OUR CASUALTY AND OTHER STORIES
By G. A. Birmingham
I ~~ OUR CASUALTY
There is not in the whole British Isles a more efficient military body than the Ballyhaine Veterans' Corps. The men look like soldiers when they have their grey uniforms on and their brassards on their sleeves. They talk like soldiers. They have the true military spirit. There is not a man in the company under fifty years of age, but if the Germans attempt a landing on the Ballyhaine beach, by submarine or otherwise, they will be sorry for themselves afterwards—those of them who remain alive.
Ballyhaine is a residential suburb, entirely built over with villas of the better kind. Each villa has its garden. In times of peace we discuss sweet peas or winter spinach or chrysanthemums on our way into town in the morning, travelling, as most of us do, by the 9.45 train, with season tickets, first class.
When our boys went off from us, as they all did early in the war, we felt that it was time for us to do something too. There was not the least difficulty about enrolling the men. We all joined the corps, even poor old Cotter, who must be close on seventy, and who retired from business three years ago. He used to bore us all by talking about his rheumatism, but when the Volunteer Corps was formed he dropped all that, and went about saying that he had never suffered from pain or ache in his life, and could do twenty miles a day without feeling it We made Cotter a corporal.
Our Commanding Officer is Haines, who plays the best hand at bridge of any man in the club. He held a commission in a line regiment before he went on the Stock Exchange. That was thirty-five years ago, and it is not to be supposed that his knowledge of soldiering is up-to-date, but he is the only one of us who has any knowledge of soldiering at all, so we chose him.
The women were a difficulty at first. They insisted on regarding us as a joke, and used to repeat the absurd witticism of the street boys. I heard Janet say "Methusaleers" one day. She denied it, but I am perfectly certain she did not say "Fusiliers," My wife fussed about dry socks and wanted me to take my umbrella on a route march one wet Sunday.
Every other member of the corps had similar experiences. It was Tompkins who hit on a way of dealing satisfactorily with the women. Tompkins is our local doctor. He stays in Ballyhaine all day long when the rest of us go up to town, so he naturally knows a good deal about women. He enrolled them in a volunteer ambulance brigade, and after that they were just as keen as any of us. We did the thing handsomely for them. We bought six stretchers, a small motor ambulance waggon, and some miles of bandages. Janet and Cotter's youngest girl carried one of the stretchers. I should not like to say that my wife actually hoped I should be wounded, but I think she would have liked the chance of bandaging any other man in the corps. The rest of the women felt as she did.
The drawback to Ballyhaine as a centre of military activity is the difficulty of finding a place for practising field manoeuvres. There is the golf links, of course, but we got tired of marching round and round the golf links, and we did not want to dig trenches there. Haines, who does not play golf, drew up a plan of trench digging which would have ruined the golf links for years. But we would not have that. Nor could we dig in each other's gardens, or practise advancing over open country in skirmishing order when there was no open country. The whole district is a network of high walls with broken glass on top of them, a form of defence rendered necessary by the attacks of small boys on our fruit trees.
Fortunately, we had the sea beach. The strand—there are three miles of it—is one of the glories of Ballyhaine. We did most of our manoeuvring there and dug our trenches there. Haines was opposed to this plan at first.
"If the Germans come at all," said Cotter, "they'll come from the sea. They must, this being an island."
"Of course," said Haines.
"Then," said Cotter, "the beach is the place where we shall have to meet them, and the strand is where our trenches ought to be."
There was no answering that argument. Even Haines gave way.
"With barbed wire entanglements," said Cotter, "down to the water's edge."
The weather round about Christmas-time was extraordinarily severe in Ballyhaine. We came in for a series of gales, accompanied by driving rain, and the days at that time of year are so short that most of our soldiering had to be done in the dark.
I got one cold after another, and so did every other member of the corps. Poor old Cotter limped pitifully on parade, but he did not say a word about rheumatism. The spirit of the men was splendid, and not one of us showed a sign of shirking, though Haines kept us at it with ferocity.
Haines varied the digging by making us practise a horrible manoeuvre called "relieving trenches." This was always done in the middle of the night, between twelve and one o'clock. Part of the corps went out early—about 10.30 p.m.—and manned the trenches. The rest of us marched forth at midnight and relieved them.
The worst evening we had all winter was December 8th. It was blowing terrifically from the south-east The sea was tumbling in on the beach in enormous waves, fringing the whole line of the shore with a broad stretch of white foam. The rain swept over the country pitilessly. I came out of town by the 5.10 train, and called at the club on my way home. I found a notice posted up:
"Ballyhaine Veterans' Corps.
"Tonight, December the 8th, trenches will be relieved at 12 midnight No. 1 and No. 2 Platoons to parade at 10.30, march to north end of the strand, and occupy trenches."
That meant a six-mile march for those platoons—three there and three back.
"No. 3 and No. 4 Platoons to parade at 11 p.m., march to cliffs, descend rocks, and relieve trenches as soon as possible after midnight."
I am in No. 3 Platoon, and I confess I shuddered. The rocks at the north end of the beach are abominably slippery. A year ago I should have hesitated about climbing down in broad daylight in the finest weather. My military training had done a good deal for me physically, but I still shrank from those rocks at midnight with a tempest howling round me.
When I reached home I put a good face on the matter. I was not going to admit to my wife or Janet—particularly to Janet—that I was afraid of night operations in any weather.
"Please have my uniform left out for me," I said, "I shall put it on before dinner."
"Surely," said my wife, "you're not going out to-night? I don't think you ought to."
"Duty, my dear," I said.
"Just fancy," said Janet, "if the Germans came and father wasn't there! We might be murdered in our beds!"
I am sometimes not quite sure whether Janet means to scoff or is in serious earnest On this occasion I was inclined to think that she was poking fun at the Veterans' Corps. I frowned at her.
"You'll get dreadfully wet," said my wife.
"Not the least harm in that," I said cheerily.
"It'll give you another cold in your head," said Janet
This time she was certainly sneering. I frowned again.
"Of course," said my wife, "it won't matter to you. You're so strong and healthy. Nothing does you any harm."
I suspected her of attempting a subtle form of flattery, but what she said was quite true. I am, for a man of fifty-three, extremely hardy.
"I'm thinking," she said, "of poor old Mr. Cotter. I don't think he ought to go. Mrs. Cotter was round here this afternoon. She says he's suffering dreadfully from rheumatism, though he won't admit it, and if he goes out to-night... But he's so determined, poor old dear. And she simply can't stop him."
"Cotter," I said, "must stay at home."
"But he won't," said my wife.
"Military ardour is very strong in him," said Janet.
"I'll ring up Dr. Tompkins," I said, "and tell him to forbid Cotter to go out Tompkins is Medical Officer of the corps, and has a right to give orders of the kind. In fact, it's his duty to see that the company's not weakened by ill-health."
"I'm afraid," said my wife, "that Dr. Tompkins can do nothing. Mrs. Cotter was with him before she came here. The fact is that Mr. Cotter won't give in even to the doctor's orders."
I rang up Tompkins and put the case very strongly to him.
"It will simply kill Cotter," I said, "and we can't have that. He may not be of any very great military value, but he's a nice old boy, and we don't want to lose him."
Tompkins agreed with me thoroughly. He said he'd been thinking the matter over since Mrs. Cotter called on him in the afternoon, and had hit upon a plan which would meet the case.
"If only the C.O. will fall in with it," he added.
Haines is in some ways a difficult man. He likes to manage things his own way, and resents any suggestions made to him, particularly by men in the ranks. However, Cotter's life was at stake, so I undertook to tackle Haines, even at the risk of being snubbed. Tompkins explained his plan to me. I rang up Haines, and laid it before him. I put the matter very strongly to him. I even said that the War Office would probably deprive him of his command if it was discovered that he had been wasting the lives of his men unnecessarily.
"The country needs us all," I said, "even Cotter. After all, Cotter is a non-commissioned officer and a most valuable man. Besides, it'll do the Ambulance Brigade a lot of good."
It was this last consideration which weighed most with Haines. He had felt for some time that our ambulance ladies were coming to have too good an opinion of themselves. I had the satisfaction of going back to the drawing-room and telling Janet that the stretcher bearers were to parade at eleven o'clock, and march in the rear of the column—Numbers 3 and 4 Platoons—which went to relieve trenches.
"Rot," said Janet "We can't possibly go out on a night like this."
"C.O.'s orders," I said.
"The stretchers will be utterly ruined," she said, "not to mention our hats."
"C.O.'s orders," I said severely.
"If we must go," said Janet, "we'll take the ambulance waggon.
"No, you won't," I said. "You'll take your stretchers and carry them. Yours not to reason why, Janet And in any case you can't take the ambulance waggon, because we're marching along the beach, and you know perfectly well that the strand is simply scored with trenches. We can't have the ambulance waggon smashed up. It's the only one we have. If a few girls break their legs it doesn't much matter. There are too many girls about the place."
Platoons Numbers 1 and 2 marched off at 10.30 p.m. in a blinding downpour of rain. We watched them go from the porch of the golf pavilion, and promised to relieve them as quickly as we could. We paraded, according to orders, at 11 sharp, and I was glad to see that Janet and the other girls were wet and draggled long before we started.
Haines made us a short speech. He had to shout at the top of his voice because the storm was making a dreadful noise. But we heard what he said. The business of relieving trenches, he told us, would be carried out under strictly war conditions, precisely as if enemy submarines were shelling us from the sea. There would necessarily, supposing the submarines to be actually there, be casualties in our force. Haines told off four men to act as casualties. The first on the list—this was the way Tompkins' plan worked out—was Corporal Cotter.
"Corporal Cotter," said Haines, "will drop out of the ranks as the column passes the third bathing-box, numbering from the south end of the beach, Mrs. Tompkins' bathing-box, which is painted bright green."
Haines was, very properly, most particular about defining the bathing-box exactly.
"Corporal Cotter and the other casualties," said Haines, "will take waterproof ground-sheets with them—two waterproof ground-sheets each—and keep as dry as possible. The stretcher bearers will follow the column at a distance of two hundred paces to pick up the casualties, affording first-aid on the spot, and, on reaching the field hospital, will apply restoratives under the directions of the Company's Medical Officer. For the purposes of these manouvres. Corporal Cotter's house will be regarded as the Field Hospital."
The other three casualties, all elderly and rather delicate men, were ordered to drop out of the ranks at places further along the beach. If it was Janet's luck to reach the furthest casualty she would walk, carrying a stretcher, about a mile and a half altogether. When she got home she would be less inclined to sneer at people who catch cold in the service of their country.
The night was extremely dark. I do not think I have ever experienced a darker night. We could hear the sea roaring on our left, and could see, when we looked back, a dim glow here and there from the windows of our houses; but it was quite impossible to see anything on the beach.
I missed Cotter when we had been stumbling along for about a quarter of an hour, and felt glad that he had done his share. In a minute or so, I hoped, he would be safe on a stretcher, and half an hour later would be drinking whisky and water, hot That, so Tompkins told me, was the restorative which was to be administered to all the casualties.
We got through the business of relieving the trenches in the end, though we had a tough struggle. The great difficulty was to find them. If Platoons Numbers 1 and 2 could have shouted to us or flashed their electric torches we should have got them much sooner than we did. But noise and light were strictly forbidden. They would, so Haines said, attract the enemy's fire, and result in our being wiped out by shrapnel.
I got separated at one time from the rest of my platoon, and walked into the sea twice. Afterwards I fell over the Company Sergeant-Major, who was sitting in a pool beside a rock. He said he had sprained his ankle. But that turned out not to be true. He had only twisted it a little, and was able to limp home. In civil life our Company Sergeant-Major is one of the directors of the Corporate Banking Company Ltd., and drives into town in his own motor.
Then I came on Haines, wandering by himself on a sandhill. He was swearing viciously. It was, indeed, the sound of his oaths which led me to him. They were not loud, but they were uttered with an intensity which gave them the power of piercing through the tumult of the storm. He and I and the Company Sergeant-Major stuck together, and at 1 a.m.—we took the time from Haines' luminous-faced wrist watch—we suddenly tumbled into the trench.
We found the whole four platoons waiting for us; but they would not have waited much longer. The senior Second Lieutenant—a very well-known solicitor—had taken command of the company, assuming, as he said, that Haines had become a casualty accidentally. His idea was to march the men home, and then send the Ambulance Brigade to search for Haines, the Company Sergeant-Major, and me.
"That's the sort of thing," he said, "an ambulance is for. The men in the fighting line can't be expected to do it."
We marched home in pretty good order, considering that we were all very wet, greatly exhausted, and many of us bruised in various parts of our bodies. Our spirit was quite unbroken, and Haines, writing up the official diary afterwards, said that our moral was excellent. He did us no more than bare justice. There was not a man among us—except perhaps the Company Sergeant-Major, whose ankle was swelling up—who would not have welcomed a German attack.
We got back to the golf pavilion, and found the whole place in an uproar. Women, all of them very wet, were rushing about. Tompkins was giving confused and contradictory orders to the twelve stretcher bearers, who looked cowed and miserable. Mrs. Cotter was sitting on the floor in a corner of the room crying bitterly. We got the explanation out of Tompkins at last.
Three of the casualties had, it appeared, been successfully picked up and carried home. The stretcher bearers had somehow missed Cotter. Search parties had been sent out Tompkins himself had felt his way round each of the fifteen bathing-boxes. The nursing section of the Ambulance Brigade had waved electric torches and stable lanterns up and down the beach from the edge of the sea to the sandhills. The stretcher bearers, scourged by the remarks Tompkins made about their incompetence, had gone shouting through the storm until they were hoarse and utterly exhausted. Nothing had been seen or heard of Cotter.
Haines took charge of the situation at once. He formed up the four platoons, and marched us all back to the beach. There we assumed open order, and skirmished in a northerly direction. We were told to keep in touch with each other, and to leave no square yard of the sand unexamined. We were to go on skirmishing until we found Cotter, dead or alive. My own idea was that if we found anything it would be his corpse.
I did my best to obey orders, but I almost immediately lost touch with everybody else. The other men, so I learnt afterwards, had the same experience. However, I had the good luck to find Cotter. He came towards me, indeed he ran into me before I saw him. He was in charge of a policeman, who held him firmly but kindly by the arm. The moment Cotter saw me he burst out:
"Tell this infernal fool that I'm not drunk," he said.
"If you're acquainted with the gentleman," said the policeman, "it would be well for you to take him home to his bed. He's not in a fit state to be out by himself."
I drove off the policeman with some difficulty, making myself personally responsible for Cotter's safety. Then I questioned the old gentleman.
"What have you been doing?" I said.
"Waiting for the ambulance. I'd be waiting still if that ass of a policeman hadn't insisted that I was drunk and dragged me away."
"Good Lord!" I said, "and they've been looking for you for hours."
"I know that," said Cotter. "I saw their lights all over the place and heard them shouting."
"Then why on earth didn't you shout back and let them know where you were?"
"Casualties don't shout," said Cotter. "They can't They're too weak. I groaned occasionally; but I suppose they didn't hear me."
"And how long did you mean to lie out in this storm?" I said.
"Till the stretcher bearers found me," said Cotter. "Those were the C.O.'s orders."
I do not know whether any medals will be given to volunteers after the war. Cotter certainly deserves one. I have never heard a finer story of devotion to duty than his. When I had got rid of the policeman he actually wanted to go back and lie down again.
II ~~ GETTING EVEN
The battalion awaited its orders to embark for France. A feeling of expectation, a certain nervousness, a half-pleasurable excitement, prevailed in the officers' mess and among the men. No one thought of service in France as a picnic, or anticipated a good time in the trenches. But there was a general sense of relief that the period of training—a long, tiresome, very dull business—was over at last over or almost over. For the Colonel and certain remote authorities behind the Colonel believed in working the battalion hard up to the last moment. Therefore day after day there were "stunts" and "shows," field exercises of every conceivable kind. The weather was hot, as hot as weather ought to be in the first week of August Long marches became dusty horrors to the men. Manouvres meant hours of desperate toil. Officers thought longingly of bygone summers, of the cool shade of trees, of tennis played in white flannels, of luscious plates of strawberries and cream. The Colonel, an old soldier, went on inventing new "stunts" and more of them. He had laboured at the training of his battalion, hammering raw boys into disciplined men, inspiring subalterns with something of his own spirit.
On the whole he had been successful. The men sweated, but grumbled very little. The officers kept up a gallant pretence at keenness. Slackness was regarded as bad form, and only one member of the mess made no secret of his opinion that the Colonel was overdoing the "spit and polish" business. This was McMahon, the medical officer; and he did not, properly speaking, belong to the battalion at all. Men and officers alike were drawn for the most part from the English midlands. McMahon was an Irishman. They were born with a sense of discipline and the Colonel worked on material responsive to his methods. McMahon, like most Irishmen, was by temperament a rebel. Yet there was no more popular officer than the Irish doctor. His frank good humour, his ready wit, his unfailing kindliness, won him affection. Even the Colonel liked him, and bore from McMahon behaviour which would have led to the sharp snubbing of anyone else.
There came a day—the 6th of August—for which the Colonel, or some higher authority, devised a "stunt" of the most intense and laborious kind. A very great and remote man, the General in command of the whole district, promised to be present and to witness the performance. Orders were issued in minute detail, and every officer was expected to be familiar with them. Maps were studied conscientiously. Field glasses were polished. Rations were served out Kits were inspected. The affair was an attack upon a hill supposed to be strongly held by an enemy well provided with machine-guns.
A genuine excitement possessed the battalion. This, so it was felt, was very like the real thing. Just so, some day in France, would an advance be made and great glory won. McMahon alone remained cheerfully indifferent to the energetic fussiness which prevailed.
The day dawned cloudless with promise of intense heat. Very early, after a hurried and insufficient breakfast, B Company marched out It was the business of B Company to take up a position south of the enemy's hill, to harass the foe with flanking fire and at the proper moment to rush certain machine-gun posts. B Company had some ten miles to march before reaching its appointed place. McMahon gave it as his opinion that B Company would be incapable of rushing anything when it had marched ten miles in blistering heat and had lain flat for an hour or two in a shadeless field. A party of cooks, with a travelling kitchen, followed B Company. McMahon said that if the cooks were sensible men they would lose their way and come to a halt in a wood, not far from a stream. He added that he was himself very sensible and had already fixed on the wood, about a mile from the scene of the attack, where he intended to spend the day, with a novel.
The other three companies, the Lewis gunners, and a battery of Stokes gun men, attached to the battalion for the attack, marched out later, under the command of the Colonel himself. Cyclist scouts scoured the roads ahead of the advance. McMahon, accompanied by an orderly, marched in the rear and complained greatly of the dust. A Brigadier appeared in a motor and cast a critical eye on the men. Two officers in staff caps, understood to be umpires, rode by.
At noon, the heat being then very great, a motor cyclist dashed up, his machine snorting horribly, the man himself plastered with dust, sweat and oil. He announced that the battalion was under heavy fire from the enemy artillery and that men were falling fast The Brigadier had sent an urgent message to that effect. The Colonel, who rather expected that something of the sort would occur, gave the orders necessary in such a situation. The men opened out into artillery formation and advanced, by a series of short rushes, to take cover in some trenches, supposed to have been abandoned, very conveniently, by the enemy the day before. The Brigadier, seated in his motor-car in a wood on a neighbouring hill, watched the operation through his field glasses, munched a sandwich, and enjoyed a glass of sherry from his flask. McMahon, for whom short rushes in artillery formation had no attractions at all, slipped through a hedge, skirted a field of ripening oats, and settled himself very comfortably under a beech tree on the edge of a small wood. His orderly followed him and laid down a large package on the grass beside the doctor. The Colonel, an enthusiastic realist, had insisted that McMahon should bring with him a supply of surgical instruments, dressings and other things necessary for dealing with wounds. McMahon opened the package. He took out a novel, a tin of tobacco, a great many packages of cigarettes, two bottles of soda water, two lemons and several parcels of food.
"This," he said to the orderly, "is the advanced dressing station. When the casualties begin to arrive, we shall be ready for them."
The Brigadier sent another motor cyclist to say that the battalion would be wiped out if it stayed where it was. He suggested a move to the right and an attempt to get into touch with B Company.
The Brigadier, though he drove in a motor-car, was feeling the heat. If a direct advance had been made on the hill from where the battalion lay he would have been obliged to drive out of his wood in order to keep the battle in view. A move to the right could be watched comfortably from where he sat The Colonel explained the situation, not the Brigadier's feelings, to his officers, exposing himself with reckless gallantry as he passed from company to company. He said that he himself would survey the ground to the right and would try to discover the exact position of B Company.
"I shall," he said to the Adjutant, "climb a tree so as to get a good view."
The Adjutant remonstrated. He thought the Colonel was too old a man for climbing trees. He recommended that a subaltern, a Second Lieutenant whom nobody would miss much if he fell, should be sent up the tree. The suggestion, as the Adjutant might have guessed, made the Colonel more determined and slightly exasperated him.
He gave orders that the Stokes gunners should shell the enemy while he climbed the tree. The Stokes gunners did not want to shell anyone. Their weapons are awkward to handle and their ammunition very heavy. They were already as hot as any men ought to be. But they were well trained and highly disciplined. They attacked the enemy with small dummy shells, which rose gently into the air, made a half-circle, and fell about fifteen yards from the muzzles of their guns.
The Colonel, looking about him for a tree not too difficult to climb, caught sight of the beech under which McMahon lay. It seemed exactly the kind of tree he required. It was high. Its lower branches were close to the ground. It looked strong and sound. The Colonel pushed his way through the hedge, avoided the oats, and approached the tree across a pasture field. He came on McMahon stretched flat on his back, a tumbler full of lemon squash beside him and his novel in his hand. The Colonel was still irritated by the Adjutant's suggestion that he was too old to climb trees. He was also beginning, now that he was near a tree, to wonder uneasily whether the Adjutant had not been right He saw an opportunity of expressing his feelings at the expense of McMahon.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
McMahon, who had not seen the Colonel approach, stood up hurriedly, upsetting his lemon squash, and saluting.
"What the deuce are you doing here?" said the Colonel. "You've no business to be idling, drinking and smoking under a tree, when the battalion is in action."
"This is an advanced dressing station, sir," said McMahon. "I'm waiting for the casualties.
"That's not your duty," said the Colonel. "Your duty is to be with the men, in the firing line, ready to render first aid when required."
"Beg pardon, sir," said McMahon, "but I don't think that you're quite right in saying——"
"Do you mean to tell me," said the Colonel, "that it isn't the duty of a medical officer to accompany the men into the firing line?"
McMahon saluted again.
"According to the instructions issued by the R.A.M.C., sir," he said, "my place is in the advanced dressing station when there's only one medical officer attached to the unit in action. If there is more than one the position is, of course, quite different."
The Colonel, though a soldier of long experience, was not at all sure what instructions the R.A.M.C. authorities might have issued to their officers. And doctors are a powerful faction, given to standing together and defying anyone who attempts to interfere with them. Besides, no one, not even the strongest and healthiest of us, knows how soon he may find himself under the power of a doctor, seized with a pain or other form of discomfort which only a doctor can alleviate. It is never wise to push things to a quarrel with any member of the R.A.M.C.
The Colonel turned away and, somewhat laboriously, climbed his tree. He was anxious, if possible, to make McMahon do a little work. It was annoying to think that this young man, horribly addicted to slacking, should be lying on his back in the shade. Yet he did not at once see his way to any plan for making McMahon run about in the heat.
It was while he scanned the position of B Company through his field glasses that an idea suddenly occurred to him. He climbed down rapidly and found McMahon standing respectfully to attention at the foot of the tree.
"You told me, I think," said the Colonel, "that this is the advanced dressing station?"
"And that you're prepared to deal with casualties?"
"I shall send some casualties down to you," said the Colonel.
"Yes, sir, certainly."
"I shall expect," said the Colonel, "that each man shall be properly treated, exactly as if he were really wounded, bandaged up, you know, ready for the ambulance to take him to the casualty clearing station. And a proper record must be kept for each case. You must have a list made out for me, properly classified, with a note of the treatment adopted in each case and the nature of the injury, just as if you were going to send it to the medical officer at the casualty clearing station."
"And it must be done properly," said the Colonel. "No shirking. No short cuts. I don't see why you shouldn't practise your job like the rest of us."
He turned away with a smile, a grim but well-satisfied smile. He intended to keep McMahon busy, very busy indeed, for the rest of the day.
McMahon lay down again after the Colonel left him. But he did not attempt to read his novel. He saw through the Colonel's plan. He was determined to defeat it if he could. He was enjoying a peaceful afternoon, and had no intention of exhausting himself bandaging up men who had nothing the matter with them or compiling long lists of imaginary injuries. After five minutes' thought he hit upon a scheme. Ten minutes later the first casualty arrived.
"Sent to the rear by the Colonel, sir," said the man. "Orders are to report to you. Shrapnel wound in the left thigh, sir."
"Left thigh?" said McMahon.
"It was the left the Colonel said, sir."
"All right," said McMahon. "Orderly!"
The orderly, who had found a comfortable couch among some bracken, roused himself and stood to attention in front of McMahon.
"Take this man round to the far side of the tree," said McMahon, "and let him lie down there flat on his back. You can give him a cigarette, He is to stay there until he gets orders to leave."
The orderly saluted. The man grinned. He was quite ready to lie under the tree without attempting to move until someone ordered him to get up.
In the course of the next ten minutes six more casualties arrived. Their injuries were of several different kinds. One man reported that his thumb had been taken off by a machine-gun bullet Another said he had a scalp wound A third had lost a whole leg, severed at the thigh. A fourth had a fragment of shell in his stomach. A fifth was completely blinded. A sixth was suffering from gas poisoning. McMahon's treatment never varied. Each man was given a cigarette and led off by the orderly to lie down in the shade at the far side of the tree. McMahon kept quite cool, refreshed himself occasionally with a drink of lemon squash, and smoked his pipe. He began to admire the activity of the Colonel's imagination. For two hours casualties poured in and every one had a different kind of wound. There was scarcely any part of the human body with which McMahon was not called upon to deal And the Colonel never once repeated himself. Before four o'clock about a third of the battalion and half of the officers were lying, very well content, in the shade under McMahon's care. Many of them were sound asleep.
The orderly was a man with a sense of military propriety. He insisted on the casualties lying in straight rows, as neatly aligned as if they were on their feet at parade in the barrack square. At last the stream of wounded grew slacker and finally ceased to flow. Between half-past four and five o'clock not a single man came to report himself wounded. McMahon, lighting a fresh pipe, congratulated himself. Either the Colonel's knowledge of anatomy was exhausted and he was unable to think of any more wounds, or the battle was over, and there was no further excuse for inventing casualties. McMahon got up and stretched himself. He handed his novel, the two empty soda-water bottles, and his tobacco tin to the orderly, and bade him pack them up.
"No cigarettes left, I suppose?" he said.
"No, sir, not one. In fact, sir, the last twenty men didn't get any. Weren't enough to go round them all, sir."
"Ah," said McMahon, "it's been an expensive afternoon for me; but I don't grudge it Those poor fellows wanted a smoke and a rest badly. Besides, I've had a very pleasant time, pleasant and peaceful."
He strolled round to the far side of the tree and took a look at the men who lay stretched out. One of the officers, a boy of untiring energy, complained that he was bored.
"I say, McMahon, can't I get up and go back to the mess? What's the good of my lying here all the afternoon?"
"You'll lie there," said McMahon severely, "until you get orders to go. And it may be a long time before you do. In fact, you won't be able to. stir till the padre comes, and I haven't the least idea where he is, I doubt if he's out with us at all to-day."
"What the dickens has the padre got to do with it?" said the officer.
"You'll find that out in time. For the present you've nothing to do but lie still."
"But hang it all—— I say, McMahon, can't you finish off and let me go?"
"I?" said McMahon. "I've finished with you long ago. There's nothing more for me to do. The next man to take you in hand is the padre."
The orderly stood at his elbow while he spoke. He seemed a little nervous and agitated.
"Beg pardon, sir," he said. "The Colonel's just coming, sir. He and the General. He's drove up in the General's car; and I'm afraid they're both coming here, sir."
McMahon turned. What the orderly said was perfectly true. The Colonel, and with him the General, and the two umpires in the fight, were skirting the oats and making for the little grove of trees where the casualties were.
McMahon went to meet them.
"Ah, McMahon," said the Colonel, "I've come to see how you've treated the wounded. I've brought the General with me. Casualties rather heavy, eh? Had a busy afternoon?"
The Colonel grinned. McMahon saluted respectfully.
"Got your list made out?" said the Colonel, "and your report on each case? Just hand them over to me, will you? The General would like to see them."
"I beg your pardon, sir," said McMahon, "but have you given orders for the padre to report here?"
"Padre?" said the Colonel. "What do you want the padre for?"
"The padre and a burying party, sir," said McMahon. "The fact is, sir, that the wounded all died, every one of them, on the way down from the firing line. Arrived here stone dead. I couldn't do anything for them, sir. Dead before they got to me. I've had them laid out, if you'd like to see them, sir. It's all I could do for the poor fellows. It's the padre's job now. I understand that he keeps a register of burials, so there was no need for me to make a list, and of course I didn't attempt any treatment. It wouldn't have been any use, sir, when the men were dead."
III ~~ A MATTER OF DISCIPLINE
O'Byrne, the Reverend Timothy, is our padre. We call him Tim behind his back because we like him and Padre to his face because some respect is due to his profession. Mackintosh is our medical officer. The Reverend Tim used to take a special delight in teasing Mackintosh. It may have been the natural antipathy, the cat and dog feeling, which exists between parsons and doctors. I do not know.
But the padre never lost a chance of pulling the doctor's leg, and Mackintosh spent hours proving that the things which the padre says he saw could not possibly have happened I should not like to call any padre a liar; but some of the Rev. Tim's stories were rather tall, and the doctor's scepticism always goaded him to fresh flights of imagination.
The mess was a much livelier place after the Rev. Tim joined it. Before he attached himself to us we used to wonder why God made men like Mackintosh, and what use they are in the world.
Now we know. Mackintosh exists to call out all that is best in our padre.
One night—the battalion was back resting at the time—we had an Assistant Provost Marshal as a guest The conversation turned on the subject of deserters, and our A.P.M. told us some curious stories about the attempts made by these poor devils to escape the net of the military organization.
"The fact is," said the A.P.M., "that a deserter hasn't a dog's chance, not here in France anyway. We are bound to get him every time."
"Not every time," said the padre. "I know one who has been at large for months and you'll never lay hands on him."
The A.P.M., who did not of course know our padre, sat up and frowned.
"I don't think it's his fault that he's a deserter," said the padre. "He was forced into it And anyway, even if I give you his name and tell you exactly where he is, you'll not arrest him."
"If he's a deserter, I will," said the A.P.M.
"No, you won't," said the padre. "Excuse my contradicting you, but when you hear the story you'll see yourself that you can't arrest the man. Mackintosh here is protecting him."
"Is it me?" said Mackintosh. "I'd like you to be careful what you're saying. In my opinion it's libellous to say that I'm protecting a deserter. I'll have you court-martialled, Mr. O'Byrne, padre or no padre. I'll have you court-martialled if you bring any such accusation against me."
"I don't mean you personally," said O'Byrne. "I am taking you as a representative of your profession. The man I am speaking of"—he turned politely to the A.P.M.—"is under the direct protection of the Army Medical. You can't get at him."
Mackintosh bristled, to the padre's great delight Anything in the way of an attack on the medical profession excites Mackintosh fearfully.
"Binny is the man's name," said the padre. "17932, Private Alfred Binny. He was in the Wessex, before the hospital people made a deserter of him. I will give you his address if you like, but you'll not be able to arrest him. If you try you'll have every doctor in France down on you. They back each other up through anything, don't they, Mackintosh?"
"I'd like you to understand," said Mackintosh, "that you can't be saying things like that with impunity."
"Get on with the story, padre," I said, "and don't exasperate Mackintosh."
"It was while I was attached to No. 97 General Hospital," he said. "Know No. 97, Mackintosh? No. That's a pity. It's a place which would just suit you. Patients wakened every morning at five to have their faces washed. Discipline polished till you could see your face in it, and so many rules and regulations that you can't cross a room without tripping over one. The lists and card indexes that are kept going in that place, and the forms that are filled in! You'd glory in it, Mackintosh. But it didn't suit my temperament."
"I believe you," said Mackintosh grimly.
"It was while I was there," said the padre, "that Biimy came down the line and was admitted to the hospital with a cushy wound in the fleshy part of his arm. He'd have been well in three weeks and back with his battalion in a month, if it hadn't been for the doctors. It's entirely owing to them that he's a deserter now."
"Malingered, I suppose," said Mackintosh. "Got back to England by shamming shell shock and was given his discharge. He wouldn't have pulled it off if I'd been there."
"You've guessed wrong," said the padre. "It wasn't a case of malingering. As nearly as possible it was the exact opposite. The doctors tried to make the poor fellow out much worse than he really was.
"I don't believe it," said Mackintosh.
"As a matter of fact," said the padre, "the mistake—you'll hardly deny that it was a mistake when you hear the story—arose through too strict attention to discipline, that and the number of lists and returns that were made out. It doesn't do to rely too much on lists, and there is such a thing as overdoing discipline.
"What happened was this. One evening, when Binny had been in the hospital about a week, two orderlies came to his bed with a stretcher. They told him they were going to carry him down to the mortuary and put him into his coffin. Binny, of course, thought they were making some new kind of joke, and laughed. But the orderlies were perfectly serious. They said his name was on the list of those who had died during the day and they had no choice except to obey orders and put him into a coffin. They showed Binny the list, all nicely typed out, and there was no mistake about it Binny's name, number, regiment, and religion were all there.
"Binny began to get indignant. He said he wasn't dead, that anyone could see he wasn't dead, and that it would be a barbarous thing to bury him. The orderlies, who were very nice fellows, admitted that Binny seemed to be alive, but they stuck to it that it was their business to carry out their orders. Into the mortuary Binny would have to go. They tried to console him by saying that the funeral would not be till the next morning. But that did not cheer Binny much. In the end they took pity on the poor fellow and said they would go away for an hour and come back. If Binny could get the order changed they'd be very pleased to leave him where he was. It wasn't, so they explained, any pleasure to them to put Binny into a coffin.
"Binny did not get much chance during his hour's reprieve. The only person who came into the ward was a V.A.D. girl, quite a nice little girl, good-looking enough to be bullied a lot by the sister-in-charge. Binny told her about the fix he was in, and at first she thought he was raving and tried to soothe him down. In the end, to pacify him, I suppose, she went and asked the orderlies about him. She had not been out in France long, that V.A.D., and wasn't properly accustomed to things. When she found out that what Binny had told her was true, she got fearfully excited. She couldn't do anything herself, of course, but she ran off to the matron as hard as she could. The matron was a bit startled just at first, but she kept her head.
"'Tell Private Binny,' she said, 'that if he has any complaints to make they must be made at the proper time and through the proper channels. The C.O. goes round the hospital every morning between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. Private Binny can speak to him then.'
"'But by that time,' said the V. A.D. girl, 'the man will be buried.'
"'I can't help that,' said the matron.' The discipline of the hospital must be maintained. It would be perfectly impossible to run a place like this if every man was allowed to make complaints at all hours of the day and to all sorts of people.'
"That V.A.D. was a plucky girl, and persistent—they sent her home afterwards in disgrace—and she talked on until the matron agreed to take a look at Binny. I think she was staggered when she saw him sitting up in bed and heard him cursing the orderlies, who had come back by that time. But she couldn't do anything. She wasn't really a bad sort of woman, and I don't suggest for a moment that she wanted to have Binny buried alive. But she had no authority. She could not alter an order. And there the thing was in black and white. However, she persuaded the orderlies to wait another half-hour. She went off and found one of the surgeons. He was a decent sort of fellow, but young, and he didn't see his way to interfering. There had been several mistakes made in that hospital, and the C.O. had been rather heavily strafed, which meant of course that everyone under him was strafed worse, on the good old principle of passing it on. That surgeon's idea was to avoid trouble, if possible. Somebody, he said, had made a mistake, but it was too late, then, to set things right, and the best thing to do was to say nothing about it. He was sorry for Binny, but he couldn't do anything.
"When the V.A.D. girl heard that, she lost her temper. She said she'd write home and tell her father about it, and that her father was a Member of Parliament and would raise hell about it She didn't, of course, say hell!"
"She couldn't do that," said Mackintosh. "The censor wouldn't pass a letter with a story like that in it."
"Quite right," said the padre, "and it wouldn't have been any good if her father had got the letter. He couldn't have done anything. If he'd asked a question in Parliament he'd simply have been told a lie of some kind. It was a silly sort of threat to make. The V.A.D. saw that herself and began to cry.
"That upset the surgeon so much that he went round and took a look at Binny. The man was pale by that time and in the deuce of a funk. But he wasn't in the least dead. The surgeon felt that it was a hard case, and said he'd take the risk of speaking to the C.O. about it.
"The C.O. of No. 97 General at that time was an oldish man, who suffered from suppressed gout, which is the regular medical name for unsuppressed temper. He said emphatically that Private Binny was reported dead, marked dead, removed from the hospital books, and must stay dead. The whole system of the R.A.M.C. would break down, he said, and things would drift into chaos if dead men were allowed to come to life again whenever they chose.
"The surgeon was a plucky young fellow in his way. Remembering how pretty the V.A.D. looked when she cried, he pressed Binny's case on the C.O. The old gentleman said he might have done something two hours sooner; but the hospital returns had gone to the D.D.M.S. and couldn't possibly be got back again or altered. In the end, after a lot more talk about regulations and discipline, he said he'd telephone to the D.D.M.S. office and see if anything could be done. It is greatly to his credit that he did telephone, explaining the case as well as he could over a faulty wire. The staff colonel in the office was perfectly civil, but said that the returns had been forwarded by a motor dispatch rider to G.H.Q. and could not be recalled by any possibility. The C.O., who seems to have begun to realize the horrible position of Binny, asked advice as to what he ought to do. The staff colonel said he'd never come across a case of the kind before, but it seemed plain to him that Binny was dead, that is to say, officially dead. The Chaplain's Department, he thought, might be able to do something for a man after he was dead. If not nobody could.
"That," said O'Byrne with a smile, "is where I came in. The C.O. sent for me at once."
"I suppose," said Mackintosh, "that you straightened the whole thing out without difficulty?"
Mackintosh is always irritated at a suggestion that anyone connected with the medical profession can possibly make a mistake. When irritated he is apt to attempt a kind of heavy sarcasm which O'Byrne sucks in with obvious delight.
"No," said the padre, "I couldn't straighten it out. But I did the best I could. I went to see poor Binny. He was in the mortuary by that time. I found him sitting up in his coffin crying like a child. I comforted him as well as I could."
"Poor devil," said Mackintosh. "Not that I believe a word of this story. It couldn't have happened. But you may as well go on and tell us what you did. Sang hymns to him, I suppose."
"Not at all," said the padre. "I got him something to eat and a couple of blankets. That mortuary is a cold place, and, though you mightn't think it, a coffin is draughty. Next morning I buried him."
"God bless me!" said the A.P.M. explosively. "Do you mean to say you buried a man you knew to be alive?"
"Couldn't help it," said the padre. "It was in orders, matter of discipline, you know. Can't go back on discipline, can you, Mackintosh? I got through it as quickly as I decently could. Then I let Binny out The graves in that cemetery are never filled in for an hour or two after the coffins are let down, so I had lots of time. Jolly glad poor Binny was to get out. He said he'd shivered all over when he heard 'The Last Post.' I had a suit of clothes for him; of course, civilian clothes."
The padre filled himself a glass of whisky and soda and lit his pipe. He looked round with a smile of triumph. Most of us applauded him. He deserved it The story was one of his best imaginative efforts. I suppose the applause encouraged him to go further.
"I'll give you his address if you like," he said to the A.P.M. "He's working on a French farm and quite happy. But I don't see that you can possibly arrest him without getting the whole medical profession on your back. They said he was dead, you see, and, as Mackintosh will tell you, they never own up to making mistakes."
IV ~~ THE SECOND BASS
"Be careful, Bates," said Miss Willmot; "we don't want your neck broken."
"No fear, miss," said Lance-Corporal Bates; "I'm all right."
Lance-Corporal Bates had three gold bars on the sleeve of his tunic. He might fairly be reckoned a man of courage. His position, when Miss Willmot spoke to him, demanded nerve. He stood on the top rail of the back of a chair, a feeble-looking chair. The chair was placed on a table which was inclined to wobble, because one of its legs was half an inch shorter than the other three. Sergeant O'Rorke, leaning on the table, rested most of his weight on the seat of the chair, thereby balancing Bates and preventing an upset. Miss Willmot sat on the corner of the table, so that it wobbled very little. Bates, perilously balanced, hammered a nail, the last necessary nail, into the wall through the topmost ray of a large white star. Then he crept cautiously down.
Standing beside Miss Willmot he surveyed the star.
"Looks a bit like Christmas, don't it, miss?" he said.
"The glitters on it," said Sergeant O'Rorke, "is the beautifullest that ever was seen. The diamonds on the King's Crown wouldn't be finer."
The star hung on the wall of the canteen opposite the counter. It was made of cotton wool pasted on cardboard. The wool had been supplied by a sympathetic nurse from a neighbouring hospital. It was looted from the medical stores. The frosting, which excited Sergeant O'Rorke's admiration, was done with sugar. It was Miss Nelly Davis, youngest and merriest of Miss Willmot's helpers, who suggested the sugar, when the powdered glass ordered from England failed to arrive.
"There can't be any harm in using it," she said. "What we're getting now isn't sugar at all, it is fine gravel. A stone of it wouldn't sweeten a single urn of tea."
Miss Willmot took the sugar from her stores as she accepted the looted cotton-wool, without troubling to search for excuse or justification. She was a lady of strong will. When she made up her mind that the Christmas decorations of her canteen were to be the best in France she was not likely to stick at trifling breaches of regulations.
She looked round her with an expression of justifiable satisfaction. The long hut which served as a canteen looked wonderfully gay. Underneath the white star ran an inscription done in large letters made of ivy leaves. Miss Willmot, in the course of two years' service in the canteen of a base camp, had gained some knowledge of the soldier's heart Her inscription was calculated to make an immediate appeal. "A Merry Christmas," it ran, "And the Next in Blighty." The walls of the hut were hung round with festoons of coloured paper. Other festoons, red, blue, and green stretched across the room from wall to wall under the low ceiling. Chinese lanterns, swinging on wires, threatened the head of anyone more than six feet in height Sergeant O'Rorke, an Irish Guardsman until a wound lamed him, now a member of the camp police force, had to dodge the Chinese lanterns when he walked about Jam-pots and cigarette-tins, swathed in coloured paper, held bunches of holly and sprigs of mistletoe. They stood on the tables and the window sills.
But the counter was the crowning glory of the canteen. In the middle of it stood an enormous Christmas cake, sugar-covered, bedecked with flags. Round the cake, built into airy castles, were hundreds of crackers. Huge dishes, piled high with mince pies, stood in rows along the whole length of the counter on each side of the cake. Behind them, rising to the height of five steps, was a long staircase made of packets of cigarettes.
"Sure, it's grand," said Sergeant O'Rorke; "and there isn't one only yourself, miss, who'd do all you be doing for the men."
Miss Willmot's eyes softened. They were keen, grey eyes, not often given to expressing tender feeling. At home in the old days men spoke of her as a good sport, who rode straight and played the game; but they seldom tried to make love to her. Women said she was a dear, and that it was a thousand pities she did not marry. It was no sentimental recollection of bygone Christmases which brought the look of softness into her eyes. She was thinking that next day the men for once would feast to the full in the canteen—eat, drink, smoke, without paying a penny. She knew how well they deserved all she could do for them, these men who had done so much, borne so much, who still had so much to do and bear. Miss Willmot thanked God as she stood there that she had money to spend for the men.
"Tea! tea! tea! Tea's ready. Come along, Miss Willmot."
The call came from behind the counter. Miss Nelly Davis stood there, a tall, fair girl in a long blue overall.
"I've made toast and buttered it, and Mr. Digby's waiting."
"Good evening, miss, and a happy Christmas to you," said Bates.
"If there's a happy Christmas going these times at all," said Sergeant O'Rorke, "it's yourself deserves it."
"Thank you, thank you both," said Miss Willmot "If it hadn't been for your help I'd never have got the decorations done at all."
The men left the hut, and Miss Willmot locked the door behind them. The canteen was closed until it opened in all its glory on Christmas afternoon.
She passed through a door at the back of the counter, slipped off her overall, stained and creased after a long day's work, then she went into the kitchen.
Miss Nelly Davis was bending over a packing-case which stood in the middle of the kitchen floor. It served as a table, and she was spreading a cloth on it In front of the stove stood a young man in uniform, wearing the badges of a fourth class Chaplain to the Forces. This was Mr. Digby. Once he had been the popular curate of St Ethelburga's, the most fashionable of London churches. In those days Miss Willmot would have treated him with scorn. She did not care for curates.
Now he was a fellow-worker in the Camp. His waterproof hung dripping behind the kitchen door. Drops of rain ran down his gaiters. He was trying to dry the knees of his breeches before the stove. Miss Willmot greeted him warmly.
"Terrific night," he said; "rain coming down in buckets. Water running round the camp in rivers. I say, Miss Davis, you'll have to get out another cup. The Major's coming to tea."
"There isn't a fourth cup," said Miss Nelly. "You'll have to drink out of a mug."
"Right-o! Mugs hold more, anyway."
"All padres are greedy," said Miss Nelly. "What's bringing the Major here?"
"I've arranged a practice of the Christmas carols," said Digby.
"Bother your old carols," said Miss Nelly.
"Must have a practice," said Digby. "You and Miss Willmot are all right; but the Major is frightfully shaky over the bass. It won't do to break down to-morrow. By the way, Miss Willmot, there's something I want to speak to you about before the Major comes. There's——"
"Before the Major comes, Nelly," said Miss Willmot, "give me some tea. He always looks shocked when I drink four cups, so let me get through the first two before he arrives."
"I wouldn't sit there if I were you," said Digby.
"There's a drip coming through the roof just there which will get you on the back of the neck every time you lean forward."
Miss Willmot shifted the biscuit-tin. It was not easy to find a spot to put it The roof of the kitchen leaked badly in several places.
"Look here, Miss Willmot," said Digby. "I wonder if you could do anything about this. I've just been round to the guard-room. There's a poor devil there——"
"Language! language!" said Miss Nelly.
She was on her knees beside the stove rescuing her plate of toast from danger. Drops of water were falling on it from the knees of Digby's breeches every time he moved.
"There is," said Digby, speaking with great precision, "an unfortunate man at this moment incarcerated in the cell behind the guard-room, under the stern keeping of the Provost Sergeant I hope that way of saying it satisfies you, Miss Davis."
"For goodness' sake, don't talk Camp shop," said Miss Davis. "Let's have our tea in peace."
"Drink, I suppose," said Miss Willmot "Why will they do it, just at Christmas, too?"
"This isn't a drunk," said Digby. "The wretched devil has been sent down here under arrest from No. 73 Hospital. He's to be court-martialled. He's only a boy, and a decent-looking boy, too. I hate to think of his being shut up in that cell all by himself at Christmas with nobody to do anything for him."
"What can we do?" said Miss Willmot.
"I can't do anything, of course," said Digby, "but I thought you might."
"I don't see what I can do."
"Well, try," said Digby. "If you'd seen the poor fellow—— But you'll do something for him, won't you?"
Digby had a fine faith in Miss Willmot's power to do "something" under any circumstances. Experience strengthened his faith instead of shattering it. Had not Miss Willmot on one occasion faced and routed a medical board which tried to seize the men's recreation-room for its own purposes? And in the whole hierarchy of the Army there is no power more unassailable than that of a medical board. Had she not obtained leave for a man that he might go to see his dying mother, at a time when all leave was officially closed, pushing the application through office after office, till it reached, "noted and forwarded for your information, please," the remote General in Command of Lines of Communication? Had she not bent to her will two generals, several colonels, and once even a sergeant-major? A padre, fourth class, though he had once been curate of St. Ethelburga's, was a feeble person. But Miss Willmot! Miss Willmot got things done, levelled entanglements of barbed red tape, captured the trenches of official persons by virtue of a quiet persistence, and—there is no denying it—because the things she wanted done were generally good things.
The Major opened the door of the kitchen. He stood for a moment on the threshold, the water dripping from his cap and running down his coat, great drops of it hanging from his white moustache. He was nearer sixty than fifty years of age. The beginning of the war found him settled very comfortably in a pleasant Worcestershire village. He had a house sufficiently large, a garden in which he grew wonderful vegetables, and a small circle of friends who liked a game of bridge in the evenings. From these surroundings he had been dug out and sent to command a base camp in France. He was a professional soldier, trained in the school of the old Army, but he had enough wisdom to realize that our new citizen soldiers require special treatment and enough human sympathy to be keenly interested in the welfare of the men. He grudged neither time nor trouble in any matter which concerned the good of the Camp. He had very early come to regard Miss Willmot as a valuable fellow-worker.
"Padre," he said, "I put it to you as a Christian man, is this an evening on which anyone ought to be asked to practise Christmas carols?"
"Hear, hear," said Miss Nelly.
"We've only had one practice, sir," said Digby, "and I've put up notices all over the Camp that the carols will be sung to-morrow evening. It's awfully good of you to come."
"And of me," said Miss Nelly.
"You're here, in any case," said Digby. "The men are tremendously pleased, sir," he added, "that you're going to sing. They appreciate it."
"They won't appreciate it nearly so much when they hear me," said the Major. "I haven't sung a part for, I suppose, twenty years."
Christmas carols have been sung, and we may suppose practised beforehand, in odd places, amid curious surroundings. But it is doubtful whether even the records of missionaries in heathen lands tell of a choir practice so unconventional as that held on Christmas Eve in the kitchen of Miss Willmot's canteen.
The rain beat a tattoo on the corrugated iron roof. It dripped into a dozen pools on the soaking floor, it fell in drops which hissed on to the top of the stove. There was no musical instrument of any kind. The tea-tray was cleared away and laid in a corner. The Major, white-haired, lean-faced, smiling, sat on the packing-case in the middle of the room. Miss Willmot sat on her biscuit-tin near the stove. Miss Nelly perched, with dangling feet, on a corner of the sink in which cups and dishes were washed Digby, choir-master and conductor, stood in front of the stove.
"Now then," he said, "we'll begin with 'Nowell.' Major, here's your note—La-a-a"—he boomed out a low note. "Got it?"
"La-a-a," growled the Major.
"Miss Willmot, alto," said Digby, "la-a-a. That's right Miss Davis, a third higher, la-a-a. My tenor is F. Here's the chord. La, la, la, la. Now, one, two, three. 'The first Nowell the angels did say——'"
The rain hammered on the roof. The Major plodded conscientiously at his bass. Miss Nelly sang a shrill treble. Digby gave the high tenor notes in shameless shouts. "Good King Wenceslas" followed, and "God rest you merry, gentlemen." Then the Major declared that he could sing no more.
"I wish you'd get another bass, padre," he said. "I'm not trying to back out, but I'm no good by myself. If I'd somebody to help me, a second bass——"
"There's nobody," said Digby. "I've scoured the whole camp looking for a man."
"If only Tommy were here," said Miss Nelly.
"Tommy has a splendid voice. And I don't see why he mightn't be here instead of stuck in that silly old hospital He's quite well. He told me so yesterday. A bullet through the calf of the leg is nothing. Major, couldn't you get them to send Tommy over to the Camp just for to-morrow?"
The Major shook his head. He had every sympathy with Miss Nelly. He knew all about Tommy. So did Miss Willmot. So did Digby. Miss Nelly made no secret of the fact that she was engaged to be married to Tommy Collins. She was proud of the fact that he was serving as a private in the Wessex Borderers, wishing to work his way up through the ranks to the commission that he might have had for the asking. No Wessex man ever entered the canteen without being asked if he knew Private 7432 Collins, of the 8th Battalion. Every one—even the sergeant-major—had to listen to scraps read out from Tommy's letters, written in trenches or in billets. When Tommy was reported wounded, Miss Willmot had a bad day of it with an almost hysterical Nelly Davis. When the wound turned out to be nothing worse than a hole in the calf of the leg, made by a machine-gun bullet, Miss Nelly cried from sheer relief. When, by the greatest good luck in the world, Private 7432 Collins was sent down to 73 General Hospital, no more than a mile distant from the Camp, Miss Nelly went wild with joy.
"Can't be done," said the Major. "If it were any other hospital—but the people in No. 73 don't like me."
The Major was a stickler for extreme accuracy in the filling in of all official papers. The staff of No. 73 Hospital cured its patients of their wounds, but sometimes turned them loose afterwards, insufficiently, occasionally even wrongly, described and classified. The Major invariably called attention to these mistakes.
The Major, though particular on some points, was a kindly man. He did not want to speak evil of the hospital authorities. He was also a little tired of hearing about Tommy Collins. He changed the subject abruptly.
"By the way, Miss Willmot," he said, "it's all right about the men's Christmas dinner. I spent an hour this morning strafing everybody in the cook-house. I told them they must try to make the Yorkshire pudding. Heaven knows what it will be like?"
"If they'll only follow the receipt I gave them——" said Miss Willmot.
"If," said Digby. "But those cooks are rotters."
"Anyhow," said the Major, "there'll be a decent dinner. Roast beef, plum pudding, oranges, and then all the things you have for them in the canteen. They'll not do badly, not at all badly."
He rubbed his hands together and smiled with benevolent satisfaction. He had arranged to eat his own Christmas dinner at the unholy hour of three in the afternoon. He meant to see that all went well at the men's dinner, and that their tea was sufficient. He meant to look in for an hour at the canteen festivities. He had promised to sing Christmas carols. From three to four was the only time left at which he could dine. But that thought did not spoil his satisfaction.
Digby saw, or thought he saw, his opportunity.
"There's one poor fellow in the guard-room, sir," he said. "Will he get any Christmas dinner?"
He winked at Miss Willmot as he spoke. This was the time for her to back up his charitable appeal.
"Ah," said the Major, "I'm afraid I can't do much for him. It's a serious charge, a case of a Field General Court Martial. I'm afraid there's no doubt about the facts. I'm sorry for him. He's quite young; but it's a disgraceful thing for any man to do."
The Major's face hardened. For many offences and most offenders he had some sympathy; but a man who sinned against the code of military honour had little pity to expect from the Major.
Miss Willmot looked up.
"Is it very bad?" she asked.
"One of those cases of self-wounding," said the Major. "Shot himself in the leg with his own rifle."
There are cases of this kind, a few of them. Some wretch, driven half frantic by terror, worn out with hardships, hopeless of any end of his sufferings, seeks this way out. He gains a week of rest and security in a hospital ward. Then he faces the stern judgment of a court martial, and pays the penalty.
"Poor fellow!" said Miss Willmot. "Poor boy! What he must have gone through before he did that!"
"He went through no more than any other man went through," said the Major; "but they stuck it and he shirked. There are men enough who deserve our pity, Miss Willmot We can't afford to waste sympathy on cowards."
Miss Willmot was of another mind. For her there was a law higher even than the Major's lofty code of chivalry and honour. She had pity to spare for cowards.
The Major himself was not wholly consistent As he rose to leave the kitchen he spoke of the prisoner again.
"He doesn't look like a man who'd do it. He looks like a gentleman. That makes it worse, of course, much worse. All the same, he doesn't look it."
"Well?" said Digby, when the Major left.
"I can't do anything," said Miss Willmot "In a case of this kind there's nothing to be done."
But Miss Willmot made up a little parcel before she left the canteen. There were cigarettes in it, and chocolate, and a couple of mince pies, and a large slice of cake, and some biscuits. Afterwards she acted lawlessly, offended against discipline, treated rules and regulations with contempt.
Sergeant O'Rorke was sitting in the guard-room playing patience when Miss Willmot entered. He stood up at once and saluted.
"Terrible weather, miss. I'll never say again that it rains in the County Galway. Sure, it doesn't know how. A man would have to come to France to find out what rain is."
"Sergeant," said Miss Willmot, "I want to speak to your prisoner."
Sergeant O'Rorke scratched his ear doubtfully. Miss Willmot had no right to see the prisoner. He had no right to open the door of the cell for her. They had hammered some respect for discipline into Sergeant O'Rorke when he served in the Irish Guards. But they had not hammered the Irish nature altogether out of him. He was willing to go to great lengths, to take risks in order to oblige a friend whom he liked and respected. He had an Irishman's feeling that laws and regulations are not meant to apply to ladies like Miss Willmot.
"Did you think to ask leave of the Major, miss?" he said.
"No," said Miss Willmot, "I didn't ask anybody's leave."
"That's a pity now," said O'Rorke; "but sure the Major would never have said no if you'd have asked him."
He fitted the key into the lock and flung open the door of the cell.
"Prisoner, 'tention," he said.
Miss Willmot entered the small square room, lit by a single electric light. It was entirely bare of all furniture, save a single rug, which lay rolled up in a corner. The walls and floor were lined with sheets of zinc A young man stood stiffly to attention in the middle of the room. Miss Willmot stared at him.
Then she turned to Sergeant O'Rorke. "Shut the door please, sergeant, and wait outside."
The young man neither stirred nor spoke.
"Tommy!" said Miss Willmot.
"7432! Private Collins, miss, 8th Wessex Borderers."
He spoke in a tone of hard, cold fury.
"Tommy," said Miss Willmot.
"Awaiting trial by Field General Court Martial on a charge of deliberately wounding himself in the leg."
"Tommy," said Miss Willmot again, "you didn't do that."
The boy broke down suddenly. The hardness and the anger vanished.
"Miss Willmot," he said, "for God's sake don't tell Nelly that I'm here."
"You didn't do it," said Miss Willmot.
"Of course I didn't do it," he said. "There's been some infernal blunder. I didn't know what the damned idiots meant when they put me under arrest I didn't know what the charge was till they marched me in to the C.O. here. He told me. Oh, the Army's a nice thing, I can tell you. I was expecting to get my stripe over that raid when I got hit with a bullet in my leg, and here I am charged with a coward's trick. I suppose they'll prove it I suppose they've got what they call evidence. I only hope they'll shoot me quick and have done with it I don't want to live."
Miss Willmot went over to the boy and took his hand. She led him to the corner of the bare room. They sat down together on the folded blanket She talked to him quietly, sanely, kindly. For half an hour she sat there with him. Before she left, hope had come back to him.
"Don't you worry about my being here," he said "If things are cleared up in the end I shan't mind a bit about spending a night or two in this cell. With all the things you've brought me"—the cake, chocolate, and cigarettes were spread out on the floor—"I'll have a merry Christmas, better than the trenches, anyhow. But, I say, don't tell Nelly. She might fret."
The Christmas festivities in the Camp were enormously successful. The men had cold ham for breakfast, a special treat paid for by the Major. They assembled for church parade, and Digby gave them the shortest sermon ever preached by a padre. The Major, who liked to play the piano at church service, was so startled by the abrupt conclusion of the discourse, that he started "O Come, All ye Faithful," in a key so low that no one could sing the second line. The Major pulled himself together.
"As you were," he said, and started again.
The men, thoroughly roused by the novelty of the proceedings, yelled the hymn. The dinner was all that could be hoped. Sweating cooks staggered into the dining-hall with huge dishes of meat and steaming cauldrons of potatoes. Sergeants, on that day acting as servants to the men, bore off from the carving-tables plates piled high. The Yorkshire pudding looked like gingerbread, but the men ate it The plum pudding was heavy, solid, black.
The Major, smiling blandly, went from table to table. Miss Nelly, flushed with excitement and pleasure, laughed aloud. Only Miss Willmot looked on with grave eyes, somewhat sad. She was thinking of Tommy Collins in his cell, with the weight of an intolerable accusation hanging over him.
Later on, not even Miss Willmot had time to be thoughtful. There was a pause in the festivities for an hour or two after dinner. The men smoked, slept, or kicked at a football with spasmodic fits of energy. Then the canteen was opened. Miss Willmot's great cake was cut The men passed in a long file in front of the counter. Miss Willmot handed each man a slice of cake. Other ladies gave crackers and mince pies. Digby, garrulous and friendly, distributed cigarettes. The Major stood at the far end of the room under the glistening white star. He was waiting for the moment to arrive at which he should make his speech, a speech sure to be received with genuine applause, for it was to be in praise of Miss Willmot The Major did that kind of thing well. He had the proper touch, could catch the note appropriate for votes of thanks. He knew his talent, and that Christmas Day he meant to do his best.
An orderly entered the canteen, looked round it, caught sight of the Major. He pushed his way through a crowd of laughing men who munched cake, smoked furiously, and decked each others' heads with paper caps from crackers. He reached the Major at last, and handed him a note. The Major read it and swore. Then he began to push his way towards the counter. The orderly followed him.
"Gangway," he called, "gangway, men. Make way for the Major."
Way was made at last The Major seized Digby by the arm.
"It's a damned nuisance," he said. "I beg pardon, padre, an infernal nuisance. I've got to go to the orderly room. Those fellows in No. 3 Hospital are ringing me up. Why couldn't they keep quiet on Christmas Day? I must go though, and I may be kept. You'll have to make the speech and thank Miss Willmot."
Digby escaped making the speech in the end. Just as the distribution of cakes and mince pies had finished, when Digby was searching frantically for an opening sentence, the Major returned. He made two speeches. One was in a low voice across the counter to Miss Willmot. The other was to the men. It was all about Miss Willmot. It was beautifully phrased. But she did not hear a word of it She was scarcely aware of the men's cheers, though the paper festoons swayed to and fro, and the Chinese lanterns shook with the violence of the shouting. For the Major had said this to her:
"It's all right about that boy in the guard-room, the prisoner you know, who was to have been court-martialled. Some blatant idiot of an orderly sergeant mixed up two sets of papers, and put the wrong man under arrest. They're sending over the right man now. I told Sergeant O'Rorke to bring that poor boy straight here from the guard-room. Keep a bit of cake for him."
It was while the men were cheering the Major's other speech that Tommy Collins, guided by Sergeant O'Rorke, entered the canteen.
Miss Nelly saw him at once. She stretched herself across the counter to grasp his hands, upsetting the few remaining mince pies, and scattering crackers right and left. If the counter had not been so broad and high she would in all probability have kissed him.
"Oh, Tommy!" she said. "And I'd given up all hope of seeing you. This is just a perfect Christmas box. How did you get here?"
Tommy Collins looked appealingly to Miss Willmot. His eyes begged her as plainly as if words had crossed his lips not to tell the story of his arrest.
"Now you are here," said Miss Nelly, "you must help us with the carols. The Major's a perfect darling, but he can't sing bass for nuts. You'll do it, won't you? I'm singing, and so is Miss Willmot."
V ~~ HER RIGHT
Mrs. Jocelyn was generally considered a clever woman. Her husband respected her intellect. He was, and still is, Professor of Psychology in one of our younger Universities, so he could give an expert's opinion on any question of mental capacity. Her sons said she was clever. There were two young Jocelyns, Ned, a barrister, and Tom, a junior master in a public school. Ned used to give me his opinion of his mother very often.
"The mater is extraordinarily clear-headed," he would say. "If you want to see your way through a muddle, just you talk it over with her. It's an awful pity she——"
Then Ned would shrug his shoulders. He was a loyal son, and he never said in plain words what the pity was. Tom spoke in the same way.
"Dad's all right," he used to say, "European reputation and all that; but the mater has the brains of our family. If only she wouldn't——"
I agreed with both of them. Mrs. Jocelyn was one of the cleverest women I ever met, but—well, on one subject she was an intolerable bore. That subject was Woman's Suffrage. She could not keep off it for very long, and once she started there was no stopping her. All her friends suffered. It cannot be said that she argued. She demanded, aggressively insisted on sex equality, on justice and right for women, right in every sphere of life, political right, social right, economic right, all kinds of other right.
This, of course, was in the old days before the war. Since August, 1914, most things have changed. Professor Jocelyn, indeed, still lectures on psychology, half-heartedly now, to a rapidly dwindling class of young women. But Ned Jocelyn's name is painted in black letters on a brown wooden cross at the head of a grave—one of a long row of graves—in a French cemetery. Tom is trying to learn to walk without crutches in the grounds of an English hospital. Mrs. Jocelyn is out in France, working in a canteen, working very hard. It is only occasionally now that she demands a "right;" but when she does, she demands it, so I understand, with all her old ferocious determination to get it This is the story of how she once demanded and took a "right."
It was nearly midday, and the camp lay under a blazing sun. It was early in July, when all England and all France were throbbing with hope, pride and terror as the news of the "Big Push" came in day by day. There was little calm, and few hearts at ease in those days, but Number 50 Convalescent Camp looked peaceful enough. It is miles from the firing line. No shells ever burst over it or near it. Only occasionally can the distant rumble of the guns be heard. A spell of dry weather had cracked the clay of the paths which divided it into rectangles. The grass was burnt and brown. The flower beds, in spite of diligent watering, looked parched. The great white tents, marquees guyed up with many ropes, shone with a blinding glare. In the strips of shade made by the fly sheets of the tents, men lay in little groups. Their tunics were unbuttoned or cast aside. They smoked and chatted, speaking slowly and briefly. Oftener they slept.
Only in one corner of the camp was there any sign of activity. Near the main entrance is the orderly room. Inside, a sweating adjutant toiled at a mass of papers on the desk before him. From time to time a sergeant entered the room, saluted, spoke sharply, received his orders, saluted and went out again. From the clerk's room next door came the sound of voices, the ceaseless clicking of a typewriter, and the frequent clamorous summons of a telephone bell. Outside, orderlies hurried, stepping quickly in one direction or another, to the Quarter-master's stores, to the kitchen, to the wash-houses, to twenty other points in the great camp to which orders must go, and from which messages must return. The bugler stood in the verandah outside the orderly room, ready to blow his calls or strike the hours with a hammer on a suspended length of railway line. At the entrance gate, standing sharply to attention as a guardsman should, even under a blazing sun, was Private Malley, of the Irish Guards, wounded long ago, now wearing the brassard of the Military Police. He saw to it that no person unauthorized entered the camp. Above him, limp from its staff, hung the Red Cross flag, unrecognizable that day, since there was no faintest breeze to stir its folds.
Close by the flag staff is the little dressing station. Here the men in the camp, men discharged from hospital, are seen by the doctors and the period of their rest and convalescence is decided. They are marked "Fit," and go to the fighting again, or sent back and enjoy good quarters and pleasant food for a while longer. Or—best hope—marked "Blighty" and go home. This is the routine. But sometimes there is a difference. There had been a difference every day since the "Big Push" started. Outside the dressing station was a group of forty or fifty men. They lay on the ground, most of them sound asleep. They lay in the strangest attitudes, curled up, some of them; others with arms and legs flung wide, the attitudes of men utterly exhausted, whose overpowering need is rest. Some sat huddled up, too tired to sleep, blinking their eyes in the strong sunshine. Most of these men wore bandages. Bandages were on their heads, their hands, their arms and legs, where sleeves and trousers had been cut away. Some of them had lost their caps. One here and there had lost a boot. Many of them wore tattered tunics and trousers with long rents in them. All of them were covered with mud, mud that had dried into hard yellow cakes. These were men sent straight down from the field dressing stations, men who had been slightly wounded, so slightly that there was no need for them to go to hospital. Among them there was one man who neither lay huddled nor sprawled. He sat upright, his knees drawn up to his chest, held tight in his clasped hands. He stared straight in front of him with wide, unblinking eyes. Of all the men in the group, he was the muddiest His clothes were caked with mud. His face was covered with mud. His hair was matted with mud. Also his clothes were the raggedest of all. The left leg of his trousers was rent from knee to waistband. The skin of his thigh shone white, strangely white compared to his face and hands, through the jagged tear. The sleeves of his tunic were torn. There was a hole in the back of it, and one of his shoulder straps was torn off. He was no more than a boy, youthful-looking compared even to the men, almost all of them young, who lay around him. He had a narrow face with that look of alert impudence which is common on the faces of gutter snipes in large cities.
As he sat staring he spoke now and then, spoke to himself, for there was no one to listen to him.
"We beat them," he said once. "We gave them the damnedest beating. We strafed them proper, and they ran. The Prussian Guards they was."
His accent betrayed him. He must have come from Lancashire, from some grimy Lancashire town, from Warrington or Bolton, from Liverpool itself perhaps, or Manchester. Before the war there were crowds of such boys there. They made up the football crowds on Saturday afternoons. They made the countryside hideous on bank holiday afternoons. They were the despair of church and chapel, of the social reformer, and often of the police. This boy was under-sized, of poor chest development, thin-limbed, weedy; but there was a curious light in those staring eyes of his.
He turned to the man on his right, a great, heavy-jawed Irishman with a bandaged knee, who was sound asleep.
"Wake up, Pat," he says, "wake up till I tell you how we strafed Fritz. Out in the open it was, the Prussian Guards."
But the Irishman slept on. Neither shaking nor shouting roused a sign of intelligence in him. The boy turned to the man on his left, a Canadian, an older man with a gentle, worn face. Perhaps because he was older or more utterly wearied out, or in pain this man waked and raised himself on one elbow.
"We went for them proper," said the boy. "Prussians they was and Guards. They thought they'd walk over us; but by God we talked to them, talked to them with the bayonet, we did."
A slow smile played across the Canadian's face.
"Say, Tommy," he said, "what's your name?"
"Wakeman, Private Wakeman, No. 79362. Gosh, Canada, but we handled them and they ran."
"They certainly did run some," said the Canadian slowly.
Then Wakeman poured out his story, a wonderful story, told in jerky sentences, garnished with blasphemies and obscene words. He had been a member of the Lewis Gun team. Very early in the advance the bursting of a high explosive shell had buried him, buried the whole gun team with its officer, buried the gun. Wakeman and three other men and the officer had crawled out from the mud and debris. Somehow they had unearthed the gun. Driven on by a kind of frenzy, they had advanced again, halting, firing a drum of cartridges, advancing again. Once more a shell caught them and buried them. Once more Wakeman crawled out, clawed his way out with hooked fingers, bit the loose clay with his mouth, bored through it with his head, dug at it with his toes. This time he and the officer were alone. They struggled to recover their gun, working fiercely, till a bullet hit the officer. After that Wakeman went on by himself, managed somehow to get among the men of the company to which his gun team belonged, and possessed himself of a rifle. At that point his story became incoherent. But about one thing he was clear. He and the others of his company had met in straight hand to hand fighting the proudest troops of Germany. By stabbing, lunging, battering with clubbed rifles, they had put the Prussian Guard to flight.
"Well," drawled the Canadian, "they did run. They certainly did run some. And what's the matter with you, sonny? Hit?"
"Buried," said Wakeman, "buried twice, and shrapnel in my leg, little bits."
The bits were little, but there were a good many of them. Half an hour later Wakeman passed into the dressing station in his turn. The doctor looked him over, scribbled a word or two on the label which hung from the lad's breast pocket, and patted him on the shoulder.
"You'll be all right, my boy," he said. "No shell shock. No D.A.H. Get along with you. Feeling a bit hungry, eh?"
"Thank you, sir," said Wakeman. "Yes, sir, feel as if I could do with a bit of something to eat The way of it was this, sir. We strafed them proper, we did. The Prussian Guards they was, and——"
But the doctor had no time to listen to the story. "Get along now. Get along. The sooner the dressing is done, the sooner you'll get your dinner."
The story, which the doctor would not hear, bubbled out into the ears of the nursing sister who picked the scraps of shrapnel out of Wakeman's leg. They were tiny fragments, most of them, but there were a great many, and it took the nurse twenty minutes to get through her job. The story was told twice over in jerks and snatches, just as it had been told to the Canadian, only the obscene words were unuttered and the oaths, when they slipped out now and then, were followed by apologies. Every soldier, even a Lancashire gutter snipe, has in him this curious instinct. His talk is commonly full of blasphemies and obscenities, devoid of all sense or meaning, efforts at futile emphasis, apparently necessary and inevitable. But if there is a woman within earshot, no such words pass his lips. A girl might sit all day among these men, and, if they knew she was there, her ears would never be sullied with the sound of a foul word.
Released at last from the dressing station, Wakeman and five or six others were taken to the bathhouse. The corporal who led the way, the bath orderly who provided soap and towels, and the wounded Irishman who was given the bath next to Wakeman's, all heard scraps of the story, learnt the essential fact that Wakeman and his pals had strafed the Prussian Guard. It was the Irishman who reduced the excited boy to silence for a few minutes.
"What do you want to be talking that way for?" he said. "Didn't we all give them hell? Didn't I bring back three prisoners myself. Three? It's five I would have had, only for a stray shell that bursted alongside of the communication trench and lifted two of them off me. Bad luck to that same shell, for a bit of it took me under the knee. But what matter? Only, mind this, what you did to the Prussian Guard wasn't in it with what that shell did to them two Boches. You'd have been sorry for the blighters, so you would, if so be you could have found a bit of either of them big enough to be sorry for."
Wakeman had no reply to make to that. It is not possible with a bayonet, or even with a Lewis gun, to cause the total disappearance of an enemy's body.
After his bath, with a clean shirt on him and a clean pair of socks, Wakeman dined. There is no lack of good food in Number 50 Convalescent Camp, and men recovering from wounds often have healthy appetites. But Wakeman ate, gorged himself, to the astonishment even of the kitchen orderlies. Plateful after plateful of stewed meat and potatoes, steaming and savoury, disappeared. Yet there was no sign about the boy of the lassitude of repletion. His eyes remained bright and glanced rapidly here and there. His body was still alert, the movements of his hands quick and decisive.
After dinner, rest Wakeman found himself with other new-comers in a tent in the corner of the camp. The Irishman was there, still lamenting in picturesque phrases the loss of his two prisoners.
"And the biggest of them—a fine figure of a man he was—had the beautifullest helmet on him that ever was seen; worth twenty francs it was, any day, and me without a penny in my pocket But where was it after the shell bursted? Tell me that if you can."
The Canadian was there, patiently ready to listen to any story, having apparently no story of his own to tell. Wakeman began again.
"It was the Prussian Guard," he said, "and we gave them proper hell, we did, out in the open. No blasted machine guns. Just them and us with the bayonet And——"
He talked in vain. In the tent were beds, real beds with mattresses of woven wire, and palliasses stuffed with straw. Stretched flat on his back the Irishman snored. His head pillowed on his folded arm the Canadian slept peacefully, a quiet smile, like a child's, on his face. Wakeman looked at them and snorted with contempt For him no sleep was possible. He pulled a bench to the door of the tent, and sat in the sunshine. He found the lid of a cigarette tin and set to work to scrape the mud off his clothes and boots. But the work wearied him. With a piece of string he laced up the long rent in his trousers, cutting holes in the material with the blade of a knife. Then, still obstinately disinclined for sleep, he went out to explore the camp.
At one end of the camp is a hut, a long, low building. It is one of those canteens and recreation huts, which, working through various organizations, the public at home provides for the men in France. They are familiar enough to everyone in France, and the men know that there is a welcome for them however often they pass the doors. In this hut Mrs. Jocelyn works all day long and every day.
Sometimes she cooks, making vast puddings, stewing cauldrons full of prunes or figs. Sometimes she stands behind the counter serving bowls of tea, coffee, cocoa, lemonade, to thirsty men. Sometimes, half asphyxiated with tobacco smoke, she sits at the piano and hammers out rag-time tunes, while the men crowd round her, their faces close to her as they peer at the music, their voices threatening her with deafness when they bellow in her ears. Sometimes she sits for an hour beside some dull-eyed victim of shell shock, patiently trying to coax or trick him back to some interest in life again, giving him, literally, her own vitality, until, "virtue gone out" of her, she must seek fresh strength for herself in the less exhausting toil of a scullery maid. Thus she pays to man the debt she owes to God for the cross over the grave of one son dead, and the unconquerable spirit of the other crippled.
It was a slack hour when Private Wakeman, in his grotesquely tattered clothes, limped through the door. Only a few men were in the hut, writing or playing draughts. A boy at the piano was laboriously beating out a discordant version of "Tennessee." Mrs. Jocelyn sat on a packing-case, a block of paper on her knee, writing a letter to a man who had left the camp to go up the line again. Another woman, a fellow worker, was arranging plates of cakes and biscuits on the counter, piling bowls ready to hand for the crowd of men who would come later, clamouring for tea.
Private Wakeman stood in the middle of the hut and looked around him. He sought companionship, longed to find some one to whom he could tell his story and make his boast about the Prussian Guard. His eyes wandered from one to another of the men who were writing or playing games. He found little encouragement. It seemed impossible to join himself to any one of them. He looked at the lady busy with the bowls and plates. His eyes rested at last on a great dish of stewed figs which stood on the counter. He had eaten an incredible quantity of food in the dining-hall two hours before, soup, beef, potatoes, cabbage, pudding, cheese. But he had not eaten stewed figs. His whole boy's nature rose in him in one fierce longing for stewed figs. He remembered. Before he went into the attack he had possessed half a franc and two sous. He thrust his hand into his one trouser pocket. It was empty. He tore at the string with which he had laced up the slit in his trousers. On that side there was not a pocket left. It and all it ever contained, were gone. He fumbled in the pockets of his tunic, found three mangled cigarettes, the stump of a pencil, a letter from his mother, and, at last, two English penny stamps, survivals of days which seemed years ago, when he had been in camp in England.
His eyes were fixed on the stewed figs. The longing in him grew fiercer, intolerable. He approached the counter slowly. He laid on it the two stamps, dirty almost beyond recognition. He smoothed them out carefully.
"Lady," he said, "I haven't got no money but——"
The worker laid down her bowls, looked at the two stamps, and then at the boy. She was a woman of experience and discernment She saw the muddy, tattered clothes. She read the look of desire in the eyes. She understood.
"What do you want?" she said.
"Stewed fruit, lady, and—and custard."
She turned from the boy to Mrs. Jocelyn.
"It's clean against all rules," she said. "I know I oughtn't to, but I must—-I simply must give this boy something."
Mrs. Jocelyn looked up from her writing. She saw all that the other had seen. She had talked with many men. One glance was enough for her. She knew what the boy had been through. With swift intuition she guessed at what he felt and how he yearned. She saw the name of his regiment on his one remaining shoulder strap. It was her dead boy's regiment, and every man in it was dear to her. Already the other lady was at work, putting a spoonful of stewed figs on a soup plate. Mrs. Jocelyn seized her by the arm and dragged her roughly back from the counter.
"Don't dare to do it," she said, "it's my right No one else has so good a right to do it as I have."
So Private Wakeman sat down to a plate piled with stewed figs, swamped with a yellowish liquid called custard in canteens in France. Beside him were jam tarts and great slabs of cake. From a mouth never empty, though he swallowed fast, came in short gushes the story of the strafing of the Prussian Guard, told at last to ears which drank in greedily every word of it.
So Mrs. Jocelyn claimed and took at last her dearest right.
VI ~~ JOURNEY'S END
I had a long journey before me, and I looked forward to it with dread. It is my habit when forced to travel in France, the part of France chiefly affected by the war, to resign myself to a period of misery. I relapse into a condition of sulky torpor. Railway Transport Offices may amuse themselves by putting me into wrong trains. Officers in command of trains may detach the carriage in which I am and leave it for hours in a siding. My luggage may be—and generally is—hopelessly lost. I may arrive at my destination faint for want of food. But I bear all these things without protest or complaint. This is not because I am particularly virtuous or self-trained to turn the other cheek to the smiter. I am morally feeble, deficient in power of self-defence, a lover of peace with discomfort, rather than honourable strife.
I felt no small joy when I discovered that Thompson was to be my travelling companion on this particular journey. I had travelled with Thompson before. I knew that he always secured food, that he never lost his luggage, that he had an instinct for recognizing the right train when he saw it, and that he had a healthy disregard for the dignity of the official persons who clog the feet of wayfarers in France.
We met at the station. Thompson's breezy good humour gave me fresh confidence at once. He looked energetic, hopeful and charged with vitality.
"Come along." he said, "we'll report to the R.T.O. at once and get it over."
In France under existing conditions the traveller reports to the Railway Transport Officer when he starts his journey, when he finishes it and at all intervening opportunities. An R.T.O. must lead a harassed and distressful life. He sees to it that the traveller has a fair share of life's trouble.
This particular R.T.O. began by trying to get us into a wrong train. I suppose that was the line of least resistance for him. It was easier to put us into the first train that came along. We should have been off his hands, and another R.T.O stationed somewhere else, would have had the job of getting us switched back on to our proper track again. The first man—and this was all he cared for—would have been rid of us. Thompson was equal to the situation. He talked vigorously to that R.T.O.. Thompson holds no very exalted rank in the army. I often wonder he is not tried by Court Martial for the things he says. But the R.T.O., so far from resenting Thompson's remarks, offered us a sort of apology.