The Truants

Chapter XIII

Tony Stretton returns to Stepney

A.E.W. Mason

MR. CHASE left the mission quite early in the evening and walked towards his lodging. That side of his nature which clamoured for enjoyments and a life of luxury was urgent with him to-night. As he turned into his street he began to debate with himself whether he should go in search of a cab and drive westwards out of the squalor. A church clock had just struck nine; he would find his club open and his friends about the fire. Thus debating he came to his own door, and had unconsciously taken his latch-key from his pocket before he had decided upon his course. The latch-key decided him. He opened the door and went quickly up to his sitting-room. The gas was low, and what light there was came from the fire. Chase shut the door gently, and his face underwent a change. There came a glitter into his eyes, a smile to his lips. He crossed to the little cupboard in the corner and unlocked it, stealthily, even though he was alone. As he put his hand into it and grasped the decanter, something stirred in his armchair. The back of the chair was towards him. He remained for a second or two motionless, listening. But the sound was not repeated. Chase noiselessly locked the cupboard again and came back to the fire. A man was sitting asleep in the chair.

Chase laid a hand upon his shoulder and shook him.

“Stretton,” he said; and Tony Stretton opened his eyes.

“I fell asleep waiting for you,” he said.

“When did you get back?” asked Chase.

“I landed at Yarmouth this morning. I came up to London this afternoon.”

Chase turned up the gas and lit a cigarette.

“You have not been home, then?” he said. “There is news waiting for you there. Your father is dead!”

“I know,” Stretton replied. “He died a month ago.”

Mr. Chase was perplexed. He drew up a chair to the fire and sat down.

“You know that?” he asked slowly; “and yet you have not gone home?”

“No,” replied Stretton. “And I do not mean to go.”

Stretton was speaking in the quietest and most natural way. There was no trace in his manner of that anxiety which during the last few days had kept him restless and uneasy. He had come to his decision. Chase was aware of the stubborn persistence of his friend; and it was rather to acquire knowledge than to persuade that he put his questions.

“But why? You went away to make an independent home, free from the restrictions under which you and your wife were living. Well, you have got that home now. The reason for your absence has gone.”

Stretton shook his head.

“The reason remains. Indeed it is stronger now than it was when I first left England,” he answered. He leaned forward with his elbows upon his knees, gazing into the fire. The light played upon his face, and Chase could not but notice the change which these few months had brought to him. He had grown thin, and rather worn; he had lost the comfortable look of prosperity; his face was tanned. But there was more. It might have been expected that the rough surroundings amidst which Stretton had lived would leave their marks. He might have become rather coarse, rather gross to the eye. On the contrary, there was a look of refinement. It was the long battle with his own thoughts which had left the marks. The mind was showing through the flesh. The face had become spiritualised.

“Yes, the reason remains,” said Stretton. “I left home to keep my wife. We lived a life of quarrels. All the little memories, the associations, the thousand and one small private things—ideas, thoughts, words, jokes even, which two people who care very much for one another have in common—we were losing, and so quickly; so very quickly. I can’t express half what I mean. But haven’t you seen a man and a woman at a dinner-table, when some chance sentence is spoken, suddenly look at one another just for a second, smile perhaps, at all events speak, though no word is spoken? Well, that kind of intimacy was going. I saw indifference coming, perhaps dislike, perhaps contempt; yes, contempt, just because I sat there and looked on. So I went away. But the contempt has come. Oh, don’t think I believe that I made a mistake in going away. It would have come none the less had I stayed. But I have to reckon with the fact that it has come.”

Mr. Chase sat following Stretton’s words with a very close attention. Never had Stretton spoken to him with so much frankness before.

“Go on,” said Chase. “What you are saying is—much of it—news to me.”

“Well, suppose that I were to go back now,” Stretton resumed, “at once—do you see?—that contempt is doubled.”

“No,” cried Chase.

“Yes, yes,” Stretton insisted. “Look at it from Millie’s point of view, not from yours, not even from mine. Look at the history of the incident from the beginning! Work it out as she would; nay,” he corrected himself, remembering the letters, “as she has. I leave her when things are at their worst. That’s not all. I take half Millie’s fortune, and am fool enough to lose it right away. And that’s not all. I stay away in the endeavour to recover the lost ground, and I continually fail. Meanwhile Millie has the dreary, irksome, exacting, unrequited life, which I left behind, to get through as best she can alone; without pleasure, and she likes pleasure——” He suddenly looked at Chase, with a challenge in his eyes. “Why shouldn’t she?” he asked abruptly. Chase agreed.

“Why shouldn’t she?” he said, with a smile. “I am not disapproving.”

Stretton resumed his former attitude, his former tone.

“Without friends, and she is fond of having friends about her; without any chance of gratifying her spirits or her youth! To make her life still more disheartening, every mail which reaches her from New York brings her only another instalment of my disastrous record. Work it out from her point of view, Chase; then add this to crown it all.” He leaned forward towards Chase and emphasized his words with a gesture of his hand. “The first moment when her life suddenly becomes easy, and does so through no help of mine, I—the failure—come scurrying back to share it. No, Chase, no!”

He uttered his refusal to accept that position with a positive violence, and flung himself back in his chair. Chase answered quietly—

“Surely you are forgetting that it is your father’s wealth which makes her life easy.”

“I am not forgetting it at all.”

“It’s your father’s wealth,” Chase repeated. “You have a right to share in it.”

“Yes,” Stretton admitted; “but what have rights to do with the question at all? If my wife thinks me no good, will my rights save me from her contempt?”

And before that blunt question Mr. Chase was silent. It was too direct, too unanswerable. Stretton rose from his chair, and stood looking down at his companion.

“Just consider the story I should have to tell Millie tonight—by George!” he exclaimed suddenly—“if I went back to-night. I start out with fifteen hundred pounds of hers to make a home and a competence; and within a few months I am working as a hand on a North Sea trawler at nineteen shillings a week.”

“A story of hardships undergone for her sake,” said Chase; “for that’s the truth of your story, Stretton. And don’t you think the hardships would count for ever so much more than any success you could have won?”

“Hardships!” exclaimed Stretton, with a laugh. “I think I would find it difficult to make a moving tale out of my hardships. And I wouldn’t if I could—no!”

As a fact, although it was unknown to Tony, Chase was wrong. Had Stretton told his story never so vividly, it would have made no difference. Millie Stretton had not the imagination to realise what those hardships had been. Tony’s story would have been to her just a story, calling, no doubt, for exclamations of tenderness and pity. But she could not have understood what he had felt, what he had thought, what he had endured. Deeper feelings and a wider sympathy than Millie Stretton was dowered with would have been needed for comprehension.

Stretton walked across the room and came back to the fire. He looked down at Chase with a smile. “Very likely you think I am a great fool,” he said, in a gentler voice than he had used till now. “No doubt nine men out of ten would say, ‘Take the gifts the gods send you, and let the rest slide. What if you and your wife drift apart? You won’t be the only couple.’ But, frankly, Chase, that is not good enough. I have seen a good deal of it—the boredom, the gradual ossification. Oh no; I’m not content with that! You see, Chase,” he stopped for a moment and gazed steadily into the fire; then he went on quite simply, “you see, I care for Millie very much.”

Chase knew well what weight to give to that short sentence. Had it been more elaborate it would have meant less. It needed no other commentary than the quiet sincerity with which it was uttered.

“Yes, I understand,” he said.

Stretton seated himself again in his chair and took out a briar pipe from his pocket. The pipe had an open metal covering over the bowl.

“I need that no longer,” Stretton said, with a laugh, as he removed it. Then he took out a pouch, filled his pipe, and lighted it.

“Have a whisky and soda?” said Chase.

“No, thanks.”

Chase lighted a cigarette and looked at his friend with curiosity. The change which he had noticed in Stretton’s looks had been just as noticeable in his words. This man sitting opposite to him was no longer the Tony Stretton who had once come to him for advice. That man had been slow of thought, halting of speech, good-humoured, friendly; but a man with whom it was difficult to get at close quarters. Talk with him a hundred times, and you seemed to know him no better than you did at the moment when first you were introduced to him. Here, however, was a man who had thought out his problem—was, moreover, able lucidly to express it.

“Well,” said Chase, “you are determined not to go back?”

“Not yet,” Stretton corrected.

“What do you propose to do?”

The question showed how great the change had been, begun by the hard times in New York, completed by the eight weeks in the North Sea. For Chase put the question. He no longer offered advice, understanding that Stretton had not come to ask for it.

“I propose to enlist in the French Foreign Legion.”

Stretton spoke with the most matter-of-fact air imaginable; he might have been naming the house at which he was to dine the next night. Nevertheless, Chase started out of his chair; he stared at his companion in a stupefaction.

“No,” said Stretton, calmly; “I am not off my head, and I have not been drinking. Sit down again, and think it over.”

Chase obeyed, and Stretton proceeded to expound that inspiration which had come to him the night before.

“What else should I do? You know my object now. I have to re-establish myself in my wife’s thoughts. How else can I do it? What professions are open to me in which I could gain, I don’t say distinction, but mere recognition? I am not a money-maker; that, at all events, is evident. I have had experience enough during the last months to know that if I lived to a thousand I should never make money.”

“I think that’s true,” Chase agreed, thoughtfully.

“Luckily there’s no longer any need that I should try. What then? Run through the professions, Chase, and find one, if you can, in which a man at my age—twenty-nine—with my ignorance, my want of intellect, has a single chance of success. The bar? It’s laughable. The sea? I am too old. The army? I resigned my commission years ago. So what then?”

He waited for Chase to speak, and Chase was silent. He waited with a smile, knowing that Chase could not speak.

“There must be an alternative,” Chase said, doubtfully, at last.

“Name it, then.”

That was just what Chase could not do. He turned in his mind from this calling to that. There was not one which did not need a particular education; there was not one in which Stretton was likely to succeed. Soldiering or the sea. These were the two callings for which he was fitted. From the sea his age debarred him; from soldiering too, except in this one way. No, certainly, Stretton was not off his head.

“How in the world did you think of the Foreign Legion?” he asked.

Stretton shrugged his shoulders.

“I thought of most other courses first, and, one by one, rejected them as impossible. This plan came to me last of all, and only last night. We were passing a light-ship. In a way, you see, we were within sight of home. I was in despair; and suddenly the idea flashed upon me, like the revolving blaze from the light-ship. It is a sound one, I think. At all events, it is the only one.”

“Yes,” answered Chase, slowly; “I suppose there will be chances, for there’s always something stirring on the Algerian frontier.”

“There, or in Siam,” said Stretton.

“What arrangements are you making here?”

“I have written to my lawyers. Millie can do as she pleases with the income. She has power, too, to sell the house in Berkeley Square. I made my will, you know, before I left England.”

Chase nodded, and for a while there fell a silence upon the two friends. A look of envy crept into the face of the clergyman as he looked at Stretton. He could appreciate a motive which set a man aiming high. He admired the persistence with which Stretton nursed it. The plan it had prompted might be quixotic and quite fruitless, but, at all events, it was definite; and a definite scheme of life, based upon a simple and definite motive, was not so common but that it was enviable. Stretton was so sure of its wisdom, too. He had no doubts. He sat in his chair not asking for approval, not caring for censure; he had made up his mind. The image of Stretton, indeed, as he sat in that chair on that evening, with the firelight playing upon his face, was often to come to Chase’s thoughts.

“There will be great risks,” he said. “Risks of death, of trouble in the battalion.”

“I have counted them,” Stretton replied; and he leaned forward again, with his hands upon his knees. “Oh yes; there will be great risks! But there’s a prize, too, proportionate to the risks. Risks! Every one speaks of them,” he went on, with a laugh of impatience. “But I have been eight weeks on the Dogger Bank, Chase, and I know—yes, I know—how to estimate risks. Out there men risk their lives daily to put a few boxes of fish on board a fish-cutter. Take the risk half-heartedly and your boat’s swamped for a sure thing; but take it with all your heart and there are the fish-boxes to your credit. Well, Millie is my fish-boxes.”

He ended with a laugh, and, rising, took his hat.

“Shall I put you up for the night?” Chase asked.

“No, thanks,” said Stretton. “I have got a bed at an hotel. I have something else to do to-night;” and a smile, rather wistful and tender, played about his lips. “Goodbye!” He held out his hand, and as Chase took it he went on, “I am looking forward to the day when I come back. My word, how I am looking forward to it; and I will look forward each day until it actually, at the long last, comes. It will have been worth waiting for, Chase, well worth waiting for, both to Millie and to me.”

With that he went away. Chase heard him close the street door behind him, and his footsteps sound for a moment or two on the pavement. After all, he thought, a life under those Algerian skies, a life in the open air, of activity—there were many worse things, even though it should prove a second failure.

Chase stood for a little before the fire. He crossed slowly over to that cupboard in the corner at which Stretton’s movement in the chair had stayed his hand. Chase looked back to the armchair, as though he half expected still to see Stretton sitting there. Then he slowly walked back to the fire, and left the cupboard locked. Stretton had gone, but he had left behind him memories which were not to be effaced—the memory of a great motive and of a sturdy determination to fulfil it. The two men were never to meet again; but, in the after time, more than once, of an evening, Chase’s hand was stayed upon that cupboard door. More than once he looked back towards the chair as if he expected that again his friend was waiting for him by the fire.

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