Mufti/Chapter 7

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Mufti by Herman Cyril McNeile
Chapter 7

The days that followed passed pleasantly enough. Gradually the jaundice was disappearing, and Vane was becoming normal again. The war seemed very far away from Rumfold; though occasionally a newcomer brought some bit of intimate gossip about Crucifix Alley or Hell Fire Corner, or one of the little places not shown on any map, which mean so much more to the actual fighting man than all the big towns rolled together. Pipes would come out and men would draw together in the smoking-room--while in imagination the green flares would go hissing up again, silhouetted against the velvet of the night. But for the most part the war had ceased to count; tennis and golf, with a visit now and then to London, filled the days.

Vane's arm prevented him playing any game, but the country around was admirably suited for walking, and most afternoons he found himself strolling out past the lodge gates for a ramble. Sometimes one of the other officers accompanied him; but more often he went alone. And on those long lonely walks he found himself obeying Margaret's injunctions, given to him at Paris Plage--"Go and find out. . . ."

In common with many others who were beginning, almost unconsciously, to think for the first time, he found considerable difficulty in knowing where to start the quest. Vane was no fool, but in days gone by he had accepted a certain order of things as being the only possible order- just as England had been the only possible country. But now it seemed to him that if England was to remain the only possible country an alteration would have to be made in the order. Before, any danger to her supremacy had come from without--now the trouble lay within.

Each day, alongside the war news, he read of strikes and rumours of strikes, and when he came to ask himself the reason why, he was appalled at his own ignorance. Something was wrong somewhere; something which would have to be put right. And the trouble was that it did not seem a matter of great ease to put it right. He felt that the glib phrases about Capital and Labour pulling together, about better relations between employers and men, about standing shoulder to shoulder, failed to hit the point. They were rather like offering a hungry lion a halfpenny bun. They could always be relied on to raise a cheer from a political platform provided the right audience was present; but it seemed doubtful whether even such a far-reaching result as that was quite enough.

At times his natural indolence made him laugh inwardly. "What on earth is the use?" he would mutter, throwing pebbles into the pond below him. "What has to be--has to be." It was a favourite haunt of his--that pond; in the heart of a wood, with a little waterfall trickling over some rounded stones and falling musically into the pond a few feet below. The afternoon sun used to shine through the branches of some great beech trees, and the dense undergrowth around screened him from the observation of any chance passer by walking along the path behind. . . . "You can't do anything," the mocking voice would continue. "So why worry?"

But the mental jaundice was passing--and the natural belief of man in himself was coming back. Ho felt the gas expert had been right, even though he had died. And so Vane became a reader of books of a type which had not formerly been part of his daily programme. He was groping towards knowledge, and he deliberately sought every help for the way. He tried some of H. G. Wells's to start with. . . . Previously he had read the "First Men in the Moon," because he'd been told it was exciting; and "Ann Veronica," because he had heard it was immoral. Now he tried some of the others.

He was engaged thus when Joan Devereux found him one afternoon in his favourite haunt. She had stumbled on his hiding place by mistake, and her first instinct was to retire as quickly as she had come. Since their first meeting, their conversation, on the rare occasions they had met at Rumfold Hall, had been confined to the most commonplace remarks, and those always in the presence of someone else. Any possibility of a tete-a-tete she had avoided; and the necessary mental effort had naturally caused her to think all the more about him. Now, just as she halted in her tracks and prepared to back out through the undergrowth, Vane looked up at her with his slow lazy smile.

"Discovered!" he remarked scrambling to his feet, and saluting her. "Joan, you have come in the nick of time."

"I would prefer you not to call me Joan," she answered coldly. "And after your abominable rudeness last time we were alone together, I don't want to talk to you at all."

"I suppose I was rather rude," answered Vane reflectively. "Though, if it's any comfort to you to know, I was much ruder to two men going up in the train a few days later. . . ."

"It isn't of the slightest interest to me," she returned, "whom you're rude to, or how you spend your spare time. The habits of an ill mannered boor are not of great importance, are they?" She turned her back on him, and parted the undergrowth with her hands, preparatory to leaving.

"Don't go." His voice close behind her made her pause. "I need you--officially."

She looked round at him, and despite herself the corners of her lips began to twitch. "You really are the most impossible person," she remarked. "What do you need me for?"

He stepped back to his usual seat, and pointed to a small mossy bank beside him. "Come and sit down there, and let's think. . . ."

After a moment's hesitation she did as he said.

"It's rather a knotty problem, isn't it?" he continued after a moment. "I might want you to flirt with me in order to avert my suicide in the pond through boredom. . . ."

"You may want," she retorted.

"But it's in the official programme?"

"You're not on the official list," she flashed back.

"Worse and worse," he murmured. "I begin to despair. However, I won't try you as highly as that. I will just ask you a plain, honest question. And I rely on you to answer me truthfully. . . . Do you think I should be a more attractive being; do you think I should be more capable of grappling with those great problems which--ah--surround us on all sides, if I could dissect rats--or even mice?" he added thoughtfully after a pause.

The girl looked at him in amazement. "Are you trying to be funny?" she asked at length.

"Heaven forbid!" he said fervently. "I was never more serious in my life. But, in that book,"--he pointed to one lying between them--"everybody, who is anybody dissects rodents."

She picked up the book and gazed at the title. "But this is the book everybody's talking about," she said.

"I am nothing if not fashionable," returned Vane.

"And do they dissect rats in it?"

"Don't misunderstand me, and take too gloomy a view of the situation," said Vane reassuringly. "They do other things besides. . . . Brilliant things, all most brilliantly written about; clever things, all most cleverly told. But whenever there's a sort of gap to be filled up, a mauvais quart d'heure after luncheon, the hero runs off and deals with a mouse. And even if he doesn't, you know he could. . . . And the heroine! It's a fundamental part of all their educations, their extraordinary brilliance seems to rest on it as a foundation."

She looked at him curiously. "I'm not particularly dense," she said after a while, "but I must admit you rather defeat me."

"Joan," answered Vane seriously, and she made no protest this time at the use of her name, "I rather defeat myself. In the old days I never thought at all--but if I ever did I thought straight. Now my mind is running round in circles. I chase after it; think I'm off at last--and then find myself back where I started. That's why I've put up the S.O.S., and am trying to get help." He laid his hand on the book beside him.

"Are you reading all the highbrows?" she asked.

"Most of 'em," he answered. "In the first place they're all so amazingly well written that it's a pleasure to read them for that alone; and, secondly--I'm hoping . . . still hoping. . . ." He took out his cigarette case and offered it to her. "I feel that it's I who am wrong--not they--that it's my lack of education that huffs me. I expect it's those damned rats. . . ."

Joan laughed, and lit a cigarette. "They're all so frightfully clever, Joan," went on Vane blowing out a cloud of smoke. "They seem to me to be discussing the world of men and women around them from the pure cold light of reason. . . . Brain rules them, and they make brain rule their creations. Instead of stomach--stomach really rules the world, you know." For a while they sat in silence, watching a dragon-fly darting like a streak of light over the pond below them.

"I wouldn't bother if I were you," said the girl after a while. "After all, if one is happy oneself, and tries to make other people happy too, it's bound to help things along a bit, isn't it? It strikes me that whatever people write, or say, everything will go on much the same. Besides--it's so impertinent. You don't want to be reconstructed; nor does anybody else. So why worry?"

"But, my dear girl," said Vane feebly, "don't you think one ought. . . ."

"No, I don't," she interrupted. "You listen to me for a bit, my friend; and you can take it or leave it, just as you like. It strikes me you're a great deal too occupied about other people, and you don't pay sufficient attention to yourself. You've got to live your own life--not the man's next door. And you'll do most good by living that life, as you want to live it. If you really want to reform other people--well go and do it, and get a thick ear. . . . It's part of your job. But if you don't want to, there's no earthly use trying to pretend you do; you're merely a hypocrite. There's no good telling me that everybody can be lumped into classes and catered for like so many machines. We're all sorts and conditions, and I suppose you'd say I was one of the supremely selfish sort. In fact, you have said so," she said defiantly.

"All right--we'll leave it at that," she went on before he could speak. "But I'm happy--and I'm sincere. I do the most awful things at times- because I like doing them. I should loathe to be a nurse, and the W.A.A.C. uniform makes me look a fright. I may not realise the horrors over the water; I don't want to. And do you suppose half these women who talk about them so glibly do either? . . . . Of course they don't; they're just posing. They pretend it's awful and horrible to dance and play the fool; and all the while their teeth are chattering with envy and malice. . . ."

"We seem," remarked Vane, taking advantage of a temporary lull in the flood, "to have arrived at rather a personal discussion."

"Of course we have," she took him up. "Isn't it I--I--I everywhere? Only a lot of people aren't sufficiently truthful to admit it. It's Number One first all the way through, right from the people up at the top down to the poor brutes in the slums. All the wonderful schemes of reform are for the glory of the schemer first, with the happy recipients amongst the also rans." She paused a moment, and a sudden tender look came into her eyes. "Of course there are exceptions. There's a boy I know--he's a cousin of mine--with weak lungs. Rejected for the Army three times as totally unfit. For the last four years he's been living in a slum off Whitechapel and the people there love him. . . . He just walks in and planks down a pork chop in the back room; or a bottle of Basa, or something and has a talk to the woman . . . he's dying . . . but he's dying happy. . . . I couldn't do that; no more could you. . . . We should loathe it, and so we should be fools to attempt it. . . ."

"I wonder," said Vane slowly. . . . "I wonder."

"No, you don't," she cried. "You don't wonder. . . . You know I'm right. . . . If you loved such a life you'd just do it. . . . And you'd succeed. The people who fail are the people who do things from a sense of duty."

"What a very dangerous doctrine," smiled Vane.

"Perhaps it is," she answered. "Perhaps in my own way I'm groping too; perhaps," and she laughed a little apologetically, "I've fitted my religion to my life. At any rate it's better than fitting other peoples' lives to one's religion. But it seems to me that God," she hesitated, as if at a loss for words to express herself--"that God--and one's surroundings--make one what one is. . . . And unless one is very certain that either God or the surroundings are wrong, it's asking for trouble to go on one's own beaten track. . . . I suppose you think I'm talking out of my turn." She turned and faced him with a slight smile.

"On the contrary," answered Vane, "you have interested me immensely. But you've dodged the one vital question--for me, at any rate. What is the beaten track? Just at present I can't find it?"

"You'll not find it any easier by looking for it too hard," she said thoughtfully. "I'm certain of that. . . . It'll come in a flash to you, when you least expect it, and you'll see it as clear as daylight."

For a while they sat in silence, both busy with their own thoughts. Then the girl laughed musically.

"To think of me," she gurgled, "holding forth like this. . . . Why, I've never done such a thing before that I can remember." Then of a sudden she became serious. The big grey eyes looked steadily, almost curiously, at the face of the man beside her. "I wonder why," she whispered almost below her breath. "You've been most poisonously rude to me, and yet . . . and yet here am I talking to you as I've never talked to any other man in my life."

Vane stared at the pool for a few moments before he answered. He was becoming uncomfortably aware that grey eyes with a certain type of chin were attractive--very attractive. But his tone was light when he spoke.

"A quarrel is always a sound foundation." He looked up at her with a smile, but her eyes still held that half speculative look. . . .

"I wonder what you would have thought of me," she continued after a moment, "if you'd met me before the war. . . ."

"Why, that children of fifteen should be in bed by ten," he mocked.

"Yes, but supposing I was what I am now, and you were what you were then--and you weren't filled with all these ideas about duty and futures and things. . . ."

"You would have added another scalp to the collection, I expect," said Vane drily.

They both laughed, then she bent slightly towards him. "Will you forgive me for what I said about--about that woman you were going to see?"

"Why--sure," answered Vane. "I guess you owed me one."

Joan laughed. "We'll wash the first lesson out. Except, of course, for that one thing you said. I mean about--the other. . . . I'd just hate to forget that there's a wedding coming on, and do anything that would make it awkward for me to be asked to the church. . . ."

"You little devil, Joan," said Vane softly, "you little devil."

She laughed lightly and sprang to her feet. "I must be going," she said. "At least three Colonials are waiting for my ministrations." She stood looking down at him. . . . "Are you going to walk back with me, or to resume your study of rodents?"

Vane slipped the book in his pocket. "I'm afraid," he remarked, "that I should not be able to bring that undivided attention to bear on the subject which is so essential for my education. Besides--perhaps you'll have a few minutes to spare after you have dealt with the Colonials. . . ." He parted the branches for her.

"My dear man," she retorted, "You've had far more than your fair official share already. . . ." She scrambled on to the path and Vane fell into step beside her. "And don't forget that you've only just been forgiven. . . ."

"Which makes it all the more essential for me to have continual evidence of the fact," retorted Vane.

"It strikes me," she looked at him suddenly, "that you're not quite as serious as you make out. You've got all the makings of a very pretty frivoller in you anyway."

"I bow to your superior judgment," said Vane gravely. "But I've been commissioned to--er--go and find myself, so to speak, by one who must be obeyed. And in the intervals between periods of cold asceticism when I deal with the highbrows, and other periods when I tackle subjects of national importance first hand, I feel that I shall want relaxation. . . ."

"And so you think you'd like me to fill the role of comic relief," she said sweetly. "Thanks a thousand times for the charming compliment."

"It doesn't sound very flattering put that way, I must admit," conceded Vane with a grin. "And yet the pleasures of life fill a very important part. I want to find myself in them too. . . ."

"I'm glad to see traces of comparative sanity returning," she said, as they turned into the Lodge Gates. "Do you think it's safe to trust yourself to such an abandoned character as I am? What would She who must be obeyed say?"

She looked at him mockingly, and involuntarily Vane frowned slightly. At the moment he felt singularly unwilling to be reminded of Margaret. And he was far too old a stager not to realise that he was heading directly for waters which, though they ran amongst charming scenery, contained quite a number of hidden rocks.

She saw the sudden frown, and laughed very gently. "Poor young man," she murmured; "poor serious young man. Dare you risk it?"

Then Vane laughed too. They had come to the lawn, and her three Colonial patients were approaching. "Put that way," he said, "I feel that it is my bounden duty to take a prolonged course of those pleasures."

"Splendid," she cried, and her eyes were dancing merrily. "Come over and lunch to-morrow. You can have Father and Aunt Jane first. You'll like Aunt Jane, she's as deaf as a post and very bloodthirsty--and then you can begin the course afterwards. One o'clock, and it's about half an hour's walk. . . ."

With a nod she turned and left him. And if those of her friends who knew Joan Devereux well had seen the look in her eyes as she turned to her three Canadians, they would have hazarded a guess that there was trouble brewing. They would further have hazarded a second guess as to the form it was likely to take. And both guesses would have been right. A young man, remarked Joan to herself, who would be all the better for a fall; a young man who seemed very much too sure of himself. Joan Devereux was quite capable of dealing with such cases as they deserved, and she was a young woman of much experience.