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

The truants; a novel online

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summons before. lie remembered Pamela's promise to
befriend his wife. lie remembered her warning that he
should not leave his wife.

'• She sent you then with an urgent message that I
should return home," he said.

" I carry the same message again, only it is a thousand
times more urgent."

He drew a letter from his pocket as he spoke, and handed
it to Stretton. " I was to give you this," he said.

Stretton looked at the handwriting and nodded.

" Thank you," he said gravely.

He tore open the envelope and read.




It was a long letter. Tony read it through slowly, standing
in the narrow lane between the high walls of prickly pear.
A look of incredulity came upon his face.

" Is all this true ? " he asked, not considering at all of
whom he asked the question.

" I know nothing, of course, of what is written there,"
replied "Warrisden ; u but I do not doubt its truth. The
signature is, I think, sufficient guarantee. 1 '

" No doubt, no doubt," said Stretton, absently. Then he
asked —

" "When did you reach Ain-Sefra ? "

" This morning. 1 '

" And you came quickly ? "

" Yes ; I travelled night and day, I came first of all to
Ain-Sefra in search of you. 1 '

" Thank you," said Strettou.

He did not ask how it was that Warrisden had come
first of all to Ain-Sefra ; such details held no place in his
thoughts. "Warrisden had found him, had brought the letter
which Pamela Mardale had written. That letter, with its
perplexities and its consequences, obliterated all other

" You have a camp here ? " Stretton asked.

" Yes."

" Let us go to it. The news you have brought has


rather stunned me. I should like to sit down and think
what I must do."

The incredulity had vanished from his face. Distress
had replaced it.

" It is' all true, no doubt," he went on, " but for the
moment I don't understand it. Will you tell me where your
camp is ? "

" I will show you the way," said Warrisden.

" I think not. It will be better that we should not be
Been together," Stretton said thoughtfully. "Will you give
me the direction and go first ? I will follow."

Warrisden's camp was pitched amongst trees a hundred
vards from the western borders of the village. It stood in a
garden of grass, enclosed with hedges. Thither Stretton
found his way by a roundabout road, approaching the camp
from the side opposite to Ain-Sefra. There was no one, at
the moment, loitering about the spot. He walked into the
garden. There were three tents pitched. Half a dozen
mules stood picketed in a line, a little Barbary horse lay on
the grass, some Algerian muleteers were taking their ease,
and outside the chief tent a couple of camp chairs were
placed. Warrisden came forward as Stretton entered the

" Sit down," he said.

" Inside the tent, I think," replied Stretton.

There he read the letter through again. He understood
at last what Pamela had meant by the warning which had
baffled him. Pamela revealed its meaning now. "Millie
is not of those women," she wrote, " who have a vivid
remembrance. To hold her, you must be near her. Go
away, she will cry her eyes out ; stay away for a little while,
she will long for your return ; make that little while a longer
time, she will grow indifferent whether you return or not ;
prolong that longer time, she will regard your return as an
awkwardness, a disturbance ; add yet a little more to that
longer time, and you will find another occupying your


place in her thoughts." Then followed an account of the
growth of that dangerous friendship between Millie and
Lionel Callon. A summary of Gallon's character rounded
the description off. " So come home," she concluded, " at
once, for no real harm has been done yet."

Stretton understood what the last sentence meant, and he
believed it. Yet his mind revolted against the phrase. Of
course, it was Pamela's phrase. Pamela, though frank, was
explaining the position in words which could best spare
Millie. But it was an unfortunate sentence. It provoked a
momentary wave of scorn, which swept over Stretton.
There was a postscript : " You yourself are really a good
deal to blame." Thus it ran ; but Stretton was in no mood
to weigh its justice or injustice at the moment. Only this
afternoon he had been lying under the palm trees putting
together in his mind the sentences which were to tell Millie
of his success, to re-establish him in her esteem, and to pre-
pare her for his return. And now this letter had come. He
sat for a time frowning at the letter, turning its pages over,
glancing now at one phrase, now at another. Then he
folded it up. " Callon," he said, softly ; and then again,
" Lionel Callon. I will talk with Mr. Callon." For all its
softness, his voice sounded to Warrisden the voice of a
dangerous man. And after he had spoken in this way he
sat in thought, saying nothing, making no movement, and
his face gave Warrisden no clue as to what he thought. At
the last he stirred in his chair.

" Well ? " said Warrisden.

" I shall return at once to England."

" You can ? "

" Yes ; I shall start to-night," said Stretton.

" We can go back together, then."

" No ; that's impossible."

" Why ? " asked Warrisden.

" Because I should be arrested if we did," Stretton replied


k< Arrested ? " Warrisden exclaimed.

" Yes ; you see I shall have to desert to-night."

Warrisden started from his chair.

" Surely there is an alternative ? "

" None," replied Stretton ; and Warrisden slowly resumed
his seat. He was astounded ; he had never contemplated
this possibility. He looked at Stretton in wonder. He
could not understand how a man could speak so calmly of
such a plan. Why in the world had Stretton ever joined the
Legion if he was so ready, at the first summons, to desert ?
There seemed an inconsistency. But he did not know Tony

" You are surprised," said Tony. " More than surprised —
you are rather shocked ; but there is no choice for me. I
wish with all my heart and soul there were," he suddenly
exclaimed, with a sort of passion. "I have foreseen this
necessity ever since you tapped me on the shoulder in the
lane. Because I foresaw it, I would not walk with you to
your camp. Were we seen together to-day, the reason of my
absence might be the sooner suspected. As it is, I shall get
a day's start, for I have a good name in the regiment, and a
day's start is all I need."

He spoke sadly and wistfully. He was caught by an
inexorable fate, and knew it. He just had to accept the one
course open to him.

" You see," he explained, " I am a soldier of the Legion —
that is to say, I enlisted for five years' service in the French
colonies. I could not get leave."

" Five years 1 " cried Warrisden. " You meant to stay
five years away ? "

" No," replied Stretton. "If things went well with me
here, as up till to-day they have done, if, in a word, I did
what I enlisted to do, I should have gone to work to buy
myself out and get free. That can be done with a little
influence and time — only time is the one thing I have not
now. I must go home at once, since no harm has yet ben


done. Therefore I must desert. I am very sorry " — and
again the wistfulness became very audible — " for, as I say, I
have a good name ; amongst both officers and men I
have a good name. I should have liked very much to have
left a good name behind me. Sergeant Ohlsen " — and as he
uttered the name he smiled. " They speak well of Sergeant
Ohlsen in the Legion, Warrisden ; and to-morrow they will
not. I am very sorry. I have good friends amongst both
officers and men. I shall have lost them all to-morrow. I am
sorry. There is only one thing of which I am glad to-day.
I am glad that Captain Tavernay is dead."

Warrisden knew nothing at all of Captain Tavernay.
Until this moment he had never heard his name. But
Stretton was speaking with a simplicity so sincere, and so
genuine a sorrow, that Warrisden could not but be deeply
moved. He forgot the urgency of his summons ; he ceased
to think how greatly Stretton's immediate return would help
his own fortunes. He cried out upon the impulse —

" Stay, then, until you can get free without " And

he stopped, keeping unspoken the word upon his lips.

"Without disgrace."

Stretton finished the sentence with a smile.

" Say it ! Without disgrace. That was the word upon
vour tongue. I can't avoid disgrace. I have come to such
a pass in my life's history that, one way or another, I can't
avoid it. I thought just at the first moment that I could
let things slide and stay. But there's dishonour in that
course, too. Dishonour for myself, dishonour for my name,
dishonour for others, too, whom it is my business— yes, my
business — to keep from dishonour. That's the position —
disgrace if I stay, disgrace if I go. It seems to me there's no
rule of conduct which applies. I must judge for myself."

Stretton spoke with some anger in his voice, anger with
those who had placed him in so cruel a position, anger,
perhaps, in some measure, with himself. For in a little

while he said —



" It is quite true that I am myself to blame, too. I want
to be just. I was a fool not to have gone into the house the
evening I was in London, after I had come back from the
North Sea. Yes, I should have gone in then ; and yet — I
don't know. I had thought my course all out. I don't

He had thought his course out, it is true ; but he had
thought it out in ignorance of his wife's character. That
was the trouble, as he clearly saw now.

" Anyhow, I must go to-night," he said, rising from his
chair. In an instant he had become the practical man,
arranging the means to an end already resolved upon.

" I can borrow money of you ? "

" Yes."

" And a mule ? "
' " Yes."

<k Let me choose my mule."

They Avalked from the tent to where the mules stood
picketed. "VVarrisden pointed to one in the middle of the line.

" That is the strongest."

" I don't want one too strong, too obviously well-fed,"
said Stretton ; and he selected another. " Can I borrow a
muleteer for an hour or two ? "

" Of course," said Warrisden.

Stretton called a muleteer towards him and gave him

" There is a market to-day," he said. " Go to it and
buy." lie enumerated the articles he wanted, ticking them
off upon his fingers — a few pairs of scissors and knives, a few
gaudy silk handkerchiefs, one or two cheap clocks, some pieces
of linen, needles and thread — in fact, a small pedlar's pack
of wans. In addition, a black jellaba and cap, such as the
.lews must wear in Morocco, and a native's underclothes and

"Brin<.< these things back to the camp at once and speak
to no one ! " said Stretton.


The muleteer loosed a mule to carry the packages, and
went off upon his errand. Stretton and Warrisden went
back to the tent. Stretton sat down again in his chair, took
a black cigarette from a bright-blue packet which he had in
his pocket and lighted it, as though all the arrangements for
his journey were now concluded.

" I want you to pack the mule I chose with the things
which your muleteer brings back. Add some barley for the
mule and some food for me, and bring it with the clothes to
the south-west corner of the barrack wall at eight. It will
be dark then. Don't come before it is dark, and wait for mo
at the corner. Will you ? "

" Yes," replied Warrisden. " You are going to tramp to
the coast ? Surely you can come as one of my men as far
as the rail-head. Then I will go on and wait for you at

" No," said Stretton ; " our ways lie altogether apart. It
would be too dangerous for me to tramp through Algeria.
I should certainly be stopped. That's my way."

He raised his arm and pointed through the tent door.

The tent door faced the west, and in front there rose a
range of mountains, dark and lofty, ridge overtopping ridge,
and wonderfully distinct. In that clear air the peaks and
gaps, and jagged aretes were all sharply defined. The sun
was still bright, and the dark cliffs had a purple bloom of
extraordinary softness and beauty, like the bloom upon a ripe
plum. Here and there the mountains were capped with snow,
and the snow glistened like silver.

"Those mountains are in Morocco," said Stretton.
"That's my way — over them. My only way. We are on
the very edge of Morocco here."

" But, once over the border," Warrisden objected, " are
you safe in Morocco ? "

" Safe from recapture."

" But safe in no other sense ? "

Stretton shrugged his shoulders.


" It is a bad road, I know — dangerous and difficult. The
ordinary traveller cannot pass along it. But it has been
traversed. Prisoners have escaped that way to Fez —
Escoffier, for instance. Deserters have reached their homes
by following it — some of them, at all events. One must
take one's risks."

It was the old lesson learned upon the ketch Perseverance
which Stretton now repeated ; and not vainly learned. Far
away to the south, in the afternoon sunlight, there shone
that yellow streak of sand, beyond which its value had been
surely proved. Warrisden's thoughts were carried back on
a sudden to that morning of storm and foam and roaring
waves, when Stretton had stood easily upon the deck of the
fish-cutter, with the great seas swinging up behind him, and
had, for the first time, uttered it in Warrisden's hearing.
Much the same feeling came over "Warrisden as that which
had then affected him — a feeling almost of inferiority.
Stretton was a man of no more than average ability, neither
a deep thinker, nor a person of ingenuity and resource ; but
the mere stubbornness of his character gave to him at times
a certain grandeur. In Warrisden's eyes he had that grandeur
now. He had come quickly to his determination to desert,
but he had come calmly to it. There had been no excite-
ment in his manner, no suggestion of hysteria. He had
counted up the cost, he had read his letter, he had held the
balance between his sacrifice and Millie's necessity ; and he
had decided. He had decided, knowing not merely the dis-
grace, but the difficulties of his journey, and the danger of
his road amongst the wild, lawless tribes in that unsettled
quarter of Morocco. Again Warrisden was carried away.
He forgot even Pamela at Roquebrune waiting for the
telegram he was to send from Oran on his return. II e
cried —

"I will send back my outfit and come with you. If wo
travel together there will be more safety."

Stretton shook his head.


"Less," said he. "You cannot speak Mogrhebbin. I
have a few sentences — not many, but enough. I know some-
thing of these tribes, too. For I once marched to the Figuig
oasis. Your company would be no protection ; rather it
would be an extra danger."

Warrisden did not press his proposal. Stretton had so
clearly made up his mind.

" Yery well," he said. " You have a revolver, I suppose.
Or shall I lend you one ? "

And, to Warrisden's astonishment, Stretton replied —

" I shall carry no weapons."

Warrisden was already placing his arms of defence upon
the table so that Stretton might make his choice.

" No weapons ! " he exclaimed.

" No. My best chance to get through to Fez is to travel
as a Jew pedlar. That is why I am borrowing your mule
and have sent your muleteer to the market. A Jew can go
in Morocco where no Moor can, for he is not suspected ; he
is merely despised. Besides, he brings things for sale which
are needed. He may be robbed and beaten, but he has more
chance of reaching his journey's end in some plight or other
than any one else."

Thereafter he sat for awhile silent, gazing towards the
mountains in the west. The snow glittering upon the peaks
brought back to his mind the flashing crystals in the great
salt lakes. It was at just such a time, on just such an after-
noon, when the two companies of the Legion had marched
out from the trees of the high plateaux into the open desert,
with its grey-green carpet of halfa-grass. Far away the lake
had flashed like an arc of silver set in the ground. Stretton
could not but remember that expedition and compare it with
the one upon which he was now to start ; and the comparison
was full of bitterness. Then high hopes had reigned. The
companies were marching out upon the Legion's special
work ; even if disaster overtook them, disaster would not be
without its glory. Stretton heard the clear inspiriting music


of the bugles, he listened to the steady tramp of feet. Now
he was deserting.

" I shall miss the Legion," he said regretfully. " I had
no idea how much I should miss it until this moment."

Its proud past history had grown dear to him. The
recklessness of its soldiers, the endless perplexing variety of
their characters, the secrets of their lives, of which every now
and then, in a rare moment of carelessness, a glimpse was
revealed, as though a curtain were raised and lowered — all
these particular qualities of the force had given to it a grip
upon his affections of which he felt the full strength now.

" Any other life," he said, " cannot but be a little dull, a
little uninteresting afterwards. I shall miss the Legion
very much."

Suddenly he put his hand into his pocket and took out
of it that letter from the French War Office which his colonel
had handed to him. " Look ! " and he handed it over to
Warrisden. " That is what I joined the Legion to win — a
commission ; and I have just not won it. In a month or
two, perhaps in a week, perhaps even to-morrow, it might
have been mine. Very soon I should have been back at
home, the life I have dreamed of and worked for ever since
I left London, might have been mine to live. It was to
have been a good life of great happiness " — he had forgotten,
it seemed, that he would regret the Legion — " a life without
a flaw. Now that life's impossible, and I am a deserter.
It's hard lines, isn't it ? "

He rose from his chair, and looked for a moment at
Warrisden in silence.

" I am feeling sorry that I ever came," said "Warrisden.

" Oh no," Stretton answered, with a smile. " It would
have been still worse if I had stayed here, ignorant of the
news you have brought me, and had come home in my own
time. Things would have been much worse — beyond all
remedy. Do you know a man mimed Gallon — Lionel
Gallon ? " he asked abruptly. And before Warrisden could


answer, the blood rushed into his face, and he exclaimed,
" Never mind ; don't answer ! Be at the corner of the
barracks with the mule at eight.'" And he went from
the % tent, cautiously made his way out of the garden, and
returned to his quarters.

A few minutes before eight Warrisden drove the mule,
packed with Stretton's purchases, to the south-western
corner of the barracks. The night was dark, no one was
abroad, the place without habitations. He remained under
the shadow of the high wall, watching this way and that for
Stretton's approach ; and in a few minutes he was almost
startled out of his wits by a heavy body falling from the
top of the wall upon the ground at his side. Warrisden,
indeed, was so taken by surprise that he uttered a low cry.

" Hush ! " said a voice close to the ground. " It's only

" And Stretton rose to his feet. He had dropped from
the summit of the wall.

" Are you hurt ? " whispered Warrisden.

" No. Have you the clothes ? Thanks ! "

Stretton stripped off his uniform, and put on the Jewish
dress. He had shaved off his moustache and blacked his
hair. As he dressed he gave two or three small packages to

" Place them in the pack ; hide them, if possible. That
package contains my medals. I shall need them. The
other's lamp-black. I shall want that for my hair. Glossy
raven locks," he said, with a low laugh, " are not so easily
procured in Ain-Sefra as in Bond Street. I have been
thinking. You can help me if you will ; you can shorten
the time of my journey."

" How ? " asked Warrisden.

" Go back to Oran as quickly as possible. Take the
first boat to Tangier. Hire an outfit there, mules and
horses — but good ones, mind ! — and travel up at once to
Fez. If you are quick you can do it within a fortnight. I


shall take a fortnight at the least to reach Fez. I may be
three weeks. But if I find you there, ready to start the
moment I come to the town, we shall save much time."

" Very well ; I will be there."

"If I get through sooner than I expect, I shall go
straight on to Tangier, and we will meet on the road. Now
let me climb on to your shoulders." Stretton made a bundle
of his uniform, climbed on to Warrisden's shoulders, and
threw it over the wall into the barrack yard.

" But that will betray you ! " cried "\Yarrisden, in a
whisper. " They will find your clothes in the morning-
clothes with a sergeant's stripes."

" I cannot help that," replied Stretton, as he jumped
to the ground. " I do not intend to be shot as a thief, for
that is what may happen when a man deserts and takes his
uniform with him. Don't fail me in Fez. Good-bye."

He held out his hand, and, as Warrisden grasped it, he
said —

" I have not said much to you in the way of thanks ;
but I am very grateful, however much I may have seemed to
have been made unhappy by your coming. Since things
are as they are, I am glad you came. I thank you, too, for
that other visit to the North Sea. I will give you better
i hanks when we meet in Fez."

He cast a glance back to the wall of the barracks, and,
in a voice which trembled, so deeply was he moved, he
whispered to himself, rather than to "Warrisden—

" Oh, but I am glad Tavernay is dead ! "

All else that he had said since he dropped from the wall
had been said hurriedly and without emotion. These last
words were whispered from a heart overcharged with sorrow.
They were his farewell to the Legion. He turned away, and,
driving the mule before hiui, vanished into the darkness.

( 249 )



Warrisden struck his camp early the next morning, and
set out for the rail-head. Thence he travelled to Oram
At Oran he was fortunate enough to find a steamer of the
Lambert Line in the harbour, which was preparing to sail
that afternoon for Tangier. Warrisden had three hours to
pass in Oran. He went at once to the post-office and
despatched his telegram to Pamela Mardale at the Villa
Pontignard. The telegram informed her that Tony Stretton
was returning, though his journey might take longer than
she would naturally expect ; and, secondly, that he himself
was sailing that day for Tangier, whither any message
should be sent at once to await his arrival at the English
post-office. The telegram was couched in vague phrases.
Tony Stretton, for instance, was called " The Truant."
Pamela became more and more disquieted by the vagueness
of its wording. She pondered, and in vain, why in the
world Warrisden must be sailing to Tangier. It seemed
certain that there were difficulties in the way of Tony's
home-coming which she had not foreseen, and at the nature
of which she could not conjecture. She sent off a reply to
Tangier —

" Bring truant to Roquebrune as soon as possible. 1 '

For, on thinking over the new aspect which her problem

presented, now that Lionel Callon had come to the Riviera,

she had come to the conclusion that this was the safest plan.

If Millie Stretton did not come to the south of France, no


harm would have been clone ; whereas, if she did, and Tony
went straight home to England, the last chance of saving
her would be lost.

This message, however, did little to reassure Pamela.
For the more she thought of "Warrisden's telegram, the more
she was troubled. Tony was returning. Yes, that was
something — that was a great thing. But he was going to
take a long time in returning, and, to Pamela's apprehension,
there was no long time to spare. And the day after she
had received the telegram she came upon still stronger
reasons for disquietude.

She went down to Monte Carlo in the morning, and
again saw Lionel Gallon upon the terrace, and again noticed
that he was alone. Yet on the whole she was not surprised.
Millie Stretton's name figured as yet in no visitors' list, and
Pamela was quite sure that if Millie Stretton had come south
the name would have been inserted. It was impossible that

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