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"Well, here is what brought me up tonight, when I knew Bernard would be on his way to bed. Will you--" he leaned forward, his hands clasped between his knees--"stick it out, whatever happens, for a week or two, and keep your eyes open? Life at Wanhope isn't all plain sailing."
"Plain sailing for Bernard?"
"Or for his wife."
"You speak as the friend of the house who sees both sides?"
"They're forced on me."
"I'll stay as long as I'm comfortable," said Lawrence, cynically frank. "More I can't promise."
Val leant back with an imperceptible shrug. He was disappointed but not surprised: there was in Hyde a vein of hard selfishness-- not a weakness, for the egoism which openly says "I will consult my own convenience first" is too scornful of public opinion to be called weak, but an acquired defensive quality on which argument would have been thrown away. Val's arm dropped inert, he was tired, not in body alone, but by the strain of contact with another mind, hostile, and pitiless, and dominant.
And Lawrence also was content to sit silent, lulled by the rising and falling murmur of the stream, and by that agreeably cruel memory. . . . He had no inclination to recall it to Val, but it lent an emotional piquancy to their intercourse. He had the whip hand of Val through the past, and perhaps the present also.
Lawrence had been struck by Val's allusion to Mrs. Clowes. He was the friend of the house, was he? Now the position of a friend of the house who s.h.i.+elds a wife from her husband is notoriously a delicate one.
Val roused himself. "Well, we'll drop this. I must now say two words on a different subject: I'd rather let it alone, and so I dare say would you, but we shall meet a good deal off and on while you're here, and it had better be got over. I'm sorry if I embarra.s.s you--"
"Set your mind at rest," said Lawrence, silkenly brutal. "You don't embarra.s.s me at all."
He threw away his cigar and got up laughing, and as Val also rose Lawrence gently slapped him on the back. "I know what you're driving at--that you've not forgotten that small indiscretion of yours, or ceased to regret it. Don't you worry, Val! You always were one of the worrying sort, weren't you? But you need never refer to it again, and I won't if you don't." Surely a generous, a handsome offer! But Stafford only touched with the tips of his fingers the ringed and manicured hand of the elder man.
"Thank you! But I wasn't going to say anything of the sort. The fact is that for a long while I've been making up my mind to see you some time when you were in England: there was no hurry, because so long as my father's alive I can do nothing, but when I heard you were coming to Wanhope the opportunity was too good to be missed. Railway fares," Val added with a preoccupied smile, "are a consideration to me. So don't walk away yet, Hyde, please. I have such a vivid recollection of the last time we met.
Between the lines at dawn. Do you remember?"
"You were badly hurt, but before you fainted you dragged a promise out of me."
"Dragged it out of you?" Lawrence repeated: "that's one way of putting it!"
"But I made some feeble resistance at the time," said Val mildly.
"My head wasn't clear then or for a long while after, but I had a--a presentiment that it was a mistake. You meant it kindly."
Had he? Lawrence laughed. He had never been able, to a.n.a.lyse the complex of instincts and pa.s.sions that had determined his dealings with Stafford on that dim day between the lines.
"You were in a d.a.m.ned funk weren't you, Val?"
Stafford gave a slight start, the reaction of the prisoner under a blow. But apart from the coa.r.s.e cynicism of it, which irritated him, it was no more than he had foreseen, and from then on till the end he did not flinch.
"Yes, anything you like: you can't overstate it. But my point is that I gave you my parole. Will you release me from it?"
"Good G.o.d!" said Lawrence.
He had never been more surprised in his life. "Come in: let us talk this over in the light."
Through the open windows of the drawingroom, where candlesticks of twisted silver glimmered among Laura's old, silvery brocades, and dim mirrors, and branches of pink and white rosebuds blooming deliciously in rose-coloured Dubarry jars, the two men came in together, Lawrence keenly on the watch. But observation was wasted on Stafford who had nothing to conceal, who was merely what he appeared to be, a faded and tired-looking man of middle height, with blue eyes and brown hair turning grey, and wellworn evening clothes a trifle rubbed at the cuffs. It was difficult to connect this gentle and una.s.suming person with the fiery memory of the war, and Lawrence without apology took hold of Stafford's arm like a surgeon and tried to flex the rigid elbow-muscles, and to distinguish with his fingers used to handling wounds the hard seams and hollows below its shrunken joint. The action, which was overbearing was by no means redeemed by the intention, which was brutal.
"Surely after all these years you don't propose to confess, Val?"
"I should like to make some sort of amends."
"Too late: these things can never be undone."
"No, of course not. Undone? no, nothing once done can be undone.
"But one needn't follow a wrong path to the bitter end. You made me give you that promise for the sake of discipline and morale.
But of the men who were in the trenches with us that night how many are left? Your battalion were pretty badly cut up at Cambrai, weren't they? And the survivors are all back in civil life like ourselves. If it were to come out now there aren't twenty men who would remember anything about it: except of course here in Chilmark, where they know my people so well."
"But you surely don't contemplate writing to the War Office?
I've no idea what course they would take, but they'd be safe to make themselves unpleasant. I might even come in for a reprimand myself! That's a fate I could support with equanimity, but what about you? If I were you I shouldn't care to be hauled up for an interview!"
"Really, if you'll forgive my saying so, I don't want to enter into contingencies at all. Give me my promise back, Hyde, there's a good fellow, it's worth nothing now to anyone but the owner."
"What about your own people?" said Lawrence, his hands in his pockets, and falling unawares into the tone of the orderly room.
"You'll do nothing while your father's alive: I'm glad you've sense enough for that: but what about your brother and sister?
You're suffering under some unpractical attack of remorse, Val, and like most penitent souls you think of nothing but yourself."
"On the contrary, I shrink very much from bringing distress on other people. I'm well aware," said Val slowly, "that a man who does what I've done forfeits his right to take an easy way out."
"An easy way?"
"Believe me, I haven't found the way you imposed on me an easy one."
"Poor wretch!" said Lawrence under his breath. Stafford heard, perhaps he was meant to hear: and he glanced out over the dark turf on which the windows traced a golden oblong, over the trees, dark and mysterious except where the same light caught and bronzed the tips of their branches. In its glow every leaf stood out separate and defined, clearer than by day through the contrast of the immense surrounding darkness: and so it had been in that bit of French forest years ago, when the wild bright searchlights lit up its plague-spotted glades. Civilians talk glibly of courage and cowardice who have never smelt the odour of corruption. . . .
"What's your motive? Some misbegotten sense of duty?"
"Partly," said Val, turning from the window. How like his eyes were to his young sister's! The impression was unwelcome, and Lawrence flung it off. "I ought never to have given way to you.
I ought to have faced Wynn-West and let him deal with me as he thought fit. After all, I was of no standing in the regiment.
A boy of nineteen--what on earth would it have signified? I was so very young."
Nineteen! yes, one called a lad young at nineteen even in those pitiless days. Under normal conditions he would have had two or three years' more training before he was required to shoulder the responsibilities and develop the braced muscles of manhood.
"Anyhow it's all over now--"
"No, you forget." A wave of colour swept over Val's face but his voice was steady. "Through me the regiment holds a distinction it hasn't earned, and the distinction is in hands that don't deserve to hold it. That isn't consonant with the traditions of the service."
"Oh, when it comes to the honour of the Army--!" Lawrence jeered at him. "There speaks the soldier born and bred. But I was only a 'temporary.' Give me a personal reason."
"Well, I can do that too! I hate sailing under false colours.
The good folk of Chilmark; my own people; Bernard, Laura . . . ."
Lawrence's eyes began to sparkle: when a man's voice deepens over a woman's name--! "Oh, I dare say nothing will ever come of it,"