Of course, after this (in the words of my young friends) I crocked up. The confounded shell that had played the fool with my legs had also done something silly to my heart. Hence these collapses after physical and emotional strain. I had to stay in bed for some days. Cliffe told me that as soon as I was fit to travel I must go to Bournemouth, where it would be warm. I told Cliffe to go to a place where it would be warmer. As neither of us would obey the other, we remained where we were.
Cliffe informed me that Lady Fenimore had called him in to see Sir Anthony, whom she described as being on the obstinate edge of a nervous breakdown. I was sorry to hear it.
"I suppose you've tried to send him, too, to Bournemouth?"
"I haven't," Cliffe replied gravely. "He has got something on his mind. I'm sure of it. So is his wife. What's the good of sending him away?"
"What do you think is on his mind?" I asked.
"How do I know? His wife thinks it must be something to do with Boyce's reception. He went home dead-beat, is very irritable, off his food, can't sleep, and swears cantankerously that there's nothing the matter with him,—the usual symptoms. Can you throw any light on it?"
"Certainly not," I replied rather sharply.
Cliffe said "Umph!" in his exasperating professional way and proceeded to feel my pulse.
"I don't quite see how Friday's mild exertion could account for YOUR breakdown, my friend," he remarked.
"I'm so glad you confess, at last, not to seeing everything," said I.
I was fearing this physical reaction in Sir Anthony. It was only the self-assertion of Nature. He had gone splendidly through his ordeal, having braced himself up for it. He had not braced himself up, however, sufficiently to go through the other and far longer ordeal of hiding his secret from his wife. So of course he went to pieces.
After Cliffe had left me, with his desire for information unsatisfied, I rang up Wellings Park. It was the Sunday morning after the reception. To my surprise, Sir Anthony answered me; for he was an old-fashioned country churchgoer and plague, pestilence, famine, battle, murder and sudden death had never been known to keep him out of his accustomed pew on Sunday morning. Edith, he informed me, had gone to church; he himself, being as nervous as a cat, had funked it; he was afraid lest he might get up in the middle of the sermon and curse the Vicar.
"If that's so," said I, "come round here and talk sense. I've something important to say to you."
He agreed and shortly afterwards he arrived. I was shocked to see him. His ruddy face had yellowed and the firm flesh had loosened and sagged. I had never noticed that his stubbly hair was so grey. He could scarcely sit still on the chair by my bedside.
I told him of Cliffe's suspicions. We were a pair of conspirators with unavowable things on our minds which were driving us to nervous catastrophe. Edith, said I, was more suspicious even than Cliffe. I also told him of our talk about the projected dinner party.
"That," he declared, "would drive me stark, staring mad."
"So will continuing to hide the truth from Edith," said I. "How do you suppose you can carry on like this?"
He grew angry. How could he tell Edith? How could he make her understand his reason for welcoming Boyce? How could he prevent her from blazing the truth abroad and crying aloud for vengeance? What kind of a fool's counsel was I giving him?
I let him talk, until, tired with reiteration, he had nothing more to say. Then I made him listen to me while I expounded that which was familiar to his obstinate mind—namely, the heroic qualities of his own wife.
"It comes to this," said I, by way of peroration, "that you're afraid of Edith letting you down, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
At that he flared out again. How dared I, he asked, eating his words, suggest that he did not trust the most splendid woman God had ever made? Didn't I see that he was only trying to shield her from knowledge that might kill her? I retorted by pointing out that worry over his insane behaviour—please remember that above our deep unchangeable mutual affection, a violent surface quarrel was raging—would more surely and swiftly kill her than unhappy knowledge. Her quick brain—had already connected Gedge, Boyce, and his present condition as the main factors of some strange problem. "Her quick brain!" I cried. "A half idiot child would have put things together."
Presently he collapsed, sitting hopelessly, nervelessly in his chair. At last he lifted a piteously humble face.
"What would you suggest my doing, Duncan?"
There seemed to me to be only one thing he could do in order to preserve, if not his reason, at any rate his moral equilibrium in the position which he had contrived for himself. To tell him this had been my object in seeking the interview, and the blessed opportunity only came after an hour's hard wrangle—in current metaphor after an hour's artillery preparation for attack. He looked so battered, poor old Anthony, that I felt almost ashamed of the success of my bombardment.
"It's not a question of suggesting," said I. "It's a question of things that have to be done. You need a holiday. You've been working here at high pressure for nearly a couple of years. Go away. Put yourself in the hands of Cliffe, and go to Bournemouth, or Biarritz, or Bahia, or any beastly place you can fix up with him to go to. Go frankly For three or four months. Go to-morrow. As soon as you're well out of the place, tell Edith the whole story. Then you can take counsel and comfort together."
He was in the state of mind to be impressed by my argument. I followed up my advantage. I undertook to send a ruthless flaming angel of a Cliffe to pronounce the inexorable decree of exile. After a few faint-hearted objections he acquiesced in the scheme. I fancy he revolted against even this apparent surrender to Gedge, although he was too proud to confess it. No man likes running away. Sir Anthony also regarded as pusillanimous the proposal to leave his wife in ignorance until he had led her into the trap of holiday. Why not put her into his confidence before they started?
"That," said I, "is a delicate question which only you yourself can decide. By following my plan you get away at once, which is the most important thing. Once comfortably away, you can choose the opportune moment."
"There's something in that," he replied; and, after thanking me for my advice, he left me.
I do not defend my plan. I admit it was Machiavellian. My one desire was to remove these two dear people from Wellingsford for a season. Just think of the horrible impossibility of their maintaining social relations with the Boyces ....
By publicly honouring Boyce, Sir Anthony had tied his own hands. It was a pledge to Boyce, although the latter did not know it, of condonation. Whatever stories Gedge might spread abroad, whatever proofs he might display, Sir Anthony could take no action. But to carry on a semblance of friendship with the man responsible for his daughter's death—for the two of them, mind you, since Lady Fenimore would sooner or later learn everything—was, as I say, horribly impossible.
Let them go, then, on their nominal holiday, during which the air might clear. Boyce might take his mother away from Wellingsford. She would do far more than uproot herself from her home in order to gratify a wish of her adored and blinded son. He would employ his time of darkness in learning to be brave, he had told me. It took some courage to face the associations of dreadful memories unflinchingly, for his mother's sake. Should he learn, however, that the Fenimores had an inkling of the truth, he would recognise his presence in the place to be an outrage. And such inkling—who would give it him? Perhaps I, myself. The Boyces would go—the Fenimores could return. Anything, anything rather than that the Fenimores and the Boyces should continue to dwell in the same little town.
And there was Betty—with all the inexplicable feminine whirring inside her—socially reconciled with Boyce. Where the deuce was this reconciliation going to lead? I have told you how my lunatic love for Betty had stood revealed to me. Had she chosen to love and marry any ordinary gallant gentleman, God knows I should not have had a word to say. The love that such as I can give a woman can find its only true expression in desiring and contriving her happiness. But that she should sway back to Leonard Boyce—no, no. I could not bear it. All the shuddering pictures of him rose up before me, the last, that of him standing by the lock gates and suddenly running like a frightened rabbit, with his jaunty soft felt hat squashed shapelessly over his ears.
Gedge could not have invented that abominable touch of the squashed hat.
I have said that possibly I myself might give Boyce an inkling of the truth. Thinking over the matter in my restless bed, I shrank from doing so. Should I not be disingenuously serving my own ends? Betty stepped in, whom I wanted for myself. Neither could I go to Boyce and challenge him for a villain and summon him to quit the town and leave those dear to me at peace. I could not condemn him. I had unshaken faith in the man's noble qualities. That he drowned Althea Fenimore I did not, could not, believe. After all that had passed between us, I felt my loyalty to him irrevocably pledged. More than ever was I enmeshed in the net of the man's destiny.
As yet, however, I could not bear to see him. I could not bear to see Betty, who called now and then. For the first time in my life I took refuge in my invalidity, whereby I earned the commendation of Cliffe. Betty sent me flowers. Mrs. Boyce sent me grapes and an infallible prescription for heart attacks which, owing to the hopeless mess she had made in trying to copy the wriggles indicating the quantities of the various drugs, was of no practical use. Phyllis Gedge sent me a few bunches of violets with a shy little note. Lady Fenimore wrote me an affectionate letter bidding me farewell. They were going to Bude in Cornwall, Anthony having put himself under Dr. Cliffe's orders like a wonderful lamb. When she came back, she hoped that her two sick men would be restored to health and able to look more favourably upon her projected dinner party. Marigold also brought into my bedroom a precious old Waterford claret jug which I had loved and secretly coveted for twenty years, with a card attached bearing the inscription "With love from Anthony." That was his dumb, British way of informing me that he was taking my advice.
When my self-respect would allow me no longer to remain in bed, I got up; but I still shrank from publishing the news of my recovery, in which reluctance I met with the hearty encouragement both of Cliffe and Marigold. The doctor then informed me that my attack of illness had been very much more serious than I realised, and that unless I made up my mind to lead the most unruffled of cabbage-like existences, he would not answer for what might befall me. If he could have his way, he would carry me off and put me into solitary confinement for a couple of months on a sunny island, where I should hold no communication with the outside world. Marigold heard this announcement with smug satisfaction. Nothing would please him more than to play gaoler over me.
At last, one morning, I said to him: "I'm not going to submit to tyranny any longer. I resume my normal life. I'm at home to anybody who calls. I'm at home to the devil himself."
"Very good, sir," said Marigold.
An hour or two afterwards the door was thrown open and there stood on the threshold the most amazing apparition that ever sought admittance into a gentleman's library; an apparition, however, very familiar during these days to English eyes. From the shapeless Tam-o'-Shanter to the huge boots it was caked in mud. Over a filthy sheepskin were slung all kinds of paraphernalia, covered with dirty canvas which made it look a thing of mighty bulges among which a rifle was poked away. It wore a kilt covered by a khaki apron. It also had a dirty and unshaven face. A muddy warrior fresh from the trenches, of course. But what was he doing here?
"I see, sir, you don't recognise me," he said with a smile.
"Good Lord!" I cried, with a start, "it's Randall."
"Yes, sir. May I come in?"
"Come in? What infernal nonsense are you talking?" I held out my hand, and, after greeting him, made him sit down.
"Now," said I, "what the deuce are you doing in that kit?"
"That's what I've been asking myself for the last ten months. Anyhow I shan't wear it much longer."
"Commission, sir," he answered.
"Oh!" said I.
His entrance had been so abrupt and unexpected that I hardly knew as yet what to make of him. Speculation as to his doings had led me to imagine him engaged in some elegant fancy occupation on the fringe of the army, if indeed he were serving his country so creditably. I found it hard to reconcile my conception of Master Randall Holmes with this businesslike Tommy who called me "Sir" every minute.
"I'll tell you about it, sir, if you're interested. But first—how is my mother?"
"Your mother? You haven't seen her yet?"
Here, at least, was a bit of the old casual Randall. He shook his head.
"I've only just this minute arrived. Left the trenches yesterday. Walked from the station. Not a soul recognised me. I thought I had better come here first and report, just as I was, and not wait until I had washed and shaved and put on Christian clothes again. He looked at me and grinned. "Seeing is believing."
"Your mother is quite well," said I. "Haven't you given her any warning of your arrival?"
"Oh, no!" he answered. "I didn't want any brass bands. Besides, as I say, I wanted to see you first. Then to look in at the hospital. I suppose Phyllis Gedge is still at the hospital?"
"She is. But I think, my dear chap, your mother has the first call on you."
"She wouldn't enjoy my present abominable appearance as much as Phyllis," he replied, coolly. "You see, Phyllis is responsible for it. I told you she refused to marry me, didn't I, sir? After that, she called me a coward. I had to show her that I wasn't one. It was an awful nuisance, I admit, for I had intended to do something quite different. Oh! not Gedging or anything of that sort—but—" he dived beneath his sheepskin and brought out a tattered letter case and from a mass of greasy documents (shades of superior Oxford!) selected a dirty, ragged bit of newspaper—"but," said he, handing me the fragment, "I think I've succeeded. I don't suppose this caught your eye, but if you look closely into it, you'll see that 11003 Private R. Holmes, 1st Gordon Highlanders, a couple of months ago was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. I may be any kind of a fool or knave she likes to call me, but she can't call me a coward."
I congratulated him with all my heart, which, after the first shock, was warming towards him rapidly.
"But why," I asked, still somewhat bewildered, "didn't you apply for a commission? A year ago you could have got one easily. Why enlist? And the 1st Gordons—that's the regular army."
He laughed and asked permission to help himself to a cigarette. "By George, that's good," he exclaimed after a few puffs. "That's good after months of Woodbines. I found I could stand everything except Tommy's cigarettes. Everything about me has got as hard as nails, except my palate for tobacco .... Why didn't I apply for a commission? Any fool could get a commission. It's different now. Men are picked and must have seen active service, and then they're sent off to cadet training corps. But last year I could have got one easily. And I might have been kicking my heels about England now."
"Yet, at the sight of a Sam Browne belt, Phyllis would have surely recanted," said I.
"I didn't want the girl I intended to marry and pass my life with to have her head turned by such trappings as a Sam Browne belt. She has had to be taught that she is going to marry a man. I'm not such a fool as you may have thought me, Major," he said, forgetful of his humble rank. "Suppose I had got a commission and married her. Suppose I had been kept at home and never gone out and never seen a shot fired, like heaps of other fellows, or suppose I had taken the line I had marked out—do you think we should have been assured a happy life? Not a bit of it. We might have been happy for twenty years. And then—women are women and can't help themselves—the old word—by George, sir, she spat it at me from a festering sore in her very soul—the old word would have rankled all the time, and some stupid quarrel having arisen, she would have spat it at me again. I wasn't taking any chances of that kind."
"My dear boy," said I, subridently, "you seem to be very wise." And he did. So far as I knew anything about humans, male and female, his proposition was incontrovertible. "But where did you gather your wisdom?"
"I suppose," he replied seriously, "that my mind is not entirely unaffected by a very expensive education."
I looked at the extraordinary figure in sheepskin, bundles and mud, and laughed out loud. The hands of Esau and the voice of Jacob. The garb of Thomas Atkins and the voice of Balliol. Still, as I say, the fellow was perfectly right. His highly trained intelligence had led him to an exact conclusion. The festering sore demanded drastic treatment,—the surgeon's knife. As we talked I saw how coldly his brain had worked. And side by side with that working I saw, to my amusement, the insistent claims of his vanity. The quickest way to the front, where alone he could re-establish his impugned honour was by enlistment in the regular army. For the first time in his life he took a grip on essentials. He knew that by going straight into the heart of the old army his brains, provided they remained in his head, would enable him to accomplish his purpose. As for his choice of regiment, there his vanity guided. You may remember that after his disappearance we first heard of him at Aberdeen. Now Aberdeen is the depot of the Gordon Highlanders.
"What on earth made you go there?" I asked.
"I wanted to get among a crowd where I wasn't known, and wasn't ever likely to be known," he replied. "And my instinct was right. I was among farmers from Skye and butchers from Inverness and drunken scallywags from the slums of Aberdeen, and a leaven of old soldiers from all over Scotland. I had no idea that such people existed. At first I thought I shouldn't be able to stick it. They gave me a bad time for being an Englishman. But soon, I think, they rather liked me. I set my brains to work and made 'em like me. I knew there was everything to learn about these fellows and I went scientifically to work to learn it. And, by Heaven, sir, when once they accepted me, I found I had never been in such splendid company in my life."
"My dear boy," I cried in a burst of enthusiasm, "have you had breakfast?"
"Of course I have. At the Union Jack Club—the Tommies' place the other side of the river—bacon and eggs and sausages. I thought I'd never stop eating."
"Have some more?"
He laughed. "Couldn't think of it."
"Then," said I, "get yourself a cigar." I pointed to a stack of boxes. "You'll find the Corona—Coronas the best."
As I am not a millionaire I don't offer these Coronas to everybody. I myself can only afford to smoke one or two a week.
When he had lit it he said: "I was led away from what I wanted to tell you,—my going to Aberdeen and plunging into the obscurity of a Scottish regiment. I was absolutely determined that none of my friends, none of you good people, should know what an ass I had made of myself. That's why I kept it from my mother. She would have blabbed it all over the place."
"But, my good fellow," said I, "why the dickens shouldn't we have known?"
"That I was making an ass of myself?"
"No, you young idiot!" I cried. "That you were making a man of yourself."
"I preferred to wait," said he, coolly, "until I had a reasonable certainty that I had achieved that consummation—or, rather, something that might stand for it in the prejudiced eyes of my dear friends. I knew that you all, ultimately, you and mother and Phyllis, would judge by results. Well, here they are. I've lived the life of a Tommy for ten months. I've been five in the thick of it over there. I've refused stripes over and over again. I've got my D.C.M. I've got my commission through the ranks, practically on the field. And of the draft of two hundred who went out with me only one other and myself remain."
"It's a splendid record, my boy," said I.
He rose. "Don't misunderstand me, Major. I'm not bragging. God forbid. I'm only wanting to explain why I kept dark all the time, and why I'm springing smugly and complacently on you now."
"I quite understand," said I.
"In that case," he laughed, "I can proceed on my rounds." But he did not proceed. He lingered. "There's another matter I should like to mention," he said. "In her last letter my mother told me that the Mayor and Town Council were on the point of giving a civic reception to Colonel Boyce. Has it taken place yet?"
"Yes," said I. "And did it go off all right?"
In spite of wisdom learned at Balliol and shell craters, he was still an ingenuous youth.
"Gedge was perfectly quiet," I answered.
He started, as he had for months learned not to start, and into his eyes sprang an alarm that was usually foreign to them.
"Gedge? How do you know anything about Gedge and Colonel Boyce? Good Lord! He hasn't been spreading that poisonous stuff over the town?"
"That's what you were afraid of when you asked about the reception?"
"Of course," said he.
"And you wanted to have your mind clear on the point before interviewing Phyllis."
"You're quite right, sir," he replied, a bit shamefacedly. "But if he hasn't been spreading it, how do you know? And," he looked at me sharply, "what do you know?"
"You gave your word of honour not to repeat what Gedge told you. I think you may be absolved of your promise. Gedge came to Sir Anthony and myself with a lying story about the death of Althea Fenimore."
"Yes," said he. "That was it."
"Sit down for another minute or two," said I, "and let us compare notes."
He obeyed. We compared notes. I found that in most essentials the two stories were identical, although Gedge had been maudlin drunk when he admitted Randall into his confidence.
"But in pitching you his yarn," cried Randall, "he left out the blackmail. He bragged in his beastly way that Colonel Boyce was worth a thousand a year to him. All he had to live upon now that the blood-suckers had ruined his business. Then he began to weep and slobber—he was a disgusting sight—and he said he would give it all up and beg with his daughter in the streets as soon as he had an opportunity of unmasking 'that shocking wicked fellow.'"
"What did you say then?" I asked.
"I told him if ever I heard of him spreading such infernal lies abroad, I'd wring his neck."
"Very good, my boy," said I. "That's practically what Sir Anthony told him."
"Sir Anthony doesn't believe there's any truth in it?"
"Sir Anthony," said I, boldly, "knows there's not a particle of truth in it. The man's malignancy has taken the form of a fixed idea. He's crack-brained. Between us we put the fear of God into him, and I don't think he'll give any more trouble."
Randall got to his feet again. "I'm very much relieved to hear you say so. I must confess I've been horribly uneasy about the whole thing." He drew a deep breath. "Thank goodness I can go to Phyllis, as you say, with a clear mind. The last time I saw her I was half crazy."
He held out his hand, a dirty, knubbly, ragged-nailed hand—the hand that was once so irritatingly manicured.
"Good-bye, Major. You won't shut the door on me now, will you?"
I wrung his hand hard and bade him not be silly, and, looking up at him, said:
"What was the other thing quite different you were intending to do before you, let us say, quarreled with Phyllis?"
He hesitated, his forehead knit in a little web of perplexity.
"Whatever it was," I continued, "let us have it. I'm your oldest friend, a sort of father. Be frank with me and you won't regret it. The splendid work you've done has wiped out everything."
"I'm afraid it has," said he ruefully. "Wiped it out clean." With a hitch of the shoulders he settled his pack more comfortably. "Well, I'll tell you, Major. I thought I had brains. I still think I have. I was on the point of getting a job in the Secret Service—Intelligence Department. I had the whole thing cut and dried—to get at the ramifications of German espionage in socialistic and so-called intellectual circles in neutral and other countries. It would have been ticklish work, for I should have been carrying my life in my hands. I could have done it well. I started out by being a sort of 'intellectual' myself. All along I wanted to put my brains at the service of my country. I took some time to hit upon the real way. I hit upon it. I learned lots of things from Gedge. If he weren't an arrant coward, he might be dangerous. He would be taking German money long ago, but that he's frightened to death of it." He laughed. "It never occurred to you, I suppose, a year ago," he continued, "that I spent most of my days in London working like a horse."
"But," I cried—I felt myself flushing purple—and, when I flush purple, the unregenerate old soldier in me uses language of a corresponding hue—"But," I cried—and in this language I asked him why he had told me nothing about it.
"The essence of the Secret Service, sir," replied this maddening young man, "is—well—secrecy."
"You had a billet offered to you, of the kind you describe?"
"The offer reached me, very much belated, one day when I was half dead, after having performed some humiliating fatigue duty. I think I had persisted in trying to scratch an itching back on parade. Military discipline, I need not tell you, Major, doesn't take into account the sensitiveness of a recruit's back. It flatly denies such a phenomenon. Now I think I can defy anything in God's quaint universe to make me itch. But that's by the way. I tore the letter up and never answered it. You do these things, sir, when the whole universe seems to be a stumbling-block and an offence. Phyllis was the stumbling-block and the rest of the cosmos was the other thing. That's why I have reason on my side when I say that, all through Phyllis Gedge, I made an ass of myself."
He clutched his rude coat with both hands. "An ass in sheep's clothing."
He drew himself up, saluted, and marched out.
He marched out, the young scoundrel, with all the honours of war.