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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter VI. THE PROMISE
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The Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter VI. THE PROMISE Post by :MikeBarron Category :Long Stories Author :Temple Bailey Date :April 2012 Read :1160

Click below to download : The Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter VI. THE PROMISE (Format : PDF)

The Tin Soldier - BOOK ONE _ ON THE SHELF - Chapter VI. THE PROMISE

BOOK ONE ON THE SHELF - CHAPTER VI. THE PROMISE

It was Alma who gave Derry Drake the key to Jean's conduct.

"Did your ears burn?" she asked, as they danced together after Jean and her father had gone.

"When?"

"We were talking about you at dinner."

"I hope you said nice things."

"I did, of course." Her lashes flashed up and fluttered down as they had flashed and fluttered for Ralph. Every man was for Alma a possible conquest. Derry was big game, and as yet her little darts had not pierced him. She still hoped, however. "I did, but the rest didn't."

He shrank from the things which she might tell him. "What did they say?" His voice caught.

"I shan't tell you. But it was about the war, and your not fighting. As if it made any difference. You are as brave as any of them."

He glanced down at her with somber eyes. Quite unreasonably he hated her for her defense of him. If all women defended men who wouldn't fight, what kind of a world would it be? Women who were worth anything girded their men for battle.

He knew now the reason for Jean's high head and burning cheeks, and in spite of his sense of agonizing humiliation, he was glad to think of that high-held head.

For such women, for such women men died!

But not for women like Alma Drew!

He got away from her as soon as possible. He got away from them all. He had a morbid sense of whispering voices and of averted glances. He fancied that Mrs. Witherspoon touched his hand coldly as he bade her "good-night."

Well, he would not come again until he could meet their eyes.

It was a perfectly clear night, and he walked home. With his face turned up to the stars, he told himself that the situation was intolerable--tomorrow morning, he would go to his father.

When he reached home, his father was asleep. Derry looked in on him and found Bronson sitting erect and wide-eyed beside a night lamp which threw the rest of the room into a sort of golden darkness. The General was in a great lacquered bed which he had brought with him years ago from China. Gilded dragons guarded it and princes had slept in it. Heavy breathing came from the bed.

"I think he has caught cold, sir," Bronson whispered. "I'm a bit afraid of bronchitis."

Derry's voice lacked sympathy. "I shouldn't worry, Bronson. He usually comes around all right."

"Yes, sir. I hope so, sir," and Bronson's spare figure rose to a portentous shadow, as he preceded Derry to the door.

On the threshold he said, "Dr. Richards has gone to the front. Shall I call Dr. McKenzie if we need someone--?"

"Has he been left in charge?"

"Yes, sir."

Derry stood for a moment undecided. "I suppose there's no reason why you shouldn't call McKenzie. Do as you think best, Bronson."

On his way to his own room, Derry paused for a moment at the head of the great stairway. His mother's picture hung on the landing. The dress in which she was painted had been worn to a dinner at the White House during the first Cleveland Administration. It was of white brocade, with its ostrich feather trimming making it a rather regal robe. It had tight sleeves, and the neck was square. Around her throat was a wide collar of pearls with diamond slides. Her fair hair was combed back in the low pompadour of the period, and there were round flat curls on her temples. The picture was old-fashioned, but the painted woman was exquisite, as she had always been, as she would always be in Derry's dreams.

The great house had given to the General's wife her proper setting. She had trailed her satins and silks up and down the marble stairway. Her slender hands, heavy with their rings, had rested on its balustrade, its mirrors had reflected the diamond tiara with which the General had crowned her. In the vast drawing room, the gold and jade and ivory treasures in the cabinets had seemed none too fine for this greatest treasure of them all. In the dining room the priceless porcelains had been cheapened by her greater worth. The General had travelled far and wide, and he had brought the wealth of the world to lay at the feet of his young wife. He adored her and he adored her son.

"It is just you and me, Derry," the old man had said in the first moment of bereavement; "we've got to stick it out together--"

And they had stuck it out until the war had come, and patriotism had flared, and the staunch old soldier had spurned this--changeling.

It seemed to Derry that if his mother could only step down from the picture she might make things right for him. But she would not step down. She would go on smiling her gentle painted smile as if nothing really mattered in the whole wide world.

Thus, with his father asleep in the lacquered bed, and his mother smiling in her gilded frame, the son stood alone in the great shell of a house which had in it no beating heart, no throbbing soul to answer his need.

Derry's rooms were furnished in a lower key than those in which his father's taste had been followed. There were gray rugs and gray walls, some old mahogany, the snuff-box picture of Napoleon over his desk, a dog-basket of brown wicker in a corner.

Muffin, Derry's Airedale, stood at attention as his master came in. He knew that the length of his sojourn depended on his manners.

A bright fire was burning, a long chair slanted across the hearthrug. Derry got into a gray dressing gown and threw himself into the chair. Muffin, with a solicitous sigh, sat tentatively on his haunches. His master had had no word for him. Things were very bad indeed, when Derry had no word for his dog.

At last it came. "Muffin--it's a rotten old world."

Muffin's tail beat the rug. His eager eyes asked for more.

It came--"Rotten."

Derry made room among the pillows, and Muffin curled up beside him in rapturous silence. The fire snapped and flared, flickered and died. Bronson tiptoed in to ask if Derry wanted him. Young Martin, who valeted Derry when Bronson would let him, followed with more proffers of assistance.

Derry sent them both away. "I am going to bed."

But he did not go to bed. He read a letter which his mother had written before she died. He had never broken the seal until now. For on the outside of the envelope were these words in fine feminine script: "Not to be opened until the time comes when my boy Derry is tempted to break his promise."

It began, "Boy dear--"

"I wonder if I shall make you understand what it is so necessary that you should understand? It has been so hard all of these years when your clear little lad's eyes have looked into mine to feel that some day you might blame--me. Youth is so uncompromising, Derry, dear--and so logical--so demanding of--justice. And life isn't logical--or just--not with the sharp-edged justice which gives cakes to the good little boys and switches to the bad ones. And you have always insisted on the cakes and switches, Derry, and that's why I am afraid of you.

"Even when you were only ten and I hugged you close in the night--those nights when we were alone, Derry, and your father was out on some wild road under the moonlight, or perhaps with the snow shutting out the moon, you used to whisper, 'But he oughtn't to do it, Mother--' And I knew that he ought not, but, oh, Derry, I loved him, and do you remember, I used to say, 'But he's so good to us, Laddie,--and perhaps we can love him enough to make him stop.'

"But you are a man now, Derry. I am sure you will be a man before you read this, for my little boy will obey me until he comes to man's estate, and then he may say 'She was only a foolish loving woman, and why should I be bound?'

"I know when that moment comes that all your father's money will not hold you. You will not sell your soul's honor for your inheritance. Haven't I known it all along? Haven't I seen you a little shining knight ready to do battle for your ideals? And haven't I seen the clash of those ideals with the reality of your father's fault?

"Well, there's this to think of now, Derry, now that you are a man--that life isn't white and black, it isn't sheep and goats--it isn't just good people and bad people with a great wall between. Life is gray and amethyst, it is a touch of dinginess on the fleece of the whole flock, and the men and women whom you meet will be those whose great faults are balanced by great virtues and whose little meannesses are contradicted by unexpected generosities.

"I am putting it this way because I want you to realize that except for the one fault which has shadowed your father's life, there is no flaw in him. Other men have gone through the world apparently untouched by any temptation, but their families could tell you the story of a thousand tyrannies, their clerks could tell you of selfishness and hardness, their churches and benevolent societies could tell you of their lack of charity. Oh, there are plenty of good men in the world, Derry, strong and fine and big, I want you to believe that always, but I want you to believe, too, that there are men who struggle continually with temptation and seem to fail, but they fight with an enemy so formidable that I, who have seen the struggle, have shut my eyes--afraid to look--.

"And now I shall go back to the very beginning, and tell you how it all happened. Your father was only a boy when the Civil War broke out. He came down from Massachusetts with a regiment which had in it the blood of the farmers who fired the shot heard round the world--. He felt that he was fighting for Freedom--he had all of your ideals, Derry; plus, perhaps, a few of his own.

"You know how the war dragged, four years of it--and much of the time that Massachusetts regiment was in swamp and field, on the edge of fever-breeding streams, never very well fed, cold in winter, hot in summer.

"They were given for medicine quinine and--whiskey. It kept them alive. Sometimes it kept them warm, sometimes it lifted them above reality and granted them a moment's reckless happiness.

"It was all wrong, of course. I am making no plea for its rightness; and it unchained wild beasts in some of the men. Your father for many years kept his chained, but the beasts were there.

"He was almost fifty when I married him, and he was not a General. That title was given to him during the Spanish War. I was twenty when I came here a bride. There was no deception on your father's part. He told me of the dragon he fought--he told me that he hoped with God's help and mine to conquer. And I hoped, too, Derry. I did more than that. I was so sure of him--my King could do no wrong.

"But the day came when he went on one of those desolate pilgrimages where you and I so often followed in later years. I am not going to try to tell you how we fought together, Derry; how I learned with such agony of soul that a man's will is like wax in the fire of temptation--oh, Derry, Derry--.

"I am telling you this for more reasons than one. What your father has been you might be. With all your ideals there may be in you some heritage of weakness, of appetite. Wild beasts can conquer you, too, if you let them in. And that's why I have preached and prayed. That's why I've kept you from that which overcame your father. You are no better, no stronger, than he was in the glory of his youth. But I have barred the doors against the flaming dragon.

"I have no words eloquent enough to tell you of his care of me, his consideration, his devotion. Yet nothing of all this helped in those strange moods that came upon him. Then you were forgotten, I was forgotten, the world was forgotten, and he let everything go--.

"I have kept what I have suffered to some extent from the world. If people have pitied they have had the grace at least not to let me see. The tragedy has been that you should have been sacrificed to it, your youth shadowed. But what could I do? I felt that you must know, must see, and I felt, too, that the salvation of the father might be accomplished through the son.

"And so I let you go out into the night after him, I let you know that which should, perhaps, have been hidden from you. But I loved him, Derry--I loved you--I did the best I could for both of you.

"And now because of the past, I plead for the future. I want you to stay with him, Derry. No matter what happens I beg that you will stay--for the sake of the boy who was once like you, for the sake of the man who held your mother always close to his heart, for the sake of the mother who in Heaven holds you to your promise."

The great old house was very still. Somewhere in a shadowed room an old man slept heavily with his servant sitting stiff and straight beside him, at the head of the stairway a painted bride smiled in the darkness, the dog Muffin stirred and whined.

Derry's head was buried deep in the cushion. His hands clutched the letter which had cut the knot of his desperate decision.

No--one could not break a promise to a mother in Heaven. . . .

He waked heavily in the morning. Bronson was beside his bed. "I am sorry to disturb you, sir, but Dr. McKenzie would like to speak to you."

"McKenzie?"

"Yes, sir. I had to call him last night. Your father was worse."

"Bring him right in here, Bronson, and have some coffee for us."

When Dr. McKenzie was ushered into Derry's sitting room, he found a rather pale and languid young man in the long chair.

"I hated to wake you, Drake. But it was rather necessary that I should talk your father's case over with you."

"Is he very ill?"

"It isn't that--there are complications that I don't care to discuss with servants."

"You mean he has been drinking?"

"Yes. Heavily. You realize that's a rather serious thing for a man of his age."

"I know it. But there's nothing to be done."

"What makes you say that?"

"We've tried specialists--cures. I've been half around the world with him."

The Doctor nodded. "It's hard to pull up at that age."

"My mother's life was spent in trying to help him. He's a dear old chap, really."

"There is, of course, the possibility that he may get a grip on himself."

Derry's languor left him. "Do you think there's the least hope of it? Frankly? No platitudes?"

"We are making some rather interesting experiments--psycho-analysis--things like that--"

He stood up. He was big and breezy. "What's the matter with you this morning? You ought to be up and out."

Derry flushed. "Nothing--much."

The Doctor sat down again. "I'd tell most men to take a cold shower and a two hours' tramp, but it's more than that with you--."

"It's a ease of suspended activity. I want to get into the war--"

"Why don't you?"

"I can't leave Dad. Surely you can see that."

"I don't see it. He must reap, every man must."

"But there's more than that. My mother tied me by a promise. And people are calling me a coward--even Dad thinks I am a slacker, and I can't say to him, 'If you were more than the half of a man I might be a whole one.'"

"Your mother couldn't have foreseen this war."

"It would have made no difference. Her world was centered in him. You know, of course, Doctor, that I wouldn't have spoken of this to anyone else--"

"My dear fellow, I am father confessor to half of my patients." The Doctor's eyes were kind. "My lips will be sealed. But if you want my advice I should throw the old man overboard. Let him sink or swim. Your life is your own."

"It has never been my own." He went to a desk and took out an envelope. "It's a rather sacred letter, but I want you to read it--I read it for the first time last night."

When at last the Doctor laid the letter down, Derry said very low, "Do you blame me?"

"My dear fellow; she had no right to ask it."

"But having asked--?"

"It is a moving letter, and you loved her--but I still contend she had no right to ask."

"I gave my sacred word."

"I question whether any promise should stand between a man and his country's need of him."

They faced each other. "I wonder--" Derry said, "I--I must think it over, Doctor."

"Give yourself a chance if you do. We can go too far in our sacrifice for others--." He resumed his brisk professional manner. "In the meantime you've a rather sick old gentleman on your hands. You'd better get a nurse."

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