“THE HOME-COMING OF PHILIP” (1/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and this website is presently serialising the ten tales from Misadventures. Ed.]
The train by which Athelstan Digby was returning to Bradborough was slow, but not very slow; he had indeed chosen it as less likely to be crowded than the afternoon express.
At first his supposition had not seemed justified. Three ladies, two aunts and their niece, had shared with him the first-class compartment; but they had got out at Grentham, leaving the carriage littered with papers and magazines, and filled with the faint scent, to Mr. Digby peculiarly nauseating, of eau de Cologne. He had gathered from their conversation that they were shocking travellers.
Mr. Digby lowered both sashes and thrust his head out of the window, sniffing the raw night air of the February fens. The boy with the dinner basket – he had ordered it in advance – came running down the platform as the guard’s whistle blew, and on the boy’s heels there entered the unwelcome stranger, who might so easily have chosen another carriage. Still, two passengers for one compartment was less than he had a right to expect in war time, and Mr. Digby opened his basket and spread his paper napkin on his knees. A chop, chipped potatoes and cabbage, biscuits, butter and gorgonzola, a red skinned apple, that shone with such a polish that he really would have preferred a banana, combined to banish effectively the last trace of eau de Cologne.
“It’s wonderful what they can do for one in war time,” said Mr. Digby cheerfully; and the stranger, who had not ordered a dinner basket, took up one of the discarded magazines and, without enthusiasm, agreed.
As he ate his dinner, and Mr. Digby always ate slowly, he finished reading the little brochure on the Juvenile Offender which the stipendiary magistrate of Bradborough had brought to his notice the week before. On the empty seat by his side lay an American periodical devoted to Foreign Missions, the new prospectus of the Eastern Sumatra Oil Fields, Ltd., and Christie’s catalogue. He intended to read them in that order, keeping the best until the last.
The dinner was really extraordinarily good. With a sigh of satisfaction he took a silver fruit knife from his pocket and carefully peeled the over-polished apple. The American periodical devoted to Foreign Missions looked a little heavy; the subject seemed hardly suited to dessert; and since he was not alone in the compartment, he decided that he would at least make an attempt to be sociable.
“That’s rather an interesting little book,” he said, turning to the stranger. “It contains some novel ideas on the treatment of criminals. You might be interested in glancing at it.”
The man opposite him looked up with a start. Mr. Digby, over his gold-rimmed glasses, saw a well-featured, unshaven face, with eyes puckered and dark-rimmed, as if from want of sleep.
“Are you a Christian?” asked the stranger.
For a moment Mr. Digby was nonplussed; not that he had any doubt about the answer, but he resented such a question, more especially immediately after dinner.
“Yes,” he said, “I am.” “I hope I am,” he would have said, if the train had been a corridor train; he could then, if a theological discussion developed, have changed his carriage. As it was, he wished to leave no loophole for argument.
“Then,” said the stranger, “you can’t refuse to help me. I’m a criminal, an escaped convict; and unless you help me, I’m done for. Every one’s hand is against me. For God’s sake and for the religion which you profess, you must help.”
He leant forward, his grey eyes gazing unflinchingly into Digby’s face. There was no menace; only an appeal.
Athelstan Digby took off his spectacles and rubbed them with his handkerchief.
“Dear me!” he said, half absent-mindedly, “dear me! Do you realise that as a Justice of the Peace you are putting me into a very awkward position?”
“You said you were a Christian,” said the man doggedly. “All I ask is that you listen to my story, and then judge me, if you dare. Are you married? Have you any children?”
“I’m a bachelor,” Mr. Digby answered.
“But you will listen to me, won’t you?” said the other, pleadingly.
Mr. Digby felt himself shrinking from a confession he had no desire to hear. He was too old not to realise the value of the conventions; there was something alarming to his mind in the sight of naked truth; it was too uncomfortably cold.
“If you really think it best to speak,” he said at last, “I will give you my attention; but remember, I promise nothing.”
“My name is Brown,” the man began, speaking hurriedly, “Matthew Brown. I’m a solicitor by profession, and three years ago I was in practice in Liverpool, married to a wife whom I loved whole-heartedly, and the father of a boy whom we both adored. He was born ten years after our marriage, our only child. No one doubted me. I never even doubted myself. Then, little by little, things began to go downhill. One investment after another – and they were safe, old-fashioned investments – failed me. Phil, the boy, had gone to Oxford. He’s a lovable fellow; but he is weak, and got into a wrong set. There was some scandal, and I had to find the money – five years before, it would have seemed a trifle – at a time when my own resources were stretched to the very uttermost.
“I used trust funds, hoping, of course, to repay the amount in time. The same old story, and it was to end in the same old way. On the day that war was declared, Phil enlisted. That shows you the sort of metal the boy was made of. He went out to France, and ten days after he crossed the Channel, the crash came. I got three years in the second division. It nearly broke my wife’s heart; it would have done, though she’s the pluckiest woman on God’s earth, had it not been for the thought of the boy, and her determination to keep it from him. You see he had always respected me.”
He hid his face in his hands for a moment before going on.
“So in her letters to him she breathed not a word of what had happened. I was supposed to be ill, unable to write except on rare occasions. My God! what I suffered! I used to lie awake at night, thinking of Phil in that hell on the western front. Any day he might learn the truth from some chance acquaintance, from some thoughtless piece of gossip. And supposing he learnt it an hour before the attack, before he had time to understand and to forgive? But he knew nothing. You see he’d enlisted before the days of Pals’ Battalions. He was a private in a west-country regiment, where he hadn’t a friend.
“From France he went to Egypt, and from Egypt to Salonika, and somehow – we thanked God for that injustice – the boy never got leave. Then at last he was sent home. For six weeks he has been in a hospital down in Gloucester, and to-morrow he comes north on a fortnight’s leave. For the last ten days I’ve been out in the no-man’s-land between sanity and madness. My wife can’t keep up the game alone. She’s no actress. And I – well, I just knew that I’d got to see the boy again before he’s killed, even if it were only to explain things to him. Last night I got away. I can’t tell you how I did it without compromising others, but they are after me all right. I haven’t a ticket; I haven’t a penny in my pocket; I’ve had nothing to eat for twelve hours; and unless I’m in Liverpool by noon to-morrow, there’ll be no home-coming for my boy. He’ll wish that the stretcher-bearers had never brought him in.”
Athelstan Digby felt curiously uncomfortable. He was also uncomfortably curious. He wanted to know all the details of the escape, such things, for example, as the way in which he had managed to obtain the clothes he was wearing.
“What is it you ask me to do?” he said at last.
The shadow of despair passed from the man’s face.
“To begin with,” he said, “I’m sure, or almost sure, that they’ve tracked me to the station. If they did, they’ll guess that I boarded this train. I want to borrow that coat of yours,” and he pointed to a heavy overcoat that Mr. Digby had placed across his knees, “and your cap. No, your hat would be better, if you have no objection.”
He took Mr. Digby’s tall felt hat from the rack. Mr. Digby himself helped him into the coat.
“I’m glad that you believe me,” the stranger said. “I’m not a murderer, and I’m not a thief. I’ll turn out my pockets and you can search me. I’m an ordinary man, who has yielded to temptation; fair game for society to hound down, war or no war.
The spirit of adventure, that from time to time was stirred by some financial enterprise, had been wakened in Mr. Digby by a more human impulse. He was filled with a young delight in intrigue.
“You had better take my umbrella,” he said. “And now what are you going to do?”
“In a few minutes,” Brown replied, “I’m going to pull the communication cord and open the carriage door. The train will stop. I shall tell the guard when he comes along that a gentleman who got into the train at Grentham and who seemed to behave in a very excited manner, had insisted on leaving the carriage, his excuse being that he had got into the wrong train.”
Mr. Digby’s face shone with excitement.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I should rather like to pull the communication cord myself. Ever since I was a boy I’ve wanted to do it. I’ve never had an excuse.”
“Pull it by all means, my dear sir,” Brown answered, stroking his cheek with his forefinger. “I wonder if I’ve time to shave.”
Mr. Digby pulled his suit-case from under the seat, opened it and produced a safety razor and a dilapidated sponge bag.
“What about water?” he asked.
“I can manage with the half bottle of ginger ale that you left,” said Brown.
Mr. Digby watched him fascinated, as he lathered and shaved himself by the help of a glazed photograph of one of the many mansions of the Duke of Rutland framed above his seat. He candidly admitted that this was far more interesting than the American Review of Foreign Missions.
“As to the talking,” said Brown, as he wiped the soap suds from his face, “I think it probably would be best if you left that to me.”
“The matter is entirely in the hands of my solicitor,” replied Mr. Digby, with one of his rare whimsical smiles. “Can I pull that cord?”
“Yes,” said the other, laughing. “Pull like the devil.”
Mr. Digby, thoughtful as ever of the property of the Railway Company, whose shares he held, placed the American Review of Foreign Missions on the cushions, in order to prevent their being dirtied by his boots, and climbing on to the seat, gave vent to the pent-up curiosity of a forgotten boyhood in one long ecstatic pull.
[To be continued...]