Ensign Knightley and Other Stories

The Coward

A.E.W. Mason

“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 is declared.”

“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 the station.

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 the mind.

“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 fire.

“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 chassepôts 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 Paris.”

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 you.”

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 tones.

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. Denis.”

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 Plessy continued.

“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 teeth.

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 messages.”

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 are.”

One of Plessy’s subalterns extended his hand and laid it on his sleeve. Plessy turned upon him angrily, and the subaltern withdrew his hand.

“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 letter.

“You have told me why you have read it aloud.”

“Yes,” said Plessy, a little disconcerted by the quickness of Faversham’s movement.

“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 to bluster.

“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 the breath.

“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 plead.

“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 into Paris.”

“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 war.”

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 laughed carelessly.

“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 entirely justified.

Ensign Knightley and Other Stories - Contents

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