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suddenly, without any preparation at all, that he was going
out to South Africa! Lady Grindelay herself had made it
possible, but no one was more stunned than Lady Grindelay.
There was a great shortage of officers. Colonel Metherby had
influence at the War Office, and Agatha had asked him to
use it. He had used it so well that after only six weeks'
training, and with only his commission in the Militia, Des-
mond was to be attached to the battalion Colonel Metherby
himself commanded and to go out with him.

Letters went to and fro between mother and son — strange,
strained letters. She wanted his forgiveness, but did not
know how to ask for it; to keep him in England, but knew
that there was no longer the possibility. He wrote her that
everything she had said to him was justified, he begged her
not to oppose or throw obstacles in the way of his going away,
to let him have this chance. Her two wooden idols, duty and
conscience, still stood upon their altar; now she hung her
maternity upon the crucifix between, and sacrificed to that

She stipulated that he was to come to Marley to bid them
good-bye, and he came down in time for lunch. Any strange-
ness or strained relations between them were covered by the
circumstances and the shortness of his stay. Everything was
being hurried in the general unpreparedness, in the face of
ominous rumours. She could think of nothing but that she
was sending him into danger, perhaps into death, that it was
to this her mother-love had brought him.

As for Eunice, she thought little of the war and a great
deal of what Desmond would say to her about the future.
She knew he cared for her, and wanted to hear him say so

n 161


again. There had never been anybody for her but Desmond,
and since he had spoken to her in Grosvenor Street, she
knew without any shadow of doubt that it was the same with
him. She thought that her aunt opposed a marriage between
them because they were both so young. She thought that
everything would come right when Desmond came home
again, and hoped for the opportunity to tell him so.

"When she knows how we feel about it, when she sees
how much we are to each other, it will he all right. She loves
us both. You have always thought she did not love you, but
I know better. She has that cold manner, but it doesn't mean
anything. I saw her looking at that portrait you sent us, the
one in uniform. She said to herself, ' That is my son, my
only son.' I saw her trembling lips saying it."

This is what Eunice meant to say to Desmond. She made
up her mind she would not be shy with him; but would tell
him, too, what she had not told in the library that afternoon
in Grosvenor Street, that she loved him completely, thought
of him by night and day. She flushed warmly two or three
times during luncheon at the thought of what she would say
to him when they were alone together.

But she never told him.

There was business talk from which she was excluded.
Lady Grindelay had been generous in making provision for
her son, and he spoke feelingly of her generosity, thanking
her for it. His gratitude, or the expression of it, was like
a reproach to her. She liked to give, and it seemed to her
now that she had given him so little — only the right to leave
her in this way. She was nevertheless somewhat surprised
to find him business-like in his talk of money, and anxious
that his allowance should be paid into a London bank, quar-
terly and in advance.

Afterwards they sat m the drawing-room together, the
three of them, making talk. It seemed unnatural, unreal,
that they should be sitting like this. And the talk was unreal,
too, jerky, superficial, almost stupid.

"We might have gone to Southampton to see you off,
if we had thought about it in time."


"I'm glad you didn't," he said hastily, and added: " I'm
sure you'd have hated it."

" I don't suppose you will be gone very long. I should
not be surprised at all if the war was over before you got

" I hope not."

" You might come back without an arm or a leg, like the
heroes in fiction," Eunice heard herself saying.

" Or still without a moustache," Lady Grindelay added
with that stiff lightness that was all of which she was capable.
She had had all his childhood and youth, and let them go
past her unheeding. He had hardly seemed hers before ; now
none of her possessions counted but him.

She had never held him in her arms, strained him to her
heart, and she knew she could not do it now, that there would
be no scene of reconciliation between them nor emotion. She
could not be other than the woman she was, incapable of
demonstrativeness. Yet he stood now upon her heart, and it
was pain made her speechless.

" Well, I must be going," he said at length, rising. " I
said the dog-cart was to be round at three."

" Can't we go to the station, auntie ? "

Eunice said " we," but meant " I."

" The barouche is already ordered."

" Can't we walk ? " poor Eunice stammered out. It was for
that she had been waiting, but Desmond had made no move.
Nothing had come about as she had expected; they had not
had one word together. And he had hardly looked at her.
All his constrained talk had been for his mother, although
she herself had always been first with him. Her heart
swelled, but the sweetness of her disposition prevailed and
acknowledged his mother's right; she, at least, had never
doubted that Desmond's mother loved him. Desmond him-
self did not doubt it to-day; he hardly remembered that
there had been anger between them.

At the station Lady Grindelay's self-possession was a
defence, her strength and hardness but an outpost. She
spoke hurriedly and impulsively, said the absurd thing.


" You will take care of yourself. You will remember you
are my only son. You will not expose yourself unnecessarily
to danger?"

" I'll be all right," he answered awkwardly.

When the train was in, and the last moment had come,
she kissed him as she had never kissed him before. She kept
her arm about him a minute.

" Only come back to me," she said.

When he returned her kiss, that too was with a difference,
and there was something very like a sob in his throat.

"You've been awfully good to me. I wish I'd been a
better son."

" Come back, only come back, and everything will be

" You won't think worse of me than you can help ? " His
voice was husky.

" I shall remember only that you are my son."

" You'll — ^you'll tell her nothing ! I may never come back.
I — I couldn't get out of it."

It seemed as if he would have said more, but they were
at cross purposes. He was everything to her, but to him she
was only his mother.

He did not kiss Eunice, he hardly even said good-bye;
it would have seemed he did not see her on the platform.
Only at the last, at the very last, when she stood there,
stunned with the fact that he had gone, gone without a
word, she met his eyes through the window of the carriage,
and saw that there was yearning and misery in them. She
knew then, instinctively, that it was not because he did not
care for her that he had not kissed her good-bye.

Poor Desmond! He was alone in the carriage, and if
either Eunice or his mother had seen him when the train
steamed out of the station, they would have been satisfied he
was not parting from them coldly or callously. He broke
down when he found himself alone, cried, not like a soldier,
but like a child. He never thought to see them again ; almost
hoped he never would. He knew now he might have won


Eunice as well as his mother, and that he had only himself to
blame because it was impossible.

He had made an irreparable blunder. If he had told the
truth he might never have got his commission. If he came
back it would be to face a situation that already seemed
unfaceable. He was going out to fight the Boers, not with
the fear of death, but with the hope of it. He was married
to Gabrielle Radlett — married! And there was not a fibre
of his heart that was not entwined round the girl to whom
he had not dared to say good-bye, whose hand he had not
dared to touch.

Eunice and Lady Grindelay drove back to Marley Court
in silence. Desmond had gone. There was no more to be
said ; there was only to wait until he came back — a short time.

"He will remain in the army, I suppose, until he gets
his captaincy ; then he will come back and settle down," Lady
Grindelay said as she got out of the carriage. " I should not
look so forlorn about it if I were you."

" It's such a long time." Eunice's lips trembled. Each
of them wanted solitude, the old one not less than the young,
and that the other should not see her tears.

By dinner-time they were calmer. Both of them really
believed in the legend of Boer farmers armed with Bibles,
both of them were possessed by a vague idea that if there were
to be serious fighting it would be done by the soldiers in the
ranks, that officers were practically immune; that they
shouted orders and awaited events at a safe distance.

" It is not as if it were India or Egypt ; there is no native
treachery to fear. I don't suppose the troops will ever have
to go beyond Cape Town," Lady Grindelay said during dinner.

It was not only on that evening Agatha reassured Eunice
— and perhaps herself. As the troopship with Desmond on
board neared the Cape reassurance became necessary.

The morning papers came late to Marley. Long before
Desmond went they had been impatient for their arrival,
following the progress of the war, surprised, incredulous that
the Boers were not already on their knees suing for peace;


conscious already, although neither voiced it, of a faint and
dawning anxiety.

There had flashed along the cables news of the engage-
ment at Talana Hill. It was accounted a victory, the begin-
ning of the end. The correspondents reported that when our
troops came back from that pyrrhic victory, soddened with
rain, plastered with mud, dog-tired, but in the best of spirits,
they marched into Ladysmith with colours flying, amid the
cheers of their comrades. Into Ladysmith! But that was
in October, 1899.

The anxiety deepened all the time, but they disguised it
from each other.

He will be disappointed if it is all over before he gets
there," said Lady Grindelay, when she read of the marching
into Ladysmith.

Flashed through the cables the story of Percy Scott and
the guns at Ladysmith. What did it mean? Surely those
naval guns would not be needed. In a week now, six days
now, to-morrow now, Desmond would be at Cape Town. And
still the Boers had not laid down their arms !

How absurd it seems in retrospect, how incredible! Yet
all through the country there was the same opinion, the same
optimism, the same expectations that sons, husbands and
fathers were only out on parade. For a short time, a very
short time, those at home were only proud, not afraid. Then,
one after another, from here and there and everywhere, from
places that had never been heard of, from men whose names
were unknown, came stories of disaster and blunder — incon-
ceivable, unbelievable stories. English officers taken pris-
oners with all their men, laying down their arms; English
officers surrendering with their troops !

The mistress of Marley and Eunice read with amazement,
read with bewilderment, read with hot shame and pain, as
thousands of others were reading. They could hardly face
each other's eyes ; began to be afraid to speak, yet hardly con-
tent out of each other's sight; dreading the long hours
between the posts, dreading the posts even more.

Before they realised what was occurring, what manner of


men were these Boer farmers, there flashed along the cables
casualty lists from Elandslaagte, from Rietfontein. The
poor, proud women in their English homes read of the blunder
of Nicholson's Nek, the catastrophe of Colesberg.

Now the women no longer sent out their beloved gladly
and proudly, but hung upon their necks begging them not to
go, imploring, praying. And now they were unheeded. Story
after story came through, setting men aflame.

*^It was our young captain. Father, father, we'd rather
have died than surrender, if it had been left to us," cried a
passionate Irish Fusilier to his priest. The Times printed
the story.

Here, in England, grey old men flushed with shame as
they read, and rushed to the War Office begging, praying for
employment, to be sent out, at their own expense, in any
corps, with any rank, only to wipe out the stain on the flag.
Young men laid down fishing-rod and golf clubs. Stock Ex-
change lists, measuring tapes. Office boy and clerk, drapers'
assistants, and even those young men whose recreation it was
to watch other people play cricket or football, awoke shame-
facedly to their country's needs, and volunteered in great
squads of awkwardness and incapacity. The War Office was
besieged, overwhelmed, and in alarm and non-comprehension
of what was required, took everybody who applied, hurriedly
fitted up, hurriedly sent out, incapable braves, lacking arms,
horses, accoutrements, constitutions; added muddle to
muddle, courting disaster. An old story now, a sad old story,
illustrated with sad old graves, with hearths made for ever
desolate. Most of us have forgotten; a few of us can never

Now neither Lady Grindelay nor Eunice could hide her
anxiety — anxiety that amounted sometimes to anguish, that
made their nights sleepless and their days one long apprehen-
sion. They could not stay at Marley waiting for the belated
posts. They moved back to London, took another furnished
house, waited for news. Here they were surrounded by
friends in like case, their hearts sick with fear, faces pale
with watching, many already in mourning. Here, fortunately.


too, they found there was work they could do. Disaster after
disaster fell on the bruised national spirit, until London, at
least, was all one ache — work the only emollient. There were
bandages to be made, comforters knitted or sewn for field-
hospital or ambulance, charity concerts or matinees to be
organised. Lady Grindelay braced herself with such things,
maintained an appearance of courage as a Wanstead should.
She had learned her lesson well by now, and what it was to be
the mother of a son ; the knowledge came to her so late, and
with more than birth-pain. It became a physical thing, this
pain, and the memory of Desmond and the wasted days when
she had not cared for him. As the days wore on the pain
concentrated in one place in her side. Night and day it ached

Agatha, although she was nearly sixty years of age, was a
strong and vigorous woman at the beginning of the Boer
war. Before the end of it she had grown into old age. She
never disguised from herself that it was she who had sent him
out. Not her reticence, but the poor remnant of her self-
confidence forsook her. There were times when she could
only cry for him, others when, iu the solitude of her bedroom,
she would pray wildly.

Desmond was "slightly wounded" at Magersfontein.
This gave her temporary release from the worst of her anxie-
ties. They heard that he was in hospital, and hoped that
he would be invalided home. Eunice and she had their short-
time of indomitable hope, when every hour might bring the
news that he had embarked. There were names among the
fallen that made their gratitude humble. There was no heir
now for Denham, and none for Eversleigh. But Desmond
was coming home.

Never in her young days had Agatha known love. Now
it came upon her like a wild beast hungered, hot breathed
and panting, the unsatiated passion and pain of her late
maternity; all the knowledge she had avoided, from which
her dignity and her position were alike powerless to protect
her. She could put her hand now to where the pain burned
always. Already she suspected the hurt was to death.


Eunice hardly knew what ailed her the night she went
from her own room to her aunt's. But at the thought that
Desmond was on his way, and might be home any day now,
a sudden intensity of longing for him seized upon her. It
had lain in wait for her all day, and in the night it rose until
a moment when it became unbearable — unbearable, that is, in
solitude. She woke to a sudden craving, she wanted Des-
mond as starving men want food, as brown grass needs rain,
as panting animals crave for water. The rush of longing
for him, burning her cheeks, inflaming her blood, and ham-
mering in her brain, was the end of a dream; it flooded her,
came and came again. She had no knowledge to make her
ashamed of this intolerable thirst; when she began to think
coherently it seemed there was nothing between her and the
assuagement of it, but Lady Grindelay's opposition. Before
Desmond came home she must get her aunt's promise that she
would no longer stand between them. He might be here any
time now. Perhaps he had already started. Nothing must
be between them when he came.

She started up in bed when this thought came to her;
she could not go on lying there in the darkness. She did
not stay to reason, she was driven by her thirst. Swiftly, in
her white nightgown, barefooted, she slipped out of her warm
bed, paused an irresolute moment, then was through the door,
along one passage and across the other, knocking at her
aunt's door, and in the room without waiting for an answer
to her knock.

Lady Grindelay was hardly startled. She, too, was awake,
reading by candle-light.

"Come in. Shut the door." She never even asked if
there was an3rthing the matter.

" I had to come," Eunice began falteringly.

"Without a dressing-gown?" But the rebuke was per-

"It's quite warm. You don't mind? I didn't wake

"No; I was not asleep."


Agatha was glad of company, and looked round for cover
for her.

" Wrap yourself in my dressing-gown — there it is, hanging
over the chair."

Eunice disregarded the suggestion, standing hy the side
of the bed, shivering a little.

" I couldn't sleep.''

Neither had Agatha been able to.

" The days and nights are long. Come under the quilt,
you may be able to sleep here."

Eunice lay beside her aunt, but sleep was far from her.

"I want to talk about Desmond," Eunice whispered

" You have been lying awake, thinking of him ? "

" No, sleeping and dreaming. I'm glad you put out the
candle. Auntie, don't you want to talk about him? He is
on his way home. You will never be angry with him about
anything again ? We've known what it is to be without him."

" You blame me for sending him ? But he would have
gone anyhow when it came to this."

"How could I blame you? I know he would have gone
anyhow. He always meant to be a soldier."

"Did he? He never told me." How little he had ever
told her ; how little she had encouraged him to talk !

" When he comes back we shall both be older. I know it
was because you thought we were both too young. You'll say
* Yes ' when he comes back. It was because you thought us
too young, wasn't it? But I'm not too young now, — I want

"I want him, too," Agatha answered, forlornly, and in-
deed her hunger for him ached within her.

*' He always loved you, and wanted you to love him. When
he was little — always," Eunice said consolingly.

" I think it is true ; sometimes I think it is true. Inci-
dents occur to me." It was a relief to speak, to unburden

" Tell me about them, I can't sleep ; I want to talk about
Desmond. Tell me stories about him."


" What am I to tell you ? How hard and cold I must have
seemed to him always, the pain I have in recalling it? " She
had forgotten to whom she was speaking, she was talking to

" He'll never rememher it when he comes back, when you
tell him that everything is — is all right for us."

" I always failed him ; I know it now. When he was quite
a little fellow, about seven years old, never at ease with me,
never as he was with that old Irish nurse of his, he came
through the window of the drawing-room with a bunch of
flowers in his hand, daisies and marigolds. They were for me,
I know now they were for me. I don't know what I said,
something about coming in by the door, or muddy boots,
although I liked to see him there, although my heart beat
faster for seeing him there. But I was bom dumb, like that,
and everything has passed me by. He threw the flowers at
me, fled away, was rude and sullen afterwards, defiant. My
son, my little son ! And now I am an old woman, and
alone "

" Go on, go on," Eunice said softly. She was calmer now.
Her thirst had left her. She only wanted to talk of him,
of all he had ever said or done. Agatha went on slowly,
her conscience was very oppressed and clamorous to-night,
but talking eased it.

" Once, when I was lying on the lawn — he must have
thought I was asleep, because my book had fallen, and my
eyes were shut — he crept near me, stood there, then quite
hastily picked up the rug to put over my feet, and ran away
lest I should see him."

" Go on."

*' I said cold things to him, cold, reasonable things always.
I kept him at arm's length."

"He loved you," whispered Eunice comfortingly. "All
his rough shyness was because he loved you. I knew it, but
we never spoke about it in actual words. When we were little
I used to say, ' Why don't you climb on her knee ? Why don't
you kiss her like I do ? ' "

" I didn't want to be kissed. I never cared for kissing-."


A thrill ran through the girl, a happy thrill; and
although it was dark she hid her head.

" I do," she whispered, " I do."

Her cheeks were flooded ; but she was not really ashamed.

" Desmond and I like kissing."

"1 never did," Agatha answered. "I don't know why,
but I never did."

Then quite suddenly she found herself antagonistic,
strangely and inconceivably antagonistic. The girl would have
nestled against her, gone on talking, but she sent her away
as soon as possible, told her she must go back to bed, and to
sleep, she must not encourage herself in such feelings as she


Desmond did not come home; he had apparently no thought
of home-coming. He wrote a hurried line — hurried lines
were all they had from him — saying that his wound was
almost healed, it had only been a scratch, and he was being
attached to one of the Mounted Infantry Corps.

It had all to be gone over again, the watching and the
waiting. They read of Spion Kop and Pieter's Hill, heard
details and envisaged them.

From their window in Grosvenor Street they saw, under
blue and alien skies, the English soldiers moving slowly over
the veldt in close formation, while the distant guns or the
spitting pom-poms raked their thinning columns, and from
the sheltering kopjes, the Transvaalers, with their deadly
rifles, picked off the officers still conspicuously accoutred.
And always under helmet or cap, they saw Desmond's face,
smoke-begrimed, hard-set and determined, his eyes blue and
alight, marching to danger or to death.

Desmond was mentioned in despatches. Michael came
to them with the news. Michael was proving himself in these
days. Like every other Englishman from public school and
university, he was ashamed to walk the streets of London
in a black coat; his arms ached for a gun, and his heart for
his country. Duty held him here, his father was getting an
old man, and had no other son. Michael was as brave at his
post as our soldiers at theirs, although his post was only an
office. Lady Grindelay and Eunice had not to wait for the
newspapers. He haunted the War Office, was often before the
evening papers with news.

There was no meanness in Michael. He loved the girl in
her pallor and anxiety better than he had loved her that
sunny day in Cornwall, and he knew his love was for ever.
But her heart was with Desmond. That, too, he knew now,
and he brought her the tale of his bravery as he would have



brought her his heart's blood if it would have helped her pale
anxiety. The tale of Desmond's bravery was one of many
that helped to cover the incompetence of our generals, the
failure of our Intelligence Department, the insufficiency of
our cavalry.

In one of the little engagements, when the order to retreat
was sounded, young Lord Grindelay disregarded it. He gal-
loped forward to the help of a comrade, caught at the horse's
bridle, held up the wounded man, and cantered back calmly,
through a dropping patter of bullets. There was no Victoria
Cross for such a deed, there were too many of them. But he

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Online LibraryJulia FrankauFull swing → online text (page 13 of 27)