The Rough Road

Page 19 of 24


When Doggie, in dinner suit, went downstairs, he found Peggy alone in the drawing-room. She gave him the kiss of one accustomed to kiss him from childhood, and sat down again on the fender-stool.

"Now you look more like a Christian gentleman," she laughed. "Confess. It's much more comfortable than your wretched private's uniform."

"I'm not quite so sure," he said, somewhat ruefully, indicating his dinner jacket tightly constricted beneath the arms. "Already I've had to slit my waistcoat down the back. Poor old Peddle will have an apoplectic fit when he sees it. I've grown a bit since these elegant rags were made for me."

"Il faut souffrir pour tre beau," said Peggy.

"If my being beau pleases you, Peggy, I'll suffer gladly. I've been in tighter places." He threw himself down in the corner of the sofa and joggled up and down like a child. "After all," he said, "it's jolly to sit on something squashy again, and to see a pretty girl in a pretty frock."

"I'm glad you like this frock."


She nodded. "Dad said it was too much of a Vanity Fair of a vanity for war-time. You don't think so, do you?"

"It's charming," said Doggie. "A treat for tired eyes."

"That's just what I told dad. What's the good of women dressing in sacks tied round the middle with a bit of string? When men come home from the Front they want to see their womenfolk looking pretty and dainty. That's what they've come over for. It's part of the cure. It's the first time you've been a real dear, Marmaduke. 'A treat for tired eyes.' I'll rub it into dad hard."

Oliver came in---in khaki. Doggie jumped up and pointed to him.

"Look here, Peggy. It's the guard-room for me."

Oliver laughed. "Where the dinner kit I bought when I came home is now, God only can tell." He turned to Peggy. "I did change, you know."

"That's the pull of being a beastly Major," said Doggie. "They have heaps of suits. On the march, there are motor-lorries full of them. It's the scandal of the army. The wretched Tommy has but one suit to his name. That's why, sir, I've taken the liberty of appearing before you in outgrown mufti."

"All right, my man," said Oliver. "We'll hush it up and say no more about it."

Then the Dean and Mrs. Conover entered and soon they went in to dinner. It was for Doggie the most pleasant of meals. He had the superbly healthy man's whole-hearted or whole-stomached appreciation of unaccustomed good food and drink: so much so, that when the Dean, after agonies of thwarted mastication, said gently to his wife: "My dear, don't you think you might speak a word in season to Peck"---Peck being the butcher---"and forbid him, under the Defence of the Realm Act, if you like, to deliver to us in the evening as lamb that which was in the morning a lusty sheep?" he stared at the good old man as though he were Vitellius in person. Tough? It was like milk-fatted baby. He was already devouring, like Oliver, his second helping. Then the Dean, pledging him and Oliver in champagne, apologized: "I'm sorry, my dear boys, the 1904 has run out and there's no more to be got. But the 1906, though not having the quality, is quite drinkable."

Drinkable! It was laughing, dancing joy that went down his throat.

So much for gross delights. There were others---finer. The charm to the eye of the table with its exquisite napery and china and glass and silver and flowers. The almost intoxicating atmosphere of peace and gentle living. The full, loving welcome shining from the eyes of the kind old Dean, his uncle by marriage, and of the faded, delicate lady, his own flesh and blood, his mother's sister. And Peggy, pretty, flushed, bright-eyed, radiant in her new dress. And there was Oliver....

Most of all he appreciated Oliver's comrade-like attitude. It was a recognition of him as a man and a soldier. In the course of dinner talk Oliver said:

"J.M.T. and I have looked Death in the face many a time---and really he's a poor raw-head and bloody-bones sort of Bogey; don't you think so, old chap?"

"It all depends on whether you've got a funk-hole handy," he replied.

But that was mere lightness of speech. Oliver's inclusion of him in his remark shook him to the depths of his sensitive nature. The man who despises the petty feelings and frailties of mankind is doomed to remain in awful ignorance of that which there is of beauty and pathos in the lives of his fellow-creatures. After all, what did it matter what Oliver thought of him? Who was Oliver? His cousin---accident of birth---the black sheep of the family; now a major in a different regiment and a different division. What was Oliver to him or he to Oliver? He had "made good" in the eyes of one whose judgment had been forged keen and absolute by heroic sorrows. What did anyone else matter? But to Doggie the supreme joy of the evening was the knowledge that he had made good in the eyes of Oliver. Oliver wore on his tunic the white mauve and white ribbon of the Military Cross. Honour where honour was due. But he, Doggie, had been wounded (no matter how) and Oliver frankly put them both on the same plane of achievement, thus wiping away, with generous hand, all hated memories of the past.

When the ladies had left the room, history repeated itself, in that the Dean was called away on business and the cousins were left alone together over their wine. Said Doggie:

"Do you remember the last time we sat at this table?"

"Perfectly," replied Oliver, holding up a glass of the old Deanery port to the light. "You were horrified at my attempting to clean out my pipe with a dessert knife."

Doggie laughed. "After all, it was a filthy thing to do."

"I quite agree with you. Since then I've learned manners."

"You also made me squirm at the idea of scooping out Boches' insides with bayonets."

"And you've learned not to squirm, so we're quits."

"You thought me a rotten ass in those days, didn't you?"

Oliver looked at him squarely.

"I don't think it would hurt you now if I said that I did." He laughed, stretched himself on his chair, thrusting both hands into his trouser pockets. "In many ways, it's a jolly good old war, you know---for those that pull through. It has taught us both a lot, Marmaduke."

Doggie wrinkled his forehead in his half-humorous way.

"I wish it would teach people not to call me by that silly name."

"I have always abominated it, as you may have observed," said Oliver. "But in our present polite relations, old chap, what else is there?"

"You ought to know------"

Oliver stared at him. "You don't mean------?"

"Yes, I do."

"But you used to loathe it and I went on calling you 'Doggie' because I knew you loathed it. I never dreamed of using it now."

"I can't help it," replied Doggie. "The name got into the army and has stuck to me right through, and now those I love and trust most in the world, and who love and trust me, call me 'Doggie,' and I don't seem to be able to answer to any other name. So, although I'm only a Tommy and you're a devil of a swell of a second-in-command, yet if you want to be friendly---well------"

Oliver leaned forward quickly. "Of course I want to be friends, Doggie, old chap. As for major and private---when you pass me in the street you've dam well got to salute me, and that's all there is to it---but otherwise it's all rot. And now we've got to the heart-to-heart stage, don't you think you're a bit of a fool?"

"I know it," said Doggie cheerfully. "The army has drummed that into me, at any rate."

"I mean in staying in the ranks. Why don't you apply for the Cadet Corps and so get through to a commission again?"

Doggie's brow grew dark. "I had all that out with Peggy long ago---when things were perhaps somewhat different with me. I was sore all over. I dare say you can understand. But now there are other reasons, much stronger reasons. The only real happiness I've had in my life has been as a Tommy. I'm not talking through my hat. The only real friends I've ever made in my life are Tommies. I've found real things as a Tommy and I'm not going to start all over again to find them in another capacity."

"You wouldn't have to start all over again," Oliver objected.

"Oh yes, I should. Don't run away with the idea that I've been turned by a miracle into a brawny hero. I'm not anything of the sort. To have to lead men into action would be a holy terror. The old dread of seeking new paths still acts, you see. I'm the same Doggie that wouldn't go out to Huaheine with you. Only now I'm a private and I'm used to it. I love it and I'm not going to change to the end of the whole gory business. Of course Peggy doesn't like it," he added after a sip of wine. "But I can't help that. It's a matter of temperament and conscience---in a way, a matter of honour."

"What has honour got to do with it?" asked Oliver.

"I'll try to explain. It's somehow this way. When I came to my senses after being chucked for incompetence---that was the worst hell I ever went through in my life---and I enlisted, I swore that I would stick it as a Tommy without anybody's sympathy, least of all that of the folks here. And then I swore I'd make good to myself as a Tommy. I was just beginning to feel happier when that infernal Boche sniper knocked me out for a time. So, Peggy or no Peggy, I'm going through with it. I suppose I'm telling you all this because I should like you to know."

He passed his hand, in the familiar gesture, from back to front of his short-cropped hair. Oliver smiled at the reminiscence of the old disturbed Doggie; but he said very gravely:

"I'm glad you've told me, old man. I appreciate it very much. I've been through the ranks myself and know what it is---the bad and the good. Many a man has found his soul that way------"

"Good God!" cried Doggie, starting to his feet. "Do you say that too?"

"Who else said it?"

The quick question caused the blood to rush to Doggie's face. Oliver's keen, half-mocking gaze held him. He cursed himself for an impulsive idiot. The true answer to the question would be a confession of Jeanne. The scene in the kitchen of Frlus swam before his eyes. He dropped into his chair again with a laugh.

"Oh, some one out there---in another heart-to-heart talk. As a matter of fact, I think I said it myself. It's odd you should have used the same words. Anyhow, you're the only other person who has hit on the truth as far as I'm concerned. Finding one's soul is a bit high-falutin---but that's about the size of it."

"Peggy hasn't hit on the truth, then?" Oliver asked, with curious earnestness, the shade of mockery gone.

"The war has scarcely touched her yet, you see," said Doggie. He rose, shrinking from discussion. "Shall we go in?"

In the drawing-room they played bridge till the ladies' bedtime. The Dean coming in, played the last rubber.

"I hope you'll be able to sleep in a common or garden bed, Marmaduke," said Peggy, and kissed him a perfunctory good night.

"I have heard," remarked the Dean, "that it takes quite a time to grow accustomed to the little amenities of civilization."

"That's quite true, Uncle Edward," laughed Doggie. "I'm terrified at the thought of the silk pyjamas Peddle has prescribed for me."

"Why?" Peggy asked bluntly.

Oliver interposed laughing, his hand on Doggie's shoulder.

"Tommy's accustomed to go to bed in his day-shirt."

"How perfectly disgusting!" cried Peggy, and swept from the room.

Oliver dropped his hand and looked somewhat abashed.

"I'm afraid I've been and gone and done it. I'm sorry. I'm still a barbarian South Sea Islander."

"I wish I were a young man," said the Dean, moving from the door and inviting them to sit, "and could take part in these strange hardships. This question of night attire, for instance, has never struck me before. The whole thing is of amazing interest. Ah! what it is to be old! If I were young, I should be with you, cloth or no cloth, in the trenches. I hope both of you know that I vehemently dissent from those bishops who prohibit the younger clergy from taking their place in the fighting line. If God's archangels and angels themselves took up the sword against the Powers of Darkness, surely a stalwart young curate of the Church of England would find his vocation in warring with rifle and bayonet against the proclaimed enemies of God and mankind?"

"The influence of the twenty thousand or so of priests fighting in the French Army is said to be enormous," Oliver remarked.

The Dean sighed. "I'm afraid we're losing a big chance."

"Why don't you take up the Fiery Cross, Uncle Edward, and run a new Crusade?"

The Dean sighed. Five-and-thirty years ago, when he had set all Durdlebury by the ears, he might have preached glorious heresy and heroic schism; but now the immutability of the great grey fabric had become part of his being.

"I've done my best, my boy," he replied, "with the result that I am held in high disfavour."

"But that doesn't matter a little bit."

"Not a little bit," said the Dean. "A man can only do his duty according to the dictates of his conscience. I have publicly deplored the attitude of the Church of England. I have written to The Times. I have published a pamphlet---I sent you each a copy---which has brought a hornets' nest about my ears. I have warned those in high places that what they are doing is not in the best interests of the Church. But they won't listen."

Oliver lit a pipe. "I'm afraid, Uncle Edward," he said, "that though I come of a clerical family, I know no more of religion than a Hun bishop; but it has always struck me that the Church's job is to look after the people, whereas, as far as I can make out, the Church is now squealing because the people won't look after the Church."

The Dean rose. "I won't go as far as that," said he with a smile. "But there is, I fear, some justification for such a criticism from the laity. As soon as the war began the Church should have gathered the people together and said, 'Onward, Christian soldiers. Go and fight like---er------'"

"Like hell," suggested Oliver, greatly daring.

"Or words to that effect," smiled the old Dean. He looked at his watch. "Dear, dear! past eleven. I wish I could sit up talking to you boys. But I start my day's work at eight o'clock. If you want anything, you've only got to ring. Good night. It is one of the proudest days of my life to have you both here together."

His courtly charm seemed to linger in the room after he had left.

"He's a dear old chap," said Oliver.

"One of the best," said Doggie.

"It's rather pathetic," said Oliver. "In his heart he would like to play the devil with the bishops and kick every able-bodied parson into the trenches---and there are thousands of them that don't need any kicking and, on the contrary, have been kicked back; but he has become half-petrified in the atmosphere of this place. It's lovely to come to as a sort of funk-hole of peace---but my holy aunt!---What the blazes are you laughing at?"

"I'm only thinking of a beast of a boy here who used to say that," replied Doggie.

"Oh!" said Oliver, and he grinned. "Anyway, I was only going to remark that if I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life here, I'd paint the town vermilion for a week and then cut my throat."

"I quite agree with you," said Doggie.

"What are you going to do when the war's over?"

"Who knows what he's going to do? What are you going to do? Fly back to your little Robinson Crusoe Durdlebury of a Pacific Island? I don't think so."

Oliver stuck his pipe on the mantelpiece and his hands on his hips and made a stride towards Doggie.

"Damn you, Doggie! Damn you to little bits! How the Hades did you guess what I've scarcely told myself, much less another human being?"

"You yourself said it was a good old war and it has taught us a lot of things."

"It has," said Oliver. "But I never expected to hear Huaheine called Durdlebury by you, Doggie. Oh, Lord! I must have another drink. Where's your glass? Say when?"

They parted for the night the best of friends.

Doggie, in spite of the silk pyjamas and the soft bed and the blazing fire in his room---he stripped back the light-excluding curtains forgetful of Defence of the Realm Acts, and opened all the windows wide, to the horror of Peddle in the morning---slept like an unperturbed dormouse. When Peddle woke him, he lay drowsily while the old butler filled his bath and fiddled about with drawers. At last aroused, he cried out:

"What the dickens are you doing?"

Peddle turned with an injured air. "I am matching your ties and socks for your bottle-green suit, sir."

Doggie leaped out of bed. "You dear old idiot, I can't go about the streets in bottle-green suits. I've got to wear my uniform." He looked around the room. "Where the devil is it?"

Peddle's injured air deepened almost into resentment.

"Where the devil------!" Never had Mr. Marmaduke, or his father, the Canon, used such language. He drew himself up.

"I have given orders, sir, for the uniform suit you wore yesterday to be sent to the cleaners."

"Oh, hell!" said Doggie. And Peddle, unaccustomed to the vernacular of the British Army, paled with horror. "Oh, hell!" said Doggie. "Look here, Peddle, just you get on a bicycle, or a motor-car, or an express train at once and retrieve that uniform. Don't you understand? I'm a private soldier. I've got to wear uniform all the time, and I'll have to stay in this beastly bed until you get it for me."

Peddle fled. The picture that he left on Doggie's mind was that of the faithful steward with dismayed, uplifted hands, retiring from the room in one of the great scenes of Hogarth's "Rake's Progress." The similitude made him laugh---for Doggie always had a saving sense of humour---but he was very angry with Peddle, while he stamped around the room in his silk pyjamas. What the deuce was he going to do? Even if he committed the military crime (and there was a far more serious crime already against him) of appearing in public in mufti, did that old ass think he was going to swagger about Durdlebury in bottle-green suits, as though he were ashamed of the King's uniform? He dipped his shaving-brush into the hot water. Then he threw it, anyhow, across the room. Instead of shaving, he would be gloating over the idea of cutting that old fool, Peddle's, throat, and therefore would slash his own face to bits.

Things, however, were not done at lightning speed in the Deanery of Durdlebury. The first steps had not even been taken to send the uniform to the cleaners, and soon Peddle reappeared carrying it over his arm and the heavy pair of munition boots in his hand.

"These too, sir?" he asked, exhibiting the latter resignedly and casting a sad glance at the neat pair of brown shoes exquisitely polished and beautifully treed which he had put out for his master's wear.

"These too," said Doggie. "And where's my grey flannel shirt?"

This time Peddle triumphed. "I've given that away, sir, to the gardener's boy."

"Well, you can just go and buy me half a dozen more like it," said Doggie.

He dismissed the old man, dressed and went downstairs. The Dean had breakfasted at seven. Peggy and Oliver were not yet down for the nine o'clock meal. Doggie strolled about the garden and sauntered round to the stable-yard. There he encountered Chipmunk in his shirt-sleeves, sitting on a packing case and polishing Oliver's leggings. He raised an ugly, clean-shaven mug and scowled beneath his bushy eyebrows at the new-comer.

"Morning, mate!" said Doggie pleasantly.

"Morning," said Chipmunk, resuming his work.

Doggie turned over a stable bucket and sat down on it and lit a cigarette.

"Glad to be back?"

Chipmunk poised the cloth on which he had poured some brown dressing. "Not if I has to be worried with private soljers," he replied. "I came 'ere to get away from 'em."

"What's wrong with private soldiers? They're good enough for you, aren't they?" asked Doggie with a laugh.

"Naow," snarled Chipmunk. "Especially when they ought to be orficers. Go to 'ell!"

Doggie, who had suffered much in the army, but had never before been taunted with being a dilettante gentleman private, still less been consigned to hell on that account, leapt to his feet shaken by one of his rare sudden gusts of anger.

"If you don't say I'm as good a private soldier as any in your rotten, mangy regiment, I'll knock your blinking head off!"

An insult to a soldier's regiment can only be wiped out in blood. Chipmunk threw cloth and legging to the winds and, springing from his seat like a monkey, went for Doggie.

"You just try."

Doggie tried, and had not Chipmunk's head been very firmly secured to his shoulders, he would have succeeded. Chipmunk went down as if he had been bombed. It was his unguarded and unscientific rush that did it. Doggie regarded his prostrate figure in gratified surprise.

"What's all this about?" cried a sharp, imperious voice.

Doggie instinctively stood at attention and saluted, and Chipmunk, picking himself up in a dazed sort of way, did likewise.

"You two men shake hands and make friends at once," Oliver commanded.

"Yes, sir," said Doggie. He extended his hand, and Chipmunk, with the nautical shamble, which in moments of stress defied a couple of years' military discipline, advanced and shook it. Oliver strode hurriedly away.

"I'm sorry I said that about the regiment, mate. I didn't mean it," said Doggie.

Chipmunk looked uncertainly into Doggie's eyes for what Doggie felt to be a very long time. Chipmunk's dull brain was slowly realizing the situation. The man opposite to him was his master's cousin. When he had last seen him, he had no title to be called a man at all. His vocabulary volcanically rich, but otherwise limited, had not been able to express him in adequate terms of contempt and derision. Now behold him masquerading as a private. Wounded. But any fool could get wounded. Behold him further coming down from the social heights whereon his master dwelt, to take a rise out of him, Chipmunk. In self-defence he had taken the obvious course. He had told him to go to hell. Then the important things had happened. Not the effeminate gentleman but some one very much like the common Tommy of his acquaintance had responded. And he had further responded with the familiar vigour but unwonted science of the rank and file. He had also stood at attention and saluted and obeyed like any common Tommy, when the Major appeared. The last fact appealed to him, perhaps, as much as the one more invested in violence.

"'Ere," said he at last, jerking his head and rubbing his jaw, "how the 'ell did you do it?"

"We'll get some gloves and I'll show you," said Doggie.

So peace and firm friendship were made. Doggie went into the house and in the dining-room found Oliver in convulsive laughter.

"Oh, my holy aunt! You'll be the death of me, Doggie. 'Yes, sir!'" He mimicked him. "The perfect Tommy. After doing in old Chipmunk. Chipmunk with the strength of a gorilla and the courage of a lion. I just happened round to see him go down. How the blazes did you manage it, Doggie?"

"That's what Chipmunk's just asked me," Doggie replied. "I belong to a regiment where boxing is taught. Really a good regiment," he grinned. "There's a sergeant-instructor, a chap called Ballinghall------"

"Not Joe Ballinghall, the well-known amateur heavy-weight?"

"That's him right enough," said Doggie.

"My dear old chap," said Oliver, "this is the funniest war that ever was."

Peggy sailed in full of apologies and began to pour out coffee.

"Do help yourselves. I'm so sorry to have kept you poor hungry things waiting."

"We've filled up the time amazingly," cried Oliver, waving a silver dish-cover. "What do you think? Doggie's had a fight with Chipmunk and knocked him out."

Peggy splashed the milk over the brim of Doggie's cup and into the saucer. There came a sudden flush on her cheek and a sudden hard look into her eyes.

"Fighting? Do you mean to say you've been fighting with a common man like Chipmunk?"

"We're the best of friends now," said Doggie. "We understand each other."

"I can't quite see the necessity," said Peggy.

"I'm afraid it's rather hard to explain," he replied with a rueful knitting of the brows, for he realized her disgust at the vulgar brawl.

"I think the less said the better," she remarked acidly.

The meal proceeded in ominous gloom, and as soon as Peggy had finished she left the room.

"It seems, old chap, that I can never do right," said Oliver. "Long ago, when I used to crab you, she gave it to me in the neck; and now when I try to boost you, you seem to get it."

"I'm afraid I've got on Peggy's nerves," said Doggie. "You see, we've only met once before during the last two years, and I suppose I've changed."

"There's no doubt about that, old son," said Oliver. "But all the same, Peggy has stood by you like a brick, hasn't she?"

"That's the devil of it," replied Doggie, rubbing up his hair.

"Why the devil of it?" Oliver asked quickly.

"Oh, I don't know," replied Doggie. "As you have once or twice observed, it's a funny old war."

He rose, went to the door.

"Where are you off to?" asked Oliver.

"I'm going to Denby Hall to take a look round."

"Like me to come with you? We can borrow the two-seater."

Doggie advanced a pace. "You're an awfully good sort, Oliver," he said, touched, "but would you mind---I feel rather a beast------"

"All right, you silly old ass," cried Oliver cheerily. "You want, of course, to root about there by yourself. Go ahead."

"If you'll take a spin with me this afternoon, or to-morrow------" said Doggie in his sensitive way.

"Oh, clear out!" laughed Oliver.

And Doggie cleared.

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