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When James went home he found that the Vicar of Little Primpton and his wife had already arrived. They were both of them little, dried-up persons, with an earnest manner and no sense of humour, quite excellent in a rather unpleasant way; they resembled one another like peas, but none knew whether the likeness had grown from the propinquity of twenty years, or had been the original attraction. Deeply impressed with their sacred calling--for Mrs. Jackson would never have acknowledged that the Vicar's wife held a position inferior to the Vicar's--they argued that the whole world was God's, and they God's particular ministrants; so that it was their plain duty to concern themselves with the business of their fellows--and it must be confessed that they never shrank from this duty. They were neither well-educated, nor experienced, nor tactful; but blissfully ignorant of these defects, they shepherded their flock with little moral barks, and gave them, rather self-consciously, a good example in the difficult way to eternal life. They were eminently worthy people, who thought light-heartedness somewhat indecent. They did endless good in the most disagreeable manner possible; and in their fervour not only bore unnecessary crosses themselves, but saddled them on to everyone else, as the only certain passport to the Golden City.
The Reverend Archibald Jackson had been appointed to the living of Little Primpton while James was in India, and consequently had never seen him.
"I was telling your father," said Mrs. Jackson, on shaking hands, "that I hoped you were properly grateful for all the mercies that have been bestowed upon you."
James stared at her a little. "Were you?"
He hated the fashion these people had of discussing matters which he himself thought most private.
"Mr. Jackson was asking if you'd like a short prayer offered up next Sunday, James," said his mother.
"I shouldn't at all."
"Why not?" asked the Vicar, "I think it's your duty to thank your Maker for your safe return, and I think your parents should join in the thanksgiving."
"We're probably none of us less grateful," said James, "because we don't want to express our feelings before the united congregation."
Jamie's parents looked at him with relief, for the same thought filled their minds; but thinking it their duty to submit themselves to the spiritual direction of the Vicar and his wife, they had not thought it quite right to decline the proposal. Mrs. Jackson glanced at her husband with pained astonishment, but further argument was prevented by the arrival of Colonel and Mrs. Clibborn, and Mary.
Colonel Clibborn was a tall man, with oily black hair and fierce eyebrows, both dyed; aggressively military and reminiscent He had been in a cavalry regiment, where he had come to the philosophic conclusion that all men are dust--except cavalry-men; and he was able to look upon Jamie's prowess--the prowess of an infantryman--from superior heights. He was a great authority upon war, and could tell anyone what were the mistakes in South Africa, and how they might have been avoided; likewise he had known in the service half the peers of the realm, and talked of them by their Christian names. He spent three weeks every season in London, and dined late, at seven o'clock, so he had every qualification for considering himself a man of fashion.
"I don't know what they'd do in Little Primpton without us," he said. "It's only us who keep it alive."
But Mrs. Clibborn missed society.
"The only people I can speak to are the Parsons," she told her husband, plaintively. "They're very good people--but only infantry, Reggie."
"Of course, they're only infantry," agreed Colonel Clibborn.
Mrs. Clibborn was a regimental beauty--of fifty, who had grown stout; but not for that ceased to use the weapons which Nature had given her against the natural enemies of the sex. In her dealings with several generations of adorers, she had acquired such a habit of languishing glances that now she used them unconsciously. Whether ordering meat from the butcher or discussing parochial matters with Mr. Jackson, Mrs. Clibborn's tone and manner were such that she might have been saying the most tender things. She had been very popular in the service, because she was the type of philandering woman who required no beating about the bush; her neighbour at the dinner-table, even if he had not seen her before, need never have hesitated to tell her with the soup that she was the handsomest creature he had ever seen, and with the entrée that he adored her.
On coming in, Mrs. Clibborn for a moment looked at James, quite speechless, her head on one side and her eyes screwing into the corner of the room.
"Oh, how wonderful!" she said, at last "I suppose I mustn't call you Jamie now." She spoke very slowly, and every word sounded like a caress. Then she looked at James again in silent ecstasy. "Colonel Parsons, how proud you must be! And when I think that soon he will be my son! How thin you look, James!"
"And how well you look, dear lady!"
It was understood that everyone must make compliments to Mrs. Clibborn; otherwise she grew cross, and when she was cross she was horrid.
She smiled to show her really beautiful teeth.
"I should like to kiss you, James. May I, Mrs. Parsons?"
"Certainly," replied Jamie's mother, who didn't approve of Mrs. Clibborn at all.
She turned her cheek to James, and assumed a seraphic expression while he lightly touched it with his lips.
"I'm only an old woman," she murmured to the company in general.
She seldom made more than one remark at a time, and at the end of each assumed an appropriate attitude--coy, Madonna-like, resigned, as the circumstances might require. Mr. Jackson came forward to shake hands, and she turned her languishing glance on him.
"Oh, Mr. Jackson, how beautiful your sermon was!"
* * * * * * *
They sat down to dinner, and ate their ox-tail soup. It is terrible to think of the subtlety with which the Evil One can insinuate himself among the most pious; for soup at middle-day is one of his most dangerous wiles, and it is precisely with the simple-minded inhabitants of the country and of the suburbs that this vice is most prevalent.
James was sitting next to Mrs. Clibborn, and presently she looked at him with the melancholy smile which had always seemed to her so effective.
"We want you to tell us how you won your Victoria Cross, Jamie."
The others, eager to hear the story from the hero's lips, had been, notwithstanding, too tactful to ask; but they were willing to take advantage of Mrs. Clibborn's lack of that quality.
"We've all been looking forward to it," said the Vicar.
"I don't think there's anything to tell," replied James.
His father and mother were looking at him with happy eyes, and the Colonel nodded to Mary.
"Please, Jamie, tell us," she said. "We only saw the shortest account in the papers, and you said nothing about it in your letters."
"D'you think it's very good form of me to tell you about it?" asked James, smiling gravely.
"We're all friends here," said the Vicar.
And Colonel Clibborn added, making sheep's eyes at his wife:
"You can't refuse a lady!"
"I'm an old woman," sighed Mrs. Clibborn, with a doleful glance. "I can't expect him to do it for me."
The only clever thing Mrs. Clibborn had done in her life was to acknowledge to old age at thirty, and then she did not mean it. It had been one of her methods in flirtation, covering all excesses under a maternal aspect. She must have told hundreds of young officers that she was old enough to be their mother; and she always said it looking plaintively at the ceiling, when they squeezed her hand.
"It wasn't a very wonderful thing I did," said James, at last, "and it was completely useless."
"No fine deed is useless," said the Vicar, sententiously.
James looked at him a moment, but proceeded with his story.
"It was only that I tried to save the life of a sub who'd just joined--and didn't."
"Would you pass me the salt?" said Mrs. Clibborn.
"Mamma!" cried Mary, with a look as near irritation as her gentle nature permitted.
"Go on, Jamie, there's a good boy," said Mrs. Parsons.
And James, seeing his father's charming, pathetic look of pride, told the story to him alone. The others did not care how much they hurt him so long as they could gape in admiration, but in his father he saw the most touching sympathy.
"It was a chap called Larcher, a boy of eighteen, with fair hair and blue eyes, who looked quite absurdly young. His people live somewhere round here, near Ashford."
"Larcher, did you say?" asked Mrs. Clibborn, "I've never heard the name. It's not a county family."
"Go on, Jamie," said Mary, with some impatience.
"Well, he'd only been with us three or four weeks; but I knew him rather well. Oddly enough, he'd taken a sort of fancy to me. He was such a nice, bright boy, so enthusiastic and simple. I used to tell him that he ought to have been at school, rather than roughing it at the Cape."
Mrs. Clibborn sat with an idiotic smile on her lips, and a fixed expression of girlish innocence.
"Well, we knew we should be fighting in a day or so; and the evening before the battle young Larcher was talking to me. 'How d'you feel?' I said. He didn't answer quite so quickly as usual. 'D'you know,' he said, 'I'm so awfully afraid that I shall funk it.' 'You needn't mind that,' I said, and I laughed. 'The first time we most of us do funk it. For five minutes or so you just have to cling on to your eyelashes to prevent yourself from running away, and then you feel all right, and you think it's rather sport.' 'I've got a sort of presentiment that I shall be killed,' he said. 'Don't be an ass,' I answered. 'We've all got a presentiment that we shall be killed the first time we're under fire. If all the people were killed who had presentiments, half the army would have gone to kingdom come long ago.'"
"You should have told him to lay his trust in the hands of Him who has power to turn the bullet and to break the sword," said Mrs. Jackson.
"He wasn't that sort," replied James, drily, "I laughed at him, thinking it the better way.... Well, next day we did really fight. We were sent to take an unoccupied hill. Our maxim was that a hill is always unoccupied unless the enemy are actually firing from it. Of course, the place was chock full of Boers; they waited till we had come within easy range for a toy-pistol, and then fired murderously. We did all we could. We tried to storm the place, but we hadn't a chance. Men tumbled down like nine-pins. I've never seen anything like it. The order was given to fire, and there was nothing to fire at but the naked rocks. We had to retire--we couldn't do anything else; and presently I found that poor Larcher had been wounded. Well, I thought he couldn't be left where he was, so I went back for him. I asked him if he could move. 'No,' he said, 'I think I'm hurt in the leg.' I knelt down and bandaged him up as well as I could. He was simply bleeding like a pig; and meanwhile brother Boer potted at us for all he was worth. 'How d'you feel?' I asked. 'Bit dicky; but comfortable. I didn't funk it, did I?' 'No, of course not, you juggins!' I said. 'Can you walk, d'you think?' 'I'll try.' I lifted him up and put my arm round him, and we got along for a bit; then he became awfully white and groaned, 'I do feel so bad, Parsons,' and then he fainted. So I had to carry him; and we went a bit farther, and then--and then I was hit in the arm. 'I say, I can't carry you now,' I said; 'for God's sake, buck up.' He opened his eyes, and I prevented him from falling. 'I think I can stand,' he said, and as he spoke a bullet got him in the neck, and his blood splashed over my face. He gave a gasp and died."
James finished, and his mother and Mary wiped the tears from their eyes. Mrs. Clibborn turned to her husband.
"Reggie, I'm sure the Larchers are not a county family."
"There was a sapper of that name whom we met at Simla once, my dear," replied the Colonel.
"I thought I'd heard it before," said Mrs. Clibborn, with an air of triumph, as though she'd found out a very difficult puzzle. "Had he a red moustache?"
"Have you heard from the young man's people, Captain Parsons?" asked Mrs. Jackson.
"I had a letter from Mrs. Larcher, the boy's mother, asking me to go over and see her."
"She must be very grateful to you, Jamie."
"Why? She has no reason to be."
"You did all you could to save him."
"It would have been better if I'd left him alone. Don't you see that if he had remained where he was he might have been alive now. He would have been taken prisoner and sent to Pretoria, but that is better than rotting on the veldt. He was killed because I tried to save him."
"There are worse things than death," said Colonel Parsons. "I have often thought that those fellows who surrendered did the braver thing. It is easy to stand and be shot down, but to hoist the white flag so as to save the lives of the men under one--that requires courage."
"It is a sort of courage which seemed not uncommon," answered James, drily. "And they had a fairly pleasant time in Pretoria. Eventually, I believe, wars will be quite bloodless; rival armies will perambulate, and whenever one side has got into a good position, the other will surrender wholesale. Campaigns will be conducted like manoeuvres, and the special correspondents will decide which lot has won."
"If they were surrounded and couldn't escape, it would have been wicked not to hoist the white flag," said Mrs. Jackson.
"I daresay you know more about it than I," replied James.
But the Vicar's lady insisted:
"If you were so placed that on one hand was certain death for yourself and all your men, and on the other hand surrender, which would you chose?"
"One can never tell; and in those matters it is wiser not to boast. Certain death is an awful thing, but our fathers preferred it to surrender."
"War is horrible!" said Mary, shuddering.
"Oh, no!" cried James, shaking himself out of his despondency. "War is the most splendid thing in the world. I shall never forget those few minutes, now and then, when we got on top of the Boers and fought with them, man to man, in the old way. Ah, life seemed worth living then! One day, I remember, they'd been giving it us awfully hot all the morning, and we'd lost frightfully. At last we rushed their position, and, by Jove, we let 'em have it! How we did hate them! You should have heard the Tommies cursing as they killed! I shall never forget the exhilaration of it, the joy of thinking that we were getting our own again. By Gad, it beat cock-fighting!"
Jamie's cheeks were flushed and his eyes shone; but he had forgotten where he was, and his father's voice came to him through a mist of blood and a roar of sound.
"I have fought, too," said Colonel Parsons, looking at his son with troubled eyes--"I have fought, too, but never with anger in my heart, nor lust of vengeance. I hope I did my duty, but I never forgot that my enemy was a fellow-creature. I never felt joy at killing, but pain and grief. War is inevitable, but it is horrible, horrible! It is only the righteous cause that can excuse it; and then it must be tempered with mercy and forgiveness."
"Cause? Every cause is righteous. I can think of no war in which right has not been fairly equal on both sides; in every question there is about as much to be said on either part, and in none more than in war. Each country is necessarily convinced of the justice of its own cause."
"They can't both be right."
"Oh, yes, they can. It's generally six to one and half a dozen of the other."
"Do you mean to say that you, a military man, think the Boers were justified?" asked Colonel Clibborn, with some indignation.
"You must remember that if any nation but ourselves had been engaged, our sympathies would have been entirely with the sturdy peasants fighting for their independence. The two great powers in the affairs of the world are sentiment and self-interest. The Boers are the smaller, weaker nation, and they have been beaten; it is only natural that sympathy should be with them. It was with the French for the same reason, after the Franco-Prussian War. But we, who were fighting, couldn't think of sentiment; to us it was really a matter of life and death, I was interested to see how soon the English put aside their ideas of fair play and equal terms when we had had a few reverses. They forgot that one Englishman was equal to ten foreigners, and insisted on sending out as many troops as possible. I fancy you were badly panic-stricken over here."
James saw that his listeners looked at him with surprise, even with consternation; and he hastened to explain.
"Of course, I don't blame them. They were quite right to send as many men as possible. The object of war is not to do glorious actions, but to win. Other things being equal, it is obviously better to be ten to one; it is less heroic, but more reasonable."
"You take from war all the honour and all the chivalry!" cried Mary. "The only excuse for war is that it brings out the noblest qualities of man--self-sacrifice, unselfishness, endurance."
"But war doesn't want any excuse," replied James, smiling gently. "Many people say that war is inhuman and absurd; many people are uncommonly silly. When they think war can be abolished, they show a phenomenal ignorance of the conditions of all development. War in one way and another is at the very root of life. War is not conducted only by fire and sword; it is in all nature, it is the condition of existence for all created things. Even the wild flowers in the meadow wage war, and they wage it more ruthlessly even than man, for with them defeat means extermination. The law of Nature is that the fit should kill the unfit. The Lord is the Lord of Hosts. The lame, and the halt, and the blind must remain behind, while the strong man goes his way rejoicing."
"How hard you are!" said Mary. "Have you no pity, James?"
"D'you know, I've got an idea that there's too much pity in the world. People seem to be losing their nerve; reality shocks them, and they live slothfully in the shoddy palaces of Sham Ideals. The sentimentalists, the cowards, and the cranks have broken the spirit of mankind. The general in battle now is afraid to strike because men may be killed. Sometimes it is worth while to lose men. When we become soldiers, we know that we cease to be human beings, and are merely the instruments for a certain work; we know that sometimes it may be part of a general's deliberate plan that we should be killed. I have no confidence in a leader who is tender-hearted. Compassion weakens his brain, and the result, too often, is disaster."
But as he spoke, James realised with a start how his father would take what he was saying. He could have torn out his tongue, he would have given anything that the words should remain unspoken. His father, in pity and in humanity, had committed just such a fatal mistake, and trying tender-heartedly to save life had brought about death and disaster. He would take the thoughtless words as a deliberate condemnation; the wound, barely closed, was torn open by his very son, and he must feel again the humiliation which had nearly killed him.
Colonel Parsons sat motionless, as though he were stunned, his eyes fixed on James with horror and pain; he looked like some hunted animal, terror-stricken, and yet surprised, wondering that man should be so cruel.
"What can I do?" thought James. "How can I make it good for him?"
The conversation was carried on by the Clibborns and by the Vicar, all happily unconscious that a tragedy was acting under their noses. James looked at his father. He wanted to show how bitterly he regretted the pain he had caused, but knew not what to say; he wanted to give a sign of his eager love, and tortured himself, knowing the impossibility of showing in any way his devotion.
Fortunately, the maid came in to announce that the school children were without, to welcome Captain Parsons; and they all rose from the table.
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