IT was early February and the hour was somewhere about two in the morning. Most of the house-party had retired to bed. Lucien Wattleskeat had merely retired to his bedroom where he sat over the still vigorous old-age of a fire, balancing the entries in his bridge-book. They worked out at seventy-eight shillings on the right side, as the result of two evenings’ play, which was not so bad, considering that the stakes had been regrettably low.
Lucien was a young man who regarded himself with an undemonstrative esteem, which the undiscerning were apt to mistake for indifference. Several women of his acquaintance were on the look-out for nice girls for him to marry, a vigil in which he took no share.
The atmosphere of the room was subtly tinged with an essence of tuberose, and more strongly impregnated with the odour of wood-fire smoke. Lucien noticed this latter circumstance as he finished his bridge-audit, and also noticed that the fire in the grate was not a wood one, neither was it smoking.
A stronger smell of smoke blew into the room a moment later as the door opened, and Major Boventry, pyjama-clad and solemnly excited, stood in the doorway.
“The house is on fire!” he exclaimed.
“Oh,” said Lucien, “is that it? I thought perhaps you had come to talk to me. If you would shut the door the smoke wouldn’t pour in so.”
“We ought to do something,” said the Major with conviction.
“I hardly know the family,” said Lucien, “but I suppose one will be expected to be present, even though the fire does not appear to be in this wing of the house.”
“It may spread to here,” said the Major.
“Well, let’s go and look at it,” assented Lucien, “though it’s against my principles to meet trouble half-way.”
“Grasp your nettle, that’s what I say,” observed Boventry.
“In this case, Major, it’s not our nettle,” retorted Lucien, carefully shutting the bedroom door behind him.
In the passage they encountered Canon Clore, arrayed in a dressing-gown of Albanian embroidery, which might have escaped remark in a Te Deum service in the Cathedral of the Assumption at Moscow, but which looked out of place in the corridor of an English country house. But then, as Lucien observed to himself, at a fire one can wear anything.
“The house is on fire,” said the Canon, with the air of one who lends dignity to a fact by according it gracious recognition.
“It’s in the east wing, I think,” said the Major.
“I suppose it is another case of suffragette militancy,” said the Canon. “I am in favour of women having the vote myself, even if, as some theologians assert, they have no souls. That, indeed, would furnish an additional argument for including them in the electorate, so that all sections of the community, the soulless and the souled, might be represented, and, being in favour of the female vote, I am naturally in favour of militant means to achieve it. Belonging as I do to a Church Militant, I should be inconsistent if I professed to stand aghast at militant methods in vote-winning warfare. But, at the same time, I cannot resist pointing out that the women who are using violent means to wring the vote-right from a reluctant legislature are destroying the value of the very thing for which they are struggling. A vote is of no conceivable consequence to anybody unless it carries with it the implicit understanding that majority-rule is the settled order of the day, and the militants are actively engaged in demonstrating that any minority armed with a box of matches and a total disregard of consequences can force its opinions and its wishes on an indifferent or hostile community. It is not merely manor-houses that they are destroying, but the whole fabric of government by ballot-box.”
“Oughtn’t we to be doing something about the fire?” said Major Boventry.
“I was going to suggest something of the sort myself,” said the Canon stiffly.
“Tomorrow may be too late, as the advertisements in the newspapers say,” observed Lucien.
In the hall they met their hostess, Mrs Gramplain.
“I’m so glad you have come,” she said; “servants are so little help in an emergency of this kind. My husband has gone off in the car to summon the fire-brigade.”
“Haven’t you telephoned to them?” asked the Major.
“The telephone unfortunately is in the east wing,” said the hostess; “so is the telephone-book. Both are being devoured by the flames at this moment. It makes one feel dreadfully isolated. Now if the fire had only broken out in the west wing instead, we could have used the telephone and had the fire-engines here by now.”
“On the other hand,” objected Lucien, “Canon Clore and Major Boventry and myself would probably have met with the fate that has overtaken the telephone-book. I think I prefer the present arrangement.”
“The butler and most of the other servants are in the dining-room, trying to save the Raeburns and the alleged Van Dyke,” continued Mrs Gramplain, “and in that little room on the first landing, cut off from us by the cruel flames, is my poor darling Eva ? Eva of the golden hair. Will none of you save her?”
“Who is Eva of the golden hair?” asked Lucien.
“My daughter,” said Mrs Gramplain.
“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” said Lucien, “and really I don’t think I can risk my life to save some one I’ve never met or even heard about. You see, my life is not only wonderful and beautiful to myself, but if my life goes, nothing else really matters ? to me. I don’t suppose you can realise that, to me, the whole world as it exists to-day, the Ulster problem, the Albanian tangle, the Kikuyu controversy, the wide field of social reform and Antarctic exploration, the realms of finance, and research and international armaments, all this varied and crowded and complex world, all comes to a complete and absolute end the moment my life is finished. Eva might be snatched from the flames and live to be the grandmother of brilliant and charming men and women; but, as far as I should be concerned, she and they would no more exist than a vanished puff of cigarette smoke or a dissolved soda-water bubble. And if, in losing my life, I am to lose her life and theirs, as far as I personally am concerned with them, why on earth should I, personally, risk my life to save hers and theirs?”
“Major Boventry,” exclaimed Mrs Gramplain, “you are not clever, but you are a man with honest human feelings. I have only known you for a few hours, but I am sure you are the man I take you for. You will not let my Eva perish.”
“Lady,” said the Major stumblingly, “I would gladly give my life to rescue your Eva, or anybody’s Eva for the matter of that, but my life is not mine to give. I am engaged to the sweetest little woman in the world. I am everything to her. What would my poor little Mildred say if they brought her news that I had cast away my life in an endeavour, perhaps fruitless, to save some unknown girl in a burning country house?”
“You are like all the rest of them,” said Mrs Gramplain bitterly; “I thought that you, at least, were stupid. It shows how rash it is to judge a man by his bridge-play. It has been like this all my life,” she continued in dull, level tones; “I was married, when little more than a child, to my husband, and there has never been any real bond of affection between us. We have been polite and considerate to one another, nothing more. I sometimes think that if we had had a child things might have been different.”
“But ? your daughter Eva?” queried the Canon, and the two other men echoed his question.
“I have never had a daughter,” said the woman quietly, yet, amid the roar and crackle of the flames, her voice carried, so that not a syllable was lost. “Eva is the outcome of my imagination. I so much wanted a little girl, and at last I came to believe that she really existed. She grew up, year by year, in my mind, and when she was eighteen I painted her portrait, a beautiful young girl with masses of golden hair. Since that moment the portrait has been Eva. I have altered it a little with the changing years ? she is twenty-one now ? and I have repainted her dress with every incoming fashion. On her last birthday I painted her a pair of beautiful diamond earrings. Every day I have sat with her for an hour or so, telling her my thoughts, or reading to her. And now she is there, alone with the flames and the smoke, unable to stir, waiting for the deliverance that does not come.”
“It is beautiful,” said Lucien; “it is the most beautiful thing I ever heard.”
“Where are you going?” asked his hostess, as the young man moved towards the blazing staircase of the east wing.
“I am going to try and save her,” he answered; “as she has never existed, my death cannot compromise her future existence. I shall go into nothingness, and she, as far as I am concerned, will go into nothingness too; but then she has never been anything else.”
“But your life, your beautiful life?”
“Death in this case is more beautiful.”
The Major started forward.
“I am going too,” he said simply.
“To save Eva?” cried the woman.
“Yes,” he said; “my little Mildred will not grudge me to a woman who has never existed.”
“How well he reads our sex,” murmured Mrs Gramplain, “and yet how badly he plays bridge!”
The two men went side by side up the blazing staircase, the slender young figure in the well-fitting dinner-jacket and the thick-set military man in striped pyjamas of an obvious Swan & Edgar pattern. Down in the hall below them stood the woman in her pale wrapper, and the Canon in his wonderful-hued Albanian-work dressing-gown, looking like the arch-priests of some strange religion presiding at a human sacrifice.
As the rescue-party disappeared into the roaring cavern of smoke and flames, the butler came into the hall, bearing with him one of the Raeburns.
“I think I hear the clanging of the fire-engines, ma’am,” he announced.
Mrs Gramplain continued staring at the spot where the two men had disappeared.
“How stupid of me!” she said presently to the Canon. “I’ve just remembered I sent Eva to Exeter to be cleaned. Those two men have lost their lives for nothing.”
“They have certainly lost their lives,” said the Canon.
“The irony of it all,” said Mrs Gramplain, “the tragic irony of it all!”
“The real irony of the affair lies in the fact that it will be instrumental in working a social revolution of the utmost magnitude,” said the Canon. “When it becomes known, through the length and breadth of the land, that an army officer and a young ornament of the social world have lost their lives in a country-house fire, started by suffragette incendiarism, the conscience of the country will be aroused, and people will cry out that the price is too heavy to pay. The militants will be in worse odour than ever, but, like the Importunate Widow, they will get their way. Over the charred bodies of Major Boventry and Lucien Wattleskeat the banners of progress and enfranchisement will be carried forward to victory, and the mothers of the nation will henceforth take their part in electing the Mother of Parliaments. England will range herself with Finland and other enlightened countries which have already admitted women to the labours, honours, and responsibilities of the polling-booth. In the early hours of this February morning a candle has been lighted ? ”
“The fire was caused by an over-heated flue, and not by suffragettes, sir,” interposed the butler.
At that moment a scurry of hoofs and a clanging of bells, together with the hoot of a motor-horn, were heard above the roaring of the flames.
“The fire-brigade!” exclaimed the Canon.
“The fire-brigade and my husband,” said Mrs Gramplain, in her dull level voice; “it will all begin over again now, the old life, the old unsatisfying weariness, the old monotony; nothing will be changed.”
“Except the east wing,” said the Canon gently.