J. C. (John Collis) Snaith.

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"Who's bought it?" he said at last.

"Father's bought it." She did her best to speak
quite casually, but she didn't succeed.


IT was a knife. Yet it had not dealt exactly the
kind of blow that he had looked for. Even if the
stab was softer, and of that at the moment he was
not quite sure, undoubtedly there was poison in the
wound. In a flash he saw that, somehow, it had
strengthened her position and weakened his. "You
never told me he'd bought the business." The tone
was a confession of impotence.

"He hasn't bought it."

But, in face of the facts, the fine exterior and the
large and expensive stock this was a quibble and it was
too palpable. "How did you come by all that stuff
in the window then?"

"He's helping me to run it."

"Helping you to run it!" His face was a picture
of simple incredulity.

"He paid up all we owed so that we could start
fair. And he looks in every Monday morning and
tells me what to buy and where to buy it."

"Does he pay for it?"

"He does." There was something like pride in her
voice. "He pays cash. And I have to keep books
like I used to at the Duke of Wellington. Of course


he's only lending the money. I pay him back at the
end of the month when I balance the accounts."

He was dum founded by this precise statement. The
hand of his mean, narrow father-in-law was not recog-
nizable. Somehow it seemed to alter everything, but
not at once was he able to turn his mind to the new
and unexpected situation.

One thing was clear, however; it would be vain to
resent Josiah's interference. He had bought the prop-
erty over their heads and he could do what he liked
with his own. Again Melia had been left in debt and
her husband knew well enough that unless some spe-
cial providence had intervened she might not have been
able to carry on. Exactly why Josiah had done as he
had done neither his daughter nor his son-in-law could
fathom. They hated to receive these belated favors,
yet as things were there was no way of escaping them.

A little reluctantly, yet with a feeling of intense re-
lief, Bill took off his good khaki overcoat and hung it
on the nail provided for the purpose on the curtained
door. Melia toasted a pikelet at the clear fire, buttered
it richly, set it in a dish in the fender to keep warm ;
then the kettle began to boil and she brewed the tea.

As she did all this Bill noticed that there was a new
air of alertness, of competence about her; there was a
light in her eyes, a decision in her actions ; she seemed
to have more interest in life. And for himself, as he
sat at the table with its clean cloth and shining knives
and spoons and bright sugar bowl and she handed him



his tea just as he liked it, with one lump of sugar and
not too much milk, he felt something changing in him
suddenly. In a way of speaking it was a kind of re-

They didn't talk much. Melia was not a talking
sort, nor was he except when he had "had a drop," and
he didn't get "drops" now. Besides, in any case,
the army seemed to have taken anything superfluous
in the way of talk out of him, as it did with most.
But he was honestly glad to be back in the peaceful
four walls of his home. And it was not certain, al-
though Melia carefully refrained from hinting as
much, that she was not honestly glad to see him there.
At all events she got his slippers for him presently
out of the boot cupboard ; and then, unasked, she made
a spill of paper for him and laid it on the table by
his elbow, a sufficient intimation that he was expected
to light his pipe.


THEY went to bed at a quarter to ten. For a time
they talked and then Bill fell asleep. And he
slept as perhaps he had never slept in that room in all
the years of their married life. How good the old
four-poster seemed! It was a family heirloom in
which he had been born forty-one and a half years
ago. Many a miserable, almost intolerable night had
he passed in it, but this Christmas Eve in the course
of ten minutes or so it was giving him one of the best
sleeps he had ever known.

He woke in pitch darkness. Melia was breathing
placidly and regularly by his side. He didn't venture
to move lest he should disturb her, and he lay motion-
less but strangely comfortable; somehow it had never
given him such exquisite pleasure to lie in that old

Everything was very still ; there was none of the in-
tolerable fuss and clatter of barrack life at all hours
of the day and night. It was so peaceful that he was
just about to doze again when a distant clock began
to strike. It was the familiar clock of Saint George's
Church, along Mulcaster Road, a hundred yards or so
away, and it told the hour of seven.

Two or three minutes later bells began to ring. It



was Christmas morning; they were proclaiming peace
on earth and good will towards men. How rum they
sounded ! Yet as he lay motionless in that bed, with
a slow succession of deeply harmonious breaths near
by, he wished harm to no man, not even to the Boche.
Peace on earth and good will towards men . . . yes,
and women! Then it was, just in that pulse of time,
the inspiration came to him to make Christmas morn-
ing memorable.

The idea was very simple. He would steal out of
bed without harm to the slumbers of Melia, slip on
his clothes in the dark, go downstairs, light the kitchen
fire, boil the kettle and presently bring her a cup of
tea. Never before had it occurred to him to pay her
such a delicate attention, but this morning he ap-
peared to have a new mind and a new heart; some-
how, this morning he was seeing things with other

Without disturbing her he was able to carry out
his plan. But twenty minutes later when he returned
to the room with a cup of tea on a small tray, Melia
was awake and wondering what the time was.

"Needn't get up yet," he said. "I've lit the fire.
Happy Christmas to you!" Then he handed her the

She seemed much surprised and just for a moment
a little embarrassed. But she drank the tea grate-
fully, yet wondering all the time what had made him
bring it to her. Then she announced her intention



of getting up, but he bade her lie quiet as it was Christ-
mas morning and he was well able to cook the break-

Quite a pretty passage of arms developed between
them on the subject, but in the end she prevailed in
spite of his protests, and came downstairs to deal in
person with the vital matter of the bacon and eggs.

Somehow their half playful contention made a good
beginning to the day. And, take it altogether, it was
quite the best they had ever known in that ill-starred
house. There had been times when week had followed
week of such hostility that they had hardly exchanged
a look or a word, times in fact of soul-destroying an-
tipathy in which they almost loathed the sight of one
another. But there was nothing of that now. So
much had happened in three short months of separa-
tion that there were a hundred things to talk about;
both of them seemed to be living in a different world.

Their outlook on life had altered. Everything they
did now had a purpose, a meaning ; it was not merely
a question of getting through a day that had neither
reason nor rhyme. He was a soldier in a uniform,
he felt and looked a man in it, he stood for something.
She was proud, in a way she had never been proud,
of having a husband in the army. It was her duty
and her privilege to keep his home together against
his return to civil life.

Soon after breakfast they were visited by a second
inspiration, but this time it came to Melia. Suppose

1 20


they attended the eleven o'clock service at Saint
George's Church? In their early married life they
had gone there together once or twice, but for many
years now when Melia went there on Sunday eve-
nings she had invariably been alone.

It may have been a desire to let the neighbors see
how well his khaki suited him, or life in the army
had aroused an odd craving for religion, or perhaps it
was simply a wish to give pleasure to Melia; at any
rate Bill fell in with the idea. She had just time to
arrange with the lady next door, Mrs. Griggs by name,
who had once been a cook in good service, to give an
eye to the turkey which was set cooking in the oven,
then to put on her best dress, not much of a best, it
was true, but to have gone to church in any other
would have been unthinkable, to put on her only de-
cent hat and a sorely mended pair of black cotton
gloves, and to get there on the stroke of eleven, just
as the bells ceased and the choir were moving down
to their stalls. Melia, at any rate, had seldom enjoyed
a service so much as this one, and her friend the
Reverend Mr. Bontine, who called to see her regularly
once a quarter, preached the finest sermon she had
ever heard in the course of long years of worship.

For all that, it was not certain that Private Hollis
was not bored a little by the Reverend Mr. Bontine.
He could not help a yawn in the middle of the homily,
but this may have been a concession to his length of
days as a civilian when "he didn't hold with persons,"



but as Melia was too much absorbed to notice him, her
sense of a manly and fruitful discourse was not
marred; and she was able to enjoy the same happy
oblivion of martial restiveness during the long prayer.
Taking one consideration with another Private Hollis
may be said to have borne extremely well an ordeal
to which he had not submitted for many years; and
at the end of the service as he came out of church
he grew alive to the fact that in the sight of the con-
gregation he was a person of far more consequence
than he had ever been in his life.

More than one pair of eyes, once hostile or aloof,
were upon him and also upon MeHa. People looked
at him as if they would have been only too proud to
know him, substantial people like Wilmers, the in-
surance agent, and Jenkinson the tailor; but the cli-
max came as he stepped on to the flags of Mulcaster
Road and no less a man than Mr. Blades, the druggist
of Waterloo Square, took off his tall hat to Melia and
said, "Happy Christmas to you, Mr. Hollis."

A year ago that was an incident that simply could
not have happened. But after all it was just one
among many. He was an equal now with the best of
his neighbors, no matter what their substance and
standing. He was a man who counted. In the Black-
hampton Battalion he was merely Private Hollis, and
not much of a private at that, as many loud voiced
and authoritative people made a point of telling him,



but in civilian circles apparently the outlook was dif-

When they turned into Love Lane they were met by
further evidence of the new status of W. Hollis Fruit-
erer. A flaming-haired youth in a green baize apron
had been knocking in vain on the shuttered door of the
shop. There was a parcel in his hand whose shape
was familiar but not on that account the less in-

"Mester Munt's compliments sir." It was against
the tradition of the green baize apron to indulge the
general public with promiscuous "sirs," but, in hand-
ing ceremoniously the parcel to Private Hollis, democ-
racy in its purest form deferred a little to his martial

Bill never felt less in need of his father-in-law's
compliments than at that moment, but the abrupt de-
parture of George the Barman somehow forced them,
upon him. All the same, as Private Hollis fitted the
key into the shop door he wondered what the Old
Swine was up to now.

Divested of its trappings on the sitting-room table
the parcel turned out to be a handsome bottle of port
wine. It would not have been human for William
Hollis to remain impervious to this largesse from the
famous cellar of the Duke of Wellington. And he
knew by the screen of cobwebs that it was out of the
sacred corner bin.

Bill was puzzled. What had come over the Old


Pig ! However . . . With the care of one who knew
the worth of what he handled he put the royal vis-
itor in the cupboard, among plebeian bottles of stout
and beer, and then proceeded, chuckling rather grimly
at certain thoughts, to help Melia "set the dinner."

It was a modest feast, but when in the course of
time he sat down to carve a roast turkey, a plump and
proper young bird, flanked with sausages and chest-
nuts, he informed Melia "that he wouldn't give a thank
you to dine with the King of England." She could
not help smiling at this disloyal utterance, which so
ill became his uniform, as she freely ladled out bread
sauce, that purely Anglo-Saxon dainty, for which his
affection amounted almost to a passion, and helped
him hugely to potatoes and Brussels sprouts, so that
it should be no fault of hers if he was unable to plead
provocation for his lapse. Plum pudding followed.
It was of the regulation Blackhampton pattern and
Melia, no mean cook when she gave her mind to it,
had given her mind to this one, so that it expressed
her genius and the festive genius of her native city
in a hearty time of cheer.

At the end of the meal, in spite of the fact that he
was told rather sternly "to set quiet," he insisted like
a soldier and a sportsman in helping to clear the table
and in bearing a manly but subordinate part in the
washing up. And when the table had once more as-
sumed the impersonal re4 cloth of its hours of leisure,
a couple of wine gla"s(3$ were produced, which, al-



though polished twice a week, had not seen active
service for fifteen years, and then William drew the
cork of the cobwebbed bottle.

"Not a drop for me, Bill."

"You've got to have it, Mother."

"No, Bill."

"Yes. Fairation!" He gave one deep sniff at the
glass he had measured already with a care half rev-
erent, half comic. "By Gum, it's prime." In spite of
protests he poured out another glass. "Fairation!
Better drink the health, eh, of the Old Un as it's
Christmas Day."

They honored the Old Un discreetly, in a modest
sip of a wine which of itself could not have denied
him a claim to honor, and then with equal modesty
they drank to each other.

Melia then had an inspiration, though not subject to
them as a rule, and due in this case, no doubt, to the
juice of the grape. She procured a plate full of wal-
nuts from beyond the curtained door and they en-
tered on a further phase of discreet festivity. Bill
insisted on cracking three nuts and peeling them for
her with his own delicately accomplished fingers; and
in the process he complimented her on the Christmas
fare and hoped piously that "the Chaps had had half
as good."

Mention of the Chaps moved him for the first time
to reminiscence. As was to be expected, the Black*-
hampton Battalion was one of the wonders of the



world. To begin with, its members were nearly all
gentlemen. All the nobs of the town under forty were
tommies in the B.B. It was very remarkable that it
should be so, but there the fact was. And it made
men of his sort who liked to think a bit when they
had the time to spare feel regular democratic when
they saw real toffs like Lawyer Mossop's nephew,
Marling the barrister, carting manure, or the son of
Sir Reuben Jope on his knees scrubbing the floor of
the sergeants' mess.

To mix in such company was a rare opportunity
for a man who knew how to use it. Melia had noted
already that Bill had learned to express himself better,
that his conversation was at a higher level and that
it was full of new ideas. And these facts were never
so palpable as when, slowly and solemnly, a furtive
light of humor in his blue eyes, he went on to tell of
his great Bloomer.

It seemed that the cubicle next to his was occupied
by a man named Stanning, and he had got to be rather
pals with him. Stanning was a serious sort of cove
with hair turning gray at the temples, but Private
Hollis had been attracted to him because he was one
of the right sort and because it was clear from his talk
that he had thought and seen a bit. He was a good
kind of man to talk to, a sympathetic sort of card,
one of those who made you feel that you had things
in common.

Private Hollis gradually got so "thick" with Private


Stanning that they began to discuss things in an in-
tellectual way, politics one time, education another,
so on and so on, until one evening they found them-
selves talking of Art. As Melia knew, Private Hollis
had a feeling for Art. Many an hour had he spent in
the City Museum, looking at its collection of famous
pictures; and he told Private Stanning of the water
color he had done of the Sharrow at Corfield Weir,
inspired by the great work on the same subject of his
celebrated namesake Stanning, R.A., which had been
bought by the City Authorities for the fabulous sum
of a thousand guineas. . . .

Over the walnuts and the wine Private Hollis began
to chuckle hugely as his great Bloomer came back to
his mind in all its entrancing details. . . .

P. H. When I first see the price mentioned in the
Evening Star I says to my Missus that's the way they
chuck public money about. No picture was never
painted, not a Hangelo nor even a Lord Leighton that
was ever worth a thousand guineas. It's a fancy

P. S. 'Tis in a way. A matter of sentiment, I

P. H. Just what I said to the Missus. However,
being a bit of a critic I went to examine that picture
for myself. And would you believe it, Stanning
I'm not saying this to flatter you because the chap who
done it has the same name as yours when I see that
picture it fair knocked me endways. You see I know



every yard of Corfield Weir; in my time I've had
more than one good fish out of it ; and as soon as I set
eyes on it, I said to myself, "Stanning R.A.'s a fisher-
man. He's chosen one of them gray days that's good
for barbel." I give you my word, he'd got just the
proper light coming out of the valley and stealing
along the Sharrow. Only an artist and a fisherman
could have done it.

P. S. Did you ever get bream there?

P. H. I should say so. And I've had trout in my

P. S. Trout?

P. H. I'm talking of twenty years back. But to
resume. I see at a glance why the City Authorities
had paid a thousand guineas for that picture. It was
not because Stanning, R.A., was a local man; it was
pure merit and I felt very glad it was so.

P. S. Glad you thought so.

P. H. You know, of course, that Stanning, R.A.,
is Blackhampton born?

P. S. So I've heard.

P. H. Born in that old house with the high-walled
garden along Blue Bell Hill that was pulled down to
widen the road.

P. S. That so?

P. H. By the way, Stanning, is he a relation of
yours? Of course, it's a very common name in the

P. S. Ye es, I suppose he is in a way.


P. H. That's something to be proud of. I'm not
saying it to flatter you, but at this minute I'd rather
be Stanning, R.A., than any one else in the wide world.

Private Stanning laughed like a good one.

P. H. Honest. I'm not talking out of the back of
my neck. Stanning, R.A., for me. You can have all
my share of the Kitcheners and the Joffres and the
von Klucks. If I could be born again and born some-
body as mattered I'd like to be Stanning, R.A. Why,
what the hell are you grinning at ?

P. S. That's rheumatism. And if you'll only take
it over, old son, you can have all the remainder of
my interest in Stanning, R.A., as a going concern.

P. H. What ! do you mean to say !

"I told you, Mother," concluded Private Hollis in
his port-wine-inspired narrative, "that he was going
gray at the temples And there he set like a himage
at the foot of his shakedown all twisted with rheu-
matics, groaning like one o'clock. And then he began
to laugh. Queer world, ain't it, what?"

Melia, however, was one of those precise but rather
immobile intellects with which her tight little native
island is full to overflowing. "You don't mean to
say, Bill, it was Stanning, R.A., himself?"

"You bet your life it was." Private Hollis handed
a pealed walnut, his masterpiece so far, across an ex-
panse of red tablecloth. "One of the youngest R.A.'s
on record, but a bit long in the tooth for the Army.
And we're pals, I tell you. One of these days I'm



going to take him barbel fishing at Gawsey's Pool.
And he's given me a couple of lessons in drawing al-
ready. If only I'd begun sooner I think I might have
done something."

It was such an incredible story that Melia was fain
to smile, but Private William Hollis, inspired by port
wine and enthusiasm, lingered lovingly over his por-
trait of one who stood forth in his mind as the greatest
man the city of Blackhampton had yet produced


FORTY-EIGHT hours is not a long time even as
time is reckoned in a world war, when the infi-
nitely much can happen in a little space. Only one-
fourth of that term, a meager twelve hours, was per-
mitted to Russia by Germany in which to decide
whether she should yield unconditionally to an un-
heard of demand, on pain of provoking that conflict,
the end of which even some of the most penetrating
minds in Blackhampton were hardly able to predict
with certainty. So much may happen in a little while.
Yet Private Hollis had just four times as long to re-
establish terms of conjugal felicity with his wife
Melia. In that period he kissed her twice.

Whether that Christian practice would have con-
tinued as a regular thing is difficult to say. This was
a special occasion and these were not demonstrative
natures. Even in the heyday of their romance, when
Love not being quite strong enough to turn the door
handle, peered once or twice through the keyhole, yet
without ever proving quite bold enough to come in
and make himself at home on that childless hearth,
they were too practical to acquire a permanent taste
for that particular kind of nonsense.


Still, it hardly docs to dogmatize in time of war.
For as the forty-eight hours went on, Melia seemed to
grow more and more impressed by Private Hollis, his
martial bearing. Or it may have been the uniform.
Why is it that any kind of uniform has such a fatal
attraction for the ladies?

In this case, at any rate, it seemed to make a re-
markable difference. There is no doubt it suited Bill.
He looked so much more a man in it; his chest was
bigger, his back was straighter, his hair was shorter,
his chin was cleaner and the ragged mustache that
used to be all over his face was now refined to the ex-
treme point of military elegance. Really he came
much nearer to the ideal of manhood there had been
in Melia's mind when she had first married him. Be-
sides he was so much surer of himself, his voice was
deeper, his bearing more authoritative, his talk was
salted with infinitely more knowledge and wisdom.

When the time came for Private Hollis to return to
his regiment, the boy who delivered the vegetables
was left in charge of the shop, while Melia in Sunday
attire went to see her man off at the Central Station.
It was a compliment he had hardly looked for; all
the same it was appreciated. Somehow it made a dif-
ference. Other wives, mothers, sisters, sweethearts
were thick on the ground for a similar purpose, but
Private Hollis was of opinion that Melia with her ser-
ious face and a figure you couldn't call stout and in a
hat she had trimmed herself with black and white



wings was somehow able to hold her own with the
best of them.

Moreover they parted at the carriage door as if they
meant something to each other now. It was a public
place but he kissed her solemnly and she said, "You'll
write me a bit oftener, Bill, won't you ?" in the man-
ner of the long ago. Then the train began to move,
he waved a hand and she waved hers ; and each trun-
dled back alone to a hard life with its many duties,
yet somehow, in a subtle way, the stronger and the
happier for that brief interregnum.

Life had altered for them both in that short time.
They saw each other with new eyes or perhaps with
old eyes reawakened. Sixteen years had rubbed so
much of the bloom off their romance that it was a
miracle almost that they were able to renew it. Yet
the delicate process was only just beginning. It was
very odd, but the trite and difficult business of exist-
ence was colored now continually with new thoughts
about each other. Neither had ever been a great hand
at writing letters, but Bill suddenly burgeoned forth
into four closely written pages weekly, and Melia,
flattered but not to be outdone, burst out in equal

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Online LibraryJ. C. (John Collis) SnaithThe undefeated → online text (page 7 of 18)