THE PARTS MEN PLAY
ARTHUR BEVERLEY BAXTER
Author of “Merrie Gentlemen," “The Airy Prince," etc.
CHAPTER XVir -Continued
THAT night a glorious moonlight silvered the roof-tops of old London, touching its jumbled architecture with fantastic beauty.
Vagrant towers and angular church spires, uninspired statuary, and weary, smoke-darkened trees shed their garments of commonplaceness and shimmered like the mosques and turrets of an enchanted city.
It was one of those nights that are sent, to remind us that Beauty still lives; a night to challenge our mad whirl of bargaining and barter, to urge us to raise our eyes from the grubbing crawling of avarice; a night to awaken old memories, and to stir the pent-up streams of poetry lying asleep in every breast.
It was a moonlight that descended on old England’s troubled heart as a benediction. Her rivers were glimmering paths winding about the countryside; her villages and her heavy-scented country lanes shared its caress with open meadows and murky cities. The sea, binding the little islands in its turbulent immensity, drew the night’s beauty to its bosom, and the spray of foam rising from the surf was a shower of stardust leaping towards the moon.
As a weary traveller drinks thirstily at a pool, Selwyn wandered about the streets trembling with emotion in the breathless ecstasy of the night. All day the conjured picture of the German boy, guilty of no crime save devotion to his Fatherland, had haunted him like the eyes of a murdered man.
It had robbed him of the power of constructive thought, and stopped his writing with the decisiveness of a sword descending on his wrist; it had made the food on his table tasteless and given him a dread of the solitude • of his rooms.
With nerves that contracted at every untoward sound, he had gone out at dark, and gradually the peacefulness of the night had soothed and calmed him as the dew of dusk cools the earth after the heat of a summer’s day. The familiar strains of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata came to his mind, and as he walked he idly traced the different movements of the music in the moods of the evening’s witchery.
His steps, like his thoughts, pursued a tangled course, and led him into the prosaic brick-and-mortar monotony of Bayswater, but the moon was lavish in her generosity, and strewed his path with glinting strands of light. He paused in a quiet square to get his bearings. . . There was the
heavy smell of fallen leaves from the gardens on the' other side of the railing.
His mind was still playing the slow minor theme of the sonata’s opening movement. . . .
CUDDENLY^the air was shattered with the noise of warning guns. As if released by a single switch, a dozen searchlights sprang into the sky, crossing and blending in a swerving glare. There was the piercing warning of bugles and the heavy booming of maroons.
Dazed by the swiftness of it all Selwyn leaned against the low iron fence. A boy scout whirled past on a bicycle, his bugle hoarse and discordant; an old woman went whimpering by, hatless, with a protesting child in her arms; an ambulance, clanging its gong, rounded the corner with reckless speed; a mightier searchlight than any of the rest swept the sky in great circles.
It seemed only a matter of seconds, though in reality much longf-T, when the American heard a faint crunching soui. i in ! he distance, followed by a deep, sullen thud. In 1 succes dun came three more, and the defence guns of London burst into action, changing the night into Bedlam.
Still motionless, he listened, awestruck, to the din of the weird battle with an unseen foe, when the cough of exploding shells in the air grew appreciably louder. Raising
SYNOPSIS:—Lady Durwent, the commoner wife of an English peer, has two sons, Malcolm and Dick, the latter a headstrong lad always in trouble, and one daughter Elise. When Malcolm 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 laller is attracted by Elise. He is invited to a house party at the Durwent country estate. During his slay there the war breaks out and in the course of a country walk with Elise, Selwyn proposes and is refused. He returns to London the same day. The Honorable Malcolm is recalled from Scotland and is killed in a cavalry charge soon after rejoining his regiment. One night returning to his rooms, via the Embankment, Selwyn encounters Dick Durwent, who was in China when war broke out and has come back to enlist. Selwyn takes him home for the night sand a week later sees him marching with a band of recruit in the wake of a Highland regiment. 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 lour under the auspices of a certain Mr. Benjamin.
a whirlwind of dust, a motor-car swerved dangerously into the square, and with a roar sped up the road, carrying to their aerodrome three British airmen. As if driven by a gale, the battle of the clouds drew nearer and nearer,
the whine and barking of the shells like a pack of dogs trying to repel some monster of the jungle.
There was a deafening crash.
CELWYN was thrown against the ^ fence, and almost buried beneath a shower of bricks and earth. With the roar of a rushing waterfall in his ears, and blood streaming from a wound in his forehead, he sank to his knees and for a moment lost consciousness; but mastering his weakness, he staggered to his feet and looked wildly about. On the other side of the street where there had been a house, there was a smoking chaos. A little crowd had appeared seemingly from the bowels of the earth, and a woman was shrieking horribly.
Selwyn wiped his forehead with his hand and gazed stupidly at the blood which covered it. The roar of the guns was louder than it had yet been, and from a few streets away came the crunch of another bomb, shaking the earth with the explosion which followed. Selwyn leaned impotently against a post, and a quivering, uncanny laugh broke from his lips. It was all so grotesque. . . so absurd. . Human beings didn't do such things. . It was a joke—a mad jest. He held his sides and laughed with uncontrollable mirth.
Then his whole form became rigid in a moment. A man had shouted something—there had been a wail from the crowd—was it true?—someone buried alive?—a little girl?
Selwyn staggered across the road, and roughly elbowing his way through the crowd, found a solitary policeman, hindered by willing, undirected hands, digging in the wreckage as best he could, while a couple of women sobbed hysterically and wrung their hands.
Those who watched hardly knew what had happened, but they saw a hatless, bleeding figure appear and, with the incision of snapping hawsers, question the policeman and the weeping women. They heard his quick commands to the men, and saw him jump into the centre of the debris. With the instantaneous recognition of leadership his helpers threw themselves to the work with a frenzy of determination. Lifting, digging, pulling with torn hands and arms that ached with strain, they struggled furiously towards the spot where it was known the girl was buried. They were like starving wolves tearing at the carcass of an animal. They yelled encouragement and fought through the chaos—and still the stranger whipped them into madness with his cries.
There in the smoke and the choking dust Austin Selwyn shook in the grip
of the greatest emotion he had ever known. A girl was buried —a fraction of a minute might mean her life. With hot breath and pulses on fire, he led his unknown men through the choking ruins to where one small, insignificant life was imprisoned.
An ambulance sounded its gong, and drew up by the crowd; the storm of the guns continued to rage, but no one thought of anything but the fight of those men for one little, unknown life.
At last. . . They had uncovered a great iron beam which had struck on a stone foundation and left a zone of safety beneath. Eager hands gripped it, dragging it aside, and there was hardly a sound as the stranger lowered himself into the chasm. A minute later he reappeared, and a shout broke from the onlookers. . . . He was carrying a little form in his arms.
But when they saw his face, a hush fell on everyone. She was dead.
WILD-EYED, with the ghastliness of his pallor showing through the coating grime and blood, Austin Selwyn stood in the ruins of the house, and the brown tresses of the child fell over his arm.
Kind hands were stretched out to him, but he shook
them off angrily. He was talking to the thing in his arms—muttering, crooning something.
Slowly he raised his face to the skies. In the glare of the searchlights a gleaming, silvery, oblong-shaped form was turning and twisting like an animal at bay. They heard him catch his breath, then their blood was frozen by a choking, heartrending cry of agony and rage.
It was the cry of the crystal-gazer who has had his crystal dashed from his eyes, to find himself in the presence of murder.
The crowd remained mute, helpless and frightened at the spectacle, when they saw a young woman approach him, a girl dressed in the khaki uniform of an ambulance-driver.
“Austin,” they heard her say, “please give me the little girl.”
With a stupid smile he handed the child to her, and she laid it on a stretcher. When it had been taken away, she took Selwyn’s hand in hers and led him, unresisting, to the ambulance.
CHAPTER XVIII Elise
T^ARLY next morning in a large military ward of a London hospital, Austin Selwyn woke from a sleep that had been charged with black dreams, and tried to recall the events leading to his present whereabouts.
By slow, tortuous process he reconstructed the previous evening as far as the moment when he had heard the warning guns—after that the incidents grew dim, and faded into incoherency. He seemed to remember rushing somewhere in a motor vehicle. . . He distinctly recalled seeing a policeman in Trafalgar Square. Yes, that was very clear— quite the most vivid impression of the whole night, in fact. He would hang on to that policeman.
With the care of an Arctic explorer establishing his base before going farther into terra incognita, he attached the threads of his wandering mind to that limb of the law and groped in all the directions of his memory’s compass. But it was of no avail. Tired out with the futile efforts he had made, his bandaged head sank back in the pillows, and the vivid policeman in Trafalgar Square was reluctantly surrendered as a negligible means of solution.
When he next awoke it was to the sound of many voices. There were two that were very close—one on either side of him, in fact. Affecting sleep, Selwyn listened carefully.
“Wot’s that you say, Jock?” said a Cockney voice to his left.
“I was obsairvin’,” said the other, “that number twentysax is occupied this mornin’.”
“Ow yus, so it is. I was ’oping as ’ow me pal the Duke of Mudturtle would buy the plice next to mine. But he don’t look a bad cove, wot you can see under 'is farncy ’eaddress.”
“I dinna think he can be o’ the airmy. His skin’s as pale as a lassie in love.”
“In the army, Jock? Don’t hinsult ’im. ’E’s one of the ’eroes of the ’ome front—hindispensibles, they calls ’em.’ ’ “Weel, weel, now,” expostulated the Scot, “dinna tak ower muckle for granted. We canna a’ gang tae the war, or wha wud bide at hame and make the whusky?”
“By Gar!” said a third patient opposite, sitting up suddenly and speaking in the disjointed but strangely musical dialect of the French-Canadian, “she is a wise feller, dis Seoachie.”
“Bonn swoir, Frenchy,” said the Cockney graciously. “’Ow alley you maintenongs?”
“Verra good, Tommee.
How isdegodamBow bells?”
“Well, the last toime I sees me old side-kick the Lord Mayor, ’e says as ’ow they was took by a Canadian for a soovenir.”
“Na,” said the Scotsman reprovingly, “I’m thinkin’ yon’s exaggerated.”
“By Gar!” said the French Canadian. “See, the orderly come now with water for shav’ Back in de bush or on de long portage I shav’ once, twice, perhaps tree time a month. Always before I meet my lee tie girl I shav’.
But when I say good-bye and go to war—by gollies! de army make me for do it every day. My officier, he say:
‘What for you no shav’ dis morning?’ ‘Sair,’ I say, T no kees de Boche—Í keel him.’ He say noding to dat excep’:
‘Look at you. I shav’ every day.
Do you preten’ I doan’ fight?’ ‘Well,’
I say, ‘if de cap feets you smoke it.’
And for no reason he give me tree time extra for carry de godam ration.”
AT THIS stage the arrival of wash-basins interrupted further anecdote and philosophy, and the entire ward became animated with soldiers performing their ablutions; some sitting up in bed, others on the edge of their beds, and a few so weak that they could just turn painfully on their sides and wait for other hands to help.
A burst of hearty greetings told Selwyn that someone must have entered the ward, and a few minutes later he felt the presence of a nurse beside him.
“Good morning,” she said, gently touching him on the shoulder. “How is your head feeling?”
He opened his eyes and looked into the face bending over his. “I think it’s all right,” he said weakly. “But, nurse, won’t you tell me how I got here?”
She dipped a wash-cloth into a basin and bathed his hands and face.
“You were hit by a piece of shrapnel in last night’s airraid. I wasn’t on duty when you came in, but the night sister said you were quite delirious—though you seem ever so much better this morning, don’t you? I’ll take your temperature, and after you’ve had some breakfast I’ll put a new dressing on your wound.”
She was just going to insert the thermometer between his lips when he stopped her with his hand. “Nurse,” he said, “why was I brought here—among soldiers?”
“Because every hospital is filled to capacity. The casualties are so heavy just now.” Her voice was still kind, but there was a look of resentment in her eyes at his question.
“Please don’t misunderstand me,” said Selwyn wearily. “It is only the feeling that I have no right here. This cot should be for a soldier, and I’m a civilian. I’m an American and—and if you only knew—”
“Just a minute, now, until we get this temperature, and then you can tell me all about it.”
WITH his lips silenced, but his doubts by no means so, he watched her move down the ward in commencement of the countless duties of her day. She was a woman of thirty-three or thirty-four years, still young and possessed of a womanliness that softened her whole appearance-with a tranquil restfulness. But beneath her eyes and in the texture of the skin, faint wrinkles were showing, thinly pencilled protests against overwork, that no treatment could ever eradicate. On the red collar of her uniform was a badge which told that she had gone to France with the first little army of regulars in 1914.
Noting her calloused hands and the too rapid approach of life’s midsummer, Selwyn watched her and wondered what recompense could be offered for those things. In ordinary life, given the privileges and the opportunities which she deserved, she would have been another of those glorious English women whose beauty is nearest the rose. She would have been a wife to grace any home, and as a mother her charm would have been twofold. But for more than two years incessant toil and endless suffering had been the companions of her days, and the not over-strong body was giving to the ordeal.
But as his heavy thoughts drifted slowly through this channel he saw grinning patients who were well enough to get out of bed to help her. As if she carried some magic gem of happiness, her soft voice and deft touch brought smiles to eyes that had been scorched in the flames of hell. Men looked up, and seeing her, believed once more in life; and hope crept into their
hearts. Men in the great shadowy valley murmured like a child in its sleep when a ray of morning sunshine, stealing through the curtains, plays upon its face
And of the many things which Selwyn learned that day, one was that those ministering angels, those women of limitless spirit and depthless sympathy, have memories of mute, unspoken gratitude, beside which the proudest triumphs of the greatest beauties are but the tawdry, tinsel glory of a pantomime queen.
A FTER the nurse had taken the thermometer from Selwyn and marked his temperature on a chart which she placed beside him, breakfast was brought in, and he was propped up with pillows.
“Guid mornin’,” said the Highlander. “I hope ye're nane the waur o' your expeerience.”
“Not ’im,” broke in the Cockney, eating his porridge with great relish. “It done ’im good.”
“I am very well,” said Selwyn haltingly. “I hope my arrival did not disturb any of you last night.”
At the sound of his carefully nuanced Bostonian accent there was a violent dumb-play of smoothing the hair and arranging the coats of the pyjamas, while one Tommy placed a penny in his eye in lieu of a monocle.
“I was ’oping,” said the Cockney with a solemn wink to the gathering, “as ’ow number 26 would be took by a toff, and blime! if it aint. It were gettin’ blinkin' lonesome for me with only Jock ’ere and Frenchy opposite, who aint bad blokes in their wy, but orful crude for my
“Where did it hit ye?” asked the Scot encouragingly. “On the head,” said Selwyn, pointing to his bandage. “Mon, mon, that's apt to be dangerous.”
“Nah then!” cried the Cockney, reaching for his temperature chart, “we’ll open the mornink proper with the ’Ymn of ’Ate. In cise you don’t know the piece, m’lud, you can read it off your temperacher-ticket. Steady now —everybody got a full breath? Gow!”
With great zest all the patients who were able to sit up broke into a discordant jumble of scales as they followed the course of their temperatures up and down the chart. Gradually, one by one, they fell out and resumed their breakfast until the Scotsman was the only one singing.
“Ye ken,” he said, pausing temporarily and looking at Selwyn, “yon should be rendered with proper deegnity.” With which explanatory comment he finished the last six notes and solemnly replaced the chart on the ledge behind him, as if it were a copy of Handel’s Messiah.
THE last note had hardly died away when a violent controversy broke out between a pair of Australian soldiers on one side and almost the entire ward on the other. The thing had started by one of the Anzacs venturing the modest opinion that if Britain had had a million Australian troops, they, the present gathering, would be “hoch, hoching” in Berlin (apparently a delightful prospect) instead of being cooped up in a London hospital.
The little Cockney was just going to utter a crushing sarcasm, the French-Canadian had taken in a perfectly stupendous breath, the Highlander was calmly tasting the flavor of his own reply, when the impending torrent was broken by the entrance of the chaplain, who wished everyone a somewhat sanctimonious “Good-day.”
“I shall read,” he said, putting on a pair of glasses, “the latest communique from the front. We have done very well. The news is quite good, quite good. ‘This morning on a front of three miles, after an intense artille! y preparation, the Australians’—”
“’Ooray!” roared the Cockney. . t
The glasses popped off the chaplain s startled nose, and he just managed by a brilliant bit of juggling to rescue them before they reached the floor.
“I—I,” he ventured, smiling blandly, “am delighted at your enthusiasm, but you did not let me finish. ‘This morning’—urn, um, ah— ‘three miles’—urn, urn, yes—‘three miles, after an interne artillery preparation, the Australians’—”
“’Ooray!” It was a deafening roar from the whole crowd.
“ ‘The Australians—’ ” “’Ooray!”
“ ‘The—’ ”
“Really, men, you must control yourselves. We are all glad and sustained by any victory, however slight, but you must not give way to u n m e a n i n g boistorousness. ‘This morning on a Iront o] three miles, after an intense artillery preparation, the Australians—’ ”
There was a medley of submerged,
prolonged snores. The chaplain looked
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up indignantly. With the exception of Selwyn and the two Australians, everyone had followed the lead of the Cockney and disappeared underneath the bed-clothes.
“This,” said the good man, “this frivolity at such a harrowing moment in our country’s destiny is neither seemly nor respectful. Cheerfulness is admirable, until it descends to horse-play.”
With which parting salvo the worthy chaplain, who had never been to France, and who was doing the best he could according to his clerical upbringing, left his unruly flock, taking the communique with him.
A LITTLE later the doctor made his rounds, pronouncing Selwyn’s wound as not dangerous, but assuring him he was lucky to be alive. Another inch either way and. . . . Passing on to the Scotsman, he stayed a considerable length of time; but as the screen was set for the examination, the American had no way of knowing its nature.
And so with constant badinage, seldom brilliant but never unkind, the morning wore on. It was nearly noon when Selwyn saw a wheeled stretcher brought into the ward and the Highlander lifted on to it.
“Jock,” said the little Cockney, “I ’opes as ’ow everythink will come out orlright.”
“By Gar, Scoachie!” cried the FrenchCanadian, “I am sorree. You are one dam fine feller, Scoachie.”
“Dinna worry yesel’s,” said the man from the North. “I’m rare an’ lucky that it’s to be ma richt leg and no’ the left, for that richt shank o’ mine was aye a wee thing crookit at the knee and didna dae credit tae the airchitecture o’ tither ane.”
Thus, amid the rough encouragement of his fellows, and by no means unconscious of the dignity of his position, the Highland soldier was taken away to the operating-room.
The French-Canadian made a remark to Selwyn, but it was not until the second repetition that he heard him.
A BOUT three o’clock that afternoon a little stream of visitors began to arrive, and Thomas Atkins, with his extraordinary adaptability, gravely, if somewhat inaccurately, answered the catechism of well-meaning old ladies, and flirted heartily and openly with giggling “flappers.”
To the visitors, however, Austin Selwyn paid no heed. He was enduring the lassitude which follows a fever. He knew that the crisis had come, the hour when he must face fairly the crash and ruin of his work; but he put it off as something to which his brain was unequal. Like slow, drifting wisps of cloud, different phrases and incidents floated across his mind, shadows of things that had left a clear imprint upon his senses. With the odd vagrancy of an undirected mind, he found himself recalling à few of Hamlet’s lines, and smiling wanly to think how after all those years the immortal Shakespeare
could give words to his own thoughts — “. . . . this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air. . . this brave o’er-hanging firmament—this majes tical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.”
The wings of memory bore him back to Harvard, where once in a scene from Hamlet he had mouthed those very words, little dreaming that in a few short years he should lose the sense of euphony in the cruel realization of their meaning.
Then, before he saw her or heard her step, he knew that she had come. His heart quickened, and his breathing was tremulous with mingled emotions.
“Well,” she said, coming to his bedside and offering her hand, “how is the invalid?”
“Elise,” he said; “it is wonderful of you to come.” He looked at her khaki uniform, and driver’s cap which imprisoned her hair. “Now,” he went on dreamily, “it all comes back to me. . . It was you who brought me here.”
“Had you forgotten that already?” she said, bringing a chair to the bedside.
“I couldn’t remember,” he answered weakly, “All I know is that I was walking alone—and there came a blank. When I woke up, I was here with a head that didn’t feel quite like my own. But I knew somehow that you had been with me.”
“What does the doctor say about your wound?”
“It is not serious.”
“You have heard since what happened?”
“It was absolutely topping the way you fought for that child’s life.”
LJE made a deprecatory gesture, and for A -1 a moment conversation ceased. He was wondering at her voice. A subtle change had come over it. Her words were just as uncomfortably rapid as in the first days of their friendship, but there was a hidden quality caught by his ear which he could not analyze. Looking at her with eyes that had waited so long for her coming, he felt once more the affinity she held with things of nature. Her presence obliterated everything else. They were alone—the two of them. The hospital, London, the world, were dimmed to a distant background.
“After such a night,” he said, “it is very kind of you to make this effort.”
“Not at all. We’re cousins, you know.” “I—I don’t—”
“The Americans and the English, I mean. Relatives always go to each other’s funerals, so I thought I might stretch a point and take in the hospital.” “Oh!. . . That was all?”
“Goodness, no! You automatically became a protege of mine when I picked you up last night. Isn’t that a horrid expression?—but frightfully fashionable these unmoral days.”
“You must excuse me,” he said slowly, “but I was foolish enough to think you came here because. . . well, because you wanted to.”
“So I did. An air-raid casualty is ever so much more romantic than a wounded soldier. If he lives through it, he always proposes the very next day either to the nurse or to the ambulance-driver, whereas a Tommy, after his third wound, becomes so blase.”
“You shouldn’t torture me,” he said, wincing noticeably under the incision of her words.
Just for a fleeting instant her eyes were softened with a tender look of self-reproach. His heart warmed at the sight, but before he could convince himself that it was not a creation of his own fancy, it had passed; and once more she was holding him at bay with her impersonal abruptness.
“Will you tell me about yourself?” he urged. “Please.”
“What do you want to know?” “Everything, everything!” he blurted out, impetuously leaning forward. “My Heavens! Don’t you know how I’ve longed and waited for this moment ever since that night at your flat? I want to hear all about you—what you’ve done—where you’ve been, and. . . .and in what mysterious way you’ve changed.”
“Have I changed?”
“Of course you have. You’re trying to appear just as you were when we first met, but you can’t do it. Even if I hadn’t noticed the difference in you, I should have known that no one could live through these times and remain the same.”
“Why not? Haven’t you?”
He laughed grimly, and his head sank back on the pillows. “I want to know all about you, Elise,” he repeated dully.
‘‘Very well.” She smoothed her skirt with her hands, and folded them Quakeress fashion. ‘‘As you know, I once had a flat in Park Walk—which I shared with various and variegated female patriots, also engaged in guiding the destinies of motorcars. Edna was the first one to follow Marion, after she and I quarrelled, but Edna couldn’t break the habit of wandering into the Ritz for luncheon every second day with only a shilling in her pocket.
“But I don’t see how—”
“You poor innocent! Someone always paid......don’t worry. So we parted com-
pany on that issue, and I asked Mabel to take Edna’s place. Mabel was frightfully nice, but took to opium cigarettes, and then to heroin. She disappeared one night and never came back. Poor girl! Her going made room for Lily, who read the very nicest modern novels, and always cried through the love scenes. I wish you could have seen her sitting up in bed reading a book, eating chocolates, and sobbing like a crocodile. Lily had only one weakness—marrying Flying Corps officers. It was really the army’s fault giving two of her husbands leave at the same time.” Selwyn frowned. “What a dreadful experience,” he said.
“Oh, I don’t know.” She gave a little shrug of her shoulders, but the spirit of badinage had vanished both from her face and from her voice. “It didn’t take long to lose most of one’s illusions. It is one thing to meet people as Lord Durwent’s daughter, and quite another as a freelance ambulance-driver. I’ve seen what people really are since I’ve been on my own, and I’m sick of the whole thing.” “You don’t mean that, Elise.”
“I do. Men are rotten, and women are cats.”
0 E smiled quizzically, but she kept her eyes averted from his. It almost
appeared as if she were determined to retain her pose of callousness at any effort, but his sense of psychology told him that this first conjecture was correct. The girl who had endured was trying to hide herself behind the personality of her old self.
“My dear girl,” he said slowly, “it is an old trick of women to talk for the purpose of convincing themselves. I don’t care what you have seen—you could not have passed through the ordeal of these long months and believe in your innermost soul that either men or women are rotten. In many ways I feel as if what little knowledge
1 possess dates from last night; and I have learned things about men right here in this ward to-day that have made me humble. These chaps that we call ignorant, the lower classes. . . . why, they are superb, wonderful. I tell you they have greatness in them. I wish you could have seen them—”
“Haven’t I seen them?” she cried, with a little catch in her throat, “hundreds and hundreds of times. Almost every day, and at all hours of the night, I’ve gone to meet the Red Cross trains. I have seen men die while being lifted out of the ambulance—men who would try to smile their thanks to us just before the end came.
I have—” She caught her hands in a tight grip, and her eyes welled with tears. “But they’re just jingoes, I suppose,” she said, blending a scornfulness with her repressed grief.
“I have deserved this,” said Selwyn, his face drawn. “Nothing that you can say is half so bitter as my thoughts.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she said. “If ever a man was sincere, I was, Elise. Since I last saw you I have followed the one path, thinking there was a great light ahead. . . . Now, I am afraid that, perhaps, it was only a mirage.”
“No, it wasn’t,” she replied vehemently. “I hated you for thinking English women would not aid their men to fight, and I wanted never to see you again. But do you remember when I said that the glory of war was in women’s blood? There was a certain amount of truth in it at the beginning; for, when I first saw the wounded arrive, I was madly excited. I wanted to shout and cheer. But, as the months have gone on, and I have seen our soldiers maimed and bleeding and suffering. . . while thousands of their women at home have simply broken loose and lost all sense of decency or self-respect — oh, what’s the
“But you mustn’t forget the women who
have done such great things for the country.”
“I know—but what’s it all for? Since this battle of the Somme our casualties have been frightful, and every day means so many of our real men killed, and so many more shirkers and rotters in proportion to carry on the life of England. We’ve had our women’s revolution all right. There are not many of the old barriers left, but what a mess we have made of our freedom! When I think of all that, and then recall what you said about war. . . I know that you were right and we were wrong.”
“You are wonderfully brave,” said Selwyn, “not only for having done so much, but in telling me that.”
“No,” she said, lowering her eyes to the gloves which she held in her hand; “I have lost all my courage. Every night I feel as if another day of meeting the wounded would kill me. . . If it could only end! Anything would be better than these awful casualty lists.”
“Elise.” He raised himself on his elbow and leaned towards her. “You prove yourself a woman when you say that. . . . but you’re wrong. I can’t give my reasons yet, but since last night I have been seeing clearer and clearer that Britain not only must not lose, but she must win." I know other men have said it ten thousand times, but only to-day have I begun to see that, in its own strange, unidealistic manner, this Empire is fighting for civilization.” “Then”—her eyes were lit with sudden, glistening radiancy—“then you don’t think our men have died uselessly?”
“I could not believe in God,” he answered, wondering at the calm certainty of his voice uttering things which would have infuriated him a few hours before, “if I thought that this war’s dead had fallen for nothing. . . ” His hand, which had been raised in gesture, fell limply on the bed. “Up to yesterday,” he went on slowly, “Í reasoned truth; to-day—I feel truth. . . I wonder if it is not always so, that higher knowledge begins with end of • reasoning.”
FOR a couple of minutes neither spoke, and his head was throbbing with anvil beats. Twice she started to speak, but stopped each time as though distrustful of her own words.
“I am going back to America, Elise,” he said, without looking at her, “to try and discover what I really think. Out of all these wasted months, with last night’s climax of damnable murder, every conviction has been stripped from me, except two; first, that Germany, for her own sake and for the future of humanity, must be beaten; the other. . . . well, it is hardly a conviction. It is more like a hunger, a gnawing hunger, for a civilization that will in some manner atone for all these lives that have been lost.”
A wall of pain pressed against his head, and his face went gray with agony. In an instant she was standing over him arranging his pillows, and soothing his temple with the gentle pressure of her hands.
For the first time in many months, he knew the help and compassion of a woman —and the woman was Elise. He was weak from loss of blood, weary from the long travail of the mind, and her presence, with its indefinable fragrance of clover and morning flowers, was as exquisite music to his senses.
“If you only knew,” he murmured, “how I have longed for this moment. And though I have been dreading the hour when I should have to face the future, and admit my terrible failure to myself—your coming has made it all so easy. Listen, Elise
The Cockney patient leaned over with a bag in his hand. “’Ave a gripe?” he said genially.
“No, th—” began Selwyn.
“Thanks so much,” said Elise, taking the bag and picking a small cluster for the American, afterwards handing the bag back to the Tommy.
“ ’Ave a few yourself, won’t yer?” said the warrior.
“’Ere,” said the Cockney, with mock brusqueness. “Tike a bunch.”
As she selected two or three of the grapes and smiled her acknowledgments to the delighted donor, Selwyn’s conception of the new Elise grew in certainty. Without being in the least dictatory, she had overruled his thoughtless refusal of the fruit; and, equally without patronage or maudlin effusiveness, she had contrived to make the most of the little incident, giving as much
pleasure to the wounded Britisher as was possible in so trifling a matter.
But, small as it was, Selwyn noted her delicacy, and the quick understanding of the different personalities involved. Many people possess the virtue of unselfishness: to him, it seemed that Elise had attained to the art.
DERHAPS from the very intensity of A their previous talk, the threads snapped and her quickly uttered sentences, with the accompanying sparkle in her eyes, showed him that he could hope for little more than badinage for the rest of her visit. Almost as if she desired to eradicate the memory of her emotional admission, she gave her vivacity full play. For a few minutes he tried to bring back the close intimacy of their souls, but she fenced him off and met his heart-hungry glances with the gayest of smiles.
Roselawn, she told him, had been transformed into a convalescent home, and Lord and Lady Durwent were living in one of the wings. Practically all the servants had enlisted or gone into war-work, and even Mathews, the groom, after perjuring himself before a whole regiment of army doctors, had been accepted .(with grave official doubts) for military service.
Interspersed with these details she recounted incidents of her London life as an ambulance-driver, and it was all her listener could do to follow the swift irrelevance of her course. Only once did she pause when, in answer to his question, she told him she had heard nothing of Dick.
But though her sentences still had the crispness of a whip, and though her cheeks were lit with life’s fire, as in the days when she led Boy-blue through leafy paths of adventure, she was not the Elise of former times.
Marred as she had then been by the domination of her intensive dissatisfaction, the tyranny of her moods, the lack of human response, yet she had gripped his imagination as no other woman had ever done. But out of the moonlight, in the very presence of hell’s vapors, had come the new Elise whose utmost efforts could not succeed in belying her changed personality. She had lived in close companionship to suffering, and though in her dislike of self-righteousness and her hatred of mock sentimentality she tried to deny the fact even to herself, her experiences had diffused all her wilful, unbridled paradox with the warm glow of sympathy—that gentle, wonderful, secret gift of deft understanding: that transcendent power of the mind to penetrate another’s soul, and call to life the slumbering best.
Even her face, the revelation of the soul, showed her achievement. There was no longer the pouting of warring lips, and the dulling of eyes, demanding their little moments of ascendency. She had not lost her spontaneity or the instinctive charm which had made her seem so much more in tune with out-of-doors than with the confines of a house, but all had blended. Her spirit and her body had become an indissoluble unison. In the forgetfulness of self, she had found herself.
And while his veins were coursing with the potent fluid of his love for her, and only her—he found himself glorying in the very femininity of the girl. Even in the quick exchange of conversation, and in the grip of his newly-awakened passion, his mind experienced a delight in contrasting her with the women he had known.
He had seen so many whose only attempt at individuality was an aping of men’s habits and mannerisms; he had met such numbers in his own country who had let the acquiring of a certain tabloid intellectuality make them sexless; he had encountered countless women, too frivolous or callous or timorous to admit the verities of life. . . . But before him was a girl whose warm-colored pride of womanliness linked her with the great women of the past.
The daughters of vikings, looking out to sea with their bosoms, like its own, rising and subsiding in the salt-foamed air. . . the daughters of Norman kings following their fathers into the Saxons’ land. . . the daughters of Royalists defying the Roundhead hordes. . . This English girl, in her admission and acceptance of womanhood’s traditions, had become sister to all of these.
And looking at her with half-open, dreamy eyes, the unuttered words came to Selwyn; “Daughter of a great past .... Mother of a greater future.”
To be Continued