Blake Dempsey had come home. Not with bands playing and banners flying as befitted a hero, but silently, secretly, as he’d slipped away nearly fifteen years before, like a shadow out of the dusk.
Fifteen years! It seemed incredible, sitting in the old home again, that his life of soldiering and vagabondage should have ended. A grim expression flickered over his hard-bitten face as he looked down at his empty sleeve. That was the sort of thing to call halt to a man—the sort of thing to make him realise he couldn’t go on knocking around the world on tramp steamers and getting into spots of bother here and there indefinitely.
Well, it had been worth it. Worth it for the sake of the mates he’d vindicated, the flame that had burnt in him with such clear ferocity. Now he could take up the threads of his old life again with that boyish mistake wiped out and the interval passing into oblivion.
Perhaps his parents had thought the same when they had willed the old home and plantation to him. Well, there’d be no need for them to turn in their graves feeling he’d let them down.
He sat at the lonely tea table and rolled a cigarette, feeling a quiet content. Through the deepening dusk outside he could see the desultory old garden with the stone-built walls put up by the Kanakas so long ago. There were oleanders and poincianas flowering against the background of dim serried rows of sugarcane. He could smell the earth mingling with seaweed and waves and the closer fragrance of frangipani and stocks.
Through the open doorway he could look across the waste of water into some void where so short a time ago a ship had carried him back to safety. Strange, it seemed. Strange and sad and thrilling.
He got up and lit a lamp. The light filled the room with a soft radiance. Everything was just as he had remembered it, bringing back a host of memories. He wondered whether the old crowd still lived in town—Bert and Gerald and Dick and Boyd…. He’d look them up tomorrow and find out what had become of them all. And there was Dora….
His heart began to pound with unfamiliar haste. Surely all that was over and done with—their love and promises and ardent young dreams. Yet, now that he was back again and the intervening years swept clean, he realised that there was the possibility of her still being here, waiting, as she had always vowed to wait, until he returned.
All nonsense, of course.
He tried to put her out of his mind, but presently found himself walking along the beach towards the township. Things looked different after such a long absence. There was a block of flats on the corner that had once been a tea-tree allotment and new names outside most of the shops. Here and there men stood in shirt-sleeves at their shop doors, but no one remembered him. Not even Harry the Dago. He lounged up to the counter, grinning, and ordered a drink; but there was no recognition in the dark eyes slipping over his face and empty sleeves. Only scraps of talk as to a stranger.
–Man by the name of Dick Morrison still living here? Blake asked, taking up his change.
–Yes. Been here for the last twenty years.
–Still living along the Esplanade?
–Yes. Been in the same house ever since I’ve been here.
–That’s a long time ago.
–Too right. You get your roots into a place.
Blake went out into the street. Round a bend in the beach he could see the point where Dick lived. He hurried towards the light and when he found it he pushed open the gate and stepped on to the verandah. There was a feeling of pleased expectancy with him as he knocked and waited.
Mumbling voices, a child’s shrill piping, then Dick coming into the rim of light, coatless and in slippers, dragging the evening paper after him.
–Good night, he said politely. Who is it?
Blake laughed and thumped him on the back. Good old Dick. He’d always liked Dick, the dumpty one of the crowd.
–Don’t you know me? he said. Don’t you remember?
Dick peered at him uncertainly; but it was the woman who had risen from the pool of light spilling the mending on to the floor, whose glad cry of welcome left all doubt in abeyance.
–Blake! she said. Oh, Blake, you’ve come home at last!
Dick gripped him by the hand and dragged him into the room, talking with a garrulousness that seemed to have unease in it.
–Good Lord! he said over and over again. To think you’ve come back at last!
But Blake’s eyes were on the woman. They were looking at each other with all time forgotten and he was a boy again and she a girl—beautiful and stirring—pouring out her promises of fidelity.
–I’ll wait. I’ll always wait, Blake.
–You might get tired of waiting.
–Never. When you come back, I’ll still be here.
Well, it hadn’t amounted to much, had it?
In a muddled way he was conscious of the children and the papers, and the big disordered room. The air was full of a clinging warmth—of fruit on the sideboard and flowers, and the spent smell of food. A sudden sense of loss rose up in him so that all those years of roving seemed empty and wasted. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply before saying to her:
–So this is where you are! I didn’t know….
–Oh, yes, Dick broke in to explain. Some years ago now.
It was only then he realised how much he’d counted on Dora. His whole home-coming had subconsciously centred round her. Ever since losing his arm there had been deep in his mind the satisfying knowledge that he’d have a home to offer her and a future untainted by that foolish past. He’d built on her fidelity, thinking fool-like, that she’d go on living with memories until he was ready to pipe the tune. Well, he’d got what he deserved all right.
He sat down, feeling flat and deflated.
–How’s the old crowd? he asked.
–Just the same. Dick was watching him affectionately, his short-sighted eyes sentimental.
–They’re all here, the whole damn crowd. Boyd tried to enlist, but it was no go. So did Gerald. I’m sorry about your arm, old chap.
Blake nodded. It’s all in a day’s fight, he said. Are they all married?
–Lord, yes. With families. An idea seemed to strike him and he bounced out of the chair. He looked to Blake for all the world like a tight round ball bouncing up and down. I’ll ring some of them and let them know, he said. They’ll get a surprise all right.
He held the receiver, still smiling, but Blake was conscious only of Dora and of Dora’s eyes shining on him. They seemed to hold a promise, a fulfilment, as though she was waiting for him to explain, to take up the thread of their lives where it had been left off.
–Pretty low-down on poor old Dick, he thought. Why in heaven’s name did she marry him. He always wanted the sister.
He turned to where the dumpty figure was saying: That you Boyd? Hey, who d’you think is here? No, no! Blake … old Blake—you remember? Yes, Blake Dempsey! Hasn’t altered a bit. Just back from the East with an arm off. What’s that? Yes, by gosh! Yes. I’ll tell him. He’s just blown in. Yes—a reunion. I’ll tell him. We’ll all get together….
Blake knew that the children were watching him furtively. In spite of the atmosphere of friendliness they made him feel an alien, outside the rim of their lives. That’s how he’d feel now unless of course the old crowd helped him to forget. He’d blow along to-morrow and ferret them out. But Dora and Dick! What a knock for a fellow!
He wondered, sitting a little forward and his eyes on her radiant face, how long he must stay talking inanely before he could decently take his leave. The room seemed too small to hold him gave him the feeling of suffocation.
When at last he rose to go, Dick walked with him to the door.
–Right-o, then, he said, still with that exuberant heartiness. I’ll trot along and spend the evening with you as soon as I can. We’ll have a reunion, but you know … he scratched his head and then the seat of his pants … there’s that much to do—boards and committees and I’m one of the V.D.C….
Of course! Blake had forgotten those sort of things, being unfettered and the moss rubbed off.
He made no attempt to go home. Instead, he walked aimlessly along the beach seeing only Dora and the lighted room, and the children of Dick and Dora. He thought of her moving about the house and of himself standing lonely between earth and sky with only the waves breaking on to the shore, and felt a longing for the chaos of battle.
Curse Dick. Fancy sneaking on a man like that. Why hadn’t he said something in those far-off days given some inkling of his feelings instead of making out it was the sister he’d wanted.
The next day he looked up some of the crowd. Boyd was much the same—genial and full of memories which he revived standing beside a piled deck of books.
–Fancy having you home again! We’ll get together some night—have the old crowd and forget we’re getting on in years.
And then, getting down to personalities:
–I suppose you’ve heard about Dick? The poor chap’s had a bad time-one trouble after another….
He didn’t want to hear about Dick. He changed the subject quickly.
He went on to see Bert and Gerald. They’d both become grave and staid, feeling the responsibilities that went with wives and families.
–But we’ll get together some evening, they said, recapturing those almost forgotten memories of youth. We’ll have a reunion. Dick said something about a reunion. Poor Dick. I suppose you’ve heard about him. You’ve seen him, haven’t you? His wife….
Yes, by God, he’d seen Dick! He didn’t want that rubbed in. He said he thought he’d better be going.
He went back to the house, and to his solitary meals and saw Dora’s face looking at him across the table. All the time there persisted in his mind this consciousness of her and he knew that all the time she, too, was conscious of him.
He got out the boat and went fishing, remembering wryly how he’d thought of the old crowd going out with him to the reef over the week-ends; having a few bean-o’s and yarning at night.
He was relieved when the crushing season commenced, and all day long the miniature locomotives rattled through the fields loaded with sticks of cane. It gave him something to do.
Sometimes Dick would stroll along in the evening to smoke a pipe and talk of his business worries, but it only aroused in Blake a nagging resentment. He determinedly choked off all confidences keeping talk on an impersonal level. He didn’t want to hear about Dora and Dora’s virtues, or anything about Dick’s intimate life.
Sometimes he met her on the clean swept beach. He knew that she was trying to get at the root of his reserve, to break it down so that there would be reproaches and pride lying broken at her feet while she gloried in her conquest of him. But he swore to himself that she’d never have that. He kept things so that only formalities passed between them.
–The sea looks so beautiful this evening, Blake. Did the Mediterranean look the same?
–Much the same.
–I’d love to see Egypt, Blake.
–It’s not better than this.
–Where else have you been?
–Oh, knocking about—Italy, South America, Spain, Syria….
–Tell me, aren’t you glad to be home again?
–Yes—I suppose so. I’d like to be back with the chaps.
–Won’t you come in some evening and talk. I’ve hardly seen you.
–Dick mightn’t like it.
–Dick wouldn’t mind. What a thing to say!
–Wouldn’t he? He gave a short laugh and his eyes, when they travelled over her face held insult. He felt like saying: —Yes, I’ll come in some evening. I’ll come when Dick’s away and there’ll be remembrances and fulfilment of promises because long before you were ever his you were promised to me.
He wanted to say things like that—hard and cruel and bitter, but when he saw her wistful face, when he heard the cry of loneliness in her voice he could only think again: She’s not happy. I wonder what made her marry him.
He walked back to the house with her in a silence that had nothing of peace in it. He still wanted to say something violent, to break down the quiet reserve that rose like a barrier between them. He felt that if only he could hurt her, taunt her, there might be some recompense. Flower scents around the house were tender, the earth stirred and was alive. Only Dora seemed to be still, to be lifeless. He wondered whether she was waiting for him to waken her.
–Well, so long, he said, and left her at the gate.
He swaggered down to the beach and at an outjutting rock turned to fling her a wave. But when he got home the ticking of the clock in the empty rooms seemed so intolerably lonely, that he was glad to go out again.
He ran into Gerald. Hey, what about this evening we’re to have? he said violently. Are all you fellows wife-ridden?
Gerald smiled his smug, self-respecting smile.
–We were talking about it only the other day, he said. We’d better make a date now, eh? Let me see … he paused to calculate. How about Wednesday night?
–Just as you like.
He swung away with the same violence that had sent him out. Blast them and their reunion! He was sick of them—sick of the place with its old remembered ties. He felt that he hated them all—Dick with his irritating desire to make up for what he’d done; Dora like a quiet bird in Dick’s home; Gerald with his mincing manner, and Boyd with his clients and club and V.D.C. Did they think he’d been sitting down all these years getting nothing out of life? Did they think he lacked friends when he’d seen fellows on the other side go to their death glorying in sacrifice? When, if there was to be a reunion of them to-morrow there would be mateship enough to circle the world. He, Blake Dempsey, had drunk deeply of life, while they, poor fools, had only known the dregs.
The next day Gerald rang up to say the reunion had been arranged.
–Wednesday it is, he said. We’ll have a whale of a time.
Blake ordered food and drinks lavishly. He forgot a little of his heart-sickness in remembering old episodes and pranks; the outings they’d had together. One thing would lead to another and before the night was out he’d lose that feeling of being only on the fringe of their friendship. Lose that sense of loneliness.
Boyd was the first to pull out. A sick wife, he excused, and the baby cutting teeth. He didn’t like to go out at night just now. Later on….
Then Gerald, a little evasive:
–Afraid I’ll have to call it off, old chap, There’s been such a rush of business—so short-banded owing to enlistments. There’ll be plenty of chances later on.
Blake hardly listened. More than ever he felt lonely. If only he had two whole arms that he could go back to his mates—his real mates. These fellows—they didn’t want him. They’d grown away. He was an influence that threatened the even current of their lives—someone that would divert them from their ordered routine. They hadn’t been through enough together … suffered together.
Only Dick turned up, and Blake wished he hadn’t. He felt now that the place wasn’t big enough to hold them both. He’d have to get away—get back to the old vagabond life, or he’d smash Dick’s smug face in.
–I’ve made up my mind to get away again, he said. They might find a place for me in the army somewhere.
–What a pity, Dick said with genuine regret. Just when you had the place to look after, too. Well … He rose and stretched his tubby form. When the war’s over you’ll probably come back. Let me
know and I’ll get the crowd together. We’ll have a reunion.
Blake’s smile twisted in the darkness.
–I’ll let you know, he promised.
They walked together to the verandah and Dick halted on the edge of the light. There seemed to be something on his mind, something that he found it difficult to say.
–I had thought, he got out at last, that you might have patched things up with Dora. She’s waited so long, and I know she’s hurt….
–With you, of course.
–Well, who else?
–But, you great fool, she’s married to you.
–Married? Dick turned to look at him uncertainly. Married? he questioned again.
–What else! What else! he shouted, following Dick to the edge of the veranda. What else, you swine!
Dick retreated before the look in Blake’s eyes. All the smouldering resentment of the last few months seemed to have leapt to life, filling him with a swift hatred. The passion in his voice, mounting in anger, at last awoke understanding in Dick’s slow mind. He jerked away, explaining rapidly: