The Man Who Shook His Head
A gripping story of the fate that befell a man who had the courage to be a coward
MARJORIE STANMERE slipped her dressing gown to the sand and, clad in a very abbreviated bathing suit, walked straight into the Atlantic Ocean.
No getting wet gradually with Marjorie, no tentative stretchings out of feet and then little scamperings back before some extra big wave, no nonsense like that; the sea was her element and she went into it joyfully. She was alone in her own pet cove on that rocky and treacherous coast almost midway between Dodman Point and the Nare Head, a bay celebrated even among Cornish ones for its dangers to the unwary bather. Marjorie was fully aware of the latent dangers, and fine swimmer though she was she never ventured very far from land. It was early yet, it wanted an hour to breakfast time, but the summer sun was already gathering strength and to the east the water was one long pool of bewildering gold.
Marjorie revelled in the coldness and the stinging salt of the waves . . .
“Hey!” She did not hear the shout until the second time. “Hey!” then she trod water and looked shoreward, rather indignantly at first, for the cove was her own peculiar discovery and she wanted no intruders in it.
She saw a young man waving from the shore.
“These yours?” he shouted, pointing to the tiny heap of her dressing gown, towels and shoes.
“What an idiot the man is,” she thought, “naturally they’re mine, whom else could they belong to?” “Yes—of course,” she shouted back; then she realized what had happened. Forgetful of the incoming tide she had foolishly left her clothes too near the edge of the water and in another few minutes they would have been swamped.
The young man bent down and gathered her things carefully together. “I’ll move them back,” he shouted, “out of . . the rest of his words were drowned by the wind but Marjorie saw what he was doing, and in real gratitude shouted “Thanks.” The young man carefully deposited her things at the head of a breakwater out of danger, waved a cheerful good-by and, turning tail, began to clamber up the cliffs to the path on top.
Marjorie returned his wave with a vigorous bare brown arm and admired his rapid progress up the steep cliff climb. Then she re^ sumed her swim, and the medley of thoughts in her pretty head ran something as follows: he must have been walking along the top, I suppose, and spied my things . . . jolly lueky he did, too . . . o-ooh that’s a whopper (the Atlantic was playing with its pretty plaything in a lazily magnificent mood) . . , it would have been a bore if I’d lost them and had to go back to the house without . . . though it wouldn’t have mattered much in this lonely part of the world . . . o-ooh (a mouthful) . . . wonder what he was doing . . . going to bathe somewhere perhaps, but where does he come from, rather a jolly voice . . . heavens! there’s a jellyfish . . . well, I look like being late for breakfast at this rate, out you come, Marjorie Stanmere . . .
And out she did come, a dripping berry-brown body, as lithe and lissom as a panther. She ran to her rescued clothes and then took a swift look round her cove; its secrecy was inviolate again, no strange eyes were there to admire as she dried her brown limbs and sang happily the while to herself.
It was a mile and a quarter by road to Polpesco Court, but no more than a mile if you scrambled up the rocks, as Marjorie did, and cut across the wonderful Cornish turf.
It was her customary way back from bathing and she expected to meet no one on it, so that she was astonished, when she climbed the stile at thé end of the far field, to land in the road almost at the feet of a stranger.
She stopped short in the song she was singing, and stared. The stranger couldn’t take off his hat because he hadn’t got one on, his tousled half-dried brown hair, showed what he had been doing. It was the young man who rescued clothes.
“Hallo,” said Marjorie. The young man smiled, a disarming sort of smile. “I say,” she went on, “it was jolly decent of you to run down and pull my things out of the way like that.”
“Not a bit, I just happened to see ’em from the top of the cliff. I was walking along—”
“Looking for somewhere to bathe?”
“Well, don’t forget I’ve bagged Smugglers, that’s what we call the cove I was in. Smugglers, c’est.à moi.”
The young man grinned again . accepting the fiat. “Right-o,” he said, “I’ve staked my claim farther along the coast. I say, do you live round here?”
“Can you tell me the way back to Mrs. Cressida’s cottage?”
“The way to old Mother Cress—of course; are you staying there?”
Just the vaguest hint of finality about the monosyllable stopped the girl from asking any more questions: she looked enquiringly at the young man for an instant and then gave him the directions required.
“Thanks awfully,” he said, “sorry to have bothered you.”
His final cheerful grin made Marjorie add to her last “good-by.” “Don’t know if you play tennis; we try to up at Polpesco Court and we’re always glad of an extra man.”
She had turned and was walking breakfastward again as he mixed up his thanks and affirmations to come.
Marjorie was like that, as self-possessed and calm a young person as you please, and then, just at odd, seemingly unimportant, moments in her life, suddenly nervous to the verge of rudeness.
She decided that he certainly had a nice voice, something rather jolly and reassuring in it.
DICK ROGERS came to Polpesco Court in trepidation, but he stayed in something like triumph for he was out and away the best tennis player there.
He arrived just before tea time on a hot August afternoon, and was gratefully seized upon by Marjorie who wanted an energetic partner and who introduced him to everybody as “the man who saved my dressinggown from the vasty deep.” Thereupon he was allowed five minutes in which to swallow a cupful of extremely hot tea and immediately commandeered to play three consecutive and exhausting sets. He and his partners won them all; he liked the one in which he played with Marjorie best. Then there was a men’s doubles to end up with, so that he didn’t require much pressing when asked to stay for dinner.
During dinner he had time to sort people out a little. First, there was Marjorie. Then the others: her mother, Mrs. Stanmere, a charmingly courteous little lady of the old school; Mr. Stanmere; a younger sister; and three officers of various ages and ranks who were using the Court as a convalescent hospital (you must remember that this was in 1917).
Conversation was boisterous and unbookish, as one would expect it to be between two sprightly girls and three semiinvalids who wanted only to forget certain horrible realities; but, through natural human curiosity, it kept touching on the newcomer and raising questions about his sudden arrival at Mrs. Cressida’s cottage, what he was doing there, and his acquaintance with military service. Questions which, though he answered them quickly enough, Dick seemed to find rather displeasing.
It was over port, when Mrs. Stanmere and her two daughters had left the room, that Dick got the inevitable direct question.
“Down here convalescing like the rest of us?” it was a major in the gunners speaking.
“Er—no, not exactly. I’m working.”
“I see. But you’ve been mixed up in this lot I suppose?” ‘This lot’ meant the khaki which the speaker wore, and all its stupidly horrible connotations.
The flat, uncompromising monosyllable produced such an angular silence that Dick followed it up half-heartedly with a further explanation in an effort to tone it down a little.
“Fact is, they haven’t any use for me. Doctor said I wasn’t particularly fit—heart or something.”
The gunner major helped himself to another glass of port; then he said: “Oh—bad luck”; then he turned and talked to someone else.
Dick took his leave early that night. Marjorie saw him to the door. She expostulated with him for going just when “Farmers’ Glory” was beginning to get exciting.
“But I must. I’ve got to work.”
“Work? At this hour; whatever can the man mean?”
“Oh, only a bit of writing, I find I do it best in the evening.”
“Writing—this is most mysterious, what sort of writing?”
Dick laughed. “Very bad, I’m afraid. But it’s not so mysterious as all that; there are such things as books, you know, and they have to be written before they can be read.”
In the triumphant dissecting, seized-your-secret voice of youth Marjorie accused him: “Mr. Rogers, you’re an author.”
Dick neither confirmed nor denied the impeachment, he merely grinned. “But you’ll come and play tennis,” Marjorie asked anxiously, “I’m not going to let go of a perfectly good partner like you.”
“I’ll come,” Dick said, “if J may. Good night.”
He read whether he might or not in the softening of two brown eyes. “Good night, Mr. Rogers—and oh—” “Yes?” Dick wheeled round in the drive enquiringly. “Oh, nothing—I was just wondering if you were going bathing tomorrow, but I suppose if you sit up half the night writing you won’t feel like it. Good night.”
But somehow his nocturnal activities didn’t seem to interfere with Dick’s zest for an early dip. Every
morning he walked along the cliff path above Smugglers and waved to Marjorie who waved back again from the water; every morning they walked back together over the sweet Cornish grass. Nothing like those early morning walks together; no time for adventure like the morning when the sun is making diamonds of the dew and the sea-wind catches like wine in your throat— Morning of Day, Morning of Youth, very Morning of Life itself . . .
Later in the day they would often meet in the more prosaic circumstances of the tennis court; but even there, in the middle of a set, or at tea when surrounded by other heedless people, their eyes would sometimes meet—meet and instantly look away again; and though no word was spoken each knew the other’s thoughts: what fun this morning was, what fun it will be tomorrow . . .
But you could never get Dick to stay at Polpesco Court much after eight at night. His work claimed him then. This always made the gunner major indignant. “What nonsense!” he would cry when Marjorie came back into the room from seeing Dick off. “Ordinary people don’t start work at night, they go to bed.”
“Authors aren’t ordinary.”
“Rogers doesn’t admit he’s an author.” “He doesn’t deny it—and anyway he writes, so he must be.”
“Urn; might do something more useful than writing nowadays.”
Whereupon Marjorie would invariably leave the room delivering her final, and staggering, shot: “No nightcap for you, maj or.”
But mysterious though it seemed to other and more practical people, Dick’s statement was only literal truth. He went back to his cottage to work, and it was seldom earlier than two—often it was nearer four in the morning—when he gave a little sigh, gathered together the scraps of paper littered round him—odd material, one would have thought, for an author— and carefully locked them all up in a small steel box. His tiny cottage bedroom was lined with books; books whose titles, could Mrs. Cressida have read them, might considerably have astonished her: several were mathematical, there were three Bibles curiously marked in the margins, not a few were in German—an odd mixture. But good Cornish Mrs. Cressida couldn’t read, a fact which Dicky had duly elicited before he took his lodging with her.
He kept his body fit by that early morning dip and the strenuous tennis at Polpesco Court; and at night, when all Cornwall was silent save for the sea, he brought to bear on his problems one of the keenest brains at its own particular work in all England. But two would strike, three and four, by the grandfather clock on the stairs, and he seemed to get no nearer a solution; always at the end when his books were shut, his papers wearily gathered and carefully locked away, that little sigh of unachievement would escape him.
ACE you to that cairn,” Marjorie cried, setting off at once in an outrageously unfair start; but Dicky got there before her, tomboy though she was. He was panting a little but not unduly distressed: privily she wondered about that heart of his.
“You ought not to walk so near the cliff edge,” he admonished.
She made a grimace at him. “Rot, old safety first; eight stone ten won’t make much difference to a Cornish cliff.”
“Ten eight possibly,” he corrected her. “O-uch, that hurt, you savage.” She was pelting him with a handful of little stones.
“Meant,” she assured him laughing heartlessly, “to teach you better manners. I say, just look at Hensbarrow, I think it rather good, don’t you?”
Dick looked over his left shoulder to where! behind St. Austell town ten miles away, the blunt head of Hensbarrow Down was glorious in the morning sun. Looks like some saint in prayer, he thought, some grim old statue touched to ecstasy . . .
“Dick”—the shot-like cry sent a peewit wheeling away in indignant fright and brought Dick round like a top.
“My God,” he shouted, “hang on.” He was across the ten paces separating them in three terrific strides. But he halted short of her. Even in that split second of time his mind had appreciated the situation. The cliff edge had crumbled away under the girl and already her feet had gone, nothing was visible but her frightened face and two hands horribly taut on the grass that gave them hardly sufficient hold. Six inches in front of her, Dick saw a thing he dare not look at, a crack in the ground that was like an evil sardonic leer. Quick ns lightning he whipped the towel from round his neck, but before h’ threw it to her he spoke.
“Keep cool, Marjorie,” he said slowly and distinctly, “there’s heaps of hold in that turf for you. It’s no good me coming nearer the edge, it overhangs by the look of it and we should only both go over. I’m going to throw you this towel and as soon as I do you must let go with both your hands and grab on to it—see?”
She nodded, even managing a ghost of a smile. “Buck up though,” she said.
He got the towel ready, knotting the end to help her grip. “You must grab it with both hands and hold on,” he ordered, “I can easily manage your weight.”
“Eight ten?” she gasped; Dick saw, or thought he saw the tiniest increase in that terrible leer in the earth.
“Coming,” he shouted and threw the towel.
It seemed like five minutes, but it must have been considerably less than that number of seconds, before the strain suddenly eased and he heard the cliff edge spatter away beneath her feet as she scrambled on to safe earth again. She was on her knees on the short Cornish turf and somehow he found himself beside her.
“My darling, I thought you were gone.”
“Dick . . .”
“All right old girl, safe as houses now.”
“You saved me ...”
“Rot. I told you not to walk too near the edge though, didn’t I?”
“Beastly man, I knew you’d say ‘told you so’ . . . whatl I’m not.”
“Yes, you are; and here’s a hanky.”
“T-thanks—it’s only sea spray ...”
“I’ll kiss it away then .”
They walked together as far as the end of Polpesco drive.
“I say, fancy all that happening before breakfast,” she said.
“I shall have champagne for mine.”
“Silly boy—Dick, don’t work tonight.”
“I’m not going to, I shan’t be able, for one thing.” “Then come to dinner and stay on after for the evening.”
He nodded again and eyed the overlooking windows of the lodge with disfavor. “Lodge stiff with people I suppose?” he said.
Marjorie shook her head. “No one there; he’s away serving.”
“Thank the lord for patriotism,” said Dick.
“That’s the second, sir,” she cried disentangling herself with a fine show of independence, “I must fly now, don’t be late tonight.”
She turned from halfway up the drive to wave to him and shout: “I’ve got your hanky.”
“And my heart,” he answered, watching until the trees hid her slender grace; he was a happy man.
'“THAT afternoon Dick’s little scraps of paper were very communicative—but in the wrong sort of way; their queer hieroglyphics spoke to him of nothing but twodancing brown eyes and two willing lips.
Long before tea time he put his work away in despair. “No good trying to work in Paradise,” he reflected, “but I suppose one sobers down after a bit; one gets used to it, gets used to Paradise—a rum thought.”
He was twenty minutes longer than usual getting ready to go to Court. He arrived for dinner, sat opposite
Marjorie and found that she wouldn’t look at him. And almost the only time she spoke to him was to rap out an unnecessarily sharp contradiction of some statement.
Lots to learn about women, poor Dick pondered over port. Then when they rejoined the girls in the drawingroom she gave him a cigarette, lit it herself and perched on the arm of his chair.
Bridge was suggested. Dick and Cousins cut against Marjorie and the gunner major. It was spasmodic bridge, carried bravely on in the teeth of a conversational gale. In fact, at one point an argument arose which threatened to stop the proceedings altogether.
“They won’t draft reinforcements to the 83rd before autumn, not now they’ve gone south,” the major said.
“They’ve drafted ’em already,” Cousins said.
“No can do; they haven’t got the transports.”
“Stacks of transports.”
“Yes—most of ’em at the bottom of the sea, we’ve lost five this summer.”
“Rot. I don’t suppose we’ve lost one.”
“Good lord, Cousins, you must go about with your eyes and ears shut, I tell you at least five have gone down.”
“And I don’t believe one has.”
“As a matter-of-fact it’s two,” Dick said, in an unguarded moment, “two since March.”
The scornfully authoritative tone of his pronouncement had caused both wranglers, but especially the gunner, to eye him in astonishment.
“And how the devil do you know?” the major asked.
“Eh? Oh I dunno—read it in the paper somewhere I suppose—one no trump.”
“News like that doesn’t get into the paper, my good young man,” the major said; adding vindictively, “double one no trump.”
Dick got three tricks which gave him game and rubber; the major scowled. “Well, I must be off,” Dick said, jumping up.
Marjorie walked with him toward the door.
“You’ll come tomorrow afternoon for the American tournament?” she asked. “Rather—I’m looking forward to it.” They were in the hall by now and when the door was safely shut behind them the girl stood away from him and said: “Dick.”
The voice warned him—perhaps it even gave him some dim warning of what he was soon to face. “Hallo.”
“Dick, when I go back in there, they are going to say horrid things about you— you know that, don’t you?”
“I imagine the major isn’t bursting with love for me, but I can’t say it worries me a lot; is that all?”
“No. Dick, is your heart really bad?” “You’ve knocked it about pretty badly, dear.”
“No, seriously, please. Cousins says you’re a conscientious objector and the two of them make bets on how many white feathers you’ve had given you.”
Just for an instant Dick’s hand tightened on the hat he was idly holding, then it relaxed and there was the faintest shrug of his shoulders. “Oh, Cousins says that, does he? Well, there are a few odd million fools fighting for freedom, so I suppose we mustn’t deny a man the right of free speech.”
“You forget my brother is among the fools.”
“I’m sorry, Marjorie—but can’t you see that sort of thing hurts.”
“It does; it hurts me.” She slid those capable hands over his shoulders, round his neck, drew his puzzled, resentful, not unhandsome face toward her own. “Dick, I know it’s all right, I trust you. I know there’s only one little word wanted to explain the whole thing. Can’t you trust me? Can’t you give me that one word? I’ll pay you for it, Dick.”
The boy was so close to those lips which could give him all the payment he desired that, for an instant, he hesitated, then he looked away and formed the dull words: “I’ve told you once, old girl, I’ve been turned down on medical grounds.” “That’s the only reason?” Already her hands were relaxing their grip.
“Good-night, my dear”—the lips he kissed were unresponsive.
All the way back to his cottage Dick struck savagely with his stick at the wayside grass.
Mrs. Cressida was waiting up for him when he got back, an unusual event, prompted by the yet more unusual one of a telegram arriving. “Oh, sir, I do ’ope as it isn’t nothing untimely,” the dear old lady said.
Dick tore open the flimsy and read it. “Only about some books,” he reassured her.
“Oh, more books—well I never did ...”
The telegram was, apparently, about books; it read:
“Books being despatched twelve noon tomorrow passenger train.”
Dick didn’t have to reach down any of his curious volumes to get the meaning of that message, it was in the commonest code used in his game, just good enough to pass unsuspected in country parts.
“That squashes tennis tomorrow,” he reflected ruefully, sitting down at his desk, “wonder what sort of excuse I better make ...” He took up a sheet of writing paper and after awkward thought scribbled a few lines.
A FEW minutes before twelve o’clock the next day Dick walked into a tiny café in a small back street of Truro and made for a table where two men were already seated. The one who greeted him first was short, inclined to stoutness, ruddy faced, something like a retired sea captain. If asked to guess what job he fulfilled you would have mentioned many before hitting on the right one—one of the most confidential and highly salaried posts at Scotland Yard. At first Dick did not recognize the other man whose face was half hidden by the upturned collar of his coat.
The little stout man ordered three coffees and as soon as the waitress was out of earshot asked: “Any luck, Dick?”
Dick shook his head. “Fifty false scents, but nothing in the end. Believe you’ve got me on a wild goose chase.”
The short man shook his head emphatically. “No. That’s where all the information’s going. There’s a code of some sort in those letters, and if only we could find it we could stop the leakage.”
The third man spoke for the first time. “Can’t you simply arrest the man writing these letters—any pretense would do; if necessary, I guarantee to get an Order-inCouncil for it.”
“No, sir,” the man from Scotland Yard answered promptly, “last thing we want to do. That would only silence the man we know to be a danger; we want to find out who his helpers are, his sources of information, and we can only do that if Rogers here can solve his code. Dick, you know this gentleman, of course.”
“I don’t think I—” The third man moved slightly and uncovered his features. Dick gave a start, it was a face better known in Downing Street than anywhere else.
“I beg your pardon, Sir Henry—” he said.
The great man smiled, a wan smile in a tired face; then he spoke in a low musical voice, very quickly with long pauses between sentences.
“Our energetic friend here has brought me all this way to impress you with the importance of the work you are doing, (long pause). My dear Rogers, I can’t be more impressive than bald facts, (long pause). If we go on losing food ships at the present rate, and no faster, we shall be starving in six months. It may seem callous to say it, but this country is bleeding to death, not in France, but on the high seas. Yesterday I gave orders for a complete census to be taken throughout the kingdom of all animals, all edible animals: horses, donkeys, goats, dogs— we are as near rock bottom as that. The man who helps in any way to prevent the torpedoing of foodships is more use to the country today than a battalion of infantry. I’m not pessimistic, only truthful when I tell you that at the present moment we are losing the war fast. (Long pause). And now I must hurry back, you’ll do your best for us, Rogers, I know. The car is ready, Chambers, I suppose?”
“Yes, sir,” the man from the Yard said, “just let me have five minutes with Rogers, though.”
The great man nodded, rose, bowed to them both, and walked swiftly through the little shop into his waiting car.
Dick sat listening: . . here’s the
latest batch of letters. It’s no good telling me there’s nothing in ’em, Dick, because there is. I know it. The code has beaten .me, beaten us all at the Yard, I admit that; but it’s there, I know that. And you mustn’t let it beat you. We’re not going to add this to the five known codes in the world that baffled everybody—we can’t afford to—well, you heard what Sir Henry said. I want it in a week, Dick, if it drives you mad.”
Dick sat staring at the fresh bundle of letters in a handwriting he knew damnably well; the short man had risen and was preparing to follow Sir Henry. “Got to be back in the Yard by tea time,” he said.
“There’s just one thing—” Dick began.
“Can I—would it be possible—I mean can’t I give people—one person—just a hint of what I’m doing—?”
“Not a ghostly shadow of a hint, my son. I wouldn’t care to be responsible for your life if certain people knew; and though you may not care much what happens to your head, I do. You can have any disease on the list; trench feet, cold feet, malaria, malingering, any or all of ’em but keep quieter than death about anything else. Why not develop a heart?”
“I have,” said Dicky, miserably.
“Well, that ought to do for you—so long. A week remember and that’s your limit.”
T\ICK got back to his cottage by the casual cross-country bus in time for tea. No good going for tennis now, he would walk over to the Court after dinner. Mustn’t let this code business rattle him; his best hours for working were from ten at night till any old time—four usually— in the morning. And if a man is to keep his mind on edge for that length of time he must give it a rest during the day: walk, bathe, eat, laugh—be an animal, anything so that he keep his intellect from going round and round in that dreaded treadmill of pitiless investigation.
AT POLPESCO COURT he found himself in better favor with Marjorie than he had anticipated. She was sorry about the tournament but she seemed quite satisfied with his excuse; if he couldn’t come, he couldn’t, and there was an end of it.
“Business,” Dick explained vaguely.
“Bad luck,” she sympathized, “can’t be helped, though; and I didn’t have such a dud partner after all.”
And when it was time to leave she was more than kind. At the door she whispered:
“Good night, Dick, sorry for being a brute to you last night.”
He put his grateful arms round her and kissed his answer.
"pOUR hours later Dick sat in his small room bent over the littered table. He worked by oil lamp and at that hour there was hardly a light burning in Cornwall but his own. His table was deep in letters all tabulated and dated, all written in the same business like neat hand with its methodical punctuation; and all, apparently, harmless. He could not move his feet without disturbing some of the unusual books that lay about the floor— Krontz on “Frequency Tables”; Lister’s “Ciphers and the Bible”; Manning’s monumental “Construction of Codes”— all the expected, and many unexpected, standbys of the expert solver were there. But Dick was past the help of books now; if this code were going to be solved the solving had to come out of his own head— that overworked aching head in which figures and symbols and combinations went whirling round in an unending nightmare.
Wearily he got up from the table and started to fill a favorite pipe. He wondered if Chambers was right about the letters . . . what a frost if he weren’t . . . still he always was right about that sort of thing, seemed to have a flair about it somehow. And yet what could the code be, what was there he hadn’t tried? He began to pace regularly up and down. It was all very well, he reflected, to say that whatever the mind of one man can construct, the mind of another can analyze. In theory, yes; in practice, no. Anyway, not for years and years and he had a limit of a week.
The wind of his walking disturbed one of the letters on the table, it fluttered to the floor, and Dick stood above it staring at it as it lay there upside down.
The pipe came away from his astonished lips, his jaw dropped in amazement. “Good lord,” he cried, his pipe held in mid-air; and then, pipe flung away, he was on his knees over that incredible piece of paper, with “Good—lord; good— blessed—lord,” very quietly repeated.
The thing was as evident as the hindquarters of an elephant; it was too evident surely to be true. Another false scent? He was quick with proving pencil on some odd scrap of paper—no, he was all right What wicked simplicity . . . yes, it worked out ... all in the punctuation— and he had suspected those well made stops and commas a dozen times before, yet never seen this little dodge . . . some brain, that thought that out ... «
He kicked the useless Krontz out of the way and squatted down on the floor. With fingers that could not write quickly enough he plucked the essence out of the first letter to hand. It was as exciting as being a kid again, and pulling the surplus packing away to reveal the thrilling outline of an unknown present inside.
An hour later he picked up his discarded pipe and relit it. He yawned and stretched in great content, enough for one night the miracles thereof. Very carefully he got together all his triumphant scribblings and burned them. Dick knew the rules of the Game all right—no more outside your head than need be; and all he wanted was in his head now, he could go straight up to Scotland Yard tomorrow and give Chambers the surprise of his life. That was an evening’s work if you like . . . bed now and well earned.
XTEXT morning he settled his account with good Mrs. Cressida but tolä her to keep his rooms for him—Dick had visions of coming back to that cottage for reasons other than work. Then he packed and looked out a lunch-time train, he intended to stroll over to Polpesco Court in the morning and say au revoir.
The spell of good weather had broken and it was a blustery unkind day, but Dick cared nothing about the wind; he walked along the cliff and took delight in seeing the waves whipped to white anger by the westerly gale.
It was an egotistical turn of thought, perhaps pardonably so, but he could not help reflecting how queer it was that there, walking solitarily along the Cornish cliffs, should be the one man in England who at the moment counted most. What was inside his head, and his head only in England, was the knowledge that Sir Henry had said was worth more than a battalion of infantry.
The peewits wheeled above him shrieking their mournful complaint against the wind, then suddenly from the cliff edge rang out an urgent human note.
Dick turned, startled. A fisher girl of fifteen or sixteen was running toward him but the wind made her words as unmanageable as her clothes. Dick saw there was something amiss and ran to meet her.
Together they stood at the cliff edge; his ears were puzzled by her incoherent words, but his eyes told him all that was necessary. In the water that seethed blackly between the upright needle rocks there was a pathetic little bundle; a tiny splash of helpless color in the angry sea.
Together Dick and the girl, who tugged his arm, scrambled down the steep path to the water’s edge and Dick had his coat half off before he realized what he was doing.
It was high tide in a bay notorious even on that dangerous coast. The heavy sea and the rocks ... in sudden immobility he stared fascinated at that hopeless little blob . . . ought he to go . . . he couldn’t let the child drown, he might try it, if he could work his way in the lee of that big rock it might not be so bad . . . but he never moved, some inexorable unanswerable thing in his head told him that he could not go . . . the logic of the thing paralyzed him, the life of a fisher child or risk losing the knowledge that meant safety for England ... he stood, stock still, coat half off, staring helplessly to sea . . .
The girl at his side stirred him to realities, she was drumming with clenched fists at his side, almost frantic with wild grief.
“Jenny, master, you’re going for our
Even then, Dick had some inkling of how the rest of the world—his own world—would endorse that passionate plea, but he shook his head. The girl hung on his arm repeating her words, unwilling to believe his refusal. He stared down at her curiously as though she were part of some stupid, unwished-for dream imposed upon him. He realized how indefensible his inaction was, if he daren’t plunge in himself, at least he could bring help. He turned and ran wildly inland.
It was a desperate scramble to the cliff top with the traitorous grass giving in his hands and the betraying stones scattering away beneath his feet, but he gained the top at last and ran full tilt into somebody —the gunner major out for a constitutional.
The major was a trifle surprised by this unexpected apparition; he was more surprised by the apparition’s words:
“Here, major, lend a hand, quick, there’s a kid drowning down there . . . quick as you can, she must be pretty well done . . . I’ll run to the coastguard’s cottage ...”
Five minutes had elapsed since Dick had been startled by that first cry for help, less than another five and he was hammering on the door of the coastguard’s white washed cottage. Ready help was there but Dick did not accompany it. He could not go back to that bare sand and those ugly rocks, still echoing, he tortured himself to think, with the unstemmable grief of the sister he had not dared to help.
THE major stood in the lounge at Polpesco Court, an ever widening pool of water forming round his feet. He was telling his tale in the sub-heroics proper to his position.
“. . . the kid was half clinging on to a bit of rock and half washed off it . . . I wasn’t much good, it was the coastguard fellow with ropes and things who saved us, no end of a stout fellow. But what beat me was the Rogers man ...”
“What about the Rogers man?” Marjorie was standing at the doorway listening.
“You there, Miss Stanmere? Oh— nothing much ... I think it was an error of judgment, though, to run a mile to get help instead of going in himself straightway.”
“Do you mean that Dick saw the child drowning and didn’t go to help her?”
“I didn’t actually hear him refuse, of course ...” the major stammered.
“Perhaps his heart wouldn’t stand it,” Cousins said, looking up from his paper for the first time. “Go away, major, and put some decent clothes on; you’ll get into a row from Miss Stanmere if you stand there making a mess of the floor.”
But Miss Stanmere was worrying over things other than the lounge floor. Two rather stupid, obvious men these, she thought; as quick-judging and as cruel as schoolboys . . . and yet, and yet . . . and yet . . .
The door opened and Dick walked in, white. His entry produced a noticeable silence. The major, good fellow, who really wished no harm to anyone, blundered in with a well-meant stupidity. “Hallo, Rogers,” he said, “jolly cute of you to dash along for the coastguard, we
should have been done withou--”
Dick cut him short with: “What happened? Is the child drowned?”
“Lord, no. She’ll be as right as anything when they get the Atlantic Ocean out of her—”
“You saved her?”
“Rather not; the coastguard fellow saved us both. Just what I say, jolly smart of you to—”
“Dick, why on earth didn’t you go to help her?”
The major tried to help with: “P’raps Rogers didn’t realize the trouble the kid
was in at first.”
“Of course, I realized it,” Dick said testily, “I’m not a fool; didn’t I tell you the first second I saw you that she was drowning?”
“Then why ever didn’t you go to help instead of running away?” Marjorie still wanted her question answered. “You know how dangerous those coves are, especially at high tide.”
“I—I don’t think I quite follow you.”
“I’m sorry,” Dick said in the cold extravagance of exasperation, “I thought I was expressing myself pretty plainly. It was just because I realized the danger that I didn’t go in; the danger was too great.”
Cousins lowered his paper for a moment to have a good view of the man who could make such an extraordinary statement.
“Dick! You can’t know what you are saying.”
“I do—only too well. It’s a question of values. I happened to think—logically I was forced to think-—that my life was more important at the moment than that of a fisher-girl. That’s why I daren’t risk it.”
Cousins put up his paper again; the major walked to the window and lit the cigarette of ostentatious aloofness; Dick made an awkward exit. Marjorie followed him into the hall.
He turned and faced her.
“Is that all the explanation you are going to give?”
“It is all the explanation I can give.”
“That you ran for help because you were afraid?”
His face was against the light so she could not see how the color mounted to his cheeks for an instant.
“Surely,” she pleaded, “there is some other reason, something that will explain it, Dick.”
For a moment the boy stood motionless, then he slowly shook his head.
The second time within an hour that he had shaken his head; and I often wonder which decision was hardest to come to: to shake his head when that frantic thing, half wild in her grief, was begging him to help her sister; or to do it in the quiet of Polpesco Court with a full knowledge of what it was costing him. But he was under orders as clear and as binding as any which hold a soldier to his duty. So he shook his head.
The girl’s mouth set in arrogant disdain, her brown eyes hardened with all the intolerance of youth.
“Some day, perhaps, you will understand better, Marjorie,” Dick said.
“I think I understand well enough,” she said, “good-by.”
Dick Rogers turned and went. He was dismissed.
1ATE that same evening he stood in a ■> small untidy room somewhere in the maze of New Scotland Yard. A short ruddy-faced man sat at the paper-strewn table. “Well?” he asked glancing up.
Dick threw a packet down. “Decodes,” he said laconically, “You were quite right.”
The seated man’s fingers were feverish among that thick wad of papers. It was almost indecent to see what Dick had laid bare in those seemingly innocent letters, like looking at a man’s inside on the dissecting table.
Chambers was running through them with little exclamations of astonishment and delight.
“ . . . good lord, he’s in it . . . and that girl at the ‘Rodney’ ... by Gad, you don’t mean to say ... oh Abraham’s holy aunt, what a haul! Dick, you’re a blessed and unusual genius—Sir Henry will give you anything you want for this, a knighthood if you like.”
Dick smiled faintly.
“I say you’re looking a bit done up, you know. I expect you sweated blood over this.”
“I sweated blood all right,” Dick assured him, “and now I’m going to have a holiday.”
“A real holiday. I’m sick of your blasted ciphers and secrets, Chambers; tomorrow morning at ten o’clock sharp I shall stand naked in front of the recruiting sergeant and astonish him by saying I’m fit and the sooner I get to France the better I shall like it. And you can’t damn well stop me.”
“Mad as a hatter,” Chambers said, looking thoughtfully at the slammed door, “off his blooming little rocker. Pity, but can’t be helped, and after all it doesn’t matter much, he has done what we wanted him to . . .” Once more he bent delighted over his treasure.”
TDRENDERGAST, the little lawyer, L whose tale I’m recording, was silent for so long that we all thought he had finished.
“And that’s that, I suppose,” St. Marnier, the soldier asked.
“No,” the little lawyer said, “it’s not quite the end yet. Dick was as good as his word and joined up in the ranks next day. In six weeks he was in France, and there he went to infinite trouble in his efforts to get killed—”
“Young ass,” St. Marnier growled. Prendergast agreed. “The boy had a theory you see,” he explained gently, “that it might help a little if he got a decoration—a V.C. for instance; but, of course, he didn’t get one, he only got reported missing.”
Now before Dick went abroad he handed a sealed letter to his father with instructions that if he were killed it was to be opened. In the worst days of ’17, “reported missing” was bad enough to warrant assumptions. So his father opened the letter and reading it felt rather sorry for the boy. Moreover, being a man concerned with the law, the injustice of the thing dismayed him. He did a certain amount of judicious wirepulling and as a result stood just after breakfast one raw October morning in the dingy morning room of a very celebrated house.
The father began to explain the situation to the great man. The great man— the Sir Henry of this tale— was sympathetic; among the well nigh crushing cares of his office he genuinely cared that young Dick Rogers should be missing.
“Of course,” he said gently, “I am most distressed, most distressed. Naturally I will do anything I can—but—er—what was it—er—exactly—”
The father explained a little further. Sir Henry listened with eyes shut and fingertips joined. Then, when it was finished, he rang the bell for his secretary. “Miss Stanmere shall know the facts,” he said. The father thanked him and went away a happy man. I know he was happy, because I was that father—” “You?” St. Marnier asked.
“Yes; I changed the names a bit so that you wouldn’t feel it too personal, but it’s true.”
“But your boy—surely—”
“No. Dick wasn’t killed. He was genuinely missing and turned up again with nothing worse than a bad flesh wound, rather ludicrously, in the rump. He was also reprimanded—not that he minded that much.
His second visitor in hospital did more to cure him than all the doctors in the world. I can see her now coming along the ward with all the anxiety, all the love possible burning in eyes from which intolerance and the harshness of youth had suddenly been washed away. She went on her knees beside his bed.
“I—I—beg your pardon—Dick.”
He stopped her lips from saying more.