The Rough Road

Page 21 of 24


Doggie, the lightest-hearted private in the British Army, danced, in a metaphorical sense, back to London, where he stayed for the rest of his leave at his rooms in Woburn Place; took his wholesome fill of theatres and music-halls, going to those parts of the house where Tommies congregate; and bought an old Crown Derby dinner service as a wedding present for Peggy and Oliver, a tortoise-shell-fitted dressing-case for Peggy, and for Oliver a magnificent gold watch that was an encyclopdia of current information. He had never felt so happy in his life, so enchanted with the grimly smiling old world. Were it not for the Boche, it could hold its own as a brave place with any planet going. He blessed Oliver, who, in turn, had blessed him as though he had displayed heroic magnanimity. He blessed Peggy, who, flushed with love and happiness and gratitude, had shown him, for the first time, what a really adorable young woman she could be. He thanked Heaven for making three people happy, instead of three people miserable.

He marched along the wet pavements with a new light in his eyes, with a new exhilarating breath in his nostrils. He was free. The war over, he could do exactly what he liked. An untrammelled future lay before him. During the war he could hop about trenches and shell-holes with the freedom of a bird....

Those awful duty letters to Peggy! Only now he fully realized their never-ending strain. Now he could write to her spontaneously, whenever the mood suited, write to her from his heart: "Dear old Peggy, I'm so glad you're happy. Oliver's a splendid chap. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." He had lost a dreaded bride; but he had found a dear and devoted friend. Nay, more: he had found two devoted friends. When he drew up his account with humanity, he found himself passing rich in love.

His furlough expired, he reported at his depot, and was put on light duty. He went about it the cheeriest soul alive, and laughed at the memory of his former miseries as a recruit. This camp life in England, after the mud and blood of France---like the African gentleman in Mr. Addison's "Cato," he blessed his stars and thought it luxury. He was not sorry that the exigencies of service prevented him from being present at the wedding of Oliver and Peggy. For it was the most sudden of phenomena, like the fight of two rams, as Shakespeare hath it. In war-time people marry in haste; and often, dear God, they have not the leisure to repent. Since the beginning of the war there are many, many women twice widowed.... But that is by the way. Doggie was grateful to an ungrateful military system. If he had attended---in the capacity of best man, so please you---so violent and unreasoning had Oliver's affection become, Durdlebury would have gaped and whispered behind its hand and made things uncomfortable for everybody. Doggie from the security of his regiment wished them joy by letter and telegram, and sent them the wedding presents aforesaid.

Then for a season there were three happy people, at least, in this war-wilderness of suffering. The newly wedded pair went off for a honeymoon, whose promise of indefinite length was eventually cut short by an unromantic War Office. Oliver returned to his regiment in France and Peggy to the Deanery, where she sat among her wedding presents and her hopes for the future.

"I never realized, my dear," said the Dean to his wife, "what a remarkably pretty girl Peggy has grown into."

"It's because she has got the man she loves," said Mrs. Conover.

"Do you think that's the reason?"

"I've known the plainest of women become quite good-looking. In the early days of our married life"---she smiled---"even I was not quite unattractive."

The old Dean bent down---she was sitting and he standing---and lifted her chin with his forefinger.

"You, my dear, have always been by far the most beautiful woman of my acquaintance."

"We're talking of Peggy," smiled Mrs. Conover.

"Ah!" said the Dean. "So we were. I was saying that the child's happiness was reflected in her face------"

"I rather thought I said it, dear," replied Mrs. Conover.

"It doesn't matter," said her husband, who was first a man and then a dean. He waved a hand in benign dismissal of the argument. "It's a great mercy," said he, "that she has married the man she loves instead of---well ... Marmaduke has turned out a capital fellow, and a credit to the family---but I never was quite easy in my mind over the engagement.... And yet," he continued, after a turn or two about the room, "I'm rather conscience-stricken about Marmaduke, poor chap. He has taken it like a brick. Yes, my dear, like a brick. Like a gentleman. But all the same, no man likes to see another fellow walk off with his sweetheart."

"I don't think Marmaduke was ever so bucked in his life," said Mrs. Conover placidly.


The Dean gasped. His wife's smile playing ironically among her wrinkles was rather beautiful.

"Peggy's word, Edward, not mine. The modern vocabulary. It means------"

"Oh, I know what the hideous word means. It was your using it that caused a shiver down my spine. But why bucked?"

"It appears there's a girl in France."

"Oho!" said the Dean. "Who is she?"

"That's what Peggy, even now, would give a good deal to find out."

For Doggie had told Peggy nothing more about the girl in France. Jeanne was his own precious secret. That it was shared by Phineas and Mo didn't matter. To discuss her with Peggy, besides being irrelevant, in the circumstances, was quite another affair. Indeed, when he had avowed the girl in France, it was not so much a confession as a gallant desire to help Peggy out of her predicament. For, after all, what was Jeanne but a beloved war-wraith that had passed through his life and disappeared?

"The development of Marmaduke," said the Dean, "is not the least extraordinary phenomenon of the war."

Now that Doggie had gained his freedom, Jeanne ceased to be a wraith. She became once again a wonderful thing of flesh and blood towards whom all his young, fresh instinct yearned tremendously. One day it struck his ingenuous mind that, if Jeanne were willing, there could be no possible reason why he should not marry her. Who was to say him nay? Convention? He had put all the conventions of his life under the auctioneer's hammer. The family? He pictured a meeting between Jeanne and the kind and courteous old Dean. It could not be other than an episode of beauty. All he had to do was to seek out Jeanne and begin his wooing in earnest. The simplest adventure in the world for a well-to-do and unattached young man---if only that young man had not been a private soldier on active service.

That was the rub. Doggie passed his hand over his hair ruefully. How on earth could he get to Frlus again? Not till the end of the war, at any rate, which might be years hence. There was nothing for it but a resumption of intimacy by letter. So he wrote to Jeanne the letter which loyalty to Peggy had made him destroy weeks ago. But no answer came. Then he wrote another, telling her of Peggy and his freedom, and his love and his hopes, and to that there came no reply.

A prepaid telegram produced no result.

Doggie began to despair. What had happened to Jeanne? Why did she persist in ruling him out of her existence? Was it because, in spite of her gratitude, she wanted none of his love? He sat on the railing on the sea front of the south coast town where he was quartered, and looked across the Channel in dismayed apprehension. He was a fool. What could there possibly be in little Doggie Trevor to inspire a romantic passion in any woman's heart? Take Peggy's case. As soon as a real, genuine fellow like Oliver came along, Peggy's heart flew out to him like needle to magnet. Even had he been of Oliver's Paladin mould, what right had he to expect Jeanne to give him all the wonder of herself after a four days' acquaintance? Being what he was, just little Doggie Trevor, the assumption was an impertinence. She had sheltered herself from it behind a barrier of silence.

A girl, a thing of low-cut blouse, truncated skirts and cheap silk stockings, who had been leaning unnoticed for some time on the rails by his side, spoke.

"You seem to be pretty lonely."

Doggie swerved round. "Yes, I am, darned lonely."

"Come for a walk, or take me to the pictures."

"And then?" asked Doggie, swinging to his feet.

"If we get on all right, we can fix up something for to-morrow."

She was pretty, with a fair, frizzy, insolent prettiness. She might have been any age from fourteen to four-and-twenty.

Doggie smiled, tempted to while away a dark hour. But he said, honestly:

"I'm afraid I should be a dull companion."

"What's the matter?" she laughed. "Lost your best girl?"

"Something like it." He waved a hand across the sea. "Over there."

"French? Oh!" She drew herself up. "Aren't English girls good enough for you?"

"When they're sympathetic, they're delightful," said he.

"Oh, you make me tired! Good-bye," she snapped, and stalked away.

After a few yards she glanced over her shoulder to see whether he was following. But Doggie remained by the railings.

Presently he shrugged his shoulders and went off to a picture palace by himself and thought wistfully of Jeanne.

And Jeanne? Well, Jeanne was no longer at Frlus; for there came a morning when Aunt Morin was found dead in her bed. The old doctor came and spread out his thin hands and said "Eh bien" and "Que voulez-vous?" and "It was bound to happen sooner or later," and murmured learned words. The old cur came and a neighbour or two, and candles were put round the coffin and the pompes funbres draped the front steps and entrance and vestibule in heavy black. And as soon as was possible Aunt Morin was laid to rest in the little cemetery adjoining the church, and Jeanne went back to the house with Toinette, alone in the wide world. And because there had been a death in the place the billeted soldiers went about the courtyard very quietly.

Since Phineas and Mo and Doggie's regiment had gone away, she had devoted, with a new passionate zeal, all the time she could spare from the sick woman to the comforts of the men. No longer restrained by the tightly drawn purse-strings of Aunt Morin, but with money of her own to spend---and money restored to her by these men's dear and heroic comrade---she could give them unexpected treats of rich coffee and milk, fresh eggs, fruit.... She mended and darned for them and suborned old women to help her. She conspired with the Town Major to render the granary more habitable; and the Town Major, who had not to issue a return for a centime's expense, received all her suggestions with courteous enthusiasm. Toinette taking good care to impress upon every British soldier who could understand her, the fact that to mademoiselle personally and individually he was indebted for all these luxuries, the fame of Jeanne began to spread through that sector of the front behind which lay Frlus. Concurrently spread the story of Doggie Trevor's exploit. Jeanne became a legendary figure, save to those thrice fortunate who were billeted on Veuve Morin et Fils, Marchands des Foins en Gros et Dtail, and these, according to their several stolid British ways, bowed down and worshipped before the slim French girl with the tragic eyes, and when they departed, confirmed the legend and made things nasty for the sceptically superior private.

So, on the day of the funeral of Aunt Morin, the whole of the billet sent in a wreath to the house, and the whole of the billet attended the service in the little church, and they marched back and drew up by the front door---a guard of honour extending a little distance down the road. The other men billeted in the village hung around, together with the remnant of the inhabitants, old men, women and children, but kept quite clear of the guarded path through which Jeanne was to pass. One or two officers looked on curiously. But they stood in the background. It was none of their business. If the men, in their free time, chose to put themselves on parade, without arms, of course, so much the better for the army.

Then Jeanne and the old cur, in his time-scarred shovel-hat and his rusty soutane, followed by Toinette, turned round the corner of the lane and emerged into the main street. A sergeant gave a word of command. The guard stood at attention. Jeanne and her companions proceeded up the street, unaware of the unusual, until they entered between the first two files. Then for the first time the tears welled into Jeanne's eyes. She could only stretch out her hands and cry somewhat wildly to the bronzed statues on each side of her, "Merci, mes amis, merci, merci," and flee into the house.

The next day Matre Ppineau, the notary, summoned her to his cabinet. Matre Ppineau was very old. His partner had gone off to the war. "One of the necessities of the present situation," he would say, "is that I should go on living in spite of myself; for if I died, the whole of the affairs of Frlus would be in the soup." Now, a fortnight back, Matre Ppineau and four neighbours---the four witnesses required by French law when there is only one notary to draw up the instrument public---had visited Aunt Morin; so Jeanne knew that she had made a fresh will.

"Mon enfant," said the old man, unfolding the document, "in a previous will your aunt had left you a little heritage out of the half of her fortune which she was free to dispose of by the code. You having come into possession of your own money, she has revoked that will and left everything to her only surviving son, Gaspard Morin, in Madagascar."

"It is only just and right," said Jeanne.

"The unfortunate part of the matter," said Matre Ppineau, "is that Madame Morin has appointed official trustees to carry on the estate until Monsieur Gaspard Morin can make his own arrangements. The result is that you have no locus standi as a resident in the house. I pointed this out to her. But you know, in spite of her good qualities, she was obstinate.... It pains me greatly, my dear child, to have to state your position."

"I am then," said Jeanne, "sans-asile---homeless?"

"As far as the house of Monsieur Gaspard Morin is concerned---yes."

"And my English soldiers?" asked Jeanne.

"Alas, my child," replied the old man, "you will find them everywhere."

Which was cold consolation. For however much inspired by patriotic gratitude a French girl may be, she cannot settle down in a strange place where British troops are billeted and proceed straightway to minister to their comfort. Misunderstandings are apt to arise even in the best regulated British regiments. In the house of Aunt Morin, in Frlus, her position was unassailable. Anywhere else ...

"So, my good Toinette," said Jeanne, after having explained the situation to the indignant old woman, "I can only go back to my friend in Paris and reconstitute my life. If you will accompany me------?"

But no. Toinette had the peasant's awful dread of Paris. She had heard about Paris: there were thieves, ruffians that they called apaches, who murdered you if you went outside your door.

"The apaches," laughed Jeanne, "were swept away into the army on the outbreak of war, and they've nearly all been killed, fighting like heroes."

"There are the old ones left, who are worse than the young," retorted Toinette.

No. Mademoiselle could teach her nothing about Paris. You could not even cross a street without risk of life, so many were the omnibuses and automobiles. In every shop you were a stranger to be robbed. There was no air in Paris. You could not sleep for the noise. And then---to live in a city of a hundred million people and not know a living soul! It was a mad-house matter. Again no. It grieved her to part from mademoiselle, but she had made her little economies---a difficult achievement, considering how regardful of her pence Madame had been---and she would return to her Breton town, which forty years ago she had left to enter the service of Madame Morin.

"But after forty years, Toinette, who in Paimpol will remember you?"

"It is I who remember Paimpol," said Toinette. She remained for a few moments in thought. Then she said: "C'est drle, tout de mme. I haven't seen the sea for forty years, and now I can't sleep of nights thinking of it. The first man I loved was a fisherman of Paimpol. We were to be married after he returned from an Iceland voyage, with a gros bnfice. When the time came for his return, I would stand on the shore and watch and watch the sea. But he never came. The sea swallowed him up. And then---you can understand quite well---the child was born dead. And I thought I would never want to look at the sea again. So I came here to your Aunt Morin, the daughter of Doctor Kersadec, your grandfather, and I married Jules Dagnant, the foreman of the carters of the hay ... and he died a long time ago ... and now I have forgotten him and I want to go and look at the sea where my man was drowned."

"But your grandson, who is fighting in the Argonne?"

"What difference can it make to him whether I am in Frlus or Paimpol?"

"That's true," said Jeanne.

Toinette bustled about the kitchen. Folks had to eat, whatever happened. But she went on talking, Madame Morin. One must not speak evil of the dead. They have their work cut out to extricate themselves from Purgatory. But all the same---after forty years' faithful service---and not to mention in the will---mme pour une Bretonne, c'tait raide. Jeanne agreed. She had no reason to love her Aunt Morin. Her father's people came from Agen on the confines of Gascony; he had been a man of great gestures and vehement speech; her mother, gentle, reserved, un pen dvote. Jeanne drew her character from both sources; but her sympathies were rather southern than northern. For some reason or the other, perhaps for his expansive ways---who knows?---Aunt Morin had held the late Monsieur Bossire in detestation. She had no love for Jeanne, and Jeanne, who before her good fortune had expected nothing from Aunt Morin, regarded the will with feelings of indifference. Except as far as it concerned Toinette. Forty years' faithful service deserved recognition. But what was the use of talking about it?

"So we must separate, Toinette?"

"Alas, yes, mademoiselle---unless mademoiselle would come with me to Paimpol."

Jeanne laughed. What should she do in Paimpol? There wasn't even a fisherman left there to fall in love with.

"Mademoiselle," said Toinette later, "do you think you will meet the little English soldier, Monsieur Trevor, in Paris?"

"Dans la guerre on ne se revoit jamais," said Jeanne.

But there was more of personal decision than of fatalism in her tone.

So Jeanne waited for a day or two until the regiment marched away, and then, with heavy heart, set out for Paris. She wrote, indeed, to Phineas, and weeks afterwards Phineas, who was in the thick of the Somme fighting, wrote to Doggie telling him of her departure from Frlus; but regretted that as he had lost her letter he could not give him her Paris address.

And in the meantime the house of Gaspard Morin was shuttered and locked and sealed; and the bureaucratically minded old Postmaster of Frlus, who had received no instructions from Jeanne to forward her correspondence, handed Doggie's letters and telegrams to the aged postman, a superannuated herdsman, who stuck them into the letter-box of the deserted house and went away conscious of duty perfectly accomplished.

Then, at last, Doggie, fit again for active service, went out with a draft to France, and joined Phineas and Mo, almost the only survivors of the cheery, familiar crowd that he had loved, and the grimness of battles such as he had never conceived possible took him in its inexorable grip, and he lost sense of everything save that he was the least important thing on God's earth struggling desperately for animal existence.

Yet there were rare times of relief from stress, when he could gropingly string together the facts of a pre-Somme existence. And then he would curse Phineas lustily for losing the precious letter.

"Man," Phineas once replied, "don't you see that you're breaking a heart which, in spite of its apparent rugosity and callosity, is as tender as a new-made mother's? Tell me to do it, and I'll desert and make my way to Paris and------"

"And the military police will see that you make your way to hell via a stone wall. And serve you right. Don't be a blithering fool," said Doggie.

"Then I don't know what I can do for you, laddie, except die of remorse at your feet."

"We're all going to die of rheumatic fever," said Doggie, shivering in his sodden uniform. "Blast this rain!"

Phineas thrust his hand beneath his clothing and produced a long, amorphous and repulsive substance, like a painted tallow candle overcome by intense heat, from which he gravely bit an inch or two.

"What's that?" asked Doggie.

"It's a stick of peppermint," said Phineas. "I've still an aunt in Galashiels who remembers my existence."

Doggie stuck out his hand like a monkey in the Zoo.

"You selfish beast!" he said.

Free Learning Resources