The End of the Road
ONE noon-day in the November of 1918, a taxi-cab drew up at the Washington Inn, a hostelry erected in St. James’s Square for American officers. An officer emerged, and walking with the aid of a cane, followed his kit into the place.
It was Austin Selwyn, who, a few days before, had come from France, where he had hovered for a long time in the borderland between life and death. Although he had been severely wounded, it was the nervous strain of the previous four years that told most heavily against him. Week after week he lay, listless and almost unconscious; but gradually youth had reasserted itself and the lassitude began to disappear with the return of strength. The horrors through which he had passed were softened by the merciful application of time, and as the reawakened streams of vitality flowed through his veins, his eyes were kindled once more with the magic of alert expression.
Having secured a cubicle and indulged in a fight luncheon he went for a stroll into the street. Looking up, he saw the windows of the rooms where he had spent such lonely, bitter hours crusading against the world’s ignorance. It was all so distant, so far in the past, that it was like returning to a boyhood’s haunt after the lapse of many years.
Going into Pall Mall, he felt a curiosity to see the Royal Automobile Club again. He entered its busy doors, and passing through to the lounge, took a seat in a corner. The place was full of officers, most of them Canadians on leave, but here and there in the huge room he caught a glimpse of sturdy old civilian members, well past the sixty mark, fighting Foch’s amazing victories anew over their port and cigars.
LETTING his eyes roam about the place, Selwyn noticed a group of six or seven subalterns surrounding a staff officer, the whole party indulging in explosive merriment apparently over the quips of the be-tabbed gentleman in the centre. Selwyn shifted his chair to get a better view of the official humourist, but he could only make out a tunic well covered with foreign decorations. A moment later one of the subalterns shifted his position, and Selwyn could see that the much-decorated officer was wearing an enormous pair of spurs that would have done admirably for a wicked baron in a pantomime. But his knees! Superbly cut as were his breeches, they could not disguise those expressive knees.
Selwyn called a waitress over. “Can you tell me,” he said, “who that officer is in the centre of the room—that staff officer?”
“Him? Oh that’s Colonel Johnston-Smyth of the War Office.”
“Colonel—Johnston-Smyth!” Selwyn repeated the words mechanically.
“That’s him himself, sir. Will you have anything to drink?”
“I think I had better,” said Selwyn.
ABOUT ten minutes later, after perpetrating a jest which completely convulsed his auditors, the War Office official rose to his feet, endeavoured to adjust a monocle—with no success—smoothed his tunic, winked long and expressively, and with an air of almost melancholy dignity made for the door, with the admiring pack following close behind.
“Good-day, colonel,” said Selwyn, crossing the room and just managing to intercept the great man.
The ex-artist inclined his head with that nice condescension of the great who realise that they must be known by many whom it is impossible for themselves to know, when he noticed the features of the American. “My sainted uncle!” he exclaimed; “if it isn’t my old sparring-partner from Old Glory—gentlemen, permit me to introduce to you the brains, lungs, and liver of the American army.” The subalterns acknowledged the introduction with the utmost cordiality, suggesting that they should return to the lounge and inundate the vitals of the American army with liquid refreshment; but Selwyn pleaded an excuse, and with many “cheerios” the happy-go-lucky youngsters moved on, enjoying to the limit their heard-earned leave from the front.
“May I offer my congratulations?” said Selwyn.
“Come outside,” said the colonel.
They adjourned to the terrace, and Smyth placed his hand in the other’s arm. “Do you know who I am?” he said.
“Eh?” said Selwyn, rather bewildered by the mysterious nature of the question.
“I, my dear Americano, am A.D. Super-Camouflage Department, War Office.” The colonel chuckled delightedly, but checking himself, reared his neck with almost Roman hauteur. “I have one major, two captains, five subalterns, and eleven flappers, whose sole duty is to keep people from seeing me.”
“Why?” asked the American.
“I don’t know,” said the colonel "but it's a fine system.”
“You have done wonderfully well.”
“Moderately so,” said the A.D. Super-Camouflage Department. “I have been decorated by eleven foreign governments and given an honorary degree by an American university. I also drive the largest car in London.”
“You amaze me.”
“As an opener,” said the colonel forgetting his dignity in the recital of his greatness, “I am in enormous demand. I can open a ball, a bottle, or a bazaar with any man in the country.”
“But,” said Selwyn, “how did it all come about?”
"Ah!" exclaimed Smyth, glancing up and down the terrace after the manner of a stage villain. “Three years ago I was an officer’s servant. I polished my subaltern-fellow’s buttons, cleaned his boots, and mended his unmentionables. One day this young gentleman and myself were billeted on an old French artist. When I saw those canvases I felt the old Adam in me thirsting for expression. Before all I am an artist! I made a bargain with the old Parley-vous—a pair of my young officer’s boots for two canvases and the use of his paints. Agreed. On the one I did a ploughman wending his weary thingamabob home—you know. The following day happened to be my precious young officer’s birthday, and we celebrated it in style. I would not say he was an expert with his Scotch—but he was very game, very game indeed. After I had put him to bed, I determined to paint my second masterpiece: ‘St. George to the Rescue!’ I did it—and fell asleep where I sat. When I woke next morning imagine my astonishment. I had done both paintings on the one canvas! The ploughman was toddling along to the left, and St. George was hoofing it to the right, but the effect one got was that a milk-wagon was going straight up the centre. It gave me an idea. I waited for my leave and took the painting to the War Office. I told them if they would give me enough paint I could so disguise the British army that it would all appear to be marching sideways. That tickled the ‘brass hats.’ They could see my argument in a minute. They knew that if you could only get a whole army going sideways the war was won. I was put on the Staff and given a free hand, and in a very short time was placed in complete charge of the super-camouflage policy of the Allies. The testimonials, my dear chap, have been most gratifying. We have undisputed evidence of an Australian offering a carrot to a siege-gun under the impression it was a mule. There was a staff car which we painted so that it would appear to be going backwards, and the only way that a certain Scottish general would ride in it was by sitting the wrong way, with his knees over the back. In fact, my dear sir, if the war only lasts another year, I shall reduce the whole thing to a pastime, blending all the best points of ‘Blind Man’s Buff’ with ‘Button, button, who’s got the button?’ ”
HAVING reached this satisfactory climax, the worthy colonel shifted his cap to the extreme side of his head, and walked jauntily along with his knees performing a variety of acrobatic wriggles.
“I am most gratified,” said Selwyn, repressing a smile. “I had no idea when I saw you and poor Dick Durwent marching away together that you would rise to such fame!”
“Alas—poor Durwent,” exclaimed Smyth, pulling his cap forward to a dignified angle. “I never knew who he was until we got to France. You passed him along as Sherwood, you know. His people are frightfully cut up about him.”
“They heard of his death, of course?”
“It isn’t that, old son—it’s the horrible disgrace. It only leaked out a couple of weeks ago from one of his battalion, but it’s common property now. The old boy was absolutely done in—looked twenty years older."
“What has leaked out?” said Selwyn, stopping in his walk.
“Didn’t you hear? Durwent was shot by court-martial—drunk, they say, in the line.”
Selwyn’s hand gripped his arm.
“Where is Lord Durwent now?” he said breathlessly.
“In the country, I believe—but why so agitated, my Americano?"
There was no answer. As fast as his weary limbs could take him, Selwyn was making for the door.
IT WAS nearly eight o’clock that night when Selwyn alighted from a train at the village where he and Elise had heard the fateful announcement of war. He walked through the quaint street, silent and deserted in the November night. Except for two or three people at the station, there was no one to be seen as his footsteps on the cobbled road knocked with their echo against the casement windows of the slumbering dwellings. Reaching the inn, he bargained for a conveyance, and after taking a little food, and arranging for a room, he went outside again, and climbed into a dogcart.
After three or four futile attempts at conversation, the driver retired behind his own thoughts, and left the American to the reverie forced on him by every familiar thing looming out of the shadows. There was not a turn of the road, not one rising slope, that did not mean some memory of Elise. The very night itself, drowsy with the music of the breeze and the heavy perfume of late autumn, was nature’s frame encircling his personality. He had dreaded going because of the longings which were certain to be reawakened, but he had not known that in the secret crevices of his soul there had been left such sleeping memories that rustling bushes and silent meadows should make him want to cry aloud her name.
He told himself that she must be in London and had forgotten him.... and that it was better so. But the night and the darkened road would not be denied. They held the very essence of her being, and left him weak with the ecstasy of his emotion.
At the lodge gate they found a soldier, who allowed them to pass, and they drove on towards the house. So vivid was the sense of her presence that he almost thought he saw her and himself running hand-in-hand together again down the road.... By that oak he had picked her up in his arms.... and he wondered at the human mind which can find torture and joy in the one recollection.
DRIVING into the courtyard, he told the man to wait, and knocked at the great central door. An orderly admitted him and took him to a nurse, who offered to lead him to the wing occupied by Lord and Lady Durwent. With wondering eyes he glanced at the transformation of the rooms once so familiar to him. There were beds even in the halls, and everywhere soldiers in hospital blue were combining in a cheerful noise which was sufficient indication that their convalescence was progressing favorably. In the music-room a local concert party (including the organist who had tried to teach Elise the piano) were giving an entertainment, with the utmost satisfaction to themselves and the patients.
The nurse led him upstairs and knocked at a door. On receiving a summons to enter she went in, and a moment later emerged again.
“Will you please go in?” she said.
Thanking her for her trouble, Selwyn stepped into the room, which was lit only by the light from a log-fire, beside which Lord Durwent and his wife were seated. Lady Durwent, who had just come from her nightly grand-duchess parade of the patients, was busying herself with her knitting and was in obvious good spirits. Lord Durwent rose as Selwyn entered, and the good lady dramatically dropped her knitting on the floor.
“Mr. Selwyn!” she exclaimed; “this is an unexpected pleasure!”
The American bowed cordially over her proffered hand, but when he turned to acknowledge the old nobleman’s greeting he was struck silent. No tree withered by a frost ever showed its hurt more clearly than did Lord Durwent. Although he stood erect in body, and summoned the gentle courtesy which was inseparable from his nature, his whole bearing was as of one whom life has cut across the face with a knotted whip, leaving an open cut. He had thought to live his days in the seclusion of Roselawn, but destiny had spared him nothing.
“Have you had dinner?” asked Lord Durwent. “We are strictly rationed, but I think the larder still holds something for a welcome guest.”
“Isn’t the war dreadful?” said Lady Durwent gustily.
“I had something to eat at the inn,” said Selwyn, “so I hope you won’t bother about me.”
The older man was going to press his hospitality further, but as it was obvious from the American’s manner that he had come for a special purpose, he merely indicated a chair near the fire.
“You move stiffly,” he said. “Have you been wounded?
“Yes,” said Selwyn, continuing to stand, “but there are no ill effects, luckily. Lord Durwent, I came from London to-day to speak about your son Dick.”
AT THE sound of the name Lady Durwent checked a violent sob, which was of double inspiration—grief for her son and pity for her own pride. Her husband showed no sign that he had heard, but ran his hand slowly down her arm of his chair.
And now, for the first time, Selwyn became conscious of her presence. Elise had come noiselessly into the room and was standing in the shadows. She came slowly towards him.
“Is it necessary,” she said, with an imperious tilt of her head, “to talk of my brother? We all know what happened.”
By the firelight he saw that only less noticeably than in her father’s case, she too had been stricken. Her rich-hued beauty, which had become so intense with her spiritual development, bore the marks of silent agony. In her eyes there was pain.
“Without wishing to appear discourteous,” said Lord Durwent, “I think my daughter is right. My family has been one that always put honor first.... My son Malcolm maintained that tradition to the end. My younger son broke it.... And it is perhaps as well that our title becomes extinct with my death. If you don’t mind, we would rather not speak of the matter further.”
“He was such a kind boy—they both were,” sobbed Lady Durwent in an enveloping hysteria, “and so devoted to their mother.”
Putting Elise gently to one side, Selwyn faced her father.
“Lord Durwent ” he said, “I was with your son when he was killed. In the long line of your family, sir, not one has died more gloriously.”
Lord Durwent’s hands gripped the arms of his chair, and Lady Durwent looked wildly up through her tears. Elise stood pale and motionless.
“It is true,” said Selwyn. “I tell you—”
“There is nothing,” said.the older man—"there can be nothing for you to tell that would make our shame any the less. My son was shot—”
“— shot for disgracing his uniform. That he was brave or fearless at the end cannot alter that truth.”
“Elise!” Selwyn turned from Lord Durwent, and his clenched hands were stretched supplicatingly towards her. “Your brother was not shot by the British. He was killed as he went out alone and in the open against the German machine-guns.”
“What are you saying?” Lord Durwent half rose from his chair. “Why do you bring such rumors? What proof is there—”
“Would I come here at this time,” said Selwyn desperately, “with rumors? Do you think I have so little sympathy for what you must feel. I saw your son killed, sir. It was in the early morning, and he went to his death as you would have had him go.... As you know he did go, Elise.... ”
IN A voice that shook with feeling Selwyn told of the fight for the bridge—how Dick and Mathews, who had saved him, reached the Americans—of the desperate hand-to-hand fighting—how the groom had guarded his young master—the impending disaster—and the death of Dick.
“It meant more than just our lives,” he concluded, in a silence so acute that the crackling of the logs startled the air like pistol shots, “for as Dick fell we swept forward and gained the brushwood. Less than three hours afterwards the French arrived, and largely by the use of that bridge a heavy counter-attack was launched. We buried Dick where he fell.... and, Lord Durwent, it is not often that men weep. The French general, to whom the tank officer had made his report, pinned this on your son’s breast and then gave it to me to have it forwarded to you. He asked me to convey his message: ‘That the soil of France was richer for having taken so brave a man to its heart’.”
He handed a medal of the croix de guerre to Lord Durwent, who held it for several moments in the palm of his hand. From the distant parts of the house came the noise of singing soldiers, and a gust of wind rattled the windows as it blew about the great old mansion. Elise had not moved, but through her tears an overwhelming triumph was shining.
“And Mathews?” asked Lord Durwent slowly.
“We found him after the attack,” the American answered “He must have dragged himself several yards after he had been hit, and was lying unconscious with his hand stretched out to touch Dick’s boot. Have you heard nothing from him, sir?”
AGAIN there was a silence fraught with such intensity that Selwyn thought the very beating of his pulses could be heard. At last Lord Durwent rose, and with an air of deepest respect, placed the medal in the hands of his wife. Her theatricalism was mute in a sorrow that was free from shame.
“Captain Selwyn,” said Lord Durwent, “we shall never forget.”
Feeling that his presence was making the situation only the more acute, Selwyn pleaded the excuse of the waiting horse to hasten his departure.
“But you will stay here for the night?” said Lady Durwent.
“No—thank you very much. I have left my haversack at the inn, and, besides, I must catch the 7.45 train to London in the morning to keep an important appointment. Good-night, Lady Durwent.”
Amidst subdued but earnest good wishes from the peer and his wife, he wished them good-bye and turned to Elise.
“Good-night,” he said, his face flaming suddenly red.
“Good-night,” she answered, taking his proffered hand.
“I shall go with you,” said Lord Durwent.
The two men walked through the corridors, which were growing quieter as the night advanced, and with another exchange of farewells, Selwyn went out into the dark.
HE WAS weak from the ordeal through which he had passed, and both his mind and his body were bordering on exhaustion. He called to the sleeping driver, who in turn roused the horse from a similar condition, but just as the wheels grinding on the gravel were opposite him, Selwyn heard the door open and the rustle of skirts.
“Austin!” she cried, running through the dark.
He almost stumbled as he went towards her, and caught her arms in his hands.
“I didn’t want you to go,” she said breathlessly, “without saying thanks. If Boy-blue had really been shot as they said, I—I—”
She did not finish the sentence, but clasping his hand, pressed it twice to her burning lips.
“Elise,” he cried brokenly—but she had freed herself and was making for the door.
No longer weary, but with every artery of his body on fire with uncontrollable love for her, he intercepted the girl. “Elise,” he cried, “I thought I could go from here and carry my heart-hunger with me—but now I can’t.... I can’t do it.”
“You went away to America.” Her flashing eyes held his in a burning reproach. “You did not need me then—and you don’t now.”
“But.... You didn’t care? You never came back to the hospital, and I wrote to you every day. Tell me, Elise, did you really care.... a little?”
“Yes. I did. More than I would admit to myself. But you didn’t. All you could think of was going back to America.”
“But, my dearest—his heart was throbbing with a tumultuous joy—“if I had only known. There was so much work for me to do in America—”
“You will always have work to do. You don’t need me. I shouldn’t have come out to-night. Please let me go.”
“Then you don’t care—now?”
“No. You have your work to do still. You said yourself that we come of different worlds”—
“Elise, my dear”—he caught her hands in his and forced her towards him—“what does that matter—what can anything matter when we need each other so much? I have nothing to offer you—not as much as when we first met—but with your help, dear heart, I’ll start again. We can do so much together. Elise—I hardly know what I am saying.... but you do understand, don’t you? I can’t live without you. Tell me that you still care a little.... tell me.... ”
Her hands were pressed against his coat, forcing him away from her, when, with a strange little cry, she nestled into his arms and hid her face against his breast.
For a moment he doubted that it could be true, and then a feeling of infinite tenderness swept everything else aside. It was not a time for words or hot caresses to declare his passion.... He stooped down and pressed his lips against her hair in silent reverence. She was his.... This woman against his breast, this girl whose being held the mystery and the charm of life, was his. The arms that held to him pressed more tightly, as if jealous of the years they had been robbed of her.
“I must go in,” she whispered.
He led her to the door, her hand in his, but though he longed to take her in his embrace and give his lips the sweet intoxication that they craved, he knew instinctively that her surrender was so spiritual a thing that he must accept it as the gift of an unopened spirit flower.
“Good-night, dear.” She paused at the door.... then raised her face to his.
Their lips met in the first kiss.
THE following Saturday Selwyn met Elise at Waterloo, and with her hand on his arm they walked through London’s happy streets.
It was 9th November.
News had come that the Germans had entered the French lines to receive the armistice terms, and hard on that was the official report that the German Emperor had abdicated.
London, great London, whose bosom had sustained the shocks, the hopes, the cruelties of war, was bathed in a noble sunlight. For all its incongruities and jumbled architecture, it has great moments that no other city knows; and as Selwyn and Elise made their way through the crowds, there was an indefinable majesty that lay like a golden robe over the whole metropolis.
Above St. Paul’s there floated shining gray airships escorted by encircling aeroplanes.... Hope, dumb hope, was abroad. Not in an abandonment of ecstasy, or of garish vulgarity which was soon to follow, but in a spirit of proud sorrow, Londoners raised their eyes to the skies. Passengers on omnibuses looked with new gratitude at the plucky girls in charge who had carried on so long.... People stood aside to let wounded soldiers pass, and old men touched their hats to them.... The heart of London beat in unison with the great heart of humanity.
From crowded streets, from domes and spires and open parks, there soared to heaven a mighty “Gloria—gloria in excelsis."
After a lunch, during which they were both shy and extraordinarily happy, they took a taxicab and drove to a house in Bedford Square.
Leaving Elise, Selwyn knocked at the door and was admitted to a room where a girl in an American nurse’s outdoor costume waited for him.
“I got your letter in answer to mine, Austin,” said she, giving him both her hands, “and I am all ready. Did you see him?”
“I did—yesterday afternoon. But, Marjory, I told him nothing of you, and if you want to withdraw there is yet time. Have you really thought what this means to you?”
Her only answer was a patient smile as she opened the door and led him outside.
“Elise,” said Selwyn, as they entered the cab, “I want to introduce Miss Marjory Shoreham of New York.”
“Austin has told me all about you,” said Elise, “and I think you are wonderfully brave.”
She took the nurse’s hand and held it tightly in hers as the car drove towards Waterloo.
An hour later they reached a Sussex station, and hiring a conveyance, drove to a charming country home which was owned by a Mr. Redwood whom Selwyn had met on board ship. A servant told them as they drove up to the door that the master of the house had gone to the village, but that they were to come in and make themselves at home.
As he helped the girls to alight, Selwyn heard the nurse catch her breath with a spasm of pain. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a man standing on the lawn facing the sun, which was reaching the West with the passing of afternoon.
“Please remain here,” said Selwyn, “and I shall motion you when to come.”
HE WALKED towards the solitary figure, who heard him and turned a little to greet him.
“Is that you, Austin?”
“Yes, Van,” answered Selwyn; “how could you tell?”
With his old kindly, tired smile the ex-diplomat put out his hand, which Selwyn gripped heartily.
“Í suppose it is nature’s compensation,” said Van Derwater calmly. “Now that I cannot see, footsteps and voices seem to mean so much more. I was just thinking before you came that, though I have seen it a thousand times, I have never felt the sun in the West before. See—I can feel it on my face from over there. Mr. Redwood tells me that the news from France is excellent.”
“It is,” said Selwyn, “I think the end is only a matter of hours.”
“A matter of hours.... and after that—peace. Austin, I haven’t much to live for. It was in my stars, I suppose, that I should walk alone.... but there is one fear which haunts me—that all this may be for nothing.... for nothing. If I thought that on my blindness and the suffering of all these other men a structure could be built where Britain and America and France would clasp the torch of humanity together.... I would welcome this darkness as few men ever welcomed the light. But it is a terrible thought—that people may forget.... that civilization might make no attempt to atone for her murdered dead.”
He smiled again, and fumbling for Selwyn’s shoulder patted it, as if to say he was not to be taken too seriously.
“The world must have looked wonderful to-day in this sunlight,” he went on. “Do you know—I hardly dare think of the spring at all. I sometimes feel that I could never look upon the green of a meadow again, and live.”
Selwyn had beckoned to the nurse, who was coming across the lawn towards them.
“Van,” he said, taking his friend’s arm, “don’t be too surprised, will you? But—but an old friend has come back to you.”
“Who is it?” Van Derwater’s form became rigid. “I can hear a step, Austin! Austin, where are you? What is this you’re doing to me? Speak, man—would you drive me mad?”
Without a sound the girl had clutched his hand and had fallen on her knees at his feet.
“Marjory!” With a pitiful joy he felt her hair and face with his hand, and in his weakness he almost fell. Vainly he protested that she must go away, that he could not let her share his tragedy—her only answer was his name murmured over and over again.
Creeping silently away. Selwyn rejoined Elise. Once they looked back. The girl was in Van Derwater’s arms, and his face was raised towards the sun which was never more to see....
But on his face was written a happiness that comes to few men in this world.
A Light on the Water
A SULKY winter came hard upon November, and the war of armies was succeeded by the war of diplomats.
One day in January the same vehicle that had driven Selwyn to Roselawn deposited another visitor there. He was a sturdy, well-set-up fellow, but a thinness and a certain pallor in the cheeks conflicted with their natural weather-beaten texture.
The morose driver helped him to alight and handed him his crutches, which he took with a snort of disapproval. He made his way at a dignified pace around the driveway, pausing en route to look at the gables and wings of Roselawn as one who returns to familiar scenes after a long absence.
Without encountering any one he reached the stables, and opening a door, mounted the stairs that led to the dwelling quarters above.
There was no one in the cosy dining-room, and sitting down, he hammered the floor with his crutch. The homely sound of dishes being washed ceased suddenly in the adjoining room, and Mrs. Mathews threw open the door.
“Who is it?” she cried.
“Me,” said Mathews.
Uttering a pious exclamation that reflected both doubt and confidence in the all-wise workings of Providence, his wife fell heavily upon him, with strong symptoms of hysteria.
“Heavenly hope!” she cried, after her exuberance permitted of speech; “so you’ve come home?”
“I hev,” said her husband solemnly; “and I’m werry pleased to observe you so fit, m’dear. Is the offspring a-takin’ his oats reg’lar?”
“Lord!’’said Mrs. Mathews irrelevantly, subsiding into a chair, “I thought you was dead. You never writ.”
“That,” said Mathews, “was conseckens of a understanding, clear and likewise to the point, atwixt me and Mas’r Dick. ‘Mum’s the word,’ sez he; ‘Mum’s the word,’ sez I. And that there was as it should be, no argifyin’ provin’ contrairiwise. But Milord he found me out, and sez as how he knows it all, and would I come home, which, being-free from horspital, I likewise does. Now, m’dear, if you will proceed with any noos I would be much obliged to draw up a little forra er, as it were.”
“Did Milord tell you'about Miss Elise?” said his wife, after much thought. “She’s gone and got herself engaged.”
“Captain Selwyn. Him was as visiting here when the war begun.”
“Now that there,” said Mathews, nodding his head slowly and admiringly, “is noos. That there is what a feller likes to hear from his old woman. You’re a-doin’ fine.”
“The wedding,” went on his wife, her eyes sparkling with the universal feminine excitement about such matters, “is next week, and Wellington is bespoke for to pump the organ. Aint that wonderful grand?”
“That,” said Mathews with great dignity, “is werry gratifyin’ to a parent, that is. Pump the organ at a wedding! I hopes he won’t go for to do nothing to give inconwenience to the parties concerned. Where is he, old girl?”
“Upstairs in bed, daddy, with the whooping-cought something horrid.”
“Wot a infant!” commented the groom proudly. “I never see such a offspring for his age—never. Whooping-cough—something horrid? Well, well.”
FOR a full minute he reflected with such apparent satisfaction on his son-and-heir’s vulnerability to human ailments that there is no telling when he would have left off, if his reverie had not been broken by his wife placing a pipe in his hands and a bowl on the table.
“It was always waiting on you, daddy,” said the good woman. “I sez to Wellington: ‘That’s his favorite, it is, and we’ll always have it ready for him when he comes home’.”
Without any display of emotion or undue haste, the old groom filled the pipe, lit it, drew a long breath of smoke, and slowly blew it into the air, regarding his good partner throughout with a look that clearly showed the importance he attached to the experiment.
He took a second puff, raised his eyes from hers to the ceiling, and his broad face crinkled into a grin, the like of which his wife had never seen before on his countenance.
”Ol girl,” he said, “when I sees you first I sez: ‘There’s the filly for my money;’ and so you was. And by criky! you and me heven’t reached the last jump yet—no sir. M’dear, I hev some noos for you now.”
He puffed tantallsingly at the pipe, and surveyed his wife’s intense curiosity with studied approbation.
‘‘When Milord come to see me last week,” he said, measuring the words slowly, “he tells me as how he won’t go for to hev no more hosses, and conseckens o’ me being all bunged up by them sausage-eaters, he sez as how would I like to be the landlord o’ ‘The Hares and Fox’ in the village, him having bought the same, and would I go for to tell you as a surprise, likewise and slm’lar.”
“Heavenly hope!” cried the good woman, bursting into tears, “if that aint marvellous grand!”
“That,” said Mathews, beckoning for her to hand him his crutches, “is what Milord has done for you and me. And, missus—as long as there’s a drop in the cellar none o’ the soldier lads in the village will go for to want a pint o’ bitter nohow. Now old girl, if you’ll give me a leg up we’ll go and see how the infant is looking.”
A FEW days later in the chapel decked with flowers the marriage of Selwyn and Elise took place.
In spite of her disappointment that Elise was not marrying a title, Lady Durwent rose superbly to the occasion. She led the weeping and the laughing with the utmost heartiness, and recalled her own wedding so eloquently and vividly that those who didn’t know about the Ironmonger supposed she must have been the daughter of a marchioness at least, and was probably related to Royalty.
Just before the ceremony itself the youthful Wellington, who had confounded science by a remarkable recovery from his ailment, was confronted with the offer of half-a-crown if he acquitted himself well, and threatened with corporal punishment if he didn’t. With this double stimulus he pumped without cessation and with such heartiness that the rector’s words were at times hardly audible above the sound of air escaping from the bellows—necessitating a punitive expedition on the part of the sexton, and engendering in Wellington a permanent mistrust in the justice of human affairs.
Late in the afternoon the bride and groom left for London, on their way to America.
When the train came in and they had entered their compartment, Selwyn, with feelings that left him dumb, looked out at the little group who had come to say farewell.
Lord Durwent stood with his unchangeable air of gentleness and courtesy, but in his eyes there was the look of a man for whom life holds only memories. Lady Durwent alternated dramatically between advice and tears, and Mathews stood proudly beside his wife (whose hat was of most marvellous size and colors), nodding his head sagaciously, and uttering as much philosophy in five minutes as falls to the lot of most men in a decade.
And so, with his wife’s hand trembling on his arm, Austin Selwyn leaned from the window and waved a last good-bye to the little English village.
A YEAR went by and, with the passing of winter, Selwyn and Elise, in their home at Long Island, watched the budding promise of another spring.
Their home was by the sea, and in the presence of that great majestic force they had lived as man and wife, taking up the broken threads of life, and knitting them together for the future.
The task of resuming his literary work had been next to impossible for Selwyn. He had tried to mould the destinies of nations—and they had fallen back upon him, crushing him. His thoughts cried out for utterance, but self-distrust robbed him of courage. Months went by, and his chafing, restless longing for self-expression grew more intense and more impossible.
And then the woman who was his wife lost her own yoke of self-restraint in solicitude for him. Timidly, hesitatingly at first, she invaded the precincts of his mind. With subtle persistence, yet never seeming to force her way, she wove her personality about his like a web of silken thread. Her purity of thought, her innate artistry, her depth of feeling played on his spirit like dew upon the parched earth.
As the passing hours took their course, each nature unconsciously gave to the other the freedom that comes only with surrender. His strength and his care for her liberated her womanhood, and like a flower that has lived in shadow her soul blossomed to fullness in that warmth.
And his troubled mind, directionless yet rebellious of inaction, found again the meaning and the hidden truths of life, then gained the courage to be life’s interpreter.
ONCE more Austin Selwyn wrote.
One evening towards the summer, Elise was sitting on the verandah when he came from his study and joined her. The first pale stars were shining through a sheen of blue that rose from the horizon in an encircling, shimmering mist.
“Are you through with your writing?” she said.
“Not yet—” he answered, sitting beside her, “but I could not resist the call of you and this wonderful night.”
“Isn’t it glorious?” she said softly, taking his hand in hers. “I think that blue over the sea must be like the Arabian desert at night when the camel-trains rest on their way.... Don’t you love the sound of the waves?”
With a little sigh she leaned her head on his shoulder, and he held her close to him. “Happy—Elise?”
“So happy,” she whispered, “that I am afraid some day I shall find it isn’t true."
He laughed gently, and for a few moments neither spoke, held by the wonderful intimacy of the spirit that does not need words for understanding.
“Austin—dear,” she said at length, “before you came out I was counting the stars—and playing with dreams. Don’t think me silly, will you?—But I was planning if we have a son, what I should like to call him.”
“I think I know,” he said pressing his lips against her hair. “Dick?”
“And Gerard for his second name. I should want him to be strong and true like Gerard—but he must have Dick’s eyes and Dick’s smile.... But then I want so much for this dream boy of ours—for, most of all, he must be like my husband."
With a sudden shyness she hid her face against his breast, and he ran his hand caressingly over her arm, which was like cool velvet to the touch.
The glimmering stars grew stronger, and a breeze from the sea crept murmuringly over the spring-scented fields.
“There are times,” he said, “when I long for the power to reach out for the great truths that lie hidden in space and in the silence of a night like this—to put them in such simple language that every one could read and understand. I think, dear, if I could translate the wonder of you and the spirit of the sea into words, I could prove the immortality of the soul.”
She looked up into his face, and something of the mystic blue of the skies lay in the depths of her eyes.
LATE that night he resumed work in his study, but a thousand memories and fancies came crowding to his mind. He tried to shake them off, but they clung to him—memories of the war—memories of the times when the world was drunk with passion. He heard, as if afar off, the whine and shriek of shells, and he saw the dead—grotesque, silent, horrible.
That was the great absurdity—the dead. It was hopeless to write. He was no longer pilot of his thoughts.
He rose to his feet and threw open the door with an impatient desire for fresh air. Though the cool breeze refreshed his temples, the restlessness of his mind was only increased by the hush of nature’s nocturne, through which the sound of the sea came like a drone.
Beneath the canopy of that same sky the dead were lying.... Across the seas a breeze of spring was stealing about the graves, as now it played about his face.
What was his part towards them—to mourn, and fill his life with useless melancholy? To forget and turn his face towards the future?
“There are times”—he found himself repeating mechanically the words which, a few hours before, he had spoken to Elise— “when I long for the power to reach out for the great truths—hidden in space—and in the silence of the night,”
Suddenly his brow grew calm. The baffled, questioning look left his eyes, and he smiled strangely.
Closing the door, he turned back to his desk, and taking the pen looked for a full minute at the paper before him.
“To My Unborn Son.”
He gazed at what he had written as though the words had appeared of their own volition.
“To My Unborn Son.”
With a far-away dreaminess in his eyes he dipped his pen in the ink and commenced to write:
“Somewhere beyond the borders of life you are waiting. I cannot speak to you, nor look on your face, but the love of a father for his child can penetrate the eternal mysteries of the unknown. To those who love there is no death; and in the hearts of parents, children live long before they are born.
“My son.... This letter that I write now to you will lie hidden and unseen by other eyes until the time when you alone shall read it. I shall be changed by then: like the world, I may forget—but you, my son, must read these words, and know that they are truth—truth as unchangeable as the tides of the sea, or the hours of dawn and sunset.
“Civilization has murdered ten million men.
“The human mind cannot encompass that. It is beyond its comprehension, so it is trying to forget.
“Teh million men.... murdered.
“Read these words, my son, written in the hush of night, when men’s souls stand revealed.
“Nearly six years ago there came the war. History will prove this or that responsibility for it, but the civilization that made war possible is itself responsible. The nations sprang to arms, but soon by that strange destiny which seems to guide mankind, the issue was one not of nations against nations, but of Humanity against Germany. Do not ask me how the land of Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven became so vile: I only know that Germany was the champion of evil, and on Britain and France men’s hopes were rested.
“America did not fight. When this is read by you, my son, you will have known the noble thrill of patriotism, the pride of race and citizenship. But it is because of that that you must read what I write now about the country I love best.
“Less than any other nation, America is to be blamed for the war. Her life was separate from the older world, and the spoils of victory made no appeal. Yet this great Republic, born of man’s desire for freedom, remained silent even when the whole world saw that the war was one of Justice against Evil. Men, like myself, were blind, and fed the flames of ignorance with ignorance. Others knew we were not ready, and called us to prepare: and others made great fortunes while Youth went to its Cross.
“Month after month passed by and Britain and her allies fought our fight: and the murder of men went on.
“At last we came of age, and our young men stormed across the seas—not to save America, for we had nothing to fear—but to rid the world of a monster that threatened the very vitals of Humanity. Look well on our shame, my son, but do not forget that when we went it was for an ideal—just as in years before our fathers died to free the Negro. That much was America debased: that much was America great."
Selwyn put down bis pen, and rested his head between his hands. Ten minutes passed before he looked up and began to write again.
“The war is over. America is debtor to the world. Read this, my son, with both humility and pride—humility that it is so, pride that we yet can pay.
“Those awful years while we stood apart, the homes of Britain gave their sons—the sons for whom their parents yearned, as I am yearning now for you. Through Britain’s broken hearts, and through the grief of women throughout the world, the youth of America were saved. I know that we have our thousands of stricken homes and ruined lives, but the end of the war left America debtor to civilization, even though she gave the strength which brought the war to an end.
"Faced with our indebtedness, what did we do?
“Europe lay stricken. The spectres of ruin, starvation, anarchy hovered about her form. The world was through with war: men groped for light: and from the peoples of the earth a universal cry went up that these things must not be.
“It was our chance. We still were strong. We held the charter of mankind within our hands, and men looked to us. Over prostrate Europe the conquering nations gathered, and men in all the distant corners of the earth listened for the voice of him who would cry in the wilderness that a new age was born.
“Vital days went by. At last the man who spoke for us outlined his plan that all the Powers of the world should join together in a covenant that war should be no more.
“Men waited and still waited. The plan was argued, ridiculed, applauded—and smothered beneath a fall of words. Already the agony of Man was hardening into the cynicism of despair. Nations that had bled together grew wary and drew apart.
“And still men waited, for they knew that only America’s voice could allay the clamor. Then we spoke. Angered by the methods of our leader, angered by the spirit of revenge that was settling over Europe, angered by delay—once more we failed to see the great truths written across the face of the sun.
“America—debtor to the world—America cried out that she alone of all the nations would stand aloof. Let history gloss it over as it will—we held back the hand of succour that Europe craved for.
“From the land of scented mists came the Japanese—from Greece that once was first in all the arts—from South America and the countries of Europe—men gathered to the League of Nations.... and we were not there.
“As I write to you, my son, the League is an impotent, powerless thing, at which the men who know only nationality and not humanity sneer and make jest. The body is there—America alone could be the heart.
“Bloodless, helpless, it is in semblance a living thing, but all men know it has on life, and already the diplomats who have no other way are using it as a shield for their methods that cannot bear the light.
“My son.... In the hush and loneliness of night, ponder over these words. Because we did not fight, three million men were foully done to death. What of the genius, the science, the beauty of the souls intended for great things, that fell so damnably? How many Miltons, how many Lincolns were crucified in that army of the young?
“We must repay. Our destiny is clear, and no people can thwart its destiny without the gravest danger. Our duty is to restore. Whatever our resources, in things material or of the spirit, this generation and yours and the generation to follow must give unsparingly. Our minds and hearts must turn to Europe, for only in service to mankind can America fulfil that for which she was created.
“Across the seas lies England. She has done much that is unworthy of her in the past; she has much to teach and much to learn—but within the heart of Old England there is majestic grandeur and great mercifulness, and with that heart ours must beat in unison. The solemn splendour of Britain’s sacrifice must never be forgotten.
“Believe in life, my son. Believe in men. Take on my charge and fight the flames of Ignorance, not as I did, hut with the power of Reason and of Right. The universal mind is still alive. Trust in it as Wagner when he wrote his music, as Shelley when he sang of beauty, as Washington when he founded this great Republic. Men speak through their nationalities, but in every country of the world there is an aristocracy of thought—and if you have the power, I charge you work towards the end when that great aristocracy will flood the earth with golden splendour and Ignorance will be no more.
“These words I leave with you, my son, on this silent night in May. Perhaps you will never read them. Perhaps you will live only in our two hearts. But on the borders of life we reach out for you.... praying that you may come to stay the hunger of our hearts.... To be our living son.... ”
Selwyn dropped his pen and rose slowly from his chair. Passing his hand across his brow, he went to the door, and opening it, looked out.
From the thin crescent of a new moon, a narrow path of light was glimmering on the water.