When William Came by H. H. Munro
Chapter XIX: The Little Foxes
"Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines"
On a warm and sunny May afternoon, some ten months since Yeovil's return from his Siberian wanderings and sickness, Cicely sat at a small table in the open-air restaurant in Hyde Park, finishing her after-luncheon coffee and listening to the meritorious performance of the orchestra. Opposite her sat Larry Meadowfield, absorbed for the moment in the slow enjoyment of a cigarette, which also was not without its short-lived merits. Larry was a well-dressed youngster, who was, in Cicely's opinion, distinctly good to look on--an opinion which the boy himself obviously shared. He had the healthy, well-cared-for appearance of a country-dweller who has been turned into a town dandy without suffering in the process. His blue- black hair, growing very low down on a broad forehead, was brushed back in a smoothness that gave his head the appearance of a rain-polished sloe; his eyebrows were two dark smudges and his large violet-grey eyes expressed the restful good temper of an animal whose immediate requirements have been satisfied. The lunch had been an excellent one, and it was jolly to feed out of doors in the warm spring air--the only drawback to the arrangement being the absence of mirrors. However, if he could not look at himself a great many people could look at him.
Cicely listened to the orchestra as it jerked and strutted through a fantastic dance measure, and as she listened she looked appreciatively at the boy on the other side of the table, whose soul for the moment seemed to be in his cigarette. Her scheme of life, knowing just what you wanted and taking good care that you got it, was justifying itself by results. Ronnie, grown tiresome with success, had not been difficult to replace, and no one in her world had had the satisfaction of being able to condole with her on the undesirable experience of a long interregnum. To feminine acquaintances with fewer advantages of purse and brains and looks she might figure as "that Yeovil woman," but never had she given them justification to allude to her as "poor Cicely Yeovil." And Murrey, dear old soul, had cooled down, as she had hoped and wished, from his white heat of disgust at the things that she had prepared herself to accept philosophically. A new chapter of their married life and man-and- woman friendship had opened; many a rare gallop they had had together that winter, many a cheery dinner gathering and long bridge evening in the cosy hunting-lodge. Though he still hated the new London and held himself aloof from most of her Town set, yet he had not shown himself rigidly intolerant of the sprinkling of Teuton sportsmen who hunted and shot down in his part of the country.
The orchestra finished its clicking and caracoling and was accorded a short clatter of applause.
"The Danse Macabre," said Cicely to her companion; "one of Saint-Saens' best known pieces."
"Is it?" said Larry indifferently; "I'll take your word for it. 'Fraid I don't know much about music."
"You dear boy, that's just what I like in you," said Cicely; "you're such a delicious young barbarian."
"Am I?" said Larry. "I dare say. I suppose you know."
Larry's father had been a brilliantly clever man who had married a brilliantly handsome woman; the Fates had not had the least intention that Larry should take after both parents.
"The fashion of having one's lunch in the open air has quite caught on this season," said Cicely; "one sees everybody here on a fine day. There is Lady Bailquist over there. She used to be Lady Shalem you know, before her husband got the earldom--to be more correct, before she got it for him. I suppose she is all agog to see the great review."
It was in fact precisely the absorbing topic of the forthcoming Boy-Scout march-past that was engaging the Countess of Bailquist's earnest attention at the moment.
"It is going to be an historical occasion," she was saying to Sir Leonard Pitherby (whose services to literature had up to the present received only a half-measure of recognition); "if it miscarries it will be a serious set-back for the fait accompli. If it is a success it will be the biggest step forward in the path of reconciliation between the two races that has yet been taken. It will mean that the younger generation is on our side--not all, of course, but some, that is all we can expect at present, and that will be enough to work on."
"Supposing the Scouts hang back and don't turn up in any numbers," said Sir Leonard anxiously.
"That of course is the danger," said Lady Bailquist quietly; "probably two-thirds of the available strength will hold back, but a third or even a sixth would be enough; it would redeem the parade from the calamity of fiasco, and it would be a nucleus to work on for the future. That is what we want, a good start, a preliminary rally. It is the first step that counts, that is why to-day's event is of such importance."
"Of course, of course, the first step on the road," assented Sir Leonard.
"I can assure you," continued Lady Bailquist, "that nothing has been left undone to rally the Scouts to the new order of things. Special privileges have been showered on them, alone among all the cadet corps they have been allowed to retain their organisation, a decoration of merit has been instituted for them, a large hostelry and gymnasium has been provided for them in Westminster, His Majesty's youngest son is to be their Scoutmaster-in-Chief, a great athletic meeting is to be held for them each year, with valuable prizes, three or four hundred of them are to be taken every summer, free of charge, for a holiday in the Bavarian Highlands and the Baltic Seaboard; besides this the parent of every scout who obtains the medal for efficiency is to be exempted from part of the new war taxation that the people are finding so burdensome."
"One certainly cannot say that they have not had attractions held out to them," said Sir Leonard.
"It is a special effort," said Lady Bailquist; "it is worth making an effort for. They are going to be the Janissaries of the Empire; the younger generation knocking at the doors of progress, and thrusting back the bars and bolts of old racial prejudices. I tell you, Sir Leonard, it will be an historic moment when the first corps of those little khaki- clad boys swings through the gates of the Park."
"When do they come?" asked the baronet, catching something of his companion's zeal.
"The first detachment is due to arrive at three," said Lady Bailquist, referring to a small time-table of the afternoon's proceedings; "three, punctually, and the others will follow in rapid succession. The Emperor and Suite will arrive at two-fifty and take up their positions at the saluting base--over there, where the big flag-staff has been set up. The boys will come in by Hyde Park Corner, the Marble Arch, and the Albert Gate, according to their districts, and form in one big column over there, where the little flags are pegged out. Then the young Prince will inspect them and lead them past His Majesty."
"Who will be with the Imperial party?" asked Sir Leonard.
"Oh, it is to be an important affair; everything will be done to emphasise the significance of the occasion," said Lady Bailquist, again consulting her programme. "The King of Wurtemberg, and two of the Bavarian royal Princes, an Abyssinian Envoy who is over here--he will lend a touch of picturesque barbarism to the scene--the general commanding the London district and a whole lot of other military bigwigs, and the Austrian, Italian and Roumanian military attaches."
She reeled off the imposing list of notables with an air of quiet satisfaction. Sir Leonard made mental notes of personages to whom he might send presentation copies of his new work "Frederick-William, the Great Elector, a Popular Biography," as a souvenir of to-day's auspicious event.
"It is nearly a quarter to three now," he said; "let us get a good position before the crowd gets thicker."
"Come along to my car, it is just opposite to the saluting base," said her ladyship; "I have a police pass that will let us through. We'll ask Mrs. Yeovil and her young friend to join us."
Larry excused himself from joining the party; he had a barbarian's reluctance to assisting at an Imperial triumph.
"I think I'll push off to the swimming-bath," he said to Cicely; "see you again about tea-time."
Cicely walked with Lady Bailquist and the literary baronet towards the crowd of spectators, which was steadily growing in dimensions. A newsboy ran in front of them displaying a poster with the intelligence "Essex wickets fall rapidly"--a semblance of county cricket still survived under the new order of things. Near the saluting base some thirty or forty motorcars were drawn up in line, and Cicely and her companions exchanged greetings with many of the occupants.
"A lovely day for the review, isn't it?" cried the Grafin von Tolb, breaking off her conversation with Herr Rebinok, the little Pomeranian banker, who was sitting by her side. "Why haven't you brought young Mr. Meadowfield? Such a nice boy. I wanted him to come and sit in my carriage and talk to me."
"He doesn't talk you know," said Cicely; "he's only brilliant to look at."
"Well, I could have looked at him," said the Grafin.
"There'll be thousands of other boys to look at presently," said Cicely, laughing at the old woman's frankness.
"Do you think there will be thousands?" asked the Grafin, with an anxious lowering of the voice; "really, thousands? Hundreds, perhaps; there is some uncertainty. Every one is not sanguine."
"Hundreds, anyway," said Cicely.
The Grafin turned to the little banker and spoke to him rapidly and earnestly in German.
"It is most important that we should consolidate our position in this country; we must coax the younger generation over by degrees, we must disarm their hostility. We cannot afford to be always on the watch in this quarter; it is a source of weakness, and we cannot afford to be weak. This Slav upheaval in south-eastern Europe is becoming a serious menace. Have you seen to-day's telegrams from Agram? They are bad reading. There is no computing the extent of this movement."
"It is directed against us," said the banker.
"Agreed," said the Grafin; "it is in the nature of things that it must be against us. Let us have no illusions. Within the next ten years, sooner perhaps, we shall be faced with a crisis which will be only a beginning. We shall need all our strength; that is why we cannot afford to be weak over here. To-day is an important day; I confess I am anxious."
"Hark! The kettledrums!" exclaimed the commanding voice of Lady Bailquist. "His Majesty is coming. Quick, bundle into the car."
The crowd behind the police-kept lines surged expectantly into closer formation; spectators hurried up from side-walks and stood craning their necks above the shoulders of earlier arrivals.
Through the archway at Hyde Park Corner came a resplendent cavalcade, with a swirl of colour and rhythmic movement and a crash of exultant music; life-guards with gleaming helmets, a detachment of Wurtemberg lancers with a flutter of black and yellow pennons, a rich medley of staff uniforms, a prancing array of princely horsemen, the Imperial Standard, and the King of Prussia, Great Britain, and Ireland, Emperor of the West. It was the most imposing display that Londoners had seen since the catastrophe.
Slowly, grandly, with thunder of music and beat of hoofs, the procession passed through the crowd, across the sward towards the saluting base, slowly the eagle standard, charged with the leopards, lion and harp of the conquered kingdoms, rose mast-high on the flag-staff and fluttered in the breeze, slowly and with military precision the troops and suite took up their position round the central figure of the great pageant. Trumpets and kettledrums suddenly ceased their music, and in a moment there rose in their stead an eager buzz of comment from the nearest spectators.
"How well the young Prince looks in his scout uniform." . . . "The King of Wurtemberg is a much younger man than I thought he was." . . . "Is that a Prussian or Bavarian uniform, there on the right, the man on a black horse?" . . . "Neither, it's Austrian, the Austrian military attache" . . . "That is von Stoppel talking to His Majesty; he organised the Boy Scouts in Germany, you know." . . . "His Majesty is looking very pleased." "He has reason to look pleased; this is a great event in the history of the two countries. It marks a new epoch." . . . "Oh, do you see the Abyssinian Envoy? What a picturesque figure he makes. How well he sits his horse." . . . "That is the Grand Duke of Baden's nephew, talking to the King of Wurtemberg now."
On the buzz and chatter of the spectators fell suddenly three sound strokes, distant, measured, sinister; the clang of a clock striking three.
"Three o'clock and not a boy scout within sight or hearing!" exclaimed the loud ringing voice of Joan Mardle; "one can usually hear their drums and trumpets a couple of miles away."
"There is the traffic to get through," said Sir Leonard Pitherby in an equally high-pitched voice; "and of course," he added vaguely, "it takes some time to get the various units together. One must give them a few minutes' grace."
Lady Bailquist said nothing, but her restless watchful eyes were turned first to Hyde Park Corner and then in the direction of the Marble Arch, back again to Hyde Park Corner. Only the dark lines of the waiting crowd met her view, with the yellow newspaper placards flitting in and out, announcing to an indifferent public the fate of Essex wickets. As far as her searching eyes could travel the green stretch of tree and sward remained unbroken, save by casual loiterers. No small brown columns appeared, no drum beat came throbbing up from the distance. The little flags pegged out to mark the positions of the awaited scout-corps fluttered in meaningless isolation on the empty parade ground.
His Majesty was talking unconcernedly with one of his officers, the foreign attaches looked steadily between their chargers' ears, as though nothing in particular was hanging in the balance, the Abyssinian Envoy displayed an untroubled serenity which was probably genuine. Elsewhere among the Suite was a perceptible fidget, the more obvious because it was elaborately cloaked. Among the privileged onlookers drawn up near the saluting point the fidgeting was more unrestrained.
"Six minutes past three, and not a sign of them!" exclaimed Joan Mardle, with the explosive articulation of one who cannot any longer hold back a truth.
"Hark!" said some one; "I hear trumpets!"
There was an instant concentration of listening, a straining of eyes.
It was only the toot of a passing motorcar. Even Sir Leonard Pitherby, with the eye of faith, could not locate as much as a cloud of dust on the Park horizon.
And now another sound was heard, a sound difficult to define, without beginning, without dimension; the growing murmur of a crowd waking to a slowly dawning sensation.
"I wish the band would strike up an air," said the Grafin von Tolb fretfully; "it is stupid waiting here in silence."
Joan fingered her watch, but she made no further remark; she realised that no amount of malicious comment could be so dramatically effective now as the slow slipping away of the intolerable seconds.
The murmur from the crowd grew in volume. Some satirical wit started whistling an imitation of an advancing fife and drum band; others took it up and the air resounded with the shrill music of a phantom army on the march. The mock throbbing of drum and squealing of fife rose and fell above the packed masses of spectators, but no answering echo came from beyond the distant trees. Like mushrooms in the night a muster of uniformed police and plain clothes detectives sprang into evidence on all sides; whatever happened there must be no disloyal demonstration. The whistlers and mockers were pointedly invited to keep silence, and one or two addresses were taken. Under the trees, well at the back of the crowd, a young man stood watching the long stretch of road along which the Scouts should come. Something had drawn him there, against his will, to witness the Imperial Triumph, to watch the writing of yet another chapter in the history of his country's submission to an accepted fact. And now a dull flush crept into his grey face; a look that was partly new- born hope and resurrected pride, partly remorse and shame, burned in his eyes. Shame, the choking, searing shame of self-reproach that cannot be reasoned away, was dominant in his heart. He had laid down his arms--there were others who had never hoisted the flag of surrender. He had given up the fight and joined the ranks of the hopelessly subservient; in thousands of English homes throughout the land there were young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield.
The younger generation had barred the door.
And in the pleasant May sunshine the Eagle standard floated and flapped, the black and yellow pennons shifted restlessly, Emperor and Princes, Generals and guards, sat stiffly in their saddles, and waited.
And waited. . . .