MR. J. A. SPENDER
to whose recognition and appreciation of my work, and to whose instant and eager hospitality in the "Westminster Gazette" so much of these war writings is due, this book is very gratefully dedicated by
I make no apology for having followed in this book the same plan as in my other one, "Between the Lines," of taking extracts from the official despatches as "texts" and endeavoring to show something of what these brief messages cover, because so many of my own friends, and so many more unknown friends amongst the reviewers, expressed themselves so pleased with the plan that I feel its repetition is justified.
There were some who complained that my last book was in parts too grim and too terrible, and no doubt the same complaint may lie against this one. To that I can only reply that I have found it impossible to write with any truth of the Front without the writing being grim, and in writing my other book I felt it would be no bad thing if Home realized the grimness a little better.
But now there are so many at Home whose nearest and dearest are in the trenches, and who require no telling of the horrors of the war, that I have tried here to show there is a lighter side to war, to let them know that we have our relaxations, and even find occasion for jests, in the course of our business.
I believe, or at least hope, that in showing both sides of the picture I am doing what the Front would wish me to do. And I don't ask for any greater satisfaction than that.
IN ENEMY HANDS A BENEVOLENT NEUTRAL DRILL A NIGHT PATROL AS OTHERS SEE THE FEAR OF FEAR ANTI-AIRCRAFT A FRAGMENT AN OPEN TOWN THE SIGNALERS CONSCRIPT COURAGE SMASHING THE COUNTER-ATTACK A GENERAL ACTION AT LAST
IN ENEMY HANDS
The last conscious thought in the mind of Private Jock Macalister as he reached the German trench was to get down into it; his next conscious thought to get out of it. Up there on the level there were uncomfortably many bullets, and even as he leaped on the low parapet one of these struck the top of his forehead, ran deflecting over the crown of his head, and away. He dropped limp as a pole-axed bullock, slid and rolled helplessly down into the trench.
When he came to his senses he found himself huddled in a corner against the traverse, his head smarting and a bruised elbow aching abominably. He lifted his head and groaned, and as the mists cleared from his dazed eyes he found himself looking into a fat and very dirty face and the ring of a rifle muzzle about a foot from his head. The German said something which Macalister could not understand, but which he rightly interpreted as a command not to move. But he could hear no sound of Scottish voices or of the uproar of hand-to-hand fighting in the trench. When he saw the Germans duck down hastily and squeeze close up against the wall of the trench, while overhead a string of shells crashed angrily and the shrapnel beat down in gusts across the trench, he diagnosed correctly that the assault had failed, and that the British gunners were again searching the German trench with shrapnel. His German guard said something to the other men, and while one of them remained at the loophole and fired an occasional shot, the others drew close to their prisoner. The first thing they did was to search him, to turn each pocket outside-in, and when they had emptied these, carefully feel all over his body for any concealed article. Macalister bore it all with great philosophy, mildly satisfied that he had no money to lose and no personal property of any value.
Their search concluded, the Germans held a short consultation, then one of them slipped round the corner of the traverse, and, returning a moment later, pointed the direction to Macalister and signed to him to go.
The trench was boxed into small compartments by the traverses, and in the next section Macalister found three Germans waiting for him. One of them asked him something in German, and on Macalister shaking his head to show that he did not understand, he was signaled to approach, and a German ran deftly through his pockets, fingering his waist, and, searching for a money-belt, made a short exclamation of disgust, and signed to the prisoner to move on round the next traverse, at the same time shouting to the Germans there, and passing Macalister on at the bayonet point. This performance was repeated exactly in all its details through the next half-dozen traverses, the only exception being that in one an excitable German, making violent motions with a bayonet as he appeared round the corner, insisted on his holding his hands over his head.
At about the sixth traverse a German spoke to him in fairly good, although strongly accented, English. He asked Macalister his rank and regiment, and Macalister, knowing that the name on his shoulder-straps would expose any attempt at deceit, gave these. Another man asked something in German, which apparently he requested the English speaker to translate.
"He say," interpreted the other, "Why you English war have made?" Macalister stared at him. "I'm no English," he returned composedly. "I'm a Scot."
"That the worse is," said the interpreter angrily. "Why have it your business of the Scot?"
Macalister knitted his brows over this. "You mean, I suppose, what business is it of ours! Well, it's just Scotland's a bit of Britain, so when Britain's at war, we are at war."
A demand for an interpretation of this delayed the proceedings a little, and then the English speaker returned to the attack.
"For why haf Britain this war made!" he demanded.
"We didna' make it," returned Macalister. "Germany began it." Excited comment on the translation.
"If you'll just listen to me a minute," said Macalister deliberately, "I can prove I am right. Sir Edward Grey——" Bursts of exclamation greeted the name, and Macalister grinned slightly.
"You'll no be likin' him," he said. "An' I can weel understan' it."
The questioner went off on a different line. "Haf your soldiers know," he asked, "that the German fleet every day a town of England bombard?"
Macalister stared at him. "Havers!" he said abruptly.
The German went on to impart a great deal of astonishing information—of the German advance on Petrograd, the invasion of Egypt, the extermination of the Balkan Expedition, the complete blockade of England, the decimation of the British fleet by submarines.
After some vain attempts to argue the matter and disprove the statements, Macalister resigned himself to contemptuous silence, only rousing when the German spoke of England and English, to correct him to Britain and British.
When at last their interest flagged, the Germans ordered him to move on. Macalister asked where he was going and what was to be done with him, and received the scant comfort that he was being sent along to an officer who would send him back as a prisoner, if he did not have him killed—as German prisoners were killed by the English.
"British, you mean," Macalister corrected again. "And, besides that, it's a lie."
He was told to go on; but as he moved be saw a foot-long piece of barbed wire lying in the trench bottom. He asked gravely whether he would be allowed to take it, and, receiving a somewhat puzzled and grudging assent, picked it up, carefully rolled it in a small coil, and placed it in a side jacket pocket. He derived immense gratification and enjoyment at the ensuing searches he had to undergo, and the explosive German that followed the diving of a hand into the barbed-wire pocket.
He arrived at last at an officer and at a point where a communication trench entered the firing trench. The officer in very mangled English was attempting to extract some information, when he was interrupted by the arrival from the communication trench of a small party led by an officer, a person evidently of some importance, since the other officer sprang to attention, clicked his heels, saluted stiffly, and spoke in a tone of respectful humility. The new arrival was a young man in a surprisingly clean and beautifully fitting uniform, and wearing a helmet instead of the cloth cap commonly worn in the trenches. His face was not a particularly pleasant one, the eyes close set, hard, and cruel, the jaw thin and sharp, the mouth thin-lipped and shrewish. He spoke to Macalister in the most perfect English.
"Well, swine-hound," he said, "have you any reason to give why I should not shoot you?" Macalister made no reply. He disliked exceedingly the look of the new-comer, and had no wish to give an excuse for the punishment he suspected would result from the officer's displeasure. But his silence did not save him.
"Sulky, eh, my swine-hound!" said the officer. "But I think we can improve those manners."
He gave an order in German, and a couple of men stepped forward and placed their bayonets with the points touching Macalister's chest.
"If you do not answer next time I speak," he said smoothly, "I will give one word that will pin you to the trench wall and leave you there. Do you understand!" he snapped suddenly and savagely. "You English dog."
"I understand," said Macalister. "But I'm no English. I'm a Scot"
The crashing of a shell and the whistling of the bullets overhead moved the officer, as it had the others, to a more sheltered place. He seated himself upon an ammunition-box, and pointed to the wall of the trench opposite him.
"You," he said to Macalister, "will stand there, where you can get the benefit of any bullets that come over. I suppose you would just as soon be killed by an English bullet as by a German one."
Macalister moved to the place indicated.
"I'm no anxious," he said calmly, "to be killed by either a British or a German bullet."
"Say 'sir' when you speak to me," roared the officer. "Say 'sir.'"
Macalister looked at him and said "Sir"—no more and no less.
"Have you no discipline in your English army?" he demanded, and Macalister's lips silently formed the words "British Army." "Are you not taught to say 'sir' to an officer?"
"Yes—sir; we say 'sir' to any officer and any gentleman."
"So," said the officer, an evil smile upon his thin lips. "You hint, I suppose, that I am not a gentleman? We shall see. But first, as you appear to be an insubordinate dog, we had better tie your hands up."
He gave an order, and after some little trouble to find a cord, Macalister's hands were lashed behind his back with the bandage from a field-dressing. The officer inspected the tying when it was completed, spoke angrily to the cringing men, and made them unfasten and re-tie the lashing as tightly as they could draw it.
"And now," said the officer, "we shall continue our little conversation; but first you shall beg my pardon for that hint about a gentleman. Do you hear me—beg," he snarled, as Macalister made no reply.
"If I've said anything you're no likin' and that I'm sorry for masel', I apologize," he said.
The officer glared at him with narrowed eyes. "That'll not do," he said coldly. "When I say 'beg' you'll beg, and you will go on your knees to beg. Do you hear? Kneel!"
Macalister stood rigid. At a word, two of the soldiers placed themselves in position again, with their bayonets at the prisoner's breast. The officer spoke to the men, and then to Macalister.
"Now," he said, "you will kneel, or they will thrust you through."
Macalister stood without a sign of movement; but behind his back his hands were straining furiously at the lashings upon his wrist. They stretched and gave ever so little, and he worked on at them with a desperate hope dawning in his heart.
"Still obstinate," sneered the officer. "Well, it is rather early to kill you yet, so we must find some other way."
At a sentence from him one of the men threw his weight on the prisoner's shoulders, while the other struck him savagely across the tendons behind the knees. Whether he would or no, his knees had to give, and Macalister dropped to them. But he was not beaten yet. He simply allowed himself to collapse, and fell over on his side. The officer cursed angrily, commanding him to rise to his knees again; the men kicked him and pricked him with their bayonet points, hauled him at last to his knees, and held him there by main force.
"And now you will beg my pardon," the officer continued. Macalister said nothing, but continued to stretch at his bonds and twist gently with his hands and wrists.
The officer spent the next ten minutes trying to force his prisoner to beg his pardon. They were long and humiliating and painful minutes for Macalister, but he endured them doggedly and in silence. The officer's temper rose minute by minute. The forward wall of the firing trench was built up with wicker-work facings and the officer drew out a thick switch.
"You will speak," he said, "or I shall flay you in strips and then shoot you."
Macalister said nothing, and was slashed so heavily across the face that the stick broke in the striker's hands. The blood rose to his head, and deep in his heart he prayed, prayed only for ten seconds with his hands loose; but still he did not speak.
At the end of ten minutes the officer's patience was exhausted. Macalister was thrust back against the trench wall, and the officer drew out a pistol.
"In five minutes from now," he gritted, "I'm going to shoot you. I give you the five minutes that you may enjoy some pleasant thoughts in the interval."
Macalister made no answer, but worked industriously at the lashings on his wrists. The bandage stretched and loosened, and at last, at long last, he succeeded in slipping one turn off his hand. He had no hope now for anything but death, and the only wish left to him in life was to get his hands free to wreak vengeance on the dapper little monster opposite him, to die with his hands free and fighting.
The minutes slipped one by one, and one by one the loosened turns of the bandage were uncoiled. The trenches at this point were apparently very close, for Macalister could hear the crack of the British rifles, the clack-clack-clack of a machine gun at close range, and the thought flitted through his mind that over there in his own trenches his own fellows would hear presently the crack of the officer's pistol with no understanding of what it meant. But with luck and his loosened hands he would give them a squeal or two to listen to as well.
Then the officer spoke. "One minute," he said, "and then I fire." He lifted his pistol and pointed it straight at Macalister's face. "I am not bandaging your eyes," went on the officer, "because I want you to look into this little round, round hole, and wait to see the fire spout out of it at you. Your minute is almost up ... you can watch my finger pressing on the trigger."
The last coil slipped off Macalister's wrist; he was free, but with a curse he knew it to be too late. A movement of his hands from behind his back would finish the pressure of that finger, and finish him. Desperately he sought for a fighting chance.
"I would like to ask," he muttered hoarsely, licking his dry lips, "will ye no kill me if I say what ye wanted?"
Keenly he watched that finger about the trigger, breathed silent relief as he saw it slacken, and watched the muzzle drop slowly from level of his eyes. But it was still held pointed at him, and that barely gave him the chance he longed for. Only let the muzzle leave him for an instant, and he would ask no more. The officer was a small and slightly made man, Macalister, tall and broadly built, big almost to hugeness and strong as a Highland bull.
"So," said the officer softly, "your Scottish courage flinches then, from dying?"
While he spoke, and in the interval before answering him, Macalister's mind was running feverishly over the quickest and surest plan of action. If he could get one hand on the officer's wrist, and the other on his pistol, he could finish the officer and perhaps get off another round or two before he was done himself. But the pistol hand might evade his grasp, and there would be brief time to struggle for it with those bayonets within arm's length. A straight blow from the shoulder would stun, but it might not kill. Plan after plan flashed through his mind, and was in turn set aside in search of a better. But he had to speak.
"It's no just that I'm afraid," he said very slowly. "But it was just somethin' I thought I might tell ye."
The pistol muzzle dropped another inch or two, with Macalister's eye watching its every quiver. His words brought to the officer's mind something that in his rage he had quite overlooked.
"If there is anything you can tell me," he said, "any useful information you can give of where your regiment's headquarters are in the trenches, or where there are any batteries placed, I might still spare your life. But you must be quick," he added "for it sounds as if another attack is coming."
It was true that the fire of the British artillery had increased heavily during the last few minutes. It was booming and bellowing now in a deep, thunderous roar, the shells were streaming and rushing overhead, and shrapnel was crashing and hailing and pattering down along the parapet of the forward trench; the heavy boom of big shells bursting somewhere behind the forward line and the roaring explosion of trench mortar bombs about the forward trench set the ground quivering and shaking. A shell burst close overhead, and involuntarily Macalister glanced up, only to curse himself next moment for missing a chance that his captor offered by a similar momentary lifting of his eyes. Macalister set his eyes on the other, determined that no such chance should be missed again.
But now, above the thunder of the artillery and of the bursting shells, they could hear the sound of rising rifle-fire. The officer must have glimpsed the hope in Macalister's face, and, with an oath, he brought the pistol up level again.
"Do not cheat yourself," he said. "You cannot escape. If a charge comes I shall shoot you first."
With a sinking heart Macalister saw that his last slender hope was gone. He could only pray that for the moment no attack was to be launched; but then, just when it seemed that the tide of hope was at its lowest ebb, the fates flung him another chance—a chance that for the moment looked like no chance; looked, indeed, like a certainty of sudden death. A soft, whistling hiss sounded in the air above them, a note different from the shrill whine and buzz of bullets, the harsh rush and shriek of the shells. The next instant a dark object fell with a swoosh and thump in the bottom of the trench, rolled a little and lay still, spitting a jet of fizzing sparks and wreathing smoke.
When a live bomb falls in a narrow trench it is almost certain that everyone in that immediate section will at the worst die suddenly, at the best be badly wounded. Sometimes a bomb may be picked up and thrown clear before it can burst, but the man who picks it up is throwing away such chance as he has of being only wounded for the smaller chance of having time to pitch the bomb clear. The first instinct of every man is to remove himself from that particular traverse; the teaching of experience ought to make him throw himself flat on the ground, since by far the greater part of the force and fragments from the explosion clear the ground by a foot or two. Of the Germans in this particular section of trench some followed one plan, some the other. Of the two men guarding the prisoner the one who was near the corner of the traverse leapt round it, the other whirled himself round behind Macalister and crouched sheltering behind his body. Two men near the corner of the other traverse disappeared round it, two more flung themselves violently on their faces, and another leapt into the opening of the communication trench. The officer, without hesitation, dropped on his face, his head pressed close behind the sandbag on which he had been sitting.
The whole of these movements happened, of course, in the twinkling of an eye. Macalister's thoughts had been so full of his plans for the destruction of the officer that the advent of the bomb merely switched these plans in a new direction. His first realized thought was of the man crouching beside and clinging to him, the quick following instinct to free himself of this check to his movements. He was still on his knees, with the man on his left side; without attempting to rise he twisted round and backwards, and drove his fist full force in the other's face; the man's head crashed back against the trench wall, and his limp body collapsed and rolled sideways. His mind still running in the groove of his set purpose, before his captor's relaxed fingers had well loosed their grip, Macalister hurled himself across the trench and fastened his ferocious grip on the body of the officer. He rose to his feet, lifting the man with a jerking wrench, and swung him round. The swift idea had come to him that by hurling the officer's body on top of the bomb, and holding him there, he would at least make sure of his vengeance, might even escape himself the fragments and full force of the shock. Even in the midst of the swing he checked, glanced once at the spitting fuse, and with a stoop and a heave flung the officer out over the front parapet, leaped on the firing step, and hurled himself over after him.
It must be remembered that the burning fuse of a bomb gives no indication of the length that remains to burn before it explodes the charge. The fuse looks like a short length of thin black rope, its outer cover does not burn and the same stream of sparks and smoke pours from its end in the burning of the first inch and of the last. There was nothing, then, to show Macalister whether the explosion would come before his quick muscles could complete their movement, or whether long seconds would elapse before the bomb burst. It was an even chance either way, so he took the one that gave him most. Fortune favored him, and the roar of the explosion followed his flying heels over the parapet.
The officer, dazed, shaken, and not yet realizing what had happened, had gathered neither his wits nor his limbs to rise when Macalister leaped down almost on top of him. The officer's hand still clung to the pistol he had held, but Macalister's grasp swooped and clutched and wrenched the weapon away.
"Get up, my man," he said grimly. "Get up, or I'll blow a hole in ye as ye lie."
He added emphasis with the point of the pistol in the other's ribs, and the officer staggered to his feet.
"Now," said Macalister, "you'll quick mairch—that way." He waved the pistol towards the British trench.
The officer hesitated.
"It is no good," he said sullenly. "I should be killed a dozen times before I got across."
"That's as may be," said Macalister coolly.
"But if you don't go you'll get your first killing here, and say naething o' the rest o' the dizen."
A shell cracked overhead, and the shrapnel ripped down along the trench behind them with a storm of bullets thudding into the ground about their feet.
"I will make you an offer," said the officer hurriedly. "You can go your way and leave me to go mine."
"You'll mak' an offer!" said Macalister contemptuously. "Here"—and he waved the pistol across the open again. "Get along there."
"I will give you—" the officer began, when Macalister broke in abruptly.
"This is no a debatin' society," he said. "But ye'll no walk ye maun just drive."
Without further words he thrust the pistol in his pocket, grabbed and took one handful of coat at the back of the officer's neck and another at the skirt, and commenced to thrust him before him across the open ground. But the officer refused to walk, and would have thrown himself down if Macalister's grasp had not prevented it.
"Ye would, would ye?" growled the Scot, and seized his captive by the shoulders and shook him till his teeth rattled. "Now," he said angrily, "ye'll come wi' me or—" he broke off to fling a gigantic arm about the officer's neck—"or I'll pull the heid aff ye."
So it was that the occupants of the British trench viewed presently the figure of a huge Highlander appearing through the drifting haze and smoke at a trot, a head clutched close to his side by a circling arm, a struggling German half-running, half-dragging behind his captor.
Arrived at the parapet, "Here," shouted Macalister. "Catch, some o' ye." He jerked his prisoner forward and thrust him over and into the trench, and leaped in after him.
It was purely on impulse that Private Macalister flung his prisoner out of the German trench, but it was a set and reasoned purpose that made him drag his struggling captive back over the open to the British trench. He knew that the British line would not shoot at an obvious kilted Highlander, and he supposed that the Germans would hesitate to fire on one dragging an equally obvious German officer behind him. Either his reasoning or his blind luck held true, and both he and his captive tumbled over into the British trench unhurt. An officer appeared, and Macalister explained briefly to him what had happened.
"You'd better take him back with you," said the officer when he had finished, and glanced at the German. "He's not likely to make trouble, I suppose, but there are plenty of spare rifles, and you had better take one. What's left of your battalion has withdrawn to the support trench."
"I am an officer," said the German suddenly to the British subaltern? "I surrender myself to you, and demand to be treated as an honorable prisoner of war. I do not wish to be left in this man's hands."
"Wish this and wish that," said Macalister, "and much good may your wishing do. Ye've heard what this officer said, so rise and mairch, unless ye wad raither I took ye further like I brocht ye here." And he moved as if to scoop the German's head under his arm again.
"I will not," said the German furiously, and turned again to the subaltern. "I tell you I surrender——"
"There's no need for you to surrender," said the subaltern quietly. "I might remind you that you are already a prisoner; and I am not here to look after prisoners."
The German yielded with a very bad grace, and moved ahead of Macalister and his threatening bayonet, along the line and down the communication trench to the support trench. Here the Scot found his fellows, and introduced his prisoner, made his report to an officer, and asked and received permission to remain on guard over his captive. Then he returned to the corner of the trench where the remains of his own company were. He told them how he had fallen into the German trench and what had happened up to the moment the German officer came into the proceedings.
"This is the man," he said, nodding his head towards the officer, "and I wad just like to tell you carefully and exactly what happened between him an' me. Ye'll understaun' better if a' show ye as weel as tell ye. Weel, now, he made twa men tie ma' hands behind ma' back first—if ony o' ye will lend me a first field dressing I'll show ye how they did it."
A field dressing was promptly forthcoming, and Macalister bound the German's hands behind his back, overcoming a slight attempt at resistance by a warning word and an accompanying sharp twist on his arms.
"It's maybe no just as tight as mine was," said Macalister when he had finished, and stood the prisoner back against the wall. "But it'll dae. Then he made twa men stand wi' fixed bayonets against ma' breast, and when I hinted what was true, that he was no gentleman, he said I was to kneel and beg his pardon. And now you," he said, nodding to the prisoner, "will go down on your marrow-bones and beg mine."
"That is sufficient of this fooling," said the officer, with an attempt at bravado. "It's your turn, I'll admit; but I will pay you well—"
Macalister interrupted him-"Ye'll maybe think it's a bit mair than fooling ere I'm done wi' ye," he said. "But speakin' o' pay... and thank ye for reminding me. Ower there they riped ma pooches, an' took a'thing I had."
He stepped over to the prisoner, went expeditiously through his pockets, removed the contents, and transferred them to his own.
"I'm no saying but what I've got mair than I lost," he admitted to the others, who stood round gravely watching and thoroughly enjoying the proceedings. "But then they took all I had, an' I'm only taking all he has."
He pulled a couple of sandbags off the parapet and seated himself on them.
"To go on wi' this begging pardon business," he said, "If a couple o' ye will just stand ower him wi' your fixed bayonets.... Thank ye. I wouldna' kneel," he continued, "so one o' them put his weight on my shoulders——" He looked at one of the guards, who, entering promptly into the spirit of the play, put his massive weight on the German's shoulders, and looked to Macalister for further instructions.
"Then," said Macalister, "the ither guard gave me a swipe across the back o' the knees."
The "swipe" followed quickly and neatly, and the German went down with a jerk.
"That's it exactly," said Macalister, with a pleasantly reminiscent smile. The German's temper broke, and he spat forth a torrent of abuse in mixed English and German.
Macalister listened a moment. "I said nothing; so I think he shouldna' be allowed to say anything," he remarked judicially. His comment met with emphatic approval from his listeners.
"I think I could gag him," said one of his guards; "or if ye preferred it I could just throttle his windpipe a wee bit, just enough to stop his tongue and no to hurt him much."
With an effort the German regained his control. "There is no need," he said sullenly; "I shall be silent."
"Weel," resumed Macalister, "there was a bit o' chaff back and forrit between us, and next thing he did was to slap me across the face wi' his hand. Do ye think," he appealed to his audience, "it would brak' his jaw if I gave him a bit lick across it?"
He advanced a huge hand for inspection, and listened to the free advice given to try it, and the earnest assurances that it did not matter much if the jaw did break.
"Ye'll feenish him off presently onyway, I suppose?" said one, and winked at Macalister.
"Just bide a wee," answered Macalister, "I'm coming to that. I think maybe I'll no brak his jaw, for fair's fair, and I want to give as near as I can to what I got."
He leant forward and dealt a mild but tingling slap on the German's cheek.
"I think," he went on, "the next thing I got was a slash wi' a bit switch he pulled out from the trench wall. We've no sticks like it here, so I maun just do the best I can instead."
He leant forward and fastened a huge hand on the prisoner's coat-collar, jerked him to him, and, despite his frantic struggles and raging tongue, placed him face down across his knees and administered punishment.
"I think that's about enough," he said, and returned the choking and spluttering prisoner to his place between the guards.
"He kept me," he said, "on my knees, so I think he ought ... thank ye," as the German went down again none too gently. "After that he went on saying some things it would be waste o' time to repeat. Swine dog was about the prettiest name he had any use for. But there was another thing he did; ye'll see some muck on my face and on my jacket. It came there like this; he took hold o' me by the hair—this way." And Macalister proceeded to demonstrate as he explained.
"Then—my hands being tied behind my back you will remember, like this—it was easy enough for him to pull me over on my face—like this... and rub my face in the mud.... The bottom o' this trench is in no such a state a' filth as theirs, but it'll just have to do." He hoisted the German back to his knees. "Then I think it was after that the pistol and the killing bit came in." And Macalister put his hand to his pocket and drew out the officer's pistol which he had thrust there.
"He gave me five minutes, so I'll give him the same. Has ony o' ye a watch?"
A timekeeper stepped forward out of the little knot of spectators that crowded the trench, and Macalister requested him to notify them when only one minute of the five was left.
"My manny here was good enough," said Macalister, "to tell me he wouldna' bandage my eyes, because he wanted me to look down the muzzle of his pistol; so now," turning to the prisoner, "you can watch my finger pulling the trigger."
As the four minutes ebbed, the German's courage ran out with them. The jokes and laughter about him had ceased. Macalister's face was set and savage, and there was a cold, hard look in his eye, a stern ferocity on his mud and bloodstained face that convinced the German the end of the five minutes would also surely see his end.
"One minute to go," said the timekeeper. A sigh of indrawn breaths ran round the circle, and then tense silence. Outside the trench they were in the roar of the guns boomed unceasingly, the shells whooped and screwed overhead, and from oat in front came the crackle and roar of rifle-fire; and yet, despite the noise, the trench appeared still and silent. Macalister noted that, as he had noted it over there in the German trench.
"Time's up," said the man with the watch. The German, looking straight at the pistol muzzle and the cold eye behind the sights, gasped and closed his eyes. The silence held, and after a dragging minute the German opened his eyes, to find the pistol lowered but still pointing at him.
"To make it right and fair," said Macalister, "his hands should be loose, because I had managed to loose mine. Will one o' ye ... thank ye. It's no easy," continued Macalister, "to just fit the rest o' the program in, seeing that it was here a bomb fell in the trench, an' his men bein' weel occupied gettin' oot o' its way, I threw him ower the parapet and dragged him across to oor lines. Maybe ye'd like to try and throw me out the same way."
The German was perhaps a brave enough man, but the ordeal of those last five minutes especially had brought his nerve to near its breaking strain. His lips twitched and quivered, his jaw hung slack, and at Macalister's invitation he tittered hysterically. There was a stir and a movement at the back of the spectators that by now thronged the trench, and an officer pushed his way through.
"What's this?" he said. "Oh, yes! the prisoner. Well, you fellows might have more sense than heap yourselves up in a crowd like this. One solitary Krupp dropping in here, and we'd have a pretty-looking mess. Open out along the trench there, and keep low down. You can be ready to move in a few minutes now; we are being relieved here and are going further back. Now what about this prisoner? Who is looking after him?"
"I am, sir," said Macalister. "The Captain said I was to take him back."
"Right," said the subaltern. "You can take him with you when you go. They've got some more prisoners up the line, and you can join them."
It was here that the episode ended so far as Macalister was concerned, and his relations with the German officer thereafter were of the purely official nature of a prisoner's guard. There were some other indignities, but in these Macalister had no hand. They were probably due to the circulation of the tale Macalister had told and demonstrated, and were altogether above and beyond anything that usually happens to a German prisoner. They need not be detailed, but apparently the most serious of them was the removal of a portion of the black mud which masked the German's face, so as to leave a diamond-shaped patch, of staring cleanness over one eye, after the style of a music-hall star known to fame as the White-eyed Kaffir; the ripping of a small portion of that garment which permitted of the extraction of a dangling shirt into a ridiculous wagging tail about a foot and a half long, and a pressing invitation, accompanied by a hint from the bayonet point, to give an exposition of the goose-step at the head of the other prisoners whenever they and their escort were passing a sufficient number of troops to form a properly appreciative audience. Probably a Cockney-born Highlander was responsible for these pleasantries, as he certainly was for the explanation he gave to curious inquirers.
"He's mad," he explained. "Mad as a coot; thinks he's the devil, and insists on wagging his little tail. I have to keep him marching with his hands up this way, because he might try to grab my rifle. Now, it's no use you gritting your teeth and mumbling German swear words, cherrybim. Keep your 'ands well up, and proceed with the goose-step."
But with all this Macalister had nothing to do. When he had returned as nearly as he could the exact sufferings he had endured, he was quite satisfied to let the matter drop. "I suppose," he said reflectively, when the officer had gone, after giving him orders to see the prisoner back, "as that finishes this play, we'll just need to treat ma lad here like an ordinary preesoner. Has ony o' ye got a wee bit biscuit an' bully beef an' a mouthful o' water t' gie the puir shiverin' crater!"
A BENEVOLENT NEUTRAL
" ... the enemy temporarily gained a footing in a portion of our trench, but in our counter-attack we retook this and a part of enemy trench beyond."—EXTRACT FROM OFFICIAL DESPATCH.
A wet night, a greasy road, and a side-slipping motor-bike provided the means of an introduction between Second Lieutenant Courtenay of the 1st Footsloggers and Sergeant Willard K. Rawbon of the Mechanical Transport branch of the A.S.C. The Mechanical Transport as a rule extend a bland contempt to motor-cycles running on the road, ignoring all their frantic toots of entreaty for room to pass, and leaving them to scrape as best they may along the narrow margin between a deep and muddy ditch and the undeviating wheels of a Juggernaut Mechanical Transport lorry. But a broken-down motor-cycle meets with a very different reception. It invariably excites some feeling compounded apparently of compassion and professional interest to the cycle, and an unlimited hospitality to the stranded cyclist.
This being well known to Second Lieutenant Courtenay, he, after collecting himself, his cycle, and his scattered wits from the ditch and conscientiously cursing the road, the dark, and the wet, duly turned to bless the luck that had brought about an accident right at the doorstep of a section of the Motor Transport. There were about ten massive lorries drawn up close to the side of the road under the poplars, and Courtenay made a direct line for one from which a chink of light showed under the tarpaulin and sounds of revelry issued from a melodeon and a rasping file. Courtenay pulled aside the flap, poked his head in and found himself blinking in the bright glare of an acetylene lamp suspended in the middle of a Mechanical Transport traveling workshop. The walls—tarpaulin over a wooden frame—were closely packed with an array of tools, and the floor was still more closely packed with a work-bench, vice and lathe, spare motor parts, boxes, and half a dozen men. The men were reading newspapers and magazines; one was manipulating the melodeon, and another at the vice was busy with the file. The various occupations ceased abruptly as Courtenay poked his head in and explained briefly who he was and what his troubles were.
"Thought you might be able to do something for me," he concluded, and before he had finished speaking the man at the vice had laid down his file and was reaching down a mackintosh from its hook. Courtenay noticed a sergeant's stripes on his sleeve, and a thick and most unsoldierly crop of hair on his head plastered back from the brow.
"Why sure," the sergeant said. "If she's anyways fixable, you reckon her as fixed. Whereabouts is she ditched?"
Ten minutes later Courtenay was listening disconsolately to the list of damages discovered by the glare of an electric torch and the sergeant's searching examination.
"It'll take 'most a couple of hours to make any sort of a job," said the sergeant. "That bust up fork alone—but we'll put her to rights for you. Let's yank 'er over to the shop."
Courtenay was a good deal put out by this announcement.
"I suppose there's no help for it," he said resignedly, "but it's dashed awkward. I'm due back at the billets now really, and another two or three hours late—whew!"
"Carryin' a message, I s'pose," said the sergeant, as together they seized the cycle and pushed it towards the repair lorry.
"No," said Courtenay, "I was over seeing another officer out this way." He had an idea from the sergeant's free and easy style of address that the mackintosh, without any visible badges and with a very visible spattering of mud, had concealed the fact that he was an officer, and when he reached the light he casually opened his coat to show his belts and tunic. But the sergeant made not the slightest difference in his manner.
"Guess you'd better pull that wet coat right off," he said casually, "and set down while I get busy. You boys, pike out, hit it for the downy, an' get any sleep you all can snatch. That break-down will be ambling along in about three hours an' shoutin' for quick repairs, so you'll have to hustle some. That three hours is about all the sleep comin' to you to-night; so, beat it."
The damaged cycle was lifted into the lorry and propped up on its stand and before the men had donned their mackintoshes and "beat it," the sergeant was busy dismembering the damaged fork. Courtenay pulled off his wet coat and settled himself comfortably on a box after offering his assistance and being assured it was not required. The sergeant conversed affably as he worked.
At first he addressed Courtenay as "mister," but suddenly—"Say," he remarked, "what ought I to be calling you? I never can remember just what those different stars-an'-stripes fixin's mean."
"My name is Courtenay and I'm second lieutenant," said the other. He was a good deal surprised, for naturally, a man does not usually reach the rank of sergeant without learning the meaning of the badges of rank on an officer's sleeve.
"My name's Rawbon—Willard K. Rawbon," said the sergeant easily. "So now we know where we are. Will you have a cigar, Loo-tenant?" he went on, slipping a case from his pocket and extending it. Courtenay noticed the solidly expensive get-up and the gold initials on the leather and was still more puzzled. He reassured himself by another look at the sergeant's stripes and the regulation soldier's khaki jacket. "No, thanks," he said politely, and struggling with an inclination to laugh, "I'll smoke a cigarette," and took one from his own case and lighted it. He was a good deal interested and probed gently.
"You're Canadian, I suppose?" he said. "But this isn't Canadian Transport, is it?"
"Not," said the sergeant "Neither it nor me. No Canuck in mine, Loo-tenant. I'm good United States."
"I see," said Courtenay. "Just joined up to get a finger in the fighting?"
"Yes an' no," said the sergeant, going on with his work in a manner that showed plainly he was a thoroughly competent workman. "It was a matter of business in the first place, a private business deal that—"
"I beg your pardon," said Courtenay hastily, reddening to his ear-tips. "Please don't think I meant to question you. I say, are you sure I can't help with that? It's too bad my sitting here watching you do all the work."
The sergeant straightened himself slowly from the bench and looked at Courtenay, a quizzical smile dawning on his thin lips. "Why now, Loo-tenant," he said, "there's no need to get het up none. I know you Britishers hate to be thought inquisitive—'bad form,' ain't it!—but I didn't figure it thataway, not any. I'd forgot for a minute the difference 'tween—" He broke off and looked down at his sleeve, nodding to the stripes and then to the lieutenant's star. "An' if you don't mind I'll keep on forgetting it meantime. 'Twon't hurt discipline, seeing nobody's here anyway. Y' see," he went on, stooping to his work again, "I'm not used to military manners an' customs. A year ago if you'd told me I'd be a soldier, and in the British Army, I'd ha' thought you clean loco."
Courtenay laughed. "There's a good many in the same British Army can say the same as you," he said.
"I was in London when the flare-up came, an' bein' interested in business I didn't ball up my intellect with politics an' newspaper war talk. So a cable I had from the firm hit me wallop, an' plumb dazed me. It said, 'Try secure war contract. One hundred full-powered available now. Two hundred delivery within month.' Then I began to sit up an' take notice. Y' see, I'm in with a big firm of auto builders—mebbe you know 'em—Rawbon an' Spedding, the Rawbon bein' my dad? No? Well, anyhow, I got the contract, got it so quick it made my head swim. Gee, that fellow in the War Office was buyin' up autos like I'd buy pipe-lights. The hundred lorries was shipped over, an' I saw 'em safe through the specified tests an' handed 'em over. Same with the next two hundred, an' this"—tapping his toe on the floor—"is one of 'em right here."
"I see how the lorry got here," said Courtenay, hugely interested, "but I don't see how you've managed to be aboard. You and a suit of khaki and a sergeant's stripes weren't all in the contract, I suppose?"
"Nope," said the sergeant, "not in the written one, mebbe. But I took a fancy to seein' how the engines made out under war conditions, an' figured I might get some useful notes on it for the firm, so I fixed it to come right along."
"But how?" asked Courtenay—"if that's not a secret."
"Why, that guy in the testin' sheds was plump tickled when I told him my notion. He fixed it all, and me suddenly discoverin' I was mistook for a Canadian I just said 'M-m-m' when anybody asked me. I had to enlist though, to put the deal through, an' after that there wasn't trouble enough to clog the works of a lady's watch. But there was trouble enough at the other end. My dad fair riz up an' screeched cablegrams at me when I hinted at goin' to the Front. He made out it was on the business side he was kickin', with the attitude of the U-nited States toward the squabble thrown in as extra. Neutrals, he said we was, benevolent neutrals, an' he wasn't goin' to have a son o' his steppin' outside the ring-fence o' the U-nited States Constitution, to say nothing of mebbe losin' good business we'd been do in' with the Hoggheimers, an' Schmidt Brothers, an' Fritz Schneckluk, an' a heap more buyers o' his that would rear up an' rip-snort an' refuse to do another cent's worth of dealing with a firm that was sellin' 'em autos wi' one hand an' shootin' holes in their brothers and cousins and Kaisers wi' the other. I soothed the old man down by pointing out I was to go working these lorries, and the British Army don't shoot Germans with motor-lorries; and I'd be able to keep him posted in any weak points, if, and as, and when they developed, so he could keep ahead o' the crowd in improvements and hooking in more fat contracts; and lastly, that the Schmidt customer crowd didn't need to know a thing about me being here unless he was dub enough to tell 'em. So I signed on to serve King George an' his missus an' kids for ever an' ever, or duration of war, Amen, with a mental footnote, which last was the only part I mentioned in mailing my dad, that I was a Benevolent Neutral. An' here I am."
"Good egg," laughed Courtenay. "Hope you're liking the job."
"Waal, I'll amit I'm some disappointed, Loo-tenant," drawled the sergeant. "Y' see I did expect I'd have a look in at some of the fightin'. I'm no ragin' blood-drinker an' bone-buster by profession, up-bringin', or liking. But it does seem sorter poor play that a man should be plumb center of the biggest war in history an' never see a single solitary corpse. An' that's me. I been trailin' around with this convoy for months, and never got near enough to a shell burst to tell it from a kid's firework. It ain't in the program of this trench warfare to have motor transport under fire, and the program is bein' strictly attended to. It's some sight too, they tell me, when a good mix-up is goin' on up front. I've got a camera here that I bought special, thinking it would be fun later to show round my album in the States an' point out this man being skewered on a bayonet an' that one being disrupted by a bomb an' the next lot charging a trench. But will you believe me, Loo-tenant, I haven't as much as set eye or foot on the trenches. I did once take a run up on the captain's 'Douglas,' thinking I'd just have a walk around an' see the sights and get some snaps. But I might as well have tried to break into Heaven an' steal the choir's harps. I was turned back about ten ways I tried, and wound up by being arrested as a spy an' darn near gettin' shot. I got mad at last and I told some fellows, stuck all over with red tabs and cap-bands and armlets, that they could keep their old trenches, and I didn't believe they were worth looking at anyway."
Courtenay was laughing again. "I fancy I see the faces of the staff," he choked.
"Oh, they ante-d up all right later on," admitted the sergeant, "when they'd discovered this column and roped in my captain to identify me. One old leather-face, 'specially—they told me after he was a General—was as nice as pie, an' had me in an' fed me a fresh meat and canned asparagus lunch and near chuckled himself into a choking fit when I told him about dad, an' my being booked up as a Benevolent Neutral. He was so mighty pleasant that I told him I'd like to have my dad make him a present of as dandy an auto as rolls in France. I would have, too, but he simply wouldn't listen to me; told me he'd send it back freight if I did; and I had to believe him, though, it seemed unnatural. But they wouldn't let me go look at their blame trenches. I tried to get this General joker to pass me in, but he wouldn't fall for it. 'No, no,' he gurgles and splutters. 'A Benevolent Neutral in the trenches! Never do, never do. We'll have to put some new initials on the Mechanical Transport,' he says, 'B.N.M.T. Benevolent Neutral! I must tell Dallas of the Transport that.' And he shooed me off with that."
The sergeant had worked busily as he talked, and now, as he commenced to replace the repaired fork, he was thoughtfully silent a moment.
"I suppose there's some dandy sna-aps up in those trenches, Loo-tenant?" he said at last.
"Oh, well, I dunno," said Courtenay. "Sort of thing you see in the picture papers, of course."
"Them!" said the sergeant contemptuously. "I could make better sna-aps posin' some of the transport crowd in these emergency trenches dug twenty miles back from the front. I mean real pictures of the real thing—fellows knee-deep in mud, and a shell lobbing in, and such like—real dandy snaps. It makes my mouth water to think of 'em. But I suppose I'll go through this darn war and never see enough to let me hold up my head when I get back home and they ask me what was the war really like and to tell 'em about the trenches. I could have made out if I'd even seen those blame trenches and got some good snaps of 'em."
Courtenay was moved to a rash compassion and a still more rash promise.
"Look here, sergeant," he said, "I'm dashed if I don't have a try to get you a look at the trenches. We go in again in two days and it might be managed."
* * * * *
Three days later Sergeant Rawbon, mounted on the motor-cycle which he had repaired and which had been sent over to him, found all his obstacles to the trenches melt and vanish before a couple of passes with which he was provided—one readily granted by his captain on hearing the reason for its request, and one signed by Second Lieutenant Courtenay to pass the bearer, Sergeant Rawbon, on his way to the headquarters of the 1st Footsloggers with motor-cycle belonging to that battalion. The last quarter mile of the run to the headquarters introduced Sergeant Rawbon to the sensation of being under fire, and, as he afterwards informed Courtenay, he did not find the sensation in any way pleasant.
"Loo-tenant," he said gravely, "I've had some of this under fire performance already, and I tell you I finds it no ways nice. Coming along that last bit of road I heard something whistling every now an' then like the top note of a tin whistle, and something else goin' whisk like a cane switched past your ear, and another lot saying smack like a whip-lash snapping. I was riding slow and careful, because that road ain't exactly—well, it would take a lot of sandpapering to make it really smooth. But when I realized that those sounds spelt bullets with a capital B, I decided that road wasn't as bad as I'd thought, and that anything up to thirty knots wasn't outside its limits."
"Oh, you were all right," said Courtenay carelessly, "bullets can't touch you there, except a few long-distance ones that fall in enfilade over the village. From the front they go over your head, or hit that parapet along the side of the road."
"Which is comforting, so far," said the sergeant, "though, personally, I've just about as much objection to be hit by a bullet that comes over a village as any other kind."
They were outside the remains of a house in the cellar of which was headquarters, Courtenay having timed the sergeant to arrive at an hour when he, Courtenay, could arrange to be waiting at headquarters.
"Now we'll shove along down and round the trenches. I spoke to the O.C. and explained the situation—partly. He didn't raise any trouble so just follow me, and leave me to do any talking there is to do. You must keep your eyes open and ask any questions about things after. It would look a bit odd and raise remarks if the men saw me showing you round and doing the Cook's Tour guide business. And if you've brought that camera, keep it out of sight till I give you the word. When we get along to my own company's bit of trench I'll tell you, and you can take some snaps—when I'm not looking at you. Just tip the wink to any men about and they'll be quite pleased to pose or anything you like."
"Loo-tenant," said Sergeant Rawbon earnestly, "you're doin' this thing real handsome, and I won't forget it. If ever you hit the U-nited States——"
"Oh, that's all right," said Courtenay, "come along now."
"When we find your bunch," said Rawbon as they moved off, "if you could make some sort of excuse out loud, and fade from the scene a minute and leave me there with the men, I'll sure get some of the dandiest snaps I'd wish. I reckon it'll satisfy the crowd if I promise to send 'em copies. It will if they're anything like my lot in the Mechanical Transport."
They slid down into a deep and narrow and very muddy ditch that ran twistingly through the wrecked village. Courtenay explained that usually they could walk this part above ground, sheltered from bullets by the broken-down houses and walls, but that a good few shells had been coming over all day, and that in the communication trench they were safe from all shells but those which burst directly over or in the part they were in.
"You want to run across this bit," he said presently. "A high explosive broke that in this morning, and it can't be repaired properly till dark. You go first and wait the other side for me. Now—jump lively!"
Rawbon took one quick jumping stride to the middle of the gap, and another and very much quicker one beyond it, as a bullet smacked venomously into the broken side of the trench. Another threw a spurt of mud at Courtenay's heels as he made the rush. "A sniper watches the gap and pots at anyone passing," he explained to Rawbon. "It's fairly safe, because at the range he's firing a bullet takes just a shade longer to reach here than you take to run across. But it doesn't do to walk."
"No," said Rawbon, "and going back somehow I don't think I will walk. I can see without any more explainin' that it's no spot for a pleasant, easy little saunter." He stopped suddenly as a succession of whooping rushes passed overhead. "Gee! What's that?"
"Shells from our own guns," said Courtenay, and took the lead again. In his turn he stopped and crouched, calling to Rawbon to keek down. They heard a long screaming whistle rising to a tempestuous roar and breaking off in a crash which made the ground shake. Next moment a shower of mud and earth and stones fell rattling and thumping about and into the trench.
"Coal-box," said Courtenay hurriedly. "Come on. They're apt to drop some more about the same spot."
"I'm with you," said Rawbon. "The same spot is a good one to quit, I reckon."
They hurried, slipping and floundering, along the wet trench, and turned at last into another zig-zag one where a step ran along one side, and men muffled in wet coats stood behind a loopholed parapet. Along the trench was a series of tiny shelters scooped out of the bank, built up with sand-bags, covered ineffectually with wet, shiny, waterproof ground-sheets. In these, men were crouched over scantily filled braziers, or huddled, curled up like homeless dogs on a doorstep. At intervals along the parapet men watched through periscopes hoisted over the top edge, and every now and then one fired through a loophole. The trench bottom where they walked was anything from ankle- to knee-deep in evil-looking watery mud of the consistency of very thin porridge. The whole scene, the picture of wet misery, the dirt and squalor and discomfort made Rawbon shiver as much from disgust as from the raw cold that clung about the oozing clay walls and began to bite through to his soaking feet and legs. Courtenay stopped near a group of men, and telling the sergeant to wait there a moment, moved on and left him. A puff of cold wet wind blew over the parapet, and the sergeant wrinkled his nose disgustedly. "Some odorous," he commented to a mud-caked private hunkered down on his heels on the fire-step with his back against the trench wall. "Does, the Boche run a glue factory or a fertilizer works around here?"
"The last about fits it," said the private grimly. "They made an attack here about a week back, and there's a tidy few fertilizin' out there now—to say nothin' of some of ours we can't get in."
Rawbon squirmed uneasily to think he should, however unwittingly, have jested about their dead, but nobody there seemed in any way shocked or resentful. The sergeant suddenly remembered his camera, and had thrust his hand under his coat to his pocket when the warning screech of an approaching shell and the example of the other men in the traverse sent him crouching low in the trench bottom. The trench there was almost knee-deep in thin mud, but everyone apparently took that as a matter of course. The shell burst well behind them, but it was followed immediately by about a dozen rounds from a light gun. They came uncomfortably close, crashing overhead and just in front of the parapet. A splinter from one lifted a man's cap from his head and sent it flying. The splinter's whirr and the man's sharp exclamation brought all eyes in his direction. His look of comical surprise and the half-dazed fashion of his lifting a hand to fumble cautiously at his head raised some laughter and a good deal of chaff.
"Orright," he said angrily. "Orright, go on; laugh, dash yer. Fat lot t' laugh at, seein' a man's good cap pitched in the mud."
"No use you feelin' that 'ead o' yours," said his neighbor, grinning. "You can't even raise a sick 'eadache out o' that squeak. 'Arf an inch lower now an' you might 'ave 'ad a nice little trip 'ome in an 'orspital ship."
"You're wrong there, Jack," said another solemnly. "That splinter hit fair on top of his nut, an' glanced off. You don't think a pifflin' little Pip-Squeak shell could go through his head?" He stepped up on the firing-step as he spoke, and on the instant, with a rush and crash, another "Pip-Squeak" struck the parapet immediately in front of him, blowing the top edge off it, filling the air with a volcano of mud, dirt, smoke, and shrieking splinters, and, either from the shock of the explosion or in an attempt to escape it, throwing the man off his balance on the ledge of the firing-step to sprawl full length in the mud. In the swirl of noise and smoke and flying earth Rawbon just glimpsed the plunging fall of a man's body, and felt a curious sickly feeling at the pit of his stomach. He was relieved beyond words to see the figure rise to his knees and stagger to his feet, dripping mud and filth, and swearing at the pitch of his voice. He paid no attention to the stutter of laughter round him as he retrieved his mud-encrusted rifle, and looked about him for his cap. The laughter rose as he groped in the thin mud for it, still cursing wildly; and then the sergeant noticed that the man who had lost his cap a minute before had quietly snatched up the other one from the firing-step, clapped it on his own head and pretended to help the loser to search.
"It was blame funny, I suppose," Rawbon told the lieutenant a few minutes after, as they moved from the spot. "Him chasin' round in the mud cussin' all blue about his 'blarsted cap'; and t'other fellow wi' the cap on his head and pretending to hunt for it, and callin' the rest to come help. I dessay I'll laugh some myself, if I remember it when I'm safe back about ten mile from here. Just at the moment my funny bone hasn't got goin' right after me expectin' to see that feller blowed to ribbons an' remnants. But them others—say, I've seen men sittin' comfortable in an armchair seat at a roof-garden vaudeville that couldn't raise as hearty a laugh at the prize antics of the thousand dollar star comedian, as them fellers riz on that cap episode."
"Well, it was rather funny, you know," said Courtenay, grinning a little himself.
"Mebbe, mebbe," said Rawbon. "But me—well, if you'll excuse it, I'll keep that laugh in pickle till I feel more like usin' it."
"You wanted to come, you know," said Courtenay. "But I won't blame you if you say you've had enough and head for home. As I told you before, this 'joy-riding' game is rather silly. It's bad enough us taking risks we have to, but——"
"Yes, you spoke that piece, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon, "but I want to see all there is on show now I'm here. Only don't expect me to shriek with hilarious mirth every time a shell busts six inches off my nose."
They had halted for a moment, and now another crackling string of light shells burst along the trench.
"There's another bunch o' humor arriving," said Rawbon. "But I don't feel yet like encoring the turn any;"
They moved on to a steady accompaniment of shell bursts and Courtenay looked round uneasily.
"I don't half like this," he said. "They don't usually shell us so at this time of day. Hope there's no attack coming."
"I agree with all you say, Loo-tenant, and then some. Especially about not liking it."
"I'm beginning to think you'd be better off these premises," said Courtenay. "I ought to be with my company if any trouble is coming off. And it might lead to questions and unpleasantness if you were found here—especially if you're a casualty, or I am."
"Nuff sed, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon promptly. "I don't want that sort o' trouble for various reasons. I'd have an everlastin' job explaining to my dad what I was doin' in the front seats o' the firing line. It wouldn't just fit wi' my bein' a Benevolent Neutral, not anyhow."
"We're only about thirty or forty yards from the Germ trench in this bit," said Courtenay. "Here, carry my periscope, and when I'm talking to some of the men just take a look quietly."
But Rawbon was not able to see much when, a little later, he had a chance to use the periscope. For one thing the short winter day was fading and the light was already poor; for another any attempt to keep the periscope above the parapet for more than a few seconds brought a series of bullets hissing and zipping over, and periscope glasses in those days were too precious to risk for mere curiosity's sake.
"We'll just have a look at the Frying Pan," said Courtenay, "and then you'll have seen about the lot. We hold a bit of the trench running out beyond the Pan and the Germs are holding the same trench a little further along. We've both got the trench plugged up with sandbag barricades."
They floundered along the twisting trench till it turned sharply to the right and ran out into the shallow hollow of the Frying Pan. It was swimming in greasy mud, and across the far side from where they stood Rawbon could see a breastwork of sandbags.
"We call this entrance trench the Handle, and the trench that runs out from behind that barricade the Leak. There's always more or less bombing going on in the Leak, and I don't know if it's very wise of you to go up there. We call this the Frying Pan because—well, 'into the fire,' you know. Will you chance it?"
"Why, sure; if you don't mind, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon, "I might as well see—" He was interrupted by a sudden crash and roar, running bursts of flaring light, hoarse yells and shouts, and a few rifle shots from somewhere beyond the barricade across the Leak. The work of the next minute was too fast and furious for Rawbon to follow or understand. The uproar beyond the barricade swelled and clamored, and the earth shook to the roar of bursting bombs. In the Frying Pan there was a sudden vision of confused figures, dimly seen through the swirling smoke, swaying and struggling, threshing and splashing in the liquid mud. He was just conscious of Courtenay shouting something about "Get back," of his being thrust violently back into the wide trench, of two or three figures crowding in after him, cursing and staggering and shooting back into the Frying Pan, of Courtenay's voice shouting again to "Stand clear," of a knot of men scrambling and heaving at something, and then of a deafening "Rat-tat-tat-tat," and the streaming flashes of a machine-gun. It stopped firing after a minute, and Rawbon, flattened back against a corner of the trench wall, heard an explanation given by a gasping private to Courtenay and another mud-bedaubed officer who appeared mysteriously from somewhere.
"Flung a shower o' bombs an' rushed us, sir," said the private. "They was over a-top o' us 'fore you could say 'knife.' Only two or three o' us that wasn't downed and was able to get back out o' the Leak an' across the Pan to here."
"We stopped them with the maxim," said Courtenay, "but I suppose they'll rush again in a minute."
He and the other officer conferred hastily. Rawbon caught a few words about "counterattack" and "quicker the better" and "all the men I can find," and then the other officer moved hurriedly down the trench and men came jostling and crowding to the end of the Handle, just clear of the corner where it turned into the Pan. A few sandbags were pulled down off the parapet and heaped across the end of the trench, the machine-gun was run close up to them and a couple of men posted, one to watch with a periscope, and the other to keep Verey pistol lights flaring into the Frying Pan.
Two minutes later the other officer returned, spoke hastily to Courtenay, and then calling to the men to follow, jumped the low barricade and ran splashing out into the open hollow with the men streaming after him. A burst of rifle fire and the shattering crash of bombs met them, and continued fiercely for a few minutes after the last of the counter-attacking party had swarmed out. But the attack broke down, never reached the barricade beyond the Pan, was, in fact, cut down almost as fast as it emerged into the open. A handful of men came limping and floundering back, and Courtenay, waiting by the machine-gun in case of another German rush, caught sight of the face of the last man in.
"Rawbon!" he said sharply. "Good Lord, man! I'd forgotten—What took you out there?"
"Say, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon, panting hard. "There's no crossin' that mud puddle Fry-Pan. They're holding the barricade 'cross there; got loopholes an' shootin' through 'em. Can't we climb out an' over the open an' on top of 'em?"
"No good," said Courtenay. "They're sweeping it with maxims. Listen!"
Up to then Rawbon had heeded nothing above the level of the trench and the hollow but now he could hear the steady roar of rifle and maxim fire, and the constant whistle of bullets streaming overhead.
"I must rally another crowd and try'n' rush it," said Courtenay. "Stand ready with that maxim there. I won't be long."
"I've got a box of bombs here, sir," said a man behind him.
Courtenay turned sharply. "Good," he said. "But no—it's too far to throw them."
"I think I could just about fetch it, sir," said the man.
"All right," said Courtenay. "Try it while I get some men together."
"Here y' are, chum," said the man, "you light 'em an' I'll chuck 'em. This way for the milky coco-nuts!"
Rawbon watched curiously. The bomb was round shaped and rather larger than a cricket ball. A black tube affair an inch or two long projected from it and emitted, when lit, a jet of hissing, spitting sparks. The bomb-thrower seized the missile quickly, stepped clear of the sheltering corner of the trench, threw the bomb, and jumped back under cover. A couple of bullets slapped into the wall of the trench, and next moment the bomb burst.
"Just short," said the thrower, who had peeped out at sound of the report. "Let's 'ave another go."
This time a shower of bullets greeted him as he stepped out, but he hurled his bomb and stepped back in safety. A third he threw, but this time a bullet caught him and he reeled back with blood staining the shoulder of his tunic.
"You'll 'ave to excuse me," he remarked gravely to the man with the match. "Can't stay now. I 'ave an urgent appointment in Blighty.[Footnote: England. A soldier's corruption of the Hindustani word "Belati."] But I'll drink your 'ealth when I gets to Lunnon."
Rawbon had watched the throwing impatiently. "Look here," he said suddenly. "Just lemme have a whale at this pitching. I'll show 'em some curves that'll dazzle 'em."
The wounded man peered at him and then at his cap badge. "Now 'oo the blank is this?" he demanded. "Blimey, Joe, if 'ere ain't a blooming Universal Plum-an'-Apple Provider. 'Ere, 'oo stole the strawberry jam?"
"You let me in on this ball game," said Rawbon. "Light 'em and pass 'em quick, and see me put the Indian sign on that bunch."
A minute later Courtenay came back and stared in amazement at the scene. Two men were lighting and passing up bombs to the sergeant, who, standing clear out in the opening, grabbed and hurled the balls with an extraordinary prancing and dancing and arm-swinging series of contortions, while the crowded trench laughed and applauded.
"Some pitchin', Loo-tenant," he panted beamingly, stepping back into shelter. "Hark at 'em. And every darn one right over the plate. Say, step out here an' watch this next lot."
"No time now," said Courtenay hurriedly.
"They're strengthening their defense every minute. Are you all ready there, lads?"
"I don't know who this man is, sir," said a sergeant quickly. "But he's doing great work. Every bomb has gone in behind the parado there. He might try a few more to shake them before we advance."
"Behind the parakeet," snorted Rawbon. "I should smile. You watch! I'll put some through the darn loopholes for you. Didn't know I was pitcher to the Purple Socks, the year we whipped the League, did you? Gimme thirty seconds, Loo-tenant, and I'll put thirty o' these balls right where they live."
As he spoke he picked up two of the bombs from a fresh box and held them to the lighter. As he plunged out a shower of bullets spattered the trench wall about him, but without heeding these he began to throw. As the roar of the bursting bombs began, the bullets slowed down and ceased. "Keep the lights blazing," Rawbon paused to shout to the man with the pistol flares. "You slide out for the home base, Loo-tenant, and I'll keep 'em too busy to shoot their nasty little guns." He commenced to hurl the bombs again. Courtenay stepped out and watched a moment. Bomb after bomb whizzed true and hard across the hollow, just skimmed the breastwork, struck on the trench wall that showed beyond and a foot above it, and fell behind the barricade. Billowing smoke-clouds and gusts of flame leaped and flashed above the parapet. Courtenay saw the chance and took it. He plunged out into the lake of mud and plowed through it towards the barricade, the men swarming behind him, and the sergeant's bombs hurtling with trailing streams of sparks over their heads.
"Come on, son," said the sergeant. "You carry that box and gimme the slow match. I pitch better with a little run."
Courtenay reached the barricade and led his men over and round it without a casualty. The space behind the barricade was deserted—deserted, that is, except by the dead, and by some unutterable things that would have been better dead.
The lost portion of trench was recaptured, and more, the defense, demoralized by that tornado of explosions, was pushed a good fifty yards further back before the counter-attack was stayed.
At daybreak next morning Courtenay and the sergeant stood together on the road leading to the communication trench. Both were crusted to the shoulders in thick mud; Rawbon's cap was gone, and his hair hung plastered in a wet mop over his ears and forehead, and Courtenay showed a red-stained bandage under his cap.
"Rawbon," he said, "I feel rotten over this business. Here you've done some real good work—I don't believe we'd ever have got across without your bombing—and you won't let me say a word about it. I'm dashed if I like it. Dash it, you ought to get a V.C., or a D.C.M. at least, for it."
"Now lookahere, Loo-tenant," said Rawbon soothingly. "There's no need for you to feel peaked—not any. It was darn good of you to let me in on these sacred no-admittance-'cept-on-business trenches, and I'm plumb glad I landed in the mix-up. It would probably raise trouble for you if your boss knew you'd slipped me in; and it sure would raise everlasting trouble for me at home if my name was flourishin' in the papers gettin' an A.B.C. or D.A.M.N. or whatever the fixin' is. And I'd sooner have this"—slapping the German helmet that dangled at his belt—"than your whole darn alphabet o' initials. Don't forget what I told you about the dad an' those Schwartzeheimer friends o' his, the cousins o' which same friends I've been blowin' off the earth with bomb base-balls. Let it go at that, and never forget it, friend—I'm a Benevolent Neutral."
"I won't forget it," said Courtenay, laughing and shaking hands. He watched the sergeant as he bestrode the motor-cycle, pushed off, and swung off warily down the wet road into the morning mist.
"What was it that despatch said a while back!" he mused. "Something about 'There are few who appreciate or even understand the value of the varied work of the Army Service Corps.' Well, this lot was a bit more varied than usual, and I fancy it might astonish even the fellow who wrote that line."
"Yesterday one of the enemy's heavy guns was put out of action by our artillery."—EXTRACT FROM DESPATCH.
"Stand fast!" the instructor bellowed, and while the detachment stiffened to immobility he went on, without stopping to draw breath, bellowing other and less printable remarks. After he had finished these he ordered "Detachment rear!" and taking more time and adding even more point to his remarks, he repeated some of them and added others, addressing abruptly and virulently the "Number" whose bungling had aroused his wrath.
"You've learnt your gun drill," he said, "learned it like a sulphur-crested cockatoo learns to gabble 'Pretty Polly scratch a poll'; why in the name of Moses you can't make your hands do what your tongue says 'as me beat. You, Donovan, that's Number Three, let me hear you repeat the drill for Action Front."
Donovan, standing strictly to attention, and with his eyes fixed straight to his front, drew a deep breath and rattled off:
"At the order or signal from the battery leader or section commander, 'Halt action front!' One orders 'Halt action front!'—At the order from One, the detachment dismounts, Three unkeys, and with Two lifts the trail; when the trail is clear of the hook, Three orders 'Limber drive on.'"
The instructor interrupted explosively.
"You see," he growled, "you know it. Three orders 'Limber drive on.' You're Three! but did you order limber drive on, or limber drive off, or drive anywhere at all? Did you expect drivers that would be sitting up there on their horses, with their backs turned to you, to have eyes in the backs of their heads to see when you had the trail lifted, or did you be expectin' them to thought-read that you wanted them to drive on!"
Three, goaded at last to a sufficiency of daring, ventured to mutter something about "was going to order it."
The instructor caught up the phrase and flayed him again with it. "'Was going to,'" he repeated, "'was going to order it.' Perhaps some day, when a bullet comes along and drills a hole in your thick head, you will want to tell it you 'was going to' get out of the way. You maybe expect the detachment to halt and stand easy, and light a cigarette, and have a chat while you wait to make up your mind what you're going to say, and when you're going to say it! And if ever you get past recruit drill in the barracks square, my lad, and smell powder burnt in action, you'll learn that there's no such thing as 'going to' in your gun drill. If you're slow at it, if you fumble your fingers, and tie knots in your tongue, and stop to think about your 'going to,' you'll find maybe that 'going to' has gone before you make up your mind, and the only thing 'going to' will be you and your detachment; and its Kingdom Come you'll be 'going to' at that. And now we'll try it again, and if I find any more 'going to' about it this time it's an hour's extra drill a day you'll be 'going to' for the next week."
He kept the detachment grilling and grinding for another hour before he let them go, and at the end of it he spent another five minutes pointing out the manifold faults and failings of each individual in the detachment, reminding them that they belonged to the Royal Regiment of Artillery that is "The right of the line, the terror of the world, and the pride of the British Army," and that any man who wasn't a shining credit to the Royal Regiment was no less than a black disgrace to it.
When the detachment dismissed, and for the most part gravitated to the canteen, they passed some remarks upon their instructor almost pungent enough to have been worthy of his utterance. "Him an' his everlastin' 'Cut the Time!'"
"I'm just about fed up with him," said Gunner Donovan bitterly, "and I'd like to know where's all the sense doing this drill against a stop-watch. You'd think from the way he talks that a man's life was hanging on the whiskers of a half-second. Blanky rot, I call it."
"I wouldn't mind so much," said another gunner, "if ever he thought to say we done it good, but not 'im. The better we does it and the faster, the better and the faster he wants it done. It's my belief that if he had a gun detachment picked from the angels above he'd tell 'em their buttons and their gold crowns was a disgrace to Heaven, that they was too slow to catch worms or catch a cold, and that they'd 'ave to cut the time it took 'em to fly into column o' route from the right down the Golden Stairs, or to bring their 'arps to the 'Alt action front."
These were the mildest of the remarks that passed between the smarting Numbers of the gun detachment, but they would have been astonished beyond words if they could have heard what their instructor Sergeant "Cut-the-Time" was saying at that moment to a fellow-sergeant in the sergeants' mess.
"They're good lads," he said, "and it's me, that in my time has seen the making and the breaking and the handling and the hammering of gun detachments enough to man every gun in the Army, that's saying it. I had them on the 'Halt action front' this morning, and I tell you they've come on amazing since I took 'em in hand. We cut three solid seconds this morning off the time we have been taking to get the gun into action, and a second a round off the firing of ten rounds. They'll make gunners yet if they keep at it."
"Three seconds is good enough," said the other mildly.
"It isn't good enough," returned the instructor, "if they can make it four, and four's not good enough if they can make it five. It's when they can't cut the time down by another split fraction of a second that I'll be calling them good enough. They won't be blessing me for it now, but come the day maybe they will."
* * * * *
The battery was moving slowly down a muddy road that ran along the edge of a thick wood. It had been marching most of the night, and, since the night had been wet and dark, the battery was splashed and muddy to the gun-muzzles and the tops of the drivers' caps. It was early morning, and very cold. Gunners and drivers were muffled in coats and woolen scarves, and sat half-asleep on their horses and wagons. A thick and chilly mist had delayed the coming of light, but now the mist had lifted suddenly, blown clear by a quickly risen chill wind. When the mist had been swept away sufficiently for something to be seen of the surrounding country, the Major, riding at the head of the battery, passed the word to halt and dismount, and proceeded to "find himself on the map." Glancing about him, he picked out a church steeple in the distance, a wayside shrine, and a cross-road near at hand, a curve of the wood beside the road, and by locating these on the squared map, which he took from its mud-splashed leather case, he was enabled to place his finger on the exact spot on the map where his battery stood at that moment. Satisfied on this, he was just about to give the order to mount when he heard the sound of breaking brushwood and saw an infantry officer emerge from the trees close at hand.
The officer was a young man, and was evidently on an errand of haste. He slithered down the steep bank at the edge of the wood, leaped the roadside ditch, asked a question of the nearest man, and, getting an answer from him, came at the double past the guns and teams towards the Major. He saluted hastily, said "Mornin', sir," and went on breathlessly: "My colonel sent me across to catch you. We are in a ditch along the edge of the far side of this wood, and could just see enough of you between the trees to make out your battery. From where we are we can see a German gun, one of their big brutes, with a team of about twenty horses pulling it, plain and fair out in the open. The Colonel thinks you could knock 'em to glory before they could reach cover."
"Where can I see them from!" said the Major quickly.
"I'll show you," said the subaltern, "if you'll leave your horse and come with me through this wood. It's only a narrow belt of trees here."
The Major turned to one of his subalterns who was with him at the head of the battery.
"Send back word to the captain to come up here and wait for me!" he said rapidly. "Tell him what you have just heard this officer say, and tell him to give the word, 'Prepare for action.' And now," he said, turning to the infantryman, "go ahead."
The two of them jumped the ditch, scrambled up the bank, and disappeared amongst the trees.
A message back to the captain who was at the rear of the battery brought him up at a canter. The subaltern explained briefly what he had heard, and the captain, after interrupting him to shout an order to "Prepare for action," heard the finish of the story, pulled out his map, and pointing out on it a road shown as running through the trees, sent the subaltern off to reconnoiter it.
The men were stripping off their coats, rolling them and strapping them to the saddles and the wagon seats; the Numbers One, the sergeants in charge of each gun, bustling their gunners, and seeing everything about the guns made ready: the gunners examining the mechanism and gears of the gun, opening and closing the hinged flaps of the wagons, and tearing the thin metal cover off the fuses.
It was all done smartly and handily, and one after another the sergeants reported their subsections as ready. Immediately the captain gave the order to mount, drivers swung themselves to their saddles, and the gunners to their seats on the wagons, and all sat quietly waiting for whatever order might come next.
The lifting of the mist had shown a target to the gunners on both sides apparently, and the roar and boom of near and distant guns beat and throbbed quicker and at closer intervals.
In three minutes the Major came running back through the wood, and the captain moved to meet him.
"We've got a fair chance!" said the Major exultingly. "One of their big guns clear in the open, and moving at a crawl. I want you to take the battery along the road here, sharp to the right at the cross-road, and through the wood. The Inf. tell me there is just a passable road through. Take guns and firing battery wagons only; leave the others here. When you get through the wood, turn to the right again, and along its edge until you come to where I'll be waiting for you. I'll take the range-taker with me. The order will be 'open sights'; it's the only way—not time to hunt a covered position! Now, is all that clear?"
"Quite clear," said the captain tersely.
"Off you go, then," said the Major; "remember, it's quick work. Trumpeter, come with me, and the range-taker. Sergeant-major, leave the battery staff under cover with the first line."
He swung into the saddle, set his horse at the ditch, and with a leap and scramble was over and up the bank and crashing into the undergrowth, followed by his trumpeter and a man with the six-foot tube of a range-finder strapped to the saddle.
Before he was well off the road the captain shouted the order to walk march, and as the battery did so the subaltern who had been sent out to reconnoiter the road came back at a canter.
"We can just do it," he reported; "it's greasy going, and the road is narrow and rather twisty, but we can do it all right."
The captain sent back word to section commanders, and the other two subalterns spurred forward and joined him.
"We go through the wood," he explained, "and come into action on the other side. The order is 'open sights,' so I expect we'll be in an exposed position. You know what that means. There's a gun to knock out, and if we can do it and get back quick before they get our range we may get off light. If we can't——" and he broke off significantly. "Get back and tell your Numbers One, and be ready for quick moving."
Immediately they had fallen back the order was given to trot, and the battery commenced to bump and rumble rapidly over the rough road. As they neared the cross-roads they were halted a moment, and then the guns and their attendant ammunition wagons only went on, turned into the wood, and recommenced to trot.