A Coward of Sorts
A COWARD OF SORTS
“ WOMEN are the devil and Nature is a wanton.” Colonel Richard Walsh, V.C., D.S.O., etc, leaned back in his chair and sucked malevolently at his pipe, which, as if to mark its entire concurrence with its owner’s despairing and gloomy tone, had incontinently gone out.
“Trying to be original, Walsh, or is it merely dyspepsia?” lazily inquired his friend, Oliver Reynolds.
“Ah! it’s the Flynter girl or the old trouble.”
“Hang the Flynter girl!” was the response, uttered with a hearty emphasis.
“Then it is the old trouble. I suspected as much. Now if a girl like Doris Wilson had chucked me for Curtice millions—”
“Shut up. A girl would chuck you for the luxury of being damned well rid of you.” There was a savage note in Walsh’s voice that caused his friend to gaze at him in surprise. Presently Walsh continued a little shamefacedly. “She—she refused me and I—”
“Became the youngest Colonel in the service in consequence. There are always compensations.”
“Oh, dry up. I hate your cynical platitudes,” growled Walsh gloomily. “You needn’t always be the successful journalist.”
“My dear fellow, I begin to doubt the accuracy of my own diagnosis. It must be dyspepsia after all.”
Walsh relighted his pipe and threw the match-end viciously into the fireplace. “I’m a V.C., I’ve got a D.S.O. and—”
“Decency forbids you to brag about it. You might have added that you are now a full Colonel and that the eyes of the War Office are upon you as a man who will go far. They like bachelors.”
“Ever know of a fellow in the service who funked war for fear of his own skin?’ There was a note of seriousness in Walsh’s voice that caused the other to eye him curiously.
“Can’t say I have,” was the reply.
“Every fellow’s like that when he’s in love, badly in love. He’s just a damned skunk.”
“Well, let me know when it strikes you, and I'll come round and take a few notes,” said Reynolds with a laugh.
“It has struck me, and badly,” replied Walsh, leaning forward in his chair and tapping Reynolds’s coat-sleeve with the mouthpiece of his pipe. “It has struck me, thirteen years ago, when I was a cub of twenty-two.”
“Rot! Why old Tucker says that in South Africa you were like all hell let loose. Your own Tommies used to be afraid of you.”
“When that war was brewing, Reynolds, I trembled every time I heard a newsboy yelling his cursed lies on the streets. In the club I was afraid to look at the tape. If a man asked me had I heard the news, I felt myself grow pale. Funk, sheer funk.”
“Are you making sport of me? Because if you are, it’s not a bit funny.”
“It was all through Doris. I was mad about her and war meant that I should have to go to the front, and that seemed to be the end. I wanted to live and love Doris. I became a damned coward.”
“And Doris chucked you and you went.”
“Yes, and glad enough to go, too. D’ye know Reynolds, that I am firmly convinced that the men who get V.C.’s and D.S.O.’s are fellows that women have chucked.
“I went to South Africa to die—”
“And came back a hero.” Reynolds grinned.
“I tried all I knew to get dished. Ever wanted a woman so badly that you can’t see life without her?”
Reynolds shook his head.
“I have.” There was a grim note in Walsh’s voice. “I flung myself into danger, and the fools promoted me. I hurled myself at death and they gave me a D.S.O. Finally I walked across a piece of open country that was gay with dust-spots where the bullets were pecking up the Veldt, and—”
“Incidentally picked up and carried to cover a wounded Tommy,” interposed the other.
“Well, the asses gave me a V.C.”
“My dear Walsh,” remarked Reynolds evenly, “for the first time in our acquaintance you are actually becoming interesting. And what happened?”
“Oh, I got tired of being promoted and mentioned in dispatches and cheered by the men and shaken by the hand by my superiors. Still I went on and came home a Lieutenant-Colonel.”
“And that was all through little Doris Wilson, I mean Curtice, with the big blue eyes? It’s odd.”
Reynolds examined the end of his cigar. “You came home cured of course?”
“That’s the funny part: I thought I was cured; yet no sooner was I back in town, than I drove straight to my tailor’s (direct from the station, mind), ordered some clothes, and within forty-eight hours had called upon her. What d’ye think of that?” Walsh sat back in his chair with the air of a man who has propounded an insoluble riddle.
“Most pathetically human and utterly commonplace,” responded Reynolds calmly. “So in reality all your honors were bestowed upon you by the authorities under a misapprehension. And Doris. What of her? Was pleased?”
“She was expecting me,” she said, “actually expecting me. Saw in the papers that I was returning. When I saw her I knew that I was madder than ever about her, so I sheered off and have not seen her for years, except at dances and the like, and then scarcely to speak to. She said she’d always send for me first if ever she was in trouble.”
“Curtice drinks, doesn’t he?”
“Drank. He died a month ago.”
Reynolds whistled long and loudly. “Seen her since?” he asked.
“No; I’m afraid. I’m such a damned coward. I’m as bad as ever. I had hoped she’d send me word. I hoped—”
“Did she regret—”
“I think so. She was ambitious and all that, poor little woman.” There was an ominous huskiness in Walsh’s voice. He rose coughing loudly and walked over to the side-board.
“Have a whiskey? Just a moment,” he added, as the telephone bell rang. “Who’s there?” he inquired. “You!” His tone was one of utter astonishment. “Yes—no—that is, I’ve got a man here, but I’ll kick him out at once.” He listened once more. “In a taxi, of course. See that it’s a quick one.”
Dropping the receiver into its socket with a bang, Walsh turned to Reynolds. “Look here, you, off you go. Clear out quick, or I'll chuck you out. Here’s your hat; no, those are my gloves. Now march.”
With a bewildered air Reynolds proceeded to gather up his belongings, finding himself being pushed towards the door.
“What the—why—? How about my whiskey?”
“Forget your whiskey. Get out, you ass,” shouted Walsh with a laugh. “Get out.”
“But why this inhospitable suddenness?”
“It’s Doris, you idiot, and she’s coming here to pick me up. Lunch. Out I say!”
“Well I’m damned,” muttered Reynolds, as he heard the door close behind him.
This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.