James was again in Little Primpton, ill at ease and unhappy. The scene with Mrs. Wallace had broken his spirit, and he was listless now, indifferent to what happened; the world had lost its colour and the sun its light. In his quieter moments he had known that it was impossible for her to care anything about him; he understood her character fairly well, and realised that he had been only a toy, a pastime to a woman who needed admiration as the breath of her nostrils. But notwithstanding, some inner voice had whispered constantly that his love could not be altogether in vain; it seemed strong enough to travel the infinite distance to her heart and awaken at least a kindly feeling. He was humble, and wanted very little. Sometimes he had even felt sure that he was loved. The truth rent his heart, and filled it with bitterness; the woman who was his whole being had forgotten him, and the woman who loved him he hated.... He tried to read, striving to forget; but his trouble overpowered him, and he could think of nothing but the future, dreadful and inevitable. The days passed slowly, monotonously; and as each night came he shuddered at the thought that time was flying. He was drifting on without hope, tortured and uncertain.
"Oh, I'm so weak," he cried; "I'm so weak!"
He knew very well what he should do if he were strong of will. A firm man in his place would cut the knot brutally--a letter to Mary, a letter to his people, and flight. After all, why should he sacrifice his life for the sake of others? The catastrophe was only partly his fault; it was unreasonable that he alone should suffer.
If his Colonel came to hear of the circumstance, and disapproving, questioned him, he could send in his papers. James was bored intensely by the dull routine of regimental life in time of peace; it was a question of performing day after day the same rather unnecessary duties, seeing the same people, listening to the same chatter, the same jokes, the same chaff. And added to the incurable dulness of the mess was the irksome feeling of being merely an overgrown schoolboy at the beck and call of every incompetent and foolish senior. Life was too short to waste in such solemn trifling, masquerading in a ridiculous costume which had to be left at home when any work was to be done. But he was young, with the world before him; there were many careers free to the man who had no fear of death. Africa opened her dusky arms to the adventurer, ruthless and desperate; the world was so large and manifold, there was ample scope for all his longing. If there were difficulties, he could overcome them; perils would add salt to the attempt, freedom would be like strong wine. Ah, that was what he desired, freedom--freedom to feel that he was his own master; that he was not enchained by the love and hate of others, by the ties of convention and of habit. Every bond was tedious. He had nothing to lose, and everything to win. But just those ties which every man may divide of his own free will are the most oppressive; they are unfelt, unseen, till suddenly they burn the wrists like fetters of fire, and the poor wretch who wears them has no power to help himself.
James knew he had not strength for this fearless disregard of others; he dared not face the pain he would cause. He was acting like a fool; his kindness was only cowardly. But to be cruel required more courage than he possessed. If he went away, his anguish would never cease; his vivid imagination would keep before his mind's eye the humiliation of Mary, the unhappiness of his people. He pictured the consternation and the horror when they discovered what he had done. At first they would refuse to believe that he was capable of acting in so blackguardly a way; they would think it a joke, or that he was mad. And then the shame when they realised the truth! How could he make such a return for all the affection and the gentleness be had received? His father, whom he loved devotedly, would be utterly crushed.
"It would kill him," muttered James.
And then he thought of his poor mother, affectionate and kind, but capable of hating him if he acted contrary to her code of honour. Her immaculate virtue made her very hard; she exacted the highest from herself, and demanded no less from others. James remembered in his boyhood how she punished his petty crimes by refusing to speak to him, going about in cold and angry silence; he had never forgotten the icy indignation of her face when once she had caught him lying. Oh, these good people, how pitiless they can be!
He would never have courage to confront the unknown dangers of a new life, unloved, unknown, unfriended. He was too merciful; his heart bled at the pain of others, he was constantly afraid of soiling his hands. It required a more unscrupulous man than he to cut all ties, and push out into the world with no weapons but intelligence and a ruthless heart. Above all, he dreaded his remorse. He knew that he would brood over what he had done till it attained the proportions of a monomania; his conscience would never give him peace. So long as he lived, the claims of Mary would call to him, and in the furthermost parts of the earth he would see her silent agony. James knew himself too well.
And the only solution was that which, in a moment of passionate bitterness, had come thoughtlessly to his lips:
"I can always shoot myself."
"I hope you won't do anything silly," Mrs. Wallace had answered.
It would be silly. After all, one has only one life. But sometimes one has to do silly things.
* * * * * * *
The whim seized James to visit the Larchers, and one day he set out for Ashford, near which they lived.... He was very modest about his attempt to save their boy, and told himself that such courage as it required was purely instinctive. He had gone back without realising in the least that there was any danger. Seeing young Larcher wounded and helpless, it had seemed the obvious thing to get him to a place of safety. In the heat of action fellows were constantly doing reckless things. Everyone had a sort of idea that he, at least, would not be hit; and James, by no means oppressed with his own heroism, knew that courageous deeds without number were performed and passed unseen. It was a mere chance that the incident in which he took part was noticed.
Again, he had from the beginning an absolute conviction that his interference was nothing less than disastrous. Probably the Boer sharpshooters would have let alone the wounded man, and afterwards their doctors would have picked him up and properly attended to him.
James could not forget that it was in his very arms that Larcher had been killed, and he repeated: "If I had minded my own business, he might have been alive to this day." It occurred to him also that with his experience he was much more useful than the callow, ignorant boy, so that to risk his more valuable life to save the other's, from the point of view of the general good, was foolish rather than praiseworthy. But it appealed to his sense of irony to receive the honour which he was so little conscious of deserving.
The Larchers had been anxious to meet James, and he was curious to know what they were like. There was at the back of his mind also a desire to see how they conducted themselves, whether they were still prostrate with grief or reconciled to the inevitable. Reggie had been an only son--just as he was. James sent no message, but arrived unexpectedly, and found that they lived some way from the station, in a new, red-brick villa. As he walked to the front door, he saw people playing tennis at the side of the house.
He asked if Mrs. Larcher was at home, and, being shown into the drawing-room the lady came to him from the tennis-lawn. He explained who he was.
"Of course, I know quite well," she said. "I saw your portrait in the illustrated papers."
She shook hands cordially, but James fancied she tried to conceal a slight look of annoyance. He saw his visit was inopportune.
"We're having a little tennis-party," she said, "It seems a pity to waste the fine weather, doesn't it?"
A shout of laughter came from the lawn, and a number of voices were heard talking loudly. Mrs. Larcher glanced towards them uneasily; she felt that James would expect them to be deeply mourning for the dead son, and it was a little incongruous that on his first visit he should find the whole family so boisterously gay.
"Shall we go out to them?" said Mrs. Larcher. "We're just going to have tea, and I'm sure you must be dying for some. If you'd let us know you were coming we should have sent to meet you."
James had divined that if he came at a fixed hour they would all have tuned their minds to a certain key, and he would see nothing of their natural state.
They went to the lawn, and James was introduced to a pair of buxom, healthy-looking girls, panting a little after their violent exercise. They were dressed in white, in a rather masculine fashion, and the only sign of mourning was the black tie that each wore in a sailor's knot. They shook hands vigorously (it was a family trait), and then seemed at a loss for conversation; James, as was his way, did not help them, and they plunged at last into a discussion about the weather and the dustiness of the road from Ashford to their house.
Presently a loose-limbed young man strolled up, and was presented to James. He appeared on friendly terms with the two girls, who called him Bobbikins.
"How long have you been back?" he asked. "I was out in the Imperial Yeomanry--only I got fever and had to come home."
James stiffened himself a little, with the instinctive dislike of the regular for the volunteer.
"Oh, yes! Did you go as a trooper?"
"Yes; and pretty rough it was, I can tell you."
He began to talk of his experience in a resonant voice, apparently well-pleased with himself, while the red-faced girls looked at him admiringly. James wondered whether the youth intended to marry them both.
The conversation was broken by the appearance of Mr. Larcher, a rosy-cheeked and be-whiskered man, dapper and suave. He had been picking flowers, and handed a bouquet to one of his guests. James fancied he was a prosperous merchant, who had retired and set up as a country gentleman; but if he was the least polished of the family, he was also the most simple. He greeted the visitor very heartily, and offered to take him over his new conservatory.
"My husband takes everyone to the new conservatory," said Mrs. Larcher, laughing apologetically.
"It's the biggest round Ashford," explained the worthy man.
James, thinking he wished to talk of his son, consented, and as they walked away, Mr. Larcher pointed out his fruit trees, his pigeons. He was a fancier, said he, and attended to the birds entirely himself; then in the conservatory, made James admire his orchids and the luxuriance of his maidenhair.
"I suppose these sort of things grow in the open air at the Cape?" he asked.
"I believe everything grows there."
Of his son he said absolutely nothing, and presently they rejoined the others. The Larchers were evidently estimable persons, healthy-minded and normal, but a little common. James asked himself why they had invited him if they wished to hear nothing of their boy's tragic death. Could they be so anxious to forget him that every reference was distasteful? He wondered how Reggie had managed to grow up so simple, frank, and charming amid these surroundings. There was a certain pretentiousness about his people which caused them to escape complete vulgarity only by a hair's-breadth. But they appeared anxious to make much of James, and in his absence had explained who he was to the remaining visitors, and these beheld him now with an awe which the hero found rather comic.
Mrs. Larcher invited him to play tennis, and when he declined seemed hardly to know what to do with him. Once when her younger daughter laughed more loudly than usual at the very pointed chaff of the Imperial Yeoman, she slightly frowned at her, with a scarcely perceptible but significant glance in Jamie's direction. To her relief, however, the conversation became general, and James found himself talking with Miss Larcher of the cricket week at Canterbury.
After all, he could not be surprised at the family's general happiness. Six months had passed since Reggie's death, and they could not remain in perpetual mourning. It was very natural that the living should forget the dead, otherwise life would be too horrible; and it was possibly only the Larchers' nature to laugh and to talk more loudly than most people. James saw that it was a united, affectionate household, homely and kind, cursed with no particular depth of feeling; and if they had not resigned themselves to the boy's death, they were doing their best to forget that he had ever lived. It was obviously the best thing, and it would be cruel--too cruel--to expect people never to regain their cheerfulness.
"I think I must be off," said James, after a while; "the trains run so awkwardly to Tunbridge Wells."
They made polite efforts to detain him, but James fancied they were not sorry for him to go.
"You must come and see us another day when we're alone," said Mrs. Larcher. "We want to have a long talk with you."
"It's very kind of you to ask me," he replied, not committing himself.
Mrs. Larcher accompanied him back to the drawing-room, followed by her husband.
"I thought you might like a photograph of Reggie," she said.
This was her first mention of the dead son, and her voice neither shook nor had in it any unwonted expression.
"I should like it very much."
It was on Jamie's tongue to say how fond he had been of the boy, and how he regretted his sad end; but he restrained himself, thinking if the wounds of grief were closed, it was cruel and unnecessary to reopen them.
Mrs. Larcher found the photograph and gave it to James. Her husband stood by, saying nothing.
"I think that's the best we have of him."
She shook hands, and then evidently nerved herself to say something further.
"We're very grateful to you, Captain Parsons, for what you did. And we're glad they gave you the Victoria Cross."
"I suppose you didn't bring it to-day?" inquired Mr. Larcher.
"I'm afraid not."
They showed him out of the front door.
"Mind you come and see us again. But let us know beforehand, if you possibly can."
* * * * * * *
Shortly afterwards James received from the Larchers a golden cigarette-case, with a Victoria Cross in diamonds on one side and an inscription on the other. It was much too magnificent for use, evidently expensive, and not in very good taste.
"I wonder whether they take that as equal in value to their son?" said James.
Mary was rather dazzled.
"Isn't it beautiful!" she cried, "Of course, it's too valuable to use; but it'll do to put in our drawing-room."
"Don't you think it should be kept under a glass case?" asked James, with his grave smile.
"It'll get so dirty if we leave it out, won't it?" replied Mary, seriously.
"I wish there were no inscription. It won't fetch so much if we get hard-up and have to pop our jewels."
"Oh, James," cried Mary, shocked, "you surely wouldn't do a thing like that!"
James was pleased to have seen the Larchers. It satisfied and relieved him to know that human sorrow was not beyond human endurance: as the greatest of their gifts, the gods have vouchsafed to man a happy forgetfulness.
In six months the boy's family were able to give parties, to laugh and jest as if they had suffered no loss at all; and the thought of this cleared his way a little. If the worst came to the worst--and that desperate step of which he had spoken seemed his only refuge--he could take it with less apprehension. Pain to those he loved was inevitable, but it would not last very long; and his death would trouble them far less than his dishonour.
Time was pressing, and James still hesitated, hoping distractedly for some unforeseen occurrence that would at least delay the marriage. The House of Death was dark and terrible, and he could not walk rashly to its dreadful gates: something would surely happen! He wanted time to think--time to see whether there was really no escape. How horrible it was that one could know nothing for certain! He was torn and rent by his indecision.
Major Forsyth had been put off by several duchesses, and was driven to spend a few economical weeks at Little Primpton; he announced that since Jamie's wedding was so near he would stay till it was over. Finding also that his nephew had not thought of a best man, he offered himself; he had acted as such many times--at the most genteel functions; and with a pleasant confusion of metaphor, assured James that he knew the ropes right down to the ground.
"Three weeks to-day, my boy!" he said heartily to James one morning, on coming down to breakfast.
"Is it?" replied James.
"Upon my word, Jamie, you're the coolest lover I've ever seen. Why, I've hardly known how to keep in some of the fellows I've been best man to."
"I'm feeling a bit seedy to-day, Uncle William."
James thanked his stars that ill-health was deemed sufficient excuse for all his moodiness. Mary spared him the rounds among her sick and needy, whom, notwithstanding the approaching event, she would on no account neglect. She told Uncle William he was not to worry her lover, but leave him quietly with his books; and no one interfered when he took long, solitary walks in the country. Jamie's reading now was a pretence; his brain was too confused, he was too harassed and uncertain to understand a word; and he spent his time face to face with the eternal problem, trying to see a way out, when before him was an impassable wall, still hoping blindly that something would happen, some catastrophe which should finish at once all his perplexities, and everything else besides.
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