The Indiarubber Man, in no wise irritated at the general lack of interest in his conversation, wriggled lower in his arm-chair till he appeared to be resting on the flat of his shoulder-blades, with his chin buried in the lappels of his monkey-jacket. "I maintain," his amiable monologue continued, "that there's something rather touching about the way they flap their arms about and hop backwards and forwards, and 'span-bend' and agonise themselves with such unfailing good humour—don't you think so, Pills?"
The Young Doctor gathered the dice again, knitting his brows. ". . . Seventy-seven, seventy-eight—that's seventy-eight times I've thrown these infernal dice without five aces turning up. And twenty-three times before breakfast. How much is seventy-eight and twenty-three? Three and eight's eleven, put down one and carry one—I beg pardon, I wasn't listening to you. Did you ask me a question?"
"I was telling you about the sailors chucking stunts on the quarter-deck."
"I don't want to hear about the sailors: they make me tired. There isn't a sick man on board except one I've persuaded to malinger to keep me out of mischief. They're the healthiest collection of human beings I've ever met in my life."
"That's me," retorted the Indiarubber Man modestly. "I am responsible for their glowing health. They haven't been ashore for—how long is it?"
"Ten years it feels like," said someone who was examining the pictorial advertisements of an illustrated paper with absorbed interest.
"Quite. They haven't had a run ashore for ten years—ever since the war started, in fact; and yet, thanks to the beneficial effects of physical training, as laid down in the book of the words, and administered by the underpaid Lieutenant for Physical Training Duties, the Young Doctor is enabled to sit in the mess all day and see how often he can throw five aces. In short, he becomes a world's worker."
"It's just because they haven't been ashore for weeks and months, and in spite of the Lieutenant for Physical Training—och! No, Bunje, don't start scrapping—it's too early in the morning, and we'll wake . . . those . . . poor devils——Eugh! Poof! There! What did I tell you!"
The two swaying figures, after a few preliminary cannons off sideboard, arm-chair and deck stanchion, finally collapsed on to the settee. The sleepers awakened with disgust.
"Confound you, Bunje, you clumsy clown!" roared one. Between them they seized the Young Doctor, who was a small man, and deposited him on the deck. "Couldn't you see I was asleep, Pills?" demanded the other hotly. "You've woken Peter, too. He's had—how many is it, Peter?—eight morning watches running. I've brooded over him like a Providence from the fore-top through each weary dawning, so I ought to know." He yawned drowsily. "Peter saw a horn of the crescent moon sticking out of a cloud this morning, and turned out the anti-aircraft guns' crews. Thought it was the bows of a Zeppelin. Skipper was rather peevish, wasn't he, Peter?"
The Junior Watchkeeper grunted and turned over on to his other side. "Well, you nearly opened fire on a northern diver in that flat calm at dawn the other morning." The speaker cocked a drowsy eye on the mess from under his cap-peak. "Silly ass vowed it was the periscope of an enemy's submarine coming to the surface."
"Truth is," said the Indiarubber Man, "your nerves are shattered. Pills, here's a job for you. Give the lads two-penn'orth of bromide and stop their wine and extras. In the meanwhile," he pulled a small book out of his pocket, "I have here a dainty brochure, entitled, 'Vox Humana—Its Ascendancy over Mere Noise'—otherwise, 'Handbook for Physical Training.' I may say I was partly responsible for its production."
"I believe you, faith!" said the Fleet Surgeon bitterly, over the top of the B.M.J.
The Indiarubber Man wheeled round. "P.M.O.! That's not the tone in which to speak to your Little Ray of Sunshine. It lacked joie de vivre." The speaker beamed on the mess. "I think we are all getting a little mouldy, if you ask me. In short, we are not the bright boys we were when war broke out. Supposing now—I say supposing—we celebrated our return to harbour, and the fact that we haven't bumped a mine-field, by asking our chummy-ship to dinner to-night, and giving them a bit of a chuck-up! Which is our chummy-ship, by the way? Where's the What Ho! lying?" He walked to the scuttle and stuck his head out. "Blessed if I can tell t'other from which now we're all so beautifully disguised."
"We haven't got a chummy-ship," replied the A.P. "We don't want a chummy-ship. Nobody loves us. We hate each other with malignant hatred by reason of hobnailed livers."
"And if we had," interposed another Lieutenant gloomily, "they'd far rather stay on board their own rotten ship. They're probably getting used to their messman by now. The sudden change of diet might be fatal." The speaker turned to the Young Doctor. "Pills, what d'you get when you change your diet sudden-like—scurvy, or something awful, don't you?"
"Hiccoughs." The Surgeon dragged his soul from the depths of a frayed Winning Post and looked up. His face brightened. "Why? Anyone here——"
"No, no, that's all right, my merry leech. Only Bunje wants to ask the What Ho's to dinner."
"Yes," interposed the Gunnery Lieutenant, with a sudden access of enthusiasm. "Let's ask 'em. Where's the Navy List?" He flung a tattered Navy List on the table and pored over it.
"Hear, hear!" chimed in the Engineer Lieutenant-Commander. "Let's be a band of brothers, an' all drinks down to the mess the whole evening."
The mess generally began to consider the project.
"Here's the Commander," said someone. "Casting-vote from him! D'you mind if we ask the What Ho's to dinner, sir? We all feel we should be better, nobler men after a heart-to-heart talk with our chummy-ships."
"Ask anyone you like," replied the Commander, "as long as they don't ask me to dine with them in their ship by way of revenge."
"Carried!" exclaimed the Indiarubber Man. "'Commander, 'e sez, spoke very 'andsome!' I will now indite a brief note of invitation. Bring me pens, ink and paper. Apportez-moi l'encre de mon cousin, aussi du poivre, du moutard et des legumes—point a la ligne! I got a prize for French in the Britannia."
Here the Fleet Surgeon said something in an undertone about a village idiot, and left the mess. As he went out the First Lieutenant entered with an apologetic mien which everyone appeared to recognise instinctively.
The Torpedo Lieutenant looked up from his book. "Oh, no, Number One, spare us for just one morning. I've got a headache already from listening to Bunje."
The A.P. threw himself into an attitude of supplication. "Number One, consider the awful consequences of your act before it's too late. Consider what it means. If you make the wardroom untenable, I shall have to sit in the office all the morning. I might even have to do some work!"
The First Lieutenant shook his head dourly. "The chipping party is going to start in the wardroom this morning. Paint's inches thick on the bulkheads, and a shell in here would start fires all over the place. Bunje, if you want to write letters you'd better go somewhere else and do it."
The Indiarubber Man thumped the blotting-paper on his freshly written sheets and looked up with his penholder between his teeth. "I've finished, Number One. Admit your hired bravoes."
As he spoke an ear-splitting fusillade of hammering commenced outside. The steel bulkheads reverberated with blows that settled down to a persistent rain of sound, deafening, nerve-shattering.
"They've started outside," shouted the First Lieutenant.
A general exodus ensued, and the Indiarubber Man gathered his writing materials preparatory to departure. "I guessed they had," he was heard to say. "I thought I heard a sound as it might have been someone tapping on the bulkhead."
The watchkeepers asleep on the settee stirred in their sleep, frowned, and sank again into fathomless oblivion.
* * * * *
The Indiarubber Man entered the wardroom in company with the Paymaster as the corporal of the ward-room servants was putting the finishing touches to the dinner-table. They surveyed the apartment without enthusiasm.
"Considered as a banquet hall, I confess it does lack something," observed the former.
"There's a good deal of paint lacking from the bulkheads. Number One has had a field day and a half."
The other nodded. "In the words of the song:
'There's no carpet on the floor, And no knocker on the door, Oh, ours is a happy little home . . .'
Phillips, bring me the menu, and let's see the messman has succeeded in being funny without being vulgar."
Corporal Phillips brought the menu with the air of one who connives at a felony. "Messman says, sir, it ain't all 'e'd like it to be, what with guests comin' and that. But I says to 'im, 'war is war,' I says, 'an' we can't expect eggs-on-meat entrees, same's if it was peace time.'"
"To-day's beautiful thought!" remarked the Indiarubber Man when the corporal had withdrawn. "Really, Phillips has a knack of disclosing great truths as if they were the lightest gossip."
The Engineer Commander came in, glancing at the clock. "Five minutes more and the What Ho's will be here. Bunje, my lad, you were responsible for this entente—have you any idea what we are going to do with them after dinner?"
"None," replied the Indiarubber Man; "none whatever. It will come to me sudden-like. I might dress up as a bogey, and frighten you all—or shall we try table-turning? Or we could dope their liquor and send them all back insensible. Wouldn't that be true Oriental hospitality! They'd wake up to-morrow morning under the impression that they'd had the night of their lives."
The members of the mess began to collect round the fireplace with the funereal expressions customary whenever a mess-dinner is impending.
"Which of the What Ho's are coming?"
"Where're they going to sit?"
"Who asked them?"
"Are drinks going down to the mess?"
And then the door opened and the guests arrived, smiling, a little shy, as the naval officer is wont to be when he finds himself in a strange mess.
They were relieved of caps and cloaks, and, under the mellowing influence of sherry and bitters, began to settle down.
"Jolly good of you fellows to ask us to dinner," said the First Lieutenant, an officer with a smiling cherubic visage and a choleric blue eye. "We were getting a bit bored with our hooker. A fortnight of looking for Der Tag gets a bit wearisome. D'you think the devils are ever coming out?"
"We didn't want to ask you a bit, really," explained one of the hosts (the advantage of having a chummy-ship is that you can insult them in your own mess). "It's only a scheme of Bunje's for drinking intoxicating liquor to excess at the expense of his messmates."
The guests grinned sympathetically. As a matter of fact, most of the company drank little else than water during those days of strain and vigil. Frequent references to indulgence might, therefore, be regarded as comic, in a sense.
"We thought of bringing our own chairs," added one, "in case you'd landed all your spare ones."
"Yes," chimed in a third politely. "We didn't expect to find such a wealth of furniture—it's like a Model Homes Exhibition. You should see our mess!"
The Gunnery Lieutenant made a gesture of deprecation. "The watchkeepers insist on keeping the settee to caulk on in the intervals of hogging in their cabins. The piano was retained for the benefit of the Young Doctor. He can play Die Wacht am Rhein with one finger—can't you, Pills?"
The Young Doctor beamed with simple pride. "My sister's German governess taught me when I was a kid," he explained. "We have it every night—it's the only tune I know."
"The sideboard is to support the empty glasses of the bridge-players after the Padre has put down one of his celebrated 'no-trumps' hands—we had to keep the sideboard. The arm-chair is for Number One to sit in and beat time while his funny party chip paint off the bulkheads." The Gunnery Lieutenant looked round. "And so on, and so on—oh, the gramophone? Bunje bu'st all the records except three, and we're getting to know those rather well. But as you're a guest, old thing, would you like 'Tipperary,' Tosti's 'Good-bye,' or 'A Little Grey Home in the West'?"
The corporal of the ward-room servants interrupted these amenities with the announcement that dinner was ready, and a general move was made to the table.
Thereafter the conversation flowed evenly and generally. It was not confined to war. The men who make war, either afloat or ashore, do not talk about it over-much. There are others—even in this England of ours—by tradition better qualified to do the talking, in that they see most of the game. . . . On the whole, perhaps, more "shop" was discussed than would have been the case in peace-time, but for the most part it eddied round much the same subjects as Wardroom conversation always does, with the Indiarubber Man's Puck-like humour and gay mock-cynicism running through it like a whimsical pattern in an otherwise conventional design.
War had been their trade in theory from earliest youth. They were all on nodding terms with Death. Indeed, most of the men round the long table had looked him between the eyes already, and the obituary pages in the Navy List had been a reminder, month by month, of others who had looked there too—and blinked, and closed their eyes—shipmates and fleetmates and familiar friends.
War was the Real Thing, that was all. There was nothing about it to obsess men's minds. You might say it was the manoeuvres of 19— all over again, with the chance of "bumping a mine" thrown in, and also the glorious certainty of ultimately seeing a twelve-inch salvo pitch exactly where the long years of preparation ordained that it should.
A submarine specialist, whom the war caught doing exile in a "big ship," dominated the conversation for a while with lamentations that he was constrained to dwell in the Tents of Kedah. Two minutes of his talk having nearly convinced everyone that the sole raison d'etre of the big ship was to be sunk by submarine attack, he and his theories passed into a conversational siding. The watchkeepers exchanged mutual condolences on the exasperating tactics of drift-net trawlers, notes on atmospheric conditions prevalent in the North Sea, methods of removing nocturnal cocoa-stains from the more vital portions of a chart, and other matters of interest to watchkeepers.
The Commander and the First Lieutenant of the What Ho's discussed the training of setters. The Young Doctor and his opposite number, and those near them found interest in morphia syringes, ventilation of distributing stations, and—a section of the talk whirling into a curious backwater—the smell of cooking prevalent in the entrance halls of Sheerness lodging-houses. . . .
The dinner went its course: they drank, sitting (as was their privilege and tradition), the King's health. Then the cigarettes went round, chairs turned a little sideways, the port circulated a second time. The conversation was no longer general. In pairs or by threes, according to taste, temperament or individual calling, the members of the mess and their guests settled down to a complacent enjoyment of the most pleasant half-hour in a battleship's long day.
Presently, while the bridge-table was being set out, the Indiarubber Man rose from the table, and, crossing to the piano, began to vamp lightly on the keys, humming under his breath. A chorus quickly gathered round. A battered Naval Song Book was propped up on the music-rest—more from habit than necessity, since the Indiarubber Man could not read a note of music and everybody knew the words of the time-honoured chanties. The pianist's repertoire was limited: half a dozen ding-dong chords did duty as accompaniment to "Bantry Bay," "John Peel," and "The Chinese Bumboatman" alike; but a dozen lusty voices supplied melody enough, the singers packed like herrings round the piano, leaning over each other's shoulders, and singing with all the strength of their lungs.
They exhausted the favourites at length, and the player wheeled round on his stool.
"What about one of the guests for a song?"
"Yes, yes!" cried several voices. "Where's Number One? He's our Madame Patti. You ought to hear him sing 'We don't serve bread with one fish-ball!' It's really worth it. But it takes a lot of port to get him started. How d'you feel about it, Number One?" They spoke with indulgent affection, as a nurse might persuade a bashful child to show off before company.
He of the choleric blue eye was still sitting at the table with one of his hosts. He turned in his chair, smiling grimly.
"What's that about me? I don't want to start scrapping in a strange mess, Snatcher, but if you really are looking for trouble——!"
"Don't mind us!" shouted the Indiarubber Man delightedly. "We'll put up a scrap for you in half a jiffy if you feel like a crumpled shirt-front!" He looked round the mess. "Wait till Flags and the Secretary come in from dinner with the Old Man, and we'll out the gilded Staff. They're good 'uns to scrap."
As he spoke the door opened, and the Flag Lieutenant came in, to be met by a volley of greetings.
"We of the cuddy," he began in a tone of mincing severity, "are not pleased at the raucous uproar said to be coming from a mess of officers and gentlemen. We are pained. We come to lend our presence to what might otherwise develop into an unseemly brawl——" He helped himself to a walnut out of a dish on the sideboard. "Here comes my colleague the Secretary-bird. He, too, is more grieved than angry."
The Secretary entered warily, and intending combatants girded their loins for battle.
"Pouf!" he exclaimed. "What a fug!" And elevated his nose with a sniff. The Fiery Cross was out.
"Out Staff!" said the Indiarubber Man in a low voice. "Dogs of war! Out gilded popinjays!"
With a promptitude that hinted at long experience of internecine warfare, the newcomers embraced the first maxim of war: "If you must hit, hit first, hit hard, and keep on hitting."
Like a flash, the two members of the Personal Staff were on the Indiarubber Man. A chair went crashing, a broken glass tinkled on to the deck, to the accompaniment of protests from the Paymaster, and, before the mess could join battle, the Indiarubber Man hurtled through the doorway on to the aft-deck, to pitch at the feet of a delighted Marine sentry. By the rules of the game, once through the portals of the mess there was no return until a truce was declared. The younger members of the mess rose to a man; for a moment the guests hung back. It is not in the best of form to scrap in a strange mess, except by express invitation.
"Come on!" shouted the Junior Watchkeeper. "Bite 'em in the stomach!" and flung himself upon the Secretary.
The guests waited for no second invitation. It was a battle royal, and the Indiarubber Man, interned on the aft-deck, yelped encouragement to his erstwhile conquerors because they were fighting valiantly against hopeless odds.
A Rugby International and a middle-weight boxer of some pretensions, although hampered by aiguilettes and outnumbered six to one, were not easily disposed of. But they were ultimately overpowered, and carried, puffing with exhaustion and helpless with laughter, over the debris of the bridge-table, gramophone and paper-rack, out through the doorway.
The mess, breathing heavily, adjusted its ties and collars and smoothed its dishevelled hair. The Flag Lieutenant and Secretary retired to their cabins for more extensive repairs. The bridge-table was set upon its legs once more, the scattered cards collected.
"Polo!" said the Indiarubber Man. "Let's play polo!"
"How d'you do that?" asked one of the ecstatic guests. At the bottom of his heart he was also wondering why the greybeards of the mess stood all this tomfoolery without protest. He had never been shipmates with the Indiarubber Man.
The Indiarubber Man took an orange off the sideboard, a dessert-spoon out of a drawer, and straddled over the back of a chair. "Like this, d'you see? We generally play three a-side, but as there are six of you we'll play double sides." He tossed the orange on to the deck, and hopped his chair in pursuit, brandishing the dessert-spoon.
"That's a great game," said the First Lieutenant of the What Ho! and got him to horse. "Come on, our side, boot and saddle!"
As the game was about to start the door opened, and the Flag Lieutenant entered hurriedly. He carried a signal-pad in his hand, and there was that in his face that silenced the polo players and caused the bridge players to lay down their hands.
"Signal," he said curtly. "Raise steam for full speed. Prepare for immediate action on leaving harbour." And was gone.
Those who had immediate duties elsewhere stampeded out of the mess. Overhead there was a thud of feet and ropes ends and the shrilling of pipes as the watch fell in. A Midshipman thrust his head inside the door of the Wardroom. "Boat's alongside, sir!" he said, and vanished.
The First Lieutenant of the visitors flung his boat-cloak over his shoulders. "Well," he said, "we've had a topping evening. S'long, and thanks very much."
Their hosts helped the departing ones into their great-coats. "Not 't all," they murmured politely in return. "Sorry to break up a cheery evening. Let's hope they've really come out this time!"
The Indiarubber Man slid on to the music-stool again, put his foot on the soft pedal, lightly touched the familiar chords, and began humming under his breath:
"We don't want to lose you—— But we think you ought to go . . ."
There are many ways of saying Moriturus te saluto.
THE HIGHER CLAIM
All night long the wind, blowing in across the dunes from the North Sea, had brought the sound of firing.
At times it was hardly perceptible: a faint reverberation of the ether that could scarcely be defined as sound; it would resolve itself into a low, continuous rumble, very much like distant thunder, that died away and recommenced nearer and more distinct. Then the sashes of the open window trembled, and Margaret, who had lain awake all night, every nerve strained to listen, leaned on one elbow to stare from her bed out into the darkness.
She had tried not to listen. For hours she had lain without moving, with limbs tense beneath the coverings, the palms of her hands pressed against her ears. But imagination sped through the dark passages of her mind, brandishing a torch, compelling her at length to listen again.
She had no very clear idea, of course, what a naval action was like. A confused recollection of pictures seen in childhood only suggested stalwart men, stripped to the waist and bare-footed, working round the smoking guns of ships whose decks blazed up in flame to taunt the quiet heavens; while the ships' scuppers ran red.
Modern naval warfare could be nothing like that, though.
She had only seen the results of modern warfare. Men tortured till they came near to forgetting their manhood; burnt, deaf, scalded, torn by splinters, blinded; she had seen them smiling under circumstances that thrilled her to feel they shared a common Flag.
On the outbreak of war the training institute on the East Coast, of which Margaret was the matron, had, on account of its position near the coast and other advantages, been converted into a Naval Hospital. Miss Dacre, the principal, Margaret, and a few others who had already qualified in nursing, were retained as Red Cross sisters, and it was not long before the classrooms and dormitories were occupied by very different inmates from those for whom they were intended. Only the more serious cases reached these wards. The less dangerously hurt passed by rail or hospital ship to the base hospitals in the South.
All night long the wounded men in the long wards stirred fretfully under the white counterpanes, each man translating the sounds according to his own imagination or experience. The night-sisters moved softly to and fro on the beeswaxed boards, smoothing tumbled pillows, adjusting a splint or a bandage, calming the bearded children who fretted because they were hopelessly "out of it."
Towards the dawn the sounds of firing gradually grew fainter, and died away as the first pale bands of light appeared in the east. The sparrows under the eaves stirred and commenced a sleepy twittering. Margaret rose as soon as objects in her room were discernible, bathed her face and hands in cold water, and stood awhile at the window watching the day growing over the sea and sombre sky.
The sounds of the battle that passed away to the northward had shaken her nerves as had nothing else in all her experience. Standing there by the open window, drinking in the indescribable freshness of the dawn, she despised herself. She, who had devoted her life to a Purpose, should be above the petty weakness of her sex. Yet the cold fear that had been her bedfellow throughout the night, and was concerned with neither defeat nor victory, haunted her still.
She closed the window, lit a small spirit-lamp on a side table, and, while the kettle boiled, dressed in riding things. The earliness of the hour made it improbable that she would meet a soul, and yet she dressed carefully, coiling her soft hair, with its silver threads, on the nape of her neck, fastidiously dusting riding boots, and giving a brisk rub to the single spur before she strapped it on. She was adjusting her hard-felt hat before the glass when someone knocked at the door.
She turned questioningly, with hands still raised. "Come in!"
A girl was standing in the doorway; she wore a dressing-gown, and beneath it her slim ankles peeped out of a pair of the felt slippers nurses wear at night.
"Betty! What's the matter?"
"Did you hear the firing?"
Margaret nodded. Was the betrayal of her nerves infectious? Had it communicated itself to the whole staff? For a swift instant she despised her sex—she who had devoted her life to it. "Yes. Another big engagement. We shall be busy. I was going to ride down to the cliffs to see. . . . What's the matter, Betty—can't you sleep? Come in and shut the door; I'll give you a cup of tea." She spoke in her accustomed quiet tone, and crossed to the side table, where the kettle was giving out little fitful puffs of steam.
Betty closed the door and sat down on the edge of the bed, her hands in the side pockets of her dressing-gown. Her hair was plaited loosely in two long plaits, one of which hung down over her shoulder and somehow gave her face an added effect of extreme youth.
Margaret handed her a cup of tea. "Drink that and run back to bed. No—hop into mine and keep warm. Haven't you slept?"
Betty drank the tea and drew the dressing-gown closer round her young form. "I couldn't sleep. The firing . . . No, I'm quite warm, thanks. But it got on my nerves lying there waiting for it to get light. I heard you moving, and I got up." She passed her hand over her eyes. "After the last time I kept seeing those poor things. . . . I don't mind once we start—I don't mind the operating-table. It's when they come in . . . like dumb things—trying to smile, with their mouths all screwed up and tight." She caught her breath half hysterically.
Margaret put down her cup quickly and sat down by the girl's side. "Betty! Don't talk like that. You mustn't think about it in that way. Listen——"
"It's easy to be calm when you haven't any—anybody out there in the North Sea belonging to you. But I've got a brother and a—and he's a Gunnery Lieutenant," ended Betty a little feebly.
"I know, dear. But you mustn't go to pieces when we all want every bit of pluck and steadiness. We're getting used to it now, too—and I'm sure your brother would like to think you were being as brave as—as he. . . ." She turned her head and stared out of the window. Was she a hypocrite, she wondered, to try to preach to anyone the virtue of womanly courage when her own heart was sick with she knew not what?
Betty stood up. "I'm a fool," she said abruptly. "Can I come with you? Could you wait ten minutes while I put my riding things on? Miss Dacre said I could take her horse when I wanted to—will you wait for me, Margaret? I'll ride down to the sea with you."
Margaret nodded and rose, too. "I'll get the horses saddled while you dress. . . . Bring some biscuits."
She descended the broad oak stairway, crossed the hall, and opened the door of a little room adjoining the main entrance. It was her day sanctum—in scholastic days, the matron's sitting-room, a small apartment, with pretty chintz-covered furniture, and roses in bowls on the table and bookstands. Margaret unhooked a pair of field-glasses hanging on the wall, and passed out into the early morning sunlight.
Betty joined her ten minutes later in the stables, and together they mounted and rode down the long avenue, bordered by firs, out on to the open wold that commanded a view of the sea.
With the dewy turf under them, they shook their impatient horses into a canter until they reached the highest point of a bluff promontory that stretched out into the sea. Here they reined in and scanned the horizon, side by side.
The water was leaden-coloured, shot with coppery gleams. Below them to the northward the little harbour of the fishing village was stirring to life: wisps of smoke, curling from a score of chimneys, blended with the mists of early morning. Small specks that were people began to move about an arm of the breakwater, towards which a dinghy came stealing sluggishly from one of the anchored fishing craft.
Without speaking, Betty abruptly raised her whip and pointed towards the north. A Torpedo Boat Destroyer was approaching the entrance to the harbour, her funnels jagged with shot-holes pouring out smoke. In silence Margaret handed the glasses to her companion. On the far horizon there were faint columns of smoke north and east. Some were smudges that dissolved and faded to nothing; others grew darker, and presently resolved themselves into distant cruisers passing rapidly south. Margaret's horse lowered his head and began cropping the short grass.
"Margaret," said Betty suddenly, "did you ever care for anybody—a man, I mean?" To Betty's mind the thirty-five years that sat so lightly on Margaret's brow relegated such a possibility, if it ever happened, to a past infinitely remote. For a moment there was no reply.
Margaret stretched out her hand for the glasses, and focused them on the horizon.
"Yes," she said at length, quietly. The Destroyer was entering the harbour; faint confused sounds of cheering drifted up to them.
"Why didn't you marry him? Did you send him away?"
Again a pause, and again came the low-voiced affirmative. Margaret lowered the glasses and returned them to the case slung across her shoulder. "I thought I was doing right. . . . But I was wrong." The night had not been without its lesson. "He's out there." She nodded towards the North Sea, and as she spoke the blunt bows of a hospital ship crept round a distant headland, making towards them. Silence tell between them again.
Margaret broke it. "Betty," she said, "if the time ever comes for you to choose between the love of the man you love and—and anything else in the wide world, don't be misled by other claims . . . by what may seem to be higher claims. Loving and being loved are the highest responsibilities that life holds."
Betty turned her head and stared. "But," she said, "if you think duty doesn't give you the right to——"
"Love gives you all the right a woman wants," replied Margaret, still in the same low, sad tone. "If it's only the right to cry. . . . If you forego love, you forego even that." She gathered the reins and turned her horse. "Now we must get back to bath and dress. There's a lot of work ahead of us."
Neither spoke again as they rode back across the downs. In the filmy blue overhead a lark sang rapturously, pouring out its soul in gladness.
* * * * *
Margaret was in the hall when the first of the long line of stretcher-bearers arrived. As each stretcher was brought in, a surgeon made a brief examination of the wounded man, and he passed through one or other of the wide doorways opening out on either side of the hall. There was a subdued murmur of voices as every moment brought a fresh arrival. Two blue-jackets, who came up the steps carrying a hooded stretcher, stood looking about them as if for orders. The surgeons were all occupied, but, catching sight of Margaret in uniform, with the broad red cross on her breast, the blue-jackets crossed the hall towards her and laid the stretcher at her feet, as if they had brought their burden all this way for her alone.
"Second door on the left," said Margaret. "Wait—is it a bad case?"
"Too late, I'm afraid, Sister," said the stalwart at the head of the stretcher. "'E's died on the way up."
"'Emmerage, Sister," supplemented the other, anxious to display his familiarity with the technicalities of her profession. "'E wouldn't take 'is turn to be attended to aboard of us—we was in a Destroyer, an' picked 'im up 'angin' on to a spar. Would 'ave the doctor fix up a German prisoner wot was bleedin' to death. Said 'e wasn't in no particular 'urry, speakin' for 'isself. An' 'im a-bleedin' to death, too. As fine a gentleman as ever stepped."
The other nodded, warming, sailor-like, to the hero-worship of an officer. "That's right, Sister. 'E give 'is life for one of them Germans, you might say."
"Is he dead?" asked Margaret in her clear, incisive tones.
"Yes, Sister." The speaker knelt down and turned back the hood, uncovering the face and shoulders of the motionless figure on the stretcher.
For a moment a feeling of giddiness seized Margaret. A great blackness seemed to close round her, shutting out the busy scene, the voices of the bearers, and the shuffle of their feet across the tiled hall. With a supreme effort she mastered herself, and somehow knew she had been waiting for this moment, expecting it. . . .
The man who had been kneeling rose to his feet, and the two stood before her as if awaiting orders. Outside the entrance a motor ambulance arrived and drew up with throbbing engine.
"The mortuary——" she began. "No—bring him here . . . out of all this." She walked across the hall and opened the door of the small room on the left of the entrance. The scent of roses greeted them: it was the room from which she had fetched her glasses early in the morning.
The two men deposited the stretcher on the floor and came out, glancing at her white face as they passed. "Shall we carry on, Sister?"
"What? . . . Oh, yes, please."
They saluted awkwardly, and left her standing irresolute, as if dazed, in the midst of all the bustle and traffic of suffering.
He had come back to her. Torps, who in life had never broken his word, was also faithful to it in death.
The journey across the lawn to one of the seats in the shelter of the clipped hedge of evergreens was accomplished at length.
The Indiarubber Man lowered himself with a little grimace into the seat, and laid the crutches down beside him. One leg, encased in splints and bandages, was stiffly outstretched on a stool in front of him; his uniform cap—a very disreputable one, with a tarnished badge—was perched on top of the bandages that still swathed his head.
"Phew!" he said; "thank you. That was a bit of a Marathon, wasn't it?" He measured the distance across the lawn with a humorous eye.
"It was very good for a first attempt," said Betty, considering him professionally. "Is that leg comfortable?"
"Quite, thank you." He leaned back and closed his eyes with a luxurious sigh. "'Pon my word, this is what I call cutting it pretty fat. Fancy my lolling here in the sun, and you . . . and you——" he opened his eyes, regarding her as she stood before him in her trim, nurse's uniform. "It's quite like a play, isn't it, where everything comes right in the end? Miss Betty——"
"You mustn't call me that," said Betty primly. "I told you before. You must say 'Nurse.'"
"Can't I say 'Nurse Betty'?"
"My name is Elizabeth. If you wanted to distinguish me from other nurses you might conceivably say 'Nurse Elizabeth.' But even that's not necessary, as I'm the only nurse here at the moment."
The Indiarubber Man looked cautiously round the sunlit enclosure. "True. So you are——"
"And it's time for your beef-tea," added Betty severely, marching off in the direction of the distant wing.
Her patient watched her slim form retreating and vanish down a green alley. "You dear," he said, "you dear!" He meditated awhile. "It's a rum world," he soliloquised. "Torps has gone. The Young Doc.'s gone. The Pay's gone."
He mused awhile. "But we gave 'em an almighty hammering. And here am I, alive and kicking again. And there's Betty. . . . It's a rum world." He bent forward and gathered a daisy growing in the border beside his seat. With his bleached, rather unsteady, fingers, he began picking the petals from it one by one.
"She does, she doesn't. She does, she doesn't. She doesn't," repeated the Indiarubber Man in a woeful voice.
A thrush hopped across the lawn, and paused to regard him with one bright eye. Apparently reassured, it deftly secured and swallowed a worm.
The Indiarubber Man laughed. "Doesn't anybody love you either?" he said.
Betty reappeared in the distance carrying a tray in her hands. The thrush, as if realising that two is company and three none, flew away.
Betty handed a cup to the invalid. "There's a piece of toast too—you must soak it in the beef-tea, and here is a little bell. If you want anything, or you aren't comfortable, you can ring it."
"I see." The Indiarubber Man gravely accepted all three gifts and laid them on the seat beside him. "Thank you awfully. But you aren't going away, are you?"
"Of course I am," said Betty. "I'm very busy. You must remember that this is a hospital, that you're a patient and I'm a nurse." She moved off sedately.
"Miss Betty!" called the Indiarubber Man. "I mean 'Nurse.'" Betty turned and retraced her footsteps. "Wouldn't it be awful if I was suddenly taken very ill indeed—if I came over all of a tremble, and tried to ring the toast and soaked the bell in my beef-tea?"
"From what I've seen of you during the last six weeks," replied Betty the Hospital Nurse, "such a thing wouldn't surprise me a little bit." She left him to his graceless self.
For a while after she had gone the Indiarubber Man tried to read a book. Tiring of that, he lit a pipe and smoked it without enthusiasm. Tobacco tasted oddly flavourless and unfamiliar. Then he remembered his beef-tea and drank it obediently, soaking the toast as he had been bidden. Remained the bell. For a long time he sat staring at it.
"Much better get it over," he said aloud. "One way or the other."
Cautiously he looked round. No one was in sight; the windows at the back of the hospital that overlooked this secluded lawn had been the windows of class-rooms, and were of frosted glass. With the aid of his crutches he got up unsteadily, and then, maintaining a precarious balance with one crutch, he thrust the other one under the seat leverwise, and with an effort tipped it over backwards on to the flowerbed.
This accomplished, the Indiarubber Man looked round again to convince himself that the manoeuvre was unobserved. Reassured on this point, he lowered himself down gingerly over the seat until he was lying on his back with his legs in the air and his head in a clump of marigolds. In this attitude he seized the bell and rang it furiously, feebly waving his uninjured leg the while.
The moments passed. From his prostrate position behind the seat he was unable to obtain a view of the lawn, and stopped ringing the bell to listen. He heard a faint cry in the distance, and then the flutter of skirts. The next instant Betty was bending over him, white and breathless.
"Oh!" she cried, "how did it happen? Did the seat tip over backwards—are you hurt?" and kneeling beside him raised his unhallowed head. The Indiarubber Man closed his eyes.
"You told me to ring if I wasn't comfortable, and I wasn't a bit. I hate the smell of marigolds too. No—please don't move; I'm very comfortable now." Betty looked wildly in the direction of the house for help.
"I heard the bell," she said in a queer, breathless little voice, "and I just came out to look . . . and then I ran. I ought to have called someone. Ring the bell—I can't move you by myself. We must have assistance. How did this happen?"
The Indiarubber Man opened his eyes. "The seat tipped over backwards."
"It—it just tipped—as it were."
"Will you promise to lie still for one minute while I run for help—are you in pain?"
"No. As a matter of fact, I wanted to ask you a question."
"What?" asked Betty, reaching for the bell with her disengaged hand.
"Betty, will you marry me?"
The Indiarubber Man's bandaged head was deposited once more among the marigolds. Betty rose to her feet, astonishment and indignation joining forces to overcome laughter within her. The resultant of all three was something suspiciously like tears.
"What? Oh, I do believe—I don't believe it was an accident at all——"
"Will you, Betty?" queried the Indiarubber Man from the depths of the marigolds.
Voices sounded beyond the yews. A white-coated orderly appeared in the distance, stood a moment in astonishment, and came running across the grass towards them.
"Quick! There's someone coming. I swear I won't be budged till you answer."
The orderly arrived panting. "What's up, miss, an accident?"
"Oh," gasped Betty. "Yes!"
The Indiarubber Man suffered himself to be moved.