‘Whatever a man of the sons of men
Shall say to his heart of the lords above.
They have shown man, verily, once and again.
Marvellous mercies and infinite love.
* * * *
‘O sweet one love, O my life’s delight.
Dear, though the days have divided us.
Lost beyond hope, taken far out of sight.
Not twice in the world shall the Gods do thus.’
SWINBURNE, ‘Les Noyades.’
SEEING how many unstable ex-soldiers came to the Lodge of Instruction (attached to Faith and Works E.C. 5837) in the years after the war, the wonder is there was not more trouble from Brethren whom sudden meetings with old comrades jerked back into their still raw past. But our round, torpedo-bearded local Doctor–Brother Keede, Senior Warden — always stood ready to deal with hysteria before it got out of hand; and when I examined Brethren unknown or imperfectly vouched for on the Masonic side, I passed on to him anything that seemed doubtful. He had had his experience as medical officer of a South London Battalion, during the last two years of the war; and, naturally, often found friends and acquaintances among the visitors.
Brother C. Strangwick, a young, tallish, new-made Brother, hailed from some South London Lodge. His papers and his answers were above suspicion, but his red-rimmed eyes had a puzzled glare that might mean nerves. So I introduced him particularly to Keede, who discovered in him a Headquarters Orderly of his old Battalion, congratulated him on his return to fitness — he had been discharged for some infirmity or other — and plunged at once into Somme memories.
‘I hope I did right, Keede,’ I said when we were robing before Lodge.
‘Oh, quite. He reminded me that I had him under my hands at Sampoux in ‘Eighteen, when he went to bits. He was a Runner.’
‘Was it shock?’ I asked.
‘Of sorts — but not what he wanted me to think it was. No, he wasn’t shamming. He had jumps to the limit — but he played up to mislead me about the reason of ’em . . . Well, if we could stop patients from lying, medicine would be too easy, I suppose.’
I noticed that, after Lodge-working, Keede gave him a seat a couple of rows in front of us, that he might enjoy a lecture on the Orientation of King Solomon’s Temple, which an earnest Brother thought would be a nice interlude between Labour and the high tea that we called our ‘Banquet.’ Even helped by tobacco it was a dreary performance. About half-way through, Strangwick, who had been fidgeting and twitching for some minutes, rose, drove back his chair grinding across the tesselated floor, and yelped ‘Oh, My Aunt! I can’t stand this any longer.’ Under cover of a general laugh of assent he brushed past us and stumbled towards the door.
‘I thought so!’ Keede whispered to me. ‘Come along!’ We overtook him in the passage, crowing hysterically and wringing his hands. Keede led him into the Tyler’s Room, a small office where we stored odds and ends of regalia and furniture, and locked the door.
‘I’m — I’m all right,’ the boy began, piteously.
‘‘Course you are.’ Keede opened a small cupboard which I had seen called upon before, mixed sal volatile and water in a graduated glass, and, as Strangwick drank, pushed him gently on to an old sofa. ‘There,’ he went on. ‘It’s nothing to write home about. I’ve seen you ten times worse. I expect our talk has brought things back.’
He hooked up a chair behind him with one foot, held the patient’s hands in his own, and sat down. The chair creaked.
‘Don’t!’ Strangwick squealed. ‘I can’t stand it! There’s nothing on earth creaks like they do! And — and when it thaws we — we’ve got to slap ’em back with a spa-ade! ‘Remember those Frenchmen’s little boots under the duckboards? . . . What’ll I do? What’ll I do about it?’
Some one knocked at the door, to know if all were well.
‘Oh, quite, thanks!’ said Keede over his shoulder. ‘But I shall need this room awhile. Draw the curtains, please.’
We heard the rings of the hangings that drape the passage from Lodge to Banquet Room click along their poles, and what sound there had been, of feet and voices, was shut off.
Strangwick, retching impotently, complained of the frozen dead who creak in the frost.
‘He’s playing up still,’ Keede whispered. ‘That’s not his real trouble — any more than ’twas last time.’
‘But surely,’ I replied, ‘men get those things on the brain pretty badly. ‘Remember in October —’
‘This chap hasn’t, though. I wonder what’s really helling him. What are you thinking of?’ said Keede peremptorily.
‘French End an’ Butcher’s Row,’ Strangwick muttered.
‘Yes, there were a few there. But suppose we face Bogey instead of giving him best every time.’ Keede turned towards me with a hint in his eye that I was to play up to his leads.
‘What was the trouble with French End?’ I opened at a venture.
‘It was a bit by Sampoux, that we had taken over from the French. They’re tough, but you wouldn’t call ’em tidy as a nation. They had faced both sides of it with dead to keep the mud back. All those trenches were like gruel in a thaw. Our people had to do the same sort of thing — elsewhere; but Butcher’s Row in French End was the — er — show-piece. Luckily, we pinched a salient from Jerry just then, an’ straightened things out — so we didn’t need to use the Row after November. You remember, Strangwick?’
‘My God, yes! When the Buckboard-slats were missin’ you’d tread on ’em, an’ they’d creak.’
‘They’re bound to. Like leather,’ said Keede. ‘It gets on one’s nerves a bit, but —’
‘Nerves? It’s real! It’s real!’ Strangwick gulped.
‘But at your time of life, it’ll all fall behind you in a year or so. I’ll give you another sip of paregoric, an’ we’ll face it quietly. Shall we?’
Keede opened his cupboard again and administered a carefully dropped dark dose of something that was not sal volatile. ‘This’ll settle you in a few minutes,’ he explained. ‘Lie still, an’ don’t talk unless you feel like it.’
He faced me, fingering his beard.
‘Ye-es. Butcher’s Row wasn’t pretty,’ he volunteered. ‘Seeing Strangwick here, has brought it all back to me again. ‘Funny thing! We had a Platoon Sergeant of Number Two — what the deuce was his name? — an elderly bird who must have lied like a patriot to get out to the front at his age; but he was a first-class Non–Com., and the last person, you’d think, to make mistakes. Well, he was due for a fortnight’s home leave in January, ‘Eighteen. You were at B.H.Q. then, Strangwick, weren’t you?’
‘Yes. I was Orderly. It was January twenty-first’; Strangwick spoke with a thickish tongue, and his eyes burned. Whatever drug it was, had taken hold.
‘About then,’ Keede said. ‘Well, this Sergeant, instead of coming down from the trenches the regular way an’ joinin’ Battalion Details after dark, an’ takin’ that funny little train for Arras, thinks he’ll warm himself first. So he gets into a dug-out, in Butcher’s Row, that used to be an old French dressing-station, and fugs up between a couple of braziers of pure charcoal! As luck ‘ud have it, that was the only dug-out with an inside door opening inwards — some French anti-gas fitting, I expect — and, by what we could make out, the door must have swung to while he was warming. Anyhow, he didn’t turn up at the train. There was a search at once. We couldn’t afford to waste Platoon Sergeants. We found him in the morning. He’d got his gas all right. A machine-gunner reported him, didn’t he, Strangwick?’
‘No, Sir. Corporal Grant — o’ the Trench Mortars.’
‘So it was. Yes, Grant — the man with that little wen on his neck. ‘Nothing wrong with your memory, at any rate. What was the Sergeant’s name?’
‘Godsoe–John Godsoe,’ Strangwick answered.
‘Yes, that was it. I had to see him next mornin’— frozen stiff between the two braziers — and not a scrap of private papers on him. That was the only thing that made me think it mightn’t have been — quite an accident.’
Strangwick’s relaxing face set, and he threw back at once to the Orderly Room manner.
‘I give my evidence — at the time — to you, sir. He passed — overtook me, I should say — comin’ down from supports, after I’d warned him for leaf. I thought he was goin’ through Parrot Trench as usual; but ‘e must ‘ave turned off into French End where the old bombed barricade was.’
‘Yes. I remember now. You were the last man to see him alive. That was on the twenty-first of January, you say? Now, when was it that Dearlove and Billings brought you to me — clean out of your head?’ . . . Keede dropped his hand, in the style of magazine detectives, on Strangwick’s shoulder. The boy looked at him with cloudy wonder, and muttered: ‘I was took to you on the evenin’ of the twenty-fourth of January. But you don’t think I did him in, do you?’
I could not help smiling at Keede’s discomfiture; but he recovered himself. ‘Then what the dickens was on your mind that evening — before I gave you the hypodermic?’
‘The — the things in Butcher’s Row. They kept on comin’ over me. You’ve seen me like this before, sir.’
‘But I knew that it was a lie. You’d no more got stiffs on the brain then than you have now. You’ve got something, but you’re hiding it.’
‘‘Ow do you know, Doctor?’ Strangwick whimpered.
‘D’you remember what you said to me, when Dearlove and Billings were holding you down that evening?’
‘About the things in Butcher’s Row?’
‘Oh, no! You spun me a lot of stuff about corpses creaking; but you let yourself go in the middle of it — when you pushed that telegram at me. What did you mean, f’rinstance, by asking what advantage it was for you to fight beasts of officers if the dead didn’t rise?’
‘Did I say “Beasts of Officers”?’
‘You did. It’s out of the Burial Service.’
‘I suppose, then, I must have heard it. As a matter of fact, I ‘ave.’ Strangwick shuddered extravagantly.
‘Probably. And there’s another thing — that hymn you were shouting till I put you under. It was something about Mercy and Love. ‘Remember it?’
‘I’ll try,’ said the boy obediently, and began to paraphrase, as nearly as possible thus: ‘“Whatever a man may say in his heart unto the Lord, yea, verily I say unto you — Gawd hath shown man, again and again, marvellous mercy an’— an’ somethin’ or other love.”’ He screwed up his eyes and shook.
‘Now where did you get that from?’ Keede insisted.
‘From Godsoe — on the twenty-first Jan . . . ‘Ow could I tell what ‘e meant to do?’ he burst out in a high, unnatural key —‘Any more than I knew she was dead.’
‘Who was dead?’ said Keede.
‘Me Auntie Armine.’
‘The one the telegram came to you about, at Sampoux, that you wanted me to explain — the one that you were talking of in the passage out here just now when you began: “O Auntie,” and changed it to “O Gawd,” when I collared you?’
‘That’s her! I haven’t a chance with you, Doctor. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with those braziers. How could I? We’re always usin’ ’em. Honest to God, I thought at first go-off he might wish to warm himself before the leaf-train. I— I didn’t know Uncle John meant to start ’ouse-keepin’.’ He laughed horribly, and then the dry tears came.
Keede waited for them to pass in sobs and hiccoughs before he continued: ‘Why? Was Godsoe your Uncle?’
‘No,’ said Strangwick, his head between his hands. ‘Only we’d known him ever since we were born. Dad ‘ad known him before that. He lived almost next street to us. Him an’ Dad an’ Ma an’— an’ the rest had always been friends. So we called him Uncle — like children do.’
‘What sort of man was he?’
‘One o’ the best, sir. ‘Pensioned Sergeant with a little money left him — quite independent — and very superior. They had a sittin’-room full o’ Indian curios that him and his wife used to let sister an’ me see when we’d been good.’
‘Wasn’t he rather old to join up?’
‘That made no odds to him. He joined up as Sergeant Instructor at the first go-off, an’ when the Battalion was ready he got ‘imself sent along. He wangled me into ‘is Platoon when I went out — early in ‘Seventeen. Because Ma wanted it, I suppose.’
‘I’d no notion you knew him that well,’ was Keede’s comment.
‘Oh, it made no odds to him. He ‘ad no pets in the Platoon, but ‘e’d write ‘ome to Ma about me an’ all the doin’s. You see’— Strangwick stirred uneasily on the sofa —‘we’d known him all our lives — lived in the next street an’ all . . . An’ him well over fifty. Oh dear me! Oh dear me! What a bloody mix-up things are, when one’s as young as me!’ he wailed of a sudden.
But Keede held him to the point. ‘He wrote to your Mother about you?’
‘Yes. Ma’s eyes had gone bad followin’ on air-raids. ‘Blood-vessels broke behind ’em from sittin’ in cellars an’ bein’ sick. She had to ‘ave ‘er letters read to her by Auntie. Now I think of it, that was the only thing that you might have called anything at all —’
‘Was that the Aunt that died, and that you got the wire about?’ Keede drove on.
‘Yes–Auntie Armine–Ma’s younger sister, an’ she nearer fifty than forty. What a mix-up! An’ if I’d been asked any time about it, I’d ‘ave sworn there wasn’t a single sol’tary item concernin’ her that everybody didn’t know an’ hadn’t known all along. No more conceal to her doin’s than — than so much shop-front. She’d looked after sister an’ me, when needful — whoopin’ cough an’ measles just the same as Ma. We was in an’ out of her house like rabbits. You see, Uncle Armine is a cabinet-maker, an’ second-‘and furniture, an’ we liked playin’ with the things. She ‘ad no children, and when the war came, she said she was glad of it. But she never talked much of her feelin’s. She kept herself to herself, you understand.’ He stared most earnestly at us to help out our understandings.
‘What was she like?’ Keede inquired.
‘A biggish woman, an’ had been ‘andsome, I believe, but, bein’ used to her, we two didn’t notice much — except, per’aps, for one thing. Ma called her ‘er proper name, which was Bella; but Sis an’ me always called ‘er Auntie Armine. See?’
‘We thought it sounded more like her — like somethin’ movin’ slow, in armour.’
‘Oh! And she read your letters to your mother, did she?’
‘Every time the post came in she’d slip across the road from opposite an’ read ’em. An’— an’ I’ll go bail for it that that was all there was to it for as far back as I remember. Was I to swing tomorrow, I’d go bail for that! ‘Tisn’t fair of ’em to ‘ave unloaded it all on me, because — because — if the dead do rise, why, what in ‘ell becomes of me an’ all I’ve believed all me life? I want to know that! I— I—’
But Keede would not be put off. ‘Did the Sergeant give you away at all in his letters?’ he demanded, very quietly.
‘There was nothin’ to give away — we was too busy — but his letters about me were a great comfort to Ma. I’m no good at writin’. I saved it all up for my leafs. I got me fourteen days every six months an’ one over . . . I was luckier than most, that way.’
‘And when you came home, used you to bring ’em news about the Sergeant?’ said Keede.
‘I expect I must have; but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I was took up with me own affairs — naturally. Uncle John always wrote to me once each leaf, tellin’ me what was doin’ an’ what I was li’ble to expect on return, an’ Ma ‘ud ‘ave that read to her. Then o’ course I had to slip over to his wife an’ pass her the news. An’ then there was the young lady that I’d thought of marryin’ if I came through. We’d got as far as pricin’ things in the windows together.’
‘And you didn’t marry her — after all?’
Another tremor shook the boy. ‘No!’ he cried. ‘‘Fore it ended, I knew what reel things reelly mean! I— I never dreamed such things could be! . . . An’ she nearer fifty than forty an’ me own Aunt! . . . But there wasn’t a sign nor a hint from first to last, so ‘ow could I tell? Don’t you see it? All she said to me after me Christmas leaf in’ ‘18, when I come to say good-bye — all Auntie Armine said to me was: “You’ll be seein’ Mister Godsoe soon?” “Too soon for my likings,” I says.” Well then, tell ’im from me,” she says, “that I expect to be through with my little trouble by the twenty-first of next month, an’ I’m dyin’ to see him as soon as possible after that date.”’
‘What sort of trouble was it?’ Keede turned professional at once.
‘She’d ‘ad a bit of a gatherin’ in ‘er breast, I believe. But she never talked of ‘er body much to any one.’
‘I see,’ said Keede. ‘And she said to you?’
Strangwick repeated: ‘“Tell Uncle John I hope to be finished of my drawback by the twenty-first, an’ I’m dying to see ’im as soon as ‘e can after that date.” An’ then she says, laughin’: “But you’ve a head like a sieve. I’ll write it down, an’ you can give it him when you see ’im.” So she wrote it on a bit o’ paper an’ I kissed ‘er good-bye — I was always her favourite, you see — an’ I went back to Sampoux. The thing hardly stayed in my mind at all, d’you see. But the next time I was up in the front line — I was a Runner, d’ye see — our platoon was in North Bay Trench an’ I was up with a message to the Trench Mortar there that Corporal Grant was in charge of. Followin’ on receipt of it, he borrowed a couple of men off the platoon, to slue ‘er round or somethin’. I give Uncle John Auntie Armine’s paper, an’ I give Grant a fag, an’ we warmed up a bit over a brazier. Then Grant says to me: “I don’t like it”; an’ he jerks ‘is thumb at Uncle John in the bay studyin’ Auntie’s message. Well, you know, sir, you had to speak to Grant about ‘is way of prophesyin’ things — after Rankine shot himself with the Very light.’
‘I did,’ said Keede, and he explained to me ‘Grant had the Second Sight — confound him! It upset the men. I was glad when he got pipped. What happened after that, Strangwick?’
‘Grant whispers to me: “Look, you damned Englishman. ‘E’s for it.” Uncle John was leanin’ up against the bay, an’ hummin’ that hymn I was tryin’ to tell you just now. He looked different all of a sudden — as if ‘e’d got shaved. I don’t know anything of these things, but I cautioned Grant as to his style of speakin’, if an officer ‘ad ‘eard him, an’ I went on. Passin’ Uncle John in the bay, ‘e nods an’ smiles, which he didn’t often, an’ he says, pocketin’ the paper “This suits me. I’m for leaf on the twenty-first, too.”’
‘He said that to you, did he?’ said Keede.
‘Precisely the same as passin’ the time o’ day. O’ course I returned the agreeable about hopin’ he’d get it, an’ in due course I returned to ‘Eadquarters. The thing ‘ardly stayed in my mind a minute. That was the eleventh January — three days after I’d come back from leaf. You remember, sir, there wasn’t anythin’ doin’ either side round Sampoux the first part o’ the month. Jerry was gettin’ ready for his March Push, an’ as long as he kept quiet, we didn’t want to poke ’im up.’
‘I remember that,’ said Keede. ‘But what about the Sergeant?’
‘I must have met him, on an’ off, I expect, goin’ up an’ down, through the ensuin’ days, but it didn’t stay in me mind. Why needed it? And on the twenty-first Jan., his name was on the leaf-paper when I went up to warn the leaf-men. I noticed that, o’ course. Now that very afternoon Jerry ‘ad been tryin’ a new trench-mortar, an’ before our ‘Eavies could out it, he’d got a stinker into a bay an’ mopped up ‘alf a dozen. They were bringin’ ’em down when I went up to the supports, an’ that blocked Little Parrot, same as it always did. You remember, sir?’
‘Rather! And there was that big machine-gun behind the Half–House waiting for you if you got out,’ said Keede.
‘I remembered that too. But it was just on dark an’ the fog was comin’ off the Canal, so I hopped out of Little Parrot an’ cut across the open to where those four dead Warwicks are heaped up. But the fog turned me round, an’ the next thing I knew I was knee-over in that old ‘alf-trench that runs west o’ Little Parrot into French End. I dropped into it — almost atop o’ the machine-gun platform by the side o’ the old sugar boiler an’ the two Zoo-ave skel’tons. That gave me my bearin’s, an’ so I went through French End, all up those missin’ Buckboards, into Butcher’s Row where the poy-looz was laid in six deep each side, an’ stuffed under the Buckboards. It had froze tight, an’ the drippin’s had stopped, an’ the creakin’s had begun.’
‘Did that really worry you at the time?’ Keede asked.
‘No,’ said the boy with professional scorn. ‘If a Runner starts noticin’ such things he’d better chuck. In the middle of the Row, just before the old dressin’-station you referred to, sir, it come over me that somethin’ ahead on the Buckboards was just like Auntie Armine, waitin’ beside the door; an’ I thought to meself ‘ow truly comic it would be if she could be dumped where I was then. In ‘alf a second I saw it was only the dark an’ some rags o’ gas-screen, ‘angin’ on a bit of board, ‘ad played me the trick. So I went on up to the supports an’ warned the leaf-men there, includin’ Uncle John. Then I went up Rake Alley to warn ’em in the front line. I didn’t hurry because I didn’t want to get there till Jerry ‘ad quieted down a bit. Well, then a Company Relief dropped inan’ the officer got the wind up over some lights on the flank, an’ tied ’em into knots, an’ I ‘ad to hunt up me leaf-men all over the blinkin’ shop. What with one thing an’ another, it must ‘ave been ‘alf-past eight before I got back to the supports. There I run across Uncle John, scrapm’ mud off himself, havin’ shaved — quite the dandy. He asked about the Arras train, an’ I said, if Jerry was quiet, it might be ten o’clock. “Good!” says ‘e. “I’ll come with you.” So we started back down the old trench that used to run across Halnaker, back of the support dug-outs. You know, sir.’
‘Then Uncle John says something to me about seein’ Ma an’ the rest of ’em in a few days, an’ had I any messages for ’em? Gawd knows what made me do it, but I told ’im to tell Auntie Armine I never expected to see anything like her up in our part of the world. And while I told him I laughed. That’s the last time I ‘ave laughed.” Oh — you’ve seen ‘er, ‘ave you? says he, quite natural-like. Then I told ’im about the sand-bags an’ rags in the dark, playin’ the trick. “Very likely,” says he, brushin’ the mud off his putties. By this time, we’d got to the corner where the old barricade into French End was — before they bombed it down, sir. He turns right an’ climbs across it. “No, thanks,” says I. “I’ve been there once this evenin’.” But he wasn’t attendin’ to me. He felt behind the rubbish an’ bones just inside the barricade, an’ when he straightened up, he had a full brazier in each hand.
‘“Come on, Clem,” he says, an’ he very rarely give me me own name. “You aren’t afraid, are you?” he says. “It’s just as short, an’ if Jerry starts up again he won’t waste stuff here. He knows it’s abandoned.” “Who’s afraid now?” I says. “Me for one,” says he. “I don’t want my leaf spoiled at the last minute.” Then ‘e wheels round an’ speaks that bit you said come out o’ the Burial Service.’
For some reason Keede repeated it in full, slowly: ‘If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not?’
‘That’s it,’ said Strangwick. ‘So we went down French End together — everything froze up an’ quiet, except for their creakin’s. I remember thinkin’—’ his eyes began to flicker.
‘Don’t think. Tell what happened,’ Keede ordered.
‘Oh! Beg y’ pardon! He went on with his braziers, hummin’ his hymn, down Butcher’s Row. Just before we got to the old dressin’station he stops and sets ’em down an’ says “Where did you say she was, Clem? Me eyes ain’t as good as they used to be.”
‘“In ‘er bed at ‘ome,” I says. “Come on down. It’s perishin’ cold, an’ I’m not due for leaf.”
‘“Well, I am,” ‘e says. “I am . . . ” An’ then —‘give you me word I didn’t recognise the voice — he stretches out ‘is neck a bit, in a way ‘e ‘ad, an’ he says: “Why, Bella!” ‘e says. “Oh, Bella!” ‘e says. “Thank Gawd!” ‘e says. Just like that! An’ then I saw — I tell you I saw — Auntie Armine herself standin’ by the old dressin’station door where first I’d thought I’d seen her. He was lookin’ at ‘er an’ she was lookin’ at him. I saw it, an’ me soul turned over inside me because — because it knocked out everything I’d believed in. I ‘ad nothin’ to lay ‘old of, d’ye see? An’ ‘e was lookin’ at ‘er as though he could ‘ave et ‘er, an’ she was lookin’ at ’im the same way, out of ‘er eyes. Then he says: “Why, Bella,” ‘e says, “this must be only the second time we’ve been alone together in all these years.” An’ I saw ‘er half hold out her arms to ’im in that perishin’ cold. An’ she nearer fifty than forty an’ me own Aunt! You can shop me for a lunatic tomorrow, but I saw it — I saw ‘er answerin’ to his spoken word . . . Then ‘e made a snatch to unsling ‘is rifle. Then ‘e cuts ‘is hand away saying: “No! Don’t tempt me, Bella. We’ve all Eternity ahead of us. An hour or two won’t make any odds.” Then he picks up the braziers an’ goes on to the dug-out door. He’d finished with me. He pours petrol on ’em, an’ lights it with a match, an’ carries ’em inside, flarin’. All that time Auntie Armine stood with ‘er arms out — an’ a look in ‘er face! I didn’t know such things was or could be! Then he comes out an’ says: “Come in, my dear”; an’ she stoops an’ goes into the dug-out with that look on her face — that look on her face! An’ then ‘e shuts the door from inside an’ starts wedgin’ it up. So ‘elp me Gawd, I saw an’ ‘eard all these things with my own eyes an’ ears!’
He repeated his oath several times. After a long pause Keede asked him if he recalled what happened next.
‘It was a bit of a mix-up, for me, from then on. I must have carried on — they told me I did, but — but I was — I felt a — a long way inside of meself, like — if you’ve ever had that feelin’. I wasn’t rightly on the spot at all. They woke me up sometime next morning, because ‘e ‘adn’t showed up at the train; an’ some one had seen him with me. I wasn’t ‘alf cross-examined by all an’ sundry till dinner-time.
‘Then, I think, I volunteered for Dearlove, who ‘ad a sore toe, for a front-line message. I had to keep movin’, you see, because I hadn’t anything to hold on to. Whilst up there, Grant informed me how he’d found Uncle John with the door wedged an’ sand-bags stuffed in the cracks. I hadn’t waited for that. The knockin’ when ‘e wedged up was enough for me. ‘Like Dad’s coffin.’
‘No one told me the door had been wedged.’ Keede spoke severely.
‘No need to black a dead man’s name, sir.’
‘What made Grant go to Butcher’s Row?’
‘Because he’d noticed Uncle John had been pinchin’ charcoal for a week past an’ layin’ it up behind the old barricade there. So when the ‘unt began, he went that way straight as a string, an’ when he saw the door shut, he knew. He told me he picked the sand-bags out of the cracks an’ shoved ‘is hand through and shifted the wedges before any one come along. It looked all right. You said yourself, sir, the door must ‘ave blown to.’
‘Grant knew what Godsoe meant, then?’ Keede snapped.
‘Grant knew Godsoe was for it; an’ nothin’ earthly could ‘elp or ‘inder. He told me so.’
‘And then what did you do?’
‘I expect I must ‘ave kept on carryin’ on, till Headquarters give me that wire from Ma — about Auntie Armine dyin’.’
‘When had your Aunt died?’
‘On the mornin’ of the twenty-first. The mornin’ of the 21st! That tore it, d’ye see? As long as I could think, I had kep’ tellin’ myself it was like those things you lectured about at Arras when we was billeted in the cellars — the Angels of Mons, and so on. But that wire tore it.’
‘Oh! Hallucinations! I remember. And that wire tore it?’ said Keede.
‘Yes! You see’— he half lifted himself off the sofa —‘there wasn’t a single gor-dam thing left abidin’ for me to take hold of, here or hereafter. If the dead do rise — and I saw ’em — why — why, anything can ‘appen. Don’t you understand?’
He was on his feet now, gesticulating stiffly.
‘For I saw ‘er,’ he repeated. ‘I saw ’im an’ ‘er — she dead since mornin’ time, an’ he killin’ ‘imself before my livin’ eyes so’s to carry on with ‘er for all Eternity — an’ she ‘oldin’ out ‘er arms for it! I want to know where I’m at! Look ’ere, you two — why stand we in jeopardy every hour?’
‘God knows,’ said Keede to himself.
‘Hadn’t we better ring for some one?’ I suggested. ‘He’ll go off the handle in a second.’
‘No, he won’t. It’s the last kick-up before it takes hold. I know how the stuff works. Hul-lo!’
Strangwick, his hands behind his back and his eyes set, gave tongue in the strained, cracked voice of a boy reciting. ‘Not twice in the world shall the Gods do thus,’ he cried again and again.
‘And I’m damned if it’s goin’ to be even once for me!’ he went on with sudden insane fury. ‘I don’t care whether we ‘ave been pricin’ things in the windows . . . Let ‘er sue if she likes! She don’t know what reel things mean. I do — I’ve ‘ad occasion to notice ’em . . . No, I tell you! I’ll ‘ave ’em when I want ’em, an’ be done with ’em; but not till I see that look on a face . . . that look . . . I’m not takin’ any. The reel thing’s life an’ death. It begins at death, d’ye see. She can’t understand . . . Oh, go on an’ push off to Hell, you an’ your lawyers. I’m fed up with it — fed up!’
He stopped as abruptly as he had started, and the drawn face broke back to its natural irresolute lines. Keede, holding both his hands, led him back to the sofa, where he dropped like a wet towel, took out some flamboyant robe from a press, and drew it neatly over him.
‘Ye-es. That’s the real thing at last,’ said Keede. ‘Now he’s got it off his mind he’ll sleep. By the way, who introduced him?’
‘Shall I go and find out?’ I suggested.
‘Yes; and you might ask him to come here. There’s no need for us to stand to all night.’
So I went to the Banquet, which was in full swing, and was seized by an elderly, precise Brother from a South London Lodge, who followed me, concerned and apologetic. Keede soon put him at his ease.
‘The boy’s had trouble,’ our visitor explained. ‘I’m most mortified he should have performed his bad turn here. I thought he’d put it be’ind him.’
‘I expect talking about old days with me brought it all back,’ said Keede. ‘It does sometimes.’
‘Maybe! Maybe! But over and above that, Clem’s had post-war trouble, too.’
‘Can’t he get a job? He oughtn’t to let that weigh on him, at his time of life,’ said Keede cheerily.
‘‘Tisn’t that — he’s provided for — but ‘— he coughed confidentially behind his dry hand —‘as a matter of fact, Worshipful Sir, he’s — he’s implicated for the present in a little breach of promise action.’
‘Ah! That’s a different thing,’ said Keede.
‘Yes. That’s his reel trouble. No reason given, you understand. The young lady in every way suitable, an’ she’d make him a good little wife too, if I’m any judge. But he says she ain’t his ideel or something. ‘No getting at what’s in young people’s minds these days, is there?’
‘I’m afraid there isn’t,’ said Keede. ‘But he’s all right now. He’ll sleep. You sit by him, and when he wakes, take him home quietly . . . Oh, we’re used to men getting a little upset here. You’ve nothing to thank us for, Brother–Brother —’
‘Armine,’ said the old gentleman. ‘He’s my nephew by marriage.’
‘That’s all that’s wanted!’ said Keede.
Brother Armine looked a little puzzled. Keede hastened to explain. ‘As I was saying, all he wants now is to be kept quiet till he wakes.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10