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Title: The Mystery of the Green Ray
Author: William Le Queux
Release Date: September 16, 2008 [EBook #26637]
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THE MYSTERY OF THE
BY WILLIAM LE QUEUX
AUTHOR OF “THE UNNAMED”
HODDER AND STOUGHTON LONDON NEW YORK TORONTO
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 back his chair, and rose from the table.
“Silly young ass,” he said, in a voice loud enough for the object of his wrath to hear. “Let’s get outside.”
The four of us rose, paid our bill, and went out, leaving the youth and his flippant companions to themselves. For it was Bank Holiday, August the third, 1914, and I think, though it was the shortest and most uneventful of all our river “annuals,” it is the one which we are least likely to forget. On the Saturday Dennis, Jack Curtis, Tommy Evans and myself had started from Richmond on our yearly trip up the river. Even as we sat in the two punts playing bridge, moored at our first camping-place below Kingston Weir, disquieting rumours reached us in the form of excited questions from the occupants of passing craft. 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 of the punts and paddled idly across to the lock, “is how any young idiot can treat the whole thing as a terrific joke. If we go to war with Germany—and it seems we must—it’s going to be——Good Heavens! who knows what it’s going to be!”
“Meaning,” said Tom, who never allowed any thought to remain half-expressed, “meaning that we are not prepared, and they are. We have to step straight into the ring untrained to meet an opponent who has been getting ready night and day for the Lord knows how many years.”
“Still, you know,” said Jack, who invariably found the bright spot in everything, “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, we shall 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 who is 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 slightest hope of peace being maintained now; and, indeed, in view of the circumstances, I should prefer to say there is not the slightest fear of it. We can’t honourably keep out, so let us hope we shall step in at once.”
Jack’s muttered “hear hear” spoke for us all, and there was silence for a minute or two. My thoughts were very far away from the peaceful valley of the Thames; they had flown, in fact, to a still more peaceful glen in the Western Highlands—but of that anon. I fancy the others, too, were thinking of something far removed from the ghastly horror of war. Jack was sitting with an open cigarette-case in his hand, gazing wistfully at the bank to which we had moored the boat. There was a “little girl” in the question. Poor chap; I knew exactly what he was thinking; he had my sympathy! The silence became uncomfortable, and it was Jack who broke it.
“Give me a match, Tommy,” he exclaimed suddenly, “and don’t talk so much.” Tom, who had not spoken a word for several minutes, produced the matches from a capacious pocket, and we all laughed rather immoderately at the feeble sally.
“As to talking,” said Tom, when our natural equanimity had been restored, “you all seem to be leaving me to say what we all know has to 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’ve all decided what we are going to do. It is merely the question of putting it in words. In some way or other we intend to regard the case of Rex v. Wilhelm as one in which we personally are concerned. Am I right?”
“Scored a possible,” said Jack, who had quite recovered his spirits.
“In which case,” Tom continued, “we don’t expect to be of much assistance to our King and country if we go gallivanting up to Wallingford, as originally intended. The question, therefore, remains, shall we go back by train—if we can find the station here—or shall we punt back to Richmond?”
“I don’t think we need worry about that,” said Dennis. “I vote we go back by river; it will be more convenient in every way, and we can leave the boats at Messums. If things are not so black as we think they are we can step on board again with a light heart, or four light hearts, 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 to break up our party immediately. I don’t want to be sentimental, or anything of that sort, but you chaps will agree that we have had some very jolly times together in the past, and if we are all going to take out our naturalisation papers in the Atkins family, it is just possible 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 obviously an effort at his usual light-hearted manner. “Think of all the beer we’ve got left.” But the laugh with which he accompanied his remark was not calculated to deceive any of us, and I am afraid my clumsy speech had set him thinking again. So we went “ashore,” and had a nightcap at the Magpie, where the flippant youth was announcing to an admiring circle that if he had half a dozen pals to go with him he wouldn’t mind joining the army himself! Having scoured the village in an unavailing attempt to round up half a pound of butter, we put off down stream, and spent the night in the beautiful backwater. No one suggested cards after supper, and we lay long into the night discussing, as thousands of other people all over the country were probably discussing, conscription, espionage, martial law, the possibilities of invasion, and the probable duration of the war. I doubt very much if we should have gone to sleep at all had we been able to foresee the events which the future, in its various ways, held in store for each of us. But, as it was, we plunged wholeheartedly into what Tommy Evans described as “Life’s new interest.” We positively 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’s going to be one long holiday. Hang it! I’ve laid drain-pipes on a farm—for fun!”
It was past one o’clock when we got out supper. And our appetites lost nothing by the prospect of hardships which we treated rather lightly, since we entirely failed to appreciate their seriousness. Jack’s visions of storming ramparts at the point of the bayonet merely added flavour to his amazing collation of cold beef, ham, brawn, cold fowl, and peaches and cream, with which he insisted on winding-up at nearly two in the morning. He would have shouted with laughter had you told him that in less than three weeks he would be dashing through the enemy’s lines with despatches on a red-hot motor-cycle. And Tommy—poor old Tommy—well, I fancy he would have been just as cheerful, dear old chap, had he known the fate that was in store. For to him was to fall the lot which, of all others, everyone—rich and poor alike—understands. There is no need for me to repeat the story. Even in the rush of a war which has already brought forward some thousands of heroes, the reader will remember the glorious exploit of Corporal Thomas Evans, in which he won the D.C.M., and also, unfortunately, gave his life for his country. It is sufficient to say that three men in particular will ever cherish his memory as that of a loyal friend, a cheery comrade, a clean, honest, straightforward Englishman 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 few hours’ 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 canvas roof, and drank “The King”; and I fancy that in the mind of each of us there was more than one other name silently coupled with that toast. Then, for the first time in my memory of our intimacy together, we solemnly shook hands before turning in. But, try as I would, I couldn’t sleep. For a long time I lay there, in the beautiful silence of 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 light the 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