Read CHAPTER VII - THE THATCHED COTTAGE of Captain Jim , free online book, by Mary Grant Bruce, on ReadCentral.com.

But for the narrow white beds, you would hardly have thought that the big room was a hospital ward. In days before all the world was caught into a whirlpool of war it had been a ballroom. A famous painter had made the vaulted ceiling an exquisite thing of palest blush-roses and laughing Cupids, tumbling among vine-leaves and tendrils. The white walls bore long panels of the same design. There were no fittings for light visible: when darkness fell, the touch of a button flooded the room with a soft glow, coming from some unseen source in the carved cornice. The shining floor bore heavy Persian rugs, and there were tables heaped with books and magazines; and the nurses who flitted in and out were all dainty and good to look at. All about the room were splendid palms in pots; from giants twenty feet high, to lesser ones the graceful leaves of which could just catch the eye of a tired man in bed fresh from the grim ugliness of the trenches. It was the palms you saw as you came in not the beds here and there among them.

A good many of the patients were up this afternoon, for this was a ward for semi-convalescents. Not all were fully dressed: they moved about in dressing-gowns, or lay on the sofas, or played games at the little tables. One man was in uniform: Major Hunt, who sat in a big chair near his bed, and from time to time cast impatient glances at the door.

“Wish we weren’t going to lose you, Major,” said a tall man in a purple dressing-gown, who came up the ward with wonderful swiftness, considering that he was on crutches. “But I expect you’re keen to go.”

“Oh, yes; though I’ll miss this place.” Major Hunt cast an appreciative glance down the beautiful room. “It has been great luck to be here; there are not many hospitals like this in England. But well, even if home is only a beastly little flat in Bloomsbury it is home, and I shall be glad to get back to my wife and the youngsters. I miss the kids horribly.”

“Yes, one does,” said the other.

“I daresay I’ll find them something of a crowd on wet days, when they can’t get out,” said Major Hunt, laughing. “The flat is small, and my wretched nerves are all on edge. But I want them badly, for all that. And it’s rough on my wife to be so much alone. She has led a kind of wandering life since war broke out sometimes we’ve been able to have the kids with us, but not always.” He stretched himself wearily. “Gad! how glad I’ll be when the Boche is hammered and we’re able to have a decent home again!”

“We’re all like that,” said the other man. “I’ve seen my youngsters twice in the last year.”

“Yes, you’re worse off than I am,” said Major Hunt. He looked impatiently towards the door, fidgeting. “I wish Stella would come.”

But when a nurse brought him a summons presently, and he said good-bye to the ward and went eagerly down to the ground-floor (in an electric lift worked by an earl’s daughter in a very neat uniform), it was not his wife who awaited him in a little white-and-gold sitting-room, but a very tall man, looking slightly apologetic.

“Your wife is perfectly well,” said David Linton, checking the quick inquiry that rose to the soldier’s lips. “But I persuaded her to give me the job of calling for you to-day: our car is rather more comfortable than a taxi, and the doctor thought it would be a good thing for you to have a little run first.”

Major Hunt tried not to look disappointed, and failed signally.

“It’s awfully good of you,” he said courteously. “But I don’t believe I’m up to much yet and I’m rather keen on getting home. If you wouldn’t mind going there direct.”

David Linton cast an appealing look at the nurse, who had accompanied her patient. She rose to the occasion promptly.

“Now, Major Hunt,” she protested. “Doctor’s orders! You promised to take all the exercise you could, and a run in the car would be the very thing for you.”

“Oh, very well.” Major Hunt’s voice was resigned. David Linton leaned towards him.

“I’ll make it as short as I can,” he said confidentially. They said good-bye, and emerged into Park Lane, where the big blue motor waited.

“Afraid you must think me horribly rude,” said the soldier, as they started. “Fact is, I’m very anxious to see my youngsters: I don’t know why, but Stella wouldn’t bring them to the hospital to see me this last week. But it’s certainly jolly to be out again.” He leaned back, enjoying the comfort of the swift car. “I suppose ” he hesitated “it would be altogether too much trouble to go round by the flat and pick up my wife and Geoff. They would love a run.”

“Oh! Ah! The flat yes, the flat!” said David Linton, a little wildly. “I’m afraid that is, we should be too early. Mrs. Hunt would not expect us so soon, and she er she meant to be out, with all the children. Shopping. Fatted calf for the prodigal’s return, don’t you know. Awfully sorry.”

“Oh, it’s quite all right,” said Major Hunt, looking rather amazed. “Only she doesn’t generally take them all out. But of course it doesn’t matter.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said his host, regaining his composure. “We’ll take all of you out to-morrow Mrs. Hunt and the three youngsters as well as yourself. The car will hold all.”

Major Hunt thanked him, rather wearily. They sped on, leaving the outskirts of London behind them. Up and down long, suburban roads, beyond the trail of motor-’buses, until the open country gleamed before them. The soldier took a long breath of the sweet air.

“Gad, it’s good to see fields again!” he said. Presently he glanced at the watch on his wrist.

“Nearly time to turn, don’t you think?” he said. “I don’t want Stella to be waiting long.”

“Very soon,” said Mr. Linton. “Just a little more country air. The chauffeur has his orders: I won’t keep you much longer.”

He racked his brains anxiously for a moment, and then plunged into a story of Australia a story in which bushrangers, blacks and bushfires mingled so amazingly that it was impossible not to listen to it. Having once secured his hapless guest’s attention, he managed to leave the agony of invention and to slide gracefully to cattle-mustering, about which it was not necessary to invent anything. Major Hunt became interested, and asked a few questions; and they were deep in a comparison of the ways of handling cattle on an Australian run and a Texan ranch, when the car suddenly turned in at a pair of big iron gates and whirled up a drive fringed with trees. Major Hunt broke off in the middle of a sentence.

“Hallo! Where are we going?”

“I have to stop at a house here for an instant,” said Mr. Linton. “Just a moment; I won’t keep you.”

Major Hunt frowned. He was tired; the car was wonderfully comfortable, but the rush through the keen air was wearying to a semi-invalid, and he was conscious of a feeling of suppressed irritation. He wanted to be home. The thought of the hard little sofa in the London flat suddenly became tempting he could lie there and talk to the children, and watch Stella moving about. Now they were miles into the country long miles that must be covered again before he was back in Bloomsbury. He bit his lips to restrain words that might not seem courteous.

“I should really be very grateful if ”

He stopped. The car had turned into a side-avenue he caught a glimpse of a big, many-gabled house away to the right. Then they turned a corner, and the car came to a standstill with her bonnet almost poking into a great clump of rhododendrons. There was a thatched cottage beside them. And round the corner tore a small boy in a sailor suit, with his face alight with a very ecstasy of welcome.

“Daddy! Oh, Daddy!”

“Geoff!” said Major Hunt amazedly. “But how? I don’t understand.”

There were other people coming round the corner: his wife, tall and slender, with her eyes shining; behind her, Norah Linton, with Alison trotting beside her, and Michael perched on one shoulder. At sight of his father Michael drummed with his heels to Norah’s great discomfort, and uttered shrill squeaks of joy.

“Come on,” said Geoffrey breathlessly, tugging at the door. “Come on! they’re all here.”

“Come on, Hunt,” said David Linton, jumping out. “Let me help you mind your hand.”

“I suppose I’ll wake up in a moment,” said Major Hunt, getting out slowly. “At present, it’s a nice dream. I don’t understand anything. How are you, Miss Linton?”

“You don’t need to wake up,” said his wife, in a voice that shook a little. Her brave eyes were misty. “Only, you’re home.”

“It’s the loveliest home, Daddy!” Geoff’s hand was in his father’s, pulling him on.

“There’s tsickens!” said Alison in a high pipe. “An’ a ackit wiv toys.”

“She means an attic,” said Geoffrey scornfully. “Come on, Daddy. We’ve got such heaps to show you.”

Somehow they found themselves indoors. Norah and her father had disappeared; they were all together, father, mother, and babies, in a big room flooded with sunlight: a room covered with a thick red matting with heavy rugs on it; a room with big easy-chairs and gate-legged tables, and a wide couch heaped with bright cushions, drawn close to an open casement. There was a fire of logs, crackling cheerily in the wide fireplace: there were their own belongings photographs, books, his own pipe-rack and tobacco-jar: there were flowers everywhere, smiling a greeting. Tea-cups and silver sparkled on a white-cloth; a copper kettle bubbled over a spirit-lamp. And there were his own people clinging round him, welcoming, holding him wherever little hands could grasp: the babies fresh, clean, even rosy; his wife’s face, no longer tired. And there was no Bloomsbury anywhere.

Major Hunt sat down on the sofa, disentangled Michael from his leg, and lifted him with his good arm.

“It isn’t a dream, really, I suppose, Stella?” he said. “I won’t wake up presently? I don’t want to.”

“No; it’s just a blessed reality,” she told him, smiling. “Hang up Daddy’s cap, Geoff: steady, Alison, darling mind his hand. Don’t worry about anything, Douglas only you’re home.”

“I don’t even want to ask questions,” said her husband, in the same dazed voice. “I find one has no curiosity, when one suddenly gets to heaven. We won’t be going away from heaven, though, will we?”

“No we’re permanent residents,” she told him, laughing. “Now get quite comfy; we’ll all have tea together.”

“Tea’s is lovely here,” confided Alison to him. “They’s cweam an’ cakes, evewy day. An’ the tsickens make weal eggs, in nesses!”

“And I can ride. A pony, Daddy!” Geoffrey’s voice was quivering with pride. He stood by the couch, an erect little figure.

“Why, he’s grown ever so much!” said Major Hunt. “They’ve all grown; you too, my little fat Michael. I left white-faced babies in that beastly flat. And you too ” She bent over him. “Your dear eyes have forgotten the old War!” he said, very low.

There was a heavy knock at the door. Entered Eva, resplendent in a butterfly cap and an apron so stiffly starched that it stood away resentfully from her figure. By no stretch of imagination could Eva ever have been called shy; but she had a certain amount of awe for her master, and found speech in his presence a little difficult. But on this occasion it was evident that she felt that something was demanded of her. She put her burden of buttered toast on a trivet in the fender, and said breathlessly:

“’Ope I see yer well, sir. And ain’t this a nice s’prise!”

“Thank you, Eva yes,” said Major Hunt.

Whereat, the handmaiden withdrew, her heavy tread retreating to the kitchen to the accompaniment of song.

“Ow Ow Ow, it’s a lovely War!”

“I didn’t know her for a moment,” Major Hunt said, laughing. “You see, she never had less than six smuts on her face in Bloomsbury. She’s transformed, like all of you in this wonderful dream.”

“Tea isn’t a dream,” said his wife. She made it in the silver tea-pot, and they all fluttered about him, persuading him to eat: and made his tea a matter of some difficulty, since all three children insisted on getting as close to him as possible, and he had but one good hand. He did not mind. Once, as his wife brought him a refilled cup, she saw him lean his face down until it rested for a moment on the gold rings of Michael’s hair.

It was with some anxiety that Norah and her father went to call on their guest next morning.

“What will we do if he’s stiff-necked and proud, Dad?” Norah asked. “I simply couldn’t part with those babies now!”

“Let’s hope he won’t be,” said her father. “But if the worst comes to worst, we could let him pay us a little rent for the place we could give the money to the Red Cross, of course.”

“’M!” said Norah, wrinkling her nose expressively. “That would be horrid it would spoil all the idea of the place.”

But they found Major Hunt surprisingly meek.

“I daresay that if you had propounded the idea to me at first I should have said ‘No’ flatly,” he admitted. “But I haven’t the heart to disturb them all now and, frankly, I’m too thankful. If you’ll let me pay you rent ”

“Certainly not!” said Mr. Linton, looking astonished and indignant. “We don’t run our place on those lines. Just put it out of your head that we have anything to do with it. You’re taking nothing from us only from a man who died very cheerfully because he was able to do five minutes’ work towards helping the War. He’s helping it still if his money makes it easier for fellows like you; and I believe, wherever he is, he knows and is glad.”

“But there are others who may need it more,” said Hunt weakly.

“If there are, I haven’t met them yet,” Mr. Linton responded. He glanced out of the window. “Look there now, Hunt!”

Norah had slipped away, leaving the men to talk. Now she came riding up the broad gravel path across the lawn, on the black pony: leading the fat Welsh pony, with Geoffrey on his back. The small boy sat very straight, with his hands well down. His flushed little face sought anxiously for his father’s at the window.

Major Hunt uttered a delighted exclamation.

“I didn’t know my urchin was so advanced,” he said. “Well done, old son!” He scanned him keenly. “He doesn’t sit too badly, Mr. Linton.”

“He’s not likely to do so, with Norah as his teacher. But Norah says he doesn’t need much teaching, and that he has naturally good hands. She’s proud of him. I think,” said Mr. Linton, laughing, “that they have visions of hunting together this winter!”

“I must go out and see him,” said the father, catching up his cap. Mr. Linton watched him cross the lawn with quick strides: and turned, to find Mrs. Hunt at his elbow.

“Well he doesn’t look much like an invalid, Madam!” he said, smiling.

“He’s not like the same man,” she said, with grateful eyes. “He slept well, and ate a huge breakfast: even the hand is less painful. And he’s so cheery. Oh, I’m so thankful to you for kidnapping us!”

“Indeed, it’s you that we have to thank,” he told her. “You gave us our first chance of beginning our job.”