IT was dinner-time on the last evening of Guy’s leave. The uncovered mahogany table was like a pool of brown unruffled water within whose depths flowers and the glinting shapes of glass and silver hung dimly reflected. Mr. Petherton sat at the head of the board, flanked by his brother Roger and Jacobsen. Youth, in the persons of Marjorie, Guy, and George White, had collected at the other end. They had reached the stage of dessert.
“This is excellent port,” said Roger, sleek and glossy like a well-fed black cob under his silken clerical waistcoat. He was a strong, thick-set man of about fifty, with a red neck as thick as his head. His hair was cropped with military closeness; he liked to set a good example to the boys, some of whom showed distressing “æsthetic” tendencies and wore their hair long.
“I’m glad you like it. I mayn’t touch it myself, of course. Have another glass.” Alfred Petherton’s face wore an expression of dyspeptic melancholy. He was wishing he hadn’t taken quite so much of that duck.
“Thank you, I will.” Roger took the decanter with a smile of satisfaction. “The tired schoolmaster is worthy of his second glass. White, you look rather pale; I think you must have another.” Roger had a hearty, jocular manner, calculated to prove to his pupils that he was not one of the slimy sort of parsons, not a Creeping Jesus.
There was an absorbing conversation going on at the youthful end of the table. Secretly irritated at having been thus interrupted in the middle of it, White turned round and smiled vaguely at Roger.
“Oh, thank you, sir,” he said, and pushed his glass forward to be filled. The “sir” slipped out unawares; it was, after all, such a little while since he had been a schoolboy under Roger’s dominion.
“One is lucky,” Roger went on seriously, “to get any port wine at all now. I’m thankful to say I bought ten dozen from my old college some years ago to lay down; otherwise I don’t know what I should do. My wine merchant tells me he couldn’t let me have a single bottle. Indeed, he offered to buy some off me, if I’d sell. But I wasn’t having any. A bottle in the cellar is worth ten shillings in the pocket these days. I always say that port has become a necessity now one gets so little meat. Lambourne! you are another of our brave defenders; you deserve a second glass.”
“No, thanks,” said Guy, hardly looking up. “I’ve had enough.” He went on talking to Marjorie—about the different views of life held by the French and the Russians.
Roger helped himself to cherries. “One has to select them carefully,” he remarked for the benefit of the unwillingly listening George. “There is nothing that gives you such stomach-aches as unripe cherries.”
“I expect you’re glad, Mr. Petherton, that holidays have begun at last?” said Jacobsen.
“Glad? I should think so. One is utterly dead beat at the end of the summer term. Isn’t one, White?”
White had taken the opportunity to turn back again and listen to Guy’s conversation; recalled, like a dog who has started off on a forbidden scent, he obediently assented that one did get tired at the end of the summer term.
“I suppose,” said Jacobsen, “you still teach the same old things—Cæsar, Latin verses, Greek grammar, and the rest? We Americans can hardly believe that all that still goes on.”
“Thank goodness,” said Roger, “we still hammer a little solid stuff into them. But there’s been a great deal of fuss lately about new curriculums and so forth. They do a lot of science now and things of that kind, but I don’t believe the children learn anything at all. It’s pure waste of time.”
“So is all education, I dare say,” said Jacobsen lightly.
“Not if you teach them discipline. That’s what’s wanted—discipline. Most of these little boys need plenty of beating, and they don’t get enough now. Besides, if you can’t hammer knowledge in at their heads, you can at least beat a little in at their tails.”
“You’re very ferocious, Roger,” said Mr. Petherton, smiling. He was feeling better; the duck was settling down.
“No, it’s the vital thing. The best thing the war has brought us is discipline. The country had got slack and wanted tightening up.” Roger’s face glowed with zeal.
From the other end of the table Guy’s voice could be heard saying, “Do you know César Franck’s ‘Dieu s’avance à travers la lande’? It’s one of the finest bits of religious music I know.”
Mr. Petherton’s face lighted up; he leaned forward. “No,” he said, throwing his answer unexpectedly into the midst of the young people’s conversation. “I don’t know it; but do you know this? Wait a minute.” He knitted his brows, and his lips moved as though he were trying to recapture a formula. “Ah, I’ve got it. Now, can you tell me this? The name of what famous piece of religious music do I utter when I order an old carpenter, once a Liberal but now a renegade to Conservatism, to make a hive for bees?”
Guy gave it up; his guardian beamed delightedly.
“Hoary Tory, oh, Judas! Make a bee-house,” he said. “Do you see? Oratorio Judas Maccabeus.”
Guy could have wished that this bit of flotsam from Mr. Petherton’s sportive youth had not been thus washed up at his feet. He felt that he had been peeping indecently close into the dark backward and abysm of time.
“That was a good one,” Mr. Petherton chuckled. “I must see if I can think of some more.”
Roger, who was not easily to be turned away from his favourite topic, waited till this irrelevant spark of levity had quite expired, and continued: “It’s a remarkable and noticeable fact that you never seem to get discipline combined with the teaching of science or modern languages. Who ever heard of a science master having a good house at a school? Scientists’ houses are always bad.”
“How very strange!” said Jacobsen.
“Strange, but a fact. It seems to me a great mistake to give them houses at all if they can’t keep discipline. And then there’s the question of religion. Some of these men never come to chapel except when they’re on duty. And then, I ask you, what happens when they prepare their boys for Confirmation? Why, I’ve known boys come to me who were supposed to have been prepared by one or other of these men, and, on asking them, I’ve found that they know nothing whatever about the most solemn facts of the Eucharist.—May I have some more of those excellent cherries please, White?—Of course, I do my best in such cases to tell the boys what I feel personally about these solemn things. But there generally isn’t the time; one’s life is so crowded; and so they go into Confirmation with only the very haziest knowledge of what it’s all about. You see how absurd it is to let anyone but the classical men have anything to do with the boys’ lives.”
“Shake it well, dear,” Mr. Petherton was saying to his daughter, who had come with his medicine.
“What is that stuff?” asked Roger.
“Oh, it’s merely my peptones. I can hardly digest at all without it, you know.”
“You have all my sympathies. My poor colleague, Flexner, suffers from chronic colitis. I can’t imagine how he goes on with his work.”
“No, indeed. I find I can do nothing strenuous.”
Roger turned and seized once more on the unhappy George. “White,” he said, “let this be a lesson to you. Take care of your inside; it’s the secret of a happy old age.”
Guy looked up quickly. “Don’t worry about his old age,” he said in a strange harsh voice, very different from the gentle, elaborately modulated tone in which he generally spoke. “He won’t have an old age. His chances against surviving are about fourteen to three if the war goes on another year.”
“Come,” said Roger, “don’t let’s be pessimistic.”
“But I’m not. I assure you, I’m giving you a most rosy view of George’s chance of reaching old age.”
It was felt that Guy’s remarks had been in poor taste. There was a silence; eyes floated vaguely and uneasily, trying not to encounter one another. Roger cracked a nut loudly. When he had sufficiently relished the situation, Jacobsen changed the subject by remarking:
“That was a fine bit of work by our destroyers this morning, wasn’t it?”
“It did one good to read about it,” said Mr. Petherton. “Quite the Nelson touch.”
Roger raised his glass. “Nelson!” he said, and emptied it at a gulp. “What a man! I am trying to persuade the Headmaster to make Trafalgar Day a holiday. It is the best way of reminding boys of things of that sort.”
“A curiously untypical Englishman to be a national hero, isn’t he?” said Jacobsen. “So emotional and lacking in Britannic phlegm.”
The Reverend Roger looked grave. “There’s one thing I’ve never been able to understand about Nelson, and that is, how a man who was so much the soul of honour and of patriotism could have been—er—immoral with Lady Hamilton. I know people say that it was the custom of the age, that these things meant nothing then, and so forth; but all the same, I repeat, I cannot understand how a man who was so intensely a patriotic Englishman could have done such a thing.”
“I fail to see what patriotism has got to do with it,” said Guy.
Roger fixed him with his most pedagogic look and said slowly and gravely, “Then I am sorry for you. I shouldn’t have thought it was necessary to tell an Englishman that purity of morals is a national tradition: you especially, a public-school man.”
“Let us go and have a hundred up at billiards,” said Mr. Petherton. “Roger, will you come? And you, George, and Guy?”
“I’m so incredibly bad,” Guy insisted, “I’d really rather not.”
“So am I,” said Jacobsen.
“Then, Marjorie, you must make the fourth.”
The billiard players trooped out; Guy and Jacobsen were left alone, brooding over the wreckage of dinner. There was a long silence. The two men sat smoking, Guy sitting in a sagging, crumpled attitude, like a half-empty sack abandoned on a chair, Jacobsen very upright and serene.
“Do you find you can suffer fools gladly?” asked Guy abruptly.
“I wish I could. The Reverend Roger has a tendency to make my blood boil.”
“But such a good soul,” Jacobsen insisted.
“I dare say, but a monster all the same.”
“You should take him more calmly. I make a point of never letting myself be moved by external things. I stick to my writing and thinking. Truth is beauty, beauty is truth, and so forth: after all, they’re the only things of solid value.” Jacobsen looked at the young man with a smile as he said these words. There is no doubt, he said to himself, that that boy ought to have gone into business; what a mistake this higher education is, to be sure.
“Of course, they’re the only things,” Guy burst out passionately. “You can afford to say so because you had the luck to be born twenty years before I was, and with five thousand miles of good deep water between you and Europe. Here am I, called upon to devote my life, in a very different way from which you devote yours to truth and beauty—to devote my life to—well, what? I’m not quite sure, but I preserve a touching faith that it is good. And you tell me to ignore external circumstances. Come and live in Flanders a little and try . . .” He launched forth into a tirade about agony and death and blood and putrefaction.
“What is one to do?” he concluded despairingly. “What the devil is right? I had meant to spend my life writing and thinking, trying to create something beautiful or discover something true. But oughtn’t one, after all, if one survives, to give up everything else and try to make this hideous den of a world a little more habitable?”
“I think you can take it that a world which has let itself be dragooned into this criminal folly is pretty hopeless. Follow your inclinations; or, better, go into a bank and make a lot of money.”
Guy burst out laughing, rather too loudly. “Admirable, admirable!” he said. “To return to our old topic of fools: frankly, Jacobsen, I cannot imagine why you should elect to pass your time with my dear old guardian. He’s a charming old man, but one must admit——” He waved his hand.
“One must live somewhere,” said Jacobsen. “I find your guardian a most interesting man to be with.—Oh, do look at that dog!” On the hearth-rug Marjorie’s little Pekingese, Confucius, was preparing to lie down and go to sleep. He went assiduously through the solemn farce of scratching the floor, under the impression, no doubt, that he was making a comfortable nest to lie in. He turned round and round, scratching earnestly and methodically. Then he lay down, curled himself up in a ball, and was asleep in the twinkling of an eye.
“Isn’t that too wonderfully human!” exclaimed Jacobsen delightedly. Guy thought he could see now why Jacobsen enjoyed living with Mr. Petherton. The old man was so wonderfully human.
Later in the evening, when the billiards was over and Mr. Petherton had duly commented on the anachronism of introducing the game into Anthony and Cleopatra, Guy and Marjorie went for a stroll in the garden. The moon had risen above the trees and lit up the front of the house with its bright pale light that could not wake the sleeping colours of the world.
“Moonlight is the proper architectural light,” said Guy, as they stood looking at the house. The white light and the hard black shadows brought out all the elegance of its Georgian symmetry.
“Look, here’s the ghost of a rose.” Marjorie touched a big cool flower, which one guessed rather than saw to be red, a faint equivocal lunar crimson. “And, oh, smell the tobacco-plant flowers. Aren’t they delicious!”
“I always think there’s something very mysterious about perfume drifting through the dark like this. It seems to come from some perfectly different immaterial world, peopled by unembodied sensations, phantom passions. Think of the spiritual effect of incense in a dark church. One isn’t surprised that people have believed in the existence of the soul.”
They walked on in silence. Sometimes, accidentally, his hand would brush against hers in the movement of their march. Guy felt an intolerable emotion of expectancy, akin to fear. It made him feel almost physically sick.
“Do you remember,” he said abruptly, “that summer holiday our families spent together in Wales? It must have been nineteen four or five. I was ten and you were eight or thereabouts.”
“Of course I remember,” cried Marjorie. “Everything. There was that funny little toy railway from the slate quarries.”
“And do you remember our gold-mine? All those tons of yellow ironstone we collected and hoarded in a cave, fully believing they were nuggets. How incredibly remote it seems!”
“And you had a wonderful process by which you tested whether the stuff was real gold or not. It all passed triumphantly as genuine, I remember!”
“Having that secret together first made us friends, I believe.”
“I dare say,” said Marjorie. “Fourteen years ago—what a time! And you began educating me even then: all that stuff you told me about gold-mining, for instance.”
“Fourteen years,” Guy repeated reflectively, “and I shall be going out again to-morrow . . .”
“Don’t speak about it. I am so miserable when you’re away.” She genuinely forgot what a delightful summer she had had, except for the shortage of tennis.
“We must make this the happiest hour of our lives. Perhaps it may be the last we shall be together.” Guy looked up at the moon, and he perceived, with a sudden start, that it was a sphere islanded in an endless night, not a flat disk stuck on a wall not so very far away. It filled him with an infinite dreariness; he felt too insignificant to live at all.
“Guy, you mustn’t talk like that,” said Marjorie appealingly.
“We’ve got twelve hours,” said Guy in a meditative voice, “but that’s only clock-work time. You can give an hour the quality of everlastingness, and spend years which are as though they had never been. We get our immortality here and now; it’s a question of quality, not of quantity. I don’t look forward to golden harps or anything of that sort. I know that when I am dead, I shall be dead; there isn’t any afterwards. If I’m killed, my immortality will be in your memory. Perhaps, too, somebody will read the things I’ve written, and in his mind I shall survive, feebly and partially. But in your mind I shall survive intact and whole.”
“But I’m sure we shall go on living after death. It can’t be the end.” Marjorie was conscious that she had heard those words before. Where? Oh yes, it was earnest Evangeline who had spoken them at the school debating society.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Guy replied, with a little laugh. “You may get such a disappointment when you die.” Then in an altered voice, “I don’t want to die. I hate and fear death. But probably I shan’t be killed after all. All the same . . .” His voice faded out. They stepped into a tunnel of impenetrable darkness between two tall hornbeam hedges. He had become nothing but a voice, and now that had ceased; he had disappeared. The voice began again, low, quick, monotonous, a little breathless. “I remember once reading a poem by one of the old Provençal troubadours, telling how God had once granted him supreme happiness; for the night before he was to set out for the Crusade, it had been granted him to hold his lady in his arms—all the short eternal night through. Ains que j’aille oltre mer: when I was going beyond sea.” The voice stopped again. They were standing at the very mouth of the hornbeam alley, looking out from that close-pent river of shadow upon an ocean of pale moonlight.
“How still it is.” They did not speak; they hardly breathed. They became saturated with the quiet.
Marjorie broke the silence. “Do you want me as much as all that, Guy?” All through that long, speechless minute she had been trying to say the words, repeating them over to herself, longing to say them aloud, but paralysed, unable to. And at last she had spoken them, impersonally, as though through the mouth of someone else. She heard them very distinctly, and was amazed at the matter-of-factness of the tone.
Guy’s answer took the form of a question. “Well, suppose I were killed now,” he said, “should I ever have really lived?”
They had stepped out of the cavernous alley into the moonlight. She could see him clearly now, and there was something so drooping and dejected and pathetic about him, he seemed so much of a great, overgrown child that a wave of passionate pitifulness rushed through her, reinforcing other emotions less maternal. She longed to take him in her arms, stroke his hair, lullaby him, baby-fashion, to sleep upon her breast. And Guy, on his side, desired nothing better than to give his fatigues and sensibilities to her maternal care, to have his eyes kissed fast, and sleep to her soothing. In his relations with women—but his experience in this direction was deplorably small—he had, unconsciously at first but afterwards with a realization of what he was doing, played this child part. In moments of self-analysis he laughed at himself for acting the “child stunt,” as he called it. Here he was—he hadn’t noticed it yet—doing it again, drooping, dejected, wholly pathetic, feeble . . .
Marjorie was carried away by her emotion. She would give herself to her lover, would take possession of her helpless, pitiable child. She put her arms round his neck, lifted her face to his kisses, whispered something tender and inaudible.
Guy drew her towards him and began kissing the soft, warm mouth. He touched the bare arm that encircled his neck; the flesh was resilient under his fingers; he felt a desire to pinch it and tear it.
It had been just like this with that little slut Minnie. Just the same—all horrible lust. He remembered a curious physiological fact out of Havelock Ellis. He shuddered as though he had touched something disgusting, and pushed her away.
“No, no, no. It’s horrible; it’s odious. Drunk with moonlight and sentimentalizing about death. . . . Why not just say with Biblical frankness, Lie with me—Lie with me?”
That this love, which was to have been so marvellous and new and beautiful, should end libidinously and bestially like the affair, never remembered without a shiver of shame, with Minnie (the vulgarity of her!)—filled him with horror.
Marjorie burst into tears and ran away, wounded and trembling, into the solitude of the hornbeam shadow. “Go away, go away,” she sobbed, with such intensity of command that Guy, moved by an immediate remorse and the sight of tears to stop her and ask forgiveness, was constrained to let her go her ways.
A cool, impersonal calm had succeeded almost immediately to his outburst. Critically, he examined what he had done, and judged it, not without a certain feeling of satisfaction, to be the greatest “floater” of his life. But at least the thing was done and couldn’t be undone. He took the weak-willed man’s delight in the irrevocability of action. He walked up and down the lawn smoking a cigarette and thinking, clearly and quietly—remembering the past, questioning the future. When the cigarette was finished he went into the house.
He entered the smoking-room to hear Roger saying, “. . . It’s the poor who are having the good time now. Plenty to eat, plenty of money, and no taxes to pay. No taxes—that’s the sickening thing. Look at Alfred’s gardener, for instance. He gets twenty-five or thirty bob a week and an uncommon good house. He’s married, but only has one child. A man like that is uncommonly well off. He ought to be paying income-tax; he can perfectly well afford it.”
Mr. Petherton was listening somnolently, Jacobsen with his usual keen, intelligent politeness; George was playing with the blue Persian kitten.
It had been arranged that George should stay the night, because it was such a bore having to walk that mile and a bit home again in the dark. Guy took him up to his room and sat down on the bed for a final cigarette, while George was undressing. It was the hour of confidence—that rather perilous moment when fatigue has relaxed the fibres of the mind, making it ready and ripe for sentiment.
“It depresses me so much,” said Guy, “to think that you’re only twenty and that I’m just on twenty-four. You will be young and sprightly when the war ends; I shall be an old antique man.”
“Not so old as all that,” George answered, pulling off his shirt. His skin was very white, face, neck, and hands seeming dark brown by comparison; there was a sharply demarcated high-water mark of sunburn at throat and wrist.
“It horrifies me to think of the time one is wasting in this bloody war, growing stupider and grosser every day, achieving nothing at all. It will be five, six—God knows how many—years cut clean out of one’s life. You’ll have the world before you when it’s all over, but I shall have spent my best time.”
“Of course, it doesn’t make so much difference to me,” said George through a foam of tooth-brushing; “I’m not capable of doing anything of any particular value. It’s really all the same whether I lead a blameless life broking stocks or spend my time getting killed. But for you, I agree, it’s too bloody. . . .”
Guy smoked on in silence, his mind filled with a languid resentment against circumstance. George put on his pyjamas and crept under the sheet; he had to curl himself up into a ball, because Guy was lying across the end of the bed, and he couldn’t put his feet down.
“I suppose,” said Guy at last, meditatively—“I suppose the only consolations are, after all, women and wine. I shall really have to resort to them. Only women are mostly so fearfully boring and wine is so expensive now.”
“But not all women!” George, it was evident, was waiting to get a confidence off his chest.
“I gather you’ve found the exceptions.”
George poured forth. He had just spent six months at Chelsea—six dreary months on the barrack square; but there had been lucid intervals between the drills and the special courses, which he had filled with many notable voyages of discovery among unknown worlds. And chiefly, Columbus to his own soul, he had discovered all those psychological intricacies and potentialities, which only the passions bring to light. Nosce teipsum, it has been commanded; and a judicious cultivation of the passions is one of the surest roads to self-knowledge. To George, at barely twenty, it was all so amazingly new and exciting, and Guy listened to the story of his adventures with admiration and a touch of envy. He regretted the dismal and cloistered chastity—broken only once, and how sordidly! Wouldn’t he have learnt much more, he wondered—have been a more real and better human being if he had had George’s experiences? He would have profited by them more than George could ever hope to do. There was the risk of George’s getting involved in a mere foolish expense of spirit in a waste of shame. He might not be sufficiently an individual to remain himself in spite of his surroundings; his hand would be coloured by the dye he worked in. Guy felt sure that he himself would have run no risk; he would have come, seen, conquered, and returned intact and still himself, but enriched by the spoils of a new knowledge. Had he been wrong after all? Had life in the cloister of his own philosophy been wholly unprofitable?
He looked at George. It was not surprising that the ladies favoured him, glorious ephebus that he was.
“With a face and figure like mine,” he reflected, “I shouldn’t have been able to lead his life, even if I’d wanted to.” He laughed inwardly.
“You really must meet her,” George was saying enthusiastically.
Guy smiled. “No, I really mustn’t. Let me give you a bit of perfectly good advice. Never attempt to share your joys with anyone else. People will sympathize with pain, but not with pleasure. Good night, George.”
He bent over the pillow and kissed the smiling face that was as smooth as a child’s to his lips.
Guy lay awake for a long time, and his eyes were dry and aching before sleep finally came upon him. He spent those dark interminable hours thinking—thinking hard, intensely, painfully. No sooner had he left George’s room than a feeling of intense unhappiness took hold of him. “Distorted with misery,” that was how he described himself; he loved to coin such phrases, for he felt the artist’s need to express as well as to feel and think. Distorted with misery, he went to bed; distorted with misery, he lay and thought and thought. He had, positively, a sense of physical distortion: his guts were twisted, he had a hunched back, his legs were withered. . . .
He had the right to be miserable. He was going back to France to-morrow, he had trampled on his mistress’s love, and he was beginning to doubt himself, to wonder whether his whole life hadn’t been one ludicrous folly.
He reviewed his life, like a man about to die. Born in another age, he would, he supposed, have been religious. He had got over religion early, like the measles—at nine a Low Churchman, at twelve a Broad Churchman, and at fourteen an Agnostic—but he still retained the temperament of a religious man. Intellectually he was a Voltairian, emotionally a Bunyanite. To have arrived at this formula was, he felt, a distinct advance in self-knowledge. And what a fool he had been with Marjorie! The priggishness of his attitude—making her read Wordsworth when she didn’t want to. Intellectual love—his phrases weren’t always a blessing; how hopelessly he had deceived himself with words! And now this evening the crowning outrage, when he had behaved to her like a hysterical anchorite dealing with a temptation. His body tingled, at the recollection, with shame.
An idea occurred to him; he would go and see her, tiptoe downstairs to her room, kneel by her bed, ask for her forgiveness. He lay quite still imagining the whole scene. He even went so far as to get out of bed, open the door, which made a noise in the process like a peacock’s scream, quite unnerving him, and creep to the head of the stairs. He stood there a long time, his feet growing colder and colder, and then decided that the adventure was really too sordidly like the episode at the beginning of Tolstoy’s Resurrection. The door screamed again as he returned; he lay in bed, trying to persuade himself that his self-control had been admirable and at the same time cursing his absence of courage in not carrying out what he had intended.
He remembered a lecture he had given Marjorie once on the subject of Sacred and Profane Love. Poor girl, how had she listened in patience? He could see her attending with such a serious expression on her face that she looked quite ugly. She looked so beautiful when she was laughing or happy; at the Whites’, for instance, three nights ago, when George and she had danced after dinner and he had sat, secretly envious, reading a book in the corner of the room and looking superior. He wouldn’t learn to dance, but always wished he could. It was a barbarous, aphrodisiacal occupation, he said, and he preferred to spend his time and energies in reading. Salvationist again! What a much wiser person George had proved himself than he. He had no prejudices, no theoretical views about the conduct of life; he just lived, admirably, naturally, as the spirit or the flesh moved him. If only he could live his life again, if only he could abolish this evening’s monstrous stupidity. . . .
Marjorie also lay awake. She too felt herself distorted with misery. How odiously cruel he had been, and how much she longed to forgive him! Perhaps he would come in the dark, when all the house was asleep, tiptoeing into the room very quietly to kneel by her bed and ask to be forgiven. Would he come, she wondered? She stared into the blackness above her and about her, willing him to come, commanding him—angry and wretched because he was so slow in coming, because he didn’t come at all. They were both of them asleep before two.
Seven hours of sleep make a surprising difference to the state of mind. Guy, who thought he was distorted for life, woke to find himself healthily normal. Marjorie’s angers and despairs had subsided. The hour they had together between breakfast and Guy’s departure was filled with almost trivial conversation. Guy was determined to say something about last’s night incident. But it was only at the very last moment, when the dog-cart was actually at the door, that he managed to bring out some stammered repentance for what had happened last night.
“Don’t think about it,” Marjorie had told him. So they had kissed and parted, and their relations were precisely the same as they had been before Guy came on leave.
George was sent out a week or two later, and a month after that they heard at Blaybury that he had lost a leg—fortunately below the knee.
“Poor boy!” said Mr. Petherton. “I must really write a line to his mother at once.”
Jacobsen made no comment, but it was a surprise to him to find how much he had been moved by the news. George White had lost a leg; he couldn’t get the thought out of his head. But only below the knee; he might be called lucky. Lucky—things are deplorably relative, he reflected. One thanks God because He has thought fit to deprive one of His creatures of a limb.
“Neither delighteth He in any man’s legs,” eh? Nous avons changé tout cela.
George had lost a leg. There would be no more of that Olympian speed and strength and beauty. Jacobsen conjured up before his memory a vision of the boy running with his great fawn-coloured dog across green expanses of grass. How glorious he had looked, his fine brown hair blowing like fire in the wind of his own speed, his cheeks flushed, his eyes very bright. And how easily he ran, with long, bounding strides, looking down at the dog that jumped and barked at his side!
He had had a perfection, and now it was spoilt. Instead of a leg he had a stump. Moignon, the French called it; there was the right repulsive sound about moignon which was lacking in “stump.” Soignons le moignon en l’oignant d’oignons.
Often, at night before he went to sleep, he couldn’t help thinking of George and the war and all the millions of moignons there must be in the world. He had a dream one night of slimy red knobbles, large polyp-like things, growing as he looked at them, swelling between his hands—moignons, in fact.
George was well enough in the late autumn to come home. He had learnt to hop along on his crutches very skilfully, and his preposterous donkey-drawn bath-chair soon became a familiar object in the lanes of the neighbourhood. It was a grand sight to behold when George rattled past at the trot, leaning forward like a young Phœbus in his chariot and urging his unwilling beast with voice and crutch. He drove over to Blaybury almost every day; Marjorie and he had endless talks about life and love and Guy and other absorbing topics. With Jacobsen he played piquet and discussed a thousand subjects. He was always gay and happy—that was what especially lacerated Jacobsen’s heart with pity.