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THE RED PLANET


BY

WILLIAM J. LOCKE



AUTHOR OF "THE WONDERFUL YEAR," "JAFFERY," "THE BELOVED VAGABOND," ETC.



Not only over death strewn plains,
Fierce mid the cold white stars,
But over sheltered vales of home,
Hides the Red Planet Mars.





THE RED PLANET




CHAPTER I


"Lady Fenimore's compliments, sir, and will you be so kind as to step
round to Sir Anthony at once?"

Heaven knows that never another step shall I take in this world again;
but Sergeant Marigold has always ignored the fact. That is one of the
many things I admire about Marigold. He does not throw my poor
paralysed legs, so to speak, in my face. He accepts them as the normal
equipment of an employer. I don't know what I should do without
Marigold.... You see we were old comrades in the South African War,
where we both got badly knocked to pieces. He was Sergeant in my
battery, and the same Boer shell did for both of us. At times we join
in cursing that shell heartily, but I am not sure that we do not hold
it in sneaking affection. It initiated us into the brotherhood of
death. Shortly afterwards when we had crossed the border-line back into
life, we exchanged, as tokens, bits of the shrapnel which they had
extracted from our respective carcases. I have not enquired what he did
with his bit; but I keep mine in a certain locked drawer.... There were
only the two of us left on the gun when we were knocked out.... I
should like to tell you the whole story, but you wouldn't listen to me.
And no wonder. In comparison with the present world convulsion in which
the slaughtered are reckoned by millions, the Boer War seems a trumpery
affair of bows and arrows. I am a back-number. Still, back-numbers have
their feelings - and their memories.

I sometimes wonder, as I sit in this wheel-chair, with my abominable
legs dangling down helplessly, what Sergeant Marigold thinks of me. I
know what I think of Marigold. I think him the ugliest devil that God
ever created and further marred after creating him. He is a long, bony
creature like a knobbly ram-rod, and his face is about the colour and
shape of a damp, mildewed walnut. To hide a bald head into which a
silver plate has been fixed, he wears a luxuriant curly brown wig, like
those that used to adorn waxen gentlemen in hair-dressing windows. His
is one of those unhappy moustaches that stick out straight and scanty
like a cat's. He has the slit of a letter-box mouth of the Irishman in
caricature, and only half a dozen teeth spaced like a skeleton company.
Nothing will induce him to procure false ones. It is a matter of
principle. Between the wearing of false hair and the wearing of false
teeth he makes a distinction of unfathomable subtlety. He is an
obstinate beast. If he wasn't he would not, with four fingers of his
right hand shot away, have remained with me on that gun. In the same
way, neither tears nor entreaties nor abuse have induced him to wear a
glass eye. On high days and holidays, whenever he desires to look smart
and dashing, he covers the unpleasing orifice with a black shade. In
ordinary workaday life he cares not how much he offends the aesthetic
sense. But the other eye, the sound left eye, is a wonder - the precious
jewel set in the head of the ugly toad. It is large, of ultra-marine
blue, steady, fearless, humorous, tender - everything heroic and
beautiful and romantic you can imagine about eyes. Let him clap a hand
over that eye and you will hold him the most dreadful ogre that ever
escaped out of a fairy tale. Let him clap a hand over the other eye and
look full at you out of the good one and you will think him the
Knightliest man that ever was - and in my poor opinion, you would not be
far wrong.

So, out of this nightmare of a face, the one beautiful eye of Sergeant
Marigold was bent on me, as he delivered his message.

I thrust back my chair from the writing-table.

"Is Sir Anthony ill?"

"He rode by the gate an hour ago looking as well as either you or me,
sir."

"That's not very reassuring," said I.

Marigold did not take up the argument. "They've sent the car for you,
sir."

"In that case," said I, "I'll start immediately."

Marigold wheeled my chair out of the room and down the passage to the
hall, where he fitted me with greatcoat and hat. Then, having trundled
me to the front gate, he picked me up - luckily I have always been a
small spare man - and deposited me in the car. I am always nervous of
anyone but Marigold trying to carry me. They seem to stagger and fumble
and bungle. Marigold's arms close round me like an iron clamp and they
lift me with the mechanical certainty of a crane.

He jumped up beside the chauffeur and we drove off.

Perhaps when I get on a little further I may acquire the trick of
telling a story. At present I am baffled by the many things that
clamour for prior record. Before bringing Sir Anthony on the scene, I
feel I ought to say something more about myself, to explain why Lady
Fenimore should have sent for me in so peremptory a fashion. Following
the model of my favourite author Balzac - you need the awful leisure
that has been mine to appreciate him - I ought to describe the house in
which I live, my establishment - well, I have begun with Sergeant
Marigold - and the little country town which is practically the scene of
the drama in which were involved so many bound to me by close ties of
friendship and affection.

I ought to explain how I come to be writing this at all.

Well, to fill in my time, I first started by a diary - a sort of War
Diary of Wellingsford, the little country town in question. Then things
happened with which my diary was inadequate to cope. Everyone came and
told me his or her side of the story. All through, I found thrust upon
me the parts of father-confessor, intermediary, judge, advocate, and
conspirator.... For look you, what kind of a life can a man lead
situated as I am? The crowning glory of my days, my wife, is dead. I
have neither chick nor child. No brothers or sisters, dead or alive.
The Bon Dieu and Sergeant Marigold (the latter assisted by his wife and
a maid or two) look after my creature comforts. What have I in the
world to do that is worth doing save concern myself with my country and
my friends?

With regard to my country, in these days of war, I do what I can. Until
finally flattened out by the War Office, I pestered them for such
employment as a cripple might undertake. As an instance of what a
paralytic was capable I quoted Couthon, member of the National
Convention and the Committee of Public Safety. You can see his chair,
not very unlike mine, in the Musee Carnavalet in Paris. Perhaps that is
where I blundered. The idea of a shrieking revolutionary in Whitehall
must have sent a cold shiver down their spines. In the meanwhile, I
serve on as many War Committees in Wellingsford as is physically
possible for Sergeant Marigold to get me into. I address recruiting
meetings. I have taken earnest young Territorial artillery officers in
courses of gunnery. You know they work with my own beloved old fifteen
pounders, brought up to date with new breeches, recoils, shields, and
limbers. For months there was a brigade in Wellings Park, and I used to
watch their drill. I was like an old actor coming once again before the
footlights.... Of course it was only in the mathematics of the business
that I could be of any help, and doubtless if the War Office had heard
of the goings on in my study, they would have dropped severely on all
of us. Still, I taught them lots of things about parabolas that they
did not know and did not know were to be known - things that,
considering the shells they fired went in parabolas, ought certainly to
be known by artillery officers; so I think, in this way, I have done a
little bit for my country.

With regard to my friends, God has given me many in this quiet market
town - once a Sleepy Hollow awakened only on Thursdays by bleating sheep
and lowing cattle and red-faced men in gaiters and hard felt hats; its
life flowing on drowsily as the gaudily painted barges that are towed
on the canal towards which, in scattered buildings, it drifts
aimlessly; a Sleepy Hollow with one broad High Street, melting
gradually at each end through shops, villas, cottages, into the King's
Highway, yet boasting in its central heart a hundred yards or so of
splendour, where the truculent new red brick Post Office sneers across
the flagged market square at the new Portland-stone Town Hall, while
the old thatched corn-market sleeps in the middle and the Early English
spire of the Norman church dreams calmly above them. Once, I say, a
Sleepy Hollow, but now alive with the tramp of soldiers and the rumble
of artillery and transport; for Wellingsford is the centre of a
district occupied by a division, which means twenty thousand men of all
arms, and the streets and roads swarm with men in khaki, and troops are
billeted in all the houses. The War has changed many aspects, but not
my old friendships. I had made a home here during my soldiering days,
long before the South African War, my wife being a kinswoman of Sir
Anthony, and so I have grown into the intimacy of many folks around.
And, as they have been more than good to me, surely I must give them of
my best in the way of sympathy and counsel. So it is in no spirit of
curiosity that I have pried into my friends' affairs. They have become
my own, very vitally my own; and this book is a record of things as I
know them to have happened.

My name is Meredyth, with a "Y," as my poor mother used proudly to say,
though what advantage a "Y" has over an "I," save that of a swaggering
tail, I have always been at a loss to determine; Major Duncan Meredyth,
late R.F.A., aged forty-seven; and I live in a comfortable little house
at the extreme north end of the High Street, standing some way back
from the road; so that in fine weather I can sit in my front garden and
watch everybody going into the town. And whenever any of my friends
pass by, it is their kindly habit to cast an eye towards my gate, and,
if I am visible, to pass the time of day with me for such time as they
can spare.

Years ago, when first I realised what would be my fate for the rest of
my life, I nearly broke my heart. But afterwards, whether owing to the
power of human adaptability or to the theory of compensation, I grew to
disregard my infirmity. By building a series of two or three rooms on
to the ground floor of the house, so that I could live in it without
the need of being carried up and down stairs, and by acquiring skill in
the manipulation of my tricycle chair, I can get about the place pretty
much as I choose. And Marigold is my second self. So, in spite of the
sorrow and grief incident to humanity of which God has given me my
share, I feel that my lot is cast in pleasant places and I am thankful.

The High Street, towards its southern extremity, takes a sudden bend,
forming what the French stage directions call a pan coupe. On the inner
angle are the gates of Wellings Park, the residence of Sir Anthony
Fenimore, third baronet, and the most considerable man in our little
community. Through these gates the car took me and down the long avenue
of chestnut trees, the pride of a district braggart of its chestnuts
and its beeches, but now leafless and dreary, spreading out an infinite
tracery of branch and twig against a grey February sky. Thence we
emerged into the open of rolling pasture and meadow on the highest
ground of which the white Georgian house was situated. As we neared the
house I shivered, not only with the cold, but with a premonition of
disaster. For why should Lady Fenimore have sent for me to see Sir
Anthony, when he, strong and hearty, could have sent for me himself,
or, for the matter of that, could have visited me at my own home? The
house looked stark and desolate. And when we drew up at the front door
and Pardoe, the elderly butler, appeared, his face too looked stark and
desolate.

Marigold lifted me out and carried me up the steps and put me into a
chair like my own which the Fenimores have the goodness to keep in a
hall cupboard for my use.

"What's the matter, Pardoe?" I asked.

"Sir Anthony and her ladyship will tell you, sir. They're in the
morning room."

So I was shewn into the morning room - a noble square room with French
windows, looking on to the wintry garden, and with a log fire roaring
up a great chimney. On one side of the fire sat Sir Anthony, and on the
other, Lady Fenimore. And both were crying. He rose as he saw me - a
short, crop-haired, clean-shaven, ruddy, jockey-faced man of
fifty-five, the corners of his thin lips, usually curled up in a cheery
smile, now piteously drawn down, and his bright little eyes now dim
like those of a dead bird. She, buxom, dark, without a grey hair in her
head, a fine woman defying her years, buried her face in her hands and
sobbed afresh.

"It's good of you to come, old man," said Sir Anthony, "but you're in
it with us."

He handed me a telegram. I knew, before reading it, what message it
contained. I had known, all along, but dared not confess it to myself.

"I deeply regret to inform you that your son, Lieutenant Oswald
Fenimore, was killed in action yesterday while leading his men with the
utmost gallantry."

I had known him since he was a child. By reason of my wife's kinship, I
was "Uncle Duncan." He was just one and twenty, but a couple of years
out of Sandhurst. Only a week before I had received an exuberant letter
from him extolling his men as "super-devil-angels," and imploring me if
I loved him and desired to establish the supremacy of British arms, to
send him some of Mrs. Marigold's potted shrimp.

And now, there he was dead; and, if lucky, buried with a little wooden
cross with his name rudely inscribed, marking his grave.

I reached out my hand.

"My poor old Anthony!"

He jerked his head and glance towards his wife and wheeled me to her
side, so that I could put my hand on her shoulder.

"It's bitter hard, Edith, but - "

"I know, I know. But all the same - "

"Well, damn it all!" cried Sir Anthony, in a quavering voice, "he died
like a man and there's nothing more to be said."

Presently he looked at his watch.

"By George," said he, "I've only just time to get to my Committee."

"What Committee?" I asked.

"The Lord Lieutenant's. I promised to take the chair."

For the first time Lady Fenimore lifted her stricken face.

"Are you going, Anthony?"

"The boy didn't shirk his duty. Why should I?"

She looked at him squarely and the most poignant simulacrum of a smile
I have ever seen flitted over her lips.

"Why not, darling? Duncan will keep me company till you come back."

He kissed his wife, a trifle more demonstratively than he had ever done
in alien presence, and with a nod at me, went out of the room.

And suddenly she burst into sobbing again.

"I know it's wrong and wicked and foolish," she said brokenly. "But I
can't help it. Oh, God! I can't help it."

Then, like an ass, I began to cry, too; for I loved the boy, and that
perhaps helped her on a bit.




CHAPTER II


Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The tag has been all but outworn
during these unending days of death; it has become almost a cant phrase
which the judicious shrink from using. Yet to hundreds of thousands of
mourning men and women there has been nothing but its truth to bring
consolation. They are conscious of the supreme sacrifice and thereby
are ennobled. The cause in which they made it becomes more sacred. The
community of grief raises human dignity. In England, at any rate, there
are no widows of Ashur. All are silent in their lamentations. You see
little black worn in the public ways. The Fenimores mourned for their
only son, the idol of their hearts; but the manifestation of their
grief was stoical compared with their unconcealed desolation on the
occasion of a tragedy that occurred the year before.

Towards the end of the preceding June their only daughter, Althea, had
been drowned in the canal. Here was a tragedy unrelieved, stupid,
useless. Here was no consoling knowledge of glorious sacrifice; no
dying for one's country. There was no dismissing it with a heroic word
that caught in the throat.

I have not started out to write this little chronicle of Wellingsford
in order to weep over the pain of the world. God knows there is in it
an infinity of beauty, fresh revelations of which are being every day
unfolded before my eyes.

If I did not believe with all my soul that out of Darkness cometh
Light, I would take my old service revolver from its holster and blow
out my brains this very minute. The eternal laughter of the earth has
ever since its creation pierced through the mist of tears in which at
times it has been shrouded. What has been will be. Nay, more, what has
been shall be. It is the Law of what I believe to be God.... As a
concrete instance, where do you find a fuller expression of the divine
gaiety of the human spirit than in the Houses of Pain, strewn the
length and breadth of the land, filled with maimed and shattered men
who have looked into the jaws of Hell? If it comes to that, I have
looked into them myself, and have heard the heroic jests of men who
looked with me.

For some years up to the outbreak of the war which has knocked all
so-called modern values silly, my young friends, with a certain
respectful superciliousness, regarded me as an amiable person
hopelessly out of date. Now that we are at grip with elementals, I find
myself, if anything, in advance of the fashion. This, however, by the
way. What I am clumsily trying to explain is that if I am to make this
story intelligible I must start from the darkness where its roots lie
hidden. And that darkness is the black depths of the canal by the lock
gates where Althea Fenimore's body was found.

It was high June, in leafy England, in a world at peace. Can one
picture it? With such a wrench of memory does one recall scenes of
tender childhood. In the shelter of a stately house lived Althea
Fenimore. She was twenty-one; pretty, buxom, like her mother, modern,
with (to me) a pathetic touch of mid-Victorian softness and
sentimentality; independent in outward action, what we call "open-air";
yet an anomaly, fond at once of games and babies. I have seen her in
the morning tearing away across country by the side of her father, the
most passionate and reckless rider to hounds in the county, and in the
evening I have come across her, a pretty mass of pink flesh and
muslin - no, it can't be muslin - say chiffon - anyhow, something white
and filmy and girlish - curled up on a sofa and absorbed in a novel of
Mrs. Henry Wood, borrowed, if one could judge by the state of its
greasy brown paper cover, from the servants' hall. I confess that,
though to her as to her brother I was "Uncle Duncan," and loved her as
a dear, sweet English girl, I found her lacking in spirituality, in
intellectual grasp, in emotional distinction. I should have said that
she was sealed by God to be the chaste, healthy, placid mother of men.
She was forever laughing - just the spontaneous laughter of the gladness
of life.

On the last afternoon of her existence she came to see me, bringing me
a basket of giant strawberries from her own particular bed. We had tea
in the garden, and with her young appetite she consumed half the fruit
she had brought. At the time I did not notice an unusual touch of
depression. I remember her holding by its stalk a great half-eaten
strawberry and asking me whether sometimes I didn't find life rather
rotten. I said idly:

"You can't expect the world to be a peach without a speck on it. Of
such is the Kingdom of Heaven. The wise person avoids the specks."

"But suppose you've bitten a specky bit by accident?"

"Spit it out," said I.

She laughed. "You think you're like the wise Uncle in the Sunday School
books, don't you?"

"I know I am," I said.

Whereupon she laughed again, finished the strawberry, and changed the
conversation.

There seemed to be no foreshadowing of tragedy in that. I had known her
(like many of her kind) to proclaim the rottenness of the Universe when
she was off her stroke at golf, or when a favourite young man did not
appear at a dance. I attributed no importance to it. But the next day I
remembered. What was she doing after half-past ten o'clock, when she
had bidden her father and mother goodnight, on the steep and lonely
bank of the canal, about a mile and a half away? No one had seen her
leave the house. No one, apparently, had seen her walking through the
town. Nothing was known of her until dawn when they found her body by
the lock gate. She had been dead some hours. It was a mysterious
affair, upon which no light was thrown at the inquest. No one save
myself had observed any sign of depression, and her half-bantering talk
with me was trivial enough. No one could adduce a reason for her
midnight walk on the tow-path. The obvious question arose. Whom had she
gone forth to meet? What man? There was not a man in the neighbourhood
with whom her name could be particularly associated. Generally, it
could be associated with a score or so. The modern young girl of her
position and upbringing has a drove of young male intimates. With one
she rides, with another she golfs, with another she dances a two-step,
with another she Bostons; she will let Tom read poetry to her,
although, as she expresses it, "he bores her stiff," because her sex
responds to the tribute; she plays lady patroness to Dick, and tries to
intrigue him into a soft job; and as for Harry she goes on telling him
month after month that unless he forswears sack and lives cleanly she
will visit him with her high displeasure. Meanwhile, most of these
satellites have affaires de coeur of their own, some respectable,
others not; they regard the young lady with engaging frankness as a
woman and a sister, they have the run of her father's house, and would
feel insulted if anybody questioned the perfect correctness of their
behaviour. Each man has, say, half a dozen houses where he is welcomed
on the same understanding. Of course, when one particular young man and
one particular young woman read lunatic things in each other's eyes,
then the rest of the respective quasi-sisters and quasi-brothers have
to go hang. (In parenthesis, I may state that the sisters are more
ruthlessly sacrificed than the brothers.) At any rate, frankness is the
saving quality of the modern note.

In the case of Althea, there had been no sign of such specialisation.
She could not have gone forth, poor child, to meet the twenty with whom
she was known to be on terms of careless comradeship. She had gone from
her home, driven by God knows what impulse, to walk in the
starlight - there was no moon - along the banks of the canal. In the
darkness, had she missed her footing and stepped into nothingness and
the black water? The Coroner's Jury decided the question in the
affirmative. They brought in a verdict of death by misadventure. And up
to the date on which I begin this little Chronicle of Wellingsford,
namely that of the summons to Wellings Park, when I heard of the death
of young Oswald Fenimore, that is all I knew of the matter.

Throughout July my friends were like dead people. There was nothing
that could be said to them by way of consolation. The sun had gone out
of their heaven. There was no light in the world. Having known Death as
a familiar foe, and having fought against its terrors; having only by
the grace of God been able to lift up a man's voice in my hour of awful
bereavement, and cry, "O Death, where is thy sting, O Grave, thy
Victory?" I could suffer with them and fear for their reason. They
lived in a state of coma, unaware of life, performing, like automata,
their daily tasks.

Then, in the early days of August, came the Trumpet of War, and they
awakened. In my life have I seen nothing so marvellous. No broken spell
of enchantment in an Arabian tale when dead warriors spring into life
was ever more instant and complete. They arose in their full vigour;
the colour came back to their cheeks and the purpose into their eyes.
They laughed once more. Their days were filled with work and
cheerfulness. In November Sir Anthony was elected Mayor. Being a
practical, hard-headed little man, loved and respected by everybody, he
drove a hitherto contentious Town Council into paths of high patriotism
like a flock of sheep. And no less energy did Lady Fenimore exhibit in


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