Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch.

The White Wolf and Other Fireside Tales online

. (page 10 of 22)
Online LibraryArthur Thomas Quiller-CouchThe White Wolf and Other Fireside Tales → online text (page 10 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

after a moment or two began to ply her needle again. The needle moved
more slowly - stopped - she bowed her head over the stocking.
Gilbart knew why. She was the wife of a petty officer on the
_Berenice_. The old man in the chair went on reading.

All this while a light had been growing in Gilbart's brain, and now he
saw. In this street, and the next, and the next, lived scores who had
sons, husbands, brothers on board the _Berenice_; thin walls of brick
and plaster dividing to-night their sore hearts and their prayers; a
whole town with its hopes and its happy days given into keeping of one
ship; not its love only but its trust for life's smallest comforts
following her as she moved away through the darkness. And he alone
knew! He had only to throw open the window - to fling four words into
that silent street - to shout, "The _Berenice_ is lost!" - and with the
breath of it windows would fly open, partitions fall down, and all those
privacies meet and answer in one terrible outcry. He put up a hand to
thrust it away - this awful gift of power. He would have none of it; he
was unfit. "Oh, my God!" - it was he, not Casey, who held the real
infernal machine. It was here, not in the _Berenice_, that the levin
must fall; and he, John Gilbart, held it in his fingers. "Oh, my God, I
am unfit - thrust not this upon me!"

But there was no escape. He must take his hat and run - run to the Port
Admiral. The errand was useless, he knew; for all the while at the back
of his soul's confusion some practical corners of his brain had been
working at the problem of time - was there time to follow and prevent?
There was not. He knew the _Berenice's_ natural speed to be eighteen
knots. Put it at sixteen, fifteen even; still not the fastest destroyer
in the port - following in a bee-line - could overtake her by midnight.
And there might be, must be, delays. Yet God, too, might interfere;
some providential accident might delay the cruise. _He_ must run, at
any rate. He picked up his hat and ran.

Now that he was taking action - doing something - the worst horror of
responsibility left him for a while; he seemed to have cast some of it
already off his own shoulders and on to the Admiral's. As he ran he
found time to think of Casey. Casey was doing this thing - not in hatred
or in villainy for gain - but because it seemed to him right - right, or
at least necessary. Casey was laying down his own life in the deed.
How could man, framed in God's image, expect ultimate good out of
devilish cruelty? Yet from the world's beginning men had murdered and
tortured each other on this only plea; had butchered women and the very
babes; had stamped upon God's image and - marvel of marvels - for its
soul's salvation, not for their own advantage. At every stride Gilbart
felt his moral footing, trusted for years without question, cracking and
crumbling and swirling away in blocks. Red flames leapt into the
fissures and filled them. The end of the world had surely come; but - he
must run to the Admiral! He kept that uppermost in his mind, and ran.

The windows of the Admiralty House blazed with light. The Admiral's
wife was giving a dinner and a dance, and already a small crowd had
gathered to see the earlier guests arrive. The sight dashed Gilbart.
Suddenly he remembered that the letter had reached him by the afternoon
post. It was now half-past seven, and he would have to explain the
interval; for of course the Admiral would suspect the whole story at
first. Gilbart knew the official manner; he had been privileged to
study the fine flower of it in this particular Admiral one afternoon six
months before, when the great man had condescended to sit on the
platform at the Mission anniversary. "Tut, tut - a stupid practical joke
" - that would be the beginning; and then would follow cross-examination
in the coldest court-martial fashion. Well, he could explain; but it
would be just as well to have the story pat beforehand.

One minute - ten minutes went by. Cabs rattled up and private carriages;
officers in glittering uniforms, ladies muffled in silk and swansdown
stepped past the policeman behind whom Gilbart hesitated. This would
never do; better he had gone in with the story hot on his lips.
He twitched the policeman's elbow.

"May I pass, please? I want to see the Admiral."

"That's likely, ain't it?"

"But I have a message for him; an urgent one - one that won't keep a

"Why, I have seen you hanging round here this quarter hour with these
very eyes! 'Won't keep'? Here, you get out!"

"I tell you - "

"Oh, deliver us!" the policeman interrupted. "What's the matter with
you? Come to keep the Admiral's dinner cold while you hand over command
of the Channel Fleet?" He winked heavily at one or two of the nearest
in the crowd, and they laughed.

Gilbart eyed them savagely. He had a word in his mouth which would stop
their laughing; and for one irrational moment he was near speaking it,
near launching against half a dozen loafers the bolt which only to hold
and handle had aged him ten years in an hour. The word was even on his
tongue when a carriage passed and at its open window a young girl leaned
forward and looked out on the crowd. Her face in the light of the
entrance-lamp was exquisitely fair, delicately rose and white as the
curved inner lip of a sea-shell. At her throat, where her cloak-collar
fell back a little, showing its quilted lining of pale blue satin, a
diamond necklace shimmered, and a rosebud of diamonds in her hair
sparkled so that it seemed to dance. It caught Gilbart's eye, and
somehow it seemed to lift and remove her and the house she was
entering - the lit windows, the guests, the Admiral himself - into another
world. If it were real, then (like enough) this fragile thing, this
Dresden goddess, owned a brother, perhaps a lover, on board the
_Berenice_. If so, here was another world waiting to be shattered - a
world of silks and toys and pretty uniforms and tiny bric-a-brac - a sort
of doll's house inhabited by angels at play. But could it be real?
Could such a world exist and be liable as his own to _It_? Could the
same brutal touch destroy this fabric and the sordid privacies of
Prospect Place - all in a run like a row of card-houses?

"Never you mind _'im_, Mister Gilbart," said a voice at his elbow, and
he turned and looked in the face of a girl who, in an interval of
dressmaking, had once helped him with his district work.


"The peeler," Milly Sanders nodded; and it flashed on Gilbart that the
policeman's joke, the carriage, the girl's face and these thoughts of
his had all gone by in something less than ten seconds. "He've got the
'ump to-night, that's what's the matter with 'im." And Milly Sanders
nodded again reassuringly.

"What are you doing here?" Gilbart asked.

"Me? Oh, it's in the way of business, as you might say. I comes here
to pick up 'ints. I s'pose now you thought 'twasn't very
feelin'-'earted, and my Dick gone away foreign only this mornin'?"

He remembered now that the girl's zeal for Mission work had cooled ever
since she had been walking-out with her Dick - a young stoker in the

"I reckon that's the last of the dinner-guests. The others won't be
comin' much before ten. Well, I'm off to the 'Oe; there's going to be
fireworks, and that's the best place for seein'."

"In the way of business, too, I suppose?" said Gilbart, and wondered how
he could say it.

Milly giggled. "You 'ad me there," she confessed. "But what's the good
to give way? I'm sure" - with conviction - "it's just what Dick would
like me to do. I'm going, anyway. So long!" She paused: "that is -
unless you'd like to come along, too?"

It was, after all, astonishingly easy. Even if he found and convinced
the Admiral, nothing could be done. Why then should he hasten all this
misery? Was it not, rather, an act of large mercy to hold back the
news? Say that by holding his tongue he delayed it by twenty-four
hours; life after all was made up of days and not so very many of them.
By silence then - it stood to reason - he gained from woe a clear day for
hundreds. Meanwhile here stood one of those hundreds. Might he not
give her, under the very shadow of fate, an hour or two of actual,
positive happiness? He told himself this, knowing all the while that he
lied. He knew that the thing was easier to put off than to do. He knew
that he took Milly's arm in his not to comfort her (although he meant to
do this, too) but to drug his own conscience, and because he was mad -
yes, mad - for human company and support. For hours - it seemed for
weeks - he had been isolated, alone with that secret and his own soul.
He could bear it no longer; he must ease the torment - only for a
little - then perhaps he would go back to the Admiral. Chatter was what
he wanted, the sound of a fellow-creature's voice, babbling no matter
what. He knew also that he bought this respite at a price, and the
price must be paid terribly when he came to wake. And yet he found it
astonishingly easy to take Milly's arm.

"But I say," she rattled on, "you must be soft!"

"Why?" He was drinking in the sound of her words, letting the sense run
by him.

"Why, to suppose the Admiral would see you at this time. What was it

"Please go on talking."

"Well, I am. What did you want to see the Admiral for? Some Mission
business, I s'pose. . . .Oh, you needn't tell if you don't choose; I'm
not dying to hear."

They stood side by side on the Hoe, watching the fireworks. Three or
four searchlights were playing over the Sound, turned now upon the
anchored craft, now upward, following the rockets, and again downward,
crisscrossing their white rays as if to catch the dropping
multi-coloured stars. "O - o - oh!" exclaimed Milly, as each shower of
rockets exploded. "But what makes you jump like that?"

"I say," he asked after a time, "since we've come to enjoy ourselves why
not do the thing thoroughly? What do you say to the theatre after

"The theatre! Well, you are gettin' on! That would be 'eavenly.
They've got the 'Charity Girl' on this week - Gertie Lennox dancing.
But don't you disapprove of that sort of thing?"

"So I - I mean I don't make a practice of it. But perhaps - once in a
way - "

"I love it; though 'tisn't often I gets the chance. I dunno what Dick
would say, though."

She said it archly, meaning to suggest that Dick might be jealous.
John Gilbart misunderstood.

"But that's foolish. Why not to-night as well as any other night?
What difference can it make to - to - " He broke off, laughing a little
wildly. "We'll go and give each other moral support. We'll take
tickets for the pit - no, the dress circle!"

"The dress circle!" There was awe in Milly's voice; her hand went up to
her head. "They make you take your 'at off there. Oh, I couldn't!"
But he caught her by the arm and hurried her off almost at a run - the
girl giggling and panting and beginning to enjoy herself amazingly.

The performance had begun; but they found seats in the front row of the
dress circle, almost before she had ceased panting, and Milly was
unpinning her hat and glancing up at the gallery on the chance of an
envious friendly recognition. The lights, the colours, the clash of
brass in the orchestra made Gilbart's head spin. A stout _tenore
robusto_ in the uniform of a naval lieutenant was parading the stage in
halos of mauve and green lime-light, and bawling his own praises to a
semicircle of females. Gilbart's ear caught and retained but a line or
two of their shrill chorus:

Through the world so wide
He's old England's pride,
But we'er glad now he's come back:
For he's dressed in blue,
And he's always true -
Heaven bless you, dear old Jack!

The sentiments of this ditty did not materially differ from those which
Gilbart was in the habit of assimilating from his morning newspaper; nor
were they much more fatuously expressed. Twenty-four hours ago he might
even have applauded them as noisily as anyone in the enraptured house.
Now his gorge rose against the song, the complacent singer, the men and
women who could be amused by such things. Could this be what they
called the joy of living? Milly's eyes had begun to sparkle. He forgot
that in this very contempt the theatre was providing what he had come to
seek - a drug for conscience. And before he recognised this the drug was
weakening. Horribly, stealthily, _It_ began to reassert itself. These
people - what would happen if he stood up in his place and shouted _It?_
His mind played with the temptation; he saw white faces, men standing
and looking up at him, the performance on the stage arrested, the
orchestra mute; almost he heard his voice ring out over the sudden
frozen consternation. No; he gripped the velvet cushion before him. "I
must sit it out. I will sit it out."

And he did, though he suffered horribly. Milly found him a desperately
dull companion, but luckily her neighbours' dresses and ornaments
diverted her between the acts. She would have liked an orange; but it
appeared that oranges were not eaten in the dress circle.

Outside the theatre door in the great portico Gilbart flung up both
hands and let out a long, shuddering sigh.

"My! What's the matter with you?" asked Milly.

"Come along and have some supper."

He led her to a supper-room. "Well, you do know how to do things," she
said. But it frightened her when he ordered champagne. She looked at
him nervously. "I've never tasted it," she confessed; "and" - with a
glance around the room - "and I don't think I like it."

She drank her glassful, however, while he finished the pint bottle.
Then she picked up her worn gloves.

"Must we be going?" The end had come and worse torment must begin.

"Of course we must; and 'igh time too, if you knew what mother'll say
when I get home. You mustn't think I 'aven't enjoyed myself, though,"
she added, "because I 'ave."

Out in the street as they walked arm in arm she unbent still further.
"I shall tell mother, of course. She won't mind when she knows it's
you, because you're so respectable. But girls 'ave to be careful."

At her door she paused before saying good-night. She loved Dick, of
course; but she wondered a little what Mr. Gilbart meant. His manner
had been so queer when he said, "Must we be going?"

For a moment she waited, half expecting him to say something, meaning to
be angry if he said it. Such was her crude idea of coquettishness.
But John Gilbart merely shook hands, waited until the door closed behind
her, and bent his steps toward home.

That was in the next street. He walked briskly up to the door - then
turned on his heel and strode away rapidly. He could not go upstairs;
could not face the silent hours alone. As he retreated the front door
was opened. Mrs. Wilcox had been sitting up for him, and had heard and
recognised his footstep. He ran. After a minute the door was closed

At nine o'clock next morning a sentry on the seaward side of Tregantle
Fort saw a man sitting below in the sunshine on the edge of the cliff,
and took him for a tramp. It was John Gilbart. He had spent the night
trudging the streets, but always returning to the pavement in front of
one or the other of the two important newspaper offices. Lights shone
in the upper windows of each, but all was quiet; and he saw the men
leave one by one and walk away into darkness with brisk but regular
footfall. A little before dawn he had caught the newspaper-train for
the west, left it at the first station over the Cornish border and set
his face toward the sea. His walk took him past dewy hedgerows over
which the larks sang. But he neither saw nor heard. A deep peace had
fallen upon him. He knew himself now; had touched the bottom of his
cowardice, his falsity. He would never be happy again, but he could
never deceive himself again; no, not though God interfered.

He looked out on the sunshine with purged eyes. Now and then he
listened, as if for some sound from the horizon or the great town behind

_Had_ God interfered? How still the world was!




It happened on a broiling afternoon in July 1812, and midway in a
fortnight of exquisite weather, during which Wellington and Marmont
faced each other across the Douro before opening the beautiful series of
evolutions - or, rather, of circumvolutions - which ended suddenly on the
22nd, and locked the two armies in the prettiest pitched battle I have
lived to see.

For the moment neither General desired a battle. Marmont, thrust back
from Salamanca, had found a strong position where he could safely wait
for reinforcements, and had indeed already collected near upon forty
thousand of all arms, when, on the 8th, Bonnet marched into camp from
Asturias with another six thousand infantry. He had sent, too, to
borrow some divisions from Caffarelli's Army of the North. But these he
expected in vain: for Bonnet's withdrawal from Asturias had laid bare
the whole line of French communication, and so frightened Caffarelli for
the safety of his own districts that he at once recalled the twelve
thousand men he was moving down to the Douro, and in the end sent but a
handful of cavalry, and that grudgingly.

All this I had the honour to predict to Lord Wellington just twelve
hours before Bonnet's arrival on the scene. I staked my reputation that
Caffarelli (on whom I had been watching and waiting for a month past)
would not move. And Lord Wellington on the spot granted me the few
days' rest I deserved - not so much in joy of the news (which,
nevertheless, was gratifying) as because for the moment he had no work
for me. The knot was tied. He could not attack except at great
disadvantage, for the fords were deep, and Marmont held the one bridge
at Tordesillas. His business was to hold on, covering Salamanca and the
road back to Portugal, and await Marmont's first move.

The French front stretched as a chord across an arc of the river, which
here takes a long sweep to the south; and the British faced it around
this arc, with their left, centre, and right, upon three tributary
streams - the Guarena, Trabancos, and Zapardiel - over which last, and
just before it joins the Douro, towers the rock of Rueda, crowned with a
ruinated castle.

Upon this rock - for my quarters lay in face of it, on the opposite bank
of the stream - I had been gazing for the best part of an idle afternoon.
I was comfortable; my _cigarritos_ lay within reach; my tent gave shade
enough; and through the flapway I found myself watching a mighty pretty
comedy, with the rock of Rueda for its back-scene.

A more satisfactory one I could not have wished, and I have something of
a connoisseur's eye. To be sure, the triangular flapway narrowed the
picture, and although the upstanding rock and castle fell admirably
within the frame, it cut off an animated scene on the left, where their
distant shouts and laughter told me that French and British were bathing
together in the river below and rallying each other on the battles yet
to be fought. For during these weeks, and indeed through the
operations which followed up to the moment of fighting, the armies
behaved less like foes than like two teams before a cricket-match, or
two wrestlers who shake hands and afterwards grin amicably as they move
in circles seeking for a hitch. As I lay, however, the bathing-place
could only be brought into view by craning my neck beyond the tent-door:
and my posture was too well chosen to be shifted. Moreover, I had a
more singular example of these amenities in face of me, on the rock of
Rueda itself.

The cliff, standing out against the sun's glare like ivory beneath the
blue, and quivering with heat, was flecked here and there with small
lilac shadows; and these shadows marked the entrances of the caves with
which Rueda was honeycombed. I had once or twice resolved to visit
these caves; for I had heard much of their renown, and even (although
this I disbelieved) that they contained wine enough to intoxicate all
the troops in the Peninsula. Wine in abundance they certainly
contained, and all the afternoon men singly and in clusters had been
swarming in and out of these entrances like flies about a honeypot.
For whatever might be happening on the Trabancos under Lord Wellington's
eye, here at Rueda, on the extreme right, discipline for the while had
disappeared: and presumably the like was true of Marmont's extreme left
holding the bridge of Tordesillas. For from the bridge a short roadway
leads to Rueda; and among the figures moving about the rock, diminished
by distance though they were, I counted quite a respectable proportion
of Frenchmen. No one who loves his calling ever quite forgets it: and
though no one could well have appeared (or indeed felt) lazier, I was
really giving my eye practice in discriminating, on this ant-hill, the
drunk from the sober, and even the moderately drunk from the incapable.

There could be no doubt, at any rate, concerning one little Frenchman
whom two tall British grenadiers were guiding down the cliff towards the
road. And against my will I had to drop my cigarette and laugh aloud:
for the two guides were themselves unsteady, yet as desperately intent
upon the job as though they handled a chest of treasure. Now they would
prop him up and run him over a few yards of easy ground: anon, at a
sharp descent, one would clamber down ahead and catch the burden his
comrade lowered by the collar, with a subsidiary grip upon belt or
pantaloons. But to the Frenchman all smooth and rugged came alike: his
legs sprawled impartially: and once, having floundered on top of the
leading Samaritan with a shock which rolled the pair to the very verge
of a precipice, he recovered himself, and sat up in an attitude which,
at half a mile's distance, was eloquent of tipsy reproach. In short,
when the procession had filed past the edge of my tent-flap, I crawled
out to watch: and then it occurred to me as worth a lazy man's while to
cross the Zapardiel by the pontoon bridge below and head these comedians
off upon the highroad. They promised to repay a closer view.

So I did; gained the road, and, seating myself beside it, hailed them as
they came.

"My friend," said I to the leading grenadier, "you are taking a deal of
trouble with your prisoner."

The grenadier stared at his comrade, and his comrade at him. As if by
signal they mopped their brows with their coat-sleeves. The Frenchman
sat down on the road without more ado.

"Prisoner?" mumbled the first grenadier.

"Ay," said I. "Who is he? He doesn't look like a general of brigade."

"Devil take me if _I_ know. Who will he be, Bill?"

Bill stared at the Frenchman blankly, and rooted him out of the dust
with his toe. "I wonder, now! 'Picked him up, somewheres - Get up, you
little pig, and carry your liquor like a gentleman. It was Mike
intojuced him."

"I did not," said Mike.

"Very well, then, ye did not. I must have come by him some other way."

"It was yourself tripped over him in the cellar, up yandhar." He broke
off and eyed me, meditating a sudden thought. "It seems mighty queer,
that - speaking of a cellar as 'up yandhar.' Now a cellar, by rights,
should be in the ground, under your fut."

"And so it is," argued Bill; "slap in the bowels of it."

"Ah, be quiet wid your bowels! As I was saying, sor, Bill tripped
over the little fellow: and the next I knew he was crying to be tuk home
to camp, and Bill swearing to do it if it cost him his stripes.
And that is where I come into this fatigue job: for the man's no friend
of mine, and will not be looking it, I hope."

"Did I so?" Bill exclaimed, regarding himself suddenly from outside, as
it were, and not without admiration. "Did I promise that?
Well, then" - he fixed a sternly disapproving stare on the Frenchman -
"the Lord knows what possessed me; but to the bridgehead you go, if I
fight the whole of Clausel's division single-handed. Take his feet,
Mike; I'm a man of my word. Hep! - ready is it? For'ard!"

For a minute or so, as they staggered down the road, I stared after
them; and then upon an impulse mounted the track by which they had

It was easy enough, or they had never come down alive; but the sun's
rays smote hotly off the face of the rock, and at one point I narrowly
missed being brained by a stone dislodged by some drunkard above me.
Already, however, the stream of tipplers had begun to set back towards

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryArthur Thomas Quiller-CouchThe White Wolf and Other Fireside Tales → online text (page 10 of 22)