The young soldier choked with the burning liquid, and tears oozed from his eyes, but the chill of the body passed, and with it the chill of cowardice. With a half-whimper, half-laugh, he forced a silly, coarse jest from his lips. ‘Where did you get it, Sherwood?’
‘Never mind,’ said Dick. ‘Come on now. Back you go—and stick it out.’
The second act of Madam Butterfly was in progress.
With the sure touch of high artistry, both composer and librettist had delineated the result of Pinkerton’s faithlessness—a faithlessness that was obvious to every one but Cho-cho-san, who still believed that her husband would return with the roses. Firm in her trust, she pictured to Sazuki the day when he would come, ’a little speck in the distance, climbing the hillock’—how she would wait ’a bit to tease him and a bit so as not to die at our first meeting’—ending with the triumphant assurance (born of her woman’s intuition, which, alas! proves so frequently unreliable) that it would all come to pass as she told. She knew it.
And so to the visit of the American consul, who tries to tell her that her husband has written that he has tired of her—she, poor soul, reading in his words the message that he still loves her. Then the final tableau of the act with Butterfly, her baby and Sazuki standing at the Shosi facing the distant harbour where his ship has just been signalled. Softly the humming of the priests at worship ceases, and the curtain descends on what must always remain a masterpiece of delicate pathos—a story that will never lose its appeal while woman’s trust in man lends its charm to drab existence.
‘The tenor didn’t come in at all in that act,’ said Lady Erskin.
‘Really,’ said the rector’s wife, fixing her lorgnette on the opposite box, ’that person with the leopard’s skin looks absolutely like a cannibal.’
‘I’m just swimming in tears,’ was the comment of Lady Erskin’s daughter.
Elise said nothing; nor did she hear them speak. Her heart was fluttering wildly, and her hands were clasped tightly together. She had heard a far-away cry—and the voice was Dick’s.
The raw air of the night, the dread of that loathsome, silent thing, the haunting terror of the boy’s eyes a few minutes before, the whine of shells, all bored their way into Dick Durwent’s brain. He began to tremble. With every bit of will-power he fought it off, but he felt the fumes of madness coming over him.
For days on end he had had no rest. In the Fifth Army debacle of March his battalion had been one of the first to break, although remnants had fought as few men had ever fought before; and when they had been reorganised they were moved back into the line, undermanned, ill-equipped, and branded with disgrace. It was the culmination of three years’ service at the front, and his nerves were at the breaking-point. Mounds of earth ahead of him, and gnarled, dismembered trees, began to take the ghostly shapes that the frightened boy had told of.