It came suddenly when it did come, it may be remembered. Every one knew it was coming, and yet—it was all so impossible, so incredible. I remember Clive Draycott looking foolishly at his recall telegram in the club—he had just come home on leave from Egypt—and then brandishing it in front of my nose.
"My dear old boy," he remarked peevishly, "it's out of the question.
I'm shooting on the 12th."
But he crossed the next day to Boulogne.
It was a Sunday morning, and Folkestone looked just the same as it always did look. Down by the Pavilion Hotel the usual crowd of Knuts in very tight trousers and very yellow shoes, with suits most obviously bought off the peg, wandered about with ladies of striking aspect. Occasional snatches of conversation, stray gems of wit, scintillated through the tranquil August air, and came familiarly to the ears of a party of some half-dozen men who stood by a pile of baggage at the entrance to the hotel.
"Go hon, Bill; you hare a caution, not 'arf." A shrill girlish giggle, a playful jerk of the "caution's" arm, a deprecating noise from his manly lips, which may have been caused by bashfulness at the compliment, or more probably by the unconsumed portion of the morning Woodbine, and the couple moved out of hearing.
"I wonder," said a voice from the group, "if we are looking on the passing of the breed."
He was a tall, thin, spare fellow, the man who spoke; and amongst other labels on his baggage was one marked Khartoum. His hands were sinewy and his face was bronzed, while his eyes, brown and deep-set, held in them the glint of the desert places of the earth: the mark of the jungle where birds flit through the shadows like bars of glorious colour; the mark of the swamp where the ague mists lie dank and stagnant in the rays of the morning sun.
No one answered his remark; it seemed unnecessary, and each was busy with his own thoughts. What did the next few days hold in store for the world, for England, for him? The ghastly, haunting fear that possibly they held nothing for England gnawed at men's hearts. It would be incredible, inconceivable; but impossible things had happened before. Many must have felt that fear, but to none can it have been quite so personal, so hideously personal, as to the officers of the old Army and the Navy. To them it was as if their own honour were at stake, and I can see now a man opposite me almost sobbing with the fury and the shame of it when for a while we thought—the worst. But that was later.