The Coward by
"Geoffrey," said General Faversham, "look at the clock!"
The hands of the clock made the acutest of angles. It was close upon
midnight, and ever since nine the boy had sat at the dinner-table listening.
He had not spoken a word, indeed had barely once stirred in the three hours,
but had sat turning a white and fascinated face upon speaker after speaker.
At his father's warning he waked with a shock from his absorption, and
reluctantly stood up.
"Must I go, father?" he asked.
The General's three guests intervened in a chorus. The conversation was
clear gain for the lad, they declared, — a first taste of powder which
might stand him in good stead at a future time. So Geoffrey was allowed
furlough from his bed for another half-hour, and with his face supported
between his hands he continued to listen at the table. The flames of the
candles were more and more blurred with a haze of tobacco smoke, the room
became intolerably hot, the level of the wine grew steadily lower in the
decanters, and the boy's face took a strained, quivering look, his pallour
increased, his dark, wide-opened eyes seemed preternaturally large.
The stories were all of that terrible winter in the Crimea, now ten years
past, and a fresh story was always in the telling before its predecessor was
ended. For each of the four men had borne his share of that winter's wounds
and privations. It was still a reality rather than a memory to them; they
could feel, even in this hot summer evening and round this dinner-table, the
chill of its snows, and the pinch of famine. Yet their recollections were not
all of hardships. The Major told how the subalterns, of whom he had then been
one, had cheerily played cards in the trenches three hundred yards from the
Malakoff. One of the party was always told off to watch for shells from the
fort's guns. If a black speck was seen in the midst of the cannon smoke, then
the sentinel shouted, and a rush was made for safety, for the shell was
coming their way. At night the burning fuse could be seen like a rocket in
the air; so long as it span and flew, the card-players were safe, but the
moment it became stationary above their heads it was time to run, for the
shell was falling upon them. The guns of the Malakoff were not the rifled
guns of a later decade. When the Major had finished, the General again looked
at the clock, and Geoffrey said good- night.
He stood outside the door listening to the muffled talk on the other side
of the panels, and, with a shiver, lighted his candle, and held it aloft in
the dark and silent hall. There was not one man's portrait upon the walls
which did not glow with the colours of a uniform, — and there were the
portraits of many men. Father and son the Faversham's had been soldiers from
the very birth of the family. Father and son, — no steinkirks and
plumed hats, no shakos and swallow tails, no frogged coats and no high
stocks. They looked down upon the boy as though summoning him to the like
service. No distinction in uniform could obscure their resemblance to each
other: that stood out with a remarkable clearness. The Favershams were men of
one stamp, — lean-faced, hard as iron — they lacked the
elasticity of steel — , rugged in feature; confident in expression, men
with firm, level mouths but rather narrow at the forehead, men of resolution
and courage, no doubt; but hardly conspicuous for intellect, men without
nerves or subtlety, fighting-men of the first-class, but hardly first-class
soldiers. Some of their faces, indeed, revealed an actual stupidity. The boy,
however, saw none of their defects. To him they were one and all portentous
and terrible; and he had an air of one standing before his judges and
pleading mutely for forgiveness. The candle shook in his hand.
These Crimean knights, as his father termed them, were the worst of
torturers to Geoffrey Faversham. He sat horribly thralled, so long as he was
allowed; he crept afterwards to bed and lay there shuddering. For his mother,
a lady who some twenty years before had shone at the Court of Saxe-Coburg, as
much by the refinement of her intellect as by the beauty of her person, had
bequeathed to him a very burdensome gift of imagination. It was visible in
his face, marking him off unmistakably from his father, and from the study
portraits in the hall. He had the capacity to foresee possibilities, and he
could not but exercise that capacity. A hint was enough for the boy.
Straightway he had a vivid picture before his mind, and as he listened to the
men at the dinner-table, their rough clipped words set him down in the midst
of their battlefields, he heard the drone of bullets, he quivered expecting
the shock of a charge. But of all the Crimean nights this had been fraught
with the most torments.
His father had told a story with a lowered voice, and in his usual jerky
way. But the gap was easy to fill up.
"A Captain! Yes, and he bore one of the best names in all England. It
seemed incredible, and mere camp rumour. But the rumour grew with every fight
he was engaged in. At the battle of Alma the thing was proved. He was acting
as galloper to his General. I believe, upon my soul, that the General chose
him for this duty so that the man might set himself right. He was bidden to
ride with a message a quarter of a mile, and that quarter of a mile was
bullet- swept. There were enough men looking on to have given him a
reputation, had he dared and come through. But he did not dare, he refused,
and was sent under arrest to his tent. He was court-martialled and broken. He
dropped out of his circle like a plummet of lead; the very women in
Piccadilly spat if he spoke to them. He blew his brains out three years later
in a back bedroom off the Haymarket. Explain that if you can. Turns tail, and
says 'I daren't!' But you, can you explain it? You can only say it's the
truth, and shrug your shoulders. Queer, incomprehensible things happen.
There's one of them."
Geoffrey, however, understood only too well. He was familiar with many
phases of warfare of which General Faversham took little account, such as,
for instance, the strain and suspense of the hours between the parading of
the troops and the first crack of a rifle. He took that story with him up the
great staircase, past the portraits to his bed. He fell asleep only in the
grey of the morning, and then only to dream of a crisis in some hard-fought
battle, when, through his cowardice, a necessary movement was delayed, his
country worsted, and those dead men in the hall brought to irretrievable
shame. Geoffrey's power to foresee in one flash all the perils to be
encountered, the hazards to be run, had taught him the hideous possibility of
cowardice. He was now confronted with the hideous fact. He could not
afterwards clear his mind of the memory of that evening.
He grew up with it; he looked upon himself as a born coward, and all the
time he knew that he was destined for the army. He could not have avoided his
destiny without an explanation, and he could not explain. But what he could
do, he did. He hunted deliberately, hoping that familiarity with danger would
overcome the vividness of his anticipations. But those imagined hours before
the beginnings of battles had their exact counterpart in the moments of
waiting while the covers were drawn. At such times he had a map of the
country-side before his eyes, with every ditch and fence and pit underlined
and marked dangerous; and though he rode straight when the hounds were off,
he rode straight with a fluttering heart. Thus he spent his youth. He passed
into Woolwich and out of it with high honours; he went to India with battery,
and returned home on a two years' furlough. He had not been home more than a
week when his father broke one morning into his bedroom in a great excitement
"Geoff," he cried, "guess the news to-day!"
Geoffrey sat up in his bed: — "Your manner, Sir, tells me the news.
War is declared."
"Between France and Germany."
Geoffrey said slowly: —
"My mother, Sir, was of Germany."
"So we can wish that country all success."
"Can we do no more?" said Geoffrey. And at breakfast-time he returned to
the subject. The Favershams held property in Germany; influence might be
exerted; it was only right that those who held a substantial stake in a
country should venture something for its cause. The words came quite easily
from Geoffrey's lips; he had been schooling himself to speak them ever since
it had become apparent that Germany and France were driving to the collision
of war. General Faversham laughed with content when he heard them.
"That's a Faversham talking," said he. "But there are obstacles, my boy.
There is the Foreign Enlistment Act, for instance. You are half German, to be
sure, but you are an English subject, and, by the Lord! you are all
Faversham. No, I cannot give you permission to seek service in Germany. You
understand. I cannot give you permission," he repeated the words, so that the
limit as well as the extent of their meaning might be fully understood; and
as he repeated them, he solemnly winked. "Of course, you can go to Germany;
you can follow the army as closely as you are allowed. In fact, I will give
you some introductions with that end in view. You will gain experience, of
course; but seek service, — no! To do that, as I have said, I cannot
give you permission."
The General went off chuckling to write his letters; and with them safely
tucked away in his pocket, Geoffrey drove later in the day to the
General Faversham did not encourage demonstrations. He shook his son
cordially by the hand —
"There's no way I would rather you spent your furlough. But come back,
Geoff," said he. He was not an observant man except in the matter of military
detail; and of Geoffrey's object he had never the slightest suspicion. Had it
been told him, however, he would only have considered it one of those queer,
inexplicable vagaries, like the history of his coward in the Crimea.
Geoffrey's action, however, was of a piece with the rest of his life: it
was due to no sudden, desperate resolve. He went out to the war as
deliberately as he had ridden out to the hunting-field. The realities of
battle might prove his anticipations mere unnecessary torments of the
"If only I can serve, — as a volunteer, as a private, in any
capacity," he thought, "I shall at all events know. And if I fail, I fail not
in the company of my fellows. I disgrace only myself, not my name. But if I
do not fail—" He drew a great breath, he saw himself waking up one
morning without oppression, without the haunting dread that he was destined
one day to slink in forgotten corners of the world a forgotten pariah,
destitute even of the courage to end his misery. He went out to the war
because he was afraid of fear.
On the evening of the capitulation of Paris, two subalterns of German
Artillery were seated before a camp fire on a slope of hill overlooking the
town. To both of them the cessation of alarm was as yet strange and almost
incomprehensible, and the sudden silence after so many months lived amongst
the booming of cannon had even a disquieting effect. Both were particularly
alert on this night when vigilance was never less needed. If a gust of wind
caught the fire and drove the red flare of the flame like a ripple across the
grass, one would be sure to look quickly over his shoulder, the other perhaps
would lift a warning finger and listen to the shivering of the trees behind
them. Then with a relaxation of his attitude he would say "All right" and
light his pipe again at the fire. But after one such gust, he retained his
"What is it, Faversham?" asked his companion.
"Listen, Max," said Geoffrey; and they heard a faint jingle. The jingle
became more distinct, another sound was added to it, the sound of a horse
galloping over hard ground. Both officers turned their faces away from the
yellow entrenchment with its brown streak of gun, below them and looked
towards a roofless white-walled farmhouse on the left, of which the rafters
rose black against the sky like a gigantic gallows. From behind that
farmhouse an aide-de- camp galloped up to the fire.
"I want the officer in command of this battery," he cried out and Geoffrey
"I am in command."
The aide-de-camp looked at the subaltern in an extreme surprise.
"You!" he exclaimed. "Since when?"
"Since yesterday," answered Faversham.
"I doubt if the General knows you have been hit so hard," the aide-de-
camp continued. "But my orders are explicit. The officer in command is to
take sixty men and march to-morrow morning into St. Denis. He is to take
possession of that quarter, he is to make a search for mines and bombs, and
wait there until the German troops march in." There was to be no repetition,
he explained, of a certain unfortunate affair when the Germans after
occupying a surrendered fort had been blown to the four winds. He concluded
with the comforting information that there were 10,000 French soldiers under
arms in St. Denis and that discretion was therefore a quality to be much
exercised by Faversham during his day of search. Thereupon he galloped
Faversham remained standing a few paces from the fire looking down towards
Paris. His companion petulantly tossed a branch upon the fire.
"Luck comes your way, my friend," said he enviously.
Geoffrey looked up to the stars and down again to Paris which with its
lights had the look of a reflected starlit firmament. Individual lights were
the separate stars and here and there a gash of fire, where a wide
thoroughfare cleaved, made a sort of milky way.
"I wonder," he answered slowly.
Max started up on his elbow and looked at his friend in perplexity.
"Why, you have sixty men and St. Denis to command. To-morrow may bring you
your opportunity;" and again with the same slowness, Geoffrey answered, "I
"You joined us after Gravelotte," continued Max, "Why?"
"My mother was German," said Faversham, and turning suddenly back to the
fire he dropped on the ground beside his companion.
"Tell me," he said in a rare burst of confidence, "Do you think a battle
is the real test of courage? Here and there men run away to be sure. But how
many fight and fight no worse than the rest by reason of a sort of cowardice?
Fear of their companions in arms might dominate fear of the enemy."
"No doubt," said Max. "And you infer?"
"That the only touchstone is a solitary peril. When danger comes upon a
man and there is no one to see whether he shirks — when he has no
friends to share his risks — that I should think would be the time when
fear would twist a man's bowels."
"I do not know," said Max. "All I am sure of is that luck comes your way
and not mine. To-morrow you march into St. Denis."
Geoffrey Faversham marched down at daybreak and formally occupied the
quarter. The aide-de-camp's calculations were confirmed. There were at the
least 10,000 French soldiers crowded in the district. Geoffrey's discretion
warned against any foolish effort to disarm them; he simply ignored their
chassepôts and bulging pouches, and searched the barracks, which the Germans
were to occupy, from floor to ceiling. Late in the afternoon he was able to
assure himself that his duty was ended. He billeted his men, and inquired
whether there was a hotel where he could sleep the night. A French sergeant
led him through the streets to an Inn which matched in every detail of its
appearance that dingy quarter of the town. The plaster was peeling from its
walls, the window panes were broken, and in the upper storey and the roof
there were yawning jagged holes where the Prussian shells had struck. In the
dusk the building had a strangely mean and sordid look. It recalled to
Faversham's mind the inns in the novels of the elder Dumas and acquired thus
something of their sinister suggestions. In the eager and arduous search of
the day he had forgotten these apprehensions to which he had given voice by
the camp fire. They now returned to him with the relaxation of his vigilance.
He looked up at the forbidding house. "I wonder," he said to himself.
He was met in the hall by a little obsequious man who was full of
apologies for the disorder of his hostelry. He opened a door into a large and
"I will do my best, Monsieur," said he, "but food is not yet plentiful in
In the centre of the room was a large mahogany table surrounded by chairs.
The landlord began to polish the table with his napkin.
"We had an ordinary, Sir, every day before the war broke out. But most
cheerful, every chair had its regular occupant. There were certain jokes,
too, which every day were repeated. Ah, but it was like home. However, all is
changed as you see. It has not been safe to sit in this room for many a long
Faversham unstrapped his sword and revolver from his belt and laid them on
"I saw that your house had unfortunately suffered."
"Suffered!" said the garrulous little man. "It is ruined, sir, and its
master with it. Ah, war! It is a fine thing no doubt for you young gentlemen,
but for me? I have lived in a cellar, Sir, under the ground ever since your
guns first woke us from our sleep. Look, I will show you."
He went out from the dining-room into the hall and from the hall into the
street; Faversham followed him. There was a wooden trap in the pavement close
by the wall with an iron ring. The landlord pulled at the ring and raised the
trap disclosing a narrow flight of stone steps. Faversham bent forward and
peered down into a dark cellar.
"Yes it is there that I have lived. Come down, Sir, and see for yourself;"
and the landlord moved down a couple of steps. Faversham drew back. At once
the landlord turned to him.
"But there is nothing to fear, Sir," he said with a deprecatory smile.
Faversham coloured to the roots of his hair.
"Of course there is nothing," said he and he followed the landlord. The
cellar was only lighted by the trap-door and at first Faversham coming out of
the daylight could distinguish nothing at all. He stood, however, with his
back to the light and in a little he began to see. A little truckle-bed with
a patchwork counterpane stood at the end, the floor was merely hard earth,
the furniture consisted of a stove, a stool and a small deal table. And as
Faversham took in the poverty of this underground habitation, he suddenly
found himself in darkness again. The explanation came to him at once, the
entrance to the cellar had been blocked from the light. Yet he had heard no
sound except the footsteps of people in the street above his head. He turned
and faced the stair steps. As he did so, the light streamed down again; the
obstruction had been removed, and that obstruction had not been the trap-door
as Faversham had suspected, but merely the body of some inquisitive
passer-by. He recognised this with relief and immediately heard voices
speaking together, and as it seemed to him in lowered tones.
A sword rattled on the pavement, the entrance was again darkened, but
Faversham had just time to see that the man who stooped down wore the buttons
of a uniform and a soldier's kepi. He kept quite still, holding his breath
while the man peered down into the cellar. He remembered with a throb of hope
that he had himself been unable to distinguish a thing in the gloom. And then
the landlord knocked against the table and spoke aloud. At once the man at
the head of the steps stood up. Faversham heard him cry out in French, "They
are here," and he detected a note of exultation in the cry. At the same
moment a picture flashed before his eyes, the picture of that dusty desolate
dining- room up the steps, and of a long table surrounded by chairs, upon
which lay a sword and a revolver, — his sword, his revolver. He had
dismissed his sixty soldiers, he was alone.
"This is a trap," he blurted out.
"But, Sir, I do not understand," began the landlord, but Faversham cut him
short with a whispered command for silence.
The cellar darkened again, and the sound of boots rang upon the stone
steps. A rifle besides clanged as it struck against the wall. The French
soldiers were descending. Faversham counted them by the light which escaped
past their legs; there were three. The landlord kept the silence which had
been enjoined upon him but he fancied in the darkness that he heard some
one's teeth chattering.
The Frenchmen descended into the cellar and stood barring the steps. Their
"I have the honour to address the Prussian officer in command of St.
The Frenchman got no reply whatever to his words but he seemed to hear
some one sharply draw in a breath. He spoke again into the darkness; for it
was now impossible for any one of the five men in the cellar to see a hand's
breadth beyond his face.
"I am the Captain Plessy of Mon Vandon's Division. I have the honour to
address the Prussian officer."
This time he received an answer, quietly spoken yet with an inexplicable
note of resignation.
"I am Lieutenant Faversham in command of St. Denis."
Captain Plessy stepped immediately forward, and bowed. Now as he dipped
his shoulders in the bow a gleam of light struck over his head into the
cellar, and — he could not be sure — but it seemed to him that he
saw a man suddenly raise his arm as if to ward off a blow. Captain Plessy
"I ask Lieutenant Faversham for permission for myself and my two officers
to sleep to-night at this hotel;" and now he very distinctly heard a long,
irrepressible sigh of relief. Lieutenant Faversham gave him the permission he
desired in a cordial, polite way. Moreover he added an invitation. "Your
name, Captain Plessy, is well known to me as to all on both sides who have
served in this campaign and to many more who have not. I beg that you and
your officers will favour me with your company at dinner."
Captain Plessy accepted the invitation and was pleased to deprecate the
Lieutenant's high opinion of his merits. But his achievement none the less
had been of a redoubtable character. He had broken through the lines about
Metz and had ridden across France into Paris without a single companion. In
the sorties from that beleaguered town he had successively distinguished
himself by his fearless audacity. His name and reputation had travelled far
as Lieutenant Faversham was that evening to learn. But Captain Plessy, for
the moment, was all for making little of his renown.
"Such small exploits should be expected from a soldier. One brave man may
say that to another, — is it not so? — and still not be thought
to be angling for praise," and Captain Plessy went up the steps, wondering
who it was that had drawn the long sharp breath of suspense, and uttered the
long sigh of immense relief. The landlord or Lieutenant Faversham? Captain
Plessy had not been in the cellar at the time when the landlord had seemed to
hear the chatter of a man's teeth.
The dinner was not a pronounced success, in spite of Faversham's avoidance
of any awkward topic. They sat at the long table in the big, desolate and
shabby room, lighted only by a couple of tallow candles set up in their
candlesticks upon the cloth. And the two junior officers maintained an air of
chilly reserve and seldom spoke except when politeness compelled them.
Faversham himself was absorbed, the burden of entertainment fell upon Captain
Plessy. He strove nobly, he told stories, he drank a health to the
"Camaraderie of arms," he drew one after the other of his companions into an
interchange of words, if not of sympathies. But the strain told on him
visibly towards the end of the dinner. His champagne glass had been
constantly refilled, his face was now a trifle overflushed, his eyes beyond
nature bright, and he loosened the belt about his waist and at a moment when
Faversham was not looking the throat buttons of his tunic. Moreover while up
till now he had deprecated any allusions to his reputation he now began to
talk of it himself; and in a particularly odious way.
"A reputation, Lieutenant, it has its advantages," and he blew a kiss with
his fingers into the air to designate the sort of advantages to which he
referred. Then he leaned on one side to avoid the candle between Faversham
"You are English, my Commandant?" he asked.
"My mother was German," replied Faversham.
"But you are English yourself. Now have you ever met in England a certain
Miss Marian Beveridge," and his leer was the most disagreeable thing that
Faversham ever remembered to have set eyes upon.
"No," he answered shortly.
"And you have not heard of her?"
Captain Plessy leaned back in his chair and filled his glass. Lieutenant
Faversham's tone was not that of a man inviting confidence. But the Captain's
brains were more than a little fuddled, he repeated the name over to himself
once or twice with the chuckle which asks for questions, and since the
questions did not come, he must needs proceed of his own accord.
"But I must cross to England myself. I must see this Miss Marian
Beveridge. Ah, but your English girls are strange, name of Heaven, they are
Lieutenant Faversham made a movement. The Captain was his guest, he was
bound to save him if he could from a breach of manners and saw no way but
this of breaking up the party. Captain Plessy, however, was too quick for
him, he lifted his hand to his breast.
"You wish for something to smoke. It is true, we have forgotten to smoke,
but I have my cigarettes and I beg you to try them, the tobacco I think is
good and you will be saved the trouble of moving."
He opened the case and reached it over to Faversham. But as Faversham with
a word of thanks took a cigarette, the Captain upset the case as though by
inadvertence. There fell out upon the table under Faversham's eyes not merely
the cigarettes, but some of the Captain's visiting-cards and a letter. The
letter was addressed to Captain Plessy in a firm character but it was plainly
the writing of a woman. Faversham picked it up and at once handed it back to
"Ah," said Plessy with a start of surprise, "Was the letter indeed in the
case?" and he fondled it in his hands and finally kissed it with the upturned
eyes of a cheap opera singer. "A pigeon, Sir, flew with it into Paris. Happy
pigeon that could be the bearer of such sweet messages."
He took out the letter from the envelope and read a line or two with a
sigh, and another line or two with a laugh.
"But your English girls are strange!" he said again. "Here is an instance,
an example, fallen by accident from my cigarette-case. M. le Commandant, I
will read it to you, that you may see how strange they are."
One of Plessy's subalterns extended his hand and laid it on his sleeve.
Plessy turned upon him angrily, and the subaltern withdrew his hand.
"I will read it to you," he said again to Faversham. Faversham did not
protest nor did he now make any effort to move. But his face grew pale, he
shivered once or twice, his eyes seemed to be taking the measure of Plessy's
strength, his brain to be calculating upon his prowess; the sweat began to
gather upon his forehead.
Of these signs, however, Plessy took no note. He had reached however
inartistically the point at which he had been aiming.
He was no longer to be baulked of reading his letter. He read it through
to the end, and Faversham listened to the end. It told its own story. It was
the letter of a girl who wrote in a frank impulse of admiration to a man whom
she did not know. There was nowhere a trace of coquetry, nowhere the
expression of a single sentimentality. Its tone was pure friendliness, it was
the work of a quite innocent girl who because she knew the man to whom she
wrote to be brave, therefore believed him to be honourable. She expressed her
trust in the very last words. "You will not of course show this letter to any
one in the world. But I wrong you even by mentioning such an
"But you have shown it," said Faversham.
His face was now grown of an extraordinary pallor, his lips twitched as he
spoke and his fingers worked in a nervous uneasy manner upon the table-
cloth. Captain Plessy was in far too complacent a mood to notice such
trifles. His vanity was satisfied, the world was a rosy mist with a sparkle
of champagne, and he answered lightly as he unfastened another button of his
"No, my friend, I have not shown it. I keep the lady's wish."
"You have read it aloud. It is the same thing."
"Pardon me. Had I shown the letter I should have shown the name. And that
would have been a dishonour of which a gallant man is incapable, is it not
so? I read it and I did not read the name."
"But you took pains, Captain Plessy, that we should know the name before
you read the letter."
"I? Did I mention a name?" exclaimed Plessy with an air of concern and a
smile upon his mouth which gave the lie to the concern. "Ah, yes, a long
while ago. But did I say it was the name of the lady who had written the
letter? Indeed, no. You make a slight mistake, my friend. I bear no malice
for it — believe me, upon my heart, no! After a dinner and a little
bottle of champagne, there is nothing more pardonable. But I will tell you
why I read the letter."
"If you please," said Faversham, and the gravity of his tone struck upon
his companion suddenly as something unexpected and noteworthy. Plessy drew
himself together and for the first time took stock of his host as of a
possible adversary. He remarked the agitation of his face, the beads of
perspiration upon his forehead, the restless fingers, and beyond all these a
certain hunted look in the eyes with which his experience had made him
familiar. He nodded his head once or twice slowly as though he were coming to
a definite conclusion about Faversham. Then he sat bolt upright.
"Ah," said he with a laugh. "I can answer a question which puzzled me a
little this afternoon," and he sank back again in his chair with an easy
confidence and puffed the smoke of his cigarette from his mouth. Faversham
was not sufficiently composed to consider the meaning of Plessy's remark. He
put it aside from his thoughts as an evasion.
"You were to tell me, I think, why you read the letter."
"Certainly," answered Plessy. He twirled his moustache, his voice had lost
its suavity and had taken on an accent of almost contemptuous raillery. He
even winked at his two brother officers, he was beginning to play with
Faversham. "I read the letter to illustrate how strange, how very strange,
are your English girls. Here is one of them who writes to me. I am grateful
— oh, beyond words, but I think to myself what a different thing the
letter would be if it had been written by a Frenchwoman. There would have
been some hints, nothing definite you understand, but a suggestion, a
delicate, provoking suggestion of herself, like a perfume to sting one into a
desire for a nearer acquaintance. She would delicately and without any
appearance of intention have permitted me to know her colour, perhaps her
height, perhaps even to catch an elusive glimpse of her face. Very likely a
silk thread of hair would have been left inadvertently clinging to a sheet of
the paper. She would sketch perhaps her home and speak remorsefully of her
boldness in writing. Oh, but I can imagine the letter, full of pretty
subtleties, alluring from its omissions, a vexation and a delight from end to
end. But this, my friend!" He tossed the letter carelessly upon the
table-cloth. "I am grateful from the bottom of my heart, but it has no
At once Geoffrey Faversham's hand reached out and closed upon the
"You have told me why you have read it aloud."
"Yes," said Plessy, a little disconcerted by the quickness of Faversham's
"Now I will tell you why I allowed you to read it to the end. I was of the
same mind as that English girl whose name we both know. I could not believe
that a man, brave as I knew you to be, could outside his bravery be so
The words were brought out with a distinct effort. None the less they were
A startled exclamation broke from the two subalterns. Plessy commenced to
"Sir, do I understand you?" and he saw Faversham standing above him, in a
quiver of excitement.
"You will hold your tongue, Captain Plessy, until I have finished. I
allowed you to read the letter, never thinking but that some pang of
forgotten honour would paralyse your tongue. You read it to the end. You
complain there is no art in it, that it has no delicate provocations, such as
your own countrywomen would not fail to use. It should be the more sacred on
that account, and I am glad to believe that you misjudge your country women.
Captain Plessy, I acknowledge that as you read out that letter with its
simple, friendly expression of gratitude for the spectacle of a brave man, I
envied you heartily, I would have been very proud to have received it. I
would have much liked to know that some deed which I had done had made the
world for a moment brighter to some one a long way off with whom I was not
acquainted. Captain Plessy, I shall not allow you to keep this letter. You
shall not read it aloud again."
Faversham thrust the letter into the flame of the candle which stood
between Plessy and himself. Plessy sprang up and blew the candle out; but
little colourless flames were already licking along the envelope. Faversham
held the letter downwards by a corner and the colourless flame flickered up
into a tongue of yellow, the paper charred and curled in the track of the
flames, the flames leapt to Faversham's fingers; he dropped the burning
letter on the floor and crushed it with his foot. Then he looked at Plessy
and waited. He was as white as the table-cloth, his dark eyes seemed to have
sunk into his head and burned unnaturally bright, every nerve in his body
seemed to be twitching; he looked very like the young boy who used to sit at
the dinner- table on Crimean nights and listen in a quiver to the appalling
stories of his father's guests. As he had been silent then, so he was silent
now. He waited for Captain Plessy to speak. Captain Plessy, however, was in
no hurry to begin. He had completely lost his air of contemptuous raillery,
he was measuring Faversham warily with the eyes of a connoisseur.
"You have insulted me," he said abruptly, and he heard again that
indrawing of the breath which he had remarked that afternoon in the cellar.
He also heard Faversham speak immediately after he had drawn the breath.
"There are reparations for insults," said Faversham.
Captain Plessy bowed. He was now almost as sober as when he had sat down
to his dinner.
"We will choose a time and place," said he.
"There can be no better time than now," suddenly cried Faversham, "no
better place than this. You have two friends of whom with your leave I will
borrow one. We have a large room and a candle apiece to fight by. To-morrow
my duties begin again. We will fight to-night, Captain Plessy, to-night," and
he leaned forward almost feverishly, his words had almost the accent of a
prayer. The two subalterns rose from their chairs, but Plessy motioned them
to keep still. Then he seized the candle which he had himself blown out,
lighted it from the candle at the far end of the table and held it up above
his head so that the light fell clearly upon Faversham's face. He stood
looking at Faversham for an appreciable time. Then he said quietly,
"I will not fight you to-night."
One of the subalterns started up, the other merely turned his head towards
Plessy, but both stared at their Captain with an unfeigned astonishment and
an unfeigned disappointment. Faversham continued to plead.
"But you must to-night, for to-morrow you cannot. To-night I am alone
here, to-night I give orders, to-morrow I receive them. You have your sword
at your side to-night. Will you be wearing it to-morrow? I pray you gentlemen
to help me," he said turning to the subalterns, and he began to push the
heavy table from the centre of the room.
"I will not fight you to-night, Lieutenant," Captain Plessy replied.
"And why?" asked Faversham ceasing from his work. He made a gesture which
had more of despair than of impatience.
Captain Plessy gave his reason. It rang false to every man in the room and
indeed he made no attempt to give to it any appearance of sincerity. It was a
deliberate excuse and not his reason.
"Because you are the Prussian officer in command and the Prussian troops
march into St. Denis to-morrow. Suppose that I kill you, what sort of penalty
should I suffer at their hands?"
"None," exclaimed Faversham. "We can draw up an account of the quarrel,
here now. Look here is paper and ink and as luck will have it a pen that will
write. I will write an account with my own hand, and the four of us can sign
it. Besides if you kill me, you can escape into Paris."
"I will not fight you to-night," said Captain Plessy and he set down the
candle upon the table. Then with an elaborate correctness he drew his sword
from its scabbard and offered the handle of it to Faversham.
"Lieutenant, you are in command of St. Denis. I am your prisoner of
Faversham stood for a moment or two with his hands clenched. The light had
gone out of his face.
"I have no authority to make prisoners," he said. He took up one of the
candles, gazed at his guest in perplexity.
"You have not given me your real reason, Captain Plessy," he said. Captain
Plessy did not answer a word.
"Good-night, gentlemen," said Faversham and Captain Plessy bowed deeply as
Faversham left the room.
A silence of some duration followed upon the closing of the door. The two
subalterns were as perplexed as Faversham to account for their hero's
conduct. They sat dumb and displeased. Plessy stood for a moment
thoughtfully, then he made a gesture with his hands as though to brush the
whole incident from his mind and taking a cigarette from his case proceeded
to light it at the candle. As he stooped to the flame he noticed the glum
countenances of his brother- officers, and laughed carelessly.
"You are not pleased with me, my friends," said he as he threw himself on
to a couch which stood against the wall opposite to his companions. "You
think I did not speak the truth when I gave the reason of my refusal? Well
you are right. I will give you the real reason why I would not fight. It is
very simple. I do not wish to be killed. I know these white-faced, trembling
men — there are no men more terrible. They may run away but if they do
not, if they string themselves to the point of action — take the word
of a soldier older than yourselves — then is the time to climb trees.
To- morrow I would very likely kill our young friend, he would have had time
to think, to picture to himself the little point of steel glittering towards
his heart — but to-night he would assuredly have killed me. But as I
say I do not wish to be killed. You are satisfied?"
It appeared that they were not. They sat with all the appearances of
discontent. They had no words for Captain Plessy. Captain Plessy accordingly
rose lightly from his seat.
"Ah," said he, "my good friend the Lieutenant has after all left me my
sword. The table too is already pushed sufficiently on one side. There is
only one candle to be sure, but it will serve. You are not satisfied,
gentlemen? Then—" But both subalterns now hastened to assure Captain
Plessy that they considered his conduct had been entirely justified.