"That's where the great push is going to be in a few days."
"Aren't you sorry you're out of it?"
"Me?" The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantryman shook his head. "I take things as I finds 'em, and I finds this quite good enough."
So they chatted and, in the soldier's way, became friends. Later, the surgeon arrived and probed Doggie's wound and hurt him exquisitely, so that the perspiration stood out on his forehead, and his jaws ached afterwards from his clenching of them. While his leg was being dressed he reflected that, a couple of years ago, if anyone had inflicted a twentieth part of such torture on him he would have yelled the house down. He remembered, with an inward grin, the anguished precautions on which he had insisted whenever he sat down in the chair of his expensive London dentist.
"It must have hurt like fun," said the nurse, busily engaged with the gauze dressing.
"It's all in the day's work," replied Doggie.
The nurse pinned the bandage and settled him comfortably in bed.
"No one will worry you till dinner-time. You'd better try to have a sleep."
So Doggie nodded and smiled and curled up as best he could and slept the heavy sleep of the tired young animal. It was only when he awoke, physically rested and comparatively free from pain, that his mind, hitherto confused, began to work clearly, to straighten out the three days' tangle. Yes, just three days. A fact almost impossible to realize. Till now it had seemed an eternity.
He lay with his arms crossed under his head and stared at the blue sky—a soft, comforting English sky. The ward was silent. Only two beds were occupied, one by a man asleep, the other by a man reading a novel. His other room-mates, including his neighbour Penworthy, were so far convalescent as to be up and away, presumably by the life-giving sea, whose rhythmic murmur he could hear. For the first time since he awoke to find himself bandaged up in a strange dug-out, and surrounded by strange faces, did the chaos of his ideas resolve itself into anything like definite memories. Yet many of them were still vague.
He had been out there, with the wiring party, in the dark. He had been glad, he remembered, to escape from the prison of the trench into the open air. He was having some difficulty with a recalcitrant bit of wire that refused to come straight and jabbed him diabolically in unexpected places, when a shot rang out and German flares went up and everybody lay flat on the ground, while bullets spat about them. As he lay on his stomach, a flare lit up the ruined well of the farm of La Folette. And the well and his nose and his heels were in a bee-line. The realization of the fact was the inception of a fascinating idea. He remembered that quite clearly. Of course his discovery, two days before, of the spot where Jeanne's fortune lay hidden, when Captain Willoughby, with map and periscope, had called him into consultation, had set his heart beating and his imagination working. But not till that moment of stark opportunity had he dreamed of the mad adventure which he undertook. There in front of him, at the very farthest three hundred yards away, in bee-line with nose and heels—that was the peculiar and particular arresting fact—lay Jeanne's fortune. In thinking of it he lost count of shots and star-shells, and heard no orders and saw no dim forms creeping back to the safety of the trench. And then all was darkness and silence.
Doggie lay on his back and stared at the English sky and wondered how he did it. His attitude was that of a man who cannot reconcile his sober self with the idiot hero of a drunken freak. And yet, at the time, the journey to the ruined well seemed the simplest thing in the world. The thought of Jeanne's delight shone uppermost in his mind.... Oh! he was forgetting the star, which hung low beneath a canopy of cloud, the extreme point of the famous feet, nose and well bee-line. He made for it, now and then walking low, now and then crawling. He did not mind his clothes and hands being torn by the unseen refuse of No Man's Land. His chief sensation was one of utter loneliness, mingled with exultance at freedom. He did not remember feeling afraid: which was odd, because when the star-shells had gone up and the German trenches had opened fire on the wiring party, his blood had turned to water and his heart had sunk into his boots and he had been deucedly frightened.
Heaven must have guided him straight to the well. He had known all along that he merely would have to stick his hand down to find the rope ... and he felt no surprise when the rope actually came in contact with his groping fingers; no surprise when he pulled and pulled and fished up the packet. It had all been preordained. That was the funny part of the business which Doggie now could not understand. But he remembered that when he had buttoned his tunic over the precious packet, he had been possessed of an insane desire to sing and dance. He repressed his desire to sing, but he leaped about and started to run. Then the star in which he trusted must have betrayed him. It must have shed upon him a ray just strong enough to make him a visible object; for, suddenly, ping! something hit him violently on the leg and bowled him over like a rabbit into a providential shell-hole. And there he lay quaking for a long time, while the lunacy of his adventure coarsely and unsentimentally revealed itself.
As to the rest, he was in a state of befogged memory. Only one incident in that endless, cruel crawl home remained as a landmark in his mind. He had paused to take breath, almost ready to give up the impossible flight—it seemed as though he were dragging behind him a ton of red-hot iron—when he became conscious of a stench violent in his nostrils. He put out a hand. It encountered a horrible, once human face, and his fingers touched a round recognizable cap. Horror drove him away from the dead German and inspired him with the strength of despair.... Then all was fog and dark again until he recovered consciousness in the strange dug-out.
There the doctor had said to him: "You must have a cast-iron constitution, my lad."
The memory caused a flicker round his lips. It wasn't everybody who could crawl on his belly for nearly a quarter of a mile with a bullet through his leg, and come up smiling at the end of it. A cast-iron constitution! If he had only known it fifteen, even ten years ago, what a different life he might have led. The great disgrace would never have come upon him.
And Jeanne? What of Jeanne? After he had told his story, they had given him to understand that an officer would be sent to Frelus to corroborate it, and, if he found it true, that Jeanne would enter into possession of her packet. And that was all he knew, for they had bundled him out of the front trenches as quickly as possible; and once out he had become a case, a stretcher case, and although he had been treated, as a case, with almost superhuman tenderness, not a soul regarded him as a human being with a personality or a history—not even with a military history. And this same military history had vaguely worried him all the time, and now that he could think clearly, worried him with a very definite worry. In leaving his firing-party he had been guilty of a crime. Every misdemeanour in the Army is termed a crime—from murder to appearing buttonless on parade. Was it desertion? If so, he might be shot. He had not thought of that when he started on his quest. It had seemed so simple to account for half an hour's absence by saying that he had lost his way in the dark. But now, that plausible excuse was invalid....
Doggie thought terribly hard that quiet, sea-scented morning. After all, it did not very much matter what they did to him. Sticking him up against a wall and shooting him was a remote possibility; he was in the British and not the German Army. Field punishments of unpleasant kinds were only inflicted on people convicted of unpleasant delinquencies. If he were a sergeant or a corporal, he doubtless would be broken. But such is the fortunate position of a private, that he cannot be degraded to an inferior rank. At the worst they might give him cells when he recovered. Well, he could stick it. It didn't matter. What really mattered was Jeanne. Was she in undisputed possession of her packet? When it was a question of practical warfare, Doggie had blind faith in his officers—a faith perhaps even more childlike than that of his fellow-privates, for officers were the men who had come through the ordeal in which he had so lamentably failed; but when it came to administrative affairs, he was more critical. He had suffered during his military career from more than one subaltern on whose arid consciousness the brain-wave never beat. He had never met even a field officer before whom, in the realm of intellect, he had stood in awe. If any one of those dimly envisaged and still more dimly remembered officers of the Lancashire Fusiliers had ordered him to stand on his head on top of the parapet, he would have obeyed in cheerful confidence; but he was not at all certain that, in the effort to deliver the packet to Jeanne, they would not make an unholy mess of things. He saw stacks of dirty yellowish bits of paper, with A.F. No. something or the other, floating between Frelus and the Lancashire Battalion H.Q. and the Brigade H.Q. and the Divisional H.Q., and so on through the majesty of G.H.Q. to the awful War Office itself. In pessimistic mood he thought that if Jeanne recovered her property within a year, she would be lucky.
What a wonderful creature was Jeanne! He shut his eyes to the blue sky and pictured her as she stood in the light, on the ragged escarpment, with her garments beaten by wind and rain. And he remembered the weary thud, thud of railway and steamer, which had resolved itself, like the rhythmic tramp of feet that night, into the ceaseless refrain: "Jeanne! Jeanne!"
He opened his eyes again and frowned at the blue English sky. It had no business to proclaim simple serenity when his mind was in such a state of complex tangle. It was all very well to think of Jeanne—Jeanne, whom it was unlikely that Fate would ever allow him to see again, even supposing the war ended during his lifetime; but there was Peggy—Peggy, his future wife, who had stuck to him loyally through good and evil repute. Yes, there was Peggy—not the faintest shadow of doubt about it. Doggie kept on frowning at the blue sky. Blighty was a very desirable country, but in it you were compelled to think. And enforced thought was an infernal nuisance. The beastly trenches had their good points after all. There you were not called upon to think of anything; the less you thought, the better for your job; you just ate your bully-beef and drank your tea and cursed whizz-bangs and killed a rat or two, and thanked God you were alive.
Now that he came to look at it in proper perspective, it wasn't at all a bad life. When had he been worried to death, as he was now? And there were his friends: the humorous, genial, deboshed, yet ever-kindly Phineas; dear old Mo Shendish, whose material feet were hankering after the vulgar pavement of Mare Street, Hackney, but whose spiritual tread rang on golden floors dimly imagined by the Seer of Patmos; Barrett, the D. C. M., the miniature Hercules, who, according to legend, though, modestly, he would never own to it, seized two Boches by the neck and knocked their heads together till they died, and who, musically inclined, would sit at his, Doggie's, feet while he played on his penny whistle all the sentimental tunes he had ever heard of; Sergeant Ballinghall, a tower of a man, a champion amateur heavy-weight boxer, with a voice compared with which a megaphone sounded like a maiden's prayer, and a Bardolphian nose and an eagle eye and the heart of a broody hen, who had not only given him boxing lessons, but had pulled him through difficult places innumerable ... and scores of others. He wondered what they were doing. He also was foolish enough to wonder whether they missed him, forgetting for the moment that if a regiment took seriously to missing their comrades sent to Kingdom Come or Blighty, they would be more like weeping willows than destroyers of Huns.
All the same, he knew that he would always live in the hearts of two or three of them, and the knowledge brought him considerable comfort. It was strange to realize how the tentacles of his being stretched out gropingly towards these (from the old Durdlebury point of view) impossible friends. They had grafted themselves on to his life. Or was that a correct way of putting it? Had they not, rather, all grafted themselves on to a common stock of life, so that the one common sap ran through all their veins?
It took him a long time to get this idea formulated, fixed and accepted. But Doggie was not one to boggle at the truth, as he saw it. And this was the truth. He, James Marmaduke Trevor of Denby Hall, was a Tommy of the Tommies. He had lived the Tommy life intensely. He was living it now. And the extraordinary part of it was that he didn't want to be anything else but a Tommy. From the social or gregarious point of view his life for the past year had been one of unclouded happiness. The realization of it, now that he was clearly sizing up the ramshackle thing which he called his existence, hit him like the butt-end of a rifle. Hardship, cold, hunger, fatigue, stench, rats, the dread of inefficiency—all these had been factors of misery which he could never eliminate from his soldier's equation; but such free, joyous, intimate companionship with real human beings he had never enjoyed since he was born. He longed to be back among them, doing the same old weary, dreary, things, eating the same old Robinson Crusoe kind of food, crouching with them in the same old beastly hole in the ground, while the Boche let loose hell on the trench. Mo Shendish's grin and his "'Ere, get in aht of the rain," and his grip on his shoulder, dragging him a few inches farther into shelter, were a spiritual compensation transcending physical discomfitures and perils.
"It's all dam funny," he said half aloud.
But this was England, and although he was hedged about, protected and restricted by War Office Regulation Red Tape twisted round to the strength of steel cables, yet he was in command of telegraphs, of telephones, and, in a secondary degree, of the railway system of the United Kingdom.
He found himself deprecating the compulsory facilities of communication in the civilized world. The Deanery must be informed of his home-coming.
As soon as he could secure the services of a nurse he wrote out three telegrams: one addressed "Conover, The Deanery, Durdlebury"; one to Peddle at Denby Hall, and one to Jeanne. The one to Jeanne was the longest, and was "Reply paid."
"This is going to cost a small fortune, young man," said the nurse.
Doggie smiled as he drew out a L1 treasury note from his soldier's pocket-book, the pathetic object containing a form of Will on the right-hand flap and on the left the directions for the making of the Will, concluding with the world-famous typical signature of Thomas Atkins.
"It's a bust, Sister," said he. "I've been saving up for it for months."
Then, duty accomplished, he reconciled himself to the corner of fairyland in which he had awoke that morning. Things must take their course, and while they were taking it, why worry? So long as they didn't commit the outrage of giving him bully-beef for dinner, the present coolness and comfort sufficed for his happiness.
The replies to the telegrams were satisfactory. Peggy, adjuring him to write a full account of himself, announced her intention of coming up to see him as soon as he could guarantee his fitness to receive visitors. Jeanne wired: "Paquet recu. Mille remerciements." The news cheered him exceedingly. It was worth a hole in the leg. Henceforward Jeanne would be independent of Aunt Morin, of whose generous affection, in spite of Jeanne's loyal reticence, he had formed but a poor opinion. Now the old lady could die whenever she liked, and so much the better for Jeanne. Jeanne would then be freed from the unhealthy sick-room, from dreary little Frelus, and from enforced consorting with the riff-raff (namely, all other regiments except his own) of the British Army. Even as it was, he did not enjoy thinking of her as hail-fellow-well-met with his own fellow-privates—perhaps with the exception of Phineas and Mo, who were in a different position, having been formally admitted into a peculiar intimacy. Of course, if Doggie had possessed a more analytical mind, he would have been greatly surprised to discover that these feelings arose from a healthy, barbaric sense of ownership of Jeanne; that Mo and Phineas were in a special position because they humbly recognized this fact of ownership and adopted a respectful attitude towards his property, and that of all other predatory men in uniform he was distrustful and jealous. But Doggie was a simple soul and went through a great many elementary emotions, just as Monsieur Jourdain spoke prose, sans le savoir. Without knowing it, he would have gone to the ends of the earth for Jeanne, have clubbed over the head any fellow-savage who should seek to rob him of Jeanne. It did not occur to him that savage instinct had already sent him into the jaws of death, solely in order to establish his primitive man's ownership of Jeanne. When he came to reflect, in his Doggie-ish way, on the motives of his exploit, he was somewhat baffled. Jeanne, with her tragic face, and her tragic history, and her steadfast soul shining out of her eyes, was the most wonderful woman he had ever met. She personified the heroic womanhood of France. The foul invader had robbed her of her family and her patrimony. The dead were dead, and could not be restored; but the material wealth, God—who else?—had given him this miraculous chance to recover; and he had recovered it. National pride helped to confuse issues. He, an Englishman, had saved this heroic daughter of France from poverty....
If only he could have won back to his own trench, and, later, when the company returned to Frelus, he could have handed her the packet and seen the light come into those wonderful eyes!
* * * * *
Anyhow, she had received it. She sent him a thousand thanks. How did she look, what did she say when she cut the string and undid the seals and found her little fortune?
Translate Jeanne into a princess, the dirty waterproof package into a golden casket, himself into a knight disguised as a squire of low degree, and what more could you want for a first-class fairy-tale? The idea struck Doggie at the moment of "lights out," and he laughed aloud.
"It doesn't take much to amuse some people," growled his neighbour, Penworthy.
"Sign of a happy disposition," said Doggie.
"What've you got to be happy about?"
"I was thinking how alive we are, and how dead you and I might be," said Doggie.
"Well, I don't think it funny thinking how one might be dead," replied Penworthy. "It gives me the creeps. It's all very well for you. You'll stump around for the rest of your life like a gentleman on a wooden leg. Chaps like you have all the luck; but as soon as I get out of this, I'll be passed fit for active service ... and not so much of your larfing at not being dead. See?"
"All right, mate," said Doggie. "Good night."
Penworthy made no immediate reply; but presently he broke out:
"What d'you mean by talking like that? I'd hate being dead."
A voice from the far end of the room luridly requested that the conversation should cease. Silence reigned.
* * * * *
A letter from Jeanne. The envelope bore a French stamp with the Frelus postmark, and the address was in a bold feminine hand. From whom could it be but Jeanne? His heart gave a ridiculous leap and he tore the envelope open as he had never torn open envelope of Peggy's. But at the first two words the leap seemed to be one in mid-air, and his heart went down, down, down like an aeroplane done in, and arrived with a hideous bump upon rocks.
Cher Monsieur from Jeanne—Jeanne who had called him "Dog-gie" in accents that had rendered adorable the once execrated syllables. Cher Monsieur!
And the following, in formal French—it might have been a convent exercise in composition—is what she said:
"The military authorities have remitted into my possession the package which you so heroically rescued from the well of the farm of La Folette. It contains all that my father was able to save of his fortune, and on consultation with Maitre Pepineau here, it appears that I have sufficient to live modestly for the rest of my life. For the marvellous devotion of you, monsieur, an English gentleman, to the poor interests of an obscure young French girl, I can never be sufficiently grateful. There will never be a prayer of mine, until I die, in which you will not be mentioned. To me it will be always a symbolic act of your chivalrous England in the aid of my beloved France. That you have been wounded in this noble and selfless enterprise, is to me a subject both of pride and terrifying dismay. I am moved to the depths of my being. But I have been assured, and your telegram confirms the assurance, that your wound is not dangerous. If you had been killed while rendering me this wonderful service, or incapacitated so that you could no longer strike a blow for your country and mine, I should never have forgiven myself. I should have felt that I had robbed France of a heroic defender. I pray God that you may soon recover, and in fighting once more against our common enemy, you may win the glory that no English soldier can deserve more than you. Forgive me if I express badly the emotions which overwhelm me. It is impossible that we shall meet again. One of the few English novels I have tried to read, a coups de dictionnaire, was Ships that Pass in the Night. In spite of the great thing that you have done for me, it is inevitable that we should be such passing vessels. It is life. If, as I shall ceaselessly pray, you survive this terrible war, you will follow your destiny as an Englishman of high position, and I that which God marks out for me.
"I ask you to accept again the expression of my imperishable gratitude. Adieu.
The more often Doggie read this perfectly phrased epistle, the greater waxed his puzzledom. The gratitude was all there; more than enough. It was gratitude and nothing else. He had longed for a human story telling just how the thing had happened, just how Jeanne had felt. He had wanted her to say: "Get well soon and come back, and I'll tell you all about it." But instead of that she dwelt on the difference of their social status, loftily announced that they would never meet again and that they would follow different destinies, and bade him the adieu which in French is the final leave-taking. All of which to Doggie, the unsophisticated, would have seemed ridiculous, had it not been so tragic. He couldn't reconcile the beautiful letter, written in faultless handwriting and impeccable French, with the rain-swept girl on the escarpment. What did she mean? What had come over her?
But the ways of Jeannes are not the ways of Doggies. How was he to know of the boastings of Phineas McPhail, and the hopelessness with which they filled Jeanne's heart? How was he to know that she had sat up most of the night in her little room over the gateway, drafting and redrafting this precious composition, until, having reduced it to soul-devastating correctitude, and, with aching eyes and head, made a fair and faultless copy, she had once more cried herself into miserable slumber?
At once Doggie called for pad and pencil, and began to write:
"MY DEAR JEANNE,—
"I don't understand. What fly has stung you? (Quelle mouche vous a piquee?) Of course we shall meet again. Do you suppose I am going to let you go out of my life?"
(He sucked his pencil. Jeanne must be spoken to severely.)
"What rubbish are you talking about my social position? My father was an English parson (pasteur anglais) and yours a French lawyer. If I have a little money of my own, so have you. And we are not ships and we have not passed in the night. And that we should not meet again is not Life. It is absurdity. We are going to meet as soon as wounds and war will let me, and I am not your 'Cher Monsieur,' but your 'Cher Dog-gie,' and——"
"Here is a letter for you, brought by hand," said the nurse, bustling to his bedside.
It was from Peggy.
"Oh, lord!" said Doggie.
Peggy was there. She had arrived from Durdlebury all alone, the night before, and was putting up at an hotel. The venerable idiot, with red crosses and bits of tin all over her, who seemed to run the hospital, wouldn't let her in to see him till the regulation visiting hour of three o'clock. That she, Peggy, was a Dean's daughter, who had travelled hundreds of miles to see the man she was engaged to, did not seem to impress the venerable idiot in the least. Till three o'clock then. With love from Peggy.
"The lady, I believe, is waiting for an answer," said the nurse.
"Oh, my hat!" said Doggie below his breath.
To write the answer, he had to strip from the pad the page on which he had begun the letter to Jeanne. He wrote: "Dearest Peggy." Then the pencil-point's impress through the thin paper stared at him. Almost every word was decipherable. Recklessly he tore the pad in half and on a virgin page scribbled his message to Peggy. The nurse departed with it. He took up the flimsy sheet containing his interrupted letter to Jeanne and glanced at it in dismay. For the first time it struck him that such words, to a girl even of the lowest intelligence, could only have one interpretation. Doggie said, "Oh, lord!" and "Oh, my hat!" and Oh all sorts of unprintable things that he had learned in the army. And he put to himself the essential question: What the Hades was he playing at?
Obviously, the first thing to do was to destroy the letter to Jeanne and the tell-tale impress. This he forthwith did. He tore the sheets into the tiniest fragments, stretched out his arm to put the handful on the table by the bed, missed his aim and dropped it on the floor. Whereby he incurred the just wrath of the hard-worked nurse.
Again he took up Jeanne's letter. After all, what was wrong with it? He must look at things from her point of view. What had really happened? Let him set out the facts judicially. They had struck up a day or two's friendship. She had told him, as she might have told any decent soul, her sad and romantic story. The English during the great retreat had rendered her unforgettable services. She was a girl of a generously responsive nature. She would pay her debt of gratitude to the English soldier. Her fine vale on the memorable night of rain was part payment of her debt to England. Yes. Let him get things in the right perspective.... She had made friends with him because he was one of the few private soldiers who could speak her language. It was but natural that she should tell him of the sunken packet. It was one of the most vital facts of her life. But just an outside fact: nothing to do with any shy mysterious workings of her woman's soul. She might have told the story to any man in the company without derogation from her womanly dignity. And any man Jack of them, having Jeanne's confidence, having the knowledge of the situation of the ruined well, having the God-sent opportunity of recovering the treasure, would, of absolute certainty, have done exactly what he, Doggie, had done. Supposing Mo Shendish had been the privileged person, instead of himself. What, by way of thanks, could Jeanne have written? A letter practically identical.
Practically. A very comfortable sort of word; but Doggie's cultivated mind disliked it. It was a slovenly word, a makeshift for the hard broom of clean thought. This infernal "practically" begged the whole question. Jeanne would not have sentimentalized to Mo Shendish about ships passing in the night. No, she wouldn't, in spite of all his efforts to persuade himself that she would. Well, perhaps dear old Mo was a rough, uneducated sort of chap. He could not have established with Jeanne such delicate relations of friendship as exist between social equals. Obviously the finer shades of her letter would have varied according to the personality of the recipient. Jeanne and himself, owing to the abnormal conditions of war, had suddenly become very intimate friends. The war, as she imagined, must part them for ever. She bade him a touching and dignified farewell, and that was the end of the matter. It had all been an idyllic episode; beginning, middle, and end; neatly rounded off; a thing done, and done with—except as a strange romantic memory. It was all over. As long as he remained in the army, a condition for which, as a private soldier, he was not responsible, how could he see Jeanne again? By the time he rejoined, the regiment would be many miles away from Frelus. This, in her clear, steady way, she realized. Her letter must be final.
It had to be final. Was not Peggy coming at three o'clock?
Again Doggie thought, somewhat wistfully, of the old care-free, full physical life, and again he murmured:
"It's all dam funny!"
* * * * *
Peggy stood for a moment at the door scanning the ward; then perceiving him, she marched down with a defiant glance at nurses and blue-uniformed comrades and men in bed and other strangers, swung a chair and established herself by his bedside.
"You dear old thing, I couldn't bear to think of you lying here alone," she said, with the hurry that seeks to cover shyness. "I had to come. Mother's gone fut and can't travel, and Dad's running all the parsons' shows in the district. Otherwise one of them would have come too."
"It's awfully good of you, Peggy," he said, with a smile, for fair and flushed she was pleasant to look upon. "But it must have been a fiendish journey."
"Rotten!" said Peggy. "But that's a trifle. You're the all-important thing. Tell me straight. You're not badly hurt, are you?"
"Lord, no," he replied cheerfully. "Just the fleshy part of the leg—a clean bullet-wound. Bone touched; but they say I'll be fit quite soon."
"Sure? They're not going to cut off your leg or do anything horrid?"
He laughed. "Sure," said he.
"That's all right."
There was a pause. Now that they had met they seemed to have little to say. She looked around. Presently she remarked:
"Everything looks quite fresh and clean."
"Rather public, though," said Peggy.
"Publicity is the paradoxical condition of the private's life," laughed Doggie.
"Well, how are you feeling?"
"First-rate," said Doggie. "It's nothing to fuss over. I hope to be out again in a month or two."
"In France—with the regiment."
Peggy drew a little breath of astonishment and sat up on her chair. His surprising statement seemed to have broken up the atmosphere of restraint.
"Do you mean to say you want to go back to the trenches?"
Conscientious Doggie knitted his brows. A fervent "Yes" would proclaim him a modern Paladin, eager to slay Huns. Now, as a patriotic Englishman he loved Huns to be slain, but as the survivor of James Marmaduke Trevor, dilettante expert on the theorbo and the viol da gamba and owner of the peacock and ivory room in Denby Hall, to say nothing of the collector of little china dogs, he could not honestly declare that he enjoyed the various processes of slaying them.
"I can't explain," he replied, after a while. "When I was out, I thought I hated every minute of it. Now I look back, I find I've had quite a good time. I've not once really been sick or sorry. For instance, I've often thought myself beastly miserable with wet and mud and east wind—but I've never had even a cold in the head. I never knew how good it was to feel fit. And there are other things. When I left Durdlebury, I hadn't a man friend in the world. Now I have a lot of wonderful pals who would go through hell for one another—and for me."
"You mean gentlemen in the ranks?"
"Not a bit of it. Or yes. All are gentlemen in the ranks. All sorts and conditions of men. The man whom I honour and love more than anyone else, comes from a fish-shop in Hackney. That's the fascinating part of it. Do understand me, Peggy," he continued, after a short silence, during which she regarded him almost uncomprehendingly. "I don't say I'm yearning to sleep in a filthy dug out or to wallow in the ground under shell-fire, or anything of that sort. That's beastly. There's only one other word for it, which begins with the same letter, and the superior kind of private doesn't use it in ladies' society.... But while I'm lying here I wonder what all the other fellows are doing—they're such good chaps—real, true, clean men—out there you seem to get to essentials—all the rest is leather and prunella—and I want to be back among them again. Why should I be in clover while they're in choking dust—a lot of it composed of desiccated Boches?"
"How horrid!" cried Peggy, with a little shiver.
"Of course it's horrid. But they've got to stick it, haven't they? And then there's another thing. Out there one hasn't any worries."
Peggy pricked up her ears. "Worries? What kind of worries?"
Doggie became conscious of indiscretion. He temporized.
"Oh, all kinds. Every man with a sort of trained intellect must have them. You remember John Stuart Mill's problem: 'Which would you sooner be—a contented hog, or a discontented philosopher?' At the Front you have all the joys of the contented hog."
Instinctively he stretched out his hand for a cigarette. She bent forward, gripped a matchbox, and lit the cigarette for him.
Doggie thanked her politely; but in a dim way he felt conscious of something lacking in her little act of helpfulness. It had been performed with the unsmiling perfunctoriness of the nurse; an act of duty, not of tenderness. As she blew out the match, which she did with an odd air of deliberation, her face wore the same expression of hardness it had done on that memorable day when she had refused him her sympathy over the white feather incident.
"I can't understand your wanting to go back at all. Surely you've done your bit," she said.
"No one has done his bit who's alive and able to carry on," replied Doggie.
Peggy reflected. Yes. There was some truth in that. But she thought it rather hard lines on the wounded to be sent back as soon as they were patched up. Most of them hated the prospect. That was why she couldn't understand Doggie's desire.
"Anyhow, it's jolly noble of you, dear old thing," she declared with rather a spasmodic change of manner, "and I'm very proud of you."
"For God's sake, don't go imagining me a hero," cried Doggie in alarm, "for I'm not. I hate the fighting like poison. The only reason I don't run away is because I can't. It would be far more dangerous than standing still. It would mean an officer's bullet through my head at once."
"Any man who is wounded in the defence of his country is a hero," said Peggy defiantly.
"Rot!" said Doggie.
"And all this time you haven't told me how you got it. How did you?"
Doggie squirmed. The inevitable and dreaded question had come at last.
"I just got sniped when I was out, at night, with a wiring party," he said hurriedly.
"But that's no description at all," she objected.
"I'm afraid it's all I can give," Doggie replied. Then, by way of salve to a sensitive conscience, he added: "There was nothing brave or heroic about it, at all—just a silly accident. It was as safe as tying up hollyhocks in a garden. Only an idiot Boche let off his gun on spec and got me. Don't let us talk about it."
But Peggy was insistent. "I'm not such a fool as not to know what mending barbed wire at night means. And whatever you may say, you got wounded in the service of your country."
It was on Doggie's agitated lips to shout a true "I didn't!" For that was the devil of it. Had he been so wounded, he could have purred contentedly while accepting the genuine hero's meed of homage and consolation. But he had left his country's service to enter that of Jeanne. In her service he had been shot through the leg. He had no business to be wounded at all. Jeanne saw that very clearly. To have exposed himself to the risk of his exploit was contrary to all his country's interests. His wound had robbed her of a fighting man, not a particularly valuable warrior, but a soldier in the firing line all the same. If every man went off like that on private missions of his own and got properly potted, there would be the end of the Army. It was horrible to be an interesting hero under false pretences.
Of course he might have been George Washingtonian enough to shout: "I cannot tell a lie. I didn't." But that would have meant relating the whole story of Jeanne. And would Peggy have understood the story of Jeanne? Could Peggy, in her plain-sailing, breezy British way, have appreciated all the subtleties of his relations with Jeanne? She would ask pointed, probably barbed, questions about Jeanne. She would tear the whole romance to shreds. Jeanne stood too exquisite a symbol for him to permit the sacrilege of Peggy's ruthless vivisection. For vivisect she would, without shadow of doubt. His long and innocent familiarity with womankind in Durdlebury had led him instinctively to the conclusion formulated by one of the world's greatest cynics in his advice to a young man: "If you care for happiness, never speak to a woman about another woman."
Doggie felt uncomfortable as he looked into Peggy's clear blue eyes; not conscience-stricken at the realization of himself as a scoundrelly Don Juan—that never entered his ingenuous mind; but he hated his enforced departure from veracity. The one virtue that had dragged the toy Pom successfully along the Rough Road of the soldier's life was his uncompromising attitude to Truth. It cost him a sharp struggle with his soul to reply to Peggy:
"All right. Have it so if it pleases you, my dear. But it was an idiot fluke all the same."
"I wonder if you know how you've changed," she said, after a while.
"For better or worse?"
"The obvious thing to say would be 'for the better.' But I wonder. Do you mind if I'm frank?"
"Not a bit."
"There's something hard about you, Marmaduke."
Doggie wrinkled lips and brow in a curious smile. "I'll be frank too. You see, I've been living among men, instead of a pack of old women."
"I suppose that's it," Peggy said thoughtfully.
"It's a dud sort of place, Durdlebury," said he.
He laughed. "It never goes off."
"You used to say, in your letters, that you longed for it."
"Perhaps I do now—in a way. I don't know."
"I bet you'll settle down there after the war, just as though nothing had happened."
"I wonder," said Doggie.
"Of course you will. Do you remember our plans for the reconstruction of Denby Hall, which were knocked on the head? All that'll have to be gone into again."
"That doesn't mean that we need curl ourselves up there for ever like caterpillars in a cabbage."
She arched her eyebrows. "What would you like to do?"
"I think I'll want to go round and round the world till I'm dizzy."
At this amazing pronouncement from Marmaduke Trevor, Peggy gasped. It also astonished Doggie himself. He had not progressed so far on the road to self-emancipation as to dream of a rupture of his engagement. His marriage was as much a decree of destiny as had been his enlistment when he walked to Peter Pan's statue in Kensington Gardens. But the war had made the prospect a distant one. In the vague future he would marry and settle down. But now Peggy brought it into alarming nearness, thereby causing him considerable agitation. To go back to vegetation in Durdlebury, even with so desirable a companion cabbage as Peggy, just when he was beginning to conjecture what there might be of joy and thrill in life—the thought dismayed him; and the sudden dismay found expression in his rhetorical outburst.
"Oh, if you want to travel for a year or two, I'm all for it," cried Peggy. "I can't say I've seen much of the world. But we'll soon get sick of it, and yearn for home. There'll be lots of things to do. We'll take up our position as county people—no more of the stuffy old women you're so down on—and you'll get into Parliament and sit on committees, and so on, and altogether we'll have a topping time."
Doggie had an odd sensation that a stranger spoke through Peggy's familiar lips. Well, perhaps, not a stranger, but a half-forgotten dead and gone acquaintance.
"Don't you think the war will change things—if it hasn't changed them already?"
"Not a bit," Peggy replied. "Dad's always talking learnedly about social reconstruction, whatever that means. But if people have got money and position and all that sort of thing, who's going to take it away from them? You don't suppose we're all going to turn socialists and pool the wealth of the country, and everybody's going to live in a garden-city and wear sandals and eat nuts?"
"Of course not," said Doggie.
"Well, how are people like ourselves going to feel any difference in what you call social conditions?"
Doggie lit another cigarette, chiefly in order to gain time for thought; but an odd instinct made him secure the matchbox before he picked out the cigarette. Superficially, Peggy's proposition was incontrovertible. Unless there happened some social cataclysm, involving a newly democratized world in ghastly chaos, which after all was a remote possibility, the externals of gentle life would undergo very slight modification. Yet there was something fundamentally wrong in Peggy's conception of post-war existence. Something wrong in essentials. Now, a critical attitude towards Peggy, whose presence was a proof of her splendid loyalty, seemed hateful. But there was something wrong all the same. Something wrong in Peggy herself that put her into opposition. In one aspect, she was the pre-war Peggy, with her cut-and-dried little social ambitions and her definite projects of attainment; but in another she was not. The pre-war Peggy had swiftly turned into the patriotic English girl who had hounded him into the army. He found himself face to face with an amorphous, characterless sort of Peggy whom he did not know. It was perplexing, baffling. Before he could formulate an idea, she went on:
"You silly old thing, what change is there likely to be? What change is there now, after all? There's a scarcity of men. Naturally. They're out fighting. But when they come home on leave, life goes on just the same as before—tennis parties, little dances, dinners. Of course, lots of people are hard hit. Did I tell you that Jack Paunceby was killed—the only son? The war's awful and dreadful, I know—but if we don't go through with it cheerfully, what's the good of us?"
"I think I'm pretty cheerful," said Doggie.
"Oh, you're not grousing and you're making the best of it. You're perfectly splendid. But you're philosophizing such a lot over it. The only thing before us is to do in Germany, Prussian militarism, and so on, and then there'll be peace, and we'll all be happy again."
"Have you met many men who say that?" he asked.
"Heaps. Oliver was only talking about it the other day."
At his quick challenge he could not help noticing a little cloud, as of vexation, pass over her face.
"Yes, Oliver," she replied, with an unnecessary air of defiance. "He has been over here on short leave. Went back a fortnight ago. He's as cheerful as cheerful can be. Jollier than ever he was. I took him out in the dear old two-seater and he insisted on driving to show how they drove at the Front—and it's only because the Almighty must have kept a special eye on a Dean's daughter that I'm here to tell the tale."
"You saw a lot of him, I suppose?" said Doggie.
A flush rose on Peggy's cheek. "Of course. He was staying at the Deanery most of his time. I wrote to you about it. I've made a point of telling you everything. I even told you about the two-seater."
"So you did," said Doggie. "I remember." He smiled. "Your description made me laugh. Oliver's a major now, isn't he?"
"Yes. And just before he got his majority they gave him the Military Cross."
"He must be an awful swell," said Doggie.
She replied with some heat. "He hasn't changed the least little bit in the world."
Doggie shook his head. "No one can go through it, really go through it, and come back the same."
"You don't insinuate that Oliver hasn't really gone through it?"
"Of course not, Peggy dear. They don't throw M.C.'s about like Iron Crosses. In order to get it Oliver must have looked into the jaws of hell. They all do. But no man is the same afterwards. Oliver has what the French call panache——"
"The real heroic swagger—something spiritual about it. Oliver's not going to let you notice the change in him."
"We went to the Alhambra, and he laughed as if such a thing as war had never been heard of."
"Naturally," said Doggie. "All that's part of the panache."
"You're talking through your hat, Marmaduke," she exclaimed with some irritation. "Oliver's a straight, clean, English soldier."
"I've been doing my best to tell you so," said Doggie.
"But you seem to be criticizing him because he's concealing something behind what you call his panache."
"Not criticizing, dear. Only stating. I think I'm more Oliverian than you."
"I'm not Oliverian," cried Peggy, with burning cheeks. "And I don't see why we should discuss him like this. All I said was that Oliver, who has made himself a distinguished man and will be even more distinguished, and, at any rate, knows what he's talking about, doesn't worry his head with social reconstruction and all that sort of rot. I've come here to talk about you, not about Oliver. Let us leave him out of the question."
"Willingly," said Doggie. "I never had any reason to love Oliver; but I must do him justice. I only wanted to show you that he must be a bigger man than you imagine."
"I'm glad to hear you say so," cried Peggy, with a flash of the eyes. "I hope it's true."
"The war's such a whacking big thing, you see," he said with a conciliatory smile. "No one can prophesy exactly what's going to come out of it. But the whole of human society ... the world, the whole of civilization, is being stirred up like a Christmas pudding. The war's bound to change the trend of all human thought. There must be an entire rearrangement of social values."
"I'm sorry; but I don't see it," said Peggy.
Doggie again wrinkled his brow and looked at her, and she returned his glance stonily.
"You think I'm mulish."
She had interpreted Doggie's thought, but he raised a hand in protest.
"Yes, yes. Every man looks at a woman like that when he thinks her a mule or an idiot. We get to learn it in our cradles. But in spite of your superior wisdom, I know I'm right. After the war there won't be a bit of change, really. A duke will be a duke, and a costermonger a costermonger."
"These are extreme cases. The duke may remain a duke, but he won't be such a little tin god on wheels. He'll find himself in the position of a democratic country gentleman. And the costermonger will rise to the political position of an important tradesman. But between the two there'll be any old sort of flux."
"Did you learn all this horrible, rank socialism in France?"
"Perhaps, but it seems so obvious."
"It's only because you've been living among Tommies, who've got these stupid ideas into their heads. If you had been living among your social equals——"
She flashed rebellion. "Yes. In Durdlebury. Why not?"
"I'm afraid, Peggy dear," he said, with his patient, pleasant smile, "you are rather sheltered from the war in Durdlebury."
She cried out indignantly.
"Indeed we're not. The newspapers come to Durdlebury, don't they? And everybody's doing something. We have the war all around us. We've even succeeded in getting wounded soldiers in the Cottage Hospital. Nancy Murdoch is a V.A.D. and scrubs floors. Cissy James is driving a Y.M.C.A. motor-car in Calais. Jane Brown-Gore is nursing in Salonika. We read all their letters. Personally, I can't do much, because mother has crocked up and I've got to run the Deanery. But I'm slaving from morning to night. Only last week I got up a concert for the wounded. Alone I did it—and it takes some doing in Durdlebury, now that you're away and the Musical Association has perished of inanition. Old Dr. Flint's no earthly good, since Tom, the eldest son—you remember—was killed in Mesopotamia. So I did it all, and it was a great success. We netted four hundred and seventy pounds. And whenever I can get a chance, I go round the hospital and talk and read to the men and write their letters, and hear of everything. I don't think you've any right to say we're out of touch with the war. In a sort of way, I know as much about it as you do."
Doggie in some perplexity scratched his head, a thing which he would never have done at Durdlebury. With humorous intent he asked:
"Do you know as much as Oliver?"
"Oliver's a field officer," she replied tartly, and Doggie felt snubbed. "But I'm sure he agrees with everything I say." She paused and, in a different tone, went on: "Don't you think it's rather rotten to have this piffling argument when I've come all this long way to see you?"
"Forgive me, Peggy," he said penitently; "I appreciate your coming more than I can say."
She was not appeased. "And yet you don't give me credit for playing the game."
"What game?" he asked with a smile.
"Surely you ought to know."
He reached out his hand and took hers. "Am I worth it, Peggy?"
Her lips twitched and tears stood in her eyes.
"I don't know what you mean?"
"Neither do I quite," he replied simply. "But it seems that I'm a Tommy through and through, and that I'll never get Tommy out of my soul."
"That's nothing to be ashamed of," she declared stoutly.
"Of course not. But it makes one see all sorts of things in a different light."
"Oh, don't worry your head about that," she said, with pathetic misunderstanding. "We'll put you all right as soon as we get you back to Durdlebury. I suppose you won't refuse to come this time."
"Yes, I'll come this time," said Doggie.
So he promised, and the talk drifted on to casual lines. She gave him the mild chronicle of the sleepy town, described plays which she had seen on her rare visits to London, sketched out a programme for his all too short visit to the Deanery.
"And in the meanwhile," she remarked, "try to get these morbid ideas out of your silly old head."
Time came for parting. She rose and shook hands.
"Don't think I've said anything in depreciation of Tommies. I understand them thoroughly. They're wonderful fellows. Good-bye, old boy. Get well soon."
She kissed her hand to him at the door, and was gone.
It was now that Doggie began to hate himself. For all the time that Peggy had been running on, eager to convince him that his imputation of aloofness from the war was undeserved, the voice of one who, knowing its splendours and its terrors, had pierced to the heart of its mysteries, ran in his ears.
"Leur gaiete fait peur."
The X-rays showed the tiniest splinter of bone in Doggie's thigh. The surgeon fished it up and the clean wound healed rapidly. The gloomy Penworthy's prognostication had not come true. Doggie would not stump about at ease on a wooden leg; but in all probability would soon find himself back in the firing line—a prospect which brought great cheer to Penworthy. Also to Doggie. For, in spite of the charm of the pretty hospital, the health-giving sea air, the long rest for body and nerves, life seemed flat and unprofitable.
He had written a gay, irreproachable letter to Jeanne, to which Jeanne, doubtless thinking it the last word of the episode, had not replied. Loyalty to Peggy forbade further thought of Jeanne. He must henceforward think of Peggy and her sturdy faithfulness as hard as he could. But the more he thought, the more remote did Peggy seem. Of course the publicity of the interview had invested it with a certain constraint, knocked out of it any approach to sentimentality or romance. They had not even kissed. They had spent most of the time arguing from different points of view. They had been near to quarrelling. It was outrageous of him to criticize her; yet how could he help it? The mere fact of striving to exalt her was a criticism.
Indeed they were far apart. Into the sensitive soul of Doggie the war in all its meaning had paused. The soul of Peggy had remained untouched. To her, in her sheltered corner of England, it was a ghastly accident, like a railway collision blocking the traffic on her favourite line. For the men of her own class who took part in it, it was a brave adventure; for the common soldier a sad but patriotic necessity. If circumstances had allowed her to go forth into the war-world as nurse or canteen helper at a London terminus, or motor driver in France, her horizon would have broadened. But the contact with realities into which her dilettante little war activities brought her was too slight to make the deep impression. In her heart, as far as she revealed herself to Doggie, she resented the war because it interfered with her own definitely marked out scheme of existence. The war over, she would regard it politely as a thing that had never been, and would forthwith set to work upon her aforesaid interrupted plan. And towards a comprehension of this apparent serenity the perplexed mind of Doggie groped with ill-success. All his old values had been kicked into higgledy-piggledy confusion. All hers remained steadfast.
So Doggie reflected with some grimness that there are rougher roads than those which lead to the trenches.
A letter from Phineas did not restore equanimity. It ran:
"MY DEAR LADDIE,—
"Our unsophisticated friend, Mo, and myself are writing this letter together and he bids me begin it by saying that he hopes it finds you as it leaves us at present, in a muck of dust and perspiration. Where we are now I must not tell, for (in the opinion of the Censor) you would reveal it to the very Reverend the Dean of Durdlebury, who would naturally telegraph the information to the Kaiser. But the Division is far, far from the idyllic land of your dreams, and there is bloody fighting ahead of us. And though the hearts of Mo and me go out to you, laddie, and though we miss you sore, yet Mo says he's blistering glad you're out of it and safe in your perishing bed with a Blighty one. And such, in more academic phraseology, are the sentiments of your old friend Phineas.
"Ah, laddie! it was a bad day when we marched from the old billets; for the word had gone round that we weren't going back. I had taken the liberty of telling the lassie ye ken of something about your private position and your worldly affairs, of which it seems you had left her entirely ignorant. Of course, with my native Scottish caution, and my knowledge of human nature gained in the academies of prosperity and the ragged schools of adversity, I did not touch on certain matters of a delicate nature. That is no business of mine. If there is discretion in this world in which you can trust blindly, it is that of Phineas McPhail. I just told her of Denby Hall and your fortune, which I fairly accurately computed at a couple of million francs. For I thought it was right she should know that you weren't just a scallywag private soldier like the rest of us. And I am bound to say that the lassie was considerably impressed. In further conversation I told her something of your early life, and, though not over desirous of blackening my character in her bonnie eyes, I let her know what kind of an injudicious upbringing you had been compelled to undergo. 'Il a ete eleve,' said I, 'dans——' What the blazes was the French for cotton-wool? The war has a pernicious effect on one's memory—I sometimes even forget the elementary sensations of inebriety. 'Dans la ouate,' she said. And I remembered the word. 'Oui, dans la ouate,' said I. And she looked at me, laddie, or, rather, through me, out of her great dark eyes—you mind the way she treats your substance as a shadow and looks through it at the shadows that to her are substances—and she said below her breath—I don't think she meant me to hear it—'Et c'est lui qui a fait cela pour moi.'
"Mo, in his materialistic way, is clamorous that I should tell you about the chicken; the which, being symbolical, I proceed to do. It was our last day. She invited us to lunch in the kitchen and shut the door so that none of the hungry varlets of the company should stick in their unmannerly noses and whine for scraps. And there, laddie, was an omelette and cutlets and a chicken and a fromage a la creme such as in the days of my vanity I have never eaten, cooked by the old body whose soul you won with a pinch of snuff. The poor lassie could scarcely eat; but Mo saw that there was nothing left. The bones on his plate looked as if a dog had been at them for a week. And there was vintage Haut Sauterne which ran down one's throat like scented gold. 'Man,' said I to Mo, 'if you lap it up like that you'll be as drunk as Noah.' So he cast a frightened glance at mademoiselle and sipped like a young lady at a christening party. Then she brings out cherries and plums and peaches and opens a half-bottle of champagne and fills all our glasses, and Toinette had a glass; and she rises in the pale, dignified, Greek tragedy way she has, and she makes a wee bit speech. 'Messieurs,' she said, 'perhaps you may wonder why I have invited you. But I think you understand. It is the only way I had of sharing with Doggie's friends the fortune that he had so heroically brought me. It is but a little tribute of my gratitude to Doggie. You are his friends and I wish well that you would be mine—tres franchement, tres loyalement.' She put out her hand and we shook it. And old Mo said, 'Miss, I'd go to hell for you!' Whereupon the little red spot you may have seen for yourself, came into her pale cheek, and a soft look like a flitting moonbeam crept into her eyes. Laddie, if I'm waxing too poetical, just consider that Mademoiselle Jeanne Bossiere is not the ordinary woman the British private soldier is in the habit of consorting with. Then she took up her glass. 'Je vais porter un toast—Vive l'Angleterre!' And although a Scotsman, I drank it as if it applied to me. And then she cried, 'Vive la France!' And old Toinette cried, 'Vive la France!'
"And they looked transfigured, and I fairly itched to sing the Marseillaise, though I knew I couldn't. Then she chinked glasses with us.
"'Bonne chance, mes amis!'
"And then she made a sign to the auld wife, who added the few remaining drops to our glasses. 'To Doggie!' said mademoiselle. We drank the toast, laddie. Old Mo began in his cracked voice, 'For he's a jolly good fellow.' I kicked him and told him to shut up. But mademoiselle said:
"'I've heard of that. It is a ceremony. I like it. Continue.'
"So Mo and I held up our glasses and, in indifferent song, proclaimed you what the Army, developing certain rudimentary germs, has made you, and mademoiselle too held up her glass and threw back her head and joined us in the hip, hip, hoorays. It would have done your heart good, laddie, to have been there to see. But we did you proud.
"When we emerged from the festival, the prettiest which, in the course of a variegated career, I have ever attended, Mo says:
"'If I hadn't a gel at home——'
"'If you hadn't got a girl at home,' said I, 'you'd be the next damnedest fool in the army to Phineas McPhail!'
"We marched out just before dusk, and there she was by the front door; and though she stood proud and upright, and smiled with her lips and blew us kisses with both hands, to which the boys all responded with a cheer, there were tears streaming down her cheeks—and the tears, laddie, were not for Mo, or me, or any one of us ugly beggars that passed her by.
"I also have good news for you, in that I hear from the thunderous, though excellent, Sergeant Ballinghall, there is a probability that when you rejoin, the C.O. will be afflicted with a grievous lapse of memory and that he will be persuaded that you received your wound during the attack on the wiring party.
"As I said before, laddie, we're all like the Scots wha' hae wi' Wallace bled and are going to our gory bed or to victory. Possibly both. But I will remain steadfast to my philosophy, and if I am condemned to the said sanguinolent couch, I will do my best to derive from it the utmost enjoyment possible. All kinds of poets and such-like lusty loons have shed their last drop of ink in the effort to describe the pleasures of life—but it will be reserved for the disembodied spirit of Phineas McPhail to write the great Philosophic poem of the world's history, which will be entitled 'The Pleasures of Death.' While you're doing nothing, laddie, you might bestir yourself and find an enlightened publisher who would be willing to give me an ante-mortem advance, in respect of royalties accruing to my ghost.
"Mo, to whom I have read the last paragraph, says he always knew that eddication affected the brain. With which incontrovertible proposition and our joint love, I now conclude this epistle.
"Of all the blazing imbeciles!" Doggie cried aloud. Why the unprintable unprintableness couldn't Phineas mind his own business? Why had he given his silly accident of fortune away in this childish manner? Why had he told Jeanne of his cotton-wool upbringing? His feet, even that of his wounded leg, tingled to kick Phineas. Of course Jeanne, knowing him now to be such a gilded ass, would have nothing more to do with him. It explained her letter. He damned Phineas to all eternity, in terms compared with which the curse of Saint Ernulphus enunciated by the late Mr. Shandy was a fantastic benediction. "If I had a dog," quoth my Uncle Toby, "I would not curse him so." But if Uncle Toby had heard Doggie of the Twentieth Century Armies who also swore terribly in Flanders, for dog he would have substituted rattlesnake or German officer.
Yet such is the quiddity of the English Tommy, that through this devastating anathema ran a streak of love which at the end turned the whole thing into forlorn derision. And as soon as he could laugh, he saw things in a clear light. Both of his two friends were, in their respective ways, in love with his wonderful Jeanne. Both of them were steel-true to him. It was just part of their loyalty to foment this impossible romance between Jeanne and himself. If the three of them were now at Frelus, the two idiots would be playing gooseberry with the smirking conscientiousness of a pair of schoolgirls. So Doggie forgave the indiscretion. After all, what did it matter?
It mattered, however, to this extent, that he read the letter over and over again until he knew it by heart and could picture to himself every phase of the banquet and every fleeting look on Jeanne's face.
"All this," he declared at last, "is utterly ridiculous." And he tore up Phineas's letter and, during his convalescence, devoted himself to the study of European politics, a subject which he had scandalously neglected during his elegantly leisured youth.
* * * * *
The day of his discharge came in due course. A suit of khaki took the place of the hospital blue. He received his papers, the seven days' sick furlough and his railway warrant, shook hands with nurses and comrades and sped to Durdlebury in the third-class carriage of the Tommy.
Peggy, in the two-seater, was waiting for him in the station yard. He exchanged greetings from afar, grinned, waved a hand and jumped in beside her.
"How jolly of you to meet me!"
"Where's your luggage?"
It seemed to be a new word. He had not heard it for many months. He laughed.
"Haven't got any, thank God! If you knew what it was to hunch a horrible canvas sausage of kit about, you'd appreciate feeling free."
"It's a mercy you've got Peddle," said Peggy. "He has been at the Deanery fixing things up for you for the last two days."
"I wonder if I shall be able to live up to Peddle," said Doggie.
"Who's going to start the car?" she asked.
"Oh, lord!" he cried, and bolted out and turned the crank. "I'm awfully sorry," he added, when, the engine running, he resumed his place. "I had forgotten all about these pretty things. Out there a car is a sacred chariot set apart for gods in brass hats, and the ordinary Tommy looks on them with awe and reverence."
"Can't you forget you're a Tommy for a few days?" she said, as soon as the car had cleared the station gates and was safely under way.
He noted a touch of irritation. "All right, Peggy dear," said he. "I'll do what I can."
"Oliver's here, with his man Chipmunk," she remarked, her eyes on the road.
"Oliver? On leave again? How has he managed it?"
"You'd better ask him," she replied tartly. "All I know is that he turned up yesterday, and he's staying with us. That's why I don't want you to ram the fact of your being a Tommy down everybody's throat."
He laughed at the queer little social problem that seemed to be worrying her. "I think you'll find blood is thicker than military etiquette. After all, Oliver's my first cousin. If he can't get on with me, he can get out." To change the conversation, he added after a pause: "The little car's running splendidly."
They swept through the familiar old-world streets, which, now that the early frenzy of mobilizing Territorials and training of new armies was over, had resumed more or less their pre-war appearance. The sleepy meadows by the river, once ground into black slush by guns and ammunition waggons and horses, were now green again and idle, and the troops once billeted on the citizens had marched heaven knows whither—many to heaven itself—or whatever Paradise is reserved for the great-hearted English fighting man who has given his life for England. Only here and there a stray soldier on leave, or one of the convalescents from the cottage hospital, struck an incongruous note of war. They drew up at the door of the Deanery under the shadow of the great cathedral.
"Thank God that is out of reach of the Boche," said Doggie, regarding it with a new sense of its beauty and spiritual significance. "To think of it like Rheims or Arras—I've seen Arras—seen a shell burst among the still standing ruins. Oh, Peggy"—he gripped her arm—"you dear people haven't the remotest conception of what it all is—what France has suffered. Imagine this mass of wonder all one horrible stone pie, without a trace of what it once had been."
"I suppose we're jolly lucky," she replied.
The door was opened by the old butler, who had been on the alert for the arrival.
"You run in," said Peggy, "I'll take the car round to the yard."
So Doggie, with a smile and a word of greeting, entered the Deanery. His uncle appeared in the hall, florid, white-haired, benevolent, and extended both hands to the home-come warrior.
"My dear boy, how glad I am to see you. Welcome back. And how's the wound? We've thought night and day of you. If I could have spared the time, I should have run up north, but I've not a minute to call my own. We're doing our share of war work here, my boy. Come into the drawing-room."
He put his hand affectionately on Doggie's arm and, opening the drawing-room door, pushed him in and stood, in his kind, courtly way, until the young man had passed the threshold. Mrs. Conover, feeble from illness, rose and kissed him, and gave him much the same greeting as her husband. Then a tall, lean figure in uniform, who had remained in the background by the fireplace, advanced with outstretched hand.
"Hello, old chap!"
Doggie took the hand in an honest grip.
"How goes it?"
"Splendid," said Doggie. "You all right?"
"Top-hole," said Oliver. He clapped his cousin on the shoulder. "My hat! you do look fit." He turned to the Dean. "Uncle Edward, isn't he a hundred times the man he was?"
"I told you, my boy, you would see a difference," said the Dean.
Peggy ran in, having delivered the two-seater to the care of myrmidons.
"Now that the affecting meeting is over, let us have tea. Oliver, ring the bell."
The tea came. It appeared to Doggie, handing round the three-tiered silver cake-stand, that he had returned to some forgotten former incarnation. The delicate china cup in his hand seemed too frail for the material usages of life and he feared lest he should break it with rough handling. Old habit, however, prevailed, and no one noticed his sense of awkwardness. The talk lay chiefly between Oliver and himself. They exchanged experiences as to dates and localities. They bandied about the names of places which will be inscribed in letters of blood in history for all time, as though they were popular golf-courses. Both had known Ypres and Plug Street, and the famous wall at Arras, where the British and German trenches were but five yards apart. Oliver's division had gone down to the Somme in July for the great push.
"I ought to be there now," said Oliver. "I feel a hulking slacker and fraud, being home on sick leave. But the M.O. said I had just escaped shell-shock by the skin of my nerves, and they packed me home for a fortnight to rest up—while the regiment, what there's left of it, went into reserve."
"Did you get badly cut up?" asked Doggie.
"Rather. We broke through all right. Then machine guns which we had overlooked got us in the back."
"My lot's down there now," said Doggie.
"You're well out of it, old chap," laughed Oliver.
For the first time in his life Doggie began really to like Oliver. The old-time swashbuckling swagger had gone—the swagger of one who would say: "I am the only live man in this comatose crowd. I am the dare-devil buccaneer who defies the thunder and sleeps on boards while the rest of you are lying soft in feather-beds." His direct, cavalier way he still retained; but the army, with the omnipotent might of its inherited traditions, had moulded him to its pattern; even as it had moulded Doggie. And Doggie, who had learned many of the lessons in human psychology which the army teaches, knew that Oliver's genial, familiar talk was not all due to his appreciation of their social equality in the bosom of their own family, but that he would have treated much the same any Tommy into whose companionship he had been casually thrown. The Tommy would have said "sir" very scrupulously, which on Doggie's part would have been an idiotic thing to do; but they would have got on famously together, bound by the freemasonry of fighting men who had cursed the same foe for the same reasons. So Oliver stood out before Doggie's eyes in a new light, that of the typical officer trusted and beloved by his men, and his heart went out to him.
"I've brought Chipmunk over," said Oliver. "You remember the freak? The poor devil hasn't had a day's leave for a couple of years. Didn't want it. Why should he go and waste money in a country where he didn't know a human being? But this time I've fixed it up for him and his leave is coterminous with mine. He has been my servant all through. If they took him away from me, he'd be quite capable of strangling the C.O. He's a funny beggar."
"And what kind of a soldier?" the Dean asked politely.
"There's not a finer one in all the armies of the earth," said Oliver.
After much further talk the dressing-gong boomed softly through the house.
"You've got the green room, Marmaduke," said Peggy. "The one with the Chippendale stuff you used to covet so much."
"I haven't got much to change into," laughed Doggie.
"You'll find Peddle up there waiting for you," she replied.
And when Doggie entered the green room there he found Peddle, who welcomed him with tears of joy and a display of all the finikin luxuries of the toilet and adornment which he had left behind at Denby Hall. There were pots of pomade and face-cream, and nail-polish; bottles of hair-wash and tooth-wash; little boxes and brushes for the moustache, half a dozen gleaming razors, an array of brushes and combs and manicure-set in tortoise-shell with his crest in silver, bottles of scent with spray attachments; the onyx bowl of bath salts beside the hip-bath ready to be filled from the ewers of hot and cold water—the Deanery, old-fashioned house, had but one family bath-room; the deep purple silk dressing-gown over the foot-rail of the bed, the silk pyjamas in a lighter shade spread out over the pillow, the silk underwear and soft-fronted shirt fitted with his ruby and diamond sleeve-links, hung up before the fire to air; the dinner jacket suit laid out on the glass-topped Chippendale table, with black tie and delicate handkerchief; the silk socks carefully tucked inside out, the glossy pumps with the silver shoe-horn laid across them.
"My God! Peddle," cried Doggie, scratching his closely cropped head. "What the devil's all this?"
Peddle, grey, bent, uncomprehending, regarded him blankly.
"All what, sir?"
"I only want to wash my hands," said Doggie.
"But aren't you going to dress for dinner, sir?"
"A private soldier's not allowed to wear mufti, Peddle. They'd dock me of a week's pay if they found out."
"Who's to find out, sir?"
"There's Mr. Oliver—he's a Major."
"Lord, Mr. Marmaduke, I don't think he'd mind. Miss Peggy gave me my orders, sir, and I think you can leave things to her."
"All right, Peddle," he laughed. "If it's Miss Peggy's decree, I'll change. I've got all I want."
"Are you sure you can manage, sir?" Peddle asked anxiously, for time was when Doggie couldn't stick his legs into his trousers unless Peddle held them out for him.
"Quite," said Doggie.
"It seems rather roughing it here, Mr. Marmaduke, after what you've been accustomed to at the Hall."
"That's so," said Doggie. "And it's martyrdom compared with what it is in the trenches. There we always have a major-general to lace up our boots, and a field-marshal's always hovering round to light our cigarettes."
Peddle, who had never known him to jest, or his father before him, went out in a muddled frame of mind, leaving Doggie to struggle into his dress trousers as best he might.
When Doggie, in dinner suit, went downstairs, he found Peggy alone in the drawing-room. She gave him the kiss of one accustomed to kiss him from childhood, and sat down again on the fender-stool.
"Now you look more like a Christian gentleman," she laughed. "Confess. It's much more comfortable than your wretched private's uniform."
"I'm not quite so sure," he said, somewhat ruefully, indicating his dinner jacket tightly constricted beneath the arms. "Already I've had to slit my waistcoat down the back. Poor old Peddle will have an apoplectic fit when he sees it. I've grown a bit since these elegant rags were made for me."
"Il faut souffrir pour etre beau," said Peggy.
"If my being beau pleases you, Peggy, I'll suffer gladly. I've been in tighter places." He threw himself down in the corner of the sofa and joggled up and down like a child. "After all," he said, "it's jolly to sit on something squashy again, and to see a pretty girl in a pretty frock."
"I'm glad you like this frock."
She nodded. "Dad said it was too much of a Vanity Fair of a vanity for war-time. You don't think so, do you?"
"It's charming," said Doggie. "A treat for tired eyes."
"That's just what I told dad. What's the good of women dressing in sacks tied round the middle with a bit of string? When men come home from the Front they want to see their womenfolk looking pretty and dainty. That's what they've come over for. It's part of the cure. It's the first time you've been a real dear, Marmaduke. 'A treat for tired eyes.' I'll rub it into dad hard."
Oliver came in—in khaki. Doggie jumped up and pointed to him.
"Look here, Peggy. It's the guard-room for me."
Oliver laughed. "Where the dinner kit I bought when I came home is now, God only can tell." He turned to Peggy. "I did change, you know."
"That's the pull of being a beastly Major," said Doggie. "They have heaps of suits. On the march, there are motor-lorries full of them. It's the scandal of the army. The wretched Tommy has but one suit to his name. That's why, sir, I've taken the liberty of appearing before you in outgrown mufti."
"All right, my man," said Oliver. "We'll hush it up and say no more about it."
Then the Dean and Mrs. Conover entered and soon they went in to dinner. It was for Doggie the most pleasant of meals. He had the superbly healthy man's whole-hearted or whole-stomached appreciation of unaccustomed good food and drink: so much so, that when the Dean, after agonies of thwarted mastication, said gently to his wife: "My dear, don't you think you might speak a word in season to Peck"—Peck being the butcher—"and forbid him, under the Defence of the Realm Act, if you like, to deliver to us in the evening as lamb that which was in the morning a lusty sheep?" he stared at the good old man as though he were Vitellius in person. Tough? It was like milk-fatted baby. He was already devouring, like Oliver, his second helping. Then the Dean, pledging him and Oliver in champagne, apologized: "I'm sorry, my dear boys, the 1904 has run out and there's no more to be got. But the 1906, though not having the quality, is quite drinkable."
Drinkable! It was laughing, dancing joy that went down his throat.
So much for gross delights. There were others—finer. The charm to the eye of the table with its exquisite napery and china and glass and silver and flowers. The almost intoxicating atmosphere of peace and gentle living. The full, loving welcome shining from the eyes of the kind old Dean, his uncle by marriage, and of the faded, delicate lady, his own flesh and blood, his mother's sister. And Peggy, pretty, flushed, bright-eyed, radiant in her new dress. And there was Oliver....
Most of all he appreciated Oliver's comrade-like attitude. It was a recognition of him as a man and a soldier. In the course of dinner talk Oliver said:
"J.M.T. and I have looked Death in the face many a time—and really he's a poor raw-head and bloody-bones sort of Bogey; don't you think so, old chap?"
"It all depends on whether you've got a funk-hole handy," he replied.
But that was mere lightness of speech. Oliver's inclusion of him in his remark shook him to the depths of his sensitive nature. The man who despises the petty feelings and frailties of mankind is doomed to remain in awful ignorance of that which there is of beauty and pathos in the lives of his fellow-creatures. After all, what did it matter what Oliver thought of him? Who was Oliver? His cousin—accident of birth—the black sheep of the family; now a major in a different regiment and a different division. What was Oliver to him or he to Oliver? He had "made good" in the eyes of one whose judgment had been forged keen and absolute by heroic sorrows. What did anyone else matter? But to Doggie the supreme joy of the evening was the knowledge that he had made good in the eyes of Oliver. Oliver wore on his tunic the white mauve and white ribbon of the Military Cross. Honour where honour was due. But he, Doggie, had been wounded (no matter how) and Oliver frankly put them both on the same plane of achievement, thus wiping away, with generous hand, all hated memories of the past.
When the ladies had left the room, history repeated itself, in that the Dean was called away on business and the cousins were left alone together over their wine. Said Doggie:
"Do you remember the last time we sat at this table?"
"Perfectly," replied Oliver, holding up a glass of the old Deanery port to the light. "You were horrified at my attempting to clean out my pipe with a dessert knife."
Doggie laughed. "After all, it was a filthy thing to do."
"I quite agree with you. Since then I've learned manners."
"You also made me squirm at the idea of scooping out Boches' insides with bayonets."
"And you've learned not to squirm, so we're quits."
"You thought me a rotten ass in those days, didn't you?"
Oliver looked at him squarely.
"I don't think it would hurt you now if I said that I did." He laughed, stretched himself on his chair, thrusting both hands into his trouser pockets. "In many ways, it's a jolly good old war, you know—for those that pull through. It has taught us both a lot, Marmaduke."
Doggie wrinkled his forehead in his half-humorous way.
"I wish it would teach people not to call me by that silly name."
"I have always abominated it, as you may have observed," said Oliver. "But in our present polite relations, old chap, what else is there?"
"You ought to know——"
Oliver stared at him. "You don't mean——?"
"Yes, I do."
"But you used to loathe it and I went on calling you 'Doggie' because I knew you loathed it. I never dreamed of using it now."
"I can't help it," replied Doggie. "The name got into the army and has stuck to me right through, and now those I love and trust most in the world, and who love and trust me, call me 'Doggie,' and I don't seem to be able to answer to any other name. So, although I'm only a Tommy and you're a devil of a swell of a second-in-command, yet if you want to be friendly—well——"
Oliver leaned forward quickly. "Of course I want to be friends, Doggie, old chap. As for major and private—when you pass me in the street you've dam well got to salute me, and that's all there is to it—but otherwise it's all rot. And now we've got to the heart-to-heart stage, don't you think you're a bit of a fool?"
"I know it," said Doggie cheerfully. "The army has drummed that into me, at any rate."
"I mean in staying in the ranks. Why don't you apply for the Cadet Corps and so get through to a commission again?"
Doggie's brow grew dark. "I had all that out with Peggy long ago—when things were perhaps somewhat different with me. I was sore all over. I dare say you can understand. But now there are other reasons, much stronger reasons. The only real happiness I've had in my life has been as a Tommy. I'm not talking through my hat. The only real friends I've ever made in my life are Tommies. I've found real things as a Tommy and I'm not going to start all over again to find them in another capacity."
"You wouldn't have to start all over again," Oliver objected.
"Oh yes, I should. Don't run away with the idea that I've been turned by a miracle into a brawny hero. I'm not anything of the sort. To have to lead men into action would be a holy terror. The old dread of seeking new paths still acts, you see. I'm the same Doggie that wouldn't go out to Huaheine with you. Only now I'm a private and I'm used to it. I love it and I'm not going to change to the end of the whole gory business. Of course Peggy doesn't like it," he added after a sip of wine. "But I can't help that. It's a matter of temperament and conscience—in a way, a matter of honour."
"What has honour got to do with it?" asked Oliver.
"I'll try to explain. It's somehow this way. When I came to my senses after being chucked for incompetence—that was the worst hell I ever went through in my life—and I enlisted, I swore that I would stick it as a Tommy without anybody's sympathy, least of all that of the folks here. And then I swore I'd make good to myself as a Tommy. I was just beginning to feel happier when that infernal Boche sniper knocked me out for a time. So, Peggy or no Peggy, I'm going through with it. I suppose I'm telling you all this because I should like you to know."
He passed his hand, in the familiar gesture, from back to front of his short-cropped hair. Oliver smiled at the reminiscence of the old disturbed Doggie; but he said very gravely:
"I'm glad you've told me, old man. I appreciate it very much. I've been through the ranks myself and know what it is—the bad and the good. Many a man has found his soul that way——"
"Good God!" cried Doggie, starting to his feet. "Do you say that too?"
"Who else said it?"
The quick question caused the blood to rush to Doggie's face. Oliver's keen, half-mocking gaze held him. He cursed himself for an impulsive idiot. The true answer to the question would be a confession of Jeanne. The scene in the kitchen of Frelus swam before his eyes. He dropped into his chair again with a laugh.
"Oh, some one out there—in another heart-to-heart talk. As a matter of fact, I think I said it myself. It's odd you should have used the same words. Anyhow, you're the only other person who has hit on the truth as far as I'm concerned. Finding one's soul is a bit high-falutin—but that's about the size of it."
"Peggy hasn't hit on the truth, then?" Oliver asked, with curious earnestness, the shade of mockery gone.
"The war has scarcely touched her yet, you see," said Doggie. He rose, shrinking from discussion. "Shall we go in?"
In the drawing-room they played bridge till the ladies' bedtime. The Dean coming in, played the last rubber.
"I hope you'll be able to sleep in a common or garden bed, Marmaduke," said Peggy, and kissed him a perfunctory good night.