Read CHAPTER XX - THE HAND OF SHADOW of Mud and Khaki Sketches from Flanders and France , free online book, by Vernon Bartlett, on ReadCentral.com.

“Come in,” said Margery Debenham, as she opened her eyes lazily to the sunlight. “Put my tea on the table, please, Mary. I’m too sleepy to drink it yet.

“There’s a letter from the front, miss,” said Mary with emphasis, as she went out of the room.

Margery was awake in a second. She jumped out of bed, slipped on a dressing-gown, and, letter in hand, ran over to the window to read it in the morning sunshine. As she tore open the envelope and found only a small sheet of paper inside, she made a little moue of disappointment, but the first words of the letter changed it into a sigh of joy. It was dated September 13th and ran:

“MY DARLING,

“At last I have got my leave, and am coming home to be married. Our months of waiting are over. I leave here to-morrow afternoon, shall spend the night on the way somewhere, and shall arrive in London late on the 15th, or during the morning of the 16th. I must spend the day in town to do a little shopping (I couldn’t be seen at my own wedding very well in the clothes I have on now) and expect to get down to Silton at 3.20 on the 17th. I have to be back in this hole on the 24th, so that if we get married on Saturday we shall have quite a nice little honeymoon. Darling little one! Isn’t it too good to be true? I can hardly realise that within a week I shall be

“Your devoted and hen-pecked husband

RONALD.”

“P.S. I have written to father, and he will make all arrangements for Saturday.

“P.P.S. Shall I be allowed to smoke in the drawing-room?”

Margery Debenham leant out of the window and gazed at the garden and the orchard beyond. The light flickered through the trees of the old flagged path along which she and Ronald had so often wandered, and she could just see the tall grass waving down at the bottom of the orchard, where they used to sit and discuss the future. Everything reminded her of her lover who was coming back to her, who would be with her again to-morrow afternoon. At the thought of the five long, weary months of waiting that were passed, and of the eight days of happiness that were coming, two little tears crept out of her eyes and down her cheeks. She brushed them impatiently away, for she was too busy to cry. She must run and tell her parents; she must hurry over to talk to Ronald’s father; she must write to her friends; she must run down to the bottom of the orchard and watch for a while the trout that lay in the little stream; she must laugh and sing until the whole village of Silton knew that her waiting was over, and that Ronald was in England again.

Captain Ronald Carr hoisted his pack on his shoulder, and turned to three officers who were looking at him enviously. “Cheer oh, you fellows,” he said, “think of me in two days’ time, while you are being ‘strafed’ by the Hun, rushing about town in a taxi,” and, with a wave of his hand, he marched off to battalion headquarters, followed by Butler, his servant. From battalion headquarters he had a distance of two miles to walk to the cross roads where he was to meet his groom with his horse, but the day was hot and progress was rather slow. His first quarter of a mile was along a narrow and winding communicating trench; after that the way was along a hidden road, but huge shell craters all along told that the German artillery had it well marked.

Away to the right a bombardment was in progress, and the dull thuds of the guns came sleepily through the September haze; above him, a skylark sang lustily; the long grass by the roadside smelt sweet and lush. As Ronald Carr strode down the road, he laughed to himself at the fairness of the world.

Of a sudden, a shell burst over some trees a few hundred yards away, and, as the white smoke rolled away, he felt aware of a change.

Supposing he were to get wounded on the way down! With the next warning whine of a coming shell he found himself ducking as never before, for Captain Carr was not a man who often crouched for nothing.

Another shell came, and another, and with each his feeling grew. Just so must a mouse feel, he thought, when a cat plays with it. He felt as though he were at the mercy of an enormous giant, and that, each time he thought to escape, the shadow of a huge hand fell on the ground around him, and he knew that the hand above was waiting to crush him. At the thought, the hair on his forehead grew damp; time after time he checked his mad impulse to quicken his pace, and caught himself glancing covertly at his servant to see if he noticed his captain’s strange behaviour. Suppose the hand should crush him before he could get back to England, to his home, to his marriage!

Suddenly there were four short, loud hisses, and four shells burst along the road close in front of them.

“They’re searching the road. Quick, into the ditch,” shouted Carr to his servant, as he jumped into an old trench that ran along the roadside. Butler turned to do the same, slipped on the pave, and fell heavily, his ankle badly sprained. Those hateful hisses would come again before the man could crawl into safety, and this time they would probably be nearer, and escape almost miraculous. Captain Carr leaped out of the trench again and helped his servant to his feet.

“Cling on to me, man!” and, a moment after, he shouted, “down, here they come again!” and they flung themselves on their faces scarce two feet from the ditch and probable safety.

When Butler raised his head again after the four explosions, Captain Ronald Carr lay at his side, dead. The hand had grasped its prey.

Margery Debenham was standing in front of her mirror, getting ready to go to meet Ronald by the 3.20 train, when Mr. Carr came to announce the receipt of the War Office telegram.

She could find no tears when she heard the news; she felt stunned, and vaguely bored by the platitudes of consolation people uttered. When she could escape, she went slowly down the flagged path, where they used to walk to the orchard, where the future had been planned by two people full of the happy confidence of the young. She flung herself down in the long grass by the stream, and buried her hot face in her hands.

“What does it all mean?” she said to herself. Then, a minute later, she thought of all the other women who had to bear the same pain, and all for no reason. “There is no God,” she cried passionately. “No one can help me, for there is no God.” Day after day, night after night of waiting, and all for nothing. All those hours of agony, when the papers talked of “diversions” on the British front, rewarded by the supreme agony, by the sudden loss of all hope. No more need to hunt for a loved but dreaded name through the casualty lists every morning; all that was finished now.

The splash of a jumping trout in the pool under the willow tree took her thoughts away from her pain for the fraction of a second just sufficient time to allow the soothing tears to come.

“O God,” she murmured, “help me to see why. Help me, God, help me!” and she burst into sobs, her face pressed down into the cool, long grass.