The Tug of War

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The Tug of War  (1920) 
by Phyllis Bottome

From Century Magazine, Vol 79, 1920. A story of World War I.

Léonie slowly raised her lashes, and their eyes met and lingered on each other. Léonie's were all tenderness, and the general's all ardor, but the element of calculation ran beneath both these appearances, as surely as after the repast set before them they would have to meet their inconspicuously presented, but relentless, bill.

The Tug of War


(Mrs. Forbes Dennis)

NEITHER of them had a single illusion left. General Eustace St. Clair Montrose was over fifty, and had spent his full, single-minded, and battered life in getting his own way. On the whole, he had succeeded in getting it, but he had not got anything else.

Madame Léonie Nibaud had left forty markedly behind her, and her accumulations (she had been occupied in laying up treasure for herself) had not been arranged principally with a view to heaven.

They measured the attraction which drew them together with the infallibility of repeated experience. Sex had no secrets from them, and no continuities; nevertheless, it was for both the principal diversion.

General Montrose was a tall, handsome man, with thick gray hair and eyebrows, dancing blue eyes, and a mouth like a steel trap. He had a massive chin, which he thrust out a little in argument. From his earliest youth he had fought and enjoyed fighting. All concessions that came to him without a struggle he regarded in the light of grievances. Conquest was his goal, but he always despised those who let him get there. His character was of the same consistency as a perfectly made cricket-ball, hard, light, and capable of rebounding. It was not capable of any other flexibility. He had a great many hearty tastes, but those for women, food, and flowers were predominant.

General Montrose had married young, and had alienated both his children. His wife died after a few subdued years of unequal and, on the general's part, unobservant companionship. He had been strictly faithful to his marriage tie, and nourished an obscure resentment against it in consequence of this privation. He had, however, made up for it since.

Léonie Nibaud was less simple a spirit. There was the strain of the artist in her, but of the artist suppressed and supplanted. She had had a voice, which was a small fortune, and beauty, which was a greater one, and being a strictly practical woman, she had given up the lesser for the greater. Her experiences comprised a husband, whom she had without difficulty or hostility divorced; a fortune that permitted her seclusion to take the form of expensive hotels; and a daughter of twenty whom she had brought up in the purity ascribed to lilies. Mme. Nibaud herself, if not wholly respectable, was quite sufficiently respected.

Léonie's masseuse, her coiffeur, and her dressmaker were more intimate with her, and more necessary to her existence, than any other persons. The general's eyes, as they traveled unceasingly over her presented appearance, told of their combined success without being aware of the extent of their influence.

Léonie was not slim, and it would have been better for her to have eaten fewer chocolates. But if her complexion was an art and her figure an increasing problem, her features were a gift of nature, and her great, provocative brown eyes, with their deep fringe of lashes, might have been thrust upon her direct from the hand of the least conscientious of the goddesses.

She used these organs without haste and without rest. They shut off from the general all the distractions of the great, light room, full of flowered tables and the delicate April sunshine of Paris—the room through which, during those black and crumbling years, all that France knew of pleasure. ran uninterruptedly and clear, with no apparent regret for the abbreviated careers of its seekers.

Léonie noticed that during the third spring the class of men had deteriorated: there were fewer young and handsome specimens. In that unending procession, the men that passed and passed, but never came again, were either, as the man before her, of high rank and mature years, or they were weedy and belated types, and they were all more dissolute. Leaves had ceased to be joyous and hopeful interludes in a soon-to-be-triumphant business. The interludes had become feverish reactions of panic against the oncoming certainty of horror and death. Those whom the gods loved had already received their final favor.

Léonie did not allow herself to dwell upon these disagreeable and vicarious sacrifices; but she noticed, because she was there to notice, the thinning down of quality.

Léonie was the first Frenchwoman the general had met who did not say the war was terrible or ask him when it was going to end. Nor did she put the responsibility of the next great push upon his shoulders. She refrained from any mention of the war, and when the general complimented her upon this conversational omission, L6onie shrugged her shoulders lightly.

"I am like that," she agreed, "to what does not concern me. I cannot alter the conditions of war, and as they do not involve me, they are for me the mountains in the moon."

"It is an admirable philosophy," admitted the general, "but I wish to belong to the things that do concern you. May I ask what is your attitude toward them?"

Léonie glanced speculatively across the table at him; then her curved lips bent into a slow, delicious smile.

"Rest assured. Monsieur," she murmured, "you do concern me, and you will in time find out my attitude toward you."

"I have not yet received much proof of it," ventured the general, daring her with his sparkling eyes. "I don't fail to appreciate the remarkably good lunch, or the more remarkable pleasure of your company; but if you will allow me to say so, the additional company of the world that surrounds us takes off a little from the value of these benefits. I should have preferred to lunch with you alone."

"Monsieur is very direct," said Léonie, dropping the fringe of her long lashes. "He wishes to go fast—and far."

"Very fast and very far," agreed the general. "You see, my leave is up to-morrow, and the pleasure of having met you is yet incomplete."

Léonie slowly raised her lashes, and their eyes met and lingered on each other. Léonie's were all tenderness, and the general's all ardor, but the element of calculation ran beneath both these appearances, as surely as after the repast set before them they would have to meet their inconspicuously presented, but relentless, bill.

Léonie made no direct response to the general's appeal. She rose slowly and said over her shoulder:

"We will take coffee in my room."

The general followed her progress across the dining-room with discreet admiration. This lovely Frenchwoman knew many things, and among them, how to walk. She had no diffidence and no aggression. She moved as one who knows that her place in the world will never be disputed.

Mme. Nibaud's private sitting-room was a bower of flowers. She had not altered the hotel furniture; she had simply drowned it. Huge bowls of sweet and purple violets covered the tables; on the mantelpiece, and hanging above the violets, were single pink roses in tall, thin glasses; and tossed high against the pale-gray walls were branches of almond-blossom.

The general glanced appreciatively at the flowers, but he wasted no time. As the door closed behind them, Léonie felt his iron hands touch her waist and her shoulders, and with a single, quick movement she was pressed against his heart.

She neither yielded to, nor resisted, his close embrace. She suffered it in a silence that was without constraint.

When he had released her for a moment, she slipped out of his hands with instant self-possession, and opened the door between her sitting-room and the room adjoining it.

"Jeanne," she said, "have the kindness to make us some coffee, and leave the door open. I like the aroma."

Then she sat down with her back to the light, under a branch of almond-blossom, and smiled at the general.

"I have my maid make my coffee," she explained quietly, "because down-stairs they make—something else. My friend," she added in a lower key, "you use too much audacity."

"Forgive me, if I feel," said the general, "that it was not my audacity which was too great, but the opportunity that was too small. When do you intend to enlarge it?"

"And if I do not so intend?" she asked, with delicately lifted brows.

"Then you waste my time," said the general, coldly, "and no woman, however charming, wastes my time for very long."

Léonie sighed.

"You are a man of iron," she murmured, "so fierce, so irresistible, like your nation!"

"That is an advantage for you," urged the general; "I shall be the stronger friend."

"Pardon me, Monsieur," said Léonie; "a lover is not a friend."

"An ally, then, if you prefer it," said the general. "You are safe with me, at any rate—as long as our interests are the same."

She was silent for a moment, as if she were considering the quality of this security.

"Ah," she said at last, "but how many other women have trusted you? How many, perhaps, trust you even now—in vain? I will be perfectly frank with you, my General.

"I have been, as you know, unhappily married; in fact, for many years I have been without either protection or companionship. I lived very strictly; I brought up my daughter. At length I married her, very successfully, very perfectly. She has had nothing to regret, and happiness is between her and knowledge. Now I am alone again, and I am freer. When I have a fancy, I follow it. I have a fancy for you, but I am not in so great a hurry as you are. I count a little my costs."

"Yes," said the general, "that is very natural. What are they, your costs? I am willing to meet anything in reason."

Léonie drew back a little, and laughed with an amused exasperation.

"Ah," she said, "I do not mean what you mean. I am not expensive. You mistake your genre. My costs are perhaps not quite so simple.

"I want an intimacy of the heart. I want, as it were, to be sure of you first; I will not say forever, but possibly for the day after to-morrow."

The general pondered for a moment, then he said slowly: "You are everything I like. I adore you. Until you let me make love to you, I cannot show you how much. I have to go now, whatever happens, but you may take it from me that I shall come back."

Jeanne came in with the coffee. She carried on the small lacquered tray two gold glasses of liqueur. Jeanne was a pretty girl, and the general liked liqueur with his coffee; but he noticed neither of these additions to his comfort: his attention was wholly fixed upon Léonie.

"Tiens," she said tranquilly, "but I leave Paris. I have for the spring and summer a little villa near the sea. You could come there, perhaps—you, and what you call your A. D. C. But is it too far from your portion of the line? Non? My little villa is a few miles from Dieppe. I hope it is not too out of the way for you."

The general's eyes did not flicker, but they hardened curiously for a moment. He was not at liberty to mention where his portion of the line was likely to be, nor did he do so. He said after a moment's pause:

"I run about a good deal in my car. I might blow in your way. Let me take down your address."

It was a coincidence that the address Léonie mentioned to him was precisely six miles from where the general's division would be stationed for the next two months. They were to be pulled out of the line, rested, and thrown in again for the Battle of the Somme, and the general was one of perhaps ten others who knew the exact details of when and where this famous battle was going to take place.

"You might tell your maid," suggested the general, pocketing his address-book with decision, "that as we now have both the coffee and the aroma, she is at liberty to shut the door."

Mme. Nibaud's villa stood high above a sea of blossoming orchards. A rampart of softly rising, far blue hills was between it and the gash across the face of France. It was a space of peace and golden fields; only occasionally, between the clear and piercing songs of the spring birds, sounded the distant steady booming of the guns.

Mon Plaisir was an achievement both of beauty and luxury. Nothing was irregular in it. Everything ministered punctually and without visible effort to the comfort and pleasure of its inhabitants. The cooking was exactly what the general liked. He always averred that he had a simple taste in cooking, but it was a simplicity which had baffled thirteen cooks in nine months. His hours were his own. In the evenings he could listen, sitting at his ease on a sweet-scented terrace, to one of the best-trained voices in Europe. During the day he had a most accomplished and perfectly attired companion always at his disposal and never in his way.

Mme. Nibaud possessed an even temper and quick wits. Her tastes were almost identical with the general's. She did not care greatly for young men. She treated Captain Pollock, the general's handsome A. D. C, with a good-natured tolerance. Only when they were alone did this delicate indifference yield to the admiration which Captain Pollock sometimes felt was his due.

"What it must be," she said on one of these occasions, "to know the general's mind, to share his counsels, and perhaps even assist him (for I know how much he admires your intelligence) to arrive at his great decisions! I am sure there is nothing you do not know. For instance, sometimes as I look at you, I say to myself, 'Mon Dieu! This young man controls destiny! He knows where the arm of the English is to be stretched out in revenge for Verdun.' The very date is, I believe, behind your eyes."

Captain Pollock very wisely dropped these signals of the future.

"I assure you," he murmured in some confusion, "the general tells me nothing except what concerns me, and that has more to do with where I had better buy fish than with destiny."

"Ah, the uncontrollable modesty of the Englishman!" Mme. Nibaud replied. "But I am so ignorant of war, I may easily be indiscreet. Frankly, I do not understand even the communiqués in the newspapers. One thing alone I care to know. Is the general in danger? That is the only little satisfaction of a woman which I would like sometimes to demand of you. Captain Pollock. Can you not let me know when I may feel safe about him and for how long?"

Captain Pollock referred her to the general himself; he knew rather more, after all, than where to buy fish.

Jeanne had more success with the general's chauffeur. This simple young man, chosen for the solidity of his nerves and his ability (he had had the advantage of having been reared in Billingsgate) to stand the general's language, told her precisely where the division was. She learned from his flattered responses to her interest in him where they drove daily, and even on one occasion, when they went to an important conference, that the commander-in-chief was present. He had been pointed out to Pounce, who described him, a little to Jeanne's linguistic confusion, as "a bunch of red tape."

Pounce had been particularly cautioned against mentioning any of these facts, but Jeanne's questions were always indirect; nor was he aware of the quantity of facts an indirect question can elicit from a flattered recipient whose mind is concentrated upon the possibility of favors to come.

The general himself was less awake than usual. He was very much in love; he was almost involved. Hitherto his heart had been a caravansary. Objects of his affection came and went, they even inhabited it simultaneously; but they never stayed for very long, and none of them had ever seriously interfered with his control of it. But Mme. Nibaud reigned alone; she completely satisfied him, and she was the only woman he had known since his wife's death who was absolutely disinterested. She was more than disinterested: she was The general daily drank priceless wines, mysteriously overlooked, and left in her cellars by her late husband, who had owned some of the beat wines in France.

Léonie told the general plainly that she would give up her villa to-morrow and follow him at whatever distance the military exigencies permitted.

It was an expensive time, and she squandered money like water on his entertainment.

"What does it matter?" she said, indifferently, when he urged her to be more careful. "You take your life in your hand for France, and I, whose life is of no value, take my money, so that I may make your life, while it lasts, more bearable. Besides, never forget your life is mine."

Sometimes the general nearly believed her, and it made him feel a little uncomfortable. His life was not Léonie's; it was England's, and sometimes it occurred to him that even as a necessary recreation Léonie took up rather too much of his attention. She did not interfere with his work, but the quality of the power he had for it lacked its old intensity.

Léonie was an extremely intelligent woman about everything but war; for that she had a blank and most incurious mind.

The only information she ever wanted from the general was when he was likely to be in danger. She could not be content with his assurance that as a divisional general he virtually never was.

"Nonsense!" she would say with the only approach to sharpness he ever heard from her. "Those dreadful shells fall everywhere. When I say danger, I mean anywhere^wherever it is where the men, poor brutes, fight. I want to know always when you go near what you call the line. Then I may feel safer when I know you are not there."

"When I am not with you," said the general, "I am not necessarily near any line. I am simply on duty. You must be content with that."

"How am I to know that it is not other women you go to?" she demanded one evening after dinner on the terrace. "Duty, that is a fine broad word to use; it may cover many things,"

"I don't know how you are to know," replied the general, coldly, "if you won't take my word for it."

"I take your word for everything, my friend," Léonie murmured softly. "Over and over in my heart I say it—the word of an Englishman." She spread out her beautiful, bare, ringless hand. "It is all I have, that word," she said consideringly, "and do you know it is enough for me? I ask no more."

The general kissed her hand in silence. He was very glad she was going to ask no more.

She rose slowly, and went through the open French windows toward the piano.

"You have never heard me sing 'The Marseillaise,' have you?" she asked. "Well, I will sing it to you to-night. It used to be considered something."

It was a quiet night, late in May; the orchards slumbered below them, the white blossoms as still as fallen snow under a high full moon. The air was soft and full of the fragrance of simple things, blossoms and a flowering bean-field. Below the terrace on which the general sat, a row of white and purple stocks sent up a perpetual sweetness out of the dark.

Far away there was a low, monotonous, chorus of frogs, mysterious, on one note, making a mournful background to the silence.

Léonie touched the piano very lightly, and then the music of that most tragic, bravest, and most magnetic tune seized the evening and shook it stark awake. There was no silence left, and no peace in the garden. It was suddenly thronged with battles and with ghosts. Even the general was moved. There was nothing banal to him in those familiar tones; they smote upon him afresh with dignity and severe intent. His eyes lost their hardness and became reflective. In a few weeks time the sons of England would go forward in their thousands, in their tens of thousands, and would die. There was no help for it, and on how well they died, and how hard they fought before they died, lay the issue of the profound and senseless tragedy which was impoverishing the world.

The general straightened himself, and stood up; he looked over the moonlit garden, and ceased to see the flowers.

The white fields of the orchards below him changed to darker, sodden fields, torn up and broken, where no blossoms lay; only the flower of all the youth of France.

Léonie came to him and laid her hand softly upon his shoulder.

"Now," she said, "I am a Frenchwoman; I am ignorant of war, but I have been very patient. When will England strike? My friends tell me she is letting us stand and bleed ourselves white to save herself. For your sake, and for the sake of your honor, I want to free myself of doubt."

"We shall strike soon," said the general, and his lips closed over the words with ominous finality.

"Tell me," she urged, "the moment. I wish to pray for it."

"If you want to pray," replied the general, "pray all the time. It will not be too much."

"No! no!" she said urgently, "give me your faith! You trust me, you are a generous man. I have given you all I have; give me, then, this in return. Do you not see what it is for me to share the future with you? On my soul I ask it of you!"

"But you must not ask it," said the general, firmly. "It is the secret of England."

"And to whom," asked Léonie, gravely, "should England tell her secret but to France?"

It did not sound absurd even to the general, who disliked rhetoric. The last note of "The Marseillaise" still held the listening air. The general looked at her, gravely.

"No," he said; "I can't do that."

Her lips quivered, and with the sudden abandon of a child she flung herself into his arms in a storm of tears.

"Ah," she sobbed, "tell me! tell me! Don't you see I am exhausted, broken with the strain? I have not the fermeté of the English; I can bear no more. Always my mind is on that moment of terror. I want. I fear it. I want it for France and for you. How can I bear it? Give me a reprieve, a few days' rest! Help my divided heart!"

"Do not let it be divided," said the general, with unaccustomed gentleness. "When we strike, it will be for the good of all of us; and I have told you before, I shall be in no great personal danger."

"Ah," she said, dragging herself suddenly from his arms, "you speak so calmly, so dispassionately! It is, after all, only I who suffer. Show me that you love me not as you love—all those light women. Do you not remember what I asked of you—an intimacy of the heart? If I were a man and your friend, you would not hide this from me. Why, even Captain Pollock knows what I may not be told!"

"Did he tell you that he knows?" asked the general, grimly.

Léonie sobbed incoherently. Something in the grimness of the general's voice warned her that though she could easily destroy Captain Pollock by her answer, her cause might not be advanced by his destruction.

"No," she murmured at length, "he has not told me; but I know he knows. I feel it in him, as I feel it in you, beloved. Oh, for the sake of our love together, for the sake of this little hour, tell me, and I ask no more questions. I am then like a wife, a soldier's wife, brave and content with a shared peril."

"I should not tell my wife that," said the general, "and I should expect her to be brave without being told."

"Ah," said Léonie, "but I am not a wife. I can only be brave if I am trusted, infinitely trusted."

The general bit his iron-gray mustache and thought deeply. He was genuinely moved, and he had none of the obstinacy of a weak man against the appeals of a woman. He did trust Léonie; it had never for a moment occurred to him to doubt her. But he was before everything else a soldier, in possession of a military secret, and it was inconceivable to him that he should part with it; and yet many men do what is inconceivable. Even the general wavered for an instant.

Léonie's head was once more on his heart, her uplifted, beseeching eyes were full of a torment of love and supplication. She had never looked so beautiful as she looked now, and passion was the only power that ever shook the general's caution; but even when he was reckless, he was not reckless for himself.

He bent his head and kissed her lips.

"Good!" he said. "I 'll trust you. The date is the twenty-eighth of July."

Then he gave a sigh of relief. He had appeased her, he could feel the tension of her whole figure relax in his arms; and he had told her a lie. The date he had given her was a fortnight after the actual one.

The general was to go to a conference at headquarters on the following day, but that he did not tell Léonie. He merely gave his order to be called at seven o'clock.

He did not even say good-by to her; he left a note to say that he would return at the first possible moment.

He was in excellent spirits as the magnificent car swung easily over the white roads. Léonie was all the dearer to him for her moment of weakness.

It was the first time that she had ever appeared to him weak, and he believed in, and secretly approved of, the instability of women.

He spoke to Captain Pollock about this common attribute, but Captain Pollock was not so responsive as usual. He looked uncomfortable. This annoyed the general, who greatly disliked any one about him looking uncomfortable unless he had made them so.

"What's the matter with you?" he asked sharply. "You seem to have a flea in your ear this morning."

"Well, I have rather, sir," Captain Pollock admitted. "You know Curtis? The I. O., I mean. I ran across him yesterday, and he told me the French people have sent him Madame Nibaud's name."

"Madame Nibaud's name?" demanded the general. "Well, of all the— However, that's just like them, set of loose-witted old hens!"

"There was something else, sir," Captain Pollock murmured, crimsoning, and turning his unhappy eyes away from the general's blazing ones.

"Out with it!" snapped the general. "I'm not a gun-shy retriever, am I? I ought to be used to departmental idiocy by this time."

"They are censoring all her letters to you, sir."

"What the hell?" thundered the outraged general.

"And I gather they advise," finished the now desperate Pollock, "our people taking the same steps with regard to yours."

"My letters?" gasped the general. Then his mouth shut. He had gone beyond the mere forms of speech, however decorated. Nor did he open his mouth again till they had pulled up at G. H. Q.

The general dismissed Captain Pollock after giving him a few curt orders, and strode into the dining-room of an old French château where the conference was to be held.

He eyed a collection of gilded mirrors on each side of the long narrow table with secret discomfort; but he had, after all, taken his precautions against anything sharper than discomfort. He greeted his colleagues briefly, and took his place.

Everything went smoothly and a little interminably until the commander-in-chief rose and said he had an announcement to make. He gathered their eyes in his, and, leaning over the table, spoke slowly and distinctly.

He had, he explained, to submit to them an alteration in the date of the offensive. It was thought better in certain quarters to postpone it for a fortnight. The attack would therefore now take place upon the twenty-eighth of July.

General Montrose felt as if first his body and then his heart were turning to stone.

The perspiration that stood out on his forehead was icy cold, and the heat of the room was powerless to reach him. He had never known fear in his life, but the anger that shook him now was one of the forms of fear.

Nobody noticed his frozen stillness. In the excitement of the moment a hundred sharp objections poured out upon the subject nearest all their hearts. His voice alone was unheard. He accepted the decision of his chief as final, as involuntarily and beyond all protest, as if he had received a mortal wound.

As soon as he could, the general excused himself from the conference. Captain Pollock had done what he was told and was therefore not immediately recoverable, but he had to pay for his obedience when he was found. The general's language tore through all his reasonable excuses like a prairie fire through dead leaves. Captain Pollock got hold of the chauffeur with an expedition beyond the powers of any other A. D. C. in the force, only to be told that he was slower than a specified snail.

Several times in their wild scrimmage through the landscape of France they edged calamity by the thinness of a hair, but the general only urged them to drive faster.

They arrived at Mon Plaisir before the first western shadows covered the green terrace.

Mme. Nibaud was not at home. She had gone suddenly, it appeared, to Paris, nor was she expected to return. Nobody knew quite where she could be found. She was to meet, it appeared, M. Nibaud at one of the amicable interviews which still occasionally took place between them to their mutual advantage. M. Nibaud was a Swiss, and he ran a paper which was not very well thought of by the French police.

The general walked to and fro on the terrace for half an hour without speaking.

Captain Pollock watched him very unhappily from the drawing-room window. It seemed to him that every time the general turned and passed him, he looked a year older.

At the end of the half-hour the general gave him a signal.

"Send for the car again," he said sternly. "We must return to headquarters."

The general had been making up his mind whether to save himself or to save England, and he had decided that he could not save himself. This was the cost which Mme. Nibaud had prepared for him.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1963, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.