This was all news to Andrew, and it delighted him beyond measure. He could take away now to the trenches the picture of Elodie as ministering angel surrounded by her birds—an exquisite, romantic, soul-satisfying picture.
"But why," he asked again, "didn't you tell me?"
"Ah, tu sais—letters—I am not very good at letters. Fante d'education. I want so much to tell you what I feel that I forget to tell you what I do."
Bakkus smiled sardonically as he sipped his liqueur brandy. She had given her bird performance on only two occasions. She had exaggerated it into the gracious habit of months or years. Just like a woman! Anyhow, the disillusionment of Andrew was none of his business. The dear old chap was eating lotus in his Fool's Paradise, thinking it genuine pre-war lotus and not war ersatz. It would be a crime to disabuse him.
For Andrew the days of leave sped quickly. Not a domestic cloud darkened his relations with Elodie. Through indolent and careless living she had grown gross and coarse, too unshapely and unseemly for her age. When the news of his speedy arrival in Paris reached her, she caught sight of herself in her mirror and with a sudden pang realized her lack of attraction. In a fever she corseted herself, creamed her face, set a coiffeur to work his will on her hair. But what retrieval of lost comeliness could be effected in a day or two? The utmost thing of practical value she could do was to buy a new, gay dressing-gown and a pair of high-heeled slippers. And Andrew, conscious of waning beauty, overlooked it in the light of her new and unsuspected coquetry. Where once the slattern lolled about the little salon, now moved an attractively garbed and tidy woman. Instead of the sloven, he found a housewife who made up in zeal for lack of experience. The patriotic soldier's mate replaced the indifferent and oft-times querulous partner of Les Petit Patou. It is true that, when, in answer to the question, "A battle—what is that like?" he tried to interest her in a scientific exposition, she would interrupt him, a love-bird on her finger and its beak at her lips, with: "Look, isn't he sweet?" thereby throwing him out of gear; it is true that she yawned and frankly confessed her boredom, as she had done for many years when the talk of Andrew and Bakkus went beyond her intellectual horizon; but—que voulez-vous?—even a great war cannot, in a few months, supply the deficiencies of thirty uneducated years. The heart, the generous instinct—these were the things that the war had awakened in Elodie—and these were the things that mattered and made him so gracious a homecoming. And she had grasped the inner truth of the war. She had accepted it in the grand manner, like a daughter of France.
So at least it seemed to Andrew. The depth of her feelings he did not try to gauge. Into the part in her demonstrativeness played by vanity or by momentary reaction from the dread of losing him, her means of support, it never entered his head to enquire. That she should sun herself in reflected splendour for the benefit of the quarter and of such friends as she had, and that she should punctiliously exact from them the respect due to his military rank, afforded him gentle amusement. He knew that, as soon as his back was turned, she would relapse into slipshod ways. But her efforts delighted him, proved her love and her loyalty. For the third time he parted from her to go off to the wars, more impressed than ever by the sense of his inappreciation of her virtues. He wrote her a long letter of self-upbraiding for the past, and the contrast between the slimy dug-out where he was writing by the light of one guttering candle, and the cosy salon he had just quitted being productive of nostalgia, he expressed himself, for once in his life, in the terms of an ardent lover.
Elodie, who found his handwriting difficult to read at the best of times, and undecipherable in hard pencil on thin paper, handed the letter over to the faithful Bakkus, who read it aloud with a running commentary of ironic humour. This Andrew did not know till long afterwards.
In a few weeks he got the command of his battalion.
"How you'll be able to put up with us now I know not. Elodie can scarcely put up with herself. She gives orders in writing to tradesmen now and subscribes herself 'Madame La Colonelle Patou.' She has turned down a bird engagement offered by Moignon, as beneath her present dignity. You had better come home as soon as you can."
Andrew laughed and threw the letter away. He had far more serious things to attend to than Elodie's pretty foibles. And when you are commanding a crack regiment in a famous division in the line you no more think of leave than of running away from the enemy. Months passed—of fierce fighting and incessant strain, and he covered himself with glory and completed the rainbow row of ribbons on his breast, until Petit Patou and Elodie and Bakkus and the apartment in the Faubourg Saint-Denis became things of a far-off dream.
And before he saw Elodie again, he had met Lady Auriol Dayne.
That was the devil of it. He had met Lady Auriol Dayne. He had found in that frank and capable young woman—or thought he had found, which comes to the same thing—the Princesse Lointaine of his dreams. If she differed from that nebulous and characterless paragon, were less ethereal, more human nature's daily food, so much the better. She possessed that which he had yearned for—quality. She had style—like the prose of Theophile Gautier, the Venus of Milo, the Petit Trainon. She suggested Diana, who more than all goddesses displayed this gift of distinction; yet was she not too Diana-ish to be unapproachable. On the contrary, she blew about him as free as the wind.... That, in a muddle-headed way, was his impression of her: a subtle mingling of nature and artistry. On every side of her he beheld perfection. Physically, she was as elemental as the primitive woman superbly developed by daily conditions of hardship and danger; spiritually, as elemental as the elves and fairies; and over her mind played the wisdom of the world.
Thus, in trying to account for her to himself, did the honest Lackaday flounder from trope to metaphor. "To love her," he quotes from Steele, "is a liberal education."
The last time he met her in England, was after my departure for Paris. You will remember that just before then he had confided to me his identity as Petit Patou and had kept me up half the night. It was a dismal April afternoon, rain and mud outside, a hopeless negation of the spring. They had the drawing-room to themselves—to no one, the order had gone forth, was her ladyship at home—that drawing-room of Lady Auriol which Lackaday regarded as the most exquisite room in the world. It had comfort of soft chairs and bright fire and the smell of tea and cigarettes; but it also had the style, to him so precious, with which his fancy invested her. The note of the room was red lacquer partly inherited, partly collected, the hangings of a harmonious tone, and the only pictures on the distempered walls the colour-prints of the late eighteenth century. It had the glow of smiling austerity, the unseizable, paradoxical quality of herself. An old Sevres tea-service rested on a Georgian silver tray, which gleamed in the firelight. Wherever he looked, he beheld perfection. And pouring out the tea stood the divinity, a splendid contrast to the shrine, yet again paradoxically harmonious; full-bosomed, warm and olive, wearing blue serge coat and skirt, her blouse open at her smooth throat, her cheeks flushed with walking through the rain, her eyes kind.
For a while, like a Knight in the Venusberg, he gave himself up to the delight of her. Then suddenly he pulled himself together, and, putting down his teacup, he said what he had come to say:—
"This is the last time that I shall ever see you."
"What on earth do you mean? Are you going off to the other end of the world?"
"I'm going back to France."
She twisted round in her chair, her elbow on the arm and her chin in her hand and looked at him.
"That's sudden, isn't it?"
He smiled rather sadly. "When once you've made up your mind, it's best to act, instead of hanging on."
"You're sure there's no hope in this country?"
"I know I'm as useful as a professional wine-taster will soon be in the United States."
They laughed, resumed the discussion of many previous meetings. Had he tried this, that or the other opening? He had tried everything. No one wanted him.
"So," said he, "I'm making a clean cut and returning to France."
"I'm sorry." She sighed. "Very sorry. You know I am. I hoped you would remain in England and find some occupation worthy of you—but, after all—France isn't Central China. We shall still be next-door neighbours. The Channel can be easily crossed by one of us. You used the word 'ever,' you know," she added with an air of challenge,
"That would take a lot of telling," said Andrew grimly.
"We've got hours, if you choose, in front of us."
"It's not a question of time," said he.
"Then, my good Andrew, what are you talking about?"
"Only that I must return to the place I came from, my dear friend. Let it rest at that."
She lit a cigarette. "Rather fatalistic, isn't it?"
"Four years of fighting make one so."
"You speak," said she, after a little reflection occasioning knitting of the brows, "you speak like the Mysterious Unknown of the old legends—the being sent from Hell or Heaven or any other old place to the earth to accomplish a mission. You know what I mean. He lives the life of the world into which he is thrown and finds it very much to his liking. But when the mission is fulfilled—the Powers that sent him say: 'Your time is up. Return whence you came.' And the poor Make-believe of a human has got to vanish."
"You surely aren't jesting?" he asked.
"No," she said. "God forbid! I've too deep a regard for you. Besides, I believe the parable is applicable. Otherwise how can I understand your 'for ever'?"
"I'm glad you understand without my blundering into an explanation," he replied. "It's something, as you say. Only the legendary fellow goes back to cool his heels—or the reverse—in Shadow Land, whereas I'll still continue to inhabit the comfortable earth. I'm as Earth-bound as can be."
He paused for a moment, and continued:—
"Fate or what you will dragged me from obscurity into the limelight of the war to play my little part. It's over. I've nothing more to do on the stage. Fate rings down the curtain. I must go back into obscurity. La commedia e finita."
"It's more like a tragedy," said she.
Andrew made a gesture with his delicate hands.
"A comedy's not a farce. Let us stick to the comedy."
"Less heroically—let us play the game," she suggested.
"If you like to put it that way."
She regarded him searchingly out of frank eyes; her face had grown pale.
"If you gave me the key to your material Shadow Land, it would not be playing the game?"
"You are right, my dear," said he. "It wouldn't."
"I thought as much," said Lady Auriol.
He rose, mechanically adjusted his jacket, which always went awry on his gaunt frame. "I want to say something," he declared abruptly. "You're the only lady—highly-bred woman—with whom I've been on terms of friendship in my life. It has been an experience far more wonderful than you can possibly realize. I'll keep it as an imperishable memory"—he spoke bolt upright as though he were addressing troops on parade before a battle—"it's right that you should know I'm not ungrateful for all you have done for me. I've only one ambition left—that you should remember me as a soldier—and—in my own way—a gentleman."
"A very gallant gentleman," she said with quivering lips.
He held out his hand, took hers, kissed it French fashion.
"Good-bye and God bless you," said he, and marched out of the room.
She stood for a while, with her hand on her heart—suffering a pain that was almost physical. Then she rushed to the door and cried in a loud voice over the balustrade of the landing:
"Andrew, come back."
But the slam of the front door drowned her call. She returned to the drawing-room and threw up the window. Andrew was already far away, tearing down the rainswept street.
Now, if Andrew had heard the cry, he would have heard that in it which no man can hear unmoved. He would have leaped up the stairs and there would have been as pretty a little scene of mutual avowals as you could wish for. Auriol knew it. She has frankly told me so. Not until this last interview was she certain of his love. But then, although he said nothing, any fool of a woman could have seen it as clear as daylight. And she had been planted there like a stuck pig all the time—her ipsissima verba (O Diana distinction of lover's fancy!) and when common sense came to her aid, she just missed him by the fraction of a second.... Yet, after all, my modern Diana—or Andrew's, if you prefer it—had her own modern mode of telling an elderly outsider about her love affairs—the mode of the subaltern from whom is dragged the story of his Victoria Cross. Andrew Lackaday's quaintly formulated idealizations had their foundations in fact. This is by the way. What happened next was Lady Auriol's recovery of real common sense when she withdrew her head and her rained-upon hat from the window and drew down the sash. She flew to her bedroom, stamped about with clenched fists until she had dried up at their source the un-Auriol like tears that threatened to burst forth. Her fury at her weakness spent, she felt better and strangled the temptation to write him then and there a summons to return that evening for a full explanation. My God! Hadn't they had their explanation? If he could in honour have said, "I am a free live man as you are a free live woman, and I love you as you love me"—wouldn't he have said it? He was the last man in the world to make a mystery about nothing. Into the mystery she was too proud to enquire. Enough for her to know in her heart that he was a gallant gentleman. She should have stopped at her parable....
Meanwhile she let Andrew return to France unaware of the tumult he had raised. That he had won her interest, her respect, her friendship—even her affectionate friendship—he was perfectly aware. But that his divinity was just foolishly and humanly in love with him he had no notion. He consoled himself with reflections on her impeccability, her wondrous intuition, her Far-away Princess-like delicacy. Who but she could have summed up in a parable the whole dismal situation?
Well, the poor Make-believe had to vanish.
The last time he travelled to Boulogne it was in a military train. He had a batman who looked after his luggage. He wore a baton and sword on his shoulder-straps. Only now, a civilian in a packed mass of civilians, did he recognize what a mighty personage he then was—a cock of the walk, saluted, "sired," treated with deference. None of the old-fashioned pit-of-the-theatre scrum for passport inspection, on the smoking-room deck. And there, on the quay, were staff officers and R.T.O.'s awaiting him with a great car—no worry about Customs or luggage or anything—everything done for him by eager young men without his bidding—and he had thought nothing of it. Indeed, if there had been a hitch in the machinery which conveyed him to his brigade, he would have made it hot for the defaulter. And now—with a third share in a porter he struggled through the Customs in the midst of the perspiring civilian crowd, and, emerging on to the platform, found a comfortless middle seat in an old German first-class carriage built for four. There were still many men in uniform, English, French and American, doing Heaven knows what about the busy station. But none took notice of him, and he lounged disconsolately by the carriage door waiting for the train to start. He scarcely knew which of his experiences, then or now, was an illusion.
In spite of the civilian horde, women, young girls, mufti-clad men, the station still preserved a military aspect. A company of blue-clad poilus sat some way off, in the middle of their packs, eating a scratch meal. Here and there were bunches of British Tommies, with a sergeant and a desultory officer, obviously under discipline. It seemed impossible that the war should be ended—that he, General Lackaday, should have finished with it for ever.
At last, a young subaltern passed him by, recognized him after a second, saluted and paused undecided. A few months ago, Andrew would have returned his salute with brass-hatted majesty, but now he smiled his broad ear-to-ear smile, thrust out his long arm and gripped the young man's hand. It was Smithson, one of his brigade staff—a youth of mediocre efficiency, on whom, as the youth remembered, he was wont most austerely to frown. But all this Andrew forgot.
"My dear boy," he cried. "How glad I am to see you."
It was as if a survivor from a real world had appeared before him in a land of dreams. He questioned him animatedly on his doings. The boy responded wonderingly. At last:—
"When are you going to be demobilized?"
The subaltern smiled. "I hope never, sir. I'm a regular."
"Lucky devil," said Andrew. "Oh, you lucky devil! I'd give anything to change places with you."
"I'm on, sir," laughed Smithson. "I'm all for being a Brigadier-General."
"Not on the retired list—out of the service," said Andrew.
The train began to move. Andrew jumped hastily into his compartment and, leaning out of the window before the stout Frenchman, waved a hand to the insignificant young man in the King's uniform. With all his soul he envied him the privilege of wearing it. He cursed his stiff-neckedness in declining the Major's commission offered by the War Office. A line of Tennyson reminiscent of the days when Bakkus had guided his reading came into his head. Something about a man's own angry pride being cap and bells for a fool. He tried to find repose against the edge of the sharp double curve that divided the carriage side into two portions. The trivial discomfort irritated him. The German compartment might be a symbol of victory, but it was also a symbol of the end of the war, the end of the only intense life full of meaning which he had ever known.
As the train went on, he caught sight from the window of immense stores of war—German waggons with their military destinations still marked in chalk, painted guns of all calibres, drums of barbed wire, higgledy-piggledy truck-loads of scrap, all sorts of flotsam and jetsam of the great conflict. All useless, done with, never to be thought of again, so the world hoped, in the millennium that was to be brought about by the League of Nations. Yet it seemed impossible. In wayside camps, at railway stations, he saw troops of the three great countries. Now and then train-loads of them passed. It was impossible that the mighty hosts they represented should soon melt away into the dull flood of civil life. The war had been such a mighty, such a gallant thing. Of course the genius of mankind must now be bent to the reconstruction of a shattered world. He knew that. He knew that regret at the ending of the universal slaughter would be the sentiment of a homicidal lunatic. Yet deep down in his heart there was some such regret, a gnawing nostalgia.
After Amiens they passed by the battle-fields. A young American officer sitting by the eastern window pointed them out to him. He explained to Andrew what places had been British gun emplacements, pointed to the white chalk lines that had been British trenches. Told him what a trench looked like. Andrew listened grimly. The youth had pointed out of window again. Did he know what those were? Those were shell-holes. German shells.... Presently the conductor came through to examine tickets. Andrew drew from his pocket his worn campaigning note-case and accidently dropped a letter. The young American politely picked it up, but the typewritten address on the War Office envelope caught his eye. "Brigadier-General Lackaday, C.B." He handed it to Andrew, flushing scarlet.
"Is that your name, sir?"
"It is," said Andrew.
"Then I reckon, sir, I've been making a fool of myself."
"Every man," said Andrew, with his disarming smile, "is bound to do that once in his life. It's best to get it over as soon as possible. That's the way one learns. Especially in the army."
But the young man's talk had rubbed in his complete civiliandom.
As the train neared Paris, his heart sank lower and lower. The old pre-war life claimed him mercilessly, and he was frozen with a dread which he had never felt on the fire-step in the cold dawn awaiting the lagging hour of zero. On the entrance to the Gare du Nord he went into the corridor and looked through the window. He saw Elodie afar off. Elodie, in a hat over her eyes, a fur round her neck, her skirt cut nearly up to her knees showing fat, white-stockinged calves. She had put on much flesh. The great train stopped and vomited forth its horde of scurrying humans.
Elodie caught sight of him and rushed and threw herself into his arms, and embraced him rapturously.
"Oh, my Andre, it is good to have you back. O mon petit homme—how I have been longing for this moment. Now the war is finished, you will not leave me again ever. Et te voila General. You must be proud, eh? But your uniform? I who had made certain I should see you in uniform."
He smiled at her characteristic pounce on externals.
"I no longer belong to the Army, my little Elodie," he replied, walking with her, his porter in front, to the barrier.
"Mais tu es toujours General?" she asked anxiously.
"I keep the rank," said Andrew.
"And the uniform? You can wear it? You will put it on sometimes to please me?"
They drove home through twilight Paris, her arm passed through his, while she chattered gaily. Was it not good to smell Paris again after London with its fogs and ugliness and raw beefsteaks? To-night she would give him such a dinner as he had never eaten in England—and not for two years. Did he realize that it was two years since he had seen her?
"Mon Dieu," said he, "so it is."
"And you are pleased to have me again?"
"Can you doubt it?" he smiled.
"Ah, one never knows. What can't a man do in two years? Especially when he becomes a high personage, a great General full of honours and decorations."
"The gods of peace have arrived, my little Elodie," said he with a touch of bitterness, "and the little half-gods of war are eclipsed. If we go to a restaurant there's no reason why the waiter with his napkin under his arm shouldn't be an ex-colonel of Zouaves. All the glory of the war has ended, my dear. A breath. Phew! Out goes the candle."
But Elodie would have none of this pessimistic philosophy.
"You are a General to the end of your days."
They mounted to the flat in the Faubourg Saint-Denis. To Andrew, accustomed of late months to the greater spaciousness of English homes, it seemed small and confined and close. It smelt of birds—several cages of which occupied a side of the salon. Instinctively he threw open a window.
Instinctively also: "The courant d'air!" cried Elodie.
"Just for a minute," said Andrew—and added diplomatically, "I want to see what changes there are in the street."
"It's always the same," said Elodie. "I will go and see about dinner."
So till she returned he kept the window open and looked about the room. It was neat as a new pin, redded-up against his arrival. His books had been taken from their cases and dusted; the wild displacement of volumes that should have gone in series betrayed the hand of the zealous though inexpert librarian. The old curtains had been cleaned, the antimacassars over the backs of chairs and sofa had been freshly washed, the floor polished. Not a greasy novel or a straggling garment defiled the spotlessness of the room, which, but for the row of birds and the books, looked as if it subserved no human purpose. A crazy whatnot, imitation lacquer and bamboo, the only piece of decorative furniture, was stacked with photographs of variety artists, male and female, in all kinds of stage costumes, with sprawling signatures across, the collection of years of touring,—all scrupulously dusted and accurately set out. The few cheap prints in maple frames that adorned the walls (always askew, he remembered) had been adjusted to the horizontal. On the chenille-covered table in the middle of the room stood a vase with artificial flowers. The straight-backed chairs upholstered in yellow and brown silk stood close sentry under the prints, in their antimacassar uniforms. Two yellow and brown arm-chairs guarded the white faience stove. The sofa against the wall frowned sternly at the whatnot on the opposite side. Andrew's orderly soul felt aghast at this mathematical tidiness. Even the old slovenly chaos was better. At least it expressed something human. And then the picture of that other room, so exquisite, so impregnated with the Far-away Princess spirit of its creator, rose up before him, and he sighed and rubbed his fingers through his red stubbly hair, and made a whimsical grimace, and said, "Oh Damn!" And Elodie then bursting in, with a proud "Isn't it pretty, ton petit chez-toi!" What could he do but smile, and assure her that no soldier home from the wars could have a more beautifully regulated home?
"And you have looked enough at the street?"
Andrew shut the window.
Through one of the little ironies of fate, my mission at the Peace Conference ended a day or two after Andrew's arrival in Paris, so that when he called at my hotel I had already returned to London. A brief note from him a day or two later informed me of his visit and his great regret at missing me. Of his plans he said nothing. He gave as his address "c/o Cox's Bank." You will remark that this was late April, and I did not receive his famous manuscript till June. Of his private history I knew nothing, save his beginnings in the Cirque Rocambeau and his identity with a professional mountebank known as Petit Patou.
Soon afterwards I spent a week-end with the Verity-Stewarts. Before I could have a private word with Lady Auriol, whom I found as my fellow-guest, Evadne, as soon as she had finished an impatient though not unsubstantial tea, hurried me out into the garden. There were two litters of Sealyhams.
Lady Verity-Stewart protested mildly.
"Uncle Anthony doesn't want to see puppies."
"It's the only thing he's interested in and the only thing he knows anything about," cried Evadne. "And he's the only one that's able to pick out the duds. Come on."
So I went. Crossing the lawn, she took my arm.
"We're all as sick as dogs," she remarked confidentially.
"We asked——" Note the modern child. Not "Papa" or "Mamma," as a well-conducted little girl of the Victorian epoch would have said, but "we," ego et parentes—"we asked," replied Evadne, "General Lackaday down. And crossing our letter came one from Paris telling us he had left England for good. Isn't it rotten?"
"The General's a very good fellow," said I, "but I didn't know he was a flame of yours."
"Oh, you stupid!" cried Evadne, with a protesting tug at my arm "It's nothing to do with me. It s Aunt Auriol."
"Oh?" said I.
She shook her fair bobbed head. "As if you didn't know!"
"I'm not so senile," said I, "as not to grasp your insinuation, my dear. But I fail to see what business it is of ours."
"It's a family affair—oh, I forgot, you're not real family—only adopted." I felt humiliated. "Anyhow you're as near as doesn't matter." I brightened up again. "I've heard 'em talking it over—when they thought I wasn't listening. Father and mother and Charles. They're all potty over General Lackaday. And so's Aunt Auriol. I told you they had clicked ages ago."
"Yes. Don't you know English?"
"To my sorrow, I do. They clicked. And father and mother and Charles and Aunt Auriol are all potty."
"And so am I," she declared, "for he's a dear. And they all say it's time for Aunt Auriol to settle down. So they wanted to get him here and fix him. Charles says he's a shy bird——"
"But," I interrupted, "you're talking of the family. Your Aunt Auriol has a father, Lord Mountshire."
"He's an old ass," said Evadne.
"He's a peer of the realm," said I rebukingly, though I cordially agreed with her.
"He's not fit to be General Lackaday's ancient butler," she retorted.
"Is that your own?"
"No. It's Charles's. But I can repeat it if I like."
"And all this goes to prove——" said I.
"Well, don't you see? You are dense. The news that the General had gone to France knocked them all silly. Aunt Auriol's looking rotten. Charles says she's off her feed. You should have seen her last night at dinner, when they were talking about him."
"Again, my dear Evadne," said I, opening the gate of the kitchen garden for her to pass through, "this is none of my business."
She took my arm again. "It doesn't matter. But oh, darling Uncle Tony, couldn't we fix it up?"
"Fix up what?" I asked aghast.
"The wedding," replied this amazing young person, looking up at me so that I had only a vision of earnest grey eyes, and a foreshortened snub nose and chin. "He's only shy. You could bring him up to the scratch at once."
She went on in a whirl of words of which I preserve but a confused memory. Of course it was her own idea. She had heard her mother hint that Anthony Hylton might be a useful man to have about—but all the same she had her plan. Why shouldn't I go off to Paris and bring him back? I gasped. I fought for air. But Evadne hurried me on, talking all the time. She was dying for a wedding. She had never seen one in her life. She would be a bridesmaid. She described her costume. And she had set her heart on a wedding present—the best of the bunch of Sealyham puppies. Why, certainly they were all hers. Tit and Tat, from whom the rather extensive kennels had originally sprung, were her own private property. They had been given to her when she was six years old. Tat had died. But Tit. I knew Tit? Did I not? No one could spend an hour in Mansfield Court without making the acquaintance of the ancient thing on the hearthrug, with the shape of a woolly lamb and the eye of a hawk and the smile of a Court jester. Besides, I had known him since he was a puppy. I, moi qui parle, had been the donor of Tit and Tat. I reminded her. I was a stupid. As if she didn't know. But I was to confirm her right to dispose of the pups. I confirmed it solemnly. So we hastened to the stable yard and inspected the kennels, where the two mothers lay with their slithery tail-wagging broods. We discussed the points of each little beast and eventually decided on the one which should be Evadne's wedding present to General Lackaday and Lady Auriol Dayne.
"Thanks ever so much, darling," said Evadne. "You are so helpful."
I returned to the drawing-room fairly well primed with the family preoccupations, so that when Lady Verity-Stewart carried me off to her own little den on the pretext of showing me some new Bristol glass, and Sir Julius came smoking casually in her wake, I knew what to expect. They led up to the subject, of course, very diplomatically—not rushing at it brutally like Evadne, but nothing that the child said did they omit—with the natural exception of the bridesmaid's dress and the wedding present. And they added little more. They were greatly concerned, dear elderly folk, about Auriol. She and General Lackaday had been hand in glove for months. He evidently more than admired her. Auriol, said Sir Julius, in her don't-care-a-dam-for-anybody sort of way made no pretence of disguising her sentiments. Any fool could see she was in love with the man. And they had affiched themselves together all over the place. Other women could do it with impunity—if they didn't have an infatuated man in tow at a restaurant, they'd be stared at, people would ask whether they were qualifying for a nunnery—but Auriol was different. Aphrodite could do what she chose and no one worried; but an indiscretion of Artemis set tongues wagging. It was high time for something definite to happen. And now the only thing definite was Lackaday's final exodus from the scene, and Auriol's inclination to go off and bury herself in some savage land. Lady Verity-Stewart thought Borneo. They were puzzled. General Lackaday was the best of fellows—-so simple, so sincere—such a damned fine soldier—such a gentle, kindly creature—so scurvily treated by a disgraceful War Office—just the husband for Auriol—etcetera, etcetera in strophe and antistrophe of eulogy.
All this was by way of beginning. Then came the point of the conclave. It was obvious that General Lackaday couldn't have trifled with Auriol's affections and thrown her off. I smiled at the conception of the lank and earnest Lackaday in the part of Don Juan. Besides, they added sagely, Auriol had been known to make short work of philanderers. It could only be a question of some misunderstanding that might easily be arranged by an intelligent person in the confidence of both parties. That, it appeared, was where I came in. I, as Evadne had said, was a useful man to have about.
"Now, my dear Anthony," said Sir Julius, "can't you do something?"
What the deuce was I to do? But first I asked:
"What does Auriol say about it?"
They hadn't broached the subject. They were afraid. I knew what Auriol was. As likely as not she would tell them to go to the devil for their impertinence.
"And she wouldn't be far wrong," said I.
"Of course it seems meddlesome," said Sir Julius, tugging at his white moustache, "but we're fond of Auriol. I've been much more of a father to her than that damned old ass Mountshire"—Evadne, again; though for once in her life she had exercised restraint—"and I hate to see her unhappy. She's a woman who ought to marry, hang it all, and bring fine children into the world. And her twenties won't last for ever—to put it mildly. And here she is in love with a fine fellow who's in love with her or I'll eat my hat, and—well—don't you see what I mean?"
Oh yes. I saw perfectly. To soothe them, I promised to play the high-class Pandarus to the best of my ability. At any rate, Lady Auriol, having taken me into her confidence months ago, couldn't very well tell me to go to the devil, and, if she did, couldn't maintain the mandate with much show of outraged dignity.
I did not meet her till dinner. She came down in a sort of low cut red and bronze frock without any sleeves—I had never seen so much of her before—and what I saw was exceedingly beautiful. A magnificent creature, with muscular, shapely arms and deep bosom and back like a Greek statue become dark and warm. Her auburn hair crowned her strong pleasant face. As far as appearances went I could trace no sign of the love-lorn maiden. Only from her talk did I diagnose a more than customary unrest. The war was over. Hospitals were closed. Her occupation (like Lackaday's) was gone. England was no place for her. It was divided into two social kingdoms separated by a vast gulf—one jazzing and feasting and otherwise Sodom-and-Gomorrah-izing its life away, and the other growling, envious, sinister, with the Bolshevic devil in its heart. What could a woman with brains and energy do? The Society life of the moment made her sick. A dance to Perdition. The middle classes were dancing, too, in ape-like imitation, while the tradesman class were clinging for dear life on to their short skirts, with legs dangling in the gulf. On the other side, seething masses howling worship of the Goddess of Unreason. Cross the gulf—one would metaphorically be torn to pieces. Remain—no outlet for energy but playing the wild Cassandra. Her pessimism was Tartarean.
"General Lackaday, the last time I saw him, agreed with me that the war was a damned sight better than this."
It was the first time she had mentioned him. Lady Verity-Stewart and I exchanged glances.
She went on. Not a monologue. We all made our comments, protests and what not. But in the theatre phrase we merely fed her, instinctively feeling for the personal note. On ordinary occasions very subtly aware of such tactics, she seemed now to ignore them. She rose to every fly. Public life for women? Parliament? The next election would result in a Labour Government. Women would stand no chance. Labour counted on cajoling the woman's vote. But it would have no truck with women as legislators. If there was one social class which had the profoundest contempt for woman as an intelligent being it was the labouring population.
For Heaven's sake remember, I am only giving you Lady Auriol's views, as expressed over the dinner table. What mine are, I won't say. Anyhow they don't amount to a row of pins.
Lady Auriol continued her Jeremiad. Suppose she did stand for Parliament, and got in for a safe Conservative constituency. What would happen? She would be swept in to the muddiest and most soul-destroying game on God's earth. No, my dear friends, no. No politics for her. Well, what then? we asked.
"Didn't you say something about—what was it, dear—Borneo?" asked Lady Verity-Stewart.
"I don't care where it is, Aunt Selina," cried Lady Auriol. "Anywhere out of this melting-pot of civilization. But you can't get anywhere. There aren't any ships to take you. And there's nowhere worth going to. The whole of this miserable little earth has been exploited."
"Thibet has its lonely spots."
"And it's polyandrous—so a woman ought to have a good time—" she laughed. "Thanks for the hint. But I'm not taking any. Seriously, however, as you all seem to take such an interest in me, what s a woman like me to do in this welter? Oh, give me the good old war again!"
Lady Verity-Stewart lifted horrified hands. Sir Julius rebuked her unhumorously. Lady Auriol laughed again and the Jeremiad petered out.
"She's got it rather badly," Charles murmured to me when the ladies had left the dining-room.
But I was not going to discuss Lady Auriol with Charles. I grunted and sipped my port and told a gratified host that I recognized the '81 Cockburn.
Sir Julius and Lady Verity-Stewart went to bed early after the sacramental game of bridge. Charles, obeying orders, followed soon afterwards. Lady Auriol and I had the field to ourselves.
"Well?" said she.
"Well?" said I.
"You don't suppose these subtle diplomatists have left us alone to discuss Bolshevism or Infant Welfare?"
There was the ironical gleam in her eyes and twist in her lips that had attracted me since her childhood. I have always liked intelligent women.
"Have they been badgering you?"
"Good Lord, no. But a female baby in a pink sash would see what they're driving at. Haven't they been discussing me and Andrew Lackaday?"
"They have," said I, "and they're perfect dears. They've built up a fairy-tale around you and have taken long leases in it and are terribly anxious that the estate shan't be put into liquidation."
"That's rather neat," she said.
"I thought so, myself," said I.
Stretched in an arm-chair she looked for some minutes into the glow of the wood fire. Then she turned her head quickly.
"You haven't given me away?"
"My good girl!" I protested, "what do you take me for?"
She laughed. "That's all right. I opened out to you last year about Andrew. You remember? You were very sympathetic. I was in an unholy sort of fog about myself then. I'm in clear weather now. I know my own mind. He's the only man in the world for me. I suppose I've made it obvious. Hence the solicitude of these pet lambs—and your appointment as Investigator. Well, my dear Tony, what do they want to know?"
"They're straining their dear simple ears to catch the strain of wedding bells and they can't do it. So they're worried."
"Well, you can tell them not to worry any longer. There aren't going to be any wedding bells. They've made sentimental idiots of themselves. General Lackaday and I aren't marrying folks. The question hasn't arisen. We're good intimate friends, nothing more. He's no more in love with me than I am with him. Savvy?"
I savvied. But—
"That's for the pet lambs," said I. "What for me?"
"I've already told you."
"And that's the end of it?"
"As far as you are concerned—yes."
"As you will," I said.
I put a log on the fire and took up a book. All this was none of my business, as I had explained to Evadne.
"I'm sorry you're not interested in my conversation," she remarked after a while.
"You gave me to understand that it was over—as far as I was concerned."
"Never mind. I want to tell you something."
I laid down my book and lit a cigar.
"Go ahead," said I.
It was then that she told me of her last interview with Lackaday. Remember I had not yet read his version.
"It's all pretty hopeless," she concluded.
For myself I knew nothing of the reasons that bade him adopt the attitude of the Mysterious Unknown—except his sensitiveness on the point of his profession. He would rather die than appear before her imagination in the green silk tights of Petit Patou. I asked tentatively whether he had spoken much of his civilian life.
"Very little. Except of his knowledge of Europe. He has travelled a great deal. But of his occupation, family and the rest, I know nothing. Oh yes, he did once say that his father and mother died when he was a baby and that he had no kith or kin in the world. If he had thought fit to tell me more he would have done so. I, of course, asked no questions."
"But all the same," said I, "you're dying to know the word of the enigma."
She laughed scornfully. "I know it, my friend."
"The deuce you do!" said I, thinking of Petit Patou and wondering how she had guessed. "What is it?"
"A woman of course."
"Did he tell you?" I asked, startled, for that shed a new light on the matter.
"No." She boomed the word at me. "What on earth do you suppose was the meaning of our talk about playing the game?"
"Well, my dear," said I, "if it comes to that, do you think it was playing the game for him, a married man with possibly a string of children, to come down here and make love to you?"
She flared up. "He never made love to me. You've no right to say such a thing. If there was any love-making, it was I that made it. Ninety per cent of the love-making in the world is the work of women. And you know it, although you pretend to be shocked. And I'm not ashamed of myself in the least. As soon as I set my eyes on him I said 'That's the man I want,' and I soon saw that I could give him what he never had before—and I kept him to me, so that I could give it him. And I gloried in it. I don't care whether he has ten wives or twenty children. I'm telling you because"—she started up and looked me full in the face—"upon my word I don't know why—except that you're a comfortable sort of creature, and if you know everything you'll be able to deal with the pet lambs." She rose, held out her hand. "You must be bored stiff."
"On the contrary," said I, "I'm vastly interested—and honoured, my dear Auriol. But tell me. As all this sad, mad, glad affair seems to have come to a sudden stop, what do you propose to do?"
"I don't know," she replied with a half laugh. "What I feel like doing is to set out for Hell by the most adventurous route."
She laughed again, shook hands. "Good night, Tony." And she passed out through the door I held open for her.
I finished my cigar before the fire. It was the most unsatisfactory romance I had come across in a not inexperienced career. Was it the green silk tights or the possible woman in the background that restrained the gallant General? Suppose it was only the former? Would my Lady Auriol jib at them? She was a young woman with a majestic scorn for externals. In her unexpectedness she might cry "Motley's the only wear" and raise him ever higher in his mountebankic path.... I was sorry for both of them. They were two such out-of-the-way human beings—so vivid, so real. They seemed to have a preordained right to each other. He, dry, stern, simple stick of a man needed the flame-like quality that ran through her physical magnificence. She, piercing beneath the glamour of his soldierly achievements, found in him the primitive virility she could fear combined with the spiritual helplessness to which she could come in her full womanly and maternal aid. To her he was as a rock, but a living rock, vitalized by a myriad veins of sensitiveness. To him—well, I knew my Auriol—and could quite understand what Auriol in love could be to any man. Auriol out of love (and in her right mind) had always been good enough for me.
So I mused for a considerable time. Then, becoming conscious of the flatness, staleness and unprofitableness of it all, as far as my elderly selfishness was concerned, I threw my extinct cigar end into the fire, and thanking God that I had come to an age when all this storm and fuss over a creature of the opposite sex was a thing of the past, and yet with an unregenerate pang of regret for manifold what-might-have-beens, I put out the lights and went to bed.
The next day I succeeded by hook or by crook in guiding the pet lambs, Evadne included, in the way they should go. I reported progress to Lady Auriol.
"Good dog," she said.
I returned to London on Monday morning. When next I heard of her, she was, I am thankful to say, not on the adventurous path to the brimstone objective of her predilection, but was fooling about, all by herself, in a five-ton yacht, somewhere around the Outer Hebrides, in the foulest of weather.
In the days of my youth I was the victim of a hopeless passion and meditated suicide. A seafaring friend of mine suggested my accompanying him on his cargo steamer from the Port of London to Bordeaux. It was blazing summer. But I was appallingly sea-sick all the way, and when I set foot on land I was cleansed of all human emotion save that of utter thankfulness that I existed as an entity with an un-queasy stomach. I was cured for good and all.
But a five-ton yacht off the Outer Hebrides in bleak tempests—No, it was too heroic. Even my dear old friend Burton for all his wit and imagination had never devised such a remedia amoris, such a remedy for Love Melancholy.
And then came June and with it the manuscript and all the flood of information about the Agence Moignon and Bakkus and Petit Patou and Prepimpin and Elodie and various other things that I have yet to set down.
While Lady Auriol Dayne was rocking about the Outer Hebrides, we find Andrew Lackaday in Paris confronted with the grim necessity of earning a livelihood. His pre-war savings had amounted to no fortune, and in spite of Elodie's economy and occasional earnings with her birds, they were well-nigh spent. The dearness of everything! Elodie wrung her hands. Where once you had change out of a franc, now you had none out of a five-franc note. He could still carry on comfortably for a year, but that would be the end of it.
When he propounded the financial situation, Elodie did not understand.
"I must work," said he.
"But Generals don't work," she protested incredulously.
Even the war had developed little of the Marseilles gamine's conceptions of life. A General—she knew no grades—a modest Brigadier ranking second only to a Field Marshal—was a General. He commanded an army. A military demigod invested with a glamour and glory which, ipso facto, of its own essence, provided him with ample wealth. And once a General, always a General. The mere fact of no longer being employed in the command of armies did not matter. The rank remained and with the rank the golden stream to maintain it. According to popular legend the Oriental ascetic who concentrates his gaze on the centre of his body and his thoughts on the syllable "Om" arrives at a peculiar mental condition. So the magic word on which she had so long meditated, had its hypnotic effect on Elodie.
And when he had patiently explained—
"They give you nothing at all for being a General?" she almost screamed.
"Nothing at all," said Andrew.
"Then what's the good of being a General?"
"None that I can see," he replied with his grim smile.
Elodie's illusions fell clattering round about her ears. Not her illusions as to Generals, but her illusions as to Andrew and British military prestige. It was a strange army that no longer acknowledged its high commanders—a strange country that could scrap them. Were British Generals real, like French Generals, Lyautey and Manoury and Foch before he became Marechal? She was bitterly disappointed. She had lived for nearly a year in Andrew's glory. Now there seemed to be no shine in it whatever. He wore no uniform. He received no pay. He was a mere civilian. He had to work for his living like any demobilized poilu who returned to his counter or his conductor's step on the tramway. And she had made such a flourish among all her acquaintance over son mari le general. She went off by herself and wept.
The cook whom she had engaged, coming to lay the cloth in the tiny dining-room found her sobbing with her arms on the table. What was the matter with Madame?
"Ah, ma pauvre Ernestine, je suis bien malheureuse."
Ernestine could think of only one cause for a lady's unhappiness. Had Monsieur le General then been making her infidelities? All allowances should be made for the war. On every side she had heard tales of the effects of such long separations. But, on the other hand, she had heard of many reconciliations. Apply a little goodwill—that was all. Monsieur le General was a man, comme tout le monde. She was certain that the object of his warrior fancy was not worth Madame—and he would quickly realize the fact. She only had to make much of him and give him everything he liked to eat. As soon as the stream of words ceased Elodie vehemently denounced the disgusting state of her mind. She must have a foul character to think such things. She bade her haughtily to mind her own business. Why then, asked the outraged Ernestine, did Madame declare she was miserable? To invite sympathy and then reject it did not argue a fine character on the part of Madame. Also when a woman sits down and weeps like a cow, mon Dieu, there must be a reason. Perhaps if Monsieur was not at fault, then—
"I order you to be silent," stormed Elodie, interrupting the intolerable suggestion. "My reasons you couldn't possibly understand. Get on with your work and set the table."
She made a dignified exit and returned to the salon where Andrew was writing.
"Ah, these servants—since the war! The insolence of them!"
"What have they been doing now?" he asked sympathetically.
She would not say. Why worry him with such vulgarities? But the housekeeper's life, these days, was not an easy one. "Tiens," she cried, with a swift resolve, "I'll tell you all. What you said about yourself, a general only in name, rejected and cast on the world without money made me very unhappy. I didn't want you to see me cry. So I went into the salle a manger—"
And then a dramatic reproduction of the scene. The insolence of the woman! Andrew rose and drew out his pocket-book.
"She shall go at once. What's her wages?"
But Elodie looked at him aghast. What? Dismiss Ernestine? He must be mad. Ernestine, a treasure dropped from Heaven? Didn't he know that servants did not grow like the leaves on the trees in the Champs Elysees? And cooks—they were worth their weight in gold. In the army he could say to an orderly "Fiche-moi le camp," because there were plenty of others. But in civil life—no. She forbade him to interfere in domestic arrangements, the nice conduct of which she had proved herself perfectly capable of determining. And then, in her queer, twisted logic, she said, clutching the lapels of his coat and looking up into his face:
"And it's not true what she said? You have never made me infidelities?"
He passed his delicate hand over her forehead, and smiled somewhat wearily.
"You may be sure, my dear, I have been faithful to you."
She glanced away from him, somewhat abashed. Now and then his big simplicity frightened her. She became dimly aware that the report of the cook's chatter had offended the never comprehended delicacies of his soul. She murmured:
"Je te demande bien pardon, Andre."
"There's no reason for that, my dear," said he.
She went over to her birds. Andrew resumed his writing. But after a minute or two his pen hung idle in his hand. Yes. He had spoken truly. He had been faithful to her in that he had fled from divine temptation. For her sake he had put the other woman and the glory that she signified out of his life. All through the delicious intercourse, Elodie had hung at the bottom of his heart, a dead-weight, maybe, but one which he could not in honour or common humanity cut off. For Elodie's sake he had held himself in stern restraint, had uttered no word that might be interpreted as that of a lover. As far as Lady Auriol Dayne knew, as far as anyone on this earth knew, his feelings towards her were nothing more than those of a devoted and grateful friend. So does the well-intentioned ostrich, you may say, bury its head and imagine itself invisible. But the ostrich is desperately sincere—and so was Andrew.
Presently he turned.
"If that woman says such vulgarities again, she must go at once."
"I shall see that she has no opportunity," said Elodie.
* * * * *
For a time Andrew sought in France that which he had failed to find in England; but with even less chance of success. The gates to employment in England had been crowded with demobilized officers. Only the fortunate, the young content with modest beginnings, those with money enough to start new avocations, had pushed through. These had been adventurers like himself. The others had returned to the office or counting-house or broad acres from which they had sprung. In France he found no employment at all; the gates round which the demobilized wistfully gathered, led no whither. As at the War Office, so at military head-quarters in Paris. Brass-hatted friends wrung him warmly by the hand, condoled with his lot, and genially gave him to understand that he stood not a dog's chance of getting in anywhere. Why hadn't he worried the people at home for a foreign billet? There were plenty going, but as to their nature they confessed vagueness. He had put in for several, said he, but had always been turned down. The friends shook their heads. In Paris nothing doing. Andrew walked away sadly. Perhaps a spirit proof against rebuffs, a thick-skinned persistence, might have eventually prevailed in London to set him on some career in the social reconstruction of the world. His record stood, and needed only unblushing flaunting before the eyes of Authority for it to be recognized. But Andrew Lackaday, proud and sensitive, was a poor seeker after favour. All his promotion and his honour had come unsought. He had hated the braggadocio of the rainbow row of ribbons on his khaki tunic, which Army discipline alone forced him to wear. It was Elodie, too, who had fixed into his buttonholes the little red rosette of the Officer of the Legion. That at least he could do for her.... Success, such as it was, before the war, he had attained he knew not how. The big drum of the showman had ever been an engine of abhorrence. Others had put him on the track of things, Elodie, Bakkus.... He had sternly suppressed vulgarity in posters. He had never intrigued like most of his craft for press advertisement. Over and over again had Bakkus said:
"Raise a thousand or two and give it to me or Moignon to play with and we'll boom you into all the capitals of the earth. There's a fortune in you."
But Andrew, to whom publicity was the essence of his calling, would have none of it. He did his work and conducted his life in his own way, earnest and efficient.
In the war, of course, he found his real vocation. But he passed out of the war as unknown to the general public as any elderly Tommy in a Labour battalion. Never a photograph of him had appeared in the illustrated papers. The head of a great Government department, to whom Lady Auriol had mentioned his name, had never heard of it. And when she suggested that the State should hasten to secure the services of such men, he had replied easily:
"Men of his distinction are as thick as blackberries. That's how we won the war."
Unknown to Lackaday she had tried to see what influence she could command. Socially, as the rather wild-headed daughter of an impoverished and obscure Earl, she could do but little. She too was a poor intriguer. She could only demand with blatant vividness. Once on a flying visit to Lord Mountshire, she tried to interest him in the man whom, to her indignation, he persisted in styling her protege. He still, she urged, had friends in high places, even in the dreadful Government at which he railed.
"Never heard of the man," he growled. "Lackaday—Lackaday—" he shook his white head. "Who was his father?"
She confessed that she didn't know. He was alone in the world. He had sprung from Nowhere. The old Earl refused to take any interest in him. Such fellows always fell on their feet. Besides, he had tried to put in a word for young Ponsonby—and had got snubbed for his pains. He wasn't going to interfere any more.
She learned that the appointment of a soldier would be made to a vacant colonial governorship. A certain general's recommendation would carry weight. She passed the information on to Andrew. This she could do without offending his pride.
"Very sorry, my dear fellow," said the General. "You're the very man for the job. But you know what these Colonial office people are. They will have an old regular."
As a matter of fact they appointed another Brigadier who had started the war with a new Yeomanry commission, a member of a well-known family with a wife who had seen to it that neither his light nor hers should be hidden under a bushel.
In the frantic scramble for place, the inexperienced in the methods of the scrum were as much left out in the cold as a timid old maid at what Americans call a bargain counter. He stood lost behind the throng and his only adviser Lady Auriol stood by his side in similar noble bewilderment.
On his appointment to a Brigade, Bakkus had written:
"I'm almost tempted to make your fortune in spite of yourself. What a sensation! What headlines! 'Famous Variety Artist becomes a General.' Companion pictures in the Daily Mail, Petit Patou and Brigadier- General Lackaday. Everybody who had heard of Petit Patou would be mad to hear of General Lackaday, and all who had heard of soldier Andrew would be crazy to know about Petit Patou. You'd wake up in the morning like Byron and find yourself famous. You'd be the darling hero of the British Empire. But you always were a wooden-headed idiot...."
To which Andrew had replied in raging fury, to the vast entertainment of Horatio Bakkus.
All of this to show that, notwithstanding his supreme qualities of personal courage, command and military intuition, Andrew Lackaday as a would-be soldier of fortune proved a complete failure. For him, as he presented himself, the tired world, in its nebulous schemes of reconstruction, had no place.
Every day, when he got home, Elodie would ask:
"Eh bien? Have you found anything?"
And he would say, gaunt and worried, but smiling: "Not yet."
As the days passed her voice grew sharper, until it seemed to carry the reproach of the wife of the labourer out of work. But she never pressed him further. She knew his moods and his queer silences and the inadvisability of forcing his confidence. In spite of her disappointment and disillusion, some of the glamour still invested him. A man of mystery, inspiring a certain awe, he frightened her a little. A No Man's Land, unknown, terrifying, on which she dared not venture a foot, lay between them. He was the kind and courteous ghost of the Sergeant and the Major with whom she had made high festival during the war.
At last, one afternoon, he cast the bomb calmly at her feet.
"I've just been to see Moignon," said he.
"He says there will be no difficulty."
She turned on him her coarse puzzled face. "No difficulty in what?"
"In going back to the stage."
She sank upon the yellow and brown striped sofa by the wall and regarded him open-mouthed.
"I must do like all other demobilized men—return to my trade."
Elodie nearly fainted.
For months the prospect had hung over them like a doom; ever since the brigade which he commanded in England had dissolved through demobilization, and he, left in the air, had applied disastrously to the War Office for further employment. He had seen others, almost his equal in rank, swept relentlessly back to their old uninspiring avocations. A Bayard of a Colonel of a glorious battalion of a famous regiment, a fellow with decorations barred two or three times over, was now cooped up in his solicitor's office in Lothbury, E.C., breaking his heart over the pettifoggery of conveyances. A gallant boy, adjutant at twenty-two in the company of which he was captain, a V.C. and God knows what else besides, was back again in the close atmosphere of the junior department of a Public School. One of his old seconds in command was resuming his awful frock-coated walk down the aisles of a suburban drapery store. The flabby, soulless octopus of civil life reached out its tentacles and dragged all these heroic creatures into its maw of oblivion. Then another, a distinguished actor, and a more distinguished soldier, a man with a legendary record of fearlessness, had sloughed his armour and returned to the theatre. That, thought he, was his own case. But no. The actor took up the high place of histrionic fame which he had abandoned. He was the exponent of a great art. The dual supremacy brought the public to his feet. His appearance was the triumph both of the artist and the soldier. No. He, Lackaday, held no such position. He recalled his first talk with Bakkus, in which he had insisted that his mountebanking was an art, and with his hard-gained knowledge of life rejected the sophistry. To hold an audience spell-bound by the interpretation of great human emotion was a different matter from making a zany of oneself and, upside down, playing a one-stringed fiddle behind one's head, and uttering degraded sounds through painted grinning lips in order to appeal to the inane sense of humour of the grocer and his wife. No. There was all the difference in the world. The comparison filled him less with consolation than with despair. The actor, mocking the octopus below, had calmly stepped from one rock pinnacle to another. He himself, Andrew Lackaday, in the depths, felt the irresistible grip of the horror twining round his middle.
Put him in the midst of a seething mass of soldiery, he could command, straighten out chaos into mechanical perfection of order, guide willing men unquestioned into the jaws of Hell; put him on the stage of a music-hall and he could keep six plates in the air at a time. Outside these two spheres he could, as far as the world would try him, do nothing. He had to live. He was young, under forty. The sap of life still ran rich in his veins. And not only must he live, but the woman bound to him by a hundred ties, the woman woven by an almost superstitious weft into his early career, the woman whose impeccable loyalty as professional partner had enabled him to make his tiny fortune, the woman whose faithful affection had persisted through the long years of the war's enforced neglect, the woman who without his support—unthinkable idea—would perish from inanition—he knew her—Elodie must live, in the comfort and freedom from anxiety to which the years of unquestioning dependence had accustomed her. Cap and bells again; there was no other way out.
After all, perhaps it was the best and most honest. Even if he had found a semi-military or administrative career abroad, what would become of Elodie? Not in a material sense, of course. The same provision would be made for her welfare as during the last five years. But the abnormal state of war had made normal their separation. In altered circumstances would she not have the right to cry out against his absence? Would she not be justified in the eyes of every right-thinking man? Yet the very conditions of such an appointment would prevent her accompanying him. The problem had appeared insoluble. Desperately he had put off the solution till the crisis should come. But he had felt unhappy, shrinking from the possibility of base action. The thought of Elodie had often paralysed his energy in seeking work. Now, however, he could face the world with a clear conscience. He had cut himself adrift from Lady Auriol and her world. Fate linked him for ever to Elodie. All that remained was to hide his honours and his name under the cloak of Petit Patou.
It took him some time to convince Elodie of the necessity of returning to the old life. She repeated her cry that Generals do not perform on the music-hall stage. The decision outraged her sense of the fitness of things. She yielded as to an irresistible and unreasoning force.
"And I then? Must I tour with you, as before?" she asked in dismay, for she was conscious of increased coarseness of body and sluggishness of habit.
He frowned. "It is true I might find another assistant."
But she quickly interrupted the implied reproach. She could not fail him in her duty.
"No, no, I will go. But you will have to teach me all over again. I only asked for information."
"We'll begin rehearsals then as soon as possible," he replied with a smile.
A few days afterwards, Bakkus, who had been absent from Paris, entered the salon, with his usual unceremoniousness, and beheld an odd spectacle. The prim chairs had been piled on the couch by the wall, the table pushed into a corner, and on the vacant space, Elodie, in her old dancer's practising kit, bodice and knickerbockers, once loose but now skin tight to grotesqueness, and Andrew in under vest and old grey flannels, were perspiringly engaged with pith balls in the elementary art of the juggler. Elodie, on beholding him, clutched a bursting corsage with both hands, uttered a little squeak and bolted like an overfed rabbit. Bakkus laughed out loud.
"What the devil——? Is this the relaxation of the great or the aberrations of the asylum?"
Andrew grinned and shook hands. "My dear old chap. I'm so glad you've come back. Sit down." He shifted the table which blocked the way to the two arm-chairs by the stove. "Elodie and I are getting into training for the next campaign." He mopped his forehead, wiped his hands and, with the old acrobat instinct, jerked the handkerchief across the room. "You're looking very well," said he.
"I'm splendid," said Bakkus.
The singer indeed had a curiously prosperous and distinguished appearance, due not only to a new brown suit and clean linen and well-fitting boots, but also to a sleekness of face and person which suggested comfortable living. His hair, now quite white, brushed back over the forehead, was neatly trimmed. His sallow cheeks had lost their gaunt hollows, his dark eyes, though preserving their ironical glitter, had lost the hunger-lit gleam of wolfishness.
"Have you signed a Caruso contract for Covent Garden?" laughed Andrew.
"I've done better. At Covent Garden you've got to work like the devil for your money. I've made a contract with my family—no work at all. Agreement—just to bury the hatchet. Theophilus—that's the Archdeacon—performed the Funeral Service. He has had a stroke, poor chap. They sent for me."
"Elodie told me," said Andrew.
"He has been very good to me during the war. Otherwise I should have been reduced to picking up cigar ends with a pointed stick on the Boulevards—and a damn precarious livelihood too, considering the shortage of tobacco in this benighted country. He took it into his venerable head that he was going to die and desired to see me. Voltaire remorse on his death-bed, you know."
"I fail to follow," said the literal Andrew.
"All his life he had lived an unbeliever in ME. Now your military intelligence grasps it. My brother Ronald, the runner of the Pawnee Indian, head-flattening system of education, and his wife, especially his wife, the daughter of a lay brother of a bishop who has got a baronetcy for making an enormous fortune out of the war, wouldn't have me at any price. But Theophilus must have muttered some incantation which frightened them, so they surrendered. Poor old Theophilus and I had a touching meeting. He's about as lonely a thing as you could wish to meet. He married an American heiress, who died about eight years ago, and he's as rich as Croesus. We're bosom friends now. As for Mrs. Ronald I sang her songs of Araby including Gounod's 'Ave Maria' with lots of tremolo and convinced her that I'm a saintly personage. It's my proud boast that, on my account, Ronald and herself never spoke for three days. I spent a month in the wilds of Westmorland with them, and as soon as Theophilus got on the mend—he's already performing semi-Archidiaconal functions—I put my hands over my eyes and fled. My God, what a crowd! Give me a drink. I've got four weeks' arrears to make up."
Andrew went into the salle a manger and returned with brandy, syphon and glasses. Helping Bakkus he asked:
"And now, what are you going to do?"
"Nothing, my friend, absolutely nothing. I wallow in the ill-gotten matrimonial gains of Theophilus and Ronald. I wallow modestly, it is true. The richer strata of mire I leave to hogs with whom I'm out of sympathy. You'll have observed that I'm a man of nice discrimination. I choose my hogs. It is the Art of Life."
"Well, here's to you," said Andrew, lifting up his glass.
"And to you."
Bakkus emptied his glass at a draught, breathed a sigh of infinite content and held it out to be refilled.
"And now that I've told you the story of my life, what about you? What's the meaning of this—" he waved a hand—"this reversion to type?"
"You behold Petit Patou redivivus," said Andrew.
Bakkus regarded him in astonishment.
"But, my dear fellow, Generals can't do things like that."
"That's the cry of Elodie."
"She's a woman with whom I'm in perfect sympathy," said Bakkus.
Elodie entered, cooler, less dishevelled, in her eternal wrapper. She rushed up to Bakkus and wrung both his hands, overjoyed to see him. He must pardon her flight, but really—she was in a costume—and not even till she took it off did she know that it was split—Oh, mon Dieu! Right across. With a sweep of the hand she frankly indicated the locality of the disaster. She laughed. Well, it was good that he had arrived at last. He would be able to put some sense into Andre. He a General, to go back to the stage. It was crazy! He would give Andre advice, good counsel, that was what he needed! How Andre could win battles when he was so helpless in other things, she could not understand. She seized him by the shoulders and smiled into his face.
"Mais toi qui es si intelligent, dis quelque chose."
"To say anything, my dear Elodie, while you are speaking," remarked Bakkus, "is beyond the power of mortal man. But now that you are silent I will say this. It is time for dejeuner. I am intoxicated with the sense of pecuniary plenitude, I invite you both to eat with me on the Boulevards where we can discuss these high matters."
"But it is you that are crazy," cried Elodie, gasping at the unprecedented proposal which in itself shook, like an earthquake, her intimately constructed conception of Horatio Bakkus. And on the Boulevards, too! Her soul rose up in alarm. "You are wanting in your wits. One can't eat anywhere—even at a restaurant of the second class—under a hundred francs for three persons."
Bakkus, with an air Louis Seize, implied that one, two or three hundred francs were as dirt in his fingers. But Elodie would have none of it. She would be ashamed to put so much money in her stomach.
"I have," said she, "for us two, eggs au beurre noir and a blanquette de veau, and what is enough for two is enough for three. And you must stay and eat with us as always."
"I wonder," said Bakkus, "whether Andrew realizes what a pearl you are."
So he stayed to lunch and repeated the story of his good fortune, to which Elodie listened enraptured as to a tale of hidden treasure of which he was the hero, but never a word could he find in criticism of Andrew's determination. The quips and causticities that a couple of years ago would have flowed from his thin, ironical lips, were arrested unformulated at the back of his brain. He became aware, not so much of a change as of a swift development of the sterner side of Andrew's character. Of himself he could talk sardonically enough. He could twit Elodie with her foibles in his old way. But of Andrew with his weather-beaten mug of a face marked with new, deep lines of thought and pain, sitting there courteous and simple, yet preoccupied, strangely aloof, the easy cynic felt curiously afraid. And when Elodie taxed him with pusillanimity he glanced at Andrew.
"He has made up his mind," he replied. "Some people's minds are made up of sand and water. Others of stuff composed of builders' weird materials that harden into concrete. Others again have iron bars run through the mass—reinforced concrete. That's Andrew. It's a beast of a mind to deal with, as we have often found, my dear. But what would you have? The animal is built that way."
"You flatter me," grinned Andrew, "but I don't see what the necessity of earning bread and butter has to do with a reinforced-concrete mind."
"It's such an undignified way of earning it," protested Elodie.
"I think," said Bakkus, "it will take as much courage for our poor friend to re-become Petit Patou, as it took for him to become General Lackaday."
Andrew's face suddenly glowed and he shot out his long arm with his bony wrists many inches from his cuff and put his delicate hand on Bakkus's shoulder.
"My dear fellow, why can't you always talk like that?"
"I'm going to," replied Bakkus, pausing in the act of lighting one of Elodie's special reserve of pre-war cigars. "Don't you realize I'm just transplanted from a forcing bed of High Anglican platitude?"
But Elodie shrugged her fat shoulders in some petulance.
"You men always stick together," she said.
The unventilated dressing-room of the Olympia Music-Hall in Marseilles reeked of grease paint, stale human exhalations, the acrid odour, creeping up the iron stairs, of a mangy performing lion, and all manner of unmentionable things. The month of June is not the ideal month to visit Marseilles, even if one is free to pass the evening at a cafe table on the Cannebiere, and there is a breeze coming in from over the sea; but in copper-skied thundery weather, the sirocco conditions of more southerly latitudes, especially when one is cooped up in a confined and airless space, Marseilles in June can be a gasping inferno. Andrew, in spite of hard physical training, was wet through. His little white-jacketed dresser, says he, perspired audibly. There was not so much air in the dressing-room as tangible swelter.
He sat by the wooden table, in front of a cracked and steaming mirror, the contents of his make-up box laid out before him, and (save for one private dress rehearsal carried out in surroundings of greater coolness and comfort) transformed himself, for the first time, from General Lackaday into the mountebank clown, Petit Patou. The electric lights that should have illuminated the mirror were not working—he had found, to his discomfort, that manifold things in post-war France refused to work—and two candles fainting into hopeless curves took their place. Anxiously over a wet skin he painted the transfiguring lines, from lip corner to ear, from nostril to eye, from eye to brow, once the mechanical hand-twist of a few moments—now the painfully concentrated effort of all his faculties.
He finished at last. The swart and perspiring dresser dried his limbs, held out the green silk high-heeled tights which reached to his armpits. Then the grotesque short-sleeved jacket. Then the blazing crimson wig rising to the point of its extravagant foot height. He felt confined within a red-hot torture-skin, a Nessus garment specially adapted to the use of discarded Brigadier-Generals. He sat on the straight-backed chair and looked round the nine foot square flyblown room, with its peeling paper and its strained, sooty skylight, which all the efforts of himself and the dresser had failed to open. It was Mademoiselle Chose, the latter at last remembered, an imperious lady with a horror of draughts and the ear (and—who knows?—perhaps the heart of the management) who had ordered it, in the winter, to be nailed down from the outside. As proof, the broken cords.
"Tell the manager that if it is not unnailed tomorrow, I shall smash a hole in it," said Andrew.
It did not matter now. In a few moments he would be summoned from the suffocating den, and then, his turn over, he would dress quickly and emerge into the open air. Meanwhile, however, he gasped in the heat and the heavy odour of the place; his head ached with an intolerable pain round his temples and at the back of his eyeballs; and acute nervousness gripped his vitals.
Presently the call-boy put his head in the doorway. Andrew rose, descended the iron stairs to the wings. Instinctively he went to the waiting table, covered with green velvet and gold, on which lay piled the once familiar properties—the one-stringed fiddle, the pith balls, the rings, the cigar, the matches, the trick silk hat, the cards, the coins, and the rest of the juggler's apparatus, and methodically checked them. In the visible shaft of brilliantly lit stage he could see the back of the head and the plump shoulders and tournure of a singer rendering in bravura fashion the Jewel Song from "Faust." The stillness whence arose this single flood of sound seemed almost uncanny. The superheated air thickened with hot human breath and tobacco smoke stood stagnant like a miasma in the unventilated wings and back of the stage. The wild beast smell of the lion, although his cage had been hurriedly wheeled out through the scenery door, still persisted and caught the throat, and in the dim white-washed bareness, a few figures, stagehands in shirt-sleeves, and vague pale men in hard felt hats tiptoed about like perspiring ghosts. One of the latter approached Andrew. Monsieur Patou need have no fear, he whispered. Everything was arranged—the beautiful ballroom interior—the men who were to set the stage had their orders, also the lime-light operators. Andrew nodded, already having given explicit instructions. The singer vanished from the quivering streak of stage, in order to give her finale close to the footlights. She ceased. Rapturous applause. She appeared panting, perspiring, beaming in the wings; went on again to bow her acknowledgments, amid hoarse cries of "bis, bis!" She reappeared, glowing vaporously in her triumph, and spread out her arms before the pallid man in the hard felt hat.
"Well! What did I say? You made difficulties about offering me an engagement. I told you I could make these little birds eat out of my hand. You hear?"—the clamour would have been perceptible to a deaf mute—"They are mad about me. I go on again."
"Mais non, madame. Three songs. That is your contract. The programme is long."
So spake the assistant manager. But the lady snapped her fingers, heard like a pistol shot amid the uproar, and made a vast gesture with her arms.
"If I am not allowed to have my encore, I tear up my contract."
The assistant manager released himself from responsibility, yielded to woman's unreason, and the lady, who had arranged the matter with the leader of the orchestra, returned in contemptuous triumph to the stage.
Elodie, meanwhile, had descended and stood by Andrew's side. She wore a very low-cut and short-skirted red evening frock, so tight that she seemed to ooze distressingly from every aperture. A red rose drooped in her thick black hair. Like the lank green-clad Andrew, she betrayed anxiety beneath her heavy make-up. The delay to their turn, prolonging her suspense, caused her to stamp her foot with annoyance.
"The sale grue! and she sings like a duck."
"She pleases the audience," whispered Andrew.
"And ruins our reception. It is the last straw."
"It can't be helped," said Andrew.
The singer gave as her encore a song from "La Traviata." She certainly had the mechanical technique so beloved by French audiences. That of Olympia listened spell-bound to her trills and when she had finished broke once more into enthusiastic cheering, calling and recalling her two or three times. At last the curtain came finally down and she disappeared up the iron staircase.
The interior backcloth and wings provided for Les Petit Patou were let down, stage hands set the table and properties, Andrew and Elodie anxiously supervising, and when all was clear the curtain went up. Andrew went on alone and grinned familiarly, his old tradition, before the sea of faces. A few faint hand-claps instead of the old expectant laughter welcomed him. A generation had apparently risen that knew not Petit Patou. His heart sank. The heat of the footlights shimmered like a furnace and smote him with sudden lassitude. He began his tricks. Took his tiny one-stringed broomstick handled fiddle and played it with his hands encased in grotesquely long cotton gloves. Presently, with simulated impatience, he drew off the gloves, threw them, conjurer fashion, vanishing into the air, and then resumed his violin to find himself impeded now and then by various articles cunningly fixed to his attire, one after another of which he disposed of like the gloves. Finally in his perplexity he made as if to undo his tights (a certain laugh in former days) but thinking better of it, threw fiddle and bow as in disgust across the stage into the wings, where they were caught by the waiting Elodie. The act, once arousing merriment, fell flat. Andrew's heart sank lower. In itself the performance, which he had carried through with skilful cleanness, contained nothing risible; for laughter it depended solely on a personal note of grotesquerie, of exaggerated bewilderment and impatience and of appealingly idiotic self-satisfaction when each impediment was discovered and discarded. Had he lost that personal touch, merely gone through his conjuring with the mechanical precision of a soldier on parade? Heavens, how he hated himself and his aching head and the audience and the lay out of futile properties! Elodie appeared. The performance must continue. He threw into it all his energy. Elodie gave him her old loyal support. They did their famous cigar trick, developed from the act of Prepimpin. He had elaborated much of the comic business. The new patter, with up-to-date allusions, had resulted from serious conclave with Horatio Bakkus, whose mordant wit supplied many a line that should have convulsed the house. But the house refused to be convulsed. His look of vacant imbecility when one after another of a set of plates with which he juggled, disappeared, being fastened to an elastic contrivance to his back, and his expression of reproach when, turning Elodie round, he discovered her wearing the plates as a sort of basque, which once excited, on no matter what stage, rolling guffaws of mirth, now passed by unappreciated.
The final item in the programme was one invented and brought to mechanical perfection just before the war broke out. He insisted on playing his cigar box and broom-handle fiddle in spite of Elodie's remonstrances. There was a pretty squabble. He pulled and she pulled, with the result that both bow and handle, by a tubular device, aided by a ratchet apparatus for the strings, assumed gigantic proportions. Petit Patou prevailing, after an almost disastrous fall, perched his great height on chair superimposed on table, and, with his long lean legs and arms, looking like a monstrous and horrible spider, began to work the heavy bow across the long strings. He had rehearsed it to perfection. In performance, something happened. His artist's nerve had gone. His fingers fumbled impotently for the stops. His professional experience saved a calamitous situation. With an acrobat's stride he reached the stage, telescoped fiddle and bow to normal proportions, and after a lightning nod to the chef d'orchestre, played the Marseillaise. At the end there was half-hearted perfunctory applause. A light hearted section of every audience applauds anything. But mingled with it there came from another section a horrible sibilant sound, the stage death warrant of many an artist's dreams, the modern down-turned thumb of the Roman populace demanding a gladiator's doom.
The curtain fell. Blank silence now from its further side. A man swiftly bundled together the properties and drew them off. A tired looking man in evening dress, with a hideously painted face and long waxed moustaches, stood in the wings amid performing dogs, some free, some in basket cages, and amid the waiting clutter of apparatus that at once was rushed upon the stage. Andrew and Elodie moved clear and at the bottom of the iron staircase he motioned to her to ascend first. She clutched him by the arm and gulped down a sob.
"Mon pauvre vieux!"
He tried to smile. "Want of habit. We'll get it all back soon. Voyons"—he took her fat chin in his hand and turned up her face, on which make-up, perspiration and tears melted into one piteous paste. "This is not the way that battles are won."
On the landing they separated. Andrew entered his sweltering dressing-room and gave himself over to the little dresser who had just turned out the dog-trainer in his shabby evening suit.
"Monsieur had a good reception?"
"Good enough," said Andrew, stretching himself out for the slipping off of his tights.
"Ah," said the intuitive little man in the white jacket. "It is the war. Audiences are no longer the same. They no longer care for subtlety. Monsieur heard the singer before his turn? Well. Before the war Olympia wouldn't have listened to her. One didn't pay to hear a bad gramophone. And, on the other hand, a performance really artistic"—the little man sighed—"it was heart-breaking."
Andrew let him talk; obviously the hisses had mounted from the wings to the dressing-room corridors; the man meant well and kindly. When he had dressed and appeared in his own Lackaday image, he put a twenty-franc note into the dresser's hand with a "Thank you, my friend," and marched out and away into the comparatively fresh air of the sulphurous night. He lit a cigarette and sat down at the corner of a little obscure cafe, commanding a view of the stage-door and waited for Elodie. His nervousness, even his headache, had gone. He felt cold and grim and passionless, like a man measuring himself against fate.
When Elodie came out, a while later, he sat her down at the table, and insisted on her drinking a Grog Americain to restore her balance. But iced rum and water could not medicine an overwrought soul. In her native air, nothing could check her irrepressibility of expression. She had to spend her fury with the audience. In all her life never had she encountered such imbecility—such bestial stupidity. Like the dresser, she upbraided the war. It had changed everything. It had changed the heart of France. She, Marseillaise of the Marseillais, was ashamed of being of Marseilles. Once the South was warm and generous and responsive. Now it was colder than Paris. She had never imagined that the war could press like a dead hand on the heart of the people of Provence. Now she knew it was true what Bakkus had once said—she had been very angry, but he was right—that through the sunny nature of every child of the Midi swept the mistral.
She was not very consecutive or coherent or logical. She sought clamorously for every evil influence, postwar, racial, political, that could account for the frozen failure of the evening's performance. No thought disloyal to Andre hovered on the outskirts of her mind. He perceived it, greatly touched. When she paused in her vehement outburst, he leaned towards her, elbow on table, and his delicate hand at the end of his long bony wrist held up as a signal of arrest: