The Rough Road

Page 8 of 24


After a bath and a change and breakfast, Doggie went out for one of his solitary walks. At Durdlebury such a night as the last would have kept him in bed in a darkened room for most of the following day. But he had spent many far, far worse on Salisbury Plain, and the inexorable reveille had dragged him out into the raw dreadful morning, heedless of his headache and yearning for slumber, until at last the process of hardening had begun. To-day Doggie was as unfatigued a young man as walked the streets of London, a fact which his mind was too confusedly occupied to appreciate. Once more was he beset less by the perplexities of the future than by a sense of certain impending doom. For to Phineas McPhail's "Why not?" he had been able to give no answer. He could give no answer now, as he marched with swinging step, automatically, down Oxford Street and the Bayswater Road in the direction of Kensington Gardens. He could give no answer as he stood sightlessly staring at the Peter Pan statue.

A one-armed man in a khaki cap and hospital blue came and stood by his side and looked in a pleased yet puzzled way at the exquisite poem in marble. At last he spoke---in a rich Irish accent.

"I beg your pardon, sir, but could you be telling me the meaning of it, at all?"

Doggie awoke and smiled.

"Do you like it?"

"I do," said the soldier.

"It is about Peter Pan. A kind of Fairy Tale. You can see the 'little people' peeping out---I think you call them so in Ireland."

"We do that," said the soldier.

So Doggie sketched the outline of the immortal story of the Boy Who Will Never Grow Old, and the Irishman listened with deep interest.

"Indeed," said he after a time, "it is good to come back to the true things after the things out there." He waved his one arm in the vague direction of the war.

"Why do you call them true things?" Doggie asked quickly.

They turned away, and Doggie found himself sitting on a bench by the man's side.

"It's not me that can tell you that," said he, "and my wife and children in Galway."

"Were you there at the outbreak of war?"

He was. A reservist called back to the colours after some years of retirement from the army. He had served in India and South Africa, a hard-bitten soldier, proud of the traditions of his old regiment. There were scarcely any of them left---and that was all that was left of him. He smiled cheerily. Doggie condoled with him on the loss of his arm.

"Ah sure," he replied, "and it might keep me out of a fight when I go into Ballinasloe."

"Who would you want to fight?" asked Doggie.

"The dirty Sinn Feiners that do be always shouting 'Freedom for Ireland and to hell with freedom for the rest of the world.' If I haven't lost my arm in a glorious cause, what have I lost it for? Can you tell me that?"

Doggie agreed that he had fought for the greater freedom of humanity and gave him a cigarette, and they went on talking. The Irishman had been in the retreat from Mons, the first battle of Ypres, and he had lost his arm in no battle at all; just a stray shell over the road as they were marching back to billets. They discussed the war, the ethics of it. Doggie still wanted to know why the realities of blood and mud and destruction were not the true things. Gradually he found that the Irishman meant that the true things were the spiritual, undying things; that the grim realities would pass away; that from these dead realities would arise the noble ideals of the future, which would be symbolized in song and marble; that all he had endured and sacrificed was but a part of the Great Sacrifice we were making for the Freedom of the World. Being a man roughly educated on a Galway farm and in an infantry regiment, he had great difficulty in co-ordinating his ideas; but he had a curious power of vision that enabled him to pierce to the heart of things, which he interpreted according to his untrained sense of beauty.

They parted with expressions of mutual esteem. Doggie struck across the Gardens with a view to returning home by Knightsbridge, Piccadilly and Shaftesbury Avenue. He strode along, his thoughts filled with the Irish soldier. Here was a man, maimed for life and quite content that it should be so, who had reckoned all the horrors through which he had passed as externals unworthy of the consideration of his unconquerable soul; a man simple, unassuming, expansive only through his Celtic temperament, which allowed him to talk easily to a stranger before whom his English or Scotch comrade would have been dumb and gaping as an oyster; obviously brave, sincere and loyal. Perhaps something even higher. Perhaps, in essence, the very highest. The Poet-Warrior. The term struck Doggie's brain with a thud, like the explosive fusion of two elements.

During his walk to Kensington Gardens a poisonous current had run at the back of his mind. Drifting on it, might he not escape? Was he not of too fine a porcelain to mingle with the coarse and common pottery of the ranks? Was it necessary to go into the thick of the coarse clay vessels, just to be shattered? It was easy for Phineas to proclaim that he found no derogation to his dignity as a man of birth and a university graduate in identifying himself with his fellow privates. Phineas had systematically brutalized himself into fitness for the position. He had armed himself in brass---s triplex. He smiled at his own wit. But he, James Marmaduke Trevor, who had lived his life as a clean gentleman, was in a category apart.

Now, he found that his talk with the Irishman had been an antidote to the poison. He felt ashamed. Did he dare set himself up to be finer clay than that common soldier? Spiritually, was he even of clay as fine? In a Great Judgment of Souls which of the twain would be among the Elect? The ultra-refined Mr. Marmaduke Trevor of Denby Hall, or the ignorant poet-warrior of Ballinasloe? "Not Doggie Trevor," he said between his teeth. And he went home in a chastened spirit.

Phineas McPhail appeared punctually at half-past one, and feasted succulently on fried sole and sweetbread.

"Laddie," said he, "the man that can provide such viands is a Thing of Beauty which, as the poet says, is a Joy for Ever. The light in his window is a beacon to the hungry Tommy dragging himself through the viscous wilderness of regulation stew."

"I'm afraid it won't be a beacon for very long," said Doggie.

"Eh?" queried Phineas sharply. "You'd surely not be thinking of refusing an old friend a stray meal?"

Doggie coloured at the coarseness of the misunderstanding.

"How could I be such a brute? There won't be a light in the window because I shan't be there. I'm going to enlist."

Phineas put his elbows on the table and regarded him earnestly.

"I would not take too seriously words spoken in the heat of midnight revelry, even though the revel was conducted on the genteelest principles. Have you thought of the matter in the cool and sober hours of the morning?"


"It's an unco' hard life, laddie."

"The one I'm leading is a harder," said Doggie. "I've made up my mind."

"Then I've one piece of advice to give you," said McPhail. "Sink the name of Marmaduke, which would only stimulate the ignorant ribaldry of the canteen, and adopt the name of James, which your godfathers and godmothers, with miraculous foresight, considering their limitations in the matter of common sense, have given you."

"That's a good idea," said Doggie.

"Also it would tend to the obliteration of class prejudices if you gave up smoking Turkish cigarettes at ten shillings a hundred and arrived in your platoon as an amateur of 'fags.'"

"I can't stand 'fags,'" said Doggie.

"You can. The human organism is so constituted that it can stand the sweepings of the elephants' house in the Zoological Gardens. Try. This time it's only 'fags.'"

Doggie took one from the crumpled paper packet which was handed to him, and lit it. He made a wry face, never before having smoked American tobacco.

"How do you like the flavour?" asked Phineas.

"I think I'd prefer the elephants' house," said Doggie, eyeing the thing with disgust.

"You'll find it the flavour of the whole British Army," said McPhail.

A few days later the Dean received a letter bearing the pencilled address of a camp on the south coast, and written by 35792 Pvte. James M. Trevor, A Company, 2-10th Wessex Rangers. It ran:

"I hope you won't think me heartless for having left you so long without news of me; but until lately I had the same reasons for remaining in seclusion as when I last wrote. Even now I'm not asking for sympathy or reconsideration of my failure or desire in any way to take advantage of the generosity of you all.

"I have enlisted in the 10th Wessex. Phineas McPhail, whom I met in London and whose character for good or evil I can better gauge now than formerly, is a private in the same battalion. I don't pretend to enjoy the life any more than I could enjoy living in a kraal of savages in Central Africa. But that is a matter of no account. I don't propose to return to Durdlebury till the end of the war. I left it as an officer and I'm not coming back as a private soldier. I enclose a cheque for 500. Perhaps Aunt Sophia will be so kind as to use the money---it ought to last some time---for the general upkeep, wages, etc., of Denby Hall. I feel sure she will not refuse me this favour. Give Peggy my love and tell her I hope she will accept the two-seater as a parting gift. It will make me happier to know that she is driving it.

"I am keeping on as a pied terre in London the Bloomsbury rooms in which I have been living, and I've written to Peddle to see about making them more comfortable. Please ask anybody who might care to write to address me as 'James M.' and not as 'Marmaduke.'"

The Dean read the letter---the family were at breakfast; then he took off his tortoise-shell spectacles and wiped them.

"It's from Marmaduke at last," said he. "He has carried out my prophecy and enlisted."

Peggy caught at her breath and shot out her hand for the letter, which she read eagerly and then passed over to her mother. Mrs. Conover began to cry.

"Oh, the poor boy! It will be worse than ever for him."

"It will," said Peggy. "But I think it splendid of him to try. How did he bring himself to do it?"

"Breed tells," said the Dean. "That's what every one seems to have forgotten. He's a thoroughbred Doggie. There's the old French proverb: Bon chien chasse de race."

Peggy looked at him gratefully. "You're very comforting," she said.

"We must knit him some socks," observed Mrs. Conover. "I hear those supplied to the army are very rough and ready."

"My dear," smiled the Dean, "Marmaduke's considerable income does not cease because his pay in the army is one and twopence a day; and I should think he would have the sense to provide himself with adequate underclothing. Also, judging from the account of your shopping orgy in London, he has already laid in a stock that would last out several Antarctic winters."

The Dean tapped his egg gently.

"Then what can we do for the poor boy?" asked his wife.

The Dean scooped the top of his egg off with a vicious thrust.

"We can cut out slanderous tongues," said he.

There had been much calumniating cackle in the little town; nay, more: cackle is of geese; there had been venom of the snakiest kind. The Deanery, father and mother and daughter, each in their several ways, had suffered greatly. It is hard to stand up against poisoned ridicule.

"My dear," continued the Dean, "it will be our business to smite the Philistines, hip and thigh. The reasons which guided Marmaduke in the resignation of his commission are the concern of nobody. The fact remains that Mr. Marmaduke Trevor resigned his commission in order to------"

Peggy interrupted with a smile. "'In order to'---isn't that a bit Jesuitical, daddy?"

"I have a great respect for the Jesuits, my dear," said the Dean, holding out an impressive egg-spoon. "The fact remains, in the eyes of the world, as I remarked, that Mr. Marmaduke Trevor of Denby Hall, a man of fortune and high position in the county, resigned his commission in order, for reasons best known to himself, to serve his country more effectively in the humbler ranks of the army, and---my dear, this egg is far too full for war time"---with a hazardous plunge of his spoon he had made a yellow yelky horror of the egg-shell---"and I'm going to proclaim the fact far and wide, and---indeed---rub it in."

"That'll be jolly decent of you, daddy," said his daughter. "It will help a lot."

In the failure of Marmaduke to retain his commission the family honour had not been concerned. The boy had done his best. They blamed not him but the disastrous training that had unfitted him for the command of men. They reproached themselves for their haste in throwing him headlong into the fiercest element of the national struggle towards efficiency. They could have found an easier school, in which he could have learned to do his share creditably in the national work. Many young men of their acquaintance, far more capable than Marmaduke, were wearing the uniform of a less strenuous branch of the service. It had been a blunder, a failure, but without loss of honour. But when slanderous tongues attacked poor Doggie for running away with a yelp from a little hardship; when a story or two of Doggie's career in the regiment arrived in Durdlebury, highly flavoured in transit and more and more poisoned as it went from mouth to mouth; when a legend was spread abroad that he had bolted from Salisbury Plain and was run to earth in a Turkish Bath in London, and was only saved from court-martial by family influence, then the family honour of the Conovers was wounded to its proud English depths. And they could say nothing. They had only Doggie's word to go upon; they accepted it unquestioningly, but they knew no details. Doggie had disappeared. Naturally, they contradicted these evil rumours. The good folks of Durdlebury expected them to do so, and listened with well-bred incredulity. To the question, "Where is he now and what is he going to do?" they could only answer, "We don't know." They were helpless.

Peggy had a bitter quarrel with one of her intimates, Nancy Murdoch, daughter of the doctor who had proclaimed the soundness of Marmaduke's constitution.

"He may have told you so, dear," said Nancy, "but how do you know?"

"Because whatever else he may be, he's not a liar," retorted Peggy.

Nancy gave the most delicate suspicion of a shrug to her pretty shoulders.

That was the beginning of it. Peggy, naturally combative, armed for the fight and defended Marmaduke.

"You talk as though you were still engaged to him," said Nancy.

"So I am," declared Peggy rashly.

"Then where's your engagement ring?"

"Where I choose to keep it."

The retort lacked originality and conviction.

"You can't send it back to him, because you don't know where he is. And what did Mrs. Conover mean by telling mother that Mr. Trevor had broken off the engagement?"

"She never told her any such thing," cried Peggy mendaciously. For Mrs. Conover had committed the indiscretion under assurance of silence.

"Pardon me," said Nancy, much on her dignity. "Of course I understand your denying it. It isn't pleasant to be thrown over by any man---but by a man like Doggie Trevor------"

"You're a spiteful beast, Nancy, and I'll never speak to you again. You've neither womanly decency nor Christian feeling." And Peggy marched out of the doctor's house.

As a result of the quarrel, however, she resumed the wearing of the ring, which she flaunted defiantly with left hand deliberately ungloved. Hitherto she had not been certain of the continuance of the engagement. Marmaduke's repudiation was definite enough; but it had been dictated by his sensitive honour. It lay with her to agree or decline. She had passed through wearisome days of doubt. A physically sound fighting man sent about his business as being unfit for war does not appear a romantic figure in a girl's eyes. She was bitterly disappointed with Doggie for the sudden withering of her hopes. Had he fulfilled them she could have loved him wholeheartedly, after the simple way of women; for her sex, exhilarated by the barbaric convulsion of the land, clamoured for something heroic, something at least intensely masculine, in which she could find feminine exultation. She also felt resentment at his flight from the Savoy, his silence and practical disappearance. Although not blaming him unjustly, she failed to realize the spiritual piteousness of his plight. If the war has done anything in this country, it has saved the young women of the gentler classes, at any rate, from the abyss of sordid and cynical materialism. Hesitating to announce the rupture of the engagement, she allowed it to remain in a state of suspended animation, and as a symbolic act, ceased to wear the ring. Nancy's taunts had goaded her to a more heroic attitude. The first person to whom she showed the newly-ringed hand was her mother.

"The engagement isn't off until I declare it's off. I'm going to play the game."

"You know best, dear," said the gentle Mrs. Conover. "But it's all very upsetting."

Then Doggie's letter brought comfort and gladness to the Deanery. It reassured them as to his fate. It healed the wounded family honour. It justified Peggy in playing the game.

She took the letter round to Dr. Murdoch's and thrust it into the hand of an astonished Nancy, with whom since the quarrel she had not been on speaking terms.

"This is in Marmaduke's handwriting. You recognize it. Just read the top line when I've folded it. 'I have enlisted in the 10th Wessex.' See?" She withdrew the letter. "Now, what could a man, let alone an honourable gentleman, do more? Say you're sorry for having said beastly things about him."

Nancy, who had regretted the loss of a lifelong friendship, professed her sorrow.

"The least you can do then, is to go round and spread the news, and say you've seen the letter with your own eyes."

To several others, on a triumphant round of visits, did she show the vindicating sentence. Any soft young fool, she asserted, with the directness and not unattractive truculence of her generation, can get a commission and muddle through, but it took a man to enlist as a private soldier.

"Everybody recognizes now, darling," said the reconciled Nancy a few days later, "that Doggie is a top-hole, splendid chap. But I think I ought to tell you that you're boring Durdlebury stiff."

Peggy laughed. It was good to be engaged to a man no longer under a cloud.

"It will all come right, dear old thing," she wrote to Doggie. "It's a cinch, as the Americans say. You'll soon get used to it---especially if you can realize what it means to me. 'Saving face' has been an awful business. Now it's all over. Of course, I'll accept the two-seater. I've had lessons in driving since you went away---I had thoughts of going out to France to drive Y.M.C.A. cars, but that's off for the present. I'll love the two-seater. Swank won't be the word. But 'a parting gift' is all rot. The engagement stands and all Durdlebury knows it..." and so on, and so on. She set herself out, honestly, loyally, to be the kindest girl in the world to Doggie. Mrs. Conover happened to come into the drawing-room just as she was licking the stamp. She thumped it on the envelope with her palm and, looking round from the writing-desk against the wall, showed her mother a flushed and smiling face.

"If anybody says I'm not good---the goodest thing the cathedral has turned out for half a dozen centuries---I'll tear her horrid eyes out from their sockets!"

"My dear!" cried her horrified mother.

Doggie kept the letter unopened in his tunic pocket until he could find solitude in which to read it. After morning parade he wandered to the deserted trench at the end of the camp, where the stuffed sacks, representing German defenders, were hung for bayonet practice. It was a noon of grey mist through which the alignments of huts and tents were barely visible. Instinctively avoiding the wet earth of the parados, he went round, and, tired after the recent spell of physical drill, sat down on the equally wet sandbags of the model parapet, a pathetic, lonely little khaki figure isolated for the moment by the kindly mist from an uncomprehending world.

He read Peggy's letter several times. He recognized her goodness, her loyalty. The grateful tears even came to his eyes and he brushed them away hurriedly with a swift look round. But his heart beat none the faster. A long-faded memory of childhood came back to him in regained colour. Some quarrel with Peggy. What it was all about he had entirely forgotten; but he remembered her little flushed face and her angry words: "Well, I'm a sport and you ain't!" He remembered also rebuking her priggishly for unintelligible language and mincing away. He read the letter again in the light of this flash of memory. The only difference between it and the childish speech lay in the fact that instead of a declaration of contrasts, she now uttered a declaration of similitudes. They were both "sports." There she was wrong. Doggie shook his head. In her sense of the word he was not a "sport." A sport takes chances, plays the game with a smile on his lips. There was no smile on his. He loathed the game with a sickening, shivering loathing. He was engaged in it because a conglomeration of irresistible forces had driven him into the mle. It never occurred to Doggie that he was under orders of his own soul. This simple yet stupendous fact never occurred to Peggy.

He sat on the wet sandbags and thought and thought. Though he reproached himself for base ingratitude, the letter did not satisfy him. It left his heart cold. What he sought in it he did not know. It was something he could not find, something that was not there. The sea-mist thickened around him. Peggy seemed very far away.... He was still engaged to her---for it would be monstrous to persist in his withdrawal. He must accept the situation which she decreed. He owed that to her loyalty. But how to continue the correspondence? It was hard enough to write from Salisbury Plain; from here it was well-nigh impossible.

Thus was Doggie brought up against a New Problem. He struggled desperately to defer its solution.

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