Read CHAPTER XVII of "The Pomp of Yesterday" , free online book, by Joseph Hocking, on ReadCentral.com.

A NEW DEVELOPMENT

Charlie Buller, as Lady Bolivick had called him, was a young fellow about twenty-four years of age, and was first lieutenant in the Devonshire yeomanry. He had been wounded in France, and some time before my return to England had been in a hospital in London. Only a few days before he had been discharged from the hospital, and had now returned to his Devonshire home on leave. He was the only son of a squire whose lands joined those of Sir Thomas Bolivick, and was, as Norah Blackwater told me during the evening, a suitor for Lorna Bolivick’s hand.

‘I think it is as good as settled,’ she said to me, ’although no engagement has been announced. He will be a splendid match for her, too, and owns one of the finest estates in Devonshire. Didn’t you see how excited Lorna became when she heard that he had come?’

This was the first time I had seen Springfield since I had helped Edgecumbe to dig him from under a heap of rubbish in France.

They had both dined early, they said, and the night being fine, had motored over, Charlie Buller’s home being only four miles from Bolivick.

Buller was a good-looking boy, fresh-coloured, curly-haired, and although in no way remarkable, quite likeable. Springfield I liked less now than when I had first seen him. His face looked paler and less wholesome than ever. The old scar which I had noticed on our first meeting revealed itself more plainly, while his somewhat sinister appearance repelled me.

Sir Thomas, however, gave him a hearty greeting, and welcomed him to his house with great cordiality. Sir Thomas had dined well, and was by this time in great good humour.

‘This is splendid!’ he cried, ’four men in khaki here all together! Ah, don’t I wish my boys were at home to complete the party! But there, never mind, please God they’ll come back.’

Springfield was introduced to Edgecumbe as though he were an entire stranger, and neither of them gave the slightest indication that they had ever met before. I wondered, as I saw them, whether Springfield had been aware of the name of the man who had, in all probability, saved him from death. I did not quite see how he could have been ignorant of it, and yet, from the way he greeted Edgecumbe, it might have been that he was in entire ignorance.

But one thing was evident to me. He hated him, and what was more, feared him. I could see his face quite plainly, and there was no mistaking the look in his eyes. The conversation I had heard while lying in that copse in France months before flashed back to my mind, and I knew that in some way the life of Captain Springfield was linked to that of Edgecumbe, and that if the truth were known evil forces were at work. What they were, I could not divine, but that they existed I had no doubt whatever.

I soon realized, too, that he exercised a great influence over young Buller. That ruddy-faced, fair-haired young fellow was but as wax in his hands. There seemed no reason why I should be disturbed at this, but I was. I was apprehensive of the future.

Another thing struck me, too. In a way, which I could not understand, he was wearing down Lorna Bolivick’s former repugnance to him. As my readers may remember, she had greatly disliked him at their first meeting, and had told me in confidence that he made her think of snakes. Now she listened to him eagerly, and seemed fascinated by his presence. I had to admit, too, that the fellow talked well, and although he was anything but an Apollo in appearance, he possessed a charm of manner which I could not deny.

I must confess that I felt angry at this. In spite of my admiration of his strength, I disliked him intensely. I was sure he wore a mask, and that some dark mystery surrounded his life. So angry was I, that I determined if possible to turn the tables upon him. And so, at the close of one of his stories, I broke in upon the conversation.

‘Yes, Captain Springfield,’ I said, ’what you say is quite true. The quiet heroism shown by fellows whom the world regarded as entirely commonplace is simply wonderful, and a great deal of it has never come to light. By the way, you wouldn’t have been here to-night but for the heroism of a man whose action you seem to have forgotten.’

‘Is that so?’ he asked. ’It is quite possible, although I am not aware of what you are thinking.’

‘Surely you must be aware of it?’ I replied.

He looked at me curiously, as though he were in doubt whether I was friendly disposed towards him.

‘I wish you’d tell me exactly what you mean,’ he said.

’Surely you are aware of what happened to you, and why you were sent to hospital, and why you are home on sick leave now?’

‘To tell you the truth, I know precious little,’ he replied. ’All I remember is the shriek of a shell, the noise of ten thousand thunders, absolute blackness, and then coming to consciousness in a hospital.’

’Then you don’t know what happened between the noise of the ten thousand thunders and awaking in the hospital?’

‘No,’ he replied, ’I don’t. I do remember inquiring, but I was told to be quiet, and when, on my becoming stronger, I was removed to the base, no one seemed to be able to tell me what had happened to me. I should be jolly glad to know. Perhaps you can tell me’; and there was a suggestion of a sneer in his voice.

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I can.’

By this time there was a deathly silence in the room. In a way which I had not imagined I had changed the whole atmosphere of the place.

‘As it happened,’ I said, ’I had a curious experience myself, close to where you were. A shell had exploded not far from me, and I was half buried, besides receiving a tremendous shock. I managed to drag myself out from under the debris, however, and was in a confused kind of way trying to find my men. You know what an awful day that was; the Germans had located us to a nicety, and were sending tons of explosives on us. It was one of the hottest times I have ever known.’

‘Heavens! it was,’ he said, and I thought he shuddered.

‘We had passed the Germans’ first line,’ I continued, ’and I was struggling along in the open, hardly knowing what I was doing, when I saw some men whom I thought I recognized. I heard the awful whine of a shell, which fell close by, and it was not a dud. It exploded with a tremendous noise, and for some time I was wellnigh blinded by dust and sulphurous smoke. A great hole had been torn in the ground, and a huge heap of rubbish hurled up. After a bit I saw a man digging as if for very life. He was right out in the open, and in the greatest danger a man could be. The men who were still alive shouted to him to get into the shell-hole, but he went on digging.’

I was silent for a few seconds. I did not know how best to conclude the story.

‘Well, what happened?’ he asked.

‘He dug you out,’ I replied.

‘How do you know it was I?’

‘Because I helped to carry you to a place of safety.’

’By Jove! I knew nothing about it. But who was the chap who dug me out? I should like to know.’

‘Surely you know?’

‘I told you I was unconscious for several days,’ was his answer, ’and when I asked questions, was told nothing. Who was the chap who dug me out? I I should like to thank him.’

‘He is there,’ I replied, nodding towards Edgecumbe, who seemed to be deeply interested in Bairnfather’s Five Months at the Front.

‘What!’ he cried. ‘Did did’ The sentence died in an unintelligible mutter. He seemed to utter a name I could not catch. All the time I was watching him intently, and never shall I forget the look that passed over his face. He had been very pale before, but now his pallor was ghastly. For a moment he looked almost like a dead man, save for the gleam in his eyes. He was like one struggling with himself, struggling to obtain the mastery over some passion in his own heart.

It was some seconds before he spoke again, and then, in spite of my dislike for him, I could not help admiring him. The sinister gleam passed away from his eyes, and a look of seemingly great gladness came into his face. A second later, he had crossed the room to where Edgecumbe was.

‘I say, Edgecumbe,’ he said, ‘was it you who did that for me?’ and he held out his hand with frank heartiness.

‘Did what?’ asked Edgecumbe quietly.

‘What what Luscombe has been talking about. You heard, of course?’

For a moment Edgecumbe looked at him awkwardly. For the second time during that evening I had subjected him to an experience which he hated.

‘I wish Luscombe wouldn’t talk such rot,’ he replied; ’after all, it was nothing.’

‘Oh, but it was!’ was Springfield’s reply. ’Give me your hand, man, you saved my life. The doctors told me afterwards I had a near shave, and and there, you understand, don’t you?’

Seemingly he was overcome with emotion, and for some time he lapsed into silence. The others in the room were greatly moved, too too moved to speak freely. There were none of those effusive congratulations which might seem natural under the circumstance. In a way the situation was dramatic, and we all felt it.

Although he promised to come over on the following day, he seemed very subdued as he bade us good night, though I thought he struggled to speak naturally. It was only when he parted with Edgecumbe, however, that he showed any signs of emotion.

‘Good night,’ he said, as he grasped his hand. ’I shan’t pretend to thank you. Words fail, don’t they? But I shall never forget you, never never; and if ever I can pay you back

He stopped short, and seemed to be struggling to say more, but no words escaped him. A minute later he had left the house.

I had barely entered my room that night, when Edgecumbe knocked at the door which led from his apartment to mine. ‘May I come in?’ he asked.

I opened the door, and scarcely noticing me he staggered to an arm-chair, and threw himself into it.

‘I want to tell you something,’ he said.

‘Well, what is it?’

But he did not speak. He sat staring into vacancy.

‘Come, old man,’ I said, after a lapse of many minutes, ‘what is it?’

‘If I weren’t sure there was another life,’ was his reply, ’I I should go mad.’

‘Go mad! Why?’

‘Because this life is such a mockery, such a ghastly, hollow mockery!’

‘Don’t be silly. Why is it a mockery?’

‘I don’t suppose you can understand,’ he said, ’not even you. Oh, I am a fool!’

‘How has that fact so suddenly dawned on you?’ I asked with a laugh.

’I was mad to come here, mad to see her. Why, just think, here am I, without name, without home, without without anything! But how did I know! Am I to blame? I couldn’t help falling in love with her.’

‘Falling in love with her! With whom?’

’You must know; you must have seen. It is driving me mad, Luscombe! I would, I would, oh, God knows what I would do to get her! But think of it! Think of the ghastly mockery of it! There she is, young, fair, beautiful, a fit mate for the best in the world, and I think of what I am! Besides, there’s that man, I know him, I know him, Luscombe.’