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

The truants; a novel online

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Nothing serious should ever come near me. If I saw it
coming, I would push it away ; and I have pushed it

" Until to-day, when you need my help ? " Yfarrisden

" Yes, until to-day," Pamela repeated softly.

Warrisden walked over to the window and stood with his
back towards her. The three tall poplars stood leafless up in
front of him ; the sky was heavy with grey clouds ; the wind
was roaring about the chimneys ; and the roads ran with
water. It was as cheerless a day as February can produce,
but to Warrisden it had something of a summer brightness.
The change for which he had hoped so long in vain had
actually come to pass.

" What do you want me to do ? " he asked, turning again
to the room.

"I want you to find Millie Stretton's husband," she
replied ; " and, at all costs, to bring him home again."

" Millie Stretton's husband ? " he repeated, in perplexity.

"Yes. Don't you remember the couple who stepped out
of the dark house in Berkeley Square and dared not whistle
for a hansom — the truants ? "

Warrisden was startled. " Those two ! " he exclaimed.
" Well, that's strange. On the very night when we saw


them, you were saying that there was no road for you, no
new road from Quetta to Seistan. I was puzzling my brains,
too, as to how in the world you were to be roused out of your
detachment ; and there were the means visible all the time,
perhaps — who knows ? — ordained." He sat down again in
his chair.

" Where shall I look for Mr. Stretton ? " he asked.

" I don't know. He went away to New York, six months
ago, to make a home for Millie and himself. He did not
succeed, and he has disappeared."

" Disappeared ? " cried Warrisden.

" Oh, but of his own accord," said Pamela. " I can't
tell you why ; it wouldn't be fair. I have no right to tell
you. But he must be found, and he must be brought back.
Again I can't tell you why ; but it is most urgent."

" Is there any clue to help us ? " Warrisden asked.
" Had he friends in New York ? "

" No ; but he has a friend in England," said Pamela,
" and I think it's just possible that the friend may know
where he is to be found, for it was upon his advice that Mr.
Stretton went to New York."

" Tell me his name."

" Mr. Chase," Pamela replied. " He is head of a mission
in Stepney Green. Tony Stretton told me of him one
morning in Hyde Park just before he went away. He
seemed to rely very much upon his judgment."

Warrisden wrote the name down in his pocket-book.

" Will he tell me, do you think, where Stretton is, even
if he knows ? You say Stretton has disappeared of his own

" I have thought of that difficulty," Pamela answered.
"There is an argument which you can use. Sir John
Stretton, Tony's father, is ill, and in all probability

" I see. I can use the same argument to Stretton himself,
I suppose, when I rind him ? "


" I can give you no other," said Pamela ; " but you can
add to it. Mr. Stretton will tell you that his father does
not care whether he conies back in time or not. He is sure
to say that. But you can answer that every night since
he went away the candles have been lit in his dressing-
room and his clothes laid out by his father's orders, on
the chance that some evening he might walk in at the

That Sir John Stretton's illness was merely the pretext
for Tony's return both understood. The real reason why he
must come home Pamela did not tell. To her thinking
Millie was not yet so deeply entangled with Lionel Callon
but that Tony's home-coming might set the tangle right. A
few weeks of companionship, and surely he would resume
his due place in his wife's thoughts. Pamela, besides, was
loyal to her sex. She had promised to safeguard Millicent ;
she was in no mind to betray her.

" But bring him back," she cried, with a real passion.
" So much depends on his return, for Millie, for him, and
for me, too. Yes, for me ! If you fail, it is I who fail ;
and I don't want failure. Save me from it ! "

" I'll try," Warrisden answered simply ; and Pamela was

Much depended, for Warrisden too, upon the success of
his adventure. If he failed, Pamela would retire again
behind her barrier ; she would again resume the passive,
indifferent attitude of the very old ; she would merely look
on as before and wait for things to cease. If, however, he
succeeded, she would be encouraged to move forward still ;
the common sympathies would have her in their grasp again ;
she might even pass that turnpike gate of friendship and go
boldly down the appointed road of life. Thus success meant
much for him. The fortunes of the four people— Millicent,
Tony, Pamela, and Warrisden — were knotted together at
this one point.

" Indeed, I'll try," he repeated,


Pamela's liorsc was brought round to the inn door. The
dusk was coming on.

" Which way do you go ? " asked Warrisden.

" Down the hill."

" I will walk to the bottom with you. The road will be

They went slowly down between the high elder hedges,
Pamela seated on her horse, "Warrisden walking by her side.
The wide level lowlands opened out beneath them — fields of
brown and green, black woods with swinging boughs, and
the broad high road with its white wood rails. A thin mist
swirled across the face of the country in the wind, so that its
every feature was softened and magnified. It loomed dim
and strangely distant, with a glamour upon it like a place of
old romance. To Pamela and Warrisden, as the mists wove
and unwove about it, it had a look of dreamland.

They reached the end of the incline, and Pamela stopped
her horse.

" This is my way," said she, pointing along the highway
with her whip.

" Yes," answered Warrisden. The road ran straight for
some distance, then crossed a wooden bridge and curved out
of sight round the edge of a clump of trees. " The new
road," he said softly. "The new road from Quetta to
Seistan 1 "

Pamela smiled.

" This is Quetta," said she.

Warrisden laid his hand upon her horse's neck, and
looked suddenly up into her face.

" Where will be Seistan ? " he asked in a low voice.

Pamela returned the look frankly. There came a
softness into her dark eyes. For a moment she let her
hand rest lightly upon his sleeve, and did not speak. She
henelf was wondering how far she was to travel upon this
new road.

" I cannot tell," she said very gently. " Nor, my friend,


can you. Only " — and her voice took on a lighter and a
whimsical tone — " only I start alone on my new road."

And she went forward into the level country. "Warrisden
climbed the hill again, and turned when he had reached the
top ; but Pamela was out of sight. The dusk and the mists
had enclosed her.




The night had come when "Warrisden stepped from the
platform of the station into the train. Pamela was by this
time back at "Whitewebs— he himself was travelling to
London ; their day was over. He looked out of the window.
Somewhere three miles away the village of the three poplars
crowned the hill, but a thick wall of darkness and fog hid it
from his eyes. It seemed almost as if Pamela and he had
met that day only in thought at some village which existed
only in a dream. The train, however, rattled upon its way.
Gradually he became conscious of a familiar exhilaration.
The day had been real. Not merely had it signalled the
change in Pamela, for which for so long he had wished ; not
merely had it borne a blossom of promise for himself, but
something was to be done immediately, and the thing to be
done was of all things that which most chimed with his own
desires. He was to take the road again, and the craving for
the road was seldom stilled for long within his heart. He
heard its call sung like a song to the rhythm of the wheels.
The very uncertainty of its direction tantalised his thoughts.
Warrisden lodged upon the Embankment, and his rooms
overlooked the Thames. The mist lay heavy upon London,
mid all that night the steamboats hooted as they passed
from bridge to bridge. Warrisden lay long awake listening
to them ; each blast had its message for hi in, each was like
tin- greeting of a friend ; each one summoned him, and to
each he answered with a rising joy, " I shall follow, I shall


follow." The boats passed down to the sea through the
night mist. Many a time he had heard them before, picturing
the dark deck and the side lights, red and green, and the
yellow light upon the mast, and the man silent at the wheel
with the light from the binnacle striking up upon the lines
of his face. They were little river or coasting boats for the
most part, but he had never failed to be stirred by the long-
drawn melancholy of their whistles. They talked of distant
lands and an alien foliage.

He spent the following morning and the afternoon in the
arrangement of his affairs, and in the evening drove down to
the mission house. It stood in a dull by-street close to Stepney
Green, a rambling building with five rooms upon the ground
floor panelled with varnished deal and furnished with forms
and rough tables, and on the floor above, a big billiard-room, a
bagatelle-room, and a carpenter's workshop. Mr. Chase was
superintending a boxing class in one of the lower rooms, and
Warrisden, when he was led up to him, received a shock of
surprise. He had never seen a man to the outward eye so
unfitted for his work. He had expected a strong burly person,
cheery of manner and confident of voice ; he saw, however,
a tall young man with a long pale face and a fragile body.
Mr. Chase was clothed in a clerical frock-coat of unusual
length, he wore linen of an irreproachable whiteness, and
his hands were fine and delicate as a woman's. He seemed
indeed the typical High Church curate fresh that very instant
from the tea-cups of a drawing-room.

" A gentleman to see you, sir," said the ex-army sergeant
who had brought forward Warrisden. He handed Warrisden's
card to Chase, who turned about and showed "Warrisden his
full face. Surprise had been Warrisden's first sentiment, but
it gave place in an instant to distaste. The face which he saw
was not ugly, but he disliked it. It almost repelled him.
There was no light in the eyes at all ; they were veiled and
sunken ; and the features repelled by reason of a queer
antagonism. Mr. Chase had the high narrow forehead of an


ascetic, the loose niouth of a sensualist, and a thin crop of pale
and almost colourless hair. Warrisden wondered why any one
should come to this man for advice, most of all a Tony
SLretton. "What could they have in common — the simple,
good-humoured, unintellectual subaltern of the Coldstream,
and this clerical exquisite ? The problem was perplexing.

" You wish to see me ? " asked Chase.

" If you please."

" Xow ? As you see, I am busy."

" I can wait."

"Thank you. The mission closes at eleven. If you can
wait till then you might come home with me, and we could
talk in comfort."

It was nine o'clock. For two hours Warrisden followed
Chase about the mission, and with each half-hour his interest
increased. However irreconcilable with his surroundings
Chase might appear to be, neither he nor any of the members
of the mission were aware of it. He was at ease alike with
the boys and the men 5 and the boys and the men were at
ease with him. Moreover, he was absolute master, although
there were rough men enough among his subjects. The
fiercest boxing contest was stopped in a second by a motion
of that delicate hand.

" I used to have a little trouble," he said to Warrisden,
" before I had those wire frames fixed over the gas-jets. You
see they cover the gas taps. Before that was done, if there
was any trouble, the first thing which happened was that the
room was in darkness. It took some time to restore order ; "
and he passed on to the swimming-bath.

Mr. Chase was certainly indefatigable. Now he was giving
a lesson in wood-carving to a boy ; now he was arranging an
apprenticeship for another in the carpenter's shop. Finally
he led the way into the great billiard-room, where only the
older men were allowed.

"It is here that Stretton used to keep order?" said
Warrisden ; and Chase at once turned quickly towards him.


u Ob," he said slowly, in a voice of comprehension, " I was

wondering what brought you here. Yes ; this was the room."

Chase moved carelessly away, and spoke to some of the
men about the tables. But for the rest of the evening he
was on his guard. More than once his eyes turned curiously
and furtively towards Warrisden. His face was stubborn,
and wore a look of wariness. "Warrisden began to fear lest
he should get no answer to the question he had to put. No
appeal w T ould be of any use — of that he felt sure. His
argument must serve — and would it serve ?

Chase, at all events, made no attempt to avoid the inter-
view. As the hands of the clock marked eleven, and the
rooms emptied, he came at once to "Warrisden.

" We can go now," he said ; and unlocking a drawer, to
"Warrisden's perplexity he filled his pockets with racket-balls.
The motive for that proceeding became apparent as they
walked to the house w^here Chase lodged. Their way lay
through alleys, and as they walked the children clustered
about them, and Chase's pockets were emptied.

" "We keep this house because men from the Universities
come down and put in a week now and then at the mission.
My rooms are upstairs."

Chase's sitting-room was in the strangest contrast to the
bareness of the mission and the squalor of the streets. It
was furnished with luxury, but the luxury was that of a man
of taste and knowledge. There was hardly a piece of
furniture which had not an interesting history ; the en-
gravings and the brass ornaments upon the walls had been
picked up here and there in Italy. A bright fire blazed
upon the hearth.

" "What will you drink ? " Chase asked, and brought
from a cupboard bottle after bottle of liqueurs. It seemed
to "Warrisden that the procession of bottles would never
end — some held liqueurs of which he had never even heard
the name ; but concerning all of them Mr. Chase discoursed
with great knowledge and infinite appreciation.


" I can recommend this," he said tentatively, as he took
up one fat round bottle and held it up to the light. " It is
difficult perhaps to say definitely which is the best, but — yes,
I can recommend this."

" Can't I have a whiskey and soda ? " asked Warrisden,

Mr. Chase looked at his companion with a stare.

" Of course you can," he replied. But his voice was
one of disappointment, and with an almost imperceptible
shrug of the shoulders he fetched a Tantalus and a siphon of

"Help yourself," he said; and lighting a gold-tipped
cigarette he drew up a chair and began to talk. And so
Warrisden came at last to understand how Tony Stretton
had gained his great faith in Mr. Chase. Chase was a
talker of a rare quality. He sat stooping over the fire with
his thin hands outspread to the blaze, and for half an hour
Warrisden was enchained. All that had repelled him in the
man, all that had aroused his curiosity, was soon lost to
sight. He yielded himself up as if to some magician.
Chase talked not at all of his work or of the many strange
incidents which he must needs have witnessed in its dis-
charge. He spoke of other climates and bright towns with
a scholarship which had nothing of pedantry, and an observa-
tion human as it was keen. Chase, with the help of his
Livy, had traced Hannibal's road across the Alps and had
followed it on foot ; he spoke of another march across snow
mountains of which Warrisden had never till this moment
heard — the hundred days of a (Lad Sultan of Morocco on
the Passes of the Atlas, during which he led his forces back
from Tafilct to Rabat. Chase knew nothing of this retreat
but what he had read. Yet he made it real to "Warrisden,
80 vividly did his imagination till up the outlines of the
written history. He knew his Paris, his Constantinople.
He had bathed from the Lido and dreamed on the Grand
Canal. He spoke of the peeling frescoes in the Villa of


Countess Guiccioli above Leghorn, of the outlook from the
terrace over the vines and the olive trees to the sea where
Shelley was drowned ; and where Byron's brig used to
round into the wind and with its sails flapping drop anchor
under the hill. For half an hour Warrisden wandered
through Europe in the pleasantest companionship, and then
Chase stopped abruptly and leaned back in his chair.

" I was forgetting," he said, " that you had come upon a
particular errand. It sometimes happens that I see no one
outside the mission people for a good while, and during
those periods when I get an occasion I am apt to talk too
much. "What can I do for you ? "

The spirit had gone from his voice, his face. He leaned
back in his chair, a man tired out. "Warrisden looked at the
liqueur bottles crowded on the table, with Chase's con-
versation still fresh in his mind. Was Chase a man at war
with himself, he wondered, who was living a life for which
he had no taste that he might the more completely escape a
life which his conscience disapproved ? Or was he deliber-
ately both hedonist and Puritan, giving to each side of his
strange nature, in turn, its outlet and gratification ?

" You have something to say to me," Chase continued.
" I know quite well what it is about."

" Stretton," said Warrisden.

" Yes ; you mentioned him in the billiard-room. "Well ? "

Chase was not looking at Warrisden. He sat with his
eyes half-closed, his elbows on the arms of his chair, his
finger-tips joined under his chain, and his head thrown back.
There was no expression upon his face but one of weariness.
Would he answer ? Could he answer ? Warrisden was in
doubt, indeed in fear. He led to his question warily.

" It was you who recommended Stretton to try horse-
breeding in Kentucky."

"Yes," said Chase; and he added, "after he had
decided of his own accord to go away."
" He failed."



" And he has disappeared."

Chase opened his eyes, but did not turn them to his

" I did not advise his disappearance," he said. " That,
like his departure, was his own doing."

"No doubt," Warrisden agreed. "But it is thought
that you might have heard from liim since his disappearance."

Chase nodded his head.

" I have."

" It is thought that you might know where he is

"I do," said Mr. Chase. Warrisden was sensibly
relieved. One-half of his fear was taken from him. Chase
knew, at all events, where Stretton was to be found. Now
he must disclose his knowledge. But before he could put a
question, Chase said languidly —

" You say ' it is thought,' Mr. "Warrisden. By whom is
it thought ? By his wife? "

" No. But by a great friend of hers and his."

" Oh," said Chase, " by Miss Pamela Mardale, then."

Warrisden started forward.

" You know her ? " he asked.

"No. But Stretton mentioned her to me in a letter.
She has sent you to me in fulfilment of a promise. I

The words were not very intelligible to Warrisden. lie
knew nothing of Pamela's promise to Tony Stretton. But,
on the other hand, he saw that Mr. Chase was giving a more
attentive ear to what he said. He betrayed no ignorance of
the promise.

" I am sent to fetch Stretton home," he said. " I want
you to tell me where he is."

Chase shook his head.

"No," he said gently.

"It is absolutely necessary that Stretton should come


back," Warrisden declared with great deliberation. And
with no less deliberation Chase replied —

"In Stretton's view it is absolutely necessary that he
should stay away ! "

" His father is dying."

Chase started forward in his chair, and stared at
Warrisden for a long time.

" Is that an excuse ? " he said at length.

It was, as Warrisden was aware. He did not answer the

" It is the truth," he replied ; and he replied truthfully.

Chase rose from his chair and walked once or twice
across the room. He came back to the fire, and leaning an
elbow on the mantelpiece stared into the coals. Warrisden
sat very still. He had used his one argument — he could
add nothing to it ; he could only wait for the answer in a
great anxiety. So much hung upon that answer for Stretton
and his wife, for Pamela, for himself I The fortunes of all
four were knotted together. At last the answer came.

" I promised Tony that I would keep his secret," said
Chase. " But when he asked for the promise, and when I
gave it, the possibility of his father dying was not either in
his mind or mine. We considered — in letters, of course —
other possibilities ; but not this one. I don't think I
have the right to remain silent. Even in the face of this
possibility I should have kept my promise, I think, if you
had come from his wife — for I know why he disappeared.
But as things are, I will tell you. Tony Stretton is in the
North Sea on a trawler."

" In the North Sea ? " exclaimed Warrisden. And he
smiled. After all, the steamboats on the river had last
night called to him with a particular summons.

"Yes," continued Chase, and he fetched from his
writing-desk a letter in Tony's hand. " He came back to
England two months ago. He drifted across the country.
He found himself at Yarmouth with a few shillings in his


pocket. He knew something of the sea. He had sailed his
own yacht in happier times. He was in great trouble. He
needed time to think out a new course of life. He hung
about on Gorleston pier for a day or two, and then was
taken on by a skipper who was starting out short of hands,
lie signed for eight weeks, and he wrote to me the day
before he started. That's four weeks ago."

" Can I reach him ? " Warrisden asked.

" Yes. The boat is the Perseverance, and it belongs to
the Blue Fleet. A steam cutter goes out every day from
Billingsgate to fetch the fish. I know one of the owners.
His son comes down to the mission. I can get you a
passage. When can you start ? "

" At any time," replied Warrisden. " The sooner the

"To-inorrow, then," said Chase. "Meet me at the
entrance to Billingsgate Market at half-past eleven. It will
take you forty-eight hours with ordinary luck to reach the
Dogger Bank. Of course, if there's a fog in the Thames
the time will be longer. And I warn you, living is rough
on a fish-carrier."

" I don't mind that," said Warrisden, with a smile. He
went away with a light heart, and that night wrote a letter
to Pamela, telling her of his interview with Mr. Chase. The
new road seemed after all likely to prove a smooth one. As
lie wrote, every now and then a steamboat hooted from the
river, and the rain pattered upon his window. He flung it
up and looked out. There was no fog to-night, only the rain
fell, and fell gently. He prayed that there might be no fog
upon the Thames to-morrow.

Mr. Chase, too, heard the rain that night. He sat in his
armchair listening to it with a decanter at his elbow half
filled with a liquid like brown sherry. At times he poured
a little into his glass and drank it slowly, crouching over his
fire. Somewhere in the darkness of the North Sea Tony
Stretton was hidden. Very likely at this moment he was


standing upon the deck of his trawler with his hands upon
the spokes of the wheel, and his eyes peering forward through
the rain, keeping his long night-watch while the light from
the binnacle struck upwards upon the lines of his face. Mr.
Chase sat late in a muse. But before he went to bed he
locked the decanter and the glass away in a private cupboard,
and took the key with him into his bedroom.





The City of Bristol swung out of the huddle of boats off
Billingsgate Wharf at one o'clock on the next afternoon.
Mr. Chase, who stood upon the quay amongst the porters
and white-jacketed salesmen, turned away with an episcopal
wave of the hand. Warrisden leaned over the rail of the
steamer's bridge, between the captain and the pilot, and
shouted a reply. The City of Bristol, fish-cutter of 300
tons, was a boat built for speed, long and narrow, sitting
low on the water, with an upstanding forecastle forward, a
small saloon in the stern, and a tiny cabin for the captain
under the bridge on deck. She sidled out into the fair way
and went forward upon her slow, intricate journey to the sea.
Below the Tower she took her place in the long, single file

Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 7 of 26)