By STACY AUMONIER
Illustrations by J. Paul Verrees
IT is always disturbing to me when things fall into pattern form, when, in fact, incidents of real life dovetail with each other in such a manner as to suggest the shape of a story. A story is a nice, neat little thing, with what is called a "working-up" and a climax, and life is a clumsy, ungraspable thing, very incomplete in its periods, and with a poor sense of climax. In fact, death, which is a very uncertain quantity, is the only definite note it strikes, and even death has an uncomfortable way of setting other things in motion. If, therefore, in telling you about my friend Mrs. Ward, I am driven to the usual shifts of the story-teller, you must believe me that it is because this narrative concerns visions—Mrs. Ward's visions, my visions, and your visions. Consequently I am dependent upon my own poor powers of transcription to mold these visions into shape, and am driven into the position of a story-teller against my will.
The first vision, then, concerns the back view of the Sheldrake Road, which, as you know, butts on to the railway embankment near Dalston Junction station. If you are of an adventurous turn of mind, you will accompany me, and we shall creep up on to the embankment together and look down into these back yards. We shall be liable to a fine of forty shillings, according to a by-law of the railway company, for doing so, but the experience will justify us.
There are twenty-two of these small buff-brick houses huddled together in this road, and there is surely no more certain way of judging not only of the character of the individual inhabitants, but of their mode of life, than by a survey of these somewhat pathetic yards. Is it not, for instance, easy to determine the timid, well-ordered mind of little Miss Porson, the dressmaker at Number 9, by its garden of neat mud paths, with its thin patch of meager grass and the small bed of skimpy geraniums? Cannot one read the tragedy of those dreadful Alleson people at Number 4? The garden is a wilderness of filth and broken bottles, where even the weeds seem chary of establishing themselves. In fact, if we listen carefully, and the trains are not making too much noise, we can hear the shrill crescendo of Mrs. Alleson's voice cursing at her husband in the kitchen, the half-empty gin-bottle between them.
The methodical pushfulness and practicability of young Mr. and Mrs. Andrew MacFarlane is evident at Number 14. They have actually grown a patch of potatoes and some scarlet runners, and there is a chicken-run near the house.
Those irresponsible people, the O'Neals, have grown a bed of hollyhocks, but for the rest the garden is untidy and unkempt. One could almost swear that they were connected in some obscure way with the theatrical profession.
Mrs. Abbot's garden is a sort of playground. It has asphalt paths, always swarming with small and not too clean children, and there are five lines of washing suspended above the mud. Every day seems to be Mrs. Abbot's washing-day. Perhaps she "does" for others. Sam Abbot is certainly a lazy, insolent old rascal, and such always seem destined to be richly fertile. Mrs. Abbot is a pleasant "body," though. The Greens are the swells of the road. George Green is in the grocery line, and both his sons are earning good money, and one daughter has piano lessons. The narrow strip of yard is actually divided into two sections, a flower-garden and a kitchen-garden. They are the only people who have flower-boxes in the front.
Number 8 is a curious place. Old Mr. Bilge lives there. He spends most of his time in the garden, but nothing ever seems to come up. He stands about in his shirt-sleeves, and with a circular paper hat on his head, like a printer. They say he was formerly a corn merchant, but has lost all his money. He keeps the garden very neat and tidy, but nothing seems to grow. He stands there staring at the beds, as though he found their barrenness quite unaccountable.
Number 11 is unoccupied, and Number 12 is Mrs. Ward's.
We now come to an important vision, and I want you to come down with me from the embankment and to view Mrs. Ward's garden from inside, and also Mrs. Ward as I saw her on that evening when I had occasion to pay my first visit.
It had been raining, but the sun had come out. We wandered round the paths together, and I can see her old face now, lined and seamed with years of anxious toil and struggle her long, bony arms, slightly withered, moving restlessly in the direction of snails and slugs.
"Oh dear! oh dear!" she was saying, "what with the dogs and the cats and the snails and the trains, it's wonderful anything comes up at all!"
Mrs. Ward's garden has a character of its own, and I cannot account for it. There is nothing very special growing—a few pansies, a narrow border of London-pride, and several clumps of unrecognizable things that have n't flowered. The grass patch is in only fair order, and at the end of the garden is an unfinished rabbit-hutch. But there is about Mrs. Ward's garden an atmosphere. There is something about it that reflects her placid eye, the calm, somewhat contemplative way she has of looking right through things, as though they did n't concern her too closely; as though, in fact, she were too occupied with her own inner visions.
"No," she said in answer to my query, "we don't mind the trains at all. In fact, me and my Tom we often come out here and sit after supper. And Tom smokes his pipe. We like to hear the trains go by."
She gazed abstractedly at the embankment.
"I like to hear things—going on and that. It's Dalston Junction a little further on. The trains go from there to all parts, right out into the country they do—ever so far. My Ernie went from Dalston."
She added the last in a changed tone of voice. And now perhaps we come to the most important vision of all—Mrs, Ward's vision of "my Ernie."
I ought perhaps to mention that I had never met "my Ernie." I can see him only through Mrs. Ward's eyes. At the time when I met her he had been away at the war for nearly a year. I need hardly say that "my Ernie" was a paragon of sons. He was brilliant, handsome, and incredibly clever. Everything that "my Ernie" said was treasured. Every opinion that he expressed stood. If "my Ernie" liked any one, that person was always a welcome guest. If "my Ernie" disliked any one he was not to be tolerated, however plausible he might appear.
I had seen Ernie's photograph, and I must confess that he appeared a rather weak, extremely ordinary-looking young man; but, then, I would rather trust to Mrs. Ward's visions than to the art of any photographer.
Tom Ward was a mild, ineffectual-looking old man, with something of Mrs. Ward's placidity, but with nothing of her strong individual poise. He had some job in a gas-works. There was also a daughter named Lily, a brilliant person who served in a tea-shop, and sometimes went to theaters with young men. To both husband and daughter Mrs. Ward adopted an affectionate, mothering, almost pitying attitude; but with "my Ernie" it was quite a different thing. I can see her stooping figure and her silver-white hair gleaming in the sun as we came to the unfinished rabbit-hutch, and hear the curious, wistful tones of her voice as she touched it and said:
"When my Ernie comes home—"
The war to her was some unimaginable, but disconcerting, affair centered round Ernie. People seemed to have got into some desperate trouble, and Ernie was the only one capable of getting them out of it. I could not at that time gage how much Mrs. Ward realized the dangers the boy was experiencing. She always spoke with conviction that he would return safely. Nearly every other sentence contained some reference to things that were to happen "when my Ernie comes home." What doubts and fears she had were recognizable only by the subtlest shades in her voice.
When we looked over the wall into the deserted garden next door, she said:
"Oh dear! I 'm afraid they 'll never let that place. It's been empty since the Stellings went away. Oh, years ago, before this old war."
It was on the occasion of my second visit that Mrs. Ward told me more about the Stellings. It appeared that they were a German family, of all things! There were a Mr. Stelling, a Mrs. Frow Stelling, and two boys.
Mr. Stelling was a watchmaker, and he came from a place called Bremen. It was a very sad story Mrs. Ward told me. They had been over here only for ten months when Mr. Stelling died, and Mrs. Frow Stelling and the boys went back to Germany.
During the time of the Stellings' sojourn in the Sheldrake Road it appeared that the Wards had seen a good deal of them, and though it would be an exaggeration to say that they ever became great friends, they certainly got through that period without any unpleasantness, and even developed a certain degree of intimacy.
"Allowing for their being foreigners," Mrs. Ward explained, "they were quite pleasant people."
On one or two occasions they invited each other to supper, and I wish my visions were sufficiently clear to envisage those two families indulging this social habit.
According to Mrs. Ward, Mr. Stelling was a kind little man, with a round, fat face. He spoke English fluently, but Mrs. Ward objected to his table manners.
"When my Tom eats," she said, "you don't hear a sound,—I look after that,—but that Mr. Stelling! Oh dear!"
The trouble with Mrs. Stelling was that she could speak only a few words of English, but Mrs. Ward said "she was a pleasant-enough little body," and she established herself quite definitely in Mrs. Ward's affections for the reason that she was so obviously and so passionately devoted to her two sons.
"Oh, my word, though, they do have funny ways, these foreigners!" she continued. "The things they used to eat! Most peculiar! I 've known them eat stewed prunes with hot meat!"
Mrs. Ward repeated, "Stewed prunes with hot meat!" several times, and shook her head, as though this exotic mixture was a thing to be sternly discouraged. But she acknowledged that Mrs. Frow Stelling was in some ways a very good cook; in fact, her cakes were really wonderful, "the sort of thing you can't ever buy in a shop."
About the boys there seemed to be a little divergence of opinion. They were both also fat-faced, and their heads were "almost shaved like convicts'." The elder one wore spectacles and was rather noisy. "My Ernie liked the younger one. Oh, yes, my Ernie said that young Hans was quite a nice boy. It was funny the way they spoke—funny and difficult to understand."
It was very patent that between the elder boy and Ernie, who were of about the same age, there was an element of rivalry which was perhaps more accentuated in the attitude of the mothers than in the boys themselves. Mrs. Ward could find little virtue in this elder boy. Most of her criticism of the family was leveled against him. The rest she found only a little peculiar. She said she had never heard such a funny Christian name as Frow. Florrie she had heard of, and even Flora, but not Froze. I suggested that perhaps Frow might be some sort of title; but she shook her head and said that that was what she was always known as in the Sheldrake Road, "Mrs. Frow Stelling."
Despite Mrs. Ward's lack of opportunity for greater intimacy on account of the language problem, her own fine imaginative qualities helped her a great deal. In one particular she seemed curiously vivid. She gathered an account from one of them—I 'm not sure whether it was Mr. Stelling or Mrs. Frow Stelling or one of the boys—of a place they described near their home in Bremen. There was a narrow street of high buildings by a canal, and a little bridge that led over into a gentleman's park. At a point where the canal turned sharply eastward there was a clump of linden-trees where one could go in the summer-time, and under their shade one might sit comfortably and drink light beer and listen to a band that played in the early part of the evening.
Mrs. Ward was curiously clear about that. She said she often thought about Mr. Stelling sitting there after his day's work. It must have been very pleasant tor him, and he seemed to miss this luxury in Dalston more than anything. Once Ernie, in a friendly mood, had taken him into the four-ale bar of The Unicorn, at the corner of the Sheldrake Road, but Mr. Stelling did not seem happy. Ernie acknowledged afterward that it had been an unfortunate evening. The bar had been rather crowded, and there were a man and two women who had all been drinking too much. In any case, Mr. Stelling had been obviously restless there, and he had said afterward:
"It is not that one wishes to drink only—"
And he had shaken his fat little head, and had never been known to visit The Unicorn again.
Mr. Stelling died suddenly of some heart trouble, and Mrs. Ward could not get it out of her head that his last illness was brought about by his disappointment and grief in not being able to go and sit quietly under the linden-trees after his day's work and listen to a band.
"You know, my dear," she said, "when you get accustomed to a thing, it's bad for' you to leave it off."
When poor Mr. Stelling died, Mrs. Frow Stelling was heartbroken, and I have reason to believe that Mrs. Ward went in and wept with her, and in their dumb way they forged the chains of some desperate understanding. When Mrs. Frow Stelling went back to Germany they promised to write to each other. But they never did, and for a very good reason. As Mrs. Ward said, she was "no scholard," and as for Mrs. Frow Stelling, her English was such a doubtful quantity that she probably never got beyond addressing the envelop.
"That was three years ago," said Mrs. Ward. "Them boys must be eighteen and nineteen now."
If I have intruded too greatly into the intimacy of Mrs. Ward's life, one of my excuses must be not that I am "a scholard," but that I am in any case able to read a simple English letter. I was, in fact, on several occasions "requisitioned." When Lily was not at home, some one had to read Ernie's letters out loud. The arrival of Ernie's letters was always an inspiring experience. I might perhaps be in the garden with Mrs. Ward when Tom would come hurrying out to the back and call out:
"Mother! a letter from Ernie!"
And then there would be such excitement and commotion. The first thing was always the hunt for Mrs. Ward's spectacles. They were never where she had put them. Tom would keep on turning the letter over in his hands and examining the postmark, and he would reiterate:
"Well, what did you do with them, Mother?"
At length they would be found in some unlikely place, and she would take the letter tremblingly to the light. I never knew quite how much Mrs. Ward could read. She could certainly read a certain amount. I saw her old eyes sparkling and her tongue moving jerkily between her parted lips, as though she were formulating the words she read, and she would keep on repeating:
"T'ch ! T'ch! Oh dear, oh dear, the things he says!"
And Tom, by the door, would say, impatiently:
"Well, what does he say?"
She never attempted to read the letter out loud, but at last she would wipe her spectacles and say:
"Oh, you read it, sir. The things he says!"
They were indeed very good letters of Ernie's, written apparently in the highest spirits. There was never a grumble; not a word. One might gather that he was away with a lot of young bloods on some sporting expedition in which foot-ball, rags, sing-songs, and strange feeds played a conspicuous part. I read a good many of Ernie's letters, and I do not remember that he ever made a single reference to the horrors of war or said anything about his own personal discomforts. The boy must have had something of his mother in him despite the photograph.
And between the kitchen and the yard Mrs. Ward would spend her day placidly content, for Ernie never failed to write. There was sometimes a lapse of a few days, but the letter seldom failed to come every fortnight.
It would be difficult to know what Mrs. Ward's actual conception of the war was. She never read the newspapers, for the reason, as she explained, that "there was nothing in them these days except about this old war." She occasionally dived into Reynolds's newspaper on Sundays to see if there were any interesting law-cases or any news of a romantic character. There was nothing romantic in the war news; it was all preposterous. She did, indeed, read the papers for the first few weeks; but this was for the reason that she had some vague idea that they might contain some account of Ernie's doings. But as they did not, she dismissed them with contempt.
But I found her one night in a peculiarly preoccupied mood. She was out in the garden, and she kept staring abstractedly over the fence into the unoccupied ground next door. It appeared that it had dawned upon her that the war was to do with "these Germans,"—that, in fact, we were fighting the Germans,—and then she thought of the Stellings. Those boys would now be about eighteen and nineteen. They would be fighting, too. They would be fighting against Ernie. This seemed very peculiar.
"Of course," she said, "I never took to that elder boy; a greedy, rough sort of boy he was. But I'm sure my Ernie would n't hurt young Hans."
She meditated for a moment as though she were contemplating what particular action Ernie would take in the matter. She knew he did n't like the elder boy, but she doubted whether he would want to do anything very violent to him.
"They went out to a music-hall one night together," she explained, as though a friendship cemented in this luxurious fashion could hardly be broken by an unreasonable display of passion.
It was a few weeks later that the terror suddenly crept into Mrs. Ward's life. Ernie's letters ceased abruptly. The fortnight passed, then three weeks, four weeks, five weeks, and not a word. I do not think that Mrs. Ward's character at any time stood out so vividly as during those weeks of stress. It is true she appeared a little feebler, and she trembled in her movements, while her eyes seemed abstracted, as though all the power in them were concentrated in her ears, alert for the bell or the knock. She started visibly at odd moments, and her imagination was always carrying her tempestuously to the front door, only to answer a milkman or a casual hawker. But she never expressed her fear in words. When Tom came home,—he seemed to have aged rapidly,—he would come bustling out into the garden and cry out tremblingly:
"There ain't been no letter to-day, Mother?"
And she would say quite placidly: "No, not to-day, Tom. It 'll come to-morrow, I expect."
And she would rally him and talk of little things and get busy with his supper. And in the garden I would try to talk to her about her clump of pansies and the latest yarn about the neighbors, and I tried to get between her and the rabbit- hutch, with its dumb appeal of incompletion. And I would notice her staring curiously over into the empty garden next door, as though she were being assailed by some disturbing apprehensions. Ernie would not hurt that eldest boy; but suppose, if things were reversed—There was something inexplicable and terrible lurking in this passive silence.
During this period the old man was suddenly taken very ill. He came home one night with a high temperature, and developed pneumonia. He was laid up for many weeks, and she kept back the telegram that came while he was almost unconscious, and she tended him night and day, nursing her own anguish with a calm face; for the telegram told her that her Ernie was "missing and believed wounded."
I do not know at what period she told the father this news, but it was certainly not till he was convalescent. The old man seemed to sink into a kind of apathy. He sat feebly in front of the kitchen fire, coughing, and making no effort to control his grief. Outside the great trains went rushing by night and day. Things were "going on," but they were all meaningless, cruel.
We made inquiries at the War Office, but they could not amplify the laconic telegram.
Then the winter came on, and the gardens were bleak in the Sheldrake Road. And Lily ran away and married a young tobacconist who was earning twenty-five shillings a week. Old Tom was dismissed from the gas-works. His work was not proving satisfactory. He sat about at home and moped. In the meantime the price of food-stuffs was going up, and coals were a luxury. So in the early morning Mrs. Ward would go off and work for Mrs. Abbot at the wash-tub, and she would earn eight or twelve shillings a week.
It is difficult to know how they managed during those days, but one could see that Mrs. Ward was buoyed up by some poignant hope. She would not give way. Eventually old Tom did get some work to do at a stationer's. The work was comparatively light, and the pay equally so; so Mrs. Ward still continued to work for Mrs. Abbot.
My next vision of Mrs, Ward concerns a certain winter evening. I could not see inside the kitchen, but the old man could be heard complaining. His querulous voice was rambling on, and Mrs. Ward was standing by the door leading into the garden. She had returned from her day's work, and was scraping a pan out into a bin near the door. A train shrieked by, and the wind was blowing a fine rain against the house. Suddenly she stood up and looked up at the sky; then she pushed back her hair from her brow, and frowned at the dark house next door; then she turned and said:
"Oh, I don't know, Tom; if we 've got to do it, we must do it. If them others can stand it, we can stand it. Whatever them others can do, we can do."
And then my visions jump rather wildly, and the war becomes to me epitomized in two women: one in this dim doorway, in our obscure suburb of Dalston, scraping out a pan; and the other, perhaps in some dark, high house near a canal on the outskirts of Bremen. Them others! These two women silently enduring, and the trains rushing by, and all the dark, mysterious forces of the night operating on them equivocally.
Poor Mrs. Frow Stelling! Perhaps those boys of hers are "missing, believed killed." Perhaps they are killed for certain. She is as much outside "the things going on" as Mrs. Ward. Perhaps she is equally as patient, as brave.
Mrs. Ward entered the kitchen, and her eyes were blazing with a strange light as she said:
"We 'll hear to-morrow, Tom. And if we don't hear to-morrow, we 'll hear the next day. And if we don't hear the next day, we 'll hear the day after. And if we don't—if we don't never hear—again—if them others can stand it, we can stand it, I say."
And then her voice broke, and she cried a little; for endurance has its limitations, and the work was hard at Mrs. Abbot's.
And the months went by, and she stooped a little more as she walked, and some one had thrown a cloth over the rabbit-hutch, with its unfinished roof. Mrs. Ward was curiously retrospective. It was useless to tell her of the things of the active world. She listened politely, but she did not hear. She was full of reminiscences of Ernie's and Lily's childhood. She recounted again and again the story of how Ernie, when he was a little boy, ordered five tons of coal from a coal merchant to be sent to a girls' school in Dalston highroad. She described the coal-carts arriving in the morning, and the consternation of the head-mistress.
"Oh dear! oh dear!" she said, "the things he did!"
She did not talk much of the Stellings, but one day she said meditatively:
"Mrs. Frow Stelling thought a lot of that boy Hans. So she did of the other, as far as that goes. It's only natural-like, I suppose."
As time went on, Tom Ward lost all hope. He said he was convinced that the boy was killed. Having arrived at this conclusion, he seemed to become more composed. He gradually began to accustom himself to the new point of view. But with Mrs. Ward the exact opposite was the case. She was convinced that the boy was alive, but she suffered terribly.
There came a time—it was in early April—when one felt that the strain could not last. She seemed to lose all interest in the passing world, and lived entirely within herself. Even the arrival of Lily's baby did not rouse her. She looked at the child queerly, as though she doubted whether any useful or happy purpose was served by its appearance. It was a boy.
Despite her averred optimism, she lost her tremulous sense of apprehension when the bell rang or the front door was tapped. She let the milkman and even the postman wait.
When she spoke, it was invariably of things that happened years ago. Sometimes she talked about the Stellings, and on one Sunday she made a strange pilgrimage out to Finchley, and visited Mr. Stelling's grave. I don't know what she did there, but she returned looking very exhausted and unwell. As a matter of fact, she was unwell for days after this visit, and she suffered violent twinges of rheumatism in her legs.
I now come to my most unforgettable vision of Mrs. Ward. It was a day at the end of April, and warm for the time of year. I was standing in the garden with her, and it was nearly dark. A goods-train had been shunting, and making a great deal of noise in front of the house, and at last had disappeared. I had not been able to help noticing that Mrs. Ward's garden was curiously neglected for the time of year. The grass was growing on the paths, and the snails had left their silver trail over all the fences.
I was telling her a rumor I had heard about the railway porter and his wife at Number 23, and she seemed fairly interested; for she had known John Hemsley, the porter, fifteen years ago, when Ernie was a baby. There were two old, broken Windsor chairs out in the garden, and on one was a zinc basin in which were some potatoes. She was peeling them, as Lily and her husband were coming to supper. By the kitchen door was a small sink. When she had finished the potatoes, she stood up and began to pour the water down the sink, taking care not to let the skins go, too. I was noticing her old, bent back, and her long, bony hands gripping the sides of the basin, when suddenly a figure came limping round the bend of the house from the side passage, and two arms were thrown round her waist, and a voice said:
"Mind them skins don't go down the sink. Mother. They 'll stop it up."
As I explained to Ernie afterward, it was an extremely foolish thing to do. If his mother had had anything wrong with her heart, it might have been very serious. There have been many cases of people dying from the shock of such an experience.
As it was, she merely dropped the basin and stood there trembling like a leaf, and Ernie laughed loud and uproariously. It must have been three or four minutes before she could regain her speech, and then all she could manage to say was:
"Ernie! My Ernie!"
And the boy laughed, and ragged his mother, and pulled her into the house, and Tom appeared, and stared at his son, and said feebly:
"Well, I never!"
I don't know how it was that I found myself intruding upon the sanctity of the inner life of the Ward family that evening. I had never had a meal there before, but I felt that I was holding a sort of watching brief over the soul and body of Mrs. Ward. I had had a little medical training in my early youth, and this may have been one of the reasons that prompted me to stay.
When Lily and her husband appeared, we sat down to a meal of mashed potatoes and onions stewed in milk, With bread and cheese; and very excellent it was. Lily and her husband took the whole thing in a boisterous, high-comedy manner that fitted in with the mood of Ernie. Old Tom sat there staring at his son, and repeating at intervals:
"Well, I never!"
Mrs. Ward hovered round the boy's plate. Her eyes divided their time between his plate and his face, and she hardly spoke all the evening.
Ernie's story was remarkable enough. He told it disconnectedly and rather incoherently. There were moments when he rambled in a rather peculiar way, and sometimes he stammered, and seemed unable to frame a sentence. Lily's husband went out to fetch some beer to celebrate the joyful occasion, and Ernie drank his in little sips and spluttered. The boy must have suffered considerably. He had a wound in the abdomen, and another in the right forearm that for a time had paralyzed him.
As far as I could gather, his story was this:
He and a platoon of men had been ambushed and had had to surrender. When being sent back to a base, three of them tried to escape from the train, which had been held up at night. He did not know what had happened to the other two men, but it was on this occasion that he received his abdominal wound at the hands of a guard.
He had then been sent to some infirmary, where he was fairly well treated; but as soon as his wound had healed a little, he had been suddenly sent to some fortress prison, presumably as a punishment. He had n't the faintest idea how long he had been confined there. He said it seemed like fifteen years. It was probably nine months. He had solitary confinement in a cell, which was like a small lavatory. He had fifteen minutes' exercise every day in a yard with some other prisoners, who were Russians, he thought. He spoke to no one. He used to sing and recite in his cell, and there were times when he was quite convinced that he was "off his chump." He said he had lost "all sense of everything" when he was suddenly transferred to another prison. Here the conditions were somewhat better, and he was made to work. He said he wrote six or seven letters home from there, but received no reply. The letters certainly never reached Dalston. The food was execrable, but a big improvement on the dungeon. He was there only a few weeks when he and some thirty other prisoners were suddenly sent to work on the land at a kind of settlement. He said that the life there would have been tolerable if it had n't been for the fact that the commandant was an absolute brute. The food was worse than in the prison, and they were punished severely for the most trivial offenses.
It was here, however, that he met a sailor named Martin, a royal naval reservist, an elderly, thick-set man with a black beard and only one eye. Ernie said that this Martin "was an artist. He wangled everything. He had a genius for getting what he wanted. He would get a beefsteak out of a stone." In fact, it was obvious that the whole of Ernie's narrative was colored by his vision of Martin. He said he 'd never met such a chap in his life. He admired him enormously, and he was also a little afraid of him.
By some miraculous means peculiar to sailors, Martin acquired a compass. Ernie hardly knew what a compass was, but the sailor explained to him that it was all that was necessary to take you straight to England. Ernie said he "had had enough escaping. It did n't agree with his health"; but so strong was his faith and belief in Martin that he ultimately agreed to try with him.
He said Martin's method of escape was the coolest thing he 'd ever seen. He planned it all beforehand. It was the fag-end of the day, and the whistle had blown, and the prisoners were trooping back across a potato-field. Martin and Ernie were very slow. They lingered apparently to discuss some matter connected with the soil. There were two sentries in sight, one near them, and the other perhaps a hundred yards away. The potato-field was on a slope, and at the bottom of the field were two lines of barbed-wire entanglements. The other prisoners passed out of sight, and the sentry near them called out something, probably telling them to hurry up. They started to go up the field when suddenly Martin staggered and clutched his throat. Then he fell over backward and began to have an epileptic fit. Ernie said it was the realest thing he'd ever seen. One sentry ran up, at the same time whistling to his comrade. Ernie released Martin's collar-band and tried to help him. Both the sentries approached, and Ernie stood back. He saw them bending over the prostrate man when suddenly a most extraordinary thing happened. Both their heads were brought together with fearful violence. One fell completely senseless, but the other staggered forward and blindly groped for his rifle.
When Ernie told this part of the story he kept dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief.
"I never seen such a man as Martin, I don't think," he said. "Lord! he had a fist like a leg of mutton. He laid 'em out neatly on the grass, took off their coats and most of their other clothes, and flung 'em over the barbed-wire, and then swarmed over like a cat. I had more difficulty, but he got me across, too, somehow. Then we carted the clothes away to the next line.
"We got up into a wood that night, and Martin draws out his compass, and he says: 'We 've got a hundred and seven miles to do in night-shifts, cully. And if we make a slip, we 're shot as safe as knife.' It sounded the maddest scheme in the world, but I somehow felt that Martin would get through it. The only thing that saved me was that—that I did n't have to think. I simply left everything to him. If I'd started thinking, I should have gone mad. I had it fixed in my mind: 'Either he does it or he does n't do it. I can't help it.' I reely don't remember much about that journey. It was all a dream, like. We did all our travelin' at night by compass, and hid by day. Neither of us had a word of German. But, Gawd's truth! that man Martin was a marvel! He turned our trousers inside out, and made 'em look like ordinary laborers' trousers. He disappeared the first night, and came back with some other old clothes. We lived mostly on raw potatoes we dug out of the ground with our hands, but not always. One night he came back with a fowl, which he cooked in a hole in the earth, making a fire with a flint and some dry stuff he pinched from a farm. I believe Martin could have stole an egg from under a hen without her noticing it. He was the coolest card there ever was. Of course there was a lot of trouble one way and another. It was n't always easy to find wooded country or protection of any sort. We often ran into people, and they stared at us, and we shifted our course. But I think we were only addressed three or four times by men, and then Martin's methods were the simplest in the world. He just looked sort of blank for a moment, then knocked them clean out, and bolted. Of course they were after us all the time, and it was this constant tacking and shifting ground that took so long. Fancy! he never had a map, you know; nothing but the compass. We did n't know what sort of country we were coming to—nothing. We just crept through the night like cats. I believe Martin could see in the dark. He killed a dog one night with his hands; it was necessary."
It was impossible to discover from Ernie how long this amazing journey lasted; the best part of two months, I believe. He was himself a little uncertain with regard to many incidents whether they were true or whether they were hallucinations. He suffered greatly from his wound and had periods of feverishness. But one morning he said Martin began "prancing." He seemed to develop some curious sense that they were near the Dutch frontier. And then, according to Ernie, "a cat was n't in it with Martin."
He was very mysterious about the actual crossing. I gathered that there had been some "clumsy" work with sentries. It was at that time that Ernie got a bullet through his arm. When he got to Holland he was very ill. It was not that the wound was a very serious one, but, as he explained:
"Me blood was in a bad state. I was nearly down and out."
He was very kindly treated by some Dutch sisters in a convent hospital. He was delirious for a long time, and when he became more normal, they wanted to communicate with his people in England; but this did n't appeal to the dramatic sense of Ernie.
"I thought I'd spring a surprise-packet on you," he said, grinning.
We asked about Martin, but Ernie said he never saw him again. He went away while Ernie was delirious, and they said he had gone to Rotterdam to take ship somewhere. He thought Holland was a dull place.
During the relation of this narrative my attention was divided between watching the face of Ernie and the face of Ernie's mother. I am quite convinced that she did not listen to the story at all. She never took her eyes from his face, and although her tongue was following the flow of his remarks, her mind was occupied with the vision of Ernie when he was a little boy and when he ordered five tons of coal to be sent to the girls' school.
When he had finished she said:
"Did you meet either of them young Stellings?"
Ernie laughed rather uproariously, and said "No," he did n't have the pleasure of renewing their acquaintance.
On his way home, it appeared, he had presented himself at headquarters, and after a medical examination had received his notice of discharge.
"So now you 'll be able to finish the rabbit-hutch," said Lily's husband, and we all laughed again, with the exception of Mrs. Ward.
I found her later standing alone in the garden. It was a warm spring night. There was no moon, but the sky appeared restless with its burden of trembling stars. She had an old shawl drawn round her shoulders, and she stood there very silent, with her arms crossed.
"Well, this is splendid news, Mrs. Ward," I said.
She started a little and coughed and pulled the shawl closer round her. She said very faintly:
I don't think she was really aware of me. She still appeared immersed in the contemplation of her inner visions. Her eyes settled upon the empty house next door, and I thought I detected the trail of a tear glistening on her cheeks. I lighted my pipe. We could hear Ernie and Lily and Lily's husband still laughing and talking inside.
"She used to make a very good puddin'," Mrs. Ward said suddenly, at random. "Dried fruit inside, and that. My Ernie liked it very much."
Somewhere away in the distance, probably outside The Unicorn, some one was playing a cornet. A train crashed by and disappeared, leaving a trail of foul smoke that obscured the sky. The smoke cleared slowly away. I struck another match to light my pipe.
It was quite true. On each side of her cheek a tear had trickled. She was trembling a little, worn out by the emotions of the evening.
There was a moment of silence unusual for Dalston.
"It's all very—perplexin', and that," she said quietly.
And then I knew for certain that in that great hour of her happiness her mind was assailed by strange and tremulous doubts. She was thinking of "them others" a little wistfully. She was doubting whether one could rejoice, when the thing became clear and actual to one, without sending out one's thoughts into the dark garden to "them others" who were suffering, too. And she had come out into this little, meager yard at Dalston and gazed through the mist and smoke upward to the stars because she wanted peace intensely; and so she sought it within herself, because she knew that real peace is a thing which concerns the heart alone.
So I left her standing there and went my way, for I knew that she was wiser than I.