IT WAS a long letter. Tony read it through slowly, standing in the narrow lane between the high walls of prickly pear. A look of incredulity came upon his face.
“Is all this true?” he asked, not considering at all of whom he asked the question.
“I know nothing, of course, of what is written there,” replied Warrisden; “but I do not doubt its truth. The signature is, I think, sufficient guarantee.”
“No doubt, no doubt,” said Stretton, absently. Then he asked—
“When did you reach Ain-Sefra?”
“And you came quickly?”
“Yes; I travelled night and day, I came first of all to Ain-Sefra in search of you.”
“Thank you,” said Stretton.
He did not ask how it was that Warrisden had come first of all to Ain-Sefra; such details held no place in his thoughts. Warrisden had found him, had brought the letter which Pamela Mardale had written. That letter, with its perplexities and its consequences, obliterated all other speculations.
“You have a camp here?” Stretton asked.
“Let us go to it. The news you have brought has rather stunned me. I should like to sit down and think what I must do.”
The incredulity had vanished from his face. Distress had replaced it.
“It is all true, no doubt,” he went on, “but for the moment I don’t understand it. Will you tell me where your camp is?”
“I will show you the way,” said Warrisden.
“I think not. It will be better that we should not be seen together,” Stretton said thoughtfully. “Will you give me the direction and go first? I will follow.”
Warrisden’s camp was pitched amongst trees a hundred yards from the western borders of the village. It stood in a garden of grass, enclosed with hedges. Thither Stretton found his way by a roundabout road, approaching the camp from the side opposite to Ain-Sefra. There was no one, at the moment, loitering about the spot. He walked into the garden. There were three tents pitched. Half a dozen mules stood picketed in a line, a little Barbary horse lay on the grass, some Algerian muleteers were taking their ease, and outside the chief tent a couple of camp chairs were placed. Warrisden came forward as Stretton entered the garden.
“Sit down,” he said.
“Inside the tent, I think,” replied Stretton.
There he read the letter through again. He understood at last what Pamela had meant by the warning which had baffled him. Pamela revealed its meaning now. “Millie is not of those women,” she wrote, “who have a vivid remembrance. To hold her, you must be near her. Go away, she will cry her eyes out; stay away for a little while, she will long for your return; make that little while a longer time, she will grow indifferent whether you return or not; prolong that longer time, she will regard your return as an awkwardness, a disturbance; add yet a little more to that longer time, and you will find another occupying your place in her thoughts.” Then followed an account of the growth of that dangerous friendship between Millie and Lionel Callon. A summary of Callon’s character rounded the description off. “So come home,” she concluded, “at once, for no real harm has been done yet.”
Stretton understood what the last sentence meant, and he believed it. Yet his mind revolted against the phrase. Of course, it was Pamela’s phrase. Pamela, though frank, was explaining the position in words which could best spare Millie. But it was an unfortunate sentence. It provoked a momentary wave of scorn, which swept over Stretton. There was a postscript: “You yourself are really a good deal to blame.” Thus it ran; but Stretton was in no mood to weigh its justice or injustice at the moment. Only this afternoon he had been lying under the palm trees putting together in his mind the sentences which were to tell Millie of his success, to re-establish him in her esteem, and to prepare her for his return. And now this letter had come. He sat for a time frowning at the letter, turning its pages over, glancing now at one phrase, now at another. Then he folded it up. “Callon,” he said, softly; and then again, “Lionel Callon. I will talk with Mr. Callon.” For all its softness, his voice sounded to Warrisden the voice of a dangerous man. And after he had spoken in this way he sat in thought, saying nothing, making no movement, and his face gave Warrisden no clue as to what he thought. At the last he stirred in his chair.
“Well?” said Warrisden.
“I shall return at once to England.”
“Yes; I shall start to-night,” said Stretton.
“We can go back together, then.”
“No; that’s impossible.”
“Why?” asked Warrisden.
“Because I should be arrested if we did,” Stretton replied calmly.
“Arrested?” Warrisden exclaimed.
“Yes; you see I shall have to desert to-night.”
Warrisden started from his chair.
“Surely there is an alternative?”
“None,” replied Stretton; and Warrisden slowly resumed his seat. He was astounded; he had never contemplated this possibility. He looked at Stretton in wonder. He could not understand how a man could speak so calmly of such a plan. Why in the world had Stretton ever joined the Legion if he was so ready, at the first summons, to desert? There seemed an inconsistency. But he did not know Tony Stretton.
“You are surprised,” said Tony. “More than surprised—you are rather shocked; but there is no choice for me. I wish with all my heart and soul there were,” he suddenly exclaimed, with a sort of passion. “I have foreseen this necessity ever since you tapped me on the shoulder in the lane. Because I foresaw it, I would not walk with you to your camp. Were we seen together to-day, the reason of my absence might be the sooner suspected. As it is, I shall get a day’s start, for I have a good name in the regiment, and a day’s start is all I need.”
He spoke sadly and wistfully. He was caught by an inexorable fate, and knew it. He just had to accept the one course open to him.
“You see,” he explained, “I am a soldier of the Legion—that is to say, I enlisted for five years’ service in the French colonies. I could not get leave.”
“Five years!” cried Warrisden. “You meant to stay five years away?”
“No,” replied Stretton. “If things went well with me here, as up till to-day they have done, if, in a word, I did what I enlisted to do, I should have gone to work to buy myself out and get free. That can be done with a little influence and time—only time is the one thing I have not now. I must go home at once, since no harm has yet been done. Therefore I must desert. I am very sorry”—and again the wistfulness became very audible—“for, as I say, I have a good name; amongst both officers and men I have a good name. I should have liked very much to have left a good name behind me. Sergeant Ohlsen”—and as he uttered the name he smiled. “They speak well of Sergeant Ohlsen in the Legion, Warrisden; and to-morrow they will not. I am very sorry. I have good friends amongst both officers and men. I shall have lost them all to-morrow. I am sorry. There is only one thing of which I am glad to-day. I am glad that Captain Tavernay is dead.”
Warrisden knew nothing at all of Captain Tavernay. Until this moment he had never heard his name. But Stretton was speaking with a simplicity so sincere, and so genuine a sorrow, that Warrisden could not but be deeply moved. He forgot the urgency of his summons; he ceased to think how greatly Stretton’s immediate return would help his own fortunes. He cried out upon the impulse—
“Stay, then, until you can get free without——” And he stopped, keeping unspoken the word upon his lips.
Stretton finished the sentence with a smile.
“Say it! Without disgrace. That was the word upon your tongue. I can’t avoid disgrace. I have come to such a pass in my life’s history that, one way or another, I can’t avoid it. I thought just at the first moment that I could let things slide and stay. But there’s dishonour in that course, too. Dishonour for myself, dishonour for my name, dishonour for others, too, whom it is my business—yes, my business—to keep from dishonour. That’s the position—disgrace if I stay, disgrace if I go. It seems to me there’s no rule of conduct which applies. I must judge for myself.”
Stretton spoke with some anger in his voice, anger with those who had placed him in so cruel a position, anger, perhaps, in some measure, with himself. For in a little while he said—
“It is quite true that I am myself to blame, too. I want to be just. I was a fool not to have gone into the house the evening I was in London, after I had come back from the North Sea. Yes, I should have gone in then; and yet—I don’t know. I had thought my course all out. I don’t know.”
He had thought his course out, it is true; but he had thought it out in ignorance of his wife’s character. That was the trouble, as he clearly saw now.
“Anyhow, I must go to-night,” he said, rising from his chair. In an instant he had become the practical man, arranging the means to an end already resolved upon.
“I can borrow money of you?”
“And a mule?”
“Let me choose my mule.”
They walked from the tent to where the mules stood picketed. Warrisden pointed to one in the middle of the line.
“That is the strongest.”
“I don’t want one too strong, too obviously well-fed,” said Stretton; and he selected another. “Can I borrow a muleteer for an hour or two?”
“Of course,” said Warrisden.
Stretton called a muleteer towards him and gave him orders.
“There is a market to-day,” he said. “Go to it and buy.” He enumerated the articles he wanted, ticking them off upon his fingers—a few pairs of scissors and knives, a few gaudy silk handkerchiefs, one or two cheap clocks, some pieces of linen, needles and thread—in fact, a small pedlar’s pack of wares. In addition, a black jellaba and cap, such as the Jews must wear in Morocco, and a native’s underclothes and slippers.
“Bring these things back to the camp at once and speak to no one!” said Stretton.
The muleteer loosed a mule to carry the packages, and went off upon his errand. Stretton and Warrisden went back to the tent. Stretton sat down again in his chair, took a black cigarette from a bright-blue packet which he had in his pocket and lighted it, as though all the arrangements for his journey were now concluded.
“I want you to pack the mule I chose with the things which your muleteer brings back. Add some barley for the mule and some food for me, and bring it with the clothes to the south-west corner of the barrack wall at eight. It will be dark then. Don’t come before it is dark, and wait for me at the corner. Will you?”
“Yes,” replied Warrisden. “You are going to tramp to the coast? Surely you can come as one of my men as far as the rail-head. Then I will go on and wait for you at Algiers.”
“No,” said Stretton; “our ways lie altogether apart. It would be too dangerous for me to tramp through Algeria. I should certainly be stopped. That’s my way.”
He raised his arm and pointed through the tent door.
The tent door faced the west, and in front there rose a range of mountains, dark and lofty, ridge overtopping ridge, and wonderfully distinct. In that clear air the peaks and gaps, and jagged arêtes were all sharply defined. The sun was still bright, and the dark cliffs had a purple bloom of extraordinary softness and beauty, like the bloom upon a ripe plum. Here and there the mountains were capped with snow, and the snow glistened like silver.
“Those mountains are in Morocco,” said Stretton. “That’s my way—over them. My only way. We are on the very edge of Morocco here.”
“But, once over the border,” Warrisden objected, “are you safe in Morocco?”
“Safe from recapture.”
“But safe in no other sense?”
Stretton shrugged his shoulders.
“It is a bad road, I know—dangerous and difficult. The ordinary traveller cannot pass along it. But it has been traversed. Prisoners have escaped that way to Fez—Escoffier, for instance. Deserters have reached their homes by following it—some of them, at all events. One must take one’s risks.”
It was the old lesson learned upon the ketch Perseverance which Stretton now repeated; and not vainly learned. Far away to the south, in the afternoon sunlight, there shone that yellow streak of sand, beyond which its value had been surely proved. Warrisden’s thoughts were carried back on a sudden to that morning of storm and foam and roaring waves, when Stretton had stood easily upon the deck of the fish-cutter, with the great seas swinging up behind him, and had, for the first time, uttered it in Warrisden’s hearing. Much the same feeling came over Warrisden as that which had then affected him—a feeling almost of inferiority. Stretton was a man of no more than average ability, neither a deep thinker, nor a person of ingenuity and resource; but the mere stubbornness of his character gave to him at times a certain grandeur. In Warrisden’s eyes he had that grandeur now. He had come quickly to his determination to desert, but he had come calmly to it. There had been no excitement in his manner, no suggestion of hysteria. He had counted up the cost, he had read his letter, he had held the balance between his sacrifice and Millie’s necessity; and he had decided. He had decided, knowing not merely the disgrace, but the difficulties of his journey, and the danger of his road amongst the wild, lawless tribes in that unsettled quarter of Morocco. Again Warrisden was carried away. He forgot even Pamela at Roquebrune waiting for the telegram he was to send from Oran on his return. He cried—
“I will send back my outfit and come with you. If we travel together there will be more safety.”
Stretton shook his head.
“Less,” said he. “You cannot speak Mogrhebbin. I have a few sentences—not many, but enough. I know something of these tribes, too. For I once marched to the Figuig oasis. Your company would be no protection; rather it would be an extra danger.”
Warrisden did not press his proposal. Stretton had so clearly made up his mind.
“Very well,” he said. “You have a revolver, I suppose. Or shall I lend you one?”
And, to Warrisden’s astonishment, Stretton replied—
“I shall carry no weapons.”
Warrisden was already placing his arms of defence upon the table so that Stretton might make his choice.
“No weapons!” he exclaimed.
“No. My best chance to get through to Fez is to travel as a Jew pedlar. That is why I am borrowing your mule and have sent your muleteer to the market. A Jew can go in Morocco where no Moor can, for he is not suspected; he is merely despised. Besides, he brings things for sale which are needed. He may be robbed and beaten, but he has more chance of reaching his journey’s end in some plight or other than any one else.”
Thereafter he sat for awhile silent, gazing towards the mountains in the west. The snow glittering upon the peaks brought back to his mind the flashing crystals in the great salt lakes. It was at just such a time, on just such an afternoon, when the two companies of the Legion had marched out from the trees of the high plateaux into the open desert, with its grey-green carpet of halfa-grass. Far away the lake had flashed like an arc of silver set in the ground. Stretton could not but remember that expedition and compare it with the one upon which he was now to start; and the comparison was full of bitterness. Then high hopes had reigned. The companies were marching out upon the Legion’s special work; even if disaster overtook them, disaster would not be without its glory. Stretton heard the clear inspiriting music of the bugles, he listened to the steady tramp of feet. Now he was deserting.
“I shall miss the Legion,” he said regretfully. “I had no idea how much I should miss it until this moment.”
Its proud past history had grown dear to him. The recklessness of its soldiers, the endless perplexing variety of their characters, the secrets of their lives, of which every now and then, in a rare moment of carelessness, a glimpse was revealed, as though a curtain were raised and lowered—all these particular qualities of the force had given to it a grip upon his affections of which he felt the full strength now.
“Any other life,” he said, “cannot but be a little dull, a little uninteresting afterwards. I shall miss the Legion very much.”
Suddenly he put his hand into his pocket and took out of it that letter from the French War Office which his colonel had handed to him. “Look!” and he handed it over to Warrisden. “That is what I joined the Legion to win—a commission; and I have just not won it. In a month or two, perhaps in a week, perhaps even to-morrow, it might have been mine. Very soon I should have been back at home, the life I have dreamed of and worked for ever since I left London, might have been mine to live. It was to have been a good life of great happiness”—he had forgotten, it seemed, that he would regret the Legion—“a life without a flaw. Now that life’s impossible, and I am a deserter. It’s hard lines, isn’t it?”
He rose from his chair, and looked for a moment at Warrisden in silence.
“I am feeling sorry that I ever came,” said Warrisden.
“Oh no,” Stretton answered, with a smile. “It would have been still worse if I had stayed here, ignorant of the news you have brought me, and had come home in my own time. Things would have been much worse—beyond all remedy. Do you know a man named Callon—Lionel Callon?” he asked abruptly. And before Warrisden could answer, the blood rushed into his face, and he exclaimed, “Never mind; don’t answer! Be at the corner of the barracks with the mule at eight.” And he went from the tent, cautiously made his way out of the garden, and returned to his quarters.
A few minutes before eight Warrisden drove the mule, packed with Stretton’s purchases, to the south-western corner of the barracks. The night was dark, no one was abroad, the place without habitations. He remained under the shadow of the high wall, watching this way and that for Stretton’s approach; and in a few minutes he was almost startled out of his wits by a heavy body falling from the top of the wall upon the ground at his side. Warrisden, indeed, was so taken by surprise that he uttered a low cry.
“Hush!” said a voice close to the ground. “It’s only me.”
And Stretton rose to his feet. He had dropped from the summit of the wall.
“Are you hurt?” whispered Warrisden.
“No. Have you the clothes? Thanks!”
Stretton stripped off his uniform, and put on the Jewish dress. He had shaved off his moustache and blacked his hair. As he dressed he gave two or three small packages to Warrisden.
“Place them in the pack; hide them, if possible. That package contains my medals. I shall need them. The other’s lamp-black. I shall want that for my hair. Glossy raven locks,” he said, with a low laugh, “are not so easily procured in Ain-Sefra as in Bond Street. I have been thinking. You can help me if you will; you can shorten the time of my journey.”
“How?” asked Warrisden.
“Go back to Oran as quickly as possible. Take the first boat to Tangier. Hire an outfit there, mules and horses—but good ones, mind!—and travel up at once to Fez. If you are quick you can do it within a fortnight. I shall take a fortnight at the least to reach Fez. I may be three weeks. But if I find you there, ready to start the moment I come to the town, we shall save much time.”
“Very well; I will be there.”
“If I get through sooner than I expect, I shall go straight on to Tangier, and we will meet on the road. Now let me climb on to your shoulders.” Stretton made a bundle of his uniform, climbed on to Warrisden’s shoulders, and threw it over the wall into the barrack yard.
“But that will betray you!” cried Warrisden, in a whisper. “They will find your clothes in the morning—clothes with a sergeant’s stripes.”
“I cannot help that,” replied Stretton, as he jumped to the ground. “I do not intend to be shot as a thief, for that is what may happen when a man deserts and takes his uniform with him. Don’t fail me in Fez. Good-bye.”
He held out his hand, and, as Warrisden grasped it, he said—
“I have not said much to you in the way of thanks; but I am very grateful, however much I may have seemed to have been made unhappy by your coming. Since things are as they are, I am glad you came. I thank you, too, for that other visit to the North Sea. I will give you better thanks when we meet in Fez.”
He cast a glance back to the wall of the barracks, and, in a voice which trembled, so deeply was he moved, he whispered to himself, rather than to Warrisden—
“Oh, but I am glad Tavernay is dead!”
All else that he had said since he dropped from the wall had been said hurriedly and without emotion. These last words were whispered from a heart overcharged with sorrow. They were his farewell to the Legion. He turned away, and, driving the mule before him, vanished into the darkness.