And then he saw a face which almost broke down his manhood, and sent scalding tears to the very brink. It was the face of the lad he had saved from deserting that terrible night. The boy’s agony was for him alone; it was pleading for understanding; it was trying to tell him that he would never forget—that the condemned man would not go to his death unmourned by one human heart.
It was his last night. All evening the chaplain had been with him, offering the solace of divine mercy and forgiveness; but though he was grateful for the good man’s ministrations, Durwent felt that he wanted to be alone. He hardly knew why; but there were many things to think of, things which would be remembered more easily if he were by himself. Towards eleven o’clock he made the request of the chaplain, who left him, promising to return shortly after midnight; and, with his hands clasped behind his back, Dick walked slowly up and down the hut.
His mind journeyed to Roselawn—and Elise. At least—and at the thought he struck his hands together with joy—she would never know. She would think he had died in China. For several minutes he walked without his thoughts taking any other form than that, but gradually the realisation of his surroundings began to leave him. He was roaming through the woods with Elise; they were climbing a great tree for birds’ eggs; they were casting flies for trout in the stream that ran through their estate; they were riding across country on ponies that whinnied with pleasure at the feel of the soft turf. But wherever his hungry imagination painted her, there was in her face the womanly tenderness that had always been hers in their companionship.
He stopped in his walk and pressed his clenched fingers against his lips. She had always believed in him. Through all the hell in which the Fates had cast his destiny, she had been one star towards which he could grope. But now—a drunkard—a renegade soldier of a renegade battalion—to be shot. He had killed her trust! The horrors of the night closed on him like hounds on a dying stag.
Uttering a dull cry of agony, he staggered across the hut with outstretched hands—and in the darkness his poor disordered fancy saw once more the vision of his sister’s face. It was as he had seen her when, as a boy bruised by life, he had gone to her for solace. She had not changed. She could not change. Her eyes, her lips, were saying that in the morning she would stand beside him, holding his hand in hers, until the levelled rifles severed his soul and his body for eternity.
He sank to his knees, and for the first time in many years he prayed. It was a prayer to an unknown God, in words that were meaningless, disjointed things. It was a soul crying out to its source, a soul struggling towards the throne of Eternal Justice, through a darkness lit only by a sister’s love and the gratitude of an eighteen-year-old boy saved from shameful death.