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Title: Jim Brent Author: Sapper (Herman Cyril McNeile) * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1400011h.html Language: English Date first posted: Dec 2013 Most recent update: Dec 2013 This eBook was produced by Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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This collection of Sapper's war stories offers the reader a selection of tales previously published in the books Men, Women and Guns, Sergeant Michael Cassidy, R.E., and No-Man's Land
If you pass through the Menin-Gate at Ypres, and walk up the slight rise that lies on the other side of the moat, you will come to the parting of the ways. You will at the same time come to a spot of unprepossessing aspect, whose chief claim to notoriety lies in its shell-holes and broken-down houses. If you keep straight on you will in time come to the little village of Potige; if you turn to the right you will eventually arrive at Hooge. In either case you will wish you hadn't.
Before the war these two roads—which join about two hundred yards east of the rampart walls of Ypres—were adorned with a fair number of houses. They were of that stucco type which one frequently sees in England spreading out along the roads that lead to a largish town. Generally there is one of unusually revolting aspect that stands proudly by itself a hundred yards or so from the common herd and enclosed in a stuccoesque wall. And there my knowledge of the type in England ends.
In Belgium, however, my acquaintance with this sort of abode is extensive. In taking over a house in Flanders that stands unpleasantly near the Hun, the advertisement that there are three sitting, two bed, h. and c. laid on, with excellent onion patch, near railway and good golf-links, leaves one cold. The end-all and be-all of a house is its cellar. The more gloomy, and dark, and generally horrible the cellar, the higher that house ranks socially, and the more likely are you to find in it a general consuming his last hamper from Fortnum & Mason by the light of a tallow dip. And this applies more especially to the Hooge road.
Arrived at the fork, let us turn right-handed and proceed along the deserted road. A motor-car is not to be advised, as at this stage of the promenade one is in full sight of the German trenches. For about two or three hundred yards no houses screen you, and then comes a row of the stucco residences I have mentioned. Also at this point the road bends to the left. Here, out of sight, occasional men sun themselves in the heavily-scented air, what time they exchange a little playful badinage in a way common to Thomas Atkins. At least, that is what happened some time ago; now, of course, things may have changed in the garden city.
And at this point really our journey is ended, though for interest we might continue for another quarter of a mile. The row of houses stops abruptly, and away in front stretches a long straight road. A few detached mansions of sorts, in their own grounds, flank it on each side. At length they cease, and in front lies the open country. The poplar-lined road disappears out of sight a mile ahead, where it tops a gentle slope. And half on this side of the rise, and half on the other, there are the remnants of the tit-bit of the whole bloody charnel-house of the Ypres salient—the remnants of the village of Hooge. A closer examination is not to be recommended. The place where you stand is known in the vernacular as Hell Fire Corner, and the Hun—who knows the range of that corner to the fraction of an inch—will quite possibly resent your presence even there. And shrapnel gives a nasty wound.
Let us return and seek safety in a cellar. It is not what one would call a good-looking cellar; no priceless prints adorn the walls, no Turkey carpet receives your jaded feet. In one corner a portable gramophone with several records much the worse for wear reposes on an upturned biscuit-box, and lying on the floor, with due regard to space economy, are three or four of those excellent box-mattresses which form the all-in-all of the average small Belgian house. On top of them are laid some valises and blankets, and from the one in the corner the sweet music of the sleeper strikes softly on the ear. It is the senior subaltern, who has been rambling all the preceding night in Sanctuary Wood—the proud authors of our nomenclature in Flanders quite rightly possess the humour necessary for the production of official communiqués.
In two chairs, smoking, are a couple of officers. One is a major of the Royal Engineers, and another, also a sapper, belongs to the gilded staff. The cellar is the temporary headquarters of a field company—office, mess, and bedroom rolled into one.
"I'm devilish short-handed for the moment, Bill." The Major thoughtfully filled his pipe. "That last boy I got a week ago—a nice boy he was, too—was killed in Zouave Wood the day before yesterday, poor devil. Seymour was wounded three days ago, and there's only Brent, Johnson, and him"—he indicated the sleeper. "Johnson is useless, and Brent——" He paused, and looked full at the Staff-captain. "Do you know Brent well, by any chance?"
"I should jolly well think I did. Jim Brent is one of my greatest pals, Major."
"Then perhaps you can tell me something I very much want to know. I have knocked about the place for a good many years, and I have rubbed shoulders, officially and unofficially, with more men than I care to remember. As a result, I think I may claim a fair knowledge of my fellow-beings. And Brent—well, he rather beats me."
He paused as if at a loss for words, and looked in the direction of the sleeping subaltern. Reassured by the alarming noise proceeding from the corner, he seemed to make up his mind.
"Has Brent had some very nasty knock lately—money, or a woman, or something?"
The Staff-captain took his pipe from his mouth, and for some seconds stared at the floor. Then he asked quietly, "Why? What are you getting at?"
"This is why, Bill. Brent is one of the most capable officers I have ever had. He's a man whose judgment, tact, and driving power are perfectly invaluable in a show of this sort—so invaluable, in fact"—he looked straight at his listener—"that his death would be a very real loss to the corps and the Service. He's one of those we can't replace, and—he's going all out to make us have to."
"What do you mean?" The question expressed no surprise; the speaker seemed merely to be demanding confirmation of what he already knew.
"Brent is deliberately trying to get killed. There is not a shadow of doubt about it in my mind. Do you know why?"
The Staff-officer got up and strolled to a table on which were lying some illustrated weekly papers. "Have you last week's Tatler?" He turned over the leaves. "Yes—here it is." He handed the newspaper to the Major. "That is why."
"A charming portrait of Lady Kathleen Goring; who was last week married to that well-known sportsman and soldier Sir Richard Goring. She was, it will be remembered, very popular in London society as the beautiful Miss Kathleen Tubbs—the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Silas P. Tubbs, of Pittsburg, Pa."
The Major put down the paper and looked at the Staff-captain; then suddenly he rose and hurled it into the corner. "Oh, damn these women," he exploded.
"Amen," murmured the other, as, with a loud snort, the sleeper awoke.
"Is anything th' matter?" he murmured, drowsily, only to relapse at once into unconsciousness.
"Jim was practically engaged to her; and then, three months ago, without a word of explanation, she gave him the order of the boot, and got engaged to Goring." The Staff-captain spoke savagely. "A damn rotten woman, Major, and Jim's well out of it, if he only knew. Goring's a baronet, which is, of course, the reason why this excrescence of the house of Tubbs chucked Jim. As a matter of fact, Dick Goring's not a bad fellow—he deserves a better fate. But it fairly broke Jim up. He's not the sort of fellow who falls in love easily; this was his one and only real affair, and he took it bad. He told me at the time that he never intended to come back alive."
"Damn it all!" The Major's voice was irritable. "Why, his knowledge of the lingo alone makes him invaluable."
"Frankly, I've been expecting to hear of his death every day. He's not the type that says a thing of that sort without meaning it."
A step sounded on the floor above. "Look out, here he is. You'll stop and have a bit of lunch, Bill?"
As he spoke the light in the doorway was blocked out, and a man came uncertainly down the stairs.
"Confound these cellars. One can't see a thing, coming in out of the daylight. Who's that? Halloa, Bill, old cock, 'ow's yourself?"
"Just tottering, Jim. Where've you been?"
"Wandered down to Vlamertinghe this morning early to see about some sandbags, and while I was there I met that flying wallah Petersen in the R.N.A.S. Do you remember him, Major? He was up here with an armoured car in May. He told me rather an interesting thing."
"What's that, Jim?" The Major was attacking a brawn with gusto. "Sit down, Bill. Whisky and Perrier in that box over there."
"He tells me the Huns have got six guns whose size he puts at about 9-inch; guns, mark you, not howitzers—mounted on railway trucks at Tournai. From there they can be rushed by either branch of the line—the junction is just west—to wherever they are required."
"My dear old boy," laughed Bill, as he sat down. "I don't know your friend Petersen, and I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that he is in all probability quite right. But the information seems to be about as much use as the fact that it is cold in Labrador."
"I wonder," answered Brent, thoughtfully—"I wonder." He was rummaging through a pile of papers in the stationery box.
The other two men looked at one another significantly. "What hare-brained scheme have you got in your mind now, Brent?" asked the Major.
Brent came slowly across the cellar and sat down with a sheet of paper spread out on his knee. For a while he examined it in silence, comparing it with an ordnance map, and then he spoke. "It's brick, and the drop is sixty feet, according to this—with the depth of the water fifteen."
"And the answer is a lemon. What on earth are you talking about, Jim?"
"The railway bridge over the river before the line forks."
"Good Lord! My good fellow," cried the Major, irritably, "don't be absurd. Are you proposing to blow it up?" His tone was ponderously sarcastic.
"Not exactly," answered the unperturbed Brent, "but something of the sort—if I can get permission."
The two men laid down their knives and stared at him solemnly.
"You are, I believe, a sapper officer," commenced the Major. "May I ask first how much gun-cotton you think will be necessary to blow up a railway bridge which gives a sixty-foot drop into water; second, how you propose to get it there; third, how you propose to get yourself there; and fourth, why do you talk such rot?"
Jim Brent laughed and helped himself to whisky. "The answer to the first question is unknown at present, but inquiries of my secretary will be welcomed—probably about a thousand pounds. The answer to the second question is that I don't. The answer to the third is—somehow; and for the fourth question I must ask for notice."
"What the devil are you driving at, Jim?" said the Staff-captain, puzzled. "If you don't get the stuff there, how the deuce are you going to blow up the bridge?"
"You may take it from me, Bill, that I may be mad, but I never anticipated marching through German Belgium with a party of sappers and a G.S. wagon full of gun-cotton. Oh, no—it's a one-man show."
"But," ejaculated the Major, "how the——"
"Have you ever thought, sir," interrupted Brent, "what would be the result if, as a heavy train was passing over a bridge, you cut one rail just in front of the engine?"
"But——" the Major again started to speak, and was again cut short.
"The outside rail," continued Brent, "so that the tendency would be for the engine to go towards the parapet wall. And no iron girder to hold it up—merely a little brick wall"—he again referred to the paper on his knee—"three feet high and three bricks thick. No nasty parties of men carrying slabs of gun-cotton; just yourself—with one slab of gun-cotton in your pocket and one primer and one detonator—that and the psychological moment. Luck, of course, but when we dispense with the working party we lift it from the utterly impossible into the realm of the remotely possible. The odds are against success, I know; but——" He shrugged his shoulders.
"But how do you propose to get there, my dear chap?" asked the Major, peevishly. "The Germans have a rooted objection to English officers walking about behind their lines."
"Yes, but they don't mind a Belgian peasant, do they? Dash it, they've played the game on us scores of times, Major—not perhaps the bridge idea, but espionage by men disguised behind our lines. I only propose doing the same, and perhaps going one better."
"You haven't one chance in a hundred of getting through alive." The Major viciously stabbed a tongue.
"That is—er—beside the point," answered Brent, shortly.
"But how could you get through their lines to start with?" queried Bill.
"There are ways, dearie, there are ways. Petersen is a man of much resource."
"Of course, the whole idea is absolutely ridiculous." The Major snorted. "Once and for all, Brent, I won't hear of it. We're far too short of fellows as it is."
And for a space the subject languished, though there was a look on Jim Brent's face which showed it was only for a space.
Now when a man of the type of Brent takes it badly over a woman, there is a strong probability of very considerable trouble at any time. When, in addition to that, it occurs in the middle of the bloodiest war of history, the probability becomes a certainty. That he should quite fail to see just what manner of woman the present Lady Goring was, was merely in the nature of the animal. He was—as far as women were concerned—of the genus fool. To him "the rag, and the bone, and the hank of hair" could never be anything but perfect. It is as well that there are men like that.
All of which his major—who was a man of no little understanding—knew quite well. And the knowledge increased his irritation, for he realised the futility of trying to adjust things. That adjusting business is ticklish work even between two close pals; but when the would-be adjuster is very little more than a mere acquaintance, the chances of success might be put in a small-sized pill-box. To feel morally certain that your best officer is trying his hardest to get himself killed, and to be unable to prevent it, is an annoying state of affairs. Small wonder, then, that at intervals throughout the days that followed did the Major reiterate with solemnity and emphasis his remark to the Staff-captain anent women. It eased his feelings, if it did nothing else.
The wild scheme Brent had half suggested did not trouble him greatly. He regarded it merely as a temporary aberration of the brain. In the South African war small parties of mounted sappers and cavalry had undoubtedly ridden far into hostile country, and, getting behind the enemy, had blown up bridges, and generally damaged their lines of communication. But in the South African war a line of trenches did not stretch from sea to sea.
And so, seated one evening at the door of his commodious residence talking things over with his colonel, he did not lay any great stress on the bridge idea. Brent had not referred to it again; and in the cold light of reason it seemed too foolish to mention.
"Of course," remarked the C.R.E., "he's bound to take it soon. No man can go on running the fool risks you say he does without stopping one. It's a pity; but, if he won't see by himself that he's a fool, I don't see what we can do to make it clear. If only that confounded girl—" He grunted and got up to go. "Halloa! What the devil is this fellow doing?"
Shambling down the road towards them was a particularly decrepit and filthy specimen of the Belgian labourer. In normal circumstances, and in any other place, his appearance would have called for no especial comment; the brand is not a rare one. But for many months the salient of Ypres had been cleared of its civilian population; and this sudden appearance was not likely to pass unnoticed.
"Venez, ici, monsieur, tout de suite." At the Major's words the old man stopped, and paused in hesitation; then he shuffled towards the two men.
"Will you talk to him, Colonel?" The Major glanced at his senior officer.
"Er—I think not; my—er—French, don't you know—er—not what it was." The worthy officer retired in good order, only to be overwhelmed by a perfect deluge of words from the Belgian.
"What's he say?" he queried, peevishly. "That damn Flemish sounds like a dog fight."
"Parlez-vous Français, monsieur?" The Major attempted to stem the tide of the old man's verbosity, but he evidently had a grievance, and a Belgian with a grievance is not a thing to be regarded with a light heart.
"Thank heavens, here's the interpreter!" The Colonel heaved a sigh of relief. "Ask this man what he's doing here, please."
For a space the distant rattle of a machine-gun was drowned, and then the interpreter turned to the officers.
"'E say, sare, that 'e has ten thousand franc behind the German line, buried in a 'ole, and 'e wants to know vat 'e shall do."
"Do," laughed the Major. "What does he imagine he's likely to do? Go and dig it up? Tell him that he's got no business here at all."
Again the interpreter spoke.
"Shall I take 'im to Yper and 'and 'im to the gendarmes, sare?"
"Not a bad idea," said the Colonel, "and have him——"
What further order he was going to give is immaterial, for at that moment he looked at the Belgian, and from that villainous old ruffian he received the most obvious and unmistakable wink.
"Er—thank you, interpreter; I will send him later under a guard."
The interpreter saluted and retired, the Major looked surprised, the Colonel regarded the Belgian with an amazed frown. Then suddenly the old villain spoke.
"Thank you, Colonel. Those Ypres gendarmes would have been a nuisance."
"Great Scot!" gasped the Major. "What the——"
"What the devil is the meaning of this masquerade, sir?" The Colonel was distinctly angry.
"I wanted to see if I'd pass muster as a Belgian, sir. The interpreter was an invaluable proof."
"You run a deuced good chance of being shot, Brent, in that rig. Anyway, I wish for an explanation as to why you're walking about in that get-up. Haven't you enough work to do?"
"Shall we go inside, sir? I've got a favour to ask you."
We are not very much concerned with the conversation that took place downstairs in that same cellar, when two senior officers of the corps of Royal Engineers listened for nearly an hour to an apparently disreputable old farmer. It might have been interesting to note how the sceptical grunts of those two officers gradually gave place to silence, and at length to a profound, breathless interest, as they pored over maps and plans. And the maps were all of that country which lies behind the German trenches.
But at the end the old farmer straightened himself smartly.
"That is the rough outline of my plan, sir. I think I can claim that I have reduced the risk of not getting to my objective to a minimum. When I get there I am sure that my knowledge of the patois renders the chance of detection small. As for the actual demolition itself, an enormous amount will depend on luck; but I can afford to wait. I shall have to be guided by local conditions. And so I ask you to let me go. It's a long odds chance, but if it comes off it's worth it."
"And if it does, what then? What about you?" The Colonel's eyes and Jim Brent's met.
"I shall have paid for my keep, Colonel, at any rate."
Everything was very silent in the cellar; outside on the road a man was singing.
"In other words, Jim, you're asking me to allow you to commit suicide."
He cleared his throat; his voice seemed a little husky.
"Good Lord! sir—it's not as bad as that. Call it a forlorn hope, if you like, but..." The eyes of the two men met, and Brent fell silent.
"Gad, my lad, you're a fool, but you're a brave fool! For Heaven's sake, give me a drink."
"I may go, Colonel?"
"Yes, you may go—as far, that is, as I am concerned. There is the General Staff to get round first."
But though the Colonel's voice was gruff, he seemed to have some difficulty in finding his glass.
As far as is possible in human nature, Jim Brent, at the period when he gained his V.C. in a manner which made him the hero of the hour—one might almost say of the war—was, I believe, without fear. The blow he had received at the hands of the girl who meant all the world to him had rendered him utterly callous of his life. And it was no transitory feeling: the mood of an hour or a week. It was deeper than the ordinary misery of a man who has taken the knock from a woman, deeper and much less ostentatious. He seemed to view life with a contemptuous toleration that in any other man would have been the merest affectation. But it was not evinced by his words; it was shown, as his Major had said, by his deeds—deeds that could not be called bravado because he never advertised them. He was simply gambling with death, with a cool hand and a steady eye, and sublimely indifferent to whether he won or lost. Up to the time when he played his last great game he had borne a charmed life. According to the book of the words, he should have been killed a score of times, and he told me himself only last week that he went into this final gamble with a taunt on his lips and contempt in his heart. Knowing him as I do, I believe it. I can almost hear him saying to his grim opponent, "Dash it all! I've won every time; for Heaven's sake do something to justify your reputation."
But—he didn't; Jim won again. And when he landed in England from a Dutch tramp, having carried out the maddest and most hazardous exploit of the war unscathed, he slipped up on a piece of orange-peel and broke his right leg in two places, which made him laugh so immoderately when the contrast struck him that it cured him—not his leg, but his mind. However, all in due course.
The first part of the story I heard from Petersen, of the Naval Air Service. I ran into him by accident in a grocer's shop in Hazebrouck—buying stuff for the mess.
"What news of Jim?" he cried, the instant he saw me.
"Very sketchy," I answered. "He's the worst letter-writer in the world. You know he trod on a bit of orange-peel and broke his leg when he got back to England."
"He would." Petersen smiled. "That's just the sort of thing Jim would do. Men like him usually die of mumps, or the effects of a bad oyster."
"Quite so," I murmured, catching him gently by the arm. "And now come to the pub over the way and tell me all about it. The beer there is of a less vile brand than usual."
"But I can't tell you anything, my dear chap, that you don't know already!" he expostulated. "I am quite prepared to gargle with you, but——"
"Deux bières, ma'm'selle, s'il vous plaît." I piloted Petersen firmly to a little table. "Tell me all, my son!" I cried. "For the purposes of this meeting I know nix, and you as part hero in the affair have got to get it off your chest."
He laughed, and lit a cigarette. "Not much of the heroic in my part of the stunt, I assure you. As you know, the show started from Dunkirk, where in due course Jim arrived, armed with credentials extracted only after great persuasion from sceptical officers of high rank. How he ever got there at all has always been a wonder to me: his Colonel was the least of his difficulties in that line. But Jim takes a bit of stopping.
"My part of the show was to transport that scatter-brained idiot over the trenches and drop him behind the German lines. His idea was novel, I must admit, though at the time I thought he was mad, and for that matter I still think he's mad. Only a madman could have thought of it, only Jim Brent could have done it and not been killed.
"From a height of three thousand feet, in the middle of the night, he proposed to bid me and the plane a tender farewell and descend to terra firma by means of a parachute."
"Great Scot," I murmured. "Some idea."
"As you say—some idea. The thing was to choose a suitable night. As Jim said, 'the slow descent of a disreputable Belgian peasant like an angel out of the skies will cause a flutter of excitement in the tender heart of the Hun if it is perceived. Therefore, it must be a dark and overcast night.'
"At last, after a week, we got an ideal one. Jim arrayed himself in his togs, took his basket on his arm—you know he'd hidden the gun-cotton in a cheese—and we went round to the machine. By Jove! that chap's a marvel. Think of it, man." Petersen's face was full of enthusiastic admiration. "He'd never even been up in an aeroplane before, and yet the first time he does, it is with the full intention of trusting himself to an infernal parachute, a thing the thought of which gives me cold feet; moreover, of doing it in the dark from a height of three thousand odd feet behind the German lines with his pockets full of detonators and other abominations, and his cheese full of gun-cotton. Lord! he's a marvel. And I give you my word that of the two of us—though I've flown for over two years—I was the shaky one. He was absolutely cool; not the coolness of a man who is keeping himself under control, but just the normal coolness of a man who is doing his everyday job."
Petersen finished his beer at a gulp, and we encored the dose.
"Well, we got off about two. We were not aiming at any specific spot, but I was going to go due east for three-quarters of an hour, which I estimated should bring us somewhere over Courtrai. Then he was going to drop off, and I was coming back. The time was chosen so that I should be able to land again at Dunkirk about dawn.
"I can't tell you much more. We escaped detection going over the lines, and about ten minutes to three, at a height of three thousand five hundred, old Jim tapped me on the shoulder. He understood exactly what to do—as far as we could tell him: for the parachute is still almost in its infancy.
"As he had remarked to our wing commander before we started: 'A most valuable experiment, sir; I will report on how it works in due course.'
"We shook hands. I could see him smiling through the darkness; and then, with his basket under his arm, that filthy old Belgian farmer launched himself into space.
"I saw him for a second falling like a stone, and then the parachute seemed to open out all right. But of course I couldn't tell in the dark; and just afterwards I struck an air-pocket, and had a bit of trouble with the bus. After that I turned round and went home again. I'm looking forward to seeing the old boy and hearing what occurred."
And that is the unvarnished account of the first part of Jim's last game with fate. Incidentally, it's the sort of thing that hardly requires any varnishing.
The rest of the yarn I heard later from Brent himself, when I went round to see him in hospital, while I was back on leave.
"For Heaven's sake, lady, dear," he said to the sister as I arrived, "don't let anyone else in. Say I've had a relapse and am biting the bed-clothes. This unpleasant-looking man is a great pal of mine, and I would commune with him awhile."
"It's appalling, old boy," he said to me as she went out of the room, "how they cluster. Men of dreadful visage; women who gave me my first bath; unprincipled journalists—all of them come and talk hot air until I get rid of them by swooning. My young sister brought thirty-four school friends round last Tuesday! Of course, my swoon is entirely artificial; but the sister is an understanding soul, and shoos them away." He lit a cigarette.
"I saw Petersen the other day in Hazebrouck," I told him as I sat down by the bed. "He wants to come round and see you as soon as he can get home."
"Good old Petersen. I'd never have brought it off without him."
"What happened, Jim?" I asked. "I've got up to the moment when you left his bus, with your old parachute, and disappeared into space. And of course I've seen the official announcement of the guns being seen in the river, as reported by that R.F.C. man. But there is a gap of about three weeks; and I notice you have not been over-communicative to the half-penny press."
"My dear old man," he answered, seriously, "there was nothing to be communicative about. Thinking it over now, I am astounded how simple the whole thing was. It was as easy as falling off a log. I fell like a stone for two or three seconds, because the blessed umbrella wouldn't open. Then I slowed up and floated gently downwards. It was a most fascinating sensation. I heard old Petersen crashing about just above me; and in the distance a search-light was moving backwards and forwards across the sky, evidently looking for him. I should say it took me about five minutes to come down; and of course all the way down I was wondering where the devil I was going to land. The country below me was black as pitch: not a light to be seen—not a camp-fire—nothing. As the two things I wanted most to avoid were church steeples and the temporary abode of any large number of Huns, everything looked very favourable. To be suspended by one's trousers from a weathercock in the cold, grey light of dawn seemed a sorry ending to the show; and to land from the skies on a general's stomach requires explanation."
He smiled reminiscently. "I'm not likely to forget that descent, Petersen's engine getting fainter and fainter in the distance, the first pale streaks of light beginning to show in the east, and away on a road to the south the headlamps of a car moving swiftly along. Then the humour of the show struck me. Me, in my most picturesque disguise, odoriferous as a family of ferrets in my borrowed garments, descending gently on to the Hun like the fairy god-mother in a pantomime. So I laughed, and—wished I hadn't. My knees hit my jaw with a crack, and I very nearly bit my tongue in two. Cheeses all over the place, and there I was enveloped in the folds of the collapsing parachute. Funny, but for a moment I couldn't think what had happened. I suppose I was a bit dizzy from the shock, and it never occurred to me that I'd reached the ground, which, not being able to see in the dark, I hadn't known was so close. Otherwise I could have landed much lighter. Yes, it's a great machine that parachute." He paused to reach for his pipe.
"Where did you land?" I asked.
"In the middle of a ploughed field. Couldn't have been a better place if I'd chosen it. A wood or a river would have been deuced awkward. Yes, there's no doubt about it, old man, my luck was in from the very start. I removed myself from the folds, picked up my cheeses, found a convenient ditch alongside to hide the umbrella in, and then sat tight waiting for dawn.
"I happen to know that part of Belgium pretty well, and when it got light I took my bearings. Petersen had borne a little south of what we intended, which was all to the good—it gave me less walking; but it was just as well I found a sign-post almost at once, as I had no map, of course—far too dangerous; and I wasn't very clear on names of villages, though I'd memorized the map before leaving. I found I had landed somewhere south of Courtrai, and was about twelve kilometres due north of Tournai.
"And it was just as I'd decided that little fact that I met a horrible Hun, a large and forbidding-looking man. Now, the one thing on which I'd been chancing my arm was the freedom allowed to the Belgians behind the German lines, and luck again stepped in.
"Beyond grunting 'Guten Morgen' he betrayed no interest in me whatever. It was the same all along. I shambled past Uhlans, and officers and generals in motor-cars—Huns of all breeds and all varieties, and no one even noticed me. And after all, why on earth should they?
"About midday I came to Tournai; and here again I was trusting to luck. I'd stopped there three years ago at a small estaminet near the station kept by the widow Demassiet. Now this old lady was, I knew, thoroughly French in sympathies; and I hoped that, in case of necessity, she would pass me off as her brother from Ghent, who was staying with her for a while. Some retreat of this sort was, of course, essential. A homeless vagabond would be bound to excite suspicion.
"Dear old woman—she was splendid. After the war I shall search her out, and present her with an annuity, or a belle vache, or something dear to the Belgian heart. She never even hesitated. From that night I was her brother, though she knew it meant her death as well as mine if I was discovered.
"'Ah, monsieur,' she said, when I pointed this out to her, 'it is in the hands of le bon Dieu. At the most I have another five years, and these Allemands—pah!' She spat with great accuracy.
"She was good, was the old veuve Demassiet."
Jim puffed steadily at his pipe in silence for a few moments.
"I soon found out that the Germans frequented the estaminet; and, what was more to the point—luck again, mark you—that the gunners who ran the battery I was out after almost lived there. When the battery was at Tournai they had mighty little to do, and they did it, with some skill, round the beer in her big room.
"I suppose you know what my plan was. The next time that battery left Tournai I proposed to cut one of the metals on the bridge over the River Scheldt, just in front of the engine, so close that the driver couldn't stop, and so derail the locomotive. I calculated that if I cut the outside rail—the one nearest the parapet wall—the flange on the inner wheel would prevent the engine turning inwards. That would merely cause delay, but very possibly no more. I hoped, on the contrary, to turn it outwards towards the wall, through which it would crash, dragging after it with any luck the whole train of guns.
"That being the general idea, so to speak, I wandered off one day to see the bridge. As I expected, it was guarded, but by somewhat indifferent-looking Huns—evidently only lines of communication troops. For all that, I hadn't an idea how I was going to do it. Still, luck, always luck; the more you buffet her the better she treats you.
"One week after I got there I heard the battery was going out: and they were going out that night. As a matter of fact, that hadn't occurred to me before—the fact of them moving by night, but it suited me down to the ground. It appeared they were timed to leave at midnight, which meant they'd cross the bridge about a quarter or half past. And so at nine that evening I pushed gently off and wandered bridgewards.
"Then the fun began. I was challenged, and, having answered thickly, I pretended to be drunk. The sentry, poor devil, wasn't a bad fellow, and I had some cold sausage and beer. And very soon a gurgling noise pronounced the fact that he found my beer good.
"It was then I hit him on the base of his skull with a bit of gas-pipe. That sentry will never drink beer again." Brent frowned. "A nasty blow, a dirty blow, but a necessary blow." He shrugged his shoulders and then went on.
"I took off his top-coat and put it on. I put on his hat and took his rifle and rolled him down the embankment into a bush. Then I resumed his beat. Discipline was a bit lax on that bridge, I'm glad to say; unless you pulled your relief out of bed no one else was likely to do it for you. As you may guess, I did not do much pulling.
"I was using two slabs of gun-cotton to make sure—firing them electrically. I had two dry-cells and two coils of fine wire for the leads. The cells would fire a No. 13 Detonator through thirty yards of those leads—and that thirty yards just enabled me to stand clear of the bridge. It took me twenty minutes to fix it up, and then I had to wait.
"By gad, old boy, you've called me a cool bird; you should have seen me during that wait. I was trembling like a child with excitement: everything had gone so marvellously. And for the first time in the whole show it dawned on me that not only was there a chance of getting away afterwards, but that I actually wanted to. Before that moment I'd assumed on the certainty of being killed."
For a moment he looked curiously in front of him, and a slight smile lurked round the corners of his mouth. Then suddenly, and apropos of nothing, he remarked, "Kathleen Goring tea'd with me yesterday. Of course, it was largely due to that damned orange-skin, but I—er—did not pass a sleepless night."
Which I took to be indicative of a state of mind induced by the rind of that nutritious fruit, rather than any reference to his broken leg. For when a man has passed unscathed through parachute descents and little things like that, only to lose badly on points to a piece of peel, his sense of humour gets a jog in a crucial place. And a sense of humour is fatal to the hopeless, undying passion. It is almost as fatal, in fact, as a hiccough at the wrong moment.
"It was just about half-past twelve that the train came along. I was standing by the end of the bridge, with my overcoat and rifle showing in the faint light of the moon. The engine-driver waved his arm and shouted something in greeting and I waved back. Then I took the one free lead and waited until the engine was past me. I could see the first of the guns, just coming abreast, and at that moment I connected up with the battery in my pocket. Two slabs of gun-cotton make a noise, as you know, and just as the engine reached the charge, a sheet of flame seemed to leap from underneath the front wheels. The driver hadn't time to do a thing—the engine had left the rails before he knew what had happened. And then things moved. In my wildest moments I had never expected such a success. The engine crashed through the parapet wall and hung for a moment in space. Then it fell downward into the water, and by the mercy of Allah the couplings held. The first two guns followed it, through the gap it had made, and then the others overturned with the pull before they got there, smashing down the wall the whole way along. Every single gun went wallop into the Scheldt—to say nothing of two passenger carriages containing the gunners and their officers. The whole thing was over in five seconds; and you can put your shirt on it that before the last gun hit the water yours truly had cast away his regalia of office and was legging it like a two-year-old back to the veuve Demassiet and Tournai. It struck me that bridge might shortly become an unhealthy spot."
Jim Brent laughed. "It did. I had to stop on with the old lady for two or three days in case she might be suspected owing to my sudden departure—and things hummed. They shot the feldwebel in charge of the guard; they shot every sentry; they shot everybody they could think of; but—they never even suspected me. I went out and had a look next day, the day I think that R.F.C. man spotted and reported the damage. Two of the guns were only fit for turning into hairpins, and the other four looked very like the morning after.
"Then, after I'd waited a couple of days, I said good-bye to the old dear and trekked off towards the Dutch frontier, gaining immense popularity, old son, by describing the accident to all the soldiers I met.
"That's all, I think. I had words with a sentry at the frontier, but I put it across him with his own bundook. Then I wandered to our Ambassador, and sailed for England in due course. And—er—that's that."
Such is the tale of Jim Brent's V.C. There only remains for me to give the wording of his official report on the matter.
"I have the honour to report," it ran, "that at midnight on the 25th ult., I successfully derailed the train conveying six guns of calibre estimated at about 9-inch, each mounted on a railway truck. The engine, followed by the guns, departed from sight in about five seconds, and fell through a drop of some sixty feet into the River Scheldt from the bridge just west of Tournai. The gunners and officers—who were in two coaches in rear—were also killed. Only one seemed aware that there was danger, and he, owing to his bulk, was unable to get out of the door of his carriage. He was, I think, in command. I investigated the damage next day when the military authorities were a little calmer, and beg to state that I do not consider the guns have been improved by their immersion. One, at least, has disappeared in the mud. A large number of Germans who had no connection with this affair have, I am glad to report, since been shot for it.
"I regret that I am unable to report in person, but I am at present in hospital with a broken leg, sustained by my inadvertently stepping on a piece of orange-peel, which escaped my notice owing to its remarkable similarity to the surrounding terrain. This similarity was doubtless due to the dirt on the orange-peel."
Which, I may say, should not be taken as a model for official reports by the uninitiated.
IT was in July of 1914—on the Saturday of Henley Week. People who were there may remember that, for once in a way, our fickle climate was pleased to smile upon us.
Underneath the wall of Phyllis Court a punt was tied up. The prizes had been given away, and the tightly packed boats surged slowly up and down the river, freed at last from the extreme boredom of watching crews they did not know falling exhausted out of their boats. In the punt of which I speak were three men and a girl. One of the men was myself, who have no part in this episode, save the humble one of narrator. The other three were the principals; I would have you make their acquaintance. I would hurriedly say that it is not the old, old story of a woman and two men, for one of the men was her brother.
To begin with—the girl. Pat Delawnay—she was always called Pat, as she didn't look like a Patricia—was her name, and she was—well, here I give in. I don't know the colour of her eyes, nor can I say with any certainty the colour of her hair; all I know is that she looked as if the sun had come from heaven and kissed her, and had then gone back again satisfied with his work. She was a girl whom to know was to love—the dearest, most understanding soul in God's whole earth. I'd loved her myself since I was out of petticoats.
Then there was Jack Delawnay, her brother. Two years younger he was, and between the two of them there was an affection and love which is frequently conspicuous by its absence between brother and sister. He was a cheery youngster, a good-looking boy, and fellows in the regiment liked him. He rode straight, and he had the money to keep good cattle. In addition, the men loved him, and that means a lot when you size up an officer.
And then there was the other. Older by ten years than the boy—the same age as myself—Jerry Dixon was my greatest friend. We had fought together at school, played the ass together at Sandhurst, and entered the regiment on the same day. He had "A" company and I had "C," and the boy was one of his subalterns. Perhaps I am biassed, but to me Jerry Dixon had one of the finest characters I have ever seen in any man. He was no Galahad, no prig; he was just a man, a white man. He had that cheerily ugly face which is one of the greatest gifts a man can have, and he also had Pat as his fiancée, which was another.
My name is immaterial, but everyone calls me Winkle, owing to—— Well, some day I may tell you.
The regiment, our regiment, was the, let us call it the Downshires.
We had come over from Aldershot and were week-ending at the Delawnays' place—they always took one on the river for Henley. At the moment Jerry was holding forth, quite unmoved by exhortations to "Get out and get under" bawled in his ears by blackened gentlemen of doubtful voice and undoubted inebriation.
As I write, the peculiar—the almost sinister—nature of his conversation, in the light of future events, seems nothing short of diabolical. And yet at the time we were just three white-flannelled men and a girl with a great floppy hat lazing over tea in a punt. How the gods must have laughed!
"My dear old Winkle"—he was lighting a cigarette as he spoke—"you don't realise the deeper side of soldiering at all. The subtle nuances (French, Pat, in case my accent is faulty) are completely lost upon you."
I remember smiling to myself as I heard Jerry getting warmed up to his subject, and then my attention wandered, and I dozed off. I had heard it all before so often from the dear old boy. We always used to chaff him about it in the mess. I can see him now, after dinner, standing with his back to the ante-room fire, a whisky-and-soda in his hand and a dirty old pipe between his teeth.
"It's all very well for you fellows to laugh," he would say, "but I'm right for all that. It is absolutely essential to think out beforehand what one would do in certain exceptional eventualities, so that when that eventuality does arise you won't waste any time, but will automatically do the right thing."
And then the adjutant recalled in a still small voice how he first realised the orderly-room sergeant's baby was going to be sick in his arms at the regiment's Christmas-tree festivities, and, instead of throwing it on the floor, he had clung to it for that fatal second of indecision. As he admitted, it was certainly not one of the things he had thought out beforehand.
He's gone, too, has old Bellairs the adjutant. I wonder how many fellows I'll know when I get back to them next week? But I'm wandering.
"Winkle, wake up!" It was Pat speaking. "Jerry is being horribly serious, and I'm not at all certain it will be safe to marry him; he'll be experimenting on me."
"What's he been saying?" I murmured sleepily.
"He's been thinking what he'd do," laughed Jack, "if the stout female personage in yonder small canoe overbalanced and fell in. There'll be no fatal second then, Jerry, my boy. It'll be a minute even if I have to hold you. You'd never be able to look your friends in the face again if you didn't let her drown."
"Ass!" grunted Jerry. "No, Winkle, I was just thinking, amongst other things, of what might very easily happen to any of us three here, and what did happen to old Grantley in South Africa." Grantley was one of our majors. "He told me all about it one day in one of his expansive moods. It was during a bit of a scrap just before Paardeburg, and he had some crowd of irregular Johnnies. He was told off to take a position, and apparently it was a fairly warm proposition. However, it was perfectly feasible if only the men stuck it. Well, they didn't, but they would have except for his momentary indecision. He told me that there came a moment in the advance when one man wavered. He knew it and felt it all through him. He saw the man—he almost saw the deadly contagion spreading from that one man to the others—and he hesitated and was lost. When he sprang forward and tried to hold 'em, he failed. The fear was on them, and they broke. He told me he regarded himself as every bit as much to blame as the man who first gave out."
"But what could he have done, Jerry?" asked Pat.
"Shot him, dear—shot him on the spot without a second's thought—killed the origin of the fear before it had time to spread. I venture to say that there are not many fellows in the Service who would do it—without thinking: and you can't think—you dare not, even if there was time. It goes against the grain, especially if you know the man well, and it's only by continually rehearsing the scene in your mind that you'd be able to do it."
We were all listening to him now, for this was a new development I'd never heard before.
"Just imagine the far-reaching results one coward—no, not coward, possibly—but one man who has reached the breaking-point, may have. Think of it, Winkle. A long line stretched out, attacking. One man in the centre wavers, stops. Spreading outwards, the thing rushes like lightning, because, after all, fear is only an emotion, like joy and sorrow, and one knows how quickly they will communicate themselves to other people. Also, in such a moment as an attack, men are particularly susceptible to emotions. All that is primitive is uppermost, and their reasoning powers are more or less in abeyance."
"But the awful thing, Jerry," said Pat quietly, "is that you would never know whether it had been necessary or not. It might not have spread; he might have answered to your voice—oh! a thousand things might have happened."
"It's not worth the risk, dear. One man's life is not worth the risk. It's a risk you just dare not take. It may mean everything—it may mean failure—it may mean disgrace." He paused and looked steadily across the shifting scene of gaiety and colour, while a long bamboo pole with a little bag on the end, wielded by some passing vocalist, was thrust towards him unheeded. Then with a short laugh he pulled himself together, and lit a cigarette. "But enough of dull care. Let us away, and gaze upon beautiful women and brave men. What's that little tune they're playing?"
"That's that waltz—what the deuce is the name, Pat?" asked Jack, untying the punt.
"'Destiny,'" answered Pat briefly, and we passed out into the stream.
A month afterwards we three were again at Henley, not in flannels in a punt on the river, but in khaki, with a motor waiting at the door of the Delawnays' house to take us back to Aldershot. I do not propose to dwell over the scene, but in the setting down of the story it cannot be left out. Europe was at war; the long-expected by those scoffed-at alarmists had actually come. England and Germany were at each other's throats.
Inside the house Jack was with his mother. Personally, I was standing in the garden with the grey-haired father; and Jerry was—well, where else could he have been?
As is the way with men, we discussed the roses, and the rascality of the Germans, and everything except what was in our hearts. And in one of the pauses in our spasmodic conversation we heard her voice, just over the hedge:
"God guard and keep you, my man, and bring you back to me safe!" And the voice was steady, though one could feel those dear eyes dim with tears.
And then Jerry's, dear old Jerry's voice—a little bit gruff it was, and a little bit shaky: "My love! My darling!"
But the old man was going towards the house, blowing his nose; and I—don't hold with love and that sort of thing at all. True, I blundered into a flower-bed, which I didn't see clearly, as I went towards the car, for there are things which one may not hear and remain unmoved. Perhaps, if things had been different, and Jerry—dear old Jerry—hadn't—— But there, I'm wandering again.
At last we were in the car and ready to start.
"Take care of him, Jerry; he and Pat are all we've got." It was Mrs. Delawnay speaking, standing there with the setting sun on her sweet face and her husband's arm about her.
"I'll be all right, mater," answered Jack gruffly. "Buck up! Back for Christmas!"
"I'll look after him, Mrs. Delawnay," answered Jerry, but his eyes were fixed on Pat, and for him the world held only her.
As the car swung out of the gate, we looked back the last time and saluted, and it was only I who saw through a break in the hedge two women locked in each other's arms, while a grey-haired gentleman sat very still on a garden-seat, with his eyes fixed on the river rolling smoothly by.
It was on the Aisne I took it. Through that ghastly fourteen days we had slogged dully south away from Mons, ever getting nearer Paris. Through the choking dust, with the men staggering as they walked—some asleep, some babbling, some cursing—but always marching, marching, marching; digging at night, only to leave the trenches in two hours and march on again; with ever and anon a battery of horse tearing past at a gallop, with the drivers lolling drunkenly in their saddles, and the guns jolting and swaying behind the straining, sweating horses, to come into action on some ridge still further south, and try to check von Kluck's hordes, if only for a little space. Every bridge in the hands of anxious-faced sapper officers, prepared for demolition one and all, but not to be blown up till all our troops were across. Ticklish work, for should there be a fault, there is not much time to repair it.
But at last it was over, and we turned North. A few days later, in the afternoon, my company crossed a pontoon bridge on the Aisne, and two hours afterwards we dug ourselves in a mile and a half beyond it. The next morning, as I was sitting in one of the trenches, there was a sudden, blinding roar—and oblivion.
I will pass rapidly over the next six weeks—over my journey from the clearing hospital to the base at Havre, of my voyage back to England in a hospital ship, and my ultimate arrival at Drayton Hall, the Delawnays' place in Somerset, where I had gone to convalesce.
During the time various fragments of iron were being picked from me and the first shock of the concussion was wearing off, we had handed over our trenches on the Aisne to the French, and moved north to Flanders.
Occasional scrawls came through from Jack and Jerry, but the people in England who had any knowledge at all of the fighting and of what was going on, grew to dread with an awful dread the sight of the telegraph-boy, and it required an effort of will to look at those prosaic casualty lists in the morning papers.
Then suddenly without warning, as such news always does, it came. The War Office, in the shape of a whistling telegraph-boy, regretted to inform Mr. Delawnay that his son, Lieutenant Jack Delawnay of the Royal Downshire Regiment, had been killed in action.
Had it been possible during the terrible days after the news came, I would have gone away, but I was still too weak to move; and I like to think that, perhaps, my presence there was some comfort to them, as a sort of connection through the regiment with their dead boy. After the first numbing shock, the old man bore it grandly.
"He was all I had," he said to me one day as I lay in bed, "but I give him gladly for his country's sake." He stood looking at the broad fields. "All his," he muttered; "all would have been the dear lad's—and now six inches of soil and a wooden cross, perhaps not that."
And Pat, poor little Pat, used to come up every day and sit with me, sometimes in silence, with her great eyes fixed on the fire, sometimes reading the paper, because my eyes weren't quite right yet.
For about a fortnight after the news we did not think it strange; but then, as day by day went by, the same fear formulated in both our minds. I would have died sooner than whisper it; but one afternoon I found her eyes fixed on mine. We had been silent for some time, and suddenly in the firelight I saw the awful fear in her mind as clearly as if she had spoken it.
"You're thinking it too, Winkle," she whispered, leaning forward. "Why hasn't he written? Why hasn't Jerry written one line? Oh, my God! don't say that he has been——"
"Hush, dear!" I said quietly. "His people would have let you know if they had had a wire."
"But, Winkle, the Colonel has written that Jack died while gallantly leading a counter attack to recover lost trenches. Surely, Jerry would have found time for a line, unless something had happened to him; Jack was actually in his company."
All of which I knew, but could not answer.
"Besides," she went on after a moment, "you know how dad is longing for details. He wants to know everything about Jack, and so do we all. But oh, Winkle! I want to know if my man is all right. Brother and lover—not both, oh, God—not both!" The choking little sobs wrung my heart.
The next day we got a wire from him. He was wounded slightly in the arm, and was at home. He was coming to us. Just that—no more. But, oh! the difference to the girl. Everything explained, everything clear, and the next day Jerry would be with her. Only as I lay awake that night thinking, and the events of the last three weeks passed through my mind, the same thought returned with maddening persistency. Slightly wounded in the arm, evidently recently as there was no mention in the casualty list, and for three weeks no line, no word. And then I cursed myself as an ass and a querulous invalid.
At three o'clock he arrived, and they all came up to my room. The first thing that struck me like a blow was that it was his left arm which was hit—and the next was his face. Whether Pat had noticed that his writing arm was unhurt, I know not; but she had seen the look in his eyes, and was afraid.
Then he told the story, and his voice was as the voice of the dead. Told the anxious, eager father and mother the story of their boy's heroism. How, having lost some trenches, the regiment made a counter attack to regain them. How first of them all was Jack, the men following him, as they always did, until a shot took him clean through the heart, and he dropped, leaving the regiment to surge over him for the last forty yards, and carry out gloriously what they had been going to do.
And then the old man, pulling out the letter from the Colonel, and trying to read it through his blinding tears: "He did well, my boy," he whispered, "he did well, and died well. But, Jerry, the Colonel says in his letter," and he wiped his eyes and tried to read, "he says in his letter that Jack must have been right into their trenches almost, as he was killed at point-blank range with a revolver. One of those swine of German officers, I suppose." He shook his fist in the air. "Still he was but doing his duty. I must not complain. But you say he was forty yards away?"
"It's difficult to say, sir, in the dark," answered Jerry, still in the voice of an automatic machine. "It may have been less than forty."
And then he told them all over again; and while they, the two old dears, whispered and cried together, never noticing anything amiss, being only concerned with the telling, and caring no whit for the method thereof, Pat sat silently in the window, gazing at him with tearless eyes, with the wonder and amazement of her soul writ clear on her face for all to see. And I—I lay motionless in bed, and there was something I could not understand, for he would not look at me, nor yet at her, but kept his eyes fixed on the fire, while he talked like a child repeating a lesson.
At last it was over; their last questions were asked, and slowly, arm-in-arm, they left the room, to dwell alone upon the story of their idolised boy. And in the room the silence was only broken by the crackling of the logs.
How long we sat there I know not, with the firelight flickering on the stern set face of the man in the chair. He seemed unconscious of our existence, and we two dared not speak to him, we who loved him best, for there was something we could not understand. Suddenly he got up, and held out his arms to Pat. And when she crept into them, he kissed her, straining her close, as if he could never stop. Then, without a word, he led her to the door, and, putting her gently through, shut it behind her. Still without a word he came back to the chair, and turned it so that the firelight no longer played on his face. And then he spoke.
"I have a story to tell you, Winkle, which I venture to think will entertain you for a time." His voice was the most terrible thing I have ever listened to..."Nearly four weeks ago the battalion was in the trenches a bit south of Ypres. It was bad in the retreat, as you know; it was bad on the Aisne; but they were neither of them in the same county as the doing we had up north. One night—they'd shelled us off and on for three days and three nights—we were driven out of our trenches. The regiment on our right gave, and we had to go too. The next morning we were ordered to counter attack, and get back the ground we had lost. It was the attack in which we lost so heavily."
He stopped speaking for a while, and I did not interrupt.
"When I got that order overnight Jack was with me, in a hole that passed as a dugout. At the moment everything was quiet; the Germans were patching up their new position; only a maxim spluttered away a bit to one flank. To add to the general desolation a steady downpour of rain drenched us, into which, without cessation the German flares went shooting up. I think they were expecting a counter attack at once..."
Again he paused, and I waited.
"You know the condition one gets into sometimes when one is heavy for sleep. We had it during the retreat if you remember—a sort of coma, the outcome of utter bodily exhaustion. One used to go on walking, and all the while one was asleep—or practically so. Sounds came to us dimly as from a great distance; they made no impression on us—they were just a jumbled phantasmagoria of outside matters, which failed to reach one's brain, except as a dim dream. I was in that condition on the night I am speaking of; I was utterly cooked—beat to the world; I was finished for the time. I've told you this, because I want you to understand the physical condition I was in."
He leaned forward and stared at the fire, resting his head on his hands.
"How long I'd dozed heavily in that wet-sodden hole I don't know, but after a while above the crackle of the maxim, separate and distinct from the soft splash of the rain, and the hiss of the flares, and the hundred and one other noises that came dimly to me out of the night, I heard Jack's voice—at least I think it was Jack's voice."
Of a sudden he sat up in the chair, and rising quickly he came and leant over the foot of the bed.
"Devil take it," he cried bitterly, "I know it was Jack's voice—now. I knew it the next day when it was too late. What he said exactly I shall never know—at the time it made no impression on me; but at this moment, almost like a spirit voice in my brain, I can hear him. I can hear him asking me to watch him. I can hear him pleading—I can hear his dreadful fear of being found afraid. As a whisper from a great distance I can hear one short sentence—'Jerry, my God, Jerry—I'm frightened!'
"Winkle, he turned to me in his weakness—that boy who had never failed before, that boy who had reached the breaking-point—and I heeded him not. I was too dead beat; my brain couldn't grasp it."
"But, Jerry," I cried, "it turned out all right the next day; he..." The words died away on my lips as I met the look in his eyes.
"You'd better let me finish," he interrupted wearily. "Let me get the whole hideous tragedy off my mind for the first and the last time. Early next morning we attacked. In the dim dirty light of dawn I saw the boy's face as he moved off to his platoon; and even then I didn't remember those halting sentences that had come to me out of the night. So instead of ordering him to the rear on some pretext or other as I should have done, I let him go to his platoon.
"As we went across the ground that morning through a fire like nothing I had ever imagined, a man wavered in front of me. I felt it clean through me. I knew fear had come. I shouted and cheered—but the wavering was spreading; I knew that too. So I shot him through the heart from behind at point-blank range as I had trained myself to do—in that eternity ago—before the war. The counter attack was successful."
"Great Heavens, Jerry!" I muttered, "who did you shoot?" though I knew the answer already.
"The man I shot was Jack Delawnay. Whether at the time I was actively conscious of it, I cannot say. Certainly my training enabled me to act before any glimmering of the aftermath came into my mind. This is the aftermath."
I shuddered at the utter hopelessness of his tone, though the full result of his action had not dawned on me yet; my mind was dazed.
"But surely Jack was no coward," I said at length.
"He was not; but on that particular morning he gave out. He had reached the limit of his endurance."
"The Colonel's letter," I reminded him; "it praised the lad."
"Lies," he answered wearily, "all lies, engineered by me. Not because I am ashamed of what I did, but for the lad's sake, and hers, and the old people. I loved the boy, as you know, but he failed, and there was no other way. And where the fiend himself is gloating over it is that he knows it was the only time Jack did fail. If only I hadn't been so beat the night before; if only his words had reached my brain before it was too late. If only...I think," he added, after a pause, "I think I shall go mad. Sometimes I wish I could."
"And what of Pat?" I asked, at length breaking the silence.
The hands grasping the bed tightened, and grew white.
"I said 'Good-bye' to her before your eyes, ten minutes ago. I shall never see her again."
"But, Great Heavens, Jerry!" I cried, "you can't give her up like that. She idolises the ground you walk on, she worships you, and she need never know. You were only doing your duty after all."
"Stop!" he cried, and his voice was a command. "As you love me, old friend, don't tempt me. For three weeks those arguments have been flooding everything else from my mind. Do you remember at Henley, when she said, 'He might have answered to your voice?' Winkle, it's true, Jack might have. And I killed him. Just think if I married her, and she did find out. Her brother's murderer—in her eyes. The man who has wrecked her home, and broken her father and mother. It's inconceivable, it's hideous. Ah! don't you see how utterly final it all is? She may have been right; and if she was, then I, who loved her better than the world, have murdered her brother, and broken the old people's hearts for the sake of a theory. The fact that my theory has been put into practice, at the expense of everything I have to live for, is full of humour, isn't it?" And his laugh was wild.
"Steady, Jerry," I said sternly. "What do you mean to do?"
"You'll see, old man, in time," he answered. "First and foremost, get back to the regiment, arm or no arm. I would not have come home, but I had to see her once more."
"You talk as if it was the end." I looked at him squarely.
"It is," he answered. "It's easy out there."
"Your mind is made up?"
"Absolutely." He gave a short laugh. "Good-bye, old friend. Ease it to her as well as you can. Say I'm unstrung by the trenches, anything you like; but don't let her guess the truth."
For a long minute he held my hand. Then he turned away. He walked to the mantelpiece, and there was a photograph of her there. For a long time he looked at it, and it seemed to me he whispered something. A sudden dimness blinded my eyes, and when I looked again he had gone—through the window into the night.
I did not see Pat until I left Drayton Hall after that ghastly night, save only once or twice with her mother in the room.
But an hour before I left she came to me, and her face was that of a woman who has passed through the fires.
"Tell me, Winkle, shall I ever see him again? You know what I mean."
"You will never see him again, Pat," and the look in her eyes made me choke.
"Will you tell me what it was he told you before he went through the window? You see, I was in the hall waiting for him," and she smiled wearily.
"I can't, Pat dear; I promised him," I muttered. "But it was nothing disgraceful."
"Disgraceful!" she cried proudly. "Jerry, and anything disgraceful. Oh, my God! Winkle dear," and she broke down utterly, "do you remember the waltz they were playing that day—'Destiny'?"
And then I went. Whether that wonderful woman's intuition has told her something of what happened, I know not. But yesterday morning I got a letter from the Colonel saying that Jerry had chucked his life away, saving a wounded man. And this morning she will have seen it in the papers.
God help you, Pat, my dear.
It would be but a small exaggeration to say that in every God-forsaken hole and corner of the world, where soldiers lived and moved and had their being, before Nemesis overtook Europe, the name of Spud Trevor of the Red Hussars was known. From Simla to Singapore, from Khartoum to the Curragh his name was symbolical of all that a regimental officer should be. Senior subalterns guiding the erring feet of the young and frivolous from the tempting paths of night clubs and fair ladies, to the infinitely better ones of hunting and sport, were apt to quote him. Adjutants had been known to hold him up as an example to those of their flock who needed chastening for any of the hundred and one things that adjutants do not like—if they have their regiment at heart. And he deserved it all.
I, who knew him, as well perhaps as anyone; I, who was privileged to call him friend, and yet in the hour of his greatest need failed him; I, to whose lot it has fallen to remove the slur from his name, state this in no half-hearted way. He deserved it, and a thousand times as much again. He was the type of man beside whom the ordinary English gentleman—the so-called white man—looked dirty-grey in comparison. And yet there came a day when men who had openly fawned on him left the room when he came in, when whispers of an unsuspected yellow streak in him began to circulate, when senior subalterns no longer held him up as a model. Now he is dead: and it has been left to me to vindicate him. Perchance by so doing I may wipe out a little of the stain of guilt that lies so heavy on my heart; perchance I may atone, in some small degree, for my doubts and suspicions; and, perchance too, the whitest man that ever lived may of his understanding and knowledge, perfected now in the Great Silence to which he has gone, accept my tardy reparation, and forgive. It is only yesterday that the document, which explained everything, came into my hands. It was sent to me sealed, and with it a short covering letter from a firm of solicitors stating that their client was dead—killed in France—and that according to his instructions they were forwarding the enclosed, with the request that I should make such use of it as I saw fit.
To all those others, who, like myself, doubted, I address these words. Many have gone under: to them I venture to think everything is now clear. Maybe they have already met Spud, in the great vast gulfs where the mists of illusion are rolled away. For those who still live, he has no abuse—that incomparable sportsman and sahib; no recriminations for us who ruined his life. He goes farther, and finds excuses for us; God knows we need them. Here is what he has written. The document is reproduced exactly as I received it—saving only that I have altered all names. The man, whom I have called Ginger Bathurst, and everyone else concerned, will, I think, recognise themselves. And, pour les autres—let them guess.
In two days, old friend, my battalion sails for France; and, now with the intention full formed and fixed in my mind, that I shall not return, I have determined to put down on paper the true facts of what happened three years ago: or rather, the true motives that impelled me to do what I did. I put it that way, because you already know the facts. You know that I was accused of saving my life at the expense of a woman's when the Astoria foundered in mid-Atlantic; you know that I was accused of having thrust her aside and taken her place in the boat. That accusation is true. I did save my life at a woman's expense. But the motives that impelled my action you do not know, nor the identity of the woman concerned. I hope and trust that when you have read what I shall write you will exonerate me from the charge of a cowardice, vile and abominable beyond words, and at the most only find me guilty of a mistaken sense of duty. These words will only reach you in the event of my death; do with them what you will. I should like to think that the old name was once again washed clean of the dirty blot it has on it now; so do your best for me, old pal, do your best.
You remember Ginger Bathurst—of course you do. Is he still a budding Staff Officer at the War Office, I wonder, or is he over the water? I'm out of touch with the fellows in these days—(the pathos of it: Spud out of touch, Spud of all men, whose soul was in the Army)—one doesn't live in the back of beyond for three years and find Army lists and gazettes growing on the trees. You remember also, I suppose, that I was best man at his wedding when he married the Comtesse de Grecin. I told you at the time that I was not particularly enamoured of his choice, but it was his funeral; and with the old boy asking me to steer him through, I had no possible reason for refusing. Not that I had anything against the woman: she was charming, fascinating, and had a pretty useful share of this world's boodle. Moreover, she seemed extraordinarily in love with Ginger, and was just the sort of woman to push an ambitious fellow like him right up to the top of the tree. He, of course, was simply idiotic: he was stark, raving mad about her; vowed she was the most peerless woman that ever a wretched being like himself had been privileged to look at; loaded her with presents which he couldn't afford, and generally took it a good deal worse than usual. I think, in a way, it was the calm acceptance of those presents that first prejudiced me against her. Naturally I saw a lot of her before they were married, being such a pal of Ginger's, and I did my best for his sake to overcome my dislike. But he wasn't a wealthy man—at the most he had about six hundred a year private means—and the presents of jewellery alone that he gave her must have made a pretty large hole in his capital.
However that is all by the way. They were married, and shortly afterwards I took my leave big game shooting and lost sight of them for a while. When I came back Ginger was at the War Office, and they were living in London. They had a delightful little flat in Hans Crescent, and she was pushing him as only a clever woman can push. Everybody who could be of the slightest use to him sooner or later got roped in to dinner and was duly fascinated.
To an habitual onlooker like myself, the whole thing was clear, and I must quite admit that much of my first instinctive dislike—and dislike is really too strong a word—evaporated. She went out of her way to be charming to me, not that I could be of any use to the old boy, but merely because I was his great friend; and of course she knew that I realised—what he never dreamed of—that she was paving the way to pull some really big strings for him later.
I remember saying good-bye to her one afternoon after a luncheon, at which I had watched with great interest the complete capitulation of two generals and a well-known diplomatist.
"You're a clever man, Mr. Spud," she murmured, with that charming air of taking one into her confidence, with which a woman of the world routs the most confirmed misogynist. "If only Ginger——" She broke off and sighed: just the suggestion of a sigh; but sufficient to imply—lots.
"My lady," I answered, "keep him fit; make him take exercise: above all things don't let him get fat. Even you would be powerless with a fat husband. But provided you keep him thin, and never let him decide anything for himself, he will live to be a lasting monument and example of what a woman can do. And warriors and statesmen shall bow down and worship, what time they drink tea in your boudoir and eat buns from your hand. Bismillah!"
But time is short, and these details are trifling. Only once again, old pal, I am living in the days when I moved in the pleasant paths of life, and the temptation to linger is strong. Bear with me a moment. I am a sybarite for the moment in spirit: in reality—God! how it hurts.
"Gentlemen rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to eternity:
God have mercy on such as we.
Bah! Yah! Bah!"
I never thought I should live to prove Kipling's lines. But that's what I am—a gentleman ranker; going out to the war of wars—a private. I, and that's the bitterest part of it, I, who had, as you know full well, always, for years, lived for this war, the war against those cursed Germans. I knew it was coming—you'll bear me witness of that fact—and the cruel irony of fate that has made that very knowledge my downfall is not the lightest part of the little bundle fate has thrown on my shoulders. Yes, old man, we're getting near the motives now; but all in good time. Let me lay it out dramatically; don't rob me of my exit—I'm feeling a bit theatrical this evening. It may interest you to know that I saw Lady Delton to-day: she's a V.A.D., and did not recognise me, thank Heaven!
(Need I say again that Delton is not the name he wrote. Sufficient that she and Spud knew one another very well, in other days. But in some men it would have emphasised the bitterness of spirit.)
Let's get on with it. A couple of years passed, and the summer of 1912 found me in New York. I was temporarily engaged on a special job which it is unnecessary to specify. It was not a very important one, but, as you know, a gift of tongues and a liking for poking my nose into the affairs of nations had enabled me to get a certain amount of more or less diplomatic work. The job was over, and I was merely marking time in New York waiting for the Astoria to sail. Two days before she was due to leave, and just as I was turning into the doors of my hotel, I ran full tilt into von Basel—a very decent fellow in the Prussian Guard—who was seconded and doing military attaché work in America. I'd met him off and on hunting in England—one of the few Germans I know who really went well to hounds.
"Hullo! Trevor," he said, as we met. "What are you doing here?"
"Marking time," I answered. "Waiting for my boat."
We strolled to the bar, and over a cocktail he suggested that if I had nothing better to do I might as well come to some official ball that was on that evening. "I can get you a card," he remarked. "You ought to come; your friend, Mrs. Bathurst—Comtesse de Grecin that was—is going to be present."
"I'd no idea she was this side of the water," I said, surprised.
"Oh, yes! Come over to see her people or something. Well! will you come?"
I agreed, having nothing else on, and as he left the hotel, he laughed. "Funny the vagaries of fate. I don't suppose I come into this hotel once in three months. I only came down this evening to tell a man not to come and call as arranged, as my kid has got measles—and promptly ran into you."
Truly the irony of circumstances! If one went back far enough, one might find that the determining factor of my disgrace was the quarrel of a nurse and her lover which made her take the child another walk than usual and pick up infection. Dash it all! you might even find that it was a spot on her nose that made her do so, as she didn't want to meet him when not looking at her best! But that way madness lies.
Whatever the original cause—I went: and in due course met the Comtesse. She gave me a couple of dances, and I found that she, too, had booked her passage on the Astoria. I met very few people I knew, and having found it the usual boring stunt, I decided to get a glass of champagne and a sandwich and then retire to bed. I took them along to a small alcove where I could smoke a cigarette in peace, and sat down. It was as I sat down that I heard from behind a curtain which completely screened me from view, the words "English Army" spoken in German. And the voice was the voice of the Comtesse.
Nothing very strange in the words you say, seeing that she spoke German, as well as several other languages, fluently. Perhaps not—but you know what my ideas used to be—how I was obsessed with the spy theory: at any rate, I listened. I listened for a quarter of an hour, and then I got my coat and went home—went home to try and see a way through just about the toughest proposition I'd ever been up against. For the Comtesse—Ginger Bathurst's idolised wife—was hand in glove with the German Secret Service. She was a spy, not of the wireless installation up the chimney type, not of the document-stealing type, but of a very much more dangerous type than either, the type it is almost impossible to incriminate.
I can't remember the conversation I overheard exactly, I cannot give it to you word for word, but I will give you the substance of it. Her companion was von Basel's chief—a typical Prussian officer of the most overbearing description.
"How goes it with you, Comtesse?" he asked her, and I heard the scrape of a match as he lit a cigarette.
"Well, Baron, very well."
"They do not suspect?"
"Not an atom. The question has never been raised even as to my national sympathies, except once, and then the suggestion—not forced or emphasised in any way—that, as the child of a family who had lost everything in the '70 war, my sympathies were not hard to discover, was quite sufficient. That was at the time of the Agadir crisis."
"And you do not desire revanche?"
"My dear man, I desire money. My husband with his pay and private income has hardly enough to dress me on."
"But, dear lady, why, if I may ask, did you marry him? With so many others for her choice, surely the Comtesse de Grecin could have commanded the world?"
"Charming as a phrase, but I assure you that the idea of the world at one's feet is as extinct as the dodo. No, Baron, you may take it from me he was the best I could do. A rising junior soldier, employed on a staff job at the War Office, persona grata with all the people who really count in London by reason of his family, and moreover infatuated with his charming wife." Her companion gave a guttural chuckle; I could feel him leering. "I give the best dinners in London; the majority of his senior officers think I am on the verge of running away with them, and when they become too obstreperous, I allow them to kiss my—fingers.
"Listen to me, Baron," she spoke rapidly, in a low voice so that I could hardly catch what she said. "I have already given information about some confidential big howitzer trials which I saw; it was largely on my reports that action was stopped at Agadir; and there are many other things—things intangible, in a certain sense—points of view, the state of feeling in Ireland, the conditions of labour, which I am able to hear the inner side of, in a way quite impossible if I had not the entrée into that particular class of English society which I now possess. Not the so-called smart set, you understand; but the real ruling set—the leading soldiers, the leading diplomats. Of course they are discreet——"
"But you are a woman and a peerless one, chère Comtesse. I think we may leave that cursed country in your hands with perfect safety. And, sooner perhaps than even we realise, we may see der Tag."
Such then was briefly the conversation I overheard. As I said, it is not given word for word—but that is immaterial. What was I to do? That was the point which drummed through my head as I walked back to my hotel; that was the point which was still drumming through my head as the dawn came stealing in through my window. Put yourself in my place, old man; what would you have done?
I, alone, of everyone who knew her in London, had stumbled by accident on the truth. Bathurst idolised her, and she exaggerated no whit when she boasted that she had the entrée to the most exclusive circle in England. I know; I was one of it myself. And though one realises that it is only in plays and novels that Cabinet Ministers wander about whispering State secrets into the ears of beautiful adventuresses, yet one also knows in real life how devilish dangerous a really pretty and fascinating woman can be—especially when she's bent on finding things out and is clever enough to put two and two together.
Take one thing alone, and it was an aspect of the case that particularly struck me. Supposing diplomatic relations became strained between us and Germany—and I firmly believed, as you know, that sooner or later they would; supposing mobilisation was ordered—a secret one; suppose any of the hundred and one things which would be bound to form a prelude to a European war—and which at all costs must be kept secret—had occurred; think of the incalculable danger a clever woman in her position might have been, however discreet her husband was. And, my dear old boy, you know Ginger!
Supposing the Expeditionary Force were on the point of embarkation. A wife might guess their port of departure and arrival by an artless question or two as to where her husband on the Staff had motored to that day. But why go on? You see what I mean. Only to me, at that time—and now I might almost say that I am glad events have justified me—it appealed even more than it would have, say, to you. For I was so convinced of the danger that threatened us.
But what was I to do? It was only my word against hers. Tell Ginger? The idea made even me laugh. Tell the generals and the diplomatists? They didn't want to kiss my hand. Tell some big bug in the Secret Service? Yes—that anyway; but she was such a devilish clever woman, that I had but little faith in such a simple remedy, especially as most of them patronised her dinners themselves.
Still, that was the only thing to be done—that, and to keep a look-out myself, for I was tolerably certain she did not suspect me. Why should she?
And so in due course I found myself sitting next her at dinner as the Astoria started her journey across the water.
I am coming to the climax of the drama, old man; I shall not bore you much longer. But before I actually give you the details of what occurred on that ill-fated vessel's last trip, I want to make sure that you realise the state of mind I was in, and the action that I had decided on. Firstly, I was convinced that my dinner partner—the wife of one of my best friends—was an unscrupulous spy. That the evidence would not have hung a fly in a court of law was not the point; the evidence was my own hearing, which was good enough for me.
Secondly, I was convinced that she occupied a position in society which rendered it easy for her to get hold of the most invaluable information in the event of a war between us and Germany.
Thirdly, I was convinced that there would be a war between us and Germany.
So much for my state of mind; now, for my course of action.
I had decided to keep a watch on her, and, if I could get hold of the slightest incriminating evidence, expose her secretly, but mercilessly, to the Secret Service. If I could not—and if I realised there was danger brewing—to inform the Secret Service of what I had heard, and, sacrificing Ginger's friendship if necessary, and my own reputation for chivalry, swear away her honour, or anything, provided only her capacity for obtaining information temporarily ceased. Once that was done, then face the music, and be accused, if needs be, of false swearing, unrequited love, jealousy, what you will. But to destroy her capacity for harm to my country was my bounden duty, whatever the social or personal results to me.
And there was one other thing—and on this one thing the whole course of the matter was destined to hang: I alone could do it, for I alone knew the truth. Let that sink in, old son; grasp it, realise it, and read my future actions by the light of that one simple fact.
I can see you sit back in your chair, and look into the fire with the light of comprehension dawning in your eyes; it does put the matter in a different complexion, doesn't it, my friend? You begin to appreciate the motives that impelled me to sacrifice a woman's life; so far so good. You are even magnanimous: what is one woman compared to the danger of a nation?
Dear old boy, I drink a silent toast to you. Have you no suspicions? What if the woman I sacrificed was the Comtesse herself? Does it surprise you; wasn't it the God-sent solution to everything?
Just as a freak of fate had acquainted me with her secret; so did a freak of fate throw me in her path at the end...
We hit an iceberg, as you may remember, in the middle of the night, and the ship foundered in under twenty minutes.
You can imagine the scene of chaos after we struck, or rather you can't. Men were running wildly about shouting, women were screaming, and the roar of the siren bellowing forth into the night drove people to a perfect frenzy. Then all the lights went out, and darkness settled down like a pall on the ship. I struggled up on deck, which was already tilting up at a perilous angle, and there—in the mass of scurrying figures—I came face to face with the Comtesse. In the panic of the moment I had forgotten all about her. She was quite calm, and smiled at me, for of course our relations were still as before.
Suddenly there came the shout from close at hand, "Room for one more only." What happened then, happened in a couple of seconds; it will take me longer to describe.
There flashed into my mind what would occur if I were drowned and the Comtesse was saved. There would be no one to combat her activities in England; she would have a free hand. My plans were null and void if I died; I must get back to England—or England would be in peril. I must pass on my information to someone—for I alone knew.
"Hurry up! one more." Another shout from near by, and looking round I saw that we were alone. It was she or I.
She moved towards the boat, and as she did so I saw the only possible solution—I saw what I then thought to be my duty; what I still consider—and, God knows, that scene is never long out of my mind—what I still consider to have been my duty. I took her by the arm and twisted her facing me.
"As Ginger's wife, yes," I muttered; "as the cursed spy I know you to be, no—a thousand times no."
"My God!" she whispered. "My God!"
Without further thought I pushed by her and stepped into the boat, which was actually being lowered into the water. Two minutes later the Astoria sank, and she went down with her...
That is what occurred that night in mid-Atlantic. I make no excuses, I offer no palliation; I merely state facts.
Only had I not heard what I did hear in that alcove she would have been just—Ginger's wife. Would the Expeditionary Force have crossed so successfully, I wonder?
As I say, I did what I still consider to have been my duty. If both could have been saved, well and good; but if it was only one, it had to be me, or neither. That's the rub; should it have been neither?
Many times since then, old friend, has the white twitching face of that woman haunted me in my dreams and in my waking hours. Many times since then have I thought that—spy or no spy—I had no right to save my life at her expense; I should have gone down with her. Quixotical, perhaps, seeing she was what she was; but she was a woman. One thing and one thing only I can say. When you read these lines, I shall be dead; they will come to you as a voice from the dead. And, as a man who faces his Maker, I tell you, with a calm certainty that I am not deceiving myself, that that night there was no trace of cowardice in my mind. It was not a desire to save my own life that actuated me; it was the fear of danger to England. An error of judgment possibly; an act of cowardice—no. That much I state, and that much I demand that you believe.
And now we come to the last chapter—the chapter that you know. I'd been back about two months when I first realised that there were stories going round about me. There were whispers in the club; men avoided me; women cut me. Then came the dreadful night when a man—half drunk—in the club accused me of cowardice point-blank, and sneeringly contrasted my previous reputation with my conduct on the Astoria. And I realised that someone must have seen. I knocked that swine in the club down; but the whispers grew. I knew it. Someone had seen, and it would be sheer hypocrisy on my part to pretend that such a thing didn't matter. It mattered everything: it ended me. The world—our world—judges deeds, not motives; and even had I published at the time this document I am sending to you, our world would have found me guilty. They would have said what you would have said had you spoken the thoughts I saw in your eyes that night I came to you. They would have said that a sudden wave of cowardice had overwhelmed me, and that brought face to face with death I had saved my own life at the expense of a woman's. Many would have gone still further, and said that my black cowardice was rendered blacker still by my hypocrisy in inventing such a story; that first to kill the woman, and then to blacken her reputation as an excuse, showed me as a thing unfit to live. I know the world.
Moreover, as far as I knew then—I am sure of it now—whoever it was who saw my action, did not see who the woman was, and therefore the publication of this document at that time would have involved Ginger, for it would have been futile to publish it without names. Feeling as I did that perhaps I should have sunk with her; feeling as I did that, for good or evil, I had blasted Ginger's life, I simply couldn't do it. You didn't believe in me, old chap; at the bottom of their hearts all my old pals thought I'd shown the yellow streak; and I couldn't stick it. So I went to the Colonel, and told him I was handing in my papers. He was in his quarters, I remember, and started filling his pipe as I was speaking.
"Why, Spud?" he asked, when I told him my intention.
And then I told him something of what I have written to you. I said it to him in confidence, and when I'd finished he sat very silent.
"Good God!" he muttered at length. "Ginger's wife!"
"You believe me, Colonel?" I asked.
"Spud," he said, putting his hands on my shoulders, "that's a damn rotten thing to ask me—after fifteen years. But it's the regiment." And he fell to staring at the fire.
Aye, that was it. It was the regiment that mattered. For better or for worse I had done what I had done, and it was my show. The Red Hussars must not be made to suffer; and their reputation would have suffered through me. Otherwise I'd have faced it out. As it was, I had to go; I knew it. I'd come to the same decision myself.
Only now, sitting here in camp with the setting sun glinting through the windows of the hut, just a Canadian private under an assumed name, things are a little different. The regiment is safe; I must think now of the old name. The Colonel was killed at Cambrai; therefore you alone will be in possession of the facts. Ginger, if he reads these words, will perhaps forgive me for the pain I have inflicted on him. Let him remember that though I did a dreadful thing to him, a thing which up to now he has been ignorant of, yet I suffered much for his sake after. During my life it was one thing; when I am dead his claims must give way to a greater one—my name.
Wherefore I, Patrick Courtenay Trevor, having the unalterable intention of meeting my Maker during the present war, and therefore feeling in a measure that I am, even as I write, standing at the threshold of His Presence, do swear before Almighty God that what I have written is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help me, God.
The fall-in is going, old man. Good-bye.
No one who has ever given the matter a moment's thought would deny, I suppose, that a regiment without discipline is like a ship without a rudder. True as that fact has always been, it is doubly so now, when men are exposed to mental and physical shocks such as have never before been thought of.
The condition of a man's brain after he has sat in a trench and suffered an intensive bombardment for two or three hours can only be described by one word, and that is—numbed. The actual physical concussion, apart altogether from the mental terror, caused by the bursting of a succession of large shells in a man's vicinity, temporarily robs him of the use of his thinking faculties. He becomes half-stunned, dazed; his limbs twitch convulsively and involuntarily; he mutters foolishly—he becomes incoherent. Starting with fright he passes through that stage, passes beyond it into a condition bordering on coma; and when a man is in that condition he is not responsible for his actions. His brain has ceased to work...
Now it is, I believe, a principle of psychology that the brain or mind of a man can be divided into two parts—the objective and the subjective: the objective being that part of his thought-box which is actuated by outside influences, by his senses, by his powers of deduction; the subjective being that part which is not directly controllable by what he sees and hears, the part which the religious might call his soul, the Buddhist "the Spark of God," others instinct. And this portion of a man's nature remains acutely active, even while the other part has struck work. In fact, the more numbed and comatose the thinking brain, the more clearly and insistently does subjective instinct hold sway over a man's body. Which all goes to show that discipline, if it is to be of any use to a man at such a time, must be a very different type of thing to what the ordinary, uninitiated, and so-called free civilian believes it to be. It must be an ideal, a thing where the motive counts, almost a religion. It must be an appeal to the soul of man, not merely an order to his body. That the order to his body, the self-control of his daily actions, the general change in his mode of life will infallibly follow on the heels of the appeal to his soul—if that appeal be successful—is obvious. But the appeal must come first: it must be the driving power; it must be the cause and not the effect. Otherwise, when the brain is gone—numbed by causes outside its control; when the reasoning intellect of man is out of action—stunned for the time; when only his soul remains to pull the quivering, helpless body through,—then, unless that soul has the ideal of discipline in it, it will fail. And failure may mean death and disaster; it will mean shame and disgrace, when sanity returns...
To the man seated at his desk in the company office these ideas were not new. He had been one of the original Expeditionary Force; but a sniper had sniped altogether too successfully out by Zillebecke in the early stages of the first battle of Ypres, and when that occurs a rest cure becomes necessary. At that time he was the senior subaltern of one of the finest regiments of "a contemptible little army"; now he was a major commanding a company in the tenth battalion of that same regiment. And in front of him on the desk, a yellow form pinned to a white slip of flimsy paper, announced that No. 8469, Private Meyrick, J., was for office. The charge was "Late falling in on the 8 a.m. parade," and the evidence against him was being given by C.-S.-M. Hayton, also an old soldier from that original battalion at Ypres. It was Major Seymour himself who had seen the late appearance of the above-mentioned Private Meyrick, and who had ordered the yellow form to be prepared. And now with it in front of him, he stared musingly at the office fire...
There are a certain number of individuals who from earliest infancy have been imbued with the idea that the chief pastime of officers in the army, when they are not making love to another man's wife, is the preparation of harsh and tyrannical rules for the express purpose of annoying their men, and the gloating infliction of drastic punishment on those that break them. The absurdity of this idea has nothing to do with it, it being a well-known fact that the more absurd an idea is, the more utterly fanatical do its adherents become. To them the thought that a man being late on parade should make him any the worse fighter—especially as he had, in all probability, some good and sufficient excuse—cannot be grasped. To them the idea that men may not be a law unto themselves—though possibly agreed to reluctantly in the abstract—cannot possibly be assimilated in the concrete.
"He has committed some trifling offence," they say; "now you will give him some ridiculous punishment. That is the curse of militarism—a chosen few rule by Fear." And if you tell them that any attempt to inculcate discipline by fear alone must of necessity fail, and that far from that being the method in the Army the reverse holds good, they will not believe you. Yet—it is so...
"Shall I bring in the prisoner, sir?" The Sergeant-Major was standing by the door.
"Yes, I'll see him now." The officer threw his cigarette into the fire and put on his hat.
"Take off your 'at. Come along there, my lad—move. You'd go to sleep at your mother's funeral—you would." Seymour smiled at the conversation outside the door; he had soldiered many years with that Sergeant-Major. "Now, step up briskly. Quick march. 'Alt. Left turn." He closed the door and ranged himself alongside the prisoner facing the table.
"No. 8469, Private Meyrick—you are charged with being late on the 8 a.m. parade this morning. Sergeant-Major, what do you know about it?"
"Sir, on the 8 a.m. parade this morning, Private Meyrick came running on 'alf a minute after the bugle sounded. 'Is puttees were not put on tidily. I'd like to say, sir, that it's not the first time this man has been late falling in. 'E seems to me to be always a dreaming, somehow—not properly awake like. I warned 'im for office."
The officer's eyes rested on the hatless soldier facing him. "Well, Meyrick," he said quietly, "what have you got to say?"
"Nothing, sir. I'm sorry as 'ow I was late. I was reading, and I never noticed the time."
"What were you reading?" The question seemed superfluous—almost foolish; but something in the eyes of the man facing him, something in his short, stumpy, uncouth figure interested him.
"I was a'reading Kipling, sir." The Sergeant-Major snorted as nearly as such an august disciplinarian could snort in the presence of his officer.
"'E ought, sir, to 'ave been 'elping the cook's mate—until 'e was due on parade."
"Why do you read Kipling or anyone else when you ought to be doing other things?" queried the officer. His interest in the case surprised himself; the excuse was futile, and two or three days to barracks is an excellent corrective.
"I dunno, sir. 'E sort of gets 'old of me, like. Makes me want to do things—and then I can't. I've always been slow and awkward like, and I gets a bit flustered at times. But I do try 'ard." Again a doubtful noise from the Sergeant-Major; to him trying 'ard and reading Kipling when you ought to be swabbing up dishes were hardly compatible.
For a moment or two the officer hesitated, while the Sergeant-Major looked frankly puzzled. "What the blazes 'as come over 'im," he was thinking; "surely he ain't going to be guyed by that there wash. Why don't 'e give 'im two days and be done with it—and me with all them returns."
"I'm going to talk to you, Meyrick." Major Seymour's voice cut in on these reflections. For the fraction of a moment "Two days C.B." had been on the tip of his tongue, and then he'd changed his mind. "I want to try and make you understand why you were brought up to office to-day. In every community—in every body of men—there must be a code of rules which govern what they do. Unless those rules are carried out by all those men, the whole system falls to the ground. Supposing everyone came on to parade half a minute late because they'd been reading Kipling?"
"I know, sir. I see as 'ow I was wrong. But—I dreams sometimes as 'ow I'm like them he talks about, when 'e says as 'ow they lifted 'em through the charge as won the day. And then the dream's over, and I know as 'ow I'm not."
The Sergeant-Major's impatience was barely concealed; those returns were oppressing him horribly.
"You can get on with your work, Sergeant-Major. I know you're busy." Seymour glanced at the N.C.O. "I want to say a little more to Meyrick."
The scandalised look on his face amused him; to leave a prisoner alone with an officer—impossible, unheard of.
"I am in no hurry, sir, thank you."
"All right then," Seymour spoke briefly. "Now, Meyrick, I want you to realise that the principle at the bottom of all discipline is the motive that makes that discipline. I want you to realise that all these rules are made for the good of the regiment, and that in everything you do and say you have an effect on the regiment. You count in the show, and I count in it, and so does the Sergeant-Major. We're all out for the same thing, my lad, and that is the regiment. We do things not because we're afraid of being punished if we don't, but because we know that they are for the good of the regiment—the finest regiment in the world. You've got to make good, not because you'll be dropped on if you don't, but because you'll pull the regiment down if you fail. And because you count, you, personally, must not be late on parade. It does matter what you do yourself. I want you to realise that, and why. The rules you are ordered to comply with are the best rules. Sometimes we alter one—because we find a better; but they're the best we can get, and before you can find yourself in the position of the men you dream about—the men who lift others, the men who lead others—you've got to lift and lead yourself. Nothing is too small to worry about, nothing too insignificant. And because I think, that at the back of your head somewhere you've got the right idea; because I think it's natural to you to be a bit slow and awkward and that your failure isn't due to laziness or slackness, I'm not going to punish you this time for breaking the rules. If you do it again, it will be a different matter. There comes a time when one can't judge motives; when one can only judge results. Case dismissed."
Thoughtfully the officer lit a cigarette as the door closed, and though for the present there was nothing more for him to do in office, he lingered on, pursuing his train of thoughts. Fully conscious of the aggrieved wrath of his Sergeant-Major at having his time wasted, a slight smile spread over his face. He was not given to making perorations of this sort, and now that it was over he wondered rather why he'd done it. And then he recalled the look in the private's eyes as he had spoken of his dreams.
"He'll make good that man." Unconsciously he spoke aloud. "He'll make good."
The discipline of habit is what we soldiers had before the war, and that takes time. Now it must be the discipline of intelligence, of ideal. And for that fear is the worst conceivable teacher. We have no time to form habits now; the routine of the army is of too short duration before the test comes. And the test is too crushing...
The bed-rock now as then is the same, only the methods of getting down to that bed-rock have to be more hurried. Of old habitude and constant association instilled a religion—the religion of obedience, the religion of esprit de corps. But it took time. Now we need the same religion, but we haven't the same time.
In the office next door the Sergeant-Major was speaking soft words to the Pay Corporal.
"Blimey, I dunno what's come over the bloke. You know that there Meyrick..."
"Who, the Slug?" interpolated the other.
"Yes. Well 'e come shambling on to parade this morning with 'is puttees flapping round his ankles—late as usual; and 'e told me to run 'im up to office." A thumb indicated the Major next door. "When I gets 'im there, instead of giving 'im three days C.B. and being done with it, 'e starts a lot of jaw about motives and discipline. 'E hadn't got no ruddy excuse; said 'e was a'reading Kipling, or some such rot—when 'e ought to have been 'elping the cook's mate."
"What did he give him?" asked the Pay Corporal, interested.
"Nothing. His blessing and dismissed the case. As if I had nothing better to do than listen to 'im talking 'ot air to a perisher like that there Meyrick. 'Ere, pass over them musketry returns."
Which conversation, had Seymour overheard it, he would have understood and fully sympathised with. For C.-S.-M. Hayton, though a prince of sergeant-majors, was no student of physiology. To him a spade was a spade only as long as it shovelled earth.
Now, before I go on to the day when the subject of all this trouble and talk was called on to make good, and how he did it, a few words on the man himself might not be amiss. War, the great forcing house of character, admits no lies. Sooner or later it finds out a man, and he stands in the pitiless glare of truth for what he is. And it is not by any means the cheery hail-fellow-well-met type, or the thruster, or the sportsman, who always pool the most votes when the judging starts...
John Meyrick, before he began to train for the great adventure, had been something in a warehouse down near Tilbury. And "something" is about the best description of what he was that you could give. Moreover there wasn't a dog's chance of his ever being "anything." He used to help the young man—I should say young gentleman—who checked weigh bills at one of the dock entrances. More than that I cannot say, and incidentally the subject is not of surpassing importance. His chief interests in life were contemplating the young gentleman, listening open-mouthed to his views on life, and, dreaming. Especially the latter. Sometimes he would go after the day's work, and, sitting down on a bollard, his eyes would wander over the lines of some dirty tramp, with her dark-skinned crew. Visions of wonderful seas and tropic islands, of leafy palms with the blue-green surf thundering in towards them, of coral reefs and glorious-coloured flowers, would run riot in his brain. Not that he particularly wanted to go and see these figments of his imagination for himself; it was enough for him to dream of them—to conjure them up for a space in his mind by the help of an actual concrete ship—and then to go back to his work of assisting his loquacious companion. He did not find the work uncongenial; he had no hankerings after other modes of life—in fact the thought of any change never even entered into his calculations. What the future might hold he neither knew nor cared; the expressions of his companion on the rottenness of life in general and their firm in particular awoke no answering chord in his breast He had enough to live on in his little room at the top of a tenement house—he had enough over for an occasional picture show—and he had his dreams. He was content.
Then came the war. For a long while it passed him by; it was no concern of his, and it didn't enter his head that it was ever likely to be until one night, as he was going in to see "Jumping Jess, or the Champion Girl Cowpuncher" at the local movies, a recruiting sergeant touched him on the arm.
He was not a promising specimen for a would-be soldier, but that recruiting sergeant was not new to the game, and he'd seen worse.
"Why aren't you in khaki, young fellow me lad?" he remarked genially.
The idea, as I say, was quite new to our friend. Even though that very morning his colleague in the weigh-bill pastime had chucked it and joined, even though he'd heard a foreman discussing who they were to put in his place as "that young Meyrick was habsolutely 'opeless," it still hadn't dawned on him that he might go too. But the recruiting sergeant was a man of some knowledge; in his daily round he encountered many and varied types. In two minutes he had fired the boy's imagination with a glowing and partially true description of the glories of war and the army, and supplied him with another set of dreams to fill his brain. Wasting no time, he struck while the iron was hot, and in a few minutes John Meyrick, sometime checker of weigh-bills, died, and No. 8469, Private John Meyrick, came into being...
But though you change a man's vocation with the stroke of a pen, you do not change his character. A dreamer he was in the beginning, and a dreamer he remained to the end. And dreaming, as I have already pointed out, was not a thing which commended itself to Company-Sergeant-Major Hayton, who in due course became one of the chief arbiters of our friend's destinies. True it was no longer coral islands—but such details availed not with cook's mates and other busy movers in the regimental hive. Where he'd got them from, Heaven knows, those tattered volumes of Kipling; but their matchless spirit had caught his brain and fired his soul, with the result—well, the first of them has been given.
There were more results to follow. Not three days after he was again upon the mat for the same offence, only to say much the same as before.
"I do try, sir—I do try; but some'ow——"
And though in the bottom of his heart the officer believed him, though in a very strange way he felt interested in him, there are limits and there are rules. There comes a time, as he had said, when one can't judge by motives, when one can only judge by results.
"You mustn't only try; you must succeed. Three days to barracks."
That night in mess the officer sat next to the Colonel. "It's the thrusters, the martinets, the men of action who win the V.C.'s and D.C.M.'s, my dear fellow," said his C.O., as he pushed along the wine. "But it's the dreamers, the idealists who deserve them. They suffer so much more."
And as Major Seymour poured himself out a glass of port, a face came into his mind—the face of a stumpy, uncouth man with deep-set eyes. "I wonder," he murmured—"I wonder."
The opportunities for stirring deeds of heroism in France do not occur with great frequency, whatever outsiders may think to the contrary. For months on end a battalion may live a life of peace and utter boredom, getting a few casualties now and then, occasionally bagging an unwary Hun, vegetating continuously in the same unprepossessing hole in the ground—saving only when they go to another, or retire to a town somewhere in rear to have a bath. And the battalion to which No. 8469, Private Meyrick, belonged was no exception to the general rule.
For five weeks they had lived untroubled by anything except flies—all of them, that is, save various N.C.O.'s in A company. To them flies were quite a secondary consideration when compared to their other worry. And that, it is perhaps superfluous to add, was Private Meyrick himself.
Every day the same scene would be enacted; every day some sergeant or corporal would dance with rage as he contemplated the Company Idiot—the title by which he was now known to all and sundry.
"Wake up! Wake up! Lumme, didn't I warn you—didn't I warn yer 'arf an 'our ago over by that there tree, when you was a-staring into the branches looking for nuts or something—didn't I warn yer that the company was parading at 10.15 for 'ot baths?"
"I didn't 'ear you, Corporal—I didn't really."
"Didn't 'ear me! Wot yer mean, didn't 'ear me? My voice ain't like the twitter of a grass'opper, is it? It's my belief you're balmy, my boy, B-A-R-M-Y. Savez. Get a move on yer, for Gawd's sake! You ought to 'ave a nurse. And when you gets to the bath-'ouse, for 'Eaven's sake pull yerself together! Don't forget to take off yer clothes before yer gets in; and when they lets the water out, don't go stopping in the bath because you forgot to get out. I wouldn't like another regiment to see you lying about when they come. They might say things."
And so with slight variations the daily strafe went on. Going up to the trenches it was always Meyrick who got lost; Meyrick who fell into shell holes and lost his rifle or the jam for his section; Meyrick who forgot to lie down when a flare went up, but stood vacantly gazing at it until partially stunned by his next-door neighbour. Periodically messages would come through from the next regiment asking if they'd lost the regimental pet, and that he was being returned. It was always Meyrick...
"I can't do nothing with 'im, sir." It was the Company-Sergeant-Major speaking to Seymour. "'E seems soft like in the 'ead. Whenever 'e does do anything and doesn't forget, 'e does it wrong. 'E's always dreaming and 'alf balmy."
"He's not a flier, I know, Sergeant-Major, but we've got to put up with all sorts nowadays," returned the officer diplomatically. "Send him to me, and let me have a talk to him."
"Very good, sir; but 'e'll let us down badly one of these days."
And so once again Meyrick stood in front of his company officer, and was encouraged to speak of his difficulties. To an amazing degree he had remembered the discourse he had listened to many months previously; to do something for the regiment was what he desired more than anything—to do something big, really big. He floundered and stopped; he could find no words...
"But don't you understand that it's just as important to do the little things? If you can't do them, you'll never do the big ones."
"Yes, sir—I sees that; I do try, sir, and then I gets thinking, and some'ow—oh! I dunno—but everything goes out of my head like. I wants the regiment to be proud of me—and then they calls me the Company Idiot." There was something in the man's face that touched Seymour.
"But how can the regiment be proud of you, my lad," he asked gently, "if you're always late on parade, and forgetting to do what you're told? If I wasn't certain in my own mind that it wasn't slackness and disobedience on your part, I should ask the Colonel to send you back to England as useless."
An appealing look came into the man's eyes. "Oh! don't do that, sir. I will try 'ard—straight I will."
"Yes, but as I told you once before, there comes a time when one must judge by results. Now, Meyrick, you must understand this finally. Unless you do improve, I shall do what I said. I shall tell the Colonel that you're not fitted to be a soldier, and I shall get him to send you away. I can't go on much longer; you're more trouble than you're worth. We're going up to the trenches again to-night, and I shall watch you. That will do; you may go."
And so it came about that the Company Idiot entered on what was destined to prove the big scene in his uneventful life under the eyes of a critical audience. To the Sergeant-Major, who was a gross materialist, failure was a foregone conclusion; to the company officer, who went a little nearer to the heart of things, the issue was doubtful. Possibly his threat would succeed; possibly he'd struck the right note. And the peculiar thing is that both proved right according to their own lights...
This particular visit to the trenches was destined to be of a very different nature to former ones. On previous occasions peace had reigned; nothing untoward had occurred to mar the quiet restful existence which trench life so often affords to its devotees. But this time...
It started about six o'clock in the morning on the second day of their arrival—a really pleasant little intensive bombardment. A succession of shells came streaming in, shattering every yard of the front line with tearing explosions. Then the Huns turned on the gas and attacked behind it. A few reached the trenches—the majority did not; and the ground outside was covered with grey-green figures, some of which were writhing and twitching and some of which were still. The attack had failed...
But that sort of thing leaves its mark on the defenders, and this was their first baptism of real fire. Seymour had passed rapidly down the trench when he realised that for the moment it was over; and though men's faces were covered with the hideous gas masks, he saw by the twitching of their hands and by the ugly high-pitched laughter he heard that it would be well to get into touch with those behind. Moreover, in every piece of trench there lay motionless figures in khaki...
It was as he entered his dugout that the bombardment started again. Quickly he went to the telephone, and started to get on to brigade headquarters. It took him twenty seconds to realise that the line had been cut, and then he cursed dreadfully. The roar of the bursting shells was deafening; his cursing was inaudible; but in a fit of almost childish rage—he kicked the machine. Men's nerves are jangled at times...
It was merely coincidence doubtless, but a motionless figure in a gas helmet crouching outside the dugout saw that kick, and slowly in his bemused brain there started a train of thought. Why should his company officer do such a thing; why should they all be cowering in the trench waiting for death to come to them; why...? For a space his brain refused to act; then it started again.
Why was that man lying full length at the bottom of the trench, with the great hole torn out of his back, and the red stream spreading slowly round him; why didn't it stop instead of filling up the little holes at the bottom of the trench and then overflowing into the next one? He was the corporal who'd called him balmy; but why should he be dead? He was dead—at least the motionless watcher thought he must be. He lay so still, and his body seemed twisted and unnatural. But why should one of the regiment be dead; it was all so unexpected, so sudden? And why did his Major kick the telephone?...
For a space he lay still, thinking; trying to figure things out. He suddenly remembered tripping over a wire coming up to the trench, and being cursed by his sergeant for lurching against him. "You would," he had been told—"you would. If it ain't a wire, you'd fall over yer own perishing feet."
"What's the wire for, sergint?" he had asked.
"What d'you think, softie. Drying the washing on? It's the telephone wire to Headquarters."
It came all back to him, and it had been over by the stunted pollard that he'd tripped up. Then he looked back at the silent, motionless figure—the red stream had almost reached him—and the Idea came. It came suddenly—like a blow. The wire must be broken, otherwise the officer wouldn't have kicked the telephone; he'd have spoken through it.
"I wants the regiment to be proud of me—and then they calls me the Company Idiot." He couldn't do the little things—he was always forgetting, but...! What was that about "lifting 'em through the charge that won the day"? There was no charge, but there was the regiment. And the regiment was wanting him at last. Something wet touched his fingers, and when he looked at them, they were red. "B-A-R-M-Y. You ought to 'ave a nurse..."
Then once again coherent thought failed him—utter physical weakness gripped him—he lay comatose, shuddering, and crying softly over he knew not what. The sweat was pouring down his face from the heat of the gas helmet, but still he held the valve between his teeth, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth as he had been told. It was automatic, involuntary; he couldn't think, he only remembered certain things by instinct.
Suddenly a high explosive shell burst near him—quite close: and a mass of earth crashed down on his legs and back, half burying him. He whimpered feebly, and after a while dragged himself free. But the action brought him close to that silent figure, with the ripped up back...
"You ought to 'ave a nurse..." Why? Gawd above—why? Wasn't he as good a man as that there dead corporal? Wasn't he one of the regiment too? And now the Corporal couldn't do anything, but he—well, he hadn't got no hole torn out of his back. It wasn't his blood that lay stagnant, filling the little holes at the bottom of the trench...
Kipling came back to him—feebly, from another world. The dreamer was dreaming once again.
"If your officer's dead and the sergeants look white,
Remember it's ruin to run from a fight."
"And wait for supports like a soldier."
But there weren't no supports, and the telephone wire was broken—the wire he'd tripped over as he came up. Until it was mended there wouldn't be any supports—until it was mended—until——
With a choking cry he lurched to his feet: and staggering, running, falling down, the dreamer crossed the open. A tearing pain through his left arm made him gasp, but he got there—got there and collapsed. He couldn't see very well, so he tore off his gas helmet, and, peering round, at last saw the wire. And the wire was indeed cut. Why the throbbing brain should have imagined it would be cut there, I know not; perhaps he associated it particularly with the pollard—and after all he was the Company Idiot. But it was cut there, I am glad to say; let us not begrudge him his little triumph. He found one end, and some few feet off he saw the other. With infinite difficulty he dragged himself towards it. Why did he find it so terribly hard to move? He couldn't see clearly; everything somehow was getting hazy and red. The roar of the shells seemed muffled strangely—far-away, indistinct. He pulled at the wire, and it came towards him; pulled again, and the two ends met. Then he slipped back against the pollard, the two ends grasped in his right hand...
The regiment was safe at last. The officer would not have to kick the telephone again. The Idiot had made good. And into his heart there came a wonderful peace.
There was a roaring in his ears; lights danced before his eyes; strange shapes moved in front of him. Then, of a sudden, out of the gathering darkness a great white light seared his senses, a deafening crash overwhelmed him, a sharp stabbing blow struck his head. The roaring ceased, and a limp figure slipped down and lay still, with two ends of wire grasped tight in his hand.
"They are going to relieve us to-night, Sergeant-Major." The two men with tired eyes faced one another in the Major's dugout The bombardment was over, and the dying rays of a blood-red sun glinted through the door. "I think they took it well."
"They did, sir—very well."
"What are the casualties? Any idea?"
"Somewhere about seventy or eighty, sir—but I don't know the exact numbers."
"As soon as it's dark I'm going back to headquarters. Captain Standish will take command."
"That there Meyrick is reported missing, sir."
"Missing! He'll turn up somewhere—if he hasn't been hit."
"Probably walked into the German trenches by mistake," grunted the C.-S.-M. dispassionately, and retired. Outside the dugout men had moved the corporal; but the red pools still remained—stagnant at the bottom of the trench...
"Well, you're through all right now, Major," said a voice in the doorway, and an officer with the white and blue brassard of the signals came in and sat down. "There are so many wires going back that have been laid at odd times, that it's difficult to trace them in a hurry." He gave a ring on the telephone, and in a moment the thin, metallic voice of the man at the other end broke the silence.
"All right. Just wanted to make sure we were through. Ring off."
"I remember kicking that damn thing this morning when I found we were cut off," remarked Seymour, with a weary smile. "Funny how childish one is at times."
"Aye—but natural. This war's damnable." The two men fell silent. "I'll have a bit of an easy here," went on the signal officer after a while, "and then go down with you."
A few hours later the two men clambered out of the back of the trench. "It's easier walking, and I know every stick," remarked the Major. "Make for that stunted pollard first."
Dimly the tree stood outlined against the sky—a conspicuous mark and signpost. It was the signal officer who tripped over it first—that huddled quiet body, and gave a quick ejaculation. "Somebody caught it here, poor devil. Look out—duck."
A flare shot up into the night, and by its light the two motionless officers close to the pollard looked at what they had found.
"How the devil did he get here!" muttered Seymour. "It's one of my men."
"Was he anywhere near you when you kicked the telephone?" asked the other, and his voice was a little hoarse.
"He may have been—I don't know. Why?"
"Look at his right hand." From the tightly clenched fingers two broken ends of wire stuck out.
"Poor lad." The Major bit his lip. "Poor lad—I wonder. They called him the Company Idiot. Do you think...?"
"I think he came out to find the break in the wire," said the other quietly. "And in doing so he found the answer to the big riddle."
"I knew he'd make good—I knew it all along. He used to dream of big things—something big for the regiment."
"And he's done a big thing, by Jove," said the signal officer gruffly, "for it's the motive that counts. And he couldn't know that he'd got the wrong wire."
"When 'e doesn't forget, 'e does things wrong."
As I said, both the Sergeant-Major and his officer proved right according to their own lights.
James Henry was the sole remaining son of his mother, and she was a widow. His father, some twelve months previously, had inadvertently encountered a motor-car travelling at great speed, and had forthwith been laid to rest. His sisters—whom James Henry affected to despise—had long since left the parental roof and gone to seek their Fortunes in the great world; while his brothers had in all cases died violent deaths, following in the steps of their lamented father. In fact, as I said, James Henry was alone in the world saving only for his mother: and as she'd married again since his father's death he felt that his responsibility so far as she was concerned was at an end. In fact, he frequently cut her when he met her about the house.
Relations had become particularly strained after this second matrimonial venture. An aristocrat of the most unbending description himself, he had been away during the period of her courtship—otherwise, no doubt, he would have protected his father's stainless escutcheon. As it was, he never quite recovered from the shock.
It was at breakfast one morning that he heard the news. Lady Monica told him as she handed him his tea. "James Henry," she remarked reproachfully, "your mother is a naughty woman." True to his aristocratic principle of stoical calm he continued to consume his morning beverage. There were times when the mention of his mother bored him to extinction. "A very naughty woman," she continued. "Dad"—she addressed a man who had just come into the room—"it's occurred."
"What—have they come?"
"Yes—last night. Five."
"Are they good ones?"
Lady Alice laughed. "I was just telling James Henry what I thought of his Family when you came in. I'm afraid Harriet Emily is incorrigible."
"Look at James!" exclaimed the Earl—"he's spilled his tea all over the carpet." He was inspecting the dishes on the sideboard as he spoke.
"He always does. His whiskers dribble. Jervis tells me that he thinks Harriet Emily must have—er—flirted with a most undesirable acquaintance."
"Oh! has she?" Her father opened the morning paper and started to enjoy his breakfast. "We must drown 'em, my dear, drown—— Hullo! the Russians have crossed the——" It sounded like an explosion in a soda-water factory, and James Henry protested.
"Quite right, Henry. He oughtn't to do it at breakfast. It doesn't really make any one any happier. Did you know about your mother? Now don't gobble your food." Lady Monica held up an admonishing finger. "Four of your brothers and sisters are more or less respectable, James, but there's one—there's one that is distinctly reminiscent of a dachshund. Oh! 'Arriet, 'Arriet—I'm ashamed of you."
James Henry sneezed heavily and got down from the table. Always a perfect gentleman, he picked up the crumbs round his chair, and even went so far as to salvage a large piece of sausage skin which had slipped on to the floor. Then, full of rectitude and outwardly unconcerned, he retired to a corner behind a cupboard and earnestly contemplated a little hole in the floor.
Outwardly calm—yes: that at least was due to the memory of his blue-blooded father. But inwardly, he seethed. With his head on one side he alternately sniffed and blew as he had done regularly every morning for the past two months. His father's wife the mother of a sausage-dog! Incredible! It must have been that miserable fat beast who lived at the Pig and Whistle. The insolence—the inconceivable impertinence of such an unsightly, corpulent traducer daring to ally himself with One of the Fox Terriers. He growled slightly in his disgust, and three mice inside the wall laughed gently. But—still, the girls are ever frail. He blushed slightly at some recollection, and realised that he must make allowances. But a sausage dog! Great Heavens!
"James—avançons, mon brave." Lady Monica was standing in the window. "We will hie us to the village. Dad, don't forget that our branch of the Federated Association of Women War Workers are drilling here this afternoon."
"Good Heavens! my dear girl—is it?" Her father gazed at her in alarm. "I think—er—I think I shall have to—er—run up to Town—er—this afternoon."
"I thought you'd have to, old dear. In fact, I've ordered the car for you. Come along, Henry—we must go and get a boy scout to be bandaged."
James Henry gave one last violently facial contortion at the entrance of the mouse's lair, and rose majestically to his feet. If she wanted to go out, he fully realised that he must go with her: Emily would have to wait. He would go round later and see his poor misguided mother and reason with her; but just at present the girl was his principal duty. She generally asked his advice on various things when they went for a walk, and the least he could do was to pretend to be interested at any rate.
Apparently this morning she was in need of much counsel and help. Having arrived at a clearing in the wood, on the way to the village, she sat down on the fallen trunk of a tree, and addressed him.
"James—what am I to do? Derek is coming this afternoon before he goes back to France. What shall I tell him, Henry—what shall I tell him? Because I know he'll ask me again. Thank you, old man, but you're not very helpful, and I'd much sooner you kept it yourself."
Disgustedly James Henry removed the carcase of a field mouse he had just procured, and resigned himself to the inevitable.
"I'm fond of him; I like him—in fact at times more than like him. But is it the real thing? Now what do you think, James Henry?—tell me all that is in your mind. Ought I——"
It was then that he gave his celebrated rendering of a young typhoon, owing to the presence of a foreign substance—to wit, a fly—in a ticklish spot on his nose.
"You think that, do you? Well, perhaps you're right. Come on, my lad, we must obtain the victim for this afternoon. I wonder if those little boys like it? To do some good and kindly action each day—that's their motto, James. And as one person to another you must admit that to be revived from drowning, resuscitated from fainting, brought to from an epileptic fit, and have two knees, an ankle, and a collarbone set at the same time is some good action even for a boy scout."
It was not until after lunch that James Henry paid his promised call on his mother. Maturer considerations had but strengthened his resolve to make allowances. After all, these things do happen in the best families. He was, indeed, prepared to be magnanimous and forgive; he was even prepared to be interested; the only thing he wasn't prepared for was the nasty bite he got on his ear. That settled it. It was then that he finally washed his hands of his undutiful parent. As he told her, he felt more sorrow than anger; he should have realised that anyone who could have dealings with a sausage-hound must be dead to all sense of decency—and that the only thing he asked was that in the future she would conceal the fact that they were related.
Then he left her—and trotting round to the front of the house, found great activity in progress on the lawn.
"Good Heavens! James Henry, do they often do this?" With a shout of joy he recognised the speaker. And having told him about Harriet, and blown heavily at a passing spider and then trodden on it, he sat down beside the soldier on the steps. The game on the lawn at first sight looked dull; and he only favoured it with a perfunctory glance. In fact, what on earth there was in it to make the soldier beside him shake and shake while the tears periodically rolled down his face was quite beyond Henry.
The principal player seemed to be a large man—also in khaki—with a loud voice. Up to date he had said nothing but "Now then, ladies," at intervals, and in a rising crescendo. Then it all became complicated.
"Now then, ladies, when I says Number—you numbers from Right to Left in an heven tone of voice. The third lady from the left 'as no lady behind 'er—seeing as we're a hodd number. She forms the blank file. Yes, you, mum—you, I means."
"What are you pointing at me for, my good man?" The Vicar's wife suddenly realised she was being spoken to. "Am I doing anything wrong?"
"No, mum, no. Not this time. I was only saying as you 'ave no one behind you."
"Oh! I'll go there at once—I'm so sorry." She retired to the rear rank. "Dear Mrs. Goodenough, did I tread upon your foot?—so clumsy of me! Oh, what is that man saying now? But you've just told me to come here. You did nothing of the sort? How rude!"
But as I said, the game did not interest James Henry, so he wandered away and played in some bushes. There were distinct traces of a recently moving mole which was far more to the point. Then having found—after a diligent search and much delight in pungent odours—that the mole was a has-been, our Henry disappeared for a space. And far be it from me to disclose where he went: his intentions were always strictly honourable.
When he appeared again the Earl had just returned from London, and was talking to the tall soldier-man. The Women War Workers had departed, and, as James Henry approached, his mistress came out and joined the two men.
"Have those dreadful women gone, my dear?" asked the Earl as he saw her.
"You're very rude, Dad. The Federated Association of the W.W.W. is a very fine body of patriotic women. What did you think of our drill, Derek?"
"Wonderful, Monica. Quite the most wonderful thing I've ever seen." The soldier solemnly offered her a cigarette.
"You men are all jealous. We're coming out to France as V.A.D.'s soon."
"Good Lord, Derek—you ought to have seen their first drill. In one corner of the lawn that poor devil of a sergeant with his face a shiny purple alternately sobbed and bellowed like a bull—while twenty-seven W.W.W.'s tied themselves into a knot like a Rugby football scrum, and told one another how they'd done it. It was the most heart-rending sight I've ever seen."
"Dear old Dad!" The girl blew a cloud of smoke. "You told it better last time."
"Don't interrupt, Monica. The final tableau——"
"Which one are you going to tell him, dear? The one where James Henry bit the Vicar's wife in the leg, or the one where the sergeant with a choking cry of 'Double, damn you!' fell fainting into the rhododendron bush?"
"I think the second is the better," remarked the soldier pensively. "Dogs always bite the Vicar's wife's leg. Not a hobby I should personally take up, but——"
They all laughed. "Now run indoors, old 'un, and tell John to get you a mixed Vermouth—I want to talk to Derek." The girl gently pushed her father towards the open window.
It was at that particular moment in James Henry's career that, having snapped at a wasp and partially killed it, he inadvertently sat on the carcase by mistake. As he explained to Harriet Emily afterwards, it wasn't so much the discomfort of the proceeding which annoyed him, as the unfeeling laughter of the spectators. And it was only when she'd bitten him in the other ear that he remembered he had disowned her that very afternoon.
But elsewhere, though he was quite unaware of the fact, momentous decisions as to his future were being taken. The Earl had gone in to get his mixed Vermouth, and outside his daughter and the soldier-man sat and talked. It was fragmentary, disjointed—the talk of old friends with much in common. Only in the man's voice there was that suppressed note which indicates things more than any mere words. Monica heard it and sighed—she'd heard it so often before in his voice. James Henry had heard it too during a previous talk—one which he had graced with his presence—and had gone to the extent of discussing it with a friend. On this occasion he had been gently dozing on the man's knee, when suddenly he had been rudely awakened. In his dreams he had heard her say, "Dear old Derek—I'm afraid it's No. You see, I'm not sure;" which didn't seem much to make a disturbance about.
"Would you believe it," he remarked later, "but as she spoke the soldier-man's grip tightened on my neck till I was almost choked."
"What did you do?" asked his Friend, a disreputable "long-dog." "Did you bite him?"
"I did not." James Henry sniffed. "It was not a biting moment. Tact was required. I just gave a little cough, and instantly he took his hand away. 'Old man,' he whispered to me—she'd left us—'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—I wasn't thinking.' So I licked his hand to show him I understood."
"I know what you mean. I'm generally there when my bloke comes out of prison, and he always kicks me. But it's meant kindly."
"As a matter of fact that is not what I mean—though I daresay your experiences on such matters are profound." James was becoming blue-blooded. "The person who owns you, and who is in the habit of going to—er—prison, no doubt shows his affection for you in that way. And very suitable too. But the affair to which I alluded is quite different. The soldier-man is almost as much in my care as the girl. And so I know his feelings. At the time, he was suffering though why I don't understand; and therefore it was up to me to suffer with him. It helped him."
"H'm," the lurcher grunted. "Daresay you're right. What about a trip to the gorse? I haven't seen a rabbit for some time."
And if Henry had not sat on the wasp, his neck might again have been squeezed that evening. As it was, the danger period was over by the time he reappeared and jumped into the girl's lap. Not only had the sixth proposal been gently turned down—but James's plans for the near future had been settled for him in a most arbitrary manner.
"Well, old man, how's the tail?" laughed the soldier. James Henry yawned—the subject seemed a trifle personal even amongst old friends. "Have you heard you're coming with me to France?"
"And you must bring him to me as soon as I get over," cried the girl.
"At once, dear lady. I'll ask for special leave, and if necessary an armistice."
"Won't you bark at the Huns, my cherub?" She laughed and got up. "Go to your uncle—I'm going to dress."
What happened then was almost more than even the most long-suffering terrier could stand. He was unceremoniously bundled into his uncle's arms by his mistress, and at the same moment she bent down. A strange noise was heard such as he had frequently noted, coming from the top of his own head, when his mistress was in an affectionate mood—a peculiar form of exercise he deduced, which apparently amused some people. But the effect on the soldier was electrical. He sprang out of his chair with a shout—"Monica—you little devil—come back," and James Henry fell winded to the floor. But a flutter of white disappearing indoors was the only answer...
"She's not sure, James, my son—she's not sure." The man pulled out his cigarette case and contemplated him thoughtfully. "And how the deuce are we to make her sure? I want it, and her father wants it, and so does she if she only knew it. They're the devil, James Henry—they're the devil."
But his hearer did not want philosophy; he wanted his tummy rubbed. He lay with one eye closed, his four paws turned up limply towards the sky, and sighed gently. Never before had the suggestion failed; enthusiastic admirers had always taken the hint gladly, and he had graciously allowed them the pleasure. But this time—horror upon horror—not only was there no result, but in a dreamy, contemplative manner the soldier actually deposited his used and still warm match carefully on the spot where James Henry's wind had been. Naturally there was only one possible course open to him. He rose quietly, and left. It was only when he was thinking the matter over later that it struck him that his exit would have been more dignified if he hadn't sat down halfway across the lawn to scratch his right ear. It was more than likely that a completely false construction would be put on that simple action by anyone who didn't know he'd had words with Harriet Emily.
Thus James Henry—gentleman, at his country seat in England. I have gone out of my way to describe what may be taken as an average day in his life, in order to show him as he was before he went to France to be banished from the country—cashiered in disgrace a few weeks after his arrival. Which only goes to prove the change that war causes in even the most polished and courtly.
I am told that the alteration for the worse started shortly after his arrival at the front. What did it I don't know—but he lost one whisker and a portion of an ear, thus giving him a somewhat lopsided appearance; though rakish withal. It may have been a detonator which went off as he ate it—it may have been foolish curiosity over a maxim—it may even have been due to the fact that he found a motor-bicycle standing still, what time it made strange provocative noises, and failed to notice that the back wheel was off the ground and rotating at a great pace.
Whatever it was it altered James Henry. Not that it soured his temper—not at all; but it made him more reckless, less careful of appearances. He forgot the repose that stamps the caste of Vere de Vere, and a series of incidents occurred which tended to strain relations all round.
There was the question of the three dead chickens, for instance. Had they disappeared decently and in order much might have been thought but nothing would have been known. But when they were deposited on their owner's doorstep, with James Henry mounting guard over the corpses himself, it was a little difficult to explain the matter away. That was the trouble—his sense of humour seemed to have become distorted.
The pastime of hunting for rats in the sewers of Ypres cannot be too highly commended; but having got thoroughly wet in the process, James Henry's practice of depositing the rat and himself on the Adjutant's bed was open to grave criticism.
But enough: these two instances were, I am sorry to state, but types of countless other regrettable episodes which caused the popularity of James Henry to wane.
The final decree of death or banishment came when James had been in the country some seven weeks.
On the day in question a dreadful shout was heard, followed by a flood of language which I will refrain from committing to print. And then the Colonel appeared in the door of his dug-out.
"Where is that accursed idiot, Murgatroyd? Pass the word along for the damn fool."
"'Urry up, Conky. The ole man's a-twittering for you." Murgatroyd emerged from a recess.
"What's 'e want?"
"I'd go and find out, cully. I think 'e's going to mention you in 'is will." At that moment a fresh outburst floated through the stillness.
"Great 'Eavens!" Murgatroyd reluctantly rose to his feet. "So long, boys. Tell me mother she was in me thoughts up to the end." He paused outside the dug-out and then went manfully in. "You wanted me, sir."
"Look at this, you blithering ass, look at this." The Colonel was searching through his Fortnum and Mason packing-case on the floor. "Great Heavens! and the caviar too—imbedded in the butter. Five defunct rodents in the brawn"—he threw each in turn at his servant, who dodged round the dug-out like a pea in a drum—"the marmalade and the pâté de fois gras inseparably mixed together, and the whole covered with a thick layer of disintegrating cigar."
"It wasn't me, sir," Murgatroyd spoke in an aggrieved tone.
"I didn't suppose it was, you fool." The Colonel straightened himself and glared at his hapless minion. "Great Heavens! there's another rat on my hairbrush."
"One of the same five, sir. It ricocheted off my face." With a magnificent nonchalance his servant threw it out of the door. "I think, sir, it must be James 'Enry."
"Who the devil is James Henry?"
"Sir Derek Temple's little dawg, sir."
"Indeed." The Colonel's tone was ominous. "Go round and ask Sir Derek Temple to be good enough to come and see me at once."
What happened exactly at that interview I cannot say; although I understand that James Henry considered an absurd fuss had been made about a trifle. In fact he found it so difficult to lie down with any comfort that night that he missed much of his master's conversation with him.
"You've topped it, James, you've put the brass hat on. The old man threatens to turn out a firing party if he ever sees you again."
James feigned sleep: this continual harping on what was over and done with he considered the very worst of form. Even if he had put the caviar in the butter and his foot in the marmalade—well, hang it all—what then? He'd presented the old buster with five dead rats, which was more than he'd do for a lot of people.
"In fact, James, you are not popular, my boy—and I shudder to think what Monica will do with you when she gets you. She's come over, you may be pleased to hear, Henry. She is V.A.D.-ing at a charming hospital that overlooks the sea. James, why can't I go sick—and live for a space at that charming hospital that overlooks the sea? Think of it: here am I, panting to have my face washed by her, panting——"
For a moment he rhapsodised in silence. "Breakfast in bed, poached egg in the bed: oh! James, my boy, and she probably never even thinks of me."
He took a letter out of his pocket and held it under the light of the candle. "'Not much to do at present, but delightful weather. The hospital is nearly empty, though there's one perfect dear who is almost fit—a Major in some Highland regiment.'
"Listen to that, James. Some great raw-boned, red-kneed Scotchman, and she calls him a perfect dear!" His listener blew resignedly and again composed himself to slumber.
"'How is James behaving? I'd love to see the sweet pet again.' Sweet pet: yes—my boy—you look it. 'Do you remember how annoyed he was when I put him in your arms that afternoon at home?' Do you hear that, James?—do I remember? Monica, you adorable soul..." He relapsed into moody thought.
At what moment during that restless night the idea actually came I know not. Possibly a diabolical chuckle on the part of James Henry, who was hunting in his dreams, goaded him to desperation. But it is an undoubted fact that when Sir Derek Temple rose the next morning he had definitely determined to embark on the adventure which culminated in the tragedy of the cat, the General, and James. The latter is reputed to regard the affair as quite trifling and unworthy of the fierce glare of publicity that beat upon it. The cat, has, or rather had, different views.
Now, be it known to those who live in England that it is one thing to say in an airy manner, as Derek had said to Lady Monica, that he would come and see her when she landed in France; it is another to do it. But to a determined and unprincipled man nothing is impossible; and though it would be the height of indiscretion for me to hint even at the methods he used to attain his ends, it is a certain fact that in the afternoon of the second day following the episode of the five rodents he found himself at a certain seaport town with James Henry as the other member of the party. And having had his hair cut, and extricated his companion from a street brawl, he hired a motor and drove into the country.
Now, Derek Temple's knowledge of hospitals and their ways was not profound. He had a hazy idea that on arriving at the portals he would send in his name, and that in due course he could consume a tête-à-tête tea with Monica in her private boudoir. He rehearsed the scene in his mind: the quiet, cutting reference to Highlanders who failed to understand the official position of nurses—the certainty that this particular one was a scoundrel: the fact that, on receiving her letter, he had at once rushed off to protect her.
And as he got to this point the car turned into the gates of a palatial hotel and stopped by the door. James Henry jumped through the open window, and his master followed him up the steps.
"Is Lady Monica Travers at home; I mean—er—is she in the hospital?" He addressed an R.A.M.C. sergeant in the entrance.
"No dawgs allowed in the 'ospital, sir." The scandalised N.C.O. glared at James Henry, who was furiously growling at a hot-air grating in the floor. "You must get 'im out at once, sir: we're being inspected to-day."
"Heel, James, heel. He'll be quite all right, Sergeant. Just find out, will you, about Lady Monica Travers?"
"Beg pardon, sir, but are you a patient?"
"Patient—of course I'm not a patient. Do I look like a patient?"
"Well, sir, there ain't no visiting allowed when the sisters is on duty."
"What? But it's preposterous. Do you mean to say I can't see her unless I'm a patient? Why, man, I've got to go back in an hour."
"Very sorry, sir—but no visiting allowed. Very strict 'ere, and as I says we're full of brass 'ats to-day."
For a moment Derek was nonplussed; this was a complication on which he had not reckoned.
"But look here, Sergeant, you know..." and even as he spoke he looked upstairs and beheld Lady Monica. Unfortunately she had not seen him, and the situation was desperate. Forcing James Henry into the arms of the outraged N.C.O., he rushed up the stairs and followed her.
"Derek!" The girl stopped in amazement. "What in the world are you doing here?"
"Monica, my dear, I've come to see you. Tell me that you don't really love that damn Scotchman."
An adorable smile spread over her face. "You idiot! I don't love anyone. My work fills my life."
"Rot! You said in your letter you had nothing to do at present. Monica, take me somewhere where I can make love to you."
"I shall do nothing of the sort. In the first place you aren't allowed here at all; and in the second I don't want to be made love to."
"And in the third," said Derek grimly, as the sound of a procession advancing down a corridor came from round the corner, "you're being inspected to-day, and that—if I mistake not—is the great pan-jan-drum himself."
"Oh! good Heavens. Derek, I'd forgotten. Do go, for goodness' sake. Run—I shall be sacked."
"I shall not go. As the great man himself rounds that corner I shall kiss you with a loud trumpeting noise.'
"You brute! Oh! what shall I do?—there they are. Come in here." She grabbed him by the wrist and dragged him into a small deserted sitting-room close by.
"You darling," he remarked and promptly kissed her. "Monica, dear, you must listen——"
"Sit down, you idiot. I'm sure they saw me. You must pretend you're a patient just come in. I know I shall be sacked. The General is dreadfully particular. Put this thermometer in your mouth. Quick, give me your hand—I must take your pulse."
"I think," said a voice outside the door, "that I saw—er—a patient being brought into one of these rooms."
"Surely not, sir. These rooms are all empty." The door opened and the cavalcade paused. "Er—Lady Monica...really."
"A new patient, Colonel," she remarked. "I am just taking his temperature." Derek, his eyes partially closed, lay back in a chair, occasionally uttering a slight groan.
"The case looks most interesting." The General came and stood beside him. "Most interesting. Have you—er—diagnosed the symptoms, sister?" His lips were twitching suspiciously.
"Not yet, General. The pulse is normal—and the temperature"—she looked at the thermometer—"is—good gracious me! have you kept it properly under your tongue?" She turned to Derek, who nodded feebly. "The temperature is only 93." She looked at the group in an awestruck manner.
"Most remarkable," murmured the General. "One feels compelled to wonder what it would have been if he'd had the right end in his mouth." Derek emitted a hollow groan. "And where do you feel it worst, my dear boy?" continued the great man, gazing at him through his eyeglass.
"Dyspepsia, sir," he whispered feebly. "Dreadful dyspepsia. I can't sleep, I—er—Good Lord!" His eyes opened, his voice rose, and with a fixed stare of horror he gazed at the door. Through it with due solemnity came James Henry holding in his mouth a furless and very dead cat. He advanced to the centre of the group—laid it at the General's feet—and having sneezed twice sat down and contemplated his handiwork: his tail thumping the floor feverishly in anticipation of well-merited applause.
It was possibly foolish, but, as Derek explained afterwards to Monica, the situation had passed beyond him. He arose and confronted the General, who was surveying the scene coldly, and with a courtly exclamation of "Your cat, I believe, sir," he passed from the room.
The conclusion of this dreadful drama may be given in three short sentences.
The first was spoken by the General. "Let it be buried." And it was so.
The second was whispered by Lady Monica—later. "Darling, I had to say we were engaged: it looked so peculiar." And it was even more so.
The third was snorted by James Henry. "First I'm beaten and then I'm kissed. Damn all cats!"
"'Tis a fine body of men that they are," remarked Sergeant Cassidy to me, as I sat with him one day in the house where he was slowly recovering from the wound in his foot, which had caused his temporary absence from the plains of Flanders. As he spoke his eyes followed the fire engine, drawn by two grand white horses, disappearing in the distance. The bell was still clanging faintly, as he absent-mindedly felt in his pocket, to find that as usual he'd left his cigarettes upstairs.
"'Tis a fine body of men that they are," he remarked again, as he took one of mine. "But, by jabers! sir, seeing them going up the street there, brings to my mind the last fire that I was present at, over yonder." On this occasion he indicated Northumberland with a large hand; but, no matter.
"You'll mind," he went on after a reflective pause, "that those farms over the water are not what you would call the equals of Buckingham Palace for comfort. The majority of them are built in the same manner all over the country, and when you've seen one you've seen the lot. There's the farm itself, in which reside the owners and the officers. The officers have a room to themselves, but in these farms all the rooms lead into one another. Mr Tracey — you mind him, sir, the officer with the spectacles, fat he was — he was powerful set on washing, which is not to be encouraged in that trying weather; and he was rendered extremely irritated by the habit of the ladies of the farm, who would walk through the room when he was in his bath.
"I mind one morning, perishing cold it was, when I came up to the kitchen to see him, and I looked through the door. Two of the old women of the farm were in the room, and they'd left both the doors open, while they had a bit of a set-to about something. Poor Mr Tracey was sitting in his bath, shouting at them to go out of the room and shut the door. He'd lost his spectacles, and his towel had fallen in the bath, and the draught was causing him great uneasiness. 'Twas a terrible example of the dangers of washing in those parts."
Sergeant Cassidy shook his head reflectively.
"Still," he continued after a moment, "'twas of the farms I was speaking. They have most of them two barns which run perpendicular to the farmhouse, so that the three buildings enclose a sort of square yard in the middle of them. The barns are full of straw and hay and the like, and there it is that the men sleep, though 'tis well to climb up to the loft, and not to remain on the ground floor. The reason will be clear to you. These folks are very partial to pigs and hens and cows, and they are not particular where the animals go at night. When therefore I was roused from my sleep on one occasion by a fearful yell from below, I was not surprised.
"'Mother of Heaven! 'tis the Germans,' says the man next to me, hunting for his gun.
"''Tis nothing of the sort,' I says, as I looked through the loft. ''Tis the pig, going to bed, and she has sat on the face of Angus MacNab.'
"'The dirty beast has sat on me face,' cried MacNab, as he saw me.
"'Then 'tis the pig I'm concerned about,' says I, and I went back to my blankets. I have no patience with them Scotchmen."
Sergeant Cassidy again availed himself of my cigarette case. "But where does the fire come in, Cassidy?" I asked, as he lit up.
"I am just coming to that, sir. As you can imagine, the soldier will not stop his smoking because he is in the middle of hay and straw. It is too much to ask of any man. There are strict orders about it, of course, but — well, an officer like you will understand, sir. One day — it was about eleven o'clock in the morning — one of the men says to me, 'Look at the barn.'
"''Tis fired,' I cried, and there was smoke coming out at the top of the thatching. 'Run, ye blackguards, run. It's water and buckets we'll be wanting.'
"The first man in was the dirty schemer O'Toole, him that had been excused duty that very morning by the doctor for gout in the foot.
"'I have my bull's-eyes saved,' he says to me as I came up.
"'You flat-faced malingerer,' says I, 'you have fatigues for a month as well.'
"And then the officers came out. ''Tis fired, it is,' I says to the Major. Do you recall the Major, sir. A terrible sarcastic man he was — with an eyeglass.
"He puts it in his eye as I spoke. 'I didn't imagine the damn'd thing was frostbitten,' he says. 'Who's the fool who did it?'
"Then the boys got the water going. We had a ladder placed up to the loft, and we handed the buckets up to the men above. The lads kept a chain of full buckets on the move from hand to hand. But it was hopeless from the start.
"'Get the animals out, boys,' I shouts.
"Then the fun began. The old women were out wringing their hands and weeping, and the old farmer was shouting to the interpreter, with a little pig under each arm. The interpreter goes up to the Major, and tells him that the farmer said there was a fire engine in the village. So the Major he sends off one of the officers to get it. Meantime one of the pigs had knocked down the old women, and then got entangled in their skirts. When that little box-up came to rest in the middle of the refuse pit, the skirts were on the pig. Oh! 'twas great. The fair at Ballygoyle was not in it. Then Mr Tracey he climbs up the ladder to the loft, and gets an empty bucket in the chest, as they threw it out.
"''Tis hopeless, sir,' he says to the Major when he could again speak, for the wind he had lost.
"So the Major orders all the men out of the barn, and we started pouring water on the house to keep it from spreading. And then after about an hour the fire engine arrived. 'Twas the most amazing contraption you ever did see. 'Twas an old tub on two wheels, with a hand-pump attached, and it had been brought by three old gentlemen with grey hair — one of them with a wooden leg. 'Twas the local fire brigade — the rest had gone to the war. The old man with the wooden leg took on something terrible. He hopped about crying 'Oh! Oh!' and we thought he was hurt till the interpreter said he wanted the tub filled with water. Just as we had it filled the old pig knocked it over, and we had to fill it again. A terrible machine it was! When it was filled, those of the lads who could speak for laughter started to pump, while one of the old gentlemen took the nozzle, and climbed up the roof of the farmhouse, that he might the better direct the water. He had his thumb over the end of the nozzle to get the pressure up, and 'twas a powerful thumb he had, for the hose burst near the Major, and the water took him in the stomach. The lads were pumping with a will, and in stepping back the Major overbalanced and fell into the refuse pit in the centre of the courtyard. Oh! a terrible sight he was as he got up. All the men spent the afternoon looking for his eyeglass. And then the old gentleman on the roof was overcome by the heat, and fell off, and was only saved from destruction by going into a tub of pigwash. 'Twas a great diversion, as, having his head downwards, he was nearly drowned."
I could stand it no more, so I rose to go. "Were the people compensated, Cassidy?" I asked.
"They will be, sir," he answered, "they will be — though it's my own belief the old ruffian of a farmer set light to it himself. 'Twas poor hay that he had, and he will be paid as if 'twas best quality."
The other morning was not one of my best. Somehow in the days of peace I had always laboured under the delusion that, if ever we did go to war, we should at any rate enter simultaneously into an era when the ordnance cease from troubling and the doctors are at rest. So having found how great the delusion really was, my heart yearned for Sergeant Cassidy. His views on life in general, especially with regard to those branches of the Service whose mission in life is the annoyance of everyone else, would, I thought, be as balm to my anguished soul.
I found him in bed. His foot had relapsed.
"Cassidy," I said, as I handed him my cigarette case, "I am in trouble. A doctor has just inspected us, and was very put out to find the ration meat for the men floating in the soak-pit of a neighbouring ablution bench. It was not put there by my instructions, as I told him, but he was unappeasable. Again, a Board Inventory, the property of the Army Service Corps, has been defaced, in that false figures have been added by some person or persons unknown. Personally I suspect the solicitor, who is at present doing cook-mate, of having feloniously inserted the figures 94 opposite the item 'Shovels, coal, ordinary. Mark 6A.' We have not, as you know, got 94 shovels, coal, ordinary, Mark 6A. We haven't got one. It has been lost, and personally I again suspect the solicitor: but the stout gentleman who was making his weekly or yearly inspection has already reported it to the Army Council. He gave me to understand that if we do lose the war, it will probably be owing to that Inventory Board." I sighed deeply and relapsed into silence.
"'Tis always the same, sir," he answered kindly: I needed sympathy. "'Tis always the same. The great thing is to discover their little weaknesses before they come round to see one. Of course the circumstances you mention are peculiar. I doubt me that, even had you discovered their peculiarities, so to speak, you would have escaped entirely — for as you say, sir, the soak-pit is no place for the meat to rest in at all. Still, 'tis a most important thing, and should be looked into on all occasions of that nature.
"I mind me now of a thing which took place some fortnight before I got the little souvenir in my foot. We were in billets; 'twas the billet of which I have already spoken, where the barn was burnt down. One day the doctor comes to me and says, 'Cassidy,' he says, 'it's inspected we'll be.'
"''Tis not the first time that same thing has happened,' says I, 'and we will survive. Do not be uneasy, sir. 'Twill be all right.'
"I should tell you that our doctor was not a soldier at all: one of those civilians, he was, who came in at the beginning. His principal duty when we was resting in billets was the obtaining of food and drink for the officers, at which same game, so I heard, he was hard to beat. One of them gentlemen who has a way with him: he would coax a bottle of the stuff out of a lime-kiln, and most of them cafés were worse than that after the boys had been there for a bit. A cheery gentleman he was, who always got mistakes in his returns. You mind them returns, sir — in triplicate they are generally, and he could not abide them same. Oh! there was a terrible box-up when he made a mistake on one occasion, and mixed up the number of orderlies that he had with the number of men that had been inoculated for the enteric. For he had but two orderlies, and one hundred and sixty of the boys had the inoculation taken.
"Of course he was not used to inspections, but I told him 'twould be all right. 'Twas the chief of all the doctors was coming, he said, and as he always got his returns wrong, he was anxious that all should be well. So we went round together, and he poked his nose into all the places where the men slept, and the cook-houses, and the like. I turned them on to the cleaning up, and soon the smell was not quite so bad as usual. We had everything ready the night before, and the men had knocked off, when the doctor comes to me in a terrible state.
"'Cassidy,' he says, 'we have the bath forgot.'
"'Bath,' says I, 'what will we be wanting with a bath? Have not the boys their buckets? And it is not the Hotel Cecil that we have.'
"'Cassidy,' he says, 'the chief doctor is the devil on a bath for the men. That and a tub in which to wash their clothes we must have, or it's lost I am. I heard just now 'twas the first thing he'd look for.'
"'Bedad,' says I, 'if 'tis the peculiarity of the chief doctor we will get a bath, or my name is not Michael Cassidy. — O'Toole,' I shouts, 'you lazy blatherer, I'm wanting you.' 'Twas the scheming malingerer that had been excused duty for the gout in the foot, and had us all beat when we ran to the burning barn, to save his peppermint bull's-eyes. You mind I told you of that same O'Toole. I says when he comes, 'Hunt round and find a bath.'
"'A bath!' says he, 'and where will I be finding that same?'
"'Is it me that would be saving you that trouble?' I cries. 'The doctor wishes a bath; do not let me see your ugly face till you have one found.'
"'I'm thinking,' says I, when he had gone, 'that if we cannot get a bath, it is a hole we might dig in the field, and line it with the waterproof sheets. They did that same, the squadron in the next farm, but owing to the difficulty of seeing which was hole and which was not when they had it filled with the water, the old sow fell in at the same time as the sergeant-major, and there was a terrible commotion.'
"''Tis something better we must have, Cassidy,' he says. 'The chief doctor is a terrible man, and he has it against me that I told him in triplicate that I had one hundred and sixty orderlies.'
"At that moment back comes O'Toole. 'I have it found,' he cries. 'There is a big tub yonder of metal, that they use for the pig-wash, and empty it is.'
"'It will serve,' says I when I see it. 'Can ye paint, O'Toole?'
"'I can that,' he says.
"'There is a man with some whitewash,' I says, 'painting the farm. Get that same and write BATH upon that tub.'
"'But the wash-tub,' cries the doctor. 'We have it forgot.'
"'Is there another of them tubs, O'Toole?' I says.
"'There is not,' he says. 'I have the farm searched.'
"'What will we do?' cried the doctor. 'The chief doctor is a devil for wash-tubs; and, Cassidy,' he says coaxingly, 'there's that matter of the orderlies.' Oh! he had a way with him, had the doctor.
"''Tis not I that will be failing you,' I cries, and I thinks for a moment. I looks at the tub, and then sudden-like I gets the idea.
"''Tis big enough,' I says, 'tis plenty big. O'Toole,' I cries, 'O'Toole, ye blackguard, you will paint BATH as I have told you on this side of that tub, and on the other you will paint WASH-TUB. Do you follow me, O'Toole?'
"'I do that,' he says, and goes off for the whitewash.
"The doctor was gazing at me. 'What is the notion?' he says, 'for the chief doctor will not be deceived.'
"'Leave it to me, sir,' I says: 'leave it to me,' for I had the scheme in my mind.
"The next day I sent for O'Toole. 'You have it marked,' I says. 'That is good. Now listen while I tell you, you dirty malingerer. The chief doctor is inspecting us this day, and the devil he is on baths and washtubs. You will place the tub against the wall in the barn with the word BATH outwards. The chief doctor is coming at eleven, but it's late he may be. On the other hand he may be early. So at a quarter to eleven you will remove your clothes, and stand by the bath.'
"'But, Sergeant!' he says.
"'There is no but,' says I. 'When the chief doctor appears you will receive the signal from Angus MacNab, who will be at the door, and you will get into the water. You will get into the water, I say, and when the chief doctor comes in at the door you will pretend that you like it.'
"'But it's dead I shall be!' he cries.
"''Twill be no loss,' says I. Then I sends for six of the boys. 'The chief doctor is coming,' I says, 'and the devil he is on baths and wash-tubs. I have the bath fixed for O'Toole; but when I shall give the signal for which you will watch, you will rush in and seize the tub and carry it round to the other side of the barn, and put it against the wall with WASH-TUB showing. I will see the chief doctor goes round the other way; then when he appears you will be washing your socks. There will be water in it from the bath of O'Toole.'
"''Tis only one pair of socks that I have,' says one.
"'Then 'tis high time they were washed,' says I. 'Be off, you blackguards, and may Heaven help you if you have the doctor let down.'
"At eleven-thirty the chief doctor arrives. ''Tis the bath I would see,' he says.
"''Tis occupied, sir,' says I, giving the sign to Angus MacNab. 'Twas high time too, for O'Toole had been dressed only in his shirt for three-quarters of an hour.'
"When we got to the barn there was O'Toole standing in the water. He was blue with the cold, and shivering like a leaf in the wind.
"'Ah! my man,' says the chief doctor, ''tis a bath you're having, I see.'
"'Sit down, you varmint,' I whispers, 'sit down and splash. It's enjoying yourself you are.'
"'And how often do you take a bath?' says the chief doctor.
"'Every day,' mutters O'Toole, when he could speak for the chattering of his teeth, for I had my eye fixed upon him.
"'Very good indeed,' says the chief doctor. 'A most satisfactory arrangement,' he remarks to our own doctor. 'And now I will inspect the place where they have the clothes washed.'
"'Get out,' I says to O'Toole as they goes out.
"''Tis dying I am,' he says, as the six men rushes in for the tub.
"'Step it, you blackguards!' I cries. 'I will keep them diverted till you have it in place.'
"With that I catches up the party, and asks the Colonel concerning one of the cookhouses nearby. The doctor keeps him occupied inside, I having given him the wink, and then out come the boys with the tub. They stuck going round, as the passage was narrow, but I had them fixed with my eye, and they suddenly fell through together. The tub upset and the water was received by Angus MacNab. There was a terrible noise as it fell on the bricks, but they was out of sight when the doctor appeared.
"'And now the wash-tub,' he says.
"'Round here, sir,' says I, and with that I leads the party to the other side of the barn. They had it fixed, as he comes up.
"'But it is empty,' says he. 'You cannot wash clothes without water. And what is that at the bottom?'
"He pointed to a watery-looking grey object at the bottom of the tub.
"''Tis the shirt of O'Toole," whispers one of the men to me, 'that slipped in by mistake.'
"''Tis a shirt,' says I, 'the owner of which has been in contact with a horse with the ringworm.' At that moment I heard the voice of O'Toole from inside as he looked for his shirt, and I went on a little louder, the better to drown his horrible language. 'I have the men instructed that they are to empty the water away after washing any of his garments.'
"'But why does he not wash his own?' asks the Colonel.
"'In this unit, sir,' says I, 'the medical officer is that particular that we has a special squad trained in washing.'
"'Indeed,' says he, and looked at me close. 'Twas a mercy he did not look at our own doctor, for he was purple in the face, and unable to speak with ease. 'Indeed,' says he, and fixes his eye on the one sock which was all the whole six could muster between them for the washing. 'I trust they are not overworked.'
"I have since wondered whether he suspected anything," murmured Cassidy, as he took another of my cigarettes.
I left the great man smoking reflectively, and as I reached the front door the sense of my great inferiority descended like a pall. What would he have done had the meat been found in the soak-pit? But at this moment I was nearly run over by a motor omnibus.
"I have been wondering, sir," remarked Cassidy to me the next day, "whether we were not perhaps a little hard on those five boys yesterday, that we saw in the train."
I had strolled round in the afternoon to hear from him the story of Dennis O'Rourke, and what had happened at the Bridge.
"It is not maybe that they are afraid, sir," he went on, "for I'm thinking that if they were, they would be far more frightened of saying so, but it is that they do not realise; and 'tis hard to see how they can, for it has not been brought home to them — none of those little things that one sees, which serve to make one understand what it means.
"I remember one day — 'twas in the early stages when we were drawing them after us into France. 'Twas hot — hot as the devil — and towards the evening I was riding quiet like, along a nice shady road, for all the world as it might have been a lane in England. For the time there was but little noise of firing at all — 'twas just a bit of a lull — but we had seen them, and we knew they were coming, coming in motor-'buses, and the saints know what else; in thousands and thousands they were pouring along after us, though at the time we did not know 'twas as bad as it was. Oh! 'twas cruel; but as I say, I was away on my own — the sappers mostly were those days, being split up for the different jobs — and as I rode along the road I saw a lad leaning over the hedge sucking a straw. Away back behind him was a great house and stables, and I said to him, I said, "'Bong soir,' I said.
"'Cheese it,' he answers. 'Who are you bong-soiring?'
"When I heard him talking plain like that, I pulled up and looked at him. 'I thought you were a Frenchie,' I said to him, 'till you opened your beer trap. Do you grow here, or are you touring the country for fun?'
"'I ride for the stable up yonder,' he said, pointing with his thumb.
"'Bedad!' I said, ''tis a training stable you have,' for it had not struck me they had those things in France at all.
"'Did you think it was a potted meat factory?' he said.
"'I did not,' I said; 'but unless you hop it pretty quickly it precious soon will be.'
"'What are you meaning?' said the trainer, who had come out and overheard what I said.
"'Unless you and your horses and your lads hop it smartly,' I said to him, 'it's hopping in another direction you'll be before the morning, for by that time the Germans will be upon you.'
"'Are you sure?' he said, 'for I have some valuable horses with me, and I would not lose them.'
"'Am I sure?' said I. 'Would I be riding for three days without ceasing, with a thirst like the morning after, if I were not sure?'
"'What will I do?' he said, 'for 'tis the first I have heard of it.'
"'Do!' I said. 'The first thing you will do is to give me a drink, and my horse as well, and then you will gather your lads and you will ride south, and you will not stop riding for a week or so; for if you do not, 'tis little riding you'll any of you do again.'
"When he saw I was in earnest 'twas a terrible blather he got into, and the last I saw of him he was riding into the dusk with his boys behind him and his stud of twelve horses, while the old woman who cleaned his house was hopping along beside him in the road, hanging on to his stirrup leather — and she a martyr to the indigestion as one of the lads told me. I know not what happened to him, but the next morning I saw his house fired, and 'twas a mercy I had the whisky removed. 'Tis the little things like that that make the people realise what war is; and we have not had the like in England at all, and it perhaps would be a good thing if we had, I'm after thinking."
He paused to light another of my cigarettes.
"But it was of Mr O'Rourke I would tell you, sir," he went on. "'Twas the morning after the little affair of which I have just told you, that we received the orders to go at once to a bridge nearby and have it prepared for the demolition. Mr O'Rourke was in charge, and I was with him, and we had about a dozen of the lads. When we got there we found 'twas a big one over a river — a sort of suspension bridge, and 'twas evidently an important one. 'Twas another scorching day, and Mr O'Rourke he says, 'Let's get it fixed up quick, boys,' he says, 'and it's a bathe we can have.' Well, there is not the necessity for me to tell you the details of the fixing — of how we placed the gun-cotton on the cables, and the leads were running to the exploder hidden behind a tree on our own side. We tested it all, and we had the bit of fuse and another detonator fixed up in case of any failure in the electricity. When we had it done, some of the lads had a bathe, and we lay in the shade of a few trees, most of us fast asleep — for you will mind that our orders were only to prepare it for the demolition, and not actually to blow it up. 'Twas still — 'twas just peace: the heat haze shimmering in the blue, and the buzz of the little flies and things, to send one to sleep, for we were well behind our own men. Two hours later — well, we will come to that, sir, but it will give you an idea of how those fellows came on. It seemed as if we had been there but a minute, but maybe it was half an hour, when with a crash one of the Horse Batteries galloped over the bridge. The dust rose in great choking clouds, and through it we could see the drivers — their collars open, their faces grey with it, some with hats and some without, themselves sitting down and riding like men possessed, while their horses sweated and galloped and the guns swayed behind. In a second they were gone, and only the dust remained.
"Mr O'Rourke he turned to me and he said, 'They were going fast even for the Horse,' he said, 'along a road; and I would to Heaven it had been the other way they were galloping,' for I should tell you, sir, they were going south. Five minutes later we heard them come into action a quarter of a mile behind us. 'Covering the retreat again,' he muttered; and barely had he spoken when an Infantry regiment came in sight — going the same way. Mr O'Rourke and I we went into the centre of the bridge to keep our eye on the charge, and we watched them come by. Walking dogged they were, with a fixed sort of stare, and some were asleep as they marched, and some were whistling through lips that made no noise. The sweat was caked on them, and they were grey from head to foot, and the officers were staggering up and down cheering them on — for those lads had been going without rest at all for ten days and more. And one of the sergeants said to me as he went by, he said, 'There are thousands of them, and they're close behind.' When they had gone I went to Mr O'Rourke and I said to him, 'It's close work it's going to be, sir, I'm thinking, for they are near behind.'
"And then up galloped a staff officer.
"'Are you the Engineer officer in charge?' he said.
"'I am that,' said Mr O'Rourke.
"'There are still two squadrons of Lancers between you and the Germans,' he said, 'and they will be across soon, for they are only covering the Infantry who have just gone over. When they are over blow up the bridge, and do not linger to admire the view, for it will be unhealthy.'
"'Very good, sir,' says Mr O'Rourke.
"'And,' says he, 'let there be no mistake, for the love of Heaven; for should the charge fail we are undone. This bridge is the most important of any there are to be destroyed, and they must not get it.'
"'They will not get it,' says Mr O'Rourke; and with that he galloped away. When he had gone we walked off the bridge. 'Pray Heaven, Cassidy,' he said, 'that all is well, for we will not have much time, if there is a fault, to adjust it.'
"'It will be all right, sir,' said I, 'for we have it tested.'
"And then the Cavalry started coming back.
"'Clear out, you boys,' shouted an officer; 'they are in touch with us, and we cannot hold them longer.'
"'Cassidy,' said Mr O'Rourke, 'take the men back, for it is no good them stopping here.'
"'Would we be leaving you, sir?' I cried.
"'You would not,' he said; 'but what good can you do? for if the charge fails there will be no time to relay it, and if it succeeds 'twill be easier for me to get away alone than if you are all here.'
"I saw his point, and I knew he was right — though it went against the grain to leave him in the lurch, as it were. But he would not alter, and so I took them away — muttering and cursing they were. I took them to a little rise under cover two or three hundred yards away, where it was easy to clear from when the bridge was down without being fired on. Before I went I said to him, I said, 'We will be yonder, and it's there we will wait for you. If you go that way round you can get there easily.' Just after we got there we saw a major gallop over the bridge with his orderly behind him, and he shouted something to Mr O'Rourke. We saw him running to the exploder and fixing the leads, and then he paused and straightened himself up behind the tree. From where we were we could see two Uhlans coming near the bridge, with more of them, hundreds of them, behind. And then he forced down the handle of the exploder. 'Mother of Heaven!' I screamed, for nothing happened. He did it again, and it failed again. You will mind, sir, that from where he was he could not see the Uhlan and they could not see him — but we could see both of them from the rise. The men were sobbing and cursing. A corporal caught my arm, and he muttered, 'It was not to fail,' he said, 'and it has. What will we do?' 'What can we?' I said, 'for they are on the bridge.' And then of a sudden we saw the lad creeping along under cover of the trees, and he reached the bridge and ran like a hare to the charge. The Uhlans saw him too, and rode at him; and the men started screaming and cheering, for they were off their heads, and they thought he would be able to do something. 'But what can he do?' I groaned, 'for the fuse will not burn quick enough. They are too close.' He reached the charge first, and his revolver was drawn. It was drawn, I say, but it was not at the Uhlans it pointed. For a second he stood there, with his head thrown back, and it seemed to us as if he laughed at them. And the lads saw what was in his mind, and they were silent — saving only one, and he threw himself on the ground sobbing. And the Uhlans saw what was in his mind, and one pulled his horse over backwards trying to get off the bridge, while the other rode at him. And then he fired. From the range of an inch he fired into the gun-cotton, and the roar of the detonation shook the heaven. And he and the Uhlans disappeared. They were there one minute and the next they were not. And then, with a great sort of rending crash, the whole thing fell into the river below.
"We looked for a moment and then we stumbled away — and the most of us could not see with ease, for the lads had loved him well."
Cassidy paused and looked into the fire. "So it was not a failure," I said softly as I left him.
"I wonder if by chance you recall the fat lad that was cook for the officers' mess when we used to go on the manoeuvres in England," remarked Cassidy to me one day. We were strolling slowly through the Park, getting his foot into work again; but scenting one of his more expansive moments, I suggested a seat.
"A great lad he was," he went on when we had made ourselves comfortable, "and it was cook he was for the officers over yonder. You recall his name, sir — Michael M'Doolan. 'Tis true that he was not the equal of a French chef, but he was a worthy lad to work under our doctor, of which same gentleman and his way with the people I have already told you. Of course you will understand, sir, that before we came into the billets, and whenever we are fighting, the doctor has no time to do anything but his job, and so 'tis the cook who does what he can for the officers, such as milking any cow the owner has forgotten about, or the like.
"I remember one day — we had come up to where we are now, sir — it being a day in November, and we were all working pretty hard just then. You'll mind, sir, our hours are different to the others, for we are on always, and we never know when we shall be wanted or where we have to go. The officers all go out each night with parties of men and work in front of the trenches and on the different jobs, and come back in the morning — when they want a bit of food before they go to sleep. 'Tis the same with the men. They all come back into the farm or the dug-out behind the firing-line, where they get a chance of lying up during the day.
"In the place where we were then the officers were in a farm. 'Twas a bit draughty, as there was more hole than wall, owing to the shells, and it was not over-distant from the firing-line itself, but hidden from it by a little hill. On the day I speak of I was walking from my own bit of a pigsty to their farm, when I felt the zip of a bullet as it went past my head. Thinks I to myself, 'That was as close as was convenient,' when another one zips past too. I was taking no risks, so I jumped into the ditch, the better to think. 'If there is not a blackguard drawing on me,' I says to myself, 'may I never again see Ballygoyle; but where is it that he is, for it is not in the firing-line that he can be?' seeing, as I have told you, we were hidden from it by a hill. I crept along the ditch to the officers' farm, and there I finds M'Doolan. The officers and men were all out, but he was not alone, for there were gathered with him behind the wall of the farm the four other cooks for the mess.
"'What the devil are you all doing here?' I said, as I got out of the ditch. 'Is it a mothers' meeting that it is, or why are you not at the dinners?'
"'Do you see the farm yonder?' says M'Doolan, pointing to one we could just see.
"'I do,' says I, following his finger.
"'They have us marked from there,' he says. 'There are three of them, I think, and it's sniping us they've been for the last two hours.'
"''Twas from there, was it,' I says, 'that it came?' and I looked through a hole at the farm.
"'Have they been at you, Sergeant?' they says.
"'Why else would I be in the ditch?' says I. 'I am not after training as a Boy Scout.'
"At that moment there came another shot. There was a terrible 'cluck,' and all was still. M'Doolan, he jumped up and rushed out before we could stop him, shouting, 'The devils, the devils!' at the top of his voice.
"'Come back, you fool,' I cried, and went out and pulled him in. I pulled him in, I say, but he was peering through the different holes in the wall like a man possessed.
"'Was it a cluck I heard behind there?' he says — in a terrible way he was — 'was it a cluck, for if so 'twas Rosie.'
"'Rosie,' I says, 'what are you talking about, and who's your Rosie at all?'
"'It was,' he cries, peering through one of the holes, 'for I can see her — and it's dead she is.'
"I looked out and I saw a hen lying in the corner with most of its feathers off, and she certainly did not look very lively."
"''Tis only a hen,' I cried in disgust. 'Away with you and your Rosie.'
"''Tis not that,' he says; ''tis the Major. 'Tis terrible particular he is about getting his egg in the morning when he comes in, and when we comes here a week ago I found little Rosie. She was the only one left, and saving only that an ammunition wagon passed over her the day before yesterday she has been doing well. Oh! 'tis a terrible thing she has passed away, Sergeant.
"'Why, only this morning she failed to do her duty, and when I went out there was nothing. The Major he says, "M'Doolan," he says, "where the deuce is the Hen Fruit? Hen fruit, you fool!" he cries, irritable-like, when I looks at him puzzled, "produce of the feathered biped — egg?"'
"'She has misfired, sir,' I says. ''Tis either the wagon which passed over her two days ago, or else the round of ammunition she ate yesterday — but she is looking unwell.'
"' "Well, put her in a corner and sing to her this morning," he says, "and she'll either lay an egg or the bullet — but for Heaven's sake get hold of eggs somehow."
"'Well, I was doing my best. I had her in the corner over there, and it was hypnotising her I was. She was standing on one leg, and something was happening. I was clucking to her, when a bullet went between my legs from that same devil yonder. So I hopped it, but little Rosie stayed on, for I watched her, and 'tis an egg she would have laid before evening, for it was in earnest she was. And now what will I be after saying to the Major about it at all?'
"''Tis rot you're talking,' I says. 'If the hen has been shot — and, bedad, after it had been run over by a wagon, and had eaten a round of ammunition, and had been looked at by you close, 'twas a merciful end for the poor bird — why are you five great hulking blatherers here? Away with you, and capture the house and the snipers. Are not five Sappers enough to do it, even if they are cooks?'
"'Less of your even and your cooks, Sergeant,' says one. 'We will do it at once.'
"Bedad! sir," laughed Cassidy, "you'd have laughed to see those five. M'Doolan elected himself the commander, and off they went up the ditch in great style, for all the world like a herd of hippopotamuses going to water. I followed them to see the fun. When they came to the end of the ditch they were still about two hundred yards from the house where they were. You'll mind, sir, the line was a bit mixed up just there, and there were a lot of the German snipers behind our own lines and all over the place. M'Doolan in a voice like a foghorn, gathered them together behind a refuse-heap and explained the situation.
"'Two of you,' he says, 'will fire at the devils from here, to keep them engaged like, while we three will go round the back and rush them,' and away they crept. The two that were left behind were not in a manner of speaking marksmen, but as they had not fired a shot since the beginning they were all over it. They plastered the house and the ground and the refuse-heap they were lying behind with bullets, and one of them struck a cow in the next field — leastways with a bellow of pain she disappeared towards the trenches.
"But the diversion served, for the snipers had all their attention on the refuse-heap, and M'Doolan and his two warriors reached the back unobserved. They crept up the stairs, and M'Doolan had his gun in one hand and Rosie in the other, for he was minded she should revenge herself. There were only two of them there, and they were occupied, as I have said, with the two outside. They crept into the room, and then with a whoop they were on them. M'Doolan tackled one. He hit him in the stomach with his rifle and in the face with Rosie, so that he dropped his gun and started praying. The other two had not their rifles, but one of them hit the second German over the head with a bottle of curry powder, while the other collared him by the legs. The first of them was trying to get Rosie's foot out of his mouth, and the other was sneezing curry when I got there; and it was a great diversion, for M'Doolan was taking no risks, and he still had them covered with his gun, while the other two were trying to gather up what was left of the curry powder.
"'Murderers!' roars M'Doolan, brandishing Rosie in front of them, 'could you not have let her be while she laid her last egg? You Huths, you Gons!' he says, getting a trifle mixed. ''Tis my prisoners you are.' With that he seized them both, and when the other two had taken their guns he marched them out. 'Twas a great procession. We went down the road with the Germans in front, the one plucking curry powder from his mouth and the other feathers. The first man we ran into was the Major.
"'What the devil is this!' he cries, putting up his eyeglass.
"'We have avenged the death of Rosie, sir,' says M'Doolan, holding up the hen. 'Those two devils slaughtered her as she was getting ready to lay the egg for your breakfast tomorrow.'
"'Great Scott!' says he, 'let's hear about it.'
"So M'Doolan told him the story. When he had finished the Major looked at him and then he looked at the Germans. One had still got his teeth full of feathers and the other was covered with a sort of yellow foam. Lastly he looked at the hen, and then he laughed.
"'Take 'em away,' he says to me; 'take 'em away, and send 'em to headquarters with my compliments.'
"'But Rosie, sir,' says M'Doolan. 'Is it roast or boiled you will have her?'
"The Major he looks at M'Doolan and laughs again. ''Tis a second Napoleon you are, M'Doolan,' he says, 'and it is well you have done to capture them two; but with regard to your cooking, do which you like, for we will not know the difference.' "
"It seems strange," I remarked one morning to Sergeant Cassidy, as we sat together in the Park, whither he had hobbled on his crutches, "that those fellows run their spy system so well. Why aren't they spotted more easily?" Only that morning I had been reading in the paper of a German officer who had spent some four or five days behind the British lines, his identity only being suspected when he was back safely behind his own again.
"Maybe, sir, maybe," answered my guide and counsellor. "But 'tis not so strange after all, when you come to think of it. For when a man dressed as a French officer comes behind the English lines, and another dressed as an English officer is himself behind the French, 'tis hard to tell where you are. For our knowledge of the language is not all it might be, and 'tis hard to tell if it's a German talking English or a Frenchman — even for the officers."
Reluctantly I was compelled to admit that my gardener's unhealthy wish for pens, ink, and paper, and my aunt's notorious predilection for cheese in all forms — the only blot on our otherwise stainless escutcheon — which in the days of my youth I had so frequently translated into perfect French, had not fitted me for the onerous task of spy-hunting behind the lines.
"But, bedad, it's right that you are, sir," continued Cassidy, when he had temporarily taken over my cigarette case. "They are extraordinary — the way they send men behind our lines and find things out, and no one can deny that those same men are full of pluck. For they know the penalty when they are found out — and there is not much glory over their work at all. They do what our own officers would not like the doing of, because they would be after thinking it was dirty work.
"I mind me once when we caught one of them at it. 'Twas more by luck than anything else that we did that same, but 'tis a story that bears the telling."
A temporary lull occurred at that moment, owing to the excitement of his catching what I believe is known as the "glad-eye" from a passing fairy, and very nearly slipping off the seat. When he had waved his crutch twice, and comparative calm again reigned, I ventured to recall the great man to the affairs of earth.
"Tell me about the spy, Cassidy," I said firmly.
"What a peach!" he murmured. "Begorrah — a darling; and 'tis Irish she was with her eyes." He sighed deeply. "But 'tis of the spy you would be hearing, sir. For the proper understanding of what I would be telling you, it is clear you must know how the firing line is at the present moment — and what the lads are after doing. You will mind that there are farmhouses — dotted they are all over the place — and barns and old mills and the like. Those same barns were occupied by the Germans in most cases before they were taken over by us as we pushed them back. Of course, as you know, they have not moved at all lately, but I am speaking of maybe two or three months ago. What was easier than for those fellows to leave a stray man or two behind them who was able to talk the English or French, and put a telephone or the like in one of those same barns which was connected with their own lines, and where they knew they would be?
"You will mind also that the lingo they speak up in the North, where they are now, has a heathenish sound to it, and a man might be a German or a Jew from Patagonia before one was the wiser for it. And there is another thing too, sir, that you must be after bearing in mind, and that is the importance of this same spying. For with the aeroplanes and the like, 'tis impossible to move the lads during the day, as it is seen they would be, and any big massing of them is bound to be known. So 'tis at night that the moves are done, and 'tis then that these fellows come in. For you will mind that, with the line as it is, if maybe a bit of a hill like is captured — though it may only be an advance of a few hundred feet — yet the new position may enfilade their line, and when the guns are brought up may cause them great uneasiness for two or three miles. Then maybe the winning of that little bit of ground may allow our lads to get the range of a railway they are using, or the like. So you will see, sir, that those little advances are much more important than they would appear in the papers; but the success of them depends on secrecy, and if 'tis given away beforehand by a spy, the lads have no chance.
"We were in a farm at the time. 'Twas a funny old bird that had that same farm, all screwed up and wizened like. The boys called him Gilbert the Filbert — and his appearance was like to a monkey that had not washed for months. It was all alone in the farm he was, so the interpreter told me — you mind that all our regiments and batteries yonder have a French interpreter with them — and his wife had died of the shock when the Germans had been in the farm.
"I says to him, I says when he told me, 'By the Holy Saints,' I says, 'if the old lady's face was like most of those I've seen creeping about round here, 'twas probably a heavy casualty list those Boches had themselves when they see her.'
"We never saw him most of the day. Down in the café he was, they said — or rather 'estaminet,' as they call 'pubs' in those parts — drinking to drown his grief. The old devil! 'Twas great the way he had us boiled. Well, one morning the General he comes round to the farm, and his staff with him. I misremember what actually he had come for; 'twas an inspection or something, but 'tis of no account. When 'twas all over the officer gentlemen were sitting in the farm having a bit of lunch, and from what Mr Tracey told me after, the General was talking a bit open like about the intentions of the big guns, and what they were going to do. Nothing much, you mind me, but things it would be inconvenient for them German lads to know. Now, in that farm we were in then there was a cellar — they have them in many of them — where they keep the beer and the like."
Cassidy paused a moment and laid his hand on my arm. "While I think of it, sir," he said impressively, "when you get there, be careful of that same beer — for 'tis cold on the stomach it lies, and there is but little warmth in it."
I duly noted the fact, for when an expert speaks it behoves all who can to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.
"As I was after saying," he went on, after a short but solemn pause, "there was a cellar in this same farm, and one way of reaching it was from the room where the officers were sitting. As luck would have it, the lad who was the cook — that same M'Doolan of whom I have already told you — had run short of milk, and the officers were thinking a little hot milk and rum would be good for their health. The Doctor — the lad that had the way with him — was a great believer in it as a medicine, and the Major, I am told, did not disagree with him on the matter. So M'Doolan was in a great way, for the General was minded to try it, and devil a drop of the cow oil was there. He was shouting for Gilbert, and making a noise he said was like a cow, for not a word of the lingo could he speak. 'Twas a terrible commotion, and when he came outside to find the old man, making this noise, we thought the ration lorry was upset.
"''Tis not another drop the old cow will lay if she hears you,' I says.
"'I cannot find Gilbert,' says he, 'and the General is dying of thirst and the cold.'
"Away he goes, and for some reason he went into the cellar, for there was another way in besides the one I have told you of. He gets in, and, bedad, he had not been gone a minute before there was a noise like a Black Maria inside.
"''Tis the cow,' I cried. 'He has her caught, and it's milking her he is.'
"''Tis not,' he cries. ''Tis Gilbert, and 'tis a spy he is, the dirty devil.' And with that be comes up with the old farmer man. He had him by the back of the neck, and his clasp knife was in his other hand, to make him move the faster. 'I found him,' he says, 'with his ear at the door of the officers' room, and 'tis listening he was to the General.'
"And then, as you may think, there was the devil and all. The lads came running, and the officers appeared, and the General, wiping his moustache, for without the necessary milk they had been drinking it neat.
"'What is it at all?' he says, 'and why is there all this commotion?'
"''Tis a spy, sir,' says M'Doolan, 'and it's his ear he had to the door when I caught him.'
"And then a change came over them all, and they became very silent. The Major puts in his eyeglass and looks at the men. 'You may dismiss,' says he, quiet like, and they dismissed. The General he looked at the farmer, and then he turned to the Major.
"'Is this the source,' says he, 'of the leakage of information?' For I may tell you, sir, that though at the time I did not know of that same — Mr Tracey, he told me after — there had been a great leakage, and the reason had them all beat. 'What have you to say?' he says, and he turned to the farmer.
"The farmer he stood there, sullen like, for it was afraid to move he was, seeing that M'Doolan's clasp knife was touching his neck.
"'Comprends pas,' he says, or some such words, though not knowing the language I could not say exact like.
"'Go down, Tracey,' says the Major, 'and search the cellar'; and Mr Tracey he went off. While he was away we were all silent, and the General's face was stern, for we knew without the searching. In a few minutes Mr Tracey came back, and in his hand he held a telephone.
"''Twas under the sacks, sir,' he says to the General. 'I cut the leads and here it is.'
"The General looked at the telephone, and then at the farmer. 'What have you to say?' he says, and his voice was terrible to hear.
"I was watching the farmer, and 'twas a strange sight, for on the sudden he seemed to change. He realised 'twas the end, and he straightened himself up. 'Twas acting he'd been, and he was not an old man at all. He brought his heels together and stood to attention, giving him look for look.
"'Nothing,' he says.
"'You know the penalty?' says the General.
"'I do,' he says, and he did not falter.
"I suppose it was the change in him, but the Brigade Major he gives a start and then he looks at him close. 'Good God!' he says, 'were you not shooting with Lord—?' — he mentioned one of the quality — 'were you not shooting with him last year?'
"'I was, Major Drayton,' says he, and his voice was cold.
"Major Drayton turns away, and his mouth was sneering, for he liked not finding him a spy.
"'Is there any letter you wish to write?' says the General. 'I will send it for you when I have read it.'
"'There is not,' he says, still standing stiff and rigid like.
"'Is there anything you would wish to say?' says the General.
"'One thing, and one thing only,' says he, and his voice rang out clear and loud. I remember it well, for the lads were looking from the barn to see what was occurring. 'We have different ideas,' he says, 'you and I. There are thousands of us doing this — glorying in it — for 'tis the work of a man. I am of the Prussian Army, and I tell you that your day is over. For you English your star is setting — you have ceased to be a great nation — you are on the wane. What matter my death? There are others. For years we have prepared, we have made ready, we have waited — and now your hour has come. It is der Tag,' and he raised his hand above his head.
"Everyone was silent, and the General was silent too, for the man was terribly in earnest. At last the General spoke, and his voice was not terrible any more. 'We will not argue the matter,' he said. 'As you say, we see things differently. Perhaps in time you and your nation will find that you have made a terrible mistake, and that the star of England has not set, but is blazing fiercer than ever.' And then he paused, and the officers round stood stiffly — just like the German — and one, I remember, caught his breath in a sob almost, for he was young and just out. 'There is no more to be said,' went on the General, 'and as you have no letter to write I will not delay. You will be shot in half an hour.'
"The German he saluted, and not a muscle of his face moved.
"'Twas very gravely and quietly the officers saluted too, for, German or no German, spy or no spy, he was a brave man."
"For the fourteenth morning in succession I rise to a point of order. Why is there no marmalade?" The Doctor glared round the breakfast table. "I perceive a pot of unhealthy-looking damson, and a tin of golden syrup, the greater part of which now adorns the infant's face. Why is there no marmalade?"
"Could I remind you that there is a war on two miles up the road, my splay-footed bolus-booster?" With a grand rolling of his R's, the man who had driven a railway through the Rocky Mountains, and who now boasted the badges of a subaltern in His Majesty's Corps of Royal Engineers, let drive. "Ye come to live with us much against our will, because you're a poor homeless wanderer—"
"All dressed up and nowhere to go," broke in the Doctor mournfully.
"You come to live with us, I say," went on the Scotchman, "and then do nothing but criticise our food and our morals."
"Heaven knows they both need it. Pass me what's left of the syrup, little one. Scrape the rest of it off your chin, my cherub, and wrap it up in a handkerchief and take it up to the trenches with you."
"You're vewy wude." The junior subaltern adjusted the balance in the matter of the letter R with the Scotchman. Two months ago he had been at home—in peace time he would still have been at school. But of such mixtures is the present British Army made. "It's my face."
As a statement of fact the remark left nothing to be desired; as a statement of expediency, when other infants were present, the same cannot be said. Words, in fact, were trembling on the tongue of a veteran of six months when the C.O. came suddenly into the room.
"Bring me an egg," he shouted to the mess waiter in the kitchen next door. "Listen to this, my bonnie boys." He produced a paper from his coat pocket and sat down at the table. "Secret. A large object has fallen beside the sap leading out to Vesuvius crater. It is about the size of a rum jar, and is thought to be filled with explosive. It has been covered with sandbags and its early removal would seem desirable, as the sap is frequently bombarded—Damn it, this egg's addled. Take it away, it's got spots on it. Where did I get to? Oh! yes—bombarded with aerial darts and rifle grenades." He replaced the paper in his pocket and reached for the teapot.
"Thought to be filled with explosive!" The Scotchman looked up sarcastically from the letter he was censoring. "What's it likely to be filled with?"
"Marmalade, ducky," remarked the Doctor, still harping on his grievance.
"In addition to that the Pumpkin desires my presence at the Centre Battalion Head-quarters at 10 ak emma." The C.O. was prodding his second egg suspiciously.
The Pumpkin, it may be explained in parenthesis, was the not unsuitable nickname of the Divisional General.
"Is the old man coming round the trenches?" Jackson, the subaltern in whose tender care reposed the crater of Vesuvius and all that appertained thereto, including rum jars, looked up with mild interest.
The C.O. glanced at the message beside him. "'The G.O.C. wishes to meet the Engineer Officer in charge of Left Section, at Centre Battalion Headquarters, at 10 a.m., A.A.A. Message ends.' There in a nutshell you have the glorious news."
Breakfast is never a loquacious meal, and for a while silence reigned, broken only by a few desultory remarks as to the vileness of the food produced by the officer responsible for the mess catering, and the exorbitant price he demanded for it—statements which had staled with much vain repetition.
"For heaven's sake dry up," he remarked peevishly. "You've had sardines on toast twenty-one nights running; what more do you want? Listen to the words of Sapper Mackintosh—the pudding-faced marvel. This"—he held up a letter—"is the fifth which he hopes will find the recipient as it leaves him at present—in the pink, and with the dreadful pains in his stummik quite gone."
"Our Doctor has a wonderful bedside manner," remarked the Scotchman. "Did ye no hear the story of him and the lady way back by Hazebrook?"
"That'll do," said the Doctor, rising hurriedly. "She had very bad rheumatism—that poor girl."
"I know she had, Doc," put in the C.O. heartily. "And when I think of the way you eased her sufferings I became lost in admiration over the noble nature of your calling. In the meantime I'd be glad if you'd see one of the men in the Head-quarters Section. From the strange explosive noises he made when I spoke to him before breakfast I gathered by the aid of an interpreter that he had somewhat foolishly placed his complete set of uppers and lowers on a truss of compressed hay, and one of the mules has eaten them."
He strolled to the door on his way to the kitchen in the next house that served as his office.
"You'd better be careful with that rum jar, Jacko. Unless you're pretty certain there's no danger, I'd put a slab of gun-cotton against it where it is, and pop her off. No sense in running any risks carrying it back."
"Right-ho! I'll have a look as soon as I go up. Are you coming, Mac?" He turned to the Scotchman.
"In five minutes, my boy. I have to perform a few blasting operations on my pipe before I start, and then I'm with you." He pulled a battered veteran out of his pocket, and peered into its noisome bowl.
"Not indoors, man, for heaven's sake!" The Doctor backed hurriedly out of the room. "The last billet you cleaned your pipe in they complained to the Mayor of the village."
"Go away, Doctor, go away. Go and put chloride of lime round the cook- house," Mac was shouting through the window at the receding medico. "And ask yon woman if she has a hairpin. My pipe...." But the Doctor was out of sight.
Ten minutes later the room was empty save for a batman clearing the breakfast table.
Now as a general rule the Sappers do not live in the trenches, but go up there each day and most nights, the remainder of the time being spent in dwellings of dubious sanitation and indubitable draughtiness a mile or so in rear. To each company a certain front is allotted, and it is their joy and pride to maintain this front and the network of trenches behind it spotless and untarnished, what time they minister ceaselessly to the lightest whim of its heroic defenders—usually known by the generic term of P.B.I., or poor bally Infantry. Which, of course, is not what really happens, but one likes to think thus beautifully.
In addition to the Infantry, other people thrust themselves forward in a manner which requires firmness and tact to deal with: gunners require O.P.'s, or observation posts; other gunners require trench mortar emplacements; dangerous men with machine guns sit up and take notice, and demand concrete and other abominations; while last, but not least, the medical profession demand secret and secure places in which to practise their nefarious trade. Finally, the Ordnance Department is with one always. It was that branch of the great Machine which caused the frown on the face of the Sapper Captain, hitherto alluded to as the O.C., while next door the batman cleared the breakfast table.
"We're six bicycles short, you say, Quartermaster-Sergeant?" he exclaimed irritably, gazing at some papers in front of him, while he filled his pipe.
"Yes, sir; and two more with wheels buckled, and three that free-wheel both ways."
"What d'you mean—free-wheel both ways?"
"The pedals rotate, sir, with great speed, but the bicycle remains motionless." When a man habitually calls an armchair, A chair, arm— Officers, for the use of, one—his conversation is apt to become stilted.
"How were the wheels buckled?" demanded the Captain when he had digested this great thought.
"Two of the officers, sir—playing what I believe they called bicycle polo with a brick and two pick-helves—had—er—a slight mishap."
"When did it happen?"
"Er—after dinner, sir, one night." The N.C.O. looked tactfully out of the window.
The officer did not pursue the topic. "Well, what about these six that have been lost?"
"Completely destroyed by shell-fire," said the C.Q.M.S. firmly. "I have prepared a statement of what happened for your perusal and signature." He handed the officer a written paper and respectfully withdrew a few paces to avoid any semblance of coercion.
"'The six bicycles were placed on the morning of the 10th ult. against the entrance to the R.E. Dump at A.21, C.2.4. It would appear that during the absence of the riders a hostile shell of large calibre fell on the six said bicycles, completely demolishing them, for when the riders returned after the day's work merely a few fragments remained scattered round the shell crater.'"
The Captain read it over slowly, and then, in tones of awe, a murmured "Wonderful" wafted through the office.
"I beg your pardon, sir?" The N.C.O. was again at his side.
"I said wonderful, Quartermaster-Sergeant—quite wonderful. Do you think they'll swallow it?"
"It has been done before, sir." The tone was non-committal. "And one of the six was undoubtedly badly punctured by a stray rifle bullet before we lost it—er—that is, before it was finally destroyed by shell- fire."
"Right." With the air of a man who communes with great destinies, the Captain signed his name. "Anything more?"
"Nothing at present, sir. The question of the consumption of Candles, Tallow dip, Pounds Twenty-four, stolen from our yard by the 940th Tunnelling Company has come back again with remarks from the Chief Ordnance Officer at the Base—but it will wait until you come back from the trenches."
"I'm glad of that," remarked the Captain, rising. "I'm not feeling very strong this morning, and candles, tallow dip—especially lbs. 24 of them—would cause a relapse. Orderly"—he strolled to the door—"my bicycle, please."
A few minutes later he was riding slowly down the road towards the place where there was "a war on." A cool mist hung over the fields on each side of him, and in the early morning stray cobwebs glistening with moisture brushed lightly across his face.
"B'jour, monsieur." A woman standing in the door of a roadside estaminet greeted him as he passed—a woman undisturbed by the guns that at times roared close by; a woman whose house was one concentrated draught, which whistled through what had once been walls and now were holes held together by odd bricks.
He returned the greeting and rode on, while once again the comparison—never far absent from those who live "within range"—came into his mind: the comparison between England and France—between the country which has only learned of war through its soldiers, and the country whose women and children have learned of it first hand, even unto death. All was absolutely silent—the peace and glory of a summer's morning hung over everything, while the smell of the wet clover came faintly to his nostrils. A military policeman at the corner saluted smartly, while a small boy in a little cart drawn by three straining dogs raced him blithely up the village street. At the end of the battered houses still occupied by their owners, and the temporary abode of half a battalion of infantry resting from a spell in the trenches, progression by bicycle became a little harder. Great branches lay across the road, and pits torn out of the pave by bursting shells made steering a trifle intricate; while occasionally one of the many signal wires which had slipped during the night and was hanging low above his head, scraped the top of his steel helmet.
Once more the familiar "B'jour, monsieur"—this time from an old dame who sat day in day out in a corner under a wall selling chocolate. Just above her head, so that by raising her arm she could have touched it, the nose of a "dud" German shell poked out from the brickwork.
Ruin, desolation—and shrouding it all the cool damp mist of seven o'clock in July.
"The very man!" A voice hailed him from behind, and a gunner subaltern materialised. "Are you going up the line?"
"I am—at once." The Sapper placed his bicycle against a heap of sandbags. "What does my dear one desire?
"The accursed Hun placed two large obuses into the Ritz yesterday afternoon. What do you propose to do about it?" They were strolling slowly through the sopping grass.
"Nothing—if I can possibly avoid it," answered the Sapper firmly. "You select for an O.P. the most prominent house in the locality— put a signaller on the top of it with a large flag—wait till midday, when the sun is at its brightest, and then send a message back that the bully beef is bad. You—"
"Laddie," interrupted the gunner, "desist. All that you say is true and more—but we must stick to the Ritz, if we can. It commands a soul- inspiring view of the trenches behind that new crater in a way we can't get from anywhere else. What I want you to do is to cover the cellar with boards. Yesterday the second shell knocked two men insensible, and they fell backwards into it. As they nearly drowned, it will be obvious, even to your intelligence, that it contains—amongst other things—water. Moreover, the water is deep, and stinketh. If, therefore, my brainy confrþre, you will authorise me to draw planks twelve, I myself will cover yon hole with my own fair hands. The cadaverous gentleman at your store, whose face has been passed over by some heavy body, proved both unsympathetic and suspicious this morning when I asked him for them. Wherefore, if you will sign—" He held out a book to the Sapper.
"'Please issue bearer with twelve planks 9 inch by 2 inch; length, 6 feet.'" The Sapper glanced at the page and signed. "There you are, James. Tell him to get them cut for you."
"I was going to, dearie. How marvellously your brain grasps the importance of these trifling details! Are you passing the Ritz by any chance? If so, tell my warriors to come down to the Store."
"Aren't you coming up?"
"No—it's too light. I have to be careful whom I'm seen with." He turned back and was quickly lost in the white mist—though for some time afterwards the faint strains of musical items selected from The Bing Boys followed the Sapper as he walked on.
Occasional voices came mysteriously from apparently nowhere, as a party of men went up one of the deep communication trenches close by him—a trench invisible in summer until you actually stood over it, for the long rank grass hid everything: grass splashed with the red of great masses of poppies, and the white of the daisies, with odd little patches of blue cornflowers and borage, and buttercups glinting yellow. Just rank luxuriant vegetation, run wild—untouched for more than a year.
Suddenly out of the mist there loomed the Ritz—the name of the broken-down, shell-battered house which served his late companion as an O.P. The Sapper gave the message as requested, and stepped down three stairs into the communication trench, which passed close under one of the crumbling walls. There was no necessity, as far as safety was concerned, to get into the trench for several hundred yards—the mist effectually prevented any chance of being seen from the German lines half a mile farther on.
But he was mindful to see the condition of the trench— whether the sides were crumbling, and whether the floor was suitably provided with trench-boards and bricks. Twisting, winding with the poppies and the weeds meeting over his head, and the water brushing off them against his face and coat, he walked slowly on. Seven feet deep, perhaps three feet wide, it might have been a sunken Devonshire lane in model, and a faint red tinge in the soil helped the illusion.
Stale as it all was, unprofitable and a weariness to the flesh as it had all become, the strangeness of it still struck him at times. He wondered lazily what the people he knew at home would think if they were following him at that moment on a tour of inspection. Especially his Uncle John. Uncle John was something in the City, and looked it. He lived near Ascot, and nightly slept with a gas-mask beside his bed. He could imagine Uncle John trembling audibly in that quiet model lane, and assuring his faithful wife of his ability to protect her. He laughed at the picture in his mind, and then with a slight frown stopped.
The trench bent sharply to the right, and almost subconsciously he noticed a hole framed in thick wood, half filled in, in the wall in front of him. The top had broken. He bent and peered through it. It went right through the wall in front, and beyond, the same deep communication trench could be seen stretching away. Just a loophole placed in a traverse through which a rifle could be fired along a straight thirty yards of trench, if the Germans ever got in. But to fire a rifle to any purpose the loop-hole must not be broken, and so the Sapper made a note before resuming his stroll.
Rounding a bend, a big white board at a cross-roads confronted him. It advertised two or three salient facts written in large black letters. It appeared that by turning to the right one would ultimately reach Leicester Square and an aid post, to say nothing of the Charing Cross Road, which was a down trench. By turning to the left, on the contrary, one would reach Regent Street and a pump. It also stated that the name of our wanderer's present route was the Haymarket, and further affirmed that it was an up trench. For it will be plain to all that, where a trench is but three feet wide, it is essential not to have men going both ways in it—and further, it will also be plain why the aid posts occur in the down ones.
A further interesting and momentous piece of information was imparted from another board, to the effect that the name of the trench by which one could reach the pump on one hand and the aid post on the other was Piccadilly, and that it constituted the reserve line of the position.
In other words, it was not merely a communication trench, but was recessed and traversed like a fire trench. In very fact, it was a fire trench—the third of the system. In front was the support line, known as Pall Mall, and in front of that, again, the firing line, whither later the Sapper proposed to wend his way. He wanted to gaze on "the rum jar reputed to be filled with explosive." But in the meantime there was the question of the pump—the ever-present question which is associated with all pumps. To work or not to work, and the answer is generally in the negative.
He turned to the left down Piccadilly, wondering what particular ailment had attacked this specimen of the breed, and had caused the Adjutant of the battalion to write winged words anent it. The aspect of the trench had changed; no longer did the red, white, and blue of the tangled wild flowers meet over his head, but grey and drab the sandbag walls rose on each side of him. Occasionally the mouth of a dug-out yawned in the front of the trench, a dark passage cased in with timber, sloping steeply down to the cave below. Voices, and sometimes snores, came drowsily up from the bottom, where odd bunches of the South Loamshires for a space existed beautifully.
"Hullo, old man—how's life?" He rounded a traverse to find an officer of the battalion lathering his chin for his morning shave. A cracked mirror was scotched up between two sandbags, and a small indiarubber basin leaked stealthily on the firing step.
"So-so! That bally pump of yours won't work again, or so the cook says. Jenkins, pass the word along for Smithson. He is the cook, and will tell you the whole sordid story."
"Quiet night?" The Sapper sat down and refilled his pipe.
"Fairly. They caught one of our fellows in the entrance to his dug-out up in the front line with an aerial dart about seven o'clock. Landed just at the entrance. Blew the top of his head off. Good boy, too—just been given his stripe. Oh, Smithson!—tell the Engineer officer about that pump. Confound!—I've shaved a mosquito bite!"
The cook—a veteran of many years—looked at the placidly smoking Sapper and cleared his throat. On any subject he was an artist; on pumps and the deficiencies of Ally Sloper's Cavalry—as the A.S.C. is vulgarly known—he was a genius.
"Well, sir, it's like this 'ere. That there pump is a funny kind o' pump. Sometimes it gives you water and sometimes it don't."
"You surprise me," murmured the Sapper.
"Now, if I might be so bold, sir, I would suggest that another well be sunk, sir—starting fresh-like from the beginning. Then I could keep my heye on it, and see that no one wasn't a-monkeying with it. As it is, wot with the stuff we're a-getting and the shortage of tea and the distance I 'ave to go for water, and—"
"Well, what do you expect?" A bitter voice from round the traverse rudely interrupted the discourse. "We make pumps to pump water—not dead rats. Wasting my time, that's what it is. Where 'ave I put it? In that there perisher Smithson's dug-out, and 'e can 'ave it for his dinner." The plumber previously sent up on receipt of the Adjutant's note came round the corner, and, seeing his officer, stopped and saluted.
"That there pump's all right, sir. There was a dead rat in it. They will leave the cover off the well." He perceived the horrified Smithson, and fixed him with the frozen eye.
"Right. Then you can rejoin your section." The Sapper rose, the plumber departed, the cook faded away, and for a space there was silence.
"Damn that fellow Smithson—he's the limit." The Infantry Officer laughed. "I'll rend him for this."
"Sometimes it gives you water, and sometimes it don't," remarked the Sapper pensively. "Last time it was a sock. Bye-bye. I hope he'll enjoy his dinner."
He followed the plumber back along Piccadilly, composing in his mind a suitable answer to the message of despair from the Adjutant.
"With ref. to your min. of yesterday I would suggest that a larger flow of somewhat purer water would be available if the practice of inserting deceased rodents in the delivery pipe was discontinued forthwith. I am fully alive to the fact that what the eye does not see the heart does not grieve about, and I realise that, viewed from that standpoint only, the grave of the little animal in question could not well be improved on. I also realise that it adds that flavour to the tea which is so sought after by the true connoisseur. But, desiring to view the matter from the clearer vantage point of an unbiassed onlooker, I venture to suggest—"
His meditations were interrupted by a procession of gunners each carrying on his shoulder an unpleasant-looking object which resembled a gigantic dumb- bell with only one blob on the end—a huge spherical cannon-ball on a steel stalk. They were coming from Leicester Square, and he met them just as they turned up the Haymarket. Waiting until they had all gone by, he followed on in the rear of the party, which suddenly turned sharp to the left, and disappeared into the bowels of the earth.
"No. 7," murmured the Sapper to himself. "I wonder if the officer is new?" He turned to a bombardier standing at the entrance to the passage. "Is your officer here?"
"He's down below, sir." The man drew to one side, and the Sapper passed up a narrow deep trench and went "down below" to the trench-mortar emplacement, a cave hewn out of the ground much on the principle of an ordinary dug-out. But there were certain great differences; for half the roof had been removed, and through the hole thus formed streamed in the early morning sun. A screen of rabbit wire covered with bits of grass, lying horizontally over the open hole when the gun was not firing, helped to conceal it from the prying eyes of Hun aeroplanes. Let into the ground and mounted and clamped to a stand was the mortar itself—while beside it sat a very young gunner officer, much in the attitude of a mother beside her firstborn. He was obviously new to the game, and the Sapper surveyed him with indulgent eye.
"Good morning." The Gunner looked up quickly. "I'm the Sapper Officer on this bit of line. You've just come in, haven't you?"
"Yes, early this morning. Everything seems very quiet here."
"From four till eight or nine it's always peaceful. But I don't know that you'll find this spot very quiet once you start pooping off. This particular emplacement was spotted some two months ago by the wily Hun, and he got some direct hits on it with small stuff. Since then it hasn't been used. There are lots of others, you know."
"I was ordered to come to this one," answered the boy doubtfully.
"Right-oh! my dear fellow—it's your funeral. I thought I'd just let you know. Are you letting drive this morning?"
"Yes—as soon as I get the order to fire."
The boy was keen as mustard, and, as I have said, very young— just another infant. He had not long to wait, for hardly were the words out of his mouth when a sergeant came in.
"Captain's compliments, sir, and will you fire two rounds at G. 10 C. 5 4?"
Rapidly and without confusion the men did their appointed jobs; the great stalk slithered down the gun, the bomb—big as a football— filled with high explosive was fixed with a detonator, the lanyard to fire the charge was adjusted. Then every one cleared out of the emplacement, while the Sapper took his stand in the trench outside.
"Let her rip." The lanyard was pulled, and with a muffled crack the huge cannon-ball rose into the air, its steel stalk swaying behind it. Plainly visible, it reached its highest point, and still wobbling drunkenly went swishing down on to G. 10 C. 54—or thereabouts. A roar and a great column of black smoke rose from the German lines.
Almost before the report had died away, the gun was sponged out, and another inebriated monster departed on its mission. But the Sapper was already some way up the Haymarket. It was not his first view of a trench-mortar firing.
A vicious crack from a rifle now and then broke the stillness, and proclaimed that the sun was clearing away the morning mist, and that rest- time was nearly over; while the sudden rattle of a machine gun close by him, indulging in a little indirect fire at a well-known Hun gathering place a thousand yards or so behind their lines, disturbed a covey of partridges, which rose with an angry whirring of wings. Then came four of those unmistakable faint muffled bursts from high above his head, which betokened an aeroplane's morning gallop; and even as he automatically jerked his head skywards, with a swishing noise something buried itself in the earth not far away. It is well to remember that even Archibald's offspring obey the laws of gravity, and shells from an anti-aircraft gun, burst they never so high, descend sooner or later in the shape of jagged fragments—somewhere. And if the somewhere is your face, upturned to see the fun...!
The Sapper, with the remembrance fresh in his mind of a pal looking up in just such a way a week before, quickly presented the top of his tin hat to the skies, and all that might descend from them. There had been that same swishing all round them as they stood watching some close shooting at one of our own planes. He recalled the moment when he cried suddenly—"Jove! they've got him!" He had turned as he spoke to see the officer with him, slipping sideways, knees crumpling, body sagging. "Good God! old man, what is it?" The question was involuntary, for as he caught the limp figure—he knew.
The plane was all right: the German shells had not got it; but a piece of shrapnel, the size of a match-box, had passed through that officer's eye, and entered his brain. He had laid him on the firing-step, and covered his head—or what was left of it....
He reached Pall Mall, to be once again confronted with a large white notice board. To the right were Boyaux 93 and 94—to the left, 91 and 90. Straight on to the front, 92 led to the firing line. With his ultimate destination Vesuvius crater and the rum jar in view, he turned to the right, and walked along the support trench. It was much the same as Piccadilly: only being one degree nearer the front, it was one degree more warlike. Boxes of bombs everywhere; stands for rifles on the firing-step, which held them rigidly when they fired rifle grenades; and every now and then a row of grey- painted rockets with a red top, which in case of emergency send up the coloured flares that give the S.O.S. signals to those behind. Also men: men who slept and ate and shaved and wrote and got bored. A poor show is trench warfare!
"Look out, sir. They've knocked it in just round the corner last night with trench mortars." A sergeant of the South Loamshires was speaking. "Having a go at Laburnum Cottage, I'm thinking."
"What, that sniper's post? Have you been using it?"
"One of our men in there now, sir. He saw an Allemand go to ground in his dug-out half an hour ago through the mist, and he reckons he ought to finish breakfast soon, and come out again."
The Sapper crawled on his stomach over the dÚbris that blocked the trench, and stopped at the entrance to Laburnum Cottage, officially known as Sniper's Post No. 4. In a little recess pushed out to the front of the trench, covered in with corrugated iron and surrounded by sandbags, sprawled the motionless figure of a Lance-Corporal. With his eye glued to his telescopic sight and his finger on the trigger of his rifle, he seemed hardly to be breathing. Suddenly he gave a slight grunt, and the next instant, with a sharp crack, the rifle fired.
"Get him?" asked the Sapper.
"Dunno, sir," answered the sniper, his eye still fixed to the telescope. "Three 'undred yards, and 'e ducked like 'ell. It wasn't far off 'is nibs, but one can't tell for sure." He got down and stretched himself. "I've waited 'alf an 'our for the perisher, too, without no breakfast." He grinned and scrambled over the broken-down trench to remedy the latter deficiency, while once more the Sapper walked on. No need with this particular regiment to suggest rebuilding the broken-in trench; it would be done automatically— which cannot be said of them all.
At last he reached Boyau 94, and turned up towards the firing-line. Twenty yards from the turn a mass of barbed wire crossed the trench above his head, the barbed wire which ran in front of the support line. For it is not only the fire-trench that is wired—each line behind is plentifully supplied with this beautiful vegetable growth.
The mist had cleared away, and the morning sun was blazing down from a cloudless sky, as he reached the front trench. Just to his left a monstrous pair of bellows, slowly heaving up and down under the ministrations of two pessimistic miners, sent a little of God's fresh air down to the men in the mine-shafts underneath. The moles were there—the moles who scratched and scraped stolidly, at the end of their gallery thirty or forty yards in front, deep down under the earth in No Man's Land.
A steady stream of sandbags filled with the result of their labours came up the shaft down which the pipe from the bellows stretched into the darkness—sandbags which must be taken somewhere and emptied, or used to revet a bit of trench which needed repair.
To right and left there stretched the fire-trench—twisting and turning, traversed and recessed—just one small bit of the edge of British land. A hundred yards away, a similar line stretched right and left, where other pessimistic miners ministered to other monstrous bellows, and Piccadilly was known as Unter den Linden. The strange stagnation of it all!
Look through the periscope at the country in front. Not a sign of life in the torn-up crusted earth; not a movement between the two long lines of wire. A few poppies here and there, and at one point a motionless grey-green lump close to the farther wire. Impossible to tell exactly what it is from the periscope—the range is too far. But, in No Man's Land, such strange grey—and khaki—lumps may often be seen. The night, a wiring party, perhaps a little raid or an officer's patrol, and—discovery. You cannot always get your dead back to the trench, and the laws that govern No Man's Land savour of the primitive....
The Sapper watched the phlegmatic bellows-heaver for a few moments curiously. His stoical indifference to any one or anything save the job in hand, the wonderful accuracy with which he spat from time to time, the appalling fumes from his short clay pipe, all tended to make of him an interesting study. Supremely apathetic to friend or foe, Generals or Huns, he did his shift without comment and, as far as could be seen, without thought.
"Where are you putting the earth?" asked the Sapper after watching for a while.
"Round corner, in a 'ole." The speaker pointed with his pipe, and the subject dropped.
The officer turned away smiling slightly, and decided on the inspection of the rum jar. The answer was clear and succinct, even if not couched in the language of the old army discipline. He inspected the hole, and, finding it was at the back of the trench, in a crater that was formed nightly by German minenwerfer, and that more earth there not only would not block the trench but, mirabile dicta, would be an actual advantage, he passed on and shortly came to a passage leading out of the front of the trench.
The passage was labelled Sap No. 130, and presented exactly the same appearance as the boyaux which ran out of the support line to the front trench. Only when one got into it did the difference become apparent, for whereas the boyaux had continued until finally opening into a new trench, the sap was a cul-de-sac, and finished abruptly in a little covered-in recess built into a miniature mountain of newly-thrown-up earth. And this great, tumbled mass of soil was the near lip of Vesuvius crater—blown up half way between the two front lines.
Over the top of the mountain there was no passage. A man standing or crawling there in daytime would have been in full view of German snipers at a range of forty yards; while had he accomplished it in safety, he would have slithered down the farther side into a great cavity shaped like an egg-cup, at the bottom of which a pool of dirty, stagnant water was slowly forming. Moreover, if we imagine the man continuing his journey and climbing up the other side, he would run the gauntlet of the English snipers as he topped the farther lip, before reaching the German sap which ran out in just such a similar cul-de-sac to the one already described.
Thus are craters consolidated; each side holds the lip nearest to them, and hurls curses and bombs at his opponents on the other. The distance between the sapheads is perhaps twenty or twenty-five yards, instead of the hundred odd of the parent fire-trenches; and any closer acquaintanceship is barred by the egg-cup crater, which stretches between them.
"Keep down, sir—well down. Lot of sniping today." A sergeant of the South Loamshires whispered hoarsely to the Sapper as he reached the end of the sap—it is etiquette to whisper in a sap. Three men inside the recess were drinking tea with the calmness born of long custom, while lying on his side, with a periscope to his eye, was Jackson, the subaltern.
"Anything fresh, Jacko?" muttered the Sapper, crouching down beside him.
"Yes—I think they're coming closer with their left sap round the crater. Their periscope seems to be nearer than it was yesterday."
"Let's have a look." The two changed position, and the Captain turned the periscope gently round until he got the exact direction. Absolute stillness brooded over the ground he could see; a few rough strands of wire straggled about, and disappeared into the great mound of earth that formed the dÚbris of the crater.
There were the enemies' trenches—a railway embankment behind them with a derelict row of trucks—a great chimney, gaunt and desolate, with the buildings at its foot in ruins. But it was not on these old friends that he was concentrating; his target was the bit of ground just in front of him that lay close to the thrown-up earth of Vesuvius, along which the German sap was reputed to be creeping nearer.
At last he got what he wanted. Close at hand, perhaps twenty yards away, there stuck up out of the ground a motionless stick with something on the end—the German's periscope. Now it is reputed to be a fact by several people of apparent truthfulness that it is possible, in circumstances such as these, for each watcher to see the other man's eyes reflected from the mirrors of the periscopes; and it is an undoubted fact that the laws which govern the refraction of light would allow of this phenomenon. Personally, I am glad to say I have never seen a German's eye through a periscope; but then personally I am inclined to doubt if any one has. It must be quite dreadful to see a thing like a poached egg regarding you balefully from the top of a stick a few yards away.
At last the Sapper got up. "He's no nearer, Jacko. What do you think, sergeant?"
"I don't think they were working last night, sir," one of the tea- drinkers answered.
"There was a party of 'em out, and we bunged some bombs. We 'eard 'em padding the 'oof back."
"Been pretty quiet, then?"
"Except for that there rum jar, sir," answered the sergeant. "We thought we was napoo when we 'eard that little bundle of fun a-coming."
"Have you seen it, Jacko?"
"Yes, it rolled into the sap, and I've had it put into the fire-trench. I'm taking it back to blow it up. I think it's a percussion fuse, but it seems fairly safe. I've sent for a stretcher to carry it on."
"Let's go and have a look at it."
The two officers walked down the sap and back into the trench, and started to investigate with a professional eye the object lying on the fire-step. Apparently of steel, and painted a dull grey, it looked harmless enough—but all those little love offerings of the Hun are treated with respect. About the size of an ordinary rum jar, with a fuse of sorts in place of a neck, it was at the time an unknown brand of abomination, to them at any rate.
"It differs only in appearance, I fear," remarked the Captain, after inspecting it gingerly, "from other presents they give us. Its object is undoubtedly nefarious. Where do you propose to blow it up?"
"In that little quarry near the Ritz. Will that do all right?"
"Most excellently." With a smile he looked at his watch. "Just set your watch by mine, Jacko—and poop it off at 10.5 ak emma. Do you take me?"
The other looked puzzled for a moment; then his face cleared.
"I'd forgotten for the moment that Centre Battalion Head-quarters was not far from the quarry," he grinned. "Sir—I take you."
"My dear boy, the day is hot, and the Pumpkin is fat, and the flies are glutinous. He doesn't want to see the trenches any more than I do— and one's mission in life is to anticipate the wishes of the great."
It was just as he finished speaking that from up the line in the direction of the Haymarket there came four dull, vicious cracks in succession, and some clouds of black smoke drifted slowly over his head.
"Just about No. 7 T.M. emplacement," he muttered to himself. "I hope to heavens..."
"Put it on the stretcher carefully, boys." His subaltern was speaking to the two men who had arrived with a stretcher. "Have you got the slab of gun- cotton?"
"Corporal 'Amick 'as gone to get it at the store, sir. He's a-going to meet us at the quarry."
"Right-ho! Walk march."
The cavalcade departed, and the Captain resumed his morning walk, while his thoughts wandered to the beer which is cold and light yellow. For many weary months had he taken a similar constitutional daily; not always in the same place, true; but variety is hard to find in the actual trenches themselves. It is the country behind that makes the difference.
Time was when communication trenches existed only in the fertile brain of those who were never called upon to use them; but that time has passed long since. Time was when the thin, tired breaking line of men who fought the Prussian Guard at Ypres in 1914—and beat them—had hard work to find the fire-trenches, let alone the communication ones; when a daily supervision was a nerve-shattering nightly crawl, and dug-outs were shell- holes covered with a leaking mackintosh. It was then that men stood for three weeks on end in an icy composition of water and slime, and if by chance they did get a relief for a night, merely clambered out over the back, and squelched wearily over the open ground with bullets pinging past them from the Germans a few score yards away.
But now there are trenches in canal banks where dead things drift slowly by, and trenches in railway embankments where the rails are red with rust and the sleepers green with rot; there are trenches in the chalk, good and deep, which stand well, and trenches in the slush and slime which never stand at all; there are trenches where the smell of the long grass comes sweetly on the west wind, and trenches where the stench of death comes nauseous on the east. And one and all are they damnable, for ever accursed...
But the country behind—ah! there's where the difference comes. You may have the dead flat of pastoral Flanders, the little woods, the plough, the dykes of Ypres and Boesinghe; you may have the slag-heaps and smoking chimneys of La BassÚe and Loos; you may have the gently undulating country of Albert and the Somme. Each bears the marks of the German beast—and, like their inhabitants, they show those marks differently. Ypres and the North, apathetic, seemingly lifeless; the mining districts, grim and dour; the rolling plains still, in spite of all, cheerful and smiling. But underlying them all—deep implacable determination, a grand national hatred of the Power who has done this thing....
He turned out of the Old Kent Road into a siding which harboured the dug- outs of the Centre Battalion.
"Is the General here yet, Murdock?" A tall sergeant of the regiment—an old friend of his—flattened himself against the side of the trench to let him pass.
"Yes, sir." The sergeant's face was expressionless, though his eyes twinkled. "I think, sir, as 'ow the General is feeling the 'eat. 'E seems worried. 'E's been trying to telephone."
The Sapper, with a suppressed chuckle, went down some steps into a spacious dug-out. The darkness made him temporarily blind, so he saluted and stood still just inside the doorway.
"Damn you, don't blow at me! What's that fool blowin' down the thing for? I have pressed a button—confound you!—and rung the bell twice. No—I didn't ring off; somebody blew at me, and the machine fell on the floor."
"The General is trying to get through to his château." A voice full of unholy joy whispered in the Sapper's ear, and that worthy, whose eyes had got accustomed to the gloom, recognised the Adjutant.
"I gathered that something of the sort was occurring," he whispered back.
But the General was at it again. "Who are you—the R.T.O.? Well, ring off. Exchange. Exchange. It is the Divisional General speaking. I want my head-quarters. I say, I want my—oh, don't twitter, and the bally thing's singin' now! First it blows and then it sings. Good God! what's that?"
A deafening explosion shook the dug-out, and a shower of earth and stones rained down in the trench outside.
"They're very active this morning, sir," said the Sapper, stepping forward. "Lot of rum jars and things coming over."
"Are you the Sapper officer? Good morning. I wish you'd get this accursed instrument to work."
"There may be a line broken," he remarked tactfully.
"Well—I shall have to go back; I can't hear a word. The thing does nothin' but squeak. Now it's purring like a cat. I hate cats. Most annoyin'. I wanted to come round the front line this morning."
"In very good condition, sir; I've just been all round it. Mighty hot up there, General—and swarms of flies."
"And they're puttin' over some stuff, you say?"
"Yes, sir—quite a lot."
"Hum! Well, of course, I fully intended to come round—but, dash it all, I must get back. Can't hear a word the fellow says. Does nothing but play tunes." The Pumpkin rose and stalked to the door. "Well, I'll come round another morning, my boy. I wonder, by Jove! if that last one was meant for this head-quarters? Devilish near, you know." He walked up the stairs, followed by his staff officer. "Good mornin'—mind you see about that telephone. Cursed thing blows."
"Dear old Pumpkin," murmured the Adjutant as his steps died away. "He's a topper. His figure's against him, but he's got the heart of a lion."
"He has," answered the Sapper, preparing to follow his footsteps. "And the men would do anything for him."
"What price that rum jar I sent in a bird about?"
"That was the last explosion you heard," laughed the Sapper. "I wasn't leaving anything to chance. I am going to go and drink beer—iced beer, in long glasses. Toujours à toi."
He was gone, leaving the Adjutant staring. A few moments later he clambered out of the trench, and struck out for the crumbling church that betokened a road and the near presence of his bicycle.
A day of peace—yes, as things go, a day of perfect peace. Away down South things were moving; this was stagnation. And yet—well, it was at dinner that night...
"For the fourteenth night in succession I rise to a point of order." The Doctor was speaking. "Why is the lady with the butterfly on her back pushed away into one corner, and that horrible woman with the green wig accorded the place of honour?"
I would hurriedly state that the Doctor's remarks were anent two pictures which are, I believe, occasionally to be found in officers' messes in the B.E.F.—pictures of a Parisian flavour as befits the Entente— pictures which—at any rate they are well known to many, and I will not specify further.
"Yes, the lady with the gween wig is dweadful." The boy sipped his port.
"Infant, I'm shocked at you. The depravity of these children nowadays..."
An orderly came into the room with an envelope, which he handed to the Captain.
The C.O. spread out the flimsy paper and frowned slightly as he read the message.
"T.M. Emp. No. 7, completely wrecked by a direct hit 9.30 a.m. this morning, A.A.A. Please inspect and report, A.A.A., C.R.E., 140th Division."
"Delayed as usual," grunted the Scotchman. "I was there just after it happened, and reported it to the O.C. Trench Mortars. Did you not hear, sir, for it's useless repairing it? That position is too well known."
"Were there any casualties?" The Sapper Captain's voice was quiet.
"Aye. The poor lad that was crooning over his gun when I saw him this morning, like a cat over her undrowned kitten, just disappeared."
"What d'you mean, Mac?"
"It was one of the big ones, and it came right through the wire on top of him." The gruff voice was soft. "Poor bairn!"
 Special Note to Lovers of Etymology.
Il n'y en a plus. There is no more. French phrase signifying complete absence of. Largely heard in estaminets near closing time.
Naploo.—Original pure English phrase signifying the perisher has run out of beer.
Napoo.—Vulgar and bastardised shortening of original pure English phrase. Has now been added to B.E.F. dictionary, and is used to imply that a man, thing, person, animal, or what not, is "finished."
"On the afternoon of the 21st we gained a small local success. Our line was advanced on a front of six hundred yards, over an average depth of a quarter of a mile. All the ground gained was successfully consolidated. Up to date eighty-six unwounded prisoners have passed through the corps cage, of whom three are officers."
Thus ran the brief official notice so tersely given in the "Intelligence Summary," known to the ribald as "Comic Cuts"; later it will appear even more tersely in the daily communiquÚ which delights the matutinal kipper and twin eggs of England. It's all so simple; it all sounds such a ridiculously easy matter to those who read. Map maniacs stab inaccurate maps with pins; a few amateur strategists discourse at length, and with incredible ignorance, on the bearing it—and countless other similar operations— will have on the main issue. And the vast majority remark gloomily to the other members of the breakfast table that there is nothing in the paper as usual. Nothing, my friend! I wonder....
This is not a story; there is no plot; it is just what happens every day somewhere or other in the land of glutinous, stinking mud, where the soles are pulled off a man's boots when he walks and horses go in up to their bellies; where one steers a precarious and slippery course on the narrow necks of earth that separate shell holes, and huddled things stare up at the sky with unseeing eyes. They went "over the top" themselves—ten days ago—in just such another local success. Nothing, my friend! Perhaps you're right; it's mainly a sense of proportion that is needed in war, as in other things....
"Good morning, dear old soul." The machine-gun officer emerged from a watery hole of doubtful aspect, covered with a dented sheet of corrugated iron and a flattened-out biscuit tin—the hole that is, not the officer. "We have slept well, thank you; and the wife and family are flourishing. Moreover—you're late."
The Sapper regarded him pessimistically through the chilly mist of an October dawn. "Entirely owing to my new and expensive waders being plucked from my feet with a sucking noise. A section of haggard men are now engaged in salvage operations. Shall we process?"
"We shall—in one sweet moment, not before. Sweet, brave heart, because—" He put his head round the corner. "Jones—the raspberry wine—toute suite. Just a hollow tooth full, and we will gambol like young lambs the whole long weary way."
"It is well," remarked the Sapper, returning the empty mug to the soldier servant. "Personally I like it burnt at night, with a noggin of port. You put it in a mug, add three spoonfuls of sugar, set light to it, and let it burn for seven minutes. Then add some port, and drink hot. Man, you can lead an army corps..." His voice died away as the two officers departed on their three-mile squelch to the front line, and the unshaven Jones gazed after them admiringly.
"A hartist!" he murmured admiringly, "a plurry hartist. Personally, the rasberry juice, any old 'ow for me." He disappeared from view, and further disclosures would be tactless....
And so we lift the curtain on the dawn of the 21st. Doubtless the setting is frivolous, but it has served to introduce two of the supers who go to make up the final scene. In the portion of the front line for which they were bound there lay the battalion which was cast for the principal part, and it is the prerogative of stars to have their entrance led up to....
The mist hung thick over the shell-torn ground as the two officers walked on. In places stretches of half-demolished wire and blown-in trenches showed where the Germans had put up a fight. Stray graves, ours and theirs, were dotted about promiscuously, and little heaps of dirty and caked equipment showed that salvage work was in progress. Away to the left a few crumbling walls and shattered trees marked a one-time prosperous agricultural village, from which with great regularity there came the sighing drone of a German crump followed by a column of black smoke and a shower of bricks and dÚbris. But the place was dead; its inhabitants gone—God knows where. And soldiers: well, soldiers have a rooted dislike to dead villages near the trenches.
A strange squat object loomed suddenly into sight—a well-known landmark to those who wandered daily behind the lines. Derelict, motionless, it lay on a sunken road, completely blocking it; and the sunken road was heavy with the stench of death. It is not good for the Hun to take liberties with a tank, even if it is temporarily hors-de-combat.
A man limping wearily, his head bandaged, his face unshaved, his khaki coated with half-dry mud, plodded heavily towards them.
"Can you tell me the way to the dressing-station, sir?" He had stopped and, swaying slightly, stood in front of the two officers.
"Straight on, lad. You'll find it somewhere back there." The machine-gun officer pointed vaguely into the mist. "About half a mile."
"You ain't got a drop of water, 'ave you, sir? The water party got lost last night, and we've only had about a teacupful this last twenty-four hours."
But when going up to visit the trenches water-bottles are a useless encumbrance, and, with a tired sigh, the wounded Tommy resumed his thirsty way in the direction of the dressing-station.
"Cooked, poor devil," remarked the Sapper, as he disappeared. "Pretty nearly finished."
"But he'll be his mother's own bright boy again when he gets his nose inside that aid post. We go left here, I think."
They paused for a moment to get their bearings—a matter of some importance and no little difficulty.
It may seem an easy thing to walk up to the trenches. One goes on, and ultimately one arrives, the casual reader will surmise. And with luck the casual reader will be right. But there are certain small points which may have escaped his ken and which render the task of reaching the front line a trifle harder than walking to the club for lunch.
In the first place the aspect of the ground is not of that cheerful and varied type which has inspired so many gifted landscape painters. No trees and little rivers, no cottages and flowering paths delight one's eye. It is impossible to say: "Take the turn to the left after passing the cactus bush, and keep straight on till you come to the asparagus bed; and then you'll see the front trench on your right."
The local cactus bush or its equivalent is hurled into space twice daily, thereby largely interfering with its use as a landmark. The local asparagus bed or its equivalent differs only from the remainder of the ground in the fact that a mule passed peacefully away on it some weeks previously. And one day even that difference vanished. The mule passed away again—in small fragments.
Even the front trenches where they exist have a variegated career. At certain periods quite a large proportion of them are in the air at the same time, in company with the village just behind; and when they come down again it is more than likely their position will change to the next row of damp and unpleasant holes.
That is the trouble: the whole ground is one huge hole. Holes are the only features of the landscape: big holes, little holes, damp ones, smelly ones; holes occupied and holes to let; holes you fall into and holes you don't—but, holes. Everywhere holes. The cactus bush is a hole; the asparagus bed is a hole; the trenches are holes. The whole country looks like a disease. A large amount of the wandering must perforce be done at night; and should the casual reader still doubt the difficulty of finding one's way, let him imagine three voluntary descents, and as many compulsory ones, into the wet brand of hole; let him further imagine a steady downpour of rain, no sign of a star, and a shrewd suspicion that if he's walked as far as he thinks he has in the right direction he ought to be in the front line; and then let him imagine—holes. Whenever he moves he either negotiates or fails to negotiate— holes. Having, in scrambling out of holes turned round twice he doesn't know which way he's facing; he only knows there are—holes. Toc— toc—toc; the slow tapping of a German machine-gun sounds from the direction he had fondly imagined Battalion Head-quarters to be; the swish of bullets come nearer as the Hun sweeps the ground; a flare goes up, showing— holes. Another compulsory descent; a phut! as a bullet passes over his head, and the swishing passes on. Shortly that swishing will come back, and in the meantime are there not—holes? But as for the front trench, whither he is bound, the contest is unequal. No man can fight—holes.
A further point which is worthy of remark en passant may possibly escape the notice of the uninitiated. It is a well-known fact, and will be vouched for by all who have experienced the Somme, that that part of the ground which is not hole is carried, like the unexpended portion of the day's rations, on the person. Acres of soil have been removed from their original abode and have been carried laboriously to other acres. They have then been brought back again; not by boot only, but by hand, and face, by hair and teeth. It is reported—though I will not vouch for the accuracy of the statement—that on one occasion a relieving battalion completely defeated a small German counter-attack by standing on the parapet and kicking viciously towards the advancing Huns. The enormous mass of soil thus propelled not only crushed the hated foe but effectually buried him. However, that is by the way. We are digressing far from the Sapper and the machine-gun officer who stood by a derelict tank in the damp mist of an October dawn and cogitated on the direction of their particular piece of front line.
"It is amazing," said a voice behind them, "that man can have descended to such a state of congenital idiocy as to do all this to an inoffensive carrot field."
The Brigade-Major, followed by the Brigadier, joined the two officers. Behind them the signal officer plucked France from his face. And then of a sudden five officers disappeared. A droning roar rose with extreme rapidity to that pitch of loudness that denotes undesirable closeness; a mass of black fumes and flying mud shot up twenty odd yards away; a flight of cockchafers seemed to pass into the distance as the jagged fragments whizzed overhead—and five faces appeared as suddenly from the ground. Holes have their uses at times.
"This sunken road is always hairy," remarked the signal officer—known to his intimates as Sigs—giving the General a hand-up from his particular lair. "It were unwise to linger, sir."
"Another quarter-mile and we hit Essex Trench," remarked the Brigade- Major. "Sally's head-quarters are there." The five officers passed on, squelching loudly, and once again peace and silence reigned in the sunken road....
And now we come to the principal actors in the drama. Crowded in Essex Trench, damp with mist, were the men of the South Loamshires. A few were scribbling notes, and an all-pervading smell of frying bacon permeated the air. One or two, wrapped in great-coats, with a mackintosh sheet over them, still slept peacefully—but the whole regiment was stirring into life. The morning of the day had come. To many it was a new experience; to others it was stale—going over the top. But, new or old, not a man but realised that by evening the roll of the regiment would have many gaps; new or old, not a man but realised that his name might be one of those gaps. Just the luck of the game; perhaps nothing, perhaps a Blighty, perhaps...
It is well without doubt that the lower the intelligence the less the imagination. To ninety per cent. of these men the situation lost much of its edge; to the remaining ten the edge was sharpened. What is to be is to be, in war as elsewhere. Fatalism as regards one's own prospects is inevitable; essential. But fatalism is an unsatisfying creed; the word "Why?" is apt to creep into the back of a man's mind, and the word "Why?" when the intelligence is low, is a dangerous one. For the word "Why?" can only be satisfactorily answered by the realisation of the bigness of the issue; by the knowledge that individual effort is imperative if collective success is to be obtained; by the absolute conviction that no man can be a law unto himself. To the ten per cent. these facts were clear; but then, to the ten per cent. the "Why?" was louder. The factor of their composition which said to them "Why?"—clearly and insistently—even as they lay motionless under their coats or outwardly wrangled for bacon and tea—that very factor supplied the answer.
To the thinkers and dreamers there comes at such times the greater knowledge: the knowledge which lifts them above self and the trivialities of their own lives; the knowledge that is almost Divine. They appreciate the futility—but they realise the necessity. And in their hearts they laugh sardonically as the shadow of Dream's End clouds the sky. The utter futility of it all—the utter necessity now that futility has caught the world. Then they realise the bacon is cold—and curse.
To the ninety per cent. it is not so. Not theirs to reason so acutely, not theirs to care so much; to them the two dominant features of this war—death and boredom—appeal with far less force. For both depend so utterly on imagination in their effect on the individual. Death is only awful in anticipation; boredom only an affliction to the keen-witted. So to the ninety, perhaps, the "Why?" does not sound insistently. It is as well, for if the answer is not forthcoming there is danger, as I have said. And one wonders sometimes which class produces the best results for the business in hand—the business of slaughtering Huns.... The small one that rises to great heights and sinks to great depths, or the big one, the plodders.
But I have digressed again. It is easy to wander into by-paths when the main road is prosaic, and the study of a body of men before an attack—the men who fear and don't show it, the men who fear and try not to show it, the men who don't care a hang what happens—cannot but grip the observer who has eyes to see. Almost does he forget his own allotted part in the drama; the psychology of the thing is too absorbing. And it can only be realised when seen first hand.
Let us leave them there for the time—that battalion of the South Loamshires. Sally—as the C.O. is generally known—has talked with the Brigadier and the Brigade-Major. He knows that zero hour is 11.30 a.m.; he knows his objective—Suffolk Trench; he knows the strong point at its northern end which the sappers are going to consolidate. The Sapper has found his section subaltern and his section nursing coils of barbed wire and shovels, and has been informed with much blasphemy that the guide had lost his way, and the party had been wandering all night. The machine-gun officer has delivered words of wisdom to various guns' crews—both Lewis and otherwise—who came under his eagle eye at intervals along the trench. Just the prosaic main road; the details are tedious; the actual orders uninteresting. The attack would either succeed or it would fail; the strong point would either be consolidated or it would not. The orders—the details—are necessary adjuncts to the operation; of no more interest than the arrangements for pulling up the fire curtain. Only if the fire curtain sticks, the play is robbed of much of its natural charm to the onlooker.
"Bring me some more breakfast. That walk gives one the devil of a hunger." The Brigadier was back once more in his dug-out, while, outside, the mist had lifted and the autumn sun shone down on a world of mud.
The Brigade-Major was shaving; the Staff Captain—a non-starter in the morning's walk—was demanding corrugated iron from the unmoved Sapper.
"I tell you this roof is a disgrace. Cascades of water pour through into the soup at dinner. Why don't you do something?"
"What do you propose I should do, brave heart? Sit on the roof and catch it?"
The subject was a complicated one, touching deep problems of supply and demand, to say nothing of carrying parties; so let us leave them to their warfare.
The signal officer was looking wise over something that boomed and buzzed alternately; the machine-gun officer may, or may not, have been enjoying another toothful.
In short, the supers, the stage-managers had departed. The last directions had been given, and the play was due to start in an hour and a quarter. All that could be done for its success had been done by those who were behind; now it was up to the men who sat and sprawled in the mud-holes in front, with the blue smoke of their cigarettes curling upwards and their equipment and rifles stacked beside them.
A desultory bombardment on each side droned stolidly on, while away to the front three British aeroplanes, seemingly come from nowhere, tumbled and looped round two Germans like mosquitoes over a pool. A row of sausage balloons like a barber's rash adorned the sky as far as the eye could see. Just an everyday scene on the Somme, and meanwhile the actors waited.
"Come up to the top. There's ten minutes to go." The Staff Captain and the Sapper—their dispute settled—strolled amicably to the top of the hill behind the dug-out and produced their field-glasses. Away in front Essex Trench could be seen, and the men inside it, standing to. For them the period of suspense was nearly over—the curtain was just going up.
"One minute." The Sapper snapped his watch to and focussed his glasses. "They're on."
Suddenly from all around, as if touched by a spring, an ear-splitting din leaped into life. In the valley behind them it seemed as if hundreds of tongues of flame were darting and quivering, sprouting from what a moment before was barren ground. The acrid smell of cordite drifted over them, while without cessation there came the solemn boom—boom—boom of the heavier guns way back. Like the motif of an opera, the field-guns and light howitzers cracked and snorted, permeating everything with one continuous blast of sound; while the sonorous roar and rumble of the giant pieces behind—slower, as befitted them—completed the mighty orchestra. Neither man could hear the other speak; but then, they were both watching too intently for that.
Hardly had hell been let loose when a line of men arose from Essex Trench and walked steadily to their front. Just ahead of them great clouds of smoke rose belching from the ground: clouds into which they vanished at times, only to reappear a moment later. They were advancing behind a creeping barrage, and advancing with the steadiness of automatic machines.
"Good lads! Good lads!" The Staff Captain's lips framed the words; his voice was inaudible.
Every now and then a man pitched forward and lay still; or muttered a curse as he felt the sting of something in his arm. A section on the left dropped suddenly, only to worm on again by ones and twos, trying to avoid the dreaded toc-toc—slow and menacing—of a German machine-gun. Then the bombers were there. Crouching back, a man would pull the pin out of his bomb, run forward, and hurl it into the trench where the Germans were huddled in groups. And away behind the South Loamshires, on the shell-pocked ground that now boiled and heaved like some monstrous sulphur spring, with thick black and yellow fumes drifting slowly across it, there lay the first fruits of the harvest: a few of the gaps in the evening's roll-call.
On the flank a machine-gun was going, taking them in enfilade. In front, Germans—numbers of Germans—glared snarling at them out of the trench, or whimpered in a corner with arms upraised, as was the nature of the beasts. A non-commissioned officer picked up a bomb and hurled it at the advancing platoon sergeant; only to cry "Kamerad" when it failed to explode....
And so the South Loamshires, or such as were left of them, came to their objective; the first part of the play was over. The machine-gunner who had enfiladed them passed in his checks, fighting to the end, brained with the butt of a rifle.
Occasionally a wounded man crawled into the trench; a German officer sat sullenly in a corner stanching a gaping hole in his leg. Behind them, towards the Essex Trench, the air was now clearer; the bombardment had moved over the line they had won, and thundered down on the German communications.
"Runner!" A Company Commander stood shakily trying to patch up a wound in his arm. As far as he could tell from a hasty reconnaissance, he was the senior officer present. "Give this to the C.O.: 'Objectives won. Situation on right doubtful. Estimated casualties two hundred.'" He handed the man a slip of paper.
At a steady lope the runner went over the back of the trench, into the barrage of German shrapnel and high explosive. They saw him reach it, stop suddenly, twist round, and slither slowly forward.
"Runner down, sir." A sergeant standing by spoke almost casually.
"Runner!" Once again the officer called; once again a man went off at a jog-trot. They saw him reach his predecessor; stop a moment and bend down. He looked round and shook his head and went steadily on. The luck of the game—that's all. And it's only when one's sitting still—waiting, that one asks "Why?" Ten minutes later he was with the C.O., waiting for the answer to take back.
And so the drama is over; the play has been a success. From the wings the Staff Captain and the Sapper have returned to Brigade Head-quarters.
"Saw 'em getting over the top, sir. Then they got into the smoke and we lost 'em. Like a witches' cauldron."
"We shan't hear anything for two hours." The General thoughtfully knocked the ashes out of his pipe. They were his men who had gone into that witches' cauldron; with them daily he lived and daily died. Their Dream's End was his too. But—a sense of proportion, always. "We might as well have lunch," he remarked casually.
Gradually the bombardment died away, though from time to time the guns burst into sullen mutterings, as though hungry at being baulked of their food.
The same old aeroplanes—or different ones—buzzed busily about; the same old stoical balloons looked more rash-like than ever.
And then suddenly outside the brigade office there was a stir.
A runner had hove in sight, and the signal officer emerged to get his tidings.
"Good," he muttered to himself; "the old man will be pleased." He went into the General's dug-out.
"Message just through, sir, from C.O. South Loamshires: 'Objectives obtained. A.A.A. Situation on right somewhere obscure. A.A.A. Estimated casualties 200 all ranks. A.A.A. Will be consolidated tonight. A.A.A.'"
The "old man" was pleased.
And so, on the afternoon of the 21st, we gained a small local success. We advanced our line on a front of six hundred yards over an average depth of a quarter of a mile, etc., etc.
It wasn't much, my friends at home; but—that runner will run no more, and some eighty odd of that odd two hundred have cooked their last ration of bacon. Their "Why?" is answered.
No, it wasn't much; but it wasn't—nothing.
My story—such as it is—concerns a camouflage tree and Bendigo Jones: both of which—or whom—will require a little more introduction. That Bendigo would indignantly repudiate any such necessity, I am fully aware; nevertheless, even at the risk of offending him, I propose to outline briefly his claims to greatness, before embarking on the incident in his military career which forms the subject of these pages.
First however—the camouflage tree. It is only meet that the material and sordid details of the stage properties should be given, before branching into any discussion of the capabilities of the actor. The phrase, then, does not imply—as the ignorant might possibly be led to believe—a new type of tree. It does not grow in the tropics amongst a riotous tangle of pungent undergrowth; it does not creak sadly in the north wind on the open hill. It shelters not the hibiscus anthropoid, it gives not lodging to the two-tailed newt. From a botanical point of view, the tree is a complete and utter frost. It is, in point of hard and bitter fact, not a tree at all.
"Camouflage" is that which conceals: it is a fraud, and speaketh not the truth. I am not even certain whether it is a noun or a preposition, but the point is immaterial. Along with other canons of military matters, its virtue lies in its application rather than in its etymology. What the eye doth not see the trench mortars do not trouble is as true today as when Noah first mentioned the fact; and camouflage is the application of this mighty dictum.
The value of any particular piece of camouflage depends entirely on its capability for deceit; but to the youthful enthusiast I would speak a word of warning. I have in mind the particular case of young Angus MacTaggart, a lad from Glasgow, with freckles and a sunny disposition. He was a sapper by trade, and on his shoulders there devolved, on one occasion, the job of covering a trench mortar emplacement with a camouflage of wire and grass which would screen the hole in which sat the mortar from the prying gaze of Hun aeroplanes. It was a deep hole, for the mortar was large; and the screen of wire was fastened to a framework of wood. When the gun wished to do its morning hate, a pessimistic individual first scoured the heavens with his glasses in search of Hun planes. If the scouring revealed nothing, the screen was lowered, and the gun was made ready. Then the detachment faded away, and the gun was fired by a man of great personal bravery by means of a long string. Ever since the first trench mortars, which consisted of a piece of piping down which a jam-tin bomb was dropped, in the hopes that when the charge at the bottom was lighted, the bomb would again emerge, I have regarded trench mortars as dangerous and unpleasant objects, and the people who deal with them as persons of a high order of courage. One remembers the times when the bomb did not emerge, but stuck half way and exploded violently; one remembers when the entire gun fell over and propelled the bomb in the direction of battalion headquarters; above all, one remembers the loathing and contumely with which the mere arrival of the trench mortar in any part of the trenches was greeted. Then there was no attempt at camouflage; one's sole endeavour was to avoid being killed by the beastly thing.
To return, however, to Angus. Though of a sunny disposition, as I have said, he was a somewhat earnest individual—and thorough withal. He determined that as a camouflage, his should stand pre-eminent; it should be the model and pattern of all camouflages. He succeeded.
Labouring at night—largely with his own fair hands—he produced a screen cunningly woven with grasses and weeds which he swore would defy the most lynx-eyed pilot. He even went so far as to place in the centre of it a large bunch of nettles, which he contended gave it an air of insouciance and lightheartedness that had been lacking before.
Now, as I mentioned above, the value of camouflage depends on its capability for deceit; and it is by this criterion that I claim his work as a success. It should be added, however, in no uncertain tones, that it is the Germans whom one is desirous of deceiving, and that is where my warning to the youthful enthusiast comes in.
The thing came too quickly for warning. Suddenly from above the inhabitants of the hole, with whom Angus was consuming a midday glass of port, was heard the voice: "It must be somewhere about here, sir, I think." The voice was right—it was.
They came through in a phalanx of fire, and descended abruptly on the detachment below. It was a magnificent compliment to the work, but it was unfortunate that the General should have been the one to consume the nettles. However, I have always thought that Angus's voice of disgust as he contemplated the wreckage of his screen did not improve matters.
"The door," he remarked, with painful distinctness, "is full of possibilities." With that he left.
I trust the moral of my digression is obvious.... Having then, in a few well-chosen phrases, discussed one type of camouflage, I would pass on and lead the thirster for information still farther into the by-paths of knowledge. Just as there are many and divers types of deceit, varying from that which conceals what is, to that which exposes what is not—involved that last, but think it out—so are there many types of camouflage. And the particular one with which I am concerned, deals with a tree.
On a certain slight eminence in what was otherwise a flat and dreary outlook, there stood the stump of a tree. It was a tired stump, strongly reminiscent of the morning after. It had had a hard life, and much of its pristine glory had faded. No longer did the sprightly sparrow chirrup cheerfully to its young from leafy branches; no longer did cattle recline in its shade during the heat of the day. It was just a stump—a stump complete with splinters.
Its sole claim to notoriety lay in its position. It commanded a view of the German lines which was not to be had elsewhere; in fact, from the eminence on which it stood you could obtain the only good observation of the opposite trenches in that particular sector of the line.
It was the Brigade Major who first suggested the idea in the fertile brain of the C.R.E. of the Division, who happened to be talking to him at the moment. They were in the support line trenches, and close to where they stood, the tree—gaunt, repulsive and toothpicky—raised its stunted head to heaven.
"What a pity that tree ain't hollow!" ruminated the Staff officer thoughtfully. "Splendid view from it of the Huns. Can't do anything in that line, can you, Colonel?"
The C.R.E. thoughtfully considered the proposition. "Afraid not, old boy," he answered after a few moments' deliberation. "Bit of a job hollowing out a tree. All the same, you're quite right. It would make a great O.P."
"Why not make another down in your yard, and put it up instead?" The Brigadier joined in the discussion. "We must have better observation in this sector if we possibly can."
"Cut this one down one night and put up a dummy in its place." The C.R.E once again considered the wretched stump. "Not a bad idea, General; the only question is who is to do it. It will have to be a good model, or the Huns will spot the difference; and..." Suddenly his face cleared. "By Jove! I've got it—Bendigo Jones. He's the man for the job."
"And who the deuce is Bendigo Jones?" asked the General, as the Sapper rapidly jotted down something in his note-book. "He sounds like a prize fighter or the inventor of a patent medicine."
"Bendigo Jones, General, is my latest acquisition. I have it on no less an authority than his own that he is a very remarkable man. I gather that he is futurist by inclination, and dyspeptic by nature, which I take to be a more or less natural sequence of events. At present he adorns my office, and looks intense."
"He sounds rather like a disease," murmured the Brigade Major. "From what you say, I gather he considers himself an artist."
"He sculpts, or whatever a sculptor does when he gets busy." The Colonel smiled gently. "How he ever blew out here I cannot imagine, but these things will occur. I offended him mortally, I regret to say, the first day he arrived, by confessing that I had never even heard his name, much less seen his work, but I think he's forgiven me. I allowed him to arrange the timber yard today more aesthetically, and the Sergeant-major thinks he is soft in the head, so Bendigo is supremely happy."
"He sounds a perfect treasure," remarked the Brigadier drily. "However, as long as he models that tree and we get it up somehow, and I never see him, I shall be quite happy, old boy."
"It shall be done," answered the C.R.E., "by our little Bendy himself. A life-size, hollow camouflage stump shall replace the original, complete with peephole and seat."
Thus lightly was settled the immediate future of one of the world's great ones. In view, however, of the fact that the world is so often lamentably ignorant of greatness, it now becomes necessary for me to carry out my second introduction and enlighten the Philistines as to what they have missed by their miserable and sordid materialism.
Be it known then that for several years Bendigo Jones had been in the habit of inflicting upon a long-suffering and inoffensive public a series of lumps of material. What these lumps were supposed to represent no one has yet discovered; and I am given to understand that unless the proud perpetrator noted it himself on completion, he too was usually unable to elucidate the mystery. It was not of great account, as he ran not the slightest risk of contradiction whatever he said; and as no person ever willingly went twice to his exhibitions, he could vary the title daily without fear of discovery. Another great point about his work was its many-sidedness. A lump looked at from one side would perhaps represent "Pelican with young," while on the other "The Children's Hour, or six o'clock at Mud View Villa," would be depicted. This, needless to say, economised greatly in space and matter; and in case any special exhibit failed to arrive in time, or was thrown away by mistake, an old one turned upside down at once remedied the defect.
His nearest approach to fame occurred during the period which followed the perpetration of his celebrated "Mother with her Child." It was announced that the gifted sculptor had worked on it for five years; and a certain amount of light was thrown on his methods by an interview he managed to get published in some obscure journal.
"Rising with a hoarse cry," ran this effusion, "Mr. Bendigo Jones hurled himself at his work. With a single blow he removed a protuberance, and then sank back exhausted.
"'You see the difference,' he cried, 'you see how I have altered her expression.'
"'Whose?' I murmured dazedly.
"'Why, the face of the woman. Ah! dolt, blockhead, have you no eyes—have you no soul?'
"'But you told me that was a church at sunset,' I remonstrated feebly.
"'What has that to do with it?' he shouted. 'It is what I like to make it, fool. What is a name? Nothing—a bagatelle. I have changed my mind every day for the last five years, and now my life's work is done— done.'
"Mr. Bendigo Jones sobbed quietly, and I stole away. It was not for me to gaze on such grief. And as I went through the open window I heard his final whisper.
"'It shall be none of these things. I will pander to vile utilitarianism. It shall be—"A City Magnate at Lunch."'"
It may be remembered that when it was finally put on view in London, enormous interest was aroused by an enterprising weekly paper offering prizes to the extent of a thousand pounds to any one who could guess what it was; and though Bendigo Jones's pocket was helped considerably by his percentage of the gate money, his pride suffered considerably when the answers were made public. They ranged from, "Model of the first steam engine when out of control," to "An explosion of a ship at sea," both of which happy efforts gained a bag of nuts. The answer adjudged most nearly correct was sent in by a Fulham butcher, who banked on "Angry gentleman quarrelling with his landlord on quarter-day": which at any rate had the merit of making it human.
But I have digressed enough; I will return to my sad story. How our friend ever did arrive in France is as much of a mystery to me as it was to the Colonel; presumably a ruthless government, having decided it required men, roped him in along with the other lesser lights. The fiat went forth, and so did Bendigo—mildly protesting: to adorn in the fullness of time the office of the C.R.E. of whom I have spoken. And he was sitting there exhausted by his labours in helping the Sergeant-major rearrange the timber yard aesthetically, when a message arrived that the Colonel wished to speak to him.
"I understand, Jones, that you are a sculptor," remarked that officer genially, as our hero entered the office. "Now, can you model a tree?"
Bendigo gazed dreamily out of the window. "A tree," he murmured at length. "A little, beautiful tree. Green with the verdant loveliness of youth... green... green."
"It isn't," snapped the Colonel. "It's brown, and damned hideous, and full of splinters."
"Only to the eye of unbelief, sir." The sculptor regarded him compassionately. "To us—to those who can see things as they ought to be—more, as they spiritually are... it is different."
A door closed somewhat hastily, and the sounds from the next room seemed to indicate that the Adjutant's cough was again troubling him. The Colonel however remained calm.
"I have no doubt, Jones," he remarked dispassionately, "that what you have just said has some meaning. It is even remotely possible that you know what it means yourself. I don't; and I do not propose to try. I propose, on the other hand, to descend to the sordid details of what I wish you to do. You will commence without delay." He leaned back in his chair, and proceeded to fill his pipe.
"Up the line there is a tree stump standing on rising ground, which I wish you to copy. The model must be sufficiently good to deceive the Germans. It will be hollow, and of such a size as will accommodate an observer. The back will be hinged. When your model is made, the real tree stump will be removed one night and the sham one substituted. Do you follow me?"
It is more than doubtful if he even heard. A slight attack of dyspepsia shook him as the Colonel finished speaking, and he passed his hands twice through his hair. "The thought—the future vista—is beautiful," he murmured. "And think; think of the advertisement. Tomorrow, sir, I will gaze upon it, and fashion it in clay. Then I will return and commence the great work."
He faded slowly through the door; and after a long pause the Colonel spoke. "I wonder," he remarked thoughtfully to the Adjutant who had returned: "I wonder why such things are...."
I am given to understand that the arrival of Bendigo Jones at the scene of his labours the next morning caused such a sensation amongst those privileged to witness the spectacle that the entire trench was blocked for two hours. To only a chosen band was vouchsafed the actual sight of the genius at work; the remainder had to be content with absorbing his remarks as they were passed down the expectant line. And it was doubtless unfortunate that the Divisional General should have chosen the particular moment when the divine fire of genius was at its brightest to visit the support line in company with his G.S.O.I. and a galaxy of other bright and shining luminaries of the military world.
"What is the meaning of this extraordinary crush in the trench this morning?" he remarked irritably to his Staff officer, as the procession was again held up by a knot of interested men.
"I really don't know, sir," murmured that worthy. "It's most unusual; it's..."
His words were drowned by howls of delighted laughter from round the traverse in front, and the next moment a perspiring soldier forced his way into the bay where the great ones were temporarily wedged. It was the special runner who was carrying the latest gem from the lips of Bendigo—at work a little farther up—to the expectant and breathless audience.
"Hay! little sandbag! Ho! little sandbag! 'Ow beautiful hart thou in textchah."
"Go on, Bill. Did the perisher say that?" An incredulous member of the group looked doubtful.
"Did 'e say it?" The carrier of news looked scornfully at the doubter. "Did 'e say it? Lumme! 'E said it twice, and then he buried 'is mug in its loverly fragrant surface, and pricked his nose on Ginger's bayonet. 'E's mad, boys; 'e's as mad as a plurry 'atter; 'e's got bats in 'is belfry."
Now, in spite of what I know of Bendigo Jones, I must admit that this reputed remark taxes even my credulity. Mad he undoubtedly was when viewed by the sordid standards of the vandals around him, but this inspiring ode to a sandbag grew somewhat, I cannot but help thinking, in the transmission. The regrettable thing was that it should have reached this stage when it was unwittingly presented to the Divisional General.
"Gangway!" he roared, as the hilarity remained unabated: "gangway!" He elbowed his way through the suddenly silent throng and confronted the special runner. "Now, my man, tell me—what is all this tommy rot about?"
"Bloke farther up the trenches, sir, wot don't seem quite right in the 'ead." Somewhat confused at the sudden appearance of the powers that be, the perspiring harbinger of bons mots relapsed into an uncomfortable and depressing silence.
"Not right in the head," barked the General. "God bless my soul! It must be the heat. Dreadful. What shall we do, Curtis?" He appealed for support to his Staff officer.
"I think, sir, the Doctor might precede us," answered the other resourcefully, "and see if the man is dangerous. If so, no doubt he will arrange for his removal before he does any harm."
The A.D.M.S., or Assistant Director of Medical Services—the official title of the principal bolus booster in a Division—emerged with a sickly smile from behind a corner, and advanced unwillingly to the head of the procession.
"Excellent idea," remarked the General affably. "You can prescribe for him when you see the symptoms, old boy. Probably a most interesting case—provided he doesn't stab you on sight."
"Sit on his head, Doc., if he comes for you," remarked the Staff officer, gracefully handing over the position of leader, "and, above all, dear old thing, don't let him bite you. Give him a Number Nine to chew, and we'll bind him when he becomes unconscious."
"It's all jolly fine for you to laugh," said the Doctor peevishly. "I'm fat and you're thin, and you can hide behind me."
They reached the bay of the trench next to Bendigo, just as a further great utterance was starting on its way. In the excitement of the moment, caused by the General's sudden appearance, much of this gem was lost.
What was heard, however, did not diminish the Doctor's alarm.
"Howls in the leafy verdure," he remarked anxiously. "Good Heavens, General, he must be up the tree stump!"
"That's all right, sir!" remarked a sergeant reassuringly. "'E's quite 'armless. It's his spirit mind, 'e says. He thinks the tree is full of leaves."
"Yes—but who is howling in it," asked the General irritably. "I don't hear a sound."
"It's his spirit mind again, sir," answered the sergeant respectfully. "There ain't no one 'owling really; 'e means howls wot 'oot."
The procession paused awhile to digest this momentous fact, and the Staff officer seized the opportunity to again comfort the Doctor.
"Get him at once, old sport, before he becomes homicidal. You never know when the phase will change. He may fish in his tin hat with a bent pin first or he may shoot you on sight, but I'd go at once if I were you. You stand more chance."
Undoubtedly the sight which confronted them on rounding the traverse justified their worst fears. The Doctor recoiled with a choking noise and endeavoured to wave the Staff officer forward.
"Not on your life, Doc.," remarked that worthy grimly—"not on your life. Go right in; and with your bulk you oughtn't to feel it much, wherever he kicks you."
Personally, I maintain the whole thing was rather hard on Bendigo. Before sending him up the line he should have been labelled; some warning as to his habits should have been noised abroad by the town crier. Then the unfortunate episode with the General would never have occurred. He would have made allowances, and withdrawn early for light refreshment.
But when a man whose face is of the type peculiar—the sort that you give the baby to play with—practises the habits of fourteen years unsuccessful dyspeptic futurism in a support line trench on a hot day, the result is likely to be full of incident. True—the wretched Bendigo knew no better; but no more did the General. And life is made of these trifling misunderstandings....
The entranced spectators stiffened to attention as the procession of great ones—partially hidden behind the Doctor—advanced with due military precautions. Even the phlegmatic and weary Sapper who was assisting the genius, with base utilitarian details, such as the size of the trap door at the back of the proposed model, showed signs of animation. Not so Bendigo. With an expression on his face suggestive of great internal pain, he remained seated on the fire-step muttering softly to himself and clasping to his bosom a large lump of what appeared to be mud.
Suddenly he placed it on the step beside him and rose with an air of determination. The staff performed two or three nimble steps of the foxtrot variety to the rear, and as they did so Bendigo sprang to the assault. With a sweeping half-arm blow he struck the mud and the mud retaliated. While it lasted the action was brisk, but the issue was never in doubt. After two minutes in fighting, Bendigo withdrew exhausted, and most of the mud went with him. What was left looked tired.
"A clear case of shell shock," muttered the Staff officer nervously in the Doctor's ear. "For Heaven's sake do something!"
"Yes, but what the deuce am I to do?" Perspiring freely the gallant officer advanced slowly in the direction of Bendigo, who suddenly perceived him.
The sculptor smiled wearily and pointed a languid hand at the result of his labours. "A great work, my friend," he murmured. "One of my most wonderful studies."
"Doubtless," remarked the Doctor cautiously. "Don't you think—er—you'd better lie down?"
"The leafy foliage; the wonderful green effect; the tree—as I see it. Fresh, fragrant, superb." Bendigo burbled on, heedless of his mundane surroundings.
"What is the fool talkin' about?" howled the General, who was standing on tip toe trying to see what was happening.
"Hush, sir, I beg of you!" The Doctor looked round nervously. "A most peculiar—"
"I won't hush," roared his irascible senior. "Why should I hush? Some idiot is standing on my feet; and I'm wedged in here like a sardine. Let me speak to him." The General forced his way forward. "Now, you—my man, what the devil are you doing? And what's that damned lump of mud on the fire- step?"
"I am Bendigo Jones," returned the other dreamily. "Sculptah— artist—genius."
"I didn't ask who you were," barked the now infuriated General. "I asked you what that thing that looks like an inebriated blancmange is meant to be."
"That model?" Bendigo bent forward and gazed at it lovingly. "That is yonder tree as I see it. The base materialist with the foot rule will inform you of the mundane details."
The Sapper alluded to scowled heavily at the unconscious Bendigo. Somewhat uncertain as to what a base materialist might be, he felt dimly that it was a term to be resented.
"I was sent up 'ere, sir, with 'im to help 'im make a model of that there stump," he remarked morosely. "That's the fifteenth mess 'e's made this morning; and 'e's carried on 'orrible over the 'ole lot. If I might say so, sir, 'e don't seem quite right in his 'ead."
"I am inclined to agree with you," answered the General grimly. "He must be swept up and..."
Exactly what fate was in store for Bendigo will never be known. One of those visitations of fate which occur periodically in the trenches interrupted the General's words, and ended the situation in more ways than one.
"Look out, sir," cried a sergeant, with a sudden shout. "Rum jar coming."
It came: wobbling, turning, and twisting, the little black object descended from the skies towards them, and the crouching occupants of the trench heard it hit the ground a few yards away. Then it burst with a deafening roar: a roar which was followed by an ominous creaking.
It was the phlegmatic Sapper—the base materialist—who broke the news first.
With an expression of great relief on his face he gazed over the top of the trench. "Thank 'Eavens! you can't make a sixteenth, mate. The whole plurry tree's nah poo."
"Nah poo," murmured Bendigo Jones. "Nah poo. What is nah poo?" He stood up and peered over the top also. "I see no change. To some eyes it might seem that the tree had fallen; to mine it lives for ever—fragrant and cool." He descended and trod heavily on the General's toe. "To you, sir, as a man of understanding, I give my morning's labours. I have rechristened it. It symbolises 'Children at play in Epping Forest.'"
Magnificently he thrust the lump of disintegrating dirt into the arms of his outraged superior. "It is yours, sir; I, Bendigo Jones, have given you my masterpiece."
Then he departed.
The only man who really suffered was the base materialist. Two hours later he rolled up for his dinner, in a mood even more uncommunicative than usual.
"'Ullo, Nobby," remarked the cook affably, "you don't seem yer usual chatty self this morning. An' wot 'ave you got on your neck?"
"Less of it," returned the other morosely. "It's Hepping Forest. And that"—he plucked a fragment from his hair—"that is the bally twins playin' ''Unt the slipper.'"
Even the cook was stirred out of his usual air of superiority by this assertion, and contemplated the speaker with interest. "You don't say." He inspected the phenomenon more closely. "I thought as 'ow it was mud."
"It is." Nobby was even more morose. "It belonged to that 'orror Bendigo Jones, and 'e went and give it to the General." The speaker swallowed once or twice. "Then the General, 'e gives it back, in a manner of speaking. Only Bendy had gone by the time it come, and—I 'adn't. Lumme! wot a life."
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