“Life has many jokes," said the old military man; and two lovers learned that he was right
IT WAS the season of the year when down Piccadilly come Military Gentlemen, borne on the early summer breezes; Military Gentlemen of all shapes, and many sizes. Some have “breathed up,” giving for a brief space to the figure those gallant contours that belonged to it of yore. Others, secure in honors, medals and years, no longer care but let Nature have her way. Some are long and lean and hard, and still young, and set fluttering the hearts of the little girls going home from the offices, and the surburban matrons going home from the pictures, as they turn to look after them, wondering a trifle wistfully who they can be; wondering why you never find men like these at the dancing classes or the Badminton clubs. Helas!
A gallant figure they cut in Piccadilly, all these Military Gentlemen, among the small men in Homburgs and the little men selling grapes off barrows, selling strawberries furtively, an eye on the policemen. They give an air to Piccadilly in those early summer months after a notice has appeared in the papers saying:
“The Annual Dinner of the XXshire Regiment will be held at the Piccadilly Restaurant on the XXth instant. Gentlemen intending to be present should notify the Hon. Sec. not later than the Xth instant. Medals will be worn.”
Medals are worn. You can hear them clinking gaily all down Piccadilly on these early summer nights. Clinking festively, because the Military Gentlemen have come, not to fight but to dine.
IT WAS toward seven on such an evening that Colonel Crowdie turned out of Bond Street into Piccadilly, and made his way slowly east. It had suited his mood that night to walk, for it was a very pleasant summer evening, and the glow painted by the sunset on the streets, and the mimosa in the baskets of the flower sellers, and the large round moon looking incuriously down on London, all combined to lend a certain glamor and romance to the occasion. Colonel Crowdie wras tall above the average, and very lean. None of the boyish grace of his figure had been snitched from him by time; and there was about his eyes and about his brow something of the spirituel look seen occasionally on barristers, actors, bishops or doctors who make a vocation of their job. He carried himself magnificently, and the hair fast greying over his temples gave him merely added distinction instead of any suggestion of middle age. Here and there another Military Gentleman, bound for
another regimental dinner, would recognize him, and smile, and nod.—“Ah, Crowdie; nice to see you again”—and then pass on, saying to his companions it was odd one saw so little of that fellow. A splendid chap, old Crowdie, one of the best. But what the dickens did he do with himself all the year round?
Colonel Crowdie went on, walking slowly, savoring the evening to the full, looking around him as a man long absent may, on return, admire the wellknown scenery of home. He wore the while upon his handsome face, a smile, not quite straight, charmingly whimsical, as if there was a joke which he alone was capable of appreciating properly.
The mimosa sellers at the bottom of Bond Street gave place to the lily-of-the-valley sellers near the Circus. Colonel Crowdie’s pace slackened, and he looked around him as if almost sorry the walk was over. Rather depressing, on a whole, these annual reunions; these blatant exhibitions of the handicraft of time on one and all. Yet he could not bring himself to break the habit. Besides, he wanted to see young Hillyard.
The room in which the Military Gentlemen were reuniting was not unlike a cool aquarium that evening, with its green palms tapering toward the ceiling, its thick squat chairs reminiscent of brown rocks, among which the company came and went like a company of tadpoles, being most of them bulky about the upper parts but remarkably slender and tapering about the legs, this being all their tailors could accomplish for most of them any more.
Colonel Crowdie gave his hat to an attendant and stood for a moment in the doorway, looking in, his head held high, still with that half whimsical smile upon his handsome face.
They saw him. He was surrounded at once. He was back in the old life again.
“Crowdie, where have you been? Never set eyes on you since last year at this time. Wish I knew how to bury myself so successfully. How goes, Crowdie?”
He answered them all with a genial reserve and, passing on, dodged old General Pardsons with a skill born of long practice, for General Pardsons went through what remained to him of life with a colossal burden of anecdote, and all he sought was somewhere to park it. It was unwise to approach him save at such times as he was successfully gagged with food.
“Fine chap, Crowdie. You remember Crowdie’s redoubt? I was with him at the time, sir. A splendid man to serve under Pity he retired so young. A splendid soldier. He could turn the men round his finger. They worshipped him. Never knew a man with such personality. I was surprised they didn’t give him the V.C. for that Hill 23 show. He earned it, if ever a man did. Absolutely fearless. Wonder what he does with himself these days?”
Nobody knew what he did with himself those days. They looked after him, speculating. Someone had heard he had a place in the country.
TF COLONEL CROWDIE was aware of all the
comment his appearance excited he gave no sign of it, but passed on, saying a few words here and a few words there, aloof and impersonal; that small, whimsical, amused smile never leaving his face, as if he enjoyed himself b.ut with reservations. Suddenly a; voice said behind him:
“Good evening, sir.”
Young Hillyard stood there. At the sight of him the colonel’s face lit up. The groups looking on at the meeting smiled among themselves.
“All Crowdie comes here for is to see Hillyard. Like father and son. Hillyard was his subaltern through all that show years ago. Found him. in the ranks and helped him on. Recommended him for his commission.
A good chap, Hillyard. He got his chance and made the best of it. I hear he’s getting some appointment abroad.”
Colonel Crowdie said quietly: “Ah, Hillyard. I was afraid you weren’t going to turn up this evening.”
Young Hillyard was no longer as young as he once had been. He was in those later stages of captaincy which might at any moment turn him into a major. He was a handsome, tall, boyish-looking person with very black hair, and very blue eyes round which the lashes grew ridiculously long and thick in a black fringe. Colonel Crowdie had never had a son, but he told himself that if he had, just so would his face have lit up when they met; just so would he have gripped his hand. He loved the boy. No one would have guessed, looking at the keen, successful soldier, that he had started life as a bank clerk with no advantages. The war had given him his chance—the war and Colonel Crowdie—and Hillyard had taken it and made good. It gave Colonel Crowdie a pleasant glow that nothing else in life could ever give him when he heard men talk of Hillyard or came across his name in the papers. He had been right about Hillyard, and it is always pleasant to have been right.
“Never get a chance of seeing you anywhere else, sir,” grumbled Hillyard. “However, I’ve seen to it that I’m sitting next you at dinner. Hope you don’t mind.”
The table seemed to stretch away into eternity, an unending expanse of white cloth bordered with Military Gentlemen. A small army of waiters brought food, brought wine, hovered around to minister to the guests’ slightest want. Colonel Crowdie ate and drank little, but leaned back in his chair, watching everything and listening to young Hillyard’s pleasant voice, still with that quiet smile of amused resignation upon his face, as if there was a joke at which he alone laughed. While, all around them, Military Gentlemen fought their battles over again with their immediate neighbors.
“I was in town twice during the year and made enquiries, sir, but I couldn’t get hold of you. I suppose you were abroad,” said Hillyard.
Colonel Crowdie crumbled bread and said: “I may have been abroad.”
“After that, back to Aldershot again. But now I’m off. To Quetta, sir. I’m dashed glad about that. I wanted the job like anything, but never thought I had much of a chance.”
“One often gets the unattainable, provided one wants it enough,” said Colonel Crowdie, quietly amused.
Now the air was thick with the smoke of a hundred good cigars, and through the haze the cut-glass chandeliers that hung magnificently from the ceilings glittered like a multitude of bubbles risen to the surface of the aquarium. Reminiscences so thickened the air that even young Hillyard succumbed to the infection, and said, laughing:
“Do you remember Hangar Hill, sir, and that night we were stuck up there in a snowstorm, and the commissary went somewhere else?”
Colonel Crowdie remembered.
“I’ve something amusing to tell you, sir. Do you remember Cinderella?”
V\ 7TTH a sudden short laugh and a throwing back of * V the head, Colonel Crowdie remembered her. In the smoke of a hundred cigars his face seemed to grow leaner, greyer, and the lines about his mouth to deepen. The scene had taken on a grotesque, a bizarre appearance, with the Military Gentlemen, the worse for wear and wine and reminiscence as the night wore on, a-sprawl in their chairs. As if the transition from tadpole to frog were distressingly imminent.
“Cinderella,” said Colonel Crowdie softly, playing with the stem of an empty wine glass. “She, the most distressingly incompetent of all W. A. A. C’s.”
“Yes, she really was. Little slacker. But she met her fate all right when she came your way, sir.”
“Maybe the hand of fate was in it,” said Colonel Crowdie, and the smile on his face broadened a little, as
if his enjoyment of that secret joke had become intense.
“Do you remember when she tried to vamp young Clarges, sir, and you had her in? I shall never forget that night.”
“Nor has she, no doubt,” said the colonel softly.
“She came in quite prepared to try and vamp you too, sir. I suppose up to then she had had things all her own way. She was a surprised girl when you had done with her.”
“Poor Cinderella,” said Colonel Crowdie. “Always a bit grimy. I suppose she had had someone to keep her clean up to then.”
“Pots of money. That was the trouble. She’s been spoilt. Dashed pretty, too. Even then.”
“Not my style, particularly.”
“Do you remember the night she was reported for bribing someone else to go out with the convoy for her, because she wanted to go to a dance? I can see her still, breathing vengeance when her plan was foiled. How she hated you !”
“How she hated me . . The colonel’s face, in the smoke of those hundred cigars, seemed to age, to grow thinner and older. “How she hated me!”
“Ah, well,” said Hillyard, “time mellows us. I daresay you’d get on quite well now, sir. For that’s what I wanted to tell you. I’ve come across Cinderella again, sir.”
The colonel’s face sharpened.
“She’s—improved. She’s a darned fine woman now, sir. A real beauty. Had a great success in London, I believe.”
“She would enjoy cutting a dash,” said the colonel. “We stayed at the same place twice last year. You may be sure I did not remind her of those old days. I don’t think she remembers me at all. Come to that, let’s hope I’ve improved a bit myself.”
“You were always a nice lad—a good lad.”
“I owe everything I ever had, or did, to you, sir.” “If I hadn’t given you your chance, someone else would. Real worth is bound to come to the top.”
“So I wanted you to be the first to know. It’s not public property yet, sir. Won’t be for a bit; not till I get out East. But we’re going to be married—I can’t believe my luck yet. I simply can’t believe it. But there it is. She said Yes when I asked her. Marvellous, isn’t it?”
Colonel Crowdie moved sharply in his chair. For a moment he seemed about to speak, but whatever it was that rose to his lips he gave it no utterance. He sat very still, staring at the white cloth before him, at the crimson wine in his glass.
“I never thought I had an earthly—”
Colonel Crowdie said: “Cinderella . . . So that is the end of the story. I wish you joy, Hillyard.”
He looked at the boy, for he loved him. If he had had a son, just so would his son have looked—straight and clean and pleasant. He said again:
“I wish you joy, Hillyard.”
“You were never married, sir?”
Colonel Crowdie said: “No. I’ve a widowed sister to support. Invalid. That, and one thing and another.” “You must come to the wedding, sir. You mustn’t hide yourself away as you do. I shall insist on your coming to lunch with me and meeting her. She has changed so much that you’d never know her again. And I know she’ll want to meet you—when I tell her all I owe to you.”
“I wouldn’t tell her until after you are married. Women are queer creatures. They dislike debts unless they happen to be the creditor.”
“Hilda isn’t like that, sir. She’s the most generous soul on earth. When will you lunch with us?”
“Quite soon,” said the colonel, and his eyes met Hillyard’s, full of laughter. “Quite soon. We will arrange about the date later. I haven’t my book with me now.”
“Well, it’s something to have got you as far as that. As a rule, you are so elusive I can never find you or hear a word of you, sir. It’s a promise?”
“It’s a promise,” said Colonel Crowdie, and the whimsical smile about his lips looked very much at home. “My plans are a trifle more settled than they used to be. I will write you later. Always find you at your club, I suppose?”
“If you’d tell me where you are staying, I’ll ring you up, sir.”
If Colonel Crowdie heard, he gave no sign of it. The spate of speeches that had broken out earlier in the evening was now dying away. Fine fellows had said all they could think of to say to fine fellows. General
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Continued from page 11
Pardsons, who disliked intensely the I sound of any voice except his own, slept ; peacefully, his head about to descend upon his neighbor’s shoulder.
THE party was over. Now the swing doors let out the Military Gentlemen, one by one. Some went steadily and with dignity out into the other night. Others went less steadily, as if they found the pavement nearer to their footsteps than i originally expected; and some were blown home like withered leaves by the summer breezes that came softly along Piccadilly at that time of the year.
Colonel Crowdie stood outside on the pavement, bareheaded, with young Hillyard who could not stop talking about the subject nearest his heart.
“I mean, life is funny, isn’t it? My meeting her again, of all women—” “Life,” said Colonel Crowdie, “has many jokes. We must laugh at them with what heartiness we may. Good night, my boy. God bless you.”
“And that promise, sir—about lunch?” “I never break my word,” said Colonel Crowdie.
Young Hillyard stood watching him as he made his way slowly down Piccadilly, bareheaded, his hat in his hand. He thought:
“One of the best. He’s done everything for me. I wish one saw more of him. It will be easier when we’re married. He’ll have to come and stay. Strange, I’ve learned more about him tonight than I ever did those years we were together. A regular oyster about his own affairs.”
He paused, aware of a feeling of discomfort. The colonel had never said anything about a widowed sister before. An invalid sister. Probably that was at the bottom of these disappearances of his. He had to keep his sister, and it left him nothing over for jaunts. When they had first met one another Hillyard had been the poor one, the colonel a magnificent person of prestige and gold embellishments. Hillyard was aware that he did not want him to be anything but magnificent. It would be intolerable to have to feel sorry for the man one had so admired, so looked up to. He was aware of a little shiver, as of someone walking on his grave.
What had given him this strange impression that all was not well with the colonel? He searched back in his mind, and could find nothing in their conversation to account for it. The colonel looked older, thinner. But that had happened to most of them at that annual exhibition of the handicraft of time. He seemed in as good spirits as usual. The mention of the invalid sister did not seem to be sufficient, thought Hillyard, to account for the qualms he felt about the older man.
He put the subject aside and thought about Hilda. Lie took a taxi and sat inside, dreaming of Hilda; her lips, her arms, her soft pretty hair. Tomorrow he would hold her in his arms again and hear her voice. The taxi man got five shillings instead of two, because Hillyard had got as far as holding her in his arms when they arrived at his club. The man drove off, little dreaming he owed the extra shillings to Hilda—which is another of life’s jokes.
Colonel Crowdie walked slowly down Piccadilly, as though loth to part with the early summer night, and the glamor of the round, incurious moon looking down on London, and the glow on the streets. He turned up Bond Street, past the sleeping shops and glowing buckets of excavators in side streets, and walked on until in time he came to Brook Street. He stood for a while on the steps of one of those tall, reserved houses whose plain face gives so little hint of the luxury within. He looked up at the sky and sniffed the air just a little sadly. Then, with a latchkey he let himself in; and
the street was empty again save for the long line of street lamps like stars.
Captain Hillyard was more than a little resentful at not waking in his usual spirits the following morning, for he had spent an abstemious and amusing evening, and he thought he owed it to himself to be in good spirits that day. Was he not going to see Hilda?
The memory of Colonel Crowdie’s face, lean and grey in the smoke of a hundred cigars, kept coming into his mind and haunting him in an annoying fashion that was almost a rebuke. One did not want to be rebuked by the man to whom one owed everything.
“If there is anything wrong with him, I’ll make him tell me. Maybe he’d let me help. Proud as Lucifer, no doubt, but still, after all he’s done for me—The old chap’s like my own father. I’ll worm his secrets out of him, if he has any.”
He arose and dressed and whistled a tune, forgetting the colonel, remembering only Hilda. Hilda had been away in Switzerland and had only just returned. It would be wonderful seeing her again. The wonder of it ruined his breakfast and made him listen with exemplary patience to General Pardson’s anecdote of the Boer War. The general unfortunately belonged to the same club. It drove lots of chaps to hotels.
“Lunch with me on the twenty-first,” Hilda had written. “Come early.”
He trusted she would not think twelve o’clock too early. Try as he would, he could not prevent his feet taking him up Bond Street and down to the left much sooner than he intended them to. The mornings seem interminable in London when a chap is on leave, and in love.
So he came to where the tall houses with plain reserved faces gave no hint of the luxuries within.
Hilda’s sitting room was full of lilies-ofthe-valley. He made a note of them. They must be the flowers the girl liked. He thought a little wistfully that she must be awfully rich. He hoped most of this luxury belonged to her aunt. Hilda lived with an aunt, hie wished soldiers were not quite so poor, and had more prospect than they have of becoming less poor at some future date. But when Hilda came in, he forgot it all in his joy at seeing her again.
She had a lovely chiselled face, perhaps a little cold, perhaps a little imperious, but he was too much in love to be aware of anything except the tan that winter sports had spread over her nose. It seemed incredible that this slender, beautifully turned out woman was the little slattern of a W. A. A. C. he remembered years ago. Some day he would remind her and make her laugh.
He could not remember anything just then but how beautiful she was. They sat together on the low fender stool, kissing, laughing like two children, and all the things he meant to talk about went out of his head.
“I want to tell you something,” he began at length, “something that will interest you. Last night I went to the Annual Regimental Dinner—”
She put her hand over his mouth.
“You shall tell me at lunch,” she said. “For one hour you made me forget how hungry I was, but now I have remembered.”
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She rang the bell.
The door was opened quietly by the butler, an unobtrusive servant of the old school, tall and lean. He carried himself magnificently, and had about his eyes and about his brow that spirituel look seen sometimes on actors, bishops, barristers, or doctors who make a vocation of their job. He stood in the doorway
waiting for orders, wearing on his face a half smile, rather whimacal, as if there was a joke at which he alone laughed.
The little, cold, imperious voice of Hilda said:
“You!” said Hillyard, taking two steps across the room toward him.
“Good morning, sir,” said Colonel Crowdie.