Red Planet, The


It was to a priest rather than to a man that he made full confession of his grievous sin. He did not attempt to mitigate it or to throw upon another a share of the blame. From that attitude he did not vary a hair's breadth. Mea culpa; mea maxima culpa. That was the burthen of his avowal.

I, knowing the strange mingling in his nature of brutality and sensitiveness, of animal and spiritual, and knowing something of the unstable character of Althea Fenimore, may more justly, I think, than he, sketch out the miserable prologue of the drama. That she was madly, recklessly in love with him there can be no doubt. Nor can there be doubt that unconsciously she fired the passion in him. The deliberate, cold-blooded seducer of his friend's daughter, such as Boyce, in his confession, made himself out to be, is a rare phenomenon. Almost invariably it is the woman who tempts—tempts innocently and unknowingly, without intent to allure, still less with thought of wrong—but tempts all the same by the attraction which she cannot conceal, by the soft promise which she cannot keep out of her eyes.

That was the beginning of it. Betty, whom he loved, and to whom he was engaged, was away from Wellingsford. In those days she was very much the young Diana, walking in search of chaste adventures, quite contented with the love that lay serenely warm in her heart and thinking little of a passionate man's needs—perhaps starting away from too violent an expression of them—perhaps prohibiting them altogether. The psychology of the pre-war young girl absorbed, even though intellectually and for curiosity's sake, in the feminist movement, is yet to be studied. Betty, then, was away. Althea, beata possidens, made her artless, innocent appeal for victory. Unconsciously she tempted. The man yielded. A touch of the lips in a moment of folly, the man blazed, the woman helpless was consumed. This happened in January, just before Althea's supposed visit to Scotland. Boyce was due at a Country House party near Carlisle. In the first flush of their madness they agreed upon the wretched plan. She took rooms in the town and he visited her there. Whether he or she conceived it, I do not know. If I could judge coldly I should say that it was of feminine inspiration. A man, particularly one of Boyce's temperament, who was eager for the possession of a passionately loved woman, would have carried her off to a little Eden of their own. A calm consideration of the facts leads to the suggestion of a half-hearted acquiescence on the part of an entangled man in the romantic scheme of an inexperienced girl to whom he had suddenly become all in all.

Such is my plea in extenuation of Boyce's conduct (if plea there can be), seeing that he raised not a shadow of one of his own. You may say that my plea is no excuse for his betrayal; that no man, even if he is tempted, can be pardoned for non-control of his passions. But I am asking for no pardon; I am trying to obtain your understanding. Remember what I have told you about Boyce, his great bull-neck, his blood-sodden life-preserver, the physical repulsion I felt when he carried me in his arms. In such men the animal instinct is stronger at times than the trained will. Whether you give him a measure of your sympathy or not, at any rate do not believe that his short-lived liaison with Althea was a matter of deliberate and dastardly seduction. Nor must you think that I am setting down anything in disparagement of a child whom I once loved. Long ago I touched lightly on the anomaly of Althea's character—her mid-Victorian sentimentality and softness, combined with her modern spirit of independence. A fatal anomaly; a perilous balance of qualities. Once the soft sentimentality was warmed into romantic passion, the modern spirit led it recklessly to a modern conclusion.

The liaison was short-lived. The man was remorseful. He loved another woman. Very quickly did the poor girl awaken from her dream.

"I was cruel," said Boyce, fixing me with those awful black spectacles, "I know it. I ought to have married her. But if I had married her, I should have been more cruel. I should have hated her. It would have been an impossible life for both of us. One day I had to tell her so. Not brutally. In a normal state I think I am as kind-hearted and gentle as most men. And I couldn't be brutal, feeling an unutterable cur and craving her forgiveness. But I wanted Betty and I swore that only one thing should keep me from her."

"One thing?" I asked.

"The thing that didn't happen," said he.

And so it seemed that Althea accepted the inevitable. The placid, fatalistic side of her nature asserted itself. Pride, too, helped her instinctive feminine secretiveness. She lived for months in her father's house without giving those that were dear to her any occasion for suspicion. In order to preserve the secrecy Boyce was bound to continue his visits to Wellings Park. Now and then, when they met alone, she upbraided him bitterly. On the whole, however, he concluded that they had agreed to bury an ugly chapter in their lives.

Yes, it was an ugly chapter. From such you cannot get away, bury it, as you will, never so deep.

"And all the time remember," he said, "that I was mad for Betty. The more shy she was, the madder I grew. I could not rest in Wellingsford without her. When she came here, I came. When she went to town, I went to town. She was as elusive as a dream. Finally I pinned her down to a date for our marriage in August. It was the last time I saw her. She went away to stay with friends. That was the beginning of June. She was to be away two months. I knew, if I had clamoured, she would have made it three. It was the shyness of the exquisite bird in her that fascinated me. I could never touch Betty in those days without dreading lest I might soil her feathers. You may laugh at a hulking brute like me saying such things, but that's the way I saw Betty, that's the way I felt towards her. I could no more have taken her into my bear's hug and kissed her roughly than I could have smashed a child down with my fist. And yet—My God, man! how I ached for her!"

Long as I had loved Betty in a fatherly way, deeply as I loved her now, the man's unexpected picture of her was a revelation. You see it was only after her marriage, when she had softened and grown a woman and come so near me that I felt the great comfort of her presence when she was by, the need of it when she was away. How could I have known anything of the elusiveness in her maidenhood before which he knelt so reverently?

That he so knelt is the keynote of the man's soul untainted by the flesh.

It made clear to me the tenderness that lay beneath that which was brutal; the reason of that personal charm which had captivated me against my will; his defencelessness against the Furies.

So far the narrative has reached the latter part of June. He had spent the month with his mother. As Betty had ordained that July should be blank, a month during which the moon should know no changes but only the crescent of Diana should shine supreme in the heavens, he had made his mundane arrangements for his fishing excursion to Norway. On the afternoon of the 23rd he paid a farewell call at Wellings Park. Althea, in the final settlement of their relations, had laid it down as a definite condition that he should maintain his usual social intercourse with the family. A few young people were playing tennis. Tea was served on the lawn near by the court. Althea gave no sign of agitation. She played her game, laughed with her young men, and took casual leave of Boyce, wishing him good sport. He drew her a pace aside and murmured: "God bless you for forgiving me."

She laughed a reply out loud: "Oh, that's all right."

When he told me that, I recalled vividly the picture of her, in my garden, on the last afternoon of her life, eating the strawberries which she had brought me for tea. I remembered the little slangy tone in her voice when she had asked me whether I didn't think life was rather rotten. That was the tone in which she had said to him, "Oh, that's all right."

During the early afternoon on the 25th, she rang him up on the telephone. Chance willed that he should receive the call at first hand. She must see him before he left Wellingsford. She had something of the utmost importance to tell him. A matter of life and death. With one awful thought in his mind, he placed his time at her disposal. For what romantic, desperate or tragic reason she appointed the night meeting at the end of the chestnut avenue where the towing-path turns into regions of desolate quietude, he could not tell. He agreed without argument, dreading the possible lack of privacy in their talk over the wires.

On that afternoon she came to me, as I have told you, with her strawberries and her declaration of the rottenness of life.

They met and walked along the towing-path. It was bright moonlight, but she could not have chosen a lonelier spot, more free from curious eyes or ears. And then took place a scene which it is beyond my power to describe. I can only picture it to myself from Boyce's broken, self-accusing talk. He was going away. She would never see him again until he returned to marry another woman. She was making her last frantic bid for happiness. She wept and sobbed and cajoled and upbraided—You know what women at the end of their tether can do. He strove to pacify her by the old arguments which hitherto she had accepted. Suddenly she cried: "If you don't marry me I am disgraced for ever." And this brought them to a dead halt.

When he came to this point I remembered the diabolical accuracy of Gedge's story.

Boyce said: "There is one usual reason why a man should marry a woman to save her from disgrace. Is that the reason?"

She said "Yes."

The light went out of the man's life.

"In that case," said he, "there can be no question about it. I will marry you. But why didn't you tell me before?"

She said she did not know. She made the faltering excuses of the driven girl. They walked on together and sat on the great bar of the lock gates.

"Till then," said he, "I had never known what it was to have death in my heart. But I swear to God, Meredyth, I played my part like a man. I had done a dastardly thing. There was nothing left for me but to make reparation. In a few moments I tore my life asunder. The girl I had wronged was to be the mother of my child. I accepted the situation. I was as kind to her as I could be. She laid her head on my shoulder and cried, and I put my arm around her. I felt my heart going out to her in remorse and pity and tenderness. A man must be a devil who could feel otherwise.... Our lives were bound up together.... I kissed her and she clung to me. Then we talked for a while—ways and means.... It was time to go back. We rose. And then—Meredyth—this is what she said:

"'You swear to marry me?'

"'I swear it,' said I.

"'In spite of anything?'

"I gave my promise. She put her arms round my neck.

"'What I've told you is not wholly true. But the moral disgrace is there all the time.'

"I took her wrists and disengaged myself and held her and looked at her.

"'What do you mean—not wholly true?' I asked.

"My God! I shall never forget it." He stuck both his elbows on the bed and clutched his hair and turned his black glasses wide of me. "The child crumpled up. She seemed to shrivel like a leaf in the fire. She said:

"'I've tried to lie to you, but I can't. I can't. Pity me and forgive me.'

"I started back from her in a sudden fury. I could not forgive her. Think of the awful revulsion of feeling. Foolishly tricked! I was mad with anger. I walked away and left her. I must have walked ten or fifteen yards. Then I heard a splash in the water. I turned. She was no longer on the bank. I ran up. I heard a cry. I just saw her sinking. AND I COULDN'T MOVE. As God hears me, it is true. I knew I must dive in and rescue her—I had run up with every impulse to do so; BUT I COULD NOT MOVE. I stood shivering with the paralysis of fear. Fear of the deep black water, the steep brick sides of the canal that seemed to stretch away for ever—fear of death, I suppose that was it. I don't know. Fear irresistible, unconquerable, gripped me as it had gripped me before, as it has gripped me since. And she drowned before my eyes while I stood like a stone."

There was an awful pause. He had told me the end of the tragedy so swiftly and in a voice so keyed to the terror of the scene, that I lay horror-stricken, unable to speak. He buried his face in his hands, and between the fleshy part of the palms I saw the muscles of his lips twitch horribly. I remembered, with a shiver, how I had first seen them twitch, in his mother's house, when he had made his strange, almost passionate apology for fear. And he had all but described this very incident: the reckless, hare-brained devil standing on the bank of a river and letting a wounded comrade drown. I remember how he had defined it: "the sudden thing that hits a man's heart and makes him stand stock-still like a living corpse—unable to move a muscle—all his will-power out of gear—just as a motor is out of gear.... It is as much of a fit as epilepsy."

The span of stillness was unbearable. The watch on the little table by my bedside ticked maddeningly. Marigold put his head in at the door, apparently to warn me that it was getting late. I waved him imperiously away. Boyce did not notice his entrance. Presently he raised his head.

"I don't know how long I stood there. But I know that when I moved she was long since past help. Suddenly there was a sharp crashing noise on the road below. I looked round and saw no one. But it gave me a shock—and I ran. I ran like a madman. And I thought as I ran that, if I were discovered, I should be hanged for murder. For who would believe my story? Who would believe it now?"

"I believe it, Boyce," I said.

"Yes. You. You know something of the hell my life has been. But who else? He had every motive for the crime, the lawyers would say. They could prove it. But, my God! what motive had I for sending all my gallant fellows to their deaths at Vilboek's Farm? ... The two things are on all fours—and many other things with them.... My one sane thought through the horror of it all was to get home and into the house unobserved. Then I came upon the man Gedge, who had spied on me."

"I know about that," said I, wishing to spare him from saying more than was necessary. "He told Fenimore and me about it."

"What was his version?" he asked in a low tone. "I had better hear it."

When I had told him, he shook his head. "He lied. He was saving his skin. I was not such a fool, mad as I was, as to leave him like that. He had seen us together. He had seen me alone. To-morrow there would be discovery. I offered him a thousand pounds to say nothing. He haggled. Oh! the ghastly business! Eventually I suggested that he should come up to London with me by the first train in the morning and discuss the money. I was dreading lest someone should come along the avenue and see me. He agreed. I think I drank a bottle of whisky that night. It kept me alive. We met in my chambers in London. I had sent my man up the day before to do some odds and ends for me. I made a clear breast of it to Gedge. He believed the worst. I don't blame him. I bought his silence for a thousand a year. I made arrangements for payment through my bankers. I went to Norway. But I went alone. I didn't fish. I put off the two men I was to join. I spent over a month all by myself. I don't think I could tell you a thing about the place. I walked and walked all day until I was exhausted, and got sleep that way. I'm sure I was going mad. I should have gone mad if it hadn't been for the war. I suppose I'm the only Englishman living or dead who whooped and danced with exultation when he heard of it. I think my brain must have been a bit touched, for I laughed and cried and jumped about in a pine-wood with a week old newspaper in my hands. I came home. You know the rest."

Yes, I knew the rest. The woman he had left to drown had been ever before his eyes; the avenging Furies in pursuit. This was the torture in his soul that had led him to many a mad challenge of Death, who always scorned his defiance. Yes, I knew all that he could tell me.

But we went on talking. There were a few points I wanted cleared up. Why should he have kept up a correspondence with Gedge?

"I only wrote one foolish angry letter," he replied.

And I told him how Sir Anthony had thrown it unread into the fire. Gedge's nocturnal waylaying of him in my front garden was another unsuccessful attempt to tighten the screw. Like Randall and myself, he had no fear of Gedge.

Of Sir Anthony he could not speak. He seemed to be crushed by the heroic achievement. It was the only phase of our interview during which, by voice and manner and attitude, he appeared to me like a beaten man. His own bravery at the reception had gone for naught. He was overwhelmed by the hideous insolence of it.

"I shall never get that man's voice out of my ears as long as I live," he said hoarsely.

After a while he added: "I wonder whether there is any rest or purification for me this side of the grave."

I said tentatively, for we had never discussed matters of religion: "If you believe in Christ, you must believe in the promise regarding the sins that be as scarlet."

But he turned it aside. "In the olden days, men like me turned monk and found salvation in fasting and penance. The times in which we live have changed and we with them, my friend. Nos mulamur in illis, as the tag goes."

We went on talking—or rather he talked and I listened. Now and again he would help himself to a drink or a cigarette, and I marvelled at the clear assurance with which he performed the various little operations. I, lying in bed, lost all sense of pain, almost of personality. My little ailments, my little selfish love of Betty, my little humdrum life itself dwindled insignificant before the tragic intensity of this strange, curse-ridden being.

And all the tune we had not spoken of Betty—except the Betty of long ago. It was I, finally, who gave him the lead.

"And Betty?" said I.

He held out his hand in a gesture that was almost piteous.

"I could tear her from my life. I had no alternative. In the tearing I hurt her cruelly. To know it was not the least of the burning hell I lit for myself. But I couldn't tear her from my heart. When a brute beast like me does love a woman purely and ideally, it's a desperate business. It means God's Heaven to him, while it means only an earthly paradise to the ordinary man. It clutches hold of the one bit of immortal soul he has left, and nothing in this world can make it let go. That's why I say it's a desperate business."

"Yes, I can understand," said I.

"I schooled myself to the loss of her. It was part of my punishment. But now she has come back into my life. Fate has willed it so. Does it mean that I am forgiven?"

"By whom?" I asked. "By God?"

"By whom else?"

"How dare man," said I, "speak for the Almighty?"

"How is man to know?"

"That's a hard question," said I. "I can only think of answering it by saying that a man knows of God's forgiveness by the measure of the Peace of God in his soul."

"There's none of it in mine, my dear chap, and never will be," said Boyce.

I strove to help him. For what other purpose had he come to me?

"You think then that the sending of Betty is a sign and a promise? Yes. Perhaps it is. What then?"

"I must accept it as such," said he. "If there is a God, He would not give me back the woman I love, only to take her away again. What shall I do?"

"In what way?" I asked.

"She offered to marry me. I am to give her my answer to-morrow. If I were the callous, murdering brute that everyone would have the right to believe I am, I shouldn't have hesitated. If I hadn't been a tortured, damned soul," he cried, bringing his great fist down on the bed, "I shouldn't have come here to ask you what my answer can be. My whole being is infected with horror." He rose and stood over the bed and, with clenched hands, gesticulated to the wall in front of him. "I'm incapable of judging. I only know that I crave her with everything in me. I've got it in my brain that she's my soul's salvation. Is my brain right? I don't know. I come to you—a clean, sweet man who knows everything—I don't think there's a crime on my conscience or a foulness in my nature which I haven't confessed to you. You can judge straight as I can't. What answer shall I give to-morrow?"

Did ever man, in a case of conscience, have a greater responsibility? God forgive me if I solved it wrongly. At any rate, He knows that I was uninfluenced by mean personal considerations. All my life I have tried to have an honourable gentleman and a Christian man. According to my lights I saw only one clear course.

"Sit down, old man," said I. "You're a bit too big for me like that." He felt for his chair, sat down and leaned back. "You've done almost everything," I continued, "that a man can do in expiation of offences. But there is one thing more that you must do in order to find peace. You couldn't find peace if you married Betty and left her in ignorance. You must tell Betty everything—everything that you have told me. Otherwise you would still be hag-ridden. If she learned the horror of the thing afterwards, what would be your position? Acquit your conscience now before God and a splendid woman, and I stake my faith in each that neither will fail you."

After a few minutes, during which the man's face was like a mask, he said:

"That's what I wanted to know. That's what I wanted to be sure of. Do you mind ringing your bell for Marigold to take me away? I've kept you up abominably." He rose and held out his hand and I had to direct him how it could reach mine. When it did, he gripped it firmly.

"It's impossible," said he, "for you to realise what you've done for me to-night. You've made my way absolutely clear to me—for the first time for two years. You're the truest comrade I've ever had, Meredyth. God bless you."

Marigold appeared, answering my summons, and led Boyce away. Presently he returned.

"Do you know what time it is, sir?" he asked serenely.

"No," said I.

"It's half-past one."

He busied himself with my arrangements for the night, and administered what I learned afterwards was a double dose of a sleeping draught which Cliffe had prescribed for special occasions. I just remember surprise at feeling so drowsy after the intense excitement of the evening, and then I fell asleep.

When I awoke in the morning I gathered my wits together and recalled what had taken place. Marigold entered on tiptoe and found me already aroused.

"I'm sorry to tell you, sir," said he, "that an accident happened to Colonel Boyce after he left last night."

"An accident?"

"I suppose so, sir," said Marigold. "That's what his chauffeur says. He got out of the car in order to sit by the side of the canal—by the lock gates. He fell in, sir. He's drowned."

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