Read CHAPTER III of Four Days The Story of a War Marriage, free online book, by Hetty Hemenway, on ReadCentral.com.

Four days is a long, long time, Marjorie had said, for the hours that are breathlessly counted make long, long days; they are long as those of summer-childhood in passing. But ever, when it comes May, and the soft, chill breezes blow from the ocean across the sun-soaked sands, and the clouds run dazzling races with the sea gulls, Marjorie will feel herself running too, catching up breathless a few paces behind Leonard, as on that second afternoon on a wind-swept beach of the Kentish coast. Like mad things, their heads thrown back, hair flying, mouths open, the spray smiting their open eyes, with all the ecstasy of their new-found energy, they clambered over the slippery seaweed and leaped from rock to rock, swept along with the winds, daring the waves, shouting down the surf.

Marjorie, when those spring days come round again, will remember a little cove, sheltered from the wind, warmed by the fitful spring sunlight, where, panting, they threw themselves down on the sand, bodies glowing, faces to the sun.

“Hello, sun!” cried Marjorie.

“Hello, clouds!” cried Leonard.

“Hello, old sea gulls!” cried Marjorie, beginning to sneeze.

“God, but I feel fit; I feel glorious! Don’t you, Marjie?”

“Don’t I, though! I feel glorious. O God!” cried Marjorie, who did not know whether that was swearing or praying, and did not care.

Leonard ran his hands through the chill, warm sand, and watched a huge black spider promenading with bustling importance up his arm.

“The female spider eats the male as soon as he fertilizes the eggs, but he has to just the same,” said Leonard, dreamily.

“Let’s kill her,” said Marjorie.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“She’s a cannibal,” said Marjorie.

“No, it’s her instinct,” said Leonard.

He opened an alleyway for the spider in the sand, and, with his head down close, watched it hustling away. “It’s the same with us; we know we have every chance of being killed in this war, and we have to go, and we’re glad to. It’s not courage or sacrifice; it’s instinct.”

“You think so, Leonard?”

“It’s not nice to lie alongside of a man you’ve killed and watch him die,” said Leonard, inconsistently, eyes looking down into the sand, head pillowed on his arm.

“Did you have to, Len?”

“I didn’t exactly mean to kill him. He was wounded,” murmured Leonard, raising little white pools in the sand with his nostrils. “We had a rotten day and had taken a small position which didn’t amount to anything when we got it. Wasn’t I in a nasty sulk! Some of my green men had funked just at the crucial moment, and I had all but shot one. The ground was covered with wounded. Couldn’t tell theirs from ours. Awful mess. I was coming back across the field over dead bodies, and cursing every one I stumbled across. I suppose I felt pretty sick. I saw a helmet gleaming in some burnt shrubbery. It was a nice shiny one, with an eagle crest. It occurred to me you’d written me to send you one, ’because all the girls had them’ remember?”

Leonard rolled over close beside her and his head went down into the sand again.

“I went to pick it up, but it seems I got something else with it. A great blonde fellow in gray, all powdered with dust and bleeding, Jove! how he was bleeding! came up with it. It surprised me and he managed to knife me, and over I went, on top of him. I had my pistol cocked, and I let him have it right in the chest. I must have fainted, because when I came to I was on my back and the moon was shining in my eyes. The man in gray was there alongside of me, supporting himself on one arm and looking at me.

“‘I am dying,’ he said in German.

“That didn’t seem very interesting to me. So is everybody else, I thought; and I didn’t answer. Presently he said it again, in English: ‘I’m dying.’

“‘Really?’ said I.

“‘Yes,’ he answered.

“There was something impersonal in his tone, and he looked eery there in the moonlight, I can tell you, leaning on one arm and bleeding. Awfully good-looking chap. Built like a giant. He reminded me of a statue called the Dying Gaul, or something.”

“Oh, yes; I know that statue!”

“Well, he looked like that with all the fight going out of him. Suddenly he smiled at me.

“’Did you think you were playing your football when you came down on top of me that way, eh?’

“I say, I was a bit surprised. Football doesn’t seem a very congenial subject for a dying man; but do you know, we sat there and talked for an hour at least about all kinds of sports and athletics. You should have seen the way he kept tossing the hair out of his eyes and saying, ’Fine, fine!’ And then he’d boast, and tell me all about the things he’d done. I never saw a fellow built as he was. It seems that he was a champion in most everything. But after a while he seemed to get on to the fact that he was losing an awful lot of blood, and then he said again, ‘Schade.’ That was all. After two or three foolish tries I got up on my feet. The last I saw of him he was supporting himself on his arm, looking for all the world like that statue.

“They’d cleared off all the wounded, and only the dead were left. It was terribly still, and I could hear him choking, a long way off, as I came back across the lines. The next day I happened to stumble across him. It was bright sunshine, and he was like marble, and the ground all about was sticky. He was staring up in the sun with his head thrown back and his eyes open, and the strangest look! Well, anyway, it made me think of a chap I saw once make a rippingly clever catch at ball, with the sun shining straight in his eyes, while the crowds went wild, and he didn’t know what had happened for a minute. His helmet was still there beside him, keeping guard, sort of like a dog, and I took it back with me. I don’t know why.”

Leonard paused; then he said, suddenly, averting his eyes like a child caught in a wrong act, “That talk we had was so queer I mean it was as if don’t you know? as if we were well, sort of the same at heart. I mean, of course, if he hadn’t been German. War is queer,” he continued, lamely, raising his cropped head and looking off at the horizon. “Awfully queer,” he murmured, watching a dark cloud steal across the water, tarnishing all its bright surface.

Presently he spoke again.

“So many men have been killed Englishmen I mean; almost all the men I went to school with.” He started to count as if by rote: “Don and Robert, and Fred Sands, and Steve, and Philip and Sandy.” His voice was muffled in the sand. “Benjamin Robb and Cyril and Eustis, Rupert and Ted and Fat good old Fat!”

Lying close to Marjorie on the sand, his mighty young body still hot from the joyous contact of the noonday sun, his eyes, full of an uncomplaining and uncomprehending agony, sought hers; and Marjorie looked dumbly back with a feeling of desolation growing within her as vast and dreary as the gray expanse lapping beside them, for it seemed to her that Leonard was groping, pleading oh, so silently for an explanation, an inspiration deeper than anything he had known before a something immense that would make it all right, this gigantic twentieth-century work of killing; square it with the ideals and ideas that this most enlightened century had given him.

Marjorie strangled a fierce tide of feeling that welled up within her, and her eyes, bent on Leonard, were fierce because she loved him most and she had nothing, nothing to give him. For he had to go back, oh, he had to go back to-morrow, and he hated it so they all hated it the best of them! How clearly she saw through the superb, pitiful bluff, that it was all sport, “wonderful”! Wonderful? She knew, but she would never dare let Leonard see that she knew.

And still Leonard counted, his head in his arms: “Arnold and Allen, and Rothwood, and Jim Douglas, and Jack and Oh, Christ! I can’t count them all!” His voice trailed away and was lost in the sand, and the big clouds, spreading out faster and faster, swept over them.