The Truants

Chapter XXIV

The End of the Experiment

A.E.W. Mason

THE VILLAGE of Ain-Sefra stands upon a high and fertile oasis on the very borders of Morocco. The oasis is well watered, and the date-palm grows thickly there. It lies far to the south. The railway, in the days when Tony Stretton served in the Foreign Legion, did not reach to it; the barracks were newly built, the parade ground newly enclosed; and if one looked southwards from any open space, one saw a tawny belt of sand in the extreme distance streak across the horizon from east to west. That is the beginning of the great Sahara. Tony Stretton could never see that belt of sand, but his thoughts went back to the terrible homeward march from Bir-el-Ghiramo to Ouargla. From east to west the Sahara stretched across Africa, breaking the soldiers who dared to violate its privacy, thrusting them back maimed and famine-stricken, jealously guarding its secrets and speaking by its very silence, its terrible “thus far and no farther,” no less audibly, and a thousand times more truthfully than ever did the waves of the sea.

On one noonday Stretton mounted the steps on to the verandah of the hospital. He looked across open country to the great yellow line. He thought of the Touaregs hanging persistently upon the flanks of his tiny force, the long laborious days of thirst and hunger, the lengthening trail of graves which he left behind—those milestones of invasion. He felt as though the desert gripped him again and would not loose its hold, clinging to his feet with each step he took in the soft, yielding sand. He had brought back his handful of men, it was true; they had stumbled into Ouargla at the last; but there were few of them who were men as good as they had been when they had set out. Even the best, it almost seemed to him, had lost something of vitality which they would never recover; had a look fixed in their eyes which set them apart from their fellows—the look of those who have endured too much, who gazed for too long a time upon horrors; while the others were for the most part only fit to squat in the shade and to wait for things to cease. There was one whom Stretton had passed only a minute before sitting on the ground under the shadow of the barrack wall. Stretton was haunted by the picture of that man, for he was the only white man he had ever seen who did not trouble to raise a hand to brush away the flies from his face, but allowed them to settle and cluster about the corners of his mouth.

There was another in the hospital behind him. Him the Sahara definitely claimed. Stretton turned and walked into the building.

He passed down the line of beds, and stopped where a man lay tossing in a fever. Stretton leaned over the bed.

“Barbier,” he said.

Fusilier Barbier had grown very gaunt and thin during these latter weeks. He turned his eyes upon Stretton, and muttered incoherently. But there was recognition neither in his eyes nor in his voice. An orderly approached the bed as Stretton stood beside it; and, in a low voice, lest, haply, Barbier should hear and understand, Tony asked—

“What did the doctor say?”

“Nothing good, my sergeant,” the orderly replied, with an expressive shrug of the shoulders.

“I am very sorry,” said Stretton, gravely.

Certainly Barbier looked to be lying at death’s door. One hand and arm, emaciated and the colour of wax, lay outside upon the coverlet of the bed. His eyes, unnaturally lustrous, unnaturally large, shone deep-sunken in dark purple rings. His eyelids were red, as though with much weeping, and, below the eyes, his face was drawn with fever and very white. Stretton laid his hand gently upon Barbier’s forehead. It was burning hot. Stretton dismissed the orderly with a nod. There was a haggard nobility in Barbier’s appearance—his long, finely shaped hands, his lithe, well-knit figure, all betrayed the man of race. Yet he had once sunk to babbling about persecution at a fire in the desert, like any morbid child.

A heavy step sounded in the ward, and Stretton’s colonel stood beside him, a stoutly built man, with a white moustache and imperial, and a stern yet not unkindly face. It expressed a deal of solicitude at this moment.

“I have seen the doctor this morning,” said the colonel, “and he has given up hope. Barbier will hardly live out the night. They should never have sent him to us here. They should not have discharged him from the asylum as cured.”

The idea of persecution had become fixed in Barbier’s brain. It had never left him since the evening when he first gave utterance to it in the desert. The homeward march, indeed, had aggravated his mania. On his return he had been sent to the asylum at Bel-Abbès, but there he had developed cunning enough to conceal his hallucination. He had ceased to complain that his officers were in a conspiracy to entrap and ruin him, no more threats were heard, no more dangerous stealthy glances detected. He was sent back to his battalion at Ain-Sefra. A few weeks and again his malady was manifest, and on the top of that had come fever.

“I am very sorry,” Stretton said again; and then, after looking about him and perceiving that the orderly was out of earshot, he bent down towards Barbier, lower than he had bent before, and he called upon him in a still lower voice.

But Barbier was no longer the name he used.

“Monsieur le Comte,” he said, first of all, and then “Monsieur de——” He uttered a name which the generation before had made illustrious in French diplomacy.

At the sound of the name Barbier’s face contracted. He started up in his bed upon one arm.

“Hush!” he cried. A most extraordinary change had come over him in a second. His eyes protruded, his mouth hung half open, his face was frozen into immobility by horror. “There is some one on the stairs,” he whispered, “coming up—some one treading very lightly—but coming up—coming up.” He inclined his head in the strained attitude of one listening with a great concentration and intentness, an image of terror and suspense. “Yes, coming up—coming up! Don’t lock the door! That betrays all. Turn out the lights! Quickly! So. Oh, will this night ever pass!”

He ended with a groan of despair. Very gently Stretton laid him down again in the bed and covered him over with the clothes. The sweat rolled in drops from Barbier’s forehead.

“He never tells us more, my colonel,” said Stretton. “His real name-yes!—he betrayed that once to me. But of this night nothing more than the dread that it will never pass. Always he ends with those words. Yet it was that night, no doubt, which tossed him beyond the circle of his friends and dropped him down here, a man without a name, amongst the soldiers of the Legion.”

Often Stretton’s imagination had sought to pierce the mystery. What thing of horror had been done upon that night? In what town of France? Had the some one on the stairs turned the handle and entered the room when all the lights were out? Had he heard Barbier’s breathing in the silent darkness of the room? Stretton could only reconstruct the scene. The stealthy footsteps on the stairs, the cautious turning of the door handle, the opening of the door, and the impenetrable blackness with one man, perhaps more than one, holding his breath somewhere, and crouching by the wall. But no hint escaped the sick man’s lips of what there was which must needs be hidden, nor whether the thing which must needs be hidden was discovered by the one who trod so lightly on the stairs. Was it a dead man? Was it a dead woman? Or a woman alive? There was no answer. There was no knowledge to be gained, it seemed, but this—that because of that night a man in evening dress, who bore an illustrious name, had fled at daybreak on a summer morning to the nearest barracks, and had buried his name and all of his past life in the Foreign Legion.

As it happened, there was just a little more knowledge to be gained by Stretton. He learned it that morning from his colonel.

“When you told me who ‘Barbier’ really was, sergeant,” said the colonel, “I made inquiries. Barbier’s father died two years ago; but an uncle and a sister lived. I wrote to both, offering to send their relation back to them. Well, the mail has this morning come in from France.”

“There is an answer, sir?” asked Stretton.

“From the uncle,” replied the colonel. “Not a word from the sister; she does not mean to write. The uncle’s letter makes that clear, I think. Read!” He handed the letter to Stretton. A cheque was enclosed, and a few words were added.

“See, if you please, that Barbier wants for nothing which can minister to body and soul.”

That was all. There was no word of kindliness or affection. Barbier was dying. Let him, therefore, have medicine and prayers. Love, wishes for recovery, a desire that he should return to his friends, forgiveness for the thing which he had done, pity for the sufferings which had fallen to him—these things Fusilier Barbier must not expect. Stretton, reading the letter by the sick man’s bed, thought it heartless and callous as no letter written by a human hand had ever been. Yet—yet, after all, who knew what had happened on that night? The uncle, evidently. It might be something which dishonoured the family beyond all reparation, which, if known, would have disgraced a great name, so that those who bore it in pride must now change it for very shame. Perhaps the father had died because of it, perhaps the sister had been stricken down. Stretton handed the letter back to his colonel.

“It is very sad, sir,” he said.

“Yes, it is very sad,” returned the colonel. “But for us this letter means nothing at all. Never speak of it, obliterate it from your memories.” He tore the paper into the tiniest shreds. “We have no reproaches, no accusations for what Barbier did before Barbier got out of the train at Sidi Bel-Abbès. That is not our affair. For us the soldier of the Legion is only born on the day when he enlists.”

Thus, in one sentence, the colonel epitomised the character of the Foreign Legion. It was a fine saying, Stretton thought. He knew it to be a true one.

“I will say nothing,” said Stretton, “and I will forget.”

“That is well. Come with me, for there is another letter which concerns you.”

He turned upon his heel and left the hospital. Stretton followed him to his quarters.

“There is a letter from the War Office which concerns you, Sergeant Ohlsen,” said the colonel, with a smile. “You will be gazetted, under your own name, to the first lieutenancy which falls vacant. There is the notification.”

He handed the paper over to Stretton, and shook hands with him. Stretton was not a demonstrative man. He took the notification with no more show of emotion than if it had been some unimportant order of the day.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, quietly; and for a moment his eyes rested on the paper.

But, none the less, the announcement, so abruptly made, caused him a shock. The words danced before his eyes so that he could not read them. He saluted his colonel and went out on to the great open parade ground, and stood there in the middle of that space, alone, under the hot noonday sun.

The thing for which he had striven had come to pass, then. He held the assurance of it in his hand. Hoped for and half-expected as that proof had been ever since he had led the survivors of the geographical expedition under the gate of Ouargla, its actual coming was to him most wonderful. He looked southwards to where the streak of yellow shone far away. The long marches, the harassing anxiety, the haunting figures of the Touaregs, with their faces veiled in their black masks and their eyes shining between the upper and the lower strip—yes, even those figures which appalled the imagination in the retrospect by a suggestion of inhuman ferocity—what were they all but contributaries to this event? His ordeal was over. He had done enough. He could go home.

Stretton did not want for modesty. He had won a commission from the ranks, it is true; but he realised that others had done this before, and under harder conditions. He himself had started with an advantage—the advantage of previous service in the English army. His knowledge of the manual exercise, of company and battalion drill had been of the greatest use at the first. He had had luck, too—the luck to be sent on the expedition to the Figuig oasis, the luck to find himself sergeant with Colonel Tavernay’s force. His heart went out in gratitude to that fine friend who lay in his bed of sand so far away. Undoubtedly, he realised, his luck had been exceptional.

He turned away from the parade ground and walked through the village, and out of it towards a grove of palm trees. Under the shade of those trees he laid himself down on the ground and made out his plans. He would obtain his commission, secure his release, and so go home. A few months and he would be home! It seemed hardly credible; yet it was true, miraculously true. He would write home that very day. It was not any great success which he had achieved, but, at all events, he was no longer the man who was no good. He could write with confidence; he could write to Millie.

He lay under the shadow of the palms looking across to the village. There rose a little mosque with a white dome. The hovels were thatched for the most part, but here and there a square white-washed house, with a flat roof, overtopped the rest. Hedges of cactus and prickly pears walled in the narrow lanes, and now and then a white robe appeared and vanished. Very soon Stretton would turn his back upon Algeria. In the after time he would remember this afternoon, remember the village as he saw it now, and the yellow streak of desert sand in the distance.

Stretton lay on his back and put together the sentences which he would write that day to Millie. She would get the letter within ten days—easily. He began to hum over to himself the words of the coon song which had once been sung on a summer night in an island of Scotland—

“Oh, come out, mah love. I’m a-waitin’ fo’ you heah!
Doan’ you keep yuh window shut to-night.
De tree-tops above am a-whisp’rin’ to you, deah——“

And then he stopped suddenly. At last he began to wonder how Millie would receive the letter he was to write.

Yes, there was her point of view to be considered. Stretton was stubborn by nature as few men are. He had convinced himself that the course he had taken was the only course which promised happiness for Millie and himself, and impelled by that conviction he had gone on his way undisturbed by doubts and questions. Now, however, his object was achieved. He could claim exemption from his wife’s contempt. His mind had room for other thoughts, and they came that afternoon.

He had left his wife alone, with no explanation of his absence to offer to her friends, without even any knowledge of his whereabouts. There had been no other way, he still believed. But it was hard on Millie—undoubtedly it was hard.

Stretton rose from the ground and set off towards the camp that he might write his letter. But he never wrote it, for as he walked along the lane towards the barracks a man tapped him on the shoulder from behind. He was still humming his song, and he stopped in the middle of it—

“Jus’ look out an’ see all de longin’ in mah eyes,
An’ mah arms is jus’ a-pinin’ foh to hug you,”

he said, and turned about on his heel. He saw a stranger in European dress, who at once spoke his name.

“Sir Anthony Stretton?”

Stretton was no longer seeking to evade discovery.

“Yes?” he said. The stranger’s face became vaguely familiar to him. “I have seen you before, I think.”

“Once,” replied the other. “My name is Warrisden. You saw me for a few minutes on the deck of a fish-carrier in the North Sea.”

“To be sure,” he said slowly. “Yes, to be sure, I did. You were sent to find me by Miss Pamela Mardale.”

“She sends me again,” replied Warrisden.

Stretton’s heart sank in fear. He had disobeyed the summons before. He remembered Pamela’s promise to befriend his wife. He remembered her warning that he should not leave his wife.

“She sent you then with an urgent message that I should return home,” he said.

“I carry the same message again, only it is a thousand times more urgent.”

He drew a letter from his pocket as he spoke, and handed it to Stretton. “I was to give you this,” he said.

Stretton looked at the handwriting and nodded.

“Thank you,” he said gravely.

He tore open the envelope and read.

The Truants - Contents    |     Chapter XXV

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