The Rough Road

Page 6 of 24


Those were proud days for Peggy. She went about Durdlebury with her head in the air, and her step was as martial as though she herself wore the King's uniform, and she regarded the other girls of the town with a defiant eye. If only she could discover, she thought, the sender of the abominable feather! In Timpany's drapery establishment she raked the girls at the counter with a searching glance. At the cathedral services she studied the demure faces of her contemporaries. Now that Doggie was a soldier she held the anonymous exploit to be cowardly and brutal. What did people know of the thousand and one reasons that kept eligible young men out of the Army? What had they known of Marmaduke? As soon as the illusion of his life had been dispelled, he had marched away with as gallant a tread as anybody; and though Doggie had kept to himself his shrinkings and his terrors, she knew that what to the average hardily bred young man was a gay adventure, was to him an ordeal of considerable difficulty. She longed for his first leave, so that she could parade him before the town, in the event of there being a lurking sceptic who still refused to believe that he had joined the Army.

Conspicuous in the drawing-room, framed in silver, stood a large full-length photograph of Doggie in his new uniform.

She wrote to him daily, chronicling the little doings of the town, at times reviling it for its dullness. Dad, on numberless committees, was scarcely ever in the house, except for hurried meals. Most of the pleasant young clergy had gone. Many of the girls had gone too: Dorothy Bruce to be a probationer in a V.A.D. hospital. If Durdlebury were not such a rotten out-of-the-world place, the infirmary would be full of wounded soldiers, and she could do her turn at nursing. As things were, she could only knit socks for Tommies and a silk khaki tie for her own boy. But when everybody was doing their bit, these occupations were not enough to prevent her feeling a little slacker. He would have to do the patriotic work for both of them, tell her all about himself, and let her share everything with him in imagination. She also expressed her affection for him in shy and slangy terms.

Doggie wrote regularly. His letters were as shy and conveyed less information. The work was hard, the hours long, his accommodation Spartan. They were in huts on Salisbury Plain. Sometimes he confessed himself too tired to write more than a few lines. He had a bad cold in the head. He was better. They had inoculated him against typhoid and had allowed him two or three slack days. The first time he had unaccountably fainted; but he had seen some of the men do the same, and the doctor had assured him that it had nothing to do with cowardice. He had gone for a route march and had returned a dusty lump of fatigue. But after having shaken the dust out of his moustache---Doggie had a playful turn of phrase now and then---and drunk a quart of shandy-gaff, he had felt refreshed. Then it rained hard, and they were all but washed out of the huts. It was a very strange life---one which he never dreamed could have existed. "Fancy me," he wrote, "glad to sleep on a drenched bed!" There was the riding-school. Why hadn't he learned to ride as a boy? He had been told that the horse was a noble animal and the friend of man. He was afraid he would return to his dear Peggy with many of his young illusions shattered. The horse was the most ignoble, malevolent beast that ever walked, except the sergeant-major in the riding-school. Peggy was filled with admiration for his philosophic endurance of hardships. It was real courage. His letters contained simple statements of fact, but not a word of complaint. On the other hand, they were not ebullient with joy; but then, Peggy reflected, there was not much to be joyous about in a ramshackle hut on Salisbury Plain. "Dear old thing," she would write, "although you don't grouse, I know you must be having a pretty thin time. But you're bucking up splendidly, and when you get your leave I'll do a girl's very d------dest (don't be shocked; but I'm sure you're learning far worse language in the Army) to make it up to you." Her heart was very full of him.

Then there came a time when his letters grew rarer and shorter. At last they ceased altogether. After a week's waiting she sent an anxious telegram. The answer came back. "Quite well. Will write soon." She waited. He did not write. One evening an unstamped envelope, addressed to her in a feminine hand, which she recognized as that of Marmaduke's anonymous correspondent, was found in the Deanery letter-box. The envelope enclosed a copy of a cutting from the "Gazette" of the morning paper, and a sentence was underlined and adorned with exclamation marks at the sides.

"R. Fusiliers. Tempy. 2nd Lieutenant J. Trevor resigns his commission."

The Colonel dealt with him as gently as he could in that final interview. He put his hand in a fatherly way on Doggie's shoulder and bade him not take it too much to heart. He had done his best; but he was not cut out for an officer. These were merciless times. In matters of life and death we could not afford weak links in the chain. Soldiers in high command, with great reputations, had already been scrapped. In Doggie's case there was no personal discredit. He had always conducted himself like a gentleman and a man of honour, but he had not the qualities necessary for the commanding of men. He must send in his resignation.

"But what can I do, sir?" asked Doggie in a choking voice. "I am disgraced for ever."

The Colonel reflected for a moment. He knew that Doggie's life had been a little hell on earth from the first day he had joined. He was very sorry for the poor little toy Pom in his pack of hounds. It was scarcely the toy Pom's fault that he had failed. But the Great Hunt could have no use for toy Poms. At last he took a sheet of regimental notepaper and wrote:

"Dear Trevor,---

"I am full of admiration for the plucky way in which you have striven to overcome your physical disabilities, and I am only too sorry that they should have compelled the resignation of your commission and your severance from the regiment.

"Yours sincerely,
"L. G. Caird,

He handed it to Doggie.

"That's all I can do for you, my poor boy," said he.

"Thank you, sir," said Doggie.

Doggie took a room at the Savoy Hotel, and sat there most of the day, the pulp of a man. He had gone to the Savoy, not daring to show his face at the familiar Sturrocks's. At the Savoy he was but a number unknown, unquestioned. He wore civilian clothes. Such of his uniforms and martial paraphernalia as he had been allowed to retain in camp---for one can't house a ton of kit in a hut---he had given to his batman. His one desire now was to escape from the eyes of his fellow-men. He felt that he bore upon him the stigma of his disgrace, obvious to any casual glance. He was the man who had been turned out of the army as a hopeless incompetent. Even worse than the slacker---for the slacker might have latent the qualities that he lacked. Even at the best and brightest, he could only be mistaken for a slacker, once more the likely recipient of white feathers from any damsel patriotically indiscreet. The Colonel's letter brought him little consolation. It is true that he carried it about with him in his pocket-book; but the gibing eyes of observers had not the X-ray power to read it there. And he could not pin it on his hat. Besides, he knew that the kindly Colonel had stretched a point of veracity. No longer could he take refuge in his cherished delicacy of constitution. It would be a lie.

Peggy, in her softest and most pitying mood, never guessed the nature of Doggie's ordeal. Those letters so brave, sometimes so playful, had been written with shaky hand, misty eyes, throbbing head, despairing heart. Looking back, it seemed to him one blurred dream of pain. His brother officers were no worse than those in any other Kitchener regiment. Indeed, the Colonel was immensely proud of them and sang their praises to any fellow-dugout who would listen to him at the Naval and Military Club. But how were a crowd of young men, trained in the rough and tumble of public schools, universities and sport, and now throbbing under the stress of the new deadly game, to understand poor Doggie Trevor? They had no time to take him seriously, save to curse him when he did wrong, and in their leisure time he became naturally a butt for their amusement.

"Surely I don't have to sleep in there?" he asked the subaltern who was taking him round on the day of his arrival in camp, and showed him his squalid little cubby-hole of a hut with its dirty boards, its cheap table and chair, its narrow sleep-dispelling little bedstead.

"Yes, it's a beastly hole, isn't it? Until last month we were under canvas."

"Sleeping on the bare ground?"

"Wallowing in the mud like pigs. Not one of us without a cold. Never had a such filthy time in my life."

Doggie looked about him helplessly, while the comforter smiled grimly. Already his disconsolate attitude towards the dingy hutments of the camp and the layer of thick mud on his beautiful new boots had diverted his companion.

"Couldn't I have this furnished at my own expense? A carpet and a proper bed, and a few pictures------"

"I wouldn't try."

"Why not?"

"Some of it might get broken---not quite accidentally."

"But surely," gasped Doggie, "the soldiers would not be allowed to come in here and touch my furniture?"

"It seems," said the subaltern, after a bewildered stare, "that you have quite a lot to learn."

Doggie had. The subaltern reported a new kind of animal to the mess. The mess saw to it that Doggie should be crammed with information---but information wholly incorrect and misleading, which added to his many difficulties. When his ton of kit arrived he held an unwilling reception in the hut and found himself obliged to explain to gravely curious men the use for which the various articles were designed.

"This, I suppose, is a new type of gas-mask?"

No. It was a patent cooker. Doggie politely showed how it worked. He also demonstrated that a sleeping-bag was not a kit-sack of a size unauthorized by the regulations, and that a huge steel-pointed walking-stick had nothing to do with agriculture.

He was very weary of his visitors by the time they had gone. The next day the Adjutant advised him to scrap the lot. So sorrowfully he sent back most of his purchases to London.

Then the Imp of Mischance brought as a visitor to the mess, a subaltern from another regiment who belonged to Doggie's part of the country.

"Why---I'm blowed if it isn't Doggie Trevor!" he exclaimed carelessly. "How d'ye do, Doggie?"

So thenceforward he was known in the regiment by the hated name.

There were rags in which, as he was often the victim, he was forced to join. His fastidiousness loathed the coarse personal contact of arms and legs and bodies. His undeveloped strength could not cope with the muscle of his young brother barbarians. Aching with the day's fatigue, he would plead, to no avail, to be left alone. Compared with these feared and detested scraps, he considered, in after-times, battles to be agreeable recreations.

Had he been otherwise competent, he might have won through the teasing and the ragging of the mess. No one disliked him. He was pleasant-mannered, good-natured, and appeared to bear no malice. True, his ignorance not only of the ways of the army but of the ways of their old hearty world, was colossal, his mode of expression rather that of a precise old church dignitary than of a subaltern in a regiment of Fusiliers, his habits, including a nervous shrinking from untidiness and dirt, those of a dear old maid; but the mess thought, honestly, that he could be knocked into their own social shape, and in the process of knocking carried out their own traditions. They might have succeeded if Doggie had discovered any reserve source of pride from which to draw. But Doggie was hopeless at his work. The mechanism of a rifle filled him with dismay. He could not help shutting his eyes before he pulled the trigger. Inured all his life to lethargic action, he found the smart crisp movements of drill almost impossible to attain. The riding-school was a terror and a torture. Every second he deemed himself in imminent peril of death. Said the sergeant-major:

"Now, Mr. Trevor, you're sitting on a 'orse and not a 'olly-bush."

And Doggie would wish the horse and the sergeant-major in hell.

Again, what notion could poor Doggie have of command? He had never raised his mild tenor voice to damn anybody in his life. At first the tone in which the officers ordered the men about shocked him. So rough, so unmannerly, so unkind. He could not understand the cheery lack of resentment with which the men obeyed. He could not get into the way of military directness, could never check the polite "Do you mind" that came instinctively to his lips. Now if you ask a private soldier whether he minds doing a thing instead of telling him to do it, his brain begins to get confused. As one defaulter, whose confusion of brain had led him into trouble, observed to his mates: "What can you do with a blighter who's a cross between a blinking Archbishop and a ruddy dicky-bird?" What else, save show in divers and ingenious ways that you mocked at his authority? Doggie had the nervous dread of the men that he had anticipated. During his training on parade, words of command stuck in his throat. When forced out, they grotesquely mixed themselves together.

The Adjutant gave advice.

"Speak out, man. Bawl. You're dealing with soldiers at drill, not saying sweet nothings to old ladies in a drawing-room."

And Doggie tried. Doggie tried very hard. He was mortified by his own stupidity. Little points of drill and duty that the others of his own standing seemed to pick up at once, almost by instinct, he could only grasp after long and tedious toil. No one realized that his brain was stupefied by the awful and unaccustomed physical fatigue.

And then came the inevitable end.

So Doggie crept into the Savoy Hotel and hid himself there, wishing he were dead. It was some time before he could write the terrible letter to Peggy. He did so on the day when he saw that his resignation was gazetted. He wrote after many anguished attempts:

"Dear Peggy,---

"I haven't written before about the dreadful thing that has happened, because I simply couldn't. I have resigned my commission. Not of my own free will, for, believe me, I would have gone through anything for your sake, to say nothing of the country and my own self-respect. To put it brutally, I have been thrown out for sheer incompetence.

"I neither hope nor expect nor want you to continue your engagement to a disgraced man. I release you from every obligation your pity and generosity may think binding. I want you to forget me and marry a man who can do the work of this new world.

"What I shall do I don't know. I have scarcely yet been able to think. Possibly I shall go abroad. At any rate I shan't return to Durdlebury. If women sent me white feathers before I joined, what would they send me now? It will always be my consolation to know that you once gave me your love, in spite of the pain of realizing that I have forfeited it by my unworthiness.

"Please tell Uncle Edward that I feel keenly his position, for he was responsible for getting me the commission through General Gadsby. Give my love to my Aunt, if she will have it.

"Yours always affectionately,
J. Marmaduke Trevor."

By return of post came the answer:


"We are all desperately disappointed. Perhaps we hurried on things too quickly and tried you too high all at once. I ought to have known. Oh, my poor dear boy, you must have had a dreadful time. Why didn't you tell me? The news in the 'Gazette' came upon me like a thunderbolt. I didn't know what to think. I'm afraid I thought the worst, the very horrid worst---that you had got tired of it and resigned of your own accord. How was one to know? Your letter was almost a relief.

"In offering to release me from my engagement you are acting like the honourable gentleman you are. Of course, I can understand your feelings. But I should be a little beast to accept right away like that. If there are any feathers about, I should deserve to have them stuck on to me with tar. Don't think of going abroad or doing anything foolish, dear, like that, till you have seen me---that is to say, us, for Dad is bringing Mother and me up to town by the first train to-morrow. Dad feels sure that everything is not lost. He'll dig out General Gadsby and fix up something for you. In the meantime, get us rooms at the Savoy, though Mother is worried as to whether it's a respectable place for Deans to stay at. But I know you wouldn't like to meet us at Sturrocks's---otherwise you would have been there yourself. Meet our train. All love from


Doggie engaged the rooms, but he did not meet the train. He did not even stay in the hotel to meet his relations. He could not meet them. He could not meet the pity in their eyes. He read in Peggy's note a desire to pet and soothe him and call him "Poor little Doggie," and he writhed. He could not even take up an heroic attitude, and say to Peggy: "When I have retrieved the past and can bring you an unsullied reputation, I will return and claim you. Till then farewell." There was no retrieving the past. Other men might fail at first, and then make good; but he was not like them. His was the fall of Humpty Dumpty. Final---irretrievable.

He packed up his things in a fright and, leaving no address at the Savoy, drove to the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury. But he wrote Peggy a letter "to await arrival." If time had permitted he would have sent a telegram, stating that he was off for Tobolsk or Tierra del Fuego, and thereby prevented their useless journey; but they had already started when he received Peggy's message.

Nothing could be done, he wrote, in effect, to her, nothing in the way of redemption. He would not put her father to the risk of any other such humiliation. He had learned, by the most bitter experience, that the men who counted now in the world's respect and in woman's love were men of a type to which, with all the goodwill in the world, he could not make himself belong---he did not say to which he wished he could belong with all the agony and yearning of his soul. Peggy must forget him. The only thing he could do was to act up to her generous estimate of him as an honourable gentleman. As such it was his duty to withdraw for ever from her life. His exact words, however, were: "You know how I have always hated slang, how it has jarred upon me, often to your amusement, when you have used it. But I have learned in the past months how expressive it may be. Through slang I've learned what I am. I am a born 'rotter.' A girl like you can't possibly love and marry a rotter. So the rotter, having a lingering sense of decency, makes his bow and exits---God knows where."

Peggy, red-eyed, adrift, rudderless on a frightening sea, called her father into her bedroom at the Savoy and showed him the letter. He drew out and adjusted his round tortoise-shell-rimmed reading-glasses and read it.

"That's a miraculously new Doggie," said he.

Peggy clutched the edges of his coat.

"I've never heard you call him that before."

"It has never been worth while," said the Dean.

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