The Rough Road

Page 5 of 24


During the next few months there happened terrible and marvellous things, which are all set down in the myriad chronicles of the time; which shook the world and brought the unknown phenomenon of change into the Close of Durdlebury. Folks of strange habit and speech walked in it, and, gazing at the Gothic splendour of the place, saw through the mist of autumn and the mist of tears not Durdlebury but Louvain. More than one of those grey houses flanking the cathedral and sharing with it the continuity of its venerable life, was a house of mourning; not for loss in the inevitable and not unkindly way of human destiny as understood and accepted with long disciplined resignation---but for loss sudden, awful, devastating; for the gallant lad who had left it but a few weeks before, with a smile on his lips, and a new and dancing light of manhood in his eyes, now with those eyes unclosed and glazed staring at the pitiless Flanders sky. Not one of those houses but was linked with a battlefield. Beyond the memory of man the reader of the Litany had droned the accustomed invocation on behalf of the Sovereign and the Royal Family, the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, the Lords of the Council and all prisoners and captives, and the congregation had lumped them all together in their responses with an undifferentiating convention of fervour. What had prisoners and captives, any more than the Lords of the Council, to do with their lives, their hearts, their personal emotions? But now---Durdlebury men were known to be prisoners in German hands, and after "all prisoners and captives" there was a long and pregnant silence, in which was felt the reverberation of war against pier and vaulted arch and groined roof of the cathedral, which was broken too, now and then, by the stifled sob of a woman, before the choir came in with the response so new and significant in its appeal---"We beseech thee to hear us, O Lord!"

And in every home the knitting-needles of women clicked, as they did throughout the length and breadth of the land. And the young men left shop and trade and counting-house. And young parsons fretted, and some obtained the Bishop's permission to become Army chaplains, and others, snapping their fingers (figuratively) under the Bishop's nose, threw their cassocks to the nettles and put on the full (though in modern times not very splendiferous) panoply of war. And in course of time the brigade of artillery rolled away and new troops took their place; and Marmaduke Trevor, Esquire, of Denby Hall, was called upon to billet a couple of officers and twenty men.

Doggie was both patriotic and polite. Having a fragment of the British Army in his house, he did his best to make them comfortable. By January he had no doubt that the Empire was in peril, that it was every man's duty to do his bit. He welcomed the new-comers with open arms, having unconsciously abandoned his attitude of superiority over mere brawn. Doggie saw the necessity of brawn. The more the better. It was every patriotic Englishman's duty to encourage brawn. If the two officers had allowed him, he would have fed his billeted men every two hours on prime beefsteaks and burgundy. He threw himself heart and soul into the reorganization of his household. Officers and men found themselves in clover. The officers had champagne every night for dinner. They thought Doggie a capital fellow.

"My dear chap," they would say, "you're spoiling us. I don't say we don't like it and aren't grateful. We jolly well are. But we're supposed to rough it---to lead the simple life---what? You're doing us too well."

"Impossible!" Doggie would reply, filling up the speaker's glass. "Don't I know what we owe to you fellows? In what other way can a helpless, delicate crock like myself show his gratitude and in some sort of little way serve his country?"

When the sympathetic and wine-filled guest would ask what was the nature of his malady, he would tap his chest vaguely and reply:

"Constitutional. I've never been able to do things like other fellows. The least thing bowls me out."

"Dam hard lines---especially just now."

"Yes, isn't it?" Doggie would answer. And once he found himself adding, "I'm fed up with doing nothing."

Here can be noted a distinct stage in Doggie's development. He realized the brutality of fact. When great German guns were yawning open-mouthed at you, it was no use saying, "Take the nasty, horrid things away, I don't like them." They wouldn't go unless you took other big guns and fired at them. And more guns were required than could be manned by the peculiarly constituted fellows who made up the artillery of the original British Army. New fellows not at all warlike, peaceful citizens who had never killed a cat in anger, were being driven by patriotism and by conscience to man them. Against Blood and Iron now supreme, the superior, sthetic and artistic being was of no avail. You might lament the fall in relative values of collections of wall-papers and little china dogs, as much as you liked; but you could not deny the fall; they had gone down with something of an ignoble "wallop." Doggie began to set a high value on guns and rifles and such-like deadly engines, and to inquire petulantly why the Government were not providing them at greater numbers and at greater speed. On his periodic visits to London he wandered round by Trafalgar Square and Whitehall, to see for himself how the recruiting was going on. At the Deanery he joined in ardent discussions of the campaign in Flanders. On the walls of his peacock and ivory room were maps stuck all over with little pins. When he told the young officer that he was wearied of inaction, he spoke the truth. He began to feel mightily aggrieved against Providence for keeping him outside this tremendous national league of youth. He never questioned his physical incapacity. It was as real a fact as the German guns. He went about pitying himself and seeking pity.

The months passed. The regiment moved away from Durdlebury, and Doggie was left alone in Denby Hall.

He felt solitary and restless. News came from Oliver that he had been offered and had accepted an infantry commission, and that Chipmunk, having none of the special qualities of a "'oss soldier," had, by certain skilful wire-pullings, been transferred to his regiment, and had once more become his devoted servant. "A month of this sort of thing," he wrote, "would make our dear old Doggie sit up." Doggie sighed. If only he had been blessed with Oliver's constitution!

One morning Briggins, his chauffeur, announced that he could stick it no longer and was going to join up. Then Doggie remembered a talk he had had with one of the young officers who had expressed astonishment at his not being able to drive a car. "I shouldn't have the nerve," he had replied. "My nerves are all wrong---and I shouldn't have the strength to change tyres and things."... If his chauffeur went, he would find it very difficult to get another. Who would drive the Rolls-Royce?

"Why not learn to drive yourself, sir?" said Briggins. "Not the Rolls-Royce. I would put it up or get rid of it, if I were you. If you engage a second-rate man, as you'll have to, who isn't used to this make of car, he'll do it in for you pretty quick. Get a smaller one in its place and drive it yourself. I'll undertake to teach you enough before I go."

So Doggie, following Briggins' advice, took lessons and, to his amazement, found that he did not die of nervous collapse when a dog crossed the road in front of the car and that the fitting of detachable wheels did not require the strength of a Hercules. The first time he took Peggy out in the two-seater he swelled with pride.

"I'm so glad to see you can do something!" she said.

Although she was kind and as mildly affectionate as ever, he had noticed of late a curious reserve in her manner. Conversation did not flow easily. There seemed to be something at the back of her mind. She had fits of abstraction from which, when rallied, she roused herself with an effort.

"It's the war," she would declare. "It's affecting everybody that way."

Gradually Doggie began to realize that she spoke truly. Most people of his acquaintance, when he was by, seemed to be thus afflicted. The lack of interest they manifested in his delicacy of constitution was almost impolite. At last he received an anonymous letter, "For little Doggie Trevor, from the girls of Durdlebury," enclosing a white feather.

The cruelty of it broke Doggie down. He sat in his peacock and ivory room and nearly wept. Then he plucked up courage and went to Peggy. She was rather white about the lips as she listened.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but I expected something of the sort to happen."

"It's brutal and unjust."

"Yes, it's brutal," she admitted coldly.

"I thought you, at any rate, would sympathize with me," he cried.

She turned on him. "And what about me? Who sympathizes with me? Do you ever give a moment's thought to what I've had to go through the last few months?"

"I don't quite know what you mean," he stammered.

"I should have thought it was obvious. You can't be such an innocent babe as to suppose people don't talk about you. They don't talk to you because they don't like to be rude. They send you white feathers instead. But they talk to me. 'Why isn't Marmaduke in khaki?' 'Why isn't Doggie fighting?' 'I wonder how you can allow him to slack about like that!'---I've had a pretty rough time fighting your battles, I can tell you, and I deserve some credit. I want sympathy just as much as you do."

"My dear," said Doggie, feeling very much humiliated, "I never knew. I never thought. I do see now the unpleasant position you've been in. People are brutes. But," he added eagerly, "you told them the real reason?"

"What's that?" she asked, looking at him with cold eyes.

Then Doggie knew that the wide world was against him. "I'm not fit. I've no constitution. I'm an impossibility."

"You thought you had nerves until you learned to drive the car. Then you discovered that you hadn't. You fancy you've a weak heart. Perhaps if you learned to walk thirty miles a day you would discover you hadn't that either. And so with the rest of it."

"This is very painful," he said, going to the window and staring out. "Very painful. You are of the same opinion as the young women who sent me that abominable thing."

She had been on the strain for a long while and something inside her had snapped. At his woebegone attitude she relented however, and came up and touched his shoulder.

"A girl wants to feel some pride in the man she's going to marry. It's horrible to have to be always defending him---especially when she's not sure she's telling the truth in his defence."

He swung round horrified. "Do you think I'm shamming, so as to get out of serving in the Army?"

"Not consciously. Unconsciously, I think you are. What does your doctor say?"

Doggie was taken aback. He had no doctor. He had not consulted one for years, having no cause for medical advice. The old family physician who had attended his mother in her last illness and had prescribed Gregory powders for him as a child, had retired from Durdlebury long ago. There was only one person living familiar with his constitution, and that was himself. He made confession of the surprising fact. Peggy made a little gesture.

"That proves it. I don't believe you have anything wrong with you. The nerves business made me sceptical. This is straight talking. It's horrid, I know. But it's best to get through with it once and for all."

Some men would have taken deep offence and, consigning Peggy to the devil, have walked out of the room. But Doggie, a conscientious, even though a futile human being, was gnawed for the first time by the suspicion that Peggy might possibly be right. He desired to act honourably.

"I'll do," said he, "whatever you think proper."

Peggy was swift to smite the malleable iron. To use the conventional phrase might give an incorrect impression of red-hot martial ardour on the part of Doggie.

"Good," she said, with the first smile of the day. "I'll hold you to it. But it will be an honourable bargain. Get Dr. Murdoch to overhaul you thoroughly, with a view to the Army. If he passes you, take a commission. Dad says he can easily get you one through his old friend General Gadsby at the War Office. If he doesn't, and you're unfit, I'll stick to you through thick and thin, and make the young women of Durdlebury wish they'd never been born."

She put out her hand. Doggie took it.

"Very well," said he, "I agree."

She laughed, and ran to the door.

"Where are you going?"

"To the telephone---to ring up Dr. Murdoch for an appointment."

"You're flabby," said Dr. Murdoch the next morning to an anxious Doggie in pink pyjamas; "but that's merely a matter of unused muscles. Physical training will set it right in no time. Otherwise, my dear Trevor, you're in splendid health. I was afraid your family history might be against you---the child of elderly parents, and so forth. But nothing of the sort. Not only are you a first-class life for an insurance company, but you're a first-class life for the Army---and that's saying a good deal. There's not a flaw in your whole constitution."

He put away his stethoscope and smiled at Doggie, who regarded him blankly as the pronouncer of a doom. He went on to prescribe a course of physical exercises, so many miles a day walking, such and such back-breaking and contortional performances in his bathroom; if possible, a skilfully graduated career in a gymnasium, but his words fell on the ears of a Doggie in a dream; and when he had ended, Doggie said:

"I'm afraid, Doctor, you'll have to write all that out for me."

"With pleasure," smiled the doctor, and gripped him by the hand. And seeing Doggie wince, he said heartily: "Ah! I'll soon set that right for you. I'll get you something---an india-rubber contrivance to practise with for half an hour a day, and you'll develop a hand like a gorilla's."

Dr. Murdoch grinned his way, in his little car, to his next patient. Here was this young slacker, coddled from birth, absolutely horse-strong and utterly confounded at being told so. He grinned and chuckled so much that he nearly killed his most valuable old lady patient, who was crossing the High Street.

But Doggie crept out of bed and put on a violet dressing-gown that clashed horribly with his pink pyjamas, and wandered like a man in a nightmare to his breakfast. But he could not eat. He swallowed a cup of coffee and sought refuge in his own room. He was frightened. Horribly frightened, caught in a net from which there was no escape---not the tiniest break of a mesh. He had given his word---and in justice to Doggie, be it said that he held his word sacred---he had given his word to join the Army if he should be passed by Murdoch. He had been passed---more than passed. He would have to join. He would have to fight. He would have to live in a muddy trench, sleep in mud, eat in mud, plough through mud, in the midst of falling shells and other instruments of death. And he would be an officer, with all kinds of strange and vulgar men under him, men like Chipmunk, for instance, whom he would never understand. He was almost physically sick with apprehension. He realized that he had never commanded a man in his life. He had been mortally afraid of Briggins, his late chauffeur. He had heard that men at the front lived on some solid horror called bully-beef dug out of tins, and some liquid horror called cocoa, also drunk out of tins; that men kept on their clothes, even their boots, for weeks at a time; that rats ran over them while they tried to sleep; that lice, hitherto associated in his mind with the most revolting type of tramp, out there made no distinction of persons. They were the common lot of the lowest Tommy and the finest gentleman. And then the fighting. The noise of the horrid guns. The disgusting sights of men shattered to bloody bits. The horrible stench. The terror of having one's face shot half away and being an object of revolt and horror to all beholders for the rest of life. Death. Feverishly he ruffled his comely hair. Death. He was surprised that the contemplation of it did not freeze the blood in his veins. Yes. He put it clearly before him. He had given his word to Peggy that he would go and expose himself to Death. Death. What did it mean? He had been brought up in orthodox Church of England Christianity. His flaccid mind had never questioned the truth of its dogmas. He believed, in a general sort of way, that good people went to Heaven and bad people went to Hell. His conscience was clear. He had never done any harm to anybody. As far as he knew, he had broken none of the Ten Commandments. In a technical sense he was a miserable sinner, and so proclaimed himself once a week. But though, perhaps, he had done nothing in his life to merit eternal bliss in Paradise, yet, on the other hand, he had committed no action which would justify a kindly and just Creator in consigning him to the eternal flames of Hell. Somehow the thought of Death did not worry him. It faded from his mind, being far less terrible than life under prospective conditions. Discomfort, hunger, thirst, cold, fatigue, pain; above all the terror of his fellows---these were the soul-racking anticipations of this new life into which it was a matter of honour for him to plunge. And to an essential gentleman like Doggie a matter of honour was a matter of life. And so, dressed in his pink pyjamas and violet dressing-gown, amid the peacock-blue and ivory hangings of his boudoir room, and stared at by the countless unsympathetic eyes of his little china dogs, Doggie Trevor passed through his first Gethsemane.

His decision was greeted with joy at the Deanery. Peggy threw her arms round his neck and gave him the very first real kiss he had ever received. It revived him considerably. His Aunt Sophia also embraced him. The Dean shook him warmly by the hand, and talked eloquent patriotism. Doggie already felt a hero. He left the house in a glow, but the drive home in the two-seater was cold and the pitch-dark night presaged other nights of mercilessness in the future; and when Doggie sat alone by his fire, sipping the hot milk which Peddle presented him on a silver tray, the doubts and fears of the morning racked him again. An ignoble possibility occurred to him. Murdoch might be wrong. Murdoch might be prejudiced by local gossip. Would it not be better to go up to London and obtain the opinion of a first-class man to whom he was unknown? There was also another alternative. Flight. He might go to America, and do nothing. To the South of France, and help in some sort of way with hospitals for French wounded. He caught himself up short as these thoughts passed through his mind, and he shuddered. He took up the glass of hot milk and put it down again. Milk? He needed something stronger. A glance in a mirror showed him his sleek hair tousled into an upstanding wig. In a kind of horror of himself he went to the dining-room and for the first time in his life drank a stiff whisky and soda for the sake of the stimulant. Reaction came. He felt a man once more. Rather suicide at once than such damnable dishonour. According to the directions which the Dean, a man of affairs, had given him, he sat down and wrote his application to the War Office for a commission. Then---unique adventure!---he stole out of the barred and bolted house, without thought of hat and overcoat (let the traducers of alcohol mark it well), ran down the drive and posted the letter in the box some few yards beyond his entrance gates.

The Dean had already posted his letter to his old friend General Gadsby at the War Office.

So the die was cast. The Rubicon was crossed. The bridges were burnt. The irrevocable step was taken. Dr. Murdoch turned up the next morning with his prescription for physical training. And then Doggie trained assiduously, monotonously, wearily. He grew appalled by the senselessness of this apparently unnecessary exertion. Now and then Peggy accompanied him on his prescribed walks; but the charm of her company was discounted by the glaring superiority of her powers of endurance. While he ached with fatigue, she pressed along as fresh as Atalanta at the beginning of her race. When they parted by the Deanery door, she would stand flushed, radiant in her youth and health, and say:

"We've had a topping walk, old dear. Now isn't it a glorious thing to feel oneself alive?"

But poor Doggie of the flabby muscles felt half dead.

The fateful letter burdening Doggie with the King's commission arrived a few weeks later: a second lieutenancy in a Fusilier battalion of the New Army. Dates and instructions were given. The impress of the Royal Arms at the head of the paper, with its grotesque perky lion and unicorn, conveyed to Doggie a sense of the grip of some uncanny power. The typewritten words scarcely mattered. The impress fascinated him. There was no getting away from it. Those two pawing beasts held him in their clutch. They headed a Death Warrant, from which there was no appeal.

Doggie put his house in order, dismissed with bounty those of his servants who would be no longer needed, and kept the Peddles, husband and wife, to look after his interests. On his last night at home he went wistfully through the familiar place, the drawing-room sacred to his mother's memory, the dining-room so solid in its half-century of comfort, his own peacock and ivory room so intensely himself, so expressive of his every taste, every mood, every emotion. Those strange old-world musical instruments---he could play them all with the touch or breath of a master and a lover. The old Italian theorbo. He took it up. How few to-day knew its melodious secret! He looked around. All these daintinesses and prettinesses had a meaning. They signified the magical little beauties of life---things which asserted a range of spiritual truths, none the less real and consolatory because vice and crime and ugliness and misery and war co-existed in ghastly fact on other facets of the planet Earth. The sweetness here expressed was as essential to the world's spiritual life as the sweet elements of foodstuffs to its physical life. To the getting together of all these articles of beauty he had devoted the years of his youth.... And---another point of view---was he not the guardian by inheritance---in other words, by Divine Providence---of this beautiful English home, the trustee of English comfort, of the sacred traditions of sweet English life that had made England the only country, the only country, he thought, that could call itself a Country and not a Compromise, in the world?

And he was going to leave it all. All that it meant in beauty and dignity and ease of life. For what?

For horror and filthiness and ugliness, for everything against which his beautiful peacock and ivory room protested. Doggie's last night at Denby Hall was a troubled one.

Aunt Sophia and Peggy accompanied him to London and stayed with him at his stuffy little hotel off Bond Street, while Doggie got his kit together. They bought everything in every West End shop that any salesman assured them was essential for active service. Swords, revolvers, field-glasses, pocket-knives (for gigantic pockets), compasses, mess-tins, cooking-batteries, sleeping-bags, waterproofs, boots innumerable, toilet accessories, drinking-cups, thermos flasks, field stationery cases, periscopes, tinted glasses, Gieve waistcoats, cholera belts, portable medicine cases, earplugs, tin-openers, corkscrews, notebooks, pencils, luminous watches, electric torches, pins, housewives, patent seat walking-sticks---everything that the man of commercial instincts had devised for the prosecution of the war.

The amount of warlike equipment with which Doggie, with the aid of his Aunt Sophia and Peggy, encumbered the narrow little passages of Sturrocks's Hotel, must have weighed about a ton.

At last Doggie's uniforms---several suits---came home. He had devoted enormous care to their fit. Attired in one he looked beautiful. Peggy decreed a dinner at the Carlton. She and Doggie alone. Her mother could get some stuffy old relation to spend the evening with her at Sturrocks's. She wanted Doggie all to herself, so as to realize the dream of many disgusting and humiliating months. And as she swept through the palm court and up the broad stairs and wound through the crowded tables of the restaurant with the khaki-clad Doggie by her side, she felt proud and uplifted. Here was her soldier whom she had made. Her very own man in khaki.

"Dear old thing," she whispered, pressing his arm as they trekked to their table. "Don't you feel glorious? Don't you feel as if you could face the universe?"

Peggy drank one glass of the quart of champagne. Doggie drank the rest.

On getting into bed he wondered why this unprecedented quantity of wine had not affected his sobriety. Its only effect had been to stifle thought. He went to bed and slept happily, for Peggy's parting kiss had been such as would conduce to any young man's felicity.

The next morning Aunt Sophia and Peggy saw him off to his depot, with his ton of luggage. He leaned out of the carriage window and exchanged hand kisses with Peggy until the curve of the line cut her off. Then he settled down in his corner with the Morning Post. But he could not concentrate his attention on the morning news. This strange costume in which he was clothed seemed unreal, monstrous; no longer the natty dress in which he had been proud to prink the night before, but a nightmare, Nessus-like investiture, signifying some abominable burning doom.

The train swept him into a world that was upside down.

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