Red Planet, The


How he passed through the ordeal I don't know. If ever a man stood captain of his soul, it was Anthony Fenimore that day. And his soul was steel-armoured. Perhaps, if proof had come to him from an untainted source, it might have modified his attitude. I cannot tell. Without doubt the knavery of Gedge set aflame his indignation—or rather the fierce pride of the great old Tory gentleman. He would have walked through hell-fire sooner than yielded an inch to Gedge. So much would scornful defiance have done. But behind all this—and I am as certain of it as I am certain that one day I shall die—burned even fiercer, steadier, and clearer the unquenchable fire of patriotic duty. He was dealing not with a man who had sinned terribly towards him, but with a man who had offered his life over and over again to his country, a man who had given to his country the sight of his eyes, a man on whose breast the King himself had pinned the supreme badge of honour in his gift. He was dealing, not with a private individual, but with a national hero. In his small official capacity as Mayor of Wellingsford, he was but the mouthpiece of a national sentiment. And more than that. This ceremony was an appeal to the unimaginative, the sluggish, the faint-hearted. In its little way—and please remember that all tremendous enthusiasms are fit by these little fires—it was a proclamation of the undying glory of England. It was impersonal, it was national, it was Imperial. In its little way it was of vast, far-reaching importance.

I want you to remember these things in order that you should understand the mental processes, or soul processes, or whatever you like, of Sir Anthony Fenimore. Picture him. The most unheroic little man you can imagine. Clean-shaven, bullet-headed, close-cropped, his face ruddy and wrinkled like a withered apple, his eyes a misty blue, his big nose marked like a network of veins, his hands glazed and reddened, like his face, by wind and weather; standing, even under his mayoral robes, like a jockey. Of course he had the undefinable air of breeding; no one could have mistaken his class. But he was an undistinguished, very ordinary looking little man; and indeed he had done nothing for the past half century to distinguish himself above his fellows. There are thousands of his type, masters of English country houses. And of all the thousands, every one brought up against the stern issues of life would have acted like Anthony Fenimore. I say "would have acted," but anyone who has lived in England during the war knows that they have so acted. These incarnations of the commonplace, the object of the disdain, before the war, of the self-styled "intellectuals"—if the war sweeps the insufferable term into oblivion it will have done some good—these honest unassuming gentlemen have responded heroically to the great appeal; and when the intellectuals have thought of their intellects or their skins, they have thought only of their duty. And it was only the heroical sense of duty that sustained Sir Anthony Fenimore that day.

I did not see the reception at the Railway Station or join the triumphal procession; but went early to the Town Hall and took my seat on the platform. I glibly say "took my seat." A wheel-chair, sent there previously, was hoisted, with me inside, on to the platform by Marigold and a porter. After all these years, I still hate to be publicly paraded, like a grizzled baby, in Marigold's arms. For convenience' sake I was posted at the front left-hand corner. The hall soon filled. The first three rows of seats were reserved for the recipients of the municipality's special invitation; the remainder were occupied by the successful applicants for tickets. From my almost solitary perch I watched the fluttering and excited crowd. The town band in the organ gallery at the further end discoursed martial music. From the main door beneath them ran the central gangway to the platform. I recognised many friends. In the front row with her two aunts sat Betty, very demure in her widow's hat relieved by its little white band of frilly stuff beneath the brim. She looked unusually pale. I could not help watching her intently and trying to divine how much she knew of the story of Boyce and Althea. She caught my eye, nodded, and smiled wanly.

My situation was uncanny. In this crowded assemblage in front of me, whispering, talking, laughing beneath the blare of the band, not one, save Betty, had a suspicion of the tragedy. At times they seemed to melt into a shadow-mass of dreamland .... Time crawled on very slowly. Anxious forebodings oppressed me. Had Sir Anthony's valiancy stood the test? Had he been able to shake hands with his daughter's betrayer? Had he broken down during the drive side by side with him, amid the hooraying of the townsfolk? And Gedge? Had he found some madman's means of proclaiming the scandal aloud? Every nerve in my body was strained. Marigold, in his uniform and medals and patch and grey service cap plugged over his black wig, stood sentry by the side of the platform next my chair. All of a sudden he pulled out of his side pocket a phial of red liqueur in a medicine glass. He poured out the dose and handed it to me. I turned on him wrathfully.

"What the dickens is that?"

"Dr. Cliffe's orders, sir."

"When did he order it?"

"When I told him what you looked like after interviewing Mister Daniel Gedge. And he said, if you was to look like that again I was to give you this. So I'm giving it to you, sir."

There was no arguing with Marigold in front of a thousand people. I swallowed the stuff quickly. He put the phial and glass back in his pocket and resumed his wooden sentry attitude by my chair. I must own to feeling better for the draught. But, thought I, if the strain of the situation is so great for me, what must it be for Sir Anthony?

Presently the muffled sounds of outside cheering penetrated the hall. The band stopped abruptly, to begin again with "See the Conquering Hero Comes" when the civic procession appeared through the great doors. There was little Sir Anthony in his robes, grave and imposing, and beside him Mrs. Boyce, flushed, bright-eyed, and tearful. Then came Lady Fenimore with Boyce, black-spectacled, soldierly, bull-necked, his little bronze cross conspicuous among the medals on his breast, his elbow gripped by a weatherbeaten young soldier, one of his captains, as I learned afterwards, home on leave, who had claimed the privilege of guiding his blind footsteps. And behind came the Aldermen and the Councillors, and the General and his staff, and the Lord Lieutenant and Lady Laleham and the other members of the Reception Committee. The cheering drowned the strains of the "Conquering Hero." Places were taken on the platform. To the right of the Mayor sat Boyce, to the left his mother. On the table in front were set scrolls and caskets. You see, we had arranged that Mrs. Boyce should have an address and a casket all to herself. The gallery soon was picturesquely filled with the nurses, and the fire-brigade, bright-helmeted, was massed in the doorway.

God gave the steel-hearted little man strength to go through the ordeal. He delivered his carefully prepared oration in a voice that never faltered. The passages referring to Boyce's blindness he spoke with an accent of amazing sincerity. When he had ended the responsive audience applauded tumultuously. From my seat by the edge of the platform I watched Betty. Two red spots burned in her cheeks. The addresses were read, the caskets presented. Boyce remained standing, about to respond. He still held the casket in both hands. His FIDUS ACHATES, guessing his difficulty, sprang up, took it from him, and laid it on the table. Boyce turned to him with his charming smile and said: "Thanks, old man." Again the tumult broke out. Men cheered and women wept and waved wet handkerchiefs. And he stood smiling at his unseen audience. When he spoke, his deep, beautifully modulated voice held everyone under its spell, and he spoke modestly and gaily like a brave gentleman. I bent forward, as far as I was able, and scanned his face. Never once, during the whole ceremony, did the tell-tale twitch appear at the corners of his lips. He stood there the incarnation of the modern knights sans fear and sans reproach.

I cannot tell which of the two, he or Sir Anthony, the more moved my wondering admiration. Each exhibited a glorious defiance.

You may say that Boyce, receiving in his debonair fashion the encomiums of the man whom he had wronged, was merely exhibiting the familiar callousness of the criminal. If you do, I throw up my brief. I shall have failed utterly to accomplish my object in writing this book. I want no tears of sensibility shed over Boyce. I want you to judge him by the evidence that I am trying to put before you. If you judge him as a criminal, it is my poor presentation of the evidence that is at fault. I claim for Boyce a certain splendour of character, for all his grievous sins, a splendour which no criminal in the world's history has ever achieved. I beg you therefore to suspend your judgment, until I have finished, as far as my poor powers allow, my unravelling of his tangled skein. And pray remember too that I have sought all through to present you with the facts PARI PASSU with my knowledge of them. I have tried to tell the story through myself. I could think of no other way of creating an essential verisimilitude. Yet, even now, writing in the light of full knowledge, I cannot admit that, when Boyce in that Town Hall faced the world—for, in the deep tragic sense Wellingsford was his world—anyone knowing as much as I did would have been justified in calling his demeanour criminal callousness.

I say that he exhibited a glorious defiance. He defied the concrete Gedge. He defied the more abstract, but none the less real, tormenting Furies. He defied remorse. In accepting Sir Anthony's praise he defied the craven in his own soul.

After a speech or two more, to which I did not listen, the proceedings in the Town Hall ended. I drew a breath of relief. No breakdown by Sir Anthony, no scandalous interruption by Gedge, had marred the impressive ceremony. The band in the gallery played "God Save the King." The crowd in the body of the hall, who had stood for the anthem, sat down again, evidently waiting for Boyce and the notables to pass out. The assemblage on the platform broke up. Several members, among them the General, who paused to shake hands with Boyce and his mother, left the hall by the private side door. The Lord Lieutenant and Lady Laleham followed him soon afterwards. Then the less magnificent crowded round Boyce, each eager for a personal exchange of words with the hero. Sir Anthony remained at his post, keeping on the outskirts of the throng, bidding formal adieux to those who went away. Presently I saw that Boyce was asking for me, for someone pointed me out to his officer attendant, who led him down the steps of the platform and round the edge to my seat.

"Well, it has gone off all right," said he. "Let me introduce Captain Winslow, more than ever my right-hand man—Major Meredyth."

We exchanged bows.

"The old mother's as pleased as Punch. She didn't know she was going to get a little box of her own. I should like to have seen her face. I did hear her give one of her little squeals. Did you?"

"No," said I, "but I saw her face. It was that of a saint in an unexpected beatitude."

He laughed. "Dear old mother," said he. "She has deserved a show." He turned away unconsciously, and, thinking to address me, addressed the first row of spectators. "I suppose there's a lot of folks here that I know."

By chance he seemed to be looking through his black glasses straight at Betty a few feet away. She rose impulsively and, before all Wellingsford, went up to him with hand outstretched.

"There's one at any rate, Colonel Boyce. I'm Betty Connor—"

"No need to tell me that," said he, bowing.

Winslow, at his elbow, most scrupulous of prompters, whispered:

"She wants to shake hands with you."

So their hands met. He kept hers an appreciable second or two in his grasp.

"I hope you will accept my congratulations," said Betty.

"I have already accepted them, very gratefully. My mother conveyed them to me. She was deeply touched by your letter. And may I, too, say how deeply touched I am by your coming here?"

Betty looked swiftly round and her cheeks flushed, for there were many of us within earshot. She laughed off her embarrassment.

"You have developed from a man into a Wellingsford Institution, and I had to come and see you inaugurated. My aunts, too, are here." She beckoned to them. "They are shyer than I am."

The elderly ladies came forward and spoke their pleasant words of congratulation. Mrs. Holmes and others, encouraged, followed their example. Mrs. Boyce suddenly swooped from the platform into the middle of the group and kissed Betty, who emerged from the excited lady's embrace blushing furiously. She shook hands with Betty's aunts and thanked them for their presence; and in the old lady's mind the reconciliation of the two houses was complete. Then, with cheeks of a more delicate natural pink than any living valetudinarian of her age could boast of, and with glistening eyes, she made her way to me, and reaching up and drawing me down, kissed me, too.

While all this was going on, the body of the hall began to empty. The programme had arranged for nothing more by way of ceremonial to take place. But a public gathering always hopes for something unexpected, and, when it does not happen, takes its disappointment philosophically. I think Betty's action must have shown them that the rest of the proceedings were to be purely private and informal.

The platform also gradually thinned, until at last, looking round, I saw that only Sir Anthony and Lady Fenimore and Winterbotham, the Town Clerk, remained. Then Lady Fenimore joined us. We were about a score, myself perched on the edge and corner of the platform, the rest standing on the floor of the hall in a sector round me, Marigold, of course, in the middle of them by my side, like an ill-graven image. As soon as she could Lady Fenimore came up to me.

"Don't you think it splendid of Betty Connor to bury the hatchet so publicly?" she whispered.

"The war," said I, "is a solvent of many human complications."

"It is indeed." Then she added: "I am going to have a little dinner party some time soon for the Boyces. I sounded him to-day and he practically promised. I'll ask the Lalehams. Of course you'll come. Now that things have shown themselves so topsy-turvy I've been wondering whether I should ask Betty."

"Does Anthony know of this dinner party?" I enquired.

"What does it matter whether he does or not?" she laughed. "Dinner parties come within my province and I'm mistress of it."

Of course Boyce had half promised. What else could he do without discourtesy? But the banquet which, in her unsuspecting innocence she proposed, seemed to me a horrible meal. Doubtless it would seem so to Sir Anthony. At the moment I did not know whether he intended to tell Gedge's story to his wife. At any rate, hitherto, he had not done so.

"All the same, my dear Edith," I replied, "Anthony may have a word to say. I happen to know he has no particular personal friendship for Boyce, who, if you'll forgive my saying so, has treated you rather cavalierly for the past two years. Anthony's welcome to-day was purely public and official. It had nothing to do with his private feelings."

"But they have changed. He was referring to the matter only this morning at breakfast and suggesting things we could do to lighten the poor man's affliction."

"I don't think a dinner party would lighten it," I said. "And if I were you, I wouldn't suggest it to Anthony."

"That's rather mysterious." She looked at me shrewdly. "And there's another mysterious thing. Anthony's like a yapping sphinx over it. What were you two talking to Gedge about this morning?" "Nothing particular."

"That's nonsense, Duncan. Gedge was making himself unpleasant. He never does anything else."

"If you want to know," said I, with a convulsive effort of invention, "we heard that he was preparing some sort of demonstration, going to bring down some of his precious anti-war-league people."

"He wouldn't have the pluck," she exclaimed.

"Anyhow," said I, "we thought we had better have him in and read him the Riot—or rather the Defence of the Realm—Act. That's all."

"Then why on earth couldn't Anthony tell me?"

"You ought to know the mixture of sugar and pepper in your husband's nature better than I do, my dear Edith," I replied.

Her laugh reassured me. I had turned a difficult corner. No doubt she would go to Sir Anthony with my explanation and either receive his acquiescence or learn the real truth.

She was bidding me farewell when Sir Anthony came along the platform to the chair. I glanced up, but I saw that he did not wish to speak to me. He was looking grim and tired. He called down to his wife:

"It's time to move, dear. The troops are still standing outside."

She bustled about giving the signal for departure, first running to Boyce and taking him by the sleeve. I had not noticed that he had withdrawn with Betty a few feet away from the little group. They were interrupted in an animated conversation. At the sight I felt a keen pang of repulsion. Those two ought not to talk together as old friends. It outraged decencies. It was all very well for Betty to play the magnanimous and patriotic Englishwoman. By her first word of welcome she had fulfilled the part. But this flushed, eager talk lay far beyond the scope of patriotic duty. How could they thus converse over the body of the dead Althea? With both of them was I indignant.

In my inmost heart I felt horribly and vulgarly jealous. I may as well confess it. Deeply as I had sworn blood-brotherhood with Boyce, regardless of the crimes he might or might not have committed, I could not admit him into that inner brotherhood of which Betty and I alone were members. And this is just a roundabout, shame-faced way of saying that, at that moment, I discovered that I was hopelessly, insanely in love with Betty. The knowledge came to me in a great wave of dismay.

"You'll let me see you again, won't you?" he asked.

"If you like."

I don't think I heard the words, but I traced them on their lips. They parted. Sir Anthony descended from the platform and gave his arm to Mrs. Boyce. Lady Fenimore still clung to Boyce. Winterbotham came next, bearing the two caskets, which had been lying neglected on the table. The sparse company followed down the empty hall. Marigold signalled to the porter and they hoisted down my chair. Betty, who had lingered during the operation, walked by my side. Being able now to propel myself, I dismissed Marigold to a discreet position in the rear. Betty, her face still slightly flushed, said:

"I'm waiting for congratulations which seem to be about as overwhelming as snow in August. Don't you think I've been extraordinarily good?"

"Do you feel good?"

"More than good," she laughed. "Christianlike. Aren't we told in the New Testament to forgive our enemies?"

"'And love those that despitefully use us?'" I misquoted maliciously. A sudden gust of anger often causes us to do worse things than trifle with the text of the Sermon on the Mount.

She turned on me quickly, as though stung. "Why not? Isn't the sight of him maimed like that enough to melt the heart of a stone?"

I replied soberly enough. "It is indeed."

I had already betrayed my foolish jealousy. Further altercation could only result in my betraying Boyce. I did not feel very happy. Conscious of having spoken to me with unwonted sharpness, she sought to make amends by laying her hand on my shoulder.

"I think, dear," she said, "we're all on rather an emotional edge to-day."

We reached the front door of the hall. At the top of the shallow flight of broad stairs the little group that had preceded us stood behind Boyce, who was receiving the cheers of the troops—soldiers and volunteers and the Godbury School Officers' Training Corps—drawn up in the Market Square. When the cheers died away the crowd raised cries for a speech.

Again Boyce spoke.

"The reception you have given my mother and myself," he said, "we refuse to take personally. It is a reception given to the soldiers, and the mothers and wives of soldiers, of the Empire, of whom we just happen to be the lucky representatives. Whole regiments, to say nothing of whole armies, can't all, every jack man, receive Victoria Crosses. But every regiment very jealously counts up its honours. You'll hear men say: 'Our regiment has two V.C.s, five D.S.O.s, and twenty Distinguished Conduct Medals.' and the feeling is that all the honours are lumped together and shared by everybody, from the Colonel to the drummer-boys. And each individual is proud of his share because he knows that he deserves it. And so it happens that those whom chance has set aside for distinction, like the lucky winners in a sweepstake, are the most embarrassed people you can imagine, because everybody is doing everything that they did every day in the week. For instance, if I began to tell you a thousandth part of the dare-devil deeds of my friend here, Captain Winslow of my regiment, he would bolt like a rabbit into the Town Hall and fall on his knees and pray for an earthquake. And whether the earthquake came off or not, I'm sure he would never speak to me again. And they're all like that. But in honouring me you are honouring him, and you're honouring our regiment, and you're honouring the army. And in honouring Mrs. Boyce, you are honouring that wonderful womanhood of the Empire that is standing heroically behind their men in the hell upon God's good earth which is known as the front."

It was a soldierlike little speech, delivered with the man's gallant charm. Young Winslow gripped his arm affectionately and I heard him say—"You are a brute, sir, dragging me into it." The little party descended the steps of the Town Hall. The words of command rang out. The Parade stood at the salute, which Boyce acknowledged, guided by Winslow and his mother he reached his car, to which he was attended by the Mayor and Mayoress. After formal leave-taking the Boyces and Winslow drove off amid the plaudits of the crowd. Then Sir Anthony and Lady Fenimore. Then Betty and her aunts. Last of all, while the troops were preparing to march away and the crowd was dispersing and all the excitement was over, Marigold picked me out of my chair and carried me down to my little grey two-seater.

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