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J. C. (John Collis) Snaith.

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with passion as he gazed into the fire.

"Auntie!" Surely there was a voice in the room.
Or was it the little wind outside softly trying the
shutters? "Auntie!" It was there again. He got
up unsteadily, but in a kind of ecstasy, half entrance-
ment, half pain, and crossed to the French window.
Very gently he slipped back the bolts and flung open
the door. The darkness hit him, but there was noth-
ing there. He knew there was nothing there, yet in
his old carpet slippers he stepped out gingerly on to
the wet lawn. The air was moist and mild and
friendly, and as his eyes grew used to the mirk the
rosebushes and the fruit trees took shape on either
hand.

The shafts of light from the room he had left guid-
ed him across the grass as far as the path which led
to the tower at the end of the garden. As soon as
his feet were on the gravel he thought he heard the
voice again. Of course it couldn't be so. It was only
the wind along the valley. And yet ... no ... if
the wind wasn't calling . . .

The gaunt line of the many-windowed tower loomed
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THE UNDEFEATED

ahead. Less by calculation than by instinct he sud-
denly found the lowest of the twelve stone steps which
led to its high door in that darkness he couldn't
see it, and if he had seen it there was not the slightest
reason for ascending, but just now he was possessed.
Step after step shaped itself with a kind of intelli-
gence to his old waterlogged slippers, the damp knob
of the door came into his hand.

The door was locked. Silly fool he was! Must
be cracked anyway ! But the starched cuff of his best
Sunday shirt had got entangled with something. The
key, of course. It had been left in the lock. Care-
less to leave it like that.

Of a sudden the door came open. The ghostly
abyss within smelt very damp and cheerless. Ought
to have had an occasional fire there during the win-
ter months. He felt his way cautiously in and his eyes
adjusted themselves to the grimmer texture of the
darkness. The chill made his teeth chatter. He felt
in his pockets for a match, but he hadn't got one;
he moved gingerly forward, past a wooden table and
a wicker chair; the spectral outline of an unshuttered
window confronted him.

Outside was nothing but the wind in the valley.
He couldn't see a yard beyond the glass. The chill
of the musty place was settling into his bones. What
a fool not to be in his comfortable bed! But ... a
voice was still whispering. There was something
. . . somewhere. . . .

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THE UNDEFEATED

The wind was just like the little wind along that
damned Canal. No wonder his teeth chattered. And
then right out in the void he saw a star. It was so
faint, so far beyond the valley and the wind's voice
that he was not sure it was a star. But as he stood
looking at it the voice seemed to come quite close.

"Auntie . . . Auntie. . . ."

"That you, Jim . . . here I am, boy. . . ."

. . . Only a fool would stand with chattering teeth,
in carpet slippers, at a goodish bit past midnight,
talking to something that wasn't there. . . .

Somewhere in the darkness there was a presence.
Perhaps it was outside the window. He felt his way
back to the open door, as far as the veiled peril of the
twelve stone steps. It was so dark that he couldn't
even see the topmost; there was not even a railing for
such an emergency; a single false step and he would
break his neck.

Queerly excited he stood poised on the threshold,
feeling into space with one foot. The wind was in
the garden below him. And then oddly, at a fresh
angle, over by his left hand, he caught a glimpse of
the star. He swayed forward into the void but the
lamp of faith had been lit in his eyes. His taut nerves
awoke to the fact that he was really descending the
unseen steps one by one and that he was counting
them. If he didn't take extraordinary care he was
very likely to kill himself, but the care he was taking
seemed by no means extraordinary.

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THE UNDEFEATED

His old carpet slippers were shuffling along the
gravel at last. He could make out a line of currant
bushes by which ran the path to the house. As he
moved forward the wind died away in the valley and
he lost sight of the star. But he knew his way now.
Pent up forces flowed from him through the wall of
li-ving darkness. "I'm coming, Jim !" he muttered.
The wind seemed to answer him. And then he came
to the end of the row of bushes and there beyond a
patch of wet grass was the door of the cosy room
still open with a subdued glow of lamp and fire shin-
ing beyond.

When he came in he took off his soaked slippers that
they might not soil the beautiful carpet of which Me-
lia was so proud. As he barred the door and drew
the curtains across the window, the pretty old-fash-
ioned clock on the chimneypiece chided him by melo-
diously striking one o'clock. He must be a fool he
had to be up at seven; but the enchanted room that
was like a dream embodied cast one last spell upon
him.

He had no need . . . the Chaps wouldn't expect it
... he was forty-five. . . .

The voice was in the valley. It was a quarter past
one. He raked out the last faint embers of the fire,
then he put out the lamp and carried his wet slippers
into the hall. After his recent adventure it was but
a simple matter to find his way up the richly car-

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peted stairs without a light and creep into the room
where his wife slept

She was sleeping now. So cunningly he crept into
the room that she did not stir. He listened to the
gentle rise and fall of her soft breath. Good woman !
brave woman! He tiptoed past the bed to where the
window was and managed to draw up the clever new-
fangled blinds without making a sound. Yes, there
was the star. That was all he wanted to see. Faint
it was, so faint that faith was needed to believe that
it, was a star. But there was nothing else it could be.

The little sobbing voice, now no more than a whis-
per, that, too, was out there. Jim's voice . . . cracked
he must be ... such sloppy notions . . . the wind
along that damned canal. , . .

Suddenly he turned from the star. At the beck of
a queer impulse he knelt by the bed, burying his eyes
in the soft counterpane. He prayed for the Chaps.
He prayed for Melia. He prayed for the life that lay
with her, the life coming to them so miraculously they
knew not whence, after all those years.

Could it be that Jim was coming back to complete
his great beginnings? Coming back to witch the
world with beauty ? Just a fancy. But everything was
just a fancy. Jim had said so once, looking at the
sunset on the bank of that canal.

And he was one who .



THE months went by. In the meantime, upon the
fields of France, was being decided the fate of
the world for generations to come. Day followed day
whose story will echo down the ages, but in the cot-
tage with the green shutters at the head of the valley
there was little to indicate that it was a time of des-
tiny.

The Corporal was allowed to return to his old regi-
ment. Experience had made him doubly valuable and
its ranks had been grievously thinned. After three
months at the depot he was sent to France.

When at the end of July he came home on draft
leave to bid Melia good-by, her time was drawing near.
And in spite of the burdens life had laid upon them,
the feeling now uppermost was a subtle sense of tri-
umph. In the final bitterness of conflict the dark Fates
had given them courage to bear their heads high.

A strange reward was coming to them, bringing
with it new obligations, new responsibilities. But they
were not afraid. Somewhere, a Friend was helping
them. It must be so, or else the dire perils to which
they had been exposed would not have allowed their
happiness to bear so late a flower. Besides, they had

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THE UNDEFEATED

been given a specific token that in the sum of things
they mattered.

As the Corporal held his wife in a last embrace it
came to him all at once that he was never to see the
young life that was to bear his name. "If we can put
the job through to a finish," he whispered huskily, "I'd
like it to be a boy. If we can't, a girl'd be better."

She asked why a girl would be better. As usual
she was not very quick in the uptake.

"The world '11 not be a place for boys unless we
can do the job clean."

"But you will do it, Bill." The almost cowlike eyes
expressed a divine instinct. "God won't let the Ger-
mans win."

Somehow the words shamed him, yet not for the
reason that turned her own heart to fire. It was trea-
son to the Chaps to talk of girls.

"O* course we'll make a clean job on it." He pressed
a final caress upon her. "You can set there, my dear,
in that nice chair all covered with wild flowers, and
the door open just as it is, so that you can get a
glimpse o' that old river with the sun on it and when
your eyes get tired-like, my dear, you can fix 'em on
that little picture over the chimneypiece opposite. See
what I mean, like ? There's the sun in that, too. John
Torrington painted it. Look at it sometimes. We
are going to win it isn't right to think otherwise.
That means a boy. And if a boy it is, I'd like him
to be called Jim."



LI



CIVILIZATION was ringing with great news at
the very hour that a son was born to the Cor-
poral. But at that time he was a Corporal no longer.
A letter had already reached Melia to say that "he was
promoted Color Sergeant." The fighting was awful,
but the Chaps had got their tails up, and the time was
coming "when Fritz would be bound to throw in his
hand."

It was very well, therefore, that the half comic,
rather pathetic, somewhat crumpled but perfectly
healthly creature snuggling up against its mother in
a lovely chintz-clad bedroom looking southwest,
proved to be a small but perfectly formed specimen of
the human male. The delighted grandmother herself
took the incredible news to Strathfieldsaye.

Josiah, who for several days past had been hard
set to conceal a growing excitement, rubbed his hands
with glee. "One in the eye for Park Crescent what ?
Fancy . . . Melia!"

Lady Munt agreed that wonders are never likely to
cease in this world.

"Mother," she never remembered to have seen Jo-
siah so excited, "this means a bottle o' champagne."
He pressed the bell and gave comprehensive orders

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THE UNDEFEATED

to Alice. "Seems to me that Victory's in the air."
Secretly he had always had a grudge against Fate,
that, with all his worldly success, his family could not
muster one solitary male among them. "Funny
thing, y' know, how you can be deceived in people.
I always said that chap Hollis was a good-for-noth-
ing. Well, I was wrong."

Her ladyship sniffed a little and wiped tearful eyes.
She was in perversely low spirits, but good soup, in
spite of the food crisis and good wine, which she was
simply forced to drink, did something to restore her.

"Yes, you can be deceived in people." The cool
trickle down Josiah's throat generated a desire for con-
versation. "Take the Germans. Everybody thought
they were a white race. Well, they aren't. Then take
the Americans. Everybody said they were too proud
to fight. And, when finally they came in, people said
they'd not be much use anyway. But it shows how
easy it is to be wrong." Again the Mayor took up his
glass. "For I tell you, Mother, those Yankees have
made a difference. Since that mix-up back in March
they've done wonders. The Yankees have turned the
scale."

Maria had a head for domestic affairs only; she
did not pretend to be wise in international matters.
She sighed gently and thought of a certain chintz-clad
room up at Dibley.

"Get on with it!" Her lord pointed at her glass
peremptorily. "Pol Roger '04'!! hurt nobody." Strong

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THE UNDEFEATED

in that faith, he lifted his own glass and bowed and
beamed over the top of it. "Grandma, here's now!"

At the toast Maria hoisted a blush which brought
Josiah to the verge of catastrophe. Tears, her one
form of emotional luxury, came into her honest eyes.

"In a year or two, Grandma, we'll have to be think-
ing of your golden wedding touching wood!" He
laid a ritualistic finger upon the mahogany. "You
little thought, did you now, when we started out to-
gether in that funny little box up Parker's Entry that
one day you'd be My Lady? Funny world what?
I remember going to fetch the Doctor the night that
gel was born. Bitter cold it was." Suddenly Josiah
stopped and again took up his glass. "Wind had an
edge like a knife round the corner by Waterloo
Square." Then came an odd change of voice. "Did I
understand you to say the gel would like me to be
godfather?"

Maria understood that Melia understood that Bill
would like it.

A sigh escaped Josiah. He laid down his knife and
fork. "Well, well, I never made such a mistake in my
life as over that chap." His voice grew humbler than
Maria had ever heard it. "Shows how you can be
deceived. Something big about that feller. Never
made a greater mistake in my life. We'll hope he'll
come through. Better write him a line, Mother.
Don't suppose it's any use tryin' to send a wire."



LII



SOME weeks later, on a cold Sunday morning in
November, Sir Josiah and Lady Munt drove over
to Torrington Cottage. They were accompanied by
Sally, on short leave from France, and by Gertrude
Preston. Before the party walked across the village
green to the little parish church, where a service of
National Thanksgiving was to be held, it found that a
matter of great importance claimed attention.

The matter was Jim. The rector of the parish
had arranged to christen him that afternoon at three
o'clock. Near a good log fire in the sunny embrasure
of the charming little drawing-room his grand cradle
had been set; and here the wonderful infant was duly
inspected by his godparents.

Jim was a picture. His grandfather said he was.
There was no other word. Yet even in the presence
of this phenomenal youth there was but a chastened
joy. He was sleeping for one thing, calmly, sweetly
and superbly; and his pale, fine-drawn, yet strangely
proud-looking mother was clad in the livery of widow-
hood.

Said Josiah in a low voice, so as not to wake the
baby, "What's happened to the picture that used to

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THE UNDEFEATED

be there?" He pointed to the wall above the chim-
neypiece.

"It fell down, Dad." The voice of Melia was calm.

"When?"

"One night last week the night before the news
came."

"You don't say !" Josiah was not superstitious, still
it was queer.

"No one was in the room when it happened. No
one heard it fall. Didn't break the frame or the glass
or anything. Just the snapping of the cord."

"War cord, I expect." Josiah's voice was grim.
"Need a cord of a better quality to hang a certain
party. Better have it put up again. Young Nixey
tells me that picture may be worth a sight o' money."

Melia promised that it should be put up again.
He always set such great store by it.

Of a sudden, Sally, who had been wholly absorbed
in the contemplation of James, said, "Tell me, Father,
when did you last see young Nixey?"

"Thursday Friday. Happened to look in Friday
morning as I was passing."

"How was he?"

"Wonderfully cheerful considerin'. Tries to gam-
mon his old mother, but I guess the old lady
knows. . . ."

". . . he'll never . . ."

"No, poor fellow. Wonderful pluck. Tells me he's
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THE UNDEFEATED

plannin' a cathedral ... a cathedral, mark you . . .
and stone blind."

Sally sighed a little and turned again to look at
"Jim. Aunt Gerty laid a white-gloved hand gently on
.the Mayor's sleeve. "Ten minutes to eleven, Josiah.
Won't do to be late you of all people. Will it
Maria?"



LIII

MARIA and Aunt Gerty, carrying respectability
to the verge of fashion, led the way by the path
across the green to the village church. Josiah, walk-
ing with his daughters, followed ten paces behind.
Wearing the tall hat of public life he looked imposing,
but four and a quarter years of war had chastened
him. The roll and the swagger were not what they
were ; four and a quarter years of incessant but fruit-
ful labor for the common weal had molded his mind,
had modified an aggressive personality.

The church, although in excess of the local require-
ments as a rule, was very full this morning in No-
vember. It was an hour of Thanksgiving. The goal
had been reached. Victory, complete and final, had
come almost like a thief in the night. And its com-
ing had revealed, in a manner transcending even the
awful dramas of old, the omnipotence of the moral
law. Yet again the God of Righteousness had de-
clared Himself in Sovereign power.

Grim perils had been surmounted by the devotion
of the sons and daughters of the race, but very much
remained to do. Behind the humble gratitude to the
Giver of Victory, behind the sense of exultation so
rightly uppermost this Sabbath morning, was in every

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THE UNDEFEATED

heart a desolating sense of the cost in human lives and
a deep anxiety for the future.

The Vicar of the parish, by name the Reverend Cor-
field Stanning, was a white-haired man who had given
soul and kin freely to the Cause. He was a son of
the soil, a type of the almost extinct squarson who
survives here and there in England, half landowner,
half patriarch, less a scholar than a sportsman and a
man of the world. For that reason, perhaps, he had
the practical wisdom that books do not give. He had
the instinct for affairs which men of his type seldom
lack.

Victory was with the arms of Right. The people
did well to rejoice. But also it was a time for prayer,
for steadfast dedication to the gigantic tasks ahead.
The man-eating tiger was in the net. It now remained
to repair the havoc he had wrought, and to provide
security for generations unborn against his kind.

Having humbly thanked the Giver, the old man
prayed for his country and for those noble races of
which it was the foster-mother. He prayed for all
her wide-flung peoples to whom the Keys had been
given ; he prayed that the Pioneers of sacred liberties
so long in peril, those one in name and in blood over
all the wide seas, who hold Milton's faith, who speak
Shakespeare's tongue may ever stand as now, shoulder
to shoulder in the gate.

He prayed for all those children of men grown old
and weak in bondage, whose chains had at last been

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THE UNDEFEATED

cast off. He besought the Divine grace to guide
them.

Finally, he prayed for the Co-trustees of the future
and that the Divine wisdom encompass them in their
reckoning with a cruel and unworthy foe. He asked
that mercy be extended to those who had denied it
to others, not that it was in his heart to pity them in
their eclipse or to spare them aught of their desert,
but that the name of the Master be served, in whom
lay the ultimate hope of the world, might be honored
in mankind's supreme yet most terrible hour.

When the old man came to his brief and simple
sermon the words of his text pierced every heart.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down
his life for his friends."

It began with commemoration of a humble hero,
known to many in that church, who had given all he
had to give without stint or question. And he read a
letter written from the sacred and recovered soil of
France by the officer commanding that Band of Broth-
ers raised in their midst to the wife of one Sergeant
William Hollis, who had died a soldier and a gentle-
man that his faith and his friends might live



THE END



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Online LibraryJ. C. (John Collis) SnaithThe undefeated → online text (page 18 of 18)