The Rough Road

Page 22 of 24


The fighting went on and, to Doggie, the inhabitants of the outside world became almost as phantasmagorical as Phineas's providential aunt in Galashiels. Immediate existence held him. In an historic battle Mo Shendish fell with a machine bullet through his heart. Doggie, staggering with the rest of the company to the attack over the muddy, shell-torn ground, saw him go down a few yards away. It was not till later that he knew he had gone West with many other great souls. Doggie and Phineas mourned for him as a brother. Without him France was a muddier and a bloodier place and the outside world more unreal than ever.

Then to Doggie came a heart-broken letter from the Dean. Oliver had gone the same road as Mo. Peggy was frantic with grief. Vividly Doggie saw the peaceful deanery on which all the calamity of all the war had crashed with sudden violence.

"Why I should thank God we parted as friends, I don't quite know," said Doggie, "but I do."

"I suppose, laddie," said Phineas, "it's good to feel that smiling eyes and hearty hands will greet us when we too pass over the Border. My God, man," he added reflectively, after a pause, "have you ever considered what a goodly company it will be? When you come to look at it that way, it makes Death quite a trivial affair."

"I suppose it does to us while we're here," said Doggie. "We've seen such a lot of it. But to those who haven't---my poor Peggy---it's the end of her universe."

Yes, it was all very well to take death philosophically, or fatalistically, or callously, or whatever you liked to call it, out there, where such an attitude was the only stand against raving madness; but at home, beneath the grey mass of the cathedral, folks met Death as a strange and cruel horror. The new glory of life that Peggy had found, he had blackened out in an instant. Doggie looked again at the old man's letter---his handwriting was growing shaky---and forgot for a while the familiar things around him, and lived with Peggy in her sorrow.

Then, as far as Doggie's sorely tried division was affected, came the end of the great autumn fighting. He found himself well behind the lines in reserve, and so continued during the cold dreary winter months. And the more the weeks that crept by and the more remote seemed Jeanne, the more Doggie hungered for the sight of her. But all this period of his life was but a dun-coloured monotony, with but few happenings to distinguish week from week. Most of the company that had marched with him into Frlus were dead or wounded. Nearly all the officers had gone. Captain Willoughby, who had interrogated Jeanne with regard to the restored packet, and, on Doggie's return, had informed him with a friendly smile that they were a damned sight too busy then to worry about defaulters of the likes of him, but that he was going to be court-martialled and shot as soon as peace was declared, when they would have time to think of serious matters---Captain Willoughby had gone to Blighty with a leg so mauled that never would he command again a company in the field. Sergeant Ballinghall, who had taught Doggie to use his fists, had retired, minus a hand, into civil life. A scientific and sporting helper at Roehampton, he informed Doggie by letter, was busily engaged on the invention of a boxing-glove which would enable him to carry on his pugilistic career. "So, in future times," said he, "if any of your friends among the nobility and gentry want lessons in the noble art, don't forget your old friend Ballinghall." Whereat---incidentally---Doggie wondered. Never, for a fraction of a second, during their common military association, had Ballinghall given him to understand that he regarded him otherwise than as a mere Tommy without any pretensions to gentility. There had been times when Ballinghall had cursed him---perhaps justifiably and perhaps lovingly---as though he had been the scum of the earth. Doggie would no more have dared address him in terms of familiarity than he would have dared slap the Brigadier-General on the back. And now the honest warrior sought Doggie's patronage. Of the original crowd in England who had transformed Doggie's military existence by making him penny-whistler to the company, only Phineas and himself were left. There were others, of course, good and gallant fellows, with whom he became bound in the rough intimacy of the army; but the first friends, those under whose protecting kindliness his manhood had developed, were the dearest. And their ghosts remained dear.

At last the division was moved up and there was more fighting.

One day, after a successful raid, Doggie tumbled back with the rest of the men into the trench and, looking about, missed Phineas. Presently the word went round that "Mac" had been hit, and later the rumour was confirmed by the passage down the trench of Phineas on a stretcher, his weather-battered face a ghastly ivory.

"I'm alive all right, laddie," he gasped, contorting his lips into a smile. "I've got it clean through the chest like a gentleman. But it gars me greet I canna look after you any longer."

He made an attempt at waving a hand, and the stretcher-bearers carried him away out of the army for ever.

Thereafter Doggie felt the loneliest thing on earth, like Wordsworth's cloud, or the Last Man in Tom Hood's grim poem. For was he not the last man of the original company, as he had joined it, hundreds of years ago, in England? It was only then that he realized fully the merits of the wastrel Phineas McPhail. Not once or twice, but a thousand times had the man's vigilant affection, veiled under cynical humour, saved him from despair. Not once but a thousand times had the gaunt, tireless Scotchman saved him from physical exhaustion. At every turn of his career, since his enlistment, Phineas had been there, watchful, helpful, devoted. There he had been, always ready and willing to be cursed. To curse him had been the great comfort of Doggie's life. Whom could he curse now? Not a soul---no one, at any rate, against whom he could launch an anathema with any real heart in it. Than curse vainly and superficially, far better not to curse at all. He missed Phineas beyond all his conception of the blankness of bereavement. Like himself, Phineas had found salvation in the army. Doggie realized how he had striven in his own queer way to redeem the villainy of his tutorship. No woman could have been more gentle, more unselfish.

"What the devil am I going to do?" said Doggie.

Meanwhile Phineas, lying in a London hospital with a bullet through his body, thought much and earnestly of his friend, and one morning Peggy got a letter.

"Dear Madam,---

"Time was when I could not have addressed you without incurring your not unjustifiable disapproval. But I take the liberty of doing so now, trusting to your generous acquiescence in the proposition that the war has purged many offences. If this has not happened, to some extent, in my case, I do not see how it has been possible for me to have regained and retained the trust and friendship of so sensitive and honourable a gentleman as Mr. Marmaduke Trevor.

"If I ask you to come and see me here, where I am lying severely wounded, it is not with an intention to solicit a favour for myself personally---although I'll not deny that the sight of a kind and familiar face would be a boon to a lonely and friendless man---but with a deep desire to advance Mr. Trevor's happiness. Lest you may imagine I am committing an unpardonable impertinence and thereby totally misunderstand me, I may say that this happiness can only be achieved by the aid of powerful friends both in London and Paris.

"It is only because the lad is the one thing dear to me left in the world, that I venture to intrude on your privacy at such a time.

"I am, dear Madam,
"Yours very faithfully,
"Phineas McPhail."

Peggy came down to breakfast, and having dutifully kissed her parents, announced her intention of going to London by the eleven o'clock train.

"Why, how can you, my dear?" asked Mrs. Conover.

"I've nothing particular to do here for the next few days."

"But your father and I have. Neither of us can start off to London at a moment's notice."

Peggy replied with a wan smile: "But, dearest mother, you forget. I'm an old, old married woman."

"Besides, my dear," said the Dean, "Peggy has often gone away by herself."

"But never to London," said Mrs. Conover.

"Anyhow, I've got to go." Peggy turned to the old butler. "Ring up Sturrocks's and tell them I'm coming."

"Yes, miss," said Burford.

"He's as bad as you are, mother," said Peggy.

So she went up to London and stayed the night at Sturrocks's alone, for the first time in her life. She half ate a lonely, execrable war dinner in the stuffy, old-fashioned dining-room, served ceremoniously by the ancient head waiter, the friend of her childhood, who, in view of her recent widowhood, addressed her in the muffled tones of the sympathetic undertaker. Peggy nearly cried. She wished she had chosen another hotel. But where else could she have gone? She had stayed at few hotels in London: once at the Savoy; once at Claridge's; every other time at Sturrocks's. The Savoy? Its vastness had frightened her. And Claridge's? No; that was sanctified for ever. Oliver in his lordly way had snapped his fingers at Sturrocks's. Only the best was good enough for Peggy. Now only Sturrocks's remained.

She sought her room immediately after the dreary meal and sat before the fire---it was a damp, chill February night---and thought miserable and aching thoughts. It happened to be the same room which she had occupied, oh---thousands of years ago---on the night when Doggie, point-device in new Savile Row uniform, had taken her to dinner at the Carlton. And she had sat, in the same imitation Charles the Second brocaded chair, looking into the same generous, old-fashioned fire, thinking---thinking. And she remembered clenching her fist and apostrophizing the fire and crying out aloud: "Oh, my God! if only he makes good!"

Oceans of years lay between then and now. Doggie had made good; every man who came home wounded must have made good. Poor old Doggie. But how in the name of all that was meant by the word Love she could ever have contemplated---as she had contemplated, with an obstinate, virginal loyalty---marriage with Doggie, she could not understand.

She undressed, brought the straight-backed chair close to the fire, and, in her dainty nightgown, part of her trousseau, sat elbow on knee, face in thin, clutching hands, slippered feet on fender, thinking, thinking once again. Thinking now of the gates of Paradise that had opened to her for a few brief weeks. Of the man who never had to make good, being the wonder of wonders of men, the delicious companion, the incomparable lover, the all-compelling revealer, the great, gay, scarcely, to her woman's limited power of vision, comprehended heroic soldier. Of the terrifying meaninglessness of life, now that her God of Very God, in human form, had been swept, in an instant, off the earth into the Unknown.

Yet was life meaningless after all? There must be some significance, some inner truth veiled in mystery, behind even the casually accepted and never probed religion to which she had been born and in which she had found poor refuge. For, like many of her thoughtless, unquestioning class, she had looked at Christ through stained-glass windows, and now the windows were darkened.... For the first time in her life, her soul groped intensely towards eternal verities. The fire burned low and she shivered. She became again the bit of human flotsam cruelly buffeted by the waves, forgotten of God. Yet, after she had risen and crept into bed and while she was staring into the darkness, her heart became filled with a vast pity for the thousands and thousands of women, her sisters, who at that moment were staring, hopeless, like her, into the unrelenting night.

She did not fall asleep till early morning. She rose late. About half-past eleven as she was preparing to walk abroad on a dreary shopping excursion---the hospital visiting hour was in the afternoon---a telegram arrived from the Dean.

"Just heard that Marmaduke is severely wounded."

She scarcely recognized the young private tutor of Denby Hall in the elderly man with the deeply furrowed face, who smiled as she approached his bed. She had brought him flowers, cigarettes of the exquisite kind that Doggie used to smoke, chocolates....

She sat down by his bedside.

"All this is more than gracious, Mrs. Manningtree," said Phineas. "To a vieux routier like me, it is a wee bit overwhelming."

"It's very little to do for Doggie's best friend."

Phineas's eyes twinkled. "If you call him Doggie, like that, maybe it won't be so difficult for me to talk to you."

"Why should it be difficult at all?" she asked. "We both love him."

"Ay," said Phineas. "He's a lovable lad, and it is because others besides you and me find him lovable, that I took the liberty of writing to you."

"The girl in France?"

"Eh?" He put out a bony hand, and regarded her in some disappointment. "Has he told you? Perhaps you know all about it."

"I know nothing except that---'a girl in France,' was all he told me. But---first about yourself. How badly are you wounded---and what can we do for you?"

She dragged from a reluctant Phineas the history of his wound and obtained confirmation of his statement from a nurse who happened to pass up the gangway of the pleasant ward and lingered by the bedside. McPhail was doing splendidly. Of course, a man with a hole through his body must be expected to go back to the regime of babyhood. So long as he behaved himself like a well-conducted baby all would be well. Peggy drew the nurse a few yards away.

"I've just heard that his dearest friend out there, a boy whom he loves dearly and has been through the whole thing with him in the same company---it's odd, but he was his private tutor years ago---both gentlemen, you know---in fact, I'm here just to talk about the boy------" Peggy grew somewhat incoherent. "Well---I've just heard that the boy has been seriously wounded. Shall I tell him?"

"I think it would be better to wait for a few days. Any shock like that sends up their temperatures. We hate temperatures, and we're getting his down so nicely."

"All right," said Peggy, and she went back smiling to Phineas. "She says you're getting on amazingly, Mr. McPhail."

Said Phineas: "I'm grateful to you, Mrs. Manningtree, for concerning yourself about my entirely unimportant carcass. Now, as Virgil says, 'paullo majora canemus.'"

"You have me there, Mr. McPhail," said Peggy.

"Let us sing of somewhat greater things. That is the bald translation. Let us talk of Doggie---if so be it is agreeable to you."

"Carry on," said Peggy.

"Well," said Phineas, "to begin at the beginning, we marched into a place called Frlus------"

In his pedantic way he began to tell her the story of Jeanne, so far as he knew it. He told her of the girl standing in the night wind and rain on the bluff by the turning of the road. He told her of Doggie's insane adventure across No Man's Land to the farm of La Folette. Tears rolled down Peggy's cheeks. She cried, incredulous:

"Doggie did that? Doggie?"

"It was child's play to what he had to do at Guedecourt."

But Peggy waved away the vague heroism of Guedecourt.

"Doggie did that? For a woman?"

The whole elaborate structure of her conception of Doggie tumbled down like a house of cards.

"Ay," said Phineas.

"He did that"---Phineas had given an imaginative and picturesque account of the episode---"for this girl Jeanne?"

"It is a strange coincidence, Mrs. Manningtree," replied Phineas, with a flicker of his lips elusively suggestive of unctuousness, "that almost those identical words were used by Mademoiselle Bossire in my presence. 'Il a fait cela pour moi!' But---you will pardon me for saying it---with a difference of intonation, which, as a woman, no doubt you will be able to divine and appreciate."

"I know," said Peggy. She bent forward and picked with finger and thumb at the fluff of the blanket. Then she said, intent on the fluff: "If a man had done a thing like that for me, I should have crawled after him to the ends of the earth." Presently she looked up with a flash of the eyes. "Why isn't this girl doing it?"

"You must listen to the end of the story," said Phineas. "I may tell you that I always regarded myself, with my Scots caution, as a model of tact and discretion; but after many conversations with Doggie, I'm beginning to have my doubts. I also imagined that I was very careful of my personal belongings; but facts have convicted me of criminal laxity."

Peggy smiled. "That sounds like a confession, Mr. McPhail."

"Maybe it's in the nature of one," he assented. "But by your leave, Mrs. Manningtree, I'll resume my narrative."

He continued the story of Jeanne: how she had learned through him of Doggie's wealth and position and early upbringing; of the memorable dinner-party with poor Mo; of Doggie's sensitive interpretation of her French bourgeoise attitude; and finally the loss of the letter containing her address in Paris.

After he had finished, Peggy sat for a long while thinking. This romance in Doggie's life had moved her as she thought she could never be moved since the death of Oliver. Her thoughts winged themselves back to an afternoon, remote almost as her socked and sashed childhood, when Doggie, immaculately attired in grey and pearl harmonies, had declared, with his little effeminate drawl, that tennis made one so terribly hot. The scene in the Deanery garden flashed before her. It was succeeded by a scene in the Deanery drawing-room when, to herself indignant, he had pleaded his delicacy of constitution. And the same Doggie, besides braving death a thousand times in the ordinary execution of his soldier's duties, had performed this queer deed of heroism for a girl. Then his return to Durdlebury------

"I'm afraid," she said suddenly, "I was dreadfully unkind to him when he came home the last time. I didn't understand. Did he tell you?"

Phineas stretched out a hand and with the tips of his fingers touched her sleeve.

"Mrs. Manningtree," he said softly, "don't you know that Doggie's a very wonderful gentleman?"

Again her eyes grew moist. "Yes. I know. Of course he never would have mentioned it.... I thought, Mr. McPhail, he had deteriorated---God forgive me! I thought he had coarsened and got into the ways of an ordinary Tommy---and I was snobbish and uncomprehending and horrible. It seems as if I am making a confession now."

"Ay. Why not? If it were not for the soul's health, the ancient Church wouldn't have instituted the practice."

She regarded him shrewdly for a second. "You've changed too."

"Maybe," said Phineas. "It's an ill war that blows nobody good. And I'm not complaining of this one. But you were talking of your miscomprehension of Doggie."

"I behaved very badly to him," she said, picking again at the blanket. "I misjudged him altogether---because I was ignorant of everything---everything that matters in life. But I've learned better since then."

"Ay," remarked Phineas gravely.

"Mr. McPhail," she said, after a pause, "it wasn't those rotten ideas that prevented me from marrying him------"

"I know, my dear little lady," said Phineas, grasping the plucking hand. "You just loved the other man as you never could have loved Doggie, and there's an end to't. Love just happens. It's the holiest thing in the world."

She turned her hand, so as to meet his in a mutual clasp, and withdrew it.

"You're very kind---and sympathetic---and understanding------" Her voice broke. "I seem to have been going about misjudging everybody and everything. I'm beginning to see a little bit---a little bit farther---I can't express myself------"

"Never mind, Mrs. Manningtree," said Phineas soothingly, "if you cannot express yourself in words. Leave that to the politicians and the philosophers and the theologians, and other such windy expositors of the useless. But you can express yourself in deeds."


"Find Jeanne for Doggie."

Peggy bent forward with a queer light in her eyes.

"Does she love him---really love him as he deserves to be loved?"

"It is not often, Mrs. Manningtree, that I commit myself to a definite statement. But, to my certain knowledge, these two are breaking their hearts for each other. Couldn't you find her, before the poor laddie is killed?"

"He's not killed yet, thank God!" said Peggy, with an odd thrill in her voice.

He was alive. Only severely wounded. He would be coming home soon, carried, according to convoy, to any unfriendly hospital dumping-ground in the United Kingdom. If only she could bring this French girl to him! She yearned to make reparation for the past, to act according to the new knowledge that love and sorrow had brought her.

"But how can I find her---just a girl---an unknown Mademoiselle Bossire---among the millions of Paris?"

"I've been racking my brains all the morning," replied Phineas, "to recall the address, and out of the darkness there emerges just two words, Port Royal. If you know Paris, does that help you at all?"

"I don't know Paris," replied Peggy humbly. "I don't know anything. I'm utterly ignorant."

"I beg entirely to differ from you, Mrs. Manningtree," said Phineas. "You have come through much heavy travail to a correct appreciation of the meaning of human love between man and woman, and so you have in you the wisdom of all the ages."

"Yes, yes," said Peggy, becoming practical. "But Port Royal?"

"The clue to the labyrinth," replied Phineas.

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