Overhead the stars blazed in the rich sky of Morocco; the riding-lights of Admiral Herbert’s fleet sprinkled the bay; and below them rose the hum of an unquiet town. It was the night of May 13th, 1680, and the life of every Christian in Tangier hung in the balance. The Moors had burst through the outposts to the west, and were now entrenched beneath the walls. The Henrietta Redoubt had fallen that day; to-morrow the little fort at Devil’s Drop, built on the edge of the sand where the sea rippled up to the palisades, must fall; and Charles Fort, to the southwest, was hardly in a better case. However, a sortie had been commanded at daybreak as a last effort to relieve Charles Fort, and the two officers on the balcony speculated over their pipes on the chances of success.
Meanwhile, inside the room Surgeon Wyley lectured to his remaining auditor, who, too tired to remonstrate, tilted his chair against the wall and dozed.
“A concussion of the brain,” Wyley went on, “has this curious effect, that after recovery the patient will have lost from his consciousness a period of time which immediately preceded the injury. Thus a man may walk down a street here in Tangier; four, five, six hours afterwards, he mounts his horse, is thrown on to his head. When he wakes again to his senses, the last thing he remembers is—what? A sign, perhaps, over a shop in the street he walked down, or a leper pestering him for alms. The intervening hours are lost to him, and forever. It is no question of an abeyance of memory. There is a gap in the continuity of his experience, and that gap he will never fill up.”
“Except by hearsay?”
The correction came from Lieutenant Scrope at the bassette table. It was quite carelessly uttered while the Lieutenant was picking up his cards. Surgeon Wyley shifted his chair towards the table, and accepted the correction.
“Except, of course, by hearsay.”
Wyley was a new-comer to Tangier, having sailed into the bay less than a week back; but he had been long enough in the town to find in Scrope a subject at once of interest and perplexity. Scrope was in years nearer forty than thirty, dark of complexion, aquiline of feature, and though a trifle below the middle height he redeemed his stature by the litheness of his figure. What interested Wyley was that he seemed a man in whom strong passions were always desperately at war with a strong will. He wore habitually a mask of reserve; behind it, Wyley was aware of sleeping fires. He spoke habitually in a quiet, decided voice, like one that has the soundings of his nature; beneath it, Wyley detected, continually recurring, continually subdued, a note of turbulence. Here, in a word, was a man whose hand was against the world but who would not strike at random. What perplexed Wyley, on the other hand, was Scrope’s subordinate rank of lieutenant in a garrison where, from the frequency of death, promotion was of the quickest. He sat there at the table, a lieutenant; a boy of twenty-four faced him, and the boy was a captain and his superior.
It was to the Lieutenant, however, that Wyley resumed his discourse.
“The length of time lost is proportionate to the severity of the concussion. It may be only an hour; I have known it to be a day.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled. “A strange question that for a man to ask himself—What did he do during those hours?—a question to appal him.”
Scrope chose a card from his hand and played it. Without looking up from the table, he asked: “To appal him? Why?”
“Because the question would be not so much what did he do, as what may he not have done. A man rides through life insecurely seated on his passions. Within a few hours the most honest man may commit a damnable crime, a damnable dishonour.”
Scrope looked quietly at the Surgeon to read the intention of his words. Then: “I suppose so,” he said carelessly. “But do you think that question would press?”
“Why not?” asked Wyley.
Scrope shrugged his shoulders. “I should need an example before I believed you.”
The example was at the door. The corporal of the guard at the Catherine Port knocked and was admitted. He told his story to Major Shackleton, and as he told it the two officers lounged back into the room from the balcony, and the other who was dozing against the wall brought the legs of his chair with a bang to the floor and woke up.
It appeared that a sentry at the stockade outside the Catherine Port had suddenly noticed a flutter of white on the ground a few yards from the stockade. He watched this white object, and it moved. He challenged it, and was answered by a whispered prayer for admission in the English tongue and in an English voice. The sentry demanded the password, and received as a reply, “Inchiquin. It is the last password I have knowledge of. Let me in! Let me in!”
The sentry called the corporal, the corporal admitted the fugitive and brought him to the Main-Guard. He was now in the guard-room below.
“You did well,” said the Major. “The man has come from the Moorish lines, and may have news which will profit us in the morning. Let him up!” and as the corporal retired, “’Inchiquin,’” he repeated thoughtfully: “I cannot call to mind that password.”
Now Wyley had noticed that when the corporal first mentioned the word, Scrope, who was looking over his cards, had dropped one on the table as though his hand shook, had raised his head sharply, and with his head his eyebrows, and had stared for a second fixedly at the wall in front of him. So he said to Scrope:
“You can remember.”
“Yes, I remember the password,” Scrope replied simply. “I have cause to. ‘Inchiquin’ and ‘Teviot’—those were password and countersign on the night which ruined me—the night of January 6th two years ago.”
There was an awkward pause, an interchange of glances. Then Major Shackleton broke the silence, though to no great effect.
“H’m—ah—yes,” he said. “Well, well,” he added, and laying an arm upon Scrope’s sleeve. “A good fellow, Scrope.”
Scrope made no response whatever, but of a sudden Captain Tessin banged his fist upon the table.
“January 6th two years ago. Why,” and he leaned forward across the table towards Scrope, “Knightley fell in the sortie that morning, and his body was never recovered. The corporal said this fugitive was an Englishman. What if—”
Major Shackleton shook his head and interrupted.
“Knightley fell by my side. I saw the blow; it must have broken his skull.”
There was a sound of footsteps in the passage, the door was opened and the fugitive appeared in the doorway. All eyes turned to him instantly, and turned from him again with looks of disappointment. Wyley remarked, however, that Scrope, who had barely glanced at the man, rose from his chair. He did not move from the table; only he stood where before he had sat.
The new-comer was tall; a beard plastered with mud, as if to disguise its colour, straggled over his burned and wasted cheeks, but here and there a wisp of yellow hair flecked with grey curled from his hood, a pair of blue eyes shone with excitement from hollow sockets, and he wore the violet-and-white robes of a Moorish soldier.
It was his dress at which Major Shackleton looked.
“One of our renegade deserters tired of his new friends,” he said with some contempt.
“Renegades do not wear chains,” replied the man in the doorway, lifting from beneath his long sleeves his manacled hands. He spoke in a weak, hoarse voice, and with a rusty accent; he rested a hand against the jamb of the door as though he needed support. Tessin sprang up from his chair, and half crossed the room.
The stranger took an uncertain step forward. His legs rattled as he moved, and Wyley saw that the links of broken fetters were twisted about his ankles.
“Have two years made so vast a difference?” he asked. “Well, they were years of the bastinado, and I do not wonder.”
Tessin peered into his face. “By God, it is!” he exclaimed. “Knightley!”
“Thanks,” said Knightley with a smile.
Tessin reached out to take Knightley’s hands, then instantly stopped, glanced from Knightley to Scrope and drew back.
“Knightley!” cried the Major in a voice of welcome, rising in his seat. Then he too glanced expectantly at Scrope and sat down again. Scrope made no movement, but stood with his eyes cast down on the table like a man lost in thought. It was evident to Wyley that both Shackleton and Tessin had obeyed the sporting instinct, and had left the floor clear for the two men. It was no less evident that Knightley remarked their action and did not understand it. For his eyes travelled from face to face, and searched each with a wistful anxiety for the reason of their reserve.
“Yes, I am Knightley,” he said timidly. Then he drew himself to his full height. “Ensign Knightley of the Tangier Foot,” he cried.
No one answered. The company waited upon Scrope in a suspense so keen that even the ringing challenge of the words passed unheeded. Knightley spoke again, but now in a stiff, formal voice, and slowly.
“Gentlemen, I fear very much that two years make a world of difference. It seems they change one who had your goodwill into a most unwelcome stranger.”
His voice broke in a sob; he turned to the door, but staggered as he turned and caught at a chair. In a moment Major Shackleton was beside him.
“What, lad? Have we been backward? Blame our surprise, not us.”
“Meanwhile,” said Wyley, “Ensign Knightley’s starving.”
The Major pressed Knightley into a chair, called for an orderly, and bade him bring food. Wyley filled a glass with wine from the bottle on the table, and handed it to the Ensign.
“It is vinegar,” he said, “but—”
“But Tangier is still Tangier,” said Knightley with a laugh. The Major’s cordiality had strengthened him like a tonic. He raised the glass to his lips and drank; but as he tilted his head back his eyes over the brim of the glass rested on Scrope, who still stood without movement, without expression, a figure of stone, but that his chest rose and fell with his deep breathing. Knightley set down his glass half-full.
“There is something amiss,” he said, “since even Captain Scrope retains no memory of his old comrade.”
“Captain?” exclaimed Wyley. So Scrope had been more than a lieutenant. Here was an answer to the question which had perplexed him. But it only led to another question: “Had Scrope been degraded, and why?” He did not, however, speculate on the question, for his attention was seized the next moment. Scrope made no sort of answer to Knightley’s appeal, but began to drum very softly with his fingers on the table. And the drumming, at first vague and of no significance, gradually took on, of itself as it seemed, a definite rhythm. There was a variation, too, in the strength of the taps—now they fell light, now they struck hard. Scrope was quite unconsciously beating out upon the table a particular tune, although, since there was but the one note sounded, Wyley could get no more than an elusive hint of its character.
Knightley watched Scrope for a little as earnestly as the rest. Then—“Harry!” he said, “Harry Scrope!” The name leaped from his lips in a pleading cry; he stretched out his hands towards Scrope, and the chain which bound them reached down to the table and rattled on the wood.
There was a simultaneous movement, almost a simultaneous ejaculation of bewilderment amongst those who stood about Knightley. Where they had expected a deadly anger, they found in its place a beseeching humility. And Scrope ceased from drumming on the table and turned on Knightley.
“Don’t shake your chains at me,” he burst out harshly. “I am deaf to any reproach that they can make. Are you the only man that has worn chains? I can show as good, and better.” He thrust the palm of his left hand under Knightley’s nose. “Branded, d’ye see? Branded. There’s more besides.” He set his foot on the chair and stripped the silk stocking down his leg. Just above the ankle there was a broad indent where a fetter had bitten into the flesh. “I have dragged a chain, you see; not like you among the Moors, but here in Tangier, on that damned Mole, in sight of these my brother officers. By the Lord, Knightley, I tell you you have had the better part of it.”
“You!” cried Knightley. “You dragged a chain on Tangier Mole? For what offence?” And he added, with a genuine tenderness, “There was no disgrace in’t, I’ll warrant.”
Major Shackleton half checked an exclamation, and turned it into a cough. Scrope leaned right across the table and stared straight into Knightley’s eyes.
“The offence was a duel,” he answered steadily, “fought on the night of January 6th two years ago.”
Knightley’s face clouded for an instant. “The night when I was captured,” he said timidly.
The officers drew closer about the table, and seemed to hold their breath, as the strange catechism proceeded.
“With whom did you fight?” asked Knightley.
“With a very good friend of mine,” replied Scrope, in a hard, even voice.
“On what account?”
Knightley laughed with a man’s amused leniency for such escapades when he himself is in no way hurt by them.
“I said there would be no disgrace in’t, Harry,” he said, with a smile of triumph.
The heads of the listeners, which had bunched together, were suddenly drawn back. A dark flush of anger overspread Scrope’s face, and the veins ridged up upon his forehead. Some impatient speech was on the tip of his tongue, when the Major interposed.
“What’s this talk of penalties? Where’s the sense of it? Scrope paid the price of his fault. He was admitted to the ranks afterwards. He won a lieutenancy by sheer bravery in the field. For all we know he may be again a captain to-morrow. Anyhow he wears the King’s uniform. It is a badge of service which levels us all from Ensign to Major in an equality of esteem.”
Scrope bowed to the Major and drew back from the table. The other officers shuffled and moved in a welcome relief from the strain of their expectancy, and Knightley’s thoughts were diverted by Shackleton’s words to a quite different subject. For he picked with his fingers at the Moorish robe he wore and “I too wore the King’s uniform,” he pleaded wistfully.
“And shall do so again, thank God,” responded the Major heartily.
Knightley started up from his chair; his face lightened unaccountably.
“You mean that?” he asked eagerly. “Yes, yes, you mean it! Then let it be to-night—now—even before I sup. As long as I wear these chains, as long as I wear this dress, I can feel the driver’s whip curl about my shoulders.” He parted the robe as he spoke, and showed that underneath he wore only a coarse sack which reached to his knees, with a hole cut in it for his head.
“True, you have worn the chains too long,” said the Major. “I should have had them knocked off before, but—” he paused for a second, “but your coming so surprised me that of a truth I forgot,” he continued lamely. Then he turned to Tessin. “See to it, Tessin! Ensign Barbour of the Tangier Foot was killed to-day. He was quartered in the Main-Guard. Take Knightley to his quarters and see what you can do. By the way, Knightley, there’s a question I should have put to you before. By what road did you come in?”
“Down Teviot Hill past the Henrietta Fort. The Moors brought me down from Mequinez to interpret between them and their prisoners. I escaped last night.”
“Past the Henrietta Fort?” replied the Major. “Then you can help us, for that way we make our sortie.”
“To relieve the Charles Fort?” said Knightley. “I guessed the Charles Fort was surrounded, for I heard one man on the Tangier wall shouting through a speaking trumpet to the Charles Fort garrison. But it will not be easy to relieve them. The Moors are entrenched between. There are three trenches. I should never have crawled through them, but that I stripped a dead Moor of his robe.”
“Three trenches,” said Tessin, with a shrug of the shoulders.
“Yes, three. The two nearest to Tangier may be carried. But the third—it is deep, twelve feet at the least, and wide, at the least eight yards. The sides are steep and slippery with the rain.”
“A grave, then,” said Scrope carelessly; “a grave that will hold many before the evening falls. It is well they made it wide and deep enough.”
The sombre words knocked upon every heart like a blow on a door behind which conspirators are plotting. The Major was the first to recover his speech.
“Curse your tongue, Scrope!” he said angrily. “Let who will lie in your grave when the evening falls. Before that time comes, we’ll show these Moors so fine a powder-play as shall glut some of them to all eternity. Bon chat, bon rat; we are not made of jelly. Tessin, see to Knightley.”
The two men withdrew. Major Shackleton scribbled a note and despatched it to Sir Palmes Fairborne, the Lieutenant-Governor. Scrope took a turn or two across the room while the Major was writing the news which Knightley had brought. Then—“What game is this he’s playing?” he said, with a jerk of his head to the door by which Knightley had gone out. “I have no mind to be played with.”
“But is he playing a game at all?” asked Wyley.
Scrope faced him quickly, looked him over for a second, and replied: “You are a new-comer to Tangier, or you would not have asked that question.”
“I should,” rejoined Wyley with complete confidence. “I know quite enough to be sure of one thing. I know there lies some deep matter of dispute between Ensign Knightley and Lieutenant Scrope, and I am sure that there is one other person more in the dark than myself, and that person is Ensign Knightley. For whereas I know there is a dispute, he is unaware of even that.”
“Unaware?” cried Scrope. “Why, man, the very good friend I fought with was Ensign Knightley. The woman on whose account we fought was Knightley’s wife.” He flung the words at the Surgeon with almost a gesture of contempt. “Make the most of that!” And once again he began to pace the room.
“I am not in the least surprised,” returned Wyley with an easy smile. “Though I admit that I am interested. A wife is sauce to any story.” He looked placidly round the company. He alone held the key to the puzzle, and since he was now become the centre of attraction he was inclined to play with his less acute brethren. With a wave of the hand he stilled the requests for an explanation, and turned to Scrope.
“Will you answer me a question?”
“I think it most unlikely.”
The curt reply in no way diminished the Surgeon’s suavity.
“I chose my words ill. I should have asked, Will you confirm an assertion? The assertion is this: Ensign Knightley had no suspicion before he actually discovered the—well, the lamentable truth.”
Scrope stopped his walk and came back to the table.
“Why, that is so,” he agreed sullenly. “Knightley had no suspicions. It angered me that he had not.”
Wyley leaned back in his chair.
“Really, really,” he said, and laughed a little to himself. “On the night of January 6th Ensign Knightley discovers the lamentable truth. At what hour?” he asked suddenly.
Scrope looked to the Major. “About midnight,” he suggested.
“A little later, I should think,” corrected Major Shackleton.
“A little after midnight,” repeated Wyley. “Ensign Knightley and Lieutenant Scrope, I understand, immediately fight a duel, which seems to have been interrupted before any hurt was done.”
The Major and Scrope agreed with a nod of their heads.
“In the morning,” continued Wyley, “Ensign Knightley takes part in a skirmish, and is clubbed on the head so fiercely that Major Shackleton thought his skull must be broken in. At what hour was he struck?” Again he put the question quickly.
“’Twixt seven and eight of the morning,” replied the Major.
“Quite so,” said Wyley. “The incidents fit to a nicety. Two years afterwards Ensign Knightley comes home. He knows nothing of the duel, or any cause for a duel. Lieutenant Scrope is still ‘Harry’ to him, and his best of friends. It is all very clear.”
He gazed about him. Perplexity sat on each face except one; that face was Scrope’s.
“I spoke to you all some half an hour since concerning the effects of a concussion. I could not have hoped for so complete an example,” said Wyley.
Captain Tessin whistled; Major Shackleton bounced on to his feet.
“Then Knightley knows nothing,” cried Tessin in a gust of excitement.
“And never will know,” cried the Major.
“Except by hearsay,” sharply interposed Scrope. “Gentlemen, you go too fast, Except by hearsay. That, Mr. Wyley, was the phrase, I think. By what spells, Major,” he asked with irony, “will you bind Tangier to silence when there’s scandal to be talked? Let Knightley walk down to the water-gate to-morrow; I’ll warrant he’ll have heard the story a hundred times with a hundred new embellishments before he gets there.”
Major Shackleton resumed his seat moodily.
“And since that’s the truth, why, he had best hear the story nakedly from me.”
“From you?” exclaimed Tessin. “Another duel, then. Have you counted the cost?”
“Why, yes,” replied Scrope quietly.
“Two years of the bastinado,” said the Major. “That was what he said. He comes back to Tangier to find—who knows?—a worse torture here. Knightley, Knightley, a good officer marked for promotion until that infernal night. Scrope, I could turn moralist and curse you!”
Scrope dropped his head as though the words touched him. But it was not long before he raised it again.
“You waste your pity, I think, Major,” he said coldly. “I disagree with Mr. Wyley’s conclusions. Knightley knows the truth of the matter very well. For observe, he has made no mention of his wife. He has been two years in slavery. He escapes, and he asks for no news of his wife. That is unlike any man, but most of all unlike Knightley. He has his own ends to serve, no doubt, but he knows.”
The argument appeared cogent to Major Shackleton.
“To be sure, to be sure,” he said. “I had not thought of that.”
Tessin looked across to Wyley.
“What do you say?”
“I am not convinced,” replied Wyley. “Indeed, I was surprised that Knightley’s omission had not been remarked before. When you first showed reserve in welcoming Knightley, I noticed that he became all at once timid, hesitating. He seemed to be afraid.”
Major Shackleton admitted the Surgeon’s accuracy. “Well, what then?”
“Well, I go back to what I said before Knightley appeared. A man has lost so many hours. The question, what he did during those hours, is one that may well appal any one. Lieutenant Scrope doubted whether that question would trouble a man, and needed an instance. I believe here is the instance. I believe Knightley is afraid to ask any questions, and I believe his reason to be fear of how he lived during those lost hours.”
There was a pause. No one was prepared to deny, however much he might doubt, what Wyley said.
“At some point of time before this duel Knightley’s recollections break off. At what precise point we are not aware, nor is it of any great importance. The sure thing is he does not know of the dispute between Lieutenant Scrope and himself, and it is of more importance for us to consider whether he cannot after all be kept from knowing. Could he not be sent home to England? Mrs. Knightley, I take it, is no longer in Tangier?”
Major Shackleton stood up, took Wyley by the arm and led him out on to the balcony. The town beneath them had gone to sleep; the streets were quiet; the white roofs of the houses in the star-shine descended to the water’s edge like flights of marble steps; only here and there did a light burn. To one of the lights close by the city wall the Major directed Wyley’s attention. The house in which it burned lay so nearly beneath them that they could command a corner of the square open patio in the middle of it; and the light shone in a window set in that corner and giving on to the patio.
“You see that house?” said the Major.
“Yes,” said Wyley. “It is Scrope’s. I have seen him enter and come out.”
“No doubt,” said the Major; “but it is Knightley’s house.”
“Knightley’s! Then the light burning in the window is—”
The Major nodded. “She is still in Tangier. And never a care for him has troubled her for two years, not so much as would bring a pucker to her pretty forehead—all my arrears of pay to a guinea-piece.”
Wyley leaned across the rail of the balcony, watching the light, and as he watched he was aware that his feelings and his thoughts changed. The interest which he had felt in Scrope died clean away, or rather was transferred to Knightley; and with this new interest there sprang up a new sympathy, a new pity. The change was entirely due to that one yellow light burning in the window and the homely suggestions which it provoked. It brought before him very clearly the bitter contrast: so that light had burned any night these last two years, and Scrope had gone in and out at his will, while up in the barbarous inlands of Morocco the husband had had his daily portion of the bastinado and the whip. It was her fault, too, and she made her profit of it. Wyley became sensible of an overwhelming irony in the disposition of the world.
“You spoke a true word to-night, Major,” he said bitterly. “That light down there might turn any man to a moralist, and send him preaching in the market-places.”
“Well,” returned the Major, as though he must make what defence he could for Scrope, “the story is not the politest in the world. But, then, you know Tangier—it is only a tiny outpost on the edges of the world where we starve behind broken walls forgotten of our friends. We have the Moors ever swarming at our gates and the wolf ever snarling at our heels, and so the niceties of conduct are lost. We have so little time wherein to live, and that little time is filled with the noise of battle. Passion has its way with us in the end, and honour comes to mean no more than bravery and a gallant death.”
He remained a few moments silent, and then disconnectedly he told Wyley the rest of the story.
“It was only three years ago that Knightley came to Tangier. He should never have brought his wife with him. Scrope and Knightley became friends. All Tangier knew the truth pretty soon, and laughed at Knightley’s ignorance. . . . I remember the night of January 6th very well. I was Captain of the Guard that night too. A spy brought in news that we might expect a night attack. I sent Knightley with the news to Lord Inchiquin. On the way back he stepped into his own house. It was late at night. Mrs. Knightley was singing some foolish song to Scrope. The two men came down into the street and fought then and there. The quarter was aroused, the combatants arrested and brought to me. . . . There are two faults which our necessities here compel us to punish beyond their proper gravity: duelling, for we cannot afford to lose officers that way; and brawling in the streets at night, because the Moors lie perdus under our walls; ready to take occasion as it comes. Of Scrope’s punishment you have heard. Knightley I released for that night. He was on guard—I could not spare him. We were attacked in the morning, and repulsed the attack. We followed up our success by a sortie in which Knightley fell.”
Wyley began again to wonder at what particular point in this story Knightley’s recollection broke off; and, further, what particular fear it was that kept him from all questions even concerning his wife.
Knightley’s voice was heard behind them, and they turned back into the room. The Ensign had shaved his matted beard and combed out his hair, which now curled and shone graciously about his head and shoulders; his face, too, for all that it was wasted, had taken almost a boyish zest, and his figure, revealed in the graceful dress of his regiment, showed youth in every movement. He was plainly by some years a younger man than Scrope.
He saluted the Major, and Wyley noticed that with his uniform he seemed to have drawn on something of a soldierly confidence.
“There’s your supper, lad,” said Shackleton, pointing to a few poor herrings and a crust of bread which an orderly had spread upon the table. “It is scanty.”
“I like it the better,” said Knightley with a laugh; “for so I am assured I am at home, in Tangier. There is no beef, I suppose?”
“Not so much as a hoof.”
“Not enough to cover a sixpence.”
“There is cheese, however.” He lifted up a scrap upon a fork.
“There will be none to-morrow.”
“And as for pay?” he asked slyly.
“Two years and a half in arrears.”
Knightley laughed again.
“Moreover,” added Shackleton, “out of our nothing we may presently have to feed the fleet. It is indeed the pleasantest joke imaginable.”
“In a week, no doubt,” rejoined Knightley, “I shall be less sensible of its humour. But to-night—well, I am home in Tangier, and that contents me. Nothing has changed.” At that he stopped suddenly. “Nothing has changed?” This time the phrase was put as a question, and with the halting timidity which he had shown before. No one answered the question. “No, nothing has changed,” he said a third time, and again his eyes began to travel wistfully from face to face.
Tessin abruptly turned his back; Shackleton blinked his eyes at the ceiling with altogether too profound an unconcern; Scrope reached out for the wine, and spilt it as he filled his glass; Wyley busily drew diagrams with a wet finger on the table.
All these details Knightley remarked. He laid down his fork, he rested his elbow on the table, his forehead upon his hand. Then absently he began to hum over to himself a tune. The rhythm of it was somehow familiar to the Surgeon’s ears. Where had he heard it before? Then with a start he remembered. It was this very rhythm, that very tune, which Scrope’s fingers had beaten out on the table when he first saw Knightley. And as he had absently drummed it then, so Knightley absently hummed it now.
Surely, then, the tune had some part in the relations of the two men—perhaps a part in this story. “A foolish song.” The words flashed into Wyley’s mind.
“She was singing a foolish song.” What if the tune was the tune of that song? But then—Wyley’s argument came to a sudden conclusion. For if the tune was the tune of that song, why, then Knightley must know the truth, since he remembered that song. Was Scrope right after all? Was Knightley playing with him? Wyley glanced at Knightley in the keenest excitement. He wanted words fitted to that tune, and in a little the words came—first one or two fitted here and there to a note, and murmured unconsciously, then an entire phrase which filled out a bar, finally this verse in its proper sequence:
“No, no, fair heretick, it needs must be|
But an ill love in me,
And worse for thee;
For were it in my power
To love thee now this hour
More than I did the last
’Twould then so fall
I might not love at all.
Love that can flow. . . . ”
And then the song broke off, and silence followed. Wyley looked again at Knightley, but the latter had not changed his position. He still sat with his face shaded by his hand.
The Surgeon was startled by a light touch on the arm. He turned with almost a jump, and he saw Scrope bending across the table towards him, his eyes ablaze with an excitement no less keen than his own.
“He knows, he knows!” whispered Scrope. “It was that song she was singing; at that word ‘flow’ he pushed open the door of the room.”
Knightley raised his head and drew his hand across his forehead, as though Scrope’s whisper had aroused him. Scrope seated himself hurriedly.
“Nothing has changed, eh?” Knightley asked, like a man fresh from his sleep. Then he stood, and quietly, slowly, walked round the table until he stood directly behind Scrope’s chair. Scrope’s face hardened; he laid the palms of his hands upon the edge of the table ready to spring up; he looked across to Wyley with the expectation of death in his eyes.
One of the officers shuffled his feet. Tessin said “Hush!” Knightley took a step forward and dropped a hand on Scrope’s shoulder, very lightly; but none the less Scrope started and turned white as though he had been stabbed.
“Harry,” said the Ensign, “my—my wife is still in Tangier?”
Scrope drew in a breath. “Yes.”
“Ah, waiting for me! You have shown her what kindness you could during my slavery?”
He spoke in a wavering voice, as if he were not sure of his ground, and as he spoke he felt Scrope shiver beneath his hand, and saw upon the faces of his companions an unmistakable shrinking. He turned away and staggered, rather than walked, to the window, where he stood leaning against the sill.
“The day is breaking,” he said quietly. Wyley looked up; outside the window the colour was fading down the sky. It was purple still towards the zenith, but across the Straits its edges rested white upon the hills of Spain.
“Love that can flow . . . ” murmured Knightley, and of a sudden he flung back into the room. “Let me have the truth of it,” he burst out, confronting his brother-officers gathered about the table—“the truth, though it knell out my damnation. If you only knew how up there, at Fez, at Mequinez, I have pictured your welcome when I should get back! I made of my anticipation a very anodyne. The cudgelling, the chains, the hunger, the sun, hot as though a burning glass was held above my head—it would all make a good story for the guard-room when I got back—when I got back. And yet I do get back, and one and all of you draw away from me as though I were one of the Tangier lepers we jostle in the streets. ‘Love that can flow . . . ’” he broke off. “I ask myself”—he hesitated, and with a great cry, “I ask you, did I play the coward on that night I was captured two years ago?”
“The coward?” exclaimed Shackleton in bewilderment.
Wyley, for all his sympathy, could not refrain from a triumphant glance at Scrope. “Here is the instance you needed,” he said.
“Yes, did I play the coward?” Knightley seated himself sideways on the edge of the table, and clasping his hands between his knees, went on in a quick, lowered voice. “‘Love that can flow’—those are the last words I remember. You sent me, Major, to the Governor with a message. I delivered it; I started back. On my way back I passed my house. I went in. I stood in the patio. My wife was singing that song. The window of the room in which she sang opened on to the patio. I stood there listening for a second. Then I went upstairs. I turned the handle of the door. I remember quite clearly the light upon the room wall as I opened the door. Those words ‘love that can flow’ came swelling through the opening; and—and—the next thing I am aware of, I was riding chained upon a camel into slavery.”
Tessin and Major Shackleton looked suddenly towards Wyley in recognition of the accuracy of his guess. Scrope simply wiped the perspiration from his forehead and waited.
“But how does that—forgetfulness, shall we say?—persuade you to the fear that you played the coward?” asked Wyley.
“Well,” replied Knightley, and his voice sank to a whisper, “I played the coward afterwards at Mequinez. At the first it used to amuse me to wonder what happened after I opened the door and before I was captured outside Tangier; later it only puzzled me, and in the end it began to frighten me. You see, I could not tell; it was all a blank to me, as it is now; and a man overdriven—well, he nurses sickly fancies. No need to say what mine were until the day I played the coward in Mequinez. They set me to build the walls of the Emperor’s new Palace. We used the stones of the old Roman town and built them up in Mequinez, and in the walls we were bidden to build Christian slaves alive to the glory of Allah. I refused. They stripped the flesh off my feet with their bastinadoes, starved me of food and drink, and brought me back again to the walls. Again I refused.” Knightley looked up at his audience, and whether or no he mistook their breathless silence for disbelief,—“I did,” he implored. “Twice I refused, and twice they tortured me. The third time—I was so broken, the whistle of a cane in the air made me cry out with pain—I was sunk to that pitch of cowardice—” He stopped, unable to complete the sentence. He clasped and unclasped his hands convulsively, he moistened his dry lips with his tongue, and looked about him with a weak, almost despairing laugh. Then he began in another way. “The Christian was a Portuguee from Marmora. He was set in the wall with his arms outstretched on either side—the attitude of a man crucified. I built in his arms—his right arm first—and mortised the stones, then his left arm in the same way. I was careful not to look in his face. No, no! I didn’t look in his face.” Knightley repeated the words with a horrible leer of cunning, and hugged himself with his arms. To Wyley’s thinking he was strung almost to madness. “After his arms I built in his feet, and upwards from his feet I built in his legs and his body until I came to his neck. All this while he had been crying out for pity, babbling prayers, and the rest of it. When I reached his neck he ceased his clamour. I suppose he was dumb with horror. I did not know. All I knew was that now I should have to meet his eyes as I built in his face. I thought for a moment of blinding him. I could have done it quite easily with a stone. I picked up a stone to do it, and then, well—I could not help looking at him. He drew my eyes to his like a steel filing to a magnet. And once I had looked, once I had heard his eyes speaking, I—I tore down the stones. I freed his body, his legs, his feet and one arm. When the guards noticed what I was doing I cannot tell. I could not tell you when their sticks began to beat me. But they dragged me away when I had freed only one arm. I remember seeing him tugging at the other. What happened to me,”—he shivered,—“I could not describe to you. But you see I had played the coward finely at Mequinez, and when that question recurred to me as to what had happened after I had opened the door, I began to wonder whether by any chance I had played the coward at Tangier. I dismissed the thought as a sickly fancy, but it came again and again; and I came back here, and you draw aloof from me with averted faces and forced welcomes on your lips. Did I play the coward on that night I was captured? Tell me! Tell me!” And so the torrent of his speech came to an end.
The Major rose gravely from his seat, walked round the table and held out his hand.
“Put your hand there, lad,” he said gravely.
Knightley looked at the outstretched hand, then at the Major’s face. He took the hand diffidently, and the Major’s grasp was of the heartiest.
“Neither at Mequinez nor at Tangier did you play the coward,” said the Major. “You fell by my side in the van of the attack.”
And then Knightley began to cry. He blubbered like a child, and with his blubbering he mixed apologies. He was weak, he was tired, his relief was too great; he was thoroughly ashamed.
“You see,” he said, “there was need that I should know. My wife is waiting for me. I could not go back to her bearing that stigma. Indeed, I hardly dared ask news of her. Now I can go back; and, gentlemen, I wish you good-night.”
He stood up, made his bow, wiped his eyes, and began to walk to the door. Scrope rose instantly.
“Sit down, Lieutenant,” said the Major sharply, and Scrope obeyed with reluctance.
The Major watched Knightley cross the room. Should he let the Ensign go? Should he keep him? He could not decide. That Knightley would seek his wife at once might of course have been foreseen; and yet it had not been foreseen either by the Major or the others. The present facts, as they had succeeded one after another had engrossed their minds.
Knightley’s hand was on the door, and the Major had not decided. He pushed the door open, he set a foot in the passage, and then the roar of a gun shook the room.
“Ah!” remarked Wyley, “the signal for your sortie.”
Knightley stopped and listened. Major Shackleton stood in a fixed attitude with his eyes upon the floor. He had hit upon an issue, it seemed to him by inspiration. The noise of the gun was followed by ten clear strokes of a bell.
“That’s for the King’s Battalion,” said Knightley with a smile.
“Yes,” said Tessin, and picking up his sword from a corner he slung the bandolier across his shoulder.
The bell rang out again; this time the number of the strokes was twenty.
“That’s for my Lord Dunbarton’s Regiment,” said Knightley.
“Yes,” said two of the remaining officers. They took their hats and followed Captain Tessin down the stairs.
A third time the bell spoke, and the strokes were thirty.
“Ah!” said Knightley, “that’s for the Tangier Foot. Well, good luck to you, Major!” and he passed through the door.
“A moment, Knightley. The regiment first. You wear Ensign Barbour’s uniform. You must do more than wear his uniform. The regiment first.”
Major Shackleton spoke in a husky voice and kept his eyes on the floor. Scrope looked at him keenly from the table. Knightley hardly looked at him at all. He stepped back into the room.
“With all my heart, Major: the regiment first.”
“Your station is at Peterborough Tower. You will go there—at once.”
“At once,” replied Knightley cheerfully. “So she would wish,” and he went down the stairs into the street. Major Shackleton picked up his hat.
“I command this sortie,” he said to Wyley; but as he turned he found himself confronted by Scrope.
“What do you intend?” asked Scrope.
Major Shackleton looked towards Wyley. Wyley understood the look and also what Shackleton intended. He went from the room and left the two men together.
The grey light poured through the window; the candles still burnt yellow on the table.
“What do you intend?”
The Major looked Scrope straight in the face.
“I have heard a man speak to-night in a man’s voice. I mean to do that man the best service that I can. These two years at Mequinez cannot mate with these two years at Tangier. Knightley knows nothing now; he never shall know. He believes his wife a second Penelope; he shall keep that belief. There is a trench—you called it very properly a grave. In that trench Knightley will not hear though all Tangier scream its gossip in his ears. I mean to give him his chance of death.”
“No, Major,” cried Scrope. “Or listen! Give me an equal chance.”
“Trelawney’s Regiment is not called out. Again, Lieutenant, I fear me you will have the harder part of it.”
Shackleton repeated Scrope’s own words in all sincerity, and hurried off to his post.
Scrope was left alone in the guard-room. A vision of the trench, twelve feet deep, eight yards wide, yawned before his eyes. He closed them, but that made no difference; he still saw the trench. In imagination he began to measure its width and depth. Then he shook his head to rid himself of the picture, and went out on to the balcony. His eyes turned instinctively to a house by the city wall, to a corner of the patio the house and the latticed shutter of a window just seen from the balcony.
He stepped back into the room with a feeling of nausea, and blowing out the candles sat down alone, in the twilight, amongst the empty chairs. There were dark corners in the room; the broadening light searched into them, and suddenly the air was tinged with warm gold. Somewhere the sun had risen. In a little, Scrope heard a dropping sound of firing, and a few moments afterwards the rattle of a volley. The battle was joined. Scrope saw the trench again yawn up before his eyes. The Major was right. This morning, again, Lieutenant Scrope had the harder part of it.