Read Valerie French (1923) Online

Authors: Dornford Yates

Valerie French (1923)

Dornford Yates

1923

e-Edition 1.0

January 2013

To The English

To whom to live, or die, according to the best traditions comes natural.

1: A Pillar Of Salt

THE FIRE was still raging.

For thirty-six hours, now, it had burned steadily, a firm east wind directing the work of destruction with the lightning precision of an overseer who knows his job. Of the five thousand acres of woodland, once so luxuriant, barely a tenth part was left.

For week after blazing week the proud estate had gone thirsty. No rain falling, the wind had made hay, literally, while the sun shone. Springs had dwindled and died: empty beds showed where the brooks had run: pools had disappeared. Even the lake itself, no longer fed, had shrunk to a dull pond, a widening belt of mud, seamed with innumerable cracks, about its sides. As for the trees, the source of sap failing, they were hard put to it to live. Without, at any rate, trunks, twigs and branches were dry as any bone.

Everything, then, was in train....

Whose hand it was that touched off the piece will never be known, but word that Gramarye was on fire came to
The Rose
at Girdle by ten of a handsome morning in the last week of July.

The news spread but slowly. Nobody cared. The park was deserted: its owner lay in a madhouse: the house was tumbling. If the tidings were greeted at all, they were greeted with approval. The host of
The Rose
himself made no secret of his persuasion.

"Bes' thing as could 'appen. No manner o' good to man nor beas', that place was. They're payin' fourpence a bucket at Beauty Cross, but if this 'ere drort 's put 'paid' to Gramarye..."

He sighed dramatically, raising his eyes to heaven, and, after a decent interval, his tankard to his lips.

"Wot's the place done?" said the Cockney, who was taking a car to Wales.

"Done?" said his host. "Well, it's sent three men mad to my knowledge, and that's the gospel. Livin' an' workin' there, as lanskip-gardeners. Got 'old o' their brains it did, an' who's to wonder? Lanskip!" he added contemptuously. "'Owlin' wilderness. Nothin' but woods an' woods. Miles of 'em. An' never nor beas' nor bird in all them acres."

"Go on," said the Cockney, staring.

The lord of
The Rose
did not appear to hear him. He continued absently.

"An' now she's burnin'.... Well, well.... Maybe it'll lif' the curse. Valuable buildin' land it'll be ... one day...."

That evening some children had straggled up Gallowstree Hill, to see what they could. This was nothing at all, for the fire was below and beyond a tremendous shoulder. They returned querulously to Girdle and declared the report untrue. Keepers of neighbouring property knew better, and kept an eye on the wind: Sir Barnaby Linchpin, whose land lay to leeward of Gramarye, held fifty beaters at hand for twenty-four hours: an evening paper announced that Sherwood Forest was in flames, and gave a
résumé
of the career of Robin Hood.

But that was all. And now thirty-six hours had gone by, and the fire was still raging.

From an odd chain of road, cut like a shelf upon a spur of the Cotswold Hills, a man looked down upon the holocaust.

From where he stood, this was indeed a stupendous spectacle. Distance and Night lent it a supernatural majesty. The one robbed the flames of their sting; the other gave them their proper setting. The man found the sight fascinating. He did not, of course, care. Gramarye was nothing to him.

He must have stood gazing for half an hour, before a wandering breath of cool night air brought him to earth. With a shiver he turned away, making as though to button his coat about him. In the midst of the gesture he stopped and stared at his forearms.
He had no coat to button
.

The discovery clearly surprised him. After a moment he lifted his head and frowned into the starlight. Then he fell to inspecting his apparel, as well as he could. He had a shirt, certainly, and the wreck of a pair of trousers about his thighs, and there were shoes on his feet. The shirt was in tatters, the trousers ragged and foul. So much his fingers told him. The report his nose rendered was worse still. Both garments stank to glory.

The man exclaimed disgustedly, and his hands flew to his belt. It was in his mind, I fancy, to strip then and there. Reason, however, suggested that he must first find a change: he could not go naked. Again he raised his head and blinked into the night. Mechanically he put up a hand to finger his chin....

As he touched the bristles, he started violently. Till then he had had no idea he was wearing a beard. As in a dream he felt all over his head. He found it unkempt, beastly. His face, he noticed, was gaunt, the cheek-bones staring.... Here his stomach got in a hungry word. For the first time the man realized that he was starving....

Instantly the craving for food overwhelmed all other inclinations. This was, of course, common sense. Filth and odours could wait: hunger such as this was in Death's service— a running footman, in fact. The man knew in a moment the dreadful livery.

At once he started to walk along the road, squaring his shoulders to cheat the sense which told him his strength was failing, and hoping hard for a signpost to point him the nearest way—
whither
?

The query occurring to him, the man stopped still.

He had no idea where he was. If it came to that, he had no idea, either, how he came to be in such a plight. His thoughts flew back desperately. He had met with an accident, of course. That went without saying. Foul play, perhaps. Hence his condition. The last thing he remembered was— was— —

For the third time he frowned into the night, racking his brain.

This he did to no purpose at all.

For him there was no 'last thing.'

He could remember nothing.

WHEN it dawned upon Lyveden that he had lost his memory, he became profoundly interested. So much so, that he forgot his hunger and sat himself down on a bank by the side of the road. After some meditation, he recited the Alphabet aloud. Pleased with this effort, he announced that London was the capital of England, and enumerated as many counties as he could think of. He was proceeding to another such exercise, when something touched him upon the calf of the leg.

Sitting at his feet was a small rough-haired dog. His eyes were dull, and he was very thin. His coat appeared to be grey, and there was a definite black patch upon his back. For a long moment the two regarded each other in silence. Then the dog rolled over and put his paws in the air.

Lyveden patted him kindly.

"Where have you come from?" he said. Then: "By Jove, poor fellow, you're thin. Which reminds me..." He got upon his feet. With a manifest effort, the dog followed his example. "It's obvious I must ... have ... food." He looked up the ghostly road, pursing his lips. "It must lead somewhere," he muttered, and started off....

The first fifty paces bared an unpleasant truth— that to walk exhausted more quickly than to stay still. That Lyveden was heading for succour was practically certain. That every step brought him nearer the end of his tether was painfully evident. Which of these halts would come first, he had no idea. Lyveden set his teeth and hoped for the best....

It was only ten minutes later that he remembered the dog.

Peering back into the darkness, he saw no sign of him. He whistled and stood waiting, without result. After a little hesitation, he began to retrace his steps....

What those two furlongs cost him I dare not think. Perhaps Sir Philip Sidney walked at his elbow.

He found him at last, sitting miserably in the middle of the road. The poor little vagabond could go no farther. Lyveden picked him up gently and put him under his arm.

"Buck up, old fellow," he said. "It won't be long now— one way or the other."

The scrap put up its nose and licked his face.

PRIVATE Albert Rogers, of the R.A.S.C.(M.T.), was bored stiff.

When he had been given his itinerary and told that he was to take 'The Swine' to Hounslow, he had at once protested that she would never get there. The wording of the sergeant-major's reply may be imagined, but must not be here set out. Suffice it that that authority had lamented the fact that there was no Rolls-Royce available, had criminally libelled Private Rogers's forebears and had prophesied, first, no good concerning Private Rogers, but evil, and, secondly, that 'The Swine'
would
get there, even if Private Rogers had to push her the whole of the way.

With burning ears and a full heart, Private Albert Rogers had proceeded to pack his kit-bag....

Quite early he had lost his itinerary, and somewhere about noon he had lost his way. It was when he was hopelessly confounded, that 'The Swine,' who had lived well up to her sobriquet ever since she had started, had played her trump card. In a word, with a diabolical scream she had spilled the contents of her gear-box upon the King's highway.

Private Albert Rogers had coaxed the lorry to the side of the road, shaken the sweat out of his eyes, and prayed for death....

His comrade-in-arms, Private Hoskin, was less dejected. Gifted with an invulnerable sense of humour, he had found the journey diverting, and had sung most of the way. He had not, of course, been driving. As the stertorous breathing of 'The Swine's' engine subsided, he laid a hand upon his heart and commenced a tender rendering of 'Where, my caravan 'as rested.'

This was too much for Private Rogers.

As his comrade's superior officer, he issued two orders. The first was that Private Hoskin should "for gauze sake give over." The second, that he should get upon his flat feet, fare to the nearest village, and report 'progress.' The first command was disregarded: the second was obeyed after much argument and a delay of more than two hours.

It proved subsequently to be just six miles to the village of Broad-i'-the-Beam, and as Private Hoskin did not march four miles to the hour, but rather two, by the time he arrived the Post Office was closed. Not so
The Black Goat
.... After his third 'bitter,' Private Hoskin decided that to return to the lorry that night would be the act of a fool.

All things, then, considered, it is not at all surprising that Private Albert Rogers was bored stiff. The lorry was empty: the two kit-bags offered a miserable couch: he had run out of cigarettes....

For the hundredth time he was polishing the apostrophe with which he would welcome his subordinate, when somebody rapped with his knuckles upon the side of the cab.

Rogers got upon his knees and thrust out his head. A figure was leaning against the lorry's side, breathing distressfully.

"I say," said a voice faintly, "I'm— I'm rather done.... Could— could you spare me something to eat?"

Private Rogers stepped on to the footboard and sprang down into the road. Then he lugged a lamp from its bracket and held it to illumine the speaker.

The white, pinched face, the sagging knees, told their own tale.

"'Strewth!" said Rogers, and slid a sinewy arm round Anthony Lyveden's back.... It was a near thing.

Bully beef and warm water are simple fare, but Private Albert Rogers had a head upon his shoulders. So soon as Lyveden was settled by the side of the road, his craving for food yielded to a frantic desire for sleep. This the soldier would not hear of. He fairly forced Lyveden to eat, feeding him with his fingers. He decanted the contents of the tin on to a newspaper, picked out the jelly with his knife, and watched his patient masticate every dram. When the latter had eaten perhaps a tablespoonful, he gave him water. Then he wrapped a greatcoat about him, and set a kit-bag under his head.

"Now you kin sleep, mate," he said, "for 'alf an hour. Then you'll 'ave to wake up an' 'ave some more grub."

Thankfully Lyveden closed his eyes.

The next moment he was propped on an elbow.

"The dog!" he cried. "I forgot. There was a dog with me."

"Now you lay down, mate," said Rogers. "The dorg's orright. 'E's 'avin' 'is whack now. 'Elp," he added, staring. "'E's pouched the lot. Never mind. There's more where that come from. But you didn't ought ter eat so fas', Toby; nor yet so much, neither." The dog wagged his tail and licked his lips. His host shook his head reprovingly. "Don't want to burst yerself," he added. "Now you wait there while I get my mug. Then you kin 'ave some water."

He turned to glance at Lyveden. He was asleep.

The soldier's idea of nursing was rough and ready, but it was very sound. Faithfully, three times in the night Anthony was awakened and given nourishment, and when Private Hoskin arrived at nine o'clock, he was sent pelting back to the village for eggs and milk. To give the rogue his due, he went gladly. He had a good heart.

By half-past two o'clock that same afternoon man and dog alike were changed beings. They were shaky enough, certainly, but they were not feeble. Beneath the care of Privates Rogers and Hoskin they put off their corruption.

Lyveden was assisted to remove his beard, and his hair was rudely cut with a pair of nail-scissors. The kit-bags were opened, and, after a heated discussion, a shirt, a cardigan, socks and an aged pair of slacks were selected and assigned to his use. Then a bucket was produced, and 'The Swine's' radiator used as a cistern. Anthony washed and was washed. The dog was cleansed also.

By the time assistance arrived, Lyveden was enjoying a cigarette....

Even the two soldiers were surprised at the result of their handiwork. Out of their vile chrysales had emerged two thoroughbreds. There was no doubt about it. Thin as rails though they were, the thing stood out. Lyveden's fine, clean-cut face, his quiet air of dignity, his pleasant voice alone were evidence and to spare. As for the Sealyham, he was an attractive fellow. His pert tail was up, and there was a light in his eyes. He rested a lot, certainly, but when he was on his feet his carriage was bold, and he held his head high.

At last Relief came panting out of the distance.... When 'The Swine' had been made fast to the new-comer, Rogers approached his patient and offered to take him as far as Broad-i'-the-Beam.

"You ain't fit, sir, for duty, an' there's a pub there, Ted says, where they'll look after you. If you git there, you kin write 'ome an' say where you are, like."

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