions. A guard of honour and a band in the station-yard, with a fleet of motor cars in waiting. Troops lining the route from station to Town Hall. More troops in the decorated Market Square, including the Godbury School O.T.C. and the Wellingsford and Godbury Volunteers. I heard that the latter were very anxious to fire off a feu de joie, but were restrained owing to lack of precedent. The local fire-brigade in freshly burnished helmets were to follow the procession of motor cars, and behind them motor omnibuses with the nurses.

Marigold, although his attendance on me precluded him from taking part in the parade of Volunteers, appeared in full grey uniform with all his medals and the black patch of ceremony over his eyeless socket. I must confess to regarding him with some jealousy. I too should have liked to wear my decorations. If a man swears to you that he is free from such little vanities, he is more often than not a mere liar. But a broken-down old soldier, although still drawing pay from the Government, is not allowed to wear uniform (which I think is outrageous), and he can't go and plaster himself with medals when he is wearing on his head a hard felt hat. My envy of the martial looking Marigold is a proof that my mind was not busied with sterner preoccupations. I ate my breakfast with the serene conscience not only of a man who knows he has done his duty, but of an organiser confident in the success of his schemes. The abominable weather of snows and tempests from which we had suffered for weeks had undergone a change. It was a mild morning brightened by a pale convalescent sort of sun, and there was just a little hope of spring in the air. I felt content with everything and everybody.

About eleven o'clock the buzz of the library telephone disturbed my comfortable perusal of the newspaper. I wheeled towards the instrument. Sir Anthony was speaking.

"Can you come round at once? Very urgent. The car is on its way to you."

"What's the matter?" I asked.

He could not tell me over the wires. I was to take it that my presence was urgently needed.

"I'll come along at once," said I.

Some hitch doubtless had occurred. Perhaps the War Office (whose ways were ever weird and unaccountable) had forbidden the General to take part in such a village-pump demonstration. Perhaps Lady Laleham had insisted on her husband coming down like a uniformed Lord Lieutenant on the fold. Perhaps the hero himself was laid up with measles.


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