"I am keeping on as a pied a terre in London the Bloomsbury rooms in which I have been living, and I've written to Peddle to see about making them more comfortable. Please ask anybody who might care to write to address me as 'James M.' and not as 'Marmaduke.'"
The Dean read the letter—the family were at breakfast; then he took off his tortoise-shell spectacles and wiped them.
"It's from Marmaduke at last," said he. "He has carried out my prophecy and enlisted."
Peggy caught at her breath and shot out her hand for the letter, which she read eagerly and then passed over to her mother. Mrs. Conover began to cry.
"Oh, the poor boy! It will be worse than ever for him."
"It will," said Peggy. "But I think it splendid of him to try. How did he bring himself to do it?"
"Breed tells," said the Dean. "That's what every one seems to have forgotten. He's a thoroughbred Doggie. There's the old French proverb: Bon chien chasse de race."
Peggy looked at him gratefully. "You're very comforting," she said.
"We must knit him some socks," observed Mrs. Conover. "I hear those supplied to the army are very rough and ready."
"My dear," smiled the Dean, "Marmaduke's considerable income does not cease because his pay in the army is one and twopence a day; and I should think he would have the sense to provide himself with adequate underclothing. Also, judging from the account of your shopping orgy in London, he has already laid in a stock that would last out several Antarctic winters."
The Dean tapped his egg gently.
"Then what can we do for the poor boy?" asked his wife.
The Dean scooped the top of his egg off with a vicious thrust.
"We can cut out slanderous tongues," said he.
There had been much calumniating cackle in the little town; nay, more: cackle is of geese; there had been venom of the snakiest kind. The Deanery, father and mother and daughter, each in their several ways, had suffered greatly. It is hard to stand up against poisoned ridicule.
"My dear," continued the Dean, "it will be our business to smite the Philistines, hip and thigh. The reasons which guided Marmaduke in the resignation of his commission are the concern of nobody. The fact remains that Mr. Marmaduke Trevor resigned his commission in order to——"
Peggy interrupted with a smile. "'In order to'—isn't that a bit Jesuitical, daddy?"
"I have a great respect for the Jesuits, my dear," said the Dean, holding out an impressive egg-spoon. "The fact remains, in the eyes of the world, as I remarked, that Mr. Marmaduke Trevor of Denby Hall, a man of fortune and high position in the county, resigned his commission in order, for reasons best known to himself, to serve his country more effectively in the humbler ranks of the army, and—my dear, this egg is far too full for war time"—with a hazardous plunge of his spoon he had made a yellow yelky horror of the egg-shell—"and I'm going to proclaim the fact far and wide, and—indeed—rub it in."
"That'll be jolly decent of you, daddy," said his daughter. "It will help a lot."
In the failure of Marmaduke to retain his commission the family honour had not been concerned. The boy had done his best. They blamed not him but the disastrous training that had unfitted him for the command of men. They reproached themselves for their haste in throwing him headlong into the fiercest element of the national struggle towards efficiency. They could have found an easier school, in which he could have learned to do his share creditably in the national work. Many young men of their acquaintance, far more capable than Marmaduke, were wearing the uniform of a less strenuous branch of the service. It had been a blunder, a failure, but without loss of honour. But when slanderous tongues attacked poor Doggie for running away with a yelp from a little hardship; when a story or two of Doggie's career in the regiment arrived in Durdlebury, highly flavoured in transit and more and more poisoned as it went from mouth to mouth; when a legend was spread abroad that he had bolted from Salisbury Plain and was run to earth in a Turkish Bath in London, and was only saved from court-martial by family influence, then the family honour of the Conovers was wounded to its proud English depths. And they could say nothing. They had only Doggie's word to go upon; they accepted it unquestioningly, but they knew no details. Doggie had disappeared. Naturally, they contradicted these evil rumours. The good folks of Durdlebury expected them to do so, and listened with well-bred incredulity. To the question, "Where is he now and what is he going to do?" they could only answer, "We don't know." They were helpless.
Peggy had a bitter quarrel with one of her intimates, Nancy Murdoch, daughter of the doctor who had proclaimed the soundness of Marmaduke's constitution.
"He may have told you so, dear," said Nancy, "but how do you know?"
"Because whatever else he may be, he's not a liar," retorted Peggy.
Nancy gave the most delicate suspicion of a shrug to her pretty shoulders.
That was the beginning of it. Peggy, naturally combative, armed for the fight and defended Marmaduke.
"You talk as though you were still engaged to him," said Nancy.
"So I am," declared Peggy rashly.
"Then where's your engagement ring?"
"Where I choose to keep it."
The retort lacked originality and conviction.
"You can't send it back to him, because you don't know where he is. And what did Mrs. Conover mean by telling mother that Mr. Trevor had broken off the engagement?"
"She never told her any such thing," cried Peggy mendaciously. For Mrs. Conover had committed the indiscretion under assurance of silence.
"Pardon me," said Nancy, much on her dignity. "Of course I understand your denying it. It isn't pleasant to be thrown over by any man—but by a man like Doggie Trevor——"
"You're a spiteful beast, Nancy, and I'll never speak to you again. You've neither womanly decency nor Christian feeling." And Peggy marched out of the doctor's house.
As a result of the quarrel, however, she resumed the wearing of the ring, which she flaunted defiantly with left hand deliberately ungloved. Hitherto she had not been certain of the continuance of the engagement. Marmaduke's repudiation was definite enough; but it had been dictated by his sensitive honour. It lay with her to agree or decline. She had passed through wearisome days of doubt. A physically sound fighting man sent about his business as being unfit for war does not appear a romantic figure in a girl's eyes. She was bitterly disappointed with Doggie for the sudden withering of her hopes. Had he fulfilled them she could have loved him wholeheartedly, after the simple way of women; for her sex, exhilarated by the barbaric convulsion of the land, clamoured for something heroic, something at least intensely masculine, in which she could find feminine exultation. She also felt resentment at his flight from the Savoy, his silence and practical disappearance. Although not blaming him unjustly, she failed to realize the spiritual piteousness of his plight. If the war has done anything in this country, it has saved the young women of the gentler classes, at any rate, from the abyss of sordid and cynical materialism. Hesitating to announce the rupture of the engagement, she allowed it to remain in a state of suspended animation, and as a symbolic act, ceased to wear the ring. Nancy's taunts had goaded her to a more heroic attitude. The first person to whom she showed the newly-ringed hand was her mother.
"The engagement isn't off until I declare it's off. I'm going to play the game."
"You know best, dear," said the gentle Mrs. Conover. "But it's all very upsetting."
Then Doggie's letter brought comfort and gladness to the Deanery. It reassured them as to his fate. It healed the wounded family honour. It justified Peggy in playing the game.
She took the letter round to Dr. Murdoch's and thrust it into the hand of an astonished Nancy, with whom since the quarrel she had not been on speaking terms.
"This is in Marmaduke's handwriting. You recognize it. Just read the top line when I've folded it. 'I have enlisted in the 10th Wessex.' See?" She withdrew the letter. "Now, what could a man, let alone an honourable gentleman, do more? Say you're sorry for having said beastly things about him."
Nancy, who had regretted the loss of a lifelong friendship, professed her sorrow.
"The least you can do then, is to go round and spread the news, and say you've seen the letter with your own eyes."
To several others, on a triumphant round of visits, did she show the vindicating sentence. Any soft young fool, she asserted, with the directness and not unattractive truculence of her generation, can get a commission and muddle through, but it took a man to enlist as a private soldier.
"Everybody recognizes now, darling," said the reconciled Nancy a few days later, "that Doggie is a top-hole, splendid chap. But I think I ought to tell you that you're boring Durdlebury stiff."
Peggy laughed. It was good to be engaged to a man no longer under a cloud.
"It will all come right, dear old thing," she wrote to Doggie. "It's a cinch, as the Americans say. You'll soon get used to it—especially if you can realize what it means to me. 'Saving face' has been an awful business. Now it's all over. Of course, I'll accept the two-seater. I've had lessons in driving since you went away—I had thoughts of going out to France to drive Y.M.C.A. cars, but that's off for the present. I'll love the two-seater. Swank won't be the word. But 'a parting gift' is all rot. The engagement stands and all Durdlebury knows it..." and so on, and so on. She set herself out, honestly, loyally, to be the kindest girl in the world to Doggie. Mrs. Conover happened to come into the drawing-room just as she was licking the stamp. She thumped it on the envelope with her palm and, looking round from the writing-desk against the wall, showed her mother a flushed and smiling face.
"If anybody says I'm not good—the goodest thing the cathedral has turned out for half a dozen centuries—I'll tear her horrid eyes out from their sockets!"
"My dear!" cried her horrified mother.
* * * * *
Doggie kept the letter unopened in his tunic pocket until he could find solitude in which to read it. After morning parade he wandered to the deserted trench at the end of the camp, where the stuffed sacks, representing German defenders, were hung for bayonet practice. It was a noon of grey mist through which the alignments of huts and tents were barely visible. Instinctively avoiding the wet earth of the parados, he went round, and, tired after the recent spell of physical drill, sat down on the equally wet sandbags of the model parapet, a pathetic, lonely little khaki figure isolated for the moment by the kindly mist from an uncomprehending world.
He read Peggy's letter several times. He recognized her goodness, her loyalty. The grateful tears even came to his eyes and he brushed them away hurriedly with a swift look round. But his heart beat none the faster. A long-faded memory of childhood came back to him in regained colour. Some quarrel with Peggy. What it was all about he had entirely forgotten; but he remembered her little flushed face and her angry words: "Well, I'm a sport and you ain't!" He remembered also rebuking her priggishly for unintelligible language and mincing away. He read the letter again in the light of this flash of memory. The only difference between it and the childish speech lay in the fact that instead of a declaration of contrasts, she now uttered a declaration of similitudes. They were both "sports." There she was wrong. Doggie shook his head. In her sense of the word he was not a "sport." A sport takes chances, plays the game with a smile on his lips. There was no smile on his. He loathed the game with a sickening, shivering loathing. He was engaged in it because a conglomeration of irresistible forces had driven him into the melee. It never occurred to Doggie that he was under orders of his own soul. This simple yet stupendous fact never occurred to Peggy.
He sat on the wet sandbags and thought and thought. Though he reproached himself for base ingratitude, the letter did not satisfy him. It left his heart cold. What he sought in it he did not know. It was something he could not find, something that was not there. The sea-mist thickened around him. Peggy seemed very far away.... He was still engaged to her—for it would be monstrous to persist in his withdrawal. He must accept the situation which she decreed. He owed that to her loyalty. But how to continue the correspondence? It was hard enough to write from Salisbury Plain; from here it was well-nigh impossible.
Thus was Doggie brought up against a New Problem. He struggled desperately to defer its solution.
The regiments of the new armies have gathered into their rank and file a mixed crowd transcending the dreams of Democracy. At one end of the social scale are men of refined minds and gentle nurture, at the other creatures from the slums, with slum minds and morals, and between them the whole social gamut is run. Experience seems to show that neither of the extreme elements tend, in the one case to elevate, or in the other to debase the battalion. Leading the common life, sharing the common hardships, striving towards common ideals, they inevitably, irresistibly tend to merge themselves in the average. The highest in the scale sink, the lowest rise. The process, as far as the change of soul state is concerned, is infinitely more to the amelioration of the lowest than to the degradation of the highest. The one, also, is more real, the other more apparent. In the one case, it is merely the shuffling-off of manners, of habits, of prejudices, and the assuming of others horribly distasteful or humorously accepted, according to temperament; in the other case, it is an enforced education. And all the congeries of human atoms that make up the battalion, learn new and precious lessons and acquire new virtues—patience, obedience, courage, endurance.... But from the point of view of a decorous tea-party in a cathedral town, the tone—or the standard of manners, or whatever you would like by way of definition of that vague and comforting word—the tone of the average is deplorably low. The hooligan may be kicked for excessive foulness; but the rider of the high horse is brutally dragged down into the mire. The curious part of it all is that, the gutter element being eliminated altogether, the corporate standard of the remaining majority is lower than the standard of each individual.
By developing a philosophical disquisition on some such lines did Phineas McPhail seek to initiate Doggie into the weird mysteries of the new social life. Doggie heard with his ears, but thought in terms of Durdlebury tea-parties. Nowhere in the mass could he find the spiritual outlook of his Irish poet-warrior. The individuals that may have had it kept it preciously to themselves. The outlook, as conveyed in speech, was grossly materialistic. From the language of the canteen he recoiled in disgust. He could not reconcile it with the nobler attributes of the users. It was in vain for Phineas to plead that he must accept the lingua franca of the British Army like all other things appertaining thereto. Doggie's stomach revolted against most of the other things. The disregard (from his point of view) of personal cleanliness universal in the ranks, filled him with dismay. Even on Salisbury Plain he had managed to get a little hot water for his morning tub. Here, save in the officers' quarters—curiously remote, inaccessible paradise!—there was not such a thing as a tub in the place, let alone hot water to fill it. The men never dreamed of such a thing as a tub. As a matter of fact, they were scrupulously clean according to the lights of the British Tommy; but the lights were not those of Marmaduke Trevor. He had learned the supreme wisdom of keeping lips closed on such matters and did not complain, but all his fastidiousness rebelled. He hated the sluice of head and shoulders with water from a bucket in the raw open air. His hands swelled, blistered and cracked; and his nails, once so beautifully manicured, grew rich black rims, and all the icy water in the buckets would not remove the grime.
Now and then he went into the town and had a hot bath; but very few of the others ever seemed to think of such a thing. The habit of the British Army of going to bed in its day-shirt was peculiarly repellent. Yet Doggie knew that to vary from the sacred ways of his fellow-men was to bring disaster on his head.
Some of the men slept under canvas still. But Doggie, fortunately as he reckoned (for he had begun to appreciate fine shades in misery), was put with a dozen others in a ramshackle hut of which the woodwork had warped and let in the breezes above, below, and all round the sides. Doggie, though dismally cold, welcomed the air for obvious reasons. They were fortunate, too, in having straw palliasses—recently provided when it was discovered that sleeping on badly boarded floors with fierce draughts blowing upwards along human spines was strangely fatal to human bodies—but Doggie found his bed very hard lying. And it smelt sour and sickly. For nights, in spite of fatigue, he could not sleep. His mates sang and talked and bandied jests and sarcasms of esoteric meaning. Some of the recruits from factories or farms satirized their officers for peculiarities common to their social caste and gave grotesque imitations of their mode of speech. Doggie wondered, but held his peace. The deadly stupidity and weariness of it all! And when the talk stopped and they settled to sleep, the snorings and mutterings and coughings began and kept poor Doggie awake most of the night. The irremediable, intimate propinquity with coarse humanity oppressed him. He would have given worlds to go out, even into the pouring rain, and walk about the camp or sleep under a hedge, so long as he could be alone. And he would think longingly of his satinwood bedroom, with its luxurious bed and lavender-scented sheets, and of his beloved peacock and ivory room and its pictures and exquisite furniture and the great fire roaring up the chimney, and devise intricate tortures for the Kaiser who had dragged him down to this squalor.
The meals—the rough cooking, the primitive service—the table manners of his companions, offended his delicate senses. He missed napkins. Never could he bring himself to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand and the back of his hand on the seat of his trousers. Nor could he watch with equanimity an honest soul pick his teeth with his little finger. But Doggie knew that acquiescence was the way of happiness and protest the way of woe.
At first he made few acquaintances beyond those with whom he was intimately associated. It seemed more politic to obey his instincts and remain unobtrusive in company and drift away inoffensively when the chance occurred. One of the men with whom he talked occasionally was a red-headed little cockney by the name of Shendish. For some reason or the other—perhaps because his name conveyed a perfectly wrong suggestion of the Hebraic—he was always called "Mo" Shendish.
"Don't yer wish yer was back, mate?" he asked one day, having waited to speak till Doggie had addressed and stamped a letter which he was writing at the end of the canteen table.
"Where?" said Doggie.
"'Ome, sweet 'ome. In the family castle, where gilded footmen 'ands sausage and mash about on trays and quarts of beer all day long. I do."
"You're a lucky chap to have a castle," said Doggie.
Mo Shendish grinned. He showed little yellow teeth beneath a little red moustache.
"I ain't 'alf got one," said he. "It's in Mare Street, Hackney. I wish I was there now."
He sighed, and in an abstracted way he took a half-smoked cigarette from behind his ear and relit it.
"What were yer before yer joined? Yer look like a clerk." He pronounced it as if it were spelt with a "u."
"Something of the sort," replied Doggie cautiously.
"One can always tell you eddicated blokes. Making your five quid a week easy, I suppose?"
"About that," said Doggie. "What were you?"
"I was making my thirty bob a week regular. I was in the fish business, I was. And now I'm serving my ruddy country at one and twopence a day. Funny life, ain't it?"
"I can't say it's very enjoyable," said Doggie.
"Not the same as sitting in a snug orfis all day with a pen in your lily-white 'and, and going 'ome to your 'igh tea in a top 'at. What made you join up?"
"The force of circumstances," said Doggie.
"Same 'ere," said Mo; "only I couldn't put it into such fancy language. First my pals went out one after the other. Then the gels began to look saucy at me, and at last one particular bit of skirt what I'd been walking out with took to promenading with a blighter in khaki. It'd have been silly of me to go and knock his 'ead off, so I enlisted. And it's all right now."
"Just the same sort of thing in my case," replied Doggie. "I'm glad things are right with the young lady."
"First class. She's straight, she is, and no mistake abaht it. She's a——"
He paused for a word to express the inexpressive she.
"—A paragon—a peach?"—Doggie corrected himself. Then, as the sudden frown of perplexed suspicion was swiftly replaced by a grin of content, he was struck by a bright idea.
"What's her name?"
"Aggie. What's yours?"
"Gladys," replied Doggie with miraculous readiness of invention.
"I've got her photograph," Shendish confided in a whisper, and laid his hand on his tunic pocket. Then he looked round at the half-filled canteen to see that he was unobserved. "You won't give me away if I show it yer, will yer?"
Doggie swore secrecy. The photograph of Aggie, an angular, square-browed damsel, who looked as though she could guide the most recalcitrant of fishmongers into the paths of duty, was produced and thrust into Doggie's hand. He inspected it with polite appreciation, while his red-headed friend regarded him with fatuous anxiety.
"Charming! charming!" said Doggie in his pleasantest way. "What's her colouring?"
"Fair hair and blue eyes," said Shendish.
The kindly question, half idle yet unconsciously tactful, was one of those human things which cost so little but are worth so much. It gave Doggie a devoted friend.
"Mo," said he, a day or two later, "you're such a decent chap. Why do you use such abominable language?"
"Gawd knows," smiled Mo, unabashed. "I suppose it's friendly like." He wrinkled his brow in thought for an instant. "That's where I think you're making a mistake, old pal, if you don't mind my mentioning it. I know what yer are, but the others don't. You're not friendly enough. See what I mean? Supposin' you say as you would in a city restoorang when you're 'aving yer lunch, 'Will yer kindly pass me the salt?'—well, that's standoffish—they say 'Come off it! 'But if you look about and say, 'Where's the b——y salt?' that's friendly. They understand. They chuck it at you."
Said Doggie, "It's very—I mean b——y—difficult."
So he tried to be friendly; and if he met with no great positive success, he at least escaped animosity. In his spare time he mooned about by himself, shy, disgusted, and miserable. Once, when a group of men were kicking a football about, the ball rolled his way. Instead of kicking it back to the expectant players, he picked it up and advanced to the nearest and handed it to him politely.
"Thanks, mate," said the astonished man, "but why didn't you kick it?"
He turned away without waiting for a reply. Doggie had not kicked it because he had never kicked a football in his life and shrank from an exhibition of incompetence.
At drill things were easier than on Salisbury Plain, his actions being veiled in the obscurity of squad or platoon or company. Many others besides himself were cursed by sergeants and rated by subalterns and drastically entreated by captains. He had the consolation of community in suffering. As a trembling officer he had been the only one, the only one marked and labelled as a freak apart, the only one stuck in the eternal pillory. Here were fools and incapables even more dull and ineffective than he. A plough-boy fellow-recruit from Dorsetshire, Pugsley by name, did not know right from left, and having mastered the art of forming fours, could not get into his brain the reverse process of forming front. He wept under the lash of the corporal's tongue; and to Doggie these tears were healing dews of Heaven's distillation. By degrees he learned the many arts of war as taught to the private soldier in England. He could refrain from shutting his eyes when he pressed the trigger of his rifle, but to the end of his career his shooting was erratic. He could perform with the weapon the other tricks of precision. Unencumbered he could march with the best. The torture of the heavy pack nearly killed him; but in time, as his muscles developed, he was able to slog along under the burden. He even learned to dig. That was the worst and most back-breaking art of all.
Now and then Phineas McPhail and himself would get together and walk into the little seaside town. It was out of the season and there was little to look at save the deserted shops and the squall-fretted pier and the maidens of the place who usually were in company with lads in khaki. Sometimes a girl alone would give Doggie a glance of shy invitation, for Doggie in his short slight way was not a bad-looking fellow, carrying himself well and wearing his uniform with instinctive grace. But the damsel ogled in vain.
On one such occasion Phineas burst into a guffaw.
"Why don't you talk to the poor body? She's a respectable girl enough. Where's the harm?"
"Go 'square-pushing'?" said Doggie contemptuously, using the soldiers' slang for walking about with a young woman. "No, thank you."
"And why not? I'm not counselling you, laddie, to plunge into a course of sensual debauchery. But a wee bit gossip with a pretty innocent girl——"
"My dear good chap," Doggie interrupted, "what on earth should I have in common with her?"
"I feel as old as hell," said Doggie bitterly.
"You'll be feeling older soon," replied Phineas, "and able to look down on hell with feelings of superiority."
Doggie walked on in silence for a few paces. Then he said:
"A thing I can't understand is this mania for picking up girls—just to walk about the streets with them. It's so inane. It's a disease."
"Did you ever consider," said Phineas, "how in a station less exalted than that which you used to adorn, the young of opposite sexes manage to meet, select and marry? Man, the British Army's going to be a grand education for you in sociology."
"Well, at any rate, you don't suppose I'm going to select and marry out of the street?"
"You might do worse," said Phineas. Then, after a slight pause, he asked: "Have you any news lately from Durdlebury?"
"Confound Durdlebury!" said Doggie.
Phineas checked him with one hand and waved the other towards a hostelry on the other side of the street. "If you will give me the money in advance, so as to evade the ungenerous spirit of the no-treating law, you can stand me a quart of ale at the Crown and Sceptre and join me in drinking to its confusion."
So they entered the saloon bar of the public-house. Doggie drank a glass of beer while Phineas swallowed a couple of pints. Two or three other soldiers were there, in whose artless talk McPhail joined lustily. Doggie, unobtrusive at the end of the bar, maintained a desultory and uncomfortable conversation with the barmaid, who was of the florid and hearty type, about the weather.
Some days later, McPhail again made allusion to Durdlebury. Doggie again confounded it.
"I don't want to hear of it or think of it," he exclaimed, in his nervous way, "until this filthy horror is over. They want me to get leave and go down and stay. They're making my life miserable with kindness. I wish they'd let me alone. They don't understand a little bit. I want to get through this thing alone, all by myself."
"I'm sorry I persuaded you to join a regiment in which you were inflicted with the disadvantage of my society," said Phineas.
Doggie threw out an impatient arm. "Oh, you don't count," said he.
A few minutes afterwards, repenting his brusqueness, he tried to explain to Phineas why he did not count. The others knew nothing about him. Phineas knew everything.
"And you know everything about Phineas," said McPhail grimly. "Ay, ay, laddie," he sighed, "I ken it all. When you're in Tophet, a sympathetic Tophetuan with a wee drop of the milk of human kindness is more comfort than a radiant angel who showers down upon you, from the celestial Fortnum and Mason's, potted shrimps and caviare."
The sombreness cleared for a moment from Doggie's young brow.
"I never can make up my mind, Phineas," said he, "whether you're a very wise man or an awful fraud."
"Give me the benefit of the doubt, laddie," replied McPhail. "It's the grand theological principle of Christianity."
Time went on. The regiment was moved to the East Coast. On the journey a Zeppelin raid paralysed the railway service. Doggie spent the night under the lee of the bookstall at Waterloo Station. Men huddled up near him, their heads on their kit-bags, slept and snored. Doggie almost wept with pain and cold and hatred of the Kaiser. On the East Coast much the same life as on the South, save that the wind, as if Hun-sent, found its way more savagely to the skin.
Then suddenly came the news of a large draft for France, which included both McPhail and Shendish. They went away on leave. The gladness with which he welcomed their return showed Doggie how great a part they played in his new life. In a day or two they would depart God knew whither, and he would be left in dreadful loneliness. Through him the two men, the sentimental Cockney fishmonger and the wastrel Cambridge graduate, had become friends. He spent with them all his leisure time.
Then one of the silly tragi-comedies of life occurred. McPhail got drunk in the crowded bar of a little public-house in the village. It was the last possible drink together of the draft and their pals. The draft was to entrain before daybreak on the morrow. It was a foolish, singing, shouting khaki throng. McPhail, who had borrowed ten pounds from Doggie, in order to see him through the hardships of the Front, established himself close by the bar and was drinking whisky. He was also distributing surreptitious sixpences and shillings into eager hands, which would convert them into alcohol for eager throats. Doggie, anxious, stood by his side. The spirit from which McPhail had for so long abstained, mounted to his unaccustomed brain. He began to hector, and, master of picturesque speech, he compelled an admiring audience. Doggie did not realize the extent of his drunkenness until, vaunting himself as a Scot and therefore the salt of the army, he picked a quarrel with a stolid Hampshire giant, who professed to have no use for Phineas's fellow-countrymen. The men closed. Suddenly some one shouted from the doorway:
"Be quiet, you fools! The A.P.M.'s coming down the road."
Now the Assistant Provost Marshal, if he heard hell's delight going on in a tavern, would naturally make an inquisitorial appearance. The combatants were separated. McPhail threw a shilling on the bar counter and demanded another whisky. He was about to lift the glass to his lips when Doggie, terrified as to what might happen, knocked the glass out of his hand.
"Don't be an ass," he cried.
Phineas was very drunk. He gazed at his old pupil, took off his cap, and, stretching over the bar, hung it on the handle of a beer-pull. Then, staggering back, he pointed an accusing finger.
"He has the audacity to call me an ass. Little blinking Marmaduke Doggie Trevor. Little Doggie Trevor, whom I trained up from infancy in the way he shouldn't go——"
"Why Doggie Trevor?" some one shouted in inquiry.
"Never mind," replied Phineas with drunken impressiveness. "My old friend Marmaduke has spilled my whisky and called me an ass. I call him Doggie, little Doggie Trevor. You all bear witness he knocked the drink out of my mouth. I'll never forgive him. He doesn't like being called Doggie—and I've no—no pred'lex'n to be called an ass. I'll be thinking I'm going just to strangle him."
He struck out his bony claws towards the shrinking Doggie; but stout arms closed round him and a horny hand was clamped over his mouth, and they got him through the bar and the back parlour into the yard, where they pumped water on his head. And when the A.P.M. and his satellites passed by, the quiet of The Whip in Hand was the holy peace of a nunnery.
Doggie and Mo Shendish and a few other staunch souls got McPhail back to quarters without much trouble. On parting, the delinquent, semi-sobered, shook Doggie by the hand and smiled with an air of great affection.
"I've been verra drunk, laddie. And I've been angry with you for the first time in my life. But when you knocked the glass out of my hand I thought you were in danger of losing your good manners in the army. We'll have many a pow-wow together when you join me out there."
The matter would have drifted out of Doggie's mind as one of no importance had not the detested appellation by which Phineas hailed him struck the imagination of his comrades. It filled a long-felt want, no nickname for Private J. M. Trevor having yet been invented. Doggie Trevor he was and Doggie Trevor he remained for the rest of his period of service. He resigned himself to the inevitable. The sting had gone out of the name through his comrades' ignorance of its origin. But he loathed it as much as ever; it sounded in his ears an everlasting reproach.
In spite of the ill turn done in drunkenness, Doggie missed McPhail. He missed Mo Shendish, his more constant companion, even more. Their place was in some degree taken, or rather usurped, for it was without Doggie's volition, by "Taffy" Jones, once clerk to a firm of outside bookmakers. As Doggie had never seen a racecourse, had never made a bet, and was entirely ignorant of the names even of famous Derby winners, Taffy regarded him as an astonishing freak worth the attention of a student of human nature. He began to cultivate Doggie's virgin mind by aid of reminiscence, and of such racing news as was to be found in the Sportsman. He was a garrulous person and Doggie a good listener. To please him Doggie backed horses, through the old firm, for small sums. The fact of his being a man of large independent means both he and Phineas (to his credit) had kept a close secret, his clerkly origin divined and promulgated by Mo Shendish being unquestioningly accepted, so the bets proposed by Taffy were of a modest nature. Once he brought off a forty to one chance. Taffy rushed to him with the news, dancing with excitement. Doggie's stoical indifference to the winning of twenty pounds, a year's army pay, gave him cause for great wonder. As Doggie showed similar equanimity when he lost, Taffy put him down as a born sportsman. He began to admire him tremendously.
This friendship with Taffy is worth special record, for it was indirectly the cause of a little revolution in Doggie's regimental life. Taffy was an earnest though indifferent performer on the penny whistle. It was his constant companion, the solace of his leisure moments and one of the minor tortures of Doggie's existence. His version of the Marseillaise was peculiarly excruciating.
One day, when Taffy was playing it with dreadful variations of his own to an admiring group in the Y.M.C.A. hut, Doggie, his nerves rasped to the raw by the false notes and maddening intervals, snatched it out of his hand and began to play himself. Hitherto, shrinking morbidly from any form of notoriety, he had shown no sign of musical accomplishment. But to-day the musician's impulse was irresistible. He played the Marseillaise as no one there had heard it on penny whistle before. The hut recognized a master's touch, for Doggie was a fine executant musician. When he stopped there was a roar: "Go on!" Doggie went on. They kept him whistling till the hut was crowded.
Thenceforward he was penny-whistler, by excellence, to the battalion. He whistled himself into quite a useful popularity.
"We're all very proud of you, Marmaduke," said the Dean.
"I think you're just splendid," said Peggy.
They were sitting in Doggie's rooms in Woburn Place, Doggie having been given his three days' leave before going to France. Once again Durdlebury had come to Doggie and not Doggie to Durdlebury. Aunt Sophia, however, somewhat ailing, had stayed at home.
Doggie stood awkwardly before them, conscious of swollen hands and broken nails, shapeless ammunition boots and ill-fitting slacks; morbidly conscious, too, of his original failure.
"You're about ten inches more round the chest than you were," said the Dean admiringly.
"And the picture of health," cried Peggy.
"For anyone who has a sound constitution," answered Doggie, "it is quite a healthy life."
"Now that you've got into the way, I'm sure you must really love it," said Peggy with an encouraging smile.
"It isn't so bad," he replied.
"What none of us can quite understand, my dear fellow," said the Dean, "is your shying at Durdlebury. As we have written you, everybody's singing your praises. Not a soul but would have given you a hearty welcome."
"Besides," Peggy chimed in, "you needn't have made an exhibition of yourself in the town if you didn't want to. The poor Peddles are woefully disappointed."
"There's a war going on. They must bear up—like lots of other people," replied Doggie.
"He's becoming quite cynical," Peggy laughed. "But, apart from the Peddles, there's your own beautiful house waiting for you. It seems so funny not to go to it, instead of moping in these fusty lodgings."
"Perhaps," said Doggie quietly, "if I went there I should never want to come back."
"There's something to be said from that point of view," the Dean admitted. "A solution of continuity is never quite without its dangers. Even Oliver confessed as much."
"Yes, didn't Peggy tell you?"
"I didn't think Marmaduke would be interested," said Peggy quickly. "He and Oliver have never been what you might call bosom friends."
"I shouldn't have minded about hearing of him," said Doggie. "Why should I? What's he doing?"
The Dean gave information. Oliver, now a captain, had come home on leave a month ago, and had spent some of it at the Deanery. He had seen a good deal of fighting, and had one or two narrow escapes.
"Was he keen to get back?" asked Doggie.
The Dean smiled. "I instanced his case in my remark as to the dangers of the solution of continuity."
"Oh, rubbish, daddy," cried his daughter, with a flush, "Oliver is as keen as mustard." The Dean made a little gesture of submission. She continued. "He doesn't like the beastliness out there for its own sake, any more than Marmaduke will. But he simply loves his job. He has improved tremendously. Once he thought he was the only man in the country who had seen Life stark naked, and he put on frills accordingly Now that he's just one of a million who have been up against Life stripped to its skeleton, he's a bit subdued."
"I'm glad of that," said Doggie.
The Dean, urbanely indulgent, joined his fingertips together and smiled. "Peggy is right," said he, "although I don't wholly approve of her modern lack of reticence in metaphor. Oliver is coming out true gold from the fire. He's a capital fellow. And he spoke of you, my dear Marmaduke, in the kindest way in the world. He has a tremendous admiration for your pluck."
"That's very good of him, I'm sure," said Doggie.
Presently the Dean—good, tactful man—discovered that he must go out and have a prescription made up at a chemist's. That arch-Hun enemy, the gout, against which he must never be unprepared. He would be back in time for dinner. The engaged couple were left alone.
"Well?" said Peggy.
"Well, dear?" said Doggie.
Her lips invited. He responded. She drew him to the saddle-bag sofa, and they sat down side by side.
"I quite understand, dear old thing," she said. "I know the resignation and the rest of it hurt you awfully. It hurt me. But it's no use grousing over spilt milk. You've already mopped it all up. It's no disgrace to be a private. It's an honour. There are thousands of gentlemen in the ranks. Besides—you'll work your way up and they'll offer you another commission in no time."
"You're very good and sweet, dear," said Doggie, "to have such faith in me. But I've had a year——"
"A year!" cried Peggy. "Good lord! so it is." She counted on her fingers. "Not quite. But eleven months. It's eleven months since I've seen you. Do you realize that? The war has put a stop to time. It is just one endless day."
"One awful, endless day," Doggie acquiesced with a smile. "But I was saying—I've had a year, or an endless day of eleven months, in which to learn myself. And what I don't know about myself isn't knowledge."
Peggy interrupted with a laugh. "You must be a wonder. Dad's always preaching about self-knowledge. Tell me all about it."
Doggie shook his head, at the same time passing his hand over it in a familiar gesture.
Then Peggy cried:
"I knew there was something wrong with you. Why didn't you tell me? You've had your hair cut—cut quite differently."
It was McPhail, careful godfather, who had taken him as a recruit to the regimental barber and prescribed a transformation from the sleek long hair brushed back over the head to a conventional military crop with a rudiment of a side parting. On the crown a few bristles stood up as if uncertain which way to go.
"It's advisable," Doggie replied, "for a Tommy's hair to be cut as short as possible. The Germans are sheared like convicts."
Peggy regarded him open-eyed and puzzle-browed. He enlightened her no further, but pursued the main proposition.
"I wouldn't take a commission," said he, "if the War Office went mad and sank on its knees and beat its head in the dust before me."
"In Heaven's name, why not?"
"I've learned my place in the world," said Doggie.
Peggy shook him by the shoulder and turned on him her young eager face.
"Your place in the world is that of a cultivated gentleman of old family, Marmaduke Trevor of Denby Hall."
"That was the funny old world," said he, "that stood on its legs—legs wide apart with its hands beneath the tails of its dress-coat, in front of the drawing-room fire. The present world's standing on its head. Everything's upside-down. It has no sort of use for Marmaduke Trevor of Denby Hall. No more use than for Goliath. By the way, how is the poor little beast getting on?"
Peggy laughed. "Oh, Goliath is perfectly assured of his position. He has got it rammed into his mind that he drives the two-seater." She returned to the attack. "Do you intend always to remain a private?"
"I do," said he. "Not even a corporal. You see, I've learned to be a private of sorts, and that satisfies my ambition."
"Well, I give it up," said Peggy. "Though why you wouldn't let dad get you a nice cushy job is a thing I can't understand. For the life of me I can't."
"I've made my bed, and I must lie on it," he said quietly.
"I don't believe you've got such a thing as a bed."
Doggie smiled. "Oh yes, a bed of a sort." Then noting her puzzled face, he said consolingly: "It'll all come right when the war's over."
"But when will that be? And who knows, my dear man, what may happen to you?"
"If I'm knocked out, I'm knocked out, and there's an end of it," replied Doggie philosophically.
She put her hand on his. "But what's to become of me?"
"We needn't cry over my corpse yet," said Doggie.
The Dean, after awhile, returned with his bottle of medicine, which he displayed with conscientious ostentation. They dined. Peggy again went over the ground of the possible commission.
"I'm afraid she has set her heart on it, my boy," said the Dean.
Peggy cried a little on parting. This time Doggie was going, not to the fringe, but to the heart of the Great Adventure. Into the thick of the carnage. A year ago, she said, through her tears, she would have thought herself much more fitted for it than Marmaduke.
"Perhaps you are still, dear," said Doggie, with his patient smile.
He saw them to the taxi which was to take them to the familiar Sturrocks's. Before getting in, Peggy embraced him.
"Keep out of the way of shells and bullets as much as you can."
The Dean blew his nose, God-blessed him, and murmured something incoherent about fighting for the glory of old England.
"Good luck," cried Peggy from the window.
She blew him a kiss. The taxi drove off, and Doggie went back into the house with leaden feet. The meeting, which he had morbidly dreaded, had brought him no comfort. It had not removed the invisible barrier between Peggy and himself. But Peggy seemed so unconscious of it that he began to wonder whether it only existed in his diseased imagination. Though by his silences and reserves he had given her cause for resentment and reproach, her attitude was nothing less than angelic. He sat down moodily in an arm-chair, his hands deep in his trousers pockets and his legs stretched out. The fault lay in himself, he argued. What was the matter with him? He seemed to have lost all human feeling, like the man with the stone heart in the old legend. Otherwise, why had he felt no prick of jealousy at Peggy's admiring comprehension of Oliver? Of course he loved her. Of course he wanted to marry her when this nightmare was over. That went without saying. But why couldn't he look to the glowing future? A poet had called a lover's mistress "the lode-star of his one desire." That to him Peggy ought to be. Lode-star. One desire. The words confused him. He had no lode-star. His one desire was to be left alone. Without doubt he was suffering from some process of moral petrifaction.
Doggie was no psychologist. He had never acquired the habit of turning himself inside-out and gloating over the horrid spectacle. All his life he had been a simple soul with simple motives and a simple though possibly selfish standard to measure them. But now his soul was knocked into a chaotic state of complexity, and his poor little standards were no manner of use. He saw himself as in a glass darkly, mystified by unknown change.
He rose, sighed, shook himself.
"I give it up," said he, and went to bed.
* * * * *
Doggie went to France; a France hitherto undreamed of, either by him or by any young Englishman; a France clean swept and garnished for war; a France, save for the ubiquitous English soldiery, of silent towns and empty villages and deserted roads; a France of smiling fields and sorrowful faces of women and drawn patient faces of old men—and even then the women and old men were rarely met by day, for they were at work on the land, solitary figures on the landscape, with vast spaces between them. In the quiet townships, English street signs and placards conflicted with the sense of being in friendly provincial France, and gave the impression of foreign domination. For beyond that long grim line of eternal thunder, away over there in the distance, which was called the Front, street signs and placards in yet another alien tongue also outraged the serene genius of French urban life. Yet our signs were a symbol of a mighty Empire's brotherhood, and the dimmed eyes that beheld the Place de la Fontaine transformed into "Holborn Circus," and the Grande Rue into "Piccadilly," smiled, and the owners, with eager courtesy, directed the stray Tommy to "Regent Street," which they had known all their life as the Rue Feuillemaisnil—a word which Tommy could not pronounce, still less remember. It was as much as Tommy could do to get hold of an approximation to the name of the town. And besides these renamings, other inscriptions flamed about the streets; alphabetical hieroglyphs, in which the mystic letters H.Q. most often appeared; "This way to the Y.M.C.A. hut"; in many humble windows the startling announcement, "Washing done here." British motor-lorries and ambulances crowding the little place and aligned along the avenues. British faces, British voices, everywhere. The blue uniform and blue helmet of a French soldier seemed as incongruous though as welcome as in London.
And the straight endless roads, so French with their infinite border of poplars, their patient little stones marking every hundred metres until the tenth rose into the proud kilometre stone proclaiming the distance to the next stately town, rang too with the sound of British voices, and the tramp of British feet, and the clatter of British transport, and the screech and whir of cars, revealing as they passed the flash of red and gold of the British staff. Yet the finely cultivated land remained to show that it was France; and the little whitewashed villages; the cure, in shovel-hat and rusty cassock; the children in blue or black blouses, who stared as the British troops went by; the patient, elderly French Territorials in their old pre-war uniforms, guarding unthreatened culverts or repairing the roads; the helpful signs set up in happier days by the Touring Club of France.
Into this strange anomaly of a land came Doggie with his draft, still half stupefied by the remorselessness of the stupendous machine in which he had been caught, in spite of his many months of training in England. He had loathed the East Coast camp. When he landed at Boulogne in the dark and the pouring rain and hunched his pack with the others who went off singing to the rest camp, he regretted East Anglia.
"Give us a turn on the whistle, Doggie," said a corporal.
"I was sea-sick into it and threw it overboard," he growled, stumbling over the rails of the quay.
"Oh, you holy young liar!" said the man next him.
But Doggie did not trouble to reply, his neighbour being only a private like himself.
Then the draft joined its unit. In his youth Doggie had often wondered at the meaning of the familiar inscription on every goods van in France: "40 Hommes. 8 Chevaux." Now he ceased to wonder. He was one of the forty men.... At the rail-head he began to march, and at last joined the remnant of his battalion. They had been through hard fighting, and were now in billets. Until he joined them he had not realized the drain there had been on the reserves at home. Very many familiar faces of officers were missing. New men had taken their place. And very many of his old comrades had gone, some to Blighty, some West of that Island of Desire; and those who remained had the eyes of children who had passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
McPhail and Mo Shendish had passed through unscathed. In the reconstruction of the regiment chance willed that the three of them found themselves in the same platoon of A Company. Doggie almost embraced them when they met.
"Laddie," said McPhail to him, as he was drinking a mahogany-coloured liquid that was known by the name of tea, out of a tin mug, and eating a hunk of bread and jam, "I don't know whether or not I'm pleased to see you. You were safer in England. Once I misspent many months of my life in shielding you from the dangers of France. But France is a much more dangerous place nowadays, and I can't help you. You've come right into the thick of it. Just listen to the hell's delight that's going on over yonder."
The easterly wind brought them the roar streaked with stridence of the artillery duel in progress on the nearest sector of the Front.
They were sitting in the cellar entrance to a house in a little town which had already been somewhat mauled. Just opposite was a shuttered house on the ground floor of which had been a hatter and hosier's shop, and there still swung bravely on an iron rod the red brim of what once had been a monstrous red hat. Next door, the facade of the upper stories had been shelled away and the naked interiors gave the impression of a pathetic doll's house. Women's garments still hung on pegs. A cottage piano lurched forward drunkenly on three legs, with the keyboard ripped open, the treble notes on the ground, the bass incongruously in the air. In the attic, ironically secure, hung a cheap German print of blowsy children feeding a pig. The wide flagstoned street smelt sour. At various cavern doors sat groups of the billeted soldiers. Now and then squads marched up and down, monotonously clad in khaki and dun-coloured helmets. Officers, some only recognizable by the Sam Browne belt, others spruce and point-device, passed by. Here and there a shop was open, and the elderly proprietor and his wife stood by the doorway to get the afternoon air. Women and children straggled rarely through the streets. The Boche had left the little town alone for some time; they had other things to do with their heavy guns; and all the French population, save those whose homes were reduced to nothingness, had remained. They took no notice of the distant bombardment. It had grown to be a phenomenon of nature like the wind and the rain.
But to Doggie it was new—just as the sight of the wrecked house opposite, with its sturdy crownless hat-brim of a sign, was new. He listened, as McPhail had bidden him, to the artillery duel with an odd little spasm of his heart.
"What do you think of that, now?" asked McPhail grandly, as if it was The Greatest Show on Earth run by him, the Proprietor.
"It's rather noisy," said Doggie, with a little ironical twist of his lips that was growing habitual. "Do they keep it up at night?"
"I don't think it's fair to interfere with one's sleep like that," said Doggie.
"You've got to adapt yourself to it," said McPhail sagely. "No doubt you'll be remembering my theory of adaptability. Through that I've made myself into a very brave man. When I wanted to run away—a very natural desire, considering the scrupulous attention I've always paid to my bodily well-being—I reflected on the preposterous obstacles put in the way of flight by a bowelless military system, and adapted myself to the static and dynamic conditions of the trenches."
"Gorblime!" said Mo Shendish, stretched out by his side, "just listen to him!"
"I suppose you'll say you sucked honey out of the shells," remarked Doggie.
"I'm no great hand at mixing metaphors——"
"What about drinks?" asked Mo.
"Nor drinks either," replied McPhail. "Both are bad for the brain. But as to what you were saying, laddie, I'll not deny that I've derived considerable interest and amusement from a bombardment. Yet it has its sad aspect." He paused for a moment or two. "Man," he continued, "what an awful waste of money!"
"I don't know what old Mac is jawing about," said Mo Shendish, "but you can take it from me he's a holy terror with the bayonet. One moment he's talking to a Boche through his hat and the next the Boche is wriggling like a worm on a bent pin."
Mo winked at Phineas. The temptation to "tell the tale" to the new-comer was too strong.
Doggie grew very serious. "You've been killing men—like that?"
"Thousands, laddie," replied Phineas, the picture of unboastful veracity. "And so has Mo."
Mo Shendish, helmeted, browned, dried, toughened, a very different Mo from the pallid ferret whom Aggie had driven into the ranks of war, hunched himself up, his hands clasping his knees.
"I don't mind doing it, when you're so excited you don't know where you are," said he, "but I don't like thinking of it afterwards."
As a matter of fact, he had only once got home with the bayonet and the memory was unpleasant.
"But you've just thought of it," said Phineas.
"It was you, not me," said Mo. "That makes all the difference."
"It's astonishing," Phineas remarked sententiously, "how many people not only refuse to catch pleasure as it flies, but spurn it when it sits up and begs at them. Laddie," he turned to Doggie, "the more one wallows in hedonism, the more one realizes its unplumbed depths."
A little girl of ten, neatly pigtailed but piteously shod, came near and cast a child's envious eye on Doggie's bread and jam.
"Approach, my little one," Phineas cried in French words but with the accent of Sauchiehall Street. "If I gave you a franc, what would you do with it?"
"I should buy nourishment (de la nourriture) for maman."
"Lend me a franc, laddie," said McPhail, and when Doggie had slipped the coin into his palm, he addressed the child in unintelligible grandiloquence and sent her on her way mystified but rejoicing. Ces bons droles d'Anglais!
"Ah, laddie!" cried Phineas, stretching himself out comfortably by the jamb of the door, "you've got to learn to savour the exquisite pleasure of a genuinely kindly act."
"Hold on!" cried Mo. "It was Doggie's money you were flinging about."
McPhail withered him with a glance.
"You're an unphilosophical ignoramus," said he.
Perhaps one of the greatest influences which transformed Doggie into a fairly efficient though undistinguished infantryman was a morbid social terror of his officers. It saved him from many a guard-room, and from many a heart-to-heart talk wherein the zealous lieutenant gets to know his men. He lived in dread lest military delinquency or civil accomplishment should be the means of revealing the disgrace which bit like an acid into his soul. His undisguisable air of superior breeding could not fail to attract notice. Often his officers asked him what he was in civil life. His reply, "A clerk, sir," had to satisfy them. He had developed a curious self-protective faculty of shutting himself up like a hedgehog at the approach of danger. Once a breezy subaltern had selected him as his batman; but Doggie's agonized, "It would be awfully good of you, sir, if you wouldn't mind not thinking of it," and the appeal in his eyes, established the freemasonry of caste and saved him from dreaded intimate relations.
"All right, if you'd rather not, Trevor," said the subaltern. "But why doesn't a chap like you try for a commission?"
"I'm much happier as I am, sir," replied Doggie, and that was the end of the matter.
But Phineas, when he heard of it—it was on the East Coast—began: "If you still consider yourself too fine to clean another man's boots——"
Doggie, in one of his quick fits of anger, interrupted: "If you think I'm just a dirty little snob, if you don't understand why I begged to be let off, you're the thickest-headed fool in creation!"
"I'm nae that, laddie," replied Phineas, with his usual ironic submissiveness. "Haven't I kept your secret all this time?"
Thus it was Doggie's fixed idea to lose himself in the locust swarm, to be prominent neither for good nor evil, even in the little clot of fifty, outwardly, almost identical locusts that formed his platoon. It braced him to the performance of hideous tasks; it restrained him from display of superior intellectual power or artistic capability. The world upheaval had thrown him from his peacock and ivory room, with its finest collection on earth of little china dogs, into a horrible fetid hole in the ground in Northern France. It had thrown not the average young Englishman of comfortable position, who had toyed with aesthetic superficialities as an amusement, but a poor little by-product of cloistered life who had been brought up from babyhood to regard these things as the nervous texture of his very existence. He was wrapped from head to heel in fine net, to every tiny mesh of which he was acutely sensitive.
A hole in the ground in Northern France. The regiment, after its rest, moved on and took its turn in the trenches. Four days on; four days off. Four days on of misery inconceivable. Four days on, during which the officers watched the men with the unwavering vigilance of kindly cats:
"How are you getting along, Trevor?"
"Nicely, thank you, sir."
"Feet all right?"
"Yes, thank you, sir."
"Sure? If you want to grouse, grouse away. That's what I'm talking to you for."
"I'm perfectly happy, sir."
"Darn sight more than I am!" laughed the subaltern, and with a cheery nod in acknowledgment of Doggie's salute, splashed down the muddy trench.
But Doggie was chilled to the bone, and he had no feeling in his feet, which were under six inches of water, and his woollen gloves being wet through were useless, and prevented his numbed hands from feeling the sandbags with which he and the rest of the platoon were repairing the parapet; for the Germans had just consecrated an hour's general hate to the vicinity of the trench, and its exquisite symmetry, the pride of the platoon commander, had been disturbed. There had also been a few ghastly casualties. A shell had fallen and burst in the traverse at the far end of the trench. Something that looked like half a man's head and a bit of shoulder had dropped just in front of the dug-out where Doggie and his section was sheltering. Doggie staring at it was violently sick. In a stupefied way he found himself mingling with others who were engaged in clearing up the horror. A murmur reached him that it was Taffy Jones who had thus been dismembered.... The bombardment over, he had taken his place with the rest in the reparation of the parapet; and as he happened to be at an end of the line, the officer had spoken to him. If he had been suffering tortures unknown to Attila, and unimagined by his successors, he would have answered just the same.
* * * * *
But he lamented Taffy's death to Phineas, who listened sympathetically. Such a cheery comrade, such a smart soldier, such a kindly soul.
"Not a black spot in him," said Doggie.
"A year ago, laddie," said McPhail, "what would have been your opinion of a bookmaker's clerk?"
"I know," replied Doggie. "But this isn't a year ago. Just look round."
He laughed somewhat hysterically, for the fate of Taffy had unstrung him for the time. Phineas contemplated the length of deep narrow ditch, with its planks half swimming on filthy liquid, its wire revetment holding up the oozing sides, the dingy parapet above which it was death to put one's head, the grey free sky, the only thing free along that awful row of parallel ditches that stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland, the clay-covered, shapeless figures of men, their fellows, almost undistinguishable even by features from themselves.
"It has been borne upon me lately," said Phineas, "that patriotism is an amazing virtue."
Doggie drew a foot out of the mud so as to find a less precarious purchase higher up the slope.
"And I've been thinking, Phineas, whether it's really patriotism that has brought you and me into this—what can we call it? Dante's Inferno is child's play to it."
"Dante had no more imagination," said Phineas, "than a Free Kirk precentor in Kirkcudbright."
"But is it patriotism?" Doggie persisted. "If I thought it was, I should be happier. If we had orders to go over the top and attack and I could shout 'England for ever!' and lose myself just in the thick of it——"
"There's a brass hat coming down the trench," said Phineas, "and brass hats have no use for rhapsodical privates."
They stood to attention as the staff officer passed by. Then Doggie broke in impatiently:
"I wish to goodness you could understand what I'm trying to get at."
A smile illuminated the gaunt, unshaven, mud-caked face of Phineas McPhail.
"Laddie," said he, "let England, as an abstraction, fend for itself. But you've a bonny English soul within you, and for that you are fighting. And so had poor Taffy Jones. And I have a bonny Scottish thirst, the poignancy of which both of you have been happily spared. I will leave you, laddie, to seek in slumber a surcease from martyrdom."
* * * * *
Doggie had been out a long time. He had seen many places, much fighting and endured manifold miseries. After one of the spells in the trenches, the worst he had experienced, A Company was marched into new billets some miles behind the lines, in the once prosperous village of Frelus. They had slouched along dead tired, drooping under their packs, sodden with mud and sleeplessness, silent, with not a note of a song among them—but at the entrance to the village, quickened by a word or two of exhortation from officers and sergeants, they pulled themselves together and marched in, heads up, forward, in faultless step. The C.O. was jealous of the honour of his men. He assumed that his predecessors in the village had been a "rotten lot," and was determined to show the inhabitants of Frelus what a crack English regiment was really like. Frelus was an unimportant, unheard-of village; but the opinion of a thousand Freluses made up France's opinion of the British Army. Doggie, although half stupefied with fatigue, responded to the sentiment, like the rest. He was conscious of making part of a gallant show. It was only when they halted and stood easy that he lost count of things. The wide main street of the village swam characterless before his eyes. He followed, not directions, but directed men, with a sheep-like instinct, and found himself stumbling through an archway down a narrow path. He had a dim consciousness of lurching sideways and confusedly apologizing to a woman who supported him back to equilibrium. Then the next thing he saw was a barn full of fresh straw, and when somebody pointed to a vacant strip, he fell down, with many others, and went to sleep.
The reveille sounded a minute afterwards, though a whole night had passed; and there was the blessed clean water to wash in—he had long since ceased to be fastidious in his ablutions—and there was breakfast, sizzling bacon and bread and jam. And there in front of the kitchen, aiding with the hot water for the tea, moved a slim girl, with dark, and as Doggie thought, tragic eyes.
* * * * *
Kit inspection, feet inspection, all the duties of the day and dinner were over. Most of the men returned to their billets to sleep. Some, including Doggie, wandered about the village, taking the air, and visiting the little modest cafes and talking with indifferent success, so far as the interchange of articulate ideas was concerned, with shy children. McPhail and Mo Shendish being among the sleepers, Doggie mooned about by himself in his usual self-effacing way. There was little to interest him in the long straggling village. He had passed through a hundred such. Low whitewashed houses, interspersed with perky balconied buildings given over to little shops on the ground floor, with here and there a discreet iron gate shutting off the doctor's or the attorney's villa, and bearing the oval plate indicating the name and pursuit of the tenant; here and there, too, long whitewashed walls enclosing a dairy or a timber-yard stretched on each side of the great high road, and the village gradually dwindled away at each end into the gently undulating country. There were just a by-lane or two, one leading up to the little grey church and presbytery and another to the little cemetery with its trim paths and black and white wooden crosses and wirework pious offerings. At open doors the British soldiers lounged at ease, and in the dim interiors behind them the forms of the women of the house, blue-aproned, moved to and fro. The early afternoon was warm, a westerly breeze deadened the sound of the distant bombardment to an unheeded drone, and a holy peace settled over the place.
Doggie, clean, refreshed, comfortably drowsy, having explored the village, returned to his billet, and looking at it from the opposite side of the way, for the first time realized its nature. The lane, into which he had stumbled the night before, ran under an archway supporting some kind of overhead chamber, and separated the dwelling-house from a warehouse wall on which vast letters proclaimed the fact that Veuve Morin et Fils carried on therein the business of hay and corn dealers. Hence, Doggie reflected, the fresh, deep straw on which he and his fortunate comrades had wallowed. The double gate under the archway was held back by iron stanchions. The two-storied house looked fairly large and comfortable. The front door stood wide open, giving the view of a neat, stiff little hall or living-room. An article of furniture caught his idle eye. He crossed the road in order to have a nearer view. It was a huge polished mahogany cask standing about three feet high and bound with shining brass bands, such as he remembered having seen once in Brittany. He advanced still closer, and suddenly the slim, dark girl appeared and stood in the doorway, and looked frankly and somewhat rebukingly into his inquisitive eyes. Doggie flushed as one caught in an unmannerly act. A crying fault of the British Army is that it prescribes for the rank and file no form of polite recognition of the existence of civilians. It is contrary to Army Orders to salute or to take off their caps. They can only jerk their heads and grin, an inelegant proceeding, which places them at a disadvantage with the fair sex. Doggie, therefore, sketched a vague salutation half-way between a salute and a bow, and began a profuse apology. Mademoiselle must pardon his curiosity, but as a lover of old things he had been struck by the beautiful tonneau.
An amused light came into her sombre eyes and a smile flickered round her lips. Doggie noted instantly how pale she was, and how tiny, faint little lines persisted at the corners of those lips in spite of the smile.
"There is no reason for excuses, monsieur," she said. "The door was open to the view of everybody."
"Pourtant," said Doggie, "c'etait un peu mal eleve."
She laughed. "Pardon. But it's droll. First to find an English soldier apologizing for looking into a house, and then to find him talking French like a poilu."
Doggie said, with a little touch of national jealousy and a reversion to Durdlebury punctilio: "I hope, mademoiselle, you have always found the English soldier conduct himself like a gentleman."
"Mais oui, mais oui!" she cried, "they are all charming. Ils sont doux comme des moutons. But this is a question of delicacy—somewhat exaggerated."
"It's good of you, mademoiselle, to forgive me," said Doggie.
By all the rules of polite intercourse, either Doggie should have made his bow and exit, or the maiden, exercising her prerogative, should have given him the opportunity of a graceful withdrawal. But they remained where they were, the girl framed by the doorway, the lithe little figure in khaki and lichen-coloured helmet looking up at her from the foot of the two front steps.
At last he said in some embarrassment: "That's a very beautiful cask of yours."
She wavered for a few seconds. Then she said:
"You can enter, monsieur, and examine it, if you like."
Mademoiselle was very amiable, said Doggie. Mademoiselle moved aside and Doggie entered, taking off his helmet and holding it under his arm like an opera-hat. There was nothing much to see in the little vestibule-parlour: a stiff tasselled chair or two, a great old linen-press taking up most of one side of a wall, a cheap table covered with a chenille tablecloth, and the resplendent old cask, about which he lingered. He mentioned Brittany. Her tragic face lighted up again. Monsieur was right. Her aunt, Madame Morin, was Breton, and had brought the cask with her as part of her dowry, together with the press and other furniture. Doggie alluded to the vastly lettered inscription, "Veuve Morin et Fils." Madame Morin was, in a sense, his hostess. And the sons?
"One is in Madagascar, and the other—alas, monsieur!"
And Doggie knew what that "alas!" meant.
"The Argonne," she said.
"And madame your aunt?"
She shrugged her thin though shapely shoulders. "It nearly killed her. She is old and an invalid. She has been in bed for the last three weeks."
"Then what becomes of the business?"
"It is I, monsieur, who am the business. And I know nothing about it." She sighed. Then with her blue apron—otherwise she was dressed in unrelieved black—she rubbed an imaginary speck from the brass banding of the cask. "This, I suppose you know, was for the best brandy, monsieur."
"And now?" he asked.
"A memory. A sentiment. A thing of beauty."
In a feminine way, which he understood, she herded him to the door, by way of dismissal. Durdlebury helped him. A tiny French village has as many slanderous tongues as an English cathedral city. He was preparing to take polite leave, when she looked swiftly at him and made the faintest gesture of a detaining hand.
"Now I remember. It was you who nearly fell into me last night, when you were entering through the gate."
The dim recollection came back—the firm woman's arm round him for the few tottering seconds.
"It seems I am always bound to be impolite, for I don't think I thanked you," smiled Doggie.
"You were at the end of your tether." Then very gently, "Pauvre garcon!"
"The sales Boches had kept us awake for four nights," said Doggie. "That was why."
"And you are rested now?"
He laughed. "Almost."
They were at the door. He looked out and drew back. A knot of men were gathered by the gate of the yard. Apparently she had seen them too, for a flush rose to her pale cheeks.
"Mademoiselle," said Doggie, "I should like to creep back to the barn and sleep. If I pass my comrades they'll want to detain me."
"That would be a pity," she said demurely. "Come this way, monsieur."
She led him through a room and a passage to the kitchen. They shared a pleasurable sense of adventure and secrecy. At the kitchen door she paused and spoke to an old woman chopping up vegetables.
"Toinette, let monsieur pass." To Doggie she said: "Au revoir, monsieur!" and disappeared.
The old woman looked at him at first with disfavour. She did not hold with Tommies needlessly tramping over the clean flags of her kitchen. But Doggie's polite apology for disturbing her and a youthful grace of manner—he still held his tin hat under his arm—caused her features to relax.
"You are English?"
With a smile, he indicated his uniform. "Why, yes, madame."
"How comes it, then, that you speak French?"
"Because I have always loved your beautiful France, madame."
"France—ah! la pauvre France!" She sighed, drew a wisp of what had been a cornet of snuff from her pocket, opened it, dipped in a tentative finger and thumb and, finding it empty, gazed at it with disappointment, sighed again and, with the methodical hopelessness of age, folded it up into the neatest of little squares and thrust it back in her pocket. Then she went on with her vegetables.
Doggie took his leave and emerged into the yard.
He dozed pleasantly on the straw of the barn, but it was not the dead sleep of the night. Bits of his recent little adventure fitted into the semi-conscious intervals. He heard the girl's voice saying so gently: "Pauvre garcon!" and it was very comforting.
He was finally aroused by Phineas and Mo Shendish, who, having slept like tired dogs some distance off down the barn, now desired his company for a stroll round the village. Doggie good-naturedly assented. As they passed the house door he cast a quick glance. It was open, but the slim figure in black with the blue apron was not visible within. The shining cask, however, seemed to smile a friendly greeting.
"If you believed the London papers," said Phineas, "you'd think that the war-worn soldier coming from the trenches is met behind the lines with luxurious Turkish baths, comfortable warm canteens, picture palaces and theatrical entertainments. Can you perceive here any of those amenities of modern warfare?"
They looked around them, and admitted they could not.
"Apparently," said Phineas, "the Colonel, good but limited man, has missed all the proper places and dumps us in localities unrecognized by the London Press."
"Put me on the pier at Brighton," sang Mo Shendish. "But I'd sooner have Margit or Yarmouth any day. Brighton's too toffish for whelks. My! and cockles! I wonder whether we shall ever eat 'em again." A far-away, dreamy look crept into his eyes.
"Does your young lady like cockles?" Doggie asked sympathetically.
"Aggie? Funny thing, I was just thinking of her. She fair dotes on 'em. We had a day at Southend just before the war——"
He launched into anecdote. His companions listened, Phineas ironically carrying out his theory of adaptability, Doggie with finer instinct. It appeared there had been an altercation over right of choice with an itinerant vendor in which, to Aggie's admiration, Mo had come off triumphant.
"You see," he explained, "being in the fish trade myself, I could spot the winners."
James Marmaduke Trevor, of Denby Hall, laughed and slapped him on the back, and said indulgently: "Good old Mo!"
At the little school-house they stopped to gossip with some of their friends who were billeted there, and they sang the praises of the Veuve Morin's barn.
"I wonder you don't have the house full of orficers, if it's so wonderful," said some one.
An omniscient corporal in the confidence of the quartermaster explained that the landlady being ill in bed, and the place run by a young girl, the house had been purposely missed. Doggie drew a breath of relief at the news and attributed Madame Morin's malady to the intervention of a kindly providence. Somehow he did not fancy officers having the run of the house.
They strolled on and came to a forlorn little Debit de Tabac, showing in its small window some clay pipes and a few fly-blown picture post-cards. Now Doggie, in spite of his training in adversity, had never resigned himself to "Woodbines," and other such brands supplied to the British Army, and Egyptian and Turkish being beyond his social pale, he had taken to smoking French Regie tobacco, of which he laid in a stock whenever he had the chance. So now he entered the shop, leaving Phineas and Mo outside. As they looked on French cigarettes with sturdy British contempt, they were not interested in Doggie's purchases. A wan girl of thirteen rose from behind the counter.
"Vous desirez, monsieur?"
Doggie stated his desire. The girl was calculating the price of the packets before wrapping them up, when his eyes fell upon a neat little pile of cornets in a pigeon-hole at the back. They directly suggested to him one of the great luminous ideas of his life. It was only afterwards that he realized its effulgence. For the moment he was merely concerned with the needs of a poor old woman who had sighed lamentably over an empty paper of comfort.
"Do you sell snuff?"
"But yes, monsieur."
"Give me some of the best quality."
"How much does monsieur desire?"
"A lot," said Doggie.
And he bought a great package, enough to set the whole village sneezing to the end of the war, and peering round the tiny shop and espying in the recesses of a glass case a little olive-wood box ornamented on the top with pansies and forget-me-nots, purchased that also. He had just paid when his companions put their heads in the doorway. Mo, pointing waggishly to Doggie, warned the little girl against his depravity.
"Mauvy, mauvy!" said he.
"Qu'est-ce qu'il dit?" asked the child.
"He's the idiot of the regiment, whom I have to look after and feed with pap," said Doggie, "and, being hungry, he is begging you not to detain me."
"Mon Dieu!" cried the child.
Doggie, always courteous, went out with a "Bon soir, mademoiselle," and joined his friends.
"What were you jabbering to her about?" Mo asked suspiciously.
Doggie gave him the literal translation of his speech. Phineas burst into loud laughter.
"Laddie," said he, "I've never heard you make a joke before. The idiot of the regiment, and you're his keeper! Man, that's fine. What has come over you to-day?"
"If he'd said a thing like that in Mare Street, Hackney, I'd have knocked his blinking 'ead orf," declared Mo Shendish.
Doggie stopped and put his parcel-filled hands behind his back.
"Have a try now, Mo."
But Mo bade him fry his ugly face, and thus established harmony.
It was late that evening before Doggie could find an opportunity of slipping, unobserved, through the open door into the house kitchen dimly illuminated by an oil lamp.
"Madame," said he to Toinette, "I observed to-day that you had come to the end of your snuff. Will you permit a little English soldier to give you some? Also a little box to keep it in."
The old woman, spare, myriad-wrinkled beneath her peasant's coiffe, yet looking as if carved out of weather-beaten oak, glanced from the gift to the donor and from the donor to the gift.
"But, monsieur—monsieur—why?" she began quaveringly.
"You surely have some one—la bas—over yonder?" said Doggie with a sweep of his hand.
"Mais oui? How did you know? My grandson. Mon petiot——"
"It is he, my comrade, who sends the snuff to the grand'mere." And Doggie bolted.
At breakfast next morning Doggie searched the courtyard in vain for the slim figure of the girl. Yesterday she had stood just outside the kitchen door. To-day her office was usurped by a hefty cook with the sleeves of his grey shirt rolled up and his collar open and vast and tight-hitched braces unromantically strapped all over him. Doggie felt a pang of disappointment and abused the tea. Mo Shendish stared, and asked what was wrong with it.
"Rotten," said Doggie.
"You can't expect yer slap-up City A.B.C. shops in France," said Mo.
Doggie, who was beginning to acquire a sense of rueful humour, smiled and was appeased.
It was only in the afternoon that he saw the girl again. She was standing in the doorway of the house, with her hand on her bosom, as though she had just come out to breathe fresh air, when Doggie and his two friends emerged from the yard. As their eyes met, she greeted him with her sad little smile. Emboldened, he stepped forward.
"Bon jour, mademoiselle."
"Bon jour, monsieur."
"I hope madame your aunt is better to-day."
She seemed to derive some dry amusement from his solicitude.
"Alas, no, monsieur."
"Was that why I had not the pleasure of seeing you this morning?"
"Yesterday you filled our tea-kettles."
"But, monsieur," she replied primly, "I am not the vivandiere of the regiment."
"That's a pity," laughed Doggie.
Then he became aware of the adjacent forms and staring eyes of Phineas and Mo, who for the first time in their military career beheld him on easy terms with a strange and prepossessing young woman. After a second's thought he came to a diplomatic decision.
"Mademoiselle," said he, in his best Durdlebury manner, "may I dare to present my two comrades, my best friends in the battalion, Monsieur McPhail, Monsieur Shendish?"
She made them each a little formal bow, and then, somewhat maliciously, addressing McPhail, as the bigger and the elder of the two:
"I don't yet know the name of your friend."
Phineas put his great hand on Doggie's shoulder.
"James Marmaduke Trevor."
"Otherwise called Doggie, miss," said Mo.
She made a little graceful gesture of non-comprehension.
"Non compree?" asked Mo.
Phineas explained, in his rasping and consciously translated French:
"It is a nickname of the regiment. Doggie."