THE BATTLE OF LIFE
THE BATTLE OF LIFE
CHAPTER I - Part The First
Once upon a time it matters little when and in stalwart England
it matters little where a fierce battle was fought. It was fought
upon a long summer day when the waving grass was green. Many a
wild flower formed by the Almighty Hand to be a perfumed goblet for
the dew felt its enamelled cup filled high with blood that day
and shrinking dropped. Many an insect deriving its delicate colour
from harmless leaves and herbs was stained anew that day by dying
men and marked its frightened way with an unnatural track. The
painted butterfly took blood into the air upon the edges of its
wings. The stream ran red. The trodden ground became a quagmire
whence from sullen pools collected in the prints of human feet and
horses' hoofs the one prevailing hue still lowered and glimmered
at the sun.
Heaven keep us from a knowledge of the sights the moon beheld upon
that field when coming up above the black line of distant rising-
ground softened and blurred at the edge by trees she rose into
the sky and looked upon the plain strewn with upturned faces that
had once at mothers' breasts sought mothers' eyes or slumbered
happily. Heaven keep us from a knowledge of the secrets whispered
afterwards upon the tainted wind that blew across the scene of that
day's work and that night's death and suffering! Many a lonely
moon was bright upon the battle-ground and many a star kept
mournful watch upon it and many a wind from every quarter of the
earth blew over it before the traces of the fight were worn away.
They lurked and lingered for a long time but survived in little
things; for Nature far above the evil passions of men soon
recovered Her serenity and smiled upon the guilty battle-ground as
she had done before when it was innocent. The larks sang high
above it; the swallows skimmed and dipped and flitted to and fro;
the shadows of the flying clouds pursued each other swiftly over
grass and corn and turnip-field and wood and over roof and church-
spire in the nestling town among the trees away into the bright
distance on the borders of the sky and earth where the red sunsets
faded. Crops were sown and grew up and were gathered in; the
stream that had been crimsoned turned a watermill; men whistled at
the plough; gleaners and haymakers were seen in quiet groups at
work; sheep and oxen pastured; boys whooped and called in fields
to scare away the birds; smoke rose from cottage chimneys; sabbath
bells rang peacefully; old people lived and died; the timid
creatures of the field the simple flowers of the bush and garden
grew and withered in their destined terms: and all upon the fierce
and bloody battle-ground where thousands upon thousands had been
killed in the great fight. But there were deep green patches in
the growing corn at first that people looked at awfully. Year
after year they re-appeared; and it was known that underneath those
fertile spots heaps of men and horses lay buried
indiscriminately enriching the ground. The husbandmen who
ploughed those places shrunk from the great worms abounding there;
and the sheaves they yielded were for many a long year called
the Battle Sheaves and set apart; and no one ever knew a Battle
Sheaf to be among the last load at a Harvest Home. For a long
time every furrow that was turned revealed some fragments of the
fight. For a long time there were wounded trees upon the battle-
ground; and scraps of hacked and broken fence and wall where
deadly struggles had been made; and trampled parts where not a leaf
or blade would grow. For a long time no village girl would dress
her hair or bosom with the sweetest flower from that field of
death: and after many a year had come and gone the berries
growing there were still believed to leave too deep a stain upon
the hand that plucked them.
The Seasons in their course however though they passed as lightly
as the summer clouds themselves obliterated in the lapse of time
even these remains of the old conflict; and wore away such
legendary traces of it as the neighbouring people carried in their
minds until they dwindled into old wives' tales dimly remembered
round the winter fire and waning every year. Where the wild
flowers and berries had so long remained upon the stem untouched
gardens arose and houses were built and children played at
battles on the turf. The wounded trees had long ago made Christmas
logs and blazed and roared away. The deep green patches were no
greener now than the memory of those who lay in dust below. The
ploughshare still turned up from time to time some rusty bits of
metal but it was hard to say what use they had ever served and
those who found them wondered and disputed. An old dinted
corselet and a helmet had been hanging in the church so long
that the same weak half-blind old man who tried in vain to make
them out above the whitewashed arch had marvelled at them as a
baby. If the host slain upon the field could have been for a
moment reanimated in the forms in which they fell each upon the
spot that was the bed of his untimely death gashed and ghastly
soldiers would have stared in hundreds deep at household door and
window; and would have risen on the hearths of quiet homes; and
would have been the garnered store of barns and granaries; and
would have started up between the cradled infant and its nurse; and
would have floated with the stream and whirled round on the mill
and crowded the orchard and burdened the meadow and piled the
rickyard high with dying men. So altered was the battle-ground
where thousands upon thousands had been killed in the great fight.
Nowhere more altered perhaps about a hundred years ago than in
one little orchard attached to an old stone house with a
honeysuckle porch; where on a bright autumn morning there were
sounds of music and laughter and where two girls danced merrily
together on the grass while some half-dozen peasant women standing
on ladders gathering the apples from the trees stopped in their
work to look down and share their enjoyment. It was a pleasant
lively natural scene; a beautiful day a retired spot; and the two
girls quite unconstrained and careless danced in the freedom and
gaiety of their hearts.
If there were no such thing as display in the world my private
opinion is and I hope you agree with me that we might get on a
great deal better than we do and might be infinitely more
agreeable company than we are. It was charming to see how these
girls danced. They had no spectators but the apple-pickers on the
ladders. They were very glad to please them but they danced to
please themselves (or at least you would have supposed so); and you
could no more help admiring than they could help dancing. How
they did dance!
Not like opera-dancers. Not at all. And not like Madame Anybody's
finished pupils. Not the least. It was not quadrille dancing nor
minuet dancing nor even country-dance dancing. It was neither in
the old style nor the new style nor the French style nor the
English style: though it may have been by accident a trifle in
the Spanish style which is a free and joyous one I am told
deriving a delightful air of off-hand inspiration from the
chirping little castanets. As they danced among the orchard trees
and down the groves of stems and back again and twirled each other
lightly round and round the influence of their airy motion seemed
to spread and spread in the sun-lighted scene like an expanding
circle in the water. Their streaming hair and fluttering skirts
the elastic grass beneath their feet the boughs that rustled in
the morning air - the flashing leaves the speckled shadows on the
soft green ground - the balmy wind that swept along the landscape
glad to turn the distant windmill cheerily - everything between
the two girls and the man and team at plough upon the ridge of
land where they showed against the sky as if they were the last
things in the world - seemed dancing too.
At last the younger of the dancing sisters out of breath and
laughing gaily threw herself upon a bench to rest. The other
leaned against a tree hard by. The music a wandering harp and
fiddle left off with a flourish as if it boasted of its
freshness; though the truth is it had gone at such a pace and
worked itself to such a pitch of competition with the dancing that
it never could have held on half a minute longer. The apple-
pickers on the ladders raised a hum and murmur of applause and
then in keeping with the sound bestirred themselves to work again
The more actively perhaps because an elderly gentleman who was
no other than Doctor Jeddler himself - it was Doctor Jeddler's
house and orchard you should know and these were Doctor Jeddler's
daughters - came bustling out to see what was the matter and who
the deuce played music on his property before breakfast. For he
was a great philosopher Doctor Jeddler and not very musical.
'Music and dancing TO-DAY!' said the Doctor stopping short and
speaking to himself. 'I thought they dreaded to-day. But it's a
world of contradictions. Why Grace why Marion!' he added
aloud 'is the world more mad than usual this morning?'
'Make some allowance for it father if it be' replied his younger
daughter Marion going close to him and looking into his face
'for it's somebody's birth-day.'
'Somebody's birth-day Puss!' replied the Doctor. 'Don't you know
it's always somebody's birth-day? Did you never hear how many new
performers enter on this - ha! ha! ha! - it's impossible to speak
gravely of it - on this preposterous and ridiculous business called
Life every minute?'
'No not you of course; you're a woman - almost' said the Doctor.
'By-the-by' and he looked into the pretty face still close to
his 'I suppose it's YOUR birth-day.'
'No! Do you really father?' cried his pet daughter pursing up
her red lips to be kissed.
'There! Take my love with it' said the Doctor imprinting his
upon them; 'and many happy returns of the - the idea! - of the day.
The notion of wishing happy returns in such a farce as this' said
the Doctor to himself 'is good! Ha! ha! ha!'
Doctor Jeddler was as I have said a great philosopher and the
heart and mystery of his philosophy was to look upon the world as
a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to be considered
seriously by any rational man. His system of belief had been in
the beginning part and parcel of the battle-ground on which he
lived as you shall presently understand.
'Well! But how did you get the music?' asked the Doctor.
'Poultry-stealers of course! Where did the minstrels come from?'
'Alfred sent the music' said his daughter Grace adjusting a few
simple flowers in her sister's hair with which in her admiration
of that youthful beauty she had herself adorned it half-an-hour
before and which the dancing had disarranged.
'Oh! Alfred sent the music did he?' returned the Doctor.
'Yes. He met it coming out of the town as he was entering early.
The men are travelling on foot and rested there last night; and as
it was Marion's birth-day and he thought it would please her he
sent them on with a pencilled note to me saying that if I thought
so too they had come to serenade her.'
'Ay ay' said the Doctor carelessly 'he always takes your
'And my opinion being favourable' said Grace good-humouredly; and
pausing for a moment to admire the pretty head she decorated with
her own thrown back; 'and Marion being in high spirits and
beginning to dance I joined her. And so we danced to Alfred's
music till we were out of breath. And we thought the music all the
gayer for being sent by Alfred. Didn't we dear Marion?'
'Oh I don't know Grace. How you tease me about Alfred.'
'Tease you by mentioning your lover?' said her sister.
'I am sure I don't much care to have him mentioned' said the
wilful beauty stripping the petals from some flowers she held and
scattering them on the ground. 'I am almost tired of hearing of
him; and as to his being my lover - '
'Hush! Don't speak lightly of a true heart which is all your own
Marion' cried her sister 'even in jest. There is not a truer
heart than Alfred's in the world!'