"I have heard," remarked the Dean, "that it takes quite a time to grow accustomed to the little amenities of civilization."
"That's quite true, Uncle Edward," laughed Doggie. "I'm terrified at the thought of the silk pyjamas Peddle has prescribed for me."
"Why?" Peggy asked bluntly.
Oliver interposed laughing, his hand on Doggie's shoulder.
"Tommy's accustomed to go to bed in his day-shirt."
"How perfectly disgusting!" cried Peggy, and swept from the room.
Oliver dropped his hand and looked somewhat abashed.
"I'm afraid I've been and gone and done it. I'm sorry. I'm still a barbarian South Sea Islander."
"I wish I were a young man," said the Dean, moving from the door and inviting them to sit, "and could take part in these strange hardships. This question of night attire, for instance, has never struck me before. The whole thing is of amazing interest. Ah! what it is to be old! If I were young, I should be with you, cloth or no cloth, in the trenches. I hope both of you know that I vehemently dissent from those bishops who prohibit the younger clergy from taking their place in the fighting line. If God's archangels and angels themselves took up the sword against the Powers of Darkness, surely a stalwart young curate of the Church of England would find his vocation in warring with rifle and bayonet against the proclaimed enemies of God and mankind?"
"The influence of the twenty thousand or so of priests fighting in the French Army is said to be enormous," Oliver remarked.
The Dean sighed. "I'm afraid we're losing a big chance."
"Why don't you take up the Fiery Cross, Uncle Edward, and run a new Crusade?"
The Dean sighed. Five-and-thirty years ago, when he had set all Durdlebury by the ears, he might have preached glorious heresy and heroic schism; but now the immutability of the great grey fabric had become part of his being.
"I've done my best, my boy," he replied, "with the result that I am held in high disfavour."
"But that doesn't matter a little bit."
"Not a little bit," said the Dean. "A man can only do his duty according to the dictates of his conscience. I have publicly deplored the attitude of the Church of England. I have written to The Times. I have published a pamphlet—I sent you each a copy—which has brought a hornets' nest about my ears. I have warned those in high places that what they are doing is not in the best interests of the Church. But they won't listen."
Oliver lit a pipe. "I'm afraid, Uncle Edward," he said, "that though I come of a clerical family, I know no more of religion than a Hun bishop; but it has always struck me that the Church's job is to look after the people, whereas, as far as I can make out, the Church is now squealing because the people won't look after the Church."
The Dean rose. "I won't go as far as that," said he with a smile. "But there is, I fear, some justification for such a criticism from the laity. As soon as the war began the Church should have gathered the people together and said, 'Onward, Christian soldiers. Go and fight like—er——'"
"Like hell," suggested Oliver, greatly daring.
"Or words to that effect," smiled the old Dean. He looked at his watch. "Dear, dear! past eleven. I wish I could sit up talking to you boys. But I start my day's work at eight o'clock. If you want anything, you've only got to ring. Good night. It is one of the proudest days of my life to have you both here together."
His courtly charm seemed to linger in the room after he had left.
"He's a dear old chap," said Oliver.
"One of the best," said Doggie.
"It's rather pathetic," said Oliver. "In his heart he would like to play the devil with the bishops and kick every able-bodied parson into the trenches—and there are thousands of them that don't need any kicking and, on the contrary, have been kicked back; but he has become half-petrified in the atmosphere of this place. It's lovely to come to as a sort of funk-hole of peace—but my holy aunt!—What the blazes are you laughing at?"
"I'm only thinking of a beast of a boy here who used to say that," replied Doggie.
"Oh!" said Oliver, and he grinned. "Anyway, I was only going to remark that if I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life here, I'd paint the town vermilion for a week and then cut my throat."
"I quite agree with you," said Doggie.
"What are you going to do when the war's over?"
"Who knows what he's going to do? What are you going to do? Fly back to your little Robinson Crusoe Durdlebury of a Pacific Island? I don't think so."
Oliver stuck his pipe on the mantelpiece and his hands on his hips and made a stride towards Doggie.
"Damn you, Doggie! Damn you to little bits! How the Hades did you guess what I've scarcely told myself, much less another human being?"
"You yourself said it was a good old war and it has taught us a lot of things."
"It has," said Oliver. "But I never expected to hear Huaheine called Durdlebury by you, Doggie. Oh, Lord! I must have another drink. Where's your glass? Say when?"
They parted for the night the best of friends.
Doggie, in spite of the silk pyjamas and the soft bed and the blazing fire in his room—he stripped back the light-excluding curtains forgetful of Defence of the Realm Acts, and opened all the windows wide, to the horror of Peddle in the morning—slept like an unperturbed dormouse. When Peddle woke him, he lay drowsily while the old butler filled his bath and fiddled about with drawers. At last aroused, he cried out:
"What the dickens are you doing?"
Peddle turned with an injured air. "I am matching your ties and socks for your bottle-green suit, sir."
Doggie leaped out of bed. "You dear old idiot, I can't go about the streets in bottle-green suits. I've got to wear my uniform." He looked around the room. "Where the devil is it?"
Peddle's injured air deepened almost into resentment.
"Where the devil——!" Never had Mr. Marmaduke, or his father, the Canon, used such language. He drew himself up.
"I have given orders, sir, for the uniform suit you wore yesterday to be sent to the cleaners."
"Oh, hell!" said Doggie. And Peddle, unaccustomed to the vernacular of the British Army, paled with horror. "Oh, hell!" said Doggie. "Look here, Peddle, just you get on a bicycle, or a motor-car, or an express train at once and retrieve that uniform. Don't you understand? I'm a private soldier. I've got to wear uniform all the time, and I'll have to stay in this beastly bed until you get it for me."
Peddle fled. The picture that he left on Doggie's mind was that of the faithful steward with dismayed, uplifted hands, retiring from the room in one of the great scenes of Hogarth's "Rake's Progress." The similitude made him laugh—for Doggie always had a saving sense of humour—but he was very angry with Peddle, while he stamped around the room in his silk pyjamas. What the deuce was he going to do? Even if he committed the military crime (and there was a far more serious crime already against him) of appearing in public in mufti, did that old ass think he was going to swagger about Durdlebury in bottle-green suits, as though he were ashamed of the King's uniform? He dipped his shaving-brush into the hot water. Then he threw it, anyhow, across the room. Instead of shaving, he would be gloating over the idea of cutting that old fool, Peddle's, throat, and therefore would slash his own face to bits.
Things, however, were not done at lightning speed in the Deanery of Durdlebury. The first steps had not even been taken to send the uniform to the cleaners, and soon Peddle reappeared carrying it over his arm and the heavy pair of munition boots in his hand.
"These too, sir?" he asked, exhibiting the latter resignedly and casting a sad glance at the neat pair of brown shoes exquisitely polished and beautifully treed which he had put out for his master's wear.
"These too," said Doggie. "And where's my grey flannel shirt?"
This time Peddle triumphed. "I've given that away, sir, to the gardener's boy."
"Well, you can just go and buy me half a dozen more like it," said Doggie.
He dismissed the old man, dressed and went downstairs. The Dean had breakfasted at seven. Peggy and Oliver were not yet down for the nine o'clock meal. Doggie strolled about the garden and sauntered round to the stable-yard. There he encountered Chipmunk in his shirt-sleeves, sitting on a packing case and polishing Oliver's leggings. He raised an ugly, clean-shaven mug and scowled beneath his bushy eyebrows at the new-comer.
"Morning, mate!" said Doggie pleasantly.
"Morning," said Chipmunk, resuming his work.
Doggie turned over a stable bucket and sat down on it and lit a cigarette.
"Glad to be back?"
Chipmunk poised the cloth on which he had poured some brown dressing. "Not if I has to be worried with private soljers," he replied. "I came 'ere to get away from 'em."
"What's wrong with private soldiers? They're good enough for you, aren't they?" asked Doggie with a laugh.
"Naow," snarled Chipmunk. "Especially when they ought to be orficers. Go to 'ell!"
Doggie, who had suffered much in the army, but had never before been taunted with being a dilettante gentleman private, still less been consigned to hell on that account, leapt to his feet shaken by one of his rare sudden gusts of anger.
"If you don't say I'm as good a private soldier as any in your rotten, mangy regiment, I'll knock your blinking head off!"
An insult to a soldier's regiment can only be wiped out in blood. Chipmunk threw cloth and legging to the winds and, springing from his seat like a monkey, went for Doggie.
"You just try."
Doggie tried, and had not Chipmunk's head been very firmly secured to his shoulders, he would have succeeded. Chipmunk went down as if he had been bombed. It was his unguarded and unscientific rush that did it. Doggie regarded his prostrate figure in gratified surprise.
"What's all this about?" cried a sharp, imperious voice.
Doggie instinctively stood at attention and saluted, and Chipmunk, picking himself up in a dazed sort of way, did likewise.
"You two men shake hands and make friends at once," Oliver commanded.
"Yes, sir," said Doggie. He extended his hand, and Chipmunk, with the nautical shamble, which in moments of stress defied a couple of years' military discipline, advanced and shook it. Oliver strode hurriedly away.
"I'm sorry I said that about the regiment, mate. I didn't mean it," said Doggie.
Chipmunk looked uncertainly into Doggie's eyes for what Doggie felt to be a very long time. Chipmunk's dull brain was slowly realizing the situation. The man opposite to him was his master's cousin. When he had last seen him, he had no title to be called a man at all. His vocabulary volcanically rich, but otherwise limited, had not been able to express him in adequate terms of contempt and derision. Now behold him masquerading as a private. Wounded. But any fool could get wounded. Behold him further coming down from the social heights whereon his master dwelt, to take a rise out of him, Chipmunk. In self-defence he had taken the obvious course. He had told him to go to hell. Then the important things had happened. Not the effeminate gentleman but some one very much like the common Tommy of his acquaintance had responded. And he had further responded with the familiar vigour but unwonted science of the rank and file. He had also stood at attention and saluted and obeyed like any common Tommy, when the Major appeared. The last fact appealed to him, perhaps, as much as the one more invested in violence.
"'Ere," said he at last, jerking his head and rubbing his jaw, "how the 'ell did you do it?"
"We'll get some gloves and I'll show you," said Doggie.
So peace and firm friendship were made. Doggie went into the house and in the dining-room found Oliver in convulsive laughter.
"Oh, my holy aunt! You'll be the death of me, Doggie. 'Yes, sir!'" He mimicked him. "The perfect Tommy. After doing in old Chipmunk. Chipmunk with the strength of a gorilla and the courage of a lion. I just happened round to see him go down. How the blazes did you manage it, Doggie?"
"That's what Chipmunk's just asked me," Doggie replied. "I belong to a regiment where boxing is taught. Really a good regiment," he grinned. "There's a sergeant-instructor, a chap called Ballinghall——"
"Not Joe Ballinghall, the well-known amateur heavy-weight?"
"That's him right enough," said Doggie.
"My dear old chap," said Oliver, "this is the funniest war that ever was."
Peggy sailed in full of apologies and began to pour out coffee.
"Do help yourselves. I'm so sorry to have kept you poor hungry things waiting."
"We've filled up the time amazingly," cried Oliver, waving a silver dish-cover. "What do you think? Doggie's had a fight with Chipmunk and knocked him out."
Peggy splashed the milk over the brim of Doggie's cup and into the saucer. There came a sudden flush on her cheek and a sudden hard look into her eyes.
"Fighting? Do you mean to say you've been fighting with a common man like Chipmunk?"
"We're the best of friends now," said Doggie. "We understand each other."
"I can't quite see the necessity," said Peggy.
"I'm afraid it's rather hard to explain," he replied with a rueful knitting of the brows, for he realized her disgust at the vulgar brawl.
"I think the less said the better," she remarked acidly.
The meal proceeded in ominous gloom, and as soon as Peggy had finished she left the room.
"It seems, old chap, that I can never do right," said Oliver. "Long ago, when I used to crab you, she gave it to me in the neck; and now when I try to boost you, you seem to get it."
"I'm afraid I've got on Peggy's nerves," said Doggie. "You see, we've only met once before during the last two years, and I suppose I've changed."
"There's no doubt about that, old son," said Oliver. "But all the same, Peggy has stood by you like a brick, hasn't she?"
"That's the devil of it," replied Doggie, rubbing up his hair.
"Why the devil of it?" Oliver asked quickly.
"Oh, I don't know," replied Doggie. "As you have once or twice observed, it's a funny old war."
He rose, went to the door.
"Where are you off to?" asked Oliver.
"I'm going to Denby Hall to take a look round."
"Like me to come with you? We can borrow the two-seater."
Doggie advanced a pace. "You're an awfully good sort, Oliver," he said, touched, "but would you mind—I feel rather a beast——"
"All right, you silly old ass," cried Oliver cheerily. "You want, of course, to root about there by yourself. Go ahead."
"If you'll take a spin with me this afternoon, or to-morrow——" said Doggie in his sensitive way.
"Oh, clear out!" laughed Oliver.
And Doggie cleared.
"All right, Peddle, I can find my way about," said Doggie, dismissing the old butler and his wife after a little colloquy in the hall.
"Everything's in perfect order, sir, just as it was when you left; and there are the keys," said Mrs. Peddle.
The Peddles retired. Doggie eyed the heavy bunch of keys with an air of distaste. For two years he had not seen a key. What on earth could be the good of all this locking and unlocking? He stuffed the bunch in his tunic pocket and looked around him. It seemed difficult to realize that everything he saw was his own. Those trees visible from the hall windows were his own, and the land on which they grew. This spacious, beautiful house was his own. He had only to wave a hand, as it were, and it would be filled with serving men and serving maids ready to do his bidding. His foot was on his native heath, and his name was James Marmaduke Trevor.
Did he ever actually live here, have his being here? Was he ever part and parcel of it all—the Oriental rugs, the soft stair-carpet on the noble oak staircase leading to the gallery, the oil paintings, the impressive statuary, the solid, historical, oak hall furniture? Were it not so acutely remembered, he would have felt like a man accustomed all his life to barns and tents and hedgerows and fetid holes in the ground, who had wandered into some ill-guarded palace. He entered the drawing-room. The faithful Peddles, with pathetic zeal to give him a true home-coming, had set it out fresh and clean and polished; the windows were like crystal, and flowers welcomed him from every available vase. And so in the dining-room. The Chippendale dining-table gleamed like a sombre translucent pool. On the sideboard, amid the array of shining silver, the very best old Waterford decanters filled with whisky and brandy, and old cut-glass goblets invited him to refreshment. The precious mezzotint portraits, mostly of his own collecting, regarded him urbanely from the walls. The Times and the Morning Post were laid out on the little table by his accustomed chair near the massive marble mantelpiece.
"The dear old idiots," said Doggie, and he sat down for a moment and unfolded the newspapers and strewed them around, to give the impression that he had read and enjoyed them.
And then he went into his own private and particular den, the peacock and ivory room, which had been the supreme expression of himself and for which he had ached during many nights of misery. He looked round and his heart sank. He seemed to come face to face with the ineffectual, effeminate creature who had brought upon him the disgrace of his man's life. But for the creator and sybarite enjoyer of this sickening boudoir, he would now be in honoured command of men. He conceived a sudden violent hatred of the room. The only thing in the place worth a man's consideration, save a few water-colours, was the honest grand piano, which, because it did not aesthetically harmonize with his squeaky, pot-bellied theorbos and tinkling spinet, he had hidden in an alcove behind a curtain. He turned an eye of disgust on the vellum backs of his books in the closed Chippendale cases, on the drawers containing his collection of wall-papers, on the footling peacocks, on the curtains and cushions, on the veined ivory paper which, beginning to fade two years ago, now looked mean and meaningless. It was an abominable room. It ought to be smelling of musk or pastilles or joss-sticks. It might have done so, for once he had tried something of the sort, and did not renew the experiment only because the smell happened to make him sick.
There was one feature of the room at which for a long time he avoided looking: but wherever he turned, it impressed itself on his consciousness as the miserable genius of the despicable place. And that was his collection of little china dogs.
At last he planted himself in front of the great glass cabinet, whence thousands of little dogs looked at him out of little black dots of eyes. There were dogs of all nationalities, all breeds, all twisted enormities of human invention. There were monstrous dogs of China and Japan; Aztec dogs; dogs in Sevres and Dresden and Chelsea; sixpenny dogs from Austria and Switzerland; everything in the way of a little dog that man had made. He stood in front of it with almost a doggish snarl on his lips. He had spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds over these futile dogs. Yet never a flesh and blood, real, lusty canis futilis had he possessed. He used to dislike real dogs. The shivering rat, Goliath, could scarcely be called a dog. He had wasted his heart over these contemptible counterfeits. To add to his collection, catalogue it, describe it, correspond about it with the semi-imbecile Russian prince, his only rival collector, had once ranked with his history of wall-papers as the serious and absorbing pursuit of his life.
Then suddenly Doggie's hatred reached the crisis of ferocity. He saw red. He seized the first instrument of destruction that came to his hand, a little gilt Louis XV music stool, and bashed the cabinet full in front. The glass flew into a thousand splinters. He bashed again. The woodwork of the cabinet, stoutly resisting, worked hideous damage on the gilt stool. But Doggie went on bashing till the cabinet sank in ruins and the little dogs, headless, tailless, rent in twain, strewed the floor. Then Doggie stamped on them with his heavy munition boots until dogs and glass were reduced to powder and the Aubusson carpet was cut to pieces.
"Damn the whole infernal place!" cried Doggie, and he heaved a mandolin tied up with disgusting peacock-blue ribbons at the bookcase, and fled from the room.
He stood for a while in the hall, shaken with his anger; then mounted the staircase and went into his own bedroom with the satinwood furniture and nattier blue hangings. God! what a bedchamber for a man! He would have liked to throw bombs into the nest of effeminacy. But his mother had arranged it, so in a way it was immune from his iconoclastic rage. He went down to the dining-room, helped himself to a whisky and soda from the sideboard, and sat down in the arm-chair amidst the scattered newspapers and held his head in his hands and thought.
The house was hateful; all its associations were hateful. If he lived there until he was ninety, the abhorred ghost of the pre-war little Doggie Trevor would always haunt every nook and cranny of the place, mouthing the quarter of a century's shame that had culminated in the Great Disgrace. At last he brought his hand down with a bang on the arm of his chair. He would never live in this House of Dishonour again. Never. He would sell it.
"By God!" he cried, starting to his feet, as the inspiration came.
He would sell it, as it stood, lock, stock and barrel, with everything in it. He would wipe out at one stroke the whole of his unedifying history. Denby Hall gone, what could tie him to Durdlebury? He would be freed, for ever, from the petrification of the grey, cramping little city. If Peggy didn't like it, that was Peggy's affair. In material things he was master of his destiny. Peggy would have to follow him in his career, whatever it was, not he Peggy. He saw clearly that which had been mapped out for him, the silly little social ambitions, the useless existence, little Doggie Trevor for ever trailing obediently behind the lady of Denby Hall. Doggie threw himself back in his chair and laughed. No one had ever heard him laugh like that. After a while he was even surprised at himself.
He was perfectly ready to marry Peggy. It was almost a preordained thing. A rupture of the engagement was unthinkable. Her undeviating loyalty bound him by every fibre of gratitude and honour. But it was essential that Peggy should know whom and what she was marrying. The Doggie trailing in her wake no longer existed. If she were prepared to follow the new Doggie, well and good. If not, there would be conflict. For that he was prepared.
He strode, this time contemptuously, into his wrecked peacock and ivory room, where his telephone (blatant and hideous thing) was ingeniously concealed behind a screen, and rang up Spooner and Smithson, the leading firm of auctioneers and estate agents in the town. At the mention of his name, Mr. Spooner, the senior partner, came to the telephone.
"Yes, I'm back, Mr. Spooner, and I'm quite well," said Doggie. "I want to see you on very important business. When can you fix it up? Any time? Can you come along now to Denby Hall?"
Mr. Spooner would be pleased to wait upon Mr. Trevor immediately. He would start at once. Doggie went out and sat on the front doorstep and smoked cigarettes till he came.
"Mr. Spooner," said he, as soon as the elderly auctioneer descended from his little car, "I'm going to sell the whole of the Denby Hall estate, and, with the exception of a few odds and ends, family relics and so forth, which I'll pick out, all the contents of the house—furniture, pictures, sheets, towels and kitchen clutter. I've only got six days' leave, and I want all the worries, as far as I am concerned, settled and done with before I go. So you'll have to buck up, Mr. Spooner. If you say you can't do it, I'll put the business by telephone into the hands of a London agent."
It took Mr. Spooner nearly a quarter of an hour to recover his breath, gain a grasp of the situation and assemble his business wits.
"Of course I'll carry out your instructions, Mr. Trevor," he said at last. "You can safely leave the matter in our hands. But, although it is against my business interests, pray let me beg you to reconsider your decision. It is such a beautiful home, your grandfather, the Bishop's, before you."
"He bought it pretty cheap, didn't he, somewhere in the 'seventies?"
"I forget the price he paid for it, but I could look it up. Of course we were the agents."
"And then it was let to some dismal people until my father died and my mother took it over. I'm sorry I can't get sentimental about it, as if it were an ancestral hall, Mr. Spooner. I want to get rid of the place, because I hate the sight of it."
"It would be presumptuous of me to say anything more," answered the old-fashioned country auctioneer.
"Say what you like, Mr. Spooner," laughed Doggie in his disarming way. "We're old friends. But send in your people this afternoon to start on inventories and measuring up, or whatever they do, and I'll look round to-morrow and select the bits I may want to keep. You'll see after the storing of them, won't you?"
"Of course, Mr. Trevor."
Mr. Spooner drove away in his little car, a much dazed man.
Like the rest of Durdlebury and the circumjacent county, he had assumed that when the war was over Mr. James Marmaduke Trevor would lead his bride from the Deanery into Denby Hall, where the latter, in her own words, would proceed to make things hum.
"My dear," said he to his wife at luncheon, "you could have knocked me over with a feather. What he's doing it for, goodness knows. I can only assume that he has grown so accustomed to the destruction of property in France, that he has got bitten by the fever."
"Perhaps Peggy Conover has turned him down," suggested his wife, who, much younger than he, employed more modern turns of speech. "And I shouldn't wonder if she has. Since the war girls aren't on the look out for pretty monkeys."
"If Miss Conover thinks she has got hold of a pretty monkey in that young man, she is very much mistaken," replied Mr. Spooner.
Meanwhile Doggie summoned Peddle to the hall. He knew that his announcement would be a blow to the old man; but this was a world of blows; and after all, one could not organize one's life to suit the sentiments of old family idiots of retainers, served they never so faithfully.
"Peddle," said he, "I'm sorry to say I'm going to sell Denby Hall. Messrs. Spooner and Smithson's people are coming in this afternoon. So give them every facility. Also tea, or beer, or whisky, or whatever they want. About what's going to happen to you and Mrs. Peddle, don't worry a bit. I'll look after that. You've been jolly good friends of mine all my life, and I'll see that everything's as right as rain."
He turned, before the amazed old butler could reply, and marched away. Peddle gaped at his retreating figure. If those were the ways which Mr. Marmaduke had learned in the army, the lower sank the army in Peddle's estimation. To sell Denby Hall over his head! Why, the place and all about it was his! So deeply are squatters' rights implanted in the human instinct.
Doggie marched along the familiar high road, strangely exhilarated. What was to be his future he neither knew nor cared. At any rate, it would not lie in Durdlebury. He had cut out Durdlebury for ever from his scheme of existence. If he got through the war, he and Peggy would go out somewhere into the great world where there was man's work to do. Parliament! Peggy had suggested it as a sort of country gentleman's hobby that would keep him amused during the London seasons—so might prospective bride have talked to prospective husband fifty years ago. Parliament! God help him and God help Peggy if ever he got into Parliament. He would speak the most unpopular truths about the race of politicians if ever he got into Parliament. Peggy would wish that neither of them had ever been born. He held the trenches' views on politicians. No fear. No muddy politics as an elegant amusement for him. He laughed as he had laughed in the dining-room at Denby Hall.
He would have a bad quarter of an hour with Peggy. Naturally. She would say, and with every right: "What about me? Am I not to be considered?" Yes, of course she would be considered. The position his fortune assured him would always be hers. He had no notion of asking her to share a log cabin in the wilds of Canada, or to bury herself in Oliver's dud island of Huaheine. The great world would be before them. "But give me some sort of an idea of what you propose to do," she would with perfect propriety demand. And there Doggie was stuck. He had not the ghost of a programme. All he had was faith in the war, faith in the British spirit and genius that would bring it to a perfect end, in which there would be unimagined opportunities for a man to fling himself into a new life, and new conditions, and begin the new work of a new civilization.
"If she'll only understand," said he, "that I can't go back to those blasted little dogs, all will be well."
Not quite all. Although his future was as nebulous as the planetary system in the Milky Way, at the back of his mind was a vague conviction that it would be connected somehow with the welfare of those men whom he had learned to know and love: the men to whom reading was little pleasure, writing a school-child's laborious task, the glories of the earth as interpreted through art a sealed book; the men whose daily speech was foul metaphor; the men, hemi-demi-semi-educated, whose crude socialistic opinions the open lessons of history and the eternal facts of human nature derisively refuted; the men who had sweated and slaved in factory and in field to no other purpose than to obey the biological laws of the perpetuation of the species; yet the men with the sweet minds of children, the gushing tenderness of women, the hearts of lions; the men compared to whom the rotten squealing heroes of Homer were a horde of cowardly savages. They were men, these comrades of his, swift with all that there can be of divine glory in men.
And when they came home and the high gods sounded the false trumpet of peace?
There would be men's work in England for all the Doggies in England to do.
Again, if Peggy could understand this, all would be well. If she missed the point altogether, and tauntingly advised him to go and join his friends the Socialists at once—then—he shoved his cap to the back of his head and wrinkled his forehead—then——
"Everything will be in the soup," said he.
These reflections brought him to the Deanery. The nearest way of entrance was the stable-yard gate, which was always open. He strode in, waved a hand to Chipmunk who was sitting on the ground with his back against the garage, smoking a pipe, and entered the house by the French window of the dining-room. Where should he find Peggy? His whole mind was set on the immediate interview. Obviously the drawing-room was the first place of search. He opened the drawing-room door, the hinges and lock oily, noiseless, perfectly ordained, like everything in the perfectly ordained English Deanery, and strode in.
His entrance was so swift, so protected from sound, that the pair had no time to start apart before he was there, with his amazed eyes full upon them. Peggy's hands were on Oliver's shoulders, tears were streaming down her face, as her head was thrown back from him, and Oliver's arm was around her. Her back was to the door. Oliver withdrew his arm and retired a pace or two.
"Lord Almighty," he whispered, "here's Doggie!"
Then Peggy, realizing what had happened, wheeled round and stared tragically at Doggie, who, preoccupied with the search for her, had not removed his cap. He drew himself up.
"I beg your pardon," he said with imperturbable irony, and turned.
Oliver rushed across the room.
"Stop, you silly fool!"
He slammed the open door, caught Doggie by the arm and dragged him away from the threshold. His blue eyes blazed and the lips beneath the short-cropped moustache quivered.
"It's all my fault, Doggie. I'm a beast and a cad and anything you like to call me. But for things you said last night—well—no, hang it all, there's no excuse. Everything's on me. Peggy's as true as gold."
Peggy, red-eyed, pale-cheeked, stood a little way back, silent, on the defensive. Doggie, looking from one to the other, said quietly:
"A triangular explanation is scarcely decent. Perhaps you might let me have a word or two with Peggy."
"Yes. It would be best," she whispered.
"I'll be in the dining-room if you want me," said Oliver, and went out.
Doggie took her hand and, very gently, led her to a chair.
"Let us sit down. There," said he, "now we can talk more comfortably. First, before we touch on this situation, let me say something to you. It may ease things."
Peggy, humiliated, did not look at him. She nodded.
"I made up my mind this morning to sell Denby Hall and its contents. I've given old Spooner instructions."
She glanced at him involuntarily. "Sell Denby Hall?"
"Yes, dear. You see, I have made up my mind definitely, if I'm spared, not to live in Durdlebury after the war."
"What were you thinking of doing?" she asked, in a low voice.
"That would depend on after-war circumstances. Anyhow, I was coming to you, when I entered the room, with my decision. I knew, of course, that it wouldn't please you—that you would have something to say to it—perhaps something very serious."
"What do you mean by something very serious?"
"Our little contract, dear," said Doggie, "was based on the understanding that you would not be uprooted from the place in which are all your life's associations. If I broke that understanding it would leave you a free agent to determine the contract, as the lawyers say. So perhaps, Peggy dear, we might dismiss—well—other considerations, and just discuss this."
Peggy twisted a rag of handkerchief and wavered for a moment. Then she broke out, with fresh tears on her cheek.
"You're a dear of dears to put it that way. Only you could do it. I've been a brute, old boy; but I couldn't help it. I did try to play the game."
"You did, Peggy dear. You've been wonderful."
"And although it didn't look like it, I was trying to play the game when you came in. I really was. And so was he." She rose and threw the handkerchief away from her. "I'm not going to step out of the engagement by the side door you've left open for me, you dear old simple thing. It stands if you like. We're all honourable people, and Oliver"—she drew a sharp little breath—"Oliver will go out of our lives."
Doggie smiled—he had risen—and taking her hands, kissed them.
"I've never known what a splendid Peggy it is, until I lose her. Look here, dear, here's the whole thing in a nutshell. While I've been morbidly occupied with myself and my grievances and my disgrace and my efforts to pull through, and have gradually developed into a sort of half-breed between a Tommy and a gentleman with every mortal thing in me warped and changed, you've stuck to the original rotten ass you lashed into the semblance of a man, in this very room, goodness knows how many months, or years, or centuries ago. In my infernal selfishness, I've treated you awfully badly."
"No, you haven't," she decided stoutly.
"Yes, I have. The ordinary girl would have told a living experiment like me to go hang long before this. But you didn't. And now you see a totally different sort of Doggie and you're making yourself miserable because he's a queer, unsympathetic, unfamiliar stranger."
"All that may be so," she said, meeting his eyes bravely. "But if the unfamiliar Doggie still cares for me, it doesn't matter."
Here was a delicate situation. Two very tender-skinned vanities opposed to each other. The smart of seeing one's affianced bride in the arms of another man hurts grievously sore. It's a primitive sex affair, independent of love in its modern sense. If the savage's abandoned squaw runs off with another fellow, he pursues him with clubs and tomahawks until he has avenged the insult. Having known ME, to decline to Spotted Crocodile! So the finest flower of civilization cannot surrender the lady who once was his to the more favoured male without a primitive pang. On the other hand, Doggie knew very well that he did not love Peggy, that he had never loved Peggy. But how in common decency could a man tell a girl, who had wasted a couple of years of her life over him, that he had never loved her? Instead of replying to her questions, he walked about the room in a worried way.
"I take it," said Peggy incisively, after a while, "that you don't care for me any longer."
He turned and halted at the challenge. He snapped his fingers. What was the good of all this beating of the bush?
"Look here, Peggy, let's face it out. If you'll confess that you and Oliver are in love with each other, I'll confess to a girl in France."
"Oh?" said Peggy, with a swift change to coolness. "There's a girl in France, is there? How long has this been going on?"
"The last four days in billets before I got wounded," said Doggie.
"What is she like?"
Then Doggie suddenly laughed out loud and took her by the shoulders in a grasp rougher than she had ever dreamed to lie in the strength or nature of Marmaduke Trevor, and kissed her the heartiest, honestest kiss she had ever had from man, and rushed out of the room.
Presently he returned, dragging with him the disconsolate Major.
"Here," said he, "fix it up between you. I've told Peggy about a girl in France and she wants to know what she's like."
Peggy, shaken by the rude grip and the kiss, flashed and cried rebelliously:
"I'm not quite so sure that I want to fix it up with Oliver."
"Oh yes, you do," cried Oliver.
He snatched up Doggie's cap and jammed it on Doggie's head and cried:
"Doggie, you're the best and truest and finest of dear old chaps in the whole wide world."
Doggie settled his cap, grinned, and moved to the door.
"Anything else, sir?"
Oliver roared, delighted: "No, Private Trevor, you can go."
"Very good, sir."
Doggie saluted smartly and went out. He passed through the French window of the dining-room into the mellow autumn sunshine. Found himself standing in front of Chipmunk, who still smoked the pipe of elegant leisure by the door of the garage.
"This is a dam good old world all the same. Isn't it?" said he.
"If it was always like this, it would have its points," replied the unworried Chipmunk.
Doggie had an inspiration. He looked at his watch. It was nearly one o'clock.
"Always 'ungry. Specially about dinner-time."
"Come along of me to the Downshire Arms and have a bite of dinner."
Chipmunk rose slowly to his feet, and put his pipe into his tunic pocket, and jerked a slow thumb backwards.
"Ain't yer having yer meals 'ere?"
"Only now and then, as sort of treats," said Doggie. "Come along."
"Ker-ist!" said Chipmunk. "Can yer wait a bit until I've cleaned me buttons?"
"Oh, bust your old buttons!" laughed Doggie. "I'm hungry."
So the pair of privates marched through the old city to the Downshire Arms, the select, old-world hotel of Durdlebury, where Doggie was known since babyhood; and there, sitting at a window table with Chipmunk, he gave Durdlebury the great sensation of its life. If the Dean himself, clad in tights and spangles, had juggled for pence by the west door of the cathedral, tongues could scarcely have wagged faster. But Doggie worried his head about gossip not one jot. He was in joyous mood and ordered a gargantuan feast for Chipmunk and bottles of the strongest old Burgundy, such as he thought would get a grip on Chipmunk's whiskyfied throat; and under the genial influence of food and drink, Chipmunk told him tales of far lands and strange adventures; and when they emerged much later into the quiet streets, it was the great good fortune of Chipmunk's life that there was not the ghost of an Assistant Provost-Marshal in Durdlebury.
"Doggie, old man," said Oliver afterwards, "my wonder and reverence for you increases hour by hour. You are the only man in the whole world who has ever made Chipmunk drunk."
"You see," said Doggie modestly, "I don't think he ever really loved anyone who fed him before."
Doggie, the lightest-hearted private in the British Army, danced, in a metaphorical sense, back to London, where he stayed for the rest of his leave at his rooms in Woburn Place; took his wholesome fill of theatres and music-halls, going to those parts of the house where Tommies congregate; and bought an old Crown Derby dinner service as a wedding present for Peggy and Oliver, a tortoise-shell-fitted dressing-case for Peggy, and for Oliver a magnificent gold watch that was an encyclopaedia of current information. He had never felt so happy in his life, so enchanted with the grimly smiling old world. Were it not for the Boche, it could hold its own as a brave place with any planet going. He blessed Oliver, who, in turn, had blessed him as though he had displayed heroic magnanimity. He blessed Peggy, who, flushed with love and happiness and gratitude, had shown him, for the first time, what a really adorable young woman she could be. He thanked Heaven for making three people happy, instead of three people miserable.
He marched along the wet pavements with a new light in his eyes, with a new exhilarating breath in his nostrils. He was free. The war over, he could do exactly what he liked. An untrammelled future lay before him. During the war he could hop about trenches and shell-holes with the freedom of a bird....
Those awful duty letters to Peggy! Only now he fully realized their never-ending strain. Now he could write to her spontaneously, whenever the mood suited, write to her from his heart: "Dear old Peggy, I'm so glad you're happy. Oliver's a splendid chap. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." He had lost a dreaded bride; but he had found a dear and devoted friend. Nay, more: he had found two devoted friends. When he drew up his account with humanity, he found himself passing rich in love.
His furlough expired, he reported at his depot, and was put on light duty. He went about it the cheeriest soul alive, and laughed at the memory of his former miseries as a recruit. This camp life in England, after the mud and blood of France—like the African gentleman in Mr. Addison's "Cato," he blessed his stars and thought it luxury. He was not sorry that the exigencies of service prevented him from being present at the wedding of Oliver and Peggy. For it was the most sudden of phenomena, like the fight of two rams, as Shakespeare hath it. In war-time people marry in haste; and often, dear God, they have not the leisure to repent. Since the beginning of the war there are many, many women twice widowed.... But that is by the way. Doggie was grateful to an ungrateful military system. If he had attended—in the capacity of best man, so please you—so violent and unreasoning had Oliver's affection become, Durdlebury would have gaped and whispered behind its hand and made things uncomfortable for everybody. Doggie from the security of his regiment wished them joy by letter and telegram, and sent them the wedding presents aforesaid.
Then for a season there were three happy people, at least, in this war-wilderness of suffering. The newly wedded pair went off for a honeymoon, whose promise of indefinite length was eventually cut short by an unromantic War Office. Oliver returned to his regiment in France and Peggy to the Deanery, where she sat among her wedding presents and her hopes for the future.
"I never realized, my dear," said the Dean to his wife, "what a remarkably pretty girl Peggy has grown into."
"It's because she has got the man she loves," said Mrs. Conover.
"Do you think that's the reason?"
"I've known the plainest of women become quite good-looking. In the early days of our married life"—she smiled—"even I was not quite unattractive."
The old Dean bent down—she was sitting and he standing—and lifted her chin with his forefinger.
"You, my dear, have always been by far the most beautiful woman of my acquaintance."
"We're talking of Peggy," smiled Mrs. Conover.
"Ah!" said the Dean. "So we were. I was saying that the child's happiness was reflected in her face——"
"I rather thought I said it, dear," replied Mrs. Conover.
"It doesn't matter," said her husband, who was first a man and then a dean. He waved a hand in benign dismissal of the argument. "It's a great mercy," said he, "that she has married the man she loves instead of—well ... Marmaduke has turned out a capital fellow, and a credit to the family—but I never was quite easy in my mind over the engagement.... And yet," he continued, after a turn or two about the room, "I'm rather conscience-stricken about Marmaduke, poor chap. He has taken it like a brick. Yes, my dear, like a brick. Like a gentleman. But all the same, no man likes to see another fellow walk off with his sweetheart."
"I don't think Marmaduke was ever so bucked in his life," said Mrs. Conover placidly.
The Dean gasped. His wife's smile playing ironically among her wrinkles was rather beautiful.
"Peggy's word, Edward, not mine. The modern vocabulary. It means——"
"Oh, I know what the hideous word means. It was your using it that caused a shiver down my spine. But why bucked?"
"It appears there's a girl in France."
"Oho!" said the Dean. "Who is she?"
"That's what Peggy, even now, would give a good deal to find out."
For Doggie had told Peggy nothing more about the girl in France. Jeanne was his own precious secret. That it was shared by Phineas and Mo didn't matter. To discuss her with Peggy, besides being irrelevant, in the circumstances, was quite another affair. Indeed, when he had avowed the girl in France, it was not so much a confession as a gallant desire to help Peggy out of her predicament. For, after all, what was Jeanne but a beloved war-wraith that had passed through his life and disappeared?
"The development of Marmaduke," said the Dean, "is not the least extraordinary phenomenon of the war."
* * * * *
Now that Doggie had gained his freedom, Jeanne ceased to be a wraith. She became once again a wonderful thing of flesh and blood towards whom all his young, fresh instinct yearned tremendously. One day it struck his ingenuous mind that, if Jeanne were willing, there could be no possible reason why he should not marry her. Who was to say him nay? Convention? He had put all the conventions of his life under the auctioneer's hammer. The family? He pictured a meeting between Jeanne and the kind and courteous old Dean. It could not be other than an episode of beauty. All he had to do was to seek out Jeanne and begin his wooing in earnest. The simplest adventure in the world for a well-to-do and unattached young man—if only that young man had not been a private soldier on active service.
That was the rub. Doggie passed his hand over his hair ruefully. How on earth could he get to Frelus again? Not till the end of the war, at any rate, which might be years hence. There was nothing for it but a resumption of intimacy by letter. So he wrote to Jeanne the letter which loyalty to Peggy had made him destroy weeks ago. But no answer came. Then he wrote another, telling her of Peggy and his freedom, and his love and his hopes, and to that there came no reply.
A prepaid telegram produced no result.
Doggie began to despair. What had happened to Jeanne? Why did she persist in ruling him out of her existence? Was it because, in spite of her gratitude, she wanted none of his love? He sat on the railing on the sea front of the south coast town where he was quartered, and looked across the Channel in dismayed apprehension. He was a fool. What could there possibly be in little Doggie Trevor to inspire a romantic passion in any woman's heart? Take Peggy's case. As soon as a real, genuine fellow like Oliver came along, Peggy's heart flew out to him like needle to magnet. Even had he been of Oliver's Paladin mould, what right had he to expect Jeanne to give him all the wonder of herself after a four days' acquaintance? Being what he was, just little Doggie Trevor, the assumption was an impertinence. She had sheltered herself from it behind a barrier of silence.
A girl, a thing of low-cut blouse, truncated skirts and cheap silk stockings, who had been leaning unnoticed for some time on the rails by his side, spoke.
"You seem to be pretty lonely."
Doggie swerved round. "Yes, I am, darned lonely."
"Come for a walk, or take me to the pictures."
"And then?" asked Doggie, swinging to his feet.
"If we get on all right, we can fix up something for to-morrow."
She was pretty, with a fair, frizzy, insolent prettiness. She might have been any age from fourteen to four-and-twenty.
Doggie smiled, tempted to while away a dark hour. But he said, honestly:
"I'm afraid I should be a dull companion."
"What's the matter?" she laughed. "Lost your best girl?"
"Something like it." He waved a hand across the sea. "Over there."
"French? Oh!" She drew herself up. "Aren't English girls good enough for you?"
"When they're sympathetic, they're delightful," said he.
"Oh, you make me tired! Good-bye," she snapped, and stalked away.
After a few yards she glanced over her shoulder to see whether he was following. But Doggie remained by the railings.
Presently he shrugged his shoulders and went off to a picture palace by himself and thought wistfully of Jeanne.
* * * * *
And Jeanne? Well, Jeanne was no longer at Frelus; for there came a morning when Aunt Morin was found dead in her bed. The old doctor came and spread out his thin hands and said "Eh bien" and "Que voulez-vous?" and "It was bound to happen sooner or later," and murmured learned words. The old cure came and a neighbour or two, and candles were put round the coffin and the pompes funebres draped the front steps and entrance and vestibule in heavy black. And as soon as was possible Aunt Morin was laid to rest in the little cemetery adjoining the church, and Jeanne went back to the house with Toinette, alone in the wide world. And because there had been a death in the place the billeted soldiers went about the courtyard very quietly.
Since Phineas and Mo and Doggie's regiment had gone away, she had devoted, with a new passionate zeal, all the time she could spare from the sick woman to the comforts of the men. No longer restrained by the tightly drawn purse-strings of Aunt Morin, but with money of her own to spend—and money restored to her by these men's dear and heroic comrade—she could give them unexpected treats of rich coffee and milk, fresh eggs, fruit.... She mended and darned for them and suborned old women to help her. She conspired with the Town Major to render the granary more habitable; and the Town Major, who had not to issue a return for a centime's expense, received all her suggestions with courteous enthusiasm. Toinette taking good care to impress upon every British soldier who could understand her, the fact that to mademoiselle personally and individually he was indebted for all these luxuries, the fame of Jeanne began to spread through that sector of the front behind which lay Frelus. Concurrently spread the story of Doggie Trevor's exploit. Jeanne became a legendary figure, save to those thrice fortunate who were billeted on Veuve Morin et Fils, Marchands des Foins en Gros et Detail, and these, according to their several stolid British ways, bowed down and worshipped before the slim French girl with the tragic eyes, and when they departed, confirmed the legend and made things nasty for the sceptically superior private.
So, on the day of the funeral of Aunt Morin, the whole of the billet sent in a wreath to the house, and the whole of the billet attended the service in the little church, and they marched back and drew up by the front door—a guard of honour extending a little distance down the road. The other men billeted in the village hung around, together with the remnant of the inhabitants, old men, women and children, but kept quite clear of the guarded path through which Jeanne was to pass. One or two officers looked on curiously. But they stood in the background. It was none of their business. If the men, in their free time, chose to put themselves on parade, without arms, of course, so much the better for the army.
Then Jeanne and the old cure, in his time-scarred shovel-hat and his rusty soutane, followed by Toinette, turned round the corner of the lane and emerged into the main street. A sergeant gave a word of command. The guard stood at attention. Jeanne and her companions proceeded up the street, unaware of the unusual, until they entered between the first two files. Then for the first time the tears welled into Jeanne's eyes. She could only stretch out her hands and cry somewhat wildly to the bronzed statues on each side of her, "Merci, mes amis, merci, merci," and flee into the house.
The next day Maitre Pepineau, the notary, summoned her to his cabinet. Maitre Pepineau was very old. His partner had gone off to the war. "One of the necessities of the present situation," he would say, "is that I should go on living in spite of myself; for if I died, the whole of the affairs of Frelus would be in the soup." Now, a fortnight back, Maitre Pepineau and four neighbours—the four witnesses required by French law when there is only one notary to draw up the instrument public—had visited Aunt Morin; so Jeanne knew that she had made a fresh will.
"Mon enfant," said the old man, unfolding the document, "in a previous will your aunt had left you a little heritage out of the half of her fortune which she was free to dispose of by the code. You having come into possession of your own money, she has revoked that will and left everything to her only surviving son, Gaspard Morin, in Madagascar."
"It is only just and right," said Jeanne.
"The unfortunate part of the matter," said Maitre Pepineau, "is that Madame Morin has appointed official trustees to carry on the estate until Monsieur Gaspard Morin can make his own arrangements. The result is that you have no locus standi as a resident in the house. I pointed this out to her. But you know, in spite of her good qualities, she was obstinate.... It pains me greatly, my dear child, to have to state your position."
"I am then," said Jeanne, "sans-asile—homeless?"
"As far as the house of Monsieur Gaspard Morin is concerned—yes."
"And my English soldiers?" asked Jeanne.
"Alas, my child," replied the old man, "you will find them everywhere."
Which was cold consolation. For however much inspired by patriotic gratitude a French girl may be, she cannot settle down in a strange place where British troops are billeted and proceed straightway to minister to their comfort. Misunderstandings are apt to arise even in the best regulated British regiments. In the house of Aunt Morin, in Frelus, her position was unassailable. Anywhere else ...
"So, my good Toinette," said Jeanne, after having explained the situation to the indignant old woman, "I can only go back to my friend in Paris and reconstitute my life. If you will accompany me——?"
But no. Toinette had the peasant's awful dread of Paris. She had heard about Paris: there were thieves, ruffians that they called apaches, who murdered you if you went outside your door.
"The apaches," laughed Jeanne, "were swept away into the army on the outbreak of war, and they've nearly all been killed, fighting like heroes."
"There are the old ones left, who are worse than the young," retorted Toinette.
No. Mademoiselle could teach her nothing about Paris. You could not even cross a street without risk of life, so many were the omnibuses and automobiles. In every shop you were a stranger to be robbed. There was no air in Paris. You could not sleep for the noise. And then—to live in a city of a hundred million people and not know a living soul! It was a mad-house matter. Again no. It grieved her to part from mademoiselle, but she had made her little economies—a difficult achievement, considering how regardful of her pence Madame had been—and she would return to her Breton town, which forty years ago she had left to enter the service of Madame Morin.
"But after forty years, Toinette, who in Paimpol will remember you?"
"It is I who remember Paimpol," said Toinette. She remained for a few moments in thought. Then she said: "C'est drole, tout de meme. I haven't seen the sea for forty years, and now I can't sleep of nights thinking of it. The first man I loved was a fisherman of Paimpol. We were to be married after he returned from an Iceland voyage, with a gros benefice. When the time came for his return, I would stand on the shore and watch and watch the sea. But he never came. The sea swallowed him up. And then—you can understand quite well—the child was born dead. And I thought I would never want to look at the sea again. So I came here to your Aunt Morin, the daughter of Doctor Kersadec, your grandfather, and I married Jules Dagnant, the foreman of the carters of the hay ... and he died a long time ago ... and now I have forgotten him and I want to go and look at the sea where my man was drowned."
"But your grandson, who is fighting in the Argonne?"
"What difference can it make to him whether I am in Frelus or Paimpol?"
"That's true," said Jeanne.
Toinette bustled about the kitchen. Folks had to eat, whatever happened. But she went on talking, Madame Morin. One must not speak evil of the dead. They have their work cut out to extricate themselves from Purgatory. But all the same—after forty years' faithful service—and not to mention in the will—meme pour une Bretonne, c'etait raide. Jeanne agreed. She had no reason to love her Aunt Morin. Her father's people came from Agen on the confines of Gascony; he had been a man of great gestures and vehement speech; her mother, gentle, reserved, un pen devote. Jeanne drew her character from both sources; but her sympathies were rather southern than northern. For some reason or the other, perhaps for his expansive ways—who knows?—Aunt Morin had held the late Monsieur Bossiere in detestation. She had no love for Jeanne, and Jeanne, who before her good fortune had expected nothing from Aunt Morin, regarded the will with feelings of indifference. Except as far as it concerned Toinette. Forty years' faithful service deserved recognition. But what was the use of talking about it?
"So we must separate, Toinette?"
"Alas, yes, mademoiselle—unless mademoiselle would come with me to Paimpol."
Jeanne laughed. What should she do in Paimpol? There wasn't even a fisherman left there to fall in love with.
"Mademoiselle," said Toinette later, "do you think you will meet the little English soldier, Monsieur Trevor, in Paris?"
"Dans la guerre on ne se revoit jamais," said Jeanne.
But there was more of personal decision than of fatalism in her tone.
So Jeanne waited for a day or two until the regiment marched away, and then, with heavy heart, set out for Paris. She wrote, indeed, to Phineas, and weeks afterwards Phineas, who was in the thick of the Somme fighting, wrote to Doggie telling him of her departure from Frelus; but regretted that as he had lost her letter he could not give him her Paris address.
And in the meantime the house of Gaspard Morin was shuttered and locked and sealed; and the bureaucratically minded old Postmaster of Frelus, who had received no instructions from Jeanne to forward her correspondence, handed Doggie's letters and telegrams to the aged postman, a superannuated herdsman, who stuck them into the letter-box of the deserted house and went away conscious of duty perfectly accomplished.
Then, at last, Doggie, fit again for active service, went out with a draft to France, and joined Phineas and Mo, almost the only survivors of the cheery, familiar crowd that he had loved, and the grimness of battles such as he had never conceived possible took him in its inexorable grip, and he lost sense of everything save that he was the least important thing on God's earth struggling desperately for animal existence.
Yet there were rare times of relief from stress, when he could gropingly string together the facts of a pre-Somme existence. And then he would curse Phineas lustily for losing the precious letter.
"Man," Phineas once replied, "don't you see that you're breaking a heart which, in spite of its apparent rugosity and callosity, is as tender as a new-made mother's? Tell me to do it, and I'll desert and make my way to Paris and——"
"And the military police will see that you make your way to hell via a stone wall. And serve you right. Don't be a blithering fool," said Doggie.
"Then I don't know what I can do for you, laddie, except die of remorse at your feet."
"We're all going to die of rheumatic fever," said Doggie, shivering in his sodden uniform. "Blast this rain!"
Phineas thrust his hand beneath his clothing and produced a long, amorphous and repulsive substance, like a painted tallow candle overcome by intense heat, from which he gravely bit an inch or two.
"What's that?" asked Doggie.
"It's a stick of peppermint," said Phineas. "I've still an aunt in Galashiels who remembers my existence."
Doggie stuck out his hand like a monkey in the Zoo.
"You selfish beast!" he said.
The fighting went on and, to Doggie, the inhabitants of the outside world became almost as phantasmagorical as Phineas's providential aunt in Galashiels. Immediate existence held him. In an historic battle Mo Shendish fell with a machine bullet through his heart. Doggie, staggering with the rest of the company to the attack over the muddy, shell-torn ground, saw him go down a few yards away. It was not till later that he knew he had gone West with many other great souls. Doggie and Phineas mourned for him as a brother. Without him France was a muddier and a bloodier place and the outside world more unreal than ever.
Then to Doggie came a heart-broken letter from the Dean. Oliver had gone the same road as Mo. Peggy was frantic with grief. Vividly Doggie saw the peaceful deanery on which all the calamity of all the war had crashed with sudden violence.
"Why I should thank God we parted as friends, I don't quite know," said Doggie, "but I do."
"I suppose, laddie," said Phineas, "it's good to feel that smiling eyes and hearty hands will greet us when we too pass over the Border. My God, man," he added reflectively, after a pause, "have you ever considered what a goodly company it will be? When you come to look at it that way, it makes Death quite a trivial affair."
"I suppose it does to us while we're here," said Doggie. "We've seen such a lot of it. But to those who haven't—my poor Peggy—it's the end of her universe."
Yes, it was all very well to take death philosophically, or fatalistically, or callously, or whatever you liked to call it, out there, where such an attitude was the only stand against raving madness; but at home, beneath the grey mass of the cathedral, folks met Death as a strange and cruel horror. The new glory of life that Peggy had found, he had blackened out in an instant. Doggie looked again at the old man's letter—his handwriting was growing shaky—and forgot for a while the familiar things around him, and lived with Peggy in her sorrow.
* * * * *
Then, as far as Doggie's sorely tried division was affected, came the end of the great autumn fighting. He found himself well behind the lines in reserve, and so continued during the cold dreary winter months. And the more the weeks that crept by and the more remote seemed Jeanne, the more Doggie hungered for the sight of her. But all this period of his life was but a dun-coloured monotony, with but few happenings to distinguish week from week. Most of the company that had marched with him into Frelus were dead or wounded. Nearly all the officers had gone. Captain Willoughby, who had interrogated Jeanne with regard to the restored packet, and, on Doggie's return, had informed him with a friendly smile that they were a damned sight too busy then to worry about defaulters of the likes of him, but that he was going to be court-martialled and shot as soon as peace was declared, when they would have time to think of serious matters—Captain Willoughby had gone to Blighty with a leg so mauled that never would he command again a company in the field. Sergeant Ballinghall, who had taught Doggie to use his fists, had retired, minus a hand, into civil life. A scientific and sporting helper at Roehampton, he informed Doggie by letter, was busily engaged on the invention of a boxing-glove which would enable him to carry on his pugilistic career. "So, in future times," said he, "if any of your friends among the nobility and gentry want lessons in the noble art, don't forget your old friend Ballinghall." Whereat—incidentally—Doggie wondered. Never, for a fraction of a second, during their common military association, had Ballinghall given him to understand that he regarded him otherwise than as a mere Tommy without any pretensions to gentility. There had been times when Ballinghall had cursed him—perhaps justifiably and perhaps lovingly—as though he had been the scum of the earth. Doggie would no more have dared address him in terms of familiarity than he would have dared slap the Brigadier-General on the back. And now the honest warrior sought Doggie's patronage. Of the original crowd in England who had transformed Doggie's military existence by making him penny-whistler to the company, only Phineas and himself were left. There were others, of course, good and gallant fellows, with whom he became bound in the rough intimacy of the army; but the first friends, those under whose protecting kindliness his manhood had developed, were the dearest. And their ghosts remained dear.
At last the division was moved up and there was more fighting.
One day, after a successful raid, Doggie tumbled back with the rest of the men into the trench and, looking about, missed Phineas. Presently the word went round that "Mac" had been hit, and later the rumour was confirmed by the passage down the trench of Phineas on a stretcher, his weather-battered face a ghastly ivory.
"I'm alive all right, laddie," he gasped, contorting his lips into a smile. "I've got it clean through the chest like a gentleman. But it gars me greet I canna look after you any longer."
He made an attempt at waving a hand, and the stretcher-bearers carried him away out of the army for ever.
Thereafter Doggie felt the loneliest thing on earth, like Wordsworth's cloud, or the Last Man in Tom Hood's grim poem. For was he not the last man of the original company, as he had joined it, hundreds of years ago, in England? It was only then that he realized fully the merits of the wastrel Phineas McPhail. Not once or twice, but a thousand times had the man's vigilant affection, veiled under cynical humour, saved him from despair. Not once but a thousand times had the gaunt, tireless Scotchman saved him from physical exhaustion. At every turn of his career, since his enlistment, Phineas had been there, watchful, helpful, devoted. There he had been, always ready and willing to be cursed. To curse him had been the great comfort of Doggie's life. Whom could he curse now? Not a soul—no one, at any rate, against whom he could launch an anathema with any real heart in it. Than curse vainly and superficially, far better not to curse at all. He missed Phineas beyond all his conception of the blankness of bereavement. Like himself, Phineas had found salvation in the army. Doggie realized how he had striven in his own queer way to redeem the villainy of his tutorship. No woman could have been more gentle, more unselfish.
"What the devil am I going to do?" said Doggie.
Meanwhile Phineas, lying in a London hospital with a bullet through his body, thought much and earnestly of his friend, and one morning Peggy got a letter.
"Time was when I could not have addressed you without incurring your not unjustifiable disapproval. But I take the liberty of doing so now, trusting to your generous acquiescence in the proposition that the war has purged many offences. If this has not happened, to some extent, in my case, I do not see how it has been possible for me to have regained and retained the trust and friendship of so sensitive and honourable a gentleman as Mr. Marmaduke Trevor.
"If I ask you to come and see me here, where I am lying severely wounded, it is not with an intention to solicit a favour for myself personally—although I'll not deny that the sight of a kind and familiar face would be a boon to a lonely and friendless man—but with a deep desire to advance Mr. Trevor's happiness. Lest you may imagine I am committing an unpardonable impertinence and thereby totally misunderstand me, I may say that this happiness can only be achieved by the aid of powerful friends both in London and Paris.
"It is only because the lad is the one thing dear to me left in the world, that I venture to intrude on your privacy at such a time.
"I am, dear Madam, "Yours very faithfully, "PHINEAS MCPHAIL."
Peggy came down to breakfast, and having dutifully kissed her parents, announced her intention of going to London by the eleven o'clock train.
"Why, how can you, my dear?" asked Mrs. Conover.
"I've nothing particular to do here for the next few days."
"But your father and I have. Neither of us can start off to London at a moment's notice."
Peggy replied with a wan smile: "But, dearest mother, you forget. I'm an old, old married woman."
"Besides, my dear," said the Dean, "Peggy has often gone away by herself."
"But never to London," said Mrs. Conover.
"Anyhow, I've got to go." Peggy turned to the old butler. "Ring up Sturrocks's and tell them I'm coming."
"Yes, miss," said Burford.
"He's as bad as you are, mother," said Peggy.
So she went up to London and stayed the night at Sturrocks's alone, for the first time in her life. She half ate a lonely, execrable war dinner in the stuffy, old-fashioned dining-room, served ceremoniously by the ancient head waiter, the friend of her childhood, who, in view of her recent widowhood, addressed her in the muffled tones of the sympathetic undertaker. Peggy nearly cried. She wished she had chosen another hotel. But where else could she have gone? She had stayed at few hotels in London: once at the Savoy; once at Claridge's; every other time at Sturrocks's. The Savoy? Its vastness had frightened her. And Claridge's? No; that was sanctified for ever. Oliver in his lordly way had snapped his fingers at Sturrocks's. Only the best was good enough for Peggy. Now only Sturrocks's remained.
She sought her room immediately after the dreary meal and sat before the fire—it was a damp, chill February night—and thought miserable and aching thoughts. It happened to be the same room which she had occupied, oh—thousands of years ago—on the night when Doggie, point-device in new Savile Row uniform, had taken her to dinner at the Carlton. And she had sat, in the same imitation Charles the Second brocaded chair, looking into the same generous, old-fashioned fire, thinking—thinking. And she remembered clenching her fist and apostrophizing the fire and crying out aloud: "Oh, my God! if only he makes good!"
Oceans of years lay between then and now. Doggie had made good; every man who came home wounded must have made good. Poor old Doggie. But how in the name of all that was meant by the word Love she could ever have contemplated—as she had contemplated, with an obstinate, virginal loyalty—marriage with Doggie, she could not understand.
She undressed, brought the straight-backed chair close to the fire, and, in her dainty nightgown, part of her trousseau, sat elbow on knee, face in thin, clutching hands, slippered feet on fender, thinking, thinking once again. Thinking now of the gates of Paradise that had opened to her for a few brief weeks. Of the man who never had to make good, being the wonder of wonders of men, the delicious companion, the incomparable lover, the all-compelling revealer, the great, gay, scarcely, to her woman's limited power of vision, comprehended heroic soldier. Of the terrifying meaninglessness of life, now that her God of Very God, in human form, had been swept, in an instant, off the earth into the Unknown.
Yet was life meaningless after all? There must be some significance, some inner truth veiled in mystery, behind even the casually accepted and never probed religion to which she had been born and in which she had found poor refuge. For, like many of her thoughtless, unquestioning class, she had looked at Christ through stained-glass windows, and now the windows were darkened.... For the first time in her life, her soul groped intensely towards eternal verities. The fire burned low and she shivered. She became again the bit of human flotsam cruelly buffeted by the waves, forgotten of God. Yet, after she had risen and crept into bed and while she was staring into the darkness, her heart became filled with a vast pity for the thousands and thousands of women, her sisters, who at that moment were staring, hopeless, like her, into the unrelenting night.
She did not fall asleep till early morning. She rose late. About half-past eleven as she was preparing to walk abroad on a dreary shopping excursion—the hospital visiting hour was in the afternoon—a telegram arrived from the Dean.
"Just heard that Marmaduke is severely wounded."
* * * * *
She scarcely recognized the young private tutor of Denby Hall in the elderly man with the deeply furrowed face, who smiled as she approached his bed. She had brought him flowers, cigarettes of the exquisite kind that Doggie used to smoke, chocolates....
She sat down by his bedside.
"All this is more than gracious, Mrs. Manningtree," said Phineas. "To a vieux routier like me, it is a wee bit overwhelming."
"It's very little to do for Doggie's best friend."
Phineas's eyes twinkled. "If you call him Doggie, like that, maybe it won't be so difficult for me to talk to you."
"Why should it be difficult at all?" she asked. "We both love him."
"Ay," said Phineas. "He's a lovable lad, and it is because others besides you and me find him lovable, that I took the liberty of writing to you."
"The girl in France?"
"Eh?" He put out a bony hand, and regarded her in some disappointment. "Has he told you? Perhaps you know all about it."
"I know nothing except that—'a girl in France,' was all he told me. But—first about yourself. How badly are you wounded—and what can we do for you?"
She dragged from a reluctant Phineas the history of his wound and obtained confirmation of his statement from a nurse who happened to pass up the gangway of the pleasant ward and lingered by the bedside. McPhail was doing splendidly. Of course, a man with a hole through his body must be expected to go back to the regime of babyhood. So long as he behaved himself like a well-conducted baby all would be well. Peggy drew the nurse a few yards away.
"I've just heard that his dearest friend out there, a boy whom he loves dearly and has been through the whole thing with him in the same company—it's odd, but he was his private tutor years ago—both gentlemen, you know—in fact, I'm here just to talk about the boy——" Peggy grew somewhat incoherent. "Well—I've just heard that the boy has been seriously wounded. Shall I tell him?"
"I think it would be better to wait for a few days. Any shock like that sends up their temperatures. We hate temperatures, and we're getting his down so nicely."
"All right," said Peggy, and she went back smiling to Phineas. "She says you're getting on amazingly, Mr. McPhail."
Said Phineas: "I'm grateful to you, Mrs. Manningtree, for concerning yourself about my entirely unimportant carcass. Now, as Virgil says, 'paullo majora canemus.'"
"You have me there, Mr. McPhail," said Peggy.
"Let us sing of somewhat greater things. That is the bald translation. Let us talk of Doggie—if so be it is agreeable to you."
"Carry on," said Peggy.
"Well," said Phineas, "to begin at the beginning, we marched into a place called Frelus——"
In his pedantic way he began to tell her the story of Jeanne, so far as he knew it. He told her of the girl standing in the night wind and rain on the bluff by the turning of the road. He told her of Doggie's insane adventure across No Man's Land to the farm of La Folette. Tears rolled down Peggy's cheeks. She cried, incredulous:
"Doggie did that? Doggie?"
"It was child's play to what he had to do at Guedecourt."
But Peggy waved away the vague heroism of Guedecourt.
"Doggie did that? For a woman?"
The whole elaborate structure of her conception of Doggie tumbled down like a house of cards.
"Ay," said Phineas.
"He did that"—Phineas had given an imaginative and picturesque account of the episode—"for this girl Jeanne?"
"It is a strange coincidence, Mrs. Manningtree," replied Phineas, with a flicker of his lips elusively suggestive of unctuousness, "that almost those identical words were used by Mademoiselle Bossiere in my presence. 'Il a fait cela pour moi!' But—you will pardon me for saying it—with a difference of intonation, which, as a woman, no doubt you will be able to divine and appreciate."
"I know," said Peggy. She bent forward and picked with finger and thumb at the fluff of the blanket. Then she said, intent on the fluff: "If a man had done a thing like that for me, I should have crawled after him to the ends of the earth." Presently she looked up with a flash of the eyes. "Why isn't this girl doing it?"
"You must listen to the end of the story," said Phineas. "I may tell you that I always regarded myself, with my Scots caution, as a model of tact and discretion; but after many conversations with Doggie, I'm beginning to have my doubts. I also imagined that I was very careful of my personal belongings; but facts have convicted me of criminal laxity."
Peggy smiled. "That sounds like a confession, Mr. McPhail."
"Maybe it's in the nature of one," he assented. "But by your leave, Mrs. Manningtree, I'll resume my narrative."
He continued the story of Jeanne: how she had learned through him of Doggie's wealth and position and early upbringing; of the memorable dinner-party with poor Mo; of Doggie's sensitive interpretation of her French bourgeoise attitude; and finally the loss of the letter containing her address in Paris.
After he had finished, Peggy sat for a long while thinking. This romance in Doggie's life had moved her as she thought she could never be moved since the death of Oliver. Her thoughts winged themselves back to an afternoon, remote almost as her socked and sashed childhood, when Doggie, immaculately attired in grey and pearl harmonies, had declared, with his little effeminate drawl, that tennis made one so terribly hot. The scene in the Deanery garden flashed before her. It was succeeded by a scene in the Deanery drawing-room when, to herself indignant, he had pleaded his delicacy of constitution. And the same Doggie, besides braving death a thousand times in the ordinary execution of his soldier's duties, had performed this queer deed of heroism for a girl. Then his return to Durdlebury——
"I'm afraid," she said suddenly, "I was dreadfully unkind to him when he came home the last time. I didn't understand. Did he tell you?"
Phineas stretched out a hand and with the tips of his fingers touched her sleeve.
"Mrs. Manningtree," he said softly, "don't you know that Doggie's a very wonderful gentleman?"
Again her eyes grew moist. "Yes. I know. Of course he never would have mentioned it.... I thought, Mr. McPhail, he had deteriorated—God forgive me! I thought he had coarsened and got into the ways of an ordinary Tommy—and I was snobbish and uncomprehending and horrible. It seems as if I am making a confession now."
"Ay. Why not? If it were not for the soul's health, the ancient Church wouldn't have instituted the practice."
She regarded him shrewdly for a second. "You've changed too."
"Maybe," said Phineas. "It's an ill war that blows nobody good. And I'm not complaining of this one. But you were talking of your miscomprehension of Doggie."
"I behaved very badly to him," she said, picking again at the blanket. "I misjudged him altogether—because I was ignorant of everything—everything that matters in life. But I've learned better since then."
"Ay," remarked Phineas gravely.
"Mr. McPhail," she said, after a pause, "it wasn't those rotten ideas that prevented me from marrying him——"
"I know, my dear little lady," said Phineas, grasping the plucking hand. "You just loved the other man as you never could have loved Doggie, and there's an end to't. Love just happens. It's the holiest thing in the world."
She turned her hand, so as to meet his in a mutual clasp, and withdrew it.
"You're very kind—and sympathetic—and understanding——" Her voice broke. "I seem to have been going about misjudging everybody and everything. I'm beginning to see a little bit—a little bit farther—I can't express myself——"
"Never mind, Mrs. Manningtree," said Phineas soothingly, "if you cannot express yourself in words. Leave that to the politicians and the philosophers and the theologians, and other such windy expositors of the useless. But you can express yourself in deeds."
"Find Jeanne for Doggie."
Peggy bent forward with a queer light in her eyes.
"Does she love him—really love him as he deserves to be loved?"
"It is not often, Mrs. Manningtree, that I commit myself to a definite statement. But, to my certain knowledge, these two are breaking their hearts for each other. Couldn't you find her, before the poor laddie is killed?"
"He's not killed yet, thank God!" said Peggy, with an odd thrill in her voice.
He was alive. Only severely wounded. He would be coming home soon, carried, according to convoy, to any unfriendly hospital dumping-ground in the United Kingdom. If only she could bring this French girl to him! She yearned to make reparation for the past, to act according to the new knowledge that love and sorrow had brought her.
"But how can I find her—just a girl—an unknown Mademoiselle Bossiere—among the millions of Paris?"
"I've been racking my brains all the morning," replied Phineas, "to recall the address, and out of the darkness there emerges just two words, Port Royal. If you know Paris, does that help you at all?"
"I don't know Paris," replied Peggy humbly. "I don't know anything. I'm utterly ignorant."
"I beg entirely to differ from you, Mrs. Manningtree," said Phineas. "You have come through much heavy travail to a correct appreciation of the meaning of human love between man and woman, and so you have in you the wisdom of all the ages."
"Yes, yes," said Peggy, becoming practical. "But Port Royal?"
"The clue to the labyrinth," replied Phineas.
The Dean of an English cathedral is a personage.
He has power. He can stand with folded arms at its door and forbid entrance to anyone, save, perhaps, the King in person. He can tell not only the Bishop of the Diocese, but the very Archbishop of the Province, to run away and play. Having power and using it benignly and graciously, he can exert its subtler form known as influence. In the course of his distinguished career he is bound to make many queer friends in high places.
"My dear Field-Marshal, could you do me a little favour...?"
"My dear Ambassador, my daughter, etc., etc...."
Deans, discreet, dignified gentlemen, who would not demand the impossible, can generally get what they ask for.
When Peggy returned to Durdlebury and put Doggie's case before her father, and with unusual fervour roused him from his first stupefaction at the idea of her mad project, he said mildly:
"Let me understand clearly what you want to do. You want to go to Paris by yourself, discover a girl called Jeanne Bossiere, concerning whose address you know nothing but two words—Port Royal—of course there is a Boulevard Port Royal somewhere south of the Luxembourg Gardens——"
"Then we've found her," cried Peggy. "We only want the number."
"Please don't interrupt," said the Dean. "You confuse me, my dear. You want to find this girl and re-establish communication between her and Marmaduke, and—er—generally play Fairy Godmother."
"If you like to put it that way," said Peggy.
"Are you quite certain you would be acting wisely? From Marmaduke's point of view——"
"Don't call him Marmaduke"—she bent forward and touched his knee caressingly—"Marmaduke could never have risked his life for a woman. It was Doggie who did it. She thinks of him as Doggie. Every one thinks of him now and loves him as Doggie. It was Oliver's name for him, don't you see? And he has stuck it out and made it a sort of title of honour and affection—and it was as Doggie that Oliver learned to love him, and in his last letter to Oliver he signed himself 'Your devoted Doggie.'"
"My dear," smiled the Dean, and quoted: "'What's in a name? A rose——'"
"Would be unendurable if it were called a bug-squash. The poetry would be knocked out of it."
The Dean said indulgently: "So the name Doggie connotes something poetic and romantic?"
"You ask the girl Jeanne."
The Dean tapped the back of his daughter's hand that rested on his knee.
"There's no fool like an old fool, my dear. Do you know why?"
She shook her head.
"Because the old fool has learned to understand the young fool, whereas the young fool doesn't understand anybody."
She laughed and threw herself on her knees by his side.
"Daddy, you're immense!"
He took the tribute complacently. "What was I saying before you interrupted me? Oh yes. About the wisdom of your proposed action. Are you sure they want each other?"
"As sure as I'm sitting here," said Peggy.
"Then, my dear," said he, "I'll do what I can."
Whether he wrote to Field-Marshals and Ambassadors or to lesser luminaries, Peggy did not know. The Dean observed an old-world punctilio about such matters. At the first reply or two to his letters he frowned; at the second or two he smiled in the way any elderly gentleman may smile when he finds himself recognized by high-and-mightiness as a person of importance.
"I think, my dear," said he at last, "I've arranged everything for you."
* * * * *
So it came to pass that while Doggie, with a shattered shoulder and a touched left lung, was being transported from a base hospital in France to a hospital in England, Peggy, armed with all kinds of passports and recommendations, and a very fixed, personal sanctified idea, was crossing the Channel on her way to Paris and Jeanne.
* * * * *
And, after all, it was no wild-goose chase, but a very simple matter. An urbane, elderly person at the British Embassy performed certain telephonic gymnastics. At the end:
"Merci, merci. Adieu!"
He turned to her.
"A representative from the Prefecture of Police will wait on you at your hotel at ten o'clock to-morrow morning."
The official called, took notes, and confidently assured her that he would obtain the address of Mademoiselle Jeanne Bossiere within twelve hours.