Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Mystery of the Green Ray

William Le Queux

  Produced by D. Alexander and the Online DistributedProofreading Team at (This file wasproduced from images generously made available by TheInternet Archive)
































  The youth in the multi-coloured blazer laughed.

  "You'd have to come and be a nurse," he suggested.

  "Oh, I'd go as a drummer-boy. I'd look fine in uniform, wouldn't I?"the waitress simpered in return.

  Dennis Burnham swallowed his liqueur in one savage gulp, pushed backhis chair, and rose from the table.

  "Silly young ass," he said, in a voice loud enough for the object ofhis wrath to hear. "Let's get outside."

  The four of us rose, paid our bill, and went out, leaving the youthand his flippant companions to themselves. For it was Bank Holiday,August the third, 1914, and I think, though it was the shortest andmost uneventful of all our river "annuals," it is the one which we areleast likely to forget. On the Saturday Dennis, Jack Curtis, TommyEvans and myself had started from Richmond on our yearly trip up theriver. Even as we sat in the two punts playing bridge, moored at ourfirst camping-place below Kingston Weir, disquieting rumours reachedus in the form of excited questions from the occupants of passingcraft. And now, as we rose from the dinner-table at the Magpie,Sunbury, two days later, it seemed that war was inevitable.

  "What I can't understand," growled Dennis, as we stepped into one ofthe punts and paddled idly across to the lock, "is how any young idiotcan treat the whole thing as a terrific joke. If we go to war withGermany--and it seems we must--it's going to be----Good Heavens! whoknows what it's going to be!"

  "Meaning," said Tom, who never allowed any thought to remainhalf-expressed, "meaning that we are not prepared, and they are. Wehave to step straight into the ring untrained to meet an opponent whohas been getting ready night and day for the Lord knows how manyyears."

  "Still, you know," said Jack, who invariably found the bright spot ineverything, "we never did any good as a nation until we were pushed."

  "We shall be pushed this time," I replied; "and if we do go to war, weshall all be wanted."

  "And wanted at once," Tom added.

  "Which brings me to the point which most concerns us," said Dennis,with a serious face. "What are _we_ going to do?"

  "It seems to me," I replied, "that there is only one thing we can do.If the Government declare war, it is in your cause and mine; and whois to fight our battles but you and me?"

  "That's it, old man, exactly," said Dennis. "We must appear in person,as you lawyers would say. I'm afraid there's not the slightesthope of peace being maintained now; and, indeed, in view of thecircumstances, I should prefer to say there is not the slightest fearof it. We can't honourably keep out, so let us hope we shall step inat once."

  Jack's muttered "hear hear" spoke for us all, and there was silencefor a minute or two. My thoughts were very far away from the peacefulvalley of the Thames; they had flown, in fact, to a still morepeaceful glen in the Western Highlands--but of that anon. I fancy theothers, too, were thinking of something far removed from the ghastlyhorror of war. Jack was sitting with an open cigarette-case in hishand, gazing wistfully at the bank to which we had moored the boat.There was a "little girl" in the question. Poor chap; I knew exactlywhat he was thinking; he had my sympathy! The silence becameuncomfortable, and it was Jack who broke it.

  "Give me a match, Tommy," he exclaimed suddenly, "and don't talk somuch." Tom, who had not spoken a word for several minutes, producedthe matches from a capacious pocket, and we all laughed ratherimmoderately at the feeble sally.

  "As to talking," said Tom, when our natural equanimity had beenrestored, "you all seem to be leaving me to say what we all know hasto be said. And that is, what is the next item on the programme?"

  "I think we had certainly better decide----" Dennis began.

  "You old humbug!" exclaimed Tom. "You know perfectly well that we'veall decided what we are going to do. It is merely the question ofputting it in words. In some way or other we intend to regard the caseof Rex _v._ Wilhelm as one in which we personally are concerned. Am Iright?"

  "Scored a possible," said Jack, who had quite recovered his spirits.

  "In which case," Tom continued, "we don't expect to be of muchassistance to our King and country if we go gallivanting up toWallingford, as originally intended. The question, therefore, remains,shall we go back by train--if we can find the station here--or shallwe punt back to Richmond?"

  "I don't think we need worry about that," said Dennis. "I vote we goback by river; it will be more convenient in every way, and we canleave the boats at Messums. If things are not so black as we thinkthey are we can step on board again with a light heart, or four lighthearts, if you prefer it, and start again. What do you say, Ron?"

  "I should prefer to paddle back," I replied. "It would be a pity tobreak up our party immediately. I don't want to be sentimental, oranything of that sort, but you chaps will agree that we have had somevery jolly times together in the past, and if we are all going to takeout our naturalisation papers in the Atkins family, it is justpossible that we--well, we may not be all together again next year."

  "And you, Jack?" asked Dennis.

  "Oh, down stream for me," said young Curtis, with what was obviouslyan effort at his usual light-hearted manner. "Think of all the beerwe've got left." But the laugh with which he accompanied his remarkwas not calculated to deceive any of us, and I am afraid my clumsyspeech had set him thinking again. So we went "ashore," and had anightcap at the Magpie, where the flippant youth was announcing to anadmiring circle that
if he had half a dozen pals to go with him hewouldn't mind joining the army himself! Having scoured the villagein an unavailing attempt to round up half a pound of butter, we putoff down stream, and spent the night in the beautiful backwater. Noone suggested cards after supper, and we lay long into the nightdiscussing, as thousands of other people all over the country wereprobably discussing, conscription, espionage, martial law, thepossibilities of invasion, and the probable duration of the war. Idoubt very much if we should have gone to sleep at all had we beenable to foresee the events which the future, in its various ways, heldin store for each of us. But, as it was, we plunged wholeheartedlyinto what Tommy Evans described as "Life's new interest." Wepositively thrilled at the prospect of army life.

  "Think of it," said Jack enthusiastically, "open air all the time.Nothing to worry about, no work to do, only manual labour. Why, it'sgoing to be one long holiday. Hang it! I've laid drain-pipes on afarm--for fun!"

  It was past one o'clock when we got out supper. And our appetites lostnothing by the prospect of hardships which we treated rather lightly,since we entirely failed to appreciate their seriousness. Jack'svisions of storming ramparts at the point of the bayonet merely addedflavour to his amazing collation of cold beef, ham, brawn, cold fowl,and peaches and cream, with which he insisted on winding-up at nearlytwo in the morning. He would have shouted with laughter had youtold him that in less than three weeks he would be dashing throughthe enemy's lines with despatches on a red-hot motor-cycle. AndTommy--poor old Tommy--well, I fancy he would have been just ascheerful, dear old chap, had he known the fate that was in store. Forto him was to fall the lot which, of all others, everyone--rich andpoor alike--understands. There is no need for me to repeat the story.Even in the rush of a war which has already brought forward somethousands of heroes, the reader will remember the glorious exploitof Corporal Thomas Evans, in which he won the D.C.M., and also,unfortunately, gave his life for his country. It is sufficient to saythat three men in particular will ever cherish his memory as that of aloyal friend, a cheery comrade, a clean, honest, straightforwardEnglishman through and through.

  As for Dennis and myself--but I am coming to that.

  Having finished our early morning supper, we turned in for a fewhours' sleep, Jack and Tommy in one boat, Dennis and I in the other.But before we did so we stood up, as well as we could under our canvasroof, and drank "The King"; and I fancy that in the mind of each of usthere was more than one other name silently coupled with that toast.Then, for the first time in my memory of our intimacy together, wesolemnly shook hands before turning in. But, try as I would, Icouldn't sleep. For a long time I lay there, in the beautiful silenceof the night, my thoughts far away, sleep farther away still.Presently I grovelled for my tobacco-pouch.

  "Restless, Ron?" Dennis asked, himself evidently quite wide awake.

  "Can't sleep at all," I answered. "But don't let me disturb you."

  "You're not disturbing me, old man. I can't sleep either. Let's lightthe lamp and smoke."

  Accordingly we fished out our pipes and relighted the acetylene lamp,which hung from the middle hoop. Jack turned over in his sleep.

  "Put out the light, old fellow. Not a cab'net meeting, y'know," hemurmured drowsily. And by way of compromise I pulled the primitivedraught curtain between the two boats, and as I sat up to do so Inoticed with a start that Dennis wore a worried look I had never seenbefore. I lay back, got my pipe going, and waited for him to speak.

  "I wonder," he said presently, through the clouds of smoke that hungimprisoned beneath our shallow roof--"I wonder if there would havebeen any war if the Germans smoked Jamavana?"

  "What's worrying you, Den?" I asked, ignoring his question.

  "Worrying me? Why, nothing. I've got nothing to worry about. Whatabout you, though? I don't want to butt in on your private affairs,but you've a lot more to be worried about than I have."

  "I? Oh, nonsense, Dennis," I protested.

  "None of that with me, Ron. You know what I mean. There's no point ineither of us concealing things. This war is going to make a bigdifference to you and Myra McLeod. Now, tell me all about it. What doyou mean to do, and everything?"

  "There isn't much to tell you. You know all about it. We're notengaged. Old General McLeod objects to our engagement on account of myposition. Of course, he's quite right. He's very nice about it, andhe's always kindness itself to me. You know, of course, that he and myfather were brother officers? Myra and I have been chums since she wasfour. We love each other, and she would be content to wait, but, inthe meantime--well, you know my position. I can only describe it inthe well-worn phrases, 'briefless barrister' and 'impecunious junior.'There's a great deal of truth in the weak old joke, Dennis, about themany that are called and the few that are briefed. Of course theGeneral is right. He says that I ought to leave Myra absolutely alone,and neither write to her nor see her, and give her a chance to meetsomeone else, and all that--someone who could keep her among her ownset. But I tried that once for three months; I didn't answer herletters, or write to her, and I worried myself to death very nearlyabout it. But at the end of the three months she came up to town tosee what it was all about. Gad, how glad I was to see her!"

  "I bet you were," said Dennis, sympathetically. "But what d'you meanby telling me you'd got nothing to worry about? Now that you're justgetting things going nicely, and look like doing really well, alongcomes this wretched war, and you join the army, and such practice asyou have goes to the devil. It's rotten luck, Ronnie, rotten luck."

  "It is a bit," I admitted with a sigh. My little bit of hard-earnedsuccess had meant a lot to me.

  "Still," said Dennis, "you've got a thundering lot to be thankful fortoo. To begin with, she'll wait for you, and then, if necessary, marryon twopence-halfpenny a year, and make you comfortable on it too. Asfar as her father is concerned, she's very devoted to him, and wouldnever do anything to annoy him if she could possibly help it, as Ieasily spotted the night we dined with them at the Carlton. But she'smade up her mind to be Mrs. Ronald Ewart sooner or later; that I_will_ swear!"

  "I'm very glad to hear you say so," I answered, "but the thing thatworries me, of course, is the question as to whether I have any rightto let this go on. If war is declared----"

  "Which it will be," said Dennis.

  "Well, then, my practice goes to the devil, as you say. How long afterthe war is it going to be before I could marry one of Myra's maids,let alone Myra? And, supposing, of course, that I use the return halfof my ticket, so to speak, and come back safe and sound, my ownprospects will be infinitely worse than they were before the war. Thelaw, after all, is a luxury, and no one will have a great deal ofmoney for luxuries by the time we have finished with it and wipedGermany off the map. Besides, if there's no money about, there'snothing to go to law over. So there you are, or, rather, there I am."

  "What do you intend to do, then?" my friend asked.

  "I shall go up to Scotland to-morrow night--well, of course, it'sto-night, I should say--and see her--and--and----"

  "Yes--well, and----"

  "Oh, and tell her that it must be all--all over. I shall say that thewar will make all the difference, that I must join the army, and thatshe must consider herself free to marry someone else, and that, as inany case I might never come back, I think it's the best thing for usboth that she should consider herself free, and--er--and--and considerherself free," I ended weakly.

  "Just like that?" asked Dennis, with a twinkle in his eye.

  "I shall try and put it fairly formally to her," I said, "because, ofcourse, I must appear to be sincere about it. I must try and think outsome way of making her imagine I want it broken off for reasons of myown."

  Dennis laughed softly.

  "You delicious, egotistical idiot," he said. "You don't really imaginethat you could persuade anyone you met for the first time even thatyou're not in love. By all means do what you think is right, Ron. Iwouldn't dissuade you for the world. Tell her that she is free. Tellher why you are setting
her free, and I'll be willing to wager mylittle all that you two ridiculous young people will find yourselvestied tighter together than ever. By all means do your best to be agood little boy, Ronald, and do what you conceive to be your duty."

  "You needn't pull my leg about it," I said, though somewhathalf-heartedly.

  "I'm not pulling your leg, as you put it," Dennie answered, in a moreserious tone. "If ever I saw honesty and truth and love and loyaltylooking out of a girl's eyes, that girl is Myra McLeod."

  "Thank you for that, Den," I answered simply. There was littlesentiment between us. Thank heaven, there was something more.

  "And so you see, you lucky dog, you'll go out to the front, and comeback loaded with honours and blushes, and marry the girl of yourdreams, and live happy ever after." And Dennis sighed.

  "Why the sigh?" I asked. "Oh, come now," I added, suddenlyremembering. "Fair exchange, you know. You haven't told me what wasworrying you."

  "My dear old fellow, don't be ridiculous, there's nothing worryingme."

  I pressed him to no purpose. He refused to admit that he had a care inthe world, and so we fell to talking of matters connected with theroutine of army life, how long we should be before we got to thefront, the sport we four should have in our rest time behind thetrenches, our determination to stick together at all costs, etc.Suddenly Dennis sat bolt upright.

  "Gad!" he cried savagely, "if you beggars weren't going, I could stickit. But you three leaving me behind, it's----"

  "Leaving you behind?" I echoed in astonishment. "But why, old man?Aren't you coming too?"

  "I hope so," said Dennis bitterly; "I hope so with all my heart, and Ishall have a jolly good shot at it. But I know what it will be, worseluck."

  "But why, Dennis?" I asked again. "I don't understand."

  "Of course you don't," he replied, "but you've got your own troubles,and there's no point in worrying about me, in any case."

  I begged him to tell me; I pleaded our old friendship, and the factthat I had taken him into my confidence in the various vicissitudes ofmy own love affair. It struck me at the time that it was I who shouldhave been indebted to him for his patient sympathy and help; and herehe was, poor old fellow, with a real, live trouble of his own,refusing to bother me with it.

  "So you've just got to own up, old man," I finished.

  "Oh, it's really nothing," said Dennis miserably. "I'm a crock, that'sall. A useless hulk of unnecessary lumber."

  "How, my dear chap?" I asked incredulously. Here was Dennis Burnham,who had put up a record for the mile in our school days, and liftedthe public school's middle-weight pot, a champion swimmer, a massiveyoung man of six-foot-two in his socks, calling himself a crock.

  "You remember that summer we did the cruise from Southampton toStranraer?"

  "Heavens! yes," I exclaimed, "and we capsized the cutter in theSolway, and you were laid up in a farmhouse at Whithorn with rheumaticfever. Am I ever likely to forget it?"

  "I'm not, anyway," said Dennis, ruefully. "That rheumatic fever leftme with a weak heart. I strained it rowing up at Oxford, you remember,and that fever business put the last touches on it for all practicalpurposes."

  "Are you sure, old man?" I asked. It seemed impossible that a greatbig chap like Dennis, the picture of health, should have anythingseriously wrong with him.

  "I'm dead sure, Ron; I wish I weren't. Not that it matters much, ofcourse; but just now, when one has a chance to do something decent forone's Motherland and justify one's existence, it hits a bit hard."

  "Is it serious?" I asked--"really serious?"

  "Sufficient to bar me from joining you chaps, though I'll see if I cansneak past the doctor. You remember about three weeks ago we were tohave played a foursome out at Hendon, and I didn't turn up? I saidafterwards that I had been called out of town, and had quite forgottento wire."

  "Which was extremely unlike you," I interposed; "but go on."

  "Well, as a matter of fact, I was on my way. I was a bit late, andwhen I got outside Golders Green Tube Station I ran for a 'bus. Therest of the day I spent in the Cottage Hospital. No, I didn't faint.The valve struck, and I simply lay on the pavement a crumpled mass ofsemi-conscious humanity till they carted me off on the ambulance. It'sthe fourth time it's happened."

  "Of course you had good advice?" I asked anxiously.

  "Heavens! yes," he exclaimed; "any amount of the best. And they allsay the same thing--rest, be careful, no sudden excitement, no strain,and I may live for ever--a creaking door."

  "My dear old Den," I said, for I was deeply touched. "Why didn't youtell me?"

  "Plenty of worries of your own, old man," he answered, morecheerfully; "and, besides, it would have spoiled everything. Youfellows would have been nursing me behind my back, to use an Irishism,and trying to prevent my noticing it. You know as well as I do that ifyou had known I should have been a skeleton at the feast."

  "You must promise me two things," I said presently. "One is that youwon't try to join the army; there is sure to be a rush of recruits inthe next few days, and the doctors will be flurried, and may skipthrough their work roughshod. The other is that you will take care ofyourself, run no risks, and do nothing rash while we are away."

  The first he refused. He said he must do what he could to get through,if only to satisfy his conscience; but he made me the second promise,and solemnly gave me his word that he would do nothing that would puthim in any danger. Then at last, at his suggestion, we turned in; heinsisted that I had an all-night journey in front of me. And soeventually I fell asleep, saddened by the knowledge of my friend'strouble, but somewhat relieved that I had extracted from him a promiseto take care of himself.

  Little did I dream that he would break his promise to save one who wasdearer to me than life itself, or that I should owe all my present andfuture happiness to poor old Dennis's inability to join the army.Truly, as events were to prove, "he did his bit."