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

The truants; a novel online

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as you did on that other day, when the hill was slippery,
your hand upon his neck — so."

Very slowly they walked down the hill. There were no
driving mists to-day, the evening was coming with a great
peace, the fields and woods lay spread beneath them toned to
a tranquil grey. The white road glimmered. At the bottom
of the hill Pamela stopped.

" Good-bye," she said ; and there was more tenderness
in her voice and in her face than he had ever known. She
laid her hand upon his arm and bent down to him.

" Come back to me," she said wistfully. " I do not like
letting you go ; and yet I am rather proud to know that you
are doing something for me which I could not do for myself,
and that you do it so very willingly."

She did not wait to hear any answer, but took her hand
from his arm and rode quickly away. That turnpike gate
of friendship had already swung open of its own accord. As
she rode from Quetta that evening, she passed beyond it, and
went gratefully and hopefully, with the other men and
women, down the appointed road.

She knew it while she was riding homewards to the Croft
Hill. She knew it, and was very glad. She rode home
very slowly through the tranquil evening, and gave herself
up to joy. It was warm, and there was a freshness in the
air as though the world renewed itself. Darkness came ;
only the road glimmered ahead of her — the new road, which
was the old road. Even that glimmer of white had almost
vanished when at last she saw the lighted windows of her
father's house. The footman told her that dinner was
already served, but she ran past him very quickly up the
stairs, and coming to her own room, locked the door and sat
for a long while in the darkness, her blood throbbing in her
veins, her whole heart uplifted, not thinking at all, but just
living, and living most joyfully. She sat so still that she
might have been in a swoon ; but it was the stillness of perfect
happiness. She knew the truth that night.


But, none the less, she travelled south towards the end of
the week, since there a telegram would come to her. She
persuaded a convenient aunt to keep her company, who has
nothing whatever to do with this story ; and reaching
Villa Pontignard one afternoon, walked through the familiar
rooms wliich she had so dreaded ever to revisit. She went
out to the narrow point of the garden where so often she had
dreamed with M. Giraud of the outside world, its roaring
cities and its jostle of people. She sat down upon the
parapet. Below her the cliff fell sheer, and far below, in
the darkness at the bottom of the gorge, the water tumbled
in foam with a distant hum. On the opposite hill the
cypresses stood out black from the brown and green. Here
she had suffered greatly, but the wounds were healed. These
dreaded places had no longer power to hurt. She knew that
very surely. She was emancipated from sorrow, and as she
sat there in the still, golden afternoon, the sense of freedom
ran riot in her blood. She looked back over the years to the
dragging days of misery, the sleepless nights. She felt a
pity for the young girl who had then looked down from this
parapet and prayed for death ; who had counted the many
years of life in front of her ; who had bewailed her very
strength and health. But ever her eyes turned towards the
Mediterranean and searched the horizon. For beyond that
blue, calm sea stretched the coasts of Algeria.

There was but one cloud to darken Pamela's happiness
during these days while she waited for Warrisden's telegram.
On the morning after she had arrived, the old euro' climbed
from the village to visit her. Almost Pamela's first question
was of M. Giraud.

" He is still here ? "

" Yes, he is still here," replied the cure ; but he pursed
up his lips and shook his head.

" I must send for him," said Pamela.

The cure said nothing. He was standing by the window,
and almost imperceptibly he shrugged his shoulders as


though he doubted her wisdom. In a moment Pamela was
at his side.

" What is it ? " she asked gently. " Tell me."

" Oh, mademoiselle, there is little to tell ! He is not the
schoolmaster you once knew. That is all. The wine shop
has made the difference — the wine shop and discontent. He
was always dissatisfied, you know. It is a pity."

" I am so sony," said Pamela, gravely, "so very sorry."

She was silent for a while, and greatly troubled by the
cure's news.

" Has he married ? " she asked.


" It would have been better if he had."

" No doubt, mademoiselle," said the cure, " but he has
not, and I think it is now too late."

Pamela did not send for M. Giraud. It seemed to her
that she could do no good even if at her request he came to
her. She would be going away in a few days. She would
only hurt him and put him to shame before her. She took
no step towards a renewal of their friendship, and though
she did not avoid him, she never came across him in her

For ten days she walked the old hill paths, and dreams
came to her with the sunlight. They gave her company in
the evenings, too, when she looked from her garden upon
the quiet sea and saw, away upon the right, the lights, like
great jewels, burning on the terrace of Monte Carlo. She
went down one morning on to that terrace, and, while seated
upon a bench, suddenly saw, at a little distance, the back of
a man which was familiar to her.

She was not sure, but she was chilled with apprehension.
She watched from behind her newspaper, and in a little while
she was sure, for the man turned and showed his face. It
was Lionel Callon. What was he doing here, she asked
herself ? And another question trod fast upon the heels of
the first. " Was he alone ? "


Gallon was alone on this morning, at all events. Pamela
saw him speak to one or two people, and then mount the
terrace steps towards the town. She gave him a little time,
and then, walking through the gardens, bought a visitors'
list at the kiosk in front of the Rooms. She found Callon's
name. He was the only visitor at a Reserve, on the
Corniche road, which was rather a restaurant than a hotel.
She searched through the list, fearing to find the name of
Millie Stretton under the heading of some other hotel. To
her relief it was not there. It was possible, of course, that
Callon was merely taking a holiday by himself. She wished
to believe that, and yet there was a fear speaking loudly at
her heart. " Suppose that Tony should return too late just
by a few days ! " She was still holding the paper in her
hands when she heard her name called, and, turning about,
saw some friends. She lunched with them at Ciro's, and
asked carelessly during luncheon —

" You have not seen Millie Stretton, I suppose ? "

" No," they all replied. And one asked, " Is she
expected ? "

" I don't know whether she will come or not," Pamela
replied. " I asked her to come with me, but she could not do
that, and she was not sure that she would come at all."

This she said, thinking that if Millie did arrive it might
seem that bIic came because Pamela herself was there.
Pamela went back to Roquebrune that afternoon, and after
she had walked through the village and had come out on the
slope of hill above, she met the postman coming down from
the Villa Pontignard.

" You have a telegram for me ? " she said anxiously.

"Mademoiselle," he replied, "I have just left it at the

Pamela hurried on, and found the telegram in the salon.
She tore it open. It was from "VVarrisdcn. It told her that
Tony Stretton was found, and would return. It gave the
news in vague and guarded language, mentioning no names.


But Pamela understood the message. Tony Stretton was
actually coming back. " "Would he come too late ? " she
asked, gazing out in fear across the sea. Of any trouble,
out there in Algeria, which might delay his return, she did
not think at all. If it was true that he had enlisted in the
Legion, there might be obstacles to a quick return. But
such matters were not in her thoughts. She thought only
of Callon upon the terrace of Monte Carlo. " Would Tony
come too late ? " she asked ; and she prayed that he might
come in time.




The village of Ain-Sefra stands upon a high and fertile oasis
on the very borders of Morocco. The oasis is well watered,
and the date-palm grows thickly there. It lies far to the
south. The railway, in the days when Tony Stretton served
in the Foreign Legion, did not reach to it ; the barracks
were newly built, the parade ground newly enclosed ; and if
one looked southwards from any open space, one saw a tawny
belt of sand in the extreme distance streak across the horizon
from east to west. That is the beginning of the great
Sahara. Tony Stretton could never see that belt of sand,
but his thoughts went back to the terrible homeward march
from Bir-el-Ghiramo to Ouargla. From east to west the
Sahara stretched across Africa, breaking the soldiers who
dared to violate its privacy, thrusting them back maimed
and famine-stricken, jealously guarding its secrets and
speaking by its very silence, its terrible "thus far and no
farther," no less audibly, and a thousand times more truth-
fully than ever did the waves of the sea.

On one noonday Stretton mounted the steps on to the
verandah of the hospital. He looked across open country to
the great yellow line. He thought of the Touaregs hanging
persistently upon the flanks of his tiny force, the long
laborious days of thirst and hunger, the lengthening trail
of graves which he left behind — those milestones of invasion.
He felt as though the desert gripped him again and would
not loose its hold, clinging to his feet with each step he took


in the soft, yielding sand. He had brought back his hand-
ful of men, it was true ; they had stumbled into Ouargla at
the last ; but there were few of them who were men as good
as they had been when they had set out. Even the best, it
almost seemed to him, had lost something of vitality which
they would never recover ; had a look fixed in their eyes
which set them apart from their fellows — the look of those
who have endured too much, who gazed for too long a time
upon horrors ; while the others were for the most part only
fit to squat in the shade and to wait for things to cease.
There was one whom Stretton had passed only a minute
before sitting on the ground under the shadow of the barrack
wall. Stretton was haunted by the picture of that man, for
he was the only white man he had ever seen who did not
trouble to raise a hand to brush away the flies from his face,
but allowed them to settle and cluster about the corners of
his mouth.

There was another in the hospital behind him. Him
the Sahara definitely claimed. Stretton turned and walked
into the building.

He passed down the line of beds, and stopped where a
man lay tossing in a fever. Stretton leaned over the bed.

" Barbier," he said.

Fusilier Barbier had grown very gaunt and thin during
these latter weeks. He turned his eyes upon Stretton, and
muttered incoherently. But there was recognition neither
in his eyes nor in his voice. An orderly approached the bed
as Stretton stood beside it ; and, in a low voice, lest, haply,
Barbier should hear and understand, Tony asked —

" What did the doctor say ? "

" Nothing good, my sergeant," the orderly replied, with an
expressive shrug of the shoulders.

" I am very sorry," said Stretton, gravely.

Certainly Barbier looked to be lying at death's door.
One hand and arm, emaciated and the colour of wax,
lay outside upon the coverlet of the bed. His eyes,


unnaturally lustrous, unnaturally large, shone deep-sunken
in dark purple rings. His eyelids were red, as though with
much weeping, and, below the eyes, his face was drawn with
fever and very white. Stretton laid his hand gently upon
Barbier's forehead. It was burning hot. Stretton dismissed
the orderly with a nod. There was a haggard nobility in
Barbier's appearance — his long, finely shaped hands, his
lithe, well-knit figure, all betrayed the man of race. Yet he
had once sunk to babbling about persecution at a fire in the
desert, like any morbid child.

A heavy step sounded in the ward, and Stretton's colonel
stood beside him, a stoutly built man, with a white moustache
and imperial, and a stern yet not unkindly face. It expressed
a deal of solicitude at this moment.

" I have seen the doctor this morning," said the colonel,
" and he has given up hope. Bar bier will hardly live out
the night. They should never have sent him to us here.
They should not have discharged him from the asylum as

The idea of persecution had become fixed in Barbier's
brain. It had never left him since the evening when he
first gave utterance to it in the desert. The homeward
march, indeed, had aggravated his mania. On his return
he had been sent to the asylum at Bel- Abbes, but there he
had developed cunning enough to conceal his hallucination.
He had ceased to complain that his officers were in a con-
spiracy to entrap and ruin him, no more threats were heard,
no more dangerous stealthy glances detected. He was sent
back to his battalion at Ain-Sefra. A few weeks and again
his malady was manifest, and on the top of that had come

" I am very sorry," Stretton said again ; and then, after
looking about him and perceiving that the orderly was out
of earshot, he bent down towards Barbier, lower than he had
bent before, and he called upon him in a still lower voice.

But Barbier was no longer the name he used.


" Monsieur le Comte," he said, first of all, and then
" Monsieur de ' ' He uttered a name which the genera-
tion before had made illustrious in French diplomacy.

At the sound of the name Barbier's face contracted.
He started up in his bed upon one arm.

" Hush 1 " he cried. A most extraordinary change had
come over him in a second. His eyes protruded, his mouth
hung half open, his face was frozen into immobility by
horror. " There is some one on the stairs," he whispered,
" coming up — some one treading very lightly — but coming
up — coming up." He inclined his head in the strained
attitude of one listening with a great concentration and
intentness, an image of terror and suspense. " Yes, coming
up— coming up ! Don't lock the door ! That betrays all.
Turn out the lights ! Quickly ! So. Oh, will this night
ever pass ! "

He ended with a groan of despair. Very gently Stretton
laid him down again in the bed and covered him over with
the clothes. The sweat rolled in drops from Barbier's

" He never tells us more, my colonel," said Stretton.
" His real name — yes ! — he betrayed that once to me. But
of this night nothing more than the dread that it will never
pass. Always he ends with those words. Yet it was that
night, no doubt, which tossed him beyond the circle of his
friends and dropped him down here, a man without a name,
amongst the soldiers of the Legion."

Often Stretton's imagination had sought to pierce the
mystery. "What thing of horror had been done upon that
night ? In what town of France ? Had the some one
on the stairs turned the handle and entered the room when
all the lights were out ? Had he heard Barbier's breathing in
the silent darkness of the room ? Stretton could only recon-
struct the scene. The stealthy footsteps on the stairs, the
cautious turning of the door handle, the opening of the door,
and the impenetrable blackness with one man, perhaps more


than one, holding his breath somewhere, and crouching by
the wall. But no hint escaped the sick man's lips of what
there was which must needs be hidden, nor whether the
thing which must needs be hidden was discovered by the one
who trod so lightly on the stairs. Was it a dead man ?
Was it a dead woman ? Or a woman alive ? There was no
answer. There was no knowledge to be gained, it seemed,
but this — that because of that night a man in evening dress,
who bore an illustrious name, had fled at daybreak on a
summer morning to the nearest barracks, and had buried
his name and all of his past life in the Foreign Legion.

As it happened, there was just a little more knowledge
to be gained by Stretton. He learned it that morning from
his colonel.

" When you told me who ' Barbier ' really was, sergeant,"
said the colonel, " I made inquiries. Barbier's father died
two years ago ; but an uncle and a sister lived. I wrote to
both, offering to send their relation back to them. Well, the
mail has this morning come in from France."

" There is an answer, sir ? " asked Stretton.

" From the uncle," replied the colonel. " Not a word
from the sister ; she does not mean to write. The uncle's
letter makes that clear, I think. Read ! " He handed the
letter to Stretton. A cheque was enclosed, and a few words
were added.

"See, if you please, that Barbier wants for nothing
which can minister to body and soul."

That was all. There was no word of kindliness or affec-
tion. Barbier was dying. Let him, therefore, have medicine
and prayers. Love, wishes for recovery, a desire that he
should return to his friends, forgiveness for the thing which
he had done, pity for the sufferings which had fallen to him
■ — these things Fusilier Barbier must not expect. Stretton,
reading the letter by the sick man's bed, thought it heartless
and callous as no letter written by a human hand had ever
been. Yet — yet, after all, who knew what had happened on


that night ? The uncle, evidently. It might be something
which dishonoured the family beyond all reparation, which,
if known, would have disgraced a great name, so that those
who bore it in pride must now change it for very shame.
Perhaps the father had died because of it, perhaps the sister
had been stricken down. Stretton handed the letter back to
his colonel.

" It is very sad, sir," he said.

" Yes, it is very sad," returned the colonel. " But for us
this letter means nothing at all. Never speak of it, obliterate
it from your memories." He tore the paper into the tiniest
shreds. " We have no reproaches, no accusations for what
Barbier did before Barbier got out of the train at Sidi Bel-
Abbes. That is not our affair. For us the soldier of the
Legion is only born on the day when he enlists."

Thus, in one sentence, the colonel epitomised the character
of the Foreign Legion. It was a fine saying, Stretton
thought. He knew it to be a true one.

" I will say nothing," said Stretton, " and I will forget."

" That is well. Come with me, for there is another letter
which concerns you."

He turned upon his heel and left the hospital. Stretton
followed him to his quarters.

" There is a letter from the War Office which concerns
you, Sergeant Ohlsen," said the colonel, with a smile. " You
will be gazetted, under your own name, to the first lieu-
tenancy which falls vacant. There is the notification."

He handed the paper over to Stretton, and shook hands
with him. Stretton was not a demonstrative man. He took
the notification with no more show of emotion than if it had
been some unimportant order of the day.

" Thank you, sir," he said, quietly ; and for a moment
his eyes rested on the paper.

But, none the less, the announcement, so abruptly made,
caused him a shock. The words danced before his eyes so
that he could not read them. He saluted his colonel and


went out on to the great open parade ground, and stood
there in the middle of that space, alone, under the hot noon-
day sun.

The thing for which he had striven had come to pass,
then. He held the assurance of it in his hand. Hoped for
and half-expected as that proof had been ever since he had
led the survivors of the geographical expedition under the
gate of Ouargla, its actual coming was to him most wonder-
ful. He looked southwards to where the streak of yellow
shone far away. The long marches, the harassing anxiety,
the haunting figures of the Touaregs, with their faces veiled
in their black masks and their eyes shining between the
upper and the lower strip — yes, even those figures which
appalled the imagination in the retrospect by a suggestion of
inhuman ferocity — what were they all but con tributaries to
this event ? His ordeal was over. He had done enough.
He could go home.

Stretton did not want for modestv. He had won a
commission from the ranks, it is true ; but he realised that
others had done this before, and under harder conditions.
He himself had started with an advantage — the advantage of
previous service in the English army. His knowledge of the
manual exercise, of company and battalion drill had been of
the greatest use at the first. He had had luck, too — the
luck to be sent on the expedition to the Figuig oasis, the
luck to find himself sergeant with Colonel Tavernay's force.
His heart went out in gratitude to that tine friend who lay
in his bed of sand so far away. Undoubtedly, he realised, his
luck had been exceptional.

ne turned away from the parade ground and walked
through the village, and out of it towards a grove of palm
trees. Under the shade of those trees he laid himself down
on the ground and made out his plans. He would obtain his
commission, secure his release, and so go home. A few
months and he would be home ! It seemed hardly credible ;
j '■'. it was true, miraculously true. He would write home


tbat very day. It was not any great success which he had
achieved, but, at all events, he was no longer the man who
was no good. He could write with confidence ; he could
write to Millie.

He lay under the shadow of the palms looking across to
the village. There rose a little mosque with a white dome.
The hovels were thatched for the most part, but here and
there a square white-washed house, with a fiat roof, over-
topped the rest. Hedges of cactus and prickly pears walled
in the narrow lanes, and now and then a white robe appeared
and vanished. Very soon Stretton would turn his back
upon Algeria. In the after time he would remember this
afternoon, remember the village as he saw it now, and the
Yellow streak of desert sand in the distance.

Stretton lay on his back and put together the sentences
which he would write that day to Millie. She would get the
letter within ten days — easily. He began to hum over to
himself the words of the coon song which had once been
sung on a summer night in an island of Scotland —

" Oh, come out, mah love. I'm a-waitin' fo' you heah !
Doan : you keep yuh window shut to-night.
De tree-topa above am a-whisp'rin' to you, deah "

And then he stopped suddenly. At last he began to wonder
how Millie would receive the letter he was to write.

Yes, there was her point of view to be considered.
Stretton was stubborn by nature as few men are. He had
convinced himself that the course he had taken was the only
course which promised happiness for Millie and himself, and
impelled by that conviction he had gone on his way un-
disturbed by doubts and questions. Now, however, his
object was achieved. He could claim exemption from his
wife's contempt. His mind had room for other thoughts,
and they came that afternoon.

He had left his wife alone, with no explanation of his
absence to offer to her friends, without even any knowledge
of his whereabouts. There had been no other way, he still


believed. But it was hard on Millie — undoubtedly it was

Stretton rose from the ground and set off towards the
camp that he might write his letter. But he never wrote it,
for as he walked along the lane towards the barracks a man
tapped him on the shoulder from behind. He was still
humming his song, and he stopped in the middle of it —

"Jus' look out an' sec all de longin' in mah eyes,
An' mah arms is jus' a-pinin' foh to hug you,"

lie said, and turned about on his heel. He saw a stranger in
European dress, who at once spoke his name.

" Sir Anthony Stretton ? "

Stretton was no longer seeking to evade discovery.

" Yes ? " he said. The stranger's face became vaguely
familiar to him. " I have seen you before, I think."

" Once," replied the other. " My name is "Warrisden.
You saw me for a few minutes on the deck of a fish-carrier
in the North Sea."

" To be sure," he said slowly. " Yes, to be sure, I did.
You were sent to find me by Miss Pamela Mardale."

" She sends me again," replied Warrisden.

Stretton's heart sank in fear. He had disobeyed the

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Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 17 of 26)