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HOME > Classical Novels > A Traitor in London > CHAPTER XIX. A TERRIBLE LETTER.
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CHAPTER XIX. A TERRIBLE LETTER.
Then succeeded a period of waiting and heart-breaking expectation, which Brenda, in common with many of her fellow-countrymen, bore with quiet heroism. Glencoe, Elandslaagte, Rietfontein were fought, and victory crowned the British arms; but the triumphs were only achieved at a bitter cost.

The eyes of the world were eagerly fixed on this first example of modern warfare since the Franco-German campaign; and the military experts of Europe were anxious to learn how the use of scientific weapons of terrible destructive force would affect the warfare of the future. It was soon seen that battles would resolve themselves into artillery duels, since no human beings could stand up against the hail of shot and shell hurled incessantly from repeating machines such as the Mauser, Nordenfelt and Maxim. That the British troops should brave the fury of this death-storm proved to the onlooking world how brightly the valor for their sires burned in their hearts. Even the grudging critics of the Continent could not withhold their tribute of admiration at this matchless daring.

Mr. Scarse had taken a small house, and Brenda lived with him. They had been very happy together since their reconciliation--as happy, at least, as they could be while Harold was at the front. He was with Buller, who, sheltered behind the Tugela River, had not yet commenced to move. How eagerly Brenda scanned the papers through those days of suspense! Wilfred had gone out as a war correspondent, and when his brilliant letters appeared, with what delight she read them over and over again. Mr. Scarse still denounced the war as an unjust one, and unnecessary to boot, and said so in public when he could. Seeing it was useless to attempt to alter her father\'s views, Brenda never mentioned the subject; and so they got on very well together. Occasionally there came a letter from Harold; then Brenda was happy for the day, for he always wrote full of hope and courage.

Lady Jenny Malet still lingered in England. She had let her Curzon Street house and was staying at a quiet hotel. Knowing, as she did, that Van Zwieten was not wholly crushed, she did not feel inclined to leave the country until she felt tolerably certain that Harold was safe from him. His box she kept in her own possession and showed to no one. Only in the event of Van Zwieten playing the traitor in Natal would she produce them. For no other reason would she smirch the memory of her husband. She had arranged with Wilfred that, if the spy were found in the British camp, information should be sent to her at once. Then she would see the authorities, and he should be dealt with according to martial law. She explained this to Brenda.

"Wilfred is with Harold," she said, "and he will look after him. Van Zwieten knows that on the first sign of his breaking his promise I shall not spare him."

"But how will that affect him out there?" the girl asked dolefully.

"It won\'t affect him if he is openly on the side of the enemy; but if he is spying in the British camps he will be taken and shot. I don\'t think he can be with General Buller or Wilfred would have denounced him. He is probably at the Modder."

"But he may be with the enemy?"

"He may be. I have heard nothing of him since he left London. He went over to the Continent--so Wilfred found out--and sailed in a German liner for Delagoa Bay. Yes, he might be with the Boer forces, but I doubt it."

"Why do you doubt it?"

"My dear, Van Zwieten can do no harm to your husband except by treachery. Of course he might shoot him, or have him shot in open battle; but, after all, there would not be the same amount of certainty about that as there would be if he were to get rid of him by underhand means."

"It is terrible!" cried Brenda, wringing her hands. "I don\'t mind Harold fighting as a soldier should--all the other men are doing the same--but to have a private enemy like Van Zwieten is dreadful."

"I don\'t think he will find it so easy to do Harold any harm. After all, Brenda, your husband is no fool, and he is on his guard."

"I do wish I could go out to the front."

"With what object? You could do nothing to protect him, and he would only worry about you. Better stay at home, my dear, and try to possess your soul in patience. It is hard, I know; but remember you are not the only one."

Brenda took the advice, and strove to calm herself by constant occupation. She made every sort of comfort she could think of for her husband, and sent him everything that might by the remotest chance be useful to him. This was her great solace, and her father, seeing how it cheered her, gave her every encouragement. But it was a terrible time. Every day brought some fresh sorrow. The Belmont and Graspan victories cheered the nation somewhat; but a period of gloom succeeded, and news came of Gatacre\'s reverse and the failure of Buller to cross the Tugela. It was then that the suspense became almost too much for Mrs. Burton, for Harold was in the thick of the fighting, and on the very scene of the disasters.

But the long-expected blow fell in due time, and, as usual, when least anticipated.

One morning Mr. Scarse came down first to breakfast, and, as usual, eagerly scanned the papers. When his daughter entered the room she saw at once that something dreadful had happened.

"What is it, father?" she asked, and held out her hand for the Daily Mail.

"Nothing, my dear--nothing!" was his answer. But he kept the paper in his hand. "Only the usual disasters. Oh, this unholy war!"

"Harold--oh, father, tell me the truth--he is wounded--dead! Oh, Harold, Harold!"

"No, no," cried her father, with eagerness, "he is not wounded."

"Then he is killed!" shrieked Brenda.

"Not at all; if he were I should tell you."

She snatched the paper from his hand and spread it out; but tears blinded her, and she could not read a word. "For God\'s sake, tell me the worst!" was her cry. "Is my darling--is Harold----"

"He is missing!" Mr. Scarse said roughly. "Don\'t look like that, Brenda. He may have been taken prisoner, and then he would be all right."

"Missing!" echoed the poor young wife. "Oh, poor Harold, pray God he is not dead!"

"Of course he\'s not. His name would be amongst the killed if he were. He is missing--that is all. He was taken prisoner, no doubt, at the passage of the Tugela. Hope for the best, Brenda."

"Van Zwieten," she said faintly. "I hope this is none of his work."

"Not it. If he had been in the neighborhood Wilfred would have let us know. This is only one of the ordinary chances of war. You should be thankful, my dear, that he isn\'t on the list of killed or wounded. The chances are that he is a prisoner, and in safety."

"I hope so! I hope so! But, father, let us go down to the War Office!"

"The War Office will know no more than is in this paper."

"I want to make certain of that. Come, father."

"My dear child, you have eaten nothing. You must have some breakfast first."

"I can\'t eat."

"You must. Bear yourself as an Englishwoman should, Brenda. Think how many women there are at this moment mourning over the death of their dearest. You, at least, have hope--it might have been far worse."

Brenda, agitated as she was, could not but admit the truth of this, and she forced herself to eat. She would need all her strength to bear up against this cruel blow. After all, as her father had very rightly said, things were far from being as bad as they might have been. Her husband\'s name might have been on the list of those killed or dangerously wounded. As it was he was only missing. News of him might come at any time. She reproached herself with ingratitude toward a kind Providence. In a more cheerful frame of mind she finished her breakfast and got ready to go down to the War Office with her father. There she had an object-lesson in seeing the endurance of women whose news was as bad as it could be. If her own trouble was hard to bear, how infinitely harder was the lot of those whose dead lay on the stricken field.

"Father! father!" she whispered, "I should not repine. I am so much better off than these poor things!"

The news of the Tugela disaster had brought a large crowd to the War Office, and a vast number of people had collected in the street. Men and women were scanning the fatal lists, and many a heartrending sight did the girl see as she stood there waiting for her father, who had gone into the office to see if he could gain any definite news about his son-in-law. Outside, a proud old lady sat waiting in her carriage. She bore herself with dignity, but her face was ashen white. And as Brenda stood there, she saw a girl come out and stagger into the carriage. No word was spoken, but in a storm of weeping she threw herself on the old lady\'s breast. And the older woman neither wept nor cried out, but drove silently away with the distracted girl beside her, and she was a woman who had given her country of the best she had to offer--the life of her son.

"Oh, poo............
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