The opera was over, and there was a storm of applause that developed into an ovation.
‘The tenor isn’t really handsome, after all,’ said Lady Erskin.
‘I think the women of to-day are shameless,’ said the rector’s wife, casting a last indignant glance at the box across the theatre.
‘I feel a perfect rag,’ said Lady Erskin’s daughter. ’Good heavens! Elise, what’s the matter?’
‘Nothing. I—I don’t know,’ Elise answered, looking up with terror-stricken eyes. ‘I’m just overwrought. That’s all.’
‘You poor dear!’ said Lady Erskin. ’You shouldn’t take the opera so seriously. After all, it didn’t really happen—and I have no doubt in real life the tenor is quite a model husband, with at least ten children.’
‘Drunk,’ said the company commander, stooping over the prostrate body of Dick Durwent. ’He was all right when he took over. Where did he get the stuff?’
‘Smell that, sir,’ said the subaltern of the night, handing him a water-bottle.
’Humph! This looks bad. Have him carried to the rear and placed under arrest.’
On the outskirts of a village near the junction of the British and French armies, two guards with loaded rifles kept watch at the doors of a hut. The warm sunlight of May was bathing the fields in gold, where here and there a peasant woman could be seen sprinkling seed into the furrows. Across a field, cutting its way through a farmyard, a light railway carried its occasional wobbling, narrow-gauged traffic; and outside half-a-dozen huts soldiers were lolling in the warmth of early afternoon, polishing accoutrements and exchanging the lazy philosophy of men resting after herculean tasks. Elsewhere there was no sign of war. Cattle browsed about the meadows, and the villagers, long since grown used to the presence of foreign soldiers, pursued their endless duties.
A sergeant walked briskly from a cottage in the village and went directly to the field where lay the hut guarded by the sentries. ’Fall in outside!’ he said sharply, opening the door.
Bareheaded, and with his dark hair seeming to cast the shadows that had gathered beneath his eyes, Dick Durwent emerged and took his place between the guards.
‘To receive the sentence of the court,’ said the sergeant in answer to his questioning glance. ’Escort and prisoner—’shun! Right turn! Quick march!’
Past the lounging soldiers to the road, and on to the village, they marched. Women glanced up, curious as to the meaning of the little procession, but with a shrug of their shoulders resumed their work, and soon forgot all about it. The escort halted outside the cottage from which the sergeant had come, and he entered it alone. A minute later he reappeared, and marched prisoner and guards into the room where the court-martial had been held that morning. The three officers were sitting in the same places—a lieutenant-colonel, whose set, sun-tanned face told nothing; a captain, whose firmness of jaw and steadiness of eye could not hide his twitching lip; and a subaltern, pale as Dick Durwent himself.