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The Cherub

By Oliver Onions

Army Service Corps


It was provided in the roster of Garrison Duties, Section "Guards and Picquets," that a sentry should march and return along that portion of the grey wall that lay between the Sowgate Steps and the Tower of the ancient South Bar, a hundred yards away; but fate alone had determined that that sentry should be Private Hey. And, since Private Hey was barely tall enough to look forth from the grey embrasures of the outer wall to the pleasant Maychester Plain where the placid river wound, the same fate had further decreed that his gaze should be directed inwards, over the tall trees below him, to the row of Georgian houses of mellow plum-like brick that stood beyond the narrow back gardens, and past these again to other trees and other houses, to where the minster towers arose in the heart of the ancient city. Only occasionally did a fleeting, pathetic wonder cross Private Hey's mind whether there was an irony in this.

A lithograph of uniforms outside the post office (guards, artillery, and militia, all in one frame) had turned his thoughts to the Army seven years before, and the recruiting-sergeant had clinched the matter. Until then he had been a builder's clerk. He was just five-and-twenty. He had a pink, round face, wide-open blue eyes, the slightest of blond moustaches, and his soft, slack mouth seemed only to be held closed by his chin-strap. He always looked hot and on the point of perspiration.

Knowing something of the building trade, it had been his amusement, while on his lofty beat, to work out in his mind the interiors of the Georgian houses of which he saw only the outsides. With the chimney-stacks thus and thus, the fireplaces were probably distributed after such and such a fashion; white-sashed windows irregularly placed among the ivy doubtless gave on landings; waste and cistern-pipes were traceable to sources here and there; and Private Hey had his opinion on each of the chimney-cowls that turned this way and that with the wind. He knew the habits, too, of the folk on whose back gardens he looked down. The nurse in native robes reminded him of his five years in India; the old lady in black merino who fed the birds was familiar; and he liked to see the children who spread white cloths on the grass beneath the pear and cherry trees and held their small tea-parties. Sometimes he wondered whether, to them, so far above them, he did not look like one of the scarlet geraniums of their own window-boxes.

It had been during the previous spring that the incoming of a new tenant to the end house of the row had interested him mildly. He had watched the white-jacketed house-painters at work, and had reflected that the small window they were covering with a coloured transparency was probably that of a bathroom. Then the new tenants had moved in, and one day a small, plump woman's figure had appeared shaking a table-cloth at the top of the narrow garden. The sentry had stopped suddenly in his beat, and broken into the sweat he always seemed on the point of. Even at that distance he had recognised her; and when, after some minutes, he had begun to think again, the only idea that had come to him was, why, during the seven years in which he had not ceased to think of Mollie Westwood, had he never once pictured her in a blue gown?

But she was Mollie Hullah now; he knew that. And he knew Hullah, too, architect and surveyor. Hullah had been the foreman of Peterson's building yard in the days when he, Tom Hey, civilian, had been Peterson's junior clerk. He remembered him as an ambitious sort of chap, who (while Tom Hey had "flown his kite," as he put it) had bought himself a case of instruments and a reel-tape, and studied, and made himself an architect. Tom Hey's duties had been confined to the day-book; Hullah and Peterson between them contained the true account of the Peterson business; and Hey had not guessed the reason for this until, in India, he had received the newspaper that contained the account of Peterson's bankruptcy. Then he had "tumbled." The examination showed Peterson's books to have been ill-kept with a sagacity and foresight that had drawn forth ironical compliments from the registrar himself. "Your chief witness abroad, too; excellent!" the registrar had commented.… No; Hullah was not the fellow to tell all he knew about contractors and palm-oil and peculating clerks-of-works. Hullah was the kind of man who got on.

Since Hullah had come to live in the end house, Private Hey, eyes-right when he turned at the South Bar, and eyes-left when he turned again at the Sowgate Steps, had counted the days when Mollie had appeared at the windows or shaken the table-cloth in the narrow garden. His amusement was no longer with chimney-pots and bath-rooms; it was, to tell over to himself the dissolute life he had led since Mollie had turned her back on him. Somehow, it seemed to exalt her.

It was not that he had ever lied, or stolen, or left a friend in trouble. To the pink-faced private these things were not merely wicked; they were "dead off"—a much worse thing. He drew the line at things that were "off." But he had committed a monotonous routine of other sins, beginning usually at the canteen, continuing at the "regulation" inns or at the Cobourg Music-hall, and ending on the defaulter-sheet with a C.B. And one day his colonel had said to him: "Hey, you remind me of a cherub who kicks about in the mud and glories to think himself an imp." That had puzzled and troubled Hey, for he liked the fine old colonel.

For he had ranked himself with the magnificently wicked. In amours, short of anything that was "off," was he not a Juan? In the matter of inebriety, and for brawling in the streets, why, his officers might make war with ceremony and all that, but (the cherub flattered himself) he was an item of the reckless, heroic, glorious stuff they had to do it with. And since Mollie, by refusing him, had driven him to all this, the sight of her ought surely to have inspired him in his courses; it troubled him that it did not do so. On the contrary, he never felt less inclination to fuddle himself or to click his heels over the gallery-rail of the Cobourg than when he had seen her. When he did not see her, these things were less difficult, and that again was wrong. To regulate his conduct at all by the sight of another man's wife was, of all dead-off things, the deadest.

Now Hullah, as the sentry knew, had no family; but when, the following spring, the apple trees put forth their pink, and the white clouds sailed high over Maychester, and the note of the cuckoo floated on the air, the cherub became moody and bashful and changed colour ten times in an hour. Thrushes and blackbirds flew back and forth from their nests; and Mollie, too, her figure dwarfed by his point of vantage, sunned herself in the garden. Sometimes the cherub blushed red as his tunic. He ought to have gone to the Cobourg and played the very deuce; instead, off duty, he wandered unhappily alone. Then one day he missed her, and his eyes scanned the house and her windows timorously.

Six weeks passed. Then one morning he saw that the white blinds were drawn. His face became white as wax.

The next day he saw the tail of a coach beyond the end of the house. He exceeded his beat, descended the Sowgate Steps, and stood, trembling and watching. Then he gave a great sob of relief. The coach had turned; the horse wore white conical peaks of linen on its ears—the mark of a child's funeral. The small procession passed, and the cherub resumed his beat.

That evening the colonel stopped him as he crossed the barrack yard.

"Ah, Hey!… I'm glad you've given us so little trouble lately. I'd try to keep it up if I were you."

"Yes, sir," said the cherub, saluting; and the colonel nodded kindly and passed on.

The July sun beat fiercely down on the grey walls, and the sentry's tunic was of a glaring bull's red. Not a breath moved the trees below, and the click of his heels sounded monotonously.

Within the shadow of the South Bar, where the steps wound down to the street, a frock-coated, square-built man of forty, with clipped whiskers and crafty eyes, watched the sentry approach. For the second time he cleared his throat and said "Tom!"

This time the sentry turned. "I ain't allowed to talk on duty," he said. The man within the shadow waited.

He waited for half an hour, and then the clatter of the relief was heard ascending the turret. Presently Private Hey passed him without looking at him. He descended after him, and in the street spoke again.

"I ain't off duty yet; you can come to the Buttercup," said Private Hey.

The bar of the Buttercup was below the level of the street, and a gas-jet burned all day over its zinc-covered counter. In the back parlour behind it Hullah awaited Private Hey.

The cherub's voice was heard shouting an order, and he entered the snug. The uncoated barman followed him with the liquor, and retired.

"Did you want to speak to me?" the cherub demanded.

"I did, Tom, I did. How—how are you getting on?"

"Spit it out."

Hullah murmured smoothly: "Ah, the same blunt-spoken, honest Tom that was at Peterson's! You remember Peterson's and the old days, Tom?"

"I'd let the old days drop if I was you. I thought you had done."

"So did I, Tom, so did I; but every breast has its troubles. You've heard the expression, Tom, that there is no cupboard without its skeleton?"

"Keep your cupboards and skeletons to yourself.… Does the new bathroom answer all right?"

"Nicely, Tom, I thank you.… Did you know Peterson was back in Maychester?"

"Ho, is he? I expect he wants to talk over the old days with his friend Hullah, same as you with me. Well, you was a precious pair o' rascals—though for myself, mark you, I like to see honour among such."

"Hush, Tom!… He's back, and seeking you. He'd better be careful; it's twenty years, is that. But what I wanted to say, Tom, is that it would save a lot of trouble—a lot of trouble—if you weren't to see him."

"Ho!… Hullah, my man."

"Yes, Tom."

"Do you know what I think you are?"

Hullah stammered. It was so hard to get a start in business—the competition—he'd gone straight except for that once.

"I think you're the blackguardest, off-est scamp in the trade, and I wouldn't be found dead in a ditch with you. That's juicy, coming from me. I'm no saint, but just a common-or-garden Tommy, with a defaulter sheet it's a sin to read; and I say you're a blackguard, and dead-off."

Hullah cringed. He'd gone straight since—Peterson had already pushed him for twice what he'd had out of it—it was hard to be persecuted like this, hard.

The cherub revolved in his mind phrases of elaborate and over-done irony. Suddenly Hullah mentioned his wife, and the pink of the cherub's face deepened.

"Come into the yard," he said.

Hullah followed him into a dusty plot, where hens scratched and cases and barrels lay scattered everywhere.

"What did you say?" the soldier demanded.

The architect's face was of an unwholesome white, and Hey spat. He saw that Hullah feared he was going to strike him.

"She's been ill, Tom, and must be got away to the Mediterranean. Peterson's sucking me dry; he thinks I'm afraid of him. You used to be fond of her, Tom."

All at once Private Hey's wrath gave place to utter wretchedness, and he began to stride up and down the yard. Tears rose into his eyes, and presently rolled unchecked down his cheeks. He approached Hullah, and said in a quavering voice: "A fortnight ago—was that?"

"A boy," Hullah murmured.

"It's a mercy he's dead, if he'd ha' been like you," the cherub sobbed.

And then he forgot all about Hullah. He forgot everything except that little Mollie Westwood had been through an agony, was ill, must be got away, and that he might help her. An ineffable, soft thrill stirred at his heart; he, wicked Tom Hey, might help her. And presently he stood before Hullah again, looking wistfully at him.

You ain't lying, Hullah?"

"Oh, Tom!"

"And suppose—suppose I was to think Peterson's as big a thief as you, and treat him as such—treat him as such, if he dares to speak to me; you understand, Hullah?"

"Don't put it that way, Tom … then I may take it, Tom?"

"Oh, go, go! I want to me by myself!" the poor cherub moaned; and Hullah, turning once to dart a hateful glance at him over his shoulder, passed through the public-house.

"It's Siberia for you this time, Tom," the guard whispered, adjusting his pipe-clayed belt; "what in thunder made you go and do it?"

The cherub's tunic was unbelted, and the colour had fled from his simple face. He made no reply.

"Was you drunk? Barker says you hadn't been in the canteen. Anyway, the chap's in 'orspital. A blooming civilian, too!"

He saluted stiffly; the major had passed on his way to the outbuilding that had been furnished for a court-martial; and the barrack clock struck eleven.

Half a dozen officers in full uniform sat about a long trestle-table, and the sunlight that came through the tall windows lay across the pens and ink and pink blotting-paper that were spread before the Court. The colonel, at the head of the table, talked to Warren, the regimental surgeon.

"I'm absurdly upset. Warren. It's ridiculous, the faith I have in the fellow. Moreover, I have reason to know that he hasn't touched drink for weeks."

"He's been in the habit, and in such cases a sudden discontinuance sometimes.… But the point isn't whether he was drunk or not; it's an unprovoked attack on this fellow Peterson, or whatever his name is."

The colonel sighed. "Ah, well, I can't overlook this. Are you ready, gentlemen?"

An orderly opened the door, and the prisoner was brought in between two armed guards. He saluted the Court, and then stood at attention. The guards fell back. Two or three witnesses sat on a bench within the door.

The colonel did not once look at Private Hey, and the charge was read. The principal witness lay in hospital, but sufficient evidence of the fact of the assault would be produced, and the president desired the prisoner to plead. The plea was scarcely audible, but it was understood to be "Not guilty," and the first witness was called.

The cherub knew not in what queer way it hurt him that his colonel refused to look at him. He didn't much care what happened, but he would have liked the colonel to think well of him. A witness was telling how the prisoner had reeled, spoken thickly, offered his bayonet, and finally flung the man down the steps of the turret of the South Bar. Would the witness consider the prisoner to have been drunk? the Court asked, and the witness replied that he should. The steps were old and worn; might not the man have slipped? the Court suggested, and the witness reminded the Court that the prisoner had staggered and offered his bayonet. Had the injured man spoken to the prisoner? The witness thought not; he had seemed to be on the point of speaking, but the prisoner had cut him short, exclaiming;" I don't want to talk to dead-off's—like you!"

Asked if he had anything to say, the prisoner shook his head. "I wasn't drunk, sir," he said.

Other witnesses were called; the case went drowsily forward, and the major yawned. The colonel was whispering to the doctor again, and then for the first time he looked at the prisoner.

"Do you know this Peterson?"

"I worked for him when I was a civilian, sir," the prisoner answered.

"Have you any grudge against him?"

"I didn't want to talk to him, sir."

"But suppose he should speak to you again?"

A brief gleam of satisfaction crossed the cherub's mild blue eyes. "I frightened him too bad for that, sir," he said; and then, as the colonel's grave eyes did not cease to regard him, there came a quick little break in his voice.

"I wasn't drunk, sir. I wouldn't tell you a lie, sir, nor do nothing that's off—there's marks against me a many, but not for things that's off; I ask you to believe I wasn't drunk, sir——"

"Clear the Court," said the colonel.

The guard, the prisoner, and the witnesses filed out and the door closed, and the colonel leaned forward in his chair. He seemed disproportionately moved.

"Gentlemen," he said, "if the prisoner is to be seriously punished, I ask you to remember it's dismissal and imprisonment. Let me make a suggestion. It was a very hot day—he's been in India—possibly an old sunstroke "

"A bit discredited, that," observed the doctor.

"He would be punished, of course, but more leniently. It's all I can put forward. It rests with the Court."

He leaned back again, troubled. In the hum of consultation he heard Warren's slightly sarcastic laugh, and thought he heard the major say: "Oh, let it go at that; Neville seems to want it."

"Very well, sir," said the major by and by; "we are agreed."

And as the cherub, returning with the guard, received the milder sentence, he looked humbly and gratefully at his colonel. He recognised that there are things that a commanding officer cannot overlook, but that a private gentleman, on occasion, may.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1961, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.