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A Knight on Wheels By Ian Hay Characters: 16651

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The leaven was working.

One evening after tea Philip took a big breath and addressed his uncle.

"Uncle Joseph," he said, "I was talking to a little girl on Hampstead Heath to-day."

"More fool you," was the genial response. "What were you talking about?"

"You," said Philip, a little unexpectedly.

Uncle Joseph looked up.

"Oh," he said. "Why was I so honoured?"

Philip explained, in his deliberate fashion.

"She was that little girl we passed on Sunday," he said, "sitting on a gate. She smiled at me, and you told me it was only an instinct. A prebby-a prebby-"

Uncle Joseph assisted him.

"-predatory instinct. Well, I met her again one day, and I told her what you said. I explained that you knew all women were dangerous, and were the great stumbling-block to a man's work in life. Also parasites."

Uncle Joseph smiled grimly.

"Well, and what did she say to that?" he enquired.

"She said she would ask her mother about it."

Uncle Joseph nodded.

"They always do," he commented. "And what did Mother say?"

"Her mother said-" Philip hesitated.

"Go on," said Uncle Joseph quietly.

"She said that-that the reason why you thought that all women should be avoided was known only to one woman, and she wouldn't tell."

Colonel Meldrum rose to his feet, and laid his pipe upon the mantelpiece with a slight clatter. Philip eyed him curiously. There was a change in his appearance. He seemed to have grown older during the last ten seconds. The lines of his face were sharper, and his stiff shoulders drooped a little.

Then came a long and deathlike stillness. Uncle Joseph had turned his back, and was gazing into the glowing fire, with his head resting on his arms. Philip, feeling a little frightened, waited.

At last Uncle Joseph spoke.

"How old are you, boy?" he asked.

"Fourteen," said Philip.

There was another silence. Then Uncle Joseph spoke again.

"You should be old enough to understand now. Your friend's mother was right, Phil. Would you like to hear the story?"

"Yes, please," said Philip.

Uncle Joseph turned round.

"Why?" he asked curiously.

Philip replied with characteristic frankness.

"Because," he said, "it might make it easier for me to keep away from all women, like what you told me to do, if I knew the reason why I ought to."

"You are beginning to find it difficult, then?"

Philip, thinking of a blue cotton frock and a pair of brown eyes, nodded.

"Then I will try and make it easier for you," said Uncle Joseph. "It is my plain duty to do so, for if once you get into your head the notion that woman is man's better half and guiding angel, or any sentimental, insidious nonsense of that kind, you are doomed. Your father allowed himself to cherish such beliefs, and he died of a broken heart before he was thirty. You are your father's son."

"Who broke his heart?" asked Philip, looking up quickly. It was the first time that Uncle Joseph had ever mentioned his father to him.

"Your mother," said Uncle Joseph bluntly. "She broke another man's heart later on, but that is another story. Perhaps the other man deserved it, but your father, above all men, did not. Have we read Tennyson together?"

"Yes," said Philip. "'The Idylls of the King.'"

"You remember King Arthur?"

Philip nodded, beginning dimly to comprehend.

"Well, your mother was Guinevere."

Philip was silent for a while. Then he asked:-

"Is that why you say we must avoid all women?"

"Partly. There was my own case as well. When I was well over thirty, Philip, I fell in love. I had never loved any woman before, because my whole life and soul were bound up in the regiment. I fell in love with the regiment when I joined it as a little subaltern, and I worshipped it for sixteen years. In course of time they made me adjutant, which cures most men of such predilections, but it only made me feel as proud as a hen with eight hundred chickens. Then, just as I got my final step and became commanding officer, I met a girl and fell in love with her. It was in Calcutta. She was the spoiled beauty of that season, and I was the youngest colonel in the Indian Army, so everybody thought it a very suitable match.

"We did not get engaged for quite a long time, though. Oh, no! First of all, I had to learn to dance attendance. As I say, I had never been in love before, or even had any great experience of women. All my time had been lavished on the regiment. So I laboured under the delusion that if a man loved a woman, his proper course was to tell her so straight, and prove his words by devoting himself to her service. I have learned wisdom since then, but that was what I thought at the time."

"What ought you to have done, Uncle Joseph?" asked Philip curiously.

"I ought either to have bullied her, or gone and made love to another girl. Those are the only two arguments which a woman appreciates. But I made myself too cheap. This girl, as soon as she found that she was quite sure of me, began to play with me. She ordered me about in public, and I loved her so much that I obeyed her, and did not regard her behaviour as the least underbred or vulgar. She gave me rather degrading odd jobs to do, and I did them, proud to think that I was her squire. As for presents, if I gave her something that she did not chance to want or possessed already, it was declined with every manifestation of offended propriety, but if she did happen to require anything, she told me to get it for her, and I did so gladly, for I felt that all these little trifles were gradually binding us together. I had not quite grasped a woman's idea of playing the game in those days, you see. I thought all this aloofness of hers was due to a young girl's reserve of character, and that, being too shy and timid to tell me in so many words that she cared for me, she was accepting all my devotion and my little offerings purposely and deliberately, in order to show me that, although she could not bring herself to say the word at present, she meant to do the square thing in the end. I loved her for that, and tried to be patient. But once, when I, presuming on this theory of mine, suggested to her that she must care for me rather more than she gave me to understand, she flashed out at me and told me that I ought to be proud to serve her free gratis and for nothing, and that a true knight never hoped for any reward from his lady otherwise than an occasional smile and word of thanks. On the whole, I think that was the most outrageous statement I have ever heard fall from the lips of a human being; but as uttered by her it actually sounded rather splendid! It made me feel quite ashamed of myself, Philip. I said I was a mercenary brute, and asked her to forgive me. This, after I had made an abject exhibition of myself, she ultimately did.

"For the next few months I had a pretty bad time of it. I loved her too much to keep away from her, but my self-respect was at zero. I had to put my pride in my pocket and undergo some humiliation nearly every day. To stand about for hours, waiting for a dance, perhaps to have it cut in the end; to dash off parade and change out of uniform and gallop away to a riding appointment, perhaps to find that she had forgotten all about it; to be compelled to laugh and look amused when she said uncharitable things about my best friends-that was my daily round, Philip. Yes, they were stiff days, and I saw they would get worse. When you find yourself gradually ceasing to respect a woman without ceasing to love her, then you are in for a demoralizing time, my son.

"But I endured it all. I summoned up fresh stocks of patience and philosophy. I told myself that she was only a child, and a spoiled child at that; and that she would shake down presently. When she was a little older and wiser, she would realise what humiliation she had often heaped upon me, and she would come and say she was sorry, in her pretty way, and ask me to forgive her; and I would do so, and we would live happily ever afterwards. Meanwhile I must be enormously patient.

"Then suddenly, without any sort of warning, just as I was reaching the limit of physical endurance,-there is a physical side to these things, Philip, as you may find some day,-she capitulated, and we became engaged. For a fo

rtnight I lived in the clouds. I gave her all the presents I could think of, and then sat down and unfolded to her all my dreams and visions for the future. I told her how proud the regiment would be of her, and what a splendid regiment we would make of it between us. I confessed to her, just like a penitent child, that I had been neglecting the regiment of late, all on her account. Now that the suspense and worry was over I meant to work double tides and make the old regiment twice as efficient as it had ever been. I told her I felt like a giant refreshed. With her beside me, there was no limit to things we might do with that regiment.

"Then Vivien-that was her name-interrupted me. She said, in her pretty imperious way:-

"'Joe dear, your regiment bores me. You never talk of anything else. In future I forbid you to mention it in my presence.' Then she kissed me, and took me off to a tea-fight."

Uncle Joseph, who had been striding about the room during this narration, suddenly halted and faced his nephew.

"Looking back now," he said, "it is plain to me that this was the point at which I ought to have made a stand. I should have taken Vivi firmly, and said to her: 'My dearest child,'-Uncle Joseph's voice dropped to a gentle, caressing murmur, but he recovered himself with a jerk,-'understand this. A man's work is his life. It is his father and his mother, and his meat and his drink, and the air he breathes; and the woman who marries him must be prepared to stand by his side and see him through it, and not to hang round his neck and get between him and what he has to do. She must sympathise with him when things go wrong, and share his satisfaction when they come right again. If she grows jealous of his work and tries to detach him from it, there will be a disaster. Therefore you must take me and my work together or forswear us both, for they cannot be divided.' That is what I should have said, Philip, for I knew it was true, even as she kissed me. But I didn't. I thought I should be able to educate her up to appreciation of my beloved regiment, and that her prejudice and selfishness would weaken in time.

"But I was wrong. It was I who weakened. I began by turning out less frequently at parade. I began to cut mess. I began to lose touch with the rank and file. Formerly it had been my pride to know the name of every man in my regiment, and something about him. Soon I found myself saluted by men on the parade-ground whose faces I did not recognise. Then I began to listen to Vivien's criticisms of my officers. She sneered at my subalterns, because some of them were hard up and could not keep polo ponies. She called them 'a fusty lot,'-half of them had seen active service before they were twenty-one,-and compared them unfavourably with the Viceroy's Staff. She appeared to regard my affection for them as a sort of slight to herself. She looked down on my splendid little Gurkhas, and said it was a pity I could not get command of a white regiment. And I, instead of telling her straight that she must never speak in that way of my men again, began by making a few lame excuses for them and ended by acquiescing in her opinions. I found myself patronising my own officers-some of the finest soldiers in the Service-and drifting into an attitude of superciliousness towards soldiering in general. And all this, Philip, arose from that ennobling passion, Love!

"Then, when the hot weather came, she went away to Simla. I was to follow her in a month. During that month I came to myself again. I realised, once and for all, that a man's duty comes first in this world, and straightway I saw life clearly and as a whole once more. The cloud that had settled over the regiment lifted again, and by the time I went on leave we were as happy a band as ever.

"I travelled up to the hills full of tremendous emotions, Philip. In the first place, I had not seen Vivien for over a month, and I was mad with the desire of setting eyes on her again. In the second place, I was determined to make it plain that she must not attempt to come between me and the regiment again. It was a delicate problem to tackle, I knew; but I still hugged the delusion that she was only a child and could be educated up to a wife's duties. But I saw a big fight ahead of me-a big fight!"

Uncle Joseph's voice dropped, and the light of battle died out of his eyes.

"What was the end of the fight?" asked Philip, apprehensively. He saw tragedy on the horizon.

Uncle Joseph laughed. It was not a pleasant sound.

"I need not have worried," he said. "There was no fight. When I got to Simla I discovered that she had been engaged to another man for nearly a fortnight."

Philip shrank back into his chair, stunned.

"She had not even written to tell me," continued Uncle Joseph. "She had allowed me to travel half across India to see her, and then-!... People told me he wasn't a bad fellow. A bit of a boor, but a good sort on the whole. He was heir to a title of some kind, I think. I never saw him-or her, after the one interview.... They were married about a month later.

"I went back to the regiment. I had that consolation, I told myself. Nothing stood between me and my work now. But I was wrong again. Nothing seemed worth while any more. Regimental routine wearied me to death, and presently I understood what had happened. In the old days I had loved the regiment because it was my regiment: latterly I had loved it because it was her regiment, and I wanted to make it a credit to her. Now that she was gone-cui bono? But I fought on-I would not give in. I was mechanical, but pretty thorough. I fulfilled every duty rigidly. The only difference was that, whereas the regiment had formerly been commanded by a Damascus blade, it was now commanded by a broomstick, and it went about its work correspondingly.

"Then, three months later, came a letter from your father. He was dying, Phil,-dying of a broken heart, if ever a man did. His story was the same as mine, only more shameful. He asked me to take charge of you. Then I saw light: my duty lay plain ahead of me. I would go home and devote the rest of my life to protecting my nephew from the monstrous danger of Woman. I sent in my papers, came home, and took charge of you; and here we are! I have spoken."

Uncle Joseph dropped unconcernedly back into his armchair, and relit the ashes of his pipe. But his fingers were shaking.

Philip sat still and silent for a long time. Then he asked:-

"Was she very pretty, Uncle Joseph?"

"She was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen," said Uncle Joseph simply.

Philip ventured on one more question.

"Is she alive now?"

Uncle Joseph shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't know," he said. "I have dropped so thoroughly out of the world that the social history of the past ten years is a blank to me. I never have heard of her since I left India. I do not even know her husband's title."

Uncle Joseph turned to his nephew. A grim smile played about the ends of his mustache.

"And now, laddie," he enquired, "have I made things any easier for you?"

Philip flushed.

"What do you mean?" he muttered. But he knew only too well.

"I mean this," said Uncle Joseph. "Has my story made it any easier for you to relinquish your acquaintance with the small siren of Hampstead Heath?"

It was the first critical moment in Philip's life. Reason and Instinct-the truculent logic of his uncle and the gentle, chivalrous spirit of his father-fought for mastery within him. Instinct won, and he replied doggedly:-

"No. I'm sorry."

"So am I," said Uncle Joseph, rising to his feet again. "However, you must be protected from yourself. Listen! You will drop your acquaintance with this little girl, and refrain from making any other friendships of a similar nature so long as you remain in my charge. It is an order. You understand?"

Philip bowed his head in silence. He had been brought up in a soldier's house, and when Uncle Joseph spoke in his orderly-room voice there was nothing more to be said on the matter.

That night, for the first time in his life, Philip cried himself to sleep. He had pledged his knightly word to keep tryst with a lady on Hampstead Heath the following afternoon, and now he would have to break it.

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