"But how, monsieur, are you going to do it?" asked Peggy.
"Madame," said he, "in spite of the war, the telegraphic, telephonic, and municipal systems of France work in perfect order—to say nothing of that of the police. Frelus, I think, is the name of the place she started from?"
At eight o'clock in the evening, after her lonely dinner in the great hotel, the polite official called again. She met him in the lounge.
"Madame," said he, "I have the pleasure to inform you that Mademoiselle Jeanne Bossiere, late of Frelus, is living in Paris at 743^bis Boulevard Port Royal, and spends all her days at the succursale of the French Red Cross in the Rue Vaugirard."
"Have you seen her and told her?"
"No, madame, that did not come within my instructions."
"I am infinitely grateful to you," said Peggy.
"Il n'y a pas de quoi, madame. I perform the tasks assigned to me and am only too happy, in this case, to have been successful."
"But, monsieur," said Peggy, feeling desperately lonely in Paris, and pathetically eager to talk to a human being, even in her rusty Vevey school French, "haven't you wondered why I've been so anxious to find this young lady?"
"If we began to wonder," he replied with a laugh, "at the things which happen during the war, we should be so bewildered that we shouldn't be able to carry on our work. Madame," said he, handing her his card, "if you should have further need of me in the matter, I am always at your service."
He bowed profoundly and left her.
Peggy stayed at the Ritz because, long ago, when her parents had fetched her from Vevey and had given her the one wonderful fortnight in Paris she had ever known, they had chosen this dignified and not inexpensive hostelry. To her girlish mind it had breathed the last word of splendour, movement, gaiety—all that was connoted by the magical name of the City of Light. But now the glamour had departed. She wondered whether it had ever been. Oliver had laughed at her experiences. Sandwiched between dear old Uncle Edward and Aunt Sophia, what in the sacred name of France could she have seen of Paris? Wait till they could turn round. He would take her to Paris. She would have the unimagined time of her life. They dreamed dreams of the Rue de la Paix—he had five hundred pounds laid by, which he had ear-marked for an orgy of shopping in that Temptation Avenue of a thoroughfare; of Montmartre, the citadel of delectable wickedness and laughter; of funny little restaurants in dark streets where you are delighted to pay twenty francs for a mussel, so exquisitely is it cooked; of dainty and crazy theatres; of long drives, folded in each other's arms, when moonlight touches dawn, through the wonders of the enchanted city.
Her brief dreams had eclipsed her girlish memories. Now the dreams had become blurred. She strove to bring them back till her soul ached, till she broke down into miserable weeping. She was alone in a strange, unedifying town; in a strange, vast, commonplace hotel. The cold, moonlit Place de la Vendome, with its memorable column, just opposite her bedroom window, meant nothing to her. She had the desolating sense that nothing in the world would ever matter to her again—nothing as far as she, Peggy Manningtree, was concerned. Her life was over. Altruism alone gave sanction to continued existence. Hence her present adventure. Paris might have been Burslem for all the interest it afforded.
* * * * *
Jeanne worked from morning to night in the succursale of the Croix Rouge in the Rue Vaugirard. She had tried, after the establishment of her affairs, to enter, in no matter what capacity, a British base hospital. It would be a consolation for her surrender of Doggie to work for his wounded comrades. Besides, twice in her life she owed everything to the English, and the repayment of the debt was a matter of conscience. But she found that the gates of English hospitals were thronged with English girls; and she could not even speak the language. So, guided by the Paris friend with whom she lodged, she made her way to the Rue Vaugirard, where, in the packing-room, she had found hard unemotional employment. Yet the work had to be done: and it was done for France, which, after all, was dearer to her than England; and among her fellow-workers, women of all classes, she had pleasant companionship.
When, one day, the old concierge, bemedalled from the war of 1870, appeared to her in the packing-room, with the announcement that a dame anglaise desired to speak to her, she was at first bewildered. She knew no English ladies—had never met one in her life. It took a second or two for the thought to flash that the visit might concern Doggie. Then came conviction. In blue overall and cap, she followed the concierge to the ante-room, her heart beating. At the sight of the young Englishwoman in black, with a crape hat and little white band beneath the veil, it nearly stopped altogether.
Peggy advanced with outstretched hand.
"You are Mademoiselle Jeanne Bossiere?"
"I am a cousin of Monsieur Trevor——"
"Ah, madame"—Jeanne pointed to the mourning—"you do not come to tell me he is dead?"
Peggy smiled. "No. I hope not."
"Ah!" Jeanne sighed in relief, "I thought——"
"This is for my husband," said Peggy quietly.
"Ah, madame! je demande bien pardon. J'ai du vous faire de la peine. Je n'y pensais pas——"
Jeanne was in great distress. Peggy smiled again. "Widows dress differently in England and France." She looked around and her eyes fell upon a bench by the wall. "Could we sit down and have a little talk?"
"Pardon, madame, c'est que je suis un peu emue ..." said Jeanne.
She led the way to the bench. They sat down together, and for a feminine second or two took stock of each other. Jeanne's first rebellious instinct said: "I was right." In her furs and her perfect millinery and perfect shoes and perfect black silk stockings that appeared below the short skirt, Peggy, blue-eyed, fine-featured, the fine product of many generations of scholarly English gentlefolk, seemed to incarnate her vague conjectures of the social atmosphere in which Doggie had his being. Her peasant blood impelled her to suspicion, to a half-grudging admiration, to self-protective jealousy. The Englishwoman's ease of manner, in spite of her helter-skelter French, oppressed her with an angry sense of inferiority. She was also conscious of the blue overall and close-fitting cap. Yet the Englishwoman's smile was kind and she had lost her husband.... And Peggy, looking at this girl with the dark, tragic eyes and refined, pale face and graceful gestures, in the funny instinctive British way tried to place her socially. Was she a lady? It made such a difference. This was the girl for whom Doggie had performed his deed of knight-errantry; the girl whom she proposed to take back to Doggie. For the moment, discounting the uniform which might have hidden a midinette or a duchess, she had nothing but the face and the gestures and the beautifully modulated voice to go upon, and between the accent of the midinette and the duchess—both being equally charming to her English ear—Peggy could not discriminate. She had, however, beautiful, capable hands, and took care of her finger-nails.
Jeanne broke the tiny spell of embarrassed silence.
"I am at your disposal, madame."
Peggy plunged at once into facts.
"It may seem strange, my coming to you; but the fact is that my cousin, Monsieur Trevor, is severely wounded...."
"Mon Dieu!" said Jeanne.
"And his friend, Mr. McPhail, who is also wounded, thinks that if you—well——"
Her French failed her—to carry off a very delicate situation one must have command of language—she could only blurt out—"Il faut comprendre, mademoiselle. Il a fait beaucoup pour vous."
She met Jeanne's dark eyes. Jeanne said:
"Oui, madame, vous avez raison. Il a beaucoup fait pour moi."
Peggy flushed at the unconscious correction—"beaucoup fait" for "fait beaucoup."
"He has done not only much, but everything for me, madame," Jeanne continued. "And you who have come from England expressly to tell me that he is wounded, what do you wish me to do?"
"Accompany me back to London. I had a telegram this morning to say that he had arrived at a hospital there."
"Then you have not seen him?"
"Then how, madame, do you know that he desires my presence?"
Peggy glanced at the girl's hands clasped on her lap, and saw that the knuckles were white.
"I am sure of it."
"He would have written, madame. I only received one letter from him, and that was while I still lived at Frelus."
"He wrote many letters and telegraphed to Frelus, and received no answers."
"Madame," cried Jeanne, "I implore you to believe what I say: but not one of those letters have ever reached me."
At first Peggy was incredulous. Phineas McPhail had told her of Doggie's despair at the lack of response from Frelus; and, after all, Frelus had a properly constituted post office in working order, which might be expected to forward letters. She had therefore come prepared to reproach the girl. But ...
"Je le jure, madame," said Jeanne.
And Peggy believed her.
"But I wrote to Monsieur McPhail, giving him my address in Paris."
"He lost the letter before he saw Doggie again"—the name slipped out—"and forgot the address."
"But how did you find me?"
"I had a lot of difficulty. The British Embassy—the Prefecture of Police——"
"Mon Dieu!" cried Jeanne again. "Did you do all that for me?"
"For my cousin."
"You called him Doggie. That is how I know him and think of him."
"All right," smiled Peggy. "For Doggie then."
Jeanne's brain for a moment or two was in a whirl—Embassies and Prefectures of Police!
"Madame, to do this, you must love him very much."
"I loved him so much—I hope you will understand me—my French I know is terrible—but I loved him so much that until he came home wounded we were fiances."
Jeanne drew a short breath. "I felt it, madame. An English gentleman of great estate would naturally marry an English lady of his own social class. That is why, madame, I acted as I have done."
Then something of what Jeanne really was became obvious to Peggy. Lady or no lady, in the conventional British sense, Jeanne appealed to her, in her quiet dignity and restraint, as a type of Frenchwoman whom she had never met before. She suddenly conceived an enormous respect for Jeanne. Also for Phineas McPhail, whose eulogistic character sketch she had accepted with feminine reservations subconsciously derisive.
"My dear," she said. "Vous etes digne de toute dame anglaise!"—which wasn't an elegant way of putting it in the French tongue—-but Jeanne, with her odd smile of the lips, showed that she understood her meaning; she had served her apprenticeship in the interpretation of Anglo-Gallic. "But I want to tell you. Doggie and I were engaged. A family matter. Then, when he came home wounded—you know how—I found that I loved some one—aimais d'amour, as you say—and he found the same. I loved the man whom I married. He loved you. He confessed it. We parted more affectionate friends than we had ever been. I married. He searched for you. My husband has been killed. Doggie, although wounded, is alive. That is why I am here."
They were sitting in a corner of the ante-room, and before them passed a continuous stream of the busy life of the war, civilians, officers, badged workers, elderly orderlies in pathetic bits of uniform that might have dated from 1870, wheeling packages in and out, groups talking of the business of the organization, here and there a blue-vested young lieutenant and a blue-overalled packer, talking—it did not need God to know of what. But neither of the two women heeded this multitude.
Jeanne said: "Madame, I am profoundly moved by what you have told me. If I show little emotion, it is because I have suffered greatly from the war. One learns self-restraint, madame, or one goes mad. But as you have spoken to me in your noble English frankness—I have only to confess that I love Doggie with all my heart, with all my soul——" With her two clenched hands she smote her breast—and Peggy noted it was the first gesture that she had made. "I feel the infinite need, madame—you will understand me—to care for him, to protect him——"
Peggy raised a beautifully gloved hand.
"Protect him?" she interrupted. "Why, hasn't he shown himself to be a hero?"
Jeanne leant forward and grasped the protesting hand by the wrist; and there was a wonderful light behind her eyes and a curious vibration in her voice.
"It is only les petits heros tout faits—the little ready-made heroes—ready made by the bon Dieu—who have no need of a woman's protection. But it is a different thing with the great heroes who have made themselves without the aid of a bon Dieu, from little dogs of no account (des petits chiens de rien du tout) to what Doggie is at the moment. The woman then takes her place. She fixes things for ever. She alone can understand."
Peggy gasped as at a new Revelation. The terms in which this French girl expressed herself were far beyond the bounds of her philosophy. The varying aspects in which Doggie had presented himself to her, in the past few months, had been bewildering. Now she saw him, in a fresh light, though as in a glass darkly, as reflected by Jeanne. Still, she protested again, in order to see more clearly.
"But what would you protect him from?"
"From want of faith in himself; from want of faith in his destiny, madame. Once he told me he had come to France to fight for his soul. It is necessary that he should be victorious. It is necessary that the woman who loves him should make him victorious."
Peggy put out her hand and touched Jeanne's wrist.
"I'm glad I didn't marry Doggie, mademoiselle," she said simply. "I couldn't have done that." She paused. "Well?" she resumed. "Will you now come with me to London?"
A faint smile crept into Jeanne's eyes.
"Mais oui, madame."
* * * * *
Doggie lay in the long, pleasant ward of the great London hospital, the upper left side of his body a mass of bandaged pain. Neck and shoulder, front and back and arm, had been shattered and torn by high explosive shell. The top of his lung had been grazed. Only the remorseless pressure at the base hospital had justified the sending of him, after a week, to England. Youth and the splendid constitution which Dr. Murdoch had proclaimed in the far-off days of the war's beginning, and the toughening training of the war itself, carried him through. No more fighting for Doggie this side of the grave. But the grave was as far distant as it is from any young man in his twenties who avoids abnormal peril.
Till to-day he had not been allowed to see visitors, or to receive letters. They told him that the Dean of Durdlebury had called; had brought flowers and fruit and had left a card "From your Aunt, Peggy and myself." But to-day he felt wonderfully strong, in spite of the unrelenting pain, and the nurse had said: "I shouldn't wonder if you had some visitors this afternoon." Peggy, of course. He followed the hands of his wrist-watch until they marked the visiting hour. And sure enough, a minute afterwards, amid the stream of men and women—chiefly women—of all grades and kinds, he caught sight of Peggy's face smiling beneath her widow's hat. She had a great bunch of violets in her bodice.
"My dear old Doggie!" She bent down and kissed him. "Those rotten people wouldn't let me come before."
"I know," said Doggie. He pointed to his shoulder. "I'm afraid I'm in a hell of a mess. It's lovely to see you."
She unpinned the violets and thrust them towards his face.
"From home. I've brought 'em for you."
"My God!" said Doggie, burying his nose in the huge bunch. "I never knew violets could smell like this." He laid them down with a sigh. "How's everybody?"
There was a span of silence. Then he stretched out his hand and she gave him hers and he gripped it tight.
"Poor old Peggy dear!"
"Oh, that's all right," she said bravely. "I know you care, dear Doggie. That's enough. I've just got to stick it like the rest." She withdrew her hand after a little squeeze. "Bless you. Don't worry about me. I'm contemptibly healthy. But you——?"
"Getting on splendidly. I say, Peggy, what kind of people are the Pullingers who have taken Denby Hall?"
"They're all right, I believe. He's something in the Government—Controller of Feeding-bottles—I don't know. But, oh, Doggie, what an ass you were to sell the place up!"
Doggie laughed. "If you've come here to argue with me, I shall cry, and then you'll be turned out neck and crop."
Peggy looked at him shrewdly. "You seem to be going pretty strong."
"Never stronger in my life," lied Doggie.
"Would you like to see somebody you are very fond of?"
"Somebody I'm fond of? Uncle Edward?"
"No, no." She waved the Very Reverend the Dean to the empyrean.
"Dear old Phineas? Has he come through? I've not had time to ask whether you've heard anything about him."
"Yes, he's flourishing. He wrote to me. I've seen him."
"Praise the Lord!" cried Doggie. "My dear, there's no one on earth, save you, whom I should so much love to see as Phineas. If he's there, fetch him along."
Peggy nodded and smiled mysteriously and went away down the ward. And Doggie thought: "Thank God, Peggy has the strength to face the world—and thank God Phineas has come through." He closed his eyes, feeling rather tired, thinking of Phineas. Of his last words as he passed him stretcher-borne in the trench. Of the devotion of the man. Of his future. Well, never mind his future. In all his vague post-war schemes for reorganization of the social system, Phineas had his place. No further need for dear old Phineas to stand in light green and gold outside a picture palace. He had thought it out long ago, although he had never said a word to Phineas. Now he could set the poor chap's mind at rest for ever.
He looked round contentedly, and saw Peggy and a companion coming down the ward, together. But it was not Phineas. It was a girl in black.
He raised himself, forgetful of exquisite pain, on his right elbow, and stared in a thrill of amazement.
And Jeanne came to him, and there were no longer ghosts behind her eyes, for they shone like stars.