The Man Who Could Have Told by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Literature

It was ten o’clock–a sunny, gusty morning in early September–when H.M.S. Berenice, second-class cruiser, left the Hamoaze and pushed slowly out into the Sound on her way to the China Seas.

From the Hoe, on a grassy slope below the great hotel, John Gilbart watched her as she thrust her long white side into view between Devil’s Point and the wooded slopes of Mount Edgcumbe; watched her as she stole past Drake’s Island and headed up the Asia passage. She kept little more than steerage way, threading her path among anchored yachts gay with bunting, and now and then politely slowing in the crowd of smaller craft under sail. For it was regatta morning. The tall club flagstaff behind and above Gilbart’s head wore its full code of signals, with blue ensign on the gaff and blue burgee at the topmast head, and fluttered them intermittently as the nor’westerly breeze broke down in flaws over the leads of the club-house. Below him half a dozen small boys with bundles of programmes came skirmishing up the hill through the sparse groups of onlookers. Off the promenade pier, where the excursion steamers bumped and reeked and blew their sirens, the committee-ship lay moored in a moving swarm of rowboats, dingies, and steam-launches. She flew her B signal as yet, but the seconds were drawing on toward the five-minute gun; and beyond, on the ruffled Sound, nine or ten yachts were manoeuvring and trimming their canvas; two forty-raters dodging and playing through the opening stage of their duel for the start; four or five twenties taking matters easy as yet; all with jackyards hoisted. To the eastward a couple of belated twenties came creeping out from their anchorage in Cattewater.

All this Gilbart’s gaze took in; with the stately merchantmen riding beyond the throng, and the low breakwater three miles away, and the blue horizon beyond all. Out of that blue from time to time came the low, jarring vibration which told of an unseen gunboat at practice; and from time to time a puff of white smoke from the Picklecombe battery held him listening for its louder boom. But he returned always to the Berenice moving away up the Asia passage, so cautiously that between whiles she seemed to be drifting; but always moving, with the smoke blown level from her buff-coloured funnels, with clean white sides and clean white ensign, and here and there a sparkle of sunlight on rail or gun-breech or torpedo-tube. She was bound on a three-years’ cruise; and Gilbart, who happened to know this and was besides something of a sentimentalist, detected pathos in this departure on a festival morning. It seemed to him–as she swung round her stern and his quick eye caught the glint of her gilded name with the muzzle of her six-inch gun on the platform above, foreshortened in the middle of its white screen like a bull’s-eye in a target–it seemed to him that this holiday throng took little heed of the three hundred odd men so silently going forth to do England’s work and fight her battles. On her deck yesterday afternoon he had shaken hands and parted with a friend, a stoker on board, and had seen some pitiful good-byes. His friend Casey, to be sure, was unmarried–an un-amiable man with a cynical tongue–with no one to regret him and no disposition to make a fuss over a three-years’ exile. But at the head of the ship’s ladder Gilbart had passed through a group of red-eyed women, one or two with babies at the breast. It was not a pretty sight: one poor creature had abandoned herself completely, and rocked to and fro holding on by the bulwarks and bellowing aloud. This and a vision of dirty wet handkerchiefs haunted him like a physical sickness.

Gilbart considered himself an Imperialist, read his newspaper religiously, and had shown great loyalty as secretary of a local sub-committee at the time of the Queen’s Jubilee, in collecting subscriptions among the dockyardsmen. Habitually he felt a lump in his throat when he spoke of the Flag. His calling–that of lay-assistant and auxiliary preacher (at a pinch) to a dockyard Mission–perhaps encouraged this surface emotion; but by nature he was one of those who need to make a fuss to feel they are properly patriotic. To his thinking every yacht in the Sound should have dipped her flag to the Berenice.

Surely even a salute of guns would not have been too much. But no: that is the way England dismisses her sons, without so much as a cheer!

He felt ashamed of this cold send-off; ashamed for his countrymen. “What do they know or care?” he asked himself, fastening his scorn on the backs of an unconscious group of country-people who had raced one another uphill from an excursion steamer and halted panting and laughing half-way up the slope. It irritated him the more when he thought of Casey’s pale, derisive face. He and Casey had often argued about patriotism; or rather he had done the arguing while Casey sneered. Casey was a stoker, and knew how fuel should be applied.

Casey made no pretence to love England. Gilbart never quite knew why he tolerated him. But so it was: they had met in the reading-room of a Sailors’ Home, and had somehow struck up an acquaintance, even a sort of unacknowledged friendship. Their common love of books may have helped; for Casey–Heaven knew where or how–had picked up an education far above Gilbart’s, and amazing in a common stoker. Also he wore some baffling, attractive mystery behind his reserve. Once or twice– certainly not half a dozen times–he had at a casual word pulled open for an instant the doors of his heart and given Gilbart a sensation of looking into a furnace, into white-hot depths, sudden and frightening. But what chiefly won him was the knowledge that in some perverse, involuntary and quite inexplicable way he was liked by this sullen fellow, who had no other friend and sought none. He knew the liking to be there as surely as he knew it to be shy and sullen, curt in expression, contemptuous of itself. Had he ever troubled to examine himself honestly, Gilbart must have acknowledged himself Casey’s inferior in all but amiability; and Casey no doubt knew this. But in friendship as in love there is usually one who likes and one who suffers himself to be liked, and the positions are not allotted by merit. Gilbart–a self-deceiver all his life–had accepted the compliment complacently enough.

The Berenice cleared the crowd and quickened her speed as the five-minute gun puffed out from the committee-ship and the Blue Peter ran up the halyards in the smoke. Gilbart turned his attention upon the two big yachts and followed their movements until the starting-gun was fired; saw them haul up and plunge over the line so close together that the crews might have shaken hands; watched them as they fluttered out their spinnakers for the run to the eastern mark, for all the world like two great white moths floating side by side swiftly but with no show of hurry. When he returned to the cruiser she was far away, almost off the western end of the breakwater–gone, so far as he was concerned and whoever else might be watching her from the shore; the parting over, the threads torn and snapped, her crew face to face now with the long voyage.

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He drew a long breath, and was aware for the first time of a woman standing about twenty yards on his left behind a group of chattering holiday-makers. He saw at a glance that she did not belong to them, but was gazing after the Berenice; a forlorn, tearless figure, with a handkerchief crumpled up into a ball in her hand. Affability was a part of Gilbart’s profession, and besides, he hated to see a woman suffer. He edged toward her and lifted his hat.

“I hope,” said he, “these persons are not annoying you? They don’t understand, of course. I, too, have a friend on the Berenice.”

The woman looked at him as though she heard but could not for the moment grasp what he said. She tightened her grip on the handkerchief and kept her lips firmly compressed.

Gilbart saw that, though tearless, her eyes wore traces of tears–no redness, but some swelling of the lids, with dark semicircles underneath.

“To them,” he went on, nodding toward the holiday-keepers, “it’s only regatta day. To them she’s only a passing ship helping to make up the pretty scene. They know nothing of the gallant hearts she carries or the sore ones she leaves behind. If they knew, I wonder if they’d care? The ordinary Anglo-Saxon has so little imagination!”

She was staring at him now, and at length seemed to understand. But with understanding there grew in her eyes a look of anger, almost of repugnance. “Oh, please go away!” she said.

He lifted his hat and obeyed; indeed, he walked off to the farthest end of the Hoe. He was hurt. He had a thin-skinned vanity, and hated to look small even before a stranger. That snub poisoned his morning, and although he looked at the yachts, his mind ran all the time upon the encounter. To be sure he had brought it upon himself, but he preferred to consider that he had meant kindly–had obviously meant kindly. He tried to invent a retort,–a gentle, dignified retort which would have touched her to a regret for her injustice–nothing more. Perhaps it was not yet too late to return and convey his protest under a delicate apology; or perhaps the mere sight of him, casually passing, might move her to make amends. He even strolled back some way with this idea, but she had disappeared.

The Berenice had vanished too; around Penlee Point no doubt. He remembered the field-glasses slung in a case by his hip and was fumbling with the leather strap when a drop of rain fell on his hand, the herald of a smart shower. A dark squall came whistling down the Hamoaze; and standing there in the fringe of it he saw it strike and spread itself out like a fan over the open Sound at his feet, blotting the sparkle out of the water, while some of the small boats heeled to it and others ran up into the wind and lay shaking. It was over in five minutes, and the sun broke out again before the rain ceased falling; but Gilbart decided that there was more to follow. He had not come out to keep holiday, and an unfinished manuscript waited for him in his lodgings–an address on True Manliness, to be delivered two evenings hence in the Mission Room to lads under eighteen. Though he delivered them without manuscript, Gilbart always prepared his addresses carefully and kept the fair copies in his desk. He lived in hope of being reported some day, and then–who could say but a book might be called for?

His lodgings lay midway down a long, dreary street of small houses, each with a small yard at the back, each built of brick and stuccoed, all as like as peas, all inhabited by dockyardsmen or the families of gunners, artificers, and petty officers in the navy. Prospect Place was its deceptive name, and it ran parallel with three precisely similar thoroughfares–Grafton Place, Alderney Place, and Belvedere Avenue. These four–with a cross-street, where the Mission Room stood facing a pawnbroker’s–comprised Gilbart’s field of labour.

He reached home a little after twelve, ate his dinner, and fell to work on his manuscript. By half-past three he had finished all but the peroration. Gilbart prided himself on his perorations; and knowing from experience that it helped him to ideas and phrases he caught up his hat and went out for a walk.

During that walk he did indeed catch and fix the needed sentences. But, as it happened, he was never afterward able to recall one of them. All he remembered was that much rain must have fallen; for the pavements which had been dry in the morning were glistening, and the roadways muddy and with standing puddles. On his way homeward each of these puddles reflected the cold, pure light of the dying day, until Prospect Place might have been a street in the New Jerusalem, paved with jasper, beryl, and chrysoprase. So much he remembered, and also that his feet must have taken him back to the Hoe, where the crowd was thicker and the regatta drawing to an end–a few yachts only left to creep home under a greenish sky, out of which the wind was fast dying. He had paused somewhere to listen to a band: he could give no further account to himself.

For this was what had happened: as he entered his lodgings and closed the front door, the letter-box behind it fell open and he saw a sealed envelope lying inside. He picked it out and read the address.

“Mrs. Wilcox!” he called down the passage. “When did this come?”

Mrs. Wilcox, appearing at the kitchen door and wiping her hands, could not tell. The midday post or else the three o’clock. There were no others. Come to think of it, she had heard a postman’s knock when she was dishing up the dinner, but had supposed it to be next door. It sounded like next door.

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Gilbart took the letter upstairs with him. The address was in Casey’s handwriting. “Queer fellow, Casey.” He broke the seal in the little bay window. “Just like him, though, to shake hands yesterday without a spark of feeling, and then send his good-byes to reach me after he was well on his way.” He drew out the inclosure, unfolded it, and saw that the paper bore the printed address of the Sailors’ Home where Casey dossed when ashore, and where writing-paper was supplied gratis. “Couldn’t have come ashore after I left him: he’d paid his bill at the Rest and his bag was aboard. Must have had this in his pocket all the time; might just as well have handed it to me–with instructions not to open it–and saved the stamp. What a secretive old chap it is!”

He held the letter close to his eyes in the waning daylight.


“DEAR JOHN,–By the time this reaches you we shall have started; and by then, or a little later, I shall have gone and the Berenice with me. If you ask where, I don’t know; but it is where we shall never meet.

“You serve your country in your own way. I am going to serve mine. Perhaps I shall also be serving yours; for it is only by striking terribly and without warning that the brave men in this world can get even with the cowards who make its laws.

“One thing I envy you–you’ll be alive to see the rage of the sheep. I am playing this hand alone and without help. So when your silly newspapers begin to cry out about secret societies, you will know. I never belonged to one in my life.

“I think I am sorriest about the way you’ll think of me. But that makes no real difference, because I know it to be foolish. I have the stuff on board and the little machine. I cannot fix the time to an hour up or down; but you may take it for sure that some time between 10 p.m. and midnight the Berenice will be at the bottom of the sea with

“Yours, P. C.”

While John Gilbart read this there was silence in the stuffy little room, and for some minutes after. Then he stepped to the mantelpiece for the match-box and candle. A small ormolu clock ticked there, and while he groped for the matches he put out a hand to stop the noise, which had suddenly grown intolerable. He desisted, remembering that he did not know how the clock worked–that Mrs. Wilcox, who wound it up religiously on Monday mornings, was proud of it, and–anyway, that wasn’t the machine he wanted to stop. He found a match, lit it and held it close to the letter.

The match burned low, scorched his fingers. He dropped it in the fender, where it flickered out, just missing the “waterfall” of shavings with which Mrs. Wilcox decorated her fireplace in the summer months. He did not light another, but went back to the window and stood there, quite still.

Down the street to the westward, over the wet roofs still glimmering in the twilight, one pale green rift divided the heavy clouds, and in that rift the last of the daylight was dying. Across the way, in the house facing him, a woman was lighting a lamp. As a rule the inhabitants of Prospect Place did not draw the blinds of their upper rooms until they closed the shutters also and went to bed: and Gilbart looked straight into the little parlour. But he saw nothing.

He was trying–vainly trying–to bring his mind to it. Nothing really big had happened to him before: and his first feeling, characteristically selfish, was that this terrible thing had risen up to alter all the rest of his life. He must disentangle himself, get away to a distance and have a look at it. His brain was buzzing. Yes, there it rose, like a black wall between this moment and all the hours to come; a brute barrier stretching clean across the prospect. Again and again he brought his mind up to it as you might coax a horse up to a fence; again and again it refused. Each time in the last few steps his heart froze, extending its chill until every separate faculty hung back springless and inert. And there was no getting round!

Why had this happened to him of all people? It never for a moment occurred to him to doubt Casey’s word. He saw it now; hideous as the deed was, Casey was capable of it–had always been capable of it. Let it go for a miserable tribute to Casey’s honesty in the past that Gilbart accepted the infernal statement at once and without suspicion. He knew now that from the bottom of their intercourse this candid devil had been grinning up at him all the time; only his own cowardly, comfortable habit of seeing the world as he wished it had kept his eyes turned from the truth. Men don’t as a rule commit crimes; not one man in millions translates himself into a crime of this sort; the odds against his daring it are only to be told in millions. Yet it had happened. Man or devil, Casey never paltered with his creed; if the world differed from him, then it was Casey against the world; a hopeless business for him, yet he would get in a blow if possible. And Casey had got in his blow. The incredible had happened; but (Gilbart groaned) why had it happened to him? In his stupefaction he returned again and again upon this, catching in the flood at that one little straw of self; not inhumanly, as callous to the ruin of others; but pitifully, meanly, because it was the one thing familiar in the roar and din. He cursed Casey; cursed him for betraying his friendship. The man had no right– He pulled up suddenly, with a laugh. After all, Casey had played the game, had faced the music, and would go down with the Berenice. One soul against three hundred and fifty, perhaps; not what you would call atonement; but, after all, the best he had to offer. Wonder how many Samson pulled down with him at Gaza? Wonder if the Bible says?

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“Beg pardon, Mr. Gilbart?”

It was Mrs. Wilcox standing in the doorway with his tea on a tray.

“It–it was nothing,” he stammered. She must have heard his laugh.

“Talking to yourself? I often hear you at it over your sermons and things; sometimes at your dressing, too; I hears you when I’m in here doing up the room. You’d like the lamp lit, I suppose?” She set down the tray.

“Not just yet.”

“Well, it’s a bad habit, reading with your meals.”

“It’s not worth while to bring a lamp. I must drink my tea in a hurry, and run out. I have an engagement.”

He heard her go out and close the door. “Casey had no right. It was a betrayal. If the man were bent on this infernal crime–put the atrocity of it aside for a moment–call it just an ordinary crime; . . . but why need he have written that letter? Why involve him? Well, not involve, perhaps; still there was a kind of responsibility–“

His eyes had been fastened on the little parlour across the road. The woman after lighting the lamp had set it in the centre of a round table and left the room. Between this table and the hearth an old man sat in an arm-chair, smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper. The back of the chair was turned toward the window, but over it Gilbart could see the crown of a grey head and small, steady puffs of smoke ascending between it and the upper edge of the paper. A light appeared in the room above; the light of a candle behind the drawn blind. It lasted there perhaps for ten minutes, and once the woman’s shadow moved across the blind.

The light went out, and after a minute or two the woman reappeared in the parlour. She carried a work-basket, and after speaking a word with the old man in the chair she set the basket down on the table, drew up a chair and began to darn a child’s stocking. Now and then she looked up as if listening for some sound or movement in the room overhead, but after a moment or two began to ply her needle again. The needle moved more slowly–stopped–she bowed her head over the stocking. Gilbart knew why. She was the wife of a petty officer on the Berenice. The old man in the chair went on reading.

All this while a light had been growing in Gilbart’s brain, and now he saw. In this street, and the next, and the next, lived scores who had sons, husbands, brothers on board the Berenice; thin walls of brick and plaster dividing to-night their sore hearts and their prayers; a whole town with its hopes and its happy days given into keeping of one ship; not its love only but its trust for life’s smallest comforts following her as she moved away through the darkness. And he alone knew! He had only to throw open the window–to fling four words into that silent street–to shout, “The Berenice is lost!”–and with the breath of it windows would fly open, partitions fall down, and all those privacies meet and answer in one terrible outcry. He put up a hand to thrust it away–this awful gift of power. He would have none of it; he was unfit. “Oh, my God!”–it was he, not Casey, who held the real infernal machine. It was here, not in the Berenice, that the levin must fall; and he, John Gilbart, held it in his fingers. “Oh, my God, I am unfit–thrust not this upon me!”

But there was no escape. He must take his hat and run–run to the Port Admiral. The errand was useless, he knew; for all the while at the back of his soul’s confusion some practical corners of his brain had been working at the problem of time–was there time to follow and prevent? There was not. He knew the Berenice’s natural speed to be eighteen knots. Put it at sixteen, fifteen even; still not the fastest destroyer in the port–following in a bee-line–could overtake her by midnight. And there might be, must be, delays. Yet God, too, might interfere; some providential accident might delay the cruise. He must run, at any rate. He picked up his hat and ran.

Now that he was taking action–doing something–the worst horror of responsibility left him for a while; he seemed to have cast some of it already off his own shoulders and on to the Admiral’s. As he ran he found time to think of Casey. Casey was doing this thing–not in hatred or in villainy for gain–but because it seemed to him right–right, or at least necessary. Casey was laying down his own life in the deed. How could man, framed in God’s image, expect ultimate good out of devilish cruelty? Yet from the world’s beginning men had murdered and tortured each other on this only plea; had butchered women and the very babes; had stamped upon God’s image and–marvel of marvels–for its soul’s salvation, not for their own advantage. At every stride Gilbart felt his moral footing, trusted for years without question, cracking and crumbling and swirling away in blocks. Red flames leapt into the fissures and filled them. The end of the world had surely come; but–he must run to the Admiral! He kept that uppermost in his mind, and ran.

The windows of the Admiralty House blazed with light. The Admiral’s wife was giving a dinner and a dance, and already a small crowd had gathered to see the earlier guests arrive. The sight dashed Gilbart. Suddenly he remembered that the letter had reached him by the afternoon post. It was now half-past seven, and he would have to explain the interval; for of course the Admiral would suspect the whole story at first. Gilbart knew the official manner; he had been privileged to study the fine flower of it in this particular Admiral one afternoon six months before, when the great man had condescended to sit on the platform at the Mission anniversary. “Tut, tut–a stupid practical joke “–that would be the beginning; and then would follow cross-examination in the coldest court-martial fashion. Well, he could explain; but it would be just as well to have the story pat beforehand.

One minute–ten minutes went by. Cabs rattled up and private carriages; officers in glittering uniforms, ladies muffled in silk and swansdown stepped past the policeman behind whom Gilbart hesitated. This would never do; better he had gone in with the story hot on his lips. He twitched the policeman’s elbow.

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“May I pass, please? I want to see the Admiral.”

“That’s likely, ain’t it?”

“But I have a message for him; an urgent one–one that won’t keep a moment!”

“Why, I have seen you hanging round here this quarter hour with these very eyes! ‘Won’t keep’? Here, you get out!”

“I tell you–“

“Oh, deliver us!” the policeman interrupted. “What’s the matter with you? Come to keep the Admiral’s dinner cold while you hand over command of the Channel Fleet?” He winked heavily at one or two of the nearest in the crowd, and they laughed.

Gilbart eyed them savagely. He had a word in his mouth which would stop their laughing; and for one irrational moment he was near speaking it, near launching against half a dozen loafers the bolt which only to hold and handle had aged him ten years in an hour. The word was even on his tongue when a carriage passed and at its open window a young girl leaned forward and looked out on the crowd. Her face in the light of the entrance-lamp was exquisitely fair, delicately rose and white as the curved inner lip of a sea-shell. At her throat, where her cloak-collar fell back a little, showing its quilted lining of pale blue satin, a diamond necklace shimmered, and a rosebud of diamonds in her hair sparkled so that it seemed to dance. It caught Gilbart’s eye, and somehow it seemed to lift and remove her and the house she was entering–the lit windows, the guests, the Admiral himself–into another world. If it were real, then (like enough) this fragile thing, this Dresden goddess, owned a brother, perhaps a lover, on board the Berenice. If so, here was another world waiting to be shattered–a world of silks and toys and pretty uniforms and tiny bric-a-brac–a sort of doll’s house inhabited by angels at play. But could it be real? Could such a world exist and be liable as his own to It? Could the same brutal touch destroy this fabric and the sordid privacies of Prospect Place–all in a run like a row of card-houses?

“Never you mind ‘im, Mister Gilbart,” said a voice at his elbow, and he turned and looked in the face of a girl who, in an interval of dressmaking, had once helped him with his district work.

“Him?”

“The peeler,” Milly Sanders nodded; and it flashed on Gilbart that the policeman’s joke, the carriage, the girl’s face and these thoughts of his had all gone by in something less than ten seconds. “He’ve got the ‘ump to-night, that’s what’s the matter with ‘im.” And Milly Sanders nodded again reassuringly.

“What are you doing here?” Gilbart asked.

“Me? Oh, it’s in the way of business, as you might say. I comes here to pick up ‘ints. I s’pose now you thought ’twasn’t very feelin’-‘earted, and my Dick gone away foreign only this mornin’?”

He remembered now that the girl’s zeal for Mission work had cooled ever since she had been walking-out with her Dick–a young stoker in the Berenice.

“I reckon that’s the last of the dinner-guests. The others won’t be comin’ much before ten. Well, I’m off to the ‘Oe; there’s going to be fireworks, and that’s the best place for seein’.”

“In the way of business, too, I suppose?” said Gilbart, and wondered how he could say it.

Milly giggled. “You ‘ad me there,” she confessed. “But what’s the good to give way? I’m sure”–with conviction–“it’s just what Dick would like me to do. I’m going, anyway. So long!” She paused: “that is– unless you’d like to come along, too?”

It was, after all, astonishingly easy. Even if he found and convinced the Admiral, nothing could be done. Why then should he hasten all this misery? Was it not, rather, an act of large mercy to hold back the news? Say that by holding his tongue he delayed it by twenty-four hours; life after all was made up of days and not so very many of them. By silence then–it stood to reason–he gained from woe a clear day for hundreds. Meanwhile here stood one of those hundreds. Might he not give her, under the very shadow of fate, an hour or two of actual, positive happiness? He told himself this, knowing all the while that he lied. He knew that the thing was easier to put off than to do. He knew that he took Milly’s arm in his not to comfort her (although he meant to do this, too) but to drug his own conscience, and because he was mad– yes, mad–for human company and support. For hours–it seemed for weeks–he had been isolated, alone with that secret and his own soul. He could bear it no longer; he must ease the torment–only for a little–then perhaps he would go back to the Admiral. Chatter was what he wanted, the sound of a fellow-creature’s voice, babbling no matter what. He knew also that he bought this respite at a price, and the price must be paid terribly when he came to wake. And yet he found it astonishingly easy to take Milly’s arm.

“But I say,” she rattled on, “you must be soft!”

“Why?” He was drinking in the sound of her words, letting the sense run by him.

“Why, to suppose the Admiral would see you at this time. What was it about?”

“Please go on talking.”

“Well, I am. What did you want to see the Admiral for? Some Mission business, I s’pose. . . .Oh, you needn’t tell if you don’t choose; I’m not dying to hear.”

They stood side by side on the Hoe, watching the fireworks. Three or four searchlights were playing over the Sound, turned now upon the anchored craft, now upward, following the rockets, and again downward, crisscrossing their white rays as if to catch the dropping multi-coloured stars. “O–o–oh!” exclaimed Milly, as each shower of rockets exploded. “But what makes you jump like that?”

“I say,” he asked after a time, “since we’ve come to enjoy ourselves why not do the thing thoroughly? What do you say to the theatre after this?”

“The theatre! Well, you are gettin’ on! That would be ‘eavenly. They’ve got the ‘Charity Girl’ on this week–Gertie Lennox dancing. But don’t you disapprove of that sort of thing?”

“So I–I mean I don’t make a practice of it. But perhaps–once in a way–“

“I love it; though ’tisn’t often I gets the chance. I dunno what Dick would say, though.”

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She said it archly, meaning to suggest that Dick might be jealous. John Gilbart misunderstood.

“But that’s foolish. Why not to-night as well as any other night? What difference can it make to–to–” He broke off, laughing a little wildly. “We’ll go and give each other moral support. We’ll take tickets for the pit–no, the dress circle!”

“The dress circle!” There was awe in Milly’s voice; her hand went up to her head. “They make you take your ‘at off there. Oh, I couldn’t!” But he caught her by the arm and hurried her off almost at a run–the girl giggling and panting and beginning to enjoy herself amazingly.

The performance had begun; but they found seats in the front row of the dress circle, almost before she had ceased panting, and Milly was unpinning her hat and glancing up at the gallery on the chance of an envious friendly recognition. The lights, the colours, the clash of brass in the orchestra made Gilbart’s head spin. A stout tenore robusto in the uniform of a naval lieutenant was parading the stage in halos of mauve and green lime-light, and bawling his own praises to a semicircle of females. Gilbart’s ear caught and retained but a line or two of their shrill chorus:

Through the world so wide
He’s old England’s pride,
But we’er glad now he’s come back:
For he’s dressed in blue,
And he’s always true–
Heaven bless you, dear old Jack!

The sentiments of this ditty did not materially differ from those which Gilbart was in the habit of assimilating from his morning newspaper; nor were they much more fatuously expressed. Twenty-four hours ago he might even have applauded them as noisily as anyone in the enraptured house. Now his gorge rose against the song, the complacent singer, the men and women who could be amused by such things. Could this be what they called the joy of living? Milly’s eyes had begun to sparkle. He forgot that in this very contempt the theatre was providing what he had come to seek–a drug for conscience. And before he recognised this the drug was weakening. Horribly, stealthily, It began to reassert itself. These people–what would happen if he stood up in his place and shouted It? His mind played with the temptation; he saw white faces, men standing and looking up at him, the performance on the stage arrested, the orchestra mute; almost he heard his voice ring out over the sudden frozen consternation. No; he gripped the velvet cushion before him. “I must sit it out. I will sit it out.”

And he did, though he suffered horribly. Milly found him a desperately dull companion, but luckily her neighbours’ dresses and ornaments diverted her between the acts. She would have liked an orange; but it appeared that oranges were not eaten in the dress circle.

Outside the theatre door in the great portico Gilbart flung up both hands and let out a long, shuddering sigh.

“My! What’s the matter with you?” asked Milly.

“Come along and have some supper.”

He led her to a supper-room. “Well, you do know how to do things,” she said. But it frightened her when he ordered champagne. She looked at him nervously. “I’ve never tasted it,” she confessed; “and”–with a glance around the room–“and I don’t think I like it.”

She drank her glassful, however, while he finished the pint bottle. Then she picked up her worn gloves.

“Must we be going?” The end had come and worse torment must begin.

“Of course we must; and ‘igh time too, if you knew what mother’ll say when I get home. You mustn’t think I ‘aven’t enjoyed myself, though,” she added, “because I ‘ave.”

Out in the street as they walked arm in arm she unbent still further. “I shall tell mother, of course. She won’t mind when she knows it’s you, because you’re so respectable. But girls ‘ave to be careful.”

At her door she paused before saying good-night. She loved Dick, of course; but she wondered a little what Mr. Gilbart meant. His manner had been so queer when he said, “Must we be going?”

For a moment she waited, half expecting him to say something, meaning to be angry if he said it. Such was her crude idea of coquettishness. But John Gilbart merely shook hands, waited until the door closed behind her, and bent his steps toward home.

That was in the next street. He walked briskly up to the door–then turned on his heel and strode away rapidly. He could not go upstairs; could not face the silent hours alone. As he retreated the front door was opened. Mrs. Wilcox had been sitting up for him, and had heard and recognised his footstep. He ran. After a minute the door was closed again.

At nine o’clock next morning a sentry on the seaward side of Tregantle Fort saw a man sitting below in the sunshine on the edge of the cliff, and took him for a tramp. It was John Gilbart. He had spent the night trudging the streets, but always returning to the pavement in front of one or the other of the two important newspaper offices. Lights shone in the upper windows of each, but all was quiet; and he saw the men leave one by one and walk away into darkness with brisk but regular footfall. A little before dawn he had caught the newspaper-train for the west, left it at the first station over the Cornish border and set his face toward the sea. His walk took him past dewy hedgerows over which the larks sang. But he neither saw nor heard. A deep peace had fallen upon him. He knew himself now; had touched the bottom of his cowardice, his falsity. He would never be happy again, but he could never deceive himself again; no, not though God interfered.

He looked out on the sunshine with purged eyes. Now and then he listened, as if for some sound from the horizon or the great town behind him.

Had God interfered? How still the world was!

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