Amore, Arte e Verità: la filosofia di W. Somerset Maugham/Appendice D

W. Somerset Maugham

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CHAPTER I modifica

Colonel Parsons sat by the window in the dining-room to catch the last glimmer of the fading day, looking through his Standard to make sure that he had overlooked no part of it. Finally, with a little sigh, he folded it up, and taking off his spectacles, put them in their case.

"Have you finished the paper?" asked his wife

"Yes, I think I've read it all. There's nothing in it."

He looked out of window at the well-kept drive that led to the house, and at the trim laurel bushes which separated the front garden from the village green. His eyes rested, with a happy smile, upon the triumphal arch which decorated the gate for the home-coming of his son, expected the next day from South Africa. Mrs. Parsons knitted diligently at a sock for her husband, working with quick and clever fingers. He watched the rapid glint of the needles.

"You'll try your eyes if you go on much longer with this light, my dear."

"Oh, I don't require to see," replied his wife, with a gentle, affectionate smile. But she stopped, rather tired, and laying the sock on the table, smoothed it out with her hand.

"I shouldn't mind if you made it a bit higher in the leg than the last pair."

"How high would you like it?"

She went to the window so that the Colonel might show the exact length he desired; and when he had made up his mind, sat down again quietly on her chair by the fireside, with hands crossed on her lap, waiting placidly for the maid to bring the lamp.

Mrs. Parsons was a tall woman of fifty-five, carrying herself with a certain diffidence, as though a little ashamed of her stature, greater than the Colonel's; it had seemed to her through life that those extra inches savoured, after a fashion, of disrespect. She knew it was her duty spiritually to look up to her husband, yet physically she was always forced to look down. And eager to prevent even the remotest suspicion of wrong-doing, she had taken care to be so submissive in her behaviour as to leave no doubt that she recognised the obligation of respectful obedience enjoined by the Bible, and confirmed by her own conscience. Mrs. Parsons was the gentlest of creatures, and the most kind-hearted; she looked upon her husband with great and unalterable affection, admiring intensely both his head and his heart. He was her type of the upright man, walking in the ways of the Lord. You saw in the placid, smooth brow of the Colonel's wife, in her calm eyes, even in the severe arrangement of the hair, parted in the middle and drawn back, that her character was frank, simple, and straightforward. She was a woman to whom evil had never offered the smallest attraction; she was merely aware of its existence theoretically. To her the only way of life had been that which led to God; the others had been non-existent. Duty had one hand only, and only one finger; and that finger had always pointed definitely in one direction. Yet Mrs. Parsons had a firm mouth, and a chin square enough to add another impression. As she sat motionless, hands crossed, watching her husband with loving eyes, you might have divined that, however kind-hearted, she was not indulgent, neither lenient to her own faults nor to those of others; perfectly unassuming, but with a sense of duty, a feeling of the absolute rightness of some deeds and of the absolute wrongness of others, which would be, even to those she loved best in the world, utterly unsparing.

"Here's a telegraph boy!" said Colonel Parsons suddenly. "Jamie can't have arrived yet!"

"Oh, Richmond!"

Mrs. Parsons sprang from her chair, and a colour brightened her pale cheeks. Her heart beat painfully, and tears of eager expectation filled her eyes.

"It's probably only from William, to say the ship is signalled," said the Colonel, to quieten her; but his own voice trembled with anxiety.

"Nothing can have happened, Richmond, can it?" said Mrs. Parsons, her cheeks blanching again at the idea.

"No, no! Of course not! How silly you are!" The telegram was brought in by the servant. "I can't see without a light," said the Colonel.

"Oh, give it me; I can see quite well."

Mrs. Parsons took it to the window, and with trembling hand tore it open.

"Arriving to-night; 7.25.— JAMIE."

Mrs. Parson looked for one moment at her husband, and then, unable to restrain herself, sank on a chair, and hiding her face with her hands, burst into tears.

"Come, come, Frances," said the Colonel, trying to smile, but half choked with his own emotion, "don't cry! You ought to laugh when you know the boy's coming home."

He patted her on the shoulder, and she took his hand, holding it for comfort. With the other, the Colonel loudly blew his nose. At last Mrs Parsons dried her eyes.

"Oh, I thank God that it's all over! He's coming home. I hope we shall never have to endure again that anxiety. It makes me tremble still when I think how we used to long for the paper to come, and dread it; how we used to look all through the list of casualties, fearing to see the boy's name."

"Well, well, it's all over now," said the Colonel cheerily, blowing his nose again. "How pleased Mary will be!"

It was characteristic of him that almost his first thought was of the pleasure this earlier arrival would cause to Mary Clibborn, the girl to whom, for five years, his son had been engaged.

"Yes," said Mrs. Parson, "but she'll be dreadfully disappointed not to be here; she's gone to the Polsons in Tunbridge Wells, and she won't be home till after supper."

"That is a pity. I'm afraid it's too late to go and meet him; it's nearly seven already."

"Oh, yes; and it's damp this evening. I don't think you ought to go out."

Then Mrs. Parsons roused herself to household matters.

"There's the supper to think of, Richmond," she said; "we've only the rest of the cold mutton, and there's not time to cook one of to-morrow's chickens."

They had invited three or four friends to dinner on the following day to celebrate the return of their son, and Mrs. Parsons had laid in for the occasion a store of solid things.

"Well, we might try and get some chops. I expect Howe is open still."

"Yes, I'll send Betty out. And we can have a blanc-mange for a sweet."

Mrs. Parsons went to give the necessary orders, and the Colonel walked up to his son's room to see, for the hundredth time, that everything was in order. They had discussed for days the question whether the young soldier should be given the best spare bedroom or that which he had used from his boyhood. It was wonderful the thought they expended in preparing everything as they fancied he would like it; no detail slipped their memory, and they arranged and rearranged so that he should find nothing altered in his absence. They attempted to satisfy in this manner the eager longing of their hearts; it made them both a little happier to know that they were actually doing something for their son. No pain in love is so hard to bear as that which comes from the impossibility of doing any service for the well-beloved, and no service is so repulsive that love cannot make it delightful and easy. They had not seen him for five years, their only child; for he had gone from Sandhurst straight to India, and thence, on the outbreak of war, to the Cape. No one knew how much the lonely parents had felt the long separation, how eagerly they awaited his letters, how often they read them.

But it was more than parental affection which caused the passionate interest they took in Jamie's career. They looked to him to restore the good name which his father had lost. Four generations of Parsons had been in the army, and had borne themselves with honour to their family and with credit to themselves. It was a fine record that Colonel Parsons inherited of brave men and good soldiers; and he, the truest, bravest, most honourable of them all, had dragged the name through the dust; had been forced from the service under a storm of obloquy, disgraced, dishonoured, ruined.

Colonel Parsons had done the greater portion of his service creditably enough. He had always put his God before the War Office, but the result had not been objectionable; he looked upon his men with fatherly affection, and the regiment, under his command, was almost a model of propriety and seemliness. His influence was invariably for good, and his subordinates knew that in him they had always a trusty friend; few men had gained more love. He was a mild, even-tempered fellow, and in no circumstance of life forgot to love his neighbour as himself; he never allowed it to slip his memory that even the lowest caste native had an immortal soul, and before God equal rights with him. Colonel Parsons was a man whose piety was so unaggressive, so good-humoured, so simple, that none could resist it; ribaldry and blasphemy were instinctively hushed in his presence, and even the most hardened ruffian was softened by his contact.

But a couple of years before he would naturally have been put on half-pay under the age limit, a little expedition was arranged against some unruly hill-tribes, and Colonel Parsons was given the command. He took the enemy by surprise, finding them at the foot of the hills, and cut off, by means of flanking bodies, their retreat through the two passes behind. He placed his guns on a line of hillocks to the right, and held the tribesmen in the hollow of his hand. He could have massacred them all, but nothing was farther from his thoughts. He summoned them to surrender, and towards evening the headmen came in and agreed to give up their rifles next day; the night was cold, and dark, and stormy. The good Colonel was delighted with the success both of his stratagem and of his humanity. He had not shed a single drop of blood.

"Treat them well," he said, "and they'll treat you better."

He acted like a gentleman and a Christian; but the enemy were neither. He never dreamed that he was being completely overreached, that the natives were using the delay he had unsuspectingly granted to send over the hills urgent messages for help. Through the night armed men had been coming stealthily, silently, from all sides; and in the early morning, before dawn, his flanking parties were attacked. Colonel Parsons, rather astonished, sent them help, and thinking himself still superior in numbers to the rebellious tribesmen, attacked their main body. They wanted nothing better. Falling back slowly, they drew him into the mountain defiles until he found himself entrapped. His little force was surrounded. Five hours were passed in almost blind confusion; men were shot down like flies by an enemy they could not see; and when, by desperate fighting, they managed to cut their way out, fifty were killed and over a hundred more were wounded.

Colonel Parsons escaped with only the remnants of the fine force he had commanded, and they were nerveless, broken, almost panic-stricken. He was obliged to retreat. The Colonel was a brave man; he did what he could to prevent the march from becoming a disorderly rout. He gathered his men together, put courage into them, risked his life a dozen times; but nothing could disguise the fact that his failure was disastrous. It was a small affair and was hushed up, but the consequences were not to be forgotten. The hill-tribes, emboldened by their success, became more venturesome, more unruly. A disturbance which might have been settled without difficulty now required a large force to put it down, and ten times more lives were lost.

Colonel Parsons was required to send in his papers, and left India a broken man.... He came back to England, and settled in his father's house at Little Primpton. His agony continued, and looking into the future, he saw only hideous despair, unavailing regret. For months he could bear to see no one, imagining always that he was pointed out as the man whose folly had cost so many lives. When he heard people laugh he thought it was in scorn of him; when he saw compassion in their eyes he could scarcely restrain his tears. He was indeed utterly broken. He walked in his garden, away from the eyes of his fellows, up and down, continually turning over in his mind the events of that terrible week. And he could not console himself by thinking that any other course would have led to just as bad results. His error was too plain; he could put his finger exactly on the point of his failure and say, "O God! why did I do it?" And as he walked restlessly, unmindful of heat and cold, the tears ran down his thin cheeks, painful and scalding. He would not take his wife's comfort.

"You acted for the best, Richmond," she said.

"Yes, dear; I acted for the best. When I got those fellows hemmed in I could have killed them all. But I'm not a butcher; I couldn't have them shot down in cold blood. That's not war; that's murder. What should I have said to my Maker when He asked me to account for those many souls? I spared them; I imagined they'd understand; but they thought it was weakness. I couldn't know they were preparing a trap for me. And now my name is shameful. I shall never hold up my head again."

"You acted rightly in the sight of God, Richmond."

"I think and trust I acted as a Christian, Frances."

"If you have pleased God, you need not mind the opinion of man."

"Oh, it's not that they called me a fool and a coward—I could have borne that. I did what I thought was right. I thought it my duty to save the lives of my men and to spare the enemy; and the result was that ten times more lives have been lost than if I had struck boldly and mercilessly. There are widows and orphans in England who must curse me because I am the cause that their husbands are dead, and that their fathers are rotting on the hills of India. If I had acted like a savage, like a brute-beast, like a butcher, all those men would have been alive to-day. I was merciful, and I was met with treachery; I was long-suffering, and they thought me weak; I was forgiving, and they laughed at me."

Mrs. Parsons put her hand on her husband's shoulder.

"You must try to forget it, Richmond," she said. "It's over, and it can't be helped now. You acted like a God-fearing man; your conscience is clear of evil intent. What is the judgment of man beside the judgment of God? If you have received insult and humiliation at the hands of man, God will repay you an hundredfold, for you acted as his servant. And I believe in you, Richmond; and I'm proud of what you did."

"I have always tried to act like a Christian and a gentleman, Frances."

At night he would continually dream of those days of confusion and mortal anxiety. He would imagine he was again making that horrible retreat, cheering his men, doing all he could to retrieve the disaster; but aware that ruin only awaited him, conscious that the most ignorant sepoy in his command thought him incapable and mad. He saw the look in the eyes of the officers under him, their bitter contempt, their anger because he forced them to retire before the enemy; and because, instead of honour and glory, they had earned only ridicule. His limbs shook and he sweated with agony as he recalled the interview with his chief: "You're only fit to be a damned missionary," and the last contemptuous words, "I shan't want you any more. You can send in your papers."

But human sorrow is like water in an earthen pot. Little by little Colonel Parsons forgot his misery; he had turned it over in his mind so often that at last he grew confused. It became then only a deep wound partly healed, scarring over; and he began to take an interest in the affairs of the life surrounding him. He could read his paper without every word stabbing him by some chance association; and there is nothing like the daily and thorough perusal of a newspaper for dulling a man's brain. He pottered about his garden gossiping with the gardener; made little alterations in the house—bricks and mortar are like an anodyne; he collected stamps; played bezique with his wife; and finally, in his mild, gentle way, found peace of mind.

But when James passed brilliantly out of Sandhurst, the thought seized him that the good name which he valued so highly might be retrieved. Colonel Parsons had shrunk from telling the youth anything of the catastrophe which had driven him from the service; but now he forced himself to give an exact account thereof. His wife sat by, listening with pain in her eyes, for she knew what torture it was to revive that half-forgotten story.

"I thought you had better hear it from me than from a stranger," the Colonel said when he had finished. "I entered the army with the reputation of my father behind me; my reputation can only harm you. Men will nudge one another and say, 'There's the son of old Parsons, who bungled the affair against the Madda Khels.' You must show them that you're of good stuff. I acted for the best, and my conscience is at ease. I think I did my duty; but if you can distinguish yourself—if you can make them forget—I think I shall die a little happier."

The commanding officer of Jamie's regiment was an old friend of the Colonel's, and wrote to him after a while to say that he thought well of the boy. He had already distinguished himself in a frontier skirmish, and presently, for gallantry in some other little expedition, his name was mentioned in despatches. Colonel Parsons regained entirely his old cheerfulness; Jamie's courage and manifest knowledge of his business made him feel that at last he could again look the world frankly in the face. Then came the Boer War; for the parents at Little Primpton and for Mary Clibborn days of fearful anxiety, of gnawing pain—all the greater because each, for the other's sake, tried to conceal it; and at last the announcement in the paper that James Parsons had been severely wounded while attempting to save the life of a brother officer, and was recommended for the Victoria Cross.

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