The Higher Claim, by Bartimeus

1

All night long the wind, blowing in across the dunes from the North
Sea, had brought the sound of firing.

At times it was hardly perceptible: a faint reverberation of the ether that could scarcely be defined as sound; it would resolve itself into a low, continuous rumble, very much like distant thunder, that died away and recommenced nearer and more distinct. Then the sashes of the open window trembled, and Margaret, who had lain awake all night, every nerve strained to listen, leaned on one elbow to stare from her bed out into the darkness.

She had tried not to listen. For hours she had lain without moving, with limbs tense beneath the coverings, the palms of her hands pressed against her ears. But imagination sped through the dark passages of her mind, brandishing a torch, compelling her at length to listen again.

She had no very clear idea, of course, what a naval action was like. A confused recollection of pictures seen in childhood only suggested stalwart men, stripped to the waist and bare-footed, working round the smoking guns of ships whose decks blazed up in flame to taunt the quiet heavens; while the ships' scuppers ran red.

Modern naval warfare could be nothing like that, though.

She had only seen the results of modern warfare. Men tortured till they came near to forgetting their manhood; burnt, deaf, scalded, torn by splinters, blinded; she had seen them smiling under circumstances that thrilled her to feel they shared a common Flag.

On the outbreak of war the training institute on the East Coast, of which Margaret was the matron, had, on account of its position near the coast and other advantages, been converted into a Naval Hospital. Miss Dacre, the principal, Margaret, and a few others who had already qualified in nursing, were retained as Red Cross sisters, and it was not long before the classrooms and dormitories were occupied by very different inmates from those for whom they were intended. Only the more serious cases reached these wards. The less dangerously hurt passed by rail or hospital ship to the base hospitals in the South.

All night long the wounded men in the long wards stirred fretfully under the white counterpanes, each man translating the sounds according to his own imagination or experience. The night-sisters moved softly to and fro on the beeswaxed boards, smoothing tumbled pillows, adjusting a splint or a bandage, calming the bearded children who fretted because they were hopelessly "out of it."

Towards the dawn the sounds of firing gradually grew fainter, and died away as the first pale bands of light appeared in the east. The sparrows under the eaves stirred and commenced a sleepy twittering. Margaret rose as soon as objects in her room were discernible, bathed her face and hands in cold water, and stood awhile at the window watching the day growing over the sea and sombre sky.

The sounds of the battle that passed away to the northward had shaken her nerves as had nothing else in all her experience. Standing there by the open window, drinking in the indescribable freshness of the dawn, she despised herself. She, who had devoted her life to a Purpose, should be above the petty weakness of her sex. Yet the cold fear that had been her bedfellow throughout the night, and was concerned with neither defeat nor victory, haunted her still.

She closed the window, lit a small spirit-lamp on a side table, and, while the kettle boiled, dressed in riding things. The earliness of the hour made it improbable that she would meet a soul, and yet she dressed carefully, coiling her soft hair, with its silver threads, on the nape of her neck, fastidiously dusting riding boots, and giving a brisk rub to the single spur before she strapped it on. She was adjusting her hard-felt hat before the glass when someone knocked at the door.

She turned questioningly, with hands still raised. "Come in!"

A girl was standing in the doorway; she wore a dressing-gown, and beneath it her slim ankles peeped out of a pair of the felt slippers nurses wear at night.

"Betty! What's the matter?"

"Did you hear the firing?"

Margaret nodded. Was the betrayal of her nerves infectious? Had it communicated itself to the whole staff? For a swift instant she despised her sex—she who had devoted her life to it. "Yes. Another big engagement. We shall be busy. I was going to ride down to the cliffs to see. . . . What's the matter, Betty—can't you sleep? Come in and shut the door; I'll give you a cup of tea." She spoke in her accustomed quiet tone, and crossed to the side table, where the kettle was giving out little fitful puffs of steam.

Betty closed the door and sat down on the edge of the bed, her hands in the side pockets of her dressing-gown. Her hair was plaited loosely in two long plaits, one of which hung down over her shoulder and somehow gave her face an added effect of extreme youth.

Margaret handed her a cup of tea. "Drink that and run back to bed.
No—hop into mine and keep warm. Haven't you slept?"

Betty drank the tea and drew the dressing-gown closer round her young form. "I couldn't sleep. The firing . . . No, I'm quite warm, thanks. But it got on my nerves lying there waiting for it to get light. I heard you moving, and I got up." She passed her hand over her eyes. "After the last time I kept seeing those poor things. . . . I don't mind once we start—I don't mind the operating-table. It's when they come in . . . like dumb things—trying to smile, with their mouths all screwed up and tight." She caught her breath half hysterically.

Margaret put down her cup quickly and sat down by the girl's side.
"Betty! Don't talk like that. You mustn't think about it in that way.
Listen——"

"It's easy to be calm when you haven't any—anybody out there in the
North Sea belonging to you. But I've got a brother and a—and he's a
Gunnery Lieutenant," ended Betty a little feebly.

"I know, dear. But you mustn't go to pieces when we all want every bit of pluck and steadiness. We're getting used to it now, too—and I'm sure your brother would like to think you were being as brave as—as he. . . ." She turned her head and stared out of the window. Was she a hypocrite, she wondered, to try to preach to anyone the virtue of womanly courage when her own heart was sick with she knew not what?

Betty stood up. "I'm a fool," she said abruptly. "Can I come with you? Could you wait ten minutes while I put my riding things on? Miss Dacre said I could take her horse when I wanted to—will you wait for me, Margaret? I'll ride down to the sea with you."

Margaret nodded and rose, too. "I'll get the horses saddled while you dress. . . . Bring some biscuits."

She descended the broad oak stairway, crossed the hall, and opened the door of a little room adjoining the main entrance. It was her day sanctum—in scholastic days, the matron's sitting-room, a small apartment, with pretty chintz-covered furniture, and roses in bowls on the table and bookstands. Margaret unhooked a pair of field-glasses hanging on the wall, and passed out into the early morning sunlight.

Betty joined her ten minutes later in the stables, and together they mounted and rode down the long avenue, bordered by firs, out on to the open wold that commanded a view of the sea.

With the dewy turf under them, they shook their impatient horses into a canter until they reached the highest point of a bluff promontory that stretched out into the sea. Here they reined in and scanned the horizon, side by side.

The water was leaden-coloured, shot with coppery gleams. Below them to the northward the little harbour of the fishing village was stirring to life: wisps of smoke, curling from a score of chimneys, blended with the mists of early morning. Small specks that were people began to move about an arm of the breakwater, towards which a dinghy came stealing sluggishly from one of the anchored fishing craft.

Without speaking, Betty abruptly raised her whip and pointed towards the north. A Torpedo Boat Destroyer was approaching the entrance to the harbour, her funnels jagged with shot-holes pouring out smoke. In silence Margaret handed the glasses to her companion. On the far horizon there were faint columns of smoke north and east. Some were smudges that dissolved and faded to nothing; others grew darker, and presently resolved themselves into distant cruisers passing rapidly south. Margaret's horse lowered his head and began cropping the short grass.

"Margaret," said Betty suddenly, "did you ever care for anybody—a man,
I mean?" To Betty's mind the thirty-five years that sat so lightly on
Margaret's brow relegated such a possibility, if it ever happened, to a
past infinitely remote. For a moment there was no reply.

Margaret stretched out her hand for the glasses, and focused them on the horizon.

"Yes," she said at length, quietly. The Destroyer was entering the harbour; faint confused sounds of cheering drifted up to them.

"Why didn't you marry him? Did you send him away?"

Again a pause, and again came the low-voiced affirmative. Margaret lowered the glasses and returned them to the case slung across her shoulder. "I thought I was doing right. . . . But I was wrong." The night had not been without its lesson. "He's out there." She nodded towards the North Sea, and as she spoke the blunt bows of a hospital ship crept round a distant headland, making towards them. Silence tell between them again.

Margaret broke it. "Betty," she said, "if the time ever comes for you to choose between the love of the man you love and—and anything else in the wide world, don't be misled by other claims . . . by what may seem to be higher claims. Loving and being loved are the highest responsibilities that life holds."

Betty turned her head and stared. "But," she said, "if you think duty doesn't give you the right to——"

"Love gives you all the right a woman wants," replied Margaret, still in the same low, sad tone. "If it's only the right to cry. . . . If you forego love, you forego even that." She gathered the reins and turned her horse. "Now we must get back to bath and dress. There's a lot of work ahead of us."

Neither spoke again as they rode back across the downs. In the filmy blue overhead a lark sang rapturously, pouring out its soul in gladness.

* * * * *

Margaret was in the hall when the first of the long line of stretcher-bearers arrived. As each stretcher was brought in, a surgeon made a brief examination of the wounded man, and he passed through one or other of the wide doorways opening out on either side of the hall. There was a subdued murmur of voices as every moment brought a fresh arrival. Two blue-jackets, who came up the steps carrying a hooded stretcher, stood looking about them as if for orders. The surgeons were all occupied, but, catching sight of Margaret in uniform, with the broad red cross on her breast, the blue-jackets crossed the hall towards her and laid the stretcher at her feet, as if they had brought their burden all this way for her alone.

"Second door on the left," said Margaret. "Wait—is it a bad case?"

"Too late, I'm afraid, Sister," said the stalwart at the head of the stretcher. "'E's died on the way up."

"'Emmerage, Sister," supplemented the other, anxious to display his familiarity with the technicalities of her profession. "'E wouldn't take 'is turn to be attended to aboard of us—we was in a Destroyer, an' picked 'im up 'angin' on to a spar. Would 'ave the doctor fix up a German prisoner wot was bleedin' to death. Said 'e wasn't in no particular 'urry, speakin' for 'isself. An' 'im a-bleedin' to death, too. As fine a gentleman as ever stepped."

The other nodded, warming, sailor-like, to the hero-worship of an officer. "That's right, Sister. 'E give 'is life for one of them Germans, you might say."

"Is he dead?" asked Margaret in her clear, incisive tones.

"Yes, Sister." The speaker knelt down and turned back the hood, uncovering the face and shoulders of the motionless figure on the stretcher.

For a moment a feeling of giddiness seized Margaret. A great blackness seemed to close round her, shutting out the busy scene, the voices of the bearers, and the shuffle of their feet across the tiled hall. With a supreme effort she mastered herself, and somehow knew she had been waiting for this moment, expecting it. . . .

The man who had been kneeling rose to his feet, and the two stood before her as if awaiting orders. Outside the entrance a motor ambulance arrived and drew up with throbbing engine.

"The mortuary——" she began. "No—bring him here . . . out of all this." She walked across the hall and opened the door of the small room on the left of the entrance. The scent of roses greeted them: it was the room from which she had fetched her glasses early in the morning.

The two men deposited the stretcher on the floor and came out, glancing at her white face as they passed. "Shall we carry on, Sister?"

"What? . . . Oh, yes, please."

They saluted awkwardly, and left her standing irresolute, as if dazed, in the midst of all the bustle and traffic of suffering.

He had come back to her. Torps, who in life had never broken his word, was also faithful to it in death.

2

The journey across the lawn to one of the seats in the shelter of the clipped hedge of evergreens was accomplished at length.

The Indiarubber Man lowered himself with a little grimace into the seat, and laid the crutches down beside him. One leg, encased in splints and bandages, was stiffly outstretched on a stool in front of him; his uniform cap—a very disreputable one, with a tarnished badge—was perched on top of the bandages that still swathed his head.

"Phew!" he said; "thank you. That was a bit of a Marathon, wasn't it?"
He measured the distance across the lawn with a humorous eye.

"It was very good for a first attempt," said Betty, considering him professionally. "Is that leg comfortable?"

"Quite, thank you." He leaned back and closed his eyes with a luxurious sigh. "'Pon my word, this is what I call cutting it pretty fat. Fancy my lolling here in the sun, and you . . . and you——" he opened his eyes, regarding her as she stood before him in her trim, nurse's uniform. "It's quite like a play, isn't it, where everything comes right in the end? Miss Betty——"

"You mustn't call me that," said Betty primly. "I told you before.
You must say 'Nurse.'"

"Can't I say 'Nurse Betty'?"

"My name is Elizabeth. If you wanted to distinguish me from other nurses you might conceivably say 'Nurse Elizabeth.' But even that's not necessary, as I'm the only nurse here at the moment."

The Indiarubber Man looked cautiously round the sunlit enclosure.
"True. So you are——"

"And it's time for your beef-tea," added Betty severely, marching off in the direction of the distant wing.

Her patient watched her slim form retreating and vanish down a green alley. "You dear," he said, "you dear!" He meditated awhile. "It's a rum world," he soliloquised. "Torps has gone. The Young Doc.'s gone. The Pay's gone."

He mused awhile. "But we gave 'em an almighty hammering. And here am I, alive and kicking again. And there's Betty. . . . It's a rum world." He bent forward and gathered a daisy growing in the border beside his seat. With his bleached, rather unsteady, fingers, he began picking the petals from it one by one.

"She does, she doesn't. She does, she doesn't. She doesn't," repeated the Indiarubber Man in a woeful voice.

A thrush hopped across the lawn, and paused to regard him with one bright eye. Apparently reassured, it deftly secured and swallowed a worm.

The Indiarubber Man laughed. "Doesn't anybody love you either?" he said.

Betty reappeared in the distance carrying a tray in her hands. The thrush, as if realising that two is company and three none, flew away.

Betty handed a cup to the invalid. "There's a piece of toast too—you must soak it in the beef-tea, and here is a little bell. If you want anything, or you aren't comfortable, you can ring it."

"I see." The Indiarubber Man gravely accepted all three gifts and laid them on the seat beside him. "Thank you awfully. But you aren't going away, are you?"

"Of course I am," said Betty. "I'm very busy. You must remember that this is a hospital, that you're a patient and I'm a nurse." She moved off sedately.

"Miss Betty!" called the Indiarubber Man. "I mean 'Nurse.'" Betty turned and retraced her footsteps. "Wouldn't it be awful if I was suddenly taken very ill indeed—if I came over all of a tremble, and tried to ring the toast and soaked the bell in my beef-tea?"

"From what I've seen of you during the last six weeks," replied Betty the Hospital Nurse, "such a thing wouldn't surprise me a little bit." She left him to his graceless self.

For a while after she had gone the Indiarubber Man tried to read a book. Tiring of that, he lit a pipe and smoked it without enthusiasm. Tobacco tasted oddly flavourless and unfamiliar. Then he remembered his beef-tea and drank it obediently, soaking the toast as he had been bidden. Remained the bell. For a long time he sat staring at it.

"Much better get it over," he said aloud. "One way or the other."

Cautiously he looked round. No one was in sight; the windows at the back of the hospital that overlooked this secluded lawn had been the windows of class-rooms, and were of frosted glass. With the aid of his crutches he got up unsteadily, and then, maintaining a precarious balance with one crutch, he thrust the other one under the seat leverwise, and with an effort tipped it over backwards on to the flowerbed.

This accomplished, the Indiarubber Man looked round again to convince himself that the manoeuvre was unobserved. Reassured on this point, he lowered himself down gingerly over the seat until he was lying on his back with his legs in the air and his head in a clump of marigolds. In this attitude he seized the bell and rang it furiously, feebly waving his uninjured leg the while.

The moments passed. From his prostrate position behind the seat he was unable to obtain a view of the lawn, and stopped ringing the bell to listen. He heard a faint cry in the distance, and then the flutter of skirts. The next instant Betty was bending over him, white and breathless.

"Oh!" she cried, "how did it happen? Did the seat tip over backwards—are you hurt?" and kneeling beside him raised his unhallowed head. The Indiarubber Man closed his eyes.

"You told me to ring if I wasn't comfortable, and I wasn't a bit. I hate the smell of marigolds too. No—please don't move; I'm very comfortable now." Betty looked wildly in the direction of the house for help.

"I heard the bell," she said in a queer, breathless little voice, "and I just came out to look . . . and then I ran. I ought to have called someone. Ring the bell—I can't move you by myself. We must have assistance. How did this happen?"

The Indiarubber Man opened his eyes. "The seat tipped over backwards."

"But how?"

"It—it just tipped—as it were."

"Will you promise to lie still for one minute while I run for help—are you in pain?"

"No. As a matter of fact, I wanted to ask you a question."

"What?" asked Betty, reaching for the bell with her disengaged hand.

"Betty, will you marry me?"

The Indiarubber Man's bandaged head was deposited once more among the marigolds. Betty rose to her feet, astonishment and indignation joining forces to overcome laughter within her. The resultant of all three was something suspiciously like tears.

"What? Oh, I do believe—I don't believe it was an accident at all——"

"Will you, Betty?" queried the Indiarubber Man from the depths of the marigolds.

Voices sounded beyond the yews. A white-coated orderly appeared in the distance, stood a moment in astonishment, and came running across the grass towards them.

"Quick! There's someone coming. I swear I won't be budged till you answer."

The orderly arrived panting. "What's up, miss, an accident?"

"Oh," gasped Betty. "Yes!"

The Indiarubber Man suffered himself to be moved.