THE PARTS MEN PLAY
ARTHUR BEVERLEY BAXTER
Author of “Merrie Gentlemen," “The Airy Prince,” etc.
IT WAS nearly noon next day before Selwyn woke from a heavy, dreamless sleep. Both in mind and in body there was the listlessness which follows the passing of a crisis, but for the first time in many days he felt the impulse to face life again, to accept its bludgeonings unflinching.
He was almost fully dressed when a messenger arrived with a letter. It was from Edgerton Forbes.
“My Dear Austin,—I have been trying to get hold of you for the past week, but you are as elusive as a hundred dollar bill. Douglas Watson has returned from the front, minus an arm, and he has asked as many ex-Harvard men as possible to meet him at the University Club. We are having dinner there to-night in one of the smaller rooms, and I want you to come with me. I’ll pick you up at your hotel at seven, and we can walk over. If it is all right, send word by the messenger.—As ever.
Selwyn’s first instinct was to refuse. He had no desire to meet Watson again just yet, nor did he want to face men with whom he had lived at Harvard. But the thought of another lonely night arose—night, with its germs of mad-
“Tell Mr. Forbes,” he said, “that I shall expect him at seven.”
A FEW minutes before the time arranged, the clergyman called, and they started for the club. The air was raw and chilling, and people were hurrying through the streets, taking no heed of the illuminated shop windows, tempting the eye of woman and the purse of man. In almost every towering building the lights of offices were gleaming, as tired, routine-chained staffs worked on into the night tabulating and recording the ever-increasing prosperity of the times.
Ordinary forms of greeting had changed to mutual congratulations on affluence. Anecdotes of business men were no longer of struggle and privation, but of record outputs and maximum prices. Theatres, cafés, cinema palaces, churches, hotels—they had never seen such times. Success was in the very dampness of the air as thousands of people looked at it from the cosy interior of limousines, people who had never aspired higher than an occasional taxi-cab. The times! Dollars multiplied and begot great families of dollars. . . and Broadway glittered as never before.
It is difficult to state what trend of thought made conversation between the friends difficult, but after two or three desultory attempts they walked on without speaking. As they were entering the majestic portals of the club, Selwyn was reminded of a question he had intended all day to ask.
“Edge,” he said, “have you heard anything of Marjory Shoreham?”
“She sailed two weeks ago for France,” answered the clergyman.
'T'HEY were directed to an upper floor, where they found ■*a hundred or so guests who claimed Harvard as their alma mater. Although most of his old acquaintances were quite cordial, Selwyn felt oddly self-conscious. He caught sight of Gerard Van Derwater with his impassive courtliness dominating a group of active but less impressive men; and behind them he saw Douglas Watson of Cambridge surrounded by a dozen guests. . . but he pleaded a headache to Forbes, and sought a secluded corner, where he remained until dinner was announced.
Like all affairs where men are alone and the charming artifices of femininity are missing, there was a severity and a formality which did not disappear until the ministrations of wine and food had engendered a glow which did away with shyness. The table was arranged in the form of the letter U, with Watson beside the chairman at the head.
Towards the end of the dinner conversation and hilarity were growing apace. Men were forgetting the scramble of existence in the recollection of old college days, when their blood was like wine and the world a thing of adventure. Mellowed by retrospect, they laughed over incidents that had caused heartburnings at the time; and as they laughed, more than one felt a swelling of the throat. It was, perhaps, just an odd streak of sentiment (and the man who is without such is a sorry spectacle). ... or it may have been the memory of ideals, aspirations, dreams—left behind the college gates.
“Gentlemen.” The chairman had risen to his feet. Cigars were lit; and he was greeted with the usual applause. “Gentlemen, we have gathered here at short notice to wel-
SYNOPSIS:—Lady Durwent, the commoner ^ wife of an English peer, has two sons, Malcolm and Dick, and one daughter, Elise. When Malcom has joined the Guards and Elise is a beautiful debutante Lady Durwent gives a dinner in honor of a young American author, Austin Selwyn. The latter is attracted by Elise. He is invited to a house party at the Durwent country estate. During his stay there the war breaks out and in the course of a country walk with Elise Selwyn proposes and is refused. For the next two years Selwyn remains in London writing a series of anti-war articles for the American press.
His agent in New York now suggests his returning to America to conduct a lecture tour under the auspices of a certain Mr. Benjamin.
An air raid on London, the gallant fight of the wounded Selwyn to rescue a little girl from the ruins, the finding of her dead body, were part of the grim night, whose close found him in the military ward of a London hospital. There Elise visits him, and he announces his changed viewpoint and his intention of returning to America, where he finds himself looked upon as a proGerman. Over in the trenches Dick Durwent, to stifle a panic that comes, at times, to all men, drinks heavily of a supply of rum that fate has thrown in his way, and is discovered drunk on duty.
come an old boy of Harvard —Douglas Watson. He has a message which he wants to deliver to us, and not only because he is one with us in tradition would we listen, but his empty sleeve is a mute testimony that he has fought in a cause which— though not our own—is one which I know has the sympathy of every man in this room. I shall not detain you, gentlemen, but ask your most attentive hearing for Mr. Watson.”
A S THE guest of the evening rose to speak, he was greeted with prolonged applause, which broke into “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” and ended in a college football yell. During it Selwyn sat motionless, his alert mind trying to decipher the difference between Watson’s face and the others. It was not only that they were, almost without exception, clean shaven, and that Watson wore a small military moustache; the dissimilarity went beyond that. Although obviously nervous, Watson’s eyes looked steadily ahead as those of a man who has faced death and looked on things that never were intended for human vision. It had left him aged—not aged as with years, but by an experience which made all the keen-faced men about him seem clever precocities whose mentalities had outstripped the growth of their souls.
And studying this phenomenon, Selwyn became conscious of the American business face.
Although differing in coloring and shape, there was in practically every case, the lips thin and straight, the eyes narrowing and restlessly on the qui vive, the nervous, muscular tension from the battle for supremacy in feverish competition, the dull, leaden complexion of those who disregard the sunshine. . . These combined in a clear impression of extraordinary abilities and capacities with which to meet the affairs of the day. What one missed in all their faces was a sense of the centuries.
No—not in all. At the table opposite to Selwyn was Gerard Van Derwater, whose self-composure and air of formal courtliness made him, as always, a man of distinctive, almost lonely, personality.
“Thank you very much,” said Watson, as the applause and singing died away. His fingers pressed nervously on the table, and his first words were uneven and jerky. “I needn’t tell you I am not a speaker. I have a great message for you chaps, but I may not be able to express it. That was my reason for asking to speak to ex-Harvard men. I did it because I knew I should have men who thought like I did—men who looked on things the same way as myself. I knew you would be patient with me,
and I was certain you would give an answer to the question which I bring from France.”
He paused momentarily, and shifted his position, but his face had gained in determination. A few of his listeners encouraged him audibly, but the remainder waited to see what lay behind the intensity of his manner.
“I don’t want pity for my wound,” he resumed. “The soldier who comes out of this war with only the loss of an arm is lucky. Put that aside. I want you to listen to me as an American who loves his country just as you do, and who once was proud to be an American.”
HE RAISED his head defiantly, and when he spoke again the indecision and the faltering had vanished. “Gentlemen, the question I bring is from France to America. It is more than a question; it is a challenge. It is not sent from one government to another government, but from the heart of France to the conscience of America. They don’t understand. Month after month, the women there are seeing their sons and husbands killed, their homes destroyed, and no end in sight. And every day they are asking, ‘Will America never come?’ My God! I’ve seen that question on a thousand faces of women who have lost everything but their belief in this country. I used to tell them to wait—it would come. I said it had to come. When the Hun sank the Lusitania I was glad, for at last, I told them, America would act. Do you know what the British Tommies were saying about you as we took our turn in the line and read in the papers how Wilson was conversing with Germany about that outrage? I could have killed some of them for what they said, for I was still proud of my nationality—but time
went on and the French people asked ‘When?’ and the British Tommy laughed.
“If I’m hurting any of you chaps, think of what I felt. One night behind the lines a soldiers’ concert party gave a phow. Two of the comedians were gagging, and one asked the other if he knew what the French flag stood for, and 'he said ‘Yes—liberty.’ He asked him again if he knew What the British flag stood for, and he said, ‘Yes—freedom.’ ‘Then,’ he said, ‘what does the American flag stand for?’ T can’t just say,’ said the other one, ‘but I know that it has stood for a hell of a lot for two years.’ The crowd roared—officers and men alike. I wanted to Wet up and fight the whole outfit; but what could I have raid in defence of this nation? America—our country ¡here—has become a vulgar joke in men’s mouths.”
He stopped abruptly, and poured himself a glass of Water. No one made a sound. There was hot resentment on nearly every face, but they would hear him out without interruption.
“The educated classes of England,” he went on, “are different in their methods, but mean the same thing. They say it is America’s business to decide for herself, but the Englishman conveys what he means in his voice, not in his words. When I was hit I swore I would come back here and find out what had changed the nation I knew in the old days into a thing too yellow to hit back. Mr. Chairman, you said I had fought in a cause that is not yours. I beg to differ. There are hundreds of Americans fighting to-night in France. They’re with the Canadians—they’re with the French—they’re with the British. Ask them if this cause isn’t ours. I lay beside a Princeton grad in hospital. He had been hit, serving with the Durhams. ‘I’m never going back to America,’ he said. T couldn’t stand it.’ As a matter of fact, he died—but I don’t think you like that picture any more than I do.”
Bringing his fist down on the table with a crash, Watson leaned forward and with flashing eyes poured out a stream of words in which reproach, taunts, accusations, and pleading were weirdly mixed. He told them they should remove the statue of Liberty and substitute one of Pcntius Pilate. In a voice choking with emotion, he asked what they had done with the soul left them by the Fathers of the Republic. He pictured the British troops holding on With nothing but their indomitable cheeriness, and dying as if it were the greatest of jokes. In one sentence he visualised Arras refugees fleeing from it, and New York glittering with prosperity. With no relevancy other than that born of his tempestuous sincerity, he thrust his words at them with a ring and an incision as though he were in the midst of an engagement.
“That is all,” he said, when he had spoken for twenty minutes. “In the name of those Americans who have died with the Allies; in the name of the Lusitania’s murdered; in the name of civilization—I ask, What have you done with America’s soulV’
He sat down amidst a strained silence. Everywhere men’s faces were twitching with repressed fury. Some were livid, and others bit their lips to keep back the hot words that clamored for utterance. The chairman made no attempt to rise, but by a subconscious unanimity of thought every eye was turned to the one man whose appearance had undergone no change. As if he had been listening to the legal presentation of an impersonal case, Gerard Van Derwater leaned back in his chair with the same courtly detachment he had shown from the beginning of the affair.
“Vf R. VAN DERWATER,”saidthechairman hoarsely; and a murmur indicated that he had voiced the wish of the gathering.
Slowly, almost ponderously, the diplomat rose, bowing to the chairman and then to Watson, who was looking straight ahead, his face flushed crimson.
“Mr. Chairman —
Mr. Watson—Gentlemen,” said Van Derwater. He stroked his chin meditatively,and looked calmly about as though leisurely recalling a tit-bit of anecdote or quotation. “Our friend from overseas has not erred on the side of subterfuge. He has been frank — excellently frank. He has told us that this Republic has become a jest, and that we are responsible. I assume from several of your faces that you are not pleased with the truth.
Surely you did not need Mr, Watson tc
tell you what they are saying in England and France. That has been obvious—unpleasantly obvious—and, I suppose, obviously unpleasant.”
He smiled with a little touch of irony, and. leaning forward, flicked the ash from his cigar to a plate.
“Mr. Watson,” he resumed, “has asked what we have done with America’s soul. That is a telling phrase, and I should like to meet it with an equally telling one—but this is not a matter of phraseology, but of the deepest thought. Gentlemen, if you will, look back with me over the brief history of this Republic. There are great truths hidden in the Past.
“In 1778 Monsieur Turgot wrote that America was the hope of the human race—that the earth could see consolation in the thought of the asylum at last open to the downtrodden of all nations. Three years later, the Abbé Taynals, writing of the American Revolution, said ; ‘At the sound of the snapping chains, our own fetters seem to grow lighter, and we imagine for a moment that the air we breathe grows purer at the news that the universe counts some tyrants the less.’ Ten years after that the editor Prudhomme declared, ‘Philosophy and America have brought about the French Revolution.’
“I will not weary you, gentlemen, with further extracts, but I ask you to note—and this is something which many of our public men have forgotten to-day—that at the very commencement of our career we were inextricably involved with European affairs. Entangling alliances—no! But segregation—impossible!’ ’
For an instant his cold, academic manner was galvanized into emphasis. His listeners, who were still smarting under Watson’s words, and had been restless at the unimpassioned tone of Van Derwater’s reply, began to feel the grip of his slowly developing logic.
“Thus,” the speaker went on, “at the commencement, our national destiny became a thing dominated by the philosophy of humanitarianism. When we had shed our swaddling clothes and taken form as a people, the issue of the North and the South began to rise. Because of his realization of the part America had to play in human affairs, Lincoln, the great-hearted Lincoln, said we must have war. Against the counsel of his cabinet, loathing everything that had to do with bloodshed, this man of the people declared that there could be no North or South, but only America. And to secure that he plunged this country into a four years’ war—four years of untold suffering and terrible bravery. When, during the struggle, Lincoln was informed that peace could be had by dropping the question of the slaves’ emancipation, his answer was the proclamation that all men were free. WTith his great heart bleeding, he said, ‘The war must go on.’ Philosophy and America brought on the French Revolution. Philosophy and humanitarianism brought on the war of North and South.
“The psychology of America, which had been hidden beneath the physical side of our rebellion, took definite form as a result. The gates of the country were open to the entire world. The downtrodden, the persecuted, the
discouraged, the helpless. . . no matter of what creed or nationality, they saw the rainbow of hope. By hundreds of thousands they poured into this country. Slav and’ Teuton, Galician, Italian, Belgian, Jew, in an endless stream they came to America, and, true to Washington and Lincoln, she received them with the words, ‘Welcome— free men.’ And so we shouldered the burdens of the Past, and men who had been slaves—white as well as black— drank from the fountain of freedom.”
THERE was no applause, but men were leaning forward,.
afraid they might miss a single word. Van Derwater’s' depth of human understanding, his lack of passion, his solitariness that had been likened to an air of impending tragedy, held his listeners with a magic no one could have' explained. He might have come as a spirit of times that had passed, so charged with the ages was his strange,, powerful personality.
“From an open sky,” he continued, “came the present war. The older nations, knit by tradition and startled by its imminence, flew to arms at a word from their leaders. France, who had been our friend, looked to us; but what was our position? In fifty tongues our citizens cried out that it was to escape war that they had come to America. Could we tell the Jew that Russia, which had persecuted him to the point of madness, was on the side of mercy?" Could we convince the Teuton that his Fatherland had become sudddenly peopled with savages? Could we say to the Irishman, bitterly antagonistic to England, that Britain was fighting for the liberation of small nations?" Could we ask the Greek, the Pole, the Galician, to go back to the continent from which they had come, and give their blood that the old order of things might go on?
“But, you ask, what of the real American, descended from the men who fought in the Rebellion and the Civil War? Yes—what of him? From earliest boyhood he has been taught that Britain is our traditional enemy. To secure existence we had to fight her. To maintain existence we fought her again in 1812. When we were locked in a death-struggle with the rebellious South, she tried to hurt our cause—although history will show that the real heart of Britain was solidly with the North. In one day could we change the teaching of a lifetime? The soul of America was not dead, but it was buried beneath the conflicting elements in which lay her ultimate strength but her present w'eakness.
“What, then, was the situation? Events had outridden our national development. Whether it could have been avoided or not I do not know. Whether our education was. at fault, or whether materialism had made us blind— these things I cannot tell you. I only know that this war found us potentially a nation but actually a babel of tongues. Without philosophy and humanitarianism this nation could not go to war—and in those two things we were not ready.
“I do not belittle the many gallant men who have left these shores to fight with the Allies, but I say that in a world crisis the voices of individuals cannot be heard unless they speak through the medium of their nationality. The question from France is not ‘Will Americans never come?'
but‘Will America never come?’ Whenthewar found the Americanisation of our people unfinished, it became the duty of every loyal man in the Republic to give his life-blood to achieve solidarity. Do you think we could not see that the Allies were fighting our battle? It was impossible for this nation that had shouldered the problems of the Old World not to see it—so we began the education of all our people. We could have hurled this nation into war at almost any hour by an appeal to national dignity, but our destiny was imperative in its demands. Not in heat, which would be bound to cool; not in revenge, which would soon be forgotten ; but by philosophy and humanitarianism alone could this great republic go to war.” A messenger had entered the room and handed a note to the chairman. It was passed along to Van Derwater’s place and left in front of him. He took it up without opening it, and fingered it idly as he spoke.
“A nation does not need to be at war,” he went on, “to find that traitors are in her midst. The struggle of this Administration for unity of thought has been thwarted right and left by men of no vision, men drunk with greed, men blinded with education
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and so-called idealism. Mr. Watson, you ask what we have done with America’s soul. I will tell you what we have done for it. There are many of us in this room who have given everything we have— our time, our friends, and things which
we valued more than lifeemdash;because we have respected the trust imposed on us of maintaining America’s destiny. I am sorry for your empty sleeve. . . But let me assure you that we, also, have known suffering. Because we believe in America, first, last and always in America, we have stayed here, enduring sneers and contumely, in order that when America speaks it will be like the sound of a rushing cataract emdash; one voice, one heart, but the voice and heart of Humanity. In no other way can America go to war. . . until that moment arrives, I shall wear this garb of neutrality as proudly as any soldier his uniform of honor.”
T_JE SAT down, and in an instant the -*■ whole crowd was on its feet. Men cheered and shouted and, unashamed, tears ran down many faces. With his heart pounding, and his eyes blinded with emotion, Selwyn did not make a move. He could only watch, through the mist, the figure of Gerard Van Derwater with its cloak of loneliness. He saw him look down at the message and break the seal of the envelope. He saw a flush of color sweep into the pallid cheeks and then recede again. Still with the air of calmness and self-control, Van Derwater rose again to his feet. “Gentlemen,” he said. The room was hushed instantly and every face was turned towards him. “Gentlemen, 1 have received a message from my headquarters. . . Germany has announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.”
For a moment the room swam before Selwyn’s eyes. The shouts and exclamations of the others seemed to come from a distance. And suddenly he found that he was on his feet. His eyes were like brilliants and his voice rang out above all the other sounds. “Van,” he cried. “Does this mean waremdash;at last?”
With steady, unchanging demeanor his former friend looked at him. “Yes,” he said. “At last.”
And as they watched, they saw Van Derwater’s hands contract, ánd for a moment that passed as quickly as it came, his whole being shook in a convulsive tremor of feeling. Then, in a silence that was poignant, he sank slowly into his chair, his shoulders drooping, listless and weary. With eyes that were seeing into some secret world of their own, he gazed dreamily across the room, and a smile crept into his faceemdash;a smile of one who sees the dawn after a long, bitter night.
“Thank God,” he said, with lips that trembled oddly. “Thank God.”
CHAPTER XXII The Smuggler Breed
ON AN April evening, fifteen months later, a certain liveliness could have been noted in the vicinity of Drury Lane Theatre. The occasion was another season of opera in English, and as the offering for the night was Madam Butterfly the usual heterogeneous fraternity of Puccini worshippers were gathering in large numbers.
Although the splendour of Covent Garden, which had been closed for the war, was missing, the boxes held their modicum of brilliantly dressed women; and through the audience there was a considerable sprinkling of soldiers, mostly from the British Dominions and America, grasping hungrily at one of the few war-time London theatrical productions that did not engender a deep and lasting melancholyemdash;to say nothing of a deep and lasting doubt of English humor and English delicacy.
• In one of the upper boxes Lady Erskin had a small unescorted party. Lady Erskin herself was a plump little miniature who was rather exercised over the dilemma of whether to display a huge feathery fan and obliterate herself, or to sacrifice the fan to the glory of being stared at by common people. Wit h her was her sister, the wife of a country rector, who assumed such an elaborate air of ennui that anyone could have told it was her first time in a box. Between them was Lady Erskin’s rather pretty daughter, and behind her, with all her vivid personality made glorious in its setting of velvety cloak and creamy gown, was Elise Durwent, enjoying a three days’ respite from her long tour of duty.
The lights went out, and with the rising of the curtain the little drama of tenderness and cruelty, expressed in the medium of heart-gripping harmonies and climiwes, held the stage. From the distance. Butterfly eould be heard approaching, her voice
coming nearer as the typical Puccini progressions followed her ascent. There was the marriage—the cursing of Butterfly by the Bonze—and the exquisite love doet. so full of passionate abandon, and yet shaded with such delicacy and beauty. At the conclusion of the act, where the orchestra adds its overpowering tour de orre to the singers’, the audience burst into applause that lasted for several minutes, it was the spontaneous gratitude of hundreds of war-tired souls whose bonds had been relaxed for an hour by the magic touch of music.
“Do you think the tenor is good-looking?’’ asked Lady Erskin of no one in particular.
“Who is that in the opposite box, with the leopard’s skin on her shoulders?” queried the rector’s wife.
“I think Butterfly is topping,” said Lady Erskin’s daughter. “I always weep buckets in the second act.”
“I should like to die to music like that,” said Elise, almost to herself.
/"’LOSE by a communication trench ^ Dick Durwent stood shivering in the cool night air. He was waiting to go forward on sentry duty, the remainder of the relief having gathered at the other end of the reserve trench in which he was standing; but though it was spring there was a chill and a dampness in the air that seemed to breathe from the pores of the mutilated earth. A desultory shelling was going on, but for a week past a comparative calm had succeeded the hideous nightmare of March and early April, when Germany had so nearly swept the board clean of stakes.
He heard the voices of a carrying party coming up, and suddenly he crouched low. There was a horrible whine, growing to a shriek—and a shell burst a few yards away. Shaken and almost deafened, Durwent remained where he was until he saw an object roll almost to his feet. It was a jar of rum that was being brought up for issue. He lifted the thing up, and again he shivered in the raw air like one sickening of the ague. Quick as the thought itself, he put the jar down, and seizing his water-bottle, emptied its contents on the ground. Kneeling down, he filled it with rum, and leaving the jar lying at such an angle that it would appear to have spilled a certain amount, he hurriedly joined the rest of the relief warned for duty.
Dick had been on guard in the front line for an hour when he received word that a patrol was going out. A moment later they passed him, an officer and two men, j and he saw them quietly climb over the patapet which had been hastily improvised when the battalion took over the position. They had been gone only a couple of minutes when pistol shots rang out, and the flares thrown up revealed a chadowy fight between two patrols that haa met in the dark. The firing stopped, and Durwent’s j eyes, staring into the blackness, saw two , men crouching low and dragging something I after them. He challenged, to find that it was the patrol returning, and that the one they were bringing back was the officer, killed.
The trench was so narrow that they could not carry him back, and they left the body ying on the parapet until a stretcher could be fetched.
ULLED as he had become to terrible sights, the horror of that silent, grotesque figure began to freeze Dick Durwent’s blood. A few minutes before it had been a thing of life. It had loved and hated and laughed. ... its veins had coursed with the warm blood of youth. . . . and there it sprawled, a ghastly jumble of arms and legs. . . . motionless, silent, dead. He tried to keep his eyes turned away, but it haunted him. When he stared straight ahead into the dark it beckoned to him—he could see the fingers twitching. And not till he would creep near would he be satisfied that, after all, it had not moved.
“Sherwood,” he heard a quivering voice to his right. It was the nearest sentry, an eighteen-year-old boy who had called him by the name given him by Austin Selwyn, the name under which he had enlisted.
\V hat’s the matter?” called Durwent.
W ithout his rifle, the little chap stumbled towards him, and, dark as it was, Dick could see that his face was livid and his eyes wide with terror.
“Sherwood,” whimpered the boy, “I can’t stand it—I’ve lost my nerve. . . . That thing there—there. ... It moves. It’s dead, and it moves. . . . Look. It’s 1
frinning at me now. I’m going back, can’t stay here—I can’t.”
"Steady, steady,” said Durwent, gripping the boy by the shoulders and shaking him roughly. "Pull yourself together. Don’t be a kid. You’ve seen far worse than this and never turned a hair.”
“I can’t help it,” whined the boy. "There’s dead men walking out there all over. Can’t you see them? They whisper in the dark—I can hear them all the time. I'm going back.”
“You can’t, you little idiot. They’ll
“Idon’tcare. Let them shoot.” "Where’s your rifle? Get back to your post. If you’re caught like this, there’ll be a firing-party at daybreak for you.”
"I don’t care,” cried the lad hysterically. “They can’t keep me here. I’m going—” “Here—” throwing the young fellow against the parapet and holding him there by leaning heavily against him, Durwent felt for his water-bottle and withdrew the stopper. "Drink this,” he said, forcing the mouth of the flask between the boy’s lips. “Take a shot of rum. It will put the guts back into you.”
The young soldier choked with the burning liquid, and tears oozed from his eyes, but the chill of the body passed, and with it the chill of cowardice. With a halfwhimper, half-laugh, he forced a silly, coarse jest from his lips. "Where did you get it, Sherwood?”
“Never mind,” said Dick. “Come on now. Back you go—and stick it out.”
THEsecond act of Madam Butterfly was in progress.
With the sure touch of high artistry, both composer and librettist had delineated the result of Pinkerton’s faithlessness — a faithlessness that was obvious to every one but Cho-cho-san, who still believed that her husband would return with the roses. Firm in her trust, she pictured to Sauzuki the day when he would come, “a little speck in the distance, climbing the hillock” —how she would wait “a bit to tease him and a bit so as not to die at our first meeting”.—ending with the triumphant assurance (born of her woman’s intuition, which, alas, proves so frequently, unreliable) that it would all come to pass as she told. She knew it.
And so to the visit of the American consul, who tries to tell her that her husband has written that he has tired of her— she, poor soul, reading in his words the message that he still loves her. Then the final tableau of the act with Butterfly, her baby and Sauzuki standing at the Shosi facing the distant harbour where his ship has just been signalled. Softly the humming of the priests at worship ceases, and the curtain descends on what must always remain a masterpiece of delicate pathos— a story that will never lose its appeal while woman’s trust in man lends its charm to drab existence.
“The tenor didn’t come in at all in that act,” said Lady Erskin.
“Really,” said the rector’s wife, fixing her lorgnette on the opposite box, "that person with the leopard’s skin looks absolutely like a cannibal.”
“I’m just swimming in tears,” was the comment of Lady Erskin’s daughter.
Elise said nothing; nor did she hear them speak. Her heart was fluttering wildly, and her hands were clasped tightly together. She had heard a far-away cry .... and the voice was Dick’s.
'T'HE raw air of the night, the dread of that loathsome, silent thing, the haunting terror of the boy’s eyes a few minutes before, the whine of shells, all bored their way into Dick Durwent’s brain. He began to tremble. With every bit of willpower he fought it off, but he felt the fumes of madness coming over him.
For days on end he had had no rest. In the Fifth Army debacle of March, his battalion had been one of the first to break, although remnants had fought as few men had ever fought before; and when they had been reorganized they were moved back into the line, under-manned, ill-equipped, and branded with disgrace. It was the culmination of three years’ service at the front, and his nerves were at the breakingpoint. Mounds of earth ahead of him, and gnarled, dismembered trees, began to take the ghostly shapes that the frightened boy had told of.
Mumbling meaningless things, he reached for his water-bottle and poured a mouthful of rum down his throat. It set his heart beating more firmly, and his blood was no longer like ice in a sluggish river.
He replaced the stopper and resumed his watch, but every fibre of his body was craving for more of the alcohol. With set teeth he struggled for self-control but every instinct was fighting against him. He took another sip—then a long draught of the scorching liquid, and leaned against the parapet. He pressed his hot face against the damp earth, and burrowed his fingers into it in a frenzied effort for self-mastery. Again he drank, and his mouth burned with the stuff. His head was swimming, and he could hear surf breaking on a rocky coast. The dead man was grinning at him, but death no longer held any terrors for him. He raised the bottle in a mock toast and drank greedily of the rum again.
The pounding of the waves puzzled him. He could not remember that they were near any water. But more and more distinctly he could hear the roll of surf dashed into spray against the shore. . . It was strange . . . .Once more he pressed the bottle to his lips, and it set his very arteries on fire. Yes. . . .Over to the left he could see the glimmer of the ocean. There was a light; someone was beside it. It was Elise. She was giving a signal. That was it— the smugglers were landing their contraband, and she was signalling that all was clear.
He looked over to the dead man. The corpse was rising to its feet. It had all been a hoax on its part—it was an excise officer. His eyes were fixed on the light, too. His men would be near, and they would capture Elise—and afterwards, the smugglers, led by their great-grandfather. He would have to warn her. He couldn’t shout, for that would give everything away. He would crawl near to her first.
He finished the rum, draining the bottle to the last drop, and started to creep along the trench, his heavy, powerless limbs carrying him only inches where his imagination made it yards. Hè looked back once. The dead man was following him. It had become a race between himself and a corpse. He keptffiis eye on the light,-'; . ’• He could see Elise quite plainly. . .(Shewas looking out towards the sea. , ' ■ ;
Feeling his muscles growing weaker, and fearful that the dead man would overtake him. he struggled to his feet and clapped his hand to his mouth.
"Elise!” he yelled, “Elise!”
And with the roar of surf in his ears, he sank to the ground in a drunken stupor.
THE last act of Madam Butterfly was ending. The cruel little story wound to a close with the return of Pinkerton and his sympathy-uninspiring American wife, and then the suicide of Butterfly — the logical, but comparatively unmoving finale to the opera.
But Elise neither saw the actors nor heard the music. With her hands covering her eyes, she had been listening for the voice of Dick. She could hear it, distant and faint, growing nearer as if he were coming towards her through a forest. There was in it a despair she had never heard before. He was in danger—where or how she could not fathom—but over the surging music of the orchestra she could hear the voice of Boy-blue crying through the infinity of space.
The opera was over, and there was a storm of applause that developed into an ovation.
“The tenor isn’t really handsome, after all,” said Lady Erskin.
“I think the women of to-day are shameless,” said the rector’s wife, casting a last indignant glance at the box across the theatre.
“I feel a perfect rag,” said Lady Erskin’s daughter. “Good Heavens, Elise, what’s the matter?”
“Nothing. . . I—I don’t know,” Elise answered, looking up with terror-stricken eyes. “I’m just overwrought. That’s all.”
“You poor dear,” said Lady Erskin. “You shouldn’t take the opera so seriously. After all, it didn’t really happen—and I have no doubt in real life the tenor is quite a model husband with at least ten children.”
“TARUNK,” said the company commander, stooping over the prostrate body of Dick Durwent. “He was all right when he took over. Where did he get the stuff?”
“Smell that, sir,” said the subaltern of the night, handing him a water-bottle.
“Humph. . . This looks bad. Have him carried to the rear and placed under
To be Continued