The following afternoon Vane turned his steps once again towards the beach at Paris Plage. The wreckage in the hospital had been cleared away, and there were rows laid side by side in the mortuary. Over everyone there breathed a sense of restless excitement and fierce anger, and Vane wanted to get away by himself. He felt that he had to think.
For suddenly and quite unexpectedly Margaret Trent had become a factor in his life. After long years their paths had touched again, and Vane found that he could not turn away with the same careless indifference as he had in the past. Though she had always attracted him, he had never seriously contemplated the final step; he had had far too good a time as a bachelor. And then when she had so unaccountably cooled towards him, he had shrugged his shoulders and sought distraction elsewhere.
Before the war Derek Vane had been what is generally described as a typical Englishman. That is to say, he regarded his own country- whenever he thought about it at all--as being the supreme country in the world. He didn't force his opinion down anyone's throat; it simply was so. If the other fellow didn't agree, the funeral was his, not Vane's. He had to the full what the uninitiated regard as conceit; on matters connected with literature, or art, or music his knowledge was microscopic. Moreover, he regarded with suspicion anyone who talked intelligently on such subjects. On the other hand, he had been in the eleven at Eton, and was a scratch golfer. He had a fine seat on a horse and rode straight; he could play a passable game of polo, and was a good shot. Possessing as he did sufficient money to prevent the necessity of working, he had not taken the something he was supposed to be doing in the City very seriously. He had put in a periodical appearance at a desk and drawn pictures on the blotting paper; for the remainder of the time he had amused himself. He belonged, in fact, to the Breed; the Breed that has always existed in England, and will always exist till the world's end. You may meet its members in London and in Fiji; in the lands that lie beyond the mountains and at Henley; in the swamps where the stagnant vegetation rots and stinks; in the great deserts where the night air strikes cold. They are always the same, and they are branded with the stamp of the breed. They shake your hand as a man shakes it; they meet your eye as a man meets it. Just now a generation of them lie around Ypres and La Bassee; Neuve Chapelle and Bapaume. The graves are overgrown and the crosses are marked with indelible pencil. Dead--yes; but not the Breed. The Breed never dies. . . .
We have it on reliable evidence that the breed has its faults; its education is rotten. Men of great learning and understanding have fulminated on the subject; women with their vast experience have looked upon the Breed with great clarity of vision and have written as their eyes have seen; even boys themselves who doubtless must be right, as the question concerns them most, have contributed to current literature one or two damning indictments.
It may well be that hunting butterflies or dissecting rats are more suitable pursuits for young Percival Johnson than doing scram practice up against the playground wall. It may well be that it would be a far, far better thing for mob adoration to be laid at the feet of the composer of the winning Greek Iambic rather than at the cricketing boots of the Captain of the Eleven. It may be so, but, then, most assuredly it may not. . . .
The system which has turned out hundreds of the Breed, and whose object is to mould all who pass through it on the model of the Breed, is not one to be dismissed lightly. Doubtless it has its faults; a little more latitude both in games and work might be allowed; originality encouraged more. But let us be very certain before we gaily pull the system to pieces that the one we erect in its place will stand the strain, and produce the one great result beside which everything else is as nothing. For if, at the price of team work and playing for the side, we can only buy two or three more years of individualism--at an age when the value of individualism is, at best, a doubtful blessing and, at worst, sheer blatant selfishness--we shall indeed have messed things up. The cranks will be delighted; but the Empire will gnash its teeth.
And now after nearly four years in the fiercest forcing house of character Derek Vane found himself trying to take an inventory of his own stock. And since the material question of money did not come in to cloud the horizon, he felt he could do it impartially. There are many now who, having sacrificed every prospect, find their outlook haunted by the spectre of want; there are many more, formerly engaged in skilled trades such as engineering or mining, who find that they have four years of leeway to make up in their profession--four years of increased knowledge and mechanical improvements--unknown to them, but not to their competitors, who remained behind. But such prospects did not trouble him. The future, as far as money was concerned, was assured.
Vane thoughtfully lit a cigarette. It seemed to him that he had wasted four of the best years of his life, sitting, save for brief intervals, on the same filthy piece of ground, with the sole object of killing complete strangers before they killed him. In this laudable pastime he had succeeded to the extent of two for certain and one doubtful. The only man whom he had really wanted to slaughter--a certain brother subaltern who offended him daily--he had been forced to spare owing to foolish regulations. . . . And now this youth was at home as a Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel in sole control of an ante-chamber in one of the large hotels, with a staff of four flappers, who presented papers for his signature every other Tuesday from 2.30 to 4.
With a short laugh he got up and shook himself. In the distance some sand dunes beckoned invitingly--sand dunes which reminded him of the width of Westward Ho! and a certain championship meeting there long ago. Slowly he strolled towards them, going down nearer the sea where the sand was finer. And all the time he argued it out with himself. Four years wasted! But had they been wasted? What had he got out of them anyway? Wasn't he twice the man that he had been four years ago? Or had it all been futile and useless? . . .
No man who has been through the rapids can find his feet in an hour's self-analysis. It takes time; and during that time much may happen, good or ill, according to the manner of the finder. The great unrest of the world is not felt by the men in the trenches. It seethes and boils outside, and only when a man comes back to so-called peace does he reach the whirlpool, which lies at the end of the rapids. Then, if he be of the type of Vane, is the time of danger. To lose one's sense of proportion in France is dangerous; to lose it in England may be fatal. One has so much more freedom.
At intervals during the War Vane had sampled the whirlpool, while on leave, and the effect it had produced in him had been transitory. The contrast was so immense that it had failed to move him permanently. The time that he had been in its clutches was too short. He retained just a fleeting picture of feverish gaiety which seemed out of perspective; of profound bores who discussed the mistakes of the Higher Command in the arm chairs of the Club; of universal chatter concerning rations and meat coupons. Then he had left, and in a few short hours had been back once more in the mud holes. A good leave? Oh! undoubtedly, just as it should have been, where the one thing necessary was contrast. But even then it had irritated him at times to realise how completely they failed to understand. He would not have had them understand--true. If the alternative had been put to him; if he had been told that it was in his power to make these people see the things that he had seen, and hear the things that he had heard, he would not have done so. They were better as they were--affording the contrast; enabling men to forget.
But leave is one thing, permanence is another. And at the moment Vane was faced with the latter. The doctor had talked airily of three or four months, and after that in all probability a spell of light duty, and to Vane that seemed like a permanency. It is one thing to drug oneself in the waters of Lethe for a fortnight of one's own free will: it is altogether different to be drugged by others for good. And dimly he felt that either he or they would have to go under. Two totally incompatible people cannot sit next one another at dinner for long without letting some course get cold. Unless one of them happens to be dumb. . . .
But were they totally incompatible? That seemed to be the crux of the whole matter. To the soldiers, pulling together, unselfishness, grinning when the sky is black, that is the new philosophy. One hesitates to call it new. It existed once, we are given to understand -or at any rate it was preached and practised in days gone by. Since then it has become unfashionable. . . .
And what about les autres--who have kept the home fires burning? For a moment Vane stopped and stared in front of him; then he laughed aloud. As has been said, he was jangled--so perhaps he may be forgiven.
It was on the other side of the dunes that he suddenly found Margaret. She had her back towards him as he came over the top, and in the sand his footsteps made no noise. And so she continued her pursuit of throwing stones at a bottle a few yards away, in ignorance of the fact that she had an audience. It is a lazy occupation at the best of times and her rendering of it was no exception to the rule. For whole minutes on end she would sit quite still gazing out to sea; and then, as if suddenly realising her slackness, she would continue the bombardment furiously.
For a while Vane watched her thoughtfully. Was she the answer? To go right away with her somewhere--right away from the crowd and the strife of existence: to be with her always, watching her grow from the wife to the mother, seeing her with his children, feeling that she was his and no one else's. God! but to think of the peace of it. . . .
He watched the soft tendrils of hair curling under the brim of her hat; the play of her body as she picked up the stones and threw them. Around him the coarse grass bent slightly in the breeze and the murmur of the sea came faintly over the dunes. Away in front of him stretched the sand, golden in the warm sun, the surface broken every now and then by the dark brown wooden groins. Not a soul was in sight, and save for some gulls circling round they two seemed the only living things. . . . With a sudden smile he stooped down and picked up a stone--several, in fact, and fired a volley. There was a tinkling noise, and the bottle fell. Then he waited for her to look round. For just a little while there was silence, and then she turned towards him with a smile. . . . And in that moment it seemed to him that he had found the answer he sought. Surely it was just a dream, and in a moment he would wake up and see the dreadful face of the mess waiter appearing down the dug-out steps. It is impossible to stumble over sand dunes and find Margarets in France. These things simply do not happen. One merely stumbles over the cobbles and sees the woman who keeps the estaminet round the corner washing the floor. And her lips do not part in the dawn of a smile--mercifully; her eyes are not big and blue. It was all a dream! last night was all a dream. Just one of those pictures he had seen sometimes in the candle light, when it guttered in the draught, as the big crump burst outside. . . .
"Derek, that wasn't fair." With an effort he pulled himself together and regarded her gravely. Then he scrambled down the sandy bank to her side.
"Do you mind pinching me?" he remarked, holding out his hand. "Hard--very hard. . . . I want to make certain I'm not dreaming."
"Why should you be?" Her voice was faintly tremulous. "And why have you got your eyes shut?"
"Pinch me, please, at once." Vane's hand was still held out, and she gave it a gentle nip. "Go on, harder . . . Ah! that's better. Now promise me you won't disappear if I open my eyes."
"I promise," she answered solemnly, but struggling to withdraw her hand from both of his, where he had caught it. . . .
"Oh! my dear, my dear," he whispered. "It's just too wonderful to be true. The peace of it, and the glory, and you. . . . I'll be waking up in a minute, my lady, and find myself crawling round the outpost line."
He laughed gently and triumphantly, and drew her towards him. Only when his arm was round her, did he pause. . . . And then it was the look in her eyes, as much as her two hands pressed against his chest, that stopped him. "What is it, Margaret, my lady? Aren't you going to kiss me?"
"No, Derek--not yet. Perhaps once before we go. . . . Please, take your arm away."
For a moment he hesitated. "Even after last night."
She nodded. "Principally because of last night."
With a little lift of his eyebrows Vane did as he was bid. "I knew there was a catch somewhere," he murmured plaintively. "You don't want me to go away and leave you, do you?"
She shook her head and smiled. Then she patted the ground beside her. "Come and sit down; I want to talk to you. No--not too near."
"Don't you trust me?" he demanded half sullenly, as he took a seat somewhat further removed from temptation.
"My dear Derek, it would take more than a mere European war to make some leopards I know of change their spots."
In spite of himself Vane laughed. "Well, dash it, Margaret, there was a distinct flavour of the pre-war about you last night."
She closed her eyes, and her hands clenched. "Oh! don't, Derek; don't, please. As long as I live I shall never forget it. It was too horrible." She turned away from him shuddering.
"Dear--I'm sorry." He leaned forward and took her hand. "I didn't realise quite what it must mean to you. You see it was that poor boy who was dying in the bed opposite mine that made me jumpy . . . frightened . . . God knows what! The smash up of the raid itself left me almost cold by comparison. . . . I suppose it was the other way round with you. . . . It's just a question of what one is used to--anyway, don't let's talk about it."
For a while they sat in silence, and then Vane spoke again. "You know I'm crossing to-morrow, I suppose?"
"Yes." Margaret nodded. "I didn't think you'd stop long."
"Are you sorry I'm going?"
"Of course I am," she answered simply. "You know that. . . . But I think perhaps it's just as well."
"Just as well!" repeated Vane. "Why?"
"Because . . . oh! because of a lot of things. You'd interfere with my work for one."
"How dreadful," said Vane with mock gravity. "You'd mix the medicines and all that, I suppose." Then he turned to her impulsively. "Margaret, my dear, what does it matter? This work of yours won't go on for ever. And after the War, what then?"
"That's just it," she said slowly. "What then?"
"Well, as a preliminary suggestion--why not marry me?"
She laughed--a low, rippling laugh.
"Do you remember what you said to me in the tea shop yesterday about not having seen a girl for six months?"
"What on earth has that got to do with it?" said Vane frowning. "I'm not a child or a callow boy. Do you suppose at my age I don't know my own mind? Why, my dear girl. . . ." Her eyes met his, and the words died away on his lips.
"Don't, dear, don't. You're insulting both our intelligences." With a slight laugh she leaned over and rested her hand on his. "You know perfectly well what I mean."
Vane grunted non-committally. He undoubtedly did know what she meant, but at that moment it was annoying to find she knew it too. . . .
"Listen, Derek; I want to put things before you as I see them." With her elbows on her knee, and her chin cupped in the palms of her hand, she was staring across the stretch of tumbled, grass-grown hillocks.
"We know one another too well not to be perfectly frank. How much of last night was just--what shall I say--nervous tension? Supposing some other girl had been in my place?"
Impetuously he started to speak, but once again the words died away on his lips as he saw the half-tender, half-humorous look in her eyes.
"Dear," she went on after a moment. "I don't want to hurt you. I know you think you're in love with me to-day; but will you to-morrow? You see, Derek, this war has given a different value to things. . . . Whether one likes it or not, it's made one more serious. It hasn't destroyed our capacity for pleasure, but it's altered the things we take pleasure in. My idea of a good time, after it's over, will never be the same as it was before."
Vane nodded his head thoughtfully. "I'm not certain, dear, that that's anything to worry about."
"Of course it isn't--I know that. But don't you see, Derek, where that leads us to? One can't afford to fool with things once they have become serious. . . . And to kiss a man, as I kissed you last night, seems to mean very much more to me than it did once upon a time. That's why I want to make sure. . . ." She hesitated, and then, seeming to make up her mind, she turned and faced him. "I would find it easier now to live with a man I really loved--if that were the only way--than to be kissed by two or three at a dance whom I didn't care about. Do you understand?"
"My dear, I understand perfectly," answered Vane. "The one is big--the other is petty. And when we live through an age of big things we grow ourselves."
"I gave you that as a sort of example of what I feel, Derek," Margaret continued after a time. "I don't suppose there is anything novel in it, but I want you so frightfully to understand what I am going to say. You have asked me to marry you--to take the biggest step which any woman can take. I tell you quite frankly that I want to say 'Yes.' I think all along that I've loved you, though I've flirted with other men. . . . I was a fool five years ago. . . ."
He looked at her quickly. "Tell me; I want to know."
"I found out about that girl you were keeping."
Vane started slightly. "Good Lord! But how?"
"Does it matter, old man?" Margaret turned to him with a smile. "A chance remark by Billy Travers, if you want to know. And then I asked a few questions, and put two and two together. It seemed a deliberate slight to me. It seemed so sordid. You see I didn't understand- then."
"And now? Do you understand now?" He leaned towards her eagerly.
"Should I have said to you what I have if I didn't?" She held out her hand to him, and with a quick movement he put it to his lips. "I've grown, you see . . . got a little nearer the true value of things. I've passed out of the promiscuous kissing stage, as I told you. . . . And I think I realise rather more than I did what men are. . . . One doesn't make them up out of books now. All this has taught one to understand a man's temptations--to forgive him when he fails." Then a little irrelevantly--"They seem so petty, don't they--now?"
Vane gently dropped the hand he was holding, and his face as he looked at her was inscrutable. Into his mind there had flashed Lear's question: "And goes thy heart with this?" Then irritably he banished it. . . . God bless her! She was all heart: of course she was.
"Will you tell me where exactly you have arrived at?" he asked quietly.
"At the certainty that there lies in front of you and me work to be done. I don't know what that work will prove to be--but, Derek, we've got to find out. It may be that we shall do it together. It may be that my work is just to be with you. And it may be that it isn't that you won't want me. Ah! yes, dear," as he made a quick, impatient movement. "There is always the possibility. I want you to go and find out, Derek, and I want you to make sure that you really want me--that it isn't just six months in Flanders. Also," she added after a pause, "I want to be quite sure about myself." For a while Vane stared out to sea in silence.
"Supposing," he said slowly, "the work in front of me is back to Flanders again, as it probably will be. And supposing I'm not so lucky next time. What then?"
She turned and faced him. "Why then, dear, Fate will have decided for us, won't she?"
"A deuced unsatisfactory decision," grumbled Vane. "Margaret, I don't want to worry you; I don't want to force myself on you . . . but won't you give me some sort of a promise?"
She shook her head. "I'll give you no promise at all, Derek. You've got to find yourself, and I've got to find myself; and when we've both done that we shall know how we stand to one another. Until then . . . well just give it a miss in baulk, old man."
Vane regarded her curiously. "If last night and this afternoon had happened before the war, I wonder what your decision would have been?"
"Does it matter?" she answered gently. "Before the war is just a different age." For a while she was silent; then she drew a deep breath. "Don't you feel it as I feel it?" she whispered. "The bigness of it, the wonder of it. Underneath all the horror, underlying all the vileness--the splendour of it all. The glory of human endurance. . . . People wondered that I could stand it--I with my idealism. But it seems to me that out of the sordid brutality an ideal has been born which is almost the greatest the world has ever known. Oh! Derek, we've just got to try to keep it alive."
"It's the devil," said Vane whimsically. "Jove! lady dear, isn't the blue of the sky and the sea and the gold of the sand just crying out to be the setting of a lovers' paradise? Aren't we here alone just hidden from the world, while the very gulls themselves are screaming: 'Kiss her, kiss her?' And then the fairy princess, instead of being the fairy princess to the wounded warrior, orders him to go back and look for work. It's cruel. I had hoped for tender love and pity, and behold I have found a Labour Bureau."
Margaret laughed. "You dear! But you understand?" She knelt beside him on the sand, and her face was very tender.
"I understand," answered Vane gravely. "But, oh! my lady, I hope you're not building fairy castles on what's going to happen after the war. I'm afraid my faith in my brother man is a very, very small flame."
"All the more reason why we should keep it alight," she cried fiercely. "Derek, we can't let all this hideous mutilation and death go for nothing afterwards."
"You dear optimist," Vane smiled at her eager, glowing face so close to his own. "Do you suppose that we and others like us will have any say in the matter?"
She beat her hands together. "Derek, I hate you when you talk like that. You've got it in you to do big things--I feel it. You mustn't drift like you did before the war. You've got to fight, and others like you have got to fight, for everything that makes life worth living in our glorious, wonderful England."
"Would the staff be a little more explicit in their Operation Orders, please?" murmured Vane. "Whom do you propose I should engage in mortal combat?" He saw the slight frown on her face and leant forward quickly. "My dear, don't misunderstand me. I don't want to be flippant and cynical. But I'm just a plain, ordinary man--and I'm rather tired. When this show is over I want peace and rest and comfort. And I rather feel that it's up to the damned fools who let us in for it to clear up the mess themselves for a change."
"But you won't later, old boy," said the girl; "not after you've found yourself again. You'll have to be up and doing; it will stifle you to sit still and do nothing." She looked thoughtfully out to sea and then, as he kept silent, she went on slowly, "I guess we all sat still before this war; drifted along the line of least resistance. We've got to cut a new way, Derek, find a new path, which will make for the good of the show. And before we can find the path, we've got to find ourselves."
She turned towards him and for a long minute they looked into one another's eyes, while the gulls circled and screamed above them. Then slowly she bent forward and kissed him on the mouth. . . . "Go and find yourself, my dear," she whispered. "Go and make good. And when you have, if you still want me, I'll come to you."
* * * * *
At the touch of her lips Vane closed his eyes. It seemed only a few seconds before he opened them again, but Margaret was gone. And then for a while he sat, idly throwing stones at the overturned bottle. Just once he laughed, a short, hard laugh with no humour in it, before he turned to follow her. But when he reached the top of the sand dune, Margaret was almost out of sight in the distance.
Next day he crossed to England in the Guildford Castle.