Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Love Stories online

. (page 14 of 17)
Online LibraryMary Roberts RinehartLove Stories → online text (page 14 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

This is not a narrative of war. It matters very little, for
instance, how Cecil's regiment left Salisbury and went to Soissons,
in France. What really matters is that at last the Canadian-made
motor lorries moved up their equipment, and that, after digging
practice trenches in the yellow clay of old battlefields, they were
moved up to the front.

Once there, there seemed to be a great deal of time. It was the lull
before Neuve Chapelle. Cecil's spirit grew heavy with waiting. Once,
back on rest at his billet, he took a long walk over the half-frozen
side roads and came without warning on a main artery. Three traction
engines were taking to the front the first of the great British
guns, so long awaited. He took the news back to his mess. The
general verdict was that there would be something doing now.

Cecil wrote a letter to Edith that day. He had written before, of
course, but this was different. He wrote first to his mother, just
in case anything happened, a long, boyish letter with a misspelled
word here and there. He said he was very happy and very comfortable,
and that if he did get his he wanted her to know that it was all
perfectly cheerful and not anything like the war correspondents said
it was. He'd had a bully time all his life, thanks to her. He hadn't
let her know often enough how he felt about her, and she knew he was
a dub at writing. There were a great many things worse than "going
out" in a good fight. "It isn't at all as if you could see the
blooming thing coming," he wrote. "You never know it's after you
until you've got it, and then you don't."

The letter was not to be sent unless he was killed. So he put in a
few anecdotes to let her know exactly how happy and contented he
was. Then he dropped the whole thing in the ten inches of mud and
water he was standing in, and had to copy it all over.

To Edith he wrote a different sort of letter. He told her that he
loved her. "It's almost more adoration than love," he wrote, while
two men next to him were roaring over a filthy story. "I mean by
that, that I feel every hour of every day how far above me you are.
It's like one of these _fusées_ the Germans are always throwing up
over us at night. It's perfectly dark, and then something bright and
clear and like a star, only nearer, is overhead. Everything looks
different while it floats there. And so, my dear, my dear,
everything has been different to me since I knew you."

Rather boyish, all of it, but terribly earnest. He said he had
wanted to ask her to marry him, but that the way he felt about it, a
fellow had no right to ask a girl such a thing when he was going to
a war. If he came back he would ask her. And he would love her all
his life.

The next day, at dawn, he went out with eighty men to an outpost
that had been an abandoned farm. It was rather a forlorn hope. They
had one machine gun. At nine o'clock the enemy opened fire on them
and followed it by an attack. The major in charge went down early.
At two Cecil was standing in the loft of the farmhouse, firing with
a revolver on men who beneath him, outside, were placing dynamite
under a corner of the building.

To add to the general hopelessness, their own artillery, believing
them all dead, opened fire on the building. They moved their wounded
to the cellar and kept on fighting.

At eight o'clock that night Cecil's right arm was hanging helpless,
and the building was burning merrily. There were five of them left.
They fixed bayonets and charged the open door.

* * * * *

When the boy opened his eyes he was lying in six inches of manure in
a box car. One of his men was standing over him, keeping him from
being trampled on. There was no air and no water. The ammonia fumes
from the manure were stifling.

The car lurched and jolted along. Cecil opened his eyes now and
then, and at first he begged for water. When he found there was none
he lay still. The men hammered on the door and called for air. They
made frantic, useless rushes at the closed and barred door. Except
Cecil, all were standing. They were herded like cattle, and there
was no room to lie or sit.

He lay there, drugged by weakness. He felt quite sure that he was
dying, and death was not so bad. He voiced this feebly to the man
who stood over him.

"It's not so bad," he said.

"The hell it's not!" said the man.

For the time Edith was effaced from his mind. He remembered the
wounded men left in the cellar with the building burning over them.
That, and days at home, long before the war.

Once he said "Mother." The soldier who was now standing astride of
him, the better to keep off the crowding men, thought he was asking
for water again.

Thirty hours of that, and then air and a little water. Not enough
water. Not all the water in all the cool streams of the earth would
have slaked the thirst of his wound.

The boy was impassive. He was living in the past. One day he recited
at great length the story of his medals. No one listened.

And all the time his right arm lay or hung, as he was prone or
erect, a strange right arm that did not belong to him. It did not
even swell. When he touched it the fingers were cold and bluish. It
felt like a dead hand.

Then, at the end of it all, was a bed, and a woman's voice, and

The woman was large and elderly, and her eyes were very kind. She
stirred something in the boy that had been dead of pain.

"Edith!" he said.


Mabel had made a hit. Unconscious imitator that she was, she stole
Edith's former recklessness, and added to it something of her own
dash and verve. Lethway, standing in the wings, knew she was not and
never would be Edith. She was not fine enough. Edith at her best
had frolicked. Mabel romped, was almost wanton. He cut out the
string music at the final rehearsal. It did not fit.

On the opening night the brass notes of the orchestra blared and
shrieked. Mabel's bare feet flew, her loose hair, cut to her ears
and held only by a band over her forehead, kept time in ecstatic
little jerks. When at last she pulled off the fillet and bowed to
the applause, her thick short hair fell over her face as she jerked
her head forward. They liked that. It savoured of the abandoned. She
shook it back, and danced the encore without the fillet. With her
scant chiffons whirling about her knees, her loose hair, her girlish
body, she was the embodiment of young love, of its passion, its

Edith had been spring, palpitant with gladness.

Lethway, looking with tired eyes from the wings, knew that he had
made a commercial success. But back of his sordid methods there was
something of the soul of an artist. And this rebelled.

But he made a note to try flame-coloured chiffon for Mabel. Edith
was to have danced in the pale greens of a water nymph.

On the night of her triumph Mabel returned late to Edith's room,
where she was still quartered. She was moving the next day to a
small apartment. With the generosity of her class she had urged
Edith to join her, and Edith had perforce consented.

"How did it go?" Edith asked from the bed.

"Pretty well," said Mabel. "Nothing unusual."

She turned up the light, and from her radiant reflection in the
mirror Edith got the truth. She lay back with a dull, sickening
weight round her heart. Not that Mabel had won, but that she herself
had failed.

"You're awfully late."

"I went to supper. Wish you'd been along, dearie. Terribly swell
club of some sort." Then her good resolution forgotten: "I made them
sit up and take notice, all right. Two invitations for supper
to-morrow night and more on the way. And when I saw I'd got the
house going to-night, and remembered what I was being paid for it,
it made me sick."

"It's better than nothing."

"Why don't you ask Lethway to take you on in the chorus? It would do
until you get something else."

"I have asked him. He won't do it."

Mabel was still standing in front of the mirror. She threw her head
forward so her short hair covered her face, and watched the effect
carefully. Then she came over and sat on the bed.

"He's a dirty dog," she said.

The two girls looked at each other. They knew every move in the game
of life, and Lethway's methods were familiar ones.

"What are you going to do about it?" Mabel demanded at last.
"Believe me, old dear, he's got a bad eye. Now listen here," she
said with impulsive generosity. "I've got a scheme. I'll draw enough
ahead to send you back. I'll do it to-morrow, while the drawing's

"And queer yourself at the start?" said Edith scornfully. "Talk
sense, Mabel, I'm up against it, but don't you worry. I'll get

But she did not get anything. She was reduced in the next week to
entire dependence on the other girl. And, even with such miracles of
management as they had both learned, it was increasingly difficult
to get along.

There was a new element too. Edith was incredulous at first, but at
last she faced it. There was a change in Mabel. She was not less
hospitable nor less generous. It was a matter of a point of view.
Success was going to her head. Her indignation at certain phases of
life was changing to tolerance. She found Edith's rampant virtue a
trifle wearing. She took to staying out very late, and coming in
ready to meet Edith's protest with defiant gaiety. She bought
clothes too.

"You'll have to pay for them sometime," Edith reminded her.

"I should worry. I've got to look like something if I'm going to go
out at all."

Edith, who had never thought things out before, had long hours to
think now. And the one thing that seemed clear and undeniable was
that she must not drive Mabel into debt. Debt was the curse of most
of the girls she knew. As long as they were on their own they could
manage. It was the burden of unpaid bills, lightly contracted, that
drove so many of them wrong.

That night, while Mabel was asleep, she got up and cautiously
lighted the gas. Then she took the boy's photograph out of its
hiding place and propped it on top of her trunk. For a long time she
sat there, her chin in her hands, and looked at it.

It was the next day that she saw his name among the missing.

She did not cry, not at first. The time came when it seemed to her
she did nothing else. But at first she only stared. She was too
young and too strong to faint, but things went gray for her.

And gray they remained - through long spring days and eternal
nights - days when Mabel slept all morning, rehearsed or played in
the afternoons, was away all evening and far into the night. She did
not eat or sleep. She spent money that was meant for food on papers
and journals and searched for news. She made a frantic but
ineffectual effort to get into the War Office.

She had received his letter two days after she had seen his name
among the missing. She had hardly dared to open it, but having read
it, for days she went round with a strange air of consecration that
left Mabel uneasy.

"I wish you wouldn't look like that!" she said one morning. "You get
on my nerves."

But as time went on the feeling that he was dead overcame everything
else. She despaired, rather than grieved. And following despair came
recklessness. He was dead. Nothing else mattered. Lethway, meeting
her one day in Oxford Circus, almost passed her before he knew her.
He stopped her then.

"Haven't been sick, have you?"

"Me? No."

"There's something wrong."

She did not deny it and he fell into step beside her.

"Doing anything?" he asked.

She shook her head. With all the power that was in her she was
hating his tall figure, his heavy-lashed eyes, even the familiar
ulster he wore.

"I wish you were a sensible young person," he said. But something in
the glance she gave him forbade his going on. It was not an ugly
glance. Rather it was cold, appraising - even, if he had known it,

Lethway had been busy. She had been in the back of his mind rather
often, but other things had crowded her out. This new glimpse of her
fired him again, however. And she had a new quality that thrilled
even through the callus of his soul. The very thing that had
foredoomed her to failure in the theatre appealed to him strongly - a
refinement, a something he did not analyse.

When she was about to leave him he detained her with a hand on her

"You know you can always count on me, don't you?" he said.

"I know I can't," she flashed back at him with a return of her old

"I'm crazy about you."

"Old stuff!" she said coolly, and walked off. But there was a tug of
fear at her heart. She told Mabel, but it was typical of the change
that Mabel only shrugged her shoulders.

It was Lethway's shrewdness that led to his next move. He had tried
bullying, and failed. He had tried fear, with the same lack of
effect. Now he tried kindness.

She distrusted him at first, but her starved heart was crying out
for the very thing he offered her. As the weeks went on, with no
news of Cecil, she accepted his death stoically at last. Something
of her had died. But in a curious way the boy had put his mark on
her. And as she grew more like the thing he had thought her to be
the gulf between Mabel and herself widened. They had, at last, only
in common their room, their struggle, the contacts of their daily

And Lethway was now always in the background. He took her for quiet
meals and brought her home early. He promised her that sometime he
would see that she got back home.

"But not just yet," he added as her colour rose. "I'm selfish,
Edith. Give me a little time to be happy."

That was a new angle. It had been a part of the boy's quiet creed to
make others happy.

"Why don't you give me something to do, since you're so crazy to
have me hanging about?"

"Can't do it. I'm not the management. And they're sore at you. They
think you threw them down." He liked to air his American slang.

Edith cupped her chin in her hand and looked at him. There was no
mystery about the situation, no shyness in the eyes with which she
appraised him. She was beginning to like him too.

That night when she got back to Mabel's apartment her mood was
reckless. She went to the window and stood looking at the crooked
and chimney-potted skyline that was London.

"Oh, what's the use?" she said savagely, and gave up the fight.

When Mabel came home she told her.

"I'm going to get out," she said without preamble.

She caught the relief in Mabel's face, followed by a purely
conventional protest.

"Although," she hedged cautiously, "I don't know, dearie. People
look at things sensibly these days. You've got to live, haven't you?
They're mighty quick to jail a girl who tries to jump in the river
when she's desperate."

"I'll probably end there. And I don't much care."

Mabel gave her a good talking to about that. Her early training had
been in a church which regarded self-destruction as a cardinal sin.
Then business acumen asserted itself:

"He'll probably put you on somewhere. He's crazy about you, Ede."

But Edith was not listening. She was standing in front of her opened
trunk tearing into small pieces something that had been lying in the


Now the boy had tried very hard to die, and failed. The thing that
had happened to him was an unbelievable thing. When he began to use
his tired faculties again, when the ward became not a shadow land
but a room, and the nurse not a presence but a woman, he tried
feebly to move his right arm.

But it was gone.

At first he refused to believe it. He could feel it lying there
beside him. It ached and throbbed. The fingers were cramped. But
when he looked it was not there.

There was not one shock of discovery, but many. For each time he
roused from sleep he had forgotten, and must learn the thing again.

The elderly German woman stayed close. She was wise, and war had
taught her many things. So when he opened his eyes she was always
there. She talked to him very often of his mother, and he listened
with his eyes on her face - eyes like those of a sick child.

In that manner they got by the first few days.

"It won't make any difference to her," he said once. "She'd take me
back if I was only a fragment." Then bitterly: "That's all I am - a
fragment! A part of a man!"

After a time she knew that there was a some one else, some one he
was definitely relinquishing. She dared not speak to him about it.
His young dignity was militant. But one night, as she dozed beside
him in the chair, he reached the limit of his repression and told

"An actress!" she cried, sitting bolt upright. "_Du lieber_ - an

"Not an actress," he corrected her gravely. "A - a dancer. But good.
She's a very good girl. Even when I was - was whole" - raging
bitterness there - "I was not good enough for her."

"No actress is good. And dancers!"

"You don't know what you are talking about," he said roughly, and
turned his back to her. It was almost insulting to have her assist
him to his attitude of contempt, and to prop him in it with pillows
behind his back. Lying there he tried hard to remember that this
woman belonged to his hereditary foes. He was succeeding in hating
her when he felt her heavy hand on his head.

"Poor boy! Poor little one!" she said. And her voice was husky.

When at last he was moved from the hospital to the prison camp she
pinned the sleeve of his ragged uniform across his chest and kissed
him, to his great discomfiture. Then she went to the curtained
corner that was her quarters and wept long and silently.

The prison camp was overcrowded. Early morning and late evening
prisoners were lined up to be counted. There was a medley of
languages - French, English, Arabic, Russian. The barracks were built
round a muddy inclosure in which the men took what exercise they

One night a boy with a beautiful tenor voice sang Auld Lang Syne
under the boy's window. He stood with his hand on the cuff of his
empty sleeves and listened. And suddenly a great shame filled him,
that with so many gone forever, with men dying every minute of
every hour, back at the lines, he had been so obsessed with himself.
He was still bitter, but the bitterness was that he could not go
back again and fight.

When he had been in the camp a month he helped two British officers
to escape. One of them had snubbed him in London months before. He
apologised before he left.

"You're a man, Hamilton," he said. "All you Canadians are men. I've
some things to tell when I get home."

The boy could not go with them. There would be canals to swim
across, and there was his empty sleeve and weakness. He would never
swim again, he thought. That night, as he looked at the empty beds
of the men who had gone, he remembered his medals and smiled grimly.

He was learning to use his left hand. He wrote letters home with it
for soldiers who could not write. He went into the prison hospital
and wrote letters for those who would never go home. But he did not
write to the girl.

* * * * *

He went back at last, when the hopelessly wounded were exchanged. To
be branded "hopelessly wounded" was to him a stain, a stigma. It put
him among the clutterers of the earth. It stranded him on the shore
of life. Hopelessly wounded!

For, except what would never be whole, he was well again. True,
confinement and poor food had kept him weak and white. His legs had
a way of going shaky at nightfall. But once he knocked down an
insolent Russian with his left hand, and began to feel his own man
again. That the Russian was weak from starvation did not matter. The
point to the boy was that he had made the attempt.

Providence has a curious way of letting two lives run along, each
apparently independent of the other. Parallel lines they seem,
hopeless of meeting. Converging lines really, destined, through long
ages, by every deed that has been done to meet at a certain point
and there fuse.

Edith had left Mabel, but not to go to Lethway. When nothing else
remained that way was open. She no longer felt any horror - only a
great distaste. But two weeks found her at her limit. She, who had
rarely had more than just enough, now had nothing.

And no glory of sacrifice upheld her. She no longer believed that by
removing the burden of her support she could save Mabel. It was
clear that Mabel would not be saved. To go back and live on her,
under the circumstances, was but a degree removed from the other
thing that confronted her.

There is just a chance that, had she not known the boy, she would
have killed herself. But again the curious change he had worked in
her manifested itself. He thought suicide a wicked thing.

"I take it like this," he had said in his eager way: "life's a thing
that's given us for some purpose. Maybe the purpose gets
clouded - I'm afraid I'm an awful duffer at saying what I mean. But
we've got to work it out, do you see? Or - or the whole scheme is

It had seemed very clear then.

Then, on a day when the rare sun made even the rusty silk hats of
clerks on tops of omnibuses to gleam, when the traffic glittered on
the streets and the windows of silversmiths' shops shone painful to
the eye, she met Lethway again.

The sun had made her reckless. Since the boy was gone life was
wretchedness, but she clung to it. She had given up all hope of
Cecil's return, and what she became mattered to no one else.

Perhaps, more than anything else, she craved companionship. In
all her crowded young life she had never before been alone.
Companionship and kindness. She would have followed to heel, like
a dog, for a kind word.

Then she met Lethway. They walked through the park. When he left her
her once clear, careless glance had a suggestion of furtiveness in

That afternoon she packed her trunk and sent it to an address he
had given her. In her packing she came across the stick of cold
cream, still in the pocket of the middy blouse. She flung it, as
hard as she could, across the room.

She paid her bill with money Lethway had given her. She had exactly
a sixpence of her own. She found herself in Trafalgar Square late in
the afternoon. The great enlisting posters there caught her eye,
filled her with bitterness.

"Your king and your country need you," she read. She had needed the
boy, too, but this vast and impersonal thing, his mother country,
had taken him from her - taken him and lost him. She wanted to stand
by the poster and cry to the passing women to hold their men back.
As she now knew she hated Lethway, she hated England.

She wandered on. Near Charing Cross she spent the sixpence for a
bunch of lilies of the valley, because he had said once that she was
like them. Then she was for throwing them in the street, remembering
the thing she would soon be.

"For the wounded soldiers," said the flower girl. When she
comprehended that, she made her way into the station. There was a
great crowd, but something in her face made the crowd draw back and
let her through. They nudged each other as she passed.

"Looking for some one, poor child!" said a girl and, following her,
thrust the flowers she too carried into Edith's hand. She put them
with the others, rather dazed.

* * * * *

To Cecil the journey had been a series of tragedies. Not his own.
There were two hundred of them, officers and men, on the boat across
the Channel. Blind, maimed, paralysed, in motley garments, they were
hilariously happy. Every throb of the turbine engines was a thrust
toward home. They sang, they cheered.

Now and then some one would shout: "Are we downhearted?" And
crutches and canes would come down on the deck to the unanimous
shout: "No!"

Folkestone had been trying, with its parade of cheerfulness, with
kindly women on the platform serving tea and buns. In the railway
coach to London, where the officers sat, a talking machine played
steadily, and there were masses of flowers, violets and lilies of
the valley. At Charing Cross was a great mass of people, and as they
slowly disembarked he saw that many were crying. He was rather
surprised. He had known London as a cold and unemotional place. It
had treated him as an alien, had snubbed and ignored him.

He had been prepared to ask nothing of London, and it lay at his
feet in tears.

Then he saw Edith.

Perhaps, when in the fullness of years the boy goes over to the
life he so firmly believes awaits him, the one thing he will carry
with him through the open door will be the look in her eyes when she
saw him. Too precious a thing to lose, surely, even then. Such
things make heaven.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 14 16 17

Online LibraryMary Roberts RinehartLove Stories → online text (page 14 of 17)