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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Pretty Lady: A Novel - Chapter 24. The Soldier
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The Pretty Lady: A Novel - Chapter 24. The Soldier Post by :freebiznews Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2019

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The Pretty Lady: A Novel - Chapter 24. The Soldier

But outside she lost faith. Half a dozen motor-cars were slumbering in a row near the door of the Guinea-Fowl, and they all stirred monstrously yet scarcely perceptibly at the sight of the woman's figure, solitary, fragile and pale in the darkness. They seemed for an instant to lust for her; and then, recognising that she was not their prey, to sink back into the torpor of their inexhaustible patience. The sight of them was prejudicial to the dominion of the unseen powers. Christine admitted to herself that she had drunk a lot, that she was demented, that her only proper course was to return dutifully to the supper-party. She wondered what, if she did not so return, she could possibly say to justify herself to G.J.

Nevertheless she went on down the street, hurrying, automatic, and reached the main thoroughfare. It was dark with the new protective darkness. The central hooded lamps showed like poor candles, making a series of rings of feeble illumination on the vast invisible floor of the road. Nobody was afoot; not a soul. The last of the motor-buses that went about killing and maiming people in the new protective darkness had long since reached its yard. The seductive dim violet bulbs were all extinguished on the entrances of the theatres, and, save for a thread of light at some lofty window here and there, the curving facades of the street were as undecipherable as the heavens above or as the asphalte beneath.

Then Christine's ear detected a faint roar. It grew louder; it became terrific; and a long succession of huge loaded army waggons with peering head-lamps thundered past at full speed, one close behind the next, shaking the very avenue. The slightest misjudgment by the leading waggon in the confusion of light and darkness--and the whole convoy would have pitched itself together in a mass of iron, flesh, blood and ordnance; but the convoy went ruthlessly and safely forward till its final red tail-lamp swung round a corner and vanished. The avenue ceased to shake. The thunder died away, and there was silence again. Whence and why the convoy came, and at whose dread omnipotent command? Whither it was bound? What it carried? No answer in the darkness to these enigmas!... And Christine was afraid of England. She remembered people in Ostend saying that England would never go to war. She, too, had said it, bitterly. And now she was in the midst of the unmeasured city which had darkened itself for war, and she was afraid of an unloosed might....

What madness was she doing? She did not even know the man's name. She knew only that he was "Edgar W." She would have liked to be his _marraine_, according to the French custom, but he had never written to her. He was still in her debt for the hotel bill and the taxi fare. He had not even kissed her at the station. She tried to fancy that she heard his voice calling "Christine" with frantic supplication in her ears, but she could not. She turned into another side street, and saw a lighted doorway. Two soldiers were standing in the veiled radiance. She could just read the lower half of the painted notice: "All service men welcome. Beds. Meals. Writing and reading rooms. Always open." She passed on. One of the soldiers, a non-commissioned officer of mature years, solemnly winked at her, without moving an unnecessary muscle. She looked modestly down.

Twenty yards further on she described near a lamp-post a tall soldier whose somewhat bent body seemed to be clustered over with pots, pans, tins, bags, valises, satchels and weapons, like the figure of some military Father Christmas on his surreptitious rounds. She knew that he must be a poor benighted fellow just back from the trenches. He was staring up at the place where the street-sign ought to have been. He glanced at her, and said, in a fatigued, gloomy, aristocratic voice:

"Pardon me, Madam. Is this Denman Street? I want to find the Denman Hostel."

Christine looked into his face. A sacred dew suffused her from head to foot. She trembled with an intimidated joy. She felt the mystic influences of all the unseen powers. She knew herself with holy dread to be the chosen of the very clement Virgin, and the channel of a miraculous intervention. It was the most marvellous, sweetest thing that had ever happened. It was humanly incredible, but it had happened.

"Is it you?" she murmured in a soft, breaking voice.

The man stooped and examined her face.

She said, while he gazed at her: "Edgar!... See--the wrist watch," and held up her arm, from which the wide sleeve of her mantle slipped away.

And the man said: "Is it you?"

She said: "Come with me. I will look after you."

The man answered glumly:

"I have no money--at least not enough for you. And I owe you a lot of money already. You are an angel. I'm ashamed."

"What do you mean?" Christine protested. "Do you forget that you gave me a five-pound note? It was more than enough to pay the hotel.... As for the rest, let us not speak of it. Come with me."

"Did I?" muttered the man.

She could feel the very clement Virgin smiling approval of her fib; it was exactly such a fib as the Virgin herself would have told in a quandary of charity. And when a taxi came round the corner, she knew that the Virgin disguised as a taxi-driver was steering it, and she hailed it with a firm and yet loving gesture.

The taxi stopped. She opened the door, and in her sombre mantle and bright trailing frock and glinting, pale shoes she got in, and the military Father Christmas with much difficulty and jingling and clinking insinuated himself after her into the vehicle, and banged to the door. And at the same moment one of the soldiers from the Hostel ran up:

"Here, mate!... What do you want to take his money from him for, you damned w----?"

But the taxi drove off. Christine had not understood. And had she understood, she would not have cared. She had a divine mission; she was in bliss.

"You did not seem surprised to meet me," she said, taking Edgar's rough hand.

"No."

"Had you called out my name--'Christine'?"

"No."

"You are sure?"

"Yes."

"Perhaps you were thinking of me? I was thinking of you."

"Perhaps. I don't know. But I'm never surprised."

"You must be very tired?"

"Yes."

"But why are you like that? All these things? You are not an officer now."

"No. I had to resign my commission--just after I saw you." He paused, and added drily: "Whisky." His deep rich voice filled the taxi with the resigned philosophy of fatalism.

"And then?"

"Of course I joined up again at once," he said casually. "I soon got out to the Front. Now I'm on leave. That's mere luck."

She burst into tears. She was so touched by his curt story, and by the grotesquerie of his appearance in the faint light from the exterior lamp which lit the dial of the taximeter, that she lost control of herself. And the man gave a sob, or possibly it was only a gulp to hide a sob. And she leaned against him in her thin garments. And he clinked and jingled, and his breath smelt of beer.

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