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

The truants; a novel online

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one night." And Millie started.

" Yes, you were," she said slowly.

" You knew that ? "

" Yes ; I knew it the next day." And she added, " I
wish now, I think, that you hud come in that night."

" Suppose that I had," said Tony ; " suppose that I had
bold you of my fine plan, you would have had no faith in it.
You would merely have thought, 'Here's another folly to
be added to the rest.' Your contempt would have been
increased, that's all."

It was quite strange to Millie Siretton that there ever
could havo been a time when she had despised him. She
saw him sitting now in front of her, quiet and stern ; she


remembered her own terror when he burst into the room,
when he flung Gallon headlong through the windows, when
he turned at last towards her.

" We have been strangers to one another."

" Yes," he replied ; " I did not know you. I should
never have left you — now I understand that. I trusted you
very blindly, but I did not know you."

Millie lowered her eyes from his face.

" Nor I you," she answered. " What did you do when
you went away that night from Berkeley Square ? "

" I enlisted in the Foreign Legion in Algeria."

Millie raised her head again with a start of surprise.

" Soldiering was my trade, you see. It was the one
profession where I had just a little of that expert knowledge
which is necessary nowadays if you are to make your

Something of Ins life in the Foreign Legion Tony now told
her. He spoke deliberately, since a light was beginning
dimly to shine through the darkness of his perplexities. Of
a set purpose he described to her the arduous perils of active
service and the monotony of the cantonments. He was
resolved that she should understand in the spirit and in the
letter the life which for her sake he had led. He related
his expedition to the Figuig oasis, his march into the
Sahara under Tavernay. He took from his pocket the
medals which he had won, and laid them upon the table-
cloth before her.

" Look at them," he said ; " I earned them. These are
mine. I earned them for you ; and while I was earning
them what were vou doing 1 ? "

Millie listened and looked. Wonder grew upon her.
It was for her that he had laboured and endured and
succeeded ! His story was a revelation to her. Never had
she dreamed that a man would so strive for any woman.
She had lived so long among the little things of the world —
the little emotions, the little passions, the little jealousies



and rivalries, the little aims, the little methods of attaining
thern, that only with great difficulty could she realise a
simpler and a wider life. She wa.s overwhelmed now. Pride
and humiliation fought within her — pride that Tony had so
striven for her in silence and obscurity, humiliation because
she had fallen so short of his example. It was her way to
feel in superlatives at any crisis of her destiny, but surely
she had a justification now.

" I never knew — I never thought ! Oh, Tony ! " she
exclaimed, twisting her hands together as she sat before

" I became a sergeant,' 5 he said. " Then I brought back
the remnants of the geographical expedition to Ouargla."
lie taxed his memory for the vivid details of that terrible
retreat. He compelled her to realise something of the
dumb, implacable hostility of the Sahara, to see, in the
evening against the setting sun, the mounted figures of the
Touaregs, and to understand that the day's march had not
shaken them off. She seemed to be on the march her-
self, wondering whether she would live out the day, or,
if she survived that, whether she would live out the

" But you succeeded ! " she cried, clinging to the fact that
ihey were both here in France, with the murmur of the
Mediterranean in their ears. " You came back."

" Yes, I came back. One morning I inarched my men
through the gate of Ouargla — and what were you doing upon
that day ? "

Talking, perhaps, with Lionel Gallon, in one of those
unfrequented public places with which London abounds !
Millie could not tell. She sat there and compared Lionel
Callon with the man who was before her. Memories of the
kind of talk she was wont to hold with Lionel Callon
n.-<uirred to her, filling her with shame. She was glad to
think that when Tony led his broken, weary force through
the gate of Ouargla Lionel Callon had not been with her —


had indeed been far away in Chili. She suddenly placed her
hands before her face and burst into tears.

" Oh, Tonv," she whispered, in an abasement of humilia-
tion. " Oh, Tony."

" By that homeward march," he went on, " I gained my
commission. That was what I aimed at all the while, and
I had earned it at the last. Look 1 "

He took from liis pocket the letter which his colonel had
handed to him at Ain-Sefra. He had carefully treasured
it all this while. He held it out to her and made her

" You see ? " he said. u A commission won from the
ranks in the hardest service known to soldiers, won without
advantage of name, or friends, or money. Won just by
myself. That is what I strove for. If I could win that I
could come back to you with a great pride. I should be no
longer the man who was no good. Yon yourself might even
be proud of me. I used to dream of that — to dream of
something else."

His voice softened a little, and a smile for a moment
relaxed the severity of his face.

" Of what ? " she asked.

" Out there among the sand hills, under the stars at
night, I used to dream that we might perhaps get hold again
of the little house in Deanery Street, where we were so happy
together once. We might pretend almost that we had liyed
there all the time."

He spoke in a voice of great longing, and Millie was
touched to the heart. She looked at Tony through her tears.
There was a great longing astir within her at this moment.
Was that little house in Deanery Street still a possibility ?
She did not presume to hope so much ; but she wished that
she could have hoped. She pressed the letter which she held
against her breast ; she would have loved to have held it to
her lips, but that again she did not dare to do.

" At all events, you did succeed." she said ; " I shall be


glad to know that. I shall always be glad — whatever happens


" But I did not succeed," Tony replied. " I earned the
commission, yes ! — I never held it. That letter was giveo to
me one Monday by my colonel at Ain-Sef ra. You mentioned
a song a minute ago, do you remember ? . . . I had lost the
associations of that song. I laughed when you mentioned it,
and you were surprised. I laughed because when I received
that letter I took it away with me, and that song, with all
that it had ever meant, came back to my mind. I lay
beneath the palm trees, and I looked across the water past
the islands, and I saw the lights of the yachts in Oban Bay.
I was on the dark lawn again, high above the sea, the lighted
windows of the house were behind me. I heard your voice.
Oh, I had got you altogether back that day," he exclaimed,
with a cry. " It was as though I held your hands and
looked into your eyes. I went back towards the barracks to
write to you, and as I went some one tapped me on the
shoulder and brought me news of you to wake me out of my

Just for a moment Millie wondered who it was who had
brought the news ; but the next words which Tony Bpoke
drove the question from her mind.

" A few more weeks and I should have held that com-
mission. I might have left the Legion, leaving behind me
many friends and an honoured name. As it was, I had to
desert — I deserted that night."

Ee spoke quite simply ; but, nevertheless, the words fell
with a shock upon Millie. She uttered a low cry : %< Oh,
Tony I " she said.

" Yes," he said, with a nod of the head, " I incurred that
disgrace. I shall be ashamed of it all my life. Had I been
eaught, it might have meant an ignoble death ; in any case,
it would have meant years of prison — and I should have
deserved those years of prison."

Millie shut her eyes in horror. Everything else that Ik


had told her, every other incident — his sufferings, his perils
— all seemed of little account beside this crowning risk,
this crowning act of sacrifice. It was not merely that he
had risked a shameful death or a shameful imprisonment.
Millie was well aware that his whole nature and character
must be in revolt against the act itself. Desertion ! It
implied disloyalty, untruth, deceit, cowardice — just those
qualities, indeed, which she knew Tony most to hate, which
perhaps she had rather despised him for hating. No man
would have been more severe in the punishment of a deserter
than Tony himself. Yet he had deserted, and upon her
account. And he sat there telling her of it quietly, as
though it were the most insignificant action in the world.
He might have escaped the consequences — he would certainly
not have escaped the shame.

But Millie's cup of remorse was not yet full.

" Yet I cannot see that I could do anything else. To-
night proves to me that I was right, I think. I have
come very quickly, yet I am only just in time." There
was a long stain of wine upon the table-cloth beneath
his eyes. There Callon had upset his glass upon Tony's

" Yes, it was time that I returned," he continued. " One
way or another a burden of disgrace had to be borne — if I
stayed, just as certainly as if I came away ; I saw that quite
clearly. So I came away." He forbore to say that now the
disgrace fell only upon his shoulders, that she was saved
from it. But Millie understood, and in her heart she
thanked him for his forbearance. " But it was hard on me,
I think," he said. " You see, even now I am on French
soil, and subject to French laws."

And Millie, upon that, started up in alarm.

"What do vou mean ? " she asked breathlessly.

" There has been a disturbance here to-night, has there
not ? Suppose that the manager of this restaurant has sent
for a gendarme ! "


With a swift movement Millie gathered up the medals
and held them close in her clenched hands.

" Oh, it does not need those to convict me ; my name
would be enough. Lot my name appear and there's a deserter
from the Foreign Legion laid by the heels in France. All
the time we have been talking here I have sat expecting that
door to open behind me."

Millie caught up a lace wrap which lay upon a sofa. She
had the look of a hunted creature. She spoke quickly and
feverishly, in a whisper.

" Oh, why did not you say this at once ? Let us go ! "

Tony sat stubbornly in his chair.

"No," said he, with his eyes fixed upon her. "I have
given you an account of how I have spent the years during
which we have been apart. Can you do the same ? "

He waited for her answer in suspense. To this question
all his words had been steadily leading ; for this reason he
had dwelt upon his own career. Would she, stung by her
remorse, lay before him truthfully and without reserve the
st)ry of her years ? If she did, why, that dim light which
shone amidst the darkness of his perplexities might perhnps
shine a little brighter. He uttered his question. Millie
bowed her head, and answered —

« I will."

"Sit down, then, and tell me now."

" Oh no," she exclaimed ; " not here ! It is not safe.
As we go back to Eze I will tell you everything."

A look of relief came upon Tony's face. He rose and
touched the bell.

A waiter appeared.

" I will pay the bill," he said.

The waiter brought the bill and Tony discharged it.

"The gentleman— M. Gallon," the waiter said. "A
doctor has been. He has a concussion. It will be a little
time before he is able to be moved."

" Indeed ? " said Tonv, with indifference. He walked


with his wife out of the little gaily-lighted room into the big,
silent restaurant. A single light faintly illuminated it.
They crossed it to the door, and went up the winding drive
on to the road. The night was dry and clear and warm.
There was no moon. They walked in the pure twilight of
the stars round the gorge towards Eze,



millie's story

They walked for a while in silence, side by side, yet not so
close but that there was an interval between them. Millie every
now and then glanced at Tony's face, but she saw only his
profile, and with only the glimmer of the starlight to serve her
for a reading-lamp, she could guess nothing of his expression.
But he walked like a man utterly dispirited and tired. The
hopes, so stoutly cherished during the last few years, had all
crumbled away to-night. Perpetually his thoughts recurred
to that question, which now never could be answered — if he
had gone into the house in Berkeley Square on that distant
evening when he had been contented to pace for a little while
beneath the windows, would lie have averted the trouble
which had reached its crisis to-night at the Reserve ? He
thought not — he was not sure ; only he was certain that he
should have gone in. He stopped and turned back, looking
towards the Reserve. A semicircle of lights over the door-
way was visible, and as he looked those lights were suddenly
extinguished. He heard Millie's voice at his side.

" I will tell you now how the time has passed with me."
And he saw that she was looking steadfastly into his eyes.
" The story will sound very trivial, very contemptible, after
what you have told me. It fills me utterly with shame. But
T should have told you it none the less had you not asked for
it — I rather wish that you had not asked for it ; for I think
I must have told you of my own accord."

She spoke in a quick, troubled voice, but it did not


waver ; nor did her eyes once fall from his. The change in
her was swift, no doubt. But down there in the Reserve,
where the lights were out, and the sea echoed through empty
rooms, she had had stern and savage teachers. Terror,
humiliation, and the spectacle of violence had torn away a
veil from before her eyes. She saw her own life in its true
perspective. And, that she might see it the more clearly
and understand, she had the story of another life wherewith
to compare it. It is a quality of big performances, whether
in art or life, that while they surprise when first apprehended,
they appear upon thought to be so simple that it is astonish-
ing surprise was ever felt. Something of that quality Tony's
career possessed. It had come upon Millie as a revelation,
yet, now she was thinking : " Yes, that is what Tony would
do. How is it I never guessed ? " She put him side by side
with that other man, the warrior of the drawing-rooms, and
she was filled with shame that ever she could have preferred
the latter even for a moment of madness.

They walked slowly on again. Millie drew her lace
wrap more closely about her throat.

" Are you cold ? " asked Tony. " You are lightly clothed
to be talking here. We had better perhaps walk on, and
keep what you have to tell me until to-morrow."

" No," she answered quickly, " I am not cold. And I
must tell you what I have to tell you to-night. I want
all this bad, foolish part of my life to end to-night, to be
extinguished just as those lights were extinguished a minute
since. Only there is something I should like to say to you
first." Millie's voice wavered now and broke. " If we do
not walk along the road together any more," she went on
timidly, "I will still be glad that you came back to-night.
I do not know that you will believe that — I do not, indeed,
see why you should ; but I should very much like you to
believe it ; for it is the truth. I have learned a good deal,
I think, during the last three hours. I would rather go on
alone — if it is to be so — in this dim, clean starlight, than


ever be back again in the little room with its lights and
flowers. Do you understand me ? "

" I think so," said Tony.

" At all events, the road is visible ahead," she went on.
" One sees it glimmering, one can keep between the banks ;
while, in the little lighted room it is easy to get lost."

And thus to Millie now, as to Pamela when she rode
back from her last interview with Warrisden at the village
of the three poplars, the riband of white road stretching
away in the dusk became a parable.

"Yes," said Tony, "perhaps my path was really the
easier one to follow. It was direct and plain."

" Ah," said Millie, " it only seems so because you have
traversed it, and are looking back. I do not think it was
so simple and direct while you walked upon it." And Tony,
remembering the doubts and perplexities which had besieged
him, could not but assent.

" I do not think, too, that it was so easy to discover at
the beginning."

There rose before Tony's eyes the picture of a ketch-
rigged boat sailing at night over a calm sea. A man leaned
over the bulwarks, and the bright glare from a lightship ran
across the waves and flashed upon his face. Tony remem-
bered the moment very clearly when he had first hit upon
bis plan ; he remembered the weeks of anxiety of which il
was the outcome. No, the road had not been easy to find
at the beginning. He was silent for a minute, and then he
said gently —

" I am sorry that J asked you to tell your .story — I am
sorry that I did not leave the decision to you. But it shall
l>e as though you told it of your own accord."

The sentence was a concession, no less in the manner of
its utterance than in the words themselves. Millie took
heart, ami told biin the whole story of her dealings with
Lionel Gallon, without excuses and without concealments.

" I seemed to mean so much to him, so little to you,"


she said. ''You see, I did not understand vou at all.
You were away, too, and he was near. I do not defend

She did not spare herself, she taxed her memory for the
details of her days ; and as she spoke the story seemed more
utterly contemptible and small than even she in her abase-
ment had imagined it would be. But she struggled through
with it to the end.

"That night when you stood beneath the windows in
Berkeley Square," she said, " he was with me. He ran in
from Lady Millinghani's party and talked with me for half
an hour. Yes, at the very time when you were standing on
the pavement he was within the house. I know, for you
were seen, and on the next day I was told of your presence.
I was afraid then. The news was a shock to me. I thought,
u Suppose you had come in ! "

" But, back there, in the room," Tony interrupted, " you
told me that you wished I had come in."

" Yes," she answered. " And it is quite true ; I wie! ,
now that you had come in."

She told him of the drive round Regent's Park, and of
the consent she gave that night to Lionel Gallon.

" I think you know everything now," she said. " I have
tried to forget nothing. I want you, whatever you decide
to do, to decide knowing everything."

" Thank you," said Tony, simply. And she added —

" I am not the first woman I know who has thrown away
the substance for the shadow."

Upon the rest of that walk little was said. They went
forward beneath the stars. A great peace lay upon sea and
land. The hills rose dark and high upon their left hand,
the sea murmured and whispered to them upon the right.
Millie walked even more slowly as they neared the hotel at
Eze, and Tony turned to her with a question —

" You are tired ? "

$ 'Xo," she answered,


She was thinking that very likely she would never
walk again on any road with Tony at her side, and she was
minded to prolong this last walk to the last possible moment.
For in this one nigbt Tony had reconquered her. It was
not merely that his story had filled her with amazement and
pride, but she had seen him that night strong and dominant,
as she had never dreamed of seeing him. She loved his
very sternness towards herself. Not once had he spoken
her name and called her "Millie." She had watched for
that and longed for it, and vet because he had not used it
she was the nearer to worship. Once she said to him with
a start of anxiety —

" You are not staying here under your own name ? "

" No," he replied. " A friend has taken rooms in Monte
Carlo for both of us. Only his name has been given."

"And you will leave France to-morrow ? "

" Yes."

" Promise ! " she cried.

Tony promised, with a look of curiosity at his wife.
Why should she be so eager for his safety ? He did not
understand. He was wondering what he must do in this
crisis of their lives. "Was he to come, in spite of all his
efforts, to that ordinary compromise which it had been his
object to avoid ?

They reached the door of the hotel, and there Tony halted.

" Good night ! " he said ; he did not hold out his hand.
He stood confronting Millie with the light from the hall
lamp falling full upon his face. Millie hoped that he would
say something more — just a little word of kindness or for-
giveness — if only she waited long enough without answering
him ; and Bhe was willing to wait until the morning came,
lie did indeed speak again, and then Millie was sorry that
she had waited. For he said the one really cruel thing
amongst all the words he had said § that night. He was not
aware of its cruelty, he was only conscious of its truth.

"Do you know." he said— and upon his tired face there


came a momentary smile — " to-night I miss the Legion very
much." Again he said " Good night."

This time Millie answered him ; and in an instant he
was gone. She could have cried out ; she could hardly
restrain her voice from calling him back to her. " Was
this the end ? " she asked of herself. " That one cruel
sentence, and then the commonplace Good night, without so
much as a touch of the hands. AVas this the very end ? "
A sharp fear stabbed her. For a few moments she heard
Tony's footsteps upon the flags in front of the hotel, and
then for a few moments upon the gravel of the garden path ;
and after that she heard only the murmur of the sea. And
all at once for her the world was empty. " "Was this the
end ? " she asked herself again most piteously ; " this, which
might have been the beginning." Slowly she went up to
her rooms. Sleep did not visit her that night.




Thlee was another who kept a vigil all the night In the
Villa Pontignard Pamela Mardade saw from her window the
morning break, and wondered in dread what had happened
upon that broad terrace by the sea. She dressed and went
down into the garden. As yet the world was grey and cool,
and something of its quietude entered into her and gave her
peace. A light mist hung over the sea, birds sang sweetly
in the trees, and from the chimneys of Rocjuebrune the blue
Htnoke began to coil. In the homely suggestions of that
blue smoke Pamela found a comfort. She watched it for a
while, and then there came a flush of rose upon the crests of
the hills. The mist was swept away from the floor of the
sea, shadows and light suddenly ran down the hillsides, and
the waves danced with a sparkle of gold. The sun had
risen. Pamela saw a man coming up the open slope from
Roquebrune to the villa. It was M. Giraud. She ran to
the gate and met him there.

" "Well ? " she asked. And he answered Badly —

" I arrived too late."

The colour went from Pamela's cheeks. She set a hand
upon the gate to steady herself. There was an expression of
utter consternation on her face.

"Too late, I mean," the schoolmaster explained hurriedly,
'• bo help you, to be of any real service to you. But the
harm done is perhaps not so great as you fear."

He described to her what he had seen — Lionel Callon


lying outstretched and insensible upon the pavement, Tony
and Millie Stretton within the room.

"We removed M. Callon to his bedroom," he said.
" Then I fetched a doctor. M. Callon will recover — it is a
concussion of the brain. Pie will be ill for a little time, but
he will get well.''

" And the man and the woman ? " Pamela asked eagerly.
" The two within the room ? What of them ? "

" They were standing opposite to one another." The
schoolmaster had not seen Millie on her knees. " A chair
was overturned, the chair on which she had sat. She was
in great distress, and, I think, afraid ; but he spoke quietly."
He described how he had offered Tony the letter, and how
Tony had closed the door of the room upon the waiters.

" The manager did not know what to do, whether to semi

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Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 23 of 26)