Ensign Knightley and Other Stories
A. E. W. Mason
Part 2 out of 5
He rose trembling, and swept the dust off a corner of the mantelpiece
into the palm of his hand. Then he held his palm to the lamp.
"Have you seen the like of this before?" he asked in a low shaking
Mitchelbourne looked over Lance's shoulder. The dust was in reality a
very fine grain of a greenish tinge.
"Never!" said Mitchelbourne.
"No, nor I," said Lance, with a sudden cunning look at his companion,
and opening his fingers, as he let the grain run between them. But he
could not remove as easily from Mitchelbourne's memories that picture
he had shown him of a shaking and a shaken man. Mitchelbourne went to
bed divided in his feelings between pity for the lady Lance was to
marry, and curiosity as to Lance's apprehensions. He lay awake for
a long time speculating upon that mysterious green seed which could
produce so extraordinary a panic, and in the morning his curiosity
predominated. Since, therefore, he had no particular destination he
was easily persuaded to ride to Saxmundham with Mr. Lance, who, for
his part, was most earnest for a companion. On the journey Lance gave
further evidence of his fears. He had a trick of looking backwards
whenever they came to a corner of the road--an habitual trick, it
seemed, acquired by a continued condition of fear. When they stopped
at midday to eat at an ordinary, he inspected the guests through the
chink at the hinges of the door before he would enter the room; and
this, too, he did as though it had long been natural to him. He kept
a bridle in his mouth, however; that little pile of grain upon
the mantelshelf had somehow warned him into reticence, so that
Mitchelbourne, had he not been addicted to his tobacco, would
have learnt no more of the business and would have escaped the
extraordinary peril which he was subsequently called upon to face.
But he _was_ addicted to his tobacco, and no sooner had he finished
his supper that night at Saxmundham than he called for a pipe. The
maidservant fetched a handful from a cupboard and spread them upon the
table, and amongst them was one plainly of Barbary manufacture. It had
a straight wooden stem painted with hieroglyphics in red and green
and a small reddish bowl of baked earth. Nine men out of ten would no
doubt have overlooked it, but Mitchelbourne was the tenth man. His
fancies were quick to kindle, and taking up the pipe he said in a
"Now, how in the world comes a Barbary pipe to travel so far over seas
and herd in the end with common clays in a little Suffolk village?"
He heard behind him the grating of a chair violently pushed back. The
pipe seemingly made its appeal to Mr. Lance also.
"Has it been smoked?" he asked in a grave low voice.
"The inside of the bowl is stained," said Mitchelbourne.
Mitchelbourne had been inclined to believe that he had seen last
evening the extremity of fear expressed in a man's face: he had now to
admit that he had been wrong. Mr. Lance's terror was a Circe to him
and sunk him into something grotesque and inhuman; he ran once or
twice in a little tripping, silly run backwards and forwards like an
animal trapped and out of its wits; and his face had the look of a
man suffering from a nausea; so that Mitchelbourne, seeing him, was
ashamed and hurt for their common nature.
"I must go," said Lance babbling his words. "I cannot stay. I must
"To-night?" exclaimed Mitchelbourne. "Six yards from the door you will
"Then there will be the fewer men abroad. I cannot sleep here! No,
though it rained pistols and bullets I must go." He went into
the passage, and calling his host secretly asked for his score.
Mitchelbourne made a further effort to detain him.
"Make an inquiry of the landlord first. It may be a mere shadow that
"Not a word, not a question," Lance implored. The mere suggestion
increased a panic which seemed incapable of increase. "And for the
shadow, why, that's true. The pipe's the shadow, and the shadow
frightens me. A shadow! Yes! A shadow is a horrible, threatning thing!
Show me a shadow cast by nothing and I am with you. But you might as
easily hold that this Barbary pipe floated hither across the seas of
its own will. No! 'Ware shadows, I say." And so he continued harping
on the word, till the landlord fetched in the bill.
The landlord had his dissuasions too, but they availed not a jot more
than Mr. Mitchelbourne's.
"The road is as black as a pauper's coffin," said he, "and damnable
"So much the better," said Lance.
"There is no house where you can sleep nearer than Glemham, and no man
would sleep there could he kennel elsewhere."
"So much the better," said Lance. "Besides, I am expected to-morrow
evening at 'The Porch' and Glemham is on the way." He paid his bill,
slipped over to the stables and lent a hand to the saddling of his
horse. Mitchelbourne, though for once in his life he regretted the
precipitancy with which he welcomed strangers, was still sufficiently
provoked to see the business to its end. His imagination was seized by
the thought of this fat and vulgar person fleeing in terror through
English lanes from a Barbary Moor. He had now a conjecture in his mind
as to the nature of that greenish seed. He accordingly rode out with
Lance toward Glemham.
It was a night of extraordinary blackness; you could not distinguish
a hedge until the twigs stung across your face; the road was narrow,
great tree-trunks with bulging roots lined it, at times it was very
steep--and, besides and beyond every other discomfort, there was the
rain. It fell pitilessly straight over the face of the country with a
continuous roar as though the earth was a hollow drum. Both travellers
were drenched to the skin before they were free of Saxmundham, and one
of them, when after midnight they stumbled into the poor tumble-down
parody of a tavern at Glemham, was in an extreme exhaustion. It was no
more than an ague, said Lance, from which he periodically suffered,
but the two men slept in the same bare room, and towards morning
Mitchelbourne was awakened from a deep slumber by an unfamiliar voice
talking at an incredible speed through the darkness in an uncouth
tongue. He started up upon his elbow; the voice came from Lance's bed.
He struck a light. Lance was in a high fever, which increased as the
Now, whether he had the sickness latent within him when he came from
Barbary, or whether his anxieties and corpulent habit made him an
easy victim to disease, neither the doctor nor any one else could
determine. But at twelve o'clock that day Lance was seized with an
attack of cholera and by three in the afternoon he was dead. The
suddenness of the catastrophe shocked Mr. Mitchelbourne inexpressibly.
He stood gazing at the still features of the man whom fear had, during
these last days, so grievously tormented, and was solemnly aware of
the vanity of those fears. He could not pretend to any great esteem
for his companion, but he made many suitable reflections upon the
shears of the Fates and the tenacity of life, in which melancholy
occupation he was interrupted by the doctor, who pointed out the
necessity of immediate burial. Seven o'clock the next morning was the
hour agreed upon, and Mitchelbourne at once searched in Lance's
coat pockets for the letters which he carried. There were only two,
superscribed respectively to Mrs. Ufford at "The Porch" near Glemham,
and to her daughter Brasilia. At "The Porch" Mitchelbourne remembered
Lance was expected this very evening, and he thought it right at once
to ride thither with his gloomy news.
Having, therefore, sprinkled the letters plentifully with vinegar and
taken such rough precautions as were possible to remove the taint of
infection from the letters, he started about four o'clock. The evening
was most melancholy. For, though no rain any longer fell, there was a
continual pattering of drops from the trees and a ghostly creaking of
branches in a light and almost imperceptible wind. The day, too, was
falling, the grey overhang of cloud was changing to black, except for
one wide space in the west, where a pale spectral light shone without
radiance; and the last of that was fading when he pulled up at a
parting of the roads and inquired of a man who chanced to be standing
there his way to "The Porch." He was directed to ride down the road
upon his left hand until he came to the second house, which he could
not mistake, for there was a dyke or moat about the garden wall. He
passed the first house a mile further on, and perhaps half a mile
beyond that he came to the dyke and the high garden wall, and saw the
gables of the second house loom up behind it black against the sky. A
wooden bridge spanned the dyke and led to a wide gate. Mitchelbourne
stopped his horse at the bridge. The gate stood open and he looked
down an avenue of trees into a square of which three sides were made
by the high garden wall, and the fourth and innermost by the house.
Thus the whole length of the house fronted him, and it struck him as
very singular that neither in the lower nor the upper windows was
there anywhere a spark of light, nor was there any sound but the
tossing of the branches and the wail of the wind among the chimneys.
Not even a dog barked or rattled a chain, and from no chimney breathed
a wisp of smoke. The house in the gloom of that melancholy evening had
a singular eerie and tenantless look; and oppressive silence reigned
there; and Mitchelbourne was unaccountably conscious of a growing
aversion to it, as to something inimical and sinister.
He had crossed the mouth of a lane, he remembered, just at the first
corner of the wall. The lane ran backwards from the road, parallel
with the side wall of the garden. Mitchelbourne had a strong desire
to ride down that lane and inspect the back of the house before he
crossed the bridge into the garden. He was restrained for a moment by
the thought that such a proceeding must savour of cowardice. But only
for a moment. There had been no doubting the genuine nature of Lance's
fears and those fears were very close to Mr. Mitchelbourne now. They
were feeling like cold fingers about his heart. He was almost in the
icy grip of them.
He turned and rode down the lane until he came to the end of the wall.
A meadow stretched behind the house. Mitchelbourne unfastened the
catch of a gate with his riding whip and entered it. He found himself
upon the edge of a pool, which on the opposite side wetted the house
wall. About the pool some elder trees and elms grew and overhung, and
their boughs tapped like fingers upon the window-panes. Mitchelbourne
was assured that the house was inhabited, since from one of the
windows a strong yellow light blazed, and whenever a sharper gust blew
the branches aside, swept across the face of the pool like a flaw of
The lighted window was in the lowest storey, and Mitchelbourne, from
the back of his horse, could see into the room. He was mystified
beyond expression by what he saw. A deal table, three wooden chairs,
some ragged curtains drawn back from the window, and a single lamp
made up the furniture. The boards of the floor were bare and unswept;
the paint peeled in strips from the panels of the walls; the
discoloured ceiling was hung with cobwebs; the room in a word matched
the outward aspect of the house in its look of long disuse. Yet it had
occupants. Three men were seated at the table in the scarlet coats and
boots of the King's officers. Their faces, though it was winter-time,
were brown with the sun, and thin and drawn as with long privation and
anxiety. They had little to say to one another, it seemed. Each man
sat stiffly in a sort of suspense and expectation, with now and then a
restless movement or a curt word as curtly answered.
Mitchelbourne rode back again, crossed the bridge, fastened his horse
to a tree in the garden, and walked down the avenue to the door. As he
mounted the steps, he perceived with something of a shock, that the
door was wide open and that the void of the hall yawned black before
him. It was a fresh surprise, but in this night of surprises, one more
or less, he assured himself, was of little account. He stepped into
the hall and walked forwards feeling with his hands in front of him.
As he advanced, he saw a thin line of yellow upon the floor ahead of
him. The line of yellow was a line of light, and it came, no doubt,
from underneath a door, and the door, no doubt, was that behind which
the three men waited. Mitchelbourne stopped. After all, he reflected,
the three men were English officers wearing His Majesty's uniform,
and, moreover, wearing it stained with their country's service. He
walked forward and tapped upon the door. At once the light within the
room was extinguished.
It needed just that swift and silent obliteration of the slip of light
upon the floor to make Mitchelbourne afraid. He had been upon the
brink of fear ever since he had seen that lonely and disquieting
house; he was now caught in the full stream. He turned back. Through
the open doorway, he saw the avenue of leafless trees tossing against
a leaden sky. He took a step or two and then came suddenly to a halt.
For all around him in the darkness he seemed to hear voices breathing
and soft footsteps. He realised that his fear had overstepped his
reason; he forced himself to remember the contempt he had felt for
Lance's manifestations of terror; and swinging round again he flung
open the door and entered the room.
"Good evening, gentlemen," said he airily, and he got no answer
whatsoever. In front of him was the grey panel of dim twilight where
the window stood. The rest was black night and an absolute silence. A
map of the room was quite clear in his recollections. The three men
were seated he knew at the table on his right hand. The faint light
from the window did not reach them, and they made no noise. Yet they
were there. Why had they not answered him, he asked himself. He could
not even hear them breathing, though he strained his ears. He could
only hear his heart drumming at his breast, the blood pulsing in his
temples. Why did they hold their breath? He crossed the room, not
knowing what he did, bereft of his wits. He had a confused, ridiculous
picture of himself wearing the flaccid, panic stricken face of Mr.
Lance, like an ass' head, not holding the wand of Titania. He reached
the window and stood in its embrasure, and there one definite,
practical thought crept into his mind. He was visible to these men who
were invisible to him. The thought suggested a precaution, and with
the trembling haste of a man afraid, he tore at the curtains and
dragged them till they met across the window so that even the faint
grey glimmer of the night no longer had entrance. The next moment
he heard the door behind him latch and a key turn in the lock. He
crouched beneath the window and did not stand up again until a light
was struck, and the lamp relit.
The lighting of the lamp restored Mr. Mitchelbourne, if not to the
full measure of his confidence, at all events to an appreciation that
the chief warrant for his trepidation was removed. What he had with
some appearance of reason feared was a sudden attack in the dark. With
the lamp lit, he could surely stand in no danger of any violence at
the hands of three King's officers whom he had never come across in
all his life. He took, therefore, an easy look at them. One, the
youngest, now leaned against the door, a youth of a frank, honest
face, unremarkable but for a firm set of the jaws. A youth of no great
intellect, thought Mitchelbourne, but tenacious, a youth marked out
for a subordinate command, and never likely for all his sterling
qualities to kindle a woman to a world-forgetting passion, or to tread
with her the fiery heights where life throbs at its fullest. Mr.
Mitchelbourne began to feel quite sorry for this young officer of the
limited capacities, and he was still in the sympathetic mood when one
of the two men at the table spoke to him. Mitchelbourne turned at
once. The officers were sitting with a certain air of the theatre in
their attitudes, one a little dark man and the other a stiff, light
complexioned fellow with a bony, barren face, unmistakably a stupid
man and the oldest of the three. It was he who was speaking, and he
spoke with a sort of aggravated courtesy like a man of no breeding
counterfeiting a gentleman upon the stage.
"You will pardon us for receiving you with so little ceremony. But
while we expected you, you on the other hand were not expecting us,
and we feared that you might hesitate to come in if the lamp was
burning when you opened the door."
Mitchelbourne was now entirely at his ease. He perceived that there
was some mistake and made haste to put it right.
"On the contrary," said he, "for I knew very well you were here.
Indeed, I knocked at the door to make a necessary inquiry. You did not
extinguish the lamp so quickly but that I saw the light beneath the
door, and besides I watched you some five minutes through the window
from the opposite bank of the pool at the back of the house."
The officers were plainly disconcerted by the affability of Mr.
Mitchelbourne's reply. They had evidently expected to carry off a
triumph, not to be taken up in an argument. They had planned a stroke
of the theatre, final and convincing, and behold the dialogue went on!
There was a riposte to their thrust.
The spokesman made some gruff noises in his throat. Then his face
"These are dialectics," he said superbly with a wave of the hand.
"Good," said the little dark fellow at his elbow, "very good!"
The youth at the door nodded superciliously towards Mitchelbourne.
"True, these are dialectics," said he with a smack of the lips upon
the word. It was a good cunning scholarly word, and the man who could
produce it so aptly worthy of admiration.
"You make a further error, gentlemen," continued Mitchelbourne, "you
no doubt are expecting some one, but you were most certainly not
expecting me. For I am here by the purest mistake, having been
misdirected on the way." Here the three men smiled to each other, and
their spokesman retorted with a chuckle.
"Misdirected, indeed you were. We took precautions that you should be.
A servant of mine stationed at the parting of the roads. But we are
forgetting our manners," he added rising from his chair. "You should
know our names. The gentleman at the door is Cornet Lashley, this
is Captain Bassett and I am Major Chantrell. We are all three of
"And my name," said Mitchelbourne, not to be outdone in politeness,
"is Lewis Mitchelbourne, a gentleman of the County of Middlesex."
At this each of the officers was seized with a fit of laughter;
but before Mitchelbourne had time to resent their behavior, Major
Chantrell said indulgently:
"Well, well, we shall not quarrel about names. At all events we all
four are lately come from Tangier."
"Oh, from Tangier," cried Mitchelbourne. The riddle was becoming
clear. That extraordinary siege when a handful of English red-coats
unpaid and ill-fed fought a breached and broken town against countless
hordes for the honour of their King during twenty years, had not yet
become the property of the historian. It was still an actual war
in 1681. Mitchelbourne understood whence came the sunburn on his
antagonists' faces, whence the stains and the worn seams of their
clothes. He advanced to the table and spoke with a greater respect
than he had used.
"Did one of you," he asked, "leave a Moorish pipe behind you at an inn
"Ah," said the Major with a reproachful glance at Captain Bassett. The
Captain answered with some discomfort:
"Yes. I made that mistake. But what does it matter? You are here none
"You have with you some of the Moorish tobacco?" continued
Captain Bassett fetched out of his pocket a little canvas bag, and
handed it to Mitchelbourne, who untied the string about the neck, and
poured some of the contents into the palm of his hand. The tobacco was
a fine, greenish seed.
"I thought as much," said Mitchelbourne, "you expected Mr. Lance
to-night. It is Mr. Lance whom you thought to misdirect to this
solitary house. Indeed Mr. Lance spoke of such a place in this
neighbourhood, and had a mind to buy it."
Captain Bassett suddenly raised his hand to his mouth, not so quickly,
however, but Mitchelbourne saw the grim, amused smile upon his lips.
"It is Mr. Lance for whom you now mistake me," he said abruptly.
The young man at the door uttered a short, contemptuous laugh, Major
Chantrell only smiled.
"I am aware," said he, "that we meet for the first time to-night, but
you presume upon that fact too far. What have you to say to this?" And
dragging a big and battered pistol from his pocket, he tossed it upon
the table, and folded his arms in the best transpontine manner.
"And to this?" said Captain Bassett. He laid a worn leather powder
flask beside the pistol, and tapped upon the table triumphantly.
Mr. Mitchelbourne recognised clearly that villainy was somehow
checkmated by these proceedings and virtue restored, but how he could
not for the life of him determine. He took up the pistol.
"It appears to have seen some honourable service," said he. This
casual remark had a most startling effect upon his auditors. It was
the spark to the gun-powder of their passions. Their affectations
vanished in a trice.
"Service, yes, but honourable! Use that lie again, Mr. Lance, and I
will ram the butt of it down your throat!" cried Major Chantrell. He
leaned forward over the table in a blaze of fury. Yet his face did no
more than match the faces of his comrades.
Mitchelbourne began to understand. These simple soldier-men had
endeavoured to conduct their proceedings with great dignity and a
judicial calmness; they had mapped out for themselves certain parts
which they were to play as upon a stage; they were to be three stern
imposing figures of justice; and so they had become simply absurd and
ridiculous. Now, however, that passion had the upper hand of them,
Mitchelbourne saw at once that he stood in deadly peril. These were
"Understand me, Mr. Lance," and the Major's voice rang out firm, the
voice of a man accustomed to obedience. "Three years ago I was in
command of Devil's Drop, a little makeshift fort upon the sands
outside Tangier. In front the Moors lay about us in a semicircle. Sir,
the diameter was the line of the sea at our backs. We could not retire
six yards without wetting our feet, not twenty without drowning. One
night the Moors pushed their trenches up to our palisades; in the dusk
of the morning I ordered a sortie. Nine officers went out with me and
three came back, we three. Of the six we left behind, five fell, by my
orders, to be sure, for I led them out; but, by the living God, you
killed them. There's the pistol that shot my best friend down, an
English pistol. There's the powder flask which charged the pistol, an
English flask filled with English powder. And who sold the pistol and
the powder to the Moors, England's enemies? You, an Englishman. But
you have come to the end of your lane to-night. Turn and turn as you
will you have come to the end of it."
The truth was out now, and Mitchelbourne was chilled with
apprehension. Here were three men very desperately set upon what they
considered a mere act of justice. How was he to dissuade them? By
argument? They would not listen to it. By proofs? He had none to offer
them. By excuses? Of all unsupported excuses which can match for
futility the excuse of mistaken identity? It springs immediate to the
criminal's lips. Its mere utterance is almost a conviction.
"You persist in error, Major Chantrell," he nevertheless began.
"Show him the proof, Bassett," Chantrell interrupted with a shrug of
the shoulders, and Captain Bassett drew from his pocket a folded sheet
"Nine officers went out," continued Chantrell, "five were killed,
three are here. The ninth was taken a prisoner into Barbary. The Moors
brought him down to their port of Marmora to interpret. At Marmora
your ship unloaded its stores of powder and guns. God knows how often
it had unloaded the like cargo during these twenty years--often enough
it seems, to give you a fancy for figuring as a gentleman in the
county. But the one occasion of its unloading is enough. Our brother
officer was your interpreter with the Moors, Mr. Lance. You may very
likely know that, but this you do not know, Mr. Lance. He escaped, he
crept into Tangier with this, your bill of lading in his hand," and
Bassett tossed the sheet of paper towards Mitchelbourne. It fell upon
the floor before him but he did not trouble to pick it up.
"Is it Lance's death that you require?" he asked.
"Yes! yes! yes!" came from each mouth.
"Then already you have your wish. I do not question one word of your
charges against Lance. I have reason to believe them true. But I am
not Lance. Lance lies at this moment dead at Great Glemham. He died
this afternoon of cholera. Here are his letters," and he laid the
letters on the table. "I rode in with them at once. You do not believe
me, but you can put my words to the test. Let one of you ride to Great
Glemham and satisfy himself. He will be back before morning."
The three officers listened so far with impassive faces, or barely
listened, for they were as indifferent to the words as to the passion
with which they were spoken.
"We have had enough of the gentleman's ingenuities, I think," said
Chantrell, and he made a movement towards his companions.
"One moment," exclaimed Mitchelbourne. "Answer me a question! These
letters are to the address of Mrs. Ufford at a house called 'The
Porch.' It is near to here?"
"It is the first house you passed," answered the Major and, as he
noticed a momentary satisfaction flicker upon his victim's face, he
added, "But you will not do well to expect help from 'The Porch'--at
all events in time to be of much service to you. You hardly appreciate
that we have been at some pains to come up with you. We are not
likely again to find so many circumstances agreeing to favour us, a
dismantled house, yourself travelling alone and off your guard in a
country with which you are unfamiliar and where none know you, and
just outside the window a convenient pool. Besides--besides," he broke
out passionately, "There are the little mounds about Tangier, under
which my friends lie," and he covered his face with his hands. "My
friends," he cried in a hoarse and broken voice, "my soldier-men!
Come, let's make an end. Bassett, the rope is in the corner. There's a
noose to it. The beam across the window will serve;" and Bassett rose
But Mitchelbourne gave them no time. His fears had altogether vanished
before his indignation at the stupidity of these officers. He was
boiling with anger at the thought that he must lose his life in this
futile ignominious way for the crime of another man, who was not even
his friend, and who besides was already dead. There was just one
chance to escape, it seemed to him. And even as Bassett stooped to
lift the coil of rope in the corner he took it.
"So that's the way of it," he cried stepping forward. "I am to be hung
up to a beam till I kick to death, am I? I am to be buried decently in
that stagnant pool, am I? And you are to be miles away before sunrise,
and no one the wiser! No, Major Chantrell, I am not come to the end of
my lane," and before either of the three could guess what he was at,
he had snatched up the pistol from the table and dashed the lamp into
a thousand fragments.
The flame shot up blue and high, and then came darkness.
Mitchelbourne jumped lightly back from his position to the centre of
the room. The men he had to deal with were men who would follow their
instincts. They would feel along the walls; of so much he could be
certain. He heard the coil of rope drop down in a corner to his left;
so that he knew where Captain Bassett was. He heard a chair upset in
front of him, and a man staggered against his chest. Mitchelbourne had
the pistol still in his hand and struck hard, and the man dropped with
a crash. The fall followed so closely upon the upsetting of the chair
that it seemed part of the same movement and accident. It seemed so
clearly part, that a voice spoke on Mitchelbourne's left, just where
the empty hearth would be.
"Get up! Be quick!"
The voice was Major Chantrell's and Mitchelbourne had a throb of hope.
For since it was not the Major who had fallen nor Captain Bassett, it
must be Lashley. And Lashley had been guarding the door, of which the
key still remained in the lock. If only he could reach the door and
turn the key! He heard Chantrell moving stealthily along the wall upon
his left hand and he suffered a moment's agony; for in the darkness he
could not surely tell which way the Major moved. For if he moved to
the window, if he had the sense to move to the window and tear aside
those drawn curtains, the grey twilight would show the shadowy moving
figures. Mitchelbourne's chance would be gone. And then something
totally unexpected and unhoped for occurred. The god of the machine
was in a freakish mood that evening. He had a mind for pranks and
absurdities. Mitchelbourne was strung to so high a pitch that the
ridiculous aspect of the occurrence came home to him before all else,
and he could barely keep himself from laughing aloud. For he heard two
men grappling and struggling silently together. Captain Bassett and
Major Chantrell had each other by the throat, and neither of them
had the wit to speak. They reserved their strength for the struggle.
Mitchelbourne stepped on tiptoe to the door, felt for the key, grasped
it without so much as a click, and then suddenly turned it, flung open
the door and sprang out. He sprang against a fourth man--the servant,
no doubt, who had misdirected him--and both tumbled on to the floor.
Mitchelbourne, however, tumbled on top. He was again upon his feet
while Major Chantrell was explaining matters to Captain Bassett;
he was flying down the avenue of trees before the explanation was
finished. He did not stop to untie his horse; he ran, conscious that
there was only one place of safety for him--the interior of Mrs.
Ufford's house. He ran along the road till he felt that his heart was
cracking within him, expecting every moment that a hand would be laid
upon his shoulder, or that, a pistol shot would ring out upon the
night. He reached the house, and knocked loudly at the door. He was
admitted, breathless, by a man, who said to him at once, with the
smile and familiarity of an old servant:
"You are expected, Mr. Lance."
Mitchelbourne plumped down upon a chair and burst into uncontrollable
laughter. He gave up all attempt for that night to establish his
identity. The fates were too heavily against him. Besides he was now
The manservant threw open a door.
"I will tell my mistress you have come, sir," said he.
"No, it would never do," cried Mitchelbourne. "You see I died at three
o'clock this afternoon. I have merely come to leave my letters of
presentation. So much I think a proper etiquette may allow. But it
would never do for me to be paying visits upon ladies so soon after
an affair of so deplorable a gravity. Besides I have to be buried
at seven in the morning, and if I chanced not to be back in time, I
should certainly acquire a reputation for levity, which since I am
unknown in the county, I am unwilling to incur," and, leaving the
butler stupefied in the hall, he ran out into the road. He heard no
sound of pursuit.
"Geoffrey," said General Faversham, "look at the clock!"
The hands of the clock made the acutest of angles. It was close upon
midnight, and ever since nine the boy had sat at the dinner-table
listening. He had not spoken a word, indeed had barely once stirred in
the three hours, but had sat turning a white and fascinated face upon
speaker after speaker. At his father's warning he waked with a shock
from his absorption, and reluctantly stood up.
"Must I go, father?" he asked.
The General's three guests intervened in a chorus. The conversation
was clear gain for the lad, they declared,--a first taste of powder
which might stand him in good stead at a future time. So Geoffrey was
allowed furlough from his bed for another half-hour, and with his face
supported between his hands he continued to listen at the table.
The flames of the candles were more and more blurred with a haze of
tobacco smoke, the room became intolerably hot, the level of the
wine grew steadily lower in the decanters, and the boy's face took a
strained, quivering look, his pallour increased, his dark, wide-opened
eyes seemed preternaturally large.
The stories were all of that terrible winter in the Crimea, now ten
years past, and a fresh story was always in the telling before its
predecessor was ended. For each of the four men had borne his share
of that winter's wounds and privations. It was still a reality rather
than a memory to them; they could feel, even in this hot summer
evening and round this dinner-table, the chill of its snows, and the
pinch of famine. Yet their recollections were not all of hardships.
The Major told how the subalterns, of whom he had then been one, had
cheerily played cards in the trenches three hundred yards from the
Malakoff. One of the party was always told off to watch for shells
from the fort's guns. If a black speck was seen in the midst of the
cannon smoke, then the sentinel shouted, and a rush was made for
safety, for the shell was coming their way. At night the burning fuse
could be seen like a rocket in the air; so long as it span and flew,
the card-players were safe, but the moment it became stationary above
their heads it was time to run, for the shell was falling upon them.
The guns of the Malakoff were not the rifled guns of a later decade.
When the Major had finished, the General again looked at the clock,
and Geoffrey said good-night.
He stood outside the door listening to the muffled talk on the other
side of the panels, and, with a shiver, lighted his candle, and held it
aloft in the dark and silent hall. There was not one man's portrait upon
the walls which did not glow with the colours of a uniform,--and there
were the portraits of many men. Father and son the Faversham's had been
soldiers from the very birth of the family. Father and son,--no
steinkirks and plumed hats, no shakos and swallow tails, no frogged
coats and no high stocks. They looked down upon the boy as though
summoning him to the like service. No distinction in uniform could
obscure their resemblance to each other: that stood out with a
remarkable clearness. The Favershams were men of one stamp,--lean-faced,
hard as iron--they lacked the elasticity of steel--, rugged in feature;
confident in expression, men with firm, level mouths but rather narrow
at the forehead, men of resolution and courage, no doubt; but hardly
conspicuous for intellect, men without nerves or subtlety, fighting-men
of the first-class, but hardly first-class soldiers. Some of their
faces, indeed, revealed an actual stupidity. The boy, however, saw none
of their defects. To him they were one and all portentous and terrible;
and he had an air of one standing before his judges and pleading mutely
for forgiveness. The candle shook in his hand.
These Crimean knights, as his father termed them, were the worst of
torturers to Geoffrey Faversham. He sat horribly thralled, so long as
he was allowed; he crept afterwards to bed and lay there shuddering.
For his mother, a lady who some twenty years before had shone at the
Court of Saxe-Coburg, as much by the refinement of her intellect as by
the beauty of her person, had bequeathed to him a very burdensome
gift of imagination. It was visible in his face, marking him off
unmistakably from his father, and from the study portraits in the
hall. He had the capacity to foresee possibilities, and he could not
but exercise that capacity. A hint was enough for the boy. Straightway
he had a vivid picture before his mind, and as he listened to the men
at the dinner-table, their rough clipped words set him down in the
midst of their battlefields, he heard the drone of bullets, he
quivered expecting the shock of a charge. But of all the Crimean
nights this had been fraught with the most torments.
His father had told a story with a lowered voice, and in his usual
jerky way. But the gap was easy to fill up.
"A Captain! Yes, and he bore one of the best names in all England.
It seemed incredible, and mere camp rumour. But the rumour grew with
every fight he was engaged in. At the battle of Alma the thing was
proved. He was acting as galloper to his General. I believe, upon my
soul, that the General chose him for this duty so that the man might
set himself right. He was bidden to ride with a message a quarter of a
mile, and that quarter of a mile was bullet-swept. There were enough
men looking on to have given him a reputation, had he dared and come
through. But he did not dare, he refused, and was sent under arrest to
his tent. He was court-martialled and broken. He dropped out of his
circle like a plummet of lead; the very women in Piccadilly spat if
he spoke to them. He blew his brains out three years later in a back
bedroom off the Haymarket. Explain that if you can. Turns tail, and
says 'I daren't!' But you, can you explain it? You can only say it's
the truth, and shrug your shoulders. Queer, incomprehensible things
happen. There's one of them."
Geoffrey, however, understood only too well. He was familiar with many
phases of warfare of which General Faversham took little account, such
as, for instance, the strain and suspense of the hours between the
parading of the troops and the first crack of a rifle. He took that
story with him up the great staircase, past the portraits to his bed.
He fell asleep only in the grey of the morning, and then only to dream
of a crisis in some hard-fought battle, when, through his cowardice,
a necessary movement was delayed, his country worsted, and those dead
men in the hall brought to irretrievable shame. Geoffrey's power to
foresee in one flash all the perils to be encountered, the hazards to
be run, had taught him the hideous possibility of cowardice. He was
now confronted with the hideous fact. He could not afterwards clear
his mind of the memory of that evening.
He grew up with it; he looked upon himself as a born coward, and all
the time he knew that he was destined for the army. He could not have
avoided his destiny without an explanation, and he could not explain.
But what he could do, he did. He hunted deliberately, hoping
that familiarity with danger would overcome the vividness of his
anticipations. But those imagined hours before the beginnings of
battles had their exact counterpart in the moments of waiting while
the covers were drawn. At such times he had a map of the country-side
before his eyes, with every ditch and fence and pit underlined and
marked dangerous; and though he rode straight when the hounds were
off, he rode straight with a fluttering heart. Thus he spent his
youth. He passed into Woolwich and out of it with high honours;
he went to India with battery, and returned home on a two years'
furlough. He had not been home more than a week when his father broke
one morning into his bedroom in a great excitement--
"Geoff," he cried, "guess the news to-day!"
Geoffrey sat up in his bed:--"Your manner, Sir, tells me the news. War
"Between France and Germany."
Geoffrey said slowly:--
"My mother, Sir, was of Germany."
"So we can wish that country all success."
"Can we do no more?" said Geoffrey. And at breakfast-time he returned
to the subject. The Favershams held property in Germany; influence
might be exerted; it was only right that those who held a substantial
stake in a country should venture something for its cause. The words
came quite easily from Geoffrey's lips; he had been schooling himself
to speak them ever since it had become apparent that Germany and
France were driving to the collision of war. General Faversham laughed
with content when he heard them.
"That's a Faversham talking," said he. "But there are obstacles, my
boy. There is the Foreign Enlistment Act, for instance. You are half
German, to be sure, but you are an English subject, and, by the Lord!
you are all Faversham. No, I cannot give you permission to seek
service in Germany. You understand. I cannot give you permission," he
repeated the words, so that the limit as well as the extent of their
meaning might be fully understood; and as he repeated them, he
solemnly winked. "Of course, you can go to Germany; you can follow
the army as closely as you are allowed. In fact, I will give you some
introductions with that end in view. You will gain experience, of
course; but seek service,--no! To do that, as I have said, I cannot
give you permission."
The General went off chuckling to write his letters; and with them
safely tucked away in his pocket, Geoffrey drove later in the day to
General Faversham did not encourage demonstrations. He shook his son
cordially by the hand--
"There's no way I would rather you spent your furlough. But come back,
Geoff," said he. He was not an observant man except in the matter of
military detail; and of Geoffrey's object he had never the slightest
suspicion. Had it been told him, however, he would only have
considered it one of those queer, inexplicable vagaries, like the
history of his coward in the Crimea.
Geoffrey's action, however, was of a piece with the rest of his life:
it was due to no sudden, desperate resolve. He went out to the war as
deliberately as he had ridden out to the hunting-field. The realities
of battle might prove his anticipations mere unnecessary torments of
"If only I can serve,--as a volunteer, as a private, in any capacity,"
he thought, "I shall at all events know. And if I fail, I fail not in
the company of my fellows. I disgrace only myself, not my name. But if
I do not fail--" He drew a great breath, he saw himself waking up one
morning without oppression, without the haunting dread that he
was destined one day to slink in forgotten corners of the world a
forgotten pariah, destitute even of the courage to end his misery. He
went out to the war because he was afraid of fear.
On the evening of the capitulation of Paris, two subalterns of
German Artillery were seated before a camp fire on a slope of hill
overlooking the town. To both of them the cessation of alarm was as
yet strange and almost incomprehensible, and the sudden silence
after so many months lived amongst the booming of cannon had even a
disquieting effect. Both were particularly alert on this night when
vigilance was never less needed. If a gust of wind caught the fire and
drove the red flare of the flame like a ripple across the grass, one
would be sure to look quickly over his shoulder, the other perhaps
would lift a warning finger and listen to the shivering of the trees
behind them. Then with a relaxation of his attitude he would say "All
right" and light his pipe again at the fire. But after one such gust,
he retained his position.
"What is it, Faversham?" asked his companion.
"Listen, Max," said Geoffrey; and they heard a faint jingle. The
jingle became more distinct, another sound was added to it, the sound
of a horse galloping over hard ground. Both officers turned their
faces away from the yellow entrenchment with its brown streak of gun,
below them and looked towards a roofless white-walled farmhouse on the
left, of which the rafters rose black against the sky like a gigantic
gallows. From behind that farmhouse an aide-de-camp galloped up to the
"I want the officer in command of this battery," he cried out and
Geoffrey stood up.
"I am in command."
The aide-de-camp looked at the subaltern in an extreme surprise.
"You!" he exclaimed. "Since when?"
"Since yesterday," answered Faversham.
"I doubt if the General knows you have been hit so hard," the
aide-de-camp continued. "But my orders are explicit. The officer in
command is to take sixty men and march to-morrow morning into St.
Denis. He is to take possession of that quarter, he is to make a
search for mines and bombs, and wait there until the German troops
march in." There was to be no repetition, he explained, of a certain
unfortunate affair when the Germans after occupying a surrendered fort
had been blown to the four winds. He concluded with the comforting
information that there were 10,000 French soldiers under arms in St.
Denis and that discretion was therefore a quality to be much exercised
by Faversham during his day of search. Thereupon he galloped back.
Faversham remained standing a few paces from the fire looking down
towards Paris. His companion petulantly tossed a branch upon the fire.
"Luck comes your way, my friend," said he enviously.
Geoffrey looked up to the stars and down again to Paris which with
its lights had the look of a reflected starlit firmament. Individual
lights were the separate stars and here and there a gash of fire,
where a wide thoroughfare cleaved, made a sort of milky way.
"I wonder," he answered slowly.
Max started up on his elbow and looked at his friend in perplexity.
"Why, you have sixty men and St. Denis to command. To-morrow may bring
you your opportunity;" and again with the same slowness, Geoffrey
answered, "I wonder."
"You joined us after Gravelotte," continued Max, "Why?"
"My mother was German," said Faversham, and turning suddenly back to
the fire he dropped on the ground beside his companion.
"Tell me," he said in a rare burst of confidence, "Do you think a
battle is the real test of courage? Here and there men run away to be
sure. But how many fight and fight no worse than the rest by reason of
a sort of cowardice? Fear of their companions in arms might dominate
fear of the enemy."
"No doubt," said Max. "And you infer?"
"That the only touchstone is a solitary peril. When danger comes upon
a man and there is no one to see whether he shirks--when he has no
friends to share his risks--that I should think would be the time when
fear would twist a man's bowels."
"I do not know," said Max. "All I am sure of is that luck comes your
way and not mine. To-morrow you march into St. Denis."
Geoffrey Faversham marched down at daybreak and formally occupied the
quarter. The aide-de-camp's calculations were confirmed. There were at
the least 10,000 French soldiers crowded in the district. Geoffrey's
discretion warned against any foolish effort to disarm them; he
simply ignored their chassepots and bulging pouches, and searched the
barracks, which the Germans were to occupy, from floor to ceiling.
Late in the afternoon he was able to assure himself that his duty was
ended. He billeted his men, and inquired whether there was a hotel
where he could sleep the night. A French sergeant led him through the
streets to an Inn which matched in every detail of its appearance that
dingy quarter of the town. The plaster was peeling from its walls, the
window panes were broken, and in the upper storey and the roof there
were yawning jagged holes where the Prussian shells had struck. In the
dusk the building had a strangely mean and sordid look. It recalled
to Faversham's mind the inns in the novels of the elder Dumas and
acquired thus something of their sinister suggestions. In the eager
and arduous search of the day he had forgotten these apprehensions to
which he had given voice by the camp fire. They now returned to him
with the relaxation of his vigilance. He looked up at the forbidding
house. "I wonder," he said to himself.
He was met in the hall by a little obsequious man who was full of
apologies for the disorder of his hostelry. He opened a door into a
large and dusty room.
"I will do my best, Monsieur," said he, "but food is not yet plentiful
In the centre of the room was a large mahogany table surrounded by
chairs. The landlord began to polish the table with his napkin.
"We had an ordinary, Sir, every day before the war broke out. But most
cheerful, every chair had its regular occupant. There were certain
jokes, too, which every day were repeated. Ah, but it was like home.
However, all is changed as you see. It has not been safe to sit in
this room for many a long month."
Faversham unstrapped his sword and revolver from his belt and laid
them on the table.
"I saw that your house had unfortunately suffered."
"Suffered!" said the garrulous little man. "It is ruined, sir, and its
master with it. Ah, war! It is a fine thing no doubt for you young
gentlemen, but for me? I have lived in a cellar, Sir, under the ground
ever since your guns first woke us from our sleep. Look, I will show
He went out from the dining-room into the hall and from the hall into
the street; Faversham followed him. There was a wooden trap in the
pavement close by the wall with an iron ring. The landlord pulled
at the ring and raised the trap disclosing a narrow flight of stone
steps. Faversham bent forward and peered down into a dark cellar.
"Yes it is there that I have lived. Come down, Sir, and see for
yourself;" and the landlord moved down a couple of steps. Faversham
drew back. At once the landlord turned to him.
"But there is nothing to fear, Sir," he said with a deprecatory smile.
Faversham coloured to the roots of his hair.
"Of course there is nothing," said he and he followed the landlord.
The cellar was only lighted by the trap-door and at first Faversham
coming out of the daylight could distinguish nothing at all. He stood,
however, with his back to the light and in a little he began to see. A
little truckle-bed with a patchwork counterpane stood at the end, the
floor was merely hard earth, the furniture consisted of a stove, a
stool and a small deal table. And as Faversham took in the poverty of
this underground habitation, he suddenly found himself in darkness
again. The explanation came to him at once, the entrance to the cellar
had been blocked from the light. Yet he had heard no sound except the
footsteps of people in the street above his head. He turned and faced
the stair steps. As he did so, the light streamed down again; the
obstruction had been removed, and that obstruction had not been the
trap-door as Faversham had suspected, but merely the body of some
inquisitive passer-by. He recognised this with relief and immediately
heard voices speaking together, and as it seemed to him in lowered
A sword rattled on the pavement, the entrance was again darkened, but
Faversham had just time to see that the man who stooped down wore
the buttons of a uniform and a soldier's kepi. He kept quite still,
holding his breath while the man peered down into the cellar. He
remembered with a throb of hope that he had himself been unable to
distinguish a thing in the gloom. And then the landlord knocked
against the table and spoke aloud. At once the man at the head of
the steps stood up. Faversham heard him cry out in French, "They are
here," and he detected a note of exultation in the cry. At the same
moment a picture flashed before his eyes, the picture of that dusty
desolate dining-room up the steps, and of a long table surrounded
by chairs, upon which lay a sword and a revolver,--his sword, his
revolver. He had dismissed his sixty soldiers, he was alone.
"This is a trap," he blurted out.
"But, Sir, I do not understand," began the landlord, but Faversham cut
him short with a whispered command for silence.
The cellar darkened again, and the sound of boots rang upon the stone
steps. A rifle besides clanged as it struck against the wall. The
French soldiers were descending. Faversham counted them by the light
which escaped past their legs; there were three. The landlord kept
the silence which had been enjoined upon him but he fancied in the
darkness that he heard some one's teeth chattering.
The Frenchmen descended into the cellar and stood barring the steps.
Their leader spoke.
"I have the honour to address the Prussian officer in command of St.
The Frenchman got no reply whatever to his words but he seemed to hear
some one sharply draw in a breath. He spoke again into the darkness;
for it was now impossible for any one of the five men in the cellar to
see a hand's breadth beyond his face.
"I am the Captain Plessy of Mon Vandon's Division. I have the honour
to address the Prussian officer."
This time he received an answer, quietly spoken yet with an
inexplicable note of resignation.
"I am Lieutenant Faversham in command of St. Denis."
Captain Plessy stepped immediately forward, and bowed. Now as he
dipped his shoulders in the bow a gleam of light struck over his head
into the cellar, and--he could not be sure--but it seemed to him that
he saw a man suddenly raise his arm as if to ward off a blow. Captain
"I ask Lieutenant Faversham for permission for myself and my two
officers to sleep to-night at this hotel;" and now he very distinctly
heard a long, irrepressible sigh of relief. Lieutenant Faversham gave
him the permission he desired in a cordial, polite way. Moreover he
added an invitation. "Your name, Captain Plessy, is well known to me
as to all on both sides who have served in this campaign and to many
more who have not. I beg that you and your officers will favour me
with your company at dinner."
Captain Plessy accepted the invitation and was pleased to deprecate
the Lieutenant's high opinion of his merits. But his achievement none
the less had been of a redoubtable character. He had broken through
the lines about Metz and had ridden across France into Paris without
a single companion. In the sorties from that beleaguered town he had
successively distinguished himself by his fearless audacity. His name
and reputation had travelled far as Lieutenant Faversham was that
evening to learn. But Captain Plessy, for the moment, was all for
making little of his renown.
"Such small exploits should be expected from a soldier. One brave man
may say that to another,--is it not so?--and still not be thought
to be angling for praise," and Captain Plessy went up the steps,
wondering who it was that had drawn the long sharp breath of suspense,
and uttered the long sigh of immense relief. The landlord or
Lieutenant Faversham? Captain Plessy had not been in the cellar at
the time when the landlord had seemed to hear the chatter of a man's
The dinner was not a pronounced success, in spite of Faversham's
avoidance of any awkward topic. They sat at the long table in the big,
desolate and shabby room, lighted only by a couple of tallow candles
set up in their candlesticks upon the cloth. And the two junior
officers maintained an air of chilly reserve and seldom spoke except
when politeness compelled them. Faversham himself was absorbed, the
burden of entertainment fell upon Captain Plessy. He strove nobly, he
told stories, he drank a health to the "Camaraderie of arms," he drew
one after the other of his companions into an interchange of words, if
not of sympathies. But the strain told on him visibly towards the end
of the dinner. His champagne glass had been constantly refilled, his
face was now a trifle overflushed, his eyes beyond nature bright, and
he loosened the belt about his waist and at a moment when Faversham
was not looking the throat buttons of his tunic. Moreover while up
till now he had deprecated any allusions to his reputation he now
began to talk of it himself; and in a particularly odious way.
"A reputation, Lieutenant, it has its advantages," and he blew a kiss
with his fingers into the air to designate the sort of advantages to
which he referred. Then he leaned on one side to avoid the candle
between Faversham and himself.
"You are English, my Commandant?" he asked.
"My mother was German," replied Faversham.
"But you are English yourself. Now have you ever met in England a
certain Miss Marian Beveridge," and his leer was the most disagreeable
thing that Faversham ever remembered to have set eyes upon.
"No," he answered shortly.
"And you have not heard of her?"
Captain Plessy leaned back in his chair and filled his glass.
Lieutenant Faversham's tone was not that of a man inviting confidence.
But the Captain's brains were more than a little fuddled, he repeated
the name over to himself once or twice with the chuckle which asks for
questions, and since the questions did not come, he must needs proceed
of his own accord.
"But I must cross to England myself. I must see this Miss Marian
Beveridge. Ah, but your English girls are strange, name of Heaven,
they are very strange."
Lieutenant Faversham made a movement. The Captain was his guest, he
was bound to save him if he could from a breach of manners and saw no
way but this of breaking up the party. Captain Plessy, however, was
too quick for him, he lifted his hand to his breast.
"You wish for something to smoke. It is true, we have forgotten to
smoke, but I have my cigarettes and I beg you to try them, the tobacco
I think is good and you will be saved the trouble of moving."
He opened the case and reached it over to Faversham. But as Faversham
with a word of thanks took a cigarette, the Captain upset the case
as though by inadvertence. There fell out upon the table under
Faversham's eyes not merely the cigarettes, but some of the Captain's
visiting-cards and a letter. The letter was addressed to Captain
Plessy in a firm character but it was plainly the writing of a woman.
Faversham picked it up and at once handed it back to Plessy.
"Ah," said Plessy with a start of surprise, "Was the letter indeed in
the case?" and he fondled it in his hands and finally kissed it with
the upturned eyes of a cheap opera singer. "A pigeon, Sir, flew with
it into Paris. Happy pigeon that could be the bearer of such sweet
He took out the letter from the envelope and read a line or two with a
sigh, and another line or two with a laugh.
"But your English girls are strange!" he said again. "Here is an
instance, an example, fallen by accident from my cigarette-case. M. le
Commandant, I will read it to you, that you may see how strange they
One of Plessy's subalterns extended his hand and laid it on his
sleeve. Plessy turned upon him angrily, and the subaltern withdrew his
"I will read it to you," he said again to Faversham. Faversham did
not protest nor did he now make any effort to move. But his face grew
pale, he shivered once or twice, his eyes seemed to be taking the
measure of Plessy's strength, his brain to be calculating upon his
prowess; the sweat began to gather upon his forehead.
Of these signs, however, Plessy took no note. He had reached however
inartistically the point at which he had been aiming.
He was no longer to be baulked of reading his letter. He read it
through to the end, and Faversham listened to the end. It told its own
story. It was the letter of a girl who wrote in a frank impulse of
admiration to a man whom she did not know. There was nowhere a trace
of coquetry, nowhere the expression of a single sentimentality. Its
tone was pure friendliness, it was the work of a quite innocent girl
who because she knew the man to whom she wrote to be brave, therefore
believed him to be honourable. She expressed her trust in the very
last words. "You will not of course show this letter to any one in the
world. But I wrong you even by mentioning such an impossibility."
"But you have shown it," said Faversham.
His face was now grown of an extraordinary pallor, his lips twitched
as he spoke and his fingers worked in a nervous uneasy manner upon the
table-cloth. Captain Plessy was in far too complacent a mood to notice
such trifles. His vanity was satisfied, the world was a rosy mist
with a sparkle of champagne, and he answered lightly as he unfastened
another button of his tunic.
"No, my friend, I have not shown it. I keep the lady's wish."
"You have read it aloud. It is the same thing."
"Pardon me. Had I shown the letter I should have shown the name. And
that would have been a dishonour of which a gallant man is incapable,
is it not so? I read it and I did not read the name."
"But you took pains, Captain Plessy, that we should know the name
before you read the letter."
"I? Did I mention a name?" exclaimed Plessy with an air of concern and
a smile upon his mouth which gave the lie to the concern. "Ah, yes,
a long while ago. But did I say it was the name of the lady who had
written the letter? Indeed, no. You make a slight mistake, my friend.
I bear no malice for it--believe me, upon my heart, no! After a dinner
and a little bottle of champagne, there is nothing more pardonable.
But I will tell you why I read the letter."
"If you please," said Faversham, and the gravity of his tone struck
upon his companion suddenly as something unexpected and noteworthy.
Plessy drew himself together and for the first time took stock of his
host as of a possible adversary. He remarked the agitation of his
face, the beads of perspiration upon his forehead, the restless
fingers, and beyond all these a certain hunted look in the eyes with
which his experience had made him familiar. He nodded his head once or
twice slowly as though he were coming to a definite conclusion about
Faversham. Then he sat bolt upright.
"Ah," said he with a laugh. "I can answer a question which puzzled me
a little this afternoon," and he sank back again in his chair with an
easy confidence and puffed the smoke of his cigarette from his mouth.
Faversham was not sufficiently composed to consider the meaning of
Plessy's remark. He put it aside from his thoughts as an evasion.
"You were to tell me, I think, why you read the letter."
"Certainly," answered Plessy. He twirled his moustache, his voice had
lost its suavity and had taken on an accent of almost contemptuous
raillery. He even winked at his two brother officers, he was beginning
to play with Faversham. "I read the letter to illustrate how strange,
how very strange, are your English girls. Here is one of them who
writes to me. I am grateful--oh, beyond words, but I think to myself
what a different thing the letter would be if it had been written by
a Frenchwoman. There would have been some hints, nothing definite you
understand, but a suggestion, a delicate, provoking suggestion of
herself, like a perfume to sting one into a desire for a nearer
acquaintance. She would delicately and without any appearance of
intention have permitted me to know her colour, perhaps her height,
perhaps even to catch an elusive glimpse of her face. Very likely a
silk thread of hair would have been left inadvertently clinging to
a sheet of the paper. She would sketch perhaps her home and speak
remorsefully of her boldness in writing. Oh, but I can imagine the
letter, full of pretty subtleties, alluring from its omissions, a
vexation and a delight from end to end. But this, my friend!" He
tossed the letter carelessly upon the table-cloth. "I am grateful from
the bottom of my heart, but it has no art."
At once Geoffrey Faversham's hand reached out and closed upon the
"You have told me why you have read it aloud."
"Yes," said Plessy, a little disconcerted by the quickness of
"Now I will tell you why I allowed you to read it to the end. I was of
the same mind as that English girl whose name we both know. I could
not believe that a man, brave as I knew you to be, could outside his
bravery be so contemptible."
The words were brought out with a distinct effort. None the less they
were distinctly spoken.
A startled exclamation broke from the two subalterns. Plessy commenced
"Sir, do I understand you?" and he saw Faversham standing above him,
in a quiver of excitement.
"You will hold your tongue, Captain Plessy, until I have finished. I
allowed you to read the letter, never thinking but that some pang of
forgotten honour would paralyse your tongue. You read it to the
end. You complain there is no art in it, that it has no delicate
provocations, such as your own countrywomen would not fail to use. It
should be the more sacred on that account, and I am glad to believe
that you misjudge your country women. Captain Plessy, I acknowledge
that as you read out that letter with its simple, friendly expression
of gratitude for the spectacle of a brave man, I envied you heartily,
I would have been very proud to have received it. I would have much
liked to know that some deed which I had done had made the world for
a moment brighter to some one a long way off with whom I was not
acquainted. Captain Plessy, I shall not allow you to keep this letter.
You shall not read it aloud again."
Faversham thrust the letter into the flame of the candle which stood
between Plessy and himself. Plessy sprang up and blew the candle out;
but little colourless flames were already licking along the envelope.
Faversham held the letter downwards by a corner and the colourless
flame flickered up into a tongue of yellow, the paper charred and
curled in the track of the flames, the flames leapt to Faversham's
fingers; he dropped the burning letter on the floor and crushed it
with his foot. Then he looked at Plessy and waited. He was as white as
the table-cloth, his dark eyes seemed to have sunk into his head
and burned unnaturally bright, every nerve in his body seemed to be
twitching; he looked very like the young boy who used to sit at the
dinner-table on Crimean nights and listen in a quiver to the appalling
stories of his father's guests. As he had been silent then, so he was
silent now. He waited for Captain Plessy to speak. Captain Plessy,
however, was in no hurry to begin. He had completely lost his air of
contemptuous raillery, he was measuring Faversham warily with the eyes
of a connoisseur.
"You have insulted me," he said abruptly, and he heard again that
indrawing of the breath which he had remarked that afternoon in the
cellar. He also heard Faversham speak immediately after he had drawn
"There are reparations for insults," said Faversham.
Captain Plessy bowed. He was now almost as sober as when he had sat
down to his dinner.
"We will choose a time and place," said he.
"There can be no better time than now," suddenly cried Faversham, "no
better place than this. You have two friends of whom with your leave I
will borrow one. We have a large room and a candle apiece to fight
by. To-morrow my duties begin again. We will fight to-night, Captain
Plessy, to-night," and he leaned forward almost feverishly, his words
had almost the accent of a prayer. The two subalterns rose from their
chairs, but Plessy motioned them to keep still. Then he seized the
candle which he had himself blown out, lighted it from the candle at
the far end of the table and held it up above his head so that
the light fell clearly upon Faversham's face. He stood looking at
Faversham for an appreciable time. Then he said quietly,
"I will not fight you to-night."
One of the subalterns started up, the other merely turned his head
towards Plessy, but both stared at their Captain with an unfeigned
astonishment and an unfeigned disappointment. Faversham continued to
"But you must to-night, for to-morrow you cannot. To-night I am alone
here, to-night I give orders, to-morrow I receive them. You have your
sword at your side to-night. Will you be wearing it to-morrow? I pray
you gentlemen to help me," he said turning to the subalterns, and he
began to push the heavy table from the centre of the room.
"I will not fight you to-night, Lieutenant," Captain Plessy replied.
"And why?" asked Faversham ceasing from his work. He made a gesture
which had more of despair than of impatience.
Captain Plessy gave his reason. It rang false to every man in the
room and indeed he made no attempt to give to it any appearance of
sincerity. It was a deliberate excuse and not his reason.
"Because you are the Prussian officer in command and the Prussian
troops march into St. Denis to-morrow. Suppose that I kill you, what
sort of penalty should I suffer at their hands?"
"None," exclaimed Faversham. "We can draw up an account of the
quarrel, here now. Look here is paper and ink and as luck will have it
a pen that will write. I will write an account with my own hand, and
the four of us can sign it. Besides if you kill me, you can escape
"I will not fight you to-night," said Captain Plessy and he set down
the candle upon the table. Then with an elaborate correctness he drew
his sword from its scabbard and offered the handle of it to Faversham.
"Lieutenant, you are in command of St. Denis. I am your prisoner of
Faversham stood for a moment or two with his hands clenched. The light
had gone out of his face.
"I have no authority to make prisoners," he said. He took up one of
the candles, gazed at his guest in perplexity.
"You have not given me your real reason, Captain Plessy," he said.
Captain Plessy did not answer a word.
"Good-night, gentlemen," said Faversham and Captain Plessy bowed
deeply as Faversham left the room.
A silence of some duration followed upon the closing of the door. The
two subalterns were as perplexed as Faversham to account for their
hero's conduct. They sat dumb and displeased. Plessy stood for a
moment thoughtfully, then he made a gesture with his hands as though
to brush the whole incident from his mind and taking a cigarette from
his case proceeded to light it at the candle. As he stooped to the
flame he noticed the glum countenances of his brother-officers, and
"You are not pleased with me, my friends," said he as he threw himself
on to a couch which stood against the wall opposite to his companions.
"You think I did not speak the truth when I gave the reason of my
refusal? Well you are right. I will give you the real reason why I
would not fight. It is very simple. I do not wish to be killed. I know
these white-faced, trembling men--there are no men more terrible. They
may run away but if they do not, if they string themselves to
the point of action--take the word of a soldier older than
yourselves--then is the time to climb trees. To-morrow I would very
likely kill our young friend, he would have had time to think, to
picture to himself the little point of steel glittering towards his
heart--but to-night he would assuredly have killed me. But as I say I
do not wish to be killed. You are satisfied?"
It appeared that they were not. They sat with all the appearances
of discontent. They had no words for Captain Plessy. Captain Plessy
accordingly rose lightly from his seat.
"Ah," said he, "my good friend the Lieutenant has after all left me my
sword. The table too is already pushed sufficiently on one side.
There is only one candle to be sure, but it will serve. You are not
satisfied, gentlemen? Then--" But both subalterns now hastened to
assure Captain Plessy that they considered his conduct had been
Lieutenant Fevrier of the 69th regiment, which belonged to the first
brigade of the first division of the army of the Rhine, was summoned
to the Belletonge farm just as it was getting dusk. The Lieutenant
hurried thither, for the Belletonge farm opposite the woods of
Colombey was the headquarters of the General of his division.
"I have been instructed," said General Montaudon, "to select an
officer for a special duty. I have selected you."
Now for days Lieutenant Fevrier's duties had begun and ended with him
driving the soldiers of his company from eating unripe fruit; and
here, unexpectedly, he was chosen from all the officers of his
division for a particular exploit. The Lieutenant trembled with
"My General!" he cried.
The General himself was moved.
"What your task will be," he continued, "I do not known. You will go
at once to the Mareschal's headquarters when the chief of the staff,
General Jarras, will inform you."
Lieutenant Fevrier went immediately up to Metz. His division was
entrenched on the right bank of the Mosel and beyond the forts, so
that it was dark before he passed through the gates. He had never once
been in Metz before; he had grown used to the monotony of camps; he
had expected shuttered windows and deserted roads, and so the aspect
of the town amazed him beyond measure. Instead of a town besieged, it
seemed a town during a fairing. There were railway carriages, it is
true, in the Place Royale doing duty as hospitals; the provision
shops, too, were bare, and there were no horses visible.
But on the other hand, everywhere was a blaze of light and a bustle of
people coming and going upon the footpaths. The cafes glittered and
rang with noise. Here one little fat burgher was shouting that the
town-guard was worth all the red-legs in the trenches; another as
loudly was criticising the tactics of Bazaine and comparing him for
his invisibility to a pasha in his seraglio; while a third sprang upon
a table and announced fresh victories. An army was already on the way
from Paris to relieve Metz. Only yesterday MacMahon had defeated the
Prussians, any moment he might be expected from the Ardennes. Nor were
they only civilians who shouted and complained. Lieutenant Fevrier saw
captains, majors, and even generals who had left their entrenchments
to fight the siege their own way with dominoes upon the marble tables
of the cabarets.
"My poor France," he said to himself, and a passer-by overhearing him
"True, monsieur. Ah, but if we had a man at Metz!"
Lieutenant Fevrier turned his back upon the speaker and walked on.
He at all events would not join in the criticisms. It was just, he
reflected, because he had avoided the cafes of Metz that he was
singled out for special distinction, and he fell to wondering what
work it was he had to do that night. Was it to surprise a field-watch?
Or to spike a battery? Or to capture a convoy? Lieutenant Fevrier
raised his head. For any exploit in the world he was ready.
General Jarras was writing at a table when Fevrier was admitted to his
office. The Chief of the Staff inclined his lamp-shade so that the
light fell full upon Fevrier's face, and the action caused the
lieutenant to rejoice. So much care in the choice of the officer meant
so much more important a duty.
"The General Montaudon tells me," said Jarras, "that you are an
"Obedience, my General, is the soldier's first lesson."
"That explains to me why it is first forgotten," answered Jarras,
drily. Then his voice became sharp and curt. "You will choose fifty
men. You will pick them carefully."
"They shall be the best soldiers in the regiment," said Fevrier.
"No, the worst."
Lieutenant Fevrier was puzzled. When dangers were to be encountered,
when audacity was needed, one requires the best soldiers. That was
obvious, unless the mission meant annihilation. That thought came to
Fevrier, and remembering the cafes and the officers dishonouring their
uniforms, he drew himself up proudly and saluted. Already he saw his
dead body recovered from the enemy, and borne to the grave beneath a
tricolour. He heard the lamentations of his friends, and the firing
of the platoon. He saw General Montaudon in tears. He was shaken with
emotion. But Jarras's next words fell upon him like cold water.
"You will parade your fifty men unarmed. You will march out of the
lines, and to-morrow morning as soon as it is light enough for the
Prussians to see you come unarmed you will desert to them. There are
too many mouths to feed in Metz[A]."
[Footnote A: See the Daily News War Correspondence, 1870.]
The Lieutenant had it on his lips to shout, "Then why not lead us out
to die?" But he kept silence. He could have flung his kepi in the
General's face; but he saluted. He went out again into the streets
and among the lighted cafes and reeled like a drunken man, thinking
confusedly of many things; that he had a mother in Paris who might
hear of his desertion before she heard of its explanation; that it was
right to claim obedience but _lache_ to exact dishonour--but chiefly
and above all that if he had been wise, and had made light of his
duty, and had come up to Metz to re-arrange the campaign with dominoes
on the marble-tables, he would not have been specially selected for
ignominy. It was true, it needed an obedient officer to desert! And
so laughing aloud he reeled blindly down to the gates of Metz. And
it happened that just by the gates a civilian looked after him, and
shrugging his shoulders, remarked, "Ah! But if we had a _Man_ at
From Metz Lieutenant Fevrier ran. The night air struck cool upon him.
And he ran and stumbled and fell and picked himself up and ran again
until he reached the Belletonge farm.
"The General," he cried, and so to the General a mud-plastered figure
with a white, tormented face was admitted.
"What is it?" asked Montaudon. "What will this say?"
Lieutenant Fevrier stood with the palms of his hands extended,
speechless like an animal in pain. Then he suddenly burst into tears
and wept, and told of the fine plan to diminish the demands upon the
"Courage, my old one!" said the General. "I had a fear of this. You
are not alone--other officers in other divisions have the same hard
duty," and there was no inflection in the voice to tell Fevrier what
his General thought of the duty. But a hand was laid soothingly upon
his shoulder, and that told him. He took heart to whisper that he had
a mother in Paris.
"I will write to her," said Montaudon. "She will be proud when she
receives the letter."
Then Lieutenant Fevrier, being French, took the General's hand and
kissed it, and the General, being French, felt his throat fill with
Fevrier left the headquarters, paraded his men, laid his sword and
revolver on the ground, and ordered his fifty to pile their arms. Then
he made them a speech--a very short speech, but it cost him much to
make it in an even voice.
"My braves," said he, "my fellow-soldiers, it is easy to fight for
one's country, it is not difficult to die for it. But the supreme test
of patriotism is willingly to suffer shame for it. That test your
country now claims of you. Attention! March!"
For the last time he exchanged a password with a French sentinel, and
tramped out into the belt of ground between the French outposts and
the Prussian field-watch. Now in this belt there stood a little
village which Fevrier had held with skill and honour all the two
days of the battle of Noisseville. Doubtless that recollection had
something to do with his choice of the village. For in his martyrdom
of shame he had fallen to wonder whether after all he had not deserved
it, and any reassurance such as the gaping house-walls of Vaudere
would bring to him, was eagerly welcomed. There was another reason,
however, in the position of the village.
It stood in an abrupt valley at the foot of a steep vine-hill on the
summit, and which was the Prussian forepost. The Prussian field-watch
would be even nearer to Vaudere and dispersed amongst the vines. So
he could get his ignominious work over quickly in the morning. The
village would provide, too, safe quarters for the night, since it
was well within range of the heavy guns in Fort St. Julien, and the
Prussians on that account were unable to hold it.
He led his fifty soldiers then northwestward from his camp, skirted
the Bois de Grimont, and marched into the village. The night was dark,
and the sky so overhung with clouds that not a star was visible. The
one street of Vaudere was absolutely silent. The glimmering white
cottages showed their black rents on either side, but never the light
of a candle behind any shutter. Lieutenant Fevrier left his men at the
western or Frenchward end of the street, and went forward alone.
The doors of the houses stood open. The path was encumbered with the
wreckage of their contents, and every now and then he smelt a whiff of
paraffin, as though lamps had been broken or cans overset. Vaudere had
been looted, but there were no Prussians now in the village.
He made sure of this by walking as far as the large house at the head
of the village. Then he went back to his men and led them forward
until he reached the general shop which every village has.
"It is not likely," he said, "that we shall find even the makeshift of
a supper. But courage, my friends, let us try!"
He could not have eaten a crust himself, but it had become an instinct
with him to anticipate the needs of his privates, and he acted from
habit. They crowded into the shop; one man shut the door, Fevrier
lighted a match and disclosed by its light staved-in barrels, empty
cannisters, broken boxes, fragments of lemonade bottles, but of food
not so much as a stale biscuit.
"Go upstairs and search."
They went and returned empty-handed.
"We have found nothing, monsieur," said they.
"But I have," replied Fevrier, and striking another match he held up
what he had found, dirty and crumpled, in a corner of the shop. It
was a little tricolour flag of painted linen upon a bamboo stick, a
child's cheap and gaudy toy. But Fevrier held it up solemnly, and of
the fifty deserters no one laughed.
"The flag of the Patrie," said Fevrier, and with one accord the
The match burned down to Fevrier's fingers, he dropped it and trod
upon it and there was a moment's absolute stillness. Then in the
darkness a ringing voice leapt out.
"Vive la France!"
It was not the lieutenant's voice, but the voice of a peasant from the
south of the Loire, one of the deserters.
"Ah, but that is fine, that cry," said Fevrier.
He could have embraced that private on both cheeks. There was love in
that cry, pain as well--it could not be otherwise--but above all a
very passion of confidence.
"Again!" said Fevrier; and this time all his men took it up, shouting
it out, exultantly. The little ruined shop, in itself a contradiction
of the cry, rang out and clattered with the noise until it seemed to
Fevrier that it must surely pierce across the country into Metz and
pluck the Mareschal in his headquarters from his diffidence. But they
were only fifty deserters in a deserted village, lost in the darkness,
and more likely to be overheard by the Prussian sentries than by any
of their own blood.
It was Fevrier who first saw the danger of their ebullition. He cut it
short by ordering them to seek quarters where they could sleep until
daybreak. For himself, he thrust the little toy flag in his breast and
walked forward to the larger house at the end of the village beneath
the vine-hill; and as he walked, again the smell of paraffin was
forced upon his nostrils.
He walked more slowly. That odour of paraffin began to seem
remarkable. The looting of the village had not occurred to-day, for
there had been thick dust about the general shop. But the paraffin had
surely been freshly spilt, or the odour would have evaporated.
Lieutenant Fevrier walked on thinking this over. He found the broken
door of his house, and still thinking it over, mounted the stairs.
There was a door fronting the stairs. He felt for the handle and
opened it, and from a corner of the room a voice challenged him in
Fevrier was fairly startled. There were Germans in the village after
all. He explained to himself now the smell of paraffin. Meanwhile he
did not answer; neither did he move; neither did he hear any movement.
He had forgotten for the moment that he was a deserter, and he stood
holding his breath and listening. There was a tiny window opposite to
the door, but it only declared itself a window, it gave no light. And
illusions came to Lieutenant Fevrier, such as will come to the bravest
man so long as he listens hard enough in the dark--illusions of
stealthy footsteps on the floor, of hands scraping and feeling along
the walls, of a man's breathing upon his neck, of many infinitesimal
noises and movements close by.
The challenge was repeated and Fevrier remembered his orders.
"I am Lieutenant Fevrier of Montaudon's division."
"You are alone."
Fevrier now distinguished that the voice came from the right-hand
corner of the room, and that it was faint.
"I have fifty men with me. We are deserters," he blurted out, "and
There followed silence, and a long silence. Then the voice spoke
again, but in French, and the French of a native.
"My friend, your voice is not the voice of a deserter. There is too
much humiliation in it. Come to my bedside here. I spoke in German,
expecting Germans. But I am the cure of Vaudere. Why are you
Fevrier had expected a scornful order to marshal his men as prisoners.
The extraordinary gentleness of the cure's voice almost overcame him.
He walked across to the bedside and told his story. The cure basely
heard him out.
"It is right to obey," said he, "but here you can obey and disobey.
You can relieve Metz of your appetites, my friend, but you need not
desert." The cure reached up, and drawing Fevrier down, laid a hand
upon his head. "I consecrate you to the service of your country. Do
Fevrier leaned his mouth towards the cure's ear.
"The Prussians are coming to-night to burn the village."
"Yes, they came at dusk."
Just at the moment, in fact, when Fevrier had been summoned to Metz,
the Prussians had crept down into Vaudere and had been scared back to
their repli by a false alarm.
"But they will come back you may be sure," said the cure, and raising
himself upon his elbow he said in a voice of suspense "Listen!"
Fevrier went to the window and opened it. It faced the hill-side, but
no sounds came through it beyond the natural murmurs of the night. The
cure sank back.
"After the fight here, there were dead soldiers in the streets--French
soldiers and so French chassepots. Ah, my friend, the Prussians have
found out which is the better rifle--the chassepot or the needle gun.
After your retreat they came down the hill for those chassepots. They
could not find one. They searched every house, they came here and
questioned me. Finally they caught one of the villagers hiding in a
field, and he was afraid and he told where the rifles had been buried.
The Prussians dug for them and the hole was empty. They believe they
are still hidden somewhere in the village; they fancy, too, that there
are secret stores of food; so they mean to burn the houses to the
ground. They did not know that I was here this afternoon. I would have
come into the French lines had it been possible, but I am tied here to
my bed. No doubt God had sent you to me--you and your fifty men. You
need not desert. You can make your last stand here for France."
"And perish," cried Fevrier, caught up from the depths of his
humiliation, "as Frenchmen should, arms in hand." Then his voice
dropped again. "But we have no arms."
The cure shook the lieutenant's arm gently.
"Did I not tell you the chassepots were not found? And why? Because
too many knew where they were hidden. Because out of that many I
feared there might be one to betray. There is always a Judas. So I got
one man whom I knew, and he dug them up and hid them afresh."
The question was put with a feverish eagerness--it seemed to the cure
with an eagerness too feverish. He drew his hand, his whole body away.
"You have matches? Light one!" he said, in a startled voice.
"But the window--!"
Every moment of time was now of value. Fevrier took the risk and lit
the match, shading it from the window so far as he could with his
"That will do."
Fevrier blew out the light. The cure had seen him, his uniform and his
features. He, too, had seen the cure, had noticed his thin emaciated
face, and the eyes staring out of it feverishly bright and
"Shall I tell you your malady, father?" he said gently. "It is
"What will you, my son? I am alone. There is not a crust from one end
of Vaudere to the other. You cannot help me. Help France! Go to the
church, stand with your back to the door, turn left, and advance
straight to the churchyard wall. You will find a new grave there, the
rifles in the grave. Quick! There is a spade in the tower. Quick! The
rifles are wrapped from the damp, the cartridges too. Quick! Quick!"
Fevrier hurried downstairs, roused three of his soldiers, bade one of
them go from house to house and bring the soldiers in silence to the
churchyard, and with the others he went thither himself. In groups of
two and three the men crept through the street, and gathered about
the grave. It was already open. The spade was driven hard and quick,
deeper and deeper, and at last rang upon metal. There were seventy
chassepots, complete with bayonets and ammunition. Fifty-one were
handed out, the remaining nineteen were hastily covered in again.
Fevrier was immeasurably cheered to notice his men clutch at their
weapons and fondle them, hold them to their shoulders taking aim, and
work the breech-blocks.
"It is like meeting old friends, is it not, my children, or rather
new sweethearts?" said he. "Come! The Prussians may advance from
the Brasserie at Lanvallier, from Servigny, from Montay, or from
Noisseville, straight down the hill. The last direction is the most
likely, but we must make no mistake. Ten men will watch on the
Lanvallier road, ten on the Servigny, ten on the Montay, twenty will
follow me. March!"
An hour ago Lieutenant Fevrier was in command of fifty men who
slouched along with their hands in their pockets, robbed even of
self-respect. Now he had fifty armed and disciplined soldiers, men
alert and inspired. So much difference a chassepot apiece had made.
Lieutenant Fevrier was moved to the conception of another plan; and to
prepare the way for its execution, he left his twenty men in a house
at the Prussian end of Vaudere, and himself crept in among the vines
and up the hill.
Somewhere near to him would be the sentries of the field-watch. He
went down upon his hands and knees and crawled, parting the vine
leaves, that the swish of them might not betray him. In a little knoll
high above his head he heard the cracking of wood, the sound of men
stumbling. The Prussians were coming down to Vaudere. He lay flat
upon the ground waiting and waiting; and the sounds grew louder and
approached. At last he heard that for which he waited--the challenge
of the field-watch, the answer of the burning-party. It came down to
him quite clearly through the windless air. "Sadowa."
Lieutenant Fevrier turned about chuckling. It seemed that in some
respects the world after all was not going so ill with him that night.
He crawled downwards as quickly as he could. But it was now more than
even inspiration that he should not be detected. He dared not stand
up and run; he must still keep upon his hands and knees. His arms so
ached that he was forced now and then to stop and lie prone to give
them ease; he was soaked through and through with perspiration; his
blood hammered at his temples; he felt his spine weaken as though the
marrow had melted into water; and his heart throbbed until the effort
to breathe was a pain. But he reached the bottom of the hill, he got
refuge amongst his men, he even had time to give his orders before the
tread of the first Prussian was heard in the street.
"They will make for the other end of Vaudere. They will give the
village first as near to the French lines as it reaches and light the
rest as they retreat. Let them go forward! We will cut them off. And
remember, the bayonet! A shot will bring the Prussians down in force.
It will bring the French too, so there is just the chance we may find
the enemy as silent as ourselves."
But the plan was to undergo alteration. For as Lieutenant Fevrier
ended, the Prussians marched in single file into the street and
halted. Fevrier from the corner within his doorway counted them; there
were twenty-three in all. Well, he had twenty besides himself, and the
advantage of the surprise; and thirty more upon the other roads, for
whom, however, he had other work in mind. The officer in command of
the Prussians carried a dark lantern, and he now turned the slide, so
that the light shone out.
His men fell out of their rank, some to make a cursory search, others
to sprinkle yet more paraffin. One man came close to Fevrier's
doorway, and even looked in, but he saw nothing, though Fevrier was
within six feet of him, holding his breath. Then the officer closed
his lantern, the men re-formed and marched on. But they left behind
with Lieutenant Fevrier--an idea.
He thought it quickly over. It pleased him, it was feasible, and there
was comedy in it. Lieutenant Fevrier laughed again, his spirits were
rising, and the world was not after all going so ill with him.
He had noticed by the lantern light that the Prussians had not
re-formed in the same order. They were in single file again, but the
man who marched last before the halt, did not march last after it.
Each soldier, as he came up, fell in in the rear of the file. Now
Fevrier had in the darkness experienced some difficulty in counting
the number of Prussians, although he had strained his eyes to that
He whispered accordingly some brief instructions to his men; he sent
a message to the ten on the Servigny road, and when the Prussians
marched on after their second halt, Lieutenant Fevrier and two
Frenchmen fell in behind them. The same procedure was followed at the
next halt and at the next; so that when the Prussians reached the
Frenchward end of Vaudere there were twenty-three Prussians and ten
Frenchmen in the file. To Fevrier's thinking it was sufficiently
comic. There was something artistic about it too.
Fevrier was pleased, but he had not counted on the quick Prussian
step to which his soldiers were unaccustomed. At the fourth halt, the
officer moved unsuspiciously first on one side of the street, then on
the other, but gave no order to his men to fall out. It seemed that
he had forgotten, until he came suddenly running down the file and
flashed his lantern into Fevrier's face. He had been secretly counting
"The French," he cried. "Load!"
The one word quite compensated Fevrier for the detection. The Germans
had come down into Vaudere with their rifles unloaded, lest an
accidental discharge should betray their neighbourhood to the French.
"Load!" cried the German. And slipping back he tugged at the revolver
in his belt. But before he could draw it out, Fevrier dashed his
bayonet through the lantern and hung it on the officer's heart. He
whistled, and his other ten men came running down the street.
"Vorwarts," shouted Fevrier, derisively. "Immer Vorwarts."
The Prussians surprised, and ignorant how many they had to face, fell
back in disorder against a house-wall. The French soldiers dashed at
them in the darkness, engaging them so that not a man had the chance
That little fight in the dark street between the white-ruined cottages
made Fevrier's blood dance.
"Courage!" he cried. "The paraffin!"
The combatants were well matched, and it was hand-to-hand and
bayonet-to-bayonet. Fevrier loved his enemies at that moment. It even
occurred to him that it was worth while to have deserted. After the
sense of disgrace, the prospect of imprisonment and dishonour, it
was all wonderful to him--the feel of the thick coat yielding to the
bayonet point, the fatigue of the beaten opponent, the vigour of the
new one, the feeling of injury and unfairness when a Prussian he had
wounded dropped in falling the butt of a rifle upon his toes.
Once he cried, "_Voila pour la patrie_!" but for the rest he fought in
silence, as did the others, having other uses for their breath. All
that could be heard was a loud and laborious panting, as of wrestlers
in a match, the clang of rifle crossing rifle, the rattle of bayonet
guarding bayonet, and now and then a groan and a heavy fall. One
Prussian escaped and ran; but the ten who had been stationed on the
Servigny road were now guarding the entrance from Noisseville. Fevrier
had no fears of him. He pressed upon a new man, drove him against the
wall, and the man shouted in despair:
"You, Philippe?" exclaimed Fevrier.
"That was a timely cry," and he sprang back. There were six men
standing, and the six saluted Fevrier; they were all Frenchmen.
Fevrier mopped his forehead.
"But that was fine," said he, "though what's to come will be still
better. Oh, but we will make this night memorable to our friends. They
shall talk of us by their firesides when they are grown old and France
has had many years of peace--we shall not hear, but they will talk of
us, the deserters from Metz."
Lieutenant Fevrier in a word was exalted, and had lost his sense of
proportion. He did not, however, relax his activity. He sent off the
six to gather the rest of his contingent. He made an examination of
the Prussians, and found that sixteen had been killed outright, and
eight were lying wounded. He removed their rifles and ammunition out
of reach, and from dead and wounded alike took the coats and caps.
To the wounded he gave instead French uniforms; and then, bidding
twenty-three of his soldiers don the Prussian caps and coats, he
snatched a moment wherein to run to the cure.
"It is over," said he. "The Prussians will not burn Vaudere to-night."
And he jumped down the stairs again without waiting for any response.
In the street he put on the cap and coat of the Prussian officer,
buckled the sword about his waist, and thrust the revolver into
his belt. He had now twenty-three men who at night might pass for
Prussians, and thirteen others.
To these thirteen he gave general instructions. They were to spread
out on the right and left, and make their way singly up through
the vines, and past the field-watch if they could without risk of
detection. They were to join him high up on the slope, and opposite to
the bonfire which would be burning at the repli. His twenty-three he
led boldly, following as nearly as possible the track by which the
Prussians had descended. The party trampled down the vine-poles,
brushed through the leaves, and in a little while were challenged.
"Sadowa," said Fevrier, in his best imitation of the German accent.
"Pass Sadowa," returned the sentry.
Fevrier and his men filed upwards. He halted some two hundred yards
farther on, and went down upon his knees. The soldiers behind him
copied his example. They crept slowly and cautiously forward until the
flames of the bonfire were visible through the screen of leaves, until
the faces of the officers about the bonfire could be read.
Then Fevrier stopped and whispered to the soldier next to him. That
soldier passed the whisper on, and from a file the Frenchmen crept
into line. Fevrier had now nothing to do but to wait; and he waited
without trepidation or excitement. The night from first to last had
gone very well with him. He could even think of Mareschal Bazaine
He waited for perhaps an hour, watching the faces round the fire
increase in number and grow troubled with anxiety. The German officers
talked in low tones staring through their night-glasses down the hill,
to catch the first leaping flame from the roofs of Vaudere, pushing
forward their heads to listen for any alarm. Fevrier watched them with
the amusement of a spectator in a play house. He was fully aware that
he was shortly to step upon the stage himself. He was aware too that
the play was to have a tragic ending. Meanwhile, however, here
was very good comedy! He had a Frenchman's appreciation of the
picturesque. The dark night, the glowing fire on the one broad level
of grass, the French soldiers hidden in the vines, within a stone's
throw of the Germans, the Germans looking unconsciously on over
their heads for the return of those comrades who never would
return.--Lieutenant Fevrier was the dramatist who had created this
striking and artistic situation. Lieutenant Fevrier could not but be
pleased. Moreover there were better effects to follow. One occurred to
him at this very moment, an admirable one. He fumbled in his breast
and took out the flag. A minute later he saw the Colonel of the
forepost join the group, hack nervously with his naked sword at
a burning log, and dispatch a subaltern down the hill to the
The subaltern came crashing back through the vines. Fevrier did not
need to hear his words in order to guess at his report. It could only
be that the Prussian party had given the password and come safely back
an hour since. Besides, the Colonel's act was significant.
He sent four men at once in different directions, and the rest of his
soldiers he withdrew into the darkness behind the bonfire. He did not
follow them himself until he had picked up and tossed a fusee into the
fire. The fusee flared and spat and spurted, and immediately it
seemed to Fevrier--so short an interval of time was there--that the
country-side was alive with the hum of a stirring camp, and the rattle
of harness-chains, as horses were yoked to guns.
For a third time that evening Fevrier laughed softly. The deserters
had roused the Prussian army round Metz to the expectation of an
attack in force. He touched his neighbour on the shoulder.
"One volley when I give the word. Then charge. Pass the order on!" and
the word went along the line like a ripple across a pond.
He had hardly given it, the fusee had barely ceased to sputter, before
a company doubled out on the open space behind the bonfire. That
company had barely formed up, before another arrived to support it.
As the Prussian command was uttered, Fevrier was aware of a movement
at his side. The soldier next to him was taking aim. Fevrier reached
out his hand and stopped the man. Fevrier was going to die in five
minutes, and meant to die chivalrously like a gentleman. He waited
until the German companies had loaded, until they were ordered to
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