THE Christmas holidays had begun, and the Reverend Roger was back again at Blaybury. He was sitting at the writing-table in the drawing-room, engaged, at the moment, in biting the end of his pen and scratching his head. His face wore an expression of perplexity; one would have said that he was in the throes of literary composition. Which indeed he was: “Beloved ward of Alfred Petherton . . .” he said aloud. “Beloved ward . . .” He shook his head doubtfully.
The door opened and Jacobsen came into the room. Roger turned round at once.
“Have you heard the grievous news?” he said.
“Poor Guy is dead. We got the telegram half an hour ago.”
“Good God!” said Jacobsen in an agonized voice which seemed to show that he had been startled out of the calm belonging to one who leads the life of reason. He had been conscious ever since George’s mutilation that his defences were growing weaker; external circumstance was steadily encroaching upon him. Now it had broken in and, for the moment, he was at its mercy. Guy dead. . . . He pulled himself together sufficiently to say, after a pause, “Well, I suppose it was only to be expected sooner or later. Poor boy.”
“Yes, it’s terrible, isn’t it?” said Roger, shaking his head. “I am just writing out an announcement to send to the Times. One can hardly say ‘the beloved ward of Alfred Petherton,’ can one? It doesn’t sound quite right; and yet one would like somehow to give public expression to the deep affection Alfred felt for him. ‘Beloved ward’—no, decidedly it won’t do.”
“You’ll have to get round it somehow,” said Jacobsen. Roger’s presence somehow made a return to the life of reason easier.
“Poor Alfred,” the other went on. “You’ve no idea how hardly he takes it. He feels as though he had given a son.”
“What a waste it is!” Jacobsen exclaimed. He was altogether too deeply moved.
“I have done my best to console Alfred. One must always bear in mind for what Cause he died.”
“All those potentialities destroyed. He was an able fellow, was Guy.” Jacobsen was speaking more to himself than to his companion, but Roger took up the suggestion.
“Yes, he certainly was that. Alfred thought he was very promising. It is for his sake I am particularly sorry. I never got on very well with the boy myself. He was too eccentric for my taste. There’s such a thing as being too clever, isn’t there? It’s rather inhuman. He used to do most remarkable Greek iambics for me when he was a boy. I dare say he was a very good fellow under all that cleverness and queerness. It’s all very distressing, very grievous.”
“How was he killed?”
“Died of wounds yesterday morning. Do you think it would be a good thing to put in some quotation at the end of the announcement in the paper? Something like, ‘Dulce et Decorum,’ or ‘Sed Miles, sed Pro Patria,’ or ‘Per Ardua ad Astra’?”
“It hardly seems essential,” said Jacobsen.
“Perhaps not.” Roger’s lips moved silently; he was counting. “Forty-two words. I suppose that counts as eight lines. Poor Marjorie! I hope she won’t feel it too bitterly. Alfred told me they were unofficially engaged.”
“So I gathered.”
“I am afraid I shall have to break the news to her. Alfred is too much upset to be able to do anything himself. It will be a most painful task. Poor girl! I suppose as a matter of fact they would not have been able to marry for some time, as Guy had next to no money. These early marriages are very rash. Let me see: eight times three shillings is one pound four, isn’t it? I suppose they take cheques all right?”
“How old was he?” asked Jacobsen.
“Twenty-four and a few months.”
Jacobsen was walking restlessly up and down the room. “Just reaching maturity! One is thankful these days to have one’s own work and thoughts to take the mind off these horrors.”
“It’s terrible, isn’t it?—terrible. So many of my pupils have been killed now that I can hardly keep count of the number.”
There was a tapping at the French window; it was Marjorie asking to be let in. She had been cutting holly and ivy for the Christmas decorations, and carried a basket full of dark, shining leaves.
Jacobsen unbolted the big window and Marjorie came in, flushed with the cold and smiling. Jacobsen had never seen her looking so handsome: she was superb, radiant, like Iphigenia coming in her wedding garments to the sacrifice.
“The holly is very poor this year,” she remarked. “I am afraid we shan’t make much of a show with our Christmas decorations.”
Jacobsen took the opportunity of slipping out through the French window. Although it was unpleasantly cold, he walked up and down the flagged paths of the Dutch garden, hatless and overcoatless, for quite a long time.
Marjorie moved about the drawing-room fixing sprigs of holly round the picture frames. Her uncle watched her, hesitating to speak; he was feeling enormously uncomfortable.
“I am afraid,” he said at last, “that your father’s very upset this morning.” His voice was husky; he made an explosive noise to clear his throat.
“Is it his palpitations?” Marjorie asked coolly; her father’s infirmities did not cause her much anxiety.
“No, no.” Roger realized that his opening gambit had been a mistake. “No. It is—er—a more mental affliction, and one which, I fear, will touch you closely too. Marjorie, you must be strong and courageous; we have just heard that Guy is dead.”
“Guy dead?” She couldn’t believe it; she had hardly envisaged the possibility; besides, he was on the Staff. “Oh, Uncle Roger, it isn’t true.”
“I am afraid there is no doubt. The War Office telegram came just after you had gone out for the holly.”
Marjorie sat down on the sofa and hid her face in her hands. Guy dead; she would never see him again, never see him again, never; she began to cry.
Roger approached and stood, with his hand on her shoulder, in the attitude of a thought-reader. To those overwhelmed by sorrow the touch of a friendly hand is often comforting. They have fallen into an abyss, and the touching hand serves to remind them that life and God and human sympathy still exist, however bottomless the gulf of grief may seem. On Marjorie’s shoulder her uncle’s hand rested with a damp, heavy warmth that was peculiarly unpleasant.
“Dear child, it is very grievous, I know; but you must try and be strong and bear it bravely. We all have our cross to bear. We shall be celebrating the Birth of Christ in two days’ time; remember with what patience He received the cup of agony. And then remember for what Cause Guy has given his life. He has died a hero’s death, a martyr’s death, witnessing to Heaven against the powers of evil.” Roger was unconsciously slipping into the words of his last sermon in the school chapel. “You should feel pride in his death as well as sorrow. There, there, poor child.” He patted her shoulder two or three times. “Perhaps it would be kinder to leave you now.”
For some time after her uncle’s departure Marjorie sat motionless in the same position, her body bent forward, her face in her hands. She kept on repeating the words, “Never again,” and the sound of them filled her with despair and made her cry. They seemed to open up such a dreary grey infinite vista—“never again.” They were as a spell evoking tears.
She got up at last and began walking aimlessly about the room. She paused in front of a little old black-framed mirror that hung near the window and looked at her reflection in the glass. She had expected somehow to look different, to have changed. She was surprised to find her face entirely unaltered: grave, melancholy perhaps, but still the same face she had looked at when she was doing her hair this morning. A curious idea entered her head; she wondered whether she would be able to smile now, at this dreadful moment. She moved the muscles of her face and was overwhelmed with shame at the sight of the mirthless grin that mocked her from the glass. What a beast she was! She burst into tears and threw herself again on the sofa, burying her face in a cushion. The door opened, and by the noise of shuffling and tapping Marjorie recognized the approach of George White on his crutches. She did not look up. At the sight of the abject figure on the sofa, George halted, uncertain what he should do. Should he quietly go away again, or should he stay and try to say something comforting? The sight of her lying there gave him almost physical pain. He decided to stay.
He approached the sofa and stood over her, suspended on his crutches. Still she did not lift her head, but pressed her face deeper into the smothering blindness of the cushion, as though to shut out from her consciousness all the external world. George looked down at her in silence. The little delicate tendrils of hair on the nape of her neck were exquisitely beautiful.
“I was told about it,” he said at last, “just now, as I came in. It’s too awful. I think I cared for Guy more than for almost anyone in the world. We both did, didn’t we?”
She began sobbing again. George was overcome with remorse, feeling that he had somehow hurt her, somehow added to her pain by what he had said. “Poor child, poor child,” he said, almost aloud. She was a year older than he, but she seemed so helplessly and pathetically young now that she was crying.
Standing up for long tired him, and he lowered himself, slowly and painfully, into the sofa beside her. She looked up at last and began drying her eyes.
“I’m so wretched, George, so specially wretched because I feel I didn’t act rightly towards darling Guy. There were times, you know, when I wondered whether it wasn’t all a great mistake, our being engaged. Sometimes I felt I almost hated him. I’d been feeling so odious about him these last weeks. And now comes this, and it makes me realize how awful I’ve been towards him.” She found it a relief to confide and confess; George was so sympathetic, he would understand. “I’ve been a beast.”
Her voice broke, and it was as though something had broken in George’s head. He was overwhelmed with pity; he couldn’t bear it that she should suffer.
“You mustn’t distress yourself unnecessarily, Marjorie dear,” he begged her, stroking the back of her hand with his large hard palm. “Don’t.”
Marjorie went on remorselessly. “When Uncle Roger told me just now, do you know what I did? I said to myself, Do I really care? I couldn’t make out. I looked in the glass to see if I could tell from my face. Then I suddenly thought I’d see whether I could laugh, and I did. And that made me feel how detestable I was, and I started crying again. Oh, I have been a beast, George, haven’t I?”
She burst into a passion of tears and hid her face once more in the friendly cushion. George couldn’t bear it at all. He laid his hand on her shoulder and bent forward, close to her, till his face almost touched her hair. “Don’t,” he cried. “Don’t, Marjorie. You mustn’t torment yourself like this. I know you loved Guy; we both loved him. He would have wanted us to be happy and brave and to go on with life—not make his death a source of hopeless despair.” There was a silence, broken only by the agonizing sound of sobbing. “Marjorie, darling, you mustn’t cry.”
“There, I’m not,” said Marjorie through her tears. “I’ll try to stop. Guy wouldn’t have wanted us to cry for him. You’re right; he would have wanted us to live for him—worthily, in his splendid way.”
“We who knew him and loved him must make our lives a memorial of him.” In ordinary circumstances George would have died rather than make a remark like that. But in speaking of the dead, people forget themselves and conform to the peculiar obituary convention of thought and language. Spontaneously, unconsciously, George had conformed.
Marjorie wiped her eyes. “Thank you, George. You know so well what darling Guy would have liked. You’ve made me feel stronger to bear it. But, all the same, I do feel odious for what I thought about him sometimes. I didn’t love him enough. And now it’s too late. I shall never see him again.” The spell of that “never” worked again: Marjorie sobbed despairingly.
George’s distress knew no bounds. He put his arm round Marjorie’s shoulders and kissed her hair. “Don’t cry, Marjorie. Everybody feels like that sometimes, even towards the people they love most. You really mustn’t make yourself miserable.”
Once more she lifted her face and looked at him with a heart-breaking, tearful smile. “You have been too sweet to me, George. I don’t know what I should have done without you.”
“Poor darling!” said George. “I can’t bear to see you unhappy.” Their faces were close to one another, and it seemed natural that at this point their lips should meet in a long kiss. “We’ll remember only the splendid, glorious things about Guy,” he went on—“what a wonderful person he was, and how much we loved him.” He kissed her again.
“Perhaps our darling Guy is with us here even now,” said Marjorie, with a look of ecstasy on her face.
“Perhaps he is,” George echoed.
It was at this point that a heavy footstep was heard and a hand rattled at the door. Marjorie and George moved a little farther apart. The intruder was Roger, who bustled in, rubbing his hands with an air of conscious heartiness, studiously pretending that nothing untoward had occurred. It is our English tradition that we should conceal our emotions. “Well, well,” he said. “I think we had better be going in to luncheon. The bell has gone.”