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

The truants; a novel online

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" He replied that his father had not sent for him."

" You spoke of the candles lit every night ? "

" His answer was the same. His father had not sent for
him. Besides, he had his time to serve. He had signed on
for eight weeks. There was only one moment when I thought
that there was a chance I might persuade him ; and, indeed,
my persuasions had really nothing to do with it at all. It
was just the mention of your name."

"My name ? " asked Pamela, in surprise.

" Yes. In answer to a question of his I told him that
I had been sent out by you, and for a moment he

Pamela nodded her head in comprehension.

11 1 understand ; but he refused in the end ? "

" Yes. He said, ' One must take one's risks.' "

Pamela repeated the sentence softly to herself ; and
Warrisden crossed over to her side. His voice took a


gentler note, and one still more serious than that which he
had used.

" Do you know what I think ? " he asked. " You sent
me out with a message to Stretton. I think that he has
sent me back with a message for you — ' One must take one's
risks.' He said that he had learned that in the North Sea.
He pointed to the little boats carrying the fish-boxes to the
steamer through the heavy, breaking seas. Each man in
each of the boats was taking his risks. 'Whether it's lacing
your topsail or taking in a reef,' he said, ' one must take
one's risks.' "

Pamela was silent for awhile after he had spoken. She
sat with her hands folded in her lap, and her face most
serious. Then she looked up at her companion with a very
friendly smile ; but she did not answer him at all. And
when she spoke, she spoke words which utterly surprised
him. All the time since the ketches had disappeared behind
the waves he had been plagued with the thought of the
distress which defeat would cause her; "and here she was

" I am very glad that you went out to the North Sea for
me, even though the journey proved fruitless. It makes us
so much the better friends, doesn't it ? And that is a gain
for me. Think of it that way, and you will not mind the
hardships and the waste of time."

She held out her hand — rather a rare act with her — and
"Warrisden took it. Then came the explanation why defeat
meant so little just at this time.

" I need not have sent you at all," she continued, " could
I have foreseen. Sir John Stretton died yesterday afternoon,
suddenly. I received a telegram last night from Millie. So
Tony will naturally come home when his four weeks are up.
I wrote last night to Millie, telling her where Tony was."
Then she added, " But I am glad that I did not foresee."

She rose from her chair, and they walked out through
the hall to the front of the house. A groom was holding



Pamela's horse. The others who were hunting that day had
already ridden off. Warrisden helped her into the saddle,
and she rode away.

Sir John had died, and Stretton would now naturally
come home. That explained to "Warrisden how it was that
Pamela made so little of the defeat. But it was not the
whole explanation. Pamela was waking from her long sleep,
like the princess in the fairy tale, and the mere act of waking
was a pleasure. In the stir of emotions, hitherto rigorously
suppressed, in the exercise of sympathies, she found a delight
such as one may find in the mere stretching of one's muscles
after a deep rest. The consciousness of life as a thing enjoy-
able began to tingle in her. She was learning again lessons
which she remembered once to have learned before. The
joy of being needed by those one needs — there was one of
them. She had learned a new one to-day — " One must take
one's risks." She repeated the sentence over to herself as
she rode between the hedgerows on this morning which had
the sparkle of spring. A few days ago she would have put
that view of life away from her. Now, old as it was, simple
as it was, she pondered upon it as though it were a view quite
novel. She found it, moreover, pleasant. She had travelled,
indeed, further along the new road than she was aware. The
truth is that she had rather hugged to herself the great
trouble which had overshadowed her life. She had done so
unwittingly. She had allowed it to dominate her after it
had lost its power to dominate, and from force of habit. She
began to be aware of it now that she had stepped out from
her isolation, and was gathering again the strings of her life
into her hands.

• • • t •

But Pamela was wrong in her supposition that since Sir
John's death the danger for Millicent was at an end. Tony
Stretton would now return home, she thought ; and nothing
was further from Tony's thoughts. At the time when
Pamela was riding through the lanes of Leicestershire on


that morning of early spring, Tony was lying in his bunk in
the cabin of the Perseverance reading over, for the thousandth
time, certain letters which he kept beneath his pillow. This
week he kept the long night watch from midnight until eight
of the morning ; it was now eleven, and he had the cabin to
himself. The great gale had blown itself out. The trawl,
which for three days had remained safely stowed under the
lee bulwarks, was now dragging behind the boat ; with her
topsails set the ketch was sailing full and by the wind ; and
down the open companion the sunlight streamed into the
cabin and played like water upon the floor. The letters
Tony Stretton was reading were those which Millie had sent
him. Disappointment was plain in every line ; they were
sown with galling expressions of pity ; here and there con-
tempt peeped out. Yet he was glad to have them ; they
were his monitors, and he found a stimulus in their very
cruelty. Though he knew them by heart, he continually
read them on mornings like this, when the sun shone down
the companion, and the voices of his fellow sailors called
cheerily overhead ; at night, leaning upon his elbow, and
spelling them out by the dim light of the swinging lamp,
while the crew slept about him in their bunks.

To his companions he was rather a mystery. To some
of them he was just down on his luck ; to others he was a
man " who had done something."

" I suppose you have come out here to lie doggo," said
the skipper to him, shouting out the words in the height of
the gale, when both were standing by the lashed wheel one
night. " I ask no questions. All I say is, you do your work.
I have had no call to slap a haddick across your face. I say
that fair and square. Water 1 "

He concluded his speech with a yell. Stretton saw a
ragged line of wjrite suddenly flash out in the darkness, high
up by the weather bow, and descend with a roar. It was a
wave breaking down upon the deck. Both men flung them-
selves down the companion, and the water sluiced after them


and washed them struggling about the floor of the cabin.
The wave saved Strctton from the need to reply, and the
skipper did not refer to the subject again.

Stretton had signed on for this cruise on the Perseverance
because he wanted a time during which he could be quite
sure of his livelihood. So far he had failed. He must map
out a new course for himself upon his life's chart. But for
that work he needed time for thought, and that time, up till
now, he had not enjoyed. The precarious existence which
he had led since he had lost the half of Millie's small
fortune — now a clerk in a store, and a failure ; now a com-
mercial traveller, and again a failure — had left him little
breathing space wherein to gather up his slow thoughts and
originate a new plan. That breathing space, however, the
Perseverance had afforded him. During the long watches on
fine nights, when the dark sails, swinging up and down to
the motion of the boat, revealed and obscured the stars, he
wrestled with the difficult problem of his life.

He could go back when his cruise was over if he chose.
His father was dying ; he faced the fact quite frankly. The
object with which he set out would be, after all, accomplished,
though not accomplished by himself. There would be a
house for Millie and himself independent of the old man's
caprice ; their life would be freed from the shadow of his
tyranny ; their seclusion would come to an end ; they could
let the sunlight in upon their lives. Yes ! But there were
the letters down in the cabin there, underneath his pillow.
Did not they alter the position ? He had gone away to keep
his wife, just, in a word, to prevent that very contempt of
which the letters gave him proof. Must he not now stay
away in order to regain her ? His wife was at the bottom
of all his thoughts. He had no blame for her, however
much her written words might hurt. He looked back upon
their life together, its pleasant beginnings, when they were
not merely lovers, but very good friends into the bargain.
For it is possible to lie the one and yet not the other. They


were good days, the days in the little house in Deanery
Street, days full of fun and good temper and amusement.
He recalled their two seasons in London — London bright
with summer — and making of each long day a too short
holiday. Then had come the change, sudden, dark, and
complete. In the place of freedom, subjection ; in the place
of company, isolation ; in the place of friends, a sour old
man, querulous and exacting. Then had come the great
hope of another home ; and swiftly upon that hope its failure
through his incapacity. He could not blame her for the
letters underneath his pillow. He was no less set upon
regaining her than he had been before on keeping her. His
love for her had been the chief motive of his life when he
left the house in Berkeley Square. It remained so still.
Could he go back, he asked himself ?

There was one inducement persuading him always to
answer " Yes " — the sentence which Pamela had spoken,
and which she had refused to explain. He should be at his
wife's side. He had never understood that saying ; it
remained fixed in his memory, plaguing him. He should
be at his wife's side. So Pamela Mardale had said, and for
what Pamela said he had the greatest respect. "Well, he
could be in a few weeks at his wife's side. But would it not
be at too great a cost unless he had first redeemed himself
from her contempt ?

Thus he turned and turned, and saw no issue anywhere.
The days slipped by, and one morning the fish-cutter brought
to him a letter, which told him that four days ago his father
had died. He could not reach home in time for the funeral,
even if he started at once. And he could not start at once ;
he had signed on for eight weeks.

But the letter left him face to face with the old problem.
Should he go back or should he stay away ? And if he
stayed away, what should he do ?

He came on deck one morning, and his skipper said —

" There's a fog on land, Stretton,"


" How do you know that ? " asked Stretton.

The captain pointed to some birds hovering over the
masts of the ketch.

" Those arc land birds," said he. " Look, there's a
thrash and there's a blackbird. You won't find thern so
far from land without a reason. There has been a fog,
and very likely a storm. They have lost their bearings in
the fog."

The birds hovered about the ships of the fleet, calling
plaintively — here, at all events, were men recognisably
belonging to the land they vainly sought. Stretton,
watching them, felt very much like one of those birds. He,
too, had lost his way in a fog, and though he made no outcry,
his need of guidance was no less great than theirs.

Then came a morning at last when the trawl was hauled
in for the last time, and the boat's head pointed towards

" When shall we reach harbour ? " Stretton asked

" If this breeze holds, in twenty-four hours," replied the

Twenty-four hours 1 Just a day and a night, and
Stretton would step from the deck on to Gorleston Quay ;
and he was no nearer to the solution of his problem than
when he had stepped from the quay on to the deck eight
weeks ago. Those eight weeks were to have resolved all his
perplexities, and lo ! the eight weeks had passed.

He was in a fever of restlessness. lie paced the deck all
the day when he was not standing at the wheel ; at night he
could not sleep, but stood leaning over the bulwarks, watching
the stars trembling in the quiet water. At one o'clock in the
morning the Perseverance passed a lightship. Already the
boat was so near home I And in the hour which followed,
his eight weeks of solitary communing, forced, as it were, by
immediate necessity, bore their fruit. His inspiration — he
Counted the idea no less than an inspiration — came to him


suddenly. He saw all at once his course marked out for him
upon the chart of life. He would not suffer a doubt of it to
enter his mind ; he welcomed it with passion, and the great
load was lifted from his mind. The idea had come. It was
water in a dry land.

A fisherman leaning over the bulwark by Stretton's side
heard him suddenly begin to sing over to himself a verse or
two of a sons; —


"Oh, come out, mah love ! I'm a-waiting fob you hcalil
Doan' you keep yuh window closed to-night."

It was a coon song which Stretton was humming over to
himself. His voice dropped to a murmur, He stopped and
laughed softly to himself, as though the song had very dear
associations in his thoughts. Then his voice rose again, and
there was now a kind of triumph in the lilt of the song, which
had nothing to do with the words —

" De stars all a-gwine put dey little ones to bed
Wid dey ' hush now, sing a lullaby,'
Dc man in de moon nod his sleepy, sleepy head,
And do sandman put a little in his eye."

The words went lilting out over the quiet sea. It seemed
to Stretton that they came from a lighted window just behind
him, and were sung in a woman's voice. He was standing on
a lawn surrounded by high dark trees in the warmth of a
summer night. He was looking out past the islets over eight
miles of quiet water to the clustered lights of the yachts in
Oban Bay. The coon song was tliat which his wife had
sung to him on one evening he was never to forget ; and
this night he had recovered its associations. It was no
longer " a mere song sung by somebody." It seemed to
him, so quickly did his anticipations for once outrun his
judgment, that he had already recovered his wife.

The Perseverance was moored alongside of the quay at
eight o'clock in the morning, and just at that time Millie was
reading a letter of condolence from Lionel Callon.




Mr. Chase left the mission quite early in the evening and
walked towards his lodging. That side of his nature which
clamoured for enjoyments and a life of luxury was urgent
with him to-night. As he turned into his street he began to
debate with himself whether he should go in search of a cab
and drive westwards out of the squalor. A church clock
had just struck nine ; he would find his club open and his
friends about the fire. Thus debating he came to his own
door, and had unconsciously taken his latch-key from his
pocket before he had decided upon his course. The latch-
key decided him. He opened the door and went quickly up
to his sitting-room. The gas was low, and what light there
was came from the fire. Chase shut the door gently, and
his face underwent a change. There came a glitter into his
eyes, a smile to his lips. He crossed to the little cupboard
in the corner and unlocked it, stealthily, even though he was
alone. As he put his hand into it and grasped the decanter,
something stirred in his armchair. The back of the chair
was towards him. He remained for a second or two motion-
less, listening. But the sound was not repeated. Chase
noiselessly locked the cupboard again and came back to the
fire. A man was sitting asleep in the chair.

Chase laid a hand upon his shoulder and shook him.

" Stretton," he said ; and Tony Stretton opened his eyes.

" I fell asleep waiting for you," he said.

u When did you get back ? " asked Chase.


" I landed at Yarmouth this morning. I came up to
London tins afternoon."

Chase turned up the gas and lit a cigarette.

" You have not been home, then ? " he said. " There is
news waiting for you there. Your father is dead ! "

" I know," Stretton replied. " He died a month ago."

Mr. Chase was perplexed. He drew up a chair to the
fire and sat down.

" You know that ? " he asked slowly ; " and yet you
have not gone home ? "

" No," replied Stretton. " And I do not mean to go."

Stretton was speaking in the quietest and most natural
way. There was no trace in his manner of that anxiety
which during the last few days had kept him restless and
uneasy. He had come to his decision. Chase was aware of
the stubborn persistence of his friend ; and it was rather to
acquire knowledge than to persuade that he put his questions.

"But why ? You went away to make an independent
home, free from the restrictions under which you and your
wife were living. Well, you have got that home now. The
reason for your absence has gone."

Stretton shook his head.

" The reason remains. Indeed it is stronger now than it
was when I first left England," he answered. He leaned
forward with his elbows upon his knees, gazing into the fire.
The light played upon his face, and Chase could not but
notice the change which these few months had brought to
him. He had grown thin, and rather worn ; he had lost
the comfortable look of prosperity ; his face was tanned.
But there was more. It might have been expected that the
rough surroundings amidst which Stretton had lived would
leave their marks. He might have become rather coarse,
rather gross to the eye. On the contrary, there was a look
of refinement. It was the long battle with his own thoughts
which had left the marks. The mind was showing through
the flesh. The face had become spiritualised.


" Yes. the reason remains," said Stretton. " I left Lome
to keep my wife. We lived a life of quarrels. All the little
memories, the associations, the thousand and one small
private things — ideas, thoughts, words, jokes even, which
two people who care very much for one another have in
common — we were losing, and so quickly ; so very quickly.
I can't express half what I mean. But haven't you seen a
man and a woman at a dinner-table, when some chance
sentence is spoken, suddenly look at one another just for a
second, smile perhaps, at all events speak, though no word is
spoken ? Well, that kind of intimacy was going. I saw
indifference coming, perhaps dislike, perhaps contempt ; yes,
contempt, just because I sat there and looked on. So I went
away. But the contempt has come. Oh, don't tliink I
believe that I made a mistake in going away. It would
have come none the less had I stayed. But I have to reckon
with the fact that it-has come."

Mr. Chase sat following Stretton's words with a very
close attention. Never had Stretton spoken to him with so
much frankness before.

" Go on," suid Chase. " What you are saying is — much
of it — news to me."

" Well, suppose that I were to go back now," Stretton
resumed, "at once — do you see? — that contempt is

" No," cried Chase.

" Yes, yes," Stretton insisted. " Look at it from Millie's
point of view, not from yours, not even from mine. Look
at the history of the incident from the beginning ! Work it
out as she would ; nay," he corrected himself, remembering
the letters, " as she has. I leave her when things are at
their worst. That's not all. I take half Millie's fortune,
and am fool enough to lose it right away. And that's not
all. I stay away in the endeavour to recover the lost
ground, and I continually fail. Meanwhile Millie has the
dreary, irksome, exacting, unrequited life, which I left


behind, to get through as best she can alone ; without

pleasure, and she likes pleasure " He suddenly looked

at Chase, with a challenge in his eyes. "Why shouldn't
she ? " he asked abruptly. Chase agreed.

" Why shouldn't she ? " he said, with a smile. " I am
not disapproving."

Stretton resumed his former attitude, his former tone.

" Without friends, and she is fond of having friends
about her ; without any chance of gratifying her spirits or
her youth ! To make her life still more disheartening, every
mail which reaches her from New York brings her only
another instalment of my disastrous record. Work it out
from her point of view, Chase ; then add this to crown it
all." He leaned forward towards Chase and emphasized his
words with a gesture of his hand. " The first moment when
her life suddenly becomes easy, and does so through no help
of mine, I — the failure— come scurrying back to share it.
No, Chase, no 1 "

He uttered his refusal to accept that position with a
positive violence, and flung himself back in his chair.
Chase answered quietly —

" Surely you are forgetting that it is your father's wealth
which makes her life easy."

" I am not forgetting it at all."

" It's your fathy's wealth," Chase repeated. " You
have a right to share in it."

" Yes," Stretton admitted ; " but what have rights to do
with the question at all ? If my wife thinks me no good,
will my rights save me from her contempt ? "

And before that blunt question Mr. Chase was silent. It
was too direct, too unanswerable. Stretton rose from his
chair, and stood looking down at his companion.

" Just consider the story I should have to tell Millie to-
night — by George ! " he exclaimed suddenly — " if I went
back to-night. I start out with fifteen hundred pounds of
hers to make a home and a competence ; and within a few


months I am working as a hand on a North Sea trawler at
nineteen shillings a week."

"A story of hardships undergone for her sake," said
Chase ; " for that's the truth of your story, Stretton. And
don't you think the hardships would count for ever so much
more than any success you could have won ? "

" Hardships ! " exclaimed Stretton, with a laugh. " I
think I would find it difficult to make a moving tale out of
my hardships. And I wouldn't if I could — no ! "

As a fact, although it was unknown to Tony, Chase was
wrong. Had Stretton told his story never so vividly, it
would have made no difference. Millie Stretton had not the
imagination to realise what those hardships had been.
Tony's story would have been to her just a story, calling, no
doubt, for exclamations of tenderness and pity. But she
could not have understood what he had felt, what he had
thought, what he had endured. Deeper feelings and a wider
sympathy than Millie Stretton was dowered with would have
been needed for comprehension.

. Stretton walked across the room and came back to the
fire. He looked down at Chase with a smile. " Very likely
you think I am a great fool," he said, in a gentler voice than
he had used till now. " No doubt nine men out of ten would
say, ' Take the gifts the gods send you, and let the rest slide.
What if you and your wife drift apart ? You won't be the
only couple.' But, frankly, Chase, that is not good enough.
I have seen a good deal of it — the boredom, the gradual ossi-
fication. Oh no ; I'm not content with that ! You see,
Chase," he stopped for a moment and gazed steadily into the
fire ; then he went on quite simply, "you see, I care for Millie
very much."

Chase knew well what weight to give to that short
sentence. Had it been more elaborate it would have meant
less. It needed no other commentary than the quiet sincerity
with which it was uttered.

" Yes, I understand," he said.


Stretton seated himself again in his chair and took out
a briar pipe from his pocket. The pipe had an open metal
covering over the bowl.

" I need that no longer," Stretton said, with a laugh, as
he removed it. Then he took out a pouch, filled his pipe,
and lighted it.

" Have a whisky and soda ? " said Chase.

"No, thanks."

Chase lighted a cigarette and looked at his friend with
curiosity. The change which he had noticed in Stretton's
looks had been just as noticeable in his words. This man
sitting opposite to him was no longer the Tony Stretton who
had once come to him for advice. That man had been slow
of thought, halting of speech, good-humoured, friendly ; but a
man with whom it was difficult to get at close quarters. Talk
with him a hundred times, and you seemed to know him no

Online LibraryA. E. W. (Alfred Edward Woodley) MasonThe truants; a novel → online text (page 9 of 26)