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William J. Locke
In the month of June, 1919, I received a long letter from Brigadier-General Andrew Lackaday together with a bulky manuscript.
The letter, addressed from an obscure hotel in Marseilles, ran as follows:–
MY DEAR FRIEND,
On the occasion of our last meeting when I kept you up to an ungodly hour of the morning with the story of my wretched affairs to which you patiently listened without seeming bored, you were good enough to suggest that I might write a book about myself, not for the sake of vulgar advertisement, but in order to interest, perhaps to encourage, at any rate to stimulate the thoughts of many of my old comrades who have been placed in the same predicament as myself. Well, I can’t do it. You’re a professional man of letters and don’t appreciate the extraordinary difficulty a layman has, not only in writing a coherent narrative, but in composing the very sentences which express the things that he wants to convey. Add to this that English is to me, if not a foreign, at any rate, a secondary language–I have thought all my life in French, so that to express myself clearly on any except the humdrum affairs of life is always a conscious effort. Even this little prelude, in my best style, has taken me nearly two cigarettes to write; so I gave up an impossible task.
But I thought to myself that perhaps you might have the time or the interest to put into shape a whole mass of raw material which I have slung together–from memory (I have a good one), and from my diary. It may seem odd that a homeless Bohemian like myself should have kept a diary; but I was born methodical. I believe my mastery of Army Forms gained me my promotion! Anyhow you will find in it a pretty complete history of my career up to date. “I have cut out the war—-“
Is there a _lusus naturae_ of any nationality but English, who rising from Private to Brigadier-General, could write six hundred and seventy-three sprawling foolscap pages purporting to contain the story of his life from eighteen-eighty something to June nineteen hundred and nineteen and deliberately omit, as if it were neither here nor there, its four and a half years’ glorious and astounding episode?
“_I have cut out the war!_”
On looking through the MS. I found that he had cut out the war, in so far as his military experiences were concerned. In khaki he showed himself to be as English and John Bull as you please; and how the deuce his meteoric promotion occurred and what various splendid services compelled the exhibition on his breast of a rainbow row of ribbons, are matters known only to the War Office, Andrew Lackaday and his Maker. Well–that is perhaps an exaggeration of secrecy. The newspapers have published their official paragraphs. Officers who served under him have given me interesting information. But from the spoken or written word of Andrew Lackaday I have not been able to glean a grain of knowledge. That, I say, is where the intensely English side of him manifested itself. But, on the other hand, the private life that he led during the four and a half years of war, and that which he lived before and after, was revealed with a refreshing Gallic lack of reticence which could only proceed from his French upbringing.
To return to his letter:–
I have cut out the war. Thousands of brainy people will be spending the next few years of their lives telling you all about it. But I should rather like to treat it as a blank, a period of penal servitude, a drugged sleep afflicted with nightmare, a bit of metempsychosis in the middle of normal life–you know what I mean. The thing that is _I_ is not General Lackaday. It is Somebody Else. So I have given you, for what it is worth, the story of Somebody Else. The MS. is in a beast of a muddle like the earth before the Bon Dieu came in and made His little arrangements. Do with it what you like. At the present moment I am between the Devil and the Deep Sea. I am hoping that the latter will be the solution of my difficulties. (By the way, I’m not contemplating suicide.) In either case it doesn’t matter…. If you are interested in the doings of a spent meteor, I shall be delighted to write to you from time to time. As you said, you are the oldest friend I have. You are almost the only living creature who knows the real identity of Andrew Lackaday. You have been charming enough to give me not only the benefit of your experience, riper than mine, of a man of the world, but also such a very human sympathy that I shall always think of you with sentiments of affectionate esteem.
Well. There was the letter, curiously composed; half French, half English in the turning of the phrase. The last sentence was sheer translation. But it was sincere. I need not say that I sent a cordial reply. Our correspondence thenceforward became intimate and regular.
In his estimate of his manuscript from a literary point of view the poor General did not exaggerate. Anything more hopeless as a continuous narrative I have never read. But it supplied facts, hit off odds and ends of character, and–what the autobiography seldom does–it gave the _ipsissima verba_ of conversations written in helter-skelter fashion with flowing pen, sometimes in excellent French, sometimes in English, which beginning in the elaborate style of his letter broke down into queer vernacular; it was charmingly devoid of self-consciousness, so that the man as he was, and not as he imagined himself to be or would like others to imagine him, stood ingenuously disclosed.
If the manuscript had been that of a total stranger I could not have undertaken the task of the Bon Dieu making His little arrangements to shape the earth out of chaos. An elderly literary dilettante, who is not a rabid archaeologist, has an indolent way of demanding documents clear and precise. As a matter of fact, it was some months before I felt the courage to tackle the business. But knowing the man, knowing also Lady Auriol and having in the meantime made the acquaintance of Mademoiselle Elodie Figasso and Horatio Bakkus, playing, in fact, a minor role, say, that of Charles, his friend, in the little drama of his life, I eventually decided to carry out my good friend’s wishes. The major part of my task has been a matter of arrangement, of joining up flats, as they say in the theatre, of translation, of editing, of winnowing, as far as my fallible judgment can decide, the chaff from the grain in his narrative, and of relating facts which have come within the horizon of my own personal experience.
I begin therefore at the very beginning.
Many a year ago, when the world, myself included, was young, I knew a circus. This does not mean that I knew it from the wooden benches outside the ring. I knew it behind the scenes. I was on terms of intimacy with the most motley crowd it has been my good fortune to meet. It was a famous French circus of the classical type that has by now, I fear me, passed away. Its _haute ecole_ was its pride, and it demanded for its _premiere equestrienne_ the homage due to the great artists of the world. Bernhardt of the Comedie Francaise–I think she was still there in those far-off days, Patti of the Opera and Mlle Renee Saint-Maur of the Cirque Rocambeau were three stars of equal magnitude. The circus toured through France from year’s end to year’s end. It pitched its tent–what else could it do, seeing that municipal ineptitude provided no building wherein could be run chariot races of six horses abreast? But the tent, in my youthful eyes, confused by the naphtha glares and the violent shadows cast on the many tiers of pink faces, loomed as vast as a Roman amphitheatre. It was a noble tent, a palace of a tent, the auditorium being but an inconsiderable section. There was stabling for fifty horses. There were decent dressing-rooms. There was a green-room, with a wooden, practicable bar running along one end, and a wizened, grizzled, old barman behind it who supplied your wants from the contents of a myriad bottles ranged in perfect order in some obscure nook beneath the counter. They did things in the great manner in the Cirque Rocambeau. It visited none but first-class towns which had open spaces worthy of its magnificence. It despised one or two night stands. The Cirque Rocambeau had a way of imposing itself upon a town as an illusory permanent institution, a week being its shortest and almost contemptuous sojourn. The Cirque Rocambeau maintained the stateliness of the old world.
Now the Cirque Rocambeau fades out of this story almost as soon as it enters it. But it affords the coincidence which enables this story to be written. For if I had not known the Cirque Rocambeau, I should never have won the confidence of Andrew Lackaday and I should have remained as ignorant, as you are, at the present moment, of the vicissitudes of that worthy man’s career.
You see, we met as strangers at a country house towards the end of the war. Chance turned the conversation to France, where he had lived most of his life, to the France of former days, to my own early wanderings about that delectable land, to my boastful accounts of my two or three months’ vagabondage with the Cirque Rocambeau. He jumped as if I had thrown a bomb instead of a name at him. In fact the bomb would have startled him less.
“The Cirque Rocambeau?”
He looked at me narrowly. “What year was that?”
I told him.
“Lord Almighty,” said he, with a gasp. “Lord Almighty!” He stared for a long time in front of him without speaking. Then to my amazement he said deliberately: “I remember you! You were a sort of a young English god in a straw hat and beautiful clothes, and you used to take me for rides on the clown’s pig. The clown was my foster father. And now I’m commanding a battalion in the British Army. By Gum! It’s a damn funny world!”
Memory flashed back with almost a spasm of joy.
“‘By Gum!'” I repeated. “Why, that was what my old friend Ben Flint used to say twenty times an hour!”
It was a shibboleth proving his story true. And I remembered the weedy, ugly, precocious infant who was the pride and spoiled darling of that circus crowd.
Why I, a young gentleman of leisure, fresh from Cambridge, chose to go round France with a circus, is neither here nor there. For one thing, I assure you it was not for the bright eyes of Mlle Renee Saint-Maur or her lesser sister luminaries. Ben Flint, the English clown, classically styled “Auguste” in the arena, and his performing pig, Billy, somehow held the secret of my fascination. Ben Flint mystified me. He was a man of remarkable cultivation; save for a lapse here and there into North Country idiom, and for a trace now and then of North Country burr, his English was pure and refined. In ordinary life, too, he spoke excellent French, although in the ring he had to follow the classical tradition of the English clown, and pronounce his patter with a nerve-rasping Britannic accent. He never told me his history. But there he was, the principal clown, and as perfect a clown as clown could be, with every bit of his business at his fingers’ ends, in a great and important circus. Like most of his colleagues, he knew the wide world from Tokio to Christiania; but, unlike the rest of the crowd, whose life seemed to be bounded by the canvas walls of the circus, and who differentiated their impressions of Singapore and Moscow mainly in terms of climate and alcohol, Ben Flint had observed men and things and had recorded and analysed his experiences, so that, meeting a more or less educated youth like myself–perhaps a rare bird in the circus world–standing on the brink of life, thirsting for the knowledge that is not supplied by lectures at the Universities, he must have felt some kind of satisfaction in pouring out, for my benefit, the full vintage of his wisdom.
I see him now, squat, clean-shaven, with merry blue eyes in a mug of a face, sitting in a deck chair, on a scrap of ragged ground forming the angle between the row of canvas stables and the great tent, a cob pipe in his humorous mouth, a thick half litre glass of beer with a handle to it on the earth beside him, and I hear his shrewd talk of far-away and mysterious lands. His pretty French wife, who knows no English, charmingly dishevelled, uncorseted, free, in a dubious _peignoir_ trimmed with artificial lace–she who moulded in mirific tights, sea-green with reflections of mother-of-pearl, like Venus Anadyomene, does the tight rope act every afternoon and evening–sits a little way apart, busy with needle and thread repairing a sorry handful of garments which to-night will be tense with some portion of her shapely body. Between them sprawls on his side Billy, the great brown pig whom Ben has trained to stand on his hind legs, to jump through hoops, to die for his country….
“They don’t applaud. They don’t appreciate you, Billy,” the clown would say, choosing his time when applause was scant. “Show them what you think of them.”
And then Billy would deliberately turn round and, moving in a semicircle, present his stern to the delighted audience….
There lies Billy, the pig, the most human pig that ever breathed, adored by Ben Flint, who, not having given the beast one second’s pain in all its beatific life, was, in his turn, loved by the pig as only a few men are loved by a dog–and there, sitting on the pig’s powerful withers, his blue smock full of wilted daisies, is little eight-year-old tow-headed Andrew Lackaday making a daisy chain, which eventually he twines round the animal’s semi-protesting snout.
Yes. There is the picture. It is full summer. We have lunched, Madame and Ben and Andrew and I, at the little cafe restaurant at the near-by straggling end of the town. At other tables, other aristocratic members of the troupe. The humbler have cooked their food in the vague precincts of the circus. We have returned to all that Ben and his wife know as home. It is one o’clock. At two, matinee. An hour of blissful ease. We are in the shade of the great tent; but the air is full of the heavy odour of the dust and the flowers and the herbs of the South, and of the pungent smell of the long row of canvas stables.
I call little Andrew. He dismounts from Billy the pig, and, insolent brat, screws an imaginary eyeglass into his eye, which he contrives to keep contorted, and assuming a supercilious expression and a languid manner, struts leisurely towards us, with his hands in his pockets, thereby giving what I am forced to admit is an imitation of myself perfect in its burlesque. Ben Flint roars with laughter. I clutch the imp and throw him across knee and pretend to spank him. We struggle lustily till Madame cries out:
“But cease, Andre. You are making Monsieur too hot.”
And Andrew, docile, ceased at once; but standing in front of me, his back to Madame, he noiselessly mimicked Madame’s speech with his lips, so drolly, so exquisitely, that Ben Flint’s hearty laugh broke out again.
“Just look at the little devil! By Gum! He has a fortune in him.”
I learned in the circus as much about Andrew as he knew himself. Perhaps more; for a child of eight has lost all recollection of parents who died before he was two. They were circus folk, English, trapeze artists, come, they said, from a long tour in Australia, where Andrew was born, and their first European engagement was in the Cirque Rocambeau. Their stay was brief; their end tragic. Lackaday _Pere_ took to drink, which is the last thing a trapeze artist should do. Brain and hand at rehearsal one day lost co-ordination by the thousandth part of a second and Lackaday _Mere_, swinging from her feet upwards, missed the anticipated grip, and fell with a thud on the ground, breaking her spine. Whereupon Lackaday _Pere_ went out and hanged himself from a cross-beam in an empty stable.
Thus, at two years old, Andrew Lackaday started life on his own account. From that day, he was alone in the world. Nothing in his parents’ modest luggage gave clue to kith or kin. Ben Flint who, as a fellow-countryman, went through their effects, found not even one letter addressed to them, found no sign of their contact with any human being living or dead. They called themselves professionally “The Lackadays.” Whether it was their real name or not, no one in the world which narrowed itself within the limits of the Cirque Rocambeau, could possibly tell. But it was the only name that Andrew had, and as good as any other. It was part of his inheritance, the remainder being ninety-five francs in cash, some cheap trinkets, a couple of boxes of fripperies which were sold for a song, a tattered copy of Longfellow’s Poems, and a brand new gilt-edged Bible, carefully covered in brown paper, with “For Fanny from Jim” inscribed on the flyleaf. From which Andrew Lackaday, as soon as his mind could grasp such things, deduced that his mother’s name was Fanny, and his father’s James. But Ben Flint assured me that Lackaday called his wife Myra, while she called him Alf, by which names they were familiarly known by their colleagues. So who were Fanny and Jim, if not Andrew’s parents, remained a mystery.
Meanwhile there was the orphan Andrew Lackaday rich in his extreme youth and the fortune above specified, and violently asserting his right to live and enjoy. Meanwhile, too, Ben Flint and his wife had lost their pig Bob, Billy’s predecessor. Bob had grown old and past his job and become afflicted with an obscure porcine disease, possibly senile decay, for which there was no remedy but merciful euthanasia. The Flints mourned him, desolate. They had not the heart to buy another. They were childless, pigless. But behold! There, to their hand was Andrew, fatherless, motherless. On an occasion, just after the funeral, for which Ben Flint paid, when Madame was mothering the tiny Andrew in her arms, and Ben stood staring, lost in yearning for the lost and beloved pig, she glanced up and said:
“_Tiens_, why should he not replace Bob, _ce petit cochon?_”
Ben Flint slapped his thigh.
“By Gum!” said he, and the thing was done. The responsibility of self dependence for life and enjoyment was removed from the shoulders of young Andrew Lackaday for many years to come.
In the course of time, when the child’s _etat civil_, as a resident in France, had to be declared, and this question of nationality became of great importance in after years–Madame said:
“Since we have adopted him, why not give him our name?”
But Ben, with the romanticism of Bohemia, replied:
“No. His name belongs to him. If he keeps it, he may be able to find out something about his family. He might be the heir to great possessions. One never knows. It’s a clue anyway. Besides,” he added, the sturdy North countryman asserting itself, “I’m not giving my name to any man save the son of my loins. It’s a name where I come from that has never been dishonoured for a couple of hundred years.”
“But it is just as you like, _mon cheri_,” said Madame, who was the placidest thing in France.
* * * * *
For thirty years I had forgotten all this; but the “By Gum!” of Colonel Lackaday wiped out the superscription over the palimpsest of memory and revealed in startling clearness all these impressions of the past.
“Of course we’re fond of the kid,” said Ben Flint. “He’s free from vice and as clever as paint. He’s a born acrobat. Might as well try to teach a duck to swim. It comes natural. Heredity of course. There’s nothing he won’t be able to do when I’m finished with him. Yet there are some things which lick me altogether. He’s an ugly son of a gun. His father and mother, by the way, were a damn good-looking pair. But their hands were the thick spread muscular hands of the acrobat. Where the deuce did he get his long, thin delicate fingers from? Already he can pass a coin from back to front—-” he flicked an illustrative conjuror’s hand–“at eight years old. To teach him was as easy as falling off a log. Still, that’s mechanical. What I want to know is, where did he get his power of mimicry? That artistic sense of expressing personality? ‘Pon my soul, he’s damn well nearly as clever as Billy.”
During the talk which followed the discovery of our former meeting, I reported to Colonel Lackaday these encomiums of years ago. He smiled wistfully.
“Most of the dear old fellow’s swans were geese, I’m afraid,” said he. “And I was the awkwardest gosling of them all. They tried for years to teach me the acrobat’s business; but it was no good. They might just as well have spent their pains on a rheumatic young giraffe.”
I looked at him and smiled. The simile was not inapposite. How, I asked myself, could the man into which he had developed, ever have become an acrobat? He was the leanest, scraggiest long thing I have ever seen. Six foot four of stringy sinew and bone, with inordinately long legs, around which his khaki slacks flapped, as though they hid stilts instead of human limbs. His arms swung long and ungainly, the sleeves of his tunic far above the bony wrist, as though his tailor in cutting the garment had repudiated as fantastic the evidence of his measurements. Yet, when one might have expected to find hands of a talon-like knottiness, to correspond with the sparse rugosity of his person, one found to one’s astonishment the most delicately shaped hands in the world, with long, sensitive, nervous fingers, like those of the thousands of artists who have lived and died without being able to express themselves in any artistic medium. In a word, the fingers of the artiste manque. I have told you what Ben Flint, shrewd observer, said about his hands, as a child of eight. They were the same hands thirty years after. To me, elderly observer of human things, they seemed, as he moved them so gracefully–the only touch of physical grace about him–to confer an air of pathos on the ungainly man, to serve as an index to a soul which otherwise could not be divined.
From this lean length of body rose a long stringy neck carrying a small head surmounted by closely cropped carotty thatch. His skin was drawn tight over the framework of his face, as though his Maker had been forced to observe the strictest economy in material. His complexion was brick red over a myriad freckles. His features preserved the irregular ugliness of the child I half remembered, but it was redeemed by light blue candid eyes set in a tight net of humorous lines, and by a large, mobile mouth, which, though it could shut grimly on occasions, yet, when relaxed in a smile, disarmed you by its ear-to-ear kindliness, and fascinated you by the disclosure of two rows of white teeth perfectly set in the healthy pink streaks of gum. He had the air of a man physically fit, inured to hardship; the air, too, in spite of his gentleness, of a man accustomed to command. In the country house at which we met it had not occurred to me to speculate on his social standing, as human frailty determined that one should do in the case of so many splendid and gallant officers of the New Army. His manners were marked by shy simplicity and quiet reserve. It was a shock to preconceived ideas to find him bred in a circus, even in so magnificent a circus as the Cirque Rocambeau, and brought up by a clown, even by such a superior clown as Ben Flint,
“And my old friend?” I asked. For I had lost knowledge of Ben practically from the time I ended my happy vagabondage. _Maxima mea culpa_.
“He died when I was about sixteen,” replied Colonel Lackaday, “and his wife a year or so later.”
“And then?” I queried, eager for autobiographical revelations.
“Then,” said he, “I was a grown up man, able to fend for myself.”
That was all I could get out of him, without allowing natural curiosity to outrun discretion. He changed the conversation to the war, to the France about which I, a very elderly Captain–have I not confessed to early twenties thirty years before?–was travelling most uncomfortably, doing queer odd jobs as a nominal liaison officer on the Quartermaster-General’s staff. His intimacy with the country was amazing. Multiply Sam Weller’s extensive and peculiar knowledge of London by a thousand, and you shall form some idea of Colonel Lackaday’s acquaintance with the inns of provincial France. He could even trot out the family skeletons of the innkeepers. In this he became animated and amusing. His features assumed an actor’s mobility foreign to their previous military sedateness, and he used his delicate hands in expressive gestures. In parenthesis I may say we had left the week-end party at their bridge or flirtation (according to age) in the drawing-room, neither pursuits having for us great attraction, in spite of Lady Auriol Dayne, of whom more hereafter, and we had found our way to cooling drinks and excellent cigars in our host’s library. It was the first time we had exchanged more than a dozen words, for we had only arrived that Saturday afternoon. But after the amazing mutual recognition, we sat luxuriously chaired, excellent friends, and I, for my part, enjoying his society.
“Ah!” said he, “Montelimar. I know that hotel. _Infect_. And the _patron_, eh? You remember him. Forty stone. Phoo!”
The gaunt man sat up in his chair and by what mesmeric magic it happened I know not, but before my eyes grew the living image of the gross, shapeless creature who had put me to bed in wringing wet sheets.
“And when you complained, he looked like this–eh?”
He did look like that. Bleary-eyed, drooping-mouthed, vacant. I recollected that the fat miscreant had the middle of his upper lip curiously sunken into the space of two missing front teeth. The middle of Colonel Lackaday’s upper lip was sucked in.
“And he said: ‘What would you have, Monsieur? _C’est la guerre?_'”
The horrible fat man, hundreds of miles away from the front, with every convenience for drying sheets, had said those identical words. And in the same greasy, gasping tone.
I gaped at the mimetic miracle. It was then that the memory of the eight-year-old child’s travesty of myself flashed through my mind.
“Pardon me,” said I, “but haven’t you turned this marvellous gift of yours to–well to practical use?”
He grinned in his honest, wide-mouthed way, showing his incomparable teeth.
“Don’t you think,” said he, “I’m the model of a Colonel of the Rifles?”
He grinned again at the cloud of puzzlement on my face, and rose holding out his hand.
“Time for turning in. Will you do me a favour? Don’t give me away about the circus.”
Somehow my esteem for him sank like thermometer mercury plunged into ice. I had thought him, with the blazing record of achievement across his chest, a man above such petty solicitude. His mild blue eyes searched my thoughts.
“I don’t care a damn, Captain Hylton,” said he, in a tone singularly different from any that he had used in our pleasant talk–“if anybody knows I was born in a stable. A far better man than I once had that privilege. But as it happens that I am going out to command a brigade next week, it would be to the interest of my authority and therefore to that of the army, if no gossip led to the establishment of my identity.”
“I assure you, sir—-” I began stiffly–I was only a Captain, he, but for a formality or two, a Brigadier-General.
He clapped his hands on my shoulders–and I swear his ugly, smiling face was that of an angel.
“My dear fellow,” said he, “so long as you regard me as an honest cuss, nothing matters in the world.”
I went to bed with the conviction that he was as honest a cuss as I had ever met.
Our hosts, the Verity-Stewarts, were pleasant people, old friends of mine, inhabiting a Somerset manor-house which had belonged to their family since the days of Charles the Second. They were proud of their descent; the Stewart being hyphenated to the first name by a genealogically enthusiastic Verity of a hundred years ago; but the alternative to their motto suggested by the son of the house, Captain Charles Verity-Stewart, “The King can do no wrong,” found no favour in the eyes of his parents, who had lived remote from the democratic humour of the officers of the New Army.
It was to this irreverent Cavalier, convalescent at home from a machine-gun bullet through his shoulder, and hero-worshipper of his Colonel, that Andrew Lackaday owed his shy appearance at Mansfield Court. He was proud of the boy, a gallant and efficient soldier; Lady Verity-Stewart had couched her invitation in such cordial terms that a refusal would have been curmudgeonly; and the Colonel was heartily tired of spending his hard-won leave horribly alone in London.
Perhaps I may seem to be explaining that which needs no explanation. It is not so. In England Colonel Lackaday found himself in the position of many an officer from the Dominions overseas. He had barely an acquaintance. Hitherto his leave had been spent in France. But one does not take a holiday in France when the War Officer commands attention at Whitehall. He was very glad to go to the War Office, suspecting the agreeable issue of his visit. Yet all the same he was a stranger in a strange land, living on the sawdust and warmed-up soda-water of unutterable boredom. He had spent–so he said–his happiest hours in London, at the Holborn Empire. Three evenings had he devoted to its excellent but not soul-enthralling entertainment.
“In the name of goodness, why?” I asked puzzled.
“There was a troupe of Japanese acrobats,” said he. “In the course of a roving life one picks up picturesque acquaintances. Hosimura, the head of them, is a capital fellow.”
This he told me later, for our friendship, begun when he was eight years old, had leaped into sudden renewal; but without any idea of exciting my commiseration. Yet it made me think.
That a prospective Brigadier-General should find his sole relief from solitude in the fugitive companionship of a Japanese acrobat seemed to me pathetic.
Meanwhile there he was at Mansfield Court, lean and unlovely, but, as I divined, lovable in his unaffected simplicity, the very model of a British field-officer. At dinner on Saturday evening, he had sat between his hostess and Lady Auriol Dayne. To the former he had talked of the things she most loved to hear, the manifold virtues of her son. There were fallings away from the strict standards of military excellence, of course; but he touched upon them with his wide, charming smile, condoned them with the indulgence of the man prematurely mellowed who has kept his hold on youth, so that Lady Verity-Stewart felt herself in full sympathy with Charles’s chief, and bored the good man considerably with accounts of the boy’s earlier escapades. To Lady Auriol he talked mainly about the war, of which she appeared to have more complete information than he himself.
“I suppose you think,” she said at last with a swift side glance, “that I’m laying down the law about things I’m quite ignorant of.”
He said: “Not at all. You’re in a position to judge much better than I. You people outside the wood can see it, in its entirety. We who are in the middle of the horrid thing can’t see it for the trees.”
It was this little speech so simple, so courteous and yet not lacking a touch of irony, that first made Lady Auriol, in the words which she used when telling me of it afterwards, sit up and take notice.
Bridge, the monomania which tainted Sir Julius Verity-Stewart’s courtly soul, pinned Lady Auriol down to the green-covered table for the rest of the evening. But the next day she set herself to satisfy her entirely unreprehensible curiosity concerning Colonel Lackaday.
Lady Auriol, born with even more curiosities than are the ordinary birthright of a daughter of Eve, had spent most of her life in trying to satisfy them. In most cases she had been successful. Here be it said that Lady Auriol was twenty-eight, unmarried, and almost beautiful when she took the trouble to do her hair and array herself in becoming costume. As to maiden’s greatest and shyest curiosity, well–as a child of her epoch–she knew so much about the theory of it that it ceased to be a curiosity at all. Besides, love–she had preserved a girl’s faith in beauty–was a psychological mystery not to be solved by the cold empirical methods which could be employed in the solution of other problems. I must ask you to bear this in mind when judging Lady Auriol. She had once fancied herself in love with an Italian poet, an Antinous-like young man of impeccable manners, boasting an authentic pedigree which lost itself in the wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. None of your vagabond ballad-mongers. A guest when she first met him of the Italian Ambassador. To him, Prince Charming, knight and troubadour, she surrendered. He told her many wonders of fairy things. He led her into lands where woman’s soul is free and dances on buttercups. He made exquisite verses to her auburn hair. But when she learned that these same verses were composed in a flat in Milan which he shared with a naughty little opera singer of no account, she dismissed Prince Charming offhand, and betook herself alone to the middle of Abyssinia to satisfy her curiosity as to the existence there of dulcimer-playing maidens singing of Mount Abora to whom Coleridge in his poem assigns such haunting attributes.
Lady Auriol, in fact, was a great traveller. She had not only gone all over the world–anybody can do that–but she had gone all through the world. Alone, she had taken her fate in her hands. In comparison with other geographical exploits, her journey through Abyssinia was but a trip to Margate. She had wandered about Turkestan. She had crossed China. She had fooled about Saghalien…. In her schooldays, hearing of the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, she had imagined the Sanjak to be a funny little man in a red cap. Riper knowledge, after its dull exasperating way, had brought disillusion; but like Mount Abora the name haunted her until she explored it for herself. When she came back, she knew the Sanjak of Novi Bazar like her pocket.
Needless to say that Lady Auriol had thrown all her curiosities, her illusions–they were hydra-headed–her enthusiasms and her splendid vitality into the war. She had organized and directed as Commandant a great hospital in the region of Boulogne. “I’m a woman of business,” she told Lackaday and myself, “not a ministering angel with open-worked stockings and a Red Cross of rubies dangling in front of me. Most of the day I sit in a beastly office and work at potatoes and beef and army-forms. I can’t nurse, though I daresay I could if I tried; but I hate amateurs. No amateurs in my show, I assure you. For my job I flatter myself I’m trained. A woman can’t knock about the waste spaces of the earth by herself, head a rabble of pack-carrying savages, without gaining some experience in organization. In fact, when I’m not at my own hospital, which now runs on wheels, I’m employed as a sort of organizing expert–any old where they choose to send me. Do you think I’m talking swollen-headedly, Colonel Lackaday?”
She turned suddenly round on him, with a defiant flash of her brown eyes, which was one of her characteristics—the woman, for all her capable modernity, instinctively on the defensive.
“It’s only a fool who apologizes for doing a thing well,” said Lackaday.
“He couldn’t do it well if he was a fool,” Lady Auriol retorted.
“You never know what a fool can do till you try him,” said Lackaday.
It was a summer morning. Nearly all the house-party had gone to church. Lady Auriol, Colonel Lackaday and I, smitten with pagan revolt, lounged on the shady lawn in front of the red-brick, gabled manor house. The air was full of the scent of roses from border beds and of the song of thrushes and the busy chitter-chatter of starlings in the old walnut trees of the further garden. It was the restful England which the exiled and the war-weary used so often to conjure up in their dreams.
“You mean a fool can be egged on to do great things and still remain a fool?” asked Lady Auriol lazily.
Lackaday smiled–or grinned–it is all the same–a weaver of fairy nothings could write a delicious thesis on the question; is Lackaday’s smile a grin or is his grin a smile? Anyhow, whatever may be the definition of the special ear-to-ear white-teeth-revealing contortion of his visage, it had in it something wistful, irresistible. You will find it in the face of a tickled baby six months old. He touched his row of ribbons.
“_Voila_,” said he.
“It’s polite to say I don’t believe it,” she said, regarding him beneath her long lashes. “But, supposing it true for the sake of argument, I should very much like to know what kind of a fool you are.”
Lying back in her long cane chair, an incarnation of the summer morning, fresh as the air in her white blouse and skirt, daintily white hosed and shod, her auburn hair faultlessly dressed sweeping from the side parting in two waves, one bold from right to left, the other with coquettish grace, from left to right, the swiftness of her face calmed into lazy contours, the magnificent full physique of her body relaxed as she lay with her silken ankles crossed on the nether chair support, her hands fingering a long necklace of jade, she appealed to me as the most marvellous example I had ever come across of the woman’s power of self-transmogrification.
The last time I had seen her was in France, wet through in old short-skirted kit, with badly rolled muddy puttees, muddier heavy boots, a beast of a dripping hat pinned through rain-sodden strands of hair, streaks of mud over her face, ploughing through mud to a British Field Ambulance, yet erect, hawk-eyed, with the air of a General of Division. There sex was wiped out. During our chance meeting, one of the many queer chance meetings of the war, a meeting which lasted five minutes while I accompanied her to her destination, we spoke as man to man. She took a swig out of my brandy flask. She asked me for a cigarette–smoked out, she said. I was in nearly the same predicament, having only, at the moment, for all tobacco, the pipe I was then smoking. “For God’s sake, like a good chap, give me a puff or two,” she pleaded. And so we walked on through the rain and mud, she pipe in mouth, her shoulders hunched, her hands, under the scornfully hitched up skirt, deep in her breeches pockets. And now, this summer morning, there she lay, all woman, insidiously, devilishly alluring woman, almost voluptuous in her self-confident abandonment to the fundamental conception of feminine existence.
Lackaday’s eyes rested on her admiringly. He did not reply to her remark, until she added in a bantering tone:
Then he said, with an air of significance: “The most genuine brand you can imagine, I assure you.”
“A motley fool,” she suggested idly.
At that moment, Evadne, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the house, who, as she told me soon afterwards, in the idiom of her generation, had given the divine-services a miss, carried me off to see a litter of Sealyham puppies. That inspection over, we reviewed rabbits and fetched a compass round about the pigsties and crossed the orchard to the chicken’s parade, and passed on to her own allotment in the kitchen garden, where a few moth-eaten cabbages and a wilting tomato in a planted pot seemed to hang degraded heads at our approach, and, lingering through the rose garden, we eventually emerged on the further side of the lawn.
“I suppose you want to go and join them,” she said with a jerk of her bobbed head in the direction of Lady Auriol and Colonel Lackaday.
“Perhaps we ought,” said I.
“They don’t want us–you can bet your boots,” said she.
“How do you know that, young woman of wisdom?”
She sniffed. “Look at ’em.”
I looked at ’em; mole-visioned masculine fifty seeing through the eyes of feminine thirteen; and, seeing very distinctly indeed, I said:
“What would you like to do?”
“If you wouldn’t mind very much,” she replied eagerly, her interest in, or her scorn of, elderly romance instantly vanishing, “let us go back to the peaches. That’s the beauty of Sundays. That silly old ass Jenkins”–Jenkins was the head gardener–“is giving his family a treat, instead of coming down on me. See?”
Evadne linked her arm in mine. Again I saw. She had already eaten two peaches. Who was I to stand in the way of her eating a third or a fourth or a fifth? With the after consequences of her crime against Jenkins, physical and otherwise, I had nothing to do. It was the affair of her parents, her doctor, her Creator. But the sight of the rapturous enjoyment on her face when her white teeth bit into the velvet bloom of the fruit sped one back to one’s own youth and procured a delight not the less intense because it was vicarious.
“Come along,” said I.
“You’re a perfect lamb,” said she.
Before the perfect lamb was led to the peach slaughter, he looked again across the lawn. Colonel Lackaday had moved his chair very close to Lady Auriol’s wicker lounge, so that facing her, his head was but a couple of feet from hers. They talked not so much animatedly as intimately. Lackaday’s face I could not see, his back being turned to me; I saw Lady Auriol’s eyes wide, full of earnest interest, and compassionate admiration. I had no idea that her eyes could melt to such softness. It was a revelation. No woman ever looked at a man like that, unless she was an accomplished syren, without some soul-betrayal. I am a _vieux routier_, an old campaigner in this world of men and women. Time was when–but that has nothing to do with this story. At any rate I think I ought to know something about women’s eyes.
“Did you ever see anything so idiotic?” asked Evadne, dragging me round.
“I think I did once,” said I.
“When was that?”
“Ah!” said I.
“Do tell me, Uncle Tony.”
I, who have seen things far more idiotic a thousand times, racked my brain for an answer that would satisfy the child.
“Well, my dear,” I began, “your father and mother, when they were engaged—-“
She burst out: “But they were young. It isn’t the same thing. Aunt Auriol’s as old as anything. And Colonel Lackaday’s about sixty.”
“My dear Evadne,” said I. “I happen to know that Colonel Lackaday is thirty-eight.”
Thirteen shrugged its slim shoulders. “It’s all the same,” it said.
We went to the net-covered wall of ripe and beauteous temptation, trampling over Jenkins’s beds of I know not what, and ate forbidden fruit. At least Evadne did, until, son of Adam, I fell.
“Do have a bite. It’s lovely. And I’ve left you the blushy side.”
What could I do? There she stood, fair, slim, bobbed-haired, green-kirtled, serious-eyed, carelessly juicy-lipped, holding up the peach. I, to whom all wall-fruit is death, bit into the side that blushed. She anxiously watched my expression.
“Topping, isn’t it?”
“Yum, yum,” said I.
“Isn’t it?” she said, taking back the peach.
That’s the beauty of childhood. It demands no elaborate expression. Simplicity is its only coinage. A rhapsody on the exquisiteness of the fruit’s flavour would have bored Evadne stiff. Her soul yearned for the establishment between us of a link of appreciation. “Yum, yum,” said I, and the link was instantly supplied.
She threw away a peach stone and sighed.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m not looking for any more trouble,” she replied.
We returned to the lawn and Lady Auriol and Colonel Lackaday. Not a hole could be picked in the perfect courtesy of their greeting; but it lacked passionate enthusiasm. Evadne and I sat down, and our exceedingly dull conversation was soon interrupted by the advent of the church goers.
Towards lunch time Lackaday and I, chance companions, strolled towards the house.
“What a charming woman,” he remarked.
“Lady Verity-Stewart,” said I, with a touch of malice–our hostess was the last woman with whom he had spoken–“is a perfect dear.”
“So she is, but I meant Lady Auriol.”
“I’ve known her since she was that high,” I said spreading out a measuring hand. “Her development has been most interesting.”
A shade of annoyance passed over the Colonel’s ugly good-humoured face. To treat the radiant creature who had swum into his ken as a subject for psychological observation savoured of profanity. With a smile I added:
“She’s one of the very best.”
His brow cleared and his teeth gleamed out my tribute.
“I’ve met very few English ladies in the course of my life,” said he half apologetically. “The other day, a brother officer finding me fooling about Pall Mall insisted on my lunching with him at the Carlton. He had a party. I sat next to a Mrs. Tankerville, who I gather is a celebrity.”
“She is,” said I. “And she said, ‘You must really come and have tea with me to-morrow. I’ve a crowd of most interesting people coming.'”
“She did,” cried Lackaday, regarding me with awestricken eyes, as Saul must have looked at the Witch of Endor. “But I didn’t go. I couldn’t talk to her. I was as dumb as a fish. Oh, damned dumb! And the dumber I was the more she talked at me. I had risen from the ranks, hadn’t I? She thought careers like mine such a romance. I just sat and sweated and couldn’t eat. She made me feel as if she was going to exhibit me as the fighting skeleton in her freak museum. If ever I see that woman coming towards me in the street, I’ll turn tail and run like hell.”
I laughed. “You mustn’t compare Mrs. Tankerville with Lady Auriol Dayne.”
“_Mon Dieu!_ I should think not!” he cried with a fervent gesture. “Lady Auriol—-“
Our passage from the terrace across the threshold of the drawing-room cut short a possible rhapsody.
Later in the afternoon, in the panelled Elizabethan entrance hall, I came across Lady Auriol in tweed coat and skirt and business-like walking boots, a felt hat on her head and a stout stick in her hands.
“Whither away?” I asked.
“Colonel Lackaday and I are off for a tramp, over to Glastonbury.” Her lips moved ironically. “Like to come?”
“God forbid!” I cried.
“Thought you wouldn’t,” she said, drawing on a wash-leather gauntlet, “but when I’m in Society, I do try to be polite.”
“My teaching and example for the last twenty years,” said I, “have not been without effect.”
“You’re a master of deportment, my dear Tony.” I was old enough to be her father, but she had always called me Tony, and had no more respect for my grey hairs than her cousin Evadne. “Tell me,” she said, with a swift change of manner, “do you know anything about Colonel Lackaday?”
“We met here as strangers,” said I, “and I can only say that he impresses me as being a very gallant gentleman.”
Her face beamed. She held out her hand. “I’m so glad you think so.” She glanced at the clock.
“Good Lord! I’m a minute late. He’s outside. I loathe unpunctuality. So long, Tony.”
She waved a careless farewell and strode out.
In the evening she gave Sir Julius to understand that, for aught she cared, he could go into a corner and play Bridge by himself, thus holding herself free, as it appeared to my amused fancy, for any pleasanter eventuality. In a few moments Colonel Lackaday was sitting by her side. I drew a chair to a bridge-table, and idly looked over my hostess’s hand. Presently, being dummy, she turned to me, with a little motion of her head towards the pair and whispered:
“Those two–Auriol and —- don’t you think it’s rather rapid?”
“My dear Selina,” said I. “What would you have? ‘_C’est la guerre_.'”
It was rather rapid, this intimacy between the odd assorted pair–the high-bred woman of fervid action and the mild and gawky Colonel born in a travelling circus. Holding the key to his early life, and losing myself in conjecture as to his subsequent career until he found himself possessed of the qualities that make a successful soldier, I could not help noticing the little things, unperceived by a generous war society, which pathetically proved that his world and that of Lady Auriol, for all her earth-wide Bohemianism, were star distances apart. Little tiny things that one feels ashamed to record. His swift glance round to assure himself of the particular knife and fork he should use at a given stage of the meal–the surreptitious pushing forward on the plate, of the knife which he had leaned, French fashion, on the edge; his queer distress on entering the drawing-room–his helplessness until the inevitable and unconscious rescue, for he was the honoured guest; the restraint, manifest to me, which he imposed on his speech and gestures. Everyone loved him for his simplicity of manners. In fact they were natural to the man. He might have saved himself a world of worry. But his trained observation had made him aware of the existence of a thousand social solecisms, his sensitive character shrank from their possible committal, and he employed his mimetic genius as an instrument of salvation. And then his English–his drawing-room English–was not spontaneous. It was thought out, phrased, excellent academic English, not the horrible ordinary lingo that we sling at each other across a dinner-table; the English, though without a trace of foreign accent, yet of one who has spent a lifetime in alien lands and has not met his own tongue save on the printed page; of one, therefore, who not being sure of the shade of slang admissible in polite circles, carefully and almost painfully avoids its use altogether.
Yet all through that long weekend–we were pressed to stay till the Wednesday morning–no one, so far as I know, suspected that Colonel Lackaday found himself in an unfamiliar and puzzling environment.
His appointment to the Brigade came on the Tuesday. He showed me the letter, during a morning stroll in the garden.
“Don’t tell anybody, please,” said he.
“Of course not.” I could not repress an ironical glance, thinking of Lady Auriol. “If you would prefer to make the announcement your own way.”
He gasped, looking down upon me from his lean height. “My dear fellow–it’s the very last thing I want to do. I’ve told you because I let the thing out a day or two ago–in peculiar circumstances–but it’s in confidence.”
“Confidence be hanged,” said I.
Heaven sent me Evadne–just escaped from morning lessons with her governess, and scuttling across the lawn to visit her Sealyhams. I whistled her to heel. She raced up.
“If you were a soldier what would you do if you were made a General?”
She countered me with the incredulous scorn bred of our familiarity.
“You haven’t been made a General?”
“I haven’t,” I replied serenely. “But Colonel Lackaday has.”
She looked wide-eyed up into Lackaday’s face.
“Is that true?”
I swear he blushed through his red sun-glaze.
“Since Captain Hylton says so—-“
She held out her hand with perfect manners and said:
“I’m so glad. My congratulations.” Then, before the bewildered Lackaday could reply, she tossed his hand to the winds.
“There’ll be champagne for dinner and I’m coming down,” she cried and fled like a doe to the house. At the threshold of the drawing-room she turned.
“Does Cousin Auriol know?”
“Nobody knows,” I said.
She shouted: “Good egg!” and disappeared.
I turned to the frowning and embarrassed Lackaday.
“Your modesty doesn’t appreciate the pleasure that news will give all those dear people. They’ve shown you in the most single-hearted way that they’re your friends, haven’t they?”
“They have,” he admitted. “But it’s very extraordinary. I don’t belong to their world. I feel a sort of impostor.”
“With this–and all these?”
I flourished the letter which I still held, and with it touched the rainbow on his tunic. His features relaxed into his childish ear-to-ear grin.
“It’s all so incomprehensible–here–in this old place–among these English aristocrats–the social position I step into. I don’t know whether you can quite follow me.”
“As a distinguished soldier,” said I, “apart from your charming personal qualities, you command that position.”
He screwed up his mobile face. “I can’t understand it. It’s like a nightmare and a fairy-tale jumbled up together. On the outbreak of war I came to England and joined up. In a few months I had a commission. I don’t know…” he spread out his ungainly arm–“I fell into the metier–the business of soldiering. It came easy to me. Except that it absorbed me body and soul, I can’t see that I had any particular merit. Whatever I have done, it would have been impossible, in the circumstances, not to do. Out there I’m too busy to think of anything but my day’s work. As for these things”–he touched his ribbons–“I put them up because I’m ordered to. A matter of discipline. But away from the Army I feel as though I were made up for a part which I’m expected to play without any notion of the words. I feel just as I would have done five years ago if I had been dressed like this and planted here. To go about now disguised as a General only adds to the feeling.”
“If you’ll pardon me for saying so,” said I, “I think you’re super-sensitive. You imagine yourself to be the same man that you were five years ago. You’re not. You’re a different human being altogether. Men with characters like yours must suffer a sea-change in this universal tempest.”
“I hope not,” said he, “for what will become of me when it’s all over? Everything must come to an end some day–even the war.”
I laughed. “Don’t you see how you must have changed? Here you are looking regretfully to the end of the war. If it were only bloodless you would like it to go on for ever. Who knows whether you wouldn’t eventually wear two batons instead of the baton and sword.”
“I’m not an ambitious man, if you mean that,” said he, soberly. “Besides this war business is far too serious for a man to think of his own interests. Suppose a fellow schemed and intrigued to get high rank and then proved inefficient–it would mean death to hundreds or thousands of his men. As it is, I assure you I’m not cock-a-whoop about commanding a brigade. I was a jolly sight happier with a platoon.”
“At any rate,” said I, “other people are cock-a-whoop. Look at them.”
The household, turned out like a guard by Evadne, emerged in a body from the house. Sir Julius beamed urbanely. Lady Verity-Stewart almost fell on the great man’s neck. Young Charles broke into enthusiastic and profane congratulations. From the point of view of eloquent compliment his speech was disgraceful; but I loved the glisten in the boy’s eyes as he gazed on his hero. A light also gleamed in the eyes of Lady Auriol. She shook hands with him in her direct fashion.
“I’m glad. So very very glad.” Perhaps I alone–except Lackaday–detected a little tremor in her voice. “Why didn’t you want us to know?”
Instinctively I caught Evadne’s eye. She winked at me, acknowledging thereby that she had divulged the General’s secret. But by what feminine process of divination had she guessed it? Charles came to his chief’s rescue.
“The General couldn’t go around shouting ‘I’m to command a brigade mother, I’m to command a brigade,’ could he?”
“He might have stuck on his badges and walked in as if nothing had happened. It would have been such fun to see who would have spotted them first.”
Thus Evadne, immediately called to order by Sir Julius. The hero said very little. What in his modesty could the good fellow say? But it was obvious that the sincere and spontaneous tributes pleased him. Sir Julius, after the suppression of Evadne, made him the little tiniest well-bred ghost of an oration. That the gallant soldier under whom his son had the distinguished honour to serve should receive the news of his promotion under his roof was a matter of intense gratification to the whole household.
It was a gracious scene–the little group, on the lawn in shade of the old manor house, so intimate, so kindly, so genuinely emotional, yet so restful in its English restraint, surrounding the long, lank, khaki-clad figure with the ugly face, who, after looking from one to the other of them in a puzzled sort of way, drew himself up and saluted.
“You’re very kind,” said he, in reply to Sir Julius. “If I have the same loyalty in my brigade as I had in my old regiment,” he glanced at Charles, “I shall be a very proud man.”
That ended whatever there was of ceremony. Lady Auriol drew me aside.
“Come for a stroll.”
“To see the Sealyhams and the rabbits?”
“No, Tony. To talk of our friend. He interests me tremendously.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” said I.
We entered the rose garden heavy with the full August blooms.
“Well, my dear,” said I. “Talk away.”
“If you have a bit of sense in you, it would be you who would talk. If you were a bit _simpatico_ you would at once set the key of the conversation.”
“All of which implied abuse means that you’re dying to know, through the medium of subtle and psychological dialogue, which is entirely beyond my brain power, whether you’re not just on the verge of wondering if you’re not on the verge of falling in love with Colonel Lackaday.”
“You put it with your usual direct brutality—-“
“Well,” said I. “Are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Dying to know etcetera, etcetera–I am not addicted to vain repetition.”
She sighed, tried to pick a black crimson Victor Hugo, pricked her fingers and said “Damn!” With my penknife I cut the stalk and handed her the rose, which she pinned on her blouse.
“I suppose I am,” she eventually replied. Then she caught me by the arm. “Look here, Tony, do be a dear. You’re old enough to be my ancestor and by all accounts you’ve had a dreadful past. Do tell me if I’m making an ass of myself. I only did it once,” she went on, without giving me time to answer. “You know all about it–Vanucci, the little beast. I needn’t put on frills with you. Since then I swore off that sort of thing. I’ve gone about in maiden meditation and man’s breeches, fancy free. I’ve loved lots of men just as I’ve loved lots of women–as friends, comrades. I’m level-headed and, I think, level-hearted. I haven’t gone about like David in his wrath, saying that all men are liars. They’re not. They’re just as good as women, if not better. I’ve no betrayed virgin’s grouch against men. But I’ve made myself too busy to worry about sex. It’s no use talking tosh. Sex is the root of the whole sentimental, maudlin—-“
“But tremulous and bewildering and nerve-racking and delicious and myriad-adjectived soul-condition,” I interrupted, “known generally as love. Ninety-nine point nine repeater per cent of the world’s literature has been devoted to its analysis. It’s therefore of some importance. It’s even the vital principle of the continuity of the human race.”
“I’m perfectly aware of it.”
“Then why, my dear, resent, as you seem to do, the inevitable reassertion, in your own case, of the vital principle?”
She laughed. “_Chassez le naturel, il revient au galop_. But that’s just it. Is it a gallop or is it a crawl? I tell you, I thought myself immune for many years. But now, these last two or three days I’m beginning to feel a perfect idiot. A few minutes ago if the whole lot of you hadn’t been standing round, I think I should have cried. Just for silly gladness. After all there are thousands of Brigadier-Generals.”
“To be accurate, not more than a few hundreds.”
“Hundreds or thousands, what does it matter?” she cried impatiently. “What’s Hecuba to me or I to Hecuba?” Few women have the literary sense of apposite quotation–but no matter. She went on. “What’s one Brigadier-General to me or I to one Brigadier-General? And yet–there it is. I’m beginning to fear lest this particular Brigadier-General may mean a lot to me. So I come back to my original question. Am I making an ass of myself?”
“One can’t answer that question, my dear Auriol,” said I, “without knowing how far your fears, feelings and all the rest of it are reciprocated.”
“Suppose I think they are?”
“Then all I can say is: ‘God bless you my children.’ But,” I added, after a pause, “I must warn you that your budding idyll is not passing unnoticed.”
She snapped her fingers. “I’ve lived my private life in public too long to care a hang for that. I’m only concerned about my own course of action. Shall I go on, or shall I pull myself up with a jerk?”
“What would you like to do?”
She walked on for a few yards without replying. I glanced at her and saw that the colour had come into her cheeks, and that her eyes were downcast. At last she said:
“Now that I’m a woman again, I should like to get some happiness out of it. I should like to give happiness, too, full-handed.” She flashed up and took my arm and pressed it. “I could do it, Tony.”
“I know you could,” said I.
After which the conversation became more intimate. Anybody, to look at us, as we walked, arm in arm, round the paths of the rose garden, would have taken us for lovers. Of course she wanted none of my advice. Her frank and generous nature felt the imperious need of expansion. I, to whom she could talk as to a sympathetic wooden idol, happened to be handy. I don’t think she could have talked in the same way to a woman, I don’t think she would have talked so even to me, who had taken her pick-a-back round about her nursery, if I had not with conviction qualified Lackaday as a gallant gentleman.
Eventually we came down to the practical aspect of a situation, as old as Romance itself. The valorous and gentle knight of hidden lineage and the Earl’s daughter. Not daring to aspire, and ignorant of the flame he has kindled in the high-born bosom, he rides away without betraying his passion, leaving the fair owner of the bosom to pine in lonely ignorance.
“At this time of day, it’s all such damn nonsense,” said Lady Auriol.
I pointed out to her that chivalrous souls still beautified God’s earth and that such damn nonsense could not be other than the essence of their being. To this knightly company Colonel Lackaday might well belong. On the other hand, there was she, the same old proud Earl’s daughter. For all her modernity, her independence, her democratic sympathies, she remained a great lady. She had little fortune; but she had position and an ancient name. Her father, the impoverished fourteenth Earl of Mountshire, and the thirtieth Baron of something else, refused to sit among the canaille of the present House of Peers. He bred shorthorns and Berkshire pigs, which he disposed of profitably, and grew grapes and melons for Covent Garden, read the lessons in church and wrote letters to the _Times_ about the war on which the late Guy Earl of Warwick would have rather prided himself when he took a fancy to make a King.
“The dear old idiot,” said Lady Auriol. “He belongs to the time of Nebuchadnezzar.”
But, all the same, in spite of her flouting, her birth assured her a social position from which she could be thrown by nothing less than outrageous immorality or a Bolshevist revolution. That Lackaday, to whom the British Peerage, in the ordinary way, was as closed a book as the Talmud, realized her high estate I was perfectly aware. Dear and garrulous Lady Verity-Stewart had given him at dinner the whole family history–she herself was a Dayne–from the time of Henry I. I was sitting on the other side of her and heard and amused myself by scanning the expressionless face of Lackaday who listened as a strayed aviator might listen to the social gossip of the inhabitants of Mars. Anyhow he left the table with the impression that the Earl of Mountshire was the most powerful noble in England and that his hostess and her cousin, Lady Auriol, regarded the Royal Family as upstarts and only visited Buckingham Palace in order to set a good example to the proletariat.
“I’m sure he does,” said I, after summarizing Lady Verity-Stewart’s monologue.
“The family has been the curse of my life,” said Auriol. “If I hadn’t anticipated them–or is it it?–by telling them to go to the devil, they would have disowned me long ago. Now they’re afraid of me, and I’ve got the whip hand. A kind of blackmail; so they let me alone.”
“But if you made a _mesalliance_, as they call it,” said I, “they’d be down upon you like a cartload of bricks.”
“Bricks?” she retorted, with a laugh. “A cartload of puff-balls. There isn’t a real brick in the whole obsolete structure. I could marry a beggar man to-morrow and provided he was a decent sort and didn’t get drunk and knock me about and pick his teeth with his fork, I should have them all around me and the beggar man in a week’s time, trying to save face. They’d move heaven and earth to make the beggar man acceptable. They know that if they didn’t, I’d be capable of going about with him like a raggle-taggle gipsy–and bring awful disgrace on them.”
“All that may be true,” said I, “but the modest Lackaday doesn’t realize it.”
“I’ll put sense into him,” replied Lady Auriol. And that was the end, conclusive or not, of the conversation.
In the afternoon they went off for a broiling walk together. What they found to say to each other, I don’t know. Lady Auriol let me no further into her confidence, and my then degree of intimacy with the General did not warrant the betrayal of my pardonable curiosity as to the amount of sense put into him by the independent lady.
Now, from what I have related, it may seem that Lady Auriol had brought up all her storm troops for a frontal attack on the position in which the shy General lay entrenched. This is not the case. There was no question of attack or siege or any military operation whatever on either side. The blessed pair just came together like two drops of quicksilver. Each recognized in the other a generous and somewhat lonely soul; an appreciation of the major experiences of life and, with that, a craving for something bigger even than the war, which would give life its greater meaning. She, born on heights that looked contemptuously down upon a throne, he born almost in a wayside ditch, their intervening lives a mutual mystery, they met–so it seemed to me, then, as I mused on the romantical situation–on some common plane not only of adventurous sympathy but of a humanity simple and sincere. From what I could gather afterwards, they never exchanged a word, during this intercourse, of amorous significance. Nor did they steer the course so dear to modern intellectuals (and so dear too to the antiquated wanderers through the Land of Tenderness) which led them into analytical discussions of their respective sentimental states of being. They talked just concrete war, politics and travel. On their tramps they scarcely talked at all. They kept in step which maintained the rhythm of their responsive souls. She would lay an arresting touch on his arm at the instant in which he pointed his stick at some effect of beauty; and they would both turn and smile at each other, intimately, conscious of harmony.
We left the next morning, Lackaday to take over his brigade in France, I to hang around the War Office for orders to proceed on my further unimportant employment. Lady Auriol and Charles saw us off at the station.
“It’s all very well for your new brigade, sir,” said the latter when the train was just coming into the station. “They’re in luck. But the regiment’s in the soup.”
He wanted to discuss the matter, but with, elderly tact I drew the young man aside, so that the romantic pair should have a decent leave-taking. But all she said was:
“You’ll write and tell me how you get on?”
And he; with a flash in his blue eyes and his two-year-old grin:
“May I really?”
“You may–if a General in the field has time to write to obscure females.”
She looked adorable, provoking, with the rich colour rising beneath her olive cheek–I almost fell in love with her myself and I was glad that the ironical Charles had his back to her. An expression of shock overspread Lackaday’s ingenuous features. He shot out both hands in protest, and mumbled something incoherent. She took the hands with a happy laugh, as the train lumbered noisily in.
Lackaday was silent and preoccupied during the run to London.
At the terminus we parted. I asked him to dinner at my club. He hesitated for a moment, then declined on the plea of military business. I did not see him or the Verity-Stewarts or Lady Auriol till after the Armistice.
Like Ancient Gaul, time is nowadays divided into three parts, before, during and after the war. The lives of most men are split into these three hard and fast sections. And the men who have sojourned in the Valley of the Shadow of Death have emerged, for all their phlegm, their philosophy, their passionate carelessness and according to their several temperaments, not the same as when they entered. They have taken human life, they have performed deeds of steadfast and reckless heroism unimagined even in the war-like daydreams of their early childhood. They have endured want and misery and pain inconceivable. They have witnessed scenes of horror one of which, in their former existence, would have provided months of shuddering nightmare. They have made instant decisions affecting the life or death of their fellows. They have conquered fear. They have seen the scale of values upon which their civilized life was so carefully based swept away and replaced by another strange and grim to which their minds must rigidly conform. They return to the world of rest where humanity is still struggling to maintain the old scale. The instinct born of generations of tradition compels a facile reacceptance. They think: “The blood and mud and the hell’s delight of the war are things of the past. We take up life where we left it five years ago; we come back to plough, lathe, counter, bank, office, and we shall carry on as though a Sleeping Beauty spell had been cast on the world and we were awakening, at the kiss of the Fairy Prince of peace, to our suspended tasks.”
Are they right or are they wrong in their surmise, these millions of men, who have passed through the Valley of the Shadow, haunted by their memories, tempered by their plunge into the elemental, illumined by the self-knowledge gained in the fierce school of war?
Does the Captain V.C. of Infantry, adored and trusted by his men, from whose ranks he rose by reason of latent qualities of initiative command and inspiration, contentedly return to the selling of women’s stockings in his old drapery establishment, to the vulgar tyranny of the oily shopwalker, to the humiliating restrictions and conditions of the salesman’s life? Return he must–perhaps. He has but two trades, both of which he knows profoundly; the selling of hosiery and the waging of war. As he can no longer wage war, he sells hosiery. But does he do it contentedly? If his soul, through reaction, is contented at first, will it continue to be so through the long uneventful stocking-selling years? Will not the war change he has suffered cause nostalgias, revolts? Will it bring into his resumed activities a new purpose or more than the old lassitudes?
These questions were worrying me, as they were worrying most demobilized men, although I, an elderly man about town, had no personal cause for anxiety, when, one morning, my man brought me in the card of Brigadier-General Lackaday. It was early March. I may mention incidentally that I had broken down during the last wild weeks of the war, and that an unthinkingly beneficent War Office had flung me into Nice where they had forgotten me until a few days before.
During my stay in the South I led the lotus life of studious self-indulgence. I lived entirely for myself and neglected my correspondence to such a point that folks ceased to write to me. As a matter of fact I was a very sick man, under the iron rule of doctors and nurses and such like oppressors; but, except to explain why I had lost touch with everybody, that is a matter of insignificant importance. The one or two letters I did receive from Lady Auriol did not stimulate my interest in The Romance. I gathered that she was in continuous relations with General Lackaday, who, it appeared, was in the best of health. But when a man of fifty has his heart and lungs and liver and lights all dislocated he may be pardoned for his chilly enthusiasm over the vulgar robustness of a very young Brigadier.
On this March morning, however, when I was beginning, in sober joyousness, to pick up the threads of English social life, the announcement of General Lackaday gave me a real thrill of pleasure.
He came in, long, lean, khaki clad, red-tabbed, with, I swear, more rainbow lines on his breast, and a more pathetically childish grin on his face than ever. We greeted each other like old friends long separated, and fell immediately into intimate talk, exchanging our personal histories of seven months. Mine differed only in brevity from an old wife’s tale. His had the throb of adventure and the sting of failure. In October his brigade had found immortal glory in heroic death. He had obeyed high orders. The slaughter was no fault of his. But after the disaster–if the capture of an important position can be so called–he had been summarily appointed to a Home Command, and now was demobilized.
“Demobilized?” I cried, “what on earth do you mean?”
“It appears that there are more Brigadier-Generals in the dissolving Army,” said he, “than there are brigades. I can retire with my honorary rank, but if I care to stay on, I must do so with the rank and pay of a Major.”
I flared up indignant. I presumed that he had consigned the War Office to flamboyant perdition. In his mild way he had. The War Office had looked pained. By offering a permanent Major’s commission in the Regular Army, with chance of promotion and pension, it thought it had dealt very handsomely by Lackaday. It hinted that though he had led his brigade to victory, he might have employed a safer, a more Sunday school method. Oh! the hint was of the slightest, the subtlest, the most delicate. The War Office very pointedly addressed him as General, and, regarding his row of ribbons, implicitly declared him an ingrate. But for a certain stoniness of glance developed in places where Bureaucracy would have been very frightened, the War Office would have so proclaimed him in explicit speech.
“I would have stayed on as a Brigadier,” said he. “But the Major’s job’s impossible. I should have thought any soldier would have appreciated the position–and it was a soldier, a colonel whom I saw–but it seems that if you stay long enough in that place you’re at the mercy of the little girls who run you round, and eventually you arrive at their level of intelligence. However,” he grinned and lit a cigarette, “it’s all over. I can call myself General Lackaday till the day of my death, but not a sou does it put into my pocket. And, odd as it may appear, I’ve got to earn my living. Well, I suppose something will turn up.”
Before I had time to question him as to his plans and prospects, he shifted the talk to our friends, the Verity-Stewarts. He had stayed with them two or three times. Once Lady Auriol had again been a fellow guest. He had met her in London, dined at her tiny house in Charles Street, Mayfair–a little dinner party, doubtless in his honour–and he had called once or twice. Evidently the Romance was in the full idyllic stage. I asked somewhat maliciously what Lady Auriol thought of it. He rose to my question like a simple fish.
“She’s far more indignant than I am, I’ve had to stop her writing to the newspapers and sending the old Earl down to the House of Lords.”
“Lady Auriol ought to be able to pull some strings,” said I.
“There are not any strings going to be pulled for me in this business,” said Lackaday. He rose, stalked about the room–it is a modest bachelor St. James’s Street sitting-room, and he took up about as much of its space as a daddy-long-legs under a tumbler–and suddenly halted in front of me. “Do you know why?”
I made a polite gesture of enquiring ignorance.
“Because it’s a damn sight too sacred.”
I bowed. I understood.
“I can find it in my heart to owe many things to Lady Auriol,” he continued. “She’s a great woman. But even to her I couldn’t owe my position in the British Army.”
“Did you tell her so?”
I pictured the scene, knowing my Auriol. I could see the pride in her dark eyes and masterful lips. His renunciation had in it that of the _beau geste_ which she secretly adored. It put the final stamp on the man.
Upon this little emotional outburst he left, promising to dine with me the next day. For a month I saw him frequently, once or twice with Lady Auriol. He was still in uniform, waiting for the final clip of the War Office scissors severing the red tape that still bound him to the Army.
Lady Auriol said to me: “I think the day he puts off khaki he’ll cry.”
He stuck to it till the very last day possible. Then he appeared, gaunt and miserable, in an ill-fitting blue serge suit which, in the wind, flapped about his lean body. He had the pathetic air of a lost child. On this occasion–Lady Auriol and he were lunching with me–she adopted a motherly attitude which afforded me both pleasure and amusement. She seemed bent on assuring him that the gaudy vestments of a successful General went for nothing in her esteem; that, like Semele, she felt (had that unfortunate lady been given a second chance) more at ease with her Jupiter in the common guise of ordinary man.
How the Romance had progressed I could not tell. Nothing of it was perceptible from their talk, which was that of mutually understanding friends. I hinted a question after the meal, when she and I were alone for a few moments. She shrugged her shoulders, and regarded me enigmatically.
“I’m a little more mid-Victorian than I thought I was.”
“Whatever you like it to.”
And that is all I had a chance of getting out of her. Well, the relations between Lackaday and Lady Auriol were no business of mine. I had plenty to do and to think about, and anxiety over their tender affairs did not rob me of an hour’s slumber.
Then came a day when the offer of a humble mission in connection with the Peace Conference sent me to Paris. Before starting I had a last interview with Lackaday. He dined with me alone in my chambers.
He looked ill and worried. His scraggy neck rising far above an evening collar too low for him seemed to betray by its stringy workings the perturbation of his spirit. His carroty thatch no longer crisp from the careful military cut had grown into a kind of untamable towslement. The last month or two had aged him. He was the last person one would have imagined to be a distinguished soldier in the Great War.
We talked pleasantly of indifferent things till the cigars were lit–he was always a charming companion, possessing a gentle and somewhat plaintive humour–and then he began, against his habit, to speak of himself. Like thousands of demobilized officers he was looking around for some opening in civil life. As to what particular round hole his square peg could fit he was most vague. Perhaps a position in one of the far-away regions that were to be administered by the League of Nations. Something in Syria or German East Africa.
“Look here, my dear fellow,” I said at last, “I presume I’m the very oldest surviving acquaintance you have in the world. And you can’t accuse me of indiscreet curiosity. But surely you must have had some kind of profession before the war.”
“Of course I had.”
“Then why not go back to it?”
It was the first time I had ventured to question him on his antecedents. For all his gentleness, he had a personal dignity which was enhanced by the symbolism of his uniform and forbade impertinent questioning. As he had kept the shutters pulled down over his pre-war career, having in all our intercourse given me no hint of the avocations that had led him to know the Inns of France with the accuracy of a Michelin guide, it was obvious that he had done so for his own good and deliberate reasons. I had got it into my stupid head that the qualities which had raised him from private to Brigadier-General had served him in a commercial pursuit; that he had been, at the time of his pilgrimage through the country, the agent of some French business house.
On my question he stared at his cigar, twisting it backwards and forwards between his delicate thumb and two fingers, with the air of a man hesitating on a decision, until the inevitable happened; the long ash of the cigar fell over his trousers. He rose with a laugh and a damn and brushed himself. Then he said:
“Did you ever hear of Les Petit Patou?”
“No,” said I, mystified.
“Scarcely anyone in this country ever has. That’s the advantage of obscurity.” He reflected for a moment then he said: “I never realized, until I went very shyly among them, the exquisite delicacy of English gentlefolk. Not one of you, not even Lady Auriol who has given me the privilege of her intimate friendship, has ever pressed me to give an account of myself. I’m not ashamed of Les Petit Patou. But it seems so–so—-” he snapped his fingers for the word–“so incongruous. My military rank demanded that I should preserve it from ridicule–you’ll remember I asked you to say nothing of the circus.”
“Still,” said I, “the name Petit Patou conveys nothing to me.”
“I’m the original Petit Patou. When I took a partner we became plural. _Regardez un instant._”
It was only later that I saw the significance of the instinctive French phrase.
He rose, glanced around him, pounced on a little silver match-box and an empty wire waste-paper basket, and contorting his mobile face into a hideous grimace of imbecility, began to juggle with these two objects and his cigar, displaying the faultless technique of the professional. After a few throws, the cigar flew into his mouth, the matchbox fell into the opened pocket of his dinner jacket and the waste-paper basket descended over his head. For a second he stood grinning through the wire cage, in the attitude of one waiting for applause. Then swiftly he disembarrassed himself of the basket and threw the insulted cigar into the fire.
“Do you think that’s a dignified way for General Andrew Lackaday, C.B., to make his living–in the green skin tights of Petit Patou?”
We talked far into the night. My sleep was haunted by the nightmare of the six foot four of the stringy, bony emaciation of General Lackaday in green skin tights.
To realize Petit Patou in the British General of Brigade, we must turn to the manuscript mentioned at the beginning of this story.
We meet him, a raw youth, standing, one blazing summer day on the Bridge of Avignon. He insists on this episode, because, says he, the bridge is associated with important events in his life. It was not, needless to remark, the Pont d’Avignon of the gay old song, for the further arch of that was swept away by floods long ago, and it now remains a thing of pathetic uselessness. Three-quarters of the way across the Rhone might you go, and then you would come to abrupt nothingness, just the swirling river far below your arrested feet. It was the new suspension bridge, some three hundred yards further up, sadly inharmonious with the macchiolated battlements of the city and the austere mass, rising above them, of the Palace of the Popes on the one side, and, on the other, the grey antiquity of the castle of Villeneuve brooding like an ancient mother over its aged offspring, the clustering sun-baked town. The joyous generation of the Old Bridge has long since passed away, but to the present generation the New Bridge affords the same wonder and delight. For it entices like the old, from stifling streets to the haunts of Pan. There do you find leafy walks, and dells of shade, and pathways by the great cool river leading to sequestered spots where you may sit and forget the clatter of flagstones and the stuffy apartment above them for which the rent is due; where the air of early June is perfumed by wild thyme and marjoram and the far-flung sweetness of new mown hay, and where the nightingales sing. So, whenever it can, all Avignon turns out, as it has turned out for hundreds of years, on its to and fro adventure across the Bridge of Promise.
It was on a Sunday afternoon when young Lackaday stood there, leaning moodily over the parapet, regarding it not as a bridge of Promise, but as a Bridge of Despair. He had fled from the dressing-room of the little music-hall just outside the city walls, which he shared with three others of the troupe, from its horrible reek of escaping gas and drainage and grease-paint and the hoarded human emanations of years, and had come here instinctively to breathe the pure air that swept down the broad stream. He had come for rest of mind and comfort of soul; but only found himself noisily alone amid an unsympathetic multitude.
He had failed. He had learned it first from the apathy of the audience. He had learned it afterwards from the demeanour and the speech far from apathetic of the manager and leader of the troupe. They were a company of six, Les Merveilleux, five jugglers, plate spinners, eccentric musicians, ventriloquists, and one low comedian. Lackaday was the low comedian, his business to repeat in burlesque most of the performance of his fellow artists. It was his first engagement, outside the Cirque Rocambeau, his first day with the troupe. Everything had gone badly. His enormous lean length put the show out of scale. The troupe, accustomed to the business of a smaller man, whose sudden illness caused the gap which Lackaday came from Paris to fill, resented the change, and gave him little help. They demanded impossibilities. Although they had rehearsed–and the rehearsals had been a sufficient nightmare of suffering–everybody had seemed to devote a ferocious malice to his humiliation. Where the professional juggler is accustomed to catch things at his hip, they threw them at his knees; they appeared to decide that his head should be on the level of his breast. The leading lady, Madame Coincon, wife of the manager, a compact person of five foot two, roundly declared that she could not play with him, and in his funniest act, dependent on her co-operation, she left him to be helplessly funny by himself. The tradition of the troupe required the comedian to be attired in a loud check suit, green necktie and white felt bowler hat. On the podgy form of Lackaday’s predecessor it produced its comic effect. On the lank Lackaday it was characterless. In consequence of all this, he had been nervous, he had missed cues, he had fumbled when he ought to have been clear, and been clear when he ought comically to have fumbled. He had gone about his funny business with the air of a curate marrying his vicar to the object of his hopeless affections.
And Coincon had devastatingly insulted him. What worm was in the head of Moignon (the Paris music-hall agent) that he should send him such a monstrosity? He wasn’t, _nom de Dieu_, carrying about freaks at a fair. He wanted a comedian and not a giant. No wonder the Cirque Rocambeau had come to grief, if it depended on such canaries as Lackaday. Didn’t he know he was there to make the audience laugh?–not to give a representation of Monsieur Mounet-Sully elongated by the rack.
“_Hop, man petit_,” said he at last. “_F—- moi le camp_,” which is a very vulgar way of insisting on a person’s immediate retirement. “Here is your week’s salary. I gain by the proceeding. The baggage-man will see us through. He has done so before. As for Moignon–“
Although Lackaday regarded Moignon as a sort of god dispensing fame and riches, enthroned on unassailable heights of power, he trembled at the awful destiny that awaited him. He would be cast, like Lucifer from heaven. He would be stripped of authority. Coincon’s invective against him was so terrible that Lackaday pitied him even more than he pitied himself. Yet there was himself to consider. As much use to apply to the fallen Moignon for an engagement as to the Convent of the Daughters of Calvary. He and Moignon and their joint fortunes were sent hurtling down into the abyss.
On the parapet of the Bridge of Despair leant young Lackaday, gazing unseeingly down into the Rhone. His sudden misfortune had been like the stunning blow of a sandbag. His brain still reeled. What had happened was incomprehensible. He knew his business. He could conceive no other. He had been trained to it since infancy. There was not a phase of clown’s work with which he was not familiar. He was a passable gymnast, an expert juggler, a trick musician, an accomplished conjurer. All that the Merveilleux troupe act required from him he had been doing successfully for years. Why then the failure? He blamed the check suit, the ill-will of the company, the unreason of Madame Coincon….
It did not occur to him that he had emerged from an old world into a new. That between the old circus public and the new music-hall public there was almost a generation’s change of taste and critical demand. The Cirque Rocambeau had gone round without perceiving that the world had gone round too. It wondered why its triumphant glory had declined; and it could not take steps to adapt itself to the new conditions which it could not appreciate. Everyone grew old and tradition-bound in the Cirque Rocambeau, even the horses, until gradually it perished of senile decay. Andrew Lackaday carrying on the traditions of his foster father, the clown Ben Flint, had remained with it, principal clown, to the very end. Now and then, rare passers through from the outer world, gymnasts down on their luck, glad to take a makeshift engagement while waiting for better things, had counselled him to leave the antiquated concern. But the Cirque Rocambeau had been the whole of his life, childhood, boyhood, young manhood; he was linked to it by the fibres of a generous nature. All those elderly anxious folk were his family. Many of the children, his contemporaries, trained in the circus, had flown heartlessly from the nest, and the elders had fatalistically lamented. Madame Rocambeau, bowed, wizened, of uncanny age, yet forceful and valiant to the last–carrying on for the old husband now lying paralysed in Paris who had inherited the circus from his father misty years ago, would say to the young man, when one of these defections occurred: “And you Andre, you are not going to leave us? You have a fine position, and if you are dissatisfied, perhaps we can come to an arrangement. You are a child of the circus and I love you like my own flesh and blood. We shall turn the corner yet. All that is necessary is faith–and a little youth.” And Andrew, a simple soul, who had been trained in the virtues of honour and loyalty by the brave Ben Flint, would repudiate with indignation the suggestion of any selfish desire to go abroad and seek adventure.
At last, one afternoon, when the tent, a miserable gipsy thing compared with the proud pavilion of the days of the glory of Billy the pig, was pitched on the outskirts of a poor little town, they found Madame Rocambeau dead in the canvas box-office which she had occupied for fifty years, the heartbreaking receipts in front of her, counted out into little piles of bronze and small silver. The end had come. The circus could not be sold as a going concern. It crumbled away. Somebody bought the old horses, Heaven knows for what purpose. Somebody bought the antiquated harness and moth-eaten trappings. Somebody else bought the tents and fittings. But nobody bought the old careworn human beings, riders and gymnasts and stable hands who crept away into the bright free air of France, dazed and lost, like the prisoners released from the Bastille.
It was not so long ago; long enough ago, however, for young Andrew Lackaday to have come perilously near the end of his savings in Paris, before the Almighty Moignon (now curse-withered), but then vast and unctuous, reeking of fat food and diamonds and great cigars, had found him this engagement at Avignon. He had journeyed thither full of the radiant confidence of twenty. He stood on the bridge overwhelmed by the despair whose Tartarean blackness only twenty can experience.
Not a gleam anywhere of hope. His humiliation was absolute. The maniacal Coincon had not even given him an opportunity of redeeming his failure. He had been paid to go away. The disgusting yet necessary price of his shame rattled in his pockets. To-night the baggage man would play his part–a being once presumably trained, yet sunk so low in incompetence that he was glad to earn his livelihood as baggage man. And he, Andrew Lackaday, was judged more incompetent even than this degraded outcast. Why? How could it be? What was the reason? He dug his nails into his burning temples.
The summer sun beat down on him, and set a-glitter the currents in the Rhone. The ceaseless, laughing stream of citizens passed him by. Presently youth’s need of action brought him half-unconsciously to an erect position. He glanced dully this way and that, and then slowly moved along the bridge towards the Villeneuve bank. Girls bare-headed, arm-in-arm, looked up at him and laughed, he was so long and lean and comical with his ugly lugubrious face and the little straw hat perched on top of his bushy carroty poll. He did not mind, being used to derision. In happier days he valued it, for the laugh would be accompanied by a nudge and a “_Voila Auguste!_” He took it as a tribute. It was fame. Now he was so deeply sunk in his black mood that he scarcely heeded. He walked on to the end of the bridge, and turned down the dusty pathway by the bank.
Suddenly he became aware of sounds of music and revelry, and a few yards further on he came to a broad dell shaded by plane trees and set out as a restaurant garden, with rude tables and benches, filled with good-humoured thirsty folk; on one side a weather-beaten wooden chalet, having the proud title of Restaurant du Rhone, served apparently but to house the supply of drinks which nondescript men and sturdy bare-headed maidens carried incessantly on trays to the waiting tables. On the dusty midway space–the garden boasted no blade of grass–couples danced to the strains of a wheezing hurdy-gurdy played by a white bearded ancient who at the end of each tune refreshed himself with a draught from a chope of beer on the ground by his side, while a tiny anaemic girl went round gathering sous in a shell. When the music stopped you could hear the whir and the click of the bowls in an adjoining dusty and rugged alley and the harsh excited cries of the players. During these intervals the serving people in an absent way would scatter an occasional carafe-full of water on the dancing floor to lay the dust.
Young Lackaday hung hesitatingly on the outskirts under the wooden archway that was at once the entrance and the sign-board. The music had ended. The tables were packed. He felt very thirsty and longed to enter and drink some of the beer which looked so cool in the long glasses surmounted by its half inch of white froth–inviting as sea-foam. Shyness held him. These prosperous, care-free bourgeois, almost indistinguishable one from the other by racial characteristics, and himself a tragic failure in life and physically unique among men, were worlds apart. It had never occurred to him before that he could find himself anywhere in France where the people were not his people. He felt heart-brokenly alien.
Presently the hurdy-gurdy started the ghostly tinkling of the _Il Bacio_ waltz, and the ingenuous couples of Avignon rose and began to dance. The thirst-driven Lackaday plucked up courage, and strode to a deserted wooden table. He ordered beer. It was brought. He sipped luxuriously. One tells one’s thirst to be patient, when one has to think of one’s sous. He was half-way through when two girls, young and flushed from dancing together, flung themselves down on the opposite bench–the table between.
“We don’t disturb you, Monsieur?”
He raised his hat politely. “By no means, Mesdemoiselles.”
One of them with a quick gesture took up from the table a forgotten newspaper and began to fan herself and her companion, to the accompaniment of giggling and chatter about the heat. They were very young. They ordered grenadine syrup and eau-de-seltz. Andrew Lackaday stared dismally beyond them, at the dancers. In the happy, perspiring girls in front of him he took no interest, for all their youth and comeliness and obviously frank approachability. He saw nothing but the fury-enflamed face of Coincon and heard nothing but the rasping voice telling him that it was cheaper to pay him his week’s salary than to allow him to appear again. And “_f—- moi le camp!_” Why hadn’t he taken Coincon by the neck then and there with his long strong fingers and strangled him? Coincon would have had the chance of a rabbit. He had the strength of a dozen Coincons–he, trained to perfection, with muscle like dried bull’s sinews. He could split an apple between arm and forearm, in the hollow of his elbow. Why shouldn’t he go back and break Coincon’s neck? No man alive had the right to tell him to _f—- le camp!_
“You don’t seem very gay,” said a laughing voice.
With a start he recovered consciousness of immediate surroundings. Instead of two girls opposite, there was only one. Vaguely he remembered that a man had come up.
“_Un tour de valse, Mademoiselle?_”
“_Je vieux bien_.”
And one of the girls had gone, leaving her just sipped grenadine syrup and seltzer-water. But it had been like some flitting unreality of a dream.
At his blinking recovery the remaining girl laughed again.
“You look like a somnambulist.”
He replied: “I beg pardon, Mademoiselle, but I was absorbed in my reflections.”
“Black ones–_hein?_ They have made you little infidelities?”
He frowned. “They? Who do you mean–they?”
“_Un joli garcon is not absorbed in his reflections_”–she mimicked his tone–“unless there is the finger of a _petite femme_ to stir them round and darken them.”
“Mademoiselle,” said he, seriously. “You are quite mistaken. There’s not a woman in the world against whom I have the slightest grudge.”
He spoke truly. It was a matter of love, and Mme Coincon’s hostility did not count.
“Word of honour,” he added looking into the smiling ironical face.
Love had entered very little into his serious scheme of life. He had had his entanglements of course. There was Francine Dumesnil, who had fluttered into the Cirque Rocambeau as a slack wire artist, and after making him vows of undying affection, had eloped a week afterwards with Hans Petersen, the only man left who could stand on the bare back of a horse that was not thick with resin. But the heart of Andrew Lackaday had nothing to do with the heart of Francine Dumesnil. He had agreed with the aged Madame Rocambeau. _Sales types_, both of them.
“If it had been _chagrin d’amour_–sorrow of love, Mademoiselle,” said he, “I should not have been so insensible to the presence of two such charming young ladies.”
“We are polite, all the same,” she remarked approvingly.
She sipped her grenadine. Having nothing further to say he sipped his beer. Presently she said:
“I saw you this afternoon at the _boite_.” He looked at her with a touch of interest. No one would allude to the music-hall as the “box” except a fellow professional engaged there.
“You too?” he asked.
She nodded. She belonged to a troupe of dancing girls. As they were the first number, they got away early. She and her friend had gone for a walk and found this restaurant. It was gay, wasn’t it? He said, soberly:
“You were dancing at rehearsal this morning. You’ve danced at the music-hall this afternoon, you’ll be dancing again this evening–why do you dance here?”
“One can only be young once,” she replied.
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen. And you?”
She would have given him thirty, she said, he looked so serious. And he, regarding her more narrowly, would have given her fifteen. She was very young, slight, scarcely formed, yet her movements were lithe and complete like those of a young lizard. She had laughing, black eyes and a fresh mouth set in a thin dark face that might one day grow haggard or coarse, according to her physical development, but was now full with the devil’s beauty of youth. A common type, one that would not arrest masculine eyes as she passed by. Dozens of the girls there round about might have called her sister. She was dressed with cheap neatness, the soiled white wing of a bird in her black hat being the only touch of bravura. She spoke with the rich accent of the South.
“You are of the _Midi?_” he said.
Yes. She came from Marseilles. Ingenuously chattering she gave him her family history. In the meanwhile her companions and her partner having finished their dance had retired to a sequestered corner of the restaurant, leaving the pair here to themselves. Lackaday learned that her name was Elodie Figasso. Her father was dead. Her mother was a dressmaker, in which business she, too, had made her apprenticeship. But an elderly man, a _huissier_, one of those people who go about with a tricolour-rosetted cocked hat, and steel buttons and canvas trousers and a leather satchel chained to their waist, had lately diverted from Elodie the full tide of maternal affection. As she hated the _huissier_, a vulgar man who thought of nothing but the good things that the Veuve Figasso could put into his stomach, and as her besotted mother starved them both in order to fulfil the _huissier’s_ demands, and as she derived no compensating joy from her dressmaking, she had found, thanks to a friend, a positron as _figurante_ in a Marseilles Revue, and, _voila_–there she was free, independent, and, since she had talent and application, was now earning her six francs a day.
She finished her grenadine. Then with a swift movement she caught a passing serving maid and slipped into her hand the money for her companion’s scarcely tasted drink and her own. Instantly Andrew protested–Mademoiselle must allow him to have the pleasure.
But no–never in life, she had not intruded on his table to have free drinks. As for the _consommation_ of the feather-headed Margot–from Margot herself would she get reimbursement.
“But yet, Mademoiselle,” said he, “you make me ashamed. You must still be thirsty–like myself.”
“_Ca ne vous genera pas?_”
She asked the question with such a little air of serious solicitude that he laughed, for the first time. Would it upset his budget, involve the sacrifice of a tram ride or a packet of tobacco, if he spent a few sous on more syrup for her delectation? And yet the delicacy of her motive appealed to him. Here was a little creature very honest, very much of the people, very proud, very conscientious.
“On the contrary, Mademoiselle,” said he, “I shall feel that you do me an honour.”
“It is not to be refused,” said she politely, and the serving maid was despatched for more beer and syrup.
“I waited to see your turn,” she said, after a while.
“Ah!” he sighed.
She glanced at him swiftly. “It does not please you that I should talk