His Girl by George A. Birmingham

There were thirty or forty officers in the lounge of the hotel, all condemned, as I was, to spend the greater part of the day there. Some men have better luck. It was the fourth time I had been held up in this wretched place on my way back to France after leave. Dragged out of our beds at an unreasonable hour, crammed into a train at Victoria, rushed down to an embarkation port as if the fate of the empire depended on our getting there without a minute's delay, we find, when we get out of the train, that the steamer will not start for three hours, four hours, on this occasion six hours. We are compelled to sit about in an hotel, desolate and disgusted, when we might have been comfortable in London.

I looked round to see if there were anyone I wanted to talk to. There were—I had seen them at Victoria—three or four men whom I knew slightly, but I had no particular wish to spend hours with any one of them. I had just decided to go out for a walk by myself when I felt a slap on my shoulder. I turned and saw Daintree. I was uncommonly glad to see him. Daintree and I were friends before the war and I have always found him an amusing companion. He greeted me heartily.

"Great luck," he said, "running into you like this. I don't see a single other man I know in the whole crowd. And any way I particularly wanted to talk to you. I've got a story to tell you."

We secured a corner and two comfortable chairs. I lit a pipe and waited. Daintree is a wonderful man for picking up stories. The most unusual things happen to him and he gets mixed up in far more adventures than anyone else I know. And he likes telling stories. Usually, the men who have stories to tell will not talk, and the men who like talking have nothing interesting to tell. Daintree is exceptional.

"What is it this time?" I asked. "What journalists call a 'sob story,' or is it meant to be humorous?"

"I should call it a kind of joke," said Daintree; "but my wife says it's the most pathetic thing she's ever heard. It makes her cry even to think of it You can take it either way. I'll be interested to see how you do take it. I was thinking of writing it to you, 'for your information and necessary action, please.' My wife wanted me to, but it's too long for a letter. Besides, I don't see what you or anyone else could possibly do in the matter. You may give advice—that's what my wife expects of you—but there's really no advice to give. However, you can tell me how it strikes you. That's what I want to know, whether you agree with my wife or with me. You know Simcox, don't you, or do you? I forget."

"Simcox?" I said. "Is that a tall, cadaverous man in the Wessex? Rather mournful looking?"

"That's the man. Came home from a remote corner of the Argentine, or somewhere like that, early in the war, and got a commission. He's a captain now."

"I met him," I said, "down Albert way, shortly before the push last year. I can't say I knew him. He seemed to me rather a difficult kind of man to know."

"So my wife says," said Daintree. "He's older than most of us, for one thing, and has spent twenty years all by himself herding sheep or branding bullocks, or whatever it is they do out in those places. Naturally he'd rather lost touch with life at home and found it difficult to fit himself in; especially with a lot of boys straight from the 'Varsities or school. They were mostly boys in his battalion. Anyhow, he seems to have been a bit morose, but he did his job all right in the regiment and was recommended for the M.C.. He got knocked out in the Somme push and jolly nearly lost a leg. They saved it in the end and sent him down to my place to convalesce."

Daintree owns a very nice place in the Midlands. In the old days it was one of the pleasantest houses I know to stay in. Daintree himself was a capital host and his wife is a charming woman. The house is a convalescent home for officers now, and Mrs. Daintree, with the help of three nurses, runs it. Daintree pretends to regard this as a grievance, and says it was all his wife's doing, though he was just as keen on the place as she was.

"Damned nuisance," he said, "finding the place full of boys rioting when I get home on leave. And it's full up now—twelve of them, no less. There's hardly a spot in the house I can call my own, and they've spoiled the little lake I made at the bottom of the lawn. That young ass Pat Singleton started what he called boat-races on it——"

"Oh, Pat Singleton's there?" I said. "I knew; he'd been wounded, but I didn't hear he'd been sent to your place."

"Pat Singleton's always everywhere," said Daintree. "I've never come across a place where he wasn't, and he's a devil for mischief. Remind me afterwards to tell you about the trick he played on the principal nurse, a Scotchwoman with a perfectly terrific sense of her own dignity," Daintree chuckled.

"If you'd rather tell me that story," I said, "instead of the one about Simcox, I'd just as soon have it. In fact, I'd prefer it. Sob stories are always trying."

"But I'm not sure that the Simcox one is a sob story, though there's a certain amount of slosh in it. Anyhow, I've got to tell it to you, for my wife says you're the only man she knows who can advise what ought to be done."

"All right," I said, "but Pat Singleton's escapades always amuse me. I'd like to hear about his making an apple-pie bed for that nurse."

Daintree chuckled again, and I gathered from the expression of his face that the nurse had endured something worse than an apple-pie bed.

"Or about the boat-races," I said. "I didn't know you had anything which floated on that lake of yours."

"I haven't," said Daintree, "except the kind of wooden box in which the gardener goes out to clear away the duck-weed. However, Pat Singleton comes into the Simcox story in the end. It's really about him that my wife wants your advice."

"No one," I said, "can give advice about Pat Singleton."

"Knowing the sort of man Simcox is," said Daintree, "you'll understand that he was rather out of it at first in a-house full of boys just out of hospital and jolly glad to have a chance of running about a bit. Pat Singleton wasn't there when Simcox arrived. But the others were nearly as bad; silly jokes from morning to night and an infernal row always going on. My wife likes that sort of thing, fortunately."

"Simcox, I suppose, just sat by himself in a corner of the veranda and glowered?"

"Exactly. And at first my wife could do nothing with him. In the end, of course——"

"In the end," I said, "she persuaded him to tell her his inmost secrets and to confide to her the tragedy of his soul. That's just what she would do."

Mrs. Daintree is a very kind and sympathetic lady. When she talks to me I feel ready to tell her anything. A man like Simcox, shy, reserved, and wholly unaccustomed to charming ladies, would succumb to her easily and pour out a love story or anything else he happened to have on his chest at the time.

"You see," said Daintree, "his leg was pretty stiff and he couldn't get about much, even if he'd wanted to. There was nothing for him to do except sit in a deck-chair. My wife felt it her duty to talk to him a good deal."

Daintree seemed to be making excuses for Mrs. Daintree and Simcox. They were unnecessary. Mrs. Daintree would have got his story out of him if she thought he was really in need of sympathy, whether he sat in a chair all day or was able to row races in the lake in the gardener's punt.

"Anyhow," said Daintree, "what he told her—he told it to me afterwards, so there's no secret about it—was this: He got hit in the leg during an advance through one of those woods north of the Somme, Mametz, I think. It was a beastly place. Our fellows had been in there two days before and had to clear out again. Then Simcox's lot went in—you know the sort of thing it was?"

I nodded.

"Shell holes, and splintered tree trunks," I said. "Machine-guns enfilading you, and H.E. bursting promiscuous. I know."

"Well, Sirmcox' fellows went in all right, and stayed there for a while. Simcox says he remembers noticing that the ground was strewed with débris left by the Germans when they cleared out, and by our fellows afterwards. Equipment, rifles and all the rest of it lying about, as well as other things—pretty ghastly things."

"You needn't go into details," I said. "I can guess."

"I'm only telling you this," said Daintree, "because all the stuff lying about seems to have interested Simcox. It's odd the feelings men have at these times. Simcox says the thing he chiefly wanted to do was to tidy up. He had a kind of strong desire to pick things up and put them away somewhere. Of course he couldn't; but he did pick up one thing, a cigarette case. He showed it to me. It was one of those long-shaped, flat white metal cases which fellows carry because they hold about thirty cigarettes. Simcox says he doesn't know why he picked it up. He didn't want it in the least. He just saw it lying there on the ground and stuffed it into his pocket Almost immediately after that he was hit. Bit of shrapnel under the knee."

"I remember hearing about that business," I said. "We were driven out again, weren't we?"

"Exactly. And Simcox was left behind. He couldn't walk, of course. But he crawled into a shell hole, and there he lay. Well, for the next two days that wood wasn't healthy for either side. The Germans couldn't get back, because we were sprinkling the whole place with shrapnel. We couldn't advance for similar reasons. Simcox just lay in his shell hole. He tied up his leg somehow. He had some brandy in a flask as well as his iron rations. But he hadn't much tobacco. There were only two cigarettes in his own case. However, he had the other case, the one he picked up. There were nearly twenty in it Also there was—I say, at this point the story gets sloppy."

"Never mind," I said. "Go on. What else was in the cigarette case? A farewell letter to a loving wife? Love to little Willie and a text of Scripture?"

"Not so bad as that. A photo of a girl. He showed it to me when he told me the story."

"Good looking girl?"

"Very. Large eyes—sort of tender, you know, and appealing; and a gentle, innocent face, and a mouth——"

"I suppose," I said, "that these raptures are necessary if I'm to understand the story. Otherwise, you may skip them."

"Can't possibly skip them," said Daintree. "The whole point of the story depends on your realizing the sort of girl she was. Pathetic—that's the word I want. Looked at you out of the photo as if she was a poor, lonely, but uncommonly fetching little thing, who wanted a strong, true man to shelter her from the evil world. She was got up in some sort of fancy dress which kind of heightened the effect. I don't altogether profess to understand what happened, though my wife says she does. But Simcox in a sort of way fell in love with her. That's not the way he put it He didn't feel that she was just an ordinary girl—the sort one falls in love with. She was—well, he didn't think of her as flesh and blood—more a kind of vision—spiritual, you know."

"Angel?" I said.

"That sort of thing. You know. That was the idea that gripped Simcox while he lay there in the shell hole. Stars came out at night and Simcox felt that she was looking down at him. In the day he used to lie and gaze at her. When he thought it was all up with him and that he couldn't live, he seemed to hear her voice—I say, you ought to hear my wife telling this part of the story. Simcox wouldn't tell it to me, naturally; but he seems to have enlarged on it a good deal to her. He says that only for that photo he'd have given in and just died. I daresay he wouldn't really, but he thinks he would. Anyhow, he didn't He stuck it out and his leg didn't hurt nearly as much as he expected. He attributes that to the influence of this—this——"

"Angel visitant?" I said.

"You can call her an angel if you like," said Daintree.

"This," I said, "seems to me a pure sob story. If there's any other part less harrowing, I wish you'd hurry up and get to it."

"All right," said Daintree. "I'll cut out the rest of his experiences in that shell hole, though, mind you, they're rather interesting and frightfully poetic the way my wife tells them. After two days our fellows got back into the wood and kept it. The stretcher-bearers found Simcox in his hole and they lugged him down to a Casualty Clearing Station. From that he went to a hospital—the usual round, He had a pretty bad time, first over there, and then, when they could move him, in London. By degrees he got more sane about the photo. He stopped thinking she was any kind of spirit and took to regarding her just as a girl, though a very exceptional kind of girl, of course. He was hopelessly in love with her. Do you think a man really could fall in love with a photo?"

"Simcox did," I said, "so we needn't discuss that point."

"The chances were, of course," said Daintree, "that she was some other fellow's girl, possibly some other fellow's wife. But Simcox didn't care. He was too far gone to care for anything except to get that girl. Those morose, shy men are frightfully hard hit in that sort of way, I'm told. That's what my wife says, anyhow. They get it much worse than we do when they do get it. Simcox would have dragged that girl out of the arms of an archbishop if that was where he found her. Of course he couldn't go hunting her over England while he was in hospital with a bad leg; but he made up his mind to find out who she was and where she lived as soon as he was well enough to go about He'd very little to go on—practically nothing. The photo had been cut down so as to fit into the cigarette case, so that there wasn't even a photographer's name on it."

"He might have advertised," I said. "There are papers which go in for that sort of thing, publish rows of reproductions of photographs 'Found on the battle-field,'with requests for identification."

"My wife thought of that," said Daintree, "but Simcox didn't seem to take to the idea. He said the photo was too sacred a thing to be reproduced in a paper. My own idea is that he was afraid of any kind of publicity. You see, the other fellow might turn up—the fellow who really had a right to the girl."

"How the deuce did he propose to find her?"

"I don't know. He told my wife some rotten yarn about instinct guiding him to her; said he felt sure that the strength of his great love would somehow lead him to her side. He didn't say that to me, couldn't, you know. But it's wonderful what a fellow will say to a woman, if she's sympathetic, and my wife is. Still, even so, he must be more or less mad to think a thing like that. Mad about the girl. He's sane enough in every other way."

"He can't be so mad as that," I said. "Just fancy going out into a field—I suppose that's the way you'd do it—and hanging about until your great love set you strolling off either to the right or to the left. No man, however mad, could expect to come on a girl that way—no one particular girl, I mean. Of course you'd meet several girls whichever way you went. Couldn't help it. The world's full of girls."

"I don't know what he meant," said Daintree, "but my wife sympathized with him and seemed to think he'd pull it off in the end. At first he was a bit shy of letting her see the photo; but when he saw she was as sympathetic as all that he showed it to her. Well, the moment she saw it, she felt that she knew the face."

"That was a stroke of luck for Simcox."

"No it wasn't," said Daintree, "for my wife couldn't put a name to the girl. She was sure she had seen her somewhere, knew her quite well, in fact, but simply couldn't fix her. Funny thing, but it was exactly the same when they showed me the photo. At the first glance I said right away that I knew her. Then I found I couldn't say exactly who she was. The more I looked the more certain I was that I'd seen her somewhere, her or someone very like her. And it wasn't a commonplace face by any means. Poor Simcox kept begging us to think. My wife went over our visitors' book—we've kept one of those silly things for years—but there wasn't a name in it which we couldn't account for. I got out all the old albums of snapshots and amateur photos in the house. You know the way those things accumulate; groups of all sorts. But we couldn't find the girl. And yet both my wife and I were sure we'd met her. Then one morning Simcox burst into my wife's little sitting-room—a place none of the convalescents have any right to go. He was in a fierce state of excitement. Said that an officer who'd arrived the night before was exactly like the photo and that the girl must be his sister or cousin, or something. The only officer who came that night was—you'd never guess!—Pat Singleton."

"Pat," I said, "though a young devil, is cheerful, and I never saw him anything but self-confident I can't imagine a girl such as you described bearing the faintest resemblance to that boy. You said that she was a kind of die-away, pathetic, appealing angel. Now Pat——"

"I know," said Daintree. "All the same, the likeness was there. The moment I looked at the photo with Pat in my mind I knew why I thought I recognized it My wife said the same thing."

"But Pat Singleton hasn't any sisters," I said.

"No, he hasn't He hasn't even a first cousin anything like the age of the girl in the photo. I knew all the Singletons well, have for years. But Simcox insisted his girl must be some relation of Pat's, and in the end I promised to ask the boy. In the first place, if she was a relation, it seemed an impudent sort of thing to do, and if she wasn't, Pat would be sure to make up some infernal story about me and a girl and tell it all over the place. However, my wife egged me on and poor Simcox was so frightfully keen that I promised.

"Well, I sent for Pat Singleton next morning. He was a little subdued at first, as much subdued as I've ever seen him. He thought I was going to rag him about the spoof he'd played off on the nurse. He did that before he was twelve hours in the house. Remind me to tell you about it afterwards. I don't wonder he looked piano. She'd been going for him herself and that woman is a real terror. However, he cheered up the moment I showed him the photo of the girl. He asked me first of all where the devil I'd got it. Said he'd lost it somewhere before he was wounded."

"Oh, it was his, then?" I said.

"Yes," said Daintree, grinning, "it was his. He was particularly anxious to know how I came by it. I didn't tell him, of course. Couldn't give Simcox away, you know. Then Pat began to cheek me. Asked if I'd fallen in love with the girl and what my wife would say when he told her. Said he carried the photo about with him and showed it to fellows just to watch them falling in love with her. It seems that nine men out of ten admired her greatly. He asked me if I didn't think she was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen, and that I wasn't the first man by any means who wanted her name and address. He grinned in a most offensive way and said that he never gave away that girl's name to anyone; that I ought to know better than to go running after a nice, innocent little thing like that who wouldn't know how to take care of herself. I wasn't going to stand much of that sort of talk from Pat Singleton. I told him straight that if he didn't tell me that girl's name and where she lived I'd make things hot for him. I threatened to report the little game he'd had with the nurse and that if I did he'd be court-martialled. I don't know whether a man could be court-martialled for cheeking a nurse, but the threat had a good effect on Pat He really was a bit afraid of that woman. I don't wonder, though it's the first time I've ever known him afraid of anyone."

Daintree paused and chuckled horribly.

"Well," I said, "who was the girl?"

"Haven't you tumbled to it yet?" said Daintree.

"No. Do I know her?"

"I can't say you exactly know her," said Daintree. "You know him. It was a photo of Pat himself dressed up as the Sleeping Beauty, or Fatima, or some such person in a pantomime they did down at the base last Christmas when he was there. The young devil carried the thing about with him so as to play off his silly spoof on every fellow he met I must say he made a damned pretty girl."

"Good Lord!" I said. "And how did Simcox take it?"

"Simcox hasn't been told—yet," said Daintree. "That's just what my wife wants your advice about You see it's an awkward situation."

"Very," I said.

"If we tell him," said Daintree, "he'll probably try to kill Pat Singleton, and that would lead to a lot of trouble. On the other hand, if we don't tell him he'll spend the rest of his life roaming about the world looking for a girl who doesn't exist, and never did. It seems a pity to let that happen."

"My idea," I said, "would be to get another girl, not necessarily like the photo, but the same type, appealing and pathetic and all that. He'd probably take to her after a time."

"I suggested that," said Daintree, "but my wife simply won't hear of it. She says the story as it stands is a great romance and that it would be utterly spoiled if Simcox switched off after another girl. I can't see that, can you?"

"In a case like this," I said, "when the original girl wasn't a girl at all——"

"Exactly," said Daintree, "but when I say that my wife brings up the Angel in the Shell Hole part of the story and says that a great romance is its own reward."

"I don't know what to advise," I said.

"I didn't think you would," said Daintree, "though my wife insisted that you'd be able to suggest something. But you can tell me what you think of the story. That's what I really want to get out of you. Is it a Sob Story or just a rather unusual spoof?"

"That," I said, "depends entirely whether you look at it from Simcox' point of view or Pat Singleton's."