Authors: Henry Williamson
HENRY WILLIAMSONTHE GOLDEN VIRGIN
‘Objects of hate are but our own chimaerae.
They arise from wounds within us.’
Father Aloysius.CONTENTSTitle PageDedicationEpigraphAcknowledgementPARTONETHE WILD BOY1.NIGHT THOUGHTS2.GREY TOWERS3.NEW WORLD4.NEW BROOM5.TO THE BRIGHT LIGHTS6.CLICKETTING7.CHRISTMAS19158.TRAINING CENTRE9.A SPOT OF LEAVE10.TWENTY-FIRST BIRTHDAY11.TWO MONTHS’ LEAVE12.LILY AND THE NIGHTINGALEPARTTWOTHE SOMME13.QUERRIEU14.HAPPY BREED OF MEN15.THE RAID16.THE YELLOWHAMMER17.WAITING18.THE CAKE-WALK19.REST AFTER STRIFEPARTTHREETHE QUIET BOY20.LILY’S RESOLUTION21.THE HOME FRONT22.THREE TEAS23.IONIAN COTTAGE24.PISTON25.A MAN OF SOCIETY26.LAWN TENNIS27.COMPLICATION28.NIGHT AND MORNINGL’EnvoiBy the Same AuthorCopyrightACKNOWLEDGEMENT
The author is indebted to the Hon. Lady Salmond for permission to quote, in the story, verses fromIntoBattle,by Captain the Hon. Julian Grenfell, D.S.O., who died of wounds in May, 1915.
The version used in the following pages, which differs slightly from that printed inTheOxfordBookofEnglishVerse(New Edition 1939) and also from another version inBrightArmour,MemoriesofFourYearsofWar,by Monica Salmond (Faber & Faber Ltd.), is taken from ‘the rough copy scribbled and hardly altered in Julian’s small pocket diary’.
Part OneTHE WILD BOY
“It might have been thought that War, with its weeping nights and solitary mornings, would have silenced rumour; that the fearing and faint at home would have been infected by the radiant and courageous abroad, and that such unknown human sufferings as the world went through in 1914 would have made men kind; but it was not so.
From the first day the cry went up that we were to ‘hunt out the Germans in our midst’, and you had only to suggest that the person you disliked for reasons either social or political had German blood or German sympathies and a witch-hunt was started as cruel and persistent as any in the fourteenth century.
Our treatment of aliens was worse than that of any of the Allies. We crushed their business, ruined their homes, boycotted their families and drove their wives into asylums. Not a voice was raised from Christian pulpits; but Prelates were photographed on gun-carriages chatting to soldiers on the glories of battle.”
Chapter 1NIGHT THOUGHTS
In 1910 a company was formed in London with the style and title of Temperance Billiard Halls Ltd. Its object was to build the sort of places where youth of the poorer classes might enjoy companionship other than that found in street and public house, of the kind synonymous with all that was dreaded by parents who hoped that their boys would not go wrong. Several of these halls were built in the suburbs during the most optimistic period of Liberalism in power, if not in flower, in the first decade of the twentieth century.
The wordbilliardswas, among the aspiring classes which dwelt in the new suburbs of red and yellow brick, in uneasy association with Victorian liquor, bar lights, and unmentionable worse things connected with women. To help overcome existing prejudice, and lest any doubts arise as to the spirit and capability of the impulse towards the setting up of healthy, innocent recreation for the young, Temperance Billiard Halls Ltd. had caused to be let into the outside wall of each building a panel of glazed green tiles with letters and figures announcing the reassuring fact that the company had a capital of £100,000.
One such hall had been built in south-east London, beside a high road leading into Kent, where cabbage and potato fields were still under cultivation only a mile or so away, despite the extension of new roads of creosoted blocks of jarra wood and rails for the brown and yellow electric trams of the L.C.C. The hall stood on what had been grazing land below the South Eastern and Chatham Railway embankment. The site had been chosen, among other reasons, for its nearness to the Conservative Club across the road, a high-toned place where even the most successful in trade had not yet succeeded in rubbing shoulders with the old and established professions of the borough. True, the entrance to the garden surrounding the Club was almost hidden by a most unfortunate jerry-building which had sprung up almost overnight owing to a lapse of the steward of the ground landlord,the Earl of Dartford: an oversight the more strange since the solicitor concerned was a member of the Club, and presumably had put a restrictive covenant upon the use to which the ninety-nine-year leasehold of the parcel of land beside the Club entrance would be put by the emptor. It was a case of the old tag in reverse,caveatvendor;for now, where once lilacs and laburnums had grown, stood a pawn shop, its three large gilt balls hanging beside the Club entrance for all to see, and many, including Dr. Dashwood, to make jokes about. “So convenient for the Members, don’t you know.”
The entrance into the billiard hall was well back from the kerb of the wide pavement which had taken the place of the original sidewalk. Once over the threshold, no parent was likely to continue in doubt as to the hall’s respectability, for the walls of the porch were decorated with two panels in plaster, Law on the left, and Commerce on the right; groups of female figures made familiar by Burne-Jones and others of the fashion in art. Law stood with bandaged eyes and sword, holding scales, Commerce with ball and sceptre among some of the subject races of Empire. With artistic daring, Queen Victoria had become a young woman with blonde hair hanging down her back, swathed all in white.
Over the porch was fixed the legend:
THE GILD HALL
the letters of which gleamed but dully on a raw Saturday night in the late autumn of 1915. Owing to Zeppelin raids the glass lanterns of street lamps had been covered with deep blue paint except for a small margin around their bases, and the only other lights in the street came from passing tramcars, and negligible wavering yellow spots from bicycles and horse-drawn carts.
Outside the porch two girls were standing in hesitation. One of them was peering into the well of light coming through glass doors, beyond which could be seen a floor possibly of marble, set with tables at which young people were sitting, looking about them, or playing some game among cups of coffee.
“Why, it’s only dominoes, it’s just an ordinary place after all, Nina!”
“I told you it was, Mavis! Only you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Well, what does he come here for, then?”
“Phil has to go somewhere, I suppose.”
“Why? Why can’t he stay at home sometimes, with Mother? I’ll tell you what! It’s like one of the Mecca coffee rooms in the City, where men go to spoon with the waitresses!”
“Anyway, let’s go in and see, shall we?”
They entered into warmth and light, amidst a murmur of young voices, of girls in large black straw hats and pigtails—flappers, in fact—and youths, some of them in uniform, sitting at tables amidst laughter and the sliding rattle of dominoes. In the centre of the floor was a sunken circular pool in which goldfish moved languidly. Beyond other glass doors could be seen a multiplication of hanging dark green cones casting pyramids of light upon arms, heads, and faces intent around little emerald lawns, whereon rolled white and multi-coloured balls.
The taller of the two girls led the way to a table in a far corner, and sat down with her companion. “Well,” she said, with a trace of disappointment, “I don’t see him anywhere, do you, Nina?”
“Are you sure he hasn’t gone to the Hippodrome?”
“Oh, he never goes there on Saturday nights! Too rough. No, I bet he’s in Freddy’s bar, with Desmond, who sponges on him!”
The waitress came, and the fair girl, who was short and sturdily built, ordered coffee. When the two cups came she passed the sugar bowl to her friend, who helped herself and then appeared to fall into a state of dream, as slowly she stirred her coffee and stared before her. Nina waited, wondering what was upsetting her now. She had learned never to ask questions, which almost invariably brought forth a startled, “Why do you ask?”
Mavis of the brown eyes reflective with inward thoughts that often held a fixed stare of mournful vagueness usually told her perplexities and troubles to her great friend Nina; Nina so considerate of the feelings of the imperious Mavis, always ready to give, to put herself out to help the often-unhappy and (to Nina) the beautiful Mavis. No young man had looked twice at Nina, an Anglo-Saxon young woman who might have been any age between eighteen and twenty-eight. So the fair ruddy-faced Nina lived much in the feelings of the brunette, cream-complexion’d Mavis, who at times had a radiant expression, her large eyes filling with light and animation, which caused men covertly to observe her, and some to pay direct attention to her. But Mavis, to Nina’s relief, wanted none of them: she said shedid not like men, because of their crude ways, and lack of the things of the soul.
Mavis had a blank in her; in part, life for her was a dark tunnel in which her soul dreamed of celestial, ideal things. The tunnel was akin to fear, and death: the dead image of the father she had adored, until without warning he had kissed her, when she was thirteen, in a strange way; a distressing way, for immediately afterwards he had become blank and cold with guilt; and having no self-consciousness, no self-knowledge, had transferred his self-dislike upon the object of its cause, the figure in bud of Mavis. For a long time afterwards the words of his angry voice had the power to darken her to hopelessness.Idonotloveyou,he had cried; and never resurrected himself from the tomb of his guilt, under which love lay buried. The child’s hazel eyes had become blackthorn-dark with brooding, the spines grown dully inwards.
“I think it’sterriblyunfair, Nina!”
“Life often is unfair,” replied Nina, who had got that thought from one of John Galsworthy’s novels.
“I mean,” said Mavis, “that my only brother should behave as he does.”
“I don’t quite know what it is you have against him, Mavis. After all, soldiers drink rum in the trenches, and Phillip’s been out to France twice, you know.”
“Yes, but look howmuchhe drinks!” Mavis sipped her coffee. “Not bad, is it? Still, for tuppence—— Why aren’t you having yours?”
“I was waiting for the sugar, Mavis.”
“Well, you are silly! Why didn’t you ask me to pass it?”
“I didn’t like to interrupt your thoughts.”
“Oh, don’t be so fussy!”
Nina put on a mild and pleasant expression. She was used to soothing her friend, whom she secretly loved: Mavis of the delicate ears and profile, the wistful lips, the limpid brown eyes which made Nina think of shadowed forest pools.
“Do you swear to keep a secret, Nina?”
“I never breathe word of what you tell me, you must know that, Mavie.”
“It is Mother. She is worrying herself to death over Phillip. He’s her favourite, you know. Oh yes! Neither I nor Doris get a look in where Phillip is concerned. Well, she is so upset now by what is happening, that she told me she was thinking of going tosee the landlord of the public house he haunts, for he is killing himself, the way he is going on! He’s getting all this sick leave, and all he’s doing is making himself worse.”
“But perhaps he is ill, Mavie. He was gassed at Loos, didn’t you tell me?”
“That’s whathesaid, but I don’t believe it! There’s nothing wrong with him, except that he drinks! I hear him being sick in his room when he comes back, night after night! He has his own key, and opens the front door and shuts it very slowly, hardly a sound. I can hear distinctly at the end of the passage, with my door open, you know. It’s like a sounding board. I hear him coming up the stairs on hands and knees, then creeping over the oilcloth down the passage, and into his room. No, you ought not to laugh! It isn’t really funny. Now you’ve made me laugh!” But she checked herself, “No, it’s really tragic!” Her eyes held tears. “You see, it’s Mother! I always know when he’s going to be sick, for I hear the pot slide from under the bed, then he gets off the bed and draws up his elbows and knees, I think, and so tries to minimise the noise of retching! It’s horrid, I tell you, to have a brother people talk about, Nina! You aren’t his sister, so you can’t possibly understand what the feeling is!”
“I’ve never heard anyone say anything about him, Mavie.”
“Ah, but you live more than a mile away, you would if you lived near Randiswell! There everyone knows he ran away from the Germans at Messines, while Peter Wallace and his brothers stayed, and were bayonetted, defending the doctor, who was kneeling by the wounded! No, don’t stop me, I know what you are going to say about gossip, but I know it’s true! One of the men who was with Phillip then, called Martin, has a father who is one of our messengers at Head Office, and Martin told his father that Phillip deserted him, when the two of them were bringing up ammunition, to save his own skin!”
“Oh, Mavie, I don’t believe it! People say things about everyone, if you listen to them!”
“But Phillip himself told Mother that itwastrue! He said he left Martin because he lay down, and wouldn’t get up. Then again, he says that he pretended to be a chemist before he joined the army, to avoid being sent over the top at Loos. So they made him a gas officer, and he says, quite openly, that he gassed all his own men! And everybody knows our father is half-German, though he hates the Germans, for what they have done. Phillip doesn’t mind telling Mr. Jenkins in that public house that theGerman soldiers are as good as ours! That’s the awful thing about it—he has no shame at all. It will break Mother’s heart! And on top of it all, there’s this horrible drinking!”
On returning from the battle of Loos some weeks before, having transferred to a home unit, Second-lieutenant Phillip Maddison had obtained a week’s leave, ostensibly to replace kit lost in battle; and after that week, he had got a further week’s sick-leave. This luck, as he called it, had come about through Dr. Dashwood, a recent acquaintance, who in the Conservative Club, over double whiskeys, had said, “I don’t like the sound of your pipes, Middleton, come along and let me sound your bellows.” Leading Phillip into the billiard-room, Dr. Dashwood, with professional fixity upon his purple face, listened through the worn and grubby pink rubber tubes of a stethoscope pressed upon selected places of a thin chest and ribs. A murmur, a distinct murmur, the doctor announced, stuffing his apparatus back into his overcoat pocket.
“Can’t let you go back like that, Middleton. You’ve had two spells at the Front, so let someone else have a turn. I’ll give you a note to Toogood at the Workhouse. D’you know ’im?”
“I’ve heard of Dr. Toogood, that’s all,” replied Phillip, not liking to ask why he should be sent to a Workhouse doctor. Was Dashwood blotto? One could never quite tell.
“Toogood’s now a colonel in the R.A.M.C.,” remarked Dr. Dashwood, as though he had read his thoughts. “The Infirmary has been turned into a hospital for Tommies, Middleton.” Dr. Dashwood staggered sideways, recovered, hooked his umbrella over his elbow, and putting on his bowler hat, led the way back to the bar. There he ordered two more double whiskeys.
“If you don’t mind, I won’t have any more, Doctor. But will you have one with me?”
“Thank you, my dear Middleton,” said Dr. Dashwood, bowing. “But the rules of the Club forbid. You are my guest. Help yourself to seltzer.” Courteously he placed the syphon by Phillip’s glass. Not wanting to hurt the old boy’s feelings, Phillip sipped the whiskey, suppressing a shudder, while hoping that it would not make him shoot his bundle. Making his expression amiable, he refrained from watching while Dr. Dashwood scrawled something with his big fat fountain pen on Club writing paper, and signed it with a flourish. Then waving the paper to and fro, to dry the ink before putting it in an envelope, he gave it to Phillip, with another bow.
Would the Club address give the game away? For Dr. Dashwood, according to Mrs. Neville, was well-known for his tippling.
Furthermore, had Dr. Dashwood writtenMiddleton,when his name was Maddison? He had not liked to correct the doctor, lest it spoil the genial spirit of himself being Middleton.
Half an hour and two whiskeys later, Phillip left the smoke room of the Conservative Club and walked with glassy determination across the croquet lawn beyond the billiard room, and so to the banks of the Randiswell. There, with one hand on the weeping willow trailing some of its branches into the dirty water, he was sick. Afterwards a desire to hide his shame led him, with faltering steps, across the lawn and to the billiard room where, as he told his great friend Desmond and Mrs. Neville his mother at their flat later that evening, he got into a dugout under the table, and passed out.
“When I had got rid of the fumes and the nausea it was tea-time. Dr. Dashwood gave me some bromide. And before I went to see Toogood at the Workhouse I bought some violet cachous, and took care to turn my face away when the old boy sounded me. Anyway, it’s awful to breathe in anyone’s face. I think he appreciated this, for he gave me a week’s extension. So here I am!”
“DidDr. Dashwood writeMiddleton,Phillip?” asked Mrs. Neville.
“I couldn’t read any of his writing, Mrs. Neville.”
“Just as well!” cried the fat woman, with sudden laughter. “Still,” she added, solemn again, “if he is a bit of a rogue, he is a charming rogue, I’ll say that for him.”
The extra leave took Phillip to Friday night. He was due to report to his new unit in Essex on the Saturday morning. But on his last night Desmond was not on duty with the searchlights, and on the Saturday morning Phillip put off his start for a cup of coffee in the flat, then another cup, then a quick game of snakes-and-ladders while eating bread and cheese; after which he took Desmond on the back of his motor cycle to Freddy’s bar in the High Street for a glass of beer, and as they were coming out in walked Dr. Dashwood. After a round of drinks they went for one for the road, as the doctor called it, in the Conservative Club, where, said the doctor, “Auld Scottie” whiskey, unlike Teacher’s he had had before, was as mild as milk, and the very thing to kill any bug which might be exploiting the dull patch in Phillip’s lung.
“The trouble with me, Doctor, is that I have never been ableto stop my thoughts racing about in all directions,” said Phillip. “When I was a child, I called this to myself the battle of the brain. I find it awfully hard to control thoughts of disaster, even of torture, however much I try to reason things out. I suppose it is bad form not to conceal one’s thoughts, but then I’m not a gentleman. Also, I’m a frightful coward, and always have been. And, as you can see, I have no reserve, as mother is always telling me. I just can’t help saying what I think.”
It was a handicap to have too much imagination, Dr. Dashwood said, kindly, after Phillip had returned to the Club to thank him for a further week’s leave. “Sometimes I think I am all imagination, and by a freak was born with the spirit of a hare,” went on Phillip, and thereupon told the doctor why he had transferred to a home-service unit.
“I get absolutely stiff and trembling with fear, when I think of facing machine guns again. That’s why I applied to be a gas officer at Loos, because I couldn’t face the idea of going over the top. I was given several days light duty afterwards, for a slight gassing, but I didn’t really get gassed at all. I saw men who did. Their faces and bodies turned the colour of plums, with saliva all over their chins and tunics. Slugs seemed to like it, when they were dead. You don’t see those things in the papers.”
“My dear Middleton, as I told you, you have too much imagination! Why should such details be put in newspapers? Surely the right thing is to keep them out? You don’t see what goes on in any hospital, ‘in the papers’. Now to change from the general to the particular, I don’t like that bronchial rasp you have. Come into the billiard room, and let me sound your bellows. Yes, definitely you have a dull patch. I’ll give you a note to Toogood.”
“But you’ve just given me one, Doctor!”
“Oh, did I? Well, that calls for a celebration!”
It was Dashwood who had done the wheezing, Phillip thought, not himself; but the main thing was that he had another week’s leave, and would be with his great friend Desmond again.
The Gild Hall was filling up with its Saturday evening crowd, now that the shops closed early at half past seven, owing to the war. Large straw hats of black, set well back on the head, worn with white blouses and dark skirts above the ankle, with black cotton gloves to the elbow, appeared to be the fashion among those flappers who wore their hair in plaits either over a shoulder or down the back. Many of the youths, the more envied ones,were in uniform, although obviously under military age. Others had dressed themselves in brown shoes with slacks, sharply creased, some with turn-ups; or brown boots with lace-up breeches; both styles unauthorised and worn only on leave, to suggest a gentility above that of the ordinary private soldier. Their jackets, too, had been altered, to take away the issue roughness, to show the shape of the torso—all from aspiration to glory and freedom.
The manager of the Gild Hall was now, as he put it to himself, in evidence, as he stood beside the pay-box leading to the billiard hall proper. He was an upright figure with thin white hair, wearing an ancient pattern of frock coat with celluloid collar, dickey, ready-made flat black tie held in place by elastic, and stringy waxed moustaches that looked as though they had been thick and bushy. A scrawny neck and prominent Adam’s apple stood out of the oversize celluloid collar. This great-grandfatherly teetotal figure gave forth contentment with life, as he surveyed the youthful throng before him.
Mavis was playing dominoes, with Nina. The smooth, slurring slide of the ivory and ebony pieces, the feel of them to the finger-tips was of summer childhood, when she had loved all the world and was loved by everyone, all the faces round the big mahogany table in the sitting room, which had a new leaf in it, brought up from under the floor, through the trapdoor, because Aunt Liz and cousins Polly and Percy had come to stay, and Dads was ever so jolly as he played games of halma and ludo with them, and promised prizes of Callard and Bowser’s cherry toffee bars in silver paper. It was summer, and a wet day, but the rain did not matter, for everything was so jolly and shining inside the sitting room. Then it was dark and sad again, and it was Phil’s fault, for Dads opening his roll-top desk had found out that some of the toffee was gone, and Phil had told a lie, saying that he had not opened the desk with one of the keys on Mother’s key-ring, when he had; and Mummie had scolded her for saying that he had told a lie, and Dads had sent Phil upstairs to take down his trousers for a caning, and he had cried like a baby as he left the room and Mummie had cried, too, and it had spoiled the lovely feeling of summer and the rain on the window.
“Don’t you feel it awfully hot in here, Nina? Let’s go, shall we? There’s no point in our stopping.”
“But I’ve just ordered some more coffee, Mavis.”
“We can tell the girl we don’t want it.”
Nina was used to the sudden peremptory moods of her friend; and as her care was to save her from being upset, she got up to speak to the waitress, being sensitive about cancelling an order only when the tray should arrive. She was half way to the girl, who was standing by the pay-box at the entrance to the billiard hall proper, when she heard loud voices, then a prolonged cry between a cheer and a yell, as the glass doors leading in from the porch were pushed open and three figures staggered into the room, arm in arm, barging into one another with laughter. She recognised Phillip, his friend Desmond, and a smaller, dark man in a blue suit and bowler hat, carrying an ebony cane with large silver top, and wearing an eyeglass, who, she thought, must be Eugene, the Brazilian friend of Desmond.
They stood by the sunken pool, and appeared to be arguing about something, hands on one another’s shoulders. Their voices were loud, everyone was looking at them, the domino games suspended. Nina saw that Phillip’s jacket was dripping with water, as though a jug had been tipped over him, as indeed it had, by Mrs. Freddy in the bar over the road. Anxious for her friend, Nina went back to Mavis, whose eyes were dark and anxious.
“Are they tipsy?” she whispered.
“I don’t think so.”
“Why didn’t you let me go when I first said I wanted to? Iknewsomething like this would happen, you know! I have second-sight, like Mother! Listen, what are they saying?”
The argument was apparently about whether they should play three-handed snooker, or Eugene and Desmond play a hundred up at billiards. Mavis winced at the loudness of the voices. Phillipwasdrunk, she decided; his cap was pulled down on the side of his head, and he had the weak, foolish grin on his face that made him look so undignified. Thank goodness he was not in uniform!
Very soon her worst fears, or previsions, were realised.
“All right, you two birds go and play,” she heard her brother drawl. “I’ll come and watch.” He followed them to the door. The manager stood there. She saw him put a hand on Phillip’s chest, before saying something inaudible to him.
The two others went through the door, leaving Phillip standing there. Then he tried to go through the door into the billiard room, after the others. The manager stopped him. In the silence she heard him say, “I’ve asked you to leave, now go quietly, sir.”
While he continued to stand there, a fourth figure entered the Gild Hall, wearing raincoat and bowler hat, carrying an umbrella. Seeing Phillip, he went towards him. Mavis recognised Tom Ching, and her spirit darkened. So that was it; he and Phillip had been drinking together!
“Look, that awful creature! He’s the cause of it, I bet. Oh look what’s happening.”
Throwing off Ching’s offered arm, Phillip said something to the manager; then holding out his arms he began to walk, or totter, backwards, as though he had lost all sense of balance. Back he went, a dozen paces, and fell into the goldfish pool.
Mavis went out, followed by Nina. Outside in the murky air she said, “Oh, I would have died if anyone had recognised me as his sister!”
Opposite the fire station, at the turning to Randiswell, the friends said goodbye, for Nina’s way lay to the south.
“See you tomorrow, usual time? Don’t be late, will you? And swear on your honour that you will never tell anyone what happened tonight?” Mavis allowed herself to be kissed, then she hurried across the road, unaware that she was being followed by Tom Ching, who had as powerful an impulse towards his image of Mavis as she had towards the image of her lost father.
Tom Ching was Phillip’s age. He was not in uniform because he was a second-grade clerk employed in the Admiralty. His excuse for not having joined up was his indispensability. He was reserved; but there was talk of a Military Service Bill coming before the Commons, and “Cuthberts in Whitehall being combed out”, and sent into the services. This was one of Ching’s dreads, for he had nothing in himself with which to resist the terrors of death should he have to face what Phillip had gone through at Messines with the London Highlanders, and again at the first battle of Ypres. If Phillip’s heritage of courage had been dissipated in childhood by the cold ignorance of a righteous father at odds with his wife, Ching’s had been liquidated by an early horror of knowing what his father did to his mother; of himself doing the same thing, in fascination and horror (at first) with his sister; and being found out, by a father who did not punish him, but in his heavy, fleshy way told him that he had committed one of the great sins which can eat into the soul of a family. This had not shocked the youth, who had been at school at the time, so much as being told by his sister, later on, that father had since done the same thing to her.
Now the father was paralysed, a mass of soft pink and white flesh above a formless heavy face, looked after by the daughter. The mother, a mental invalid, was in Peckham House, an asylum.
These complications had emphasised Ching’s feeling for the ideal, which for some years now had been centred on Mavis; but he practised his love alone, in the thoughts of unattainable deeds. And to help escape his guilt, he had taken to drinking rum, a drink acceptable to his stomach, apparently, for unlike Phillip after three or four quarterns of whiskey, he was never sick.
He hurried after Mavis, in order to confirm his worst fears.
In the sitting room of the Maddison house the curtains were drawn against Zeppelins and the cold November night. A coke fire glowed brightly in the hearth. It was an extravagance on his part, in war-time too, to have built up a fire so late, thought Richard, as he lay back in his armchair, legs and feet stretched to the polished steel fender. But he was not to be on special constabulary duty again until the Monday, and all Sunday’s ease lay before him. He lay back with a sigh of contentment, his cup of hot water on the plush table-cloth beside him, and took up a blue-covered booklet which he had purchased for one penny that afternoon from the London book-stall where, regularly every month, he called for his favouriteNash’sandPallMallMagazine.
Always meticulous when he was not emotionally disturbed, Richard read the title-page carefully.
He read the first two pages of the preamble, and then his eye wandered. He turned to Part 1,TheConductoftheGermanTroopsinBelgium,read a little, and turned over again to read a passage about Liége. Villages around the fortress burned … systematic execution of civilians, by being summarily shot … survivors of volleys bayonetted, including a young girl of thirteen. He breathed deeply, and took a few sips of hot water.
There followed page upon page of the same thing, shooting, bayonetting, burning. Where were the rapings? He turned over more pages, until he came to Part 2 (b)TheTreatmentofWomenandChildren.He was reading with horror entwined in fascination when his wife came into the room. His privacy thus being broken into, he put down the booklet.
“I am ready, Dickie, if you would like to play a game of chess,” said Hetty, almost gaily.
“You’re back early, aren’t you?”
“Yes, dear, Papa wants to write a letter, so I shall go back later for the game of piquet.”
It did not take much to make Richard feel unwanted. She could put herself out for her father, but would she ever do the same for him? He picked up the blue book and went on reading; but soon the disharmony of his thoughts broke into indignation.
“Listen to this incident, Hetty! It took place not far from the district where your convent stands, or did stand, at Wespelaer, a little more than a year ago. I can only thank heaven that Mavis came home last year in the nick of time.”
“On the afternoon of the 14th or 15th August, three German cavalry officers entered the house and demanded champagne. Having drunk ten bottles, and invited five or six officers and three or four private soldiers to join them, they continued their carouse, and then called for the master and the mistress of the house: ‘Immediately my mistress came in’, says the valet de chambre, ‘one of the officers who was sitting on the floor got up, and, putting a revolver to my mistress’ temple, shot her dead. The officer was obviously drunk. The other officers continued to drink and sing, and they did not pay great attention to the killing of my mistress. My master and the officer went into the garden, the officer threatening my master with a pistol. My master was then forced to dig the grave, and bury the body of my mistress in it. I cannot say for what reason they killed my mistress. The officer who did so was singing all the time’.”
“Terrible, terrible,” murmured Hetty, making a clicking noise between tongue and palate.
“But that is not the worst, Hetty!
‘One witness reports that a young girl who was being pursued by a drunken soldier at Louvain appealed to a German officer, and that the offender was then and there shot: another describes how an officer of the 32nd Regiment of the Line was led out to execution for the violation of two young girls, but reprieved at the request or with the consent of the girls’ mothers. These instances are sufficient to show that the maltreatment of women was no part of the military scheme of the invaders …’”
Richard’s voice ceased. He put down the Report, with a further feeling of being cheated. However, there was the clean,unopened copy ofNash’sat his elbow. He turned to his wife and said rhetorically,
“What is the point of publishing an indictment of German military brutality, which we know exists, if in the same breath the Report exonerates the guilty? In my opinion such two-facedness is typical of that old woman Asquith, whose wife, the blatant ‘Margot’, openly visited German officer prisoners at Donnington Hall in Lincolnshire, taking with her hampers of the best comestibles from Curling and Hammer, and playing tennis with them, while her country is at war, and her husband Prime Minister!”
“Yes, Dickie, it is all very wrong. Shall I get the chess board? Or do you feel too tired to play tonight?”
“Oh,” he said airily. “Do not let me keep you from your duties in the house next door.” Richard’s relationship with his father-in-law was one of dislike reduced to nullity. As his wife went out of the room he said, “Now, if you please! Do not be late. I want to be in bed by eleven, and cannot get to sleep until every member of this house is in bed, you know that.”
Hetty knew that he was worried about Phillip, about whom she had gone next door, to speak to Papa. “I shan’t be long, Dickie,” as she left the room, her heart feeling lighter.
“Let the cat in, as you go out, will you? I don’t want Zippy to catch cold, waiting in that draughty porch.”
“Very well, Dickie.”
Soon the cat was in the room, purring, purring, purring, to see its master again—and the warm fire.
During the years a cat had been almost the only medium by which tenderness was released in the Maddison household. There had been three cats, all called Zippy. Zippy never upset anyone, by interfering. Having security from want, fear, and entanglement by sex, Zippy was always in the same mood. In the short days of the duller half of the year Zippy followed the sun around the house, from one resting place behind glass, to another; cushion, chair, window sill, top of wicker dirty-clothes-basket, table beside balcony window. In the season of light, Zippy lived a country gentleman’s life. His landed property was the garden and part of the Backfield, where sparrows, mice, frogs, moths, and daddy-long-legs existed for the chase. A surgical operation long forgotten and preceded by a howl of finality had spared Zippy the pangs and aspirations of love; and being nimble, Zippy wasgenerally able to avoid the periodical clashes with female cats, which smacked the neuter’s face if Zippy did not immediately flee from their insults and oaths. So Zippy took it out of small birds and mammals, which it left bedraggled and maimed when it had had what Richard, often expressing impatience with what he called his wife’s sentimentality, described as its sport.
Had Hetty shown less obvious distress, less melting pity when smaller, weaker things were hurt and despairing, it is possible that her husband would have been less critical of her so-called sentimentality. He had been brought up in the country, and knew the balancings of nature, of life and death. A bird taking a butterfly, a cat the bird in its turn, should be outside a man’s feelings. Privately, he preferred that the cat should run after what he called his drag—a rabbit’s foot tied to string.
Now, taking the lure from his desk, Richard and the cat played together. The chase went on for several minutes around the bulbous mahogany legs of the table, under the mahogany bookcase, the gramophone stand, over the chairs. Finally the string was fastened to the handle of the door, so that the furry foot hung clear of the carpet. Thus the game was rounded off, until the cat had had enough, and went back to its place, to tuck paws under before the fire; then Richard untied the lure, and locked it away until the next time.
Mavis looked back as she crossed the humped bridge over river and railway, and saw that Ching was following her. She felt disgust. He had written letters to her; she suspected that he waited in the grass behind the garden fence, to watch her when she went to bed in the end room. Where poor, gentle Alfred Hawkins had once crept, to leave little poems for her in a crack of one of the posts. Until——
She put away the terrible childhood scene that Phillip had been responsible for.
Mavis hurried on, to escape Ching’s attentions. He kept pace with her. Then, turning into Charlotte Road, with its leafless polled chestnuts, she decided to walk slower. Why should she have to run away from anyone? Perhaps he had something to tell her about Phillip. Perhaps he had not been drunk, after all, but only ill. Impossible. There was nothing the matter with him—except that he was going the way of Uncle Hugh. Poor Mother! Father bullying her on one hand, Phillip destroying her peaceof mind on the other. Mother was a saint. Her whole life had been given to her husband and her son, and both treated her shabbily. Men were utterly selfish. Grandpa had knocked her down when he had found out about her secret marriage to Father, when she was carrying Phillip; and she had been unconscious for hours, in a kind of fit. And now Phillip was showing himself just as bad as Father, and in his time, Grandpa.
What did Ching want to say to her this time? The usual grovelling?
She allowed him to overtake her just before the turn up Hillside Road. It would be better there, than outside the house.
He took off his bowler hat, and stood before her. At first he could not speak. She heard him swallowing, and felt calm. But if he tried to kiss her suddenly, she would poke him with her umbrella—one of the new three-quarter size models, called The Gay Paree, price four and eleven three in Beeveman’s Store near the Obelisk. Mavis had borrowed the money from her mother to buy it, and Hetty, after protest, had made her promise to pay the money back next salary day, for the money was out of the housekeeping, and food was now very expensive, she said. Mavis had paid it back, reluctantly, then borrowed it again the next day to pay for her lunches.
“Mavis, I humbly beg your pardon for accosting you like this. Will you forgive me?”
“What, are you tipsy too?”
“I swear it was none of my doing! I was only being a good Samaritan. Phillip was overcome by gas.”
“By whiskey, you mean!”
“Well, only a very little. Please, Mavis, do not judge him!”
“You mean you don’t want me to judge you, I suppose?”
“Oh, I do not matter at all. It is for Phillip that I hasten to plead. He is not well. He has a lesion on one lung.”
“Who told you, I should like to know?”
“I heard it on high authority.”
“Don’t tell me it was that Dr. Dashwood!” she cried derisively. “We all know what he is!”
Ching said humbly. “It may be a matter of grave concern. Even of life and death.”
“I bet! What is it, then?”
Encouraged by her matter-of-fact manner, Ching felt easier in himself, and correspondingly flummoxed about what he could say. He pretended.
“Well, the high authority is Phillip himself. After all, it is a matter of life and death to him.”
Mavis laughed. “Pooh, I don’t believe you know what you’re talking about, Ching!”
“As a matter of fact, I do. It concerns the love of his life.”
“Oh, that old thing! That is only his pretence! Besides, Helena Rolls cares nothing for him. Why should she? His talk about eternal love is entirely one-sided! So one-sided, in fact, that it doesn’t stop him from going after at least one other girl.”
“I never have, I swear,” said Ching hoarsely. He clasped his hands. “Mavis—Mavis——”
“I know that you’re only pretending, you know! Why do you?”
“Please don’t be unkind,” he groaned. “I can’t help feeling—as I do. Can’t we be just friends? Oh please—that’s all I ask—I know I’m no good—please don’t be angry——” Ching, to his remote satisfaction, managed to break into tears.
For a moment Mavis was shocked in a way that surprised her. Her mood of brittle scorn fell away, and she felt that Ching was part of the sadness of the world. There was only one way by which one’s personal sorrows could be harmonised with those of the world.
“Do you mind if I say something to you, Ching?”
“Yes, Mavis, of course, of course, anything!”
“Go and see Father Aloysius at St. Saviours, in the High Street, and he will tell you what to do.”
“Yes, you go there with your friend Nina, I know.”
“Well, you go too, Ching. Now I must go. Please do not think anything more about me, I am only a substitute for something else in your eyes. Father Aloysius will explain it all to you.”
“You mean there’s no hope for me otherwise?” he moaned.
“I can’t say any more, Ching. Everyone has their troubles, you know.”
Ching passed away in the darkness, and Mavis went on up Hillside Road, dullness overcoming her as she drew near her home.
Richard, lying back in his armchair, was feeling some sort of freedom, as he read about life on the Western Front, obviously an account at first hand, inNash’s.BILLET NOTES,beingcasualpencillingsfromaFightingMantohisMother,was obviously the real thing. Why couldn’t his own son tell him what he hadalways wanted to know about the front, instead of replying in monosyllables, if at all? If only he himself were younger, he would join up and get away from the drudgery and restriction that had been his life for two and twenty years now.
Dearest,—I have just emerged from a dug-out that would make you stare. Now, there are dug-outs and dug-outs. They all aim at being a home from home, but this one was fairly It. It hadn’t a carpet, but it was furnished with old oak (loot from a German trench whose previous occupants had obviously looted it from someone else). In it we ate our dinner off delicate Sèvres plates and drank out of rare old cut glasses. A dug-out de luxe! But even the common or garden dug-out shows some attempt at cosiness.
I am coming to the conclusion that man is considerably more of a real home-maker than woman. What woman, living as we do, would, without the incentive of male companionship, go into the trouble of trying to make a mud cave into the semblance of a civilised house? A woman living alone, especially in a temporary abode, troubles little or not at all about her personal comfort. She doesn’t even take pains about food. She only studies these two amenities of life if she has a man to share them. Now we, on the contrary, always have a desire to make the best of circumstances. We collect (or steal) planks, bricks, doors, and windows to help give a semblance of civilisation to our funk-holes. The men keep the trenches neat and make gardens behind the parados. A sense of humour gives spice to the task. It shows in the names bestowed upon our residences—‘The Keep’, ‘Minenwerfer Villa’, ‘The Gasworks’. ‘Myholme’ is also very popular. But there’s something beside humour that incites Tommy to put up a board marked ‘Trespassers will be Prosecuted’ over his kitchen garden. He means it. His impotent rage when a German shell ignores the prohibition is comic to a degree.
After one of these annoyances some of the men of my company in desperation stalked a German sentry, brought him in alive, and made him write in huge German characters the words KARTOFFELN GARTEN—VERBOTEN, which they hoisted on a board facing the enemy’s lines. I believe that sentry is secretly being kept as a hostage against further damage!
Richard laughed delightedly, the whole scene was most vivid, he could see it all happening. He lay back in his chair before the bright and crackling coke fire, stretching his toes in his old carpet slippers, feeling a sense of continuity with life as he unfrogged the ancient pleated smoking jacket that had belonged to hisfather. He felt he was cosy in a dug-out, with his soldiers’ pet Zippy contentedly lying beside a brazier.
Before settling down again with his magazine, he poured himself another cup of hot water from the kettle simmering in front of the fire, then lifting the cat to his knee, covered it withTheDailyTrident,so that Zippy could feel safe, as in a cave or hollow tree. All being settled, he lay back to read; but hardly had he turned the page when the bell of the front door rang. He sighed: his evening alone was ended.
“Good evening, Father.”
“Hullo, Mavis. Don’t forget to wipe your boots on the mat, if you please.”
“It’s quite dry out, Father.”
“Even so, it is a good habit, which you children do not seem yet to have learned.”
“Is Mother in?”
“She is where she prefers to be—next door.”
“Will it be all right if I have my bath now, Father?”
“Why do you ask? You know very well your Mother said it was available for you tonight. Only don’t take too much hot water—the price of coal is very nearly prohibitive as it is.”
Without further words, Richard went back to his chair, and Mavis disappeared upstairs. It took him five minutes to feel clear again; and back with Chota.
At twenty past ten Hetty gave her brief little trill to the bell; Richard sighed; his period of peace was over.
“Mavis returned while you were away, Hetty, and is having her tub. Have you seen anything of Master Phillip?”
“No, dear, but I expect him any moment now.”
“Oh you do, do you? Have you any special reason for knowing that he will, for once, be home before midnight?”
“I don’t suppose Phillip will be long now, Dickie. He likes to walk about at night, he says he can think clearer then.”
“So the Wild Boy thinks at night, does he? Are you sure you are not confusing the wordthinkwith another that rhymes with it?”
“Phillip has had a lot on his mind, Dickie, one way and another. He always was a thoughtful boy.”
“A pity he does not think more about others, or his home, if that is the case.”
In an exasperated voice Richard went on, “Do you think that you can pull the wool over my eyes with such an explanation?But there, you have always shielded that best boy of yours! Do not deceive yourself that I am ignorant of what has been going on! Night after night he has been coming home the worse for liquor! Now don’t try and defend him, as you always tried to do when he was a boy! You spoiled him, let me tell you! It is high time you realised that Phillip will have to stand on his own feet!”
Despite her anxiety about her son, Hetty saw the funny side of these words. No, no, it was not funny, her sudden mind-picture of Phillip, perhaps at that very moment unable to stand upright. Mary, Mother of God, help my son, she tried to transmit through her brain, as she strove against another picture of Hughie, her dearest brother, thin and shambling, dying oflocomotorataxia.She must hope for the best about Phillip; she must pray for guidance to come to him. Should she go to see Dr. Dashwood, and ask him not to encourage Phillip in his loose ways? People were beginning to talk about it. Mrs. Feeney, the charwoman, had mentioned it only that morning.
“I saw Master Phillip the other evening, coming out of the Conservative Club with Dr. Dashwood, m’m. It’s not my place to speak about it, but it would be a pity if someone so much older was to lead Master Phillip astray. If you’ll excuse me mentioning of it, m’m.”
“Yes, of course, Mrs. Feeney. You are a very old friend, and have known Phillip since he was little. Between ourselves, that very self-same thought has been worrying me.”
Mrs. Feeney knew all about the fate of poor Mr. Hugh next door; but she knew her place, and would never have mentioned to the mis’ess about Master Phillip, except that Dr. Dashwood was so well known for his liking for the bottle.
Hetty had been to see Mrs. Neville about it; to be momentarily reassured by that tolerant woman with a “There’s no harm in our boys, Mrs. Maddison! My boy Desmond and your Phillip are only young, dear! They mean no harm by it! Don’t you worry, Phillip is all right. They can take care of themselves, if I know those two boys! What friends they are! I call them David and Jonathan, David being Phillip, of course.”
Hetty was not so sure. She knew Phillip’s weaknesses; from the first he had been almost fearfully susceptible to everything around him, so that his life had seemed to be one long round of trouble, so mischievous, excitable, curious, and wilful had he been. And what was he but a boy still, so young for his age,despite having been twice to the front. Was it the rum in the trenches that had started him off on his intemperate habits?
Another thing had disturbed Hetty: something his Father must never be allowed to find out. She had seen cousin Polly in her nightdress coming out of Phillip’s bedroom, after they had returned home late from seeingTonight’stheNightat the Gaiety in the Strand. It was in the Strand that Hughie had contracted that terrible illness which had ruined his hopes for marrying Dora, and led to paralysis and early death of her gifted brother. Was Phillip to go the same tragic way? Better Polly than a stranger; even so, one bad habit led to a worse habit, more often than not. Had not Hughie, while protesting love for Dora, at the same time fallen into temptation with a complete stranger? O, how could men do such things?
As for Phillip, he had confided in her, that very morning, that he would never cease to love Helena Rolls; but that, she knew, was more a feverish obsession with him than something real—what was called calf-love. What a strange boy he was; almost at times he seemed to be two distinct persons.
She poured herself a cup of hot water. Richard had decided to give up his nightly cup of cocoa for the sake of economy, and also for reasons of health. The cost of living was going up; and he felt that he slept the better, with fewer worries arising to upset his mind, on what he called a clean stomach.
TheDailyTridentwas being flicked slightly at one corner, Zippy’s ear was being tickled by the paper. “Poor Zippy, did I cover you up too much, then, poor Zippy?” Tenderly Richard lifted the newspaper, and scratched Zippy’s ears. The cat purred gratefully; and thus encouraged, Richard took upNash’sMagazineand turned to the serial by Robert W. Chambers,Athalie,theRomanceofagirlwithastrangepower,for a few moments; but his wife’s presence got between him and the beautiful, luring heroine. Putting down the magazine, he turned to his wife and said, with an explosion of irritability,
“There’s another matter on my mind that I think you should know about! I do not at all approve of what Phillip has been saying in that low haunt of his in the High Street! Things get about, let me tell you, among certain of our special constables who shall remain nameless! I do not know what Phillip did during his recent visit to France, or what part, if any, he took in the Loos battle, for he apparently has no desire to tell me any ofhis doings, but he can hold forth, from what I hear, in no uncertain voice about the conduct of affairs in the Army overseas! And, furthermore, he is saying things in the enemy’s favour which will get him into serious trouble one of these days! More than one person has reported to me, at the Station, what they have overheard him to say in that public house he frequents. Hark! Was that a bomb?”
Richard’s thoughts were of Mathy, the redoubtable Commander Mathy whose raids on England had been made with such skill that, it was thought, he worked with spies—many German spies—throughout the country.
Only the crackle of coke, and the purring of the cat, was audible in the room. Hetty thought of her elder daughter, Mavis, alone in the end bedroom upstairs. Her footfalls were softly audible. The girl was highly nervous, and terrified of Zeppelins.
Richard sipped his hot water. “No, I do not think it could have been a bomb. Zippy’s ears always go up when Zeppelins are about, he hears the engines a long way off, don’t you, Zippy dear?” He fondled the cat’s neck and head, talking to it in a crooning voice. It was the only personality in the house which he had not, unwittingly, turned from him.
The hearkening mother heard heavier footfalls overhead, from her son’s bedroom. Thank goodness that Dickie was a little deaf, she thought, as there came two bumps, as of shoes being torn off. Then the noise of a bed spring extending. She went out of the room; and when she came in again she said almost gaily: “Phillip is in bed after all, Dickie!”
“H’m!” said Richard, as he took upNash’s,“I suppose that I, as the mere master of this house, can consider myself to be extremely fortunate if I see the Wild Boy for breakfast tomorrow, or will he then be sleeping off the effects of his ‘night thoughts’? When is he going back to duty, do you know? Even a visitor to an hotel has the courtesy to give notice when his room is no longer required, you know.”
“He has one more week, I think, Dickie, before going to his new duties.”
Why his son had “exchanged”, as he put it, from the Gaultshire Regiment in France to a non-combatant unit at home, Richard did not know; but he could guess.
Phillip lay in bed, knees drawn up to chin for warmth and companionship. The “battle of the brain”, as he had called itsince childhood, was raging in his head. He was near to despair, a not unusual condition of his living.
When the worst of the “battle” was over he turned about and rearranged the sheet which he had drawn tightly about his neck. After settling down, instinctively he nipped between the edges of his lips a fold of the sheet; and feeling some relief in the smoothness of the material against his face, sighed deeply with the hope of sleep.
The habit of nipping and holding the sheet between his lips was a survival from babyhood, when in his cot he had had two objects of consolation for the loss of protecting maternal warmth: a thumb to suck, and a strip of white silk from an old petticoat of his mother’s to hold over his face. The strip was given him, at night, when he cried for his mother.
Richard in those days had wanted his wife for himself in bed; he had wanted, also, quietness at night; and though he disapproved of both thumb and silk he had not openly objected to what he had called the baby’s soporifics during the first year of the child’s life.
Soon after the first birthday anniversary he considered that the time was come for reformation. A bad habit was a bad habit; the sooner it was broken, the sooner it would be forgotten. Sonny must learn not to cry for his mother, too. So at the age of fifteen months the child was put in a room by himself, with Anky, and told that to suck Thumb was very, very naughty. If he cried, too, he would be smacked.
Thus, Richard thought, the boy would, from an early age, learn to face the hardships of life.
Chapter 2GREY TOWERS
At eight o’clock one morning of the following week, Richard took a letter coming through the box of the front door as he passed on his way to breakfast. It was addressed to his son. The flimsy envelope from France was franked by a signature which he made out to beH.J.West,Capt.,and bore the oval red rubber stamp of the Base Censor. It had been redirected fromBrickhillHouse,BeauBrickhill,Gaultshire.
Richard had to leave the house at eight twenty-two a.m. to catch his train from Wakenham station over the hill. His daughter Mavis caught the next train, which enabled her to get to the office in time for its opening for business at half-past nine. The younger girl, Doris, was still at school, and left at twenty-five to nine.
Breakfast was usually silent. Richard, looking atTheDailyTrident,spoke only when he had some fault to point out, such as taps left to drip, bedrooms left untidy “for your mother to attend to”; or the boot-cleaning box in the scullery had not been put back, with its brushes and Japanese blacking pot upright, under the scullery table.
Phillip, urged by his mother to come down for breakfast with the others, “out of courtesy to your Father, dear”, appeared just as Richard was putting his table-napkin into its ivory ring.
“Good morning, Father. Good morning, Mother. How do you do, Mavis. Hullo, Doris. Thanks for purring, Zippy.”
“There’s a letter for you, from France,” said Doris.
“Good lord! ‘Spectre’ West!” He sat down. “May I have permission to open it, sir?”
The unexpected courtesy surprised Richard.
“Good news, I hope,” he said, when his son had read the letter.
“Yes, Father. A friend of mine in hospital is getting on well.”
“I see it has been re-directed from Brickhill, Phillip,” said Hetty.
“Westy is in the Gaultshires, Mother.”
Phillip put the letter in his pocket, and added milk to his porridge. He still felt sick, and would have preferred a glass of cold water.
“Pass your brother the sugar, Mavis.”
“No thanks—really. I never have sugar——”
As soon as Richard had shut the front door behind him, Mavis cried, “Why do you pretend that you live at Brickhill, can you tell us that?”
When he did not reply, she went on, “I know! It’s because it’s a swankier address than poor old Wakenham.”
Hetty screwed up her eyes, and made amouewith her lips to Mavis, meaning be quiet. “Won’t you tell us what it says, Phillip?”
“Oh, it’s just an ordinary letter, Mother.” He went on trying to eat his porridge, while calculating from experience how longit would be before he would have to get rid of it. Not, he hoped, while Mavis was in the house.
Experience did not betray him. Afterwards, alone with his mother, he showed her the letter. “On the condition, Mother, that you do not breathe a word of what it says to anyone.”
“Well, perhaps it would be better if I did not see it, if it’s like that, dear.”
“No, it’s not that. Only it isn’t true, that’s all.”
He gave her the letter, and Hetty read with surprise that grew to tearful emotion. The writer declared that the bar to his Military Gross, “which came up with the rations”, should have gone to Phillip, and would have gone, too, if he had not left the regiment after the damned fine show he put up during the flank attack on Lone Tree Ridge.
“‘Spectre’ West wasn’t there, you see. He was hit before we started. It was all over when we got to Lone Tree. The Germans had chucked it. No more ammunition. Anyway, the Welch had already got right behind them. Itwas awful good luck for us.”
“He says he is sorry you have left the ‘Mediators’, Phillip. That surely shows——”
“I told the Colonel afterwards that I was up at Cambridge before the war. I was nervous because I had only been to a grammar school when all the other officers were public school men. So I pretended I was a ‘’varsity m’n’. I’ve got no guts, I never had any. Tell that to Father if you like, but not that other rot.”
“Why, I wonder, must you always insist on showing yourself in the worst light? Always as a boy you were without reserve of any kind. You should have more pride, Phillip.”
“Oh Mother, for God’s sake——” He hastened away to the lavatory. Later—“I feel better now. But no bacon, for heaven’s sake. Just a cup of weak tea. A large one. Put it in a basin. Here, let me get one. That’s the sort, holds a quart. Thank God tea at home doesn’t taste of chloride of lime.” The thought made him quaver; the quaver took him back to the lavatory.
“You ought never to drink spirits, you know, Phillip. You have a weak stomach. That was always your trouble as a child. Now try and eat a little dry toast, and later on I’ll make you some beef tea. It was always good for you, after train sickness, do you remember?”
“Yes, and so was brandy,” replied Phillip. “But I’d rather have some plain hot water at the moment. If it’s all the same to you, Hetty,” he added, almost jauntily.
Saturday morning; his leave was up. “Everything is flat, Des, now I’m leaving you.” Just one more drink at Freddy’s; but when they came out of Freddy’s after only two half-pints of beer, Phillip ready to run and vault into the saddle and dash away to the thuds of his open exhaust, music in his ears, there was the motor bike sunken down on its rear, with a flat tyre.
“She must have heard my very words, and taken them literally,” said Phillip. “Good old girl. Let’s shove her to Wetherley’s, and get him to mend the puncture.” The inner tube was perished. Wetherley had no replacement in stock.
AForSalenotice on a runabout motor car caught Phillip’s eye. Only £60! He bought it at once, not so much for its appearance, as the thought of his own appearance driving his own motor car. Having bought it, he asked what it was, and if it was in good condition. Mr. Wetherley assured him that it was the best 1909 model of a Swift he had driven. It had a two-cylinder water-cooled engine. The grey paint was new, and so was the varnish. Mr. Wetherley folded and put into his pocket-book the cheque for £60, and said he would try and sell the motor cycle for £15 without taking commission. The sudden transaction now had its effect; Phillip wondered if his cheque would be dishonoured by Cox & Co., his bankers.
“However, it will be all right by the first of the month. Then some field allowances are due, Mr. Wetherley, so don’t worry.”
“I do not worry, sir,” said Mr. Wetherley. “I have had the pleasure of serving your father for many years now. Indeed I sold him the first All-Black Sunbeam in the district. There is no question, sir, of doubting the word of the son of such a gentleman as Mr. Maddison.”
Phillip felt that he must hope for the best, as the garage owner showed him how to get to Hornchurch, pointing out the route on the map, by way of the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames. This done, he explained about the oiling of the engine, by the drip feed visible behind glass on the dashboard.
“Don’t forget to push down the hand pump as soon as the oil stops dripping into the bowl.”
Mr. Wetherley checked the milled screw controlling the drip, and gave it two extra clicks.
“Don’t turn it on more unless you want to go fast, say over thirty-five. Otherwise you may oil a plug. You’ll find her a useful little runabout.”
Phillip’s two-mindedness now showed itself. “I suppose,” hesaid, doubtfully, “you wouldn’t let me have a test run before I actually—well, I have, haven’t I? Anyway, I think I’ll test it, before I really start off.”
“I’d be very pleased to take you for a run, sir.”
“Well, thanks. Could you take me to my home a minute? It’s quite a steep hill.” A wild hope that Helena Rolls or her mother would see the car pierced him.
Desmond was left at the garage, since three in front would be a squeeze. Mr. Wetherley drove as far as Randiswell, then Phillip took the wheel. The Swift went easily up Hillside Road, and to his alarmed delight, there was Helena coming out of her gate with her mother.
The motor was praised, then—“Why have you not been to see us, Phillip?” He could not reply; and Mrs. Rolls said, “Well, when you are next on leave, don’t forget, will you?” The full look of Helena’s eyes was upon him; he felt enveloped and dissolved, and was relieved when they had gone on down the road, for now he could release his feelings of joy, rush in and bang at the door and tell Mother the terrific news, in which the Swift was for the moment forgotten.
His mother and younger sister Doris came out to admire it, though Hetty looked a little anxious. “Are you sure you can drive it, Phillip?”
“Easily! I’ll take you all out to Reynard’s Common and the Fish Ponds when I come home next. Well, cheerho. I mustn’t keep old Wetherley waiting. Give my love to everyone.” Mr. Wetherley was on the opposite pavement, apparently interested in the sheep on the slopes of the Hill beyond the railings. Together they went down the road, the tyres crackling on the flinty surface. Waving at Mrs. Neville in her window, Phillip drove safely back to the High Street. There Desmond was awaiting him on the kerb.
Phillip had driven a motor car before, and soon he felt mastery of the Swift. With Desmond beside him he drove up the hill and on to the Heath, and down into Greenwich. At the mouth of the Blackwall Tunnel stood a military policeman on duty. He said that a brigade of field guns had just gone through, and another was expected, the tunnel being temporarily closed to all other traffic. “You have a pass, sir, of course?”
Phillip pointed to the O.H.M.S. plate tied on the side of the bonnet. Standing aside, the redcap saluted. Phillip raised a negligent hand, as a staff officer might, he thought, and praying that he would not grate the gears when starting off, let in theclutch and drove on with a wild feeling of possible self-destruction into the circular brick mouth of the tunnel.
“My God, and we’ve got no lamps!” he said to Desmond, with a laugh, as they rushed into darkness.
The car drove itself; then gradually seemed to be guided by two golden threads overhead. These were carbon-filament bulbs lining the roof, stretching away to a minuteness that dipped in the centre, the middle of the river. Suddenly he became aware of an army lorry just in front of him. The tunnel was ammoniacal with horse-dung; he too, like the solid-tyred ’bus in front, was slipping about.
With relief he drove into cold fresh air to see masts and funnels of steamers rising above rows of black and crushed-in little sooty brick houses, with black sheds and warehouses, cranes, army lorries, and, as he drove on, sudden rows of field guns, olive-green and wheel to wheel along a sort of wharf. A notice board by a tall iron gate set with spikes and barbed wire was headedEastIndiaDock.The surface of the cobbled streets came up through the shackle bolts of the springs and reproduced myriad contours in their bones.
There was a market, with stalls and donkey shallows, a litter of paper and rotten fruit all across the road, lean dogs routing and fleeing from boys with sticks held as guns, and wearing old badgeless khaki caps. Other boys with pails were collecting horse dung.
It was a mild November day, with no wind. The river mist and smoke hung as daze in the low arc of the iodine-brown sun. Tall chimneys and towers darkened the dull skyline rising upon the ancient flats of the riverside. Smells, industrial and chemical, moved in layers upon them: paint, iodoform, picric acid, and a whiff of pear-drops, from the waterside factories of Silvertown.
“There is the great chemical concern of Brunner, Mond and Company,” said Desmond. “The Zeppelins are always trying to find it. The whole district is given over almost entirely to war work.”
They drove away from the sprawl of street and factory, coming to an open level prospect of deep brown ploughlands, of dark and stunted oak trees in sooted hedgerows, acid pastures, sad-looking stacks of hay and corn, and untidy fields of cabbages and roots—the environs of industrial London. Phillip began to feel depressed with the level colourlessness of the extending country, which seemed to have upon it the mark of death. Here the bittern and the duck among the reeds had seen the marching of the Romans,while the sails moved up the broad Thames, not then held back by wall and bank; the marshman went, and the ploughman came, and now the factories were waiting to kill the land forever with their weight of brick and steel, a countryside sentenced to industrial death.
“I suppose there is still some wildfowling down on the marshes somewhere, Desmond?”
“It’s been stopped since the war, all down this coast. My cousins on my father’s side live in Essex, and they told me.”
It was the first time Desmond had spoken to Phillip about his father’s people. Phillip wanted to hear more, and waited for him to speak. When he did not, Phillip glanced at his face. Desmond said, looking straight ahead, “My father’s people have lived in Essex for centuries.”
“Are your mother’s people from Essex, too?”
“My mother hasn’t got any relations.”
Desmond was holding his head so still, staring ahead, that Phillip wondered what was the matter. Desmond’s usually pale face was faintly pink.
Phillip drove on, silence between them. He felt slight distress that Desmond had never wanted to confide in him, his great friend. He had always shared everything with Desmond—secrets of his nests in the old days, his permits in Knollyswood Park and elsewhere, his holy-of-holies the Lake Woods—where Desmond had taken his school-friend Eugene, without first asking if he might do so. He had told Desmond everything about himself; but Desmond had never really shared any of his secrets with him.
“I say, Des, I’ve had most frightful luck.” He told his friend about the invitation from Mrs. Rolls. “I’ll call there next time I come on leave!”
Feeling happy, he stopped to examine the engine under the bonnet. Everything looked clean and polished and painted.
“It’s worth the money, don’t you think, Des?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t driven her.”
“Of course, why didn’t I think of it! You take the wheel now. After all, you let me drive your uncle’s Singer. You can take her back this afternoon, if you like. That is, if I can’t get week-end leave.”
Desmond drove on for a mile, then he put on the brake, turned the switch, and sat still. Looking at Phillip intently with his pale blue eyes he said slowly and quietly, “I’ve wanted to tell you something for a long time.”
Surprised by his manner, Phillip asked what it was.
“It concerns Helena Rolls.”
“You may not like what I am going to say.”
“Go on, say it.”
“I consider that you are wasting yourself on something quite vain.”
“But how do you know it is quite vain?” said Phillip, feeling weak.
“Because it is obvious to everyone except yourself. She isn’t your sort. She laughs at you behind your back.”
“How do you know, Des? Who told you?”
“I shan’t say. But I do know. Just as I know that you are losing your happiness because of her. She isn’t worth it.”
Phillip hardly knew what to say. What did Desmond know? Had he been talking to someone who knew the truth? No doubt Mrs. Rolls was only being kind. She was sorry for him, that was it. The Swift, his hopes of the new life with the Navvies’ battalion, all seemed grey, like the mist over the fields.
“Why can’t we be as we were? Aren’t I enough for you?” asked Desmond.
“Well Des, of course you’re my great friend, but honestly, what I think about her does not affect you and me.”
“I say it does.”
Phillip laughed, partly from nervousness. Desmond gripped his arm.
“Does it seem a matter only for laughing, that I am concerned for our friendship?”
“Let go my arm! Aren’t you being just a little melodramatic, old chap?”
“Very well, if that’s your attitude, I’ve no more to say.”
The Swift was standing under a large oak. A labourer in front was digging in a deep ditch beside the road, on which lay many acorns, some squashed by carts which were unloading dung on the stubble field over the hedge.
“Is this the way to Becontree Heath?” Phillip called out.
“Straight on, sir, and turn left at the village.”
“What’s the name of the village?”
“Thet be Dagenham.”
Desmond drove on unspeaking, and in half an hour they were at Hornchurch. Asking for the headquarters of the battalion, Phillip was told it was at Grey Towers, the turrets of which could be seen among trees.
Fifty yards inside the gate was a wooden hut, set to one side of the gravel drive. He stopped, and knocked at the door, entered, and saw a red-faced youth half-risen from a blanket-covered trestle table and shouting, “What the bloody hell do you want? I told you I haven’t got the blasted book of railway warrants, didn’t I?”
To Phillip’s surprise the young captain was addressing an old major, whose face showed amusement.
“Second Lieutenant Maddison reporting for duty, sir!”
“——off!” replied the captain amiably. “This isn’t the Orderly Room. Anyway you’re bloody late.”
“Can you direct me to the Orderly Room, sir.”
“The Old Man and the Adj. are in town. This is ‘A’ Company’s Office. —— off!”
“Where shall I —— off to, sir?” asked Phillip, observing a look of humour in the eyes of this very young captain. Before the captain could reply, he gave brief details of himself, standing to attention, aware that the large hands before him on the blanket table were red and raw, the lips thick, the band of the new service cap already saturated with hair-oil, the fingers yellow with nicotine.
The old major looked at Phillip quizzically. “Weren’t you the young feller that come to see Colonel Broad at Alexandra Palace, on a motor-cycle with O.H.M.S. painted across the forks?”
“You had a nerve, didn’t you, to call yourself O.H.M.S.?”
“I was on His Majesty’s Service, sir.”
“Is that your car outside?” asked the captain suddenly looking up.
“Is that O.H.M.S. likewise?”
“Who’s the tommy sitting in it?”
“He’s a friend taking the runabout back to London for me.”
“You couldn’t have timed it better, cock! The major and I’ve got to hop up to town On His Majesty’s Service, so your friend can take us. You’ve been posted to Captain Kingsman’s Company. Go and ask the mess sergeant where that is. I’ll show you the mess, I’m just going there myself.”
He got up, shook himself into a greatcoat, with red piping on the epaulettes set with very new gilt stars, and said to the major, “We’re in Meredith, we’re in! I’ll bring your old iron back tonight O.H.M.S. You don’t mind my borrowing it, do you?”
“It’s got no lamps, sir.”
Outside the mess house Phillip gave Desmond a pound note, saying, “In case you need some petrol. If not, borrow it. Shove the ’bus in Wetherley’s before lighting-up time. I must get some carbide head-lamps. Meanwhile, ask him if he’s got any oil lamps, though O.H.M.S. will get past any copper.”
With mixed feelings Phillip watched the major getting in beside Desmond, to slam the door with violence. What about my new paint and varnish, he thought, as the captain put a nailed boot on a mudguard to get into the dickey seat, where he lolled sideways, knees up, breeched thighs and leather legs angular as he rested his spurs on the other mudguard. With a grating of gears the runabout drove away round the drive, the captain giving him a wave of his heavy ash-wood riding-crop.
“Of all the blasted cheek,” said Phillip, as he walked towards the ivy-covered house, and went through the porch into the hall.
“Good afternoon,” said a short, spruced-up officer, coming down the uncarpeted wooden stairs. “My name is Milman. May I be of assistance? I’m going away on four days’ leave, and my bed is at your disposal if you need one. Perhaps I may show you your room? The mess president is away, at the moment. What about your valise?”
“I didn’t bring it. I hoped to be able to go back for it. Can you tell me where I can find Captain Kingsman?”
“He’s just gone on week-end leave.”
“Oh hell. Who’s in command of the Company, in his absence, d’you know?”
“Where can I find him?”
“He’s just left for Town,” said a tall dark subaltern coming down the stairs.
“I think I can fix you up with some kit,” smiled Milman. Phillip had liked him at once. He was alert, dapper, with brown upturned moustaches, and looked about twenty-five.
“I’d like to introduce to you my great friend, Thompson,” he said.
“How do you do?” said Phillip.
“Very well, thank you. And you?”
“Not so dusty.”
“Splendid! Let me show you the geography of the place.”
“This way,” said Milman, giving way for Phillip to follow Thompson.
Upstairs, in a large bare room with camp-beds, Phillip waitedwhile one found him a towel, the other offered use of razor, soap, and folding camp mirror. An ancient batman stood by, a thin broken-pearly forelock pressed with water on his brow. Long horizontal waxed strings of a Matabele moustache wandered around the lobes of his ears. His left breast had all the old ribands.
While this was going on, a third officer at the far end of the room remained standing there with his back turned to the others. He was dipping a toothbrush into a saucer, and rubbing it into his hair. Milman, doing the honours, called to him across the room, “May I introduce——” whereupon a lined face set with sandy eyes under sparse hair lying back in streaks from the forehead was turned in their direction.
“Permit me to finish my toilet before you assault me in my dressing-room with your blasted pretentiousness, will you?” and the owner of the voice returned to work with the toothbrush.
Milman, for a moment, seemed to be quelled. He looked a little helpless, then recovering, said to Phillip, “May I offer you the services of my batman to show you the geography of the place?”
“Don’t forget the ‘laounge’,” called out the man with the toothbrush.
“Very good, sir!” cried the batman. “It’s a nice little place, you’ll find, and very comfortable, is the laounge. You can enjoy yourself there.”
Phillip imagined himself telling Mrs. Neville all about the comic scene: the batman’s head on his stringy neck shaking slightly; his cheeks sunken, the spikes of his waxed moustache sticking out wider than his ears, despite the ears being set almost at right angles to the skull. The ears of an earnest, human cabbage, saying, “We’ll come to the laounge presently, sir. I’ll show you it all in good time. First, here is the geography of the place!” He flung open a door, inviting Phillip to enter. “A moment, sir!” as he pushed past him, apparently to remove a solitary floating match-stick by pulling the plug. “Very comfortable, sir, you see.”
“And this is the bath-room,” as he flung open another door. As though to demonstrate further the principle of water seeking the lowest level, he turned on first one tap, then the other.
“Nothing like a good ’ot bath once-ta-week, sir!”
“I prefer a cold tub, myself,” said Phillip.
“Yes, sir, a pukka sahib’s cold tub, quite right, sir! This way, sir, mind the stairs, sir, they’re slippery with elbow grease.”
At the bottom by the newel post the small officer with the Kaiser moustache was waiting. With a wave of the hand he stepped back from the open door of a room, to allow Phillip to enter before him. The batman hurried in afterwards, saying, “This ’ere’s the laounge, sir. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s my turn to be the wine-waiter straight away.” He disappeared.
“Will you care to have a drink with me?” said Milman, with a couple of twists upon his moustache. “You will? I’ll ring for the wine-waiter.”
The old batman reappeared, wearing a white jacket, and apologising for not wearing what he called the ‘mascot’. He took the order, and while he was away, Milman’s friend, Thompson, joined them. Phillip began to enjoy himself. It was better than he had expected. The batman came in with a tray bearing three glasses of whiskey, and a siphon of soda. He now wore, proudly it seemed, a small silver shield on a chain round his neck, engraved PORT. He nodded and smiled at Phillip like an old friend, and said, “Sorry, gents, I forgot me gloves this time. Wood, all wood,” as he tapped his head.
Phillip thought that he would show no surprise at this unusual sort of mess. Seeing his eyes on the silver label, Milman said, when the waiter had gone, “The label should be worn for mess dinner, of course, and then only on social nights when the King’s health is proposed by the orderly officer.”
“I see. Is that an old regimental custom?”
“I rather think it was an idea of Major Fluck, the Mess President.”
At this point Thompson said to Milman that they had not too much time if they were to catch their train, and making their excuses for leaving him alone, the two friends went upstairs together; to reappear, as Phillip was ordering himself another whiskey, in identical greatcoats with slung haversacks, calf-skin gloves, and leather-covered short canes. Both looked in the door to say, “Au revoir”, before departing. He watched the two walking down the drive in step, Milman taking long strides and Thompson short ones.
He sat down withTheDailyTrident.Opening it, he read that fireworks had been forbidden in London “under severe penalties”, on Guy Fawkes’ night. Then thecommuniquefrom the Western Front. Nothing of further interest, so throwing down the newspaper, he collected a pile of periodicals on his lap. The first wasan old copy ofLandandWater.An article on Strategy by Hilaire Belloc caught his eye. Uncle Hugh used to quote a poem about the Boer War by Belloc, something about gold and diamond mines, a satire. Belloc’s article proving to be unreadable, he turned the pages ofPunch,They reminded him of unfunny jokes in the dreary dentists’ room in the High Road, soPunchfell to the floor withLandandWater.TitBitsflopped on top ofPunch.He read theThingswewanttoknowcolumn inLondonMail,then tookTheTimes,to seek in theRollofHonourcasualties in the Gaultshires; a few names only, none he recognised; obviously the Loos casualties were not yet published. His eye ran downTheLondonGazette,wondering if there had been any promotions in the other regiments with which he had served. Ah, Flynn, the bed-wetter, had resigned his commission in the Cantuvellaunians, on grounds of ill-health. Who else had been hoofed out? He sought other entries of officers coming unstuck, orstellenbosched,as Lieut. Brendon, who had served in the Boer War, called it. There were several ways in which an officer could be turfed out of the army, beginning withresignsonaccount ofill-health,otherwise incompetence, for genuine ill-health would meritinvalidedoutoftheservice,which meant a pension.Resignshiscommissionwas rather bad, butResignshiscommission,theKinghavingnofurtheruseforhisservices,was worse.DismissedtheservicebysentenceofaGeneralCourtMartialwas a disgrace.Cashieredwas the end of all things, for you would not then serve again, even as a private.
He pressed the bell, and ordered a large whiskey and soda; then taking out his pocket book, added the sum of £1 to the column of figures which represented previous loans to Desmond, now a total of £19 10s. He had kept account of these items as he kept his own column of receipts each month from pay and allowances, and also half-quarterly payments of salary from the Moon Fire Office. With relief he determined that his account, when Wetherley’s cheque had been presented, would still be about £11 in credit. Officers who gave dud cheques, or stumers as they were called, faced court-martial, and at best dismissal from the service; at worst, they were cashiered. He had known that his account was in funds, and knew also that Wetherley had some security for £10 at least in the motor-bike.
There was another column for money borrowed by Eugene, totalling £13. He had no thoughts of money ever being paid back; both were his friends, and money anyway was to be spent, or used, on behalf of friends. He had given his mother £5, to help withthe housekeeping—which meant Mavis’s constant demands for money, as she spent most of her salary on clothes, which were a sort of fetish with her—some women were mad on clothes, why, he could not think.
He was putting away his pocket diary when he was aware of somebody else in the room, although he had heard no sound. Turning his head, he saw the elderly subaltern, who had been at work with toothbrush and saucer in the bedroom. It seemed polite to stand up, since he was a newcomer.
“No need to get up,” said an even voice. “Although one appreciates the courtesy to another senior by age. Has Milman gone? He gets my goat with his damned mincing ways. Bogus little man!”
Phillip thought that the less he said the better; he was wary of this man with the face of a faded desert cat.
The hard yellow eyes in the rutted face seemed to be weighing him up as he leaned sideways and pressed the bell. Almost at once the wine-waiter or butler labelled PORT wobbled through the door. His scanty hair was flatter than before, his moustaches curled upwards in thin strings, and white cotton gloves seemed about to drop off his fingers as he put his tray down.
“Bring me a large pink gin, and see that it is Pickelson’s this time, not Hooth’s.”
“Certainly, sir, very good, sir!”
The old fellow picked his way out, a model of Victorian military earnestness.
“What did you think of our Cabin Boy? He was an apprentice in the Merchant Service last week, and came straight to the battalion on his eighteenth birthday as a captain. What it is, to have a socialist member of Parliament for a father! Was that your motor?”
“Did you lend it, may I ask?”
“Probably you are quite right. The thing here is to be on the right side, as apparently you have already realised. I should advise an upstanding, handsome young man like yourself to pay court to the Colonel’s daughter, then you may find yourself with three pips instead of one. But you’ll find Milman a keen rival, I warn you.”
The speaker walked up and down in front of the fire, and went on, “If you’re not doing anything else, would you care to come toTown with me, and look for a couple of girls? The place is beginning to swarm with enthusiastic amateurs, as you probably know.”
Phillip had never been to the West End at night, and from what he had heard from his mother, it was a highly dangerous place; there it was that Uncle Hugh had come a cropper. This man was obviously a bad companion.
“I’m orderly officer, I’m afraid.”
A tall motor car stopped outside the window. “I would have appreciated your company. I’ve got very few friends in London, having lived abroad before the war.”
Phillip offered the other a cigarette; which, without a glance, was refused.
“I smoke my own. Turkish. American tobaccos offend my sense of smell.”
He selected a fat oval cigarette from a gold case, and fitted it carefully, after tapping, to his dry lips. “I was in tobacco before the war, at Smyrna, and managed to bring back a thousand or so with me. Turkish leaf will soon be unobtainable in this country, there is little left in bond. What will happen after the war, I dare not think. The Gyppies are capturing the market now, since Turkey is blockaded. Well, it was a good life while it lasted. For all its filth, Smyrna is the place to live! Give me a twelve-year-old Circassian girl who has been properly trained, to come into a man’s bed, slowly, past his feet, gradually to his knees, and you can have all your English flappers!”
Discomposed and silent, attracted yet repelled, Phillip stood by while the other put on a short fawn-coloured pea-jacket with flapped pockets that ended on the same line as his tunic. Then he fitted on a floppy trench cap, the brim of which was set at an angle to cut the line of the brow: and having put up jacket collar, stuck hands in pockets, hunched shoulders, thrust out chin, he turned his face so that a wolfish profile was visible.
“That’s the stance. The bum-freezer gets a girl, where the common or garden greatcoat with its protective swaddling has no attraction at all.”
“How do you mean?”
“The hunched shoulders and slightly bowed back tend to emphasise the look of a lonely soldier. It arouses the maternal instinct. Next, the prowling young female notices the bum-freezer, the shortness of which emphasises the desirability of the buttocks and the length of one’s legs. One must stand still, of course, thequintessence of a lonely soldier, thus inducing in the girl that baby-in-the-bulrushes feeling.”
The driver sitting at the wheel of the Argyll landaulette beyond the window gave two hoarse honks on the horn. The man in the pea-jacket swirled the remains of the pink gin in his glass, tossed the liquid into his mouth, appearing to catch it at the back of his gold teeth without touching either tongue or metal; then holding back his head, he let the liquid run down his throat.
“I can see that your education has been neglected, my young friend. Another time let us pursue further the all-important subject ofl’amour.”With a short cane under one arm he turned at the door to say, “No good with a walking-stick! That’s the prop of the English country gentleman, making love as he rushes his fences in the hunting field.”
With considerable relief Phillip saw him getting in beside the driver; then with a grind of Glaswegian machinery the Argyll moved off, and out of sight, but not of sound, around the bend of the carriage sweep.
Phillip returned to the fire. What could he do? He saw the mess waiter in the doorway, and called him. The man wobbled forward. The ends of his moustaches, he noticed, were wet.
“Who was that officer?”
“Mr. Wigg, sir. A real gent, sir.”
“Oh! Are there any other officers about?”
“Most on’m’s already gone on leaf, sir.”
“Where’s the mess sergeant?”
“Gone ’ome to see ’is missus, sir. On week-end leaf, sir.”
“Are you going on week-end leaf?”
“What me, sir? I’m the wine-waiter, sir!”
“Good. Let me have another large whiskey and soda, will you.”
When it had been brought, he said, “What do you all do here, when you are here, I mean? Dig trenches?”
“We ’ave done a spot o’ diggin’ in the past, sir, but not lately. The boys goes for rowt marches, drills like on the square, care of arms in ’uts; and generally prepares themselves for what’s to come.”
“What is to come, do you know?”
“Well, if you arst my opinion, sir, I say the future will always come with what it brings. More I wouldn’t like for to say, sir.”
“I see. What else do the boys do, wine-waiter?”
“We provides guards for bridges and factories dahn by theriver, sir. Some goes on detachment, guarding prisoners of war, and providin’ escort duties, sir.”
“Lines of communication, in fact,” said Phillip with satisfaction. With any luck he would see out the war in England from now on.
And then remembering ‘Spectre’ West and the Gaultshires, he ordered another whiskey, to drink the health of lost faces.
What the hell could he do? Risk going back to Wakenham, in the hope of meeting Desmond and Eugene in Freddy’s? Supposing, meanwhile, he was sent for? Or a Zeppelin dropped thermite canisters on the huts while he was absent? If only he had reported earlier, he might have got leave, too. However, he must hang around, in case he were wanted. No more miking with this new lot! He must make a good impression. He rang the bell.
“Bring me another whiskey and soda, will you?”
When he had signed a chit for this, he said, “Is there Church Parade tomorrow?”
“Oh yes, sir! The Ganger allus takes it, sir.”
“Beg pardon, no offence, sir, that’s what we call the Colonel, sir.”
“Really? Now can you tell me, is there any geography on the ground floor?”
“Oh yes, sir. Follow me, sir. Choice of two, sir.”
“One will be enough for the moment.”
On returning to the ante-room, or lounge as it was called, he picked upLaVieParisienne,and returned to his creaking wickerwork armchair. Remembering what Wigg had said about Circassian girls, he refrained from looking at the picture on the cover until he was lying back with his feet up, cigarette smoke straying past eyes, preparatory to using his imagination with the slightly yellow, svelte, and semi-naked body in diaphanous underwear. But somehow the picture did not give the benison hoped for; the more he tried to imagine it real, the flatter surface it remained. Had poor old Father felt like that when he had looked at the same sort of pictures in theArtist’sSketchBookofParisianModelswhich he kept locked in his desk in the sitting room? He recalled his own feeling of fascination, after he had opened the desk with a key on his mother’s ring and gone through the contents of Father’s desk, to look for the revolver kept there, andhad come upon the book, which he had smuggled into the lavatory, the only private reading room in the house. He must have been about nine or ten at the time. Even now, the thought of Father looking at such pictures flurried him. He flung awayLaVie,scornfully.
Then he picked it up again, and tried once more to find in it rest, light, and relief from dark depression overcoming him. Damn the bloody rag! He hid it under a large and heavyAtlasoftheWorld,before lying back in the chair, wondering how he could possibly get through the rest of the day, the rest of his barren life. Whatwasthere left in his life? Then through his depression arose the face and hair and eyes, like a dream of everlasting summer, of Helena Rolls.
He sighed, and thrust away the vision. It was no good thinking of her ever again. She had loved cousin Bertie, and now that he was dead, she would keep him in her heart for ever. Even though dead, Bertie was still real to her; while he, Philip, had never been real even to himself. That was the terrifying truth.
Thinking of cousin Bertie, such a splendid man in contrast to his feeble self, Phillip’s depression became so acute, his thoughts so devastating, so annihilating, that he uttered an involuntary shout of acceptance of his own shame and damnation.
The mess waiter appeared at the doorway. “Ready for another little drop, sir? Keeps the cold out, sir, in a manner of speakin’.” He grinned somewhat unsteadily, as though he had been keeping the bottle warm.
Phillip pretended to be asleep. The mess waiter tottered away. Lying in the chair he felt himself sinking under the helplessness of his thoughts. He would always feel the dark weight within when he thought of Helena. What could he do about it? Desmond had tried to help him; he had rebuffed Desmond. What could he do,whatcouldhedo,he shrieked within himself. He could no longer force himself on her, as he had, idiotically, in the past. O, the damned silly idiocies of himself! Humiliations, silly lies which everyone saw through—his life was ruined. Why had he not remained in France with the Gaultshires? By now he might have found release from the dark shadow that had, so far back as he could remember, always been near him, sometimes threatening to press his life away. Only in death perhaps would he be free from the shadow of himself.
Was death the end? Mother believed in life after death; Father scoffed at her for it. Yet how could the person, who was his mind,or self, survive when it was made up of myriads of impressions, all from his feelings, all little cell-like photographs of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. When a bullet broke the store-house of self, inside the skull, how could those myriads of photographs survive, or the personality that they made up? Why should they survive, what use were they to life? If only he could stop his thoughts.
To remain alive was to continue to endure the nihilism of time rushing by, soundless and vain, atoms whirling in a void, creating life that must be destroyed, leaving blanks to be filled by other speck-like atoms whirling in darkness. Life was sadness, sadness, sadness; ache, ache, ache; until you were dead. His mother’s words came into his mind—Happinesscomesonlywhenwecanforgetourselves.And yet she was seldom if ever really happy. How could anyone forget himself or herself?
He pulled from his pocket a letter he had forgotten, given him by his mother that morning, before he left home. Mother had asked him to read it slowly, and to consider very very carefully every word that his grandfather had written to him.
My dear Boy
I spoke to your Mother last night about your incipient but regrettable propensity forstrongdrink—There is nothing stationary in this world—our lives, character, thoughts are always rising or falling and perhaps the most insidious and awful in its result is drink—but not that alone—Indiscretions. Thoughtless folly of all sorts is paid for in months and years to come in the most painful suffering—now, my dear Phillip, have the strength of mind to disregard the habits and minds of any companions. You will learn with experience how rare commonsense thought and conscience are but you can never visualise what remorse, and physical suffering, is accrued by acts lightly and thoughtlessly made in youth. Cut them now and firmly resolve not to drink any spirits except a medicinal dose under exceptional circumstances such as a little rum after severe exposure and trench work.
If you are beyond the influence of reason—think of your Mother and her noble conduct and example and how she has sacrificed herself to start her children on the road to happiness, and think of the result of your folly to her. She is not strong, and the consequences of your folly may be far more awful than you thinknow.
I have a little money for my children and their children, and I have not exercised self denial and much thought and work to have that money fooled away. You have the potentiality of a successful and withmoderation in all things a happy life. Be master of your mind and don’t throw your chance away——
It was obvious what the old man was driving at.Hiseldest son, Uncle Hugh, had died of syphilis, which he had got after being sent down from Cambridge. As though he would be such a fool as to go with one of those awful prostitutes he and Desmond had heard about in London! Gran’pa was old-fashioned. And who wanted his money? If he ever left him any in his will, he would give it away to the nearest hospital.
He thought to throw the letter on the fire, but something stopped him. Somehow it was like hurting poor old Gran’pa, to do that. Putting it in his pocket book, he lay back, feeling himself to be drawn once more into the flow of empty Time. The image of Helena floated before him, her face under her fair crowning hair shining with the sun, her eyes blue and frank as the sky. It was all over now, he had deliberately destroyed his ideal on the night of his return from Loos, after the Zeppelin raid, when he had gone into the sheepfold on the Hill with cousin Polly. Henceforward his ideal was dead to him; dead, dead, dead.
Such was life; everything passed away; the fields and woodlands of boyhood became built upon; streets and pavements and lamp posts arose where warblers and willow wrens had sung; nothing ever remained the same. All the dead lying at that very moment upon the battlefield of Loos were slowly becoming part of the chalky soil—the chalk that was one vast tumulus of shells, aeons of shells of the salt, salt sea. Each shell had once been a house of life, born but to die, each in its dying to add to the salt of the sea, or the soil of the earth. So it was with men. And nothing could ever be done about it.
He lay still, floating through time; he thought of the sadness of Mother’s face, as he remembered it before he could walk, before he could speak; he recalled Father’s angry voice, the fear of himself and his sisters, sitting still under Father’s pale-blue-eyed anger, his voice thin as a fret-saw—poor old Father, he had never had a chance, from what Aunt Belle used to say about his early life at home, withhisangry and often tipsy father. What a grind his life had been from the start: how many thousand times did Father say he had walked over London Bridge to the office, that very office which he himself could never return to after the war,ifhe lived until after the war? Father taking long stridesover London Bridge, on the same worn paving stones, thirty thousand times was it? Without a friend in the world—Father who had once spoken so happily, Mother had said, of having a friend in his son. And what a son: selfish, cowardly, a liar, deceitful: better if he had been killed.
He lived again the glassy, beyond-fear feeling of the attack on that Sunday, the second day of the battle, across the Lens—La Bassée road, when most of the Cantuvellaunian crowd had copped it. Poor old Strawballs, Jonah the Whale, O’Connor, and all the old faces that had ragged him after he had set fire to the Colonel’sTimesduring one guest night, for a joke. It had not been the drink he had taken, for he always knew much clearer what he was doing when tight than when he was sober. What a bounder they must have considered him. Now, like cousin Bertie, they were all dead on the field of honour.
What did itreallymean,onthefieldofhonour? Father spoke of honour, as though it was part of life, his own life, for instance. Well, if living like that was honour, he was quite content to remain as Father had often told him he was, lacking in all sense of honour.Fieldofhonour—that ghastly mess at Loos!
“Bring me another spot of old-man whiskey, will you?” He would wait until the winter was over, and then apply to go back to the Gaultshires. He lay back in the armchair, eyes closed, legs crossed at ankles, hands folded on chest, resting himself in the terrible beauty of gun-flashes filling the darkness with light.
Chapter 3NEW WORLD
On the following Saturday morning Phillip’s company commander, a quiet elderly captain, asked him if he would care to take him to Southend-on-Sea in his motor. Captain Kingsman explained that he had to go on duty, to inspect a detachment of the company, and the cost of the journey would be borne by an allowance of threepence a mile, recoverable from Eastern Commandviathe Orderly Room.
“You may as well have it as a hired driver,” he said, “and if you care to spend the night at my place about a dozen miles away from the salubrious mud-flats, you’d be most welcome.”
Phillip hesitated, for he had been imagining himself driving up Hillside Road, in the glory of his motor car, and perhaps daring to ask Helena Rolls to come for a ride with him. Then Wigg across the breakfast table said, “May I propose myself for a lift as far as Southend, Captain Kingsman? I’m on leave since last night. Or would three be a crowd?”
“You must ask Maddison, it’s his motor,” said Kingsman.
“Yes, certainly,” replied Phillip, “there’s room in the dickey. And thank you for your offer of hospitality, Captain Kingsman.” He felt depressed at the prospect.
It was a fine morning, and when he brought the Swift up the drive, a fourth man was waiting beside the other two. He wore an eyeglass, and was bending and straightening a whangee cane as he stared straight before him. Phillip recognised the red pug-face and pale eyelashes and hair of Cox, with whom he had been on a three-weeks’ course at Sevenoaks when first he had been gazetted, in the spring.
The presence of Cox, waiting with the others, made him shy. He remembered the way Cox had scorned him, after an unsuccessful walk (for Cox) up and down the main street of Sevenoaks, Cox rattling his whangee cane at girls, to attract them. Cox’s irritability had increased with his non-success, which he had said was due entirely to Phillip’s presence ‘putting the birds off’.
“I don’t suppose you remember me, you one-piecee bad boy?” Cox said, with defensive challenge.
“Oh yes I do,” replied Phillip. “You had no success with your wood-pecker rattle, remember?”
“I haven’t the least idea what you’re talking of.”
“That Shanghai custom you told me about. The Rattle!”
“You’re still quite mad, I see. This one-piecee bad boy——” said Cox, to the others, “filled the night with groans and yells in the room I shared with him at the Royal Oak, until I could bear it no longer. He hurled boots about in the darkness, thinking they were bombs.”
“Seriously, Cox, don’t you remember our walk down the hill to the Picture Palace and back?”
“You’re making it all up. Besides, when didyoudo any walking? When you weren’t attacking the enemy by night, you were chasing him, apparently, in clouds of dust. This one-piecee bad boy——” went on Cox, “had about half a dozen stink-machines, one for every day of the week.”
“I was testing various motor cycles, as a matter of fact.”
“At any rate you’ve got a decent vehicle now. Can you find room for me? My wife’s staying at Southend-on-Sea, and I want to bring her back here, as I’ve found lodging in the village. We’ll come back by the train, of course.”
Phillip saw the reason why Cox had shut him up about Sevenoaks. He did not want to be reminded of his past.
“If you don’t mind wedging yourself in the back with Wigg——There aren’t any steep hills, I hope——”
“The very thing for hills,” said Cox, taking some white balls from his pocket. “They never fail. Drop them into the petrol, and they put life into the oldest crock. Remove all carbon from piston tops and cylinder heads.”
“What are they?”
“Speed pills. Also they increase consumption by fifteen per cent.”
Phillip sniffed them. “They smell like moth pills to me.”
“Speed pills,” replied Cox. “My contribution to the petrol supply. Quite frankly, I’ve got to support a wife on my pay——Speed pills will do the trick. I always used them in my Studebaker in Shanghai.”
Phillip had read, inTheBoy’sOwnPaper,of camphor propelling small wooden boats, so it might possibly do the same for an engine. But might it be a practical joke of Cox’s. After all, sugar dropped into petrol turned black as treacle, and clogged the carburettor jet.
“Are you sure you aren’t ragging, Cox?”
“Do I look like the sort of person who hurls boots at hotel room walls at one o’clock in the morning? That’s settled. No more talkee-talk, Wigg and I will ride in the dickey.”
“Moth balls are harmless,” said Captain Kingsman, quietly; and Phillip dropped them into the tank.
“I’m glad this car isn’t a moth, Cox! I say, mind the paint, please. The step up is this side, for next time.”
Cox had mounted on the mudguard, while Wigg had used the step. Phillip swung the handle, and seated himself at the wheel.
“Camphor has a very low flash-point, and burns with a smoky flame, while tending to decrease the speed of the detonation,” said the quiet captain. “So it has a use in preventing knocking, when the spark is well advanced.”
“Are you keen on motor cars, sir?”
“Very; but don’t call me ‘sir’. My name is Kingsman. I’ma barrister by profession, and an amateur racing-driver by inclination.”
“Have you raced on Brooklands, Captain Kingsman?”
Phillip began to enjoy the adventure. The engine, too, responded to this amazing information by an audible sucking in of breath. The carburettor began to whisper hoarsely as it fed to the cylinders the juice of the speed pills. Had Captain Kingsman given them to Cox? Faster and faster turned the engine, with a pleasing double thrust of its twin connecting rods.
Phillip was so exhilarated that he was over a cross-roads before he saw them, causing a boy on a bicyle in panic to wobble and a pig being driven by the boy to stop a couple of inches off the front wheel, get into reverse, shudder, and bolt squealing into the boy, pitching him and bicycle into the ditch.
“A miss is as good as a mile!” Phillip said to Captain Kingsman, who was thoughtfully stroking his moustache.
“That is an epitaph as good as any.”
While Phillip was wondering what he meant, Captain Kingsman said, “Is this a particularly favourite route of yours to Southend?”
“No, I’ve never been here before. I thought that perhaps you knew the way.”
“Well, one can get on to the road by the next turn to the left, about two miles ahead.”
The road was narrow but straight, with an occasional thatched cottage along it. To show off the Swift’s paces, Phillip kept the pedal pressed to the floorboard. It might almost have been a steam-engine under the bonnet, he thought, so smoothly did it thrust away at the crankshaft with its nine iron horses.
Captain Kingsman spoke again. Phillip said he was sorry, he could not hear. Captain Kingsman shouted, “I fancy nine hundred R.P.M. is the safe limit for this type of engine, with the unmodified flywheel.”
“I see, thank you,” Phillip shouted back, his foot still hard down.
Captain Kingsman shouted, “Your engine is now doing almost eleven hundred revvs!”
Phillip looked over his shoulder and shouted, “I think there must be something in your speed pills, Cox, you old rattler!”
Captain Kingsman tugged at his moustache. He was about to ask Phillip to stop, when a yellow whangee cane rapped the driver on the shoulder.
“Not so fast, one-piecee mad boy!” yelled Cox. “It’s horribly bloody cold at the back.”
“We’ll stop at a pub and get some hot Irish whiskey soon, boys!” shouted the driver. “Olley-Olley-Olley!” he yelled, as he pressed down the accelerator.
Captain Kingsman was now crouching up in his seat, hand covering moustache and mouth, as though meditating a problem—or ready to roll himself into a limp ball. His eyes were fixed on the glass cylinder containing the oil-drip. Then he tripped the switch and unscrewed the oil regulator, so that the drip became a stream; then it ceased to fall.
“Don’t declutch! Keep her in gear! Close the throttle!” He switched on. “Now declutch and let the engine idle a few moments, to get the oil circulating!”
The car came to a standstill. The water around the engine was boiling.
“Switch off, but don’t touch the radiator cap!”
Clouds of steam arose from in front. They waited until the rumbling ceased. Then Captain Kingsman said, “May I look under the bonnet? Ah, as I thought, your oil tank is empty. Another few seconds, and your big ends would have run their white metal. Have you a spare oil can? Do you mind if I look? Ah, here it is.” He poured out a little, rubbed it between finger and thumb, sniffed it, decided it was thick enough, and said, “Shall I fill your tank?”
“Thanks. I’d forgotten about the oil. Very careless of me, I’m sure.”
“This will do until we get to a garage. There’s one of sorts near Horndon-on-the-Hill.”
They got back under the scuttle.
“Not so fast this time, one-piecee mad boy,” said Cox, rapping with the cane.
The driver kept the needle at thirty-five. “How’s that for you, Rattler?”
“Bloody awful cold.”
The needle dropped to thirty. “How’s that?”
“We don’t need a speedometer when Cox is aboard,” said Phillip to Kingsman. “At forty he’s horribly bloody cold, at thirty-five he’s bloody awful cold, at thirty, damned cold! Let’s see what speedometer says at twenty-five.”
“How are you feeling now, Cox?”
They were approaching a straw stack beside the road. The driver stopped again, and getting down, gathered an armful, which he stuffed between puttee’d legs and the interior of the dickey. Cox’s face had a bluish tinge, and the eyeglass seemed to have cut more into his flesh.
“Anyway, it’s a damned sight better than being in a flooded trench, Rattler. Here, take my British warm.”
“Don’t you want it yourself?”
Nothing could ever be so bad as the Diehard T-trench.
Cox took the wool-and-camel-hair coat and put it over his knees, ramming it down beside his legs, watched anxiously by Phillip, who was proud of his neat coat, with the gilt stars on the shoulder-straps. He felt the more uneasy when Wigg tugged up one side of the coat to cover his knees. Cox tried to pull it back. Wigg held on. They bickered.
“Steady on, you rookies!” cried Phillip. “I think it’s no good, really. Half a mo’, I’ll get some more straw. That will be much better, like thatch, cool in summer and warm in winter.”
“But the wind will blow it away, without your coat.”
“All right, do have it, but please leave it in one-piecee.”
During this time, Captain Kingsman had sat unspeaking, looking to his front, a slightly amused expression on his face.
The engine took a lot of swinging before it would start. When it did fire, it kicked the handle, and raced backwards, as though on a spring.
“Damn, the timing must have slipped!”
“Too much aphrodisiac,” said Wigg.
“What’s that?” asked Phillip, preparing to swing the handle again.
“Speed pills,” said Cox.
“Do be careful, one can easily break one’s wrist,” said Captain Kingsman. “It’s sometimes advisable to hold the handle with the other hand. May I show you?”
He got out, and having seen that the switch was off, stopped to fill the cylinders with gas by pulling the engine over twice with his right hand; then half turning round to hold the handle with the fingers of his left hand, said “Switch on!” and gave a sudden jerk. The engine fired.
“One doesn’t risk breaking one’s thumb that way.”
“Thanks very much for the tip, Captain Kingsman.”
Phillip had been driving for a few more minutes when Captain Kingsman remarked, “There’s another tip I learned in racing—to hold the wheel at four o’clock and eight o’clock, elbows well into ribs. In that position, if a driver has a burst front tube he is in a position instantly to control a wobble.”
“That’s the position. And in turning, if one passes the wheel from hand to hand, keeping the elbows down, one is in position to control the steering if one has suddenly to turn away.”
Phillip thought that Captain Kingsman corrected a fault in a way unlike that of any other man he had known. He did not say things directly, to snub you or to tick you off, but said them without putting himself between you and what you were doing.
The dull day was now being transformed; sunshine broke through the clouds, colour became alive.
“Would you like to take a turn at the wheel, Captain Kingsman?”
“I would!” cried Cox immediately. “I’ll change with you.” He heaved himself out of the dickey, while straws flew back in the eddy.
Phillip hid his feeling of being put upon as he got in beside Wigg.
“Do you mind stopping at Horndon-on-the-Hill,” said Captain Kingsman over his shoulder, to Phillip in the back. “There’s a thirteenth century wooden belfry on the church which might be worth your while to visit.”
They came to this at the beginning of a village, where stood a church with a squat belfry, in shape like the crown of a Puritan’s hat. It was being re-roofed on one side; ladders led up to scaffolding and a plank platform. No-one was about, so while Cox and Wigg went to find a pub, Captain Kingsman and Phillip climbed up.
Standing near the apex, Phillip saw shipping upon the leaden reaches of the Thames extending away to the west where the horizon of smoke and sun in haze upon London enclosed the green prospect. A finger’s breadth to the south of west was a glint in the haze, a flicker of hard bright light as of a heliograph uncertain of its message.
“I say, isn’t it simply wonderful! I’d no idea the Thames estuary could look like this. I wonder what that flickering comes from.”
“I rather think,” said Captain Kingsman, “that must be the Crystal Palace.”
Phillip felt subdued. Once he had thought that north-west Kent, now south-east London, was quite the best place to live, particularly Wakenham and the Hill, with its view of the Crystal Palace and the wonderful firework displays on Thursday summer nights, the whites of strolling tennis players glimmering in the twilight, and best of all, the real country only a few minutes’ bike ride away.
“Why did you sigh?” asked Kingsman.
“Oh, I don’t know.”
Kingsman observed the nervous look in the face beside him, and wondered what was the cause. He said nothing more. They got down the ladder and went into the church, where, resting on the floor, was a massive dark oak cage supporting the bells above.
Two slate slabs lay on the floor—one ofJasperKingsman,who died in 1688, the other toJonahKingsman,both barristers of the Middle Temple.
“The older one gets, the more one feels a sense of security through one’s forebears, particularly if one happens to be the last of one’s line. I have a feeling that I belong here, although I was born in India, and so far as I know no Kingsman has lived here for over a hundred years.”
Outside the lych-gate Phillip said, “I think I know what you mean. I was born not far from the Crystal Palace, but I feel that my real home is in Gaultshire, where my mother’s people came from. I think I would rather be buried there, than in London, though best of all, since one has to die sometime, is a battlefield grave.”
Kingsman was hesitating, as though to speak or not to speak, when Phillip said, “Do you mind if we find the others and have a drink? A short life and a merry one, that’s my motto!”
When the Swift stopped at a garage near the esplanade of Southend-on-Sea Cox and Wigg left for their different ways, while Phillip accompanied Captain Kingsman who had to inspect a detachment of troops on the pier. As they went down the long board walk Kingsman said, “So you knew Cox before, did you? Some of the red pepper of the East seems to have got into his system. Too much sun in China, perhaps. He was married while we were stationed here, to a girl in his billet. She lives with herpeople. I fancy he finds it difficult to make ends meet on a second-lieutenant’s pay.”
“I wonder what happened to his fiancée, the one he had when he was at Sevenoaks, I mean. It seemed to me rather strange to want to pick up girls, when he was engaged to be married.”
“Well, I suppose life is more difficult for some of us than for others,” said Captain Kingsman, to discourage any further gossip. He changed the subject. “This mud is all a present from London, I suppose.”
The tide was out. Black sludge extended for miles. A fresh breeze was exhilarating. Phillip thought it fun to make regular strides over the boards, and at the same time to try to avoid stepping on a crack. It was more than a mile to the end, and he had to stare intently, with constantly changing pace. At the end of the pier were buildings and huts occupied by the Royal Naval Air Service. When he stopped it was beside three old men who were fishing, and speaking to one, he saw that they were blind. They were employed at night to listen for the note of the Maybach engines, which powered the Zeppelin gondolas. Their sense of hearing was the more acute because of the loss of sight, said Kingsman.
When he had paid the detachment, and they had inspected quarters, Captain Kingsman said to Phillip that they were free, and if they left right away, they would be at his home in time for luncheon. The Swift meanwhile had had its oil drained and the sump refilled, for temporary oil, suitable for Ford engines only, had been put in at Horndon-on-the-Hill.
“Do you mind if we have a quick drink, Captain Kingsman?”
“Well, can it be a quick one?”
Coming out of an hotel, Phillip invited his company commander to drive, but Kingsman declined, saying that he so enjoyed looking at the country, particularly when there was no hurry to get from place to place. Phillip understood what he intended to convey; something as it were apprehended in the retina of the eye, and not by a frontal stare. So he drove at a steady thirty, and was pleased with himself when his company commander said, “It is paradoxical how the steadier one drives, the faster is progress made. Speed is a relative condition of movement; the more one consumes oneself to go faster, the longer seems the journey.”
“Do you mind if we stop for a drink, Captain Kingsman?”
“Well, I don’t think we shall have time. I telephoned fromthe pier that we would arrive about ten minutes to one. Can you wait until then for some beer?”
“Oh yes, of course, Captain Kingsman.”
At last they came to a road between thin and tall willow trees growing in parallel straight lines behind trimmed quickthorn hedges bordering the road. Kingsman explained that the heavy clays of the rodings grew the best wood for cricket bats in England. Pheasants flew up, from under oaks in a meadow.
“Are you a shooting man?”
“Only in a small way.”
“It’s remarkable how the eating qualities of a cock pheasant, a young bird particularly, vary between late October and late November, in this part of the world. In October, the barley they pick up on the stubbles puts on flesh that is inclined to be without much taste, but after a week or two of acorns, the bird has a nutty flavour, equal with a full-bodied burgundy. If they’re smoked, they’re excellent.”
“The only bird I ever smoked was a sparrow, when I tried to roast it on a green stick over a wood fire, while making tea in a billy can. Both tasted of the same smoke!”
Was his remark rather pert? He was relieved when Captain Kingsman laughed. “I tried a water-hen when I was a boy, baking it in clay, but even my puppy refused it.”
“Was that here in Essex, sir?”
“Do drop the ‘sir’, it makes me feel quite old! Call me Jasper. No, this is my wife’s country. The next turning to the right is ours. In about half a mile.”
Woods succeeded water-meadows and willows. A level area of gravel opened up on the other side of the road, with a view of a lodge with twisted brick chimney stacks of damson colour issuing smoke, tall iron railings with gilded decorations on top, and open gates of iron-work.
“Yes. The house is half a mile on.”
It looked as though Kingsman lived in a big country house. There would be servants; he hadn’t brought a dressing-gown, never having had one. Still, he could wear his British warm over his pyjamas when he went to the bathroom. Oh, and bedroom slippers! He had never had any of those, either. He had only twelve shillings. How much ought he to tip the butler? Then there was petrol to be bought on the way back.
The house was cream-coloured, with two huge pillars risingbeside the entrance seen across a lake fringed with reeds. The drive curved round the lake, and leaving it behind went on between smooth lawns to the Palladian front of the house. As the Swift stopped, Phillip noticed a heraldic wolf’s head ensculped on the key stone of the arch above the porch, its tongue pierced by an arrow. Yes, there was a butler, opening the door.
Smiling, he drew it wide open as he walked backwards in a way that made the smile, the bow, the good-morning and the arc of the opening door all part of one motion. A sovereign tip at the very least; he was probably more used to getting fivers! With the thought of In for a penny, In for a pound, Phillip entered a hall panelled in oak, with an open hearth, on which smouldered a six-foot section of beech-tree. The chimney piece above was coloured with armorial bearings, and around the hall itself stood suits of burnished armour. A dog bounded down the stairway that was open to the light through a large southern window, and again from a glass dome far above in the roof. The dog, a setter, came gently to Phillip with feathering tail and touched his hand with its cold nose, then without pause went on to its master, talking in its throat and appearing to find some difficulty in speaking, due to excitement that was controlled. Only its tail waved more furiously; and then, overcome by the reaction of having waited all the morning for this moment, it opened its mouth wide and let out a small noise between yawn and yowl.
Mrs. Kingsman came down the stairs after the dog, smilingly towards them both. She greeted her husband as though he too were a guest, Phillip thought, with a manner that seemed artificially bright. She held out a limp hand to him, while looking into his eyes with a frail sort of lost look. Her eyes seemed to dwell upon him with vague questioning before a light came in them and she said, with sudden animation, “I am so glad you could come with Jasper, was it fun in your little motor? I do hope you had a good journey?” He saw that she carried two tallow candles in her hand.
Captain Kingsman led him down a stone-cold passage to a little room with a wash-hand basin in an iron frame, and a table on which stood a tarnished looking-glass. On a cloth were ivory-backed hair-brushes inlaid with a gold monogram. They looked to be quite new. He was left alone, and when he went back to the hall the butler was waiting for him beside a tray on a sideboard, on which were various bottles of beer. He chose Bass, whichwas quietly poured into a long thin glass on which a hunting scene had been cut, he thought, with a diamond. He waited while the glass was placed on a silver tray and offered to him, where he stood a yard away, wondering where the others had gone. The butler with his slight bow left the room.
How could he get away? And tomorrow was Sunday, a prospect of dull and suspended life, against which his mental struggle was quelled before it began. If only he could get to a pub, if only Kingsman were not so old and staid.
As he sipped the bitter drink he heard voices above. When Mrs. Kingsman was beside him again he thought she looked less distraught, although her eyes were still far away in thought. The same remoteness of manner had come upon Kingsman, as though the easy-going, genial personality Phillip had known in the company office and the mess at Grey Towers had been subdued by the dark oak of the hall, part of the very sameness of time, beams and posts which had stood for centuries, bearing with stone mullioned arch and wall and coign the weights of a house that had stood since the Tudors, for father and son, uncle and nephew, until the present owner, the heiress who had married Jasper Kingsman.
The luncheon was very simple, it might have been one in his own home, except that it was the butler who put the fish pie on the table before Mrs. Kingsman, and not Doris. Mrs. Kingsman filled the plates which the butler took round with the same gentle gravity, following with a tureen of brussels sprouts on one side and peas on the other. He sat quietly, alert and polite to all that was said, feeling that the conversation was forced, and that it was his nervousness that was the cause of it, for he did not know what to say. He thought that he was a dull person, and suffered a little and for comfort withdrew into himself and sat on his hands part of the time, to feel less stiff and more in balance with himself. He got off his hands when Mrs. Kingsman said,
“My husband tells me you have recently come back from France, Mr. Maddison. Did you see anything of the Royal Flying Corps when you were out there?”
“We did not see one scout ’plane during the entire battle of Loos, Mrs. Kingsman. Of course the weather was dud at times, and our machines were outmatched by the Fokkers, which can fire through their propellers, and so our chaps in their Martinsydes, Morane Parasols, and dud old B.E.’s and F.E.’s hadn’t a hope. Anyway our staff is hopeless, the whole battle was aghastly mess-up in every way. Where the R.F.C. was I don’t know, probably having a binge miles away from it all. They get even more pay than our old navvies, and have tremendous champagne parties.”
“Not all the time, surely?” said Kingsman, quietly.
“Well, quite often, from what I heard. And I do know that for the four days I was on the battlefield, not one ’plane was to be seen. Again and again I heard our chaps asking where the R.F.C. was, and then the German reserves came up unspotted, and when we went over to the attack on Sunday, whole battalions were mown down. Nobody knew where or how or why they were there, and some of the reserves, who came up late and hungry, fired at one another, never having seen a German. No observation by the R.F.C., obviously.”
Neither Kingsman nor his wife spoke. The butler stood unmoving as Phillip finished his pudding, while Mrs. Kingsman played with a fork and a few scraps on her plate. It was a relief when the meal was over and Mrs. Kingsman told the butler they would have coffee in the smoking-room. There to his surprise, she smoked a cigarette with them, taking nervous puffs at it while talking about the birds which came to her bird-table, including nuthatches and woodpeckers. This mood did not last, for the distant look came back into her eyes and she left, murmuring about writing some letters.
When she had gone, Kingsman said, “I expect you would like to see your room,” and Phillip wondered if they had both found him a bore, and to make matters worse, he had begun to stutter. In silence he walked beside Kingsman up the broad stairs to where on the first landing a long corridor with leaded windows all along one side of the house led to what he thought was a wing. Coats-of-arms in stained glass were let into all the leaded casements of the windows. It was the Long Gallery, said Kingsman, and faced north to give an even light upon the pictures hanging along the opposite wall.
Opening a door beyond the gallery, he said as Phillip hesitated, “Do go in, won’t you.” Inside the room he said, “You might care to rest for a bit, or write letters; if there is anything you want, you’ll ring, won’t you?”
Phillip saw a tester bed, a table with a rack holding very blue writing paper, envelopes, sealing wax and pens, a bowl of mixed apples and pears, and a green plate with gilt edging on which lay a gold dessert knife. The uneven glass of a bookcase reflected theflames of the wood fire burning in the hearth. His haversack lay on a stool.
“At three o’clock, in about an hour’s time, Dolly and I usually go for a walk, you might care to see the gardens, such as they are at this time of the year, but do please yourself. We’ll be down in the hall at three. Ring if you want anything, won’t you,” and Kingsman went out and shut the door.
Phillip thought he would write a letter to Mrs. Neville, telling her of his extraordinary adventure, and the mysterious atmosphere in the house, while examining a piece of blue writing paper embossed in whiteTollemerePark,Chelmsford,Essex,with a telephone number and station name of the Great Eastern Railway. But first he must explore. Carefully opening a door, after warning coughs, he found himself in a bathroom, with many immense pipes wrapped in some sort of bandages heavily covered with cracked white enamel; and opening a second door, discovered a dressing-room, with a thing like a commode without pan, but with sort of bicycle handles for holding on, and a base covered with leather hiding some sort of springs. It had a wooden handle projecting from the back, by which it could be jigged up and down. What was it, a liver rattler? Perhaps in the old days of two-bottle port men, this was necessary as well as foxhunting six days a week. Or was it for the summer, anyway it was a horrible looking thing.
It appeared that he had the wing to himself. After exploring the landing, and hearing only heavy silence which hung in the shut air with the fog of his breath, he walked on tip-toe to the gallery, and examined the last two pictures, which had seemed to be different from the others as he had walked past them with his host.
One was of a family group, Jasper Kingsman and his wife with a small boy sitting in dappled sunlight under a laburnum tree with its yellow blooms hanging down and the house in the background across lawns with clumps of rhododendrons. Next to this picture, which was signedSargent,was the portrait of a boyish figure wearing a brown leather flying helmet carelessly left unfastened, and showing the dark fur lining. His leather coat was open, too, revealing the wings of a scout pilot, and under the wings the riband of the Military Cross.
Phillip stared up at the face. It was smiling slightly, the eyes were a deep blue, the features delicate and sharp, almost childlike in their innocence. Where had he seen the picture before?Of course, it had been one of the pictures in the Royal Academy of the past summer, and photographs of it had appeared in the newspapers. Hadn’t it been painted by someone called Orpen? He looked, and saw the name in the corner. How strange, that Captain Kingsman had never spoken of having a son.
He went along the gallery, looking at the portraits of men and women, most of them in family groups, with fresh, easy faces as though nothing had ever worried them, all ideally happy in the country that belonged to them. This appearance changed when he came to the Jacobean period; faces became sterner, with little ruffs and beards and eyes looking out beyond ideal country scenes, as though thoughtful with trouble in the time of religious struggles; then, into the Tudor period, the men looking more cocky, in both dress and manner, as though feeling the world was wide and they were masters of it.
He listened on the edge of the main landing. There was no sound. He crossed over behind the heavy oak balustrade, and tip-toed down a passage, drawn by a flickering light. When he reached another passage he saw an image of the Virgin holding the dead Christ, set in an alcove in the wall, before which was a small bunch of flowers in a bowl. Thepietawas lit by two candles, or tapers Mother called them, which had burned away half their lengths. It was like the street boys’ grottos, which they made once a year and exhibited on the pavements for pennies. Had the grotto the same derivation as thepieta,or was it earlier—relic of Great Pan being dead?
So the Kingsmans were Roman Catholics.
The walk was dull, he could feel nothing in the countryside, which was bleak and bare and desolate as the small red sun went down like a wound in the flesh of a man lying dead on no man’s land. How could he get through the rest of the day; why had he come; he might by now have been with Desmond and Eugene; even Tom Ching’s face would be welcome in Freddy’s or the Gild Hall; and here he was, his life fret-sawed away into pieces by his mind taking him all over the place, and tomorrow was Sunday, the dead dull day of the week. He would not be able even to go with Mother and Doris to sit in the gallery of St. Simon’s church, in the hope of seeing Helena Rolls below in her family pew; vain and hopeless as that would be.
In this mood of feeling lost within himself, as a hoar frost began to settle over the level landscape, and partridges were callingrustily, he returned with the Kingsmans to tea with muffins in the hall and sat upon the edge of a deep leather armchair before a fret of flames beginning to arise in triumph all along the other half of the six-foot length of split beech trunk, which two men had carried into the hall as they had set out for their walk. When the electric light was switched on he saw on the wall beside the corner of the hearth where Mrs. Kingsman sat with her work-basket, a small frame covered by glass in which hung a Military Cross.
A visitor arrived during tea. He wore the black-skirted cassock of a priest. The setter seemed to writhe with suppressed joy to see the figure, as it took in its mouth the pair of slippers which Phillip had noticed on the other side of the hearth, of blue velvet embroidered with what looked like a flowery pattern. The dog advanced with high steps towards the newcomer, who stopped to pat it before going to Mrs. Kingsman to take her hand in both of his. Then to Kingsman; and turning to Phillip, who had stood up when the visitor arrived, was introduced as Father Aloysius.
The newcomer brought life into the room, as he set about eating with zest the muffins from a covered dish that had been kept warm on the hearth.
“You walked, I suppose, Lulu?”
“Rather! It helped to clear the miasmas from my mind. I was beginning to feel like Shakespeare’s ‘vagabond flag upon the tide, that rots itself with motion’. But I was sorry to leave my many friends, I had no idea they would feel the parting as I did. I’ve spent the last two years,” he said, turning to Phillip, “in a London suburb south of the river—a place that George the Second, travelling by coach from Kent on his way to London early one morning, called ‘long lazy lousy Loos’am,’ having apparently watched door after door opening along the High Street to see his subjects yawning and scratching their heads as the Royal Coach passed by. Of course the Hanoverians, as you know, were not exactly popular then.”
“No—I mean yes.”
“How did you come, by Liverpool Street, Lulu?”
“I was lucky to get a lift in a motor going over Woolwich Ferry to Chelmsford, Dolly. My word, it’s good to see the rodings ridge-and-furrow again! There’s something about a London suburb, a nervous tension, an underlying anxiety, a suppression of true living that is not of the town and certainly not of the country, which is most hard to combat.”
Phillip wondered if this was the same Father Aloysius that hismother had spoken of, as being ‘such a good man’, the priest-in-charge of St. Saviour’s in the High Street.
“What did you think of your chaplains in France?” went on the priest, turning to him.
“I can hardly judge, sir, I saw only one, and he preached a sermon that told us only that Zero day was not far off. The troops call chaplains the Royal Staybacks.”
The priest laughed. “What did your man say, can you remember?”
“He said, ‘This is the greatest fight ever made for the Christian religion, a fight between the mailed fist and the nailed hand.”
“That sounds like the Bishop of London.”
It was too late to leave now; darkness had come, and there were no lamps on the Swift. His great lonely bedroom! He remembered what Father had always said about Roman Catholic priests: how they tried to control other people’s lives, and although supposedly devoted to things spiritual, they were great acquirers of property. But Father disliked Roman Catholics because his mother had come from a German Lutheran family which had suffered from persecution. Anyway, what did it matter? All religions were the same—merely made up from people’s fears and desires.
The others began to talk about people they knew, including someone called “Margot”. The only Margot Phillip had heard of was the Prime Minister’s wife, and to his surprise this was the same person. The Kingsmans must be very high up, if they were intimate friends of the Asquiths. He must be careful not to say anything against the war.
“The newspapers are dreadful,” said Mrs. Kingsman. “Poor Margot! That wretchedcanardabout her visit to Donnington Hall, to play tennis with the German officer prisoners there, is still going the rounds. Even my head gardener believes it to be true. Margot says she does not even know where Donnington Hall is.”
Phillip remembered that Mrs. Asquith’s visit was one of the things that made Father furious with the Liberal Prime Minister. He might have known it!TheDailyTridenthad right across its chief page,ARealBritishVictoryatLast!on the Monday following the attack at Loos …TheDailyLiar.
“Even if she did go to visit old friends, I don’t see anything wrong in it,” he could not help saying.
To his surprise the priest exclaimed, “Bravo! Therein lies hope. Tell me, do many think like you do, in France?”
“I don’t think so. Or if they do, they don’t say so. You see——” he began tremulously, but could not finish.
“Henry Asquith is so good,” he heard Mrs. Kingsman saying. “He will not defend himself. He will not believe that they are intriguing against him.”
“One of the disadvantages today of being a Balliol man,” said Kingsman.
“Tell me,” said the priest softly, leaning across the sofa to Phillip, “would it have been a help if you had had a padre with your men in the line, sharing their lives, one to whom they could confide their unhappiest thoughts?”
This was so strange a question that Phillip did not know what to reply.
“One to whom a man could tell even his fears of being killed?”
“I think he would be killed just the same, whether he told his fears or not, if his time had come, sir.”
“You know Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’, of course?”
“No—I don’t, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, my dear boy! It is one of the great poems of the war, with Rupert Brooke’s 1914 sonnets! It is your meat and drink, as a soldier! Where can we find you a copy?”
“I have keptTheTimes,Lulu!”
Mrs. Kingsman got up, a strange exalted smile on her face, and went up the stairs.
“Julian was our friend,” said the priest, softly. “At Balliol nearly ten years ago he was known as Roughers, or the Rough Man. He was tremendously keen on physical fitness, delighting in all beauty, fired by great poetry, feeling kinship with animals, particularly horses, that was our dear, dear Rough Man, with his stock whip, cracking its lash with a noise like a pistol shot! But since all human qualities must have their defects, for what is man but a wayward pilgrim unto God, Julian had the fault of intolerance. Thus, he could not bear the sight of one fellow undergraduate in particular, and would hunt him whenever he saw him, hurling that great thong of his stock-whip until the lash exploded about the ears of the fleeing Jew … who is now, in the whirligig of time, an A.D.C. to a general in France, while our dear Roughers has died of wounds,” ended the priest, with a smile.
Phillip did not know what to say to this. He remembered his father saying that grandfather Twiney was a Jew. What did it matter, anyway, what religion a man was?
As Mrs. Kingsman came down the stairs withTheTimes,the priest went on, “You will know your Heraclitus,” and he quoted for nearly half a minute, while Mrs. Kingsman waited. “You remember your Greek?”
“I did not learn Greek, sir.”
“Oh, do forgive me, I did not intend——” The priest got up and took the newspaper from Mrs. Kingsman. Spreading it open on the table he said softly, “Read it to us, my dear Maddison,” and then he began to pace the room, touching his rosary.
The naked earth is warm with Spring
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze, glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze.
And life is Colour and Warmth and Light
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight.
And who dies fighting hath increase.
Phillip read on, transfixed, as scenes of the countryside he had known with such happiness rose before him with so startling a clearness that he lowered his eyes, waiting for the tears which filled them to go.
The kestrel, hovering by day,
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they,
As keen of ear, as swift of sight.
The blackbird sings to him: “Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you sing,
Sing well, for you may not sing another,
“Do go on, Phillip!” said Kingsman. “Yes, do,” said Mrs. Kingsman. They watched the slim figure hesitating, then the nervous stroking of dark hair with a hand; the indrawn breath, the voice clear, gentle, and firm.
And when the burning moment breaks,
In the silence that followed he could hear the flap of the flames and the slight clicking of beads; then the low voice of Father Aloysius began to pray in Latin. Captain Kingsman and his wife bowed their heads, followed by Phillip. He felt himself to be small and simple, and blessed.
“And now,” said the priest, as he drew up his chair, “tell me about your Redpoll herd, Dolly, and if the cows are doing their duty. I am looking forward to that bowl of cream, and that blackberry and apple pudding that Marty in the kitchen, bless her, knows so well how to make.”
What a marvellous poem, Phillip was thinking, again and again. And yet——
It was a marvellous dinner, he thought, looking round the table lit by tapers burning in Elizabethan holders of hand-wrought silver. Now he knew why he had felt that something was wrong with the Kingsmans, and the explanation was as sad as it was simple: he had taken for granted that all homes, or the people in them, were like his own. These people were kind, and because they were kind they were polite to one another. And they did not show their feelings or their spiritual bruises because they were not bruised. Even the death of their only son had not broken as it were their skins. Father Aloysius before they had gone into dinner had whispered to him that their son, their only child, had been shot down during the battle of Loos by the German airman Boelcke flying a Fokker; so, said the priest, “Let us not speak harshly of the mistakes or deficiencies of others. We are all pitiful in our errors, our lives are composed of joy and of Virgil’slacrimaererum,‘the tears of things’.”
The dinner had begun with oxtail soup, and with it the butler had three-quarter filled a small glass with dark red sweet wine, which somehow just suited the soup. On the decanter was a silverlabel,Madeira.Asked by Father Aloysius (dare he call him ‘Lulu’, wondered Phillip, and thought it better to keep his distance) what it was, Kingsman replied, “Bual Solera, 1826”. After the soup came pink fish, which he thought was salmon; but Kingsman said it was sea-trout, which had been in the ice-house since last September. With this fish was a cold pale wine which made Phillip think of a sea-cave, by still water; they were allowed two three-quarter glasses only of this wine, which Kingsman said came from a Jesuit monastery on the banks of the Rhine, theForsterJesuitengarten.By the time his plate was taken away Phillip was no longer metaphorically sitting on his hands; he was soaring happily in this new world of grace and friendship. With the pheasant came two more three-quarter glasses of claret,ChâteauHaut-Brionbottled, said Kingsman, before the Franco-Prussian war, in 1862.
Now he knew why people talked about food and wine, which when matched, and balanced, had a wonderful effect on one, of life at its best, without any feeling of being tight.
By the time the blackberry and apple pudding came in, with cream in a bowl dull yellow which he realised was gold, he floated in timeless happiness. What wonderful people he had met, owing to the war! Then, thinking of his own home—of the constriction of spirit there, of his mother’s anxiety and fear of upsetting the feelings of his father, of his sister Mavis who was not like other girls, but critical and never satisfied, and ashamed of him as she was of Father—he sighed, thinking that he had no right to be so happy. If only the others at home could know that such happinesswaspossible on earth——
Father Aloysius seemed to know what he was thinking, for after a glass of port to finish the dinner, with cob nuts and Cox’s orange pippins, when they returned to the hall for coffee, he seated himself beside Phillip and during talk said that he had met both his mother and his sister, and that both held him in deep affection.
“My sister, Father?”
“You look surprised, Phillip. Your sister loves you dearly. Does that seem strange? I notice that your hands are usually clenched, as though you are holding yourself in. That is a sign of nervous strain. Do forgive me if I am too personal.”
“I am very glad, Father. I like to find out the truth of things.”
“To know the truth of oneself takes courage. And what is so good about you, if you will allow me to say so, is that you are notbitter about others. But one must not be bitter about oneself, Phillip. That leads to self-hate, which in the end splinters one, and the splinters hurt others. Self-centredness, the Old Adam, has to die, you know, or change rather, before one can find spiritual freedom, which is the love of God.”
“When I was a boy,” said Phillip, getting up to walk about the room, “I wanted some bullets for my catapult, to shoot wood-pigeons with. I had a bullet-mould, so I melted down some lead soldiers in a frying pan over the gas stove. Suddenly each one shrunk and the colours dropped away with its shape and a little bright blob ran where its feet had stood. I have been thinking! How does ‘Into Battle’ stand at the melting moment of action, when warmth and light and colour fall from men’s lives, when first surprise, then desperate fear, comes upon them, and sometimes screams for help? How does it stand in the glare of action?”
“A man is not only a soldier, a toy soldier if you like,” said the priest. “He has a soul. And if he is aware of that soul, and has fortified himself with self-discipline, with the help of God, his soul will uphold him in the terrors of the Abyss suddenly opening upon life as he has known it.”
“Yes, Father, you are right. But ‘when the burning moment breaks’, and he goes forward, I am unable to believe that it will be ‘only the Joy of Battle’ that takes hold of him.”
“Roughers was a cavalryman, you must remember.”
“Yes, I see.”
“Have you ever tried to write poetry, Phillip?” said Kingsman.
“Oh, I’m no good at it, Jasper. Do you mind my calling you Jasper? I’m afraid it slipped out.”
“I’ve been asking you to call me by my name ever since this morning, you ass!”
“Hurray, I love being called an ass,” said Phillip, stretching himself out on the sofa.
“And now,” said Jasper, “auction! No more war, Phillip. When Dolly comes back, we’ll cut for partners. You don’t play? It’s like whist, the partners bid for trumps, that’s all. The one who gets the bid plays the hand. We play only for small stakes, as in the mess, sixpence a hundred.”
As they were going upstairs with lighted candlesticks the priest said to Phillip, “How wonderful, that during the many times I walked up to the Heath, on my nightly walks around Greenwich, with its history of a thousand years and more, that I should havepassed your old school! I believe that you have an uncommon gift of clarity; bear all things with that gift, Phillip.” Seeing that the youth looked puzzled he said, “Bearwithall things.”
“I’d like to ask you one thing, if I may, Father. Why did Catholics torture and burn people at the stake? Or, like G. K. Chesterton, if I remember rightly”—he could hear Uncle Hugh saying it—“say, as a Catholic, that the writings of Thomas Hardy reminded him ‘of the village atheist brooding over the village idiot’. Or people worshipping relics like toe-nails and bones?”
“Well, to answer your three questions in order. There are insensitive men and sensitive men; and sometimes the most sensitive are at times the most self-tortured, and therefore torturing. Objects of hate are but our own chimaerae. They arise from wounds within us. So we seek scapegoats, to void our own hurts.”
“Yes, I see what you mean, Father.”
“Chesterton’s criticism of Hardy was made at an off-moment, I think. Even fine poets do not always see with what Goethe called paradise-clearness.”
“But do Catholics damn people like Hardy?”
“Men are men, of all sorts and conditions, Phillip. It is not for me to say who are bad men, or good men, whether they are Catholics or not. I myself love the writings of Hardy. Indeed, I chose his works as the subject of my doctor’s thesis in theology, arguing that he is naturally a religious man, and a visionary, whose compassion shines again and again like Shakespeare’s taper—you remember, ‘How far that little candle throws its beams, So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’ Hardy’s spirit burns steadily, he is one of the lights of humanity.
“Now about relics, Phillip. The people love shows, and they love goodness, and we all grieve in our hearts when loved ones are gathered from us. Being mortal, we cling to relics—a ring, a letter, a field post-card, or perhaps a cigarette case with initials on it—a photograph, the first lock of hair clipped from a baby’s head. Our friends die, our children are killed in battle, the bone or fragment of the saint is cherished accordingly.”
“Yes, Father. Thank you very much for explaining it to me.” Phillip went down the Long Gallery, his candle flame fluttering, while the faces in the portraits seemed to be alive, and sharing a spirit that lived within the house.
Chapter 4NEW BROOM
On the next Friday night Phillip’s hopes of getting home to see Desmond were dashed when he saw in Orders that he was Orderly Officer for the next day. Well, he would do his duty strictly, like cousin Bertie. The entire camp needed to be smartened up. Grey Towers, a well-to-do tradesman’s villa of mid-Victorian days, was in a disgraceful state. Cinders and eggshells strewed the muddy paths through the trees, with potato peelings and empty bully beef cans. Old sodden newspapers lay about. He would put in a report about the extremely slack condition of the camp.
As he walked towards the hutments an old shaky man with watery eyes and forage cap perched precariously on the centre of his skull approached him, obviously preparing with some anxiety to salute. Up went a hand with thick fingers spread between nobbly joints, jerk went the poor old head sideways, knees came up so that he just avoided a stagger, and a hand wavered at him. Philip returned his best salute, and stopped to speak.
“Didn’t I see you at Alexandra Palace, last August? I thought so. How are you?” He shook hands.
The old fellow said he mustn’t grumble, but his boots hurt something terrible. It was his blue veins, he explained.
“I had frost bite in France, and so I can sympathise. Ask your company quarter-master sergeant to try and get you a more comfortable pair. Take his name and number, sergeant!”
“Very good, sir.”
The old fellow looked nearer eighty than seventy as he walked away. The orderly sergeant, cane under arm, waxed moustache, thin like trench bayonets said, “There’s several old ’uns ’ere.”
He was an old sweat himself if ever there was one, thought Phillip, noting the beery face, the medal ribands of Egyptian campaigns.
“We’ve grandads, and not a few great-grandads. They sign on for the pay, six bob a day, sir, more’n twice a time-servin’ sergeant instructor gets. But queer things goes on everywhere in time o’ war, sir.”
“Yes, your old Adjutant went to quod for half-inching Government property, didn’t he?”
“Yes sir, and he’s not the only one. I mean, sir,” said the sergeant, stopping and facing him. He hesitated, then began again. “Well, sir, if you understand my meanin’, I could say a lot, sir, were I a mind to. The food we get in the sergeant’s mess is not fit for pigs. I reckon someone ought to write to John Bull about it.”
“Why that bloody rogue Bottomley? Why not me, as orderly officer, sergeant? Isn’t he supposed to receive all complaints? Come on, out with it!”
The sergeant gave him a glance in which surprise, fear, and evasive cunning were mixed.
“I don’t want to lose me pension, sir.”
“What’s wrong with the food, anyhow?”
“Mustn’t grumble, sir.”
“H’m. Well, we’ll go and see the guard room.”
“Tell you what, sir, there’s a prisoner there, and the orderly officer is within ’is dooty to ask if a prisoner ’as any complaints about his food, sir.”
“Lead on, sergeant.”
The sentry on guard outside carried a black swagger stick with nickel top instead of a rifle. He was a man younger than the run of navvies Phillip had seen so far, and managed a fair salute. The sergeant, however, rated him in a loud voice. “Can’t you do better’n that, my lad? Come smartly to attention when you see an orficer approachin’. Let me see the forefinger of your left ’and in line with the seam of the trouser next time!”
Phillip entered the creosoted building in time to see the N.C.O. in charge of the guard sweeping a heap of coppers into one hand, while another man thrust a pack of cards under the brown blanket covering the trestle table at which several soldiers were sitting.
“Guard—SHUN,” roared the N.C.O., saluting. “Guard present and correct, sir.”
“So I noticed. What is it, pontoon or nap?”
“Solo whist has its points, as a change. Stand easy. I would like to see the man in the cell.”
The guard sergeant looked at the orderly sergeant. Then staring at nothing the orderly sergeant cried, “Orfficer to see prisoner!” in a loud but hollow voice.
In silence the key was put in, the door was half opened, the guard sergeant shouted, “Prisoner, SHUN!”
The orderly sergeant said to Phillip that he had better follow him, and gave him a wink. “Troublesome customer in ’ere, sir.”
“Then he has a grievance. That’s what I’m here for.”
The room inside was lined, like the door, with sheet-iron. The brown iron on the door was dented, as from many kickings. It was lit by a single electric bulb high in the wooden ceiling. The prisoner seemed to have absorbed the grimness of iron-encasement as he stood by the only object in the room, a palliasse bed in three sections on the dirty floor. He had a sullen unshaven face, his dark eyes seemed to be darker with suppressed anger, or pain. He stood bootless, beltless, and minus his braces, so that his trousers were about to fall down. He was a huge man, with lips the thicker for being swollen, his nose was likewise swollen and blood-crusted. There was a long cut upon one swelled cheek-bone.
“Any complaints?” asked Phillip, deciding that the man had been brought in fighting drunk.
“No!” replied the prisoner, in a hoarse voice.
“How’s the food?”
“Bloody muck, not fit for a bloody pig.”
“Steady my lad, before an orfficer!” cried the sergeant.
“Oh, I heard ever so much worse language than that during the first battle of Ypres,” said Phillip, amiably. “Now tell me, how did you get hurt like that?”
“I falled down.”
“Yes, it happens to us all sometime or other.” To the orderly sergeant, “Has iodine been put on those cuts?”
“Then he should be treated at once.”
“Medical orderly’s hut closed, sir.”
“Then it must be opened.”
“Next sick parade at nine o’clock tomorrow morning, sir.”
“Then we’ll have a special one now.”
He lifted the left side of his tunic and with a rip of stitches opened his field dressing. He broke the iodine capsule, and saying, “This will smart a bit on your cheek, but I’ll let you put it yourself on your lips. I saw a man with lock-jaw in France, and it was not a pleasant sight.”
“Don’t go near him, sir,” said the orderly sergeant, softly past one spike of his moustache. The prisoner heard, and glowered at the sergeant.
“He’s all right,” cried Phillip, enthusiastically. “So is anyone who wears both the Queen’s and King’s ribands for South Africa! Ask the sergeant of the guard to let him have a hot cup of fresh tea, with plenty of sugar. What is your name?” to the prisoner.“Pimm, that’s a very good name. Now be a good fellow, and let me treat that cut on your cheek-bone.”
He went forward, and in silence dabbed the iodine on the cut. The prisoner looked at him, unmoving. “There, that’s done. Like to have my handkerchief to do your lips? It’s quite clean. You can have it, if you like.”
The prisoner put the iodine on his lips. Phillip smiled at him, saying, “Good man. Sergeant, don’t forget that cup of char. Plenty of sugar in it, if Pimm wants it. Right, we’ll go and see the cookhouse now.”
“Want yer snot rag, sir?” said the prisoner, holding out the khaki handkerchief.
“It’s a present for you, Pimm. I’ve been under arrest in my time, and I know what it feels like. I’ll come and see you later on.”
They left the iron room. The door was locked again.
“Christ A’mighty, there ain’t many like you, if you’ll pardon the remark, sir,” said the sergeant, on the way to the cookhouse. “You took a risk, sir, you know.”
Feeling mellow and pleased with himself, Phillip replied, “Oh, surely not, sergeant? Pimm is a good fellow. The officers I knew when I was a private, in France, all looked after their men. That’s what an officer is for. In a good battalion, anyway. It’s you fellows, the N.C.O.’s, who have all the dirty work. An officer should be a soldier’s friend.”
“In the old army, yes sir, I agree, but this ain’t the old army.”
“But Pimm is an old soldier—in both senses of the term! How did he get those bruises on his face? I saw drops of blood on the floor, and they weren’t from deep cuts. Did he scrap in the guardroom?”
“It isn’t my business to say, sir.”
“Why can’t you tell me?”
“You ’eard what ’e said, sir, ’e fell down.”
“What’s all the mystery about?” said Phillip, stopping.
“I can’t say, sir, I’m only the orderly sergeant.”
They walked on towards the cookhouse, a place of lime-washed corrugated iron, grease, and coal. Thick smoke poured from a chimney. Beyond was a heap of white bread, hundreds of loaves piled together, thousands of loaves under the trees.
“My God, and a soldier in France is lucky if he can get two small slices of bread in his ration once a week! And what the hell is all that?”
He walked to a pit wherein joints and bones lay piled on top of each other. There was among them the whole side of a bullock.
“Does the Adjutant know about this waste?”
“The farmer takes it away, sir, for to feed his pigs.”
“And who gets the money?”
“Ah, now you’re asking something, sir!”
“No wonder the war is costing five million pounds a day. There’s several cartloads of meat wasted here, all going rotten, and at least a couple of lorry-loads of loaves.”
“It’s the same everywhere, sir. Everyone makin’ money except the tommy, what does the fightin’.”
“I don’t think I want to see the inside of the cookhouse. The outside is enough.”
“Cooks are off duty now, sir, anyway.”
“Do they wear smoke-helmets? They should. Right, I’ll see you at guard mounting at six o’clock. See to it that the prisoner Pimm gets his cup of tea.”
“Very good, sir.”
The sergeant changed his manner. “It was the colonel what marked ’m, sir. Only don’t fer Gawd’s sake let on that I told you. I don’t want to be broke, sir.”
“Yes sir. It was that or a court martial, sir, for insubordination. The colonel goes to see Pimm, and offers him a good ’iding or a court martial, in which case the man will be for the glass ’ouse, sir, and his pay be stopped, and ’is missus and kids suffer. Pimm knows that, and before ’e can say which ’e’ll take, the Ganger, as they call the Colonel, batters ’is gums good and proper. ’E’ll let ’im out on Monday, sir, and there won’t be no more trouble.”
“Rough justice, sergeant.”
“Yes sir, and the men understand it.”
“It’s not as bad as it looks, then?”
“It’s what they all bin used to, sir.”
“Well, I take it that there are no complaints, sergeant?”
“None whatever, sir! I allus says, let sleeping dogs lie. Oh, before I forgets it, sir, the orderly orfficer ain’t supposed to go near the men’s quarters before lights out, sir.”
“Why is that?”
“To avoid trouble, sir. The men gets paid today, and they’re only navvies arter all, if you understand my meanin’.”
At guard mounting the orderly sergeant said, “Pimm ’ad his cup of char, sir, and we give ’im some sausages and bread. The men liked what you did, if you’ll excuse me tellin’ you. But you’llremember to keep clear of them huts, won’t you, sir? We don’t want no trouble.”
This made Phillip all the more determined to see what went on. It reminded him of the music hall song
Where did Robinson Crusoe go
With Friday on Saturday night?
for these old navvies were like a lot of ancient Crusoes, who drew each Saturday afternoon the immense pay of forty-two shillings each.
After the pubs and canteen had been closed, the men staggered back to their quarters, singing, rolling and fighting. He watched from behind a tree two buck navvies taking terrific swings at each other, men who a few moments before had been coming along holding one another up, arms round necks. Phillip thought he knew all the swear words in the cockney’s vocabulary, but some of the things said were pretty awful, he thought, coming from the lowest level of slum living. He had heard remarks from wretched boys in the fever hospital which had made him wince, boys in whose thoughts nothing was sacred; but these navvies when fighting drunk taunted one another with far worse phrases. Could a father really make his small children do what was said? Incest took place, of course, often among the poor in crowded rooms, but that was nothing to what he heard from the two who had been calling one another “matey” only a few moments before, and then fallen out.
The scenes in the huts, or rather on the hut floors, were mild compared with the language. Taking care to remain hidden, he watched one scene beyond an open door; men lay about in all attitudes, in pools of their own urine. The sergeant had told him that a man might take as many as forty pints in a boozer at night, and it had seemed to be an exaggeration; but now he saw, in hut after hut, figures dispread and inert on wet floors, an occasional shaggy figure sitting up and singing. In one hut, asprawl with figures, four men of about forty years of age, real buck navvies, he thought, were doing what some of the senior boys in the school Cadet Corps at Bisley had done in a tent openly and without shame, to see who could race the others.
He went from hut to hut, all with doors open, and watched. In one a man was staggering about, the only one on his feet, roaring out that he had been home to see his old woman, but whenhe got there, he found she had on the kicking strap. A flow of obscenity followed, then:
“I give it to ’er, I give it to ’er jus’ like this——” and the man lurched at the stove, swinging his fist. He hit the iron pipe so that the chimney collapsed and fell on the floor and smoke came with flames out of the broken upright end of the pipe. The man went down on the floor, groaning.
Phillip went in to have a look and thought that it was unlikely to set fire to the room, as the stove was now a fire-pail and the fire would gradually die out. Six times the pay of the fighting tommy in France, no wonder they behaved like beggars on horseback! Before the war, sixteen shillings a week; now, forty-two.
The only report he would make, thought Phillip, would be to Mrs. Neville when he saw her next; and even to her, he would have to censor at least one of the scenes.
It certainly was a rag-time battalion of Kitchener’s Army he had come to, he thought, as he leaned against a wall of the drawing-room of Grey Towers, one of several other junior subalterns taking part in the weekly Social as it was called.
Dinner was over. The ladies were in the drawing-room, knitting and talking among themselves. With the exception of the Colonel’s daughter, the ladies were matronly, homely individuals of between forty and fifty years of age: Mrs. Broad, Mrs. Fluck, Mrs. Crump, Mrs. Gleeson, Mrs. Stiff. Their husbands had been time-served N.C.O.’s, retired for many years before the war. Now they were back again, and having the time of their lives—as majors, and prospective lieutenant-colonels; for, it was said, several new battalions were to be formed out of the original Navvies. There they sat: Crump, Fluck, Gleeson and Stiff, all together in one corner, smoking pipes and playing cards—not exactly bridge, but pontoon: a crafty lot taken altogether, he thought, wicked old devils who knew all the tricks, all trying to line nests which before the war had certainly not been feathered. Now some of the feathers were in evidence: round the necks, as boas, of Mesdames Crump, Fluck, Gleeson and Stiff.
Phillip laughed as he thought of what Wigg had told him: that every grocer in Ilford and Romford had been visited at various times by one or another of these gentry, in connection with possible deals for probable Regimental Institute “comforts for the troops”—extra rations such as custard powders, prunes, fresh vegetables, and cocoa for the canteens—to be bought with a secret commissionreturned to each C.O. when the new battalions were formed. “Jam,” it was called.
As the now-idle new broom leaned against the wall there were voices in the passage outside. “Steady!” “Take it easy!” “All right, keep your wool on”, etc.; then through the open door came a pushed piano. Miss Broad turned pale. Milman was going to accompany her on the piano; then they were going to sing a duet. After that, she was going to play the piano accompaniment ofTheBrokenMelody.At intervals during the afternoon fragments of this ordeal had been audible in and around Grey Towers. Now the dreaded moment was come. Milman smiled at her reassuringly. She smiled back, her eyes still anxious. Phillip sympathised. He liked Milman.
When the violinist was rubbing resin on his bow, Wigg sauntered over to Phillip. “Look at Milman,” he said,sottevoce,“little gutscraper!”
Phillip gave Wigg an amiable look, and remained silent, thinking that sotty votshy just about summed up Wigg.
“By the way, did the Cabin Boy ever thank you for letting him use your motorcar, when you first arrived?”
“Yes, thanks. What’s more, he gave me four gallons of juice. I thought it quite decent of him.”
“Yes, at Curling’s expense.”
“I don’t understand.”
“He took two cans from the pit-store in the stable, didn’t he? Well, those cans were kept there, and had been paid for, by Little Boy Curling. The Cabin Boy took them without as much as a by-your-leave.”
“But surely Colonel Broad pays for the petrol Curling uses when he drives him about in his ‘Prince Henry’ Vauxhall?”
“Not on your life! Little Boy Curling takes the C.O. to the House of Commons, at other times he takes the Colonel’s wife shopping in Regent Street, or to amatinée,where I bet he pays for the tickets. What it is to have for father the richest grocer in London, who bought himself a baronetcy by paying thirty thousand pounds to the Liberal Party’s coffers.”
Phillip wondered about those two tins of petrol. After the tremulous singing ofWhenyouComedowntheVale,Lad,There’sMusicEverywhere,he crossed the room to Curling and asked him. The duet,OthatWeTwowereMaying!was about to begin.
“Tell me, Curling, have you missed four gallons——”
“S-sh!” said Curling, his head seeming to shrink into hisshoulders. He put a finger half-heartedly to his lips, his eyes were those of a subdued little boy. He wore leggings and breeches; other subalterns had changed into slacks, but Curling was apparently on duty all the time, ready to drive Col. Broad, M.P. whenever he or England might require the services of his grey open motor-car with the beaky radiator and arrow-fluted bonnet. Second-lieutenant Curling had one main sorrow; he had been promised a second pip by the Colonel last July, and still he had only one on each sleeve.
After the duet, while Milman was tuning up his fiddle, Phillip asked about the petrol. Curling, lowering his eyes, and hoping that the other would not give so much as one glance at any member of the Broad family, whispered, “I was very pleased to be of use. Please forget it, Maddison.”
“Well, thanks, old chap.”
“Don’t mention it.”
While Milman was playing the dreamy, rather sad and beautifulAlice,WhereArtThou,that Uncle Hugh had played on his cigar-box fiddle with a brass horn so movingly, Phillip thought that Curling, despite his one pip, could not grumble. His father was very nearly a millionaire, and Curling was not likely to be sent out to France, when he was useful to the C.O. All the same, he was in half a mind to offer six shillings for the four gallons, but thinking of Curling’s ‘allowance from the guv’nor’ of £600 a year, plus his pay, he thought better of it.
Sitting beside Curling, he noticed on the brown leather of his boots the black marks of spurs and chains, but no signs of rubbing on leggings or breeches strappings. Evidently Curling had glorified himself to equestrian status when he was home on leave, and out of sight of Colonel Broad. How funny that a baronet’s son should want to swank. After the music, the piano was moved back for dancing. Phillip got away, before anyone could suggest that he dance with any of the girls sitting with their mothers. By the door he met Wigg, who said, “I met a friend of yours the other night in town. Her name is Frances. She says you know her cousin.”
Frances, Frances, thought Phillip, who could she be? Fearing Wigg’s cynical tongue, he asked no questions.
Chapter 5TO THE BRIGHT LIGHTS
After lunch two days later Wigg came up to Phillip in the ante-room and said, “Would you care to come with me to Town this evening? I am meeting Frances, who said she knew you, and she has a friend.”
“I have been wondering who ‘Frances’ can be, Wigg.”
“All I know is that she is called Frances and that she is a mannequin.”
“Then it must be another Maddison. A mannequin? I knewofone once, long ago, who wore a hobble-skirt.”
“This one is too young for that. Are you on?”
“Thanks, I’d like to come. Shall we go in the Swift? I’ve just had some lamps fitted.”
They went after tea through Romford and Ilford to the Bow Road and broad sett-stoned Whitechapel High Street; onwards to the City; down Fenchurch Street in the darkness—past Wine Vaults Lane, and the round face of the Moon hanging above the little office of many memories; Cheapside, with Benetfink’s toy shop, belonging to an age now gone. How unsophisticated he was then!
“Straight on,” said Wigg.
They turned off a crowded street of shops and hurrying figures into a side alley where a row of Post Office vans was parked.
“Stop here,” said Wigg.
Walls arose on either side. At the corner was a building with open warehouse doors beyond which small gas-jets flickered upon elderly men in white aprons loading cardboard boxes into a horse van. He recognised the name of a fashionable West End shop which sold frocks and gowns to Society women; and a slight fear came to him as he thought again that the girls they were to meet were mannequins. Could “Frances” possibly be another name of Marie Cox, who had dared to walk down the High Street in that hobble skirt, to be jeered at by common boys? She had lived in Charlotte Road, and had bleached her hair—a very fast thing to do, Mother had said. She would be quite old now, quite twenty-four.
Wigg’s pronunciation of the wordmannequinin French made him the more uneasy as he waited in the dim alley. At one moment he had to suppress an impulse to touch Wigg on the arm and say hedidn’t want to go through with it. He would much rather go to a theatre or electric palace. What could he say to a mannequin? Worse, what was he expected to do? All he had heard about the West End at night was alarming. Also, he had only thirty shillings on him: mannequins would be used to dining at places like the Ritz or Carlton, where only champagne was drunk. The more he thought of it, the more he wished he had not come, and especially with an obviousblasérouélike Wigg. As minutes passed, the deeper his alarm.
“Give them a little grace. It’s only five minutes after six.”
The elderly loaders finished; the van doors were closed. There was, around the base of a lamp-post standing in a tiny pool of light, a suggestion of fog. The damp air hung tenuous; the horse whinnied as it tossed its empty nose-bag.
“I loathe women who keep a man hanging about,” said Wigg, as a clock struck the quarter hour. “I was to see my brother at the Goat at twenty-past six.” He looked at his wristlet watch. “My girl is called Frances, so don’t try and get off with her. I know nothing about her so-called friend. That’s your risk.”
“I wish I could think how your friend Frances knows me. You say you don’t know her surname?”
“I’ve told you, NO! half a dozen times! It can be Buggins, for all I care.”
This harsh remark depressed Phillip further. He strolled down the street, and taking the three ten shilling notes from his fold-over case, hid them in different pockets. He was returning, hoping that Wigg would decide to leave, when two girls wearing large black straw hats, wider in the brim behind than in front, on which was a flounced bow of black velvet completing a band around the crown, and dressed in loose jackets with military cuffs to the sleeves and open roll collars, with wide flounced skirts of the same material, and each carrying a slim rolled umbrella with a floppy black velvet hand-bag came out of a door, hesitated by the lamp-post; then the taller one went forward to Wigg standing on the kerb with hands in pea-jacket pockets. Phillip heard a pleasant voice say, “Hullo! Are we very late? So sorry! How nice of you to have come,” then a gloved hand, level with her shoulder, was held out towards Wigg.
Rather fascinated by the charm of her voice, Phillip walked towards them. Then to his alarm he saw Wigg take the girl in his arms, bend back her head, and give her a cave-man kiss, as on the films. “Well!” said the girl, when he released her. A scent offlowers hung in the air, and he saw that her face was fresh and young. She looked used to High Society. The other girl’s face was shaded by her large hat.
“What a jolly runabout you’ve got!” said the girl who had been kissed, turning to Phillip.
After introductions, they all squeezed into the Swift, and he drove out of the alley with Wigg’s girl sitting on Wigg’s lap, and his girl wedged in between them and himself.
“Do you mind my arm behind you?” said his girl. He congratulated himself on having hidden the ten shilling notes.
“I’m afraid it must be frightfully uncomfortable for you.” His thigh was rather frighteningly warm against her. “Which way, Wigg?”
“Turn left. Down Oxford Street, and straight on.”
At the junction with Regent Street, Wigg said to the girl on his lap, “I thought we’d have a drink in the Goat. My brother is coming up from Pompey, and will be there.”
“Don’t worry, he won’t be gooseberry, he’s leaving soon.”
“What is the Goat? Is it a restaurant?”
“It’s a pub frequented by sailors.”
“Well, thank you very much, but I don’t think we ought to come, Mr. Wigg. We don’t drink, you see. I’m so sorry if it looks like false pretences.”
“Stop by the kerb,” said Wigg.
Phillip could feel him turning cold and angry. From her voice she was much too good for Wigg. Fingertips lightly touched his cheek. Was the girl beside him trying to vamp him?
“Very well,” said Wigg. “We’ll go to the Nicosa.”
“Where shall I drive?”
“Oh, down to Piccadilly Circus.”
That was, for Phillip, a name holding further alarm. Were these girls high-classdemi-mondaines? It was not reassuring that Wigg was fondling the breasts of the girl on his lap, as his voice grated, “At the Nicosa one can get broiled kid, and the wine has the tang of the pines of Greece, from the barrels in which it is shipped. The wine of Circe’s Isle, and the pipes of Pan.” Wigg gave a short, cynical laugh. Phillip wondered how he could get away. With relief he heard the girl on Wigg’s lap saying,
“Well, thank you again, but would you mind if we all went somewhere more ordinary? We are both working girls, you see, and not used to such places. I’m sorry if it sounds horribly suburban——”
“What sort of place would you suggest, since you do not care for my idea of hospitality? The Apex House?”
“Well, the cooking is quite good there.”
“Good God!” said Wigg. He appeared to be struggling. “Stop! Stop!” he cried.
Phillip drew into the kerb. Pushing the girl from his lap, who got out, Wigg sprang to the pavement. “I am going to the Goat! I promised to see my brother there! He’s coming up from Pompey to see me, and so to the Goat I am going!” He said to Phillip, “if I don’t see you later I’ll find my own way back.” Hunching his shoulders, Wigg walked away.
“I’m most awfully sorry Mr. Maddison,” said the girl on the kerb. “I’m afraid it is all my fault. Have a good time, you two. Goodbye, thank you ever so much for the ride.”
“No, don’t go!” said Phillip, not wanting to be left alone with a vamp. “Wigg’s a bit temperamental, that’s all. Let’s find somewhere to dine. Only, I don’t know London very well.”
“But two’s company, three’s none,” she said, looking at him with serious eyes. “You and Alice go and enjoy yourselves.”
Phillip had a wild idea to be seen in Freddy’s with two such splendid girls: but they were used to the West End; and they weren’t the kind to go into pubs. “I won’t hear of you going off alone.”
“Well then, I shall insist that you allow me to pay for myself.”
“Of course not!”
“Let’s talk about that later. Meanwhile may I recommend the Apex House? Or there’s Snow’s Chop House, on the corner, if you are enormously hungry. Both are inexpensive. I’m afraid I don’t know any grand places, Mr. Maddison.”
“I vote we go to the Apex House,” said Alice, “and watch Piggy Wiggy playing the violin!”
“Oh, do you like music, too? How ripping!” said Phillip, as he made room for Frances.
“One can get a good dinner for half-a-crown at the Apex, Mr. Maddison.”
“Good lord! I thought it would cost a pound each, and I’ve only got thirty shillings! Which way now?”
This was an adventure, he felt, driving into the wonders of the West End. He was actually in Piccadilly Circus! Scared of the rushing traffic, he went on in bottom gear and drew into the kerb at a place suggested by Frances.
There, having turned low the wicks of the oil-lamps, he left the Swift, with a backward glance of pride and gratitude, to walk between his two companions down the street. The pavement was crowded. Daring to hold an arm of each girl, he piloted them through a drifting mass of soldiers and women glimpsed in the lights of opened shop-door, oyster bar and jewellery store. There was the dark blue of Russian uniform, pale blue of French, Belgians in khaki wearing tall forage caps with tassels, grey Italian, greenish-grey Servian; while against the walls of theatres, upon sand-canisters, and by lamp-posts lounged homeless Australians and New Zealanders. He felt romance in every person and object that he passed: this was Piccadilly, here was the hub of the world.
Outside a theatre, revealed in the sheen of a lighted foyer, stood an old bare-headed man with long white locks and beard, and a face rather flat, but with an expression of remote idealism as he held up a tract.
“He looks like Tolstoi, doesn’t he?” said Frances, smiling with eyes large and shining like cherries. Tolstoi? Tolstoi? Oh yes, there was a copy of theKreutzerSonatalocked up in Father’s desk at home.
“Do you think heisTolstoi?” Could he have been looking at a real author?
“Didn’t Tolstoi die four years ago?”
He felt a little ashamed of his ignorance; but her friendly squeeze of his arm was reassuring. He led them closer to the theatre, to examine the photographs of actors and actresses; and daring to look more fully at the other girl’s face, saw with delight that she too was pretty. They were, in spite of being mannequins, only ordinary girls after all!
“Here we are,” said Frances.
Proud to be seen with such beauties, he led them into a palace of marble and gilt, and chandeliers glittering with electric light: a hall of many vistas seen through doors of bronze and glass, of rooms seemingly endless with tables and electric lights.
Passing up a wide stairway they came to other rooms similarly large and lofty, and entered one with pale green carpets: a room full of Italian waiters gliding as they bore silver trays to tables, over which they bowed deftly. Could such a splendid place be as inexpensive as Frances had said?
He had thought that all the West End was aristocratic and fearfully expensive; now, with wonder and delight rising through his entire being, he heard his first string orchestra in a restaurant; andrecognised Brahm’sHungarianDances,hitherto heard only on the gramophone.
“Will you excuse us while we go and powder our noses? We left the shop in rather a rush, you see. Won’t be long!”
He watched them going to the door, and for a moment wondered if they were leaving him, for they went down the stairs. Then he saw their rolled umbrellas, smaller and more slender than a man’s, leaning across their chairs.
Looking around the room, he saw other officers like himself, and here and there a ranker; all quietly sitting, with wives and sweethearts, pink faces in the shaded lights upon the tables. So ordinary people like himself came here.
He watched the door; and with relief saw the girls returning. It gave him pleasure to see, as they walked across the room, several heads turning to look at them. Then Frances, the taller of the two, went off at a tangent to the orchestra upon a daïs. She spoke to the conductor.
Alice, sitting down, said, “Frances is asking for a special request. It’s a surprise for you.”
The orchestra began to play music fromTonight’stheNight,and instantly the scene around him changed, so that he was drawn out of himself, and with a strange joy, re-entered a world that haunted him—and looking at Frances across the table he saw an expectancy in her eyes that he avoided. He felt thwarted; her look had spoiled his dream of the battlefield. He felt weary.
“I think you want some food,” she said. “Or a drink—perhaps? I’ll call the waiter—oh, here he is! Phillip—may I call you that?—will you think me horribly rude if I invite you, at your own table, to have a drink with me? For a very special occasion?”
His doubt returned. What was the ‘very special occasion’? Were the drinks to be doped—or his glass? The waiter brought some sherry.
When the waiter had gone away with the food order—herb omelettes for the girls and roast saddle of mutton for Phillip—Alice said, as they raised their glasses, “Go on Frances, don’t keep Phillip in suspense! He looks quite bewildered, poor boy.”
The endearing tone of thepoorboy,drew him in imagination to the silken bosom below the charming face of Alice; he drained his glass of sherry.
“Does the song they are playing now mean anything special to you?” asked Frances, leaning with an expectant smile over the table. She began to sing the words in a whisper, her eyes upon Phillip’s.
And when I tell them, how wonderful you are
They’ll never believe me, they’ll never believe me—
then she broke off, and said, “A Decca trench gramophone? A dugout? Harold West?”
“‘Spectre’ West! How doyouknow about him?”
“He’s my cousin.”
It was unbelievable, it was marvellous. “Spectre” West in the trenches in front of Vermelles, badly wounded and ordering him to get round the flank of the Lone Tree position.
“Waiter, waiter, bring some more sherry! Bring a bottle!”
“A half-bottle,” suggested Frances.
A half-bottle arrived.
“We must drink his health! How is the dear old boy? When last I heard of him he was at the Duchess of Westminster’s hospital at Le Touquet.”
“He’s at Netley hospital now, near Southampton. I’m afraid he’s lost an eye, and his left hand, poor dear, but his leg will be all right, he says. He was sorry you left the Gaultshires. He is very fond of you, you know.”
The food arrived. The wine waiter gave him a list. “We must drink to Westy! How about a hock?” There was one for 2/6d.“Right, a bottle. It’s probably made by the Jesuits on the banks of the Rhine. Wine and food should be in balance. One moment.”
He ordered half a bottle of claret and filled the glasses three-quarters full. When they had eaten, he invited them to have some Christmas pudding, with brandy poured over it. Frances hesitated, looked at Alice.
“Very well, as it’s a special occasion. But Phillip, remember that I am going to pay my share!”
“But thisisa special occasion, not only because of the news of Westy getting better, but because you have both honoured me with your company.”
“I believe he means it,” said Alice.
“Of course I do,” he said, looking from face to face, and thinking that he had never been so happy in his life before. Why wasn’t Desmond with him? How pretty Alice was, the light brown hair clustering round her pink ears, herretroussénose, and lips of coral. She was like Polly, but more delicate in feature. Her wrists, encased in white silk, were slender. What a pity Wigg wasn’t more decent.
“I wonder what Mr. Wigg is doing,” said Frances.
“I was thinking of him just at that moment!”
“It must be telepathy,” said Alice. “Two soul mates!”
Elbows on table, hands holding glass, she saucily tasted her wine with repeated tongue dipping. Wigg had kissed Frances with his tongue. Did girls really like that sort of thing?
“Is Mr. Wigg a very great friend of yours, Phillip?” asked Frances.
“I hardly know him, as a matter of fact.”
“Good for you,” said Alice. “I don’t like him. In fact, I thought him——”
“Now Alice——” warned Frances.
“Well, you thought so too, you told me so. Go on, be honest!”
Frances seemed to want to say something; then to decide not to say it.
“Men who look at a girl as though they are undressing her with their eyes bore me,” continued Alice.
“Now you’ve shocked Phillip!”
“Oh, nothing shocks me, dear lady. All the world is my oyster! Who said that? Tolstoi, or Shakespeare?”
“Charlie Chaplin,” said Alice.
“Let’s go and see him after dinner, how about it?”
The Christmas pudding arrived. The waiter poured the brandy with a deft movement, then struck a match. While the flames were flickering away Phillip saw Alice turning to wave at someone. He looked and saw a naval officer lift his hand as he passed down the tables across the room.
“There’s Timmy!” said Alice, excitedly. “I didn’t know he was on leave!”
Phillip saw the animation on her face with dismay, and felt rueful when she cried, “I must go and speak to dear old Timmy!” and pushing back her chair, she almost ran to the newcomer.
“Don’t be long,” said Frances. “The pudding is nicest when hot.”
“You eat my bit! I don’t want any,” Alice called back.
She returned when they had finished their coffee, about twenty minutes later.
“Timmy says would you two like to have a drink with us in the Café Royal? We’ll meet you there.”
Having paid the bill, Phillip and Frances went down to the street. Crossing Shaftesbury Avenue under the statue of Eros, they walked up a broad curved way of yellow painted buildings, and went through a door, to find themselves in a room of plush and crystal,of red walls with mirrors and sofas on which sat the Bohemians he had read about, behind glasses and cups on marble-topped tables. They looked to be an odd lot, not so much from their long hair as from the general ugliness of their clothes and the curious shapes of their pallid faces. Not all looked to be expressionless: one face was alive, with the bright-eyed glance of a fox: a red-bearded man wearing small gold ear-rings. He was talking in a low voice to a young girl in a simple, tight-fitting frock. Her face seemed to shine. Looking cautiously around the room, Phillip saw, sitting against another wall, a man with a putty-coloured face, and a brow over which hung small ringlets of hair. He looked to be unwashed, with a bulbous nose and expressionless dark eyes. He, too, wore large gold ear-rings, but under a shapeless black felt hat. When he spoke it was with a strange accent. Could he be an anarchist? Many of the other men looked queer customers, too, in their wide black hats, and coloured scarves round necks. He was greatly relieved to learn that coffee by itself could be bought, in glasses held in nickel silver containers.
“Good luck,” said Frances, raising her glass, a little finger held out like a tendril. “You will write to Harold, won’t you? You know his address? ‘The Grapes, Lime Street, E.C.’. You knew his parents lived there, didn’t you?”
“I had an idea that his mother did.”
“Both his parents do. They will forward any letters. Or you can write direct to Harold at Netley Military Hospital, Southampton.”
“Does Alice know that naval commander well?”
“Fairly well, I think.”
“I’m sorry, Phillip. You like her, don’t you?”
“Well, in a way. She rather reminds me of a girl I know.” He meant cousin Polly.
“Ah, I thought you had a secret!”
This remark indicated the image of Helena Rolls. “Not really. I haven’t a hope in that direction.”
“How do you know? Have you asked her?”
“I did once, when I was rather young and foolish.”
“Hark to the voice of hoary old age! But while there’s life, there’s hope, you know.”
“But not much hope when there’s death.”
“Phillip, how very morbid! Why, you are only at the threshold of life.”
“I mean that Helena Rolls”—he spoke calmly, to hide his alarm at his daring to speak openly of her—“loved my cousin, who was killed in front of the Hohenzollern Redoubt.”
“Oh, how insensitive you must think me! Do forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive. I just don’t belong anywhere, that’s all.”
“No, I won’t let you think like that! Time heals all wounds, you know—all wounds of the heart, anyway. And you are rather a nice person, Phillip. Don’t you know it?”
She saw him shut himself away from her, and felt rebuffed. Shame rose in her; but she put it aside.
“Phillip, I am genuinely sorry that I upset you.”
“Oh no, you didn’t, really. It’s just that I—well, I’m really no good, as I said. I’ve always been like it, long before I ever saw her. I just can’t believe I shall ever be good enough, that’s all.”
“Did you feel like that when you were very small?”
“I think I must have done, for one of my aunts once told me that at nine months old, my ‘baby eyes were filled with fear’. She said she knew why, but I would not like to be told the reason. I suppose I was born with something vital missing. I could never be really self-forgetful, as a child, except when I heard beautiful music. A freak, I suppose.”
“I don’t want to criticise your aunt, but she does not seem to be altogether an understanding person. Nine months of age! My dear Phillip, what next? I can tell you that Harold West, whose judgments I value, says that you are a person who inspires friendship. Those are his very words.”
“I just can’t understand why,” he said, avoiding her eyes.
“Attraction of like minds is mutual, you know. You and Harold, for example. Didn’t you like him at once?”
“Yes, as soon as I saw him. Others seemed a bit afraid of him, of his tongue, I mean, but I saw through him to his sense of humour. Even when he showed a side of cold fury, deadly serious and intent, it didn’t really upset me. I suppose that was die effect of the drugs he had to take, because of his headaches?”
“I didn’t know Harold took drugs, Phillip! How awful!”
He dissembled; and to hide his indiscretion, said innocently, “Oh, only when he was wounded, I mean! Not ordinarily. We all get morphia, you know, when badly hit. No, Westy was really awfully kind. Please don’t think any more about what I said.”
“Of course not! Cross my heart. Poor Harold, how he hateswar. His ambition is to be a country parson, you know, somewhere in Gaultshire. Yet he is a Cockney.”
“How extraordinary! No, I didn’t mean that. I know a parson who in his young days sailed before the mast all round the world. He’s a very good sport. I say, how about Charlie Chaplin? Or don’t you like him?”
“I adore the little man! But we’ll wait for Alice, shall we? She’ll be disappointed to miss you, I’m sure. Will you have some more coffee? It’s on me this time! Good!”
While they waited, the red-bearded man got up, tall and lithe, and left with his fair companion, who looked enchanted, Phillip thought. As the door closed behind them, the broad-faced squat man with black ringlets bestrewing his bumpy forehead called out loudly, “Dere he goes, de ‘Lion of Chelsea!’ ‘Vould you like a baby by me, my dear’?” he mimicked. “Pah! De ‘’coon of Chelsea’! Pah!” He spat vehemently upon the floor.
“Do you know,” said Frances softly, “I rather fancy that there speaks the voice of envy!”
Alice arrived breathlessly twenty minutes later, saying that Timmy had met some friends, and they simply had to have a drink with them in the Cri. Well, here she was, what were they waiting for? How about going to a flick? There was a nice picture on just over the road.
“Hurray,” said Phillip. “Let’s get a taxi.”
Outside on the kerb he hailed a passing hansom.
“But it’s only just across the street, my dear man!”
“Come on, it’s rather a joke to take a hansom to cross Piccadilly!”
“This is Regent Street, Phil. That curve of buildings was built by Nash. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Who cares?” said Alice, happily. “I want to see Gerald Ames, oh, I love him.”
Horse and cab drew in, jingle and clatter. Alice put her foot on the step, but Frances said, “I simply will not allow you to waste your money like this!”
“Well, it’s only a bob, anyway!”
Frances took his arm, and an arm of Alice, to lead them across the street; but he pulled back long enough to give the cabby a shilling. Then to the small and dark entrance to the cinema, with no posters outside. The girl in the wooden hut said all seats were full, but there was a box at half a guinea. Before Frances could object, Phillip put down the money, and triumphantly leadingeach girl by the arm, he followed an attendant upstairs, until they came to a row of doors like hotel rooms along a corridor, but closer together. The attendant opened one door, switched on a small light shaded in pink, and withdrew. There were four chairs, on a dark red carpet. The walls were red, too, with a spangle of tiny gold stars.
He hung up cap and belt, the girls removed hats. Then he was sitting between two curves of cheek below tendrils of hair, feeling romance as music from an unseen piano in the darkness increased the pathos of Gerald Ames, hatless on a horse, beside a dark girl in riding habit, after he had rescued her from her runaway mount, in a park, with fallow deer grazing quietly by. It was a story of love, misunderstanding, and of final renunciation, despite a brutal husband who drank, and beat his dogs with a hunting crop. As the hero rode away alone under the darkening sky, Phillip had to blow his nose. He saw Alice smiling at him in the dimness, and then turned to look at Frances, lest she feel out of it.
The next picture was a riot of fun and laughter, the one and only Charlie in flapping boots and trousers, bowler hat and whangee cane, being bullied, humiliated, and pursued, but always getting his own back in the most extraordinary ways, always polite, ready to smile, defend the weak, crawl through the big fat bully’s legs, and give him unexpected kicks on his broad behind. Charlie was a scream.
A wonderful, wonderful evening; how sad that it had to end. If only Desmond could have been with them!
“I do hope your motor will still be there,” said Frances, as they walked down to Piccadilly Circus.
“Oh, I never let little things like that worry me.”
The Swift stood obediently by the kerb.
“Well,” said Frances, “thank you for a most delightful evening, Phil.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Alice.
“Where can I drop you ladies?”
“We can go by underground.”
“I won’t hear of it. Jump in.” He swung the handle. Passers by looked on admiringly, he felt, as he put on his British warm.
Frances said she lived in Bryanston Square. “If you’re sure I’m not taking you out of your way.”
Bryanston Square was in darkness. Frances asked him to stop at a corner. “The house is over there,” she whispered. “Myparents live in the basement. Mother’s the housekeeper, so I’ll say goodbye here, if you don’t mind. Well, thank you very much, Phil, for the lift, and everything. Shall we meet again? Perhaps you can bring a friend? Write to D. and F’s will you? Anddowrite to Harold! Promise? Cross your heart?”
When the graceful figure, stepping softly in little black boots with fawn box-cloth tops buttoning six inches above the ankle had dissolved in shadow, he drove away round the corner, silent beside Alice.
“If you can take me to Vauxhall station, I can get a train there for Surbiton. The best way is to Hyde Park corner, along Park Lane to Victoria, then down Vauxhall Bridge road and over the river to the station. Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“I’d simply love to, Alice, with you as guide and guardian angel,” he said, wondering at his boldness.
She snuggled beside him.
They got out of the car by the Embankment, and looked down into the river. A smoky half-moon hung above the leafless plane trees.
“I love London,” she said. “Don’t you think it’s fun?”
“Yes,” he said, wanting to kiss her, but would she think him a bounder if he did?
They drove on across the bridge. On the dark platform, while the train approached under a ruddy haze of steam, they waited side by side. He wanted to ask her when they could meet again, but could not make the words come, until she kissed him. How sweet and soft were her lips. He kissed her, gently as before. Her lips fondled his. “You have such soft lips,” she whispered.
“Alice, will you write to me, at Grey Towers, Hornchurch?”
“I may. But you’ll come up soon, won’t you? Can’t you bring a friend for Frances?”
“I may not be able to come up often, owing to Zepp. raids. The moon’s growing, you see. But I’ll write.”
The train came in, he put her in a carriage, he kissed her again as she leaned out of the window, then the darkened train was gone.
It was after midnight when he got back to Hornchurch. The house was in darkness, the fellows in his room asleep in their camp beds, including Wigg. He undressed without a light, and got into his sleeping sack, to lie still and live again scenes ofthe evening, and think of the mouth of Alice gently fondling his own.
He wondered whom he could invite to meet Frances. Milman, the piano player and violinist, would do, a very gentlemanly fellow, but he went always with his chum Thompson; besides, Milman was friendly with Miss Broad, the Colonel’s daughter, a nice girl. Then there was a pink-faced amiable captain called Bason, who was second-in-command of the company, under Kingsman. But was Bason too old, being twenty-six? A fellow called Ray, also in the company, had tried to cadge a lift to Town; but Phillip did not want Ray. Ray was abrupt and cheeky, and simply awful with girls, picking up anyone in the streets of Hornchurch and asking one question, as he wore his sloppy trench-cap on the side of his head, pulled down like a pre-war nut’s cap; he wore yellow breeches and puttees, and his nails were as dirty as his stories, which Phillip avoided. So he decided to ask Bason, who on the next expedition “up West” sat in the Swift beside him.
Phillip followed the routine of the previous visit almost exactly: meeting behind the shop, down Regent Street, Frances on Bason’s lap, Alice’s fingers gentling his neck, the bus parked outside the Criterion restaurant, dinner at the same table in the Green Room of the Apex House. After the meal, for which Phillip insisted on paying, they went to the Café Royal, and then to the picture house across the street. Phillip insisted that they were his guests, but Bason quickly put down what he called a bradbury, with a shilling, for two boxes.
“It’s against King’s Regulations to stand treat to a senior officer, old sport!”
Having already kissed Alice on Vauxhall station platform, Phillip was not shy of her for long; and during the picture, with Mary Pickford and her cluster of curls, he put his lips against her lips at intervals with remote feelings of pleasurable friendship. The time passed happily, and when they had seen the second picture, he tapped on the door of the box next door, and going in, found Bason and Frances sitting sedately side by side. They, too, were ready to leave; and Phillip led the way back to the Café Royal, where, feeling to be quite an oldhabitué,he ordered coffee in the Russian style, in long glasses. There on the plush settees sat the Bohemians in large dark felt anarchist hats, a guarded look in every eye.
The Lion of Chelsea was there, in the same place, with another,older model. This time he was smoking a large meerschaum pipe. He and his companion were drinking hot whiskies with lemon, which they stirred with glass rods. They seldom spoke.
The putty-faced man with the greasy curls and the large gold ear-rings was there, too, looking more unwashed than before, with the same dark woman looking like a gipsy. They left before the Lion this time; and Phillip heard the Lion say, as they went out, “Dirty little East Side Yidd!” to his companion.
Shortly after this Frances said, “I really think we should be leaving. I hate to say it, but Alice has some way to go. It’s been such a lovely evening, thank you both so much.”
At this, Bason said he would see Frances home in a taxi, and meet Philip in half an hour inside the Café. So Phillip drove Alice to Vauxhall, waited with her for the train to Surbiton, kissed her as she leaned out of the window, saluted, and watched, with his usual feelings of life coming to an end as the red tail-lamp grew smaller and smaller in the darkness.
Phillip and Bason saw the two girls twice more during the next week. Each time the same routine was followed; the gas-lit lane, the Apex House, Cinema, Café Royal, Vauxhall station, Grey Towers in darkness after midnight. Then, lighting the gas in the ante-room, a glance at Orders on the green baize board.
“I say, Bason, look at this! A new battalion is to be formed!”
Bason leaned on his shoulder as he read that officers whose names were posted below would proceed by train from Hornchurch to Northampton on the morrow to form the nucleus of the new battalion under (temp.) Major J. T. Gleeson, with Captain J. d’A. Kingsman as second-in-command.
“Good old Jasper,” said Bason. “Now I’ll get the company. I can do with some more dough, too. Blime, little old Milman’s Adjutant! Bad luck, Phil, you haven’t got a company. You should have got here last August. Tommy Thompson has, so has ‘Brassy’ Cusack. I bet both Wigg and Cox are fed up, neither’s got a company!”
In the morning when Phillip came down to breakfast Milman was being congratulated on his engagement to Miss Gladys Broad, the C.O.’s daughter. Remarks at the lower end of the table were various: Wigg’s was really dreadful, thought Phillip; while Ray said, with a laugh, “Fancy believing in love! Christ, they’ve got something coming to them!”
Later Bason said to Phillip, “Ray’s old man deserted his mother when Ray was a kid, so of course he doesn’t believe in any Ideal.”
It seemed a strange remark from Bason, with his unimaginative face, thought Phillip; he felt closer to him, all the same, as he went to congratulate Milman, with others.
“Look at them,” he heard Wigg say. “All sucking up to the little shop-walker!”
In the early afternoon the cadre of the new battalion detrained at Northampton, and proceeded to billets in a residential part of the town. Bason suggested that he and Phillip should mess together in one house; they had a bedroom each, and a sitting-room where their meals were served to them by their servants. He said that Major Gleeson didn’t know where they were going to eventually; meanwhile the company of less than forty men, all of them fairly young, was to carry on normal infantry routine training.
Company headquarters was in an empty Mission Hall. The men slept on the floor on straw palliasses. Routine inspections of feet and kit were soon over, when both officers and men were free for the rest of the day.
Two new officers had joined Captain Bason’s company that morning. One was a tall, powerfully-built man who told Phillip that he had been a buyer of carpets for an Oxford Street store before joining up. The other, a short sturdy man, came from Grimsby, where he had been in the fish trade.
On the afternoon of the day following their arrival—a Saturday—the High Street of the town was thronged almost entirely with women and girls. Phillip, walking alone up the street to explore, passed hundreds of them. They seemed to scurry past, to be in unobtrusive hurry, as though they were fearful of missing something. He glanced surreptitiously at the faces coming his way hoping for one upon which he might fill his sense of vacancy. Reaching the end of the High Street, he felt himself to be on the verge of acute loneliness. Desmond would be back after his course at Waltham Abbey; and here he was, in a strange desolate place, where all the faces of the hundreds of girls walking up and down had the same white, subdued expressions. They seemed somehow to be furtive, mouselike.
With relief he saw the figures of the two new company officersin the crowd on the pavement. He went to them, and suggested that they have tea together.
“What a hot-stuff place,” said the other, from Grimsby, appreciatively in his deep voice, as the eyes in his healthy face surveyed the hordes of girls. “Bags of it thrown at you.”
“We’re the first of Kitchener’s Army, apparently, to be billeted in the town,” said Paul, the carpet buyer before the war. “Most of these girls work in the boot factories. They get plenty of money now, on Army contracts.”
“Aiy, they’ll pay for your drinks, an’ all,” said the Grimsby man, named Flagg. “Last night I clicked with a bird——” With a frankness that slightly repelled Phillip he described his luck. As he turned away a young girl passed, and gave him a soft guilty look.
“Go on, Maddison, you’ve clicked,” said Paul, turning politely to Phillip. His eyes were a bit stony, thought Phillip.
“Oh, I’m quite happy walking about by myself.”
“G’ a’ht!” said the Grimsby man. “It’s here, why not ’ave it? You ought to come with me,” he added, generously. “There’s bags of it waiting, wherever you look. What did I tell you? I’ve clicked!”
He set off after a fair-haired pale girl, who had turned to give him a lingering look.
“I can see you are a fastidious man,” said Paul. “I don’t believe in indiscriminate picking up,” he went on reflectively, “I prefer to wait until I see the kind of girl I like, quiet and respectable, with good face and figure, of course. On the other hand, as you’ve seen, Flagg goes after the first flapper who gives him the glad eye. I found a very nice piece last night,” he went on, as though he were describing a Wilton carpet. “She had an excellent appearance, a wonderful soft skin, auburn hair, rich and thick, and took me home to introduce me to her parents. Her boy was killed in the gas attack on Ypres, and she said I reminded her of him. Her people gave me supper, and went to bed, leaving us alone. She got me a drink out of her father’s whisky bottle, and sat at my feet on the hearth rug before the fire. She clung to me, and was very passionate. Very nice too.” He smiled slightly, but his eyes were still stony. “But perhaps you don’t care for taking what the gods provide?”
“Yes, of course I do.”
“Well, take an older man’s advice, and look for a girl who will take you home. If she comes from a respectable family, you can bet on her being quite safe.”
“I know what you mean, Paul.”
“One has to use judgment, as in everything else in life.” Wigg, complete in pea-jacket and cap set slightly down on one side, sauntered up to them.
“Taking a look at the market?” asked Paul.
With a barren glance at him, Wigg strolled on, cane under arm, hands in flapped pockets.
“Bit stuck up, isn’t he? A bit dissipated, too, I should judge. What was he before the war?”
“Tobacco at Smyrna, he told me.”
“That explains his contempt for women, and also for me. His type is recognisable among the customers who used to come into my department, on leave from the East. Not quite pukka sahibs. I know the type well. Some of them brought home carpets to sell, and treated us rather as though they were still among dagos.”
“Talking about tobacco, how about some tea?”
After tea Paul said he was going to call on his girl of the night before, and take her to the pictures; and alone once more, Phillip wandered up the High Street, wondering if he should go by himself to the flicks; but in the glow under a lamp-post he saw a girl walking alone. She gave him a half-look, and strolled on. Her white hungry face lured him to follow. He kept to a distance of about a dozen yards. At the top of the street she walked slower. He adjusted his pace, reluctant to meet her. She walked beyond the thinning throng of Saturday night shoppers, and stopped under a lamp post, as though waiting for a bus. She seemed nervous, and glanced about her.
At last he said, “Are you going for a walk?”
“If you like.”
An iodine-brown moon rose over the roof-tops as they walked on up the street. He tried to see her face; and wondered what to say to her. Her compliant manner made him feel that he might be able to be like the Grimsby fish-salesman Flagg, with his muscular calves and thick thighs, full lower lip and resonant decided voice.
“I don’t know my way about this town. Where are we?”
“We’re in Gold Street now.”
They walked on. “Where does this way go to, d’you know?”
“Gas Street. Down there is the Horsemarket.”
They came to another cross. “That’s Scarletwell, and down there is Silver Street.”
“Silver sounds nice. I’d like to see it.” At the end she said, “This is Sheep Street.”
“That just about describes it!” He thought of the flock of girls from the factories, baa-baa’ing—and Wigg the wolf and Flagg the ram among them. “This way leads to the public park,” she said, a little breathlessly. He took her arm and felt she was trembling.
They walked round an open space. The ground was damp and cold. He walked on, feeling more and more shadowy. They came to the gate, and were back where they started.
“Where else is there to go in this wilderness?”
“There’s the churchyard near Green Street.”
Side by side they returned down the Horsemarket, and came into Gold Street, where was the churchyard. In the yellow moonlight they threaded in and out of the graves, stopping at last beside a vault with a flat top, against which he leaned, while she stood a yard away, facing him.
“Is this a popular place for couples?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you been here before?”
“Have you ever got off with anyone before?”
“I used to walk out with a boy,” she replied, shivering.
“Oh, I’m not really.”
“Are you a native of this town?”
“No, my people come from Rugby.”
“Have you heard of Rupert Brooke, by any chance?”
“No. Does he live in Northampton?”
“He was at Rugby. The school, I mean. His father was Head Master. Rupert Brooke wrote those famous poems, and died of pneumonia at Gallipoli last April.”
Silence followed this remark. He wondered how he could get away without hurting the feelings of the pale face waiting—for what everyone wanted. Or did they? Was love no more than—clicketting? Yet, if only he dared—
“What happened to your boy, if it isn’t a rude question?”
“He cast me off.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “youarecold, I can hear you shivering. Let’s walk, shall we. I fancy there’s frost in the air.”
They walked down to the main street. There he bought her anovercoat, and while she was still struggling with words of gratitude he said that he had to go, and with a good night and a salute, returned to his billet.
I was delighted to hear from your cousin Frances that you were back in England and getting along well. I have often thought of you and of the old days opposite the Lone Tree ridge, on that morning of 25 September when you copped a few packets. If only your plan to get round the flank had been carried out earlier, I think we should have got through to the Haute Deule canal. Even so, from what I saw of the reserves, we might have been surrounded in a counterattack, for all their supplies had been lost. The staff work—well,nonest,or should it benonfut?But they had their difficulties, and were hampered higher up, I fancy. Anyway my part was absolutely nothing. I was a mere spectator of something that was already decided.
When I got back on the evening of the 25th, to my billet, I was put on light duty for four days by an M.O. who wanted me, I fancy, as a fourth for bridge in the mess at night. So I was able to go here and there and see parts of the show as a mere spectator. Among other things I came across the Cantuvellaunians, with whom I had “trained” before I came out. I got involved and went over the top with them at noon on 26th. They had no idea of anything; they had also lost their transport, as had all the other 24 battalions of the two reserve Kitchener divisions which came up 12 hours late, unfed, without water, and exhausted by forced marches. As they crossed over the Lens—La Bassée road most of them went down in rows under m.g. fire from Hill 60, Bois Hugo, and Hulluch.
The attack fizzled out and the German Red Cross men let the walking wounded go back, me among them. About that time the entire front gave way; I saw thousands of our troops going back, for miles on either side. Poor devils, they couldn’t stick it any longer, first time in, and no water or food. Anyway, they were up against uncut barbed wire, as usual.
Well, Westy, that is all my news. I’m now scrimshanking with what I suppose are pioneer troops, most of them old navvies with dry clay-faces rutted by the tracks of cart-wheels, any age up to 70. They get six bob a day, as much as A.S.C. lorry drivers. They booze most of it away on Saturday nights. At least, that was so until now; we are an off-shoot of that lot, and forming anew.
We’ve only just got shifted here, and nothing doing at the moment; but I am looking forward to seeing Frances again shortly; and also to seeing you, so make haste and get better. I remember you whenever I hearTheyNeverBelieveMe;I shall never forget that dugout, and the clock that wouldn’t stop ticking before Zero hour!
Walking about in this town tonight, I saw the moon rising over the roof-tops exactly the colour of iodine. Then it turned terra-cotta red, the hue of a neck-wound contused by internal bleeding, after death. I expect this is morbid, but I often amuse myself trying to connect one aspect of life with another, by means of similies.
Later, when the moon was higher, brighter, clear of factory smoke, I thought of it shining down upon Le Rutoire Farm and Mazingarbe, throwing long shadows from the crassiers and pyramidical slag-heaps around Loos, and dimming the electric sparkles of musketry around the Hohenzollern Redoubt, as seen from the high ground of Maroc. Isn’t it strange what a fascination the front has for one, when one is away from it? Something seems to be drawing one back again; despite all the hell of it when one was there. I feel the romance of war, even in the dead lying on the chalk, to be absorbed again whence, originally, human life came. Our bones are calcium, and were not our original ancestors fishes? So we are cousins to the minute sea-shells that are the chalk-beds of the world.
I must stop before I utter any more bilge! Well, Westy, make haste and get well, and all the best, mon capitaine,
Yours till the last bottle,
P.S. Brickhill House, Beau Brickhill, Gaultshire, will always find me. It is my cousin’s place.
Captain Bason came back on Sunday night and Phillip asked if he might have forty-eight hours off to go and fetch the Swift. On the way back, he thought he would go to Brickhill, and sleep the night with Polly. Beau Brickhill was, according to the map, only about twenty-five miles from Northampton.
“Sorry, old sport. You’ve got to attend a course on the Lewis gun, beginning tomorrow. By the way, I’ve invited Frances down for next week-end, and how about Alice coming, too? The landlady says they can get a double room next door. I’ll pay their fares, of course.”
“Well, I’ll pay my whack.”
Frances and Alice arrived on the Saturday afternoon. They carried longer umbrellas, and wore what they called freedom skirts, with jackets of Crow Blue, a black material which had dark blue sheens on it at certain angles. They wore shin-high boots, a-swing with tassels. After tidying up, as they called it, in the bedroom which Bason had arranged for them to occupy in the house next door, the girls returned to the sitting-room, for what Bason called high tea.
Afterwards they played whist and rummy. Phillip played his trench gramophone. When he put onTheEternalWaltz,with its haunting lilt of faraway splendours and romantic loves, Frances and Bason rolled back the carpet, and began to dance. Phillip sat by the gramophone, his ear close to the tinned concave reflector. Alice raised eyebrows at Bason.
“Come on, you slacker,” said Bason, kicking him as he passed, “don’t leave Alice out in the cold!”
“I can’t dance.”
“Come, I’ll show you,” said Alice, holding out her arms.
“But I’m no good, really.”
“It’s quite easy. Just let yourself glide to the lilt of the music.”
“I feel glued to the floor,” he said, with a laugh to hide his fear of being clumsy and foolish.
“Come on,” said Alice, smiling steadily into his eye, “you’re not going to get out of it.”
“My shoes have rubber studs on them, and won’t glide.”
To his relief the motor ran down at this point. He wound the handle, while Alice looked through the case of records, picking out one after another, swiftly to reject disc after disc and half-drop them on the growing pile. He wanted to ask her to be careful, but kept silent. Obviously she thought little of them.
“Haven’t you got any foxtrots more up-to-date than Hitchy Koo?”
“Got any Winner records?”
“Sorry. Only His Master’s Voice, and some cheap Zonophones.”
“Do you like only serious music?”
She went to the gramophone. “Put on that waltz again. I’ll show you the steps. It’s simple—one, one two, one, one two. Take off your shoes, you can do it in your socks.”
There was a hole in one toe; but he overcame his dread, took off the shoes, and stood trepidant before her.
“This arm goes round my waist, like this.” She hid his hand behind her, pressed it firmly. “Now give me your other hand.” A whiff of La Rola scent, as in the advertisements of the girl with wind-blown hair, further discomposed him. “Now, follow my steps, one, one two, one, one two. That’s right. Only don’t hold yourself so stiffly, let yourself go loosely, as though you were balancing a pile of books on your head. Don’t laugh!” She shook him, and said, “You’re not trying! Now be serious,” with a littleshake. He felt easier, and thought it rather a joke when he bumped backwards into Bason.
Thereafter the joke was repeated at intervals, the two manœuvring to give one another bumps.
“How about a drink?” suggested Bason, when they were resting. “I’ve got some gin, and a bottle of crême de menthe. You ladies no doubt will plump for mother’s ruin? No? Well, how about some of the green eye of the little yellow god?” as he held up the bottle.
“Only a little, please, Bruce,” said Frances. “Not more than a thimbleful, really.”
Bason gave them each half a small glass. “What about you, Phil? Mother’s ruin?”
“Beer, thanks, Bruce.”
They sat round the fire, and sudden complete easiness came over Phillip. He lay stretched out in an armchair, on the small of his back, feet stretched to the blaze, feeling that he had known them all his life. Outside the December afternoon died as it had begun, in dullness; within the room all was contentment. He marvelled anew at the wonderful turn his life had taken; he was living a man’s life, every day brought its different adventures.
Seeing that Bason’s glass was empty, he arose with Indian smoothness and unscrewed the top of a beer bottle, gently controlling the sneeze of gas, and then with extreme care three-quarter filled the glass which Bason held on his knee, as he lay back on the sofa beside Frances, one arm amiably around her shoulders. His company commander’s face, with its expression of happy relaxation as he stared into the flames of the fire, conveyed perfectly his thanks.
Continuing his silent unspeaking glide Phillip went to Alice with the liqueur bottle. One raised eyebrow and a gap between finger and thumb of half an inch beside the small narrow glass held in her hand, a meticulous pouring of the thick green liquid, a little jerk to contain the drip; then in the same flow of silence, save for the flap of flames, he half-filled Frances’ glass, and afterwards his own glass, from the beer bottle. Holding them in the spell of his movement, he glided to the gramophone, wound it slowly, put on a record, set it flowing in circular motion as the centre of a dark deep whirlpool, and gliding away, stood beside the aspidistra fern in its brass cup on the stand and held down his eyes as the two voices, one delicate and ethereal, the other deep and tender, brought back memories of “Spectre” West and Y Z night before the battle of Loos.
And when I tell them, and I’m certainly going to tell them
That you’re the girl whose boy one day I’ll be,
They’ll never believe me, they’ll never believe me
That from this great big world you’ve chosen me!
Pretending not to see that Frances’ eyes were on him, as he lifted the sound-box from the last groove, and that Alice was patting as though secretly the sofa for him to come beside her, and that her lips were parted, and her eyes, smaller than those of Frances, had the dreamy look he had noticed when he kissed her in the cinema box, Phillip put on theLiebestodfromTristanundIsolde,and went back beside the fern, to feel the sad beauty of darkness, and the dying music of the sun.
“Play some more, Phil,” said Bason.
There seemed to be a feeling of unity, of friendliness and ease in the room beyond ordinary hankering desires, by which usually he had wanted to escape from the dull and terrifying nihilism of being alone. It was dark outside, the flame-light jerked about on the ceiling. He lit a candle beside the gramophone, and played record after record.
“Oh, not that old thing! They play it in every electric palace!”
He felt foolish, and took off Sinding’sRustleofSpring.
“How about Tchaikowski? TheSugarPlumFairyisn’t bad.”
“All right, if it’s the best you’ve got.”
“Don’t be so beastly, Alice!” said Frances, sitting up.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” said Phillip.
“Have another crême de menthe?” suggested Bason, lazily, re-crossing his strapped leggings, and jingling his spurs. He yawned without putting hand to mouth.
“Can’t we do something? How about going to a dance?” said Alice. “I like light and gaiety.” She got up and danced by herself, round the table. Coming to Phillip, she put her arm on his shoulder. He felt proud and grateful, and crossed his arm with hers, on her silky shoulder. He was happy again.
“You want taking out of yourself,” said Alice, nuzzling his cheek with her nose.
Bason lit the gas. Then he opened a box and produced three balls and a magic wand. He did things with the balls, holding them between the fingers of one hand, waving the wand, and with a twist of fingers, the balls vanished. There were several variations of this, then he did other tricks, remarking, “The quickness of the hand deceives the eye.”
“I saw Chung Ling Soo once saw a woman in half on the stage, wonder how it was done,” said Phillip, thinking of Desmond beside him in the sixpennies of the Hippo.
“Like this?” said Alice, doing the splits on the rug before the fire, showing a length of silk stocking. Bason pretended to hide his eyes with a hand. “Ooh,” he said, grinning at Phillip.
“Really!” said Frances, as Alice began apasseul,snapping her fingers as though they were castanets. Soon they were dancing again, to the Eternal Waltz. The table was shoved against the wall, and the fun went on, until the landlady appeared with a tray, to lay the table.
“My,” she said, “you young people are enjoying yourselves.”
Chapter 7CHRISTMAS 1915
A move to a camp was made the following week. The huts were of asbestos, and cold, for although each cubicle, for two officers, had a cast-iron stove, there was no coal.
“We’re in a K3 division now, old sport,” said Bason. “What’s more, we’ve got a good chance of going to France next year, perhaps in time for the Big Push! What luck, eh?”
Phillip’s room-mate was an amiable, goggle-eyed, half-bald man of about thirty called Lord, who had been selected with him for the Lewis Gun Course. The camp was a big one; huts were going up for miles around. Every morning the two subalterns set off for a large hut where instruction in the new automatic weapon was given.
The mechanism was explained by a staff sergeant, whose sentences never varied. Having seen how it worked, by the pressure of gas behind a bullet coming through a port in the barrel and ramming a piston down a tube to work the feeding and extractor mechanism, while turning the black circular metal drum of ammunition holding 47 rounds which clapped on above the lock, Phillip had no interest in the technical terms. The gun was cooled by rayed fins inside a cylinder taking away the heat of the barrel. Cold air was drawn through the fins by the pumping action of a buffet ring on the muzzle; the gun could jam at various positions of the cocking handle, and these places, and the direct action to betaken to clear stoppages, had to be learnt by heart. Anyone could see that in five minutes; the rest of the jargon, to be repeated until one was a parrot, was a waste of time.
“Come, sir, what comes after ‘The action of the cocking handle being drawn back on the rack——’.”
“I can make the gun work, sergeant, but not those words.”
“Come, sir, have another try. ‘The action of the cocking handle——’”
Patiently the staff sergeant repeated the mechanical sentences for the various mechanical details, and in turn the assembled N.C.O.s and officers had to repeat them. The idea was to learn everything by heart, before going on the range to fire the damned thing. Morning after morning was spent in the hut with the verbiage attached to the Lewis gun. Regularly Captain Milman the new adjutant came in, to ask cheerfully how they were getting on. Every afternoon, following tea in the mess, Bason and Phillip set out to walk to the station, three miles away, to catch the train for Baker Street, and an evening with Alice and Frances. Night after night they returned to camp between one and two in the morning.
Christmas was only two days off when it was announced that one half of the officers were to have four days leave including the 25th and 26th; while the other half would go away, on the return of the first half, until New Year’s Eve.
Phillip was not among the lucky first batch; he would have to take his after Christmas, as Bason was going to his home in Brondesbury for what he called the festive occasion.
On the morning of Christmas Eve there was a junior officers’ test for promotion. Ah, at last, thought Phillip. After a little drill, forming platoons on the left, fixing bayonets, and marching a skeleton company about, their fitness was to be tested by a forced march. They had to cover ten miles in three hours across country, which meant a circular route round several lanes. A captain, a Scotsman from Glasgow, who had been prominent in the Trades Union movement with Colonel Broad before the war, was detailed to take a score of subalterns on the march. They got as far as a small public house down a lane, and then with a grin, the big ruddy faced Captain ‘Brassy’ Cusack, who was a father of a growing family, said in broad Scots, “Here’s a guid wee bothy where I can test your various capacities, gentlemen,” as he halted them and knocked on the door.
The landlord opened it, they went inside, and soon the captainwas seated at the piano, his pint pot on the lid, playing while Cox, Lord, Flagg, and others roared out popular songs. There they stayed drinking beer and eating bread and cheese for two and a half hours, leaving to get back to camp with ten minutes to spare. Captain Cusack reported to the adjutant, who came out with Major Gleeson, pipe in mouth. After an amused stare around Major Gleeson told the adjutant to carry on, and relighting his pipe, went back to the warm stove in his office.
“Carry on, will you, Captain Cusack,” said Captain Milman, and followed the C.O. into the Orderly Room.
“Fall out, you wretched lot of tipplers,” said ‘Brassy’, “ye’ll all be pleased to hear ye’re fit for promotion.”
“Hurray!” cried Phillip. “Up the Jocks, and down with the pints!” as he walked to the mess for tea, lots of tea to take away the saltpetre thickness of the beer on his tongue.
Bason had a bag to take on leave, and he and several others took a taxi to the station. “Room for a little one,” he said to Phillip, who had written to Alice to say that he would expect her at the usual time on Christmas Eve at the Apex House for dinner, and would she like to go with him to the Coliseum afterwards. He wrote at the same time to the Coliseum, for two tickets in the front row of the stalls for the second house, enclosing a cheque for £1 as deposit.
In the train to Baker Street Bason said “Frances told me that Alice wouldn’t mind being engaged to you, Phil.”
This was so unexpected, and complimentary, that Phillip could think of nothing to say in reply.
Engaged to Alice! Every week there were pages of twin photographs, like two pigeon’s eggs side by side in rows of nests, of officers and their fiancées, inTheTatlerandBystander.He sat in the train looking at his polished brown shoes, with slight feelings of pleasurable satisfaction, that he, Phillip Maddison, would have a girl of his own. But what could he say to ask her? He shied away from the thought, and by the time they got to Baker Street, it had passed from his mind.
Saying goodbye to Bason, he went on the Underground to Piccadilly Circus, where the outlet near the Criterion Restaurant was lined with what Bason called hoo-ers.
“Hullo, dearie? Want a sweetheart?”
He walked past several requests, saying cheerfully to each, “No thanks,” but at the entrance into the street, by the dim blue lights, a dark girl took his arm, and said in a Scots voice, “Be a guid laddie and take my arm, a bluebottle is watching me, to arr-restme.” She held him with a strong bony arm, and they walked as far as the corner of Lower Regent Street, where she stopped.
“Gi’e me a wee drappie, and then I know a bonny place yonder, in Coventry Street. You can gi’e me what you like. I’ve seen you fre-e-equently, who are you, Broken Billy? Have ye no cash? I don’t mind, for once, Billy.”
“Well, thank you very much, but I’m meeting a friend,” he explained; whereupon the croodling tone evaporated and in a voice hard and sharp and deadly as a hatpin she swore at him for half a minute, while binding to him with the bone of her upper arm, before becoming a shadow in the night. Perhaps she had dreamed herself almost to death, he thought. Her heart must be broken, beyond tears. Did she still long for true love? Gould aprostitutelove anyone?
Somewhat shaken, he crossed the road, and went into the gilt and marble Apex House, and upstairs to the Green Room, with pleasurable feelings that he would soon be seeing Alice.
When after ten minutes she did not come, he went downstairs to look for her, and after waiting there another five minutes, he returned to the Green Room, and at once saw that Alice was already sitting at a far table with Timmy, her naval commander. The commander was leaning over the table, his face close to hers. She was smiling, as she looked into his eyes. Pretending not to have seen them, he went on without pause to his table, and keeping his eyes down, sat there mournful and perplexed until his waiter came. Hardly knowing what he said, he ordered a bottle of claret and a herb omelette. This he ate, with draughts of wine, followed by toasted cheese, and angels on horseback.
Brandy and black coffee to follow; then, having got the bill, he tipped the waiter five shillings, and forcing himself to appear easy and nonchalant, like a misjudged hero in a magazine story, he walked across the room and out into the street and so to the Café Royal, hoping against hope that she would follow him, and a touching scene of wet-eyed remorse follow.
He swirled in black depression; and after sitting still for some time, turned suddenly to the red-bearded painter at the next table and said, “Please may I speak to you, sir?”
“By all means. Have a drink.”
After an interval Phillip said, “I’ve got two tickets for the Coliseum. Would you—please forgive me asking—but would you care to come with me?”
“Unfortunately I have an appointment,” replied the painter,taking out a gold watch. “Some other time, perhaps. I won’t have a drink, thank you. Good luck to you.”
Phillip walked to the Coliseum, his hands clenched as he said to himself that this was the end of a friendship.
He hardly knew what went on on the stage before him. There was a long sketch called Potash and Perlmutter, which seemed to amuse the audience; it was all about men with voices like lizards selling ladies underwear, but how it was funny, he could not see. There were songs, the chief being one he knew, from a record of his father’s,TheBrideofLammermuir,by Donnizetti. There were acrobats, some dancers, and two rather sweet sisters with dark hair, dressed in yellow, who were stars, called Beattie and Babs.
Christmas Eve! Eleven o’clock in London, midnight in Berlin. Now the lighted fir-trees would be on the parapets, voices singingHeiligeNacht.Why was he not there, how could it be the same without him, he thought, as he stood to attention forGodSavetheKing.
And so to Baker Street station, through darkness without meaning, and the long walk to camp, while he lived in memory upon the frozen battlefield, where the morning star shone white and lustrous in the east.
It was one o’clock when he got to his cubicle, to see Lord lying on his camp bed fully dressed and snoring, an empty bottle of grocer’s port and an untasted cup of cold tea on the floor beside him.
Christmas Day at the camp was given over to ghosts, though few knew it: the ghosts of lost childhoods, of lovelessness, of spiritual self denials and self-suppressions so normal that almost automatically most of the herded young men got drunk.
It began with a church parade which was for most a mere marking time, until they should get back to, or away from, camp, and so start the day. Rounds of drinks in the mess, joviality, rivalry, one bad quarrel—Ray calling Wigg a hoary old swankpot and Wigg calling Ray a little squit from the gutter—while others sought to get the insulted to shake hands: which both refused to do with mutual scorn. Christmas dinner, presided over by Major Gleeson, was of roast beef and baked potatoes dripping with fat inside and out; and the fat on the baron of beef was yellow. Lord, who had worked for a butcher in private life, said it was cow-beef, which was the cause of the toughness and the frill-like yellow fat. Lumps of it were left on the sides of plates.
“Goo on,” said Major Gleeson from the top table, “eat it up, you fellers. Do you good. Provides ’eat, lines yer guts with plenty o’ reserve energy.” He put a wodge of the stuff on his fork and flipped it into his mouth, then steadily chewed, while an amiable grin spread over his face. The Christmas pudding tasted of gritty currants and water, its flavour all boiled away. The rich tawny port then began to circulate.
Lord, who shared Phillip’s cubicle, was away, so Phillip had the brittle grey hollow—to which came most noises in the other eleven cubicles in the hut—to himself. The window was too high for an emergency, but he found his way out of the door and down the passage and away into the darkness where beef, pudding, and port left their temporary receptacle on the way back to earth.
When Lord returned soon after midnight he found Phillip lying in his bed surrounded by empty cups of tea, and an empty bottle of milk of magnesia.
“Blime,” he said, “looks as though you’ve been enjoyin’ yerself, old cock.”
“For God’s sake put out that horrible cigar,” groaned Phillip.
During his four days leave he did not see Desmond, who had been home for Christmas. Mrs. Neville had been away on Boxing Day, she said, and on her return, had found plates and glasses “all over the place”, with half-drunk cups of tea and a bottle of whiskey on her drawing-room tablewiththecorkout,beside a pile of records and Phillip’s trench-gramophone. Her son and Gene, she declared, with laughter, must have had anorgy.Well, how was Phillip?
He told her all about the visit to Tollemere, Father Aloysius (“Yes, everyone speaks well of him, Phillip”), the girls of Northampton and the new fellows at the camp.
“We are no longer navvies, Mrs. Neville, but part of Kitchener’s Army, and as such I suppose, will go out when trained to take part in the Big Push everyone is talking about for next summer. Ah well, I shan’t mind going back there again, we’re all in it together.” Then he asked about what was pressing on his mind: had she any news of Helena Rolls.
“I see her coming up on her bicycle, Phillip, from the Hospital, and she always looks up at my window and waves to me. She is a brave girl, she hasprideyou know, but one can see from her face, how it has been refined by grief, that she still feels Bertie Cakebread’s death. Why don’t you go in and see her one night? Whenthe old man’s away, of course, as he is from Monday till Friday. There can be no harm in it. Take your gramophone with you, why not, and let her mother and Helena hear some of your beautiful music.”
“Oh, I daren’t! They would think I am imposing on them!”
Instead, Phillip played his favouriteLiebestodat the open window of the front room at home, as Helena walked by, pushing her bicycle, on two afternoons in succession; but on neither occasion did her footfalls pause behind the privet hedge; she was gone, remaining what she had always been to Phillip, a vision: but now intensified in his mind as Colour and Warmth and Light, great rest, and fullness after dearth.
Freddy’s was not the same without Desmond; he knew no-one in the Gild Hall, and dreaded to go there, lest he hear laughter; so he spent the rest of his leave with Mrs. Neville, visiting his grandfather, doing nothing in the sitting-room at home, and going for long walks in the darkness.
On his last evening there arrived a letter from his cousin Willie, now in France after the evacuation of Gallipoli.
Christmas Day this year was somewhat different from the one we shared last year, outside Ploegsteert Wood. This time an order came round that there was to be no fraternisation. To see that this was carried out the Corps commander ordered the guns, both heavies and field, to start shelling at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve. The old Ger. sent over very little by way of retaliation. It turned out that a deserter coming into our lines some days before had spoken of their programme of festivities, and exactly at half past ten at night, or half an hour before Berlin midnight, the batteries concentrated on a particular spot where a dinner was to be held, with Christmas trees and candles, and blew it all to hell. The comment of our C.O. was that “the honours of Christmas Eve belong to the British”.
When he had read this to his mother in the kitchen, Hetty said, “Perhaps it would be better if you did not show it to your father, Phillip. He is so proud of Willie, you know, and so fond of him. Of course it is very sad that such a thing should have happened on Christmas Eve, but then the Germans have done terrible things to our men, haven’t they?”
Without a word Phillip got ready to leave. Then saying goodbye to parents and sisters, he left for London, to catch a late train back to camp.
When he returned he learned that he and Lord had been postedto the Machine-Gun Training Centre at Grantham, and were to “proceed there forthwith, after reporting to the Orderly Room for railway vouchers”.
Chapter 8TRAINING CENTRE
“Gentlemen,” said the captain of Grenadiers, who had been hit by eleven German machine-gun bullets during the first battle of Ypres, “you may stand at ease.”
Six hundred officers, of all regiments of horse and foot—glengarries, trews, breeches, knickerbockers; puttees, ankle and field-boots, both black and brown, Norwegian-pattern trench-knee-boots, leggings; every kind of tunic button of brass, black composition, and leather—badges of every county in England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland—yeomanry, infantry, cavalry, bicycle—stood before him in the new large hall built upon agricultural land.
The captain of Grenadiers continued to stand in a position which was the opposite to that of any suggestion of ease. Stiff, upright, withered arm held in a black silk sling, chin resting on a burnished steel cup, above which moustaches were horizontally brushed out, he spoke in a curiously muffled voice.
“You have come here to learn about the Vickers Mark Ten machine-gun, its virtues and limitations, its possibilities as a tactical weapon, used singly and in battery. First you will learn about the mechanism of the weapon, then you will fire it on the range. Later you will learn how to site your guns, always with a view to protecting your infantry against enemy attack, and supporting them in advance, by both direct and indirect fire. It has been decided that the officers of the new formations are to be mounted, so those of you who pass into the new Corps will go through Riding School, before being posted to your companies.
“The armament of each company, to be attached eventually to an infantry brigade, or in the case of cavalry, each squadron to a cavalry brigade, has been laid down as sixteen guns, divided into four sections of four guns, each commanded by a section officer. Four companies, one in reserve, will form a battalion, under a lieutenant-colonel at divisional headquarters. That, in brief outline, is the organisation into which those of you who pass out here will be absorbed.
“Officers will now be detailed into squads, each under its instructor. Will you take the parade, Mr. Bostock.”
The stiff figure, converted into an enlarged marionette after being brought back from the dead, returned the salute of the promoted warrant officer from the Hythe Musketry School, and retired to the Orderly Room.
The officers of the new Corps settled into squads of a dozen grouped on wooden chairs around sergeant-instructors, each sergeant sitting at his squad’s centre like a nurse with its charge, or a priest with its godling—Machine-Gun, one, Vickers, Mark Ten—guarded between khaki knees above puttees covering ankles and calves in herring-bone pattern. Not for them the common loops, which might, or might not, cling tightly to the outline of the lower leg. These wore, by order of the Corps Sergeant Major, their puttees in a pattern of theélite: these were the sergeant instructors of the weapon which could spit forth approximately six hundred rounds a minute, according to the tensioning of the recoil spring, a rate of fire to surpass that of the hitherto invincible German Spandau gun.
Mornings and afternoons wore away slowly, while dull verbal mechanical acquaintance was continued with the steel corrugated cylinder squatting low on three steel legs with spade lugs, concealing within its water-jacket all but the muzzle recoil cup of the barrel which could spit out ten nickel wasps with leaden cores every second at figures infeldgrau,carrying rifle, stick-bomb and pocket Bible to the counter-attack.
This the Weapon
This the Corps
To foe and friend
A crashing bore
scribbled Phillip in his note-book, with a sketch of batteries of machine guns pouring forth streams of bullets.
“Now if I may turn aside for a moment to ask a question on another plane, gentlemen,” said the instructor, as time for the fallout for lunch was near, “What reference in Holy Writ could be applied today to describe the function of the Vickers Mark Ten machine-gun?”
The godling guns
Of Vick and Span
Will end the life
but the intended picture of corpses everywhere was not completed.
The instructor was young and gentle, belonging to the Artists’ Rifles; he was patient and smiling, never varying his soft-voiced encouragement to the forgetful or the disinterested. He was said to be a volunteer lay-preacher on Sundays in a chapel in the industrial part of the town.
“No one knows the quotation, gentlemen?”
He smiled around the circle.
“The answer, which with the question is not part of the official curriculum of course, is, ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, but David slew his tens of thousands.’”
The afternoon sessions were given over to lectures, including accounts of the parts played by the machine-gun in the battles of 1914 and 1915. The lecturers were all of them regular soldiers, and maimed: the leader of the veterans was now a major: he bore the name of Slaughter, this Guardee with one shoulder held high, crippled arm, steel-corsetted spine, broken neck, and indomitable moustaches bristling out of the steel cup. Phillip was glad that this officer would not be going back to the front, for, like “Spectre” West, he had really done his bit. It was rather wonderful that the Guards captain was always so pleasant in manner, as though unaffected by his wounds.
After nearly two months’ instruction, including riding school and firing on the range, the squad passed out of the Training Centre. G.S. waggons took the kits to another camp, about two miles away. Here amidst trees, stood echelon after echelon of huts of creosoted wood, with roofs of tarred corrugated iron. They were built in what had been a deer park, in the centre of which stood one of the stately homes of England, its southern front covered with Virginian creeper from which nearly all the red pointed leaves had fallen in the fogs and frosts of the year’s dead end. He wondered what the family thought of the way their beautiful park had been mucked up. At least the vista in front of the house had been left open, with its trees and sward; but immediately to either flank, and behind it, the concentration of dark huts, their stove-pipes issuing thick coal-smoke, was dense and extensive, each holding forty-eight men with a cubicle for corporal or sergeant; while the huts of the officers’ quarters apart in a separate place were of equal size.
He walked round the house, taking care to keep his distance from it, for it was still occupied by the noble owner. Beyond the stablesand outbuildings was a cookhouse; and farther on, among trees, and almost enough to fill an entire hut in quantity, was the usual dump of loaves, half carcases of sheep, quarters of bullocks and other food, beside another immense pile of large bully-beef tins. No doubt the lot awaited clearance in the carts of farmers, for their pigs. There had been waste of food at Hornchurch, but practically none at his last camp (Major Gleeson had seen to that); here the pile was ten feet high, and heaving in places with rats.
There were no duties after noon on Saturday until 9 a.m. on Monday morning, so he thought to go home by the one o’clock express to King’s Cross. Officers of the new Corps being mounted, the dress regulations permitted field-boots and spurs. So he went to the Army and Navy Stores and bought himself a pair of long brown boots, breeches of fawn cavalry twill, with buttons, not laces; and short-necked spurs with leather straps under the instep, not chains. The straps were specially cut while he waited, for he wanted the spurs to be parallel to the sole of the boot, and high under the ankle bone, not flopping down anyhow as worn by some gunner officers.
Having admired his new appearance in a looking glass, he paid the bill, stuffed the hob-nailed boots in haversack, caught an omnibus to the Elephant and Castle, and changed there for one that would pass Wetherley’s garage, while longing to feel the rush of wind past his face as, withHelena’sthrottle open and exhaust drumming harmoniously, the grey road rushed upon him in imagination and he flew upon wheels into the future. Surely the bike would not have been sold?
It was not sold. It stood beside the Swift, a FOR SALE notice on the handlebars. “I think,” said Phillip, “I will keep both, after all. But thank you for trying. You must let me pay the garage fees, of course. Did you manage to get a new inner tube? Oh, good. I’ll leave the Swift here, then. I’m rather fond of the old bus. I hope the bike will start after all this time.”
The engine fired after the plug was heated in a blow-lamp, then he pushed off, and with the old half-roll vaulted into the saddle; and lying low over the tank, accelerated past the police station and over the bridge into Randiswell, the barks of the exhaust being answered by several protesting dogs in the gardens and by their gates in Charlotte Road. A glance up at the flat, to see Mrs. Neville waving from her armchair; and thinking that he would godown to have tea with her, swooped up Hillside Road, and braked hard outside No. 11.
Mrs. Bigge next door was standing, trowel in hand, by her rockery. “I thought it wouldn’t be long before I saw you, you know! I said to myself, ‘There’s Phillip’, when I heard the Chinese Crackers coming up Charlotte Road. That’s what we call you among ourselves, ‘Chinese Crackers’. How are you in yourself, dear?”
“Oh, still not properly outside myself, you know. I hope you and your family are flourishing? I’m just home for a few hours, to look round the old rat-runs.”
“What say? I’m getting a bit deaf, Phillip, between you, me, and the gatepost! What was that you said?”
“I said I came just to see the dear old faces, Mrs. Bigge!”
“How very considerate of you, dear. Now if you had arrived five minutes earlier, you would have seen your father, Phillip. He just went down the road with his wheel-barrow and garden tools. He’s taken an allotment on the field next to Joy Farm.”
“I’ve got the very boots for him for that job, Mrs. Bigge.” He took them out of the haversack.
“My, Father will be pleased,” she said, nodding her head. “Now you go in and see Mother, like a good boy.”
Hetty too said that Father would be pleased that he had come home.
“He’ll be back for tea at five o’clock, why not run round to see him, Phillip, I’m sure he would like you to see his allotment. He’s so keen on it. The vegetables will be welcome, too, prices have gone up so much all round. Well, my son, how are you?”
“Oh, all right, thanks. Is Desmond at home?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know, Phillip.” She tried not to show her hurt.
“Mrs. Neville will know, I’m going to have tea with her. I’ll take the boots round to Mr. Pooter now, as you suggest, and admire his new allotment. Poor old Father, he used to tell us children such interesting stories, years ago, when he was always pretending to be a farmer, and saying what he would do with the crops in this field, or the tillage in that. Then the trams came, and the elms were cut down, and the fields grew bricks and mortar, he said, and then he didn’t do any more farming in the fields beside the road to Cutler’s Pond, on our Sunday morning walks there. And your little boy you tried to hush hush hush when he tried to say this and that grew into a string of Chinese Crackers.”
Hetty was startled by the way he had spoken. He seemed to be almost a stranger; yet what he had said explained most, if not all, of Dickie’s life. Was it by accident that Phillip spoke like that: or was he beginning to understand, to feel sympathy for others?
“Yes, Father was very keen on the land when he was a young man, but it was not possible, owing to family matters.”
“Grandfather Maddison was a bit of waster, wasn’t he? What in those days was called a ne’er do well? Something like me, only more so? Well, Lupin will buzz off now and visit Mr. Pooter, on his farm at last! Did Father ever say anything about that book,TheDiaryofaNobody,by the way?”
“He said it was too much of a lampoon for his liking. Don’t mention it, will you, or he may think that we are laughing at him, and feel hurt.”
“But you think the book funny, don’t you, Mum?”
The childhood address made her exclaim, “Sonny, it is the funniest book——!”
They laughed together; then he said he would go round to see Father, and come back to tea. She was happy once more; her son wanted to have tea in the place which, for the mother, was not truly home while her children were away from it. Indeed, she thought of them all the time; she had hardly any other life, except when, occasionally, she went to London during the day, with her father, and sometimes, Aunt Marian. “But don’t call me Sonny, d’you mind, Mum?”
“Very well, Phillip.”
The next afternoon, a Sunday, he left for London Bridge and the Great North Road by way of Islington and Barnet, where he arrived at four o’clock. Grantham was still one hundred miles north, and that meant the last part of the journey in darkness. The container of his carbide lamp held only ash, and all shops would be closed.
Why not spend the night at Polly’s? At the fork of two roads he stopped, undecided whether to press on, or to turn left-handed for St. Albans, ten miles distant, and so to Beau Brickhill. He tried to thrust away Polly’s challenging face, in order to think out a plan. At what time should he get up the next morning in order to arrive in camp for breakfast; and he must not miss Riding School, for those passing out well were sure to be chosen as transport officers for the new companies; and that meant a very good chance of seeingout the war in France. If he left Brickhill at dawn, he would be all right.
The motor-bike ran well, drumming between the hedges of the narrow, empty road of Sunday afternoon, coming to St. Albans in fifteen minutes. ThenHelenawas raising the dust of Watling Street lying towards distant downs; and passing through the small town of Dunstable, he continued for a few miles until the turning that led through the village of splendidly noble houses and cottages, and so to the Duke’s park; and leaving behind the wall of dark-red brick, with massed trees behind its coping, with cock pheasants crowing to the drum-like beats of the open exhaust, sped down a sandy lane, over the well-loved bridge with the Satchville brook below, up the hill, and so to Beau Brickhill, to turn through the gate into the gravelled courtyard as evening was settling into night.
“Goodness gracious me, you gave me a shock, suddenly appearing round the corner, I was at that very moment thinking about you,” exclaimed Aunt Liz. “Well, I am sure everyone will be very pleased to see you. Polly has gone for a walk with Percy, he’s home on leave, you know, and goes back to barracks tomorrow, and then to a battalion at Catterick Camp in the North. Come in, my dear boy, and warm yourself by the fire. Mother is asleep, she often takes a nap, poor old lady, she wanders a bit now and then in her mind. I didn’t light the lamp, as Grannie prefers the twilight.”
“So do I, Aunt Liz.”
“Yes, it is very restful. Now you go and make yourself at home, Phillip, while I lay the tea. I’m longing to hear all your news, and you must tell me all about Mother, and the girls, and Uncle Tom—all of you, in fact. Now sit by the fire, dear, and warm yourself.”
He went softly into the little dim parlour leading off from the breakfast room. The thin figure of Grannie Thacker, in lace cap and black bodice and skirt, was upright and still on a horse-hair chair by the grate. He stood, leaning against the wall, watching her. After a few moments he realised that the figure was not asleep, for a craky voice said, as though in reply to a question, “You are quite right, Jim, Eliza is of course very worried, but we must keep cheerful for her sake, especially. We are all in the Lord’s keeping. And to think that the Kaiser is a grandson of the Good Queen! Did he never learn from her that blood is thicker than water?”
Hands on elbows crossed on her thin bosom, she looked towards him with tiny points of flame in the eyes of her shrunken face, andsaid in a mourning tone, “I hear too, that a lot of men from the village have fallen down, the ones who joined up early, when the Duke first made his call. Why, is that Percy? How tall you look. Sit you down on the sofa, and warm yourself, do.”
Phillip sat back in a corner of the sofa, his face part turned away.
The old lady, upright in the wooden stays which had belonged to her mother, and which were worn with filial love, gave a long sigh. “I can call to mind the time when the champion team of Clydesdales were taken from my father’s farm, for the Russian war. The carter went with them, although he had a wife and children, and ’listed, specially to take care of them, but neither he nor his team ever came back. Now the Russians are with us. Ah well, our lives are in the hands of One Above. Do you say your prayers, Percy, every night?”
“I’m Phillip! I’ve just arrived! How are you?”
“My, my, it’s the little fellow! How you have grown to be sure.”
“I’ve come to pay you all a visit.”
He had to speak loudly, for she was getting deaf.
“I have been wondering how many battles have been fought round about here! There was one at Barnet, another at St. Albans, but I suppose all the fields in England were once nothing but blood and acorns, you know, great forests and sabre-toothed tigers, mammoths, moose, and deer, before the clearings and the settlements, which were then fought for by people with different ideas of what life should be. Well, Grannie dear, I must not disturb you, I think I’ll go and look for Percy,” he said, meaning Polly. When she arrived with her father and brother he found he could not say anything to her.
“So you ride a horse now, Phillip?”
“Yes, we are mounted troops, Uncle Jim. When I pass out of the riding school, I hope to be posted as transport officer to a company. There are to be sixty-four animals—riding horses, light draught horses, and mules, in each company. When all of Kitchener’s Army is out, the scale will be turned. Our artillery, too, is increasing greatly. By the way, I must leave here tomorrow at crack of dawn. I daren’t risk being late for the riding course.”
“Do you think the war will end this year, then, Phillip?”
“It’s quite possible,” he said, knowing tiny little Aunt Liz’s anxiety about her son. “You’re wearing a nice pair of breeches, Percy.”
Percy Pickering looked down at the upper parts of his legs with approval.
“I got them for him from Murrages, from an advertisement in theChronicle,” said his father. “Then you consider they are a good cut, Phillip?”
“Very good,” said Phillip, concealing his thoughts of the laces, the poor quality of Bedford cord, the sloppiness around the knees.
“I remembered what you told us when you came home last time,” went on Uncle Jim, blowing smoke from his calabash, “about the transport being more or less out of the thick of the fighting, so I thought it advisable to get a pair of breeches for Percy. Then he will already be equipped if a vacancy occurs in the transport of the battalion he is joining.”
“Good idea,” said Phillip, brightly, seeing their trusting faces upon him. “The thing to do is to apply as soon as he gets there, and in his spare time help in the horse-lines, without making himself too much of a nuisance.” He felt sad that they should be so helpless as to depend on him for advice to save Percy’s life. “Percy is still a bit deaf from his childish illness, isn’t he? It might also help if he pretends he can’t hear the orders on parade. Then they might bring him into the transport.”
“You mean he must practise deceit, Phillip?”
Aunt Liz did not seem happy, as she looked up at him from her small height. She was like a child, rather as Mother was. They had never really grown up: Father, Mother, Mavis, Aunt Dora—he saw them all in the shadows of their own pasts—disappointed, downcast. He saw them all in their different ways trying to straighten out the tangle of their thoughts. The soldier, shot and on his knees, had got beyond the tangle.
“Well, now you know what to do, Percy,” said Uncle Jim, trying one last match to the ashes of his pipe, as a flash of optimism rose in him. He looked at Phillip.
“What time must you be off in the morning, did you say?”
“I’d like to be away by five o’clock.”
It was arranged that Polly should have the alarm clock and set it for half-past four; then she would get him his breakfast, and he could leave without disturbing any of the others.
“And now,” said Aunt Liz. “We must all have tea, for we want to go to evensong. You’ll come, Phillip? That’s right. I’ve got some of your favourite sausage rolls, you must be very hungry, so come and sit at table, your old place is waiting for you.”
As they were walking back from church, behind the others, Phillip said, “Don’t let’s waste time arguing about the Duke, Polly. You think he’s selfish and keeping people from building on his land, but I think it should be conserved. Anyway, I prefer what my friend ‘Spectre’ West says about the Duke, for he knows him personally, and not merely from village gossip.”
“I say the Duke is thoroughly selfish, so there!”
“And I say he is not! He has been very good to everyone in the Gaultshire Regiment. The Duke, or his forbears—the Duke in fact, for the dukedom is a position, more than a mere man—built all the schools and churches in his villages, too, in the past. And the countryside is beautiful because the mob is kept out. You ought to see what the mob has done to the bluebell woods in Kent, now part of the County of London—tearing down fences and trees, and leaving the place squalid. No, you leave the Duke alone, for you don’t understand him.”
They turned in at the gate. “Let’s play billiards.”
“I’m going to help mother get the supper.”
He caught her and put his arms round her. “You’re going to stop with me.”
“Who do you think you are?” She broke away. He let her go.
When he came level with her again she was standing outside the french-doors leading to the billiard room.
“Come on, let’s have fifty up before supper.”
“Why should I?” said Polly, with a toss of her curly head. “I dislike the Duke. He’s made his eldest son an outcast, because of his radical opinions.”
“Well, don’t make me an outcast, I’ve got radical feelings, so how about coming into my bed tonight.”
“That I will not!”
He lit the gas, chose a cue, set out the balls, spun a coin, and said, “Heads or tails?”
“How d’you know I want to play?”
“Because you are such a sport. That’s what I like about you. I’ll start. There you are, a nice leave, it’s your stroke. No mercy! I’ve played a bit since I saw you last.”
“I don’t believe a word you say, so there!” said Polly, as she took aim. Her ball rebounded from one cushion to another, and returned diagonally down the table into the area of baulk with just sufficient momentum to kiss the red and the white. He put two on the board for the cannon. She got two more cannons; six in all.Then she potted the red; and with following stroke, potted his white, leaving her ball in baulk.
“That will teach you!” she said. “Now kindly put the red on its spot for me. I haven’t finished.”
“Very sporting of you,” he said sarcastically.
She went in off the red, leaving it in position to go in off again; and again; and again, until she had made eighteen. Then she left her ball and the red in baulk.
He could not get the angles, so started to slosh the balls.
“You’re not trying to win, are you?” she said, poking him in the ribs with her cue. He twisted the cue from her hands, and put it down to seize her. She twisted free, then started to box him, standing without flinch before his blows of pretence. Again and again she poked him in the ribs. He gave up.
“No man can fight a woman, slippery as an eel. By the way, did you know that female eels live seven or eight years in fresh water before going back to the sea, to breed?”
“Do they now!”
“The male eels spend their time skulking in the estuaries, afraid to go up into fresh water, in case they are gobbled up by the beastly omnivorous females.”
“That’s all you know! Eels don’t lay eggs, so there! They come from horsehairs in the brook. Everyone knows that.”
“So the eel’s father is a horse?”
“You’re just being a naughty little boy!” Polly could not help laughing. “You always were what Uncle Dick called a prevaricator.”
“Eels never prevaricate, they glide away.”
“You ought to know. You are slippery if anyone ever was.”
“I can’t help slipping on sea-weed.”
“Really! What will you say next?”
He moved towards her. She moved away. “I don’t want to have anything at all to do with you, until you cease being the silly little child you always were when you get into one of your moods, so there!”
“Good! Then how about another game? Only play properly this time. Take the game seriously!”
“I like that, from you!”
Polly was off her stroke, while he felt he had never played better. He won, just before the door opened and Percy and his parents came in, to say that supper was ready.
The door of his bedroom opened and Polly in her nightgown came silently on bare feet. He noticed how her toes were widely spread, and thought of sea-shells. She stood waiting, hugging herself lightly, standing on the carpet, until he opened the bed-clothes beside him, and said, “Come on, get in.”
She got in, and sat up beside him. He had no feeling for her now, although he had desired this moment ever since turning off the Great North Road that afternoon. He settled his pillow on the thick, long feather bolster, and lay back with hands behind his head.
She continued to sit up in bed, looking down at him as he lay on his back. At length she said, “Well, I think I’ll go back now.”
She pulled back the bedclothes, and put out a leg. The sight of her broad foot, with the big toe she could wiggle almost like a thumb, made him put his arm round her ribs, to prevent her going. Then sitting up, he examined the back of her neck in the light of the candle reflected from the walls, lifting up the black curls falling on the quilled shoulders of her nightgown.
“Let me shift the candle. I want to look at you properly.”
Her eyes were smoke-grey, her nose looked to be slightly flattened on her face, due to the wide-spaced nostrils; her lips were full and red, the chin strong, the ears small and well-shaped.
He unbuttoned her nightgown, while she said, “What d’you think you’re trying to do?” with the slight toss of her head, as when defying her father sometimes.
“I said I wanted to look at you. Keep still.”
He opened the neck of her gown, and pulled her arms free, then worked the nightgown off her shoulders to her waist. It was strange to think of Polly as a woman. He put his lips to her breast, but drew back, feeling that he was being unmanly and weak to have the wish to be a small child. Yet the sight of her sitting there so calmly drew him back to her breasts, although they were not as he had imagined a hundred times, but ordinary flesh, and quite firm, although silky to the touch. They were pinky-brown at the tip, little rosettes in bud.
“I suppose you’ve got what is called a good figure?”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
Her back looked broad and strong, tapered curiously to a small waist, and her belly was flat and hard when she filled her lungs.
“I’ve got good muscles, you know,” she said, holding out a thin arm and drawing up her fist. “You feel.”
“Quite a bicep,” he said, amused at the idea of Polly wanting to be strong, like a boy. “Do you do much gym at school?”
“Yes, and also hockey and basket ball. And we play cricket, and have lots of swimming in the bath beside the river.”
“Good for you, Polly.” He felt warm towards her, her boyish ribs were slender, as she sat there, looking at him. He drew his hand over her shoulder and arm, and felt the bud of a rosette becoming hard. Then lying down, he put his head against her ribs and nipped a fold of her skin between his lips and held his face hidden, while his feet began to work, as though his thoughts were dissolving through his splaying toes. He breathed out a long sigh, and lay back, one arm round her ribs, while she leaned over and gave him a light kiss on his head.
“I wish I’d learned boxing, and played rugger at school. It makes you hard and daring. You’re quite brave, really, aren’t you? I always was a bit amazed at the way you stood up to Uncle Jim when he got angry with you. You never gave way, but faced him with your chin up. So did Doris, when Father attacked her for saying she would kill him if he made Mother cry. She was only about four, but she had the courage to defy him, saying she was going to kill him for making Mother cry. He gave her a beating, but Doris refused to cry.”
“Doris said Uncle Dick could be very angry, but he was always very nice to me.”
“I’ll tell you something awful about myself when I was a boy. I planned one night to get you to come for a walk with me, and meet Jack Hart, who was later expelled from school for taking out girls from the High School into the Rec. at night. I wanted you to meet him in the sheep-fold on the Hill. I had a sneaking fascination for him at that time, I was very small and thrilled by the fact that he had developed into a man.”
“I think lots of boys feel like that at times.”
“I’ll say one thing for you, Polly, you’re a jolly good sport.”
He turned and put his hands on her ribs. The small bones felt so delicate, she was only a little girl after all. He exulted as he leaned over her to blow at the candle, but he lost feeling in the darkness. He raised himself up to feel for the matches.
“I like looking at you.”
As the flame rose guiltily on the wick, he looked down at her neck, with a beginning of lust; at her eyes grey as smoke; at the ridges of her collar bones rising out of white flesh, the suggestion of blue veins on her breasts. He put his hands on her shoulderbones and held her, thinking himself to be Jack Hart, and seeing her teeth, her lashes, the way her hair grew off her brow, the curve of her cheeks, he began to enjoy the feeling that she was his victim, and he would pay her out for being a girl.
“Don’t forget the alarm, will you. I mustn’t get back late to Grantham.”
When she had gone he blew out the candle, pulled back the curtains and opened the window; and then, getting back into bed lay stretched out diagonally across it, and with a deep sigh of peace, as on the first night of coming out of flooded trenches for a rest, sank away into sleep.
Polly returned, dressed in her school gym-clothes, while it was still dark. He was awake at once, and alert. When he had got out to dress she went downstairs to fan the embers in the hearth until the dry sticks burst into flame; and soon she had slices of green sizzling bacon in the pan on the trivet. Then she went to find two eggs in the hen house.
Phillip washed under the pump in the scullery, and sat down at the table, to sip tea while the eggs were popping. He told her to take the heavy cast-iron pan off the fire, and let them sizzle in the heat of the iron.
It was half-past five when, trench coat buttoned to neck and flying helmet strapped under chin, he went out to the yard; and the first thing he saw was a flat back tyre.
“Damn Wetherley! I bet he didn’t feel inside the canvas for the flint which punctured the old tube! Or else I’ve picked up a new one, or a nail. My God, I haven’t any puncture outfit, either! I can’t get back in time for parade at nine o’clock. What, you haven’t got a puncture outfit either? Anyway, someone’s pinched my pump. What a fool I was, not to have looked when I got the bike back! I’ll have to wait and get it mended, and report sick when I get back, that’s all.”
They returned to the house. He felt tired. She suggested he should lie down on the sofa in the billiard room, while she made a fire. Afterwards there was a smudge on her cheek, and she looked such a neat little girl as she brushed up the fallen ashes of yesterday’s fire, to leave the grate tidy, that he told her to come to him, and when she came he put his arms round her and drew her upon the sofa beside him. She was warm and passive, but when she closed her eyes he thought of his holiday in Devon just before the war, of himself watching anemones in rock pools left by thetide, as they waved their tentacles to catch small shrimps, little fish, and other underwater creatures. When he had touched an anemone, its tentacles had clung a moment, as though to draw in the tip of his finger; then they had closed, and he had stroked their softness.
According to Darwin, all life began in the sea; the ancestors of man were fish-like creatures. Was that why he was now thinking of Polly as an anemone, and of himself as a little silvery fish being drawn to its doom in a sea-pool?
Chapter 9A SPOT OF LEAVE
When he got back to camp in the afternoon Phillip went to the Medical Officer’s hut and said he did not feel very well.
“How are you sleeping?” he was asked, after his pulse had been counted.
“Not very much, doctor.”
“I see that you were invalided for dysentery in 1915. Any trouble now?”
“Now and again, doctor.”
“Do you sweat at night?”
“Let’s look at your chest.” Knock-knock, knock-knock. “Turn round.” Knock-knock. “H’m, sounds like a dull patch on this lung. Anyway, don’t let it worry you. If it does not clear up, now the fine weather’s coming, we’ll send you to hospital for observation. You’re run down.” He plucked an eyelid. “I’m giving you seven days’ leave, meanwhile.” Phillip made his voice level as he said, “Shall I report to the Orderly Room, doctor?”
“No need for that. My returns for the day are just going in, I’ll add your name to them. Now take things easy. Don’t go gadding about too much.”
“No doctor. And many thanks.”
Jubilantly he returned to his quarters to pack a haversack with pyjamas, shaving kit, and gramophone records. He would miss the riding course, but there would be another. Would he miss goingto France in time for the Big Push? No hurry; if it was to be anything like the last one, there would be another.
Gramophone tied on flapper bracket, he sped along the Great North Road, flying south in brightening spring weather to the steady beats of the exhaust, past fields of winter wheat whose plants were not yet tall enough to hide the clods left by November’s harrowing, and other fields where teams of horses with cultivators, rolls, harrows, and drill were putting in the spring oats and barleys. Down a hill into Stamford, with its sharp turning upon narrow bridge over a river with a glimpse of rushes and swans, and ninety-two miles to London. A whole week’s leave, on and on and on, no time for tea, onwards to Stilton and Buckden and Eaton Socon, a stop at Baldock for more petrol and oil, and London under forty miles away. He was beginning to remember names on the white-painted milestones, the names painted in black—Stevenage, Broadwater, Knebworth—past which the exhaust thudded sweetly and steadily. Green pastures and parks and great houses, southwards the road curving and stretching through villages and past coppices and woods where rooks were noisy at their ink-blot nests, onwards to Barnet, on the same road where had marched the Saxon army and later the barons with their men-at-arms, their bowmen and heavy Norman horses; down the cobbled hill from Barnet, with its drop on the other side to the vast level place where Barnet Horse Fair was held. Would he be home by nightfall, or should he stop and get a tin of carbide? He would risk it; his O.H.M.S. plate would get him past any copper.
Onwards to Finchley and the trams, and so into the City of London, with its drays and taxicabs and bowler-hatted civvies; across the sett-stoned bridge over the Thames; past the grim stations and on down to the Elephant and Castle and the Old Kent Road; over Nunhill and down into the Wakenham Road; and dullness taking the place of former hope and enthusiasm; trepidation, a flash of hope, as he banged up Hillside Road.
“Well, Phillip, this is a surprise! A week’s leave, have you? Rather unexpected, isn’t it?”
“You never know where you are, in the Army, Father.”
“I’m afraid I’ve cleared away tea,” said Hetty, “but I will soon boil you an egg.”
“No thank you, Mother. I’m not really hungry. I’ll see you later.”
They heard the front door close quietly behind him.
“H’m,” said Richard, as he picked up his newspaper.
Five minutes later the strains ofABrokenDoll,followed byO,thatweTwowereMaying,came from Mrs. Neville’s open window, while Phillip drank tea and ate buttered toast with bloater paste.
Afterwards, hearing that Desmond and Eugene were playing billiards in the Gild Hall, he went on down to the High Street, to surprise them; but the manager said they had left a few minutes before; so he returned through the foyer, with its goldfish pond and domino players, and crossed over to Freddy’s.
Opening slightly the door of the saloon bar, to peep in, he saw Desmond and Gene standing one on either side of a girl who was perched on a stool by the bar. He saw her back only until she turned to smile at Desmond, when he noticed her white even teeth and large china-blue eyes. Freddy saw him standing there, but kept an impassive face when Phillip put finger to lips, before slipping through the door, to creep towards the stained glass partition of the billiard room. As he went softly across the floor he noticed that the peep-hole was open, revealing a section of face with buck teeth and sunken expressionless eyes. He pretended not to have seen that Detective-sergeant Keechey and his column-dodging bowler-hatted umbrella-carrying nark were spying there, as they sipped large hot Irish whiskey at Freddy’s expense.
Turning his back to the unpleasant nearness of watching eyes, he saw the girl’s face turning in his direction. She wore a little dark blue straw hat, with a veil hanging from its brim. Behind the spotted net two large blue glistening eyes and a loose smiling mouth regarded him. He returned the limpid look with pleasure. Then Gene, turning to see what she was looking at, recognised him. A light of welcome came upon his sallow face.
Freddy now tipped his straw boater, and said with extreme politeness, “I think you know both these gentlemen, sir?” as he played his part in the comedy of surprise. Then, lest the subtlety of his action be missed, he explained, “I perceived that you wished to be incognito pro tem, in a manner of speaking, so I refrained from my customary welcome to a customer of this ’ouse. May I introduce you to this young lady? Miss Lily Cornford, this is Mr. Maddison.”
Desmond gave Phillip a sardonic, sharing look, as much as to say, Look what we’ve found! The girl, despite the sophistication of veil and rolled-gold chain with bangles on the white wrist of the hand she held out to Phillip, a little uncertainly, as though ready to withdraw it at a look of disapproval, seemed to be bashful—or a little timid. She was all blue eyes and lips loose withsmile, and looked at him without speaking—could she be a little bit tiddly? The blue eyes behind the faint dark net were slightly alarming, so was the tall white neck and golden hair coiled under the straw hat with a spray of forget-me-nots circling its dark blue crown. Unspeaking, she let her hand remain in his; her gaze still a little unsteady, like her lips.
“How do you do,” he said, then turning to Desmond and Gene, one on either side of the figure on the stool, “so I see you know these two pals of mine, who are covering your flanks. How are you Des? By Jove, I’m glad to see you and Gene! I’ve got a week’s leave! Drinks all round, Freddy!”
Desmond, now shaking with ingroaning laughter, lifted his nose, to draw Phillip to one side, while Gene took advantage of this to lay an arm possessively upon the girl’s shoulder.
“I nearly burst out laughing when you said that Gene and I’d been covering her flanks. In a way you’re right! She’s a damned fine girl!”
“I’ve had some sport with Polly, too. Now I’ve wangled a week’s leave! How about you?”
“I’ve got four days. I’m in for a transfer. I’ve applied for a tunnelling company in France. I want to be in the Big Push before it’s all over.”
“In the Training Centre we reckon it will start in three months’ time, when the first hundred machine-gun companies are formed.”
“Our sappers are digging shafts for the mines now. I don’t want to miss anything.”
“I’m quite keen to get back, too, now I’m with mounted troops. Who is this bird?”
“Gene met her first, but now I’ve clicked with her. We’re going to the second house at the Hippo.”
“Oh, I see.”
Phillip felt dismayed. Although in their friendship so far he had been frank, or natural, with Desmond in most things, both youths had avoided the subject of girls; indeed, with the exception of the phantasmal Helena Rolls, none had come between them.
“Well, so long,” said Gene, raising his boater. “I’ve got two birds to see in the Gild Hall. Why don’t you come and meet them, Phil?”
Phillip lingered, hoping that Desmond would suggest that he join them for the Hippodrome; but when nothing was said, he bade them goodbye and crossed the road to the Gild Hall, which was now three-quarter filled with skittering groups of territorials ofthe local battalion of the London Regiment, locally known as the Gild Hall Brigade, and more pairs of flappers seated at tables.
Gene was lolling back in his chair, obviously fancying himself, too, as he tilted his closely-woven straw-hat partly over one eye, holding his silver-topped ebony stick in yellow-gloved hands, while talking to two young girls, who said they had changed out of uniform of the High School, and this was their second visit to the Hall. They were expectant and excited, and exchanged glances whenever Gene or Phillip spoke.
Gene explained that he had been in the Army, but had been discharged because his feet had given way under prolonged marching. “In my country, we ride horses. For ten generations my people have been soldiers, always on horseback. Only peons walk; we ride. So here I am, since the Cavalry is full up.”
Phillip began to feel embarrassed when Gene, fitting his eye-glass, began to talk of his flat in Town, and would the girls like to visit him and his friend there. Gene had an attic floor in Westbourne Terrace, a seedy row of houses drab with soot and flaking paint near Paddington Station, which he rented for fifteen shillings a week.
He wanted to get away from this man-about-town talk with two schoolgirls, one of whom had not yet started to develop.
“I’ll be back in a moment, I’ve got to see someone,” he said.
He crossed over the road and walked to Freddy’s, but Desmond was not there. Loneliness came to him, so for old time’s sake he had a large whiskey and stood Freddy a sixpenny drink from the landlord’s own special inverted bottle of water. Freddy, leaning over the bar, and moving his eyes only towards the stained-glass partition, said, “Your friend came back here after you left to ask me about what Keechey had on Lily, and then went out again. I thought you ought to know that Keechey has got his eye on her. She used to be one of his pieces, but she won’t have anything to do with him now. He’s got a down on her, and is trying to get evidence for a pinch for soliciting, also he says she’s not eighteen. I’m cleared against serving liquor to her, as I don’t know her age.”
Freddy stood upright and was again the landlord. “Well, your very good health, sir!”
He went away to serve a customer, and when he came back Phillip said, “Tell me, Freddy, is Lily a tom?”
The landlord shook his head decisively. “Not within the meaning of the act. She works in Nett’s Laundry, on the lower side ofRandiswell Bridge. Of course, I don’t say she doesn’t have a bit of fun at times, but that’s her business.”
“Quite. Does she often come in here?”
“Not often. Usually she goes into the Bull. It wants forty minutes to the second ’ouse at the Hippo, so you might catch them there.”
“Well, see you later, Freddy.”
“The pleasure will be mine, sir,” said Freddy, tipping his hat an eighth of an inch from behind.
He felt unhappy at Desmond’s apparent indifference, after he had come as fast as he dared all the way down the Great North Road. Desmond, his great friend, could forsake him almost at a moment’s notice, for someone he had met in a pub. But he must think with his head, as Father Aloysius had said, and not with his feelings. Very well.
Until that evening, Desmond had not seen him for some time. During that period Desmond had been living his own life, as he had been living his. Why then was he worrying? Because Desmond had said nothing about meeting him again? Yes; Desmond was all his true life: Helena Rolls was an Ideal, far above life.
He went into the Bull, and saw the girl sitting on a long padded seat beside Desmond. Hoping that they would invite him to sit with them, he stood by the bar, and ordered whiskey, while keeping his back to the two on the long seat by the wall. Beyond the row of bottles on shelves in front was a looking glass, and while he was drinking, he saw the two get up and go out through the door.
I see, he said to himself, I see. I am not wanted any more. It is not true, of course; I am pretending to myself, pretending that my best friend does want me, except when he cannot get anyone better.
He saw Lily’s eyes, blue as the water reflecting the summer sky in the Lake Woods; and remembered that Desmond had taken Gene there to fish the secret lakes, to which he had never taken anyone else except Desmond, although the permit was made out to Mr. Phillip Maddisonandfriend.Now my great friend has forsaken me because of a girl and when I go to find him to warn him that the unscrupulous and revengeful Keechey is waiting to find someone with whom to charge Lily with prostitution, he practically cuts me dead before I can even tell him why I came.
He left the Bull, and walked round the Recreation Ground, hoping to see there the familiar figure of his friend, hoping thatDesmond, seeing him, would respond with their old boyhood whistle.
He walked round again, and frenzy rose in him as he left the darkening, friendless place that was without a soul.
Phillip had had little food since breakfast, sixteen hours before; he did not know that his feelings of desolation came from physical exhaustion.
Trying in vain to control his feelings, he left the dark and silent grounds by the river and hurried to the place which was now more his home than the house of fear where his boyhood had been spent.
“Freddy, Freddy, you’ve no idea how glad I am to see you! Please have a real drink with me, Freddy!”
“Are you feeling all right?” asked Freddy. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Give me a quartern of whiskey, Freddy, and have one for yourself.”
“Never touch it, sir. But I’ll have a gin and peppermint if I may—out of a real bottle this time! Are you sure you want a quartern? Well, you know best,” tittered Freddy. “Only you’ll have to have it in a large glass!”
Where could he go? To Beau Brickhill? He had no tin of carbide. And there was something about Polly he did not like. Back to Grantham? Blinding through the night up the Great North Road? They would think it strange if he did, and the M.O. might get hauled over the coals. He must find Gene—there might be time before the Gild Hall closed. Swallowing the nauseatingly strong liquid, he went out and to his immense relief saw the figure of Gene getting on a ’bus outside the Cons servative Club. He ran after the ’bus, and holding to the bras-rail, leapt upon the footboard.
“Thank God I’ve found you, Gene!”
“I waited for you more than an hour after those two birds had gone home. Where did you get to?”
Phillip told him, and Gene said, “You should have come back to me. I’ve tentatively fixed up with the girls to have tea next Saturday at my flat.”
“But they are only kids,” said Phillip, feeling unhappy and reluctant.
They got off at the Obelisk and Phillip walked with Gene to the junction station. Having seen him on his train to London,he returned by way of Mill Lane to the Hill, and down the gulley to his home, walking on tip-toe through the gate, letting himself in with his key, silently. On hands and knees he went up the stairs, out of habit, and along the passage to his room, feeling hopeless as he undressed and got into bed in the darkness. He heard Mavis in the next room turn on her mattress as though to raise herself on an elbow and listen. He lay still. Oh, why had he gone to Beau Brickhill? Now he had missed his chance of going out to France again; he would miss the Big Push, too; and a decent chance to be killed, and end it all.
“I’d rather not discuss it, if you don’t mind,” said Desmond the next day, in the yard of his headquarters in Horseferry Road.
“But Desmond, aren’t we still great friends? Don’t we tell each other everything? What has happened to change our friendship? Won’t you please tell me?”
“What I said to Lily, or what she said to me, is not your business.”
“But isn’t it to do with me, when you pointedly get up and leave immediately after you know that I had come into the Bull specially to see you?”
“Do you remember when I asked you, on the way to Hornchurch, if you were going to allow Helena Rolls to come between us?”
“Do you remember the off-hand way you treated my question?”
“I didn’t mean to be offhand.”
“Well, you were. In fact, you laughed at my concern for you. Well, the position is now reversed, except that I find no cause for laughter.”
“But I have not asked you to give up that bird.”
“Your remark is unfortunate, but quite apart from its bad taste, whatever my friend happens to be is no concern of yours.” Desmond came to attention as a sergeant passed.
“Well,” said Phillip lamely, “I just thought I’d call and see if you were all right, after your sudden departure last night. How about tonight? Will you be on duty?”
“No sir,” said Desmond, stiffening to attention again as the sergeant returned. Phillip said, with assumed jocularity, “Stand easy, Sapper Neville. Look here, Des, don’t let’s fall out over nothing. Shall I come down to you after tea? How about goinginto the country, like the old days? The migrants will be singing now.”
“I’m meeting Lily tonight, and we are going to the pictures.”
Concealing this further shock, Phillip said, “I see. Well, I’ll be in Freddy’s about nine, if you call in.”
“I shall be taking Lily home afterwards.”
“Then we won’t be seeing one another?”
“I see,” said Phillip, bleakly. “Well, so long. Have a good time,” and returning Desmond’s salute, he went back to the street and his motor cycle. He felt shaken, and with the roar of London’s iron-wheeled and shod traffic beating on his ears, stood upon the kerb and wondered where he could go to see a friendly face. Gene worked in Charles Mayer’s corset factory, he remembered. Where could he find a directory? He thought of the thick red volume on the shelf in the office of Wine Vaults Lane. He could get there by crossing over Vauxhall Bridge and finding his way behind the wharves along the south bank, to London Bridge. The cobbles were slippery with horse-dung, but with legs splayed for a touch with a boot-sole he could now control skids from the smooth tread of the back tyre. He thudded around drays and lorries, past heavy pairs of horses, and farther on, bales and bales of pressed waste-paper, which someone told him was used for making high explosive. Father took his bundles ofDailyTridentsfor salvage, so an accumulation of splutterings from the armchair might very well turn into one big bang over the enemy’s lines.
Mr. Hollis looked up as he came through the glass door of the office and exclaimed, “Good God, look what’s blown in! Where’s the pantomime taking place, eh?” as he stared over his desk at Phillip’s riding boots and spurs. “Seriously, Maddison, I’m most awfully pleased to see you. Where have you sprung from? Machine guns, eh? I thought you fellows who come back from France usually got put on the Staff! Well, it’s a good war for some people, full salary plus pay. Look at Downham, a blooming major, though he’s never left England, second in command of a cyclist’s battalion, wears boots and spurs like you, though what the deuce a bicyclist wants spurs for, beats me.”
The door opened above the lead-sheathed stairs, and the familiar slow steps of the manager began to flap down.
“Howlett, guess who’s here? Puss in boots, having mistaken the date of the Lord Mayor’s Show. Yes, our one and only comic genius, Maddison!”
Phillip did not mind Mr. Hollis’ banter, he was rather pleased to be thought worthy of his senior’s regard; while the face of Mr. Howlett beamed as usual, as though very glad to see him.
Phillip found Gene’s address, and saying goodbye to Mr. Hollis, walked with a feeling of happiness down Aldgate to Houndsditch, where he was directed to the factory.
There he was shown up some wooden stairs, and came upon Gene with stylograph and long ruled book writing down numbers called monotonously by a yellow-faced Jewish boy who was turning over and examining one large pink-paper packet after another in a huge pile on the floor, reading the labels, and then transferring the parcels to another pile on the floor.
“Hullo, old thing,” said Gene, getting up. “All right, Morris, I shan’t want you for a few minutes.” The yellow-faced youth went away. “I’m stocktaking. I’m damned glad to see you; my stock will go up when the manager hears my friend, Lieutenant Maddison, has come to see me.”
“Where will it go to?” laughed Phillip, thinking of a Bairns father cartoon,OurstockhasgoneupsinceavisitofHerrKrupp&Co.,—hundreds of tins of plum and apple jam flying up under a shell-burst. “Oh, it’s only a joke. I say, how about some lunch? Can you manage it?”
“I’m off in fifteen minutes. D’you mind waiting? No smoking by the way, warehouse rules. Are you on for Saturday?”
“Well, let’s talk about it later. I think I’ll wait outside, crowds amuse me, Gene.” The sight of so many piled pink corsets was depressing.
Phillip had been in the London Tavern once before; now he was surprised to see many dark faces, obviously Jews, among the business men of the Lanes, some of them still wearing top hats, their faces not quite so beefy, as before the war. But steaks were still being grilled over the chef’s open charcoal fire. Gene, invited to say what he would have, after careful scrutiny of the menu, chose smoked salmon, to be followed by an underdone rump steak with fried potatoes, asparagus, watercress, and mushrooms. Asked if he would like some beer with it, he said that steak, underdone, should be eaten only with claret, and chose a bottle of 1904 Chateau Lafite. A little amused by his expensive tastes, but not put out, Phillip decided to economise by having boiled mutton with caper sauce, potatoes and mashed turnips, the cheapest dish on the card.
“I’m surprised at you, Phil,” remarked Eugene. “You’re nottaking advantage of thecuisinierehere, by having the equivalent of a cut off the joint and two veg., as in any small pub. By the way, before I forget, would you lend me a pound? I’m rather low at the moment.”
“By all means, dear old boy,” replied Phillip, taking out his wallet. “Anything to help a pal.”
After treacle tart Gene ordered toasted cheese; this was followed by two glasses of port each, and black coffee with brandy, and long cigars; by which time Gene was saying that before he went back to Brazil after the war and opened up an import business, he intended to put a Patent Improved Corset on the market; and if Old Phil would swear to keep the secret he would tell him what the Eugene Goulart Improved Corset would consist of.
“Swear? Honour bright? Well, it is simple I use rubber instead of whalebone, to serve a three-fold purpose: one, to enable the skirt of the corset to sit higher up on the rump, two, to give a more svelte line for the figure, three, to enable the Nip of Admiration to be given without fear of fouling the hard marginal line of the ordinary common or garden corset.”
“You’re rotting!” cried Phillip, when he had finished laughing at Gene’s solemn absurdity.
“On the contrary, I am entirely serious, my dear old Phil. In my country the girls are very proud of their figures, and it is considered a compliment to put your hand on the behind of a belle you admire, with a sliding caress, of course, and nip her flesh, gently but firmly. It must be done in the right spot, not too low down, but by the point of hip. C.M. corsets cover that vital spot, and I have a theory that most Englishwomen remain cold because they have not been worked up properly before they settle down to dull domesticity!”
Phillip thought this extremely funny.
“Why does it seem funny to you? One does it to a horse or a steer, and one gets an immediate response of gratitude. What are women but animals, or mammals if you like? Of course, I grant you that what is natural to women of the sun would seem only impertinence to the majority of those with frosty souls and complexions in this northern country.”
“Well, don’t let the manager of the Gild Hall see you pinching the behinds of flappers there!”
“One does not pinch green bananas to see if they are ripe, senhor! You may laugh, but I am perfectly serious! If I foundmyself in a crowd coming out of, say, Piccadilly Circus Underground, and stood next to a beautiful Englishwoman in the lift, and paid her a compliment due to the female form divine, what would she do? Accept it as a tribute from a senhor whose grandfather was a general in the Brazilian Army? Not on your life! She’d shriek with indignation, and give me in charge! The average Englishwoman is frigid, a Puritan! It is the raw, foggy climate over here, most of the year. In South America we have the sun, we are alive, we haven’t the love-taboos that you have!”
Gene stuck his cigar in his mouth, and frowning through his eyeglass, sucked thoughtfully. Then he said, “Did I ever show you the photograph of my mother’s father, the general who saved Brazil from revolution?”
“I don’t think you did,” replied Phillip. “But don’t you have rather a lot of revolutions in Brazil?”
“You are thinking of Mexico, maybe,” said Gene, as he fumbled in his pocket book, to bring out a dog-eared photograph of a round-faced little fat man with terrific moustaches and staring eyes, rows of medals and plumed hat and sword and spurs with rowels like Catherine wheels.
“That is my grandfather, Eugene Roberto Franco Carlo Goulart Bolivar——”
“No wonder he looks bowed down by some weight,” cried Phillip, unable to control his laughter at Gene’s big-cigar pride in the ridiculous pot-bellied figure.
“If you spoke like that anywhere in Brazil,” retorted Gene, “You would have had a knife in your ribs by now. We Brazilians are very proud of our national heroes.”
“Have another brandy, old boy, then you can put a pistol to my head as well as the knife in my ribs.”
“No thanks. I must be getting back. I mustn’t keep my staff waiting.”
“You sound like a general.”
“I am the equivalent just now, being in charge while the manager is away. My father is a great friend of Charley Mayer, you know.”
“Well, on with the corsets,” said Phillip, rising. “I suppose you don’t make bullet proof vests as well? I’ve seen advertisements of them somewhere. Not that I want one. I just wondered.”
“Good God no! We’re C.M. Corsets, we’re the leading house in the trade!”
The bill having been settled by Phillip, Gene asked him to walk back with him, saying ingenuously, “I want my staff to see the friend I’ve told them about, Lieutenant Maddison.”
“Well, I’m not much to talk about——”
“You’re an officer, and you’ve been to the front, and I want them to see me with you.”
Phillip walked with Gene to the factory, and prepared to say goodbye to him outside, where several tallow-faced girls and youths stared silently.
“Well old man,” said Gene (who had hidden the eyeglass as they approached, Phillip noticed), “I’ll be seeing you on Saturday at the flat, at half past three, if I don’t see you again before then? If those birds don’t turn up, it doesn’t matter; you and I can easily find two more. Well, so long!”
Phillip saluted Gene, and turning away, took a taxicab to Liverpool Street Station, where he had left his motor cycle. There being nothing else to do, he went home, changed into plain clothes, and went for a walk on the Hill, longing to see Mrs. Neville, but not daring to call at the flat, in case she, too, had turned against him.
When he went down for early tea with his mother, she said, “I suppose you won’t be here next Saturday, will you, Phillip? You have not forgotten what that day is, have you?”
“Oh no. Sometimes I wish I had not lived to see it.”
“You are run down, dear, I can see that. Is anything the matter, anything serious? If you feel you cannot tell me, why not confide in your father? He complains that you never seem to want to tell him anything. And after all, he is your father.”
“My parent would be a truer description of him. He said to me once, ‘Why can’t you be like other boys?’ when the answer was, ‘Why can’t you be like other fathers’, only of course the wretched, fearful, furtive little rat that I was then could not reply like that: only by tears from a hanged head. What sort of confidence did he ever inspire in anyone? You know that he’s critical, prejudiced, and dictatorial. I can feel it, even when he says nothing to me.”
“Well, you must see that you don’t grow like that yourself, dear.”
“Oh do stop dealing me, Mother! I am nearly twenty-one, and have my own life now.”
“Yes Phillip, of course. By the way, what would you like for your birthday present? Your father and I——”
“Nothing, really, thank you.”
“It’s a special occasion, you know. If you think nothing of it now, you will later on in life, when you are the father of a family yourself, perhaps——”
“I shall never marry, Mother, so please don’t talk like that. It’s kind of you to suggest a present, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so would a signet ring be all right? A gold one. Not with a stone in it, but all gold. Some of the officers wear them. With a crest. There is a Maddison crest, isn’t there?”
“I think that is a very good choice, Phillip. Grandpa also suggested giving you a ring, but thought that Father might like to suggest it first. So Grandpa and I thought of a silver cigarette case, with the date and your initials on it, if you would like that, of course.”
“Yes, I would, thank you. I suppose I could not have the crest on that, too? It could be copied from the spoons and forks of the plate in Father’s box.”
Hetty said she would ask his father when he came home. Richard said promptly that he had no licence to display armorial bearings, so it would not be right to have the crest engraved on the cigarette case. “Moreover, I consider it to be a waste of money to take one out now, under the conditions in which we live, not to mention the economies we all should practice in war time. An annual licence used to be a guinea, it may have gone up since my young days. Anyway, what does Master Phillip want a crest for?”
“Some of the other officers have them, apparently, Dickie.”
“Yes, and they are probably entitled to them. I am not. I consider now that I belong to the lower middle class, and crests and coat-armour have no part in the life we lead, in so far as I am concerned. To want to revive them now, would be pretentious.”
Later Richard said to Phillip. “Oh, by the way, your mother and I have been talking about your coming-of-age. I don’t know if you will be here for the occasion, but anyway, we thought of giving you, jointly, a signet ring, with a monogram of your initials on it. What do you think?”
When his son did not reply, he went on, “Well, if that does not meet with your approval, have you anything else in mind? You have a watch already, I think? How about a riding whip, to accompany you with your boots?” he said with a laugh.
“We are not allowed to carry hunting crops, thanks all the same, Father.”
“Well, I’ll leave you two to decide what present you want. I think I’ll go down to my allotment, and dibble in a row of first early potatoes. With luck we’ll be clear of late frosts by the time their little green ears come out of the ground, to listen to the skylarks.”
Phillip thought this rather a strange remark for Father to make; he thought of it more than once that evening, as he walked up and down the High Street, from Clock Tower to Hippodrome, up and down, trying to exhaust himself, and hoping for the dreaded moment, which never came, when he would see Desmond and Lily coming towards him.
Chapter 10TWENTY-FIRST BIRTHDAY
Hetty and her father went up to London to choose the cigarette case, and signet ring. Thomas Turney knew a commission agent, through whom he could get 17½ per cent discount. Richard had “washed his hands of everything to do with the affair”, as he said, after his wife had asked again if it might not be possible to have the family crest engraved on it, without, on this special occasion, applying for a licence to display it. Honesty was honesty, said Richard, and if Master Phillip, after he was of age, felt that he could face life the easier with a relic of the past with which to adorn himself, then he could apply to the College of Heralds for a grant of arms.
“I feel it my duty to say that such grandiose ideas for anyone in his station of life should be discouraged, Hetty! There is the example of your brother Hugh, if you remember, and how he used to talk of the Turneys being descended from Norman knights, the Le Tournets.”
“But this isn’t a question of doubtful family origins, Dickie. Phillip is proud of being a Maddison, that is why he——”
“If he feels proud, as you say, why does he not take more pains to show it, then? You think I don’t know that he calls me ‘Mr. Pooter’ behind my back, do you? At least, that is conjecture; but he has more than once signed himself, in a letter to you, ‘Lupin’, and the reason for that is plain to me. I am poor, I am a failure, I am something to be laughed at because I have tried always to do my duty. Very well: if Master Phillip does not like my proposedpresent of a ring with his initials in a monogram, then I can only repeat that I wash my hands of everything to do with the affair.”
So Hetty and her father went to London by tram as far as Blackfriars Bridge, and walking thence to the wholesalers near St. Pauls, they selected a ring to Phillip’s size, and a plain curved cigarette case, both to be engraved with mailed fist and dagger of the legendary Le Tournets, with date and initials inside the circle of gold and upon the silver panel. They were to be delivered by registered post on the Saturday morning, without fail.
Thomas Turney had suggested a supper party in his house for that evening, but since Dickie might be hurt if he knew about this in advance (he would be asked, of course, as on other occasions, and probably decline to come) it was agreed between father and daughter that the supper should be in the nature of a last-minute affair, anyone who liked to come being welcome. They must ask Dora, the boy’s godmother, of course. She was still working in the East End, at her friend Sylvia’s children’s clinic.
After leaving the wholesalers, they walked to the Guildhall, where the City Tribunal for examining claims for exemption from the Armed Forces under the recently passed Military Service Act, was sitting. There was a place for the public, said a policeman at the door. Hetty had heard from Mavis that Tom Ching had decided to appeal against his call-up on grounds of conscientious objection to war; and his case was to come up on this day.
While they were waiting, Thomas Turney said, “I have been reading in the paper that Lord Derby, as Director of Recruiting, has been protesting against the numerous exemptions claimed by young men in the one hundred and sixty reserved occupations, and demands what theTelegraphcalls a ‘comb out’. Of course there are cases of hardship, some being indispensible to businesses. Hemming tells me that we have lost eleven youngsters in the lithographic room alone.”
The members of the Tribunal took their places, and the first case was heard. He wore spectacles with thick lenses, and claimed that he had tried to enlist in the “terriers” three times, and each time had been turned down for bad eyes.
The Military Representative, a dark man with sidewhiskers and a hawk-like nose got up and said, “I am instructed to say that so-called defective eyesight is no longer a disqualification for the Army. It does not matter whether this man is short-sighted, so long as he is physically fit. If he is physically fit to wield a bayonet, he is fit for service abroad.”
The members on the dais whispered together; then the Chairman announced, “Exemption granted for two months.”
The next case was a young man with black hair hanging thickly over his shoulders, and a beard almost down to his waist. He said that he was a member of a sect which was against the taking of any life whatsoever, whether of man, bird or fish.
“I believe in the Divine Command, ‘Thou shalt not kill’,” he cried in a high, almost falsetto voice.
“Is that why you let your hair grow?”
“I allow my hair to grow long in accordance with the passage in Leviticus, ‘They shall not make baldness upon their heads; neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard’.”
“Do you then believe all that is in the Bible?”
“I do. By obeying Divine Command, I shall preserve my body from physical death.”
The Military Representative then said, “At the same time, apparently, you object to exposing your body unnecessarily to danger?”
“You have read the Bible assiduously?” said the Chairman.
Another member looked at a printed card on the table before him.
“Then you will no doubt recall this passage, also to be found in Leviticus: ‘And ye shall chase your enemies and they shall fall before you by the sword, for I am the Lord, your God.’”
He is trapped, thought Hetty, looking at the large dark eyes in the white face; agonised eyes, she thought, like those of Hall Caine the great novelist.
“I rely on the injunction, ‘Thou shalt not kill’.”
“What is the name of your sect?”
“The Israelites. We are descendants of the Chosen People.”
At these words, Thomas Turney nudged his daughter. “D’you see how the Military Representative keeps his eyes on the table before him? What is that to an orthodox Jew, heresy? The hairy one has cooked his goose.”
Unaware of the irony of the remark, Hetty was thinking, Poor man, he might be a saint; and tears came as she thought of Another, also bearded and sad of face, whose words had been dismissed. But there, everyone had their Cross to bear. She heard with anguish the verdict, ‘Claim refused’.
There was a small stir in the well of the Court, then the next case was announced.
“Thomas Erasmus Ching!”
Looking very humble, rubbing his hands, licking his lips and glancing about him as though he were acting a part, Ching faced the row of hard faces.
“I claim exemption on the grounds that my conscience forbids me to take any man’s life, friend or foe. When I passed for the Civil Service I prayed to God to have me sent to a department where I could carry out His will, and——”
“You are in the Admiralty?”
“Yes, sir. I took it that God’s will was for me to be appointed to the Admiralty, after my prayer, sir.”
“What do you do at the Admiralty?”
“Nothing to do with the actual war, sir. I am in the Stationery Department, sir.”
“Are you prepared to resign your post in that department?”
“No sir. I am told I am still wanted in the Department.”
“By my superiors, sir.”
“Then you obey the orders of your superiors?”
“In the Stationery Department, yes, sir.”
They are trapping him, thought Hetty, with a feeling of suffocation; but the feeling was relieved by her next thought, Thank goodness Mavis cannot bear him at any price.
“Do you go to church? You do. Do you study the Book of Common Prayer? And you also believe in what it says? Very well, no doubt you are well aware of this passage—” the speaker read from the large printed card—“‘Articles of the Church of England, Number thirty-seven,ItislawfulforChristianmen,atthecommandoftheMagistrateytowearweapons,andserveinthewars’. Claim refused.”
“I shall appeal, sir,” said Tom Ching, before he left.
Phillip went to the High Street, wearing his pre-war ready-made twelve and sixpenny Donegal tweed jacket, half-crown straw-hat, and five shilling grey flannel bags. After calling at Freddy’s, where he heard that Desmond had not been in since Monday, he crossed over to the Gild Hall. There at a table sat the two flappers; they began to move about on their chairs when he appeared, as he could see in the retina of his eye. He sat down at another table, while avoiding looking at them. As time went on he felt foolish: either he should have acknowledged them at once, or gone to their table. Were people at the other tables aware of his stand-offishness? Hisdilemma was solved by the waitress, who said that two friends of his were at another table, and as though in surprise he turned round, and getting up, went to them.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
“We thought you didn’t want to know us!”
He ordered coffee for three. “Well, how are you?”
“Very well, thank you!” they said in duet.
“Good. I saw my friend two days ago, in London. Did you really say you would go to his flat?”
“We really wanted to ask you, if you thought it was all right!”
“Will you promise to keep it a secret if I tell you something? Very well. You ought not to go to anyone’s flat. Now don’t forget your promise. I must go now. Have your friendships, but don’t be too idealistic about anyone in uniform. And don’t say a word, will you? Goodbye.”
Feeling himself to be a complete hypocrite, he crossed over the road to Freddy’s bar. There Mrs. Freddy said to him, “A friend of yours is lookin’ for you, ’im with the ogglin’ eyes, Ching. He said he would be in the next ’ouse, the Bull.”
After a quick whiskey Phillip left and walked to the Bull, and saw Lily sitting on a stool, talking to the barmaid. Near her stood Tom Ching. Seeing Phillip, Ching almost rushed at him.
“I’ve wanted to see you, Phil, I want your advice about something urgent. Can we talk in private? It’s very important—First, let me stand you a drink. What’ll you have?”
“I don’t want anything at the moment, thanks all the same,” he replied, conscious of Lily waiting to swim towards him out of her large blue eyes.
“Hullo,” she said, in her soft voice. He wanted to be with her, to be free of the cloudy-eyed Ching tugging his arm, saying, “Come on over here, I’ve been thinking of you for over two days.” He followed reluctantly to a corner.
“Well what is it?”
“I may join the Army!”
“But don’t you realize what I’m telling you?”
“You said you may have to join up.”
“The question is, if I volunteer quickly, I might be able to get into the best branch. I’ve always remembered what you told me about yourself when you came back the first time. Well then, what is the best thing to apply for?”
“The Army Pay Corps.”
“I’ve tried them, but they’ve got no vacancies.”
“Try the A.S.C. or the R.A.M.C.”
“I had thought of the R.A.M.C.”
“Rob All My Comrades, the tommies call it. That’s at the base, of course, and on lines of communication. The stretcher bearers are decent blokes, they go right up into the strafe during a show.”
Ching rolled his eyes in the direction of the bar. “I didn’t know you knew that girl. Is she all right?”
Phillip laughed. Just what he himself had asked the A.S.C. officer about the barmaid, a year before, in the Belvoir Arms. No wonder he had been snubbed. At least he could not choke off Ching for what was the very same gaucherie.
“Yes, she looks a nice person, doesn’t she? Well, don’t let me keep you.”
“I’m in no hurry to go.”
“Well, I want to talk to that girl.”
“You don’t mind if I stay with you, do you? I’ve got no other friend, you see.”
“All right, come and have a drink.”
“Thanks, I will. A double rum.”
“Will you have a drink too, Lily? This is Mr. Ching.”
“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.” She turned round on her stool, revealing skirts well above her ankles, and held out a limp hand, allowing her fingers to be taken by Ching, who, to Phillip’s annoyance, began to fondle them. He determined to get away as soon as he could, especially when Lily held out her other hand for him to take; and when reluctantly he took it, she held on to his hand, swimming into his aloofness from the lakes of her eyes. He took his hand away, and she gave him a sorrowing, reproachful look.
“You don’t like me, do you?”
“I don’t even know you, so I can’t really say.”
She swung round again on the stool, and taking her glass, held it up and drained it. He saw a crucifix on her bracelet, and a heart, and what looked like a dog, and a golliwog.
“If you could spare a minute or two, I’d like a word with you in private,” he said.
The blue eyes shone upon him. She got off the stool, and said, “Shall we go now?”
“Good night,” he said to Ching, and followed her through the mahogany swing doors. Outside in the street she said, “Do you mind taking my arm? I wouldn’t ask you if you were in uniform.”
So she knew all about officers.
“Where shall we go?”
“It’s nice and quiet in the churchyard.”
“Don’t you usually go into the Rec.?”
“Oh no, not if I can help it. I don’t care for the Rec.”
Trying to show she is superior, he thought. Then with surprise he heard her say, “You don’t remember me, do you? Well, do you remember when you used to play cricket on the Hillies, and some of the boys you played with used to call you Grandma, because you were very particular how they had to treat your bat when you let them have a lend of it?”
“Well, I didn’t want them to break it, or hit stones with it. I know they laughed at me, for being a fusspot.”
“You were ever so nice. We called you Grandma because you looked after the little ones. You don’t remember me, but I was one of the kids from Nightingale Grove, who you allowed to join in. The other boys used to let us field the ball, but you let us have a go with the bat.”
“Well, it was only fair.”
“I called you Grandma first. Did you mind?”
“I hated it! I remember you now! You wore a boy’s jersey and button boots too big for you. And you called me Grandma!”
They crossed over Randiswell Road, and passing the Fire Station, came to the shadowed wall of St. Mary’s churchyard, with its trees behind. There she drew apart from him.
“Thanks for the arm. Keechey hangs about there sometimes, hoping for a chance to pinch me for soliciting.”
“I see, I picked you up first!”
“Well, you asked me, didn’t you? No, I didn’t mean it sarcastic. You are very kind, just like you were when a boy.”
“I was a cowardly little rotter.”
“You a coward? I shall never forget one day when you stuck up for Jack o’ Rags against four boys in the High Street. Later when they found you on the Hillies one Saturday morning they set about you, and you never ran away. Your friend Peter Wallace, what was killed with his two brothers early on in the war, he came to your rescue, and trimmed them up. But before that you squared up to them, and they got you down, they were the bullies, not you, Phillip. You don’t mind me calling you Phillip, do you?”
“It’s better than Grandma, anyway!”
They passed by the front of the church, with its broad stone steps, and came to the darker shadows of the yews which linedthe flagstone path lying, between thin iron railings, through the old graveyard. Here, out of the diminished rays of a gas-light in its glass case, they stopped. Memories of the bulky dark figures waiting by the rustic bridges of the river and the hoarse wheedling words,Wantasweetheart,dearie?made him ready for what might be suggested next. From the vestry of St. Mary’s Church came the sound of boys’ voices. It was Choir Practice night.
“Oh, don’t you love music? I love singing. I go to St. Saviour’s to listen to the singing. I would like to be a Catholic, if they’d have me. Are you a Catholic? Your friend is, he told me.”
In the darkness came the faint pure voice of a boy, through stone wall and oaken door, penetrating the blackness of the yews to where they stood just beyond the wan downcast circle of the small war-time gas-light.
O for the wings, for the wings of a Dove
Far, far away would I rove
“Oh, I love a boy’s voice so!”
He thought of the last time he had heard the words and tune, sung by one of the survivors of the attack on 19th December, 1914, coming down on the corduroy paths through the wood. Part of him brooded desperately on the scene, longing to be back in the wood: a feeling no one would ever understand, who had not been out. Where life and death waited side by side, to be wed by bomb and bullet. If only he could write about it, as Julian Grenfell had done.
“Do you know Julian Grenfell’s poem,IntoBattle?In Flanders, just before he was killed, he wrote about the stars he remembered from his boyhood at Taplow, by the Thames,
“‘All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship.
The Dog-star and the Sisters Seven
Orion’s belt and sworded hip.’”
“Oh, I never,” she said, clinging to his arm.
When he had finished, the lamp-lit lakes of Alice’s eyes were running over. “So he was killed, was he. D’you know, I think he knew he was going to die, and did not mind very much. I feel like that sometimes when I’m in St. Saviour’s, listening to the chants. I feel all the hundreds of years ago and all the hundreds of years to come are the same thing, so what does death matter. I suppose you think I’m silly?”
He felt shaken. There was somebody else in the world who felt as he did. He said, “I feel that, too.”
“You do? You really do? Then you don’t think I’m silly?”
“No, of course not. It’s like something coming into your life, from beyond yourself.”
“Father Aloysius, him who has gone away now, said that that was the feeling of God.”
“How very strange. I know Father Aloysius. I met him quite by chance in Essex, last winter. And now you, Lily. It does seem strange. Did you talk to Father Aloysius?”
“Oh yes. I wasn’t a Catholic, but he never minded me talking to him.”
“Why should he mind?”
“For what I once done.”
To his alarm he saw she was crying. “I’ve been very wicked, you see.”
“We’ve all been wicked, I know I have. And still am! Anyway, don’t let’s worry.”
“I only told one other person what I done.”
“Is it about Keechey?”
“Who told you?”
“Oh, I heard somewhere that you used to be rather thick with him—that at one time you walked out with him.”
“Did they say anything more.”
“No. Why should they?”
“If I tell you, promise you won’t give me away?”
“Of course I won’t,” he replied, pleased to be trusted.
She sighed, blew her nose, and said almost inaudibly. “I was going to have a kid by Keechey, and done away with it.”
Boyhood’s horror about whores’ babies being suffocated, tied up in brown paper parcels, and dropped into the Randisbourne, came to him. “Keechey told me to get rid of it. He said he’d get me five years if I told anyone who the father was.”
“He looks like that.”
“I was only fourteen, and a little skivvy, when he did it to me. He was a policeman then. He asked me to go for a walk with him on my afternoon off, and when it was dark he took me on the seat around the willow where they play football, d’you know it? He told me he’d cut my throat if I screamed.”
“Do forgive my asking, but did you kill your baby?”
“I had to have an illegal operation. I wanted my baby, truly I did, only I couldn’t, as I was in service.”
“And you were only fourteen?”
“Well, do take care of yourself now, won’t you? I promise to keep your secret.”
He was still puzzled why she went in pubs to get off with men, apparently. He wanted to ask her, but shrunk from appearing inquisitive.
“I knew you were a real gentleman,” she said admiringly. “You were always different from the other boys on the Hillies.”
“Then you are the only one who has ever thought so!”
“Oh no, you’ve forgotten Horace Cranmer! You remember him, in your Boy Scout’s Patrol? He used to go to work at Hern’s the Grocer’s. You were his hero, didn’t you know that? He was killed too, wasn’t he?”
The last of his reserved feelings about Lily dissolved.
“You know, I can’t think why a girl like you, so pretty and kind, doesn’t have a—well, someone who—likes you.”
“Men only want one thing, usually. They know I am bad, so they try to interfere with me. Though someone I know likes me, but he is old and funny. He likes to kneel down before me and kiss my feet. But he never wants to interfere with me, only kiss my feet and my bosom. He looked after me when I’d had the illegal operation, for nothing. You know him. Promise you won’t tell if I say who?”
“It was Doctor Dashwood. But he didn’t do the illegal operation, he didn’t know about it, until I told him. He’s ever so nice. He said he would have looked after me, despite what people would say, and would have adopted my baby. He wishes I was his daughter, he said once. He never charged me anything for what he done for me. If people say I go after his money, it isn’t true.”
“Don’t you hate Keechey?”
“I’m sorry for him. He says he loves me, now I won’t have any more to do with him. Isn’t it funny? But men are jealous like little children, when you know them. All they want is to be looked after.”
With her eyes upon him shining in the dimness, he felt himself beginning to be small, and resisted the feeling.
“Would you say that about my friend, also?” he asked, a little timidly.
“All men are like that, when you know them. But Desmond is more so, I think. That’s because his father died when he was young, I suppose.”
“But his father is still alive, Lily!”
“Then he made it up, I wonder why. Perhaps he’s ashamed that he left his mother.”
“Yes, you may be right. It never occurred to me.”
“He admires you a lot. He says you are the only one who has been kind to him.”
“He’s my great friend. Or was, until he met you. And that’s the truth!”
“You think I’m not good enough for him, don’t you?”
“Well, you see, we’ve always been rather thick, until you came along.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t come between you.”
“But do you love him, Lily? I don’t want to come between you and him, if you do. Also, I didn’t know you, then, as I do now.”
“You love a girl, don’t you? I’ve seen her, she nurses at the Hospital.”
“She doesn’t love me, anyway.”
“How do you know? Have you tried her?”
“She loved my cousin, who was killed.”
“Yes, I heard. She looked ever so sad. But any woman could love you, I think. You are so kind.”
The eyes of Desmond standing in the porch looked at Phillip steadily when Phillip opened the door to his ring.
“Come in, Desmond. I’m very glad to see you. Gene and I are going to dine up West tomorrow, and we want you to come, too—as in the old days. It’s my birthday, but I don’t want any presents. Will you join us?”
“I want to speak to you privately, first.”
They went into the front room. While Phillip closed the door, Desmond stood still. Then he looked across the table sternly, unhappily.
“What’s the matter now, Des?”
“You know as well as I do.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know very well that you saw Lily last Wednesday. I suspected that when I noticed her changed manner when I met her last night. You went behind my back, after I had told you she was my girl. And why did you tell her that my father was not dead?”
“I didn’t realize you’d told her he was dead, before I spoke.”
“But what right have you to take her for a walk?”
“I only wanted to find out what sort of a girl she was, that was all. How did you know I had seen her?”
“Ching told me first, then I went round to her home, and she told me herself.”
“But it was all above board, Desmond.”
“That isn’t the point. The point is that you have deliberately betrayed me.”
The face was set and pale; this was no joke, Phillip thought, suppressing a feeling to treat the matter lightly.
“How have I betrayed you? We hardly spoke about you.”
“That in itself is an admission. I want your promise that you will not see her again. I want it before I leave this room.”
“What do you think happened between us, then? We only talked.”
“You’ve changed her towards me. You’ve wormed your way into her thoughts, that is obvious. If your friendship for me means anything, you will tell me what you said to her. And what she told you about me.”
“We hardly discussed you. I wanted to find out what she was like, for your sake, if you want to know.”
“Well, what did you find out?”
“I thought she was really a very good person.”
“Then your object has been achieved, and you won’t need to see her again?”
“Not unless she wants to see me. I can’t cut her suddenly; be reasonable. I have told you there is nothing between us.”
“Why should she want to see you again?”
“I don’t know. But she might.”
“What did you say to her, that she might want to see you again?”
“I spoke about music and poetry, and she told me about her experiences of some time ago, and reminded me that I was called Grandma when we used to play cricket on the Hill. That was before I knew you, Desmond.”
“I shall ask her if that is true.”
“You can ask her what you like! And I don’t care for your manner of interrogating me like this! If you don’t believe me, you can lump it! I tell you it was merely a friendly chat, and we both wanted to get away from that hanger-on, Ching, who was with her in the Bull when I went in there to find you, if you want to know.”
“In that case, there can be no reason why you shouldn’t give the promise I ask for.”
“Just a moment, someone may be listening.” He went to the Polyphone, and put onOvertheWaves.The door opened and Mavis came into the room.
“How long are you two going to be in here, eh? Mother and I are waiting to come in.”
“Mind your own biz!”
“Must you use that vulgar expression? I’ve asked you not to, before.”
“Look who’s talking! What about you in the Gild Hall, eh?”
“Anyway, you might at least say how d’you do when you come into a room. And this is a private talk, if you don’t mind.”
“Ha, ha, all your affairs are either private or secret! Except what goes on in Freddy’s and the Bull!”
Mavis went out again, leaving the door a-jar. Phillip closed it violently, then faced Desmond, whose eyes were still fixed upon him.
“Will you give me your promise?”
“But why should I not see Lily again?”
“She is my friend, and I do not intend to lose her.”
“Then may I suggest that you do not treat her as you do me, or you may find that what you fear may have come to pass.”
“You are plausible, as always, and can twist anything round. I want your promise.”
“Well, don’t you twist anything too much, or you might find you’ve broken its neck. Shall we shake hands?”
“On your promise, yes.”
“No! I have said what I have said about that. I ask you to shake hands because we are friends, and only on that. And friends don’t let down friends.”
“That’s all I wanted to know.”
As they shook hands, Phillip said, “I hope that Gene won’t attack me now, because I said I wasn’t going on Saturday to his flat with those flappers. Those kids are much too young. One of them even isn’t developed.”
“In other words, you do not approve?”
“If you put it that way, yes!”
“I see. I’m not allowed to do what I want to do, since you disapprove of Lily, and Gene mustn’t invite two girls to his flat, because you don’t think it’s right?”
“Well, I’m older than you both——”
“Does it occur to you that sometimes you behave like your father, I wonder?”
“Look Des., let’s stop all this rot, shall we? How about a song?” as Doris came into the room.
Desmond had a friend in the London Electrical Engineers, an older man who was a professional singer, who had invited him to his home in North London, and given him lessons. Desmond had a light tenor voice, and sometimes Doris played for him, and Phillip. In the past they had sung duets together, songs likeShipmateo’Mine,Friend o’Mine,etc., usually with three verses, the first two expressive of loving comradeship, the third and final verse dropping into a minor key, solemn with the impending shadow of the valley of death: late Victorian ballads in the spirit of London, with its fogs and dirt and fearful competition, its dread of “going to the wall”, of loss through incurable disease, but with faith in a future life, the resounding of trumpets, and general freedom where before frustration had enclosed the spirit.
Doris sat at the piano, and opened the sheet music ofElëanore,by Coleridge-Taylor. This was a favourite song of Phillip’s; a medium by which he communed with the spirit of Helena. He had not heard Desmond sing since he had been taking lessons; and he was surprised at the clear enunciation of the words, which now came with an almost piercingly pure ringing quality of each note, so carefully phrased. Before, Desmond had at times been nasal in his singing; while Phillip himself was, he knew, soft and throaty,quite hopeless. It was the same when they had sometimes boxed together: Desmond had stood and guarded his blows, which were never really serious; but when Desmond had hit, it was with determination and strength. Phillip could now feel a new power in Desmond, through his singing. There was deep sadness in it, too.
The forest flowers are faded all
The winds complain, the snowflakes fall,
I turn to thee as to a bower
Thou breathest beauty like a flower
Thou smilest like a happy hour,
I turn to thee, I bless afar
Thy name, which is my guiding star,
And yet, Ah God, when thou art here
I faint, I hold my breath for fear
Thou art some phantom wand’ring near
Desmond’s eyes were on the ceiling as he sang, his hands clasped before him.
O, take me to thy bosom fair
And cover me with thy golden hair,
There let me lie when I am dead
Those morning beams around me spread
The glory of thy face o’erhead
“That was very beautifully sung, Desmond,” said Doris.
“Yes, thank you,” said Phillip.
“Isn’t it wonderful that Coleridge-Taylor is a black man?” said Doris. “Ithink all men are part of the same world, really, whatever the colour of their skins.”
“The purpose of life is to create beauty, in spite of everything,” said Phillip.
Desmond said nothing, as he stood there, head and eyes downheld.
“Would you two like to sing a duet now?”
Neither Phillip nor Desmond replied.
As they went out of the room, Hetty appeared, and said she wanted to say something to Phillip. Desmond said a laconic goodbye; and Phillip returned with his mother to the room.
“I was wondering, Phillip, about your birthday party. As you will be going back on Monday, Gran’pa says he would be pleased if you would have supper with him tomorrow night. Perhaps Desmond might like to come, too?”
“Well, I’m afraid I shan’t be able to come tomorrow, Mum, as Gene and I have arranged to go out. In fact, I was just going to ask Desmond, too.”
“Perhaps Sunday will be better, then? Would you care to ask Desmond to come then?”
“He said he was on searchlight duty on Sunday.”
“Well then, shall we have just a family party, like old times?” with a gay little laugh.
“Oh, all right,” he said, with the dullness of nearly a thousand Sundays at home in his voice.
“Very well, Phillip,” replied Hetty, with forced cheer. “I’ll tell Gran’pa that you will come on Sunday. It is a special occasion, you know. You will only be twenty-one once.”
“Not being a woman, I suppose that’s true, Mother dear.”
He gave her an unexpected kiss, arising out of joy that he and Desmond were good friends once again, and he was going down to Freddy’s bar, hoping to see him there.
When the front door closed behind Phillip his elder sister came downstairs. Mother and daughter went into the front room.
“Thank goodness they’re gone out! Desmond with his sentimental, lugubrious singing! Phew, the room smells like a pub with all this smoke hanging about! Why do men smoke, I can’t see anything in it? Help me clear the table, Mummie darling, will you? The light won’t last very much longer, and you know Father won’t let me use the gas, because of this beastly economy. Why hasn’t Nina come? She said she would be here at a quarter to six, and it’s past that.”
“Perhaps she has been delayed at the office, dear.”
“Oh no, she gets off at five, and promised to come straight here.”
Ornamental china bowl holding miniature orange tree was liftedoff the table, tapestry cloth folded; now they were ready to cut out, from material which Mavis had bought at the Spring Sales, the gores of the new Freedom Skirt, a pattern of which had been given away withWeldon’sHomeJournal.Sewing machine, work-basket, scissors, were all ready; but where was Nina?
“We must start without her, that’s all, Mother. Take my waist measurement, will you?”
Mavis had looked forward so keenly to this occasion, that her friend’s non-appearance, together with her fear of her father coming into the room—scores of mental pictures of this had already turned the edge of the joys of anticipation—was almost a disaster. Hurry, hurry, there was so little time.
Twenty-three inches, said Hetty. This was awful news: for the tissue pattern of the gore, or long triangular piece, twelve of which were to be sewn together to make the Freedom Skirt, was for a waist of twenty-five inches. The problem, or disaster, presented two alternatives: one, to cut the material to the pattern, and allow wider margins when sewing together; the other, to reduce the paper pattern by the difference, two inches, in proportion.
“Of course, after I’ve had my tea … but I don’t always get blown out…. No! We must cut for what I am, twenty-three inches!”
“If only Nina were here! She is better at mathematics than I am. Two inches off all round, divided by twelve. That’s one-sixth of an inch. Doris! Doris! Bring your ruler, please! Quick! No time to be lost!”
Doris came in from the kitchen, where she was doing her homework. Her opinion was asked for; and immediately afterwards she was asked if Mavis’ opinion was correct. Before Doris could adjust herself to this, Mavis said, “No! It would be fatal to take off one-sixth of an inch all down each gore! Don’t you see, one-sixth of an inch at my waist would be the equivalent of ever so much more at the hem, for the hem is wide! The waist is narrow! So how can it be the same? Mother, stop laughing! Oh, you are silly! Now you’ve upset all my thoughts, and I’ll have to start again!
“I am so very sorry, Mavis,” laughed Hetty. “I know it’s ridiculous, but I saw a perfectly straight skirt, twenty-three inches all down, so that you had to hobble, like Marie Cox did when she wore her hobble skirt through Randiswell!”
“I know, and ragged boys followed her to the High Street, and jeered at poor old Marie! Little beasts! I was going to the HighSchool then, before I went to Thildonck. Howawfulshe must have felt!”
Nina arrived at this point, flushed and out of breath, full of apologies that her train had been missed. All was well. Hetty went to make a pot of tea, the kettle already simmering on the gas—or wasting away, as Richard (and Phillip) would have said—but thank goodness both were out of the house. Raisin scones with butter, put on in thick pats, were nourishing, and would keep the girls happy until supper, which they were to have next door, with Papa and Aunt Marian. Ever optimistic in her clear moments, Hetty took the tray into what was originally her drawing-room, and still was; for Dickie, she reflected, seldom if ever went into it. To the children, of course, it was the front room, a place of withdrawal.
Three girls were working out sums on paper, with pencils: how to reduce the pattern by 2/25ths. Doris worked it out to three places of decimals, and on being scorned by her sister for this, promptly left the room, saying “Do it yourself,” and returned to her interrupted Latin “construe”, taking her ruler and two buttered scones with her.
Two minutes later Hetty joined her, laughing silently, all her suggestions and attempts to solve Mavis’ problem having been scouted. Her laughter turned to tears as she set about washing up in the scullery: why, she told herself, she did not know. The sudden revelation had been smothered: an opening upon the evaded reality of her life: that nobody wanted her forherself, only for her usefulness.
Apparently Mavis and Nina solved the problem, for when her smiling, cheerful face looked round the door again, the Crow Blue material, with its dark sheens, was in strips, cut to a diminished pattern.
“I think,” said Nina, in her sedate voice, which seemed at times to have been pushed back into her stocky Saxon figure, “we’ll easily be able to finish it all by next Saturday. Mavis will look wonderful in it, her figure is just right for it, don’t you think so, Mrs. Maddison?”
“Don’t waste time,” said Mavis. “We’ve got to make the jacket yet, don’t forget!”
“Don’t worry, Mavis, we’ll get it finished all right.”
Saturday was always a time of enjoyment for Hetty, for in the morning her dear friend and charwoman, Mrs. Feeney, came towork with brush, pan, polish, emery paper, hearth-stone, swab, and pail, practically all of her time on her knees, but for a break at eleven o’clock, when with bread-and-cheese, and bottle of porter, she sat at the kitchen table and talked to the mis’ess sipping a cup of tea. Doris was home, too, and the April sun was shining, the hawthorns in the gulley were a pale gentle green, and little children playing happily on the grass beyond the spiked railings of the park in front of the house; and her son, still her little son, was twenty-one! How the time had flown since they had come to the house, nineteen years ago, one Saturday afternoon, to find it all new and bare, the floors so clean, and the new bathroom, and the picnic tea which they had had together, and while she had nursed her brown-eyed baby by the fire, Dickie and his little boy, who so loved him that he imitated him in nearly everything he did, played hide-and-seek in the bare rooms upstairs, and Phillip was so happy because Dickie had saved a spider which had fallen into the lavatory pan, and put it on the window sill to dry, to her little boy’s delight, “’at poor spider will find ’is mummy now, won’t ’e, Dads?”
“Now ma’am,” said Mrs. Feeney, cheerfully, “I must get on with my steps. Master Phillip must see them properly hearth-stoned for his birthday.” She understood the tears in the mis’ess’ eyes, God bless ’er.
Richard refrained from looking closely at the ring and the case when Phillip showed them to him on his arrival home in the afternoon. He could not help saying, “I am afraid I have no present for you; it was taken out of my hands, that is all I can say.” Then he put on his allotment boots. Wheeling away barrow and tools, kept under a tarpaulin in the front garden (well into the privet hedge against theft) he felt grievous and unwanted; but walking in the sun along Charlotte Road his heart lightened at the vision of bringing fertility back to his few rods of soil which for so long had lain acid under the smoke of London, and now were in his tenancy, at a peppercorn rent of one shilling a year.
While Richard was trundling his one-wheeled wooden vehicle of gardening tools past the open gates of the cemetery, another manifestation of vernal hope was showing itself in the front room of the house in Hillside Road, where Mavis and the faithful Nina were busy completing the Freedom Skirt, in the sunlit air comingin through the open windows of the front room, and slightly stirring the leaves of the aspidistra on its tall stand.
Doubts, anguished and devastating, tightened within Mavis when first, in company with Hetty and Nina and Doris, she saw herself in the long looking glass in her mother’s bedroom. The skirt was a complete failure. It hung on her like a punctured balloon. And the pleats! They looked shapeless, some thin and others puffy. The skirt did not swing when she turned round, it did not swish, the pleats followed sluggishly. It was the pattern which was wrong. She had known it all along. If only Mother had not laughed, just when Nina was calculating the amount to be cut off the pattern. Now there wasn’t enough material round the hem to let the skirt down a couple of inches. It was a disaster!
“Nina, why didn’t you tell me I was cutting the skirt too close to the pattern? O, now I look asight!”
Mavis was near to tears. While Nina humbly said she was very sorry, Doris proclaimed stoutly that it looked very nice. Hetty agreed. Mavis sighed, and wondered. Doris said, “I vote it looks jolly fine, Mavis.” Nina ceased to apologise and added her assurances.
“Are you sure? I wish I could see it from behind.”
Mavis twisted and peered, while her woeful face in the glass stared back at her. Her mother made a suggestion which in reverse settled the matter.
“Why not keep it, dear, a little while, and see if others are wearing it first?”
“What? And let them say I am a copy-cat? Not likely!” exclaimed Mavis, the plaintive, almost helpless tones of her voice giving way to a rougher, slightly guttural note, as she summoned up resolution. “No, I shan’t care what people say! What do I care what anyone says about me? I like it, and I’m the one to be considered!”
“Of course, dear, naturally.”
“Why not let Gramps and Aunt Marian see it,” suggested Doris, “if you can’t believe all of us?”
“Pouff, what will they know about clothes?”
“At least, Mavis, Gran’pa is interested in his granddaughter. And if he approves, you will know it is all right to wear it.”
The old man was sitting by the fire in his yew-wood chair, reviewing scenes of his living long past, in the kinema of his mind. Tibby, the household steer cat, lay stretched along the length ofits master’s right thigh. Its tail hung down by his groin; its paws, with claws half-sheathed, rested on the shiny, rounded blue serge trouser covering the cocked-up knee.
For more than a dozen years, ever since he had given up his country villa at Cross Au ton in Surrey to be near his daughter in the Benighted Swamp, as he called the foggy environs of the south bank of London River, Thomas Turney had worn only one kind of suit during the day; a ready-made blue serge, one or another of a score hanging in the mahogany cupboard in his bedroom. He was a short man, with a round bullet-shaped head, now almost bald. His body was not fat—his weight was constant at what he called, in his older way of speech, “Ten stun twelve pun”. Since his days of discretion, he was wont to say, he ate for nourishment only, he-he-he—the little wheezy laugh, emphasised by a chronic inflammation of the bronchial tube, was due to having smoked too many Havana cigars in the past.
His eyes closed; the kinema of his mind, its life, was dulling out; he was on the edge of sleep; only the ticking of the ormolu clock set in dark marble on the shelf above the fireplace was audible in the room. He had not yet begun to snore.
In a plush-covered armchair, with its back nearly upright, sat his eldest sister. Her eyes were open, her arms folded, her thoughts were composed; she believed implicitly in the Christian faith. At eighty-three years of age Miss Marian Turney was still active and alert. She had a mass of white hair, and a strong, resolute face, which was offset in conversation by the controlled quickness of her manner. She wore a striped flannel blouse with a stiff starched linen collar like a man’s, a thin black bow hanging from it. Whenever she spoke, it was in a decisive, firm manner. She listened to whoever was speaking with marked attention, as though what was said was important to her. Now she was resting between tea and supper.
At the click of the gate she looked up, and light came into her eyes. She rose to open the door to her niece and the two girls.
“Do come in! Tom will be so pleased to see you! Mavis, how nice you do look, dear! What is it,lederniercri?To be sure, it is! And Nina, too, what a pleasant surprise!”
She always made people who called feel welcome; so did her brother Tom. Their nerves were strong; centuries of work on the land had bred a generation which was uncomplicated by the constraints of urban living.
Thederniercriwas examined, every exterior part of it: thematerial, the cut, the jacket with the roll collar, the new large hat, the parasol, the new Norvic glacé kid button boots, with patent leather toe-cap and cuban heel. O, the doubt and hope that had flowed away from Mavis, and Nina, in choosing those boots! First it had been a cloth-topped patent golosh; then a velvetta calf with mother-of-pearl buttons, until, with almost a fracture of the mind, Mavis realised that cockney pearly men and women wore such things when they drove out, with feather hats and great vulgar boas, from their awful homes on Bank Holidays, usually singing and the worse for liquor. So the unexceptionable first pair she had tried on were finally chosen … at the very stiff price of 19s.6d.And she had promised to pay for them on the Monday, having spent two weeks’ salary on the materials for theensemble.
While she was showing herself off, Phillip arrived. Hewould, she thought. If he were sarcastic, she would die!
“Good afternoon, Aunt Marian! How are you, Mother? Hullo, Nina! How do you do, sir?” Facing his grandfather, he said, “I have come to thank you for the very handsome presents you have procured for me for my birthday. Also I must ask to be taken into consideration my lapse in not having replied to your letter of six months ago, but I still keep it in my pocket case. Now do introduce me to this charming young lady, won’t you? Why, it’s you, Mavis! And wearing a Crow Blueensemble.My lady friends in Debenham and Freebody’s would be envious if they saw you now. Oh yes, I know two lovely girls who are mannequins there. I was very nearly engaged to one, but that was some time ago.”
Taking solemnly his grandfather by the hand, he said in voice of the dead Hugh Turney, “I shall carry the Le Tournet crest, sir, in the Field—and faithfully maintain its traditions in the face of the enemy.” He displayed the 18-carat gold ring on a little finger. “Seriously, Gran’pa, thank you very much indeed! How’s old Tibbles? Still torturing birds in the Field—I refer to the Backfield, of course, this time.” He rubbed the cat’s ear with his finger.
Thomas Turney, not quite knowing how to take the varying moods of his grandson, said, “Well, your mother tells me that you’ve changed your Corps, once more, Phillip.”
“Yes sir, kicked out once again, this time arriving on the back of a horse.Eheufugaces,fugaces—as Uncle Hugh used to say. I thought that it referred to the cigar smoke he used to puff out ofhis mouth.Phew—fumes,fumes,for the word fumes was connected in my mind with smoke, from hearing him speak of a chimney on fire, in Charlotte Road. Then of course he told me that it meant the old days gone forever. It’s a habit they have, unfortunately.”
Hetty feared that her son had been drinking: his mocking manner, too, was startlingly like that of her dead brother, Hughie. She glanced at her aunt, that tower of affection and strength.
“Let me make you a cup of tea, Phillip,” said Marian, getting up from her chair.
“Thank you, Great-Aunt, but I would not dream of putting you to any bother on my behalf.”
“No bother at all, Phillip!” said the old lady, on her way to the kitchen.
“Well, Phillip, we expected you for lunch, you know. Have you had anything to eat?”
“Yes thank you, Mother. As a matter of fact, I had lunch with some friends for whom I referee’d a hockey match this morning.”
“I bet!” scoffed Mavis. “Who were they?” she challenged.
“Some girls at the High School, if you must ask questions.”
“Ha ha, those flappers you and Desmond meet in the Gild Hall! Fancy running after flappers, at your age!”
“Mavis, how dare you,” said Hetty.
“Well, the referee must run occasionally, you know,” said Phillip.
“Will ye stay to supper?” asked Thomas Turney. “Escallops will do you good. You must not neglect the inner man, you know.”
“Well, thank you, Grandfather, but I promised to dine with some friends in London tonight.”
“Then come tomorrow night, why not?”
“Yes do, Phillip,” said Hetty, “we are so looking forward to it.”
“Thank you very much. Well, I must be off now.”
“To Freddy’s, I bet,” said Mavis.
He looked at his wristlet watch. “I must rush! Desmond and I are meeting Gene at Charing Cross in less than half an hour. Goodbye, everybody.”
Home again, Hetty said, “I think you are most unfair, Mavis, to say things like that, especially before other people. Why you do it, I can never understand.”
“There you go, always defending Phillip, and never seeing what he really is! I have told you, I am ashamed of having abrother like him! Everyone says at Head Office that he is a coward, or words to that effect, and was sent home last time, because he was no good. And everyone there has to work extra hard, to pay the salaries of the men away at the war, and what is Phillip doing with the money? Spending it on drink, and then wasting it away down the drain! And worse than that, he goes with loose women down in the High Street, and was seen the other night standing with one for a long time, outside St. Mary’s Church, a woman called Lily Cornford, who gets drunk in the Bull and Freddy’s, and picks up with anyone in uniform that comes along.”
“Mavis, what are you saying? How dare you?”
“Well, it’s the truth, Mother! I’m not imagining it! Desmond knows her, too, he takes her to the Hippodrome. And she goes to see that awful boozy old Dash wood, too—quite shameless!”
“How do you know all this, Mavis?”
“I heard it from someone who knows Phillip very well, and has done for years.”
“Who is it? Tell me, Mavis.”
“Do you swear you’ll never tell a soul, Mother?”
“Very well, if you insist.”
“Well, it is Mr. Jenkins, who hears it from the detective-sergeant at Randiswell Police Station.”
“I did not know that you have been seeing Mr. Jenkins, Mavis!”
“I often come across him, when I go to see Nina. He goes on duty near her home.”
“Oh, I see. All the same, I wish you hadn’t told me, I wish you hadn’t,” said Hetty, feeling one of her headaches coming on.
Mavis put her arms round her mother. “Don’t you worry, darling Mummy, I love you very very much, you know. But how can I help feeling like I do, about Phillip I mean, when he upsets everybody in the house, including Father. He always did, from the very first. When he was quite tiny, he was always taking Father’s things, and causing trouble. Then when he was bigger, look how he used to get Peter Wallace to fight for him, and pick on innocent, weaker boys! Such as Albert Hawkins, who was killed at Loos with the Blackheath battalion, and I liked him very much, do you know that? Yes, he was the only boy who has ever loved me! And I loved him, too, as much as he loved me! And I can’t forget his face, all over blood, as he cried and hung for support to that little tree growing on the bank below the garden fence, wherethe marn pond used to be, when Peter Wallace had punched him!”
It was now the mother’s turn to hold the daughter, shaking with sobs.
London, April 1916. A fine night over Piccadilly, hub of the machine-turning globe, its golden spokes covering one-fifth of the world, the British Empire, whose energy was now roused in unity for—its own destruction.
The hub was small, in the financial centre of an island; and like a device upon the hub the bronze statue of Eros, the Winged Archer, was ever about to shoot his arrow into the human beings circulating below, with their thoughts of food, fear, fornication, and death; and here and there an individual inspired by austere thoughts of love everlasting, of patriotism, of the hope of courage in the final test of duty.
Dim specks of oil-lamps on taxicabs, their bodies built high like hooded bath-chairs, and almost as slow; blue-painted street lamps above the kerbs of pavements; uniforms of the principal nations of the Entente, Britain, France, Russia, Italy; and of the Allied nations of Japan, Belgium, Montenegro, Servia, Portugal. Officers of Colonial troops from Africa, spahis and other coloured troops wearingthe fez; Australians with bushranger hats, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and the Gold Coast Regiment, the King’s African Rifles. Among the masses seeking escape and relaxation from their thoughts, three suburban friends in file pressed through the slow thronging uniforms making for a restaurant which one of them, who considered himself to be a Man about Town, had discovered. There, he declared, one could eat a very good dinner at a moderate price, and drink the finest wines in London—Tiger’s Popular Restaurant, less than one hundred yards from Eros, on the northern side of Piccadilly. Doors of wrought iron filigree and glass; golden electric lamps on tables; a carpet soft as sand, a string orchestra playing.
German submarine warfare had not yet stripped the bottoms in which money through trade had come to Great Britain: food was plentiful for those with money: the Great Push of the New Armies would end in the splendours of Victory.
One of the things Phillip liked about Eugene was his love of music. Eugene had heard operas with his father, and could hum many of the airs ofBohême,Tosca,Butterfly,and others. He had told Phillipthe stories of these operas, producing in his listener the emotions he himself felt. Therefore it was extra pleasure that Phillip saw Gene going to the conductor of the orchestra, to ask for selections fromPagliacci,with its wonderfulOnwiththeMotley,the broken-hearted clown’s lament for his betrayal and ruined life. Phillip felt himself to be the clown and ordered for a start two bottles of claret with the porterhouse steak; which when it came was surrounded by mushrooms, fried potatoes, onions, with six poached eggs lying upon it—a South African dish Phillip had heard of from a Boer officer at Grantham. When the second bottle was empty, he proposed a toast of the Big Push, declaring that he was off to Grantham on Monday, to finish his transport course, and apply to be attached to an early company going overseas; after the third bottle, Desmond declared that he would desert to France if his transfer to a Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers did not soon come through; while with the fourth bottle Senhor Eugene Franco Carlo Goulart etc. was on his feet declaring that Brazil would soon be coming into the war to join the Allies and then the spirit of his famous grandfather the General would etc. At this point the manager requested him to be seated, as the other customers wanted to be quiet, he said. Not to be suppressed, Phillip ordered a fifth bottle, and when that lay under the table empty he began to see how funny the quiet people at the other tables were, and by God, the three of them ought to wake them up and begin painting the town red!
A wonderful dinner. The host, when he had paid the bill and tipped the waiter five shillings and pressed upon each of his friends a pound note, followed them into the warm darkness of Piccadilly, to be led by Gene to the Empire Palace Hotel, and sit in an immense room of cream and gilt, with walls like Gorgonzola cheese from which the blue had been transmuted into veins of gold, where a thousand odd people sat at tables drinking coffee and liqueurs, eating pastry of Oriental splendour, while thick-red-lipped they stared around with mental hunger in dark brilliant eyes for glimpses of beauty and distinction to uplift them from their levels of living; and finding nothing, sat back upon those levels, ruminating prospects of more and more business due to war. They sat, seldom moving, secure in their fat, transients from the east, from Whitechapel, Aldgate, and Houndsditch to the west and north-west, Maida Vale, Hampstead, and Golders Green, families rising on the tide of clothing, furniture, and armament contracts.
Eugene, looking round with superior feelings, began to say that Phillip had let him down, by not being in uniform. He would bedismissed as a slacker. That’s right. Also, if he had worn his’h uniform, he wouldn’t mind betting that those two birds in the Gild Hall would have come to his flat s’ afternoon.
“Well, to tell you the truth, dear boy,” said Phillip, “I was’h thinking of someone called—hush!—Lily—so—you see—I stopped ’em from comin’.”
A taxicab took them to Westbourne Terrace, and the driver, deeming them to be seeing double, sympathetically adjusted the fare to this state; and was surprised to be paid treble the sum on the clock.
It took twenty merry minutes, while doors opened to emit angry human barks before abruptly closing to loudcuck-oosby Phillip, before the attic flat was reached, where they slept, fully dressed. All night trains whistled and shunted in the yards of Paddington station below the row of tall seedy houses, heard remotely by Phillip as he tottered to the lavatory with aching head, throat, and gut; murmuring never again.
The repentance of the sick devil, or weak saint, went the way of most good intentions, including the romantic determination under the tawny flag to return to Grantham early on the Monday morning; for after spending Sunday in bed at home, and missing the supper party next door, on the following morning, when he got up at his mother’s earnest request, to say goodbye to his father, he felt so weak that he decided to see Dr. Dashwood again, and ask for an extension of leave.
When Richard had left for the office, Mavis ran downstairs, and after swallowing her breakfast, said, “Mother, I must have ten shillings, quickly! I promised to pay for my new boots today, and have only nine and ninepence, which will leave me threepence when I’ve paid for them. Quick, quick, you must help me!”
“You’ve had a pound this month already, Mavis, and it is only the second week. I really cannot afford any more out of the housekeeping.”
“But I must pay for my new boots! I must! I must! I must! Don’t waste any more ti me, or I shall miss my train!”
“I really cannot affor d any more, Mavis. You must wait till pay day.”
“Give me ten shillings! I saw a note in your bag. Let me have it!”
Hetty looked at the face of her child, which was contorted, and near to frenzy.
“Quick, I say!” cried Mavis, as she stamped her foot.
“You did promise it would be the very last time, only on Saturday, Mavis.”
“Oh Mother, don’t waste time!”
Hetty looked helplessly at her daughter. “Oh very well, but this is the very last time, remember.”
Mavis snatched the note, and ran out of the room.
“Don’t bang the door!” yelled Phillip.
“Mind your own biz!”
The door clashed behind the hurrying girl.
“That stained glass will get loose in the lead strips. Why do you give in to her, Mother?”
“What can I do, Phillip? She works herself up so——”
“Why does she always want to dress herself in all these ridiculous fashions? And why must Nina always go with her, ‘to help her to choose’ this and that? She doesn’t. It is always Mavis who chooses, and Nina who must agree with her. Mavis only wants someone to fetch and carry for her. They’re like two birds together, a parakeet mincing along beside a thrush, Mavis in her finery and Nina in her tweed overcoat, and plain little hat. And they’re always having tiffs, Nina always humbly asking how she has offended Mavis, and it usually ends in her crying; while Mavis holds out, won’t say what Nina has done, but seems to enjoy prolonging Nina’s distress. You say that Father often accuses you of what you haven’t done, then sulks and withdraws into himself, letting you suffer; well then, can’t you see that Mavis and Nina are in the same relationship? Why do you pander to her? It only makes her worse.”
“Phillip, my son,” said Hetty, looking at him with a steadiness near to despair, “‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ Mavis has been very unhappy. The boy she loved long ago, Albert Hawkins, was killed last October, at Loos, the same day that Bertie was killed. Do you begin to understand, my son?”
Phillip sat still. Then he gave a long sigh and said, “Yes, I think I do. Mother, at least let me give you this money, it’s only three pounds, only you must swear never to say that I gave it to you. Help Mavis. Help yourself, too. Before Desmond or Gene borrows it first!” he laughed. “No, I didn’t mean that. I’m very glad to be able to share with my friends. Oh dear, I can’t go back today, I’ll have to get twenty-four hours’ extension. Never again.”
Dr. Dashwood, that most courteous and titubating practitioner, after insisting on what he called a couple of pick-me-ups and thepatient considered to be potential lay-me-downs, insisted on a medical examination in the billiard room.
“Definitely a dull patch on this lung, Middleton. I can’t let you return to duty until you have consulted my colleague Toogood. I will give you a chit to take to him, Middleton.”
To the Military Hospital Phillip went, and without further examination Lt.-Col. Toogood, R.A.M.C., gave him another chit and told him to report forthwith to Millbank Military Hospital.
There Phillip—having left his motorcycle in the porch of his father’s house, where it dripped oil that stained the terra-cotta tiles, hitherto kept scrupulously clean by Mrs. Feeney the charwoman—was put in the Observation Ward, and told to get into bed, after the usual preliminaries of written-down details; and await an examination.
Chapter 11TWO MONTHS' LEAVE
A condition of anaemia was found. The left lung showed symptoms of phthisis; a sputum test having proved negative, it was considered possibly to be due to chlorine gas inhalation. The action of the heart was intermittent.
“Of course,” he heard the R.A.M.C. major say to the lieutenant, “the absence of tubercle in the sputum is not conclusive. He needs building up.” Phillip heard this with impassive face, while thinking what a fraud he was.
He was put on a diet of milky foods; this was succeeded by white fish, and chicken, while he had to remain in bed.
The ward had twenty-four beds, twelve a side. Each bed was occupied by an officer. He noticed, during the morning inspection by the R.A.M.C. lieutenant on duty, and more pronouncedly when the major and the colonel came round during the bi-weekly inspection, how some of the faces opposite took on expressions of dullness or weakness specially for the occasion.
Some of them talked among themselves of having had medical boards, one after another, until an original three months' leave had been extended to six, then nine, then twelve; and one officer, a senior subaltern seconded to the R.F.C. from a regular battalion of an infantry regiment, had been on sick leave, with brief periods in hospital such as the present period, since November 1914.He seemed to have had a wonderful time. His talk was of dancing at Grafton Galleries, actors and actresses like Teddie Gerrard, Phyllis Monkman, Matheson Lang, Gaby Deslys, Vi Lorraine, and other famous people.
His bedside companion was also in the R.F.C. He had P.U.O. on his temperature chart, and said it was trench fever, probably from lice. He spoke of the coming Great Push. It was to be in the chalk country known as the Garden of Eden, the quietest and most peaceful sector of the British front. This sector, he said, had been taken over from the French, since the German attack at Verdun. A new British Army, the Fourth, had been formed under General Rawlinson, especially for the Push.
“Does the R.F.C. have liaison officers in the trenches, as the gunners do?”
“No. My engine went dud and I crashed my undercart behind the front line near Hebuterne, in our new sector. The Old Hun strafed my bus, but I got away into the trenches, where I got crummy but thought no more about it after a lysol bath. Then I had ten days' leave and here I am.”
He went on to say, “In that trench they were digging a large rectangular pit, with a notice board stuck in it, SITE FOR WATER TANK. They groused like hell having to hack out all that chalk, and the skipper who entertained me in his dugout said it was a blind, in case the Hun raided, to give the idea that our trenches there were a fixture. It was just like the staff, he said, to think out such a Boy Scout idea to deceive the Old Hun.”
“Don't you believe it!” called out a man across the ward. “Those pits are for a new kind of armoured land-fort, on caterpillar tracks. They put up the notice about water tanks to bluff Jerry.”
The man in the next bed to Phillip was quite old, and in the Indian Army. He cursed things violently, and grumbled most of the time: a yellow-faced swarthy officer who, when he got up, put on a light khaki drill uniform. He had served in Mesopotamia, and was one of the few who had got awa from the siege of Kut-el-Amara, after the battle of Ctesiphon. He was in hospital because he had what he called the Tigris Jigger in his guts. This, he explained, was a swimming organism with a corkscrew on its head, with which it burrowed, causing pain and bleeding. He had permanent screens around his bed, because he could not hold his water. He was given sandalwood oil in capsules, and hexamine; and he was privately dosing himself with whiskey. “Fire drives outfire, and corkscrew corkscrew,” he said. The whites of his eyes, Phillip noticed, were as yellow as his Indian drill uniform.
One night he came back very late, saying that he had been arrested for “indecent exposure of the person in Trafalgar Square”. He swore and raged, saying it was the bilharzia in his bladderâthe Tigris Jigger. He cursed the Government for letting down the Army in Mespot. “We defeated Adbul the Turk at Ctesiphon, eighteen miles from Kutâfive thousand wounded, and only springless carts to bring some of the poor sods back, over rough tracks, while Arabs gnawed like bloody rats at the wounded left behind, cutting off their private parts and sticking them in their victims' mouths.” He told about the hospital shipMejidiehfloating down the river in a cloud of flies and stink for seventeen days, the wounded helpless and unattended on the decks, lying in their own fÃ¦ces, black with fliesâthe lads who had fought at Ctesiphon.
In went the corkscrew, up went the bottle of whiskey.
After two days in slacks and carpet slippers, Phillip was told, “Matron says you may go out today. Have you friends or relations to go to? London is a naughty place nowadays, for a lonely soldier,” as she relished him with her eyes. He dissembled, looking innocent to keep his detachment. “Oh yes, thank you, I live not far away.”
“Then see that you are back in the ward by nine o'clock,” she said shortly, as she went away, with a glance of disdain at the yellow, leathery officer of Ghurkas, sitting on the next bed and manicuring his fingernails.
Phillip walked about on the Hill, talked to Gran'pa and Mr. Bolton in their shelter, and wondered what he could do until six o'clock, when Desmond would return.
At seven they were in Freddy's, at half-past eight he caught a 36 bus to Victoria, jumped off at the Embankment, and walked to Millbank Hospital. After a few days of this, he returned on his motor-cycle, wheeling it into the hall of the hospital, and leaning it against the wall near the foot of the stairs. In the morning he wheeled it out again, and in sunny weather went home. For a week he followed the same routine; until the D.M.S., the old boy whose velvet tabs and hat-band were the hue of claret, asked what this O.H.M.S. machine was, and what purpose did it serve, and to whom did it belong. On being told it was the transport of a young officer patient, he said, “A hospital is no place for transport, let him arrange accommodation for it with the D.Q.M.G. Horse Guards.”
“I think it might be simpler not to leave it here any more,” said Phillip to the Matron, who said, “We don't want to separate you from your belovedHelena,so the Senior Medical Officer has arranged a board for you both at Caxton Hall tomorrow.”
He felt he would be sorry to leave; his stay had been quite pleasant. Ah well, back to Grantham after a wonderful mike. But to his surprise the kindly old R.A.M.C. colonelâone of many white-haired dug-outs sitting solitary at little tables in the large hall, each with a convalescent officer seated before himâsaid, “I am giving you two months' convalescent leave. I would like you to go into the country and take things easily. Do you fish? The very thing to relax those tautened nerves of yours. Have you a good appetite?”
“Fairly good, sir.”
“Now have you friends or relatives who will take care of you? If not, Georgiana Lady Dudley will be able to fix you up at one of her places. Meanwhile two copies of the Leave of Absence Form D.3a will be sent to you, one for your retention, the other you should send to your regimental agents, if you draw your pay through that channel. Your own copy should be kept by you, in order to support any claim for allowances, should you be entitled to any. Now if you go to the sergeant's table over there, he will issue you with a railway voucher for the station you want to go to. Good morning!”
There were half a dozen officers waiting at the sergeant's table, where warrants were being issued. As more accumulated, the sergeant got another book of warrants from a drawer and said, “If you gentlemen will take turns to fill in the particulars of rank, name, and regiment in this book, I will fill in the counterfoils, and we shall halve the time of waiting that way. Block letters, gentlemen, please.”
The book of warrants went from one to another, with an indelible pencil. At last Phillip's turn came, and he made out his warrant for Lynton. He would stay in Aunt Dora's cottage, where he had spent his holiday just before the war.
When he got home, he fixed the warrant in the looking-glass frame above the fireplace. Lynton! Had not Father and Mother gone there for a holiday, too, just after he was born? A wonderful, romantic place. He hoped Father would notice it.
There it remained for several days, seen by Richard every time he went into the sitting-room; until at last he said, looking up from his magazine, “What is the wild boy up to now, Hetty?What is all the mystery?” He indicated the pale green paper, which until now he had refrained from examining or asking questions about.
“Phillip stuck it there for safety, Dickie.”
“What is it, if I may enquire?”
“He is going to stay for a while with Dora. Apparently he is not very well, and the doctors have sent him into the country.”
“Look here!” cried Richard. “What is the mystery about Master Phillip? Is he ill, or is he not ill? If he is ill, why have not I, as the boy's father, been told about it?”
“I think it is general debility, Dickie. He was never very strong in the chest as a child, you will remember, and we were anxious about his croup.”
“Oh. I had no idea. Was that decided when he went into hospital recently?”
“I think so, but Phillip does not say much to me, you know.” She said this to reassure her husband.
“Well, it beats me. I don't understand what is going on, not in the very least.” Richard picked upNash's,and read more of the latest adventures of Chota inBilletNotes.
“Phillip is ordered lots of fresh air and cream, apparently, Dickie, so he is going to stay in Dora's cottage. He says the doctor told him to fish, so he is waiting for a few days, he says, until the trout are fat, at the end of May.”
“Good God!” cried Richard, now thoroughly aroused, “what sort of caper is this? Have the authorities gone mad? What are they doing, to allow a bit of a boy like Phillip to run wildâand then they send him fishing for trout! And he bides his time, mark you, he picks and chooses, he waits until they are fat, at the end of May! Then in Heaven's name how much leave has he got, pray?Twomonths?Then why isn't he in hospital, if he is not well, instead of gadding about as he does, turning night into day? What are the powers-that-be doing, I should like to know, to leave a young fellow, if there is something radically wrong with him, to his own devices, until the Lyn trout are in condition? No, I do not accept that explanation! There is something very fishy about the goings-on of Master Phillip, if you ask me! Some things that want looking into very closely indeed!”
“I expect the authorities know what they are doing; please don't upset yourself about it.”
“Who's upsetting himself? Not me,” said Richard, and taking upTheDailyTrident,he read about massed German assaults onthe forts of Verdun; after which, an attack on Asquith for mismanaging the war, signedCastleton,the name of the proprietor of the newspaper.
“Well, at any rate, Dickie, I notice a great improvement in Phillip lately. He was very poorly, you know, when he came back from France last winter, very much on edge. I promised not to tell you, but his superior officer wrote to him and said he deserved a military cross for what he did. I saw the letter myself. Phillip took charge, he said, when the other officers had been killed, and led the men to take the position.”
“Why didn't I know of this before?” cried Richard. “Now I come to think of it, Phillip always was a bit of an adventurer. Well I'm blest!”
Hetty felt happy, as she looked out of the back bedroom window at Phillip, whistling to himself as he worked in the garden below. The beautiful weather seemed to have entered into him; his almost feverish manner had calmed; he was like his old self, when all that had mattered to him was the countryside.
Phillip was varnishing his three-piece hickory rod, which he had bought before the war at a pawnbroker's for fifteen pence. Strands of a plaited silk line, speckled black and white, calledmagpie,were stretched between elm and fence, for rubbing with boiled linseed oil, for stiffening and waterproofing. His grandfather Maddison's japanned box of flies was open, for the points of the barbed hooks to be sharpened on oil-stone.
It was a fine morning in the second week in May. The sumach tree in one corner of the garden was in gentle leaf; the blossom of its neighbour, a lilac, was beginning to turn brown. Leaning a branch over the garden fence, as though to touch sumach and lilac, an apple tree planted by Thomas Turney at the same time that Hetty had planted the two trees on her side of the fence, soon after she had come to the house in Hillside Road, bore little green pouts of apples, their throats as though tied with brown bows. To Phillip's fancy the apples were the little eyes of the tree, whose fruit had been snatched, immature and sour, by the old man's grandsons during all the sunlit, peaceful years before the war. Never, never again! Gerry and Bertie, Tommy and Peter, Alfred and Horace, and for the boy he was, never the same again, for tree or man or bird. Did trees feel, did they mourn when their fruit, cradling their seeds, was lost to them before the time of ripening at the fall? Birds and animals suffered for loss of theiryoung; so did insects, such as earwigs and spiders which carried their eggs in a silken bundle; some fish did, like the stickleback, the little rufous-bellied father fish, with his spiny daggers, who built a nest among waterweeds and hovered on guard, dashing at beetles which dived down to snatch his young. Once he and Horace Cranmer had watched a stickleback dart at a big black water-beetle, calleddytiscus,which Father had told him flew about at night, looking down for water (and sometimes flopping upon glass-houses in the moonlight). The beetle seized the little fish and chewed it up in its jaws. Cranmer had caught it, and put it in a matchbox, and it had started to tear the wood of the box.Sticklebat,Cranmer had called the fish. They had watched it in a pond in Whitefoot Lane woods, in the old Boy Scout days.
Up in the elm above him sounded petulant beseeching cries. Ten tomtits, with new yellow gapes at the hinges of their beaks, had left the nesting box and were awaiting, on various branches among the green leaves, their parents with caterpillars, spiders, and occasional bits of fat from mutton bones hanging from trees in some of the gardens down the road. In the Backfield a female cuckoo belled through the mist of morning air; from the distant cemetery came the urgentwook-wook-ooof a male bird. The morning seemed to dream in stillness before the coming of great heat, as on the moor above the shadowed valley of the Lyn, during that wonderful holiday just before the war broke out. Would it be the same now, when at the end of the week he and Desmond went together to the West Country?
Desmond seemed much more contented than he was; he still went out with Lily, or rather to her house in Nightingale Grove, just above the railway; but apart from that, Phillip knew nothing.
Soon Desmond was to have ten days' leave, before going overseas to a Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. Six of those days were to be spent in Devon. Only seven more days now, and they would be sitting in a carriage at Waterloo, for the long and thrilling journey to Barnstaple; then the change to the little narrow-gauge engine, with the brass funnel, of the Lynton railway, leading up to the heather and furze and red deer of Exmoor, the bright running streams, the far blue Bristol Channel, the distant coast-line of Walesâfar, far away would I rove!
Rod, line, and flies having been attended to, Phillip went through the open french windows into the house, and played his father's gramophone, which had been locked, but one of the keyson his mother's key-ring opened it. After a cup of tea at eleven o'clock, brought by Mrs. Feeney the charwoman (his mother had gone shopping) he went down to visit Mrs. Neville, and had another cup of tea with her at the open window. They discussed Desmond's transfer, and he reassured her that all Tunnelling Companies were well out of the fighting, safe underground from shelling.
“I think Desmond applied because he was a little bit jealous of you having been out twice to the front. Of course I could stop it if I wanted to, but he would never forgive me if I did. He's so big that sometimes I forget that my son will not be eighteen until next September! And now he talks of being engaged to some girl! You look surprised, Phillip; didn't you know? I hope I'm not giving away secretsâperhaps Desmond wants to tell you himself. Anyway, I expect you know Lily, one of the little girls in the Gild Hall? I know nothing about her, beyond what I've told you. I don't expect to share in a young man's life, like some mothers do. But then, I'm not the possessive kind. I believe in letting the younger generation find its own feet. What's she like, Phillip? Some fluffy little thing, with goo-goo eyes?”
“Lily is fair, and rather pretty, Mrs. Neville. She's not exactly a flapper, in fact she looks quite grown up. Actually, I think she's the same age as Desmond.”
“Thank God she isn't a canary!” Mrs. Neville cried, with a little shriek of laughter. “Although, poor things,” she added, as suddenly reflective again, “they cannot help it. Haven't you heard of the canaries at Woolwich, Phillip? That's what the soldiers call them. They're the girls working in the explosives department, whose faces turn yellow with the chemicals they handle. They make a lot of money, and the soldiers know this, of course, and go out with them only if the canaries stand treat! They're doing well, you know, some of the working class, nowadaysâespecially those on munitions. They're buying motor-cycles, gramophones, and even grand pianos! That's respectability, you see, Phillipâa grand piano. Nobody can play them, of course!”
When she spoke next, Phillip realised that she had known more about Lily than she had pretended.
“Desmond says Lily is rather like Helena, Phillip, only quieter, though what that means I don't know, for Helena is the last girl to be called flighty! Still, it's only his first girlâall the boys in khaki nowadays want a girl, don't they, someone whose photograph they can carry in their pocket-book, and show the other fellows. You look rather sad, dear. Is anything the matter?”
“Desmond doesn't want me to talk to her, Mrs. Neville.”
“A little jealousy, dear, that's all. Don't you take any notice of that! He's finding his own feet, you see. So far it has been you who has filled his life, for as you know, Desmond has not had a father's care, and a growing boy needs someone other than his mother to look up to. Why, he was jealous of your devotion to Helena at one time, and used to tell me that if you and she became, wellâit's only a phase, Phillip! Have another cup of tea, won't you? Oh, it's the gramophone at the open front window again today, is it? âIf music be the food of love, play on,' as Shakespeare says. Which reminds me, I am so glad that your mother has found an interest outside her home, in the plays she sees with Grandpa! I see them trotting off down the road, to get the midday cheap tram! Then back again, before your father comes home. Why don't you go with her to the Old Vic one day, it would give her such a treat, and you'd enjoy Shakespeare too, with your fine perceptive feelings, dear.”
“Oh, I had enough Shakespeare at school to last me a lifetime! Though I must admit bits Gran'pa used to read weren't bad. I remember the scene fromHenrytheFifthhe read, the campfires, and the armourers âaccomplishing the knights', knocking in the rivets to their armour. That was when Uncle Sidney and Uncle Hugh were going to the Boer War. Well, I must skedaddle now. Can you hear the gramophone down here?”
“Faintly, dear. But I shall be looking out when she comes past, wheeling her bike. She always looks up and waves to me, you know.”
“You are my ally, Mrs. Neville! Well, I must rush now! I think I'll play the Nimrod movement from Elgar'sEnigmaVariationstoday, and not theLiebestod.Only four more days now, and Des and I will be on our way to Devon! It won't be the same, of course, for somehow in war-time the country does not seem to be as it used to be, but with Des, who likes fishing better than watching birds, I hope it will be like old times again.”
Phillip's new mood of optimism, which might have been due to the slack time he had been enjoying, was not to last long. Detective-sergeant Keechey was to see to that.
Feeling happy with life, Phillip went down early to Freddy's bar; but going in out of the sun, which was slanting shadows across the street and half-way up the buildings opposite, he felt sudden longing to be in the country. The bar looked dull and ordinary;he had never been in during a summer day before, only in the autumn by day, and gas-light during the darkness when the shadowy world was shut out. Now Freddy somehow looked older, and artificial, like his wearing a strawyard indoors, a man of straw and cash in the till, and with no other personality than that of a foreground figure to rows of bottles. He was readingTheMorningAdvertiserwhen Phillip went in, there being no customers in the three bars.
“I'll have a beer, Freddy. And one for yourself.”
They were on terms almost of confidence now; at least in small things, such as Freddy having confided that the money he got for drinks stood to him went into a money-box for his little boy; but when a very special friend asked him to 'ave one, well, he took a little gin. To show his sincerity, Freddy poured himself a tot from a bottle from which he unpeeled the wrapper.
Having toasted one another, Freddy glanced around the empty bar, took a look into the snug next door, and into the four-ale bar at the end. Coming back, his eyes made a conspiratorial sweep before saying in lowered voice, “You know those two plain-clothes fellows from the station? I thought I'd warn you that they've bin making enquiries about you. I told them nothing, of course. Don't say I told you, you know they can make it awkward for the tenant of this 'ouse with the Council.”
“The Borough Council owns this house, you see, sir. It's not a tied 'ouse, like most houses, it's what they call a free house, leaving the tenant to buy where he likes. But we have to be careful, as the Council owns the place.”
A feeling of being shadowed, in two senses, came upon Phillip. He thought that his happiness had been too good to last: something was bound to happen. He touched the mahogany slab of the counter.
“I thinkâonly don't say I said anything, will youâbut I fancy it may have to do with your being about here so long, and out of uniform. You remember that Australian what was here spending money like water a week or two back? You may recall you told me his medal ribands looked wrong, he wore one for Gallipoli, I think it was, and you said there was no such medal yet. Well, they questioned 'im in the billiard room, and later he was arrested in London, as a deserter, by the military.”
“Good God, do they think I'm a deserter, then?”
“I can't answer for what a flatfoot thinks, but I know they areout to get all the pinches they can, for promotion. It's not for me to express an opinion, but I think you can guess what I think of them,” tittered Freddy, his eyes closed to slits as he sipped his gin.
Phillip took a draught of his beer, and was putting down the glass when the swing doors opened. Giving a wink, Freddy took up cloth in one hand, glass in the other, and began to polish. Rubber footfalls came from behind Phillip, and he saw in the retinae of his eyes dark-clothed arms from which rolled umbrellas hung.
“I'd like a word with you,” said Keechey, beside him.
Discomposed by the deliberate nearness of the two men in bowler hats, Phillip tried to show calmness as he raised his glass, to drink slightly, and, he hoped, with nonchalance.
When Phillip made no reply, Keechey went on, “Will you come with us into the billiard room? I want to ask you some questions.”
Freddy went on polishing the glass as though he had heard nothing. Curious and a little upset, Phillip followed Keechey into the billiard room. The tall moustached detective came after him, and shut the door.
“You have been about here for some weeks now, off and on, and I have made some enquiries about you. I think I am right in saying that your name is Maddison? And it may interest you to know that we have made enquiries at the Motor Machine-Gun Section, Bisley, and they have no knowledge of you. What do you say to that?”
“Only that I am not in the Motor Machine-Gun Section at Bisley. I am in the Machine-Gun Training Centre at Grantham.”
“Then what are you doing, sometimes in uniform, down here?”
“I was given two months' sick leave by a medical board at Caxton Hall, a little over five weeks ago.”
“Two months. That's a long time, isn't it? Were you wounded?”
“No. As a matter of fact, I was given the leave to go away into the country; Devon, in fact. I'm going there on Friday. I've been given a railway warrant to Lynton.”
“I'll take particulars of your unit. Grantham, you say, is your headquarters? What's become of your friend Devereux-Wilkins? Ever hear of him nowadays?”
“He's not a friend of mine. I've only seen him once.”
“But you went down to see him the night you came back from France, the thirteenth of October last, didn't you? You went to the Roebuck for that one purpose only, I think. You spoke to him for less than two minutes, having called him away from a game ofbilliards. Then he left for London, and you came back here. You were accompanied by a Brazilian friend, I think. Shortly afterwards there was a Zeppelin raid. Then you met Dr. Dashwood on your way home and returned with him to the Conservative Club until shortly after eleven o'clock.”
“You seem to have been shadowing me quite a lot. I suppose you've been talking to Mr. Jenkins?”
“Which Mr. Jenkins?”
“The special constable who lives in the same road. Anyway, what is all this leading up to? Some spy-scare business?”
“We have to take notice of every thing, especially during a war, you know. How d'you think the war's going? When are we going to have a smack back at the Germans?”
This was so obvious a trap that Phillip laughed. He thought of saying that they might put on khaki themselves and go to France and find out, but he could never make the sort of reply to people that might make them feel awkward. It was because he was a weakling, he knew; quite unable to hit back at anybody.
“Oh, a big push is coming, all right. We've got a lot of water-tanks in position behind our lines in France, south of Arras, in order to make Jerry think we are there for life; but that's where the attack is coming, I hear.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“In Millbank Hospital, about five weeks ago. From an officer there, who had just come back from the front.”
“What are the tanks going to be used for? Poison gas?”
“No, for water, according to what I heard. It was obviously a blind, to puzzle Jerry, if he came over to raid.”
“In a Zeppelin, you mean?”
“So you think it funny, do you?” The buck-teeth were exposed, the upper lip slightly drawn back.
“Well, sort of Heath Robinson, you know.”
“Who's Heath Robinson?”
“Haven't you heard of Heath Robinson?”
“I'm asking the questions,” retorted the other, with a suggestion of snarl.
“He's a comic artist. He's as well known as Bairnsfather.”
Looking at Phillip sideways, the plain-clothes policeman said, “Are you trying to be funny? Because if you are, two can be funny, see? Who d'you think you're talking to?”
“Who doyouthink you're talking to?”
“You'll soon find out!” And taking his umbrella, the buck-toothed man, the blood partly drained from veinous face, walked from the billiard room, and out of the saloon bar, followed by what Phillip, who had been reading a story by Harrison Ainsworth, thought of as his myrmidon. Then, peering through the open slot in the stained-glass partition, his glance met the sky-blue shine of the eyes of Lily smiling at him from the other side of the partition.