The Truants

Chapter XII

Tony’s Inspiration

A.E.W. Mason

WARRISDEN had failed. This was the account of his mission which he had to give to Pamela Mardale; and he gave it without excuses. He landed at Billingsgate Wharf at eleven o’clock on the second day after the sails of the Blue Fleet had dropped out of sight behind the screen of breaking waves. That afternoon he travelled down to the village of the three poplars. It was night when he stepped out of the train on to the platform of the little station. One can imagine what bitter and humiliating thoughts occupied his mind. Away on the crest of the hill the lights of the village shone brightly through the clear night air, just as the lights of Margate had shone across the bay when the steam-cutter had sprung like a thing alive to the lift of the sea beneath her bows. Then all the breeze had whispered promises; now the high hopes were fallen. “Do not fail!” Pamela had cried, with a veritable passion, hating failure as an indignity, he could hear the words in the very accent of her voice. Once she had suffered failure, but it was not to be endured again. That was what she had meant; and he had failed. He drove along that straight road which he had traversed with Pamela at his side; he slept under the roof of the inn where Pamela had claimed his help. The help had been fruitless, and the next morning he rode down the hill and along the load with the white wood rails—“the new road”—to tell her so. The sun was bright; there was a sparkle of spring in the air; on the black leafless boughs birds sang. He looked back to the three poplars pointing to the sky from the tiny garden on the crest of the hill. Quetta—yes! But it seemed there was to be no Seistan.

He had started early, fearing that there might be a meet that day; and he had acted wisely, for in the hall there were one or two men lounging by the fire in scarlet, and Pamela was wearing her riding-habit when she received him. He was shown into a little room which opened on to the garden behind the house, and thither Pamela came.

“You are alone!” she said.

“Yes; Stretton would not come.”

“None the less, I am very grateful.”

She smiled as she spoke, and sat down, with her eyes upon him, waiting for his story. The disappointment was visible upon his face, but not upon hers. Pamela’s indeed, was to him at this moment rather inscrutable. It was not indifferent, however. He recognised that, and was, in a way, consoled. It had been his fear that at the first word she would dismiss the subject, and turn her back on it for good. On the contrary, she was interested, attentive.

“You found him, then?” she asked.

“Yes. You would like to hear what passed?”

“Of course.”

“Even though I failed?”

She looked at him with some surprise at his insistence.

“Yes, yes,” she said, a little impatiently.

“We were nearly three days longer in reaching the Blue Fleet than we anticipated,” he began. “Stretton came on board the fish-cutter——” And Pamela interrupted him—

“Why were you nearly three days longer? Tell me about your own journey out to the fleet from the beginning.”

She was, in fact, as much interested in her messenger as in the errand upon which she had sent him. Warrisden began to see that his journey after all was not entirely a defeat. The alliance to which they had set their hands up there in the village on the hill was bearing its fruit. It had set them in a new relationship to each other, and in a closer intimacy.

He told the story of his voyage, making light of his hardships on the steam-cutter. She, on the other hand, made much of them.

“To quote your captain,” she remarked, with a smile, “it was not a Bobby’s job.”

Warrisden laughed, and told her of Stretton’s arrival in the punt of the Perseverance. He described the way in which he had come on board; he related the conversation which had passed between them at the stern of the cutter.

“He hadn’t the look of a man who had failed,” Warrisden continued. “He stood there on the swinging deck with his legs firmly planted apart, as easily as if he were standing on a stone pavement. I, on the other hand, was clinging desperately to a stay. He stood there, with the seas swinging up behind him, and stubbornly refused to come.”

“You told him of his father’s illness?” asked Pamela.

“He replied that his father had not sent for him.”

“You spoke of the candles lit every night?”

“His answer was the same. His father had not sent for him. Besides, he had his time to serve. He had signed on for eight weeks. There was only one moment when I thought that there was a chance I might persuade him; and, indeed, my persuasions had really nothing to do with it at all. It was just the mention of your name.”

“My name?” asked Pamela, in surprise.

“Yes. In answer to a question of his I told him that I had been sent out by you, and for a moment he faltered.”

Pamela nodded her head in comprehension.

“I understand; but he refused in the end?”

“Yes. He said, ‘One must take one’s risks.’”

Pamela repeated the sentence softly to herself; and Warrisden crossed over to her side. His voice took a gentler note, and one still more serious than that which he had used.

“Do you know what I think?” he asked. “You sent me out with a message to Stretton. I think that he has sent me back with a message for you—‘One must take one’s risks.’ He said that he had learned that in the North Sea. He pointed to the little boats carrying the fish-boxes to the steamer through the heavy, breaking seas. Each man in each of the boats was taking his risks. ‘Whether it’s lacing your topsail or taking in a reef,’ he said, ‘one must take one’s risks.’”

Pamela was silent for awhile after he had spoken. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, and her face most serious. Then she looked up at her companion with a very friendly smile; but she did not answer him at all. And when she spoke, she spoke words which utterly surprised him. All the time since the ketches had disappeared behind the waves he had been plagued with the thought of the distress which defeat would cause her; and here she was saying—

“I am very glad that you went out to the North Sea for me, even though the journey proved fruitless. It makes us so much the better friends, doesn’t it? And that is a gain for me. Think of it that way, and you will not mind the hardships and the waste of time.”

She held out her hand—rather a rare act with her—and Warrisden took it. Then came the explanation why defeat meant so little just at this time.

“I need not have sent you at all,” she continued, “could I have foreseen. Sir John Stretton died yesterday afternoon, suddenly. I received a telegram last night from Millie. So Tony will naturally come home when his four weeks are up. I wrote last night to Millie, telling her where Tony was.” Then she added, “But I am glad that I did not foresee.”

She rose from her chair, and they walked out through the hall to the front of the house. A groom was holding Pamela’s horse. The others who were hunting that day had already ridden off. Warrisden helped her into the saddle, and she rode away.

Sir John had died, and Stretton would now naturally come home. That explained to Warrisden how it was that Pamela made so little of the defeat. But it was not the whole explanation. Pamela was waking from her long sleep, like the princess in the fairy tale, and the mere act of waking was a pleasure. In the stir of emotions, hitherto rigorously suppressed, in the exercise of sympathies, she found a delight such as one may find in the mere stretching of one’s muscles after a deep rest. The consciousness of life as a thing enjoyable began to tingle in her. She was learning again lessons which she remembered once to have learned before. The joy of being needed by those one needs—there was one of them. She had learned a new one to-day—“One must take one’s risks.” She repeated the sentence over to herself as she rode between the hedgerows on this morning which had the sparkle of spring. A few days ago she would have put that view of life away from her. Now, old as it was, simple as it was, she pondered upon it as though it were a view quite novel. She found it, moreover, pleasant. She had travelled, indeed, further along the new road than she was aware. The truth is that she had rather hugged to herself the great trouble which had overshadowed her life. She had done so unwittingly. She had allowed it to dominate her after it had lost its power to dominate, and from force of habit. She began to be aware of it now that she had stepped out from her isolation, and was gathering again the strings of her life into her hands.

.     .     .     .     .

But Pamela was wrong in her supposition that since Sir John’s death the danger for Millicent was at an end. Tony Stretton would now return home, she thought; and nothing was further from Tony’s thoughts. At the time when Pamela was riding through the lanes of Leicestershire on that morning of early spring, Tony was lying in his bunk in the cabin of the Perseverance reading over, for the thousandth time, certain letters which he kept beneath his pillow. This week he kept the long night watch from midnight until eight of the morning; it was now eleven, and he had the cabin to himself. The great gale had blown itself out. The trawl, which for three days had remained safely stowed under the lee bulwarks, was now dragging behind the boat; with her topsails set the ketch was sailing full and by the wind; and down the open companion the sunlight streamed into the cabin and played like water upon the floor. The letters Tony Stretton was reading were those which Millie had sent him. Disappointment was plain in every line; they were sown with galling expressions of pity; here and there contempt peeped out. Yet he was glad to have them; they were his monitors, and he found a stimulus in their very cruelty. Though he knew them by heart, he continually read them on mornings like this, when the sun shone down the companion, and the voices of his fellow sailors called cheerily overhead; at night, leaning upon his elbow, and spelling them out by the dim light of the swinging lamp, while the crew slept about him in their bunks.

To his companions he was rather a mystery. To some of them he was just down on his luck; to others he was a man “who had done something.”

“I suppose you have come out here to lie doggo,” said the skipper to him, shouting out the words in the height of the gale, when both were standing by the lashed wheel one night. “I ask no questions. All I say is, you do your work. I have had no call to slap a haddick across your face. I say that fair and square. Water!”

He concluded his speech with a yell. Stretton saw a ragged line of white suddenly flash out in the darkness, high up by the weather bow, and descend with a roar. It was a wave breaking down upon the deck. Both men flung themselves down the companion, and the water sluiced after them and washed them struggling about the floor of the cabin. The wave saved Stretton from the need to reply, and the skipper did not refer to the subject again.

Stretton had signed on for this cruise on the Perseverance because he wanted a time during which he could be quite sure of his livelihood. So far he had failed. He must map out a new course for himself upon his life’s chart. But for that work he needed time for thought, and that time, up till now, he had not enjoyed. The precarious existence which he had led since he had lost the half of Millie’s small fortune—now a clerk in a store, and a failure; now a commercial traveller, and again a failure—had left him little breathing space wherein to gather up his slow thoughts and originate a new plan. That breathing space, however, the Perseverance had afforded him. During the long watches on fine nights, when the dark sails, swinging up and down to the motion of the boat, revealed and obscured the stars, he wrestled with the difficult problem of his life.

He could go back when his cruise was over if he chose. His father was dying; he faced the fact quite frankly. The object with which he set out would be, after all, accomplished, though not accomplished by himself. There would be a house for Millie and himself independent of the old man’s caprice; their life would be freed from the shadow of his tyranny; their seclusion would come to an end; they could let the sunlight in upon their lives. Yes! But there were the letters down in the cabin there, underneath his pillow. Did not they alter the position? He had gone away to keep his wife, just, in a word, to prevent that very contempt of which the letters gave him proof. Must he not now stay away in order to regain her? His wife was at the bottom of all his thoughts. He had no blame for her, however much her written words might hurt. He looked back upon their life together, its pleasant beginnings, when they were not merely lovers, but very good friends into the bargain. For it is possible to be the one and yet not the other. They were good days, the days in the little house in Deanery Street, days full of fun and good temper and amusement. He recalled their two seasons in London—London bright with summer—and making of each long day a too short holiday. Then had come the change, sudden, dark, and complete. In the place of freedom, subjection; in the place of company, isolation; in the place of friends, a sour old man, querulous and exacting. Then had come the great hope of another home; and swiftly upon that hope its failure through his incapacity. He could not blame her for the letters underneath his pillow. He was no less set upon regaining her than he had been before on keeping her. His love for her had been the chief motive of his life when he left the house in Berkeley Square. It remained so still. Could he go back, he asked himself?

There was one inducement persuading him always to answer “Yes”—the sentence which Pamela had spoken, and which she had refused to explain. He should be at his wife’s side. He had never understood that saying; it remained fixed in his memory, plaguing him. He should be at his wife’s side. So Pamela Mardale had said, and for what Pamela said he had the greatest respect. Well, he could be in a few weeks at his wife’s side. But would it not be at too great a cost unless he had first redeemed himself from her contempt?

Thus he turned and turned, and saw no issue anywhere. The days slipped by, and one morning the fish-cutter brought to him a letter, which told him that four days ago his father had died. He could not reach home in time for the funeral, even if he started at once. And he could not start at once; he had signed on for eight weeks.

But the letter left him face to face with the old problem. Should he go back or should he stay away? And if he stayed away, what should he do?

He came on deck one morning, and his skipper said—

“There’s a fog on land, Stretton,”

“How do you know that?” asked Stretton.

The captain pointed to some birds hovering over the masts of the ketch.

“Those are land birds,” said he. “Look, there’s a thrush and there’s a blackbird. You won’t find them so far from land without a reason. There has been a fog, and very likely a storm. They have lost their bearings in the fog.”

The birds hovered about the ships of the fleet, calling plaintively—here, at all events, were men recognisably belonging to the land they vainly sought. Stretton, watching them, felt very much like one of those birds. He, too, had lost his way in a fog, and though he made no outcry, his need of guidance was no less great than theirs.

Then came a morning at last when the trawl was hauled in for the last time, and the boat’s head pointed towards Yarmouth.

“When shall we reach harbour?” Stretton asked anxiously.

“If this breeze holds, in twenty-four hours,” replied the skipper.

Twenty-four hours! Just a day and a night, and Stretton would step from the deck on to Gorleston Quay; and he was no nearer to the solution of his problem than when he had stepped from the quay on to the deck eight weeks ago. Those eight weeks were to have resolved all his perplexities, and lo! the eight weeks had passed.

He was in a fever of restlessness. He paced the deck all the day when he was not standing at the wheel; at night he could not sleep, but stood leaning over the bulwarks, watching the stars trembling in the quiet water. At one o’clock in the morning the Perseverance passed a lightship. Already the boat was so near home! And in the hour which followed, his eight weeks of solitary communing, forced, as it were, by immediate necessity, bore their fruit. His inspiration—he counted the idea no less than an inspiration-came to him suddenly. He saw all at once his course marked out for him upon the chart of life. He would not suffer a doubt of it to enter his mind; he welcomed it with passion, and the great load was lifted from his mind. The idea had come. It was water in a dry land.

A fisherman leaning over the bulwark by Stretton’s side heard him suddenly begin to sing over to himself a verse or two of a song—

“Oh, come out, mah love! I’m a-waiting foh you heah!
Doan’ you keep yuh window closed to-night.”

It was a coon song which Stretton was humming over to himself. His voice dropped to a murmur, He stopped and laughed softly to himself, as though the song had very dear associations in his thoughts. Then his voice rose again, and there was now a kind of triumph in the lilt of the song, which had nothing to do with the words—

“De stars all a-gwine put dey little ones to bed
    Wid dey ‘hush now, sing a lullaby,’
De man in de moon nod his sleepy, sleepy head,
    And do sandman put a little in his eye.”

The words went lilting out over the quiet sea. It seemed to Stretton that they came from a lighted window just behind him, and were sung in a woman’s voice. He was standing on a lawn surrounded by high dark trees in the warmth of a summer night. He was looking out past the islets over eight miles of quiet water to the clustered lights of the yachts in Oban Bay. The coon song was that which his wife had sung to him on one evening he was never to forget; and this night he had recovered its associations. It was no longer “a mere song sung by somebody.” It seemed to him, so quickly did his anticipations for once outrun his judgment, that he had already recovered his wife.

The Perseverance was moored alongside of the quay at eight o’clock in the morning, and just at that time Millie was reading a letter of condolence from Lionel Callon.

The Truants - Contents    |     Chapter XIII

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