WEE MACGREEGOR ENLISTS
J. J. BELL
I ARMS AND THE MAID II BREAKING IT GENTLY III FIRST BLOOD IV THE RING V IN UNIFORM VI MRS. McOSTRICH ENTERTAINS VII WILLIE STANDS UP VIII CORRESPONDENCE IX THE FAT GIRL X THE ALARM XI AN INVITATION XII A TEA-PARTY XIII MISS TOD RETURNS XIV AUNT PURDIE INTERVENES XV THE FAT GIRL AGAIN XVI CONSCIENCE AND A COCOA-NUT XVII 'FONDEST LOVE FROM MAGGIE' XVIII PITY THE POOR PARENTS! XIX A SERIOUS REVERSE XX THE REAL THING AT LAST XXI 'HULLO, GLESCA HIELANDERS! XXII NO HERO, YET HAPPY
ARMS AND THE MAID
Through the gateway flanked by tall recruiting posters came rather hurriedly a youth of no great stature, but of sturdy build and comely enough countenance, including bright brown eyes and fresh complexion. Though the dull morning was coldish, perspiration might have been detected on his forehead. Crossing the street, without glance to right or left, he increased his pace; also, he squared his shoulders and threw up his head with an air that might have been defiance at the fact of his being more than an hour late for his day's work. His face, however, betrayed a certain spiritual emotion not suggestive of anticipated trouble with employer or foreman. As a matter of fact, the familiar everyday duty had ceased to exist for him, and if his new exaltation wavered a little as he neared the warehouse, fifteen minutes later, it was only because he would have to explain things to the uncle who employed him, and to other people; and he was ever shy of speaking about himself.
So he hurried through the warehouse without replying to the chaffing inquiries of his mates, and ran upstairs to his uncle's office. He was not afraid of his uncle; on the other hand, he had never received or expected special favour on account of the relationship.
Mr. Purdie was now a big man in the grocery trade. He had a cosy private room with a handsome desk, a rather gorgeous carpet and an easy-chair. He no longer attended at the counter or tied up parcels—except when, alone on the premises late in the evening, he would sometimes furtively serve imaginary customers, just for auld lang syne, as he excused to himself his absurd proceeding.
'But what kep' ye late, Macgreegor?' he inquired, with a futile effort to make his good-humoured, whiskered visage assume a stern expression. 'Come, come, oot wi' it! An 'unce o' guid reasons is worth a pun' o' fair apologies.'
'The recruitin' office,' said Macgregor, blushing, 'wasna open till nine.'
'The recruitin' office! What—what—guidsake, laddie! dinna tell me ye've been thinkin' o' enlistin'!'
Mr. Purdie fell back in his chair.
'The 9th H.L.I.,' said Macgregor, and, as if to improve matters if possible, added, 'Glesca Hielanders—Kilts.'
The successful grocer sat up, pulled down his waistcoat and made a grimace which he imagined to be a frown. 'Neither breeks nor kilts,' he declared heavily, 'can cover deceit. Ye're under age, Macgreegor. Ye're but eichteen!'
'Nineteen, Uncle Purdie.'
'Eh? An' when was ye nineteen?'
Mr. Purdie's hand went to his mouth in time to stop a guffaw. Presently he soberly inquired what his nephew's parents had said on the matter.
'I ha'ena tell't them yet.' 'Ah, that's bad. What—what made ye enlist?'
Macgregor knew, but could not have put it in words.
'Gettin' tired o' yer job here?'
'Na, Uncle Purdie.'
'H'm!' Mr. Purdie fondled his left whisker. 'An' when—a—ha'e ye got to—a—jine yer regiment?'
'The morn's mornin'. I believe we're gaun into camp immediately.'
'Oho! So ye'll be wantin' to be quit o' yer job here at once. Weel, weel, if ye feel it's yer duty to gang, lad, I suppose it's mines to let ye gang as cheery as I can. But—I maun tell yer aunt.' Mr. Purdie rose.
Macgregor, smiled dubiously. 'She'll no' be pleased onyway.'
'Aw, ye never can tell what'll please yer aunt. At least, that's been ma experience for quarter o' a century. But it'll be best to tell her—through the 'phone, of course. A handy invention the 'phone. Bide here till I come back.'
In a few minutes he returned suppressing a smile.
'I couldna ha'e presumed frae her voice that she was delighted,' he reported; 'but she commanded me to gi'e ye five pound for accidental expenses, as she calls them, an' yer place here is to be preserved for ye, an' yer wages paid, even supposin' the war gangs on for fifty year.'
With these words Mr. Purdie placed five notes in his astonished nephew's hand and bade him begone.
'Ye maun tell yer mither instanter. I canna understan' what way ye didna tell her first.'
'I—I was feart I wud maybe be ower wee for the Glesca Hielanders,' Macgregor explained.
'Ye seem to me to be a heid taller since yesterday. Weel, weel. God bless ye an' so forth. Come back an' see me in the efternune.'
Macgregor went out with a full heart as well as a well-filled pocket. It is hardly likely that the very first 'accidental expense' which occurred to him could have been foreseen by Aunt Purdie—yet who shall discover the secrets of that august lady's mind?
On his way home he paused at sundry shop windows—all jewellers'. And he entered one shop, not a jeweller's, but the little stationery and fancy goods shop owned by Miss M. Tod, and managed, with perhaps more conscience than physical toil, by the girl he had been courting for two years without having reached anything that could be termed a definite understanding, though their relations were of the most friendly and confidential nature.
'Mercy!' exclaimed Christina, at his entrance at so unusual an hour; 'is the clock aff its onion, or ha'e ye received the sack?'
He was not quick at answering, and she continued: 'Ye're ower early, Mac. Yer birthday present'll no be ready till the evenin'. Still, here's wishin' ye many happies, an' may ye keep on improvin'.'
He smiled in a fashion that struck her as unfamiliar.
'What's up, Mac?' she asked, kindly. 'Surely ye ha'ena cast oot wi' yer uncle?'
'I've enlisted,' he softly exploded.
She stared, and the colour rose in her pretty face, but her voice was calm. 'Lucky you!' said she.
He was disappointed. Involuntarily he exclaimed: 'Ye're no a bit surprised!'
He told her, and she informed him that he wouldn't look so bad in the kilt. He announced that he was to report himself on the morrow, and she merely commented, 'Quick work.'
'But, Christina, ye couldna ha'e guessed I was for enlistin',' he said, after a pause.
'I was afraid—I mean for to say, I fancied ye were the sort to dae it. If I had kent for sure, I wud ha'e been knittin' ye socks instead o' a silly tie for yer birthday.'
'Ha'e ye been knittin' a tie for me?'
'Uh-ha—strictly platonic, of course.'
She had used the word more than once in the past, and he had not derived much comfort from looking it up in the dictionary. But now he was going—he told himself—to be put off no longer. Seating himself at the counter, he briefly recounted his uncle's kindness and his aunt's munificence. Then he attempted to secure her hand.
She evaded his touch, asking how his parents had taken his enlistment. On his answering——
'Dear, dear!' she cried, with more horror than she may have felt, 'an here ye are, wastin' the precious time in triflin' conversation wi' me!'
'It's you that's daein' the triflin',' he retorted, with sudden spirit; 'an' it's your fau't I'm here noo instead o' at hame.'
'Well, I never!' she cried. 'I believe I gave ye permission to escort me from these premises at 8 p.m.,' she proceeded in her best English, which he hated, 'but I have not the slightest recollection of inviting ye to call at 10 a.m. However, the 8 p.m. appointment is hereby cancelled.'
'Cancel yer Auntie Kate!' he rejoined, indignant. 'Hoo can ye speak like that when dear knows when I'll see ye again?'
'Oh, ye'll no be at the Front for a week or so yet, an' we'll hope for the best. Still, I'll forgive ye, seein' it's yer nineteenth birthday. Only, I'm thinkin' yer parents 'll be wantin' ye to keep the hoose the nicht.'
Macgregor's collar seemed to be getting tight, for he tugged at it as he said: 'I'll tell them I'm gaun oot to see you.'
'That'll but double the trouble,' she said, lightly.
Their eyes met, and for the first time in their acquaintance, perhaps, hers were first to give way.
'Christina,' he said, abruptly, 'I want to burst that five pound.'
'Ye extravagant monkey!'
'On a—a ring.'
'A ring! Ha'e ye enlisted as a colonel?' But her levity lacked sparkle.
As for Macgregor, he had dreamed of this moment for ages. 'Ye'll tak' it, Christina?' he whispered. 'Gi'e me yer size—a hole in a bit pasteboard. . . .' Speech failed him.
'Me?' she murmured—and shook her head. 'Ye're ower young, Mac,' she said, gently.
'I'm a year aulder nor you . . . Christina, let's get engaged afore I gang—say ye will!'
She moved a little way up the counter and became engrossed in the lurid cover of a penny novel. He moved also until he was directly opposite.
'Christina! . . . Yer third finger is aboot the same as ma wee yin.'
'Ay; but ye needna remind me o' ma clumsy han's.'
'Play fair,' he said. 'Will ye tak' the ring?'
'I dinna ken, Mac.'
But her hand was in his.
Too soon they heard Miss Tod stirring in the back room.
'If ye spend mair nor a pound on a ring,' said Christina, 'I'll reconsider ma decision!'
'Ye've decided!' he almost shouted.
'No yet,' she said, with a gesture of dismissal as Miss Tod entered.
BREAKING IT GENTLY
The quest of the right ring occupied the whole of the forenoon, and Macgregor reached his home in bare time for the family dinner. He desired to break his news as gently as possible, so, after making, to his mother's annoyance, a most wretched meal, he said to his father, who was lighting his pipe, in a voice meant to be natural:
'I got five pound frae Aunt Purdie the day.'
'Ye what!' Mr. Robinson dropped the match, and shouted to his wife, who, assisted by their daughter, was starting to wash up. 'Lizzie! Did ever ye hear the like? Macgreegor's got five pound frae his Aunt Purdie! Dod, but that's a braw birthday——'
'She said it was for accidental expenses,' stammered the son.
Lizzie turned and looked at him. 'What ails ye the day, laddie?'
'Uncle Purdie's gaun to keep ma place for me,' he floundered.
'Keep yer place for ye!' cried John. 'What's a' this aboot accidental expenses? Ha'e ye got hurt?'
Mrs. Robinson came over and laid a damp hand on her boy's shoulder. 'Macgreegor, ye needna be feart to tell us. We can thole it.' She glanced at her husband, and said, in a voice he had not often heard: 'John, oor wee Macgreegor has growed up to be a; sojer'—and went back to her dishes.
Later, and just when he ought to be returning to his work, Mr. Robinson, possibly for the mere sake of saying something, requested a view of the five pounds.
'Ay,' seconded Lizzie, cheerfully, whilst her hand itched to grab the money and, convey it to the bank, 'let's see them, laddie.' And sister Jeannie and small brother Jimsie likewise gathered round the hero.
With a feeble grin, Macgregor produced his notes.
'He's jist got three!' cried Jimsie.
'Whisht, Jimsie!' whispered Jeannie.
'Seems to ha'e been a bad accident already!' remarked John, laughing boisterously.
'John,' said Lizzie, 'ye'll be late. Macgreegor'll maybe walk a bit o' the road wi' ye.'
They were well on their way to the engineering works, where Mr. Robinson was foreman, when Macgregor managed to say:
'I burst the twa pound on a ring.'
'Oho!' said John, gaily; then solemnly, 'What kin' o' a ring, Macgreegor?'
'An engagement yin,' the ruddy youth replied.
Mr. Robinson laughed, but not very heartily. 'Sae lang as it's no a waddin' ring. . . . Weel, weel, this is the day for news.' He touched his son's arm. 'It'll be the young lass in the stationery shop—her that ye whiles see at yer Uncle Purdie's hoose—eh?'
'Hoo did ye ken?'
'Oh, jist guessed. It's her?'
'Maybe. . . . She hasna ta'en the ring yet.'
'But ye think she will, or ye wudna ha'e tell't me. Weel, I'm sure I wish ye luck, Macgreegor. She's a bonny bit lass, rael clever, I wud say, an'—an' gey stylish.'
'She's no that stylish—onyway, no stylish like Aunt Purdie.'
'Ah, but ye maunna cry doon yer Aunt Purdie——'
'I didna mean that. But ye ken what I mean, fayther.'
'Oh, fine, fine,' Mr. Robinson replied, thankful that he had not been asked to explain precisely what he had meant. 'She bides wi' her uncle an' aunt, does she no?' he continued, thoughtfully. 'I'm wonderin' what they'll say aboot this. I doobt they'll say ye're faur ower young to be thinkin' o' a wife.'
It was on Macgregor's tongue to retort that he had never thought of any such thing, when his father went on——
'An' as for yer mither, it'll be a terrible surprise to her. I suppose ye'U be tellin', her as sune's ye get back ?'
'Ay. . . . Are ye no pleased about it?'
'Me?' Mr. Robinson scratched his head. 'Takin' it for granted that ye're serious aboot the thing, I was never pleaseder. Ye can tell yer mither that, if ye like.'
Macgregor was used to the paternal helping word at awkward moments, but he had never valued it so much as now. As a matter of fact, he dreaded his mother's frown less than her smile. Yet he need not have dreaded either on this occasion.
He found her in the kitchen, busy over a heap of more or less woolly garments belonging to himself. Jimsie was at afternoon school; Jeannie sat in the little parlour knitting as though life depended thereby.
He sat down in his father's chair by the hearth and lit a cigarette with fingers not quite under control.
'I'll ha'e to send a lot o' things efter ye,' Lizzie remarked. 'This semmit's had its day.'
'I'll be gettin' a bit leave afore we gang to the Front,' said Macgregor, as though the months of training were already nearing an end.
'If ye dinna get leave sune, I'll be up at the barracks to ha'e a word wi' the general.'
'It'll likely be a camp, mither.'
'Aweel, camp or barracks, see an' keep yer feet cosy, an' dinna smoke ower mony ceegarettes.' She fell to with her needle.
At the end of a long minute, Macgregor observed to the kettle: 'I tell't fayther what I done wi' the twa pound.'
'Ay. He—he was awfu' pleased.'
Macgregor took a puff at his cold cigarette, and tried again. 'He said I was to tell ye he was pleased.'
'Oh, did he?'
'Never pleaseder in his life.'
'That was nice,' commented Lizzie, twirling the thread round the stitching of a button.
He got up, went to the window, looked out, possibly for inspiration, and came back with a little box in his hand.
'That's what I done,' he said, dropped it on her sewing, and strolled to the window again.
After a long time, as it seemed, he felt her gaze and heard her voice.
'Macgreegor, are ye in earnest?'
'Sure.' He turned to face her, but now she was looking down at the ring.
'It'll be Mistress Baldwin's niece,' she said, at last.
'Hoo did ye ken?'
'A nice lass, but ower young like yersel'. An' yet'—she lifted her eyes to his—'ye're auld enough to be a sojer. Does she ken ye've enlisted?'
He nodded, looking away. There was something in his mother's eyes. . .
'Aweel,' she said, as if to herself, 'this war'll pit auld heids on some young shouthers.' She got up, laid her seam deliberately on the table, and went to him. She put her arm round him. 'Wi' yer King an' yer Country an' yer Christina,' she said, with a sort of laugh, 'there winna be a great deal o' ye left for yer mither. But she's pleased if you're pleased—this time, at ony rate.' She released him. 'I maun tell Jeannie.' she said, leaving the kitchen.
Jeannie came, and for once that sensible little person talked nonsense. In her eyes, by his engagement, her big brother had simply out-heroed himself.
'Aw, clay up, Jeannie,' he cried at last, in his embarrassment. 'Come on oot wi' me, an' I'll stan' ye a dizzen sliders.'
Macgregor, his countenance shining with lover's anticipation and Lever's soap, was more surprised than gratified to find Willie Thomson awaiting him at the close-mouth. For Willie, his oldest, if not his choicest friend, had recently jeered at his intention of becoming a soldier, and they had parted on indifferent terms, though Willie had succeeded in adding to a long list of borrowings a fresh item of twopence.
Willie and prosperity were still as far apart as ever, and even Willie could hardly have blamed prosperity for that. He had no deadly vices, but he could not stick to any job for more than a month. He was out of work at present. Having developed into a rather weedy, seedy-looking young man, he was not too proud to sponge on the melancholy maiden aunt who had brought him up, and whose efforts at stern discipline during his earlier years had seemingly proved fruitless. Macgregor was the only human being he could call friend.
'Ye're in a hurry,' he now observed, and put the usual question: 'Ha'e ye a fag on ye?'
Macgregor obliged, saying as kindly as he could, 'I'll maybe see ye later, Wullie.'
'Thon girl again, I suppose.'
'So long,' said Macgregor, shortly.
'Haud on a meenute. I want to speak to ye. Ha'e ye done it?'
'Ay, this mornin'. . . . An' I'm gey busy.'
'Ye should leave the weemen alane, an' then ye wud ha'e time to spare.'
'What ha'e ye got to speak aboot?' Macgregor impatiently demanded, though he was in good time for his appointment.
'I was thinkin' o' enlistin',' said Willie.
'Oh!' cried his friend, interested. 'Ye've changed yer mind, Wullie?'
'I've been conseederin' it for a while back. Ye needna think you had onything to dae wi' it,' said Willie.
'Ye've been drinkin' beer,' his friend remarked, not accusingly, but merely by way of stating a fact.
'So wud you, if ye had ma aunt.'
'Maybe I wud,' Macgregor sympathetically admitted.
'But ye couldna droon her in twa hauf pints. Ach, I'm fed up wi' her. She startit yatterin' at me the nicht because I askit her for saxpence; so at last I tell't her I wud suner jine Kitchener's nor see her ugly face for anither week.'
'What did she say?'
'Said it was the first guid notion ever I had.'
'Weel,' said Macgregor eagerly, after a slight pause, 'since ye're for enlistin', ye'd best dae it the nicht, Wullie.'
'I suppose I micht as weel jine your lot,' said Willie, carelessly.
Macgregor drew himself up. 'The 9th H.L.I, doesna accep' onything that offers.'
'I'm as guid as you—an' I'm bigger nor you.'
'Ye're bigger, but ye're peely-wally. Still, Wullie, I wud like fine to see ye in ma company.'
'Ye've a neck on ye! Your company! . . . Aweel, come on an' see me dae it.'
In the dusk Macgregor peered at his watch. It told him that the thing could not be done, not if he ran both ways. 'I canna manage it, Wullie,' he said, with honest regret.
'Then it's off,' the contrary William declared.
'I've changed ma mind. I'm no for the sojerin'.'
At this Macgregor bristled, so to speak. He could stand being 'codded,' but already the Army was sacred to him.
'See here, Wullie, will ye gang an' enlist noo or tak' a hammerin'?'
'Wha'll gi'e me the hammerin'?'
'Come an' see,' was the curt reply. Macgregor turned back into the close and led the way to a small yard comprising some sooty earth, several blades of grass and a couple of poles for the support of clothes lines. A little light came from windows above. Here he removed his jacket, hung it carefully on a pole; and began to roll up his sleeves.
'It's ower dark here,' Willie complained. 'I canna see.'
'Ye can feel. Tak' aff yer coat.' Willie knew that despite his inches he was a poor match for the other, yet he was a stubborn chap. 'What business is it o' yours whether I enlist or no?' he scowled.
'Will ye enlist?'
'I'll see ye damp first!'
'Come on, then!' Macgregor spat lightly On his palms. 'I've nae time to waste.'
Willie cast his jacket on the ground. 'I'll wrastle ye,' he said, with a gleam of hope.
'Thenk ye; but I'm no for dirtyin' ma guid claes. Come on!'
To Willie's credit, let it be recorded, he did come on, and so promptly that Macgregor, scarcely prepared, had to take a light tap on the chin. A brief display of thoroughly unscientific boxing ensued, and then Macgregor got home between the eyes. Willie, tripping over his own jacket, dropped to earth.
'I wasna ready that time,' he grumbled, sitting up.
Macgregor seized his hand and dragged him to his feet, with the encouraging remark, 'Ye'll be readier next time.'
In the course of the second round Willie achieved a smart clip on his opponent's ear, but next moment he received, as it seemed, an express train on the point of his nose, and straightway sat down in agony.
'Is't bled, Wullie?' Macgregor presently inquired with compunction as well as satisfaction.
'It's near broke, ye——!' groaned the sufferer, adding, 'I kent fine ye wud bate me.'
'What for did ye fecht then?'
'Nane o' your business.'
'Weel, get up. Yer breeks'll get soakit sittin' there.' The victor donned his jacket.
'Ma breeks is nane o' your business, neither.'
'Ach, Wullie, dinna be a wean. Get up an' shake han's. I've got to gang.'
'Gang then! Awa' an' boast to yer girl that ye hut a man on his nose behind his back——'
'Havers, man! What's wrang wi' ye?'
'I'll tell ye what's wrang wi' you, Macgreegor Robi'son!' Willie cleared his throat noisily. 'Listen! Ye're ower weel aff. Ye've got a dacent fayther an' mither an' brither an' sister; ye've got a dacent uncle; ye've got a dacent girl. . . . An' what the hell ha'e I got? A rotten aunt!' Maybe she canna help bein' rotten, but she is—damp rotten! She wud be gled, though she wud greet, if I got a bullet the morn. There ye are! That's me!'
'Wullie!' Macgregor exclaimed, holding out his hand, which the other ignored.
'I'm rotten, tae,' he went on, bitterly. 'Fine I ken it. But I never had an equal chance wi' you. I'm no blamin' ye. Ye've aye shared me what ye had. I treated ye ill aboot the enlistin'. But I wasna gaun to enlist to please you, nor ma aunt, neither.' He rose slowly and picked up his shabby jacket. 'But, by ——, I'll enlist to please masel'!' He held out his hand. 'There it is, if ye want it, Macgreegor. . . . Ha'e ye a match? Weel, show a licht. Is ma nose queer-like?'
'Ay,' Macgregor unwillingly replied, and, with inspiration, added consolingly, 'But it was aye that, Wullie.'
'Wha' was chasin' ye?' Christina inquired, as Macgregor came breathless to the counter, which she was tidying up for the night.
'I was feart I was gaun to be late.' he panted.
'I wud ha'e excused ye under the unique circumstances,' she said graciously. 'Sit doon an' recover yer puff.'
He took the chair, saying: 'It was Wullie Thomson. He's awa' to enlist.'
'Wullie Thomson! Weel, that's a bad egg oot the basket. Hoo did ye manage it, Mac?'
'It wasna me,' Macgregor replied, not a little regretfully. 'He's enlistin' to please hissel'. He says he's fed up wi' his aunt.'
'She's been feedin' him up for a lang while, puir body. But ye're a queer lad,' she said softly, 'the way ye stick to a fushionless character like him. I was tellin' Miss Tod,' she continued, 'aboot——'
'Oor engagement!' he burst out, scarlet.
'Whist, man!—ye've a wild imagination!—aboot ye enlistin'. She's been in a state o' patriotic tremulosity ever since. Dinna be surprised if she tries for to kiss ye.'
'I wud be mair surprised,' said Macgregor, with unexpected boldness, 'if you tried it.'
'Naething could exceed ma ain amazement,' she rejoined, 'if I did.'
'I've got the ring,' he announced, his hand in his pocket.
'Order! Remember, I'm still at the receipt o' custom—three bawbees since seeven o'clock.'
'I hope ye'll like it,' he said, reluctantly withdrawing his hand empty. 'Miss Tod canna hear us, can she?'
'Ye never can tell what a spinster'll hear when she's interested. At present she's nourishin' hersel' on tea—her nineteenth cup for the day; but she'll be comin' shortly to embrace ye an' shut the shop. I micht as weel get on ma hat. . . . An' 'what did yer parents say to ye?'
'They said ye was an awfu' nice, clever, bonny, handsome lassie——'
'Tit, tit! Aboot the enlistin', I meant. But I'll no ask ye that. They wud be prood, onyway.'
'Ma uncle's raised ma wages, an' they're to be payed a' the time I'm awa'.'
'Shakespeare! That's a proper uncle to ha'e! But dinna be tempted to stop awa' till ye're a millionaire. Oh, here's Miss Tod. Keep calm. She'll no bite ye.'
The little elderly woman who entered had made the acquaintance of Macgregor in his early courting days, especially during the period wherein he had squandered his substance in purchases of innumerable and unnecessary lead pencils, etcetera, doubtless with a view to acquiring merit in her eyes as well as in her assistant's.
She now proceeded to hold .his hand, patting it tenderly, while she murmured 'brave lad' over and over again, to his exquisite embarrassment.
'But ye'll bate the nesty Rooshians, dearie—I meant for to say the Prooshians, Christina—an' ye'll come marchin' hame a conductor or an inspector, or whatever they ca' it, wi' medals on yer breist an' riches in yer purse——'
'An' rings on his fingers an' bells——'
'Noo, noo, lassie, ye're no to mak' fun o' me! Whaur's his case?'
Christina handed her an aluminium cigarette case—the best in the shop—and she presented it to Macgregor, saying: 'Ye're no to gang an' hurt yer health wi' smokin'; but when ye tak' a ceegarette, ye'll maybe gi'e a thocht to an auld body that'll be rememberin' ye, baith mornin' an' nicht.'
'If he smokes his usual, he'll be thinkin' o' ye every twinty meenutes,' remarked the girl, and drawing on her gloves, she came round to the door in order to close an interview which threatened to become lugubrious for all parties.
* * * * *
'Everybody's terrible kind,' Macgregor observed, when he found himself alone with Christina on the pavement. 'Will ye look at the ring noo?'
She shook her head and stepped out briskly.
After a little while he revived. 'I hope ye'll like it, Christina. It's got pearls on it. I hope it'll fit ye.' A long pause. 'I wish ye wud say something.'
'What'll I say?'
'Onything. I never heard ye dumb afore.'
'Maybe I'm reformin'.'
'That's ma name, but ye needna tell everybody.'
'Dinna tease. We—we ha'e awfu' little time. Tak' aff yer glove an' try the ring. Naebody'll notice. Ye can look at it later on.'
'I'm no in the habit o' acceptin' rings frae young men.'
'But—but we're engaged.'
'That's news, but I doobt it's no official.'
'At least we're near engaged. Say we are, Christina.'
'This is most embarrassing, Mr. Robinson.'
'Aw, Christina!' said the boy, helplessly.
She let him remain in silent suspense for several minutes, until, in fact, they turned into the quiet street of her abode. Then she casually remarked:
'Ma han's gettin' cauld wantin' its glove, Mac.'
He seized it joyfully and endeavoured to put the ring on. 'It's ower wee!' he cried, aghast.
'That's ma middle finger.'
It fitted nicely. Triumphantly he exclaimed: 'Noo we're engaged!'
She had no rejoinder ready.
'Ye can tak' ma arm, if ye like,' he said presently, just a little too confidently.
'I dinna feel in danger o' collapsin' at present,' she replied, regarding the ring under the lamp they were passing. 'Ye're an extravagant thing!' she went on. 'I hope ye got it on appro.'
'What—dae ye no like it?'
'I like the feel o' it,' she admitted softly, 'an' it's real bonny; but ye—ye shouldna ha'e done it, Mac.' She made as if to remove the ring.
He caught her hand. 'But we're engaged!'
'Ye're ower sure o' that,' she said a trifle sharply.
He stared at her.
'Firstly, I never said I wud tak' the ring for keeps,' she proceeded. 'Secondly, ye ha'ena seen ma uncle yet——'
'I'm no feart for him—if ye back me up. Him an' yer aunt'll dae onything ye like.'
'Thirdly, ye ha'e never. . . .' She broke off as they reached the close leading to her home.
'What ha'e I no done, Christina?'
'Never heed. . . . Leave go ma finger.'
'Will ye keep the ring?'
'Hoo can I keep the ring when ye ha'e never. . .' Again the sentence was not completed. She freed her hand and stepped within the close.
'Tell me, an' I'll dae it, Christina,' he cried.
She shook her head, smiling rather ruefully.
'Tell me,' he pleaded.
'I canna—an' maybe ye wouldna like me ony better if I could.' She took off the ring and with a wistful glance at it offered it to him.
He took it, and before she knew, it was on her finger again.
'Ye've jist got to keep it!' he said, desperately. 'An' Christina, I—I'm gaun to kiss ye!'
But he had none. . . .
'Are we engaged or no?' he whispered at last.
'Let me get ma breath.'
She laughed, though her eyes were wet. 'Oh, dear,' she murmured, 'I never thought I wud get engaged wi'oot a—a . . .'
Suddenly she leaned forward and touched his cheek. 'Dinna fash yersel', Mac. Bein' in war-time, I suppose the best o' us has got to dae wi'oot some luxury or ither—sich as a proper High-Class Proposal.'
There happened to be a little delay in providing the later batches of recruits with the garb proper to their battalion, and it was the Monday of their third week in training when Privates Robinson—otherwise Macgregor—and Thomson saw themselves for the first time in the glory of the kilt. Their dismay would doubtless have been overwhelming had they been alone in that glory; even with numerous comrades in similar distress they displayed much awkwardness and self-consciousness. During drill Willie received several cautions against standing in a semi-sitting attitude, and Macgregor, in his anxiety to avoid his friend's error, made himself ridiculous by standing on his toes, with outstretched neck and fixed, unhappy stare.
As if to intensify the situation, the leave for which they had applied a few days previously was unexpectedly granted for that evening. Before he realized what he was saying, Macgregor had inquired whether he might go without his kilt. Perhaps he was not the first recruit to put it that way. Anyway, the reply was a curt 'I don't think.'
'I believe ye're ashamed o' the uniform,' said Willie, disagreeable under his own disappointment at the verdict.
'Say it again!' snapped Macgregor.
Willie ignored the invitation, and swore by the great god Jings that he would assuredly wear breeks unless something happened. The only thing that may be said to have happened was that he did not wear breeks.
As a matter of fact, Macgregor, with his sturdy figure, carried his kilt rather well. The lanky William, however, gave the impression that he was growing out of it perceptibly, yet inevitably.
Four o'clock saw them started on their way, and with every step from the camp, which now seemed a lost refuge, their kilts felt shorter, their legs longer, their knees larger, their person smaller. Conversation soon dried up. Willie whistled tunelessly through his teeth; Macgregor kept his jaw set and occasionally and inadvertently kicked a loose stone. Down on the main road an electric car bound for Glasgow hove in sight. Simultaneously they started to run. After a few paces they pulled up, as though suddenly conscious of unseemliness, and resumed their sober pace—and lost the car.
They boarded the next, having sacrificed twelve precious minutes of their leave. Of course, they would never have dreamed of travelling 'inside'—and yet . . . They ascended as gingerly as a pretty girl aware of ungainly ankles surmounts a stile. Arrived safely on the roof, they sat down and puffed each a long breath suggestive of grave peril overcome. They covered their knees as far as they could and as surreptitiously as possible.
Presently, with the help of cigarettes, which they smoked industriously, they began to revive. Their lips were unsealed, though conversation could not be said to gush. They did their best to look like veterans. An old woman smiled rather sadly, but very kindly, in their direction, and Macgregor reddened, while Willie spat in defiance of the displayed regulation.
As the journey proceeded, their talk dwindled. It was after a long pause that Willie said:
'Ye'll be for hame as sune as we get to Glesca—eh?'
'Ay. . . . An' you'll be for yer aunt's—eh?'
'Ay,' Willie sighed, and lowering his voice, said: 'What'll ye dae if they laugh at ye?'
'They'll no laugh,' Macgregor replied, some indignation in his assurance.
'H'm! . . . Maybe she'll laugh at ye.'
'Nae fears!' But the confident tone was overdone. Macgregor, after all, was not quite sure about Christina. She laughed at so many things. He was to meet her at seven, and of late he had lost sleep wondering how she would receive his first appearance in the kilt. He dreaded her chaff more than any horrors of war that lay before him.
'Aw, she'll laugh, sure enough,' croaked Willie. 'I wud ha'e naething to dae wi' the weemen if I was you. Ye canna trust them,' added this misogynist of twenty summers.
Macgregor took hold of himself. 'What'll ye dae if yer aunt laughs?' he quietly demanded.
'Her? Gor! I never heard her laugh yet—excep' in her sleep efter eatin' a crab. But by Jings, if she laughs at me, I—I'll gang oot an' ha'e a beer!'
'But ye've ta'en the pledge.'
'To ——! I forgot aboot that. Weel, I—I'll wait an' see what she's got in for the tea first. . . . But she canna laugh. I'll bet ye a packet o' fags she greets.'
'I'll tak' ye on!'
It may be said at once that the wager was never decided, for the simple reason that when the time came Willie refused all information—including the fact that his aunt had kissed him. Which is not, alas, to say that his future references to her were to be more respectful than formerly.
* * * * *
At three minutes before seven Macgregor stood outside Miss Tod's little shop, waiting for the departure of a customer. It would be absurd to say that his knees shook, but it is a fact that his spirit trembled. Suspended from a finger of his left hand was a small package of Christina's favourite sweets, which unconsciously he kept spinning all the time. His right hand was chiefly occupied in feeling for a pocket which no longer existed, and then trying to look as if it had been doing something entirely different. He wished the customer would 'hurry up'; yet when she emerged at last, he was not ready. He was miserably, desperately afraid of Christina's smile, and just as miserably, desperately desirous to see it again.
Solemnly seven began to toll from a church tower. He pulled himself up. After all, why should she laugh? And if she did—well. . . .
Bracing himself, he strode forward, grasped the rattling handle and pushed. The little signal bell above the door went off with a monstrous 'ding' that rang through his spine, and in a condition of feverish moistness he entered, and, halting a pace within, saw in blurred fashion, and seemingly at a great distance, the loveliest thing he knew.
Christina did smile, but it was upon, not at, him. And she said lightly, and by no means unkindly:
'Hullo, Mac! . . . Ye've had yer hair cut.'
From sheer relief after the long strain, something was bound to give way. The string on his finger snapped and the package, reaching the floor, gaily exploded.
MRS. McOSTRICH ENTERTAINS
'I'm fed up wi' pairties,' was Macgregor's ungracious response when informed at home of the latest invitation. 'I dinna ask for leave jist for to gang to a rotten pairty.'
'Ay, ye've mair to dae wi' yer leave,' his father was beginning, with a wink, when his mother, with something of her old asperity, said:
'Macgreegor, that's no the way to speak o' pairties that folk gi'e in yer honour. An' you, John, should think shame o' yersel'. Ye should baith be sayin' it's terrible kind o' Mistress McOstrich to ask ye what nicht wud suit yer convenience.'
Macgregor regarded his mother almost as in the days when he addressed her as 'Maw'—yet not quite. There was a twinkle in his eye. Evidently she had clean forgotten he had grown up! Possibly she detected the twinkle and perceived her relapse, for she went on quickly—
'Though dear knows hoo Mistress McOstrich can afford to gi'e a pairty wi' her man's trade in its present condeetion.'
'She's been daft for gi'ein' pah-ties since ever I can mind,' Mr. Robinson put in, 'an' the Kaiser hissel' couldna stop her, Still, Macgreegor, she's an auld frien', an' it wud be a peety to offend her. Ye'll be mair at hame there nor ye was at yer Aunt Purdie's swell affair. Dod, Lizzie, thon was a gorgeous banquet! I never tasted as much nor ett as little; I never heard sich high-class conversation nor felt liker a nap; I never sat on safter chairs nor looked liker a martyr on tin tacks.'
Macgregor joined in his father's guffaw, but stopped short, loyalty revolting. Aunt Purdie had meant it kindly.
'Tits, John!' said Lizzie, 'ye got on fine excep' when ye let yer wine jeelly drap on the carpet.'
'Oho, so there was wine in 't! I fancied it was inebriated-like. But the mistak' I made was in tryin' to kep it when it was descendin'. A duke wud jist ha'e let it gang as if a wine jeelly was naething to him. But, d'ye ken, wife, I was unco uneasy when I discovered the bulk o' it on ma shoe efter we had withdrew to the drawin' room——'
'Haud yer tongue, man! Macgreegor, what nicht 'll suit ye?'
'If ye say a nicht, I'll try for it; but I canna be sure o' gettin' a late pass.' He was less uncertain when making appointments with Christina.
And Mr. Robinson once more blundered and caused his son to blush by saying: 'He wud rayther spend the evenin' wi' his intended—eh, Macgreegor?'
'But she's to be invited!' Lizzie cried triumphantly. 'So there ye are!'
'Ah, but that's no the same,' John persisted, 'as meetin' her quiet-like. When I was courtin' you, Lizzie, did ye no prefer——'
Lizzie ignored her man—the only way. 'What aboot Friday, next week?'
'If we're no in Flanders afore then,' reluctantly replied the soldier of seven weeks' standing.
* * * * *
Happily for Mrs. McOstrich's sake Macgregor was able to keep the engagement, and credit may be given him for facing the wasted evening with a fairly cheerful countenance. Perhaps Christina, with whom he arrived a little late, did something to mitigate his grudge against his hostess.
Mrs. McOstrich was painfully fluttered by having a real live kiltie in her little parlour, which was adorned as heretofore with ornaments borrowed from the abodes of her guests. Though Macgregor was acquainted with all the guests, she insisted upon solemnly introducing him, along with his betrothed to each individual with the formula: 'This is Private Robi'son an' his intended.'
While Macgregor grinned miserably, Christina, the stranger, smiled sweetly, if a little disconcertingly.
Then the party settled down again to its sober pleasures. Macgregor possessed a fairly clear memory of the same company in a similar situation a dozen years ago, but the only change which now impressed itself upon him was that Mr. Pumpherston had become much greyer, stouter, shorter of breath, and was no longer funny. And, as in the past, the prodigious snores of Mr. McOstrich, who still followed his trade of baker, sounded at intervals through the wall without causing the company the slightest concern, and were likewise no longer funny.
After supper, which consisted largely of lemonade and pastries, the hostess requested her guests, several being well-nigh torpid, to attend to a song by Mr. Pumpherston. No one (excepting his wife) wanted to hear it, but the Pumpherston song had become traditional with the McOstrich entertainments. One could not have the latter without the former.
'He's got a new sang,' Mrs. Pumpherston intimated, with a stimulating glance round the company, 'an' he's got a tunin' fork, forbye, that saves him wrastlin' for the richt key, as it were. Tune up, Geordie!'
Mr. Pumpherston deliberately produced the fork, struck it on his knee, winced, muttered 'dammit,' and gazed upwards. Not so many years ago Macgregor would have exploded; to-night he was occupied in trying to find Christina's hand under the table.
'Doh, me, soh, doh, soh, me, doh,' hummed the vocalist.
Christina, who had been looking desperately serious, let out a small squeak and hurriedly blew her nose. Macgregor regarded her in astonishment, and she withdrew the little finger she had permitted him to capture.
'It's a patriotic sang in honour,' Mrs. Pumpherston started to explain——
'Ach, woman!' cried her spouse, 'ye've made me loss ma key.' He re-struck the fork irritably, and proceeded to inform the company—'It's no exac'ly a new sang, but——'
'Ye'll be lossin' yer key again, Geordie.'
With a sulky grunt, Mr. Pumpherston once more struck his fork, but this time discreetly on the leg of his chair, and in his own good time made a feeble attack on 'Rule, Britannia.'
'This is fair rotten,' Macgregor muttered at the third verse, resentful that his love should be apparently enjoying it.
'Remember ye're a sojer,' she whispered back, 'an' thole.' But she let him find her hand again.
The drear performance came to an end amid applause sufficient to satisfy Mrs. Pumpherston.
'Excep' when ye cracked on "arose," ye managed fine,' she said to her perspiring mate, and to the hostess, 'What think ye o' that for a patriotic sang, Mistress McOstrich?'
'Oh, splendid—splendid!' replied Mrs. McOstrich with a nervous start. For the last five minutes she had been lost in furtive contemplation of her two youthful guests, her withered countenance more melancholy even than usual.
Ten o'clock struck, and, to Macgregor's ill-disguised delight, Christina rose and said she must be going.
Mrs. McOstrich accompanied the two to the outer door. There she took Christina's hand, stroked it once or twice, and let it go.
'Macgreegor has been a frien' o' mines since he was a gey wee laddie,' she said, 'an' I'm rael prood to ha'e had his intended in ma hoose. I'll never forget neither o' ye. If I had had a laddie o' ma ain, I couldna ha'e wished him to dae better nor Macgreegor has done—in every way.' Abruptly she pressed something into Christina's hand and closed the girl's fingers upon it. 'Dinna look at it noo,' she went on hastily. 'It's yours, dearie, but ye'll gi'e it to Macgreegor when the time comes for him to—to gang. Ma grandfayther was a dandy in his way, an' it's a' he left me, though I had great expectations.'
Gently she pushed the pair of them forth and closed the door.
At the foot of the stair, under a feeble gas-jet, Christina opened her hand, disclosing an old-fashioned ring set with a blood-stone.
'Ye never tell't me she was like that,' the girl said softly, yet a little accusingly.
'I never thought,' muttered he, truthfully enough.
WILLIE STANDS UP
It is not the most roughly nurtured of us who will rough it the most cheerfully. Willie Thomson, of harsh and meagre upbringing, was the grumbler of his billet. He found fault with the camp fare, accommodation and hours in particular, with the discipline in general. Yet, oddly enough, after a fortnight or so, he seemed to accept the physical drill at 7 a.m. with a sort of dour satisfaction, though he never had a good word to say for it.
His complaints at last exasperated Macgregor, who, on a certain wet evening, when half the men were lounging drearily within the billet, snapped the question:
'What the blazes made ye enlist?'
The answer was unexpected. 'You!'
'Ye're a leear!'
With great deliberation Willie arose from the bench on which he had been reclining. He spat on the floor and proceeded to unbutton his tunic,
'Nae man,' he declared, as if addressing an audience, 'calls me that twicet!'
'Wudna be worth his while,' said his friend, carelessly.
'I challenge ye to repeat it.'
The tone of the words caused Macgregor to stare, but he said calmly enough: 'Either ye was a leear the nicht ye enlisted, or ye're a leear noo. Ye can tak' yer choice.'
'An' you can tak' aff yer coat!'
'I dinna need to undress for to gi'e ye a hammerin', if that's what ye're efter. But I'm no gaun to dae it here. We'd baith get into trouble.'
'Ye're henny,' said Willie.
Macgregor was more puzzled than angry. Here was Willie positively asking for a punching in public!
'What's wrang wi' ye, Wullie?' he asked in a lowered voice. 'Wait till we get oor next leave. The chaps here'll jist laugh at ye.'
'It'll maybe be you they'll laugh at. Come on, ye cooard!'
By this time the other fellows had become interested, and one of them, commonly called Jake, the oldest in the billet, came forward.
'What's up, Grocer?' he inquired of Macgregor, who had early earned his nickname thanks to Uncle Purdie's frequent consignments of dainties, which were greatly appreciated by all in the billet.
'He's aff his onion,' said Macgregor, disgustedly.
'He says I'm a leear,' said Willie, sullenly. Jake's humorous mouth went straight, not without apparent effort.
'Weel,' he said slowly, judicially, 'it's maybe a peety to fecht aboot a trifle like that, an' we canna permit kickin', clawin' an' bitin' in this genteel estayblishment; but seein' it's a dull evenin', an' jist for to help for to pass the time, I'll len' ye ma auld boxin' gloves, an' ye can bash awa' till ye're wearit. Sam!' he called over his shoulder, 'fetch the gloves, an' I'll see fair play. . . . I suppose. Grocer, ye dinna want to apologeeze.'
Macgregor's reply was to loosen his tunic. He was annoyed with himself and irritated by Willie, but above all he resented the publicity of the affair.
With mock solemnity Jake turned to Willie. 'In case o' yer decease, wud ye no like to leave a lovin' message for the aunt we've heard ye blessin' noo an' then?'
'To pot wi' her!' muttered Willie.
A high falsetto voice from the gathering' audience cried: 'Oh, ye bad boy, come here till I skelp ye!'—and there was a general laugh, in which the hapless object did not join.
'Ach, dinna torment him,' Macgregor said impulsively.
While willing hands fixed the gloves on the combatants the necessary floor space was cleared. There were numerous offers of the services of seconds, but the self-constituted master of ceremonies, Jake, vetoed all formalities.
'Let them dae battle in their ain fashion,' said he. 'It'll be mair fun for us. But it's understood that first blood ends it. Are ye ready, lads? Then get to wark. Nae hittin' ablow the belt.'
By this time Macgregor was beginning to feel amused. The sight of Willie and himself in the big gloves tickled him.
'Come on, Wullie,' he called cheerfully.
'Am I a leear?' Willie demanded.
'Ye are!—but ye canna help it.'
'I can if I like!' yelled Willie, losing his head. 'Tak' that!'
A tremendous buffet with the right intended for Macgregor's nose caught his forehead with a sounding whack.
Thus began an extraordinary battle in which there was little attempt at dodging, less at guarding and none at feinting. Each man confined his attentions to his opponent's face and endeavoured to reached the bull's eye, as it were, of the target, though that point was not often attained, and never with spectacular effect. Ere long, however, Macgregor developed a puffiness around his left eye while Willie exhibited a swelling lip. Both soon were pouring out sweat. They fought with frantic enthusiasm and notable waste of energy.
The audience laughed itself into helplessness, gasping advice and encouragement to each with a fine lack of favouritism.
'Wire in, wee yin! Try again, pipeshanks! Weel hit, Grocer! That had him, Wullie!—ye'll be a corporal afore yer auntie! Haw, Mac, that was a knock-oot, if it had struck! Cheer up, Private Thomson; gi'e him the kidney punch on his whuskers! Guid stroke. Grocer!—fair on his goods' entrance! We'll be payin' for to see ye in pictur' hooses yet—the Brithers Basher! Gor, this is better nor a funeral! Keep it up, lads!' And so forth.
But it was far too fast to last. A few minutes, and both were utterly pumped. As though with mutual agreement, they paused panting. Neither had gained any visible advantage.
'Nae blood yet,' remarked some one in tones of regret mingled with hope.
'Never heed,' interposed Jake, humanely Tak' aff their gloves. They've done enough. We'll ca' it a draw—or to be conteenued in oor next dull evenin'—whichever they like. I hope you twa lads 'll never learn scienteefic boxin'. There's ower little fun in the warld nooadays.'
Neither offered any resistance to the removal of the gloves.
'Shake han's, lads,' said Jake.
To Macgregor's surprise, Willie's hand was out before his own.
'I'm a leear if ye like,' said Willie, still panting, 'but I can stan' up to ye noo!'
'So ye can,' Macgregor admitted—a little reluctantly perhaps, for he had long been used to being the winner.
'If I wasna teetotal,' Willie added in a burst of generosity, 'I wud stan' ye a drink.'
Macgregor to Christina
MY DEAR CHRISTINA,—
I was looking for your letter the whole of yesterday, but it did not come till this morning at 8.35 a.m., and I am sorry to say it is not near as nice as I expected. Some parts is niceish, but others is rotten. What for do you ask me if I have spotted many pretty girls here, when you know I would not be for taking the troubble of spoting any girl in the world but you, and besides they are all terrible ugly here. Yesterday I seen 2 that made me feel sick. Willie said they was on for being picked up, and he give a wink at one of them, and she put out her tongue at him, but no more happened. They was quite young girls, though hiddeous, but Willie did not seem to mind their faces ['mugs' scored out].
Willie is greatly changed since the last few weeks. You would scarcely know him, he is that fond of exercises. He is near as strong as me. They are telling him he will be a corporal before his aunt, and he gets huffy. He spoke too much about his aunt at the beginning, cursing and swearing like, and now he can't get away from it, poor sole. It is a pity she does not send him some small presents now and then. He is awful jealous of the chaps that get things from home; you can tell it by his face and the bad language he uses about the billet and the Zeppelins for 2 hours after. So just for fun, when I was writing to Uncle Purdie, I said please send the next parcel addressed to Pte. Wm. Thomson. Willie got it last night. He never let on he was pleased, but he was. He was freer nor I expected him to be with the groceries, but he eat a tin of salmon all by his lone, and in the middle of the night, at 3.15 a.m., he was took horrid bad, and 7 of the chaps made him take their private meddicines, and he could not turn out for physical exercise in the morning, but is now much better, and has made a good tea, and is eating 1 lb. cokernut lozenges at this very minute.
I have no more news. But, dear Christina, I am not well pleased with your letter at all. I am quite disconsoled about it. It makes me feel like wet cold feet that has no hopes of ever getting dry and cosy again. When I seen yourself last Friday night I was not feared for anything, for you was that kind and soft-hearted, and you laughed that gentle and pretty, and your words did sound sweet even when they was chaffing-like. But now I am fearing something has gone wrong. Are you offended? I did not mean to do so. Have you got tired of me? I would think yes at once, if you was the common sort of girl, but you are the honest sort that would tell me straight, and not with hints in a letter. So if you are not offended, I think you must have catched a cold in your head, or got something wrong with your inside. Colds in the head is very permanent [? prevalent] in the billet for the present, and the chaps with them are ready to bite your nose off if you say a word to them.
Dear, dear Christina, please tell me what is the matter. I will not sleep well till I hear from you. The stew for dinner to-day was better than the stew yesterday, but I could not take my usual. I am fed up with anxiousness. Kindly write by return. Why do you never put any X X X in your letters? Do you want me to stop putting them in mine?
Your aff. intended, M. ROBINSON.
P.S.—It is not to be the Dardanelles, but we are likely going to Flanders next week. Excuse writing and spelling as usual. X X X Please write at once.
Christina to Macgregor
Your esteemed favour duly to hand and contents noted. I deeply regret that my last communication did not meet with your unmitigated approval, but oh, dear wee Mac, I could not write a lovey-dovey letter to save my only neck. In my youth, when penny novels were my sole mental support, I used to see myself pouring forth screeds of beauteous remarks to an adoring swine 6 1/2 ft. high x 2 3/4 ft. broad. But now it can't be done. Still, I am sorry if my letter hurt you. It was never meant to do that, lad. You must learn to take my chaff and other folks' unseriously. Honest, if I had been really thinking of you along with other girls, I would not have mentioned it. I'm not that sort of girl, and I'm not the sort that gets cold in the head, either, thanking you all the same for kind enquiries. But I'm by no means faultless. I get what the novelists call flippant when I am feeling most solemn. I was a bit down-hearted when I wrote last, for your letter had said 'Dardanelles.' Now you say 'Flanders,' which is no better, but I am not going to cry this time. Surely they won't send you away so soon, dear.
Glad to hear Willie is greatly changed, and I hope he will keep on changing, though I could never admire a man that ate a whole tin of salmon in once. I'm sure the two girls were not so dreadfully plain as you report. Had they got their hair up? Girls don't usually put out their tongues at young men after their hair is up, so I presume they were very young. It was like you to ask your uncle to send Willie the parcel.
Miss Tod is not so brisk just now. The doctor says she must either drink less tea or become a chronic dyspeptomaniac. She prefers the latter. Poor old thing, her joys are few and simple! Trade is not so bad. A new line in poetical patriotical postcards is going well. The poetry is the worst yet.
I am sending you some cigarettes with my uncle's best wishes and a pair of socks with mine. Perhaps you have enough socks from home already. If so, give them to W. T., and ask him from me to practise blushing. He can begin by winking at himself in a mirror thrice daily.
When are you going to get leave again? Miss Tod says I can get away at 6, any night I want to. No; I don't want you to stop putting those marks in your letters. If you can find one in this letter, you may take it, and I hope it will make you half as happy as I want you to be. Good-night.
THE FAT GIRL
Never a day passed without its camp rumour. If Macgregor was disposed to be over-credulous, his friend Willie was sceptical enough for two.
'I hear we're for the Dardanelles next week,' the former observed one afternoon.
Willie snorted. 'What the —— wud they send us yins to the Dardanelles afore we ken hoo to fire a rifle?'
'I heard it for a fac',' Macgregor returned imperturbably. 'They want us yins for begnet wark, no for snipin'.'
'Begnet wark! I'll bet ye fifty fags I get a dizzen Turks on ma begnet afore ye get twa on yours!'
Macgregor let the boastful irrelevance pass. 'I wonder,' he said, thoughtfully, 'if we'll get extra leave afore we gang.'
'Plenty o' leave! Keep yer mind easy, Macgreegor. It's a million in gold to a rotten banana we never get a bash at onybody. It's fair putrid to think o' a' the terrible hard wark we're daein' here to nae purpose. I wisht I was deid! Can ye len' 'us a bob?'
'I ha'ena got it, Wullie; honest.' Willie sadly shook his head. 'That moll o' yours,' said he, 'is awfu' expensive. Ye've nae notion o' managin' weemen. Listen, an' I'll tell ye something. Ye mind last Monday? Weel, I had a late pass that nicht, an' I thocht I wud miss seein' ma aunt's ugly for wance—though it meant missin' a guid meal forbye. So when I got to Glesca I picked up thon fat girl we used to fling rubbish at when we was young. An', by Jings, she was pleased an' prood! She stood me ma tea, includin' twa hot pies, an' she gi'ed me a packet o' fags—guid quality, mind ye!—an' she peyed for first-class sates in a pictur' hoose! That's hoo to dae it, ma lad!' he concluded complacently.
'An' what did you gi'e her?' Macgregor inquired, after a pause.
'Ma comp'ny, likewise some nice fresh air fried in naething, for I took her for a short walk. I could manage wi' ninepence.'
'Ach, I didna think ye was as mean as that, Wullie! Was—was she guid-lookin'?'
'I didna notice her face a great deal; but she's a beezer for stootness. I'm gaun to meet her again on ma next leave. If I tell her we've orders for the Dardanelles, there's nae guessin' what she'll dae for me.'
'She maun be unco saft,' Macgregor commented pityingly.
'Maybe the kilt had something to dae wi' it,' Willie modestly allowed. 'They a' adore the kilt. Can ye no spare saxpence . . . weel, thruppence?'
'I could spare ye a bat on the ear, but I'll tell ye what I'll dae. I've got some money comin' the morn, an' I'll present ye wi' twa bob, if ye'll tak' yer oath to spend them baith on gi'ein' the fat yin a treat.'
Willie gasped. 'D'ye think I'm completely mad?'
There's something wrang wi' ye when ye can sponge aft a girl, even supposin' she's fat. So ye can tak' ma offer or a dashed guid hammerin' when the first chance comes.'
'Dinna be sae free wi' yer hammerin's, ma lord! Remember, it was a draw the last time.'
'I wasna angry, an' I had gloves on.' Willie considered for a moment and decided to compromise.
'I'll burst a bob on her to please ye.'
'Twa—or a hammerin'.'
'But what —— guid is the siller gaun to dae me, if I squander it a' on her? Ye micht as weel fling it in the Clyde. She's no wantin' that sort o' kindness frae me. She prefers a bit cuddle.'
'Did ye cuddle her?' Macgregor asked with an interest indifferently concealed.
'Some o' her. But she's earnin' guid money at the ——'
'I dinna suppose she wud ha'e treated ye excep' she had mair money nor brains.'
'She wud pairt wi' her last farden for ma sake!'
'Ach, awa' an' eat grass! It's weel seen that men are scarce the noo.'
'Mind wha ye're insultin'!'
'I'm gaun up to the billet.' Macgregor said, shortly, and walked off.
Presently, Willie, a new idea in his busy brain, overtook him.
'Macgreegor, if ye len' me thruppence the noo, I'll ca' it a bargain aboot the twa bob.'
He got the pennies then, and on the following day a florin, upon which he took a solemn oath. But as he fingered the silver later he smiled secretly and almost serenely. If the fat girl had stood him a substantial meal, cigarettes and a picture entertainment for nothing, what might not he expect as a return for the squandering of two shillings?
As for Macgregor, his motives were probably not unmixed: the pleasure which he foresaw for the poor, fat girl was contingent on the agony of Willie while spending good money on a person other than himself.
However, Willie was not long in securing a late pass, and went upon his jaunt in an apparently chastened state of mind, though in the best possible humour.
He returned in the worst possible.
'Twa bob clean wasted,' he grunted, squatting down by Macgregor's bed. 'I wish to —— I had flung it in the Clyde when we was crossin' the brig.'
'What gaed wrang?' inquired Macgregor, rubbing his eyes. 'Did she no like yer treat?'
'I'll warrant she did!'
'What did ye buy her wi' the twa bob?'
Willie sniffed at his recollections. 'Like a —— goat,' said he, 'I askit her what she wud like best for twa bob, me thinkin' naterally she wud say a feed to stairt wi'. I was ready for a feed masel'. But she squeezed ma airm an' shoved her big face intil mines, an' said she wud like a sooveneer best. To blazes wi' sooveneers! An' she dragged me awa' to a shop, an' I had to buy her a silly-like wee tie that cost me eichteen-pence-ha'penny; an' then she wanted a lang ride on the caur, an' that burst fivepence; an' she nabbed the remainin' bawbee for a keepsake.' The reciter paused as if from exhaustion.
'Hurry up!' said Macgregor encouragingly. 'What did she gi'e you?'
'A —— kiss up a —— close! To pot wi' kissin'! An' then she said she was afraid her mither wud be waitin' the ham an' egg supper for her, so she wud need to run, an' she was vexed she couldna meet me again because she had been hearin' I was a terrible bad character. An' then, takin' advantage o' ma surprise, she done a bunk. . . . An' if ever I ha'e ony mair truck wi' weemen, may I be ——'
'She wasna as saft as I fancied she was,' remarked Macgregor in an uncertain voice. 'So ye wud jist gang to yer aunt's for yer supper, efter a'?'
'Ay! An' the auld cat was oot at a prayer-meetin'. I ha'ena had a bite in ma mooth since denner-time. Ha'e ye onything o' yer uncle's handy?'
'I can gi'e ye a wee tin o' corned beef, Wullie. Ye ken whaur to find it.'
'Least ye can dae,' Willie growled. 'Thenk Goad it was your money!'
'I'm thinkin' I've got guid value.'
'Guid nicht!' And stuffing some blanket into his mouth, Macgregor rolled over and quaked with imprisoned mirth.
It came, as Christina would have expressed it in her early days, like a 'blot from the blue.' On a certain fine morning, while battalion drill was in progress, a mounted officer dashed upon the scene and was forthwith engaged in earnest conversation with the colonel. The news was evidently urgent, and it was received with an obvious gravity. A thrill ran through the ranks; you would have fancied you heard breaths of anticipation.
A minute later the companies were making for camp at the double. Arrived there they were instructed to repair to billets and, with all speed, pack up. And presently ammunition was being served out, a hundred rounds to each man; and, later, 'iron' rations.
'We're awa' noo!' gasped Macgregor, recovering forcibly from Willie's greedy clutch a pair of socks knitted by Christina.
'Ay, we're awa'; an' I'll bet ye we're for Flanders,' said Willie, no less excited.
'Dardanelles!' shouted Macgregor, above the din that filled the billet.
'Flanders!' yelled Willie, wildly, and started to dance—unfortunately upon a thin piece of soap.
'Dardanelles!' Macgregor repeated as he gave his friend a hand up.
'Oh ——!' groaned Willie, rubbing the back of his head. 'But what'll ye bet?'
'What ha'e ye got?'
'I'll bet ye thruppence—the thruppence ye lent me the day afore yesterday.'
'Done! If ye win, we'll be quits; if ye loss——'
'Na, na! If I win, ye'll ha'e to pay me——'
'Ach, I've nae time to listen to ye. I've twa letters to write.'
'Letters! What aboot the bet?'
'Awa' an' chase yersel'! Are ye no gaun to drap a line to yer aunt?'
'No dashed likely! She's never sent the postal order I asked her for. If I had got it, I wud ha'e payed what I'm owin' ye, Macgreegor. By heavens, I wud! I'll tak' ma oath I——'
'Aweel, never heed aboot that,' Macgregor said, soothingly. 'Send her a post caird an' let me get peace for three meenutes.'
'Ye canna get peace in this,' said Willie, with a glance round the tumultuous billet.
'I can—if ye haud yer silly tongue.' Macgregor thereupon got his pad and envelopes (a gift from Miss Tod), squatted on his bed, and proceeded to gnaw his pencil. The voice of the sergeant was heard ordering the men to hurry up.
'I'll tell ye what I'll dae,' said Willie, sitting down at his friend's elbow. 'I'll bet ye a' I owe ye to a bob it's Flanders. Ye see, I'll maybe get shot, an' I dinna want to dee in debt. An' I'll send the auld cat a caird wi' something nice on it, to please ye . . . . Eh?'
'Aw, onything ye like, but for ony sake clay up! Shift!' cried the distracted Macgregor.
'Weel gi'e's a fag . . . . an' a match,' said Willie.
He received them in his face, but merely grinned as he languidly removed himself.
The two scrawls so hastily and under such difficulties produced by Macgregor are sacred. He would never write anything more boyish and loving, nor yet more manly and brave, than those 'few lines' to his mother and sweetheart. There was no time left for posting them when the order came to fall in, but he anticipated an opportunity at one of the stations on the journey south.
Out in the sunshine stood the hundreds of lads whose training had been so brief that some carried ammunition for the first time. There were few grave faces, though possibly some of the many grins were more reflected than original. Yet there was a fine general air of eagerness, and at the word 'attention' the varied expressions gave place to one of determination.
Boom! boom! boom! . . . Boom! boom! boom! Dirl and skirl; skirl and dirl! So to the heart-lifting, hell-raising music of pipes and drums they marched down to the railway.
At the station it seemed as though they had been expected to break all records in military entraining. There was terrific haste and occasional confusion, the latter at the loading of the vans. The enthusiasm was equalled only by the perspiration. But at last everything and nearly everybody was aboard, and the rumour went along that they had actually broken such and such a battalion's record.
Private William Thomson, however, had already started his inevitable grumbling. There were eight in the compartment, and he had stupidly omitted to secure a corner seat.
'I'll bet ye I'm a corp afore we get to Dover,' he bleated.
'That's as near as ever ye'll be to bein' a corporal,' remarked the cheerful Jake. 'But hoo d'ye ken it'll be Dover?'
'I'll bet ye —— Na! I'll no tak' on ony mair wagers. I've a tremenjous bet on wi' this yin'—indicating Macgregor—'every dashed penny I possess—that we're boun' for Flanders. He says the Dardanelles.'
All excepting Macgregor fell to debating the question. He had just remembered something he had forgotten to say to Christina; also, he was going away without the ring she was to have given him. He was not sorry he was going, but he felt sad. . . .
The debate waxed furious.
'I tell ye,' bawled Willie, 'we're for Flanders! The Ninth's been there since the——'
A sudden silence! What the —— was that? Surely not—ay, it was!—an order to detrain!
And soon the whisper went round that they were not bound for anywhere—unless the —— old camp. The morning's alarm and all that followed had been merely by way of practice.
At such a time different men have different feelings, or, at least, different ways of expressing them. Jake laughed philosophically and appeared to dismiss the whole affair. Willie swore with a curious and seemingly unnecessary bitterness, at frequent intervals, for the next hour or so. Macgregor remained in a semi-stunned condition of mind until the opportunity came for making a little private bonfire of the two letters; after which melancholy operation he straightway recovered his usual good spirits.
'Never heed, Wullie,' he said, later; 'we'll get oor chance yet.'
Willie exploded. 'What for did ye get me to mak' sic a —— cod o' masel'?'
'Cod o' yersel'? Me?'
'Ay, you!—gettin' me to send a caird to ma —— aunt! What for did ye dae it?'
Macgregor stared. 'But ye didna post it,' he began.
'Ay, but I did. I gi'ed it to a man at the station.'
'Oh! . . . Weel, ye'll just ha'e to send her anither.'
'That'll no mak' me less o' a cod.'
'What way? What did ye write on the caird?'
Willie hesitated, muttered a few curses, and said slowly yet savagely:—
'"Off to Flanders, wi'—wi' kind love"—oh, dammit!'
After considering the matter at intervals for about thirty years, Miss Tod, Christina's employer, decided to take a short change of air by accepting the long-standing invitation of an old and aged friend who dwelt in the country. The hour of departure arriving, she shed tears, expressed the fear that she was going to her death, embraced the girl, handed her the keys of the premises, and requested her to make any use she pleased of the rather stuffy living-room behind the shop.
Christina had no notion of accepting the offer until, an hour or two later, the idea struck her that it would be fun to give a little tea party for Macgregor and Willie Thomson. She knew Willie but slightly, but though her respect was no greater than her knowledge, she had kept a softish corner for him since the day, two years ago, when he had gone out of his way to inform her, impudently enough, that his friend Macgregor was not courting a certain rather bold and attractive damsel called Jessie Mary.
So she wrote forthwith to Macgregor and enclosed the following invitation, in her neatest writing, for his friend:—
Miss Christina Baldwin requests the unspeakable pleasure of Pte. William Thomson's company
to T. T. Tea
on the first evening possible (Sunday excepted) at 5.30 precisely till 7 prompt.
Sandwiches, Sausage Rolls, Hot Cookies, Cream Dittos, Macaroons, Cheesecakes, Currant Cakes, Jam Puffs, Imperial (nee German) Biscuits, And NO BREAD. God Save the King!
P.S.—Miss C. B. will expect Pte. W. T. to Ask a Blessing.
It took time and patience on Macgregor's part to persuade his friend that the missive was not a 'cod'; but once convinced of its genuineness, Willie took the business seriously. He swore, however, to have nothing to do with the matter of the P.S. Nevertheless, in moments of solitude, his lips might have been observed to move diligently, and it is possible that he was mentally rehearsing 'For what we are about to receive, etc.' His written acceptance was a model in its way.
'Coming with thanks,—Yours truly, W. THOMSON.'
By the same post he wrote to his aunt—for cash; but her reply consisting of a tract headed with a picture of a young man in the remnants of a bath towel dining in a pig-sty, he was compelled once more to appeal to Macgregor, who fortunately happened to be fairly flush. He expended the borrowed shilling on a cane and a packet of Breath Perfumers for himself, and for Christina a box of toffee which, being anhungered while on sentry duty the same night, he speedily devoured with more relish than regret.
Unless we reckon evenings spent in Macgregor's home in the small boy period, and a funeral or two, Willie's experience of tea parties was nil. Despite his frequently expressed contempt for such 'footerin' affairs,' he was secretly flattered by Christina's invitation. At the same time, he suffered considerable anguish of mind on account of his ignorance of the 'fancy behaviour' which he deemed indispensable in the presence of a hostess whom he considered 'awfu' genteel.' With reluctance, but in sheer desperation, he applied to his seldom-failing friend.
'What the blazes,' he began with affected unconcern, 'dae ye dae at a tea pairty?'
'Eat an' jaw,' came the succinct reply.
'But what dae ye jaw aboot?'
'Onything ye like—as long as ye leave oot the bad language.'
'I doobt I'll no ha'e muckle to say,' sighed Willie.
'She'll want to hear aboot the camp an' so on,' Macgregor said, by way of encouragement.
'But that'll be piper's news to her. You've tell't her——'
'I've never had the time.'
Willie gasped. 'What the —— dae you an' her jaw aboot?'
'Nane o' your business!'
'Haw, haw!' laughed Willie, mirthlessly. 'My! but ye're a spoony deevil!—nae offence intendit.' The apology was made hastily owing to a sudden change in Macgregor's expression and colour.
Macgregor lit a cigarette and returned his well-stocked aluminium case to his pocket.
The silence was broken by Willie.
'It's a dashed bad habit, Macgreegor. Dinna let it grow on ye. If naebody saved up, everybody wud be weel aff. . . . Aweel, what maun be maun be.' And, groaning, Private Thomson drew forth a packet which his friend had 'stood' him the previous day. 'Regairdin' this tea pairty,' he resumed, 'are ye supposed to eat a' ye can an' leave what ye canna—if there's onything to leave?'
'She'll expect ye to eat a' ye can.'
'It's easy seen she doesna ken me.'
'Oh, she'll be prepared for the warst, Wullie,' said Macgregor, his good-humour returned. 'I can shift a bit masel' when I'm in form.'
Whereat Willie's countenance was illuminated by a happy thought. 'I'll bet ye a tanner I'll shift mair nor you!'
Macgregor laughed and shook his head. 'If you an' me was gaun oor lane to restewrant, I wud tak' ye on; but——'
'Aw, ye mean it wudna be the thing a tea pairty?'
'Weel, weel,' said Willie, with sorry resignation, 'honest money's ill to earn. It wud ha'e been a snip for me. Ha'e ye a match? 'Having lit up: 'Tell us what else I maunna dae at the pairty.'
Macgregor scratched his head. 'If it had been a denner pairty,' he said slowly, thinking doubtless of Aunt Purdie's, 'I could ha'e gi'ed ye a queer list; but ye canna gang faur wrang at a tea pairty.'
'I dinna want to gang an inch wrang.'
'Weel, then, for instance, some folk objec's to a chap sookin' his tea frae his saucer——'
'I'll note that. Fire awa'!'
'An' if a cream cookie bursts——'
'Dae they burst whiles?'
'Up yer sleeve, as a rule,' said Macgregor very solemnly.
'Guid Goad! I'll pass the cream cookies.'
'But they're awfu' tasty.'
'Are they? . . . Weel, what dae ye dae if it bursts?'
'Never let bug.'
'Ay, but—but what aboot the cream?'
'Best cairry an extra hanky an' plug yer sleeve wi' it.'
After a dismal pause, Willie inquired: 'Could ye no get her to leave the cream cookies oot o' her programme, Macgreegor?'
Macgregor looked dubious. 'She's gey saft on them hersel', an' she micht be offendit if we refused them. Of course they dinna scoot up the sleeve every time.'
'Whiles they explode doon the waistcoat—I mean tunic.'
'That's enough!' wailed Willie. 'If the Clyde was handy, I wud gang an' droon masel'!'
On the third day following, they obtained late passes. Willie's uneasiness was considerable, yet so was his vanity. He affected an absurdly devil-may-care deportment which so stirred Macgregor's sense of pity that he had thoughts of taking back what he had said about the cream cookies. But at the last moment his bootlace snapped. . . .
Willie's toilet was the most careful he had ever made, and included an application of exceeding fragrant pomade pilfered from his corporal's supply and laid on thickly enough to stop a leak. Finally, having armed himself with his new cane and put seven breath perfumers and a cigarette in his mouth, he approached the stooping Macgregor and declared himself ready for the road.
'What's that atrocious smell?' demanded Macgregor, with unwonted crustiness.
For once in his life Willie had no answer at hand, and for once he blushed.
Christina was serving a customer when her two guests entered the shop. Unembarrassed she beamed on both and signed to Macgregor to go 'right in.' So Macgregor conducted his friend, who during the journey had betrayed increasing indications of 'funk,' into the absent owner's living-room, which Christina had contrived to make brighter looking than for many a year.
At the sight of the laden table Willie took fright and declared his intention of doing an immediate 'slope.' 'Ye didna tell me,' he complained, 'there was to be a big compn'y.'
Macgregor grabbed him by the arm. 'Keep yer hair on, Wullie. There'll be naebody but the three o' us. There's nae scrimp aboot Christina,' he added with pride.
'I believe ye!' responded the reassured guest. 'Gor, I never seen as much pastries in a' ma born days—no but what I'm ready to dae ma bit.'
Just then Christina entered, remarking:
'It's an awfu' job tryin' to sell what a person doesna want to a person that wants what ye ha'ena got; but I done it this time. Evenin', Mac. Mr. Thomson, I am delighted to meet ye.'
'Aw,' murmured Willie helplessly.
'Dinna terrify him,' Macgregor whispered.
'Sorry,' she said with quick compunction. 'I'm gled to see ye, Wullie. Sit doon an' feel at hame. The kettle's jist at the bile. See, tak' Miss Tod's chair. She'll like to think that a sojer sat in it. She'll never ha'e been as near to a man. I was askin' her the ither nicht if she had ever had a lad. The answer was in the negative.'
'Maybe,' Macgregor suggested, 'she didna like to tell ye the truth.'
Christina smiled gently, saying, 'Ye've a lot to learn aboot us females, Mac.'
'By Jings, ye're richt there!' Willie exploded, and immediately subsided in confusion.
'Ay,' she agreed placidly; 'he's no a connoisseur like you, Wullie. Talkin' o' females, hoo's yer aunt keepin'?'
'Rotten—at least she was fine the last time I seen her ugly.'
'The decay seems to ha'e been rapid. But, seriously, it's a peety ye canna love yer aunt better——'
Love her! Oh, help!' The 'p' was sounded just in time, and Willie glanced at Macgregor to see whether he had noticed the stumble.
Macgregor, however, had forgotten Willie—unless, perhaps to wish him a hundred miles away. Christina was wearing a new white blouse which showed a little bit of her neck, with a bow of her favourite scarlet at the opening.
'D'ye ken what ma aunt done to me the ither day?' Willie proceeded, craving for sympathy. 'I was terrible hard up, an' I wrote her a nice letter on a caird wi' a view o' Glesca Cathedral on it, includin' the graveyaird—cost me a penny; an' what dae ye think she sent me back? A bl—oomin' trac'!'
At that moment the kettle boiled, and Christina, exclaiming 'Oh, mercy!' sprang to the hearth. Over her shoulder she said in a voice that wavered slightly:
'That was hard cheese, Wullie, but ye maun send her a cheerier-like caird next time. I'll stand ye an optimistic specimen afore ye leave the shop.'
'Thenk ye! A—of course we'll ha'e to draw the line at picturs o' folk dookin' in the sad sea waves or canoodlin' on the shore——'
Christina, teapot in one hand, kettle in the other, burst out laughing.
'Mind ye dinna burn yersel'!' cried Macgregor, starting into life.
'Haud the kettle, Mac,' said she. 'It's no fair o' Wullie to be sae funny.'
'I wasna funny!' Willie protested.
'It's yer notion o' the optimistic that tickled me,' she said. 'Pour, Mac; I'm steady noo. But ye're quite richt, Wullie. We canna be ower discreet when cash is involved. I'll get some high-class cairds for ye to inspect till the tea's infused.'
Macgregor would dearly have liked to follow her into the shop.
'She's a clinker,' observed Willie under his breath.
Which was all the conversation during the absence of the hostess.
She returned with a tray. Willie was tempted by a card with the 'V.C.' emblazoned on it, but feared it would look 'swanky' on his part. Though hampered by the adverse criticisms of Macgregor, who naturally wanted to hold Christina's hand under cover of the table as long as possible, he succeeded at last in choosing one entitled 'The Soldier's Return,' depicting a bronzed youth running to embrace an old lady awaiting him in a cottage porch.
'If that doesna touch the spot,' said Christina, 'I'm a duchess.'
They sat down to tea.
Much to Willie's relief, Christina apparently forgot all about a blessing. Anxious to please, he expressed admiration at the abundance of good things.
'I like to see a table groanin',' said the hospitable hostess.
'There'll be mair nor the table groanin' afore lang,' observed Macgregor.
They all laughed like happy people, especially Willie, until with a start he remembered the cream cookies and his omission to bring an extra hanky. All the same, he proceeded to enjoy himself pretty heartily, and did the agreeable to the best of his ability, furnishing sundry anecdotes of camp life which were as new to Macgregor as they probably were to himself. At last—
'Try a cream cookie,' said Christina.
But he could not face it. 'Cream,' he said mournfully, 'doesna agree wi' me. The last time I had cream—ma aunt had got it in for her cat that had the staggers—I lay in agony for three days an' three nichts an' several 'oors into the bargain. Ma aunt feared I was gaun to croak ma last.'
Macgregor made a choking sound, while Christina gravely hoped that the cat had also recovered, and passed the macaroons.
'Thenk ye,' said Willie, and readily resumed operations. But he was not a little disgusted to note presently that Christina and Macgregor enjoyed their cream cookies without the slightest mishap.
His geniality was not fully restored until, at the end of the meal, Christina laid a box of superior cigarettes between her two guests.
'May I drap deid in five meenutes,' he declared, 'if ever I was treated like this afore! Macgreegor, ye're jist a damp lucky deevil!'
'Oh, whisht!' said Christina smiling.
'Ye should get a girl, Wullie,' Macgregor remarked with the air of an old married man.
'I ha'ena your luck, ma lad. If I was trustin' a girl, I'll bet ye a bob she wud turn oot to be yin o' the sort that pinches a chap's wages afore they're warmed in his pooch, an' objec's to him smokin' a fag, an' tak's the huff if he calls her fig-face.'
'I'm afraid ye're a pessimist,' Christina said. 'I used to dae a bit in that line masel'. Ma favourite motto was: "Cheer up—ye'll soon be deid!" But I got past that, an' so will you.'
With a sardonic smile Willie shook his head and took another cigarette; and just then Christina had to go to attend to a customer.
Willie turned to his friend. 'Thon was a dirty trick aboot the cookies. I've a guid mind to bide here as lang as you.'
'I didna think ye wud hae been feart for a cookie, Wullie. Of course, I'll never tell her.'
'Weel, I accep' yer apology. Can ye len' us thruppence? I want to purchase some War Loan. . . . By Jings, ye're no a bad sort, Macgreegor. . . . Hoo dae ye think I behaved masel'?'
'No that bad.'
'Weel, I want ye to tell her I ha'end enjoyed masel' sae much since ma Uncle Peter's funeral, ten year back.'
'Tell her yersel'.'
Willie pocketed a few of the superior cigarettes, and rose. 'It's sax-thirty,' he said. 'Her an' you'll be nane the waur o' hauf an' 'oor in private. See? So long! She's a clinker!'
And before Macgregor realized it, Willie had bolted through the shop and into the street.
Christina returned, her eyes wide. 'What gaed wrang wi' him, Mac?'
'Come here an' I'll tell ye.'
MISS TOD RETURNS
'It was awfu' dacent o' Wullie to clear oot,' Macgregor remarked happily, as he moved his chair close to the one on which Christina had just seated herself.
Christina's chin went up. 'It wud ha'e been dacenter o' him to ha'e waited till the time he was invited to wait.'
'But he meant weel. I'm sure he didna want to gang, but he fancied it wud be nice to let you an' me ha'e a—a . . .'
'I beg yer pardon?'
'Ach, ye ken what I mean. He fancied we wud enjoy a wee whiley jist by oorsel's.'
'Speak for yersel'! I'm thinkin' it was exceedingly rude o' him to slope wi'oot tellin' me he had enjoyed his tea.'
'He asked me to tell ye that he hadna enjoyed hissel' sae weel since his uncle's funeral, ten year back.'
Christina gave a little sniff. 'That's a nice sort o' compliment. Funeral, indeed!'
'Christina! what's vexin' ye?'
'Wha said I was vexed?'
'I've seen ye lookin' happier.'
'Are ye a judge o' happiness?'
'I ken when I'm no happy—an' that's the noo. But I warn ye, I'm no gaun to stick it!'
'What's made ye unhappy?' she coldly inquired.
'Ay, jist dear you!' And with these words he caught her round the shoulders and kissed her.
Breathless and rather ruffled she exclaimed, 'If ye dae that again, I'll——'
He did it again.
'Ye're gettin' terrible forward,' she said, half angry, half amused.
She regarded him with amazement.
Suddenly he said: 'Ye're as much mines as I'm yours. Deny it, if ye can.'
For perhaps the first time in her life Christina temporized. 'Can ye sweer ye didna arrange wi' Wullie to leave early?'
The note of innocence satisfied her. 'Weel,' she said graciously, 'I forgive ye.'
Her lips wavered to a smile and he could not refrain from kissing them once more.
'Here, hauf time!' she cried, and burst out laughing.
'This is the best yet,' he said jubilantly. 'Three goals in twa meenutes! In future I'll kiss ye as often as I like.'
'We'll see aboot that. . . . The sojerin' has changed ye a lot,' she added thoughtfully.
'D'ye no like the improvement?'
'I'll tell ye when I observe it. Noo sit still an' behave yersel', an' tell me the latest camp rumours.'
Just then the bell over the door in the shop went off.
'Oh, dash yer customers!' said Macgregor.
Christina was moving from the room when——
'Are ye there, dearie?' called a familiar female voice.
'Holy Moses!' she whispered. 'It's Miss Tod, hame three days afore her time.'
'Oh, criffens!' gasped Macgregor. 'What'll I dae?'
'Ye can either hide in the coal bunker, or bide whaur ye are—like a sojer. She'll no devour ye.'
Christina then ran out to receive her employer, which she did without embarrassment.
'What a peety ye're ower late for ma wee tea-pairty. An' hoo are ye?' Macgregor heard her saying.
'Aw, I was sweirt to disturb ye wi' yer' frien's, lassie,' replied Miss Tod, who had been advised by postcard of Christina's doings, 'but I couldna bide in thon place anither nicht.'
'Dear, dear!' the girl said sympathizingly. 'Did ye no get on wi' yer auld frien', or did the poultry attack ye? Come ben, come ben. There's jist Macgreegor left, an' he hasna consumed absolutely everything. I'll get ye a cup o' fresh tea in a jiffy.'
Smiling faintly but kindly, Miss Tod greeted Macgregor, apologized for disturbing him, and subsided into her old chair.
'Oh, I'm thenkfu' to be hame,' she sighed, while Christina flew to her hospitable duties. 'Ye've got the room awfu' nice, dearie.'
'Does the smell o' the ceegarettes annoy ye?' inquired Macgregor, now more at ease, though still ashamed of his recent panic.
'Na, na; it's jist deleecious,' she protested, 'efter the smell o' the country.'
'Did ye no like the country, Miss Tod?'
'Maybe I could ha'e endured it till the week was up, if it hadna been for ma auld frien'. Ye see, the puir body couldna speak or think o' onything excep' airyplanes fleein' through the air an' drappin' bombs on her dwellin' hoose an' her hen-hoose, no forgettin' her pig-hoose. Mornin', noon an' nicht, she kep' speirin' at me if I was prepared to meet ma Maker, maybe wantin' a leg. Oh, I was rale vexed for her, I tell ye, but when she took the mattress aff ma bed to protect her sewin' machine frae bombs, I says to masel': 'If I've got to dee, I wud like to dae it as comfortable as I can, an' I'm sure ma Maker'll no objec' to that . . . an' so, at last, I jist tied up ma things in the broon paper, an' said I had enjoyed masel' fine, but was anxious aboot the shop—a terrible falsehood, dearie!—an' gaed to catch the sax o'clock train, an' catched the yin afore it. . . . An' here I am. I wud ha'e let ye enjoy yer pairty in peace, but what wi' the forebodin's o' ma auld frien' an' the scent o' the hens an' pigs, I could thole nae longer.'
'In short,' Christina brightly remarked, 'ye was completely fed up. Weel, weel, ye'll sune forget aboot yer troubles in the joys o' pursuin' pastries. We'll fetch the table close to ye so as ye can fall to wi'oot unduly streetchin' yer neck. Mac, get busy! Toast this cookie.'
'She's a great manager,' Miss Tod said, smiling to Macgregor. 'But she'll mak' ye a rael guid wife when ye come back frae the wars——'
'Oh, whisht, Miss Tod!' cried Christina. 'Ye'll cause him to blush.' Which was rather a mean way of diverting attention from her own complexion.
However, at that moment the bell rang, and exclaiming, 'Anither boom in trade!' she darted into the shop.
The customer seemed to be in a great hurry, for almost immediately she reappeared in the sitting-room. She was smiling and carried a small package in her hand.
'Guess wha it was,' said she.
'The meenister,' replied Miss Tod, who for some mysterious reason always guessed the reverend gentleman, who happened to be a customer.
'On the contrary,' said Christina.
'Wullie Thomson,' said Macgregor, suddenly remembering the borrowed threepence.
'Up dux! Ye deserve a sweetie.' She presented the bag, open. 'What sort are they?'
He laughed and answered—'War Loan Lozengers.'
AUNT PURDIE INTERVENES
The battalion was not an hour returned from the longest, hottest, dustiest and most exhausting route march yet experienced. Macgregor was stretched on his bed, a newspaper over his face, when an orderly shook him and shoved a visiting card into his hand.
'She's waitin' ootside,' he said and, with a laugh, departed.
Macgregor rubbed his eyes and read:
MRS. ROBERT PURDIE. 13, King's Mansions, W 3rd Wednesday.
'Oh, criffens!' he groaned. 'Ma aunt!' And proceeded with more haste than alacrity to tidy himself, while wondering what on earth she had come for.
Willie, scenting profit in a rich relation, though not his own, proffered his company, which was rather curtly refused. Nevertheless, he followed his friend.
Macgregor joined his aunt in the blazing sunshine. Her greeting was kindly if patronizing.
'Sorry to keep ye waitin', Aunt Purdie,' he said respectfully. 'If I had kent ye was comin'——'
'I understood a good soldier was always prepared for any emergency——'
'Excep' when he's aff duty, mistress.' This from Willie, who had taken up his position a little way behind Macgregor, an ingratiating grin on his countenance.
Aunt Purdie drew up her tall, gaunt, richly-clad figure and examined Private Thomson through eye-glasses on a long tortoise-shell handle.
'Macgregor, who is this gentleman?'
'It's jist Wullie Thomson,' said Macgregor, annoyed but reluctant to hurt his friend's feelings. 'D'ye no mind him?'
'I have a very exclusive memory for faces. . . Dear me, he is going away!'
It was so. Either the glasses, or being called a gentleman, or both, had been too much even for Willie.
'Is the colonel in the vicinity?' Aunt Purdie demanded, recalling Macgregor's wondering gaze from the retreating figure.
'I couldna say. He's liker to be in a cauld bath.'
'You have, of course, informed him who your uncle is?'
'Me an' the colonel ha'ena done much hob-nobbin' as yet,' Macgregor said, smiling.
'His mother used to obtain her groceries from your uncle. If you could have presented the colonel to me—well, never mind. I presume the major is on the quee vive.'
'He'll be ha'ein' a wash an' brush up, I wud say.'
'But why are you not being drilled or digging up trenches or firing guns——'
'We're a' deid men this efternune. Had a big rout mairch the day.'
'Oh, indeed! Well, when does the band play?'
'The baun's burstit wi' the rout mairch. It couldna blaw the ash aff a ceegarette. I'm rael sorry——'
'I would like to inspect the apartments you live in. Pray conduct me——'
'Some o' the chaps is cleanin' theirsel's. If ye like, I'll tell them to hurry up or get ablow the blankets.'
'Certainly not!' said Mrs. Purdie with decision. 'Is there no tea-room adjacent?'
'Jist the canteen. I doobt I couldna I tak' ye inside, but I could fetch ye oot a drink—something T.T., I suppose?'
She waved the offer away. 'Is there nothing to be perceived or observed in this camp?' she inquired with some impatience.
Her nephew scratched his head. 'Weel,' he said at last, 'there's the view frae this end, an' there's the view frae the ither end. I'm sorry ye've come when there's naething daein'.'
'So am I. However, it is not the time to indulge in discriminations. Your uncle thought it was better for me to come than to write a letter.'
'Is onything wrang wi' ma uncle?' Macgregor asked anxiously.
'Barring an invidious bunion, he is in his usual health. But we are going to Aberdeen to-morrow, for a fortnight, and we have invited your intended to come with us. She——'
'Christina! But she canna gang awa' to Aberdeen when——' He stopped short, at a loss. He had an appointment with Christina for the following evening. Surely——
'I arranged with Miss Tod this morning. Christina will be writing to you, I presume.'
'She—she's gaun wi' ye?'
'Certainly—D.V., of course.'
'For a—a fortnicht?'
'The change will be good for her. You must not be selfish. Your uncle was afraid you might be put out: that is why I came to explain. But apart from the beneficial change, Christina, as I observed to your uncle, ought to see the world while she is young.'
Macgregor answered nothing. Possibly he did not catch her latter remarks. Christina going away for a fortnight, and he might be ordered abroad at any moment!
'Come,' said his aunt, kindly enough, 'don't be huffy.'
Mercifully, just then an officer passed. In the action of saluting Macgregor regained self-control.
'I hope ye get guid weather at Aberdeen,' he managed to say, and his aunt admired him even more than at the hour of his enlistment.
'Yer uncle an' me jist wishes ye was free to jine us,' she said with unwonted warmth and homeliness of accent. Her hand went to the fastening of her purse, and hesitated. No! Something told her this was not the moment for a gift, however splendid.
'Well, I must be going,' she remarked, stiffening again. 'Kindly conduct me to the exit. I thought there would have been more to inspire the mind in this place. . . . Good-bye. We will take good care of Christina.'
* * * * *
Never in his life had Macgregor been so deeply hurt and angered—not even in the old days by Aunt Purdie, who was not now the object of his resentment.
Willie, who always tried to make the best of things, insults not excepted, approached presently with a hopeful appeal for a loan.
'Gang to blazes!' was the response.
Willie could scarce believe his ears. 'Macgreegor! did she no cough up onything?'
Macgregor walked on.
'An' she fancies hersel' for a —— swell!' exclaimed Willie viciously.
'Anither word an' I'll knock the face aff ye!'
It was Willie's turn to feel resentment.
In the evening came a note from Christina, hurriedly written. She was terribly busy getting ready for the morning train. It was most kind of Mrs. Purdie. Her own uncle must have let drop to Mr. Purdie that a summer outing this year was not possible, and Mr. Purdie must have told Mrs. Purdie. . . . Of course, she, Christina, would never have dreamed of going away otherwise. But the time would soon pass, Mac, and she intended to enjoy it thoroughly. . . .
If only she had left out that last sentence! But what true lover has not been stabbed by something very like it in his time?
THE FAT GIRL AGAIN
Macgregor dropped his reply to Christina's unsatisfactory note into the pillar-box and, half wishing he had destroyed it instead, rejoined the faithful Willie Thomson. He still looked so gloomy that Willie once more demanded to be told what the —— was up with him. Receiving no response, Willie remarked:
'If ye tak' a face like that to yer girl, she'll be wantin' to play a tune on it.'
Macgregor held his peace. They had just arrived in Glasgow, but without a trace of the usual eagerness on his part.
'I believe,' said Willie, with an inspiration, 'her an' you ha'e cast oot.'
'Clay up! She's awa' her holidays.'
'Save us! Awa' her holidays!' cried Willie, uttering, unawares, his friend's bitterest thought—'an' we may get oor mairchin' orders ony meenute! Weel, weel, preserve me frae the female sect! I suppose ye'll be for gi'ein' yer ain folk a treat for a change.'
'They're a' at Rothesay, at Granpaw Purdie's,' Macgregor returned shortly, now half glad that he had let the letter go.
It was not a harsh letter, yet neither was it a humble one. In effect, it informed Christina that she was welcome to disport herself even though the writer lay dead in a trench. While intended to be freezing, it had been written in considerable heat, physical and mental.
'Then what are ye gaun to dae the nicht?' Willie pursued, his mind simmering with curiosity. Macgregor had been very queer since his aunt's visit of the previous afternoon, and the arrival of a letter, eagerly grabbed, had by no means mitigated the queerness. Willie was convinced that something had gone wrong between Macgregor and Christina. He would not be sorry to see the engagement broken. Macgregor would have more time and cash to spend on his friends. On the other hand, Christina was undoubtedly a 'clinker' in her way, and Willie could do with more hospitality like hers. Well, there was no saying what might happen if she were free and Macgregor attached to another girl. . . .