It is Christmas morning, 1916, the third Christmas of the war. The tragedy of Boyce's death happened six months ago. Since then I have been very ill. The shock, too great for my silly heart, nearly killed me. By all the rules of the game I ought to have died. But I suppose, like a brother officer long since defunct, also a Major, one Joe Bagstock, I am devilish tough. Cliffe told me this morning that, apart from a direct hit by a 42-centimetre shell, he saw no reason, after what I had gone through, why I should not live for another hundred years. "I wash my hands of you," said he. Which indeed is pleasant hearing.
I don't mind dying a bit, if it is my Maker's pleasure; if it would serve any useful purpose; if it would help my country a myriadth part of a millimetre on towards victory. But if it would not matter to the world any more than the demise of a daddy-long-legs, I prefer to live. In fact, I want to live. I have never wanted to live more in all my life. I want to see this fight out. I want to see the Light that is coming after the Darkness. For, by God! it will come.
And I want to live, too, for personal and private reasons. If I could regard myself merely as a helpless incumbrance, a useless jellyfish, absorbing for my maintenance human effort that should be beneficially exerted elsewhere, I think I should be the first to bid them take me out and bury me. But it is my wonderful privilege to look around and see great and beautiful human souls coming to me for guidance and consolation. Why this should be I do not rightly know. Perhaps my very infirmity has taught me many lessons....
You see, in the years past, my life was not without its lonelinesses. It was so natural for the lusty and joyous to disregard, through mere thoughtlessness, the little weather-beaten cripple in his wheelchair. But when one of these sacrificed an hour's glad life in order to sit by the dull chair in a corner, the cripple did not forget it. He learned in its terrible intensity the meaning of human kindness. And, in his course through the years, or as the years coursed by him, he realised that a pair of gollywog legs was not the worst disability which a human being might suffer. There were gollywog hearts, brains, nerves, temperaments, destinies.
Perhaps, in this way, he came to the knowledge that in every human being lies the spark of immortal beauty, to be fanned into flame by one little rightly directed breath. At any rate, he learned to love his kind.
It is Christmas day. I am as happy as a man has a right to be in these fierce times in England. Love is all around me. I must tell you little by little. Various things have happened during the last six months.
At the inquest on the body of Leonard Boyce, the jury gave a verdict of death by misadventure. The story of the chauffeur, an old soldier servant devoted to Boyce, received implicit belief. He had faithfully carried out his master's orders: to conduct him from the road, across the field, and seat him on the boom of the lock gates, where he wanted to remain alone in order to enjoy the quiet of the night and listen to the lap of the water; to return and fetch him in a quarter of an hour. This he did, dreaming of no danger. When he came back he realised what had happened. His master had got up and fallen into the canal. What had really happened only a few of us knew.
Well, I have told you the man's story. I am not his judge. Whether his act was the supreme amende, the supreme act of courage or the supreme act of cowardice, it is not for me to say. I heard nothing of the matter for many weeks, for they took me off to a nursing home and kept me in the deathly stillness of a sepulchre. When I resumed my life in Wellingsford I found smiling faces to welcome me. My first public action was to give away Phyllis Gedge in marriage to Randall Holmes—Randall Holmes in the decent kit of an officer and a gentleman. He made this proposition to me on the first evening of my return. "The bride's father," said I, somewhat ironically, "is surely the proper person."
"The bride's father," said he, "is miles away, and, like a wise and hoary villain, is likely to remain there."
This was news. "Gedge has left Wellingsford?" I cried. "How did that come about?"
He stuck his hands on his hips and looked down on me pityingly.
"I'm afraid, sir," said he, "you'll never do adequate justice to my intelligence and my capacity for affairs."
Then he laughed and I guessed what had occurred. My young friend must have paid a stiff price; but Phyllis and peace were worth it; and I have said that Randall is a young man of fortune.
"My dear boy," said I, "if you have exorcised this devil of a father-in-law of yours out of Wellingsford, I'll do any mortal thing you ask."
I was almost ecstatic. For think what it meant to those whom I held dear. The man's evil menace was removed from the midst of us. The man's evil voice was silenced. The tragic secrets of the canal would be kept. I looked up at my young friend. There was a grim humour around the corners of his mouth and in his eyes the quiet masterfulness of those who have looked scornfully at death. I realised that he had reached a splendid manhood. I realised that Gedge had realised it too; woe be to him if he played Randall false. I stuck out my hand.
"Any mortal thing," I repeated.
He regarded me steadily. "Anything? Do you really mean it?"
"You dashed young idiot," I cried, "do you think I'm in the habit of talking through my hat?"
"Well," said he, "will you look after Phyllis when I'm gone?"
"Gone? Gone where? Eternity?"
"No, no! I've only a fortnight's leave. Then I'm off. Wherever they send me. Secret Service. You know. It's no use planking Phyllis in a dug-out of her own"—shades of Oxford and the Albemarle Review!—"she'd die of loneliness. And she'd die of culture in the mater's highbrow establishment. Whereas, if you would take her in—give her a shake-down here—she wouldn't give much trouble—"
He stammered as even the most audacious young warrior must do when making so astounding a proposal. But I bade him not be an ass, but send her along when he had to finish with her; with the result that for some months my pretty little Phyllis has been an inmate of my house. Marigold keeps a sort of non-commissioned parent's eye on her. To him she seems to be still the child whom he fed solicitously but unemotionally with Mrs. Marigold's cakes at tea parties years ago. She gives me a daughter's dainty affection. Thank God for it!
There have been other little changes in Wellingsford. Mrs. Boyce left the town soon after Leonard's death, and lives with her sister in London. I had a letter from her this morning—a brave woman's letter. She has no suspicion of the truth. God still tempereth the wind.... Out of the innocent generosity of her heart she sent me also, as a keepsake, "a little heavy cane, of which Leonard was extraordinarily fond." She will never know that I put it into the fire, and with what strange and solemn thoughts I watched it burn.
It is Christmas Day. Dr. Cliffe, although he has washed his hands of me, tyrannically keeps me indoors of winter nights, so that I cannot, as usual, dine at Wellings Park. To counter the fellow's machinations, however, I have prepared a modest feast to which I have bidden Sir Anthony and Lady Fenimore and my dearest Betty.
As to Betty—
Phyllis comes in radiant, her pretty face pink above an absurd panoply of furs. She has had a long letter from Randall from the Lord knows where. He will be home on leave in the middle of January. In her excitement she drops prayer-books and hymn-books all over me. Then, picking them up, reminds me it is time to go to church. I am an old-fashioned fogey and I go to church on Christmas Day. I hope our admirable and conscientious Vicar won't feel it his duty to tell us to love Germans. I simply can't do it.
New Year's Day, 1917.
I must finish off this jumble of a chronicle.
Before us lies the most eventful year in all the old world's history. Thank God my beloved England is strong, and Great Britain and our great Empire and immortal France. There is exhilaration in the air; a consciousness of high ideals; an unwavering resolution to attain them; a thrilling faith in their ultimate attainment. No one has died or lost sight or limbs in vain. I look around my own little circle. Oswald Fenimore, Willie Connor, Reggie Dacre, Leonard Boyce—how many more could I not add to the list? All those little burial grounds in France—which France, with her exquisite sense of beauty, has assigned as British soil for all time—all those burial grounds, each bearing its modest leaden inscription—some, indeed, heart-rendingly inscribed "Sacred to the memory of six unknown British soldiers killed in action"—are monuments not to be bedewed with tears of lamentation. From the young lives that have gone there springs imperishable love and strength and wisdom—and the vast determination to use that love and strength and wisdom for the great good of mankind. If there is a God of Battles, guiding, in His inscrutable omniscience, the hosts that fight for the eternal verities—for all that man in his straining towards the Godhead has striven for since the world began—the men who have died will come into their glory, and those who have mourned will share exultant in the victory. From before the beginning of Time Mithra has ever been triumphant and his foot on the throat of Ahriman.
It was in February, 1915, that I began to expand my diary into this narrative,—nearly two years ago. We have passed through the darkness. The Dawn is breaking. Sursum corda.
I was going to tell you about Betty when Phyllis, with her furs and happiness and hymn-books, interrupted me. I should like to tell you now. But who am I to speak of the mysteries in the soul of a great woman? But I must try. And I can tell you more now than I could on Christmas Day.
Last night she insisted on seeing the New Year in with me. If I had told Marigold that I proposed to sit up after midnight, he would have come in at ten o'clock, picked me up with finger and thumb as any Brobdingnagian might have picked up Gulliver, and put me straightway to bed. But Betty made the announcement in her airily imperious way, and Marigold, craven before Betty and Mrs. Marigold, said "Very good, madam," as if Dr. Cliffe and his orders had never existed. At half past ten she packed off the happy and, I must confess, the somewhat sleepy Phyllis, and sat down, in her old attitude by the side of my chair, in front of the fire, and opened her dear heart to me.
I had guessed what her proud soul had suffered during the last six months. One who loved her as I did could see it in her face, in her eyes, in the little hardening of her voice, in odd little betrayals of feverishness in her manner. But the outside world saw nothing. The steel in her nature carried her through. She left no duty unaccomplished. She gave her confidence to no human being. I, to whom she might have come, was carried off to the sepulchre above mentioned. Letters were forbidden. But every day, for all her bleak despair, Betty sent me a box of fresh flowers. They would not tell me it was Betty who sent them; but I knew. My wonderful Betty.
When they took off my cerecloths and sent me back to Wellingsford, Betty was the first to smile her dear welcome. We resumed our old relations. But Betty, treating me as an invalid, forbore to speak of Leonard Boyce. Any approach on my part came up against that iron wall of reserve of which I spoke to you long ago.
But last night she told me all. What she said I cannot repeat. But she had divined the essential secret of the double tragedy of the canal. It had become obvious to her that he had made the final reparation for a wrong far deeper than she had imagined. She was very clear-eyed and clear-souled. During her long companionship with pain and sorrow and death, she had learned many things. She had been purged by the fire of the war of all resentments, jealousies, harsh judgments, and came forth pure gold.... Leonard had been the great love of her life. If you cannot see now why she married Willie Connor, gave him all that her generous heart could give, and after his death was irresistibly drawn back to Boyce, I have written these pages in vain.
A few minutes before midnight Marigold entered with a tray bearing a cake or two, a pint of champagne and a couple of glasses. While he was preparing to uncork the bottle Betty slipped from the room and returned with another glass.
"For Sergeant Marigold," she said.
She opened the French window behind the drawn curtains and listened. It was a still clear night. Presently the clock of the Parish Church struck twelve. She came down to the little table by my side and filled the glasses, and the three of us drank the New Year in. Then Betty kissed me and we both shook hands with Marigold, who stood very stiff and determined and cleared his throat and swallowed something as though he were expected to make a speech. But Betty anticipated him. She put both her hands on his gaunt shoulders and looked up into his ugly face.
"You've just wished me a Happy New Year, Sergeant."
"I have," said he, "and I mean it."
"Then will you let me have great happiness in staying here and helping you to look after the Major?"
He gasped for a moment (as did I) and clutched her arms for an instant in an iron grip.
"Indeed I will, my dear," said he.
Then he stepped back a pace and stood rigid, his one eye staring, his weather-beaten face the colour of beetroot. He was blushing. The beads of perspiration appeared below his awful wig. He stammered out something about "Ma'am" and "Madam." He had never so far forgotten himself in his life.
But Betty sprang forward and gripped his hand.
"It is you who are the dear," she said. "You, the greatest and loyalest friend a man has ever known. And I'll be loyal to you, never fear."
By what process of enchantment she got an emotion-filled Marigold to the door and shut it behind him, I shall never discover. On its slam she laughed—a queer high note. In one swift movement she was by my knees. And she broke into a passion of tears. For me, I was the most mystified man under heaven.
Soon she began to speak, her head bowed.
"I've come to the end of the tether, Majy dear. They've driven me from the hospital—I didn't know how to tell you before—I've been doing all sorts of idiotic things. The doctors say it's a nervous breakdown—I've had rather a bad time—but I thought it contemptible to let one's own wretched little miseries interfere with one's work for the country—so I fought as hard as I could. Indeed I did, Majy dear. But it seems I've been playing the fool without knowing it,—I haven't slept properly for months—and they've sent me away. Oh, they've been all that's kind, of course—I must have at least six months' rest, they say—they talk about nursing homes—I've thought and thought and thought about it until I'm certain. There's only one rest for me, Majy dear." She raised a tear-stained, tense and beautiful face and drew herself up so that one arm leaned on my chair, and the other on my shoulder. "And that is to be with the one human being that is left for me to love—oh, really love—you know what I mean—in the world."
I could only put my hand on her fair young head and say:
"My dear, my dear, you know I love you."
"That is why I'm not afraid to speak. Perfect love casteth out fear—"
I pushed back her hair. "What is it that you want me to do, Betty?" I asked. "My life, such as it is, is at your command."
She looked me full, unflinchingly in the eyes.
"If you would give me the privilege of bearing your name, I should be a proud and happy woman."
We remained there, I don't know how long—she with her hand on my shoulder, I caressing her dear hair. It was a tremendous temptation. To have my beloved Betty in all her exquisite warm loyalty bound to me for the rest of my crippled life. But I found the courage to say:
"My dear, you are young still, with the wonderful future that no one alive can foretell before you, and I am old—"
"You're not fifty."
"Still I am old, I belong to the past—to a sort of affray behind an ant-hill which they called a war. I'm dead, my dear, you are gloriously alive. I'm of the past, as I say. You're of the future. You, my dearest, are the embodiment of the woman of the Great War—" I smiled—"The Woman of the Great War in capital letters. What your destiny is, God knows. But it isn't to be tied to a Prehistoric Man like me."
She rose and stood, with her beautiful bare arms behind her, sweet, magnificent.
"I am a Woman of the Great War. You are quite right. But in a year or so I shall be like other women of the war who have suffered and spent their lives, a woman of the past—not of the future. All sorts of things have been burned up in it." In a quick gesture she stretched out her hands to me. "Oh, can't you understand?"
I cannot set down the rest of the tender argument. If she had loved me less, she could have lived in my house, like Phyllis, without a thought of the conventions. But loving me dearly, she had got it into her feminine head that the sacredness of the marriage tie would crown with dignity and beauty the part she had resolved to play for my happiness.
Well, if I have yielded I pray it may not be set down to me for selfish exploitation of a woman's exhausted hour. When I said something of the sort, she laughed and cried:
"Why, I'm bullying you into it!"
The First of January, 1917—the dawn to me, a broken derelict, of the annus mirabilis. Somehow, foolishly, illogically, I feel that it will be the annus mirabilis for my beloved country.
And come—after all—I am, in spite of my legs, a Man too of the Great War. I have lived in it, and worked in it, and suffered in it—and in it have I won a Great Thing.
So long as one's soul is sound—that is the Great Matter.
Just before we parted last night, I said to Betty:
"The beginning and end of all this business is that you're afraid of Marigold."
She started back indignantly.
"I'm not! I'm not!"
I laughed. "The Lady protests too much," said I.
The clock struck two. Marigold appeared at the door. He approached Betty.
"I think, Madam, we ought to let the Major go to bed."
"I think, Marigold," said Betty serenely, "we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for keeping him up so late."