A. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) Mason.

The truants; a novel online

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All the recruits but Stretton had marched off ; a second ago
it had been quite empty and very silent. Now these three
men were hurrying across it, shouting, gesticulating with
their hands. Stretton looked at them with surprise. Then
he noticed that one of them, the man running in the middle
and a little ahead of the others, carried a revolver in his
hand and brandished it. Moreover, from the look of his
inflamed face, he was shouting threats ; the others were
undoubtedly shouting warnings. Scraps of their warnings
came to Stretton's ears. " Mon Capitaine ! " " II veut vous
tuer ! " " Eentrez ! " They were straining every muscle to
catch the threatening soldier up.

Stretton strode to the door, and a voice behind him
cried —

" Halt ! "

It was Tavernay who was speaking.

" But he is already halfway across the square."

" Halt ! "

And there was no disobeying the command. Captain
Tavernay walked to the door.

" A Spanish corporal whom yesterday I degraded to the
ranks," said he. " Half a pint of aguardiente, and here's the

Captain Tavernay stepped out of the door and leisurely
advanced towards the running men. He gave an order, he
raised his hand, and the two soldiers who warned him fell
back and halted. Certainly Captain Tavernay was accus-
tomed to obedience. The Spanish ex-corporal ran on alone,
straight towards Tavernay, but as he ran, as he saw the officer


standing there alone, quietly waiting his onslaught, his threats
weakened, his pace slackened. He came to a stop in front
of Tavernay.

" I must kill yon ! " he cried, waving his revolver.

" Yon shall kill me from behind, then," said Tavernay,
calmly. " Follow me ! " And he turned round, and with the
same leisurely deliberation walked back to his room. The
ex-corporal hesitated and — obeyed. He followed Captain
Tavernay into the room where Stretton stood.

" Place your revolver on the table."

The Spaniard again obeyed. Tavernay pushed open the
door of an inner room.

" You are drunk," he said. " You must not be seen in
this condition by your fellow-soldiers. Go in and lie down ! "

The Spaniard stared at his officer stupidly, tottering upon
Lia limbs. Then he staggered into the Captain's room.
Tavernay turned back to Stretton and a ghost of a smile crept
into his face.

" (Test da theatre" he said, with a little shrug of the
shoulders. " But what would you have, monsieur ? " And
he spoke to Stretton as to an equal. " You are astonished.
It is very likely not your way in your — fishing-boats," he
continued, with a chuckle. Stretton knew very well that he
meant " army." " But there is no Foreign Legion amongst
your — fishermen." He laughed again ; and gathering up his
piipciu dismissed Stretton to the tailor's. But after Stretton
had taken a few steps across the parade, Tavernay called him
back again. He looked at him with a very friendly smile.

" I, too, enlisted at Marseilles," he said. " One can rise
in the Foreign Legion by means of these" — and he touched
lightly the medals upon his breast. This was Tony Stretton'd
introduction to the Foreign Legion.

( 155 )



Spring that year drew summer quickly after it. The lilac
had been early in flower, the days bright and hot. At nine
o'clock on a July morning Callon's servant drew up the
blinds in his master's room and let the sunlight in. Lionel
Gallon stretched himself in bed and asked for his letters and
his tea. As he drank the tea he picked up the letters one
by one, and the first at which he looked brought a smile of
satisfaction to his face. The superscription told him that it
was from Millie S tret ton. That little device of a quarrel
had proved successful, then. He tore open the envelope and
read the letter. Millie wrote at no great length, but what
was written satisfied Gallon. She could not understand how
the quarrel had arisen. She had been thinking over it many
times since it happened, and she was still baffled. She had
not had a thought of hurting him. How could she, since
they were friends ? She had been hoping to hear from him,
but since some time had passed and no word had reached
her, she must write and say that she thought it sad their
friendship should have ended as it had.

It was a wistful little letter, and as Gallon laid it down
he said to himself, " Poor little girl " ; but he said the
words with a smile rather than with any contrition. She
had been the first to write — that was the main point. Had
he given in, had he been the one to make the advance, to
save her the troubled speculations, the sorrow at this abrupt
close to their friendship. Millie Stretton would have been


glad, no doubt, but she would have thought him weak. Now
he was the strong man. He had caused her suffering and
abased her to seek a reconciliation. Therefore he was the
strong man. Well, women would have it so, he thought,
with a chuckle, and why should he complain ?

He wrote a note to Millie Stretton, announcing that he
would call that afternoon, and despatched the note by a
messenger. Then he turned to his other letters, and amongst
them he found one which drove all the satisfaction from his
thoughts. It came from a firm of solicitors, and was couched
in a style with which he was not altogether unfamiliar.

Sir, — Messrs. Deacon & Sons (Livery Stables, Montgomery Street)
having placed their books in our hands for the collection of their out-
standing debts, we must ask you to send us a cheque in settlement of
your account by return of post, and thus save further proceedings.

We are, yours, &c,

Humphreys & Neill.

Callon allowed the letter to slip from his fingers, and lay
for a while very still, feeling rather helpless, rather afraid.
It was not merely the amount of the bill which troubled him,
although that was inconveniently large. But there were
other reasons. His eyes wandered to a drawer in his
dressing-table. He got out of bed and unlocked it. At the
bottom of that drawer lay the other reasons, piled one upon
the other — letters couched in just the same words as that
which he had received this morning, and — still worse ! —
signed by this same firm of Humphreys and Neill. More-
over, every one of those letters had reached him within the
last ten days. It seemed that all his tradesmen had suddenly
placed their books in the hands of Messrs. Humphreys and

Callon took the letters back to his bed. There were
quite an astonishing number of them. Callon himself was
surprised to see how deep he was in debt. They littered the
bed — tailors' bills ; bills for expensive little presents of
jewellery; bills run up at restaurants for dinners and suppers ;


bills for the hire of horses and carriages ; bills of all kinds —
and there were just Mr. Gallon's election expenses in Mr.
Callon's exchequer that morning. Even if he parted with
them, they would not pay a third part of the sum claimed.
Fear invaded him ; he saw no way out of his troubles. Given
time, he could borrow enough, no doubt, scrape enough money
together one way or another to tide himself over the difficulty.
His hand searched for Millie Stretton's letter and found it,
and rejected it. He needed time there ; he must walk warily
or he would spoil all. And looking at the letters he knew
that he had not the time.

It was improbable, nay more than improbable, that all
these bills were in the hands of one firm by mere chance.
No ; somewhere he had an enemy. A man — or it might be
a woman — was striking at him out of the dark, striking with
knowledge too. For the blow fell where he could least parry
it. Mr. Mudge would have been quite satisfied could he
have seen Callon as he lay that morning with the summer
sunlight pouring into his bedroom. He looked more than
his age, and his face was haggard. He felt that a hand
was at his throat, a hand which gripped and gripped with an
ever-increasing pressure.

He tried to guess who his enemy might be. But there
were so many who might be glad to do him an ill-turn.
Name after name occurred to him, but amongst those names
was not the name of Mr. Mudge. That shy and inoffensive
man was the last whom he would have suspected to be
meddling with his life.

Callon sprang out of bed. He must go down to Lincoln's
Inn Fields and interview Messrs. Humphreys and Neill.
Summonses would never do with a general election so near.
He dressed quickly, and soon after ten was in the office of
that firm. He was received by a bald and smiling gentleman
in spectacles.

" Mr. Callon ? " said the smiling gentleman, who an-
nounced himself as Humphreys. " Oh yes. You have come in


reference to the letters which our clients have desired us to
Bend you ? "

"Yes," replied Gallon. "There are a good number of

The smiling gentleman laughed genially.

"A man of fashion, Mr. Gallon, has of course many
expenses which we humdrum business people are spared.

Let me see. The total amount due is " And ^Mr.

Humphreys made a calculation with his pen.

" I came to ask for an extension of time," Callon blurted
out ; and the smiling gentleman ceased to smile. He gazed
through his spectacles with a look of the utmost astonish-
ment. " You see, Mr. Humphreys, all these bills, each one
accompanied with a peremptory demand for payment, have
been presented together, almost as it were by the same

" They arc all, however, to account rendered," said Mr.
Humphreys, as he removed and breathed upon his spectacles.

" It would, I frankly confess, seriously embarrass me to
settle them all at once."

" Dear, dear ! " said Mr. Humphreys, in a voice of regret.
" I am very sorry. These duties are very painful to mo,
Mr. Callon. But I have the strictest instructions." And
he rose from his chair to conclude the interview.

" One moment," said Callon. " I want to ask you how
it is that all my bills have come into your hands ? Who is
it who has brought them up ? "

" Really, really, Mr. Callon," the lawyer protested. " I
cannot listen to such suggestions." And then the smile
came back to his face. "Why not pay them in full?"
His eyes beamed through his spectacles. He had an air of
making a perfectly original and delightful suggestion. "Sit
down in this comfortable chair now, and write me out a little

cheque for — let me see " And he went back to his


" I must have some time," said Gallon.


Mr. Humphreys was gradually persuaded that the
concession of a little time was reasonable.

" A day, then," he said. " We will say a day, Mr. Gallon.
This is Wednesday. Some time to-morrow we shall hear
from you." And he bowed Callon from his office. Then he
wrote a little note and despatched it by a messenger into the
City. The message was received by Mr. Mudge, who read
it, took up his hat, and jumping into a hansom cab, drove
westward with all speed.

Lionel Callon, on the contrary, walked back to his rooms.
He had been in tight places before, but never in one quite
so tight. Before, it was really the money which had been
needed. Now, what was needed was his ruin. To make
matters worse, he had no idea of the particular person who
wished to ruin him. He walked gloomily back to his club and
lunched in solitude. A day remained to him, but what could

he do in a day, unless ? There was a certain letter in

the breast-pocket of Callon's coat to which, more than once
as he lunched, his fingers strayed. He took it out and read
it again. It was too soon to borrow in that quarter, but his
back was against the wall. He saw no other chance of
escape. He drove to Millie Stretton's house in Berkeley
Square at the appointed time that afternoon.

But Mr. Mudge had foreseen. When he jumped into
his hansom cab he had driven straight to the house in Audley
Square, where Pamela Mardale was staying with some friends.

" Are you lunching anywhere ? " he asked. " No ?
Then lunch with Lady Stretton, please I And don't go
away too soon ! See as much as you can of her during the
next two days."

As a consequence, when Lionel Callon was shown into
the drawing-room, he found Pamela Mardale in her most
talkative mood, and Millie Stretton sitting before the tea-
table silent and helpless. Callon stayed late ; Pamela
stayed later. Callon returned to his club, having said not a
single word upon the momentous subject of his debts.


He ordered a stiff brandy and soda. Somehow he must
manage to see Millie Stretton alone. He thought, for a
moment, of writing ; he indeed actually began to write.
But the proposal looked too crude when written down.
Gallon knew the tactics of his game. There must, in a
word, be an offer from Millie, not a request from him. He
tore up his letter, and while he was tearing it up, Mr.
Mudge entered the smoking-room. Mudge nodded carelessly
to Callon, and then seemed to be struck by an idea. He
came across to the writing-table and said —

" Do I interrupt you ? I wonder whether you could
help me. You know so many people that you might be
able to lay your finger at once on the kind of man I want. 1 '

Callon looked up carelessly at Mudge.

" No. You are not interrupting me. What kind of
man do you want ? "

" I want a man to superintend an important undertaking
which I have in hand."

Callon swung round in bis chair. All his carelessness
had gone. He looked at Mr. Mudge, who stood drumming
with his fingers on the writing-table.

" Oh," said Callon. " Tell me about it."

He walked over to a corner of the room which was un-
occupied and sat down. Mudge sat beside him and lighted
a cigar.

" I want a man to supervise, you understand. I don't
want an expert. For I have engineers and technical men
enough on the spot. And I don't want any one out of my
office. I need some one, on whom I can rely, to keep me in
touch with what is going on — some one quite outside my
business and its associations."

" I see," said Gallon. " The appointment would be—
for how long ? "

" Two years."

" And the salary would be good ? "

Callon leaned back on the lounge as he put the question


and he put it without any show of eagerness. Two years
would be all the time he needed wherein to set himself
straight ; and it seemed the work would not be arduous.

"I think so," replied Mudge. "You shall judge for
yourself. It would be two thousand a year."

Callon did not answer for a little while, simply because he
could not trust himself to speak. His heart was beating
fast. Two thousand a year for two years, plus the sum for
his election expenses ! He would be able to laugh at that
unknown enemy who was striking at him from the dark.

" Should I do ? " he asked at length, and even then Lis
voice shook. Mr. Mudge appeared, however, not to notice
his agitation. He was looking down at the carpet, and
tracing the pattern with the ferrule of his walking-stick.

" Of course," he said, with a smile, as though Callon had
been merely uttering a joke. He did not even lift his eyes
to Callon's face. " Of course. I only wish you were

" But I am," cried Callon.

Mr. Mudge looked at his companion now, and with

" Are you ? But you wouldn't have the time to spare.
You are standing for a constituency."

Callon shrugged his shoulders.

" Oh, I am not so very keen about Parliament. And
there are reasons why I would welcome the work."

Mr. Mudge answered with alacrity.

" Then we will consider it settled. Dine with me to-
night at my house, and we will talk the details over."

Callon accepted the invitation, and Mudge rose from his
seat. Callon, however, detained him.

"There's one difficulty in the way," and Mr. Mudge's
face became clouded with anxiety. " The truth is, I am
rather embarrassed at the present moment. I owe a good
deal of money, and I am threatened with proceedings unless
it is immediately paid."



Mudge's face cleared at once.

" Oh, is that all ? " he exclaimed cheerily. " How much
do you owe ? "

" More than my first year's salary."

" Well, I will advance you half at once. Offer them a
thousand on account, and they will stay proceedings."

" I don't know that they will," replied Callon.

" You can try them, at all events. If they won't accept
half, send them to me, and we will make some other arrange-
ment. But they are sure to. They are pressing for
immediate payment because they are afraid they will get
nothing at all by any other way. But offer them a thousand
down, and see the pleasant faces with which they will greet
you." Mr. Madge was quite gay now that he understood
how small was the obstacle which hindered him from paining
Lionel Gallon's invaluable help. " I will write you a
cheque," he said ; and sitting down at a writing-table he
filled out a cheque and brought it back. He stood in front
of Callon with the cheque in his hand. He did not give it
to Callon at once. He had not blotted it, and he held it by
a corner and gently waved it to and fro, so that the ink
might dry. It followed that those tantalising "noughts,"
three of them, one behind the other, and preceded by a one,
like a file of soldiers with a sergeant at the head, and that
excellent signature " John Madge " were constantly before
Gallon's eyes, now approaching him like some shy maiden in
a flutter of agitation, now coyly receding. But to no shy
maiden had Lionel Callon ever said "I love you," with so
glowing an ardour as he felt for that most tantalising cheque.

" I ought to have told yon," said Mr. Madge, " that the
undertaking is a railway abroad."

Callon had been so blinded by the dazzle of the cheque
that he had not dreamed of that possibility. Two years
abroad, even at two thousand a year, did not at all fit in
with his scheme of life.

" Abroad ? " he repeated doubtfully. " Where ? "


" Chili," said Mr. Mudge ; and he looked at the cheque
to see that the ink was quite dry. Perhaps Mr. Mudge's
voice was a trifle too unconcerned. Perhaps there was
something a little too suggestive in his examination of his
cheque. Perhaps he kept his eyes too deliberately from
Callon's face. At all events, Callon became suddenly
suspicious. There flashed into his mind by some trick of
memory a picture — a picture of Mr. Mudge and Pamela
Mardale talking earnestly together upon a couch in a
drawing-room, and of himself sitting at a card-table, fixed
there till the game was over, though he knew well that the
earnest conversation was aimed against himself. He started,
he looked at Mudge in perplexity.

" Well ? " said Mudge.

" Wait a moment ! "

Pamela Mardale was Millie Stretton's friend. There
was that incident in the hall — Millie Stretton coming down
the stairs and Pamela in front of the mirror over the mantel-
piece. Finally there was Pamela's persistent presence at
Millie Stretton's house tins afternoon. One by one the
incidents gathered in his recollections and fitted themselves
together and explained each other. Was this offer a pretext
to get him out of the way ? Callon, after all, was not a, fool,
and he asked himself why in the world Mr. Mudge should,
just at this moment when he was in desperate straits, offer
him 2000/. a year to superintend a railway in Chili ?

" Well ? " said Mudge again.

" I must have time to think over the proposition,"
replied Callon. He meant that he must have time to obtain
an interview with Millie Stretton. But Mudge was ready
for him.

" Certainly," said he. " That is only reasonable. It is
seven o'clock now. You dine with me at eight. Give me
your answer then."

" I should like till to-morrow morning," said Callon.

Mr. Mudge shook his head.


" That, I am afraid, is impossible. TVe shall need all to-
morrow to make the necessary arrangements and to talk over
your duties. For if you undertake the work you must leave
England on the day after."

Callon started up in protest. " On the day after ! " he

" It gives very little time, I know," said Mudge. Then
he looked Callon quietly and deliberately in the eyes.
" But, you see, I want to get you out of the country at once."

Callon no longer doubted. He had thought, through
Mr. Mudge's help, to laugh at Ins enemy ; and lo ! the
enemy was Mudge himself. It was Mudge who had bought
up his debts, who now held him in so secure a grip that he
did not think it worth while to practise any concealment.
Callon was humiliated to the verge of endurance. Two
years in Chili, pretending to supervise a railway ! He
understood the position which he would occupy ; he was
within an ace of flinging the offer back. But he dared not.

" Very well," he said. " I will give you my answer at

" Thanks. Be punctual." Mr. Mudge sauntered away.
There could only be the one answer. Mr. Lionel Callon
might twist and turn as he pleased, he would spend two
years in Chili. It was five minutes past seven, besides.
Callon could hardly call at the house in Berkeley Square
with any chance of seeing Lady Stretton between now and
eight. Madge was contented with his afternoon.

At eight o'clock Callon gave in his submission and
pocketed the cheque. At eleven he proposed to go, but
Mudge, mindful of an evening visit which he had witnessed
from a balcony, could not part from his new manager so
soon. There was so little time for discussion even with
every minute of Callon's stay in England. He kept Callon
with him until two o'clock in the morning ; he made an
appointment with him at ten, and there was a note of warn-
ing in his voice which bade Callon punctually keep it. By


one shift and another he kept him busy all the next day, and
in the evening Callon had to pack, to write his letters, and
to make his arrangements for his departure. Moreover,
Pamela Mardale dined quietly with Millie Stretton and
stayed late. It thus happened that Callon left England
without seeing Millie Stretton again. He could write, of
course ; but he could do no more.




" Halt ! " cried Captain Tavernay.

The bugler at bis side raised his bugle to his lips and
blew. The dozen chasseurs d'Afrique and the ten native
scouts who formed the advance guard stopped upon the
signal. A couple of hundred yards behind them the two
companies of the Foreign Legion came to a standstill. The
convoy of baggage mules upon the right flank, the hospital
equipment, the artillery section, the herd of oxen which was
driven along in the rear, in a word, the whole expedition,
halted in a wood of dwarf-oaks and junipers at three o'clock
in the afternoon.

The order was given to gather wood for the night's camp
fires, and the companies were dismissed. Each soldier made
his little bundle and fixed it upon his shoulders. Again the
bugle rang out, sounding the " Fall in." And the tiny force
marched out from the trees of the high plateaux into the
open desert. It was extraordinary with what abruptness
that transition was made. One minute the companies were
treading upon turf under rustling leaves, the next they were
descending a slope carpeted with halfa-grass, which Btretched
away to the horizon's rim. with hardly a bush to break its
bare monotony. At the limit of vision, a great arc like a
mirror of silver glittered out of the plain.

" Water," said a tall, bearded soldier, who marched in
the front rank of the first company. It was he who had
stepped from the train at Bel-Abbes with a light dust-coat


over his evening dress suit. He passed now as Fusilier
Barbier, an ex-engineer of Lyons.

" No," replied Sergeant Ohlsen, who marched at his side :
" the crystals of a dry salt lake."

In the autumn of last year Ohlsen — or, rather, to give
him his right name, Tony Stretton — had marched upon an
expedition from Mesheria to the Chott Tigri, and knew,
therefore, the look of those tantalising salt lakes. That
expedition, which had conducted a surrey for a road to the
Figuig oasis, had brought him his promotion.

" But we camp by the lake to-night," he added. " The
wells of El-Guethifa are close."

The companies went forward, and above that salt lake
they saw the mirages begin to shimmer, citadels and hang-
ing gardens, tall towers and waving woods and majestic
galleons, topsail over topsail, floating upon summer seas.
At the wells the sheikh of the district was waiting upon a

" I want fiftv camels with their saddles and their drivers
at five o'clock to-morrow morning," said Tavernay ; and
although as far as the eye could reach there was no moving-

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Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 12 of 26)