"Now Mr. Brinton's coat, sir," he remarked thoughtfully, "that did 'ave a badge off, that did. But 'is servant!" He snorted, and dismissed the subject scornfully.
As I say, the Major did not mention this fact. After all, it was such a very small point of detail.
To the frivolous-minded, Dick Staunton was at times the cause of a certain amount of amusement. Originally in the Army, he had left it when a junior captain, and had settled down to the normal life of a country gentleman. By nature of a silent disposition, he abominated social functions of all sorts. He hunted, he fished, and he shot, and spent the rest of his time studying the habits of the wild. And as always happens to a man who lives much with nature, his mind gradually got skilled in the noticing of little things. Small signs, invisible to the casual observer, he noticed automatically; and without being in any sense a Sherlock Holmes, he had acquired the habit of putting two and two together in a manner that was, at times, disconcertingly correct.
"Points of detail," he remarked one evening in the dug-out after dinner, "are very easy to see if you have eyes to see them with. One is nothing; two are a coincidence; three are a moral certainty. A really trained man can see a molehill; I can see a mountain; most of you fellows couldn't see the Himalayas." With which sage remark he thoughtfully lit his pipe and relapsed into silence. And silence being his usual characteristic he came into the Battalion Head-quarters dug-out one evening and dropped quietly into a seat, almost unnoticed by the somewhat noisy group around the table.
"Afternoon, Dickie." The Sapper officer looked up and saw him. "D'you hear we're pinching your last recruit? Jesson—this is Major Staunton." He turned to a second lieutenant in the Royal Loamshires beside him as he made the introduction.
"How d'you do, sir." Jesson got up and saluted. "I've only just got over from England; and now apparently they're attaching me to the R.E., as I'm a miner."
He sat down again, and once more turned his attention to that excellent French illustrated weekly without which no officers' mess in France is complete. Lest I be run in for libel, I will refrain from further information as to its title and general effect on officers concerned.
For a few moments Staunton sat watching the group and listening with some amusement to the criticisms on those lovely members of the fair sex so ably portrayed in its pages, and then his attention centred on the revolver he was cleaning. Jesson, a good-looking, clean-cut man of about twenty-nine or thirty was holding forth on an experience he had had in Alaska, which concerned a woman, a team of dogs, and a gentleman known as One-eyed Pete, and as he spoke Staunton watched him idly. It struck him that he seemed a promising type, and that it was a pity the Tunnellers were getting him.
"Haven't you got enough disturbers of the peace already," he remarked to the Tunnelling officer, "without snatching our ewe lamb?"
"We are at full strength as a matter of fact, Major," answered an officer covered with chalk; "but they do some funny things in the palaces of the great. We often get odd birds blowing in. I've been initiating him all this morning into the joys of Outpost."
"And how is jolly old Blighty?" remarked the Adjutant. "Thank Heaven! leave approaches."
"About the same." Jesson helped himself to a whisky-and-soda. "Darker than ever, and taxis an impossibility. Still I dare say I shall be glad enough to go back when my first leave comes due," he added with a laugh.
"Is this your first time out?" asked Staunton.
"Yes." Jesson unbuttoned his burberry and took out his cigarette case. Outside the dusk was falling, and he bent forward to get a light from the candle flickering on the table in front of him. "The very first time. I've been on Government work up to now."
It was at that moment that a very close observer might have noticed that Dick Staunton's pipe ceased to draw with monotonous regularity: he might even have heard a quick intake of breath. But he would have had to be a very close one—very close indeed; for the next instant he was again speaking and his voice was normal.
"I suppose you've been at the depot," he hazarded. "Who are there now?"
"Oh, the usual old crowd," answered Jesson "I don't expect you know many of them though, do you, Major? Ginger Stretton in the 14th Battalion—do you know him by any chance?"
"No, I don't think I do." His face was in the shadow, but had it been visible a slightly puzzled frown might have been seen on his forehead. "I suppose they still make all you fellows on joining go to the regimental tailor, don't they?"
Jesson looked a trifle surprised at the question. "I don't think they are as particular as they were," he returned after a moment. "Personally I went to Jones & Jones." He casually buttoned up his mackintosh and turned to the Tunneller. "If you're ready I think we might be going. I want to see about my kit." He got up as he spoke and turned towards the entrance, while at the same moment the Sapper rose too. "I'd like to drop in again, sir, sometimes if I may." He spoke to the shadow where Staunton had been sitting.
"Do." Jesson gave a violent start, for the voice came from just behind his shoulder. Like the hunter he was, Dick Staunton had moved without a sound, and now stood directly between Jesson and the door. "But don't go yet. I want to tell you a story that may amuse you. Have some tea."
"Er—won't it keep till some other time, Major? I'm rather anxious to see about my kit."
"Let the kit keep. Sit down and have some tea."
"What the devil has come over you, Dickie?" The Adjutant was looking frankly amazed. "You aren't generally so loquacious."
"That's why to-night my little whim must be humoured," answered Staunton with a slight smile. "Sit down, please, Jesson. It's quite an amusing little yarn, and I would like your opinion on it."
"No hope for you, old boy. Dickie has turned into a social success." The Adjutant laughed and lit a cigarette, and once again became immersed in his paper.
To the casual observer the scene was a very normal one. Four men in a dug-out, yarning and reading; while outside the occasional whine of a shell, the dirty deeds of a Stokes gun, the noises of the trenches filled the air. Nothing unusual, nothing out of the way except—something, an indefinable something. As the Sapper said afterwards there must have been something tangible in the atmosphere—else why did his pulses quicken. He glanced at the Adjutant sitting opposite him engrossed in his book; he looked at Staunton across the table—Staunton, with a slight smile on his lips—and his eyes fixed on Jesson. He looked at Jesson beside him—Jesson, whom he had met that morning for the first time. And all he noticed about Jesson was that his left knee twitched ceaselessly. . . .
He ran over in his mind the day's work. He had met him at about eleven that morning, wandering along the support line with an officer in the Loamshires whom he knew well, who had hailed him and introduced Jesson.
"A recruit—a new recruit," he had said, "for your atrocious trade. He's just left old pimple-faced Charlie, who was writing returns in triplicate as usual."
Now pimple-faced Charlie was his own Major, who habitually did write returns in triplicate; wherefore, after a few remarks of a casual nature in which he elicited the fact that Jesson was a mining engineer and had suddenly been ordered while waiting at the base to join the 940th Tunnelling Company, he took him in tow and showed him round the mine galleries.
Mining work was very active in the sector. Four or five small mines and one big one were going up in the near future, so the tour of inspection had been a long one. That his companion was not new to the game was obvious from the outset; and his pertinent inquiries anent cross-cuts, listening galleries, and the whole of the work in hand had shown that he was keen as well. Altogether a promising recruit, he had mused: quite a find—keen and able, two qualities which unfortunately do not go hand in hand quite as often as one would like. And now Staunton and this find of his were facing one another in silence across the plank table of the dug-out; Jesson, with an expression of polite indifference as befitted a subaltern compelled to listen to a senior officer's story which he didn't want to hear; Staunton, with an enigmatic smile. Then of a sudden Staunton spoke.
"Have you ever studied the question of the importance of matters of detail, Jesson?" he remarked quietly to the impassive figure facing him across the table.
"I can't say that I have, sir," answered the other, politely stifling a yawn.
"You should. A most interesting study. My story concerns points of detail. The imperative thing is to be able to sort out the vital points from all the others; then piece them together, and arrive at the right answer."
"It must be very easy to be led astray, I should imagine; and arrive at the—er—wrong one." Jesson concealed a smile, and waited for the Major to continue.
"Yes and no. It's all a matter of practice." Staunton's imperturbable voice was as quiet as ever. "And anyway, it's only in peace time that it matters very much whether one is right or wrong. Nowadays! Well—a la guerre comme a la guerre." He smiled gently. "But my story. I want you, as an impartial observer, just arrived, with an unbiassed mind, to tell me if you think my joining up of two or three points of detail is a sound one. Both these officers know the points of detail, so your opinion will be more valuable than theirs.
"A few nights ago our battalion had one of those unfortunate little contretemps that so often happen in war. A subaltern of ours, John Brinton by name, went out on patrol, and never returned. An exhaustive search in No Man's Land failed to discover his body; so we were reluctantly compelled to conclude that he was in German hands; whether alive or dead we don't know. There we have the first fact in my case. Now for the second.
"Two nights after that another of our subalterns was killed in a way which struck me as peculiar. I will not weary you with all the various little points that led me to believe that the bullet which killed him did not come from the trenches opposite; I will merely say that his position, his height, and the depth of the trench were the most obvious. And granted that my conclusions were correct, strange as it might appear at first sight, his death must have been caused at close quarters, possibly in the trench itself."
"Good Lord!" muttered the Adjutant, who was now listening with interest. "What do you mean?"
"Two facts, you see," went on Staunton quietly. "And they would have remained unconnected in my mind—Brinton's capture and Dixon's death—but for a small point of detail. Dixon's jacket was without the left regimental badge when his body was found. His servant knows he had them both earlier in the day. On the contrary, Brinton had lost his left regimental badge for some time. Am I interesting you?"
"Profoundly, thank you, sir." The man opposite smiled amiably.
"I'm glad of that; it's an interesting problem. You see the significance of that small point about the badge, the way in which it connects very intimately Brinton's capture and Dixon's death. So intimately, in fact, does it connect them, that one is almost tempted to assume that the man who killed Dixon was the man in possession of Brinton's uniform. Are you with me so far?"
"The evidence seems a trifle slight," remarked Jesson.
"Quite true; the evidence is very slight. But then, it often is. Everything up to date turns on the question of the badge. Let me reconstruct a possible—only possible, mark you—story, based on the supposition that my badge theory is correct. A German who speaks English perfectly is given a nice warm uniform taken from a captured British officer. Then he is told to go over to the British lines and see what he can find out. He comes one night; perfectly easy; no trouble; until walking along the front line he meets another officer—alone: an officer of the same regiment as that whose uniform he is wearing. Unavoidable; in fact, less likely to raise suspicion with the frequent changes that occur if he goes to the same regiment than if he went to another. But something happens: either the other officer's suspicions are aroused, or the German does not wish to be recognised again by him. The trench is quiet; an occasional rifle is going off, so he does the bold thing. He shoots him from point-blank range—probably with a Colt. As he stands there with the dead officer in front of him, waiting, listening hard, wondering if he has been heard, he sees the two badges on the officer's coat. So, being a cool hand, he takes off the left one, puts it on his own coat, and disappears for a time. Quite easy; especially when the trenches are old German ones."
"Really, Major, you seem to have made a speciality of detective fiction. As you said, I suppose your theory is possible."
Jesson spoke casually, but his eyes for the first time left the face of the man opposite him and roved towards the door. For the first time a sudden ghastly suspicion of the truth entered the Sapper's brain; and even as it did so he noticed that Staunton's revolver—the cleansing finished—pointed steadily at Jesson's chest.
"I am glad you think it possible. To render it probable we must go a bit farther. The essence of all detective stories is the final clue that catches the criminal, isn't it?" The revolver moved an inch or two farther into prominence.
"Good Lord, Dickie? Is that gun of yours loaded?" cried the Adjutant in alarm. For the first time he also seemed to become aware that something unusual was happening, and he suddenly stood up. "What the devil is it, Major? What have you got that gun on him for?"
"For fun, dear boy, for fun. It's part of the atmosphere. We've got to the point haven't we, where—in my story, of course—the German dressed in Brinton's uniform comes into the English lines. Now what sort of a man would they send in this part of the line, where mining activity is great? I continue the theory, you see; that's all."
He looked at Jesson, who made no reply; though without cessation he moistened his lips with his tongue.
"A miner." The Adjutant's voice cut in. "Go on, for God's sake."
"Precisely—a miner. The second point of detail; and two points of detail are a strange coincidence—nothing more. Only—there is a third."
"And three are a moral certainty, as you've often said." The Adjutant once again bent across the table and spoke softly. "Are you fooling, Dickie—are you fooling? If so, the joke has gone far enough."
But the Sapper's eyes were fixed on a leg that twitched, and they wandered now and then to a neck where—even in the dim light of a candle—he could see a pulse throbbing—throbbing.
"It's not a joke," he said, and his mouth was dry. "What is the third point of detail, Dickie?"
"Yes, what is the third point of detail, sir?" Jesson's voice was steady as a rock. "I am very interested in your problem." He raised his hands from the table and stretched them in front of him. Not a finger quivered, and with a sublime insolence he examined his nails.
To the Sapper there occurred suddenly those lines of Kipling,
"For there is neither East nor West, border nor breed nor birth, When two strong men come face to face though they come from the ends of the earth."
He knew now; he realised the man beside him was a German; he knew that the sentence of death was very near. What the clue was that had given the man away he hardly thought about—in fact, he hardly cared. All he knew was that death was waiting for the man beside him, and that his hands were steady as a rock.
Quietly Staunton leant forward and undid Jesson's mackintosh. Then he sat back and with his finger he pointed at a spot above his left breast-pocket. "You have never been out to the front, you say; your coat is a new one by Jones & Jones; and yet—until recently—you have been wearing the ribbon of a medal. What medal, Jesson, what medal? It shows up, that clean patch in the light. John Brinton went to Jones & Jones; and John Brinton had a Military Cross."
For a full minute the two men looked into one another's eyes—deep down, and read the things that are written underneath, be a man English or German. Then suddenly Jesson smiled slightly and spoke.
"You are a clever man, Major Staunton. When will the rifle practice take place?"
* * * * * *
Thus it ended, the play of which John Brinton's disappearance formed the prologue. But before the curtain rang down on the epilogue the German told them one or two little things: that John Brinton was alive and well; that the existence of Ginger Stretton, to whom he had alluded so glibly, had only become known to him from a letter in Brinton's coat; that the peculiarities of pimple-faced Charlie had been forced on him by his guide before they met the Sapper.
"In fact," as the Adjutant remarked, "the fellow was almost too good a sportsman to——" But that's the epilogue.
A file of men; a watery sun just starting its day's work; a raw, chilly morning. In front—a man: a man with a white disc of paper pinned over the heart.
A word of command; a pushing forward of safety catches; a volley; a finish.
MY LADY OF THE JASMINE
The Kid staggered wearily along the road through the blinding rain. Dodging between the endless streams of traffic, which moved slowly in both directions, now stopping for ten minutes, now jolting forward again for a couple of hundred yards, he walked on towards where he thought his battalion was. The last Staff officer he had seen had told him that, as far as he knew, they had pulled out to rest in some dug-outs about four miles farther on—dug-outs which had only recently been taken from the Germans. To start with he had got on to a lorry, but when darkness fell, and the total progression had been one mile, he decided to walk and save time. Occasionally the lights of a car shone in his face, as its infuriated occupant broke every rule of the Somme roads by double banking; that is, trying to pass the vehicles in front. But at last the traffic wore thinner as the road approached the front line, and an hour and a half after he had left the lorry, it stopped altogether, save for pack-mules and squelching men. The rain still sogged down, and—ye gods! the Kid was tired. Away into the night there stretched a path of slippery duck-boards, threading its way between shell holes half filled with water. Men loomed up out of the darkness and went past him, slipping and sliding, cursing below their breath. A shower of sparks shot up into the air from a dug-out on his right, and a great lobbing flare away in the distance lit up the scene for a second or two with a ghostly radiance. It showed the Kid the only other near occupant of the reclaimed territory at the moment: a mule, whose four hoofs stuck stiffly out of a shell hole—pointing at him, motionless. With a shudder he moved on along the duck-walk. After all he was but a kid, and he was almighty tired.
For three days he seemed to have been on the run without closing his eyes. First the battalion had gone over the top; then they had worked like slaves consolidating what they'd won; afterwards he had been sent for because of his knowledge of French and German to go back to Divisional Head-quarters; and then he had come back to find the battalion had moved. And any who may have tried walking five or six miles by night in heavy rain to an unknown destination along some of the roads east of Albert, will bear out that it is a wearisome performance. When to these facts is added the further information that the age of the boy was only eighteen, it will be conceded that the breaking-point was not far off.
Now I have emphasised the physical condition of the Kid, as he was known to all and sundry, because I think it may have a bearing on the story I am going to relate. I am no expert in "ologies" and other things dealing with so-called spiritualistic revelations. I might even say, in fact, that I am profoundly sceptical of them all, though to say so may reveal my abysmal ignorance. So be it; my thumbs are crossed. This is not a controversial treatise on spiritualism, and all that appertains thereto. One thing, however, I will say—in my ignorance, of course. Until some of the great thinkers of the world have beaten down the jungle of facts beyond our ken, and made a track—be it never so narrow—free from knaves and charlatans, it is ill-advised for Mrs. Smith or Lady de Smythe to believe that Signer Macaroni—ne Jones—will reveal to them the secrets of the infinite for two pounds. He may; on the other hand, he may not. That the secrets are there, who but a fool can doubt; it is only Signer Macaroni's power of disinterested revelation that causes my unworthy scepticism.
And so let us come back to the Kid, and the strange thing that happened in a recently captured German dug-out on the night of which I have been writing. It was just as he had decided—rain or no rain—to lie down and sleep in the mud and filth—anywhere, anything, as long as he could sleep—that suddenly out of the darkness ahead he heard the Adjutant's voice, and knew that he had found the battalion. With almost a sob of thankfulness at the unexpected finish to his worries, he hailed him.
"Hullo! is that you, Kid?" The Adjutant loomed out of the darkness. "We thought you were lost for good. Are you cooked?"
"I'm just about done in," answered the boy. "Where is B Company?"
"I'll show you. It's the hell of a place to find even by day; but you've got 'some' dug-out. Beer, and tables, and beds; in fact, it's the first dug-out I've seen that in any way resembles the descriptions one reads in the papers."
"Well, as long as I can get to sleep, old man, I don't care a damn if it's the Ritz or a pigsty." The Kid plucked his foot from a mud-hole, and squelched on behind the Adjutant.
Now much has been written about German dug-outs—their size, their comfort, the revolving book-cases, the four-poster beds. Special mention has frequently been made of cellars full of rare old vintages, and of concreted buttery hatches; of lifts to take stout officers to the ground, and of portable derricks to sling even stouter ones into their scented valises. In fact, such stress has been laid upon these things by people of great knowledge, that I understand an opinion is prevalent amongst some earnest thinkers at home that when a high German officer wishes to surrender he first sends up two dozen of light beer on the lift to placate his capturers, rapidly following himself with a corkscrew. This may or may not be so; personally, I have had no such gratifying experience. But then, personally, I have generally been hard put to it to recognise the dug-outs of reality from the dug-outs of the daily papers. Most of them are much the same as any ordinary, vulgar English dug-out; many are worse; but one or two undoubtedly are very good. In places where the nature of the ground has lent itself to deep work, and the lines have been stagnant for many moons, the Huns have carried out excellent work for the suitable housing of their officers. And it was down the entrance of one of these few and far between abodes that the Kid ultimately staggered, with the blessed feeling in his mind of rest at last. Round a table in the centre sat the other officers of B Company, discussing the remains of a very excellent German repast. As he came in they all looked up.
"The lost sheep," sang out the Captain cheerfully. "Come on, my kidlet, draw up, and put your nose inside some beer."
"Not a bad place, is it?" chimed in the Doctor, puffing at a large and fat cigar of Hun extraction. "Excellent cellar of rare old ale, cigars of great potency—real genuine Flor de Boche—a picture gallery of—er—a pleasing description, and a bed. What more can man desire?"
"Private MacPherson does not approve, I fear me, of the pictures," chuckled the senior subaltern. "I heard him muttering dark things about 'painted Jezebels,' and 'yon scarlet women of Babylon.'"
"It must be very dreadful for all concerned to go through life with a mind like MacPherson's." The Doctor was examining his cigar doubtfully. "There is an obstruction in this. It's either going to explode with great force in a minute, or else I'm coming to the motto. Hi! you blighter——" he jumped up hurriedly to avoid the stream of beer that shot across the table from the Kid's overturned glass.
"Idiot child." The Company Commander roused himself from his gentle doze to contemplate the delinquent. Then he smiled. "Man, he's asleep; the boy's beat to a frazzle."
"Aye, you're right. Tim, come off that bed; the Kid is fair cooked. Wake up, infant." The Doctor shook him by the shoulder. "Wake up. Take off your boots, and then get down to it on the bed."
The Kid sat up blinking. "I'm very sorry," he said after a moment. "Did I upset the beer?"
"You did—all over me," laughed the Doctor. "Get your boots off and turn in."
"I'm so cursed sleepy." The Kid was removing his sodden puttees. "I've walked, and walked, and I'm just about——" He straightened himself in his chair, and as he did so the words died away on his lips. With a peculiar fixed look he stared past the Doctor into the corner of the dug-out. "My God!" he whispered at last, "what are you doing here?"
A sudden silence settled on the mess, and instinctively everybody, including the Doctor, glanced towards the corner. Then the Doctor turned once more to the boy, and his glance was the glance of his profession.
"What's the matter, Kid?" His tone was abrupt, even to curtness. "Did you think you saw something?"
"I thought—I thought——" The boy passed his hand over his forehead. "I'm sorry—I must have been dreaming. It's gone now. I suppose I'm tired." But his eyes still searched the dug-out fearfully.
"What did you think you saw?" asked the Doctor shortly.
"I thought I saw——" Once again he stopped; then he laughed a little shakily. "Oh! it doesn't matter what I thought I saw. Damn it! I'm tired; let me turn in."
The Doctor's eye met the Company Commander's over the table, and he shrugged his shoulders slightly. "Dead beat." His lips framed the words, and he returned to the contemplation of his cigar, which was not doing all that a well-trained cigar should.
The Kid stood up and glanced round the mess at his brother officers a little shamefacedly; only to find them engrossed—a trifle ostentatiously—in their own business. "I'm sorry, you fellows," he blurted out suddenly. "Forgive me being such a fool; I suppose I'm a bit tired."
The Doctor took him firmly by the arm, and led him towards the bed. "Look here, old soul," he remarked, "if you wish to avoid the wrath of my displeasure, you will cease talking and go to bed. Every one knows what it is to be weary; and there's only one cure—sleep."
The Kid laughed and threw himself on the bed. "Jove!" he muttered sleepily; "then it's a pleasant medicine, Doctor dear." He pulled a blanket over his shoulders; his head touched the pillow; his eyes closed; and before the Doctor had resumed his seat the Kid was asleep.
* * * * * *
It seemed only a minute afterwards that he was awake again, staring into the dim-lit dug-out with every sense alert. He was conscious first of a faint elusive scent—a scent which was new to him. His mind wandered to the scents he knew—Chaminade, Mysterieuse, Trefle Incarnat—but this was different. Delicate, sensuous, with the slightest suggestion of jasmine about it, it seemed to permeate every part of him. Vaguely expectant, he waited for something that he knew must happen. What it would be, he had no idea; he felt like a man waiting for the curtain to rise on a first night, when the music of the overture is dying away to a finish. He experienced no fear: merely an overwhelming curiosity to witness the drama, and to confirm his certainty about the owner of the scent. In his mind there was no doubt as to who she was. It was the girl he had seen in the corner as he was taking off his puttees: the girl who had looked at him with eyes that held the sadness of the world and its despair in them; the girl who had vanished so quickly. Her disappearance did not strike him as peculiar; she would explain when she came. And so the Kid waited for the drop-scene to lift.
It struck him as he glanced round the dug-out that the furniture had been moved. The table seemed nearer the wall; the chairs were differently arranged. Instead of the remnants of a finished meal, papers arranged in neat piles met his eye. The place looked more like an office than a mess. Suddenly he stiffened into attention; steps were coming down the entrance to the dug-out. A man came in, and with a gasp the Kid recognised a German soldier. He strove to shout—to warn his brother officers who he knew were peacefully sleeping in valises on the floor; but no sound came. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth; he could only watch, rigid and motionless.
The German moved to the hanging lamp, and turned it up till a bright light flooded the dug-out.
"Now," the Kid's brain was racing, "he must see them. My God! they must have got back during the night."
But no. The German servant moved towards the cupboard which contained the food, brushing so close to the bed that the Kid could have touched him with ease as he passed. Very cautiously he raised his head as he saw the man, his back turned, fumbling on the shelves, and looked round the room. Then with the icy hand of terror clutching at his heart he lay back again. The room was empty; his brother officers had gone—murdered probably—and with him it could only be a question of moments before he too was discovered.
For an instant he had a wild idea of hurling himself upon the German: of taking him unawares—of trying to escape. Then the soldier turned: the opportunity had passed, and once again the silent spectator on the bed lay rigid. The servant, stolid and unemotional, moved heavily about the dug-out, laying the table for a meal. Once it seemed to the Kid that he looked straight at him; he could have sworn that he must have been seen; and yet—apparently not. The man gave no sign, and it occurred to the Kid that perhaps he was lying in the shadow. Stealthily he wormed himself even nearer the wall: impelled by the instinct of self-preservation that would put off to the last possible moment the inevitable discovery. And hardly had he edged himself in against the wall, when with a sinking heart he heard voices outside: voices which spoke in German. With only the servant to tackle, somehow he had not felt so hopeless; now he knew the end had come.
Two officers entered, wiping the perspiration from their foreheads. One from his badges of rank he recognised as a Colonel—the other was a Lieutenant; and the discussion was—as far as their difference of rank allowed—obviously of an acrimonious nature. The Kid listened intently; thanking Heaven, not for the first time in his life, that some one with a grain of common sense had had him taught French and German by a method other than the Public School one. The predilection of his aunt's gardener for pens, ink, and paper would not have helped him much in that conversation.
"Beer, you fool," grunted the Colonel to the stolid servant. "Then, go."
Impatiently he waited till the orderly's footsteps died away, and then he turned savagely on the other officer.
"I tell you, Lieutenant Rutter, we must know," he snarled. "A girl—what is a girl, when big issues are at stake? There are many more girls, Lieutenant Rutter; many more girls. Be very careful lest not only does this one die, but you also meet with an accident. Dead men cannot make love to those other girls." He banged his fist on the table and glared at the Lieutenant, who was staring moodily in front of him.
"I know that, Excellency," he returned after a moment. "But there is a proverb about bringing a horse to the water and not being able to make him drink."
"Bah! There are methods, my friend, of drowning the brute with water, if it won't drink willingly. And those methods will have to be adopted in this case."
"They are doubtless effective in killing the horse; but they will not lead us very much farther in our inquiries."
"Which is the reason why I have allowed you so much rope. I know as well as you do that willing information is worth ten times as much as when it is forced. You have made love to the girl, you have been playing the fool for six weeks with her, and we are no nearer than when we started." He sneered openly. "Since when have we become so dilatory, my friend? You seem to have lost your form with the fair sex."
The Lieutenant flushed, and his fist clenched. "Don't mention those others. I love this girl."
"No doubt thinking of marriage?" The sneer was even more in evidence.
"Yes, Excellency, I am thinking of marriage." His voice was ominously quiet.
"I am afraid, Lieutenant Rutter, it will remain in the beautiful and nebulous realms of thought, unless——" He paused and drained his beer ostentatiously, though all the while his eyes never left his companion's face.
"Unless," repeated the Lieutenant drearily, "she agrees to do some charming and honourable spying work for us on the other side of the lines."
"You speak very strangely, Lieutenant Rutter." The little pig eyes of the senior officer glinted menacingly. "Have a care."
"Pardon, Excellency. For the moment I forgot." With a weary gesture he got up. "I will ask her this morning." He looked at his watch. "She should be here very soon."
"Then I will await the result of your interview through here." The Colonel moved to a door half concealed by a curtain. "You shall have your turtle dove, Rutter, in peace and quiet." He chuckled harshly. "You know what we want?"
"By heart, Excellency."
"And you remember that her brother the Comte is not really dead. For our purposes he is a prisoner."
"I am not likely to forget; but I warn you, Excellency, I have but little hope of succeeding."
The Colonel's jaw shut like a vice. "Then God help you both, my friend; God help you both." His voice was soft, but horribly menacing; and as the curtain dropped behind him, the Kid, who had been listening spellbound, understood for the first time the type of man who represented Prussian militarism.
Instinctively his heart warmed towards the Lieutenant, who with a weary gesture of despair was resting his head on his arms. He was young, clean cut, almost an Englishman to look at, save for his close-cropped bristling hair; and, moreover, he was up against it. All the Kid's sporting instincts rose within him. Boche or no Boche this was not the type of swine who launched gas and liquid fire on a horror-struck world. Forgetful of everything he was on the point of going over to him and telling him to stick it out, when his eyes rested on the entrance. And there was the girl: the girl he had seen in the corner, the girl of the jasmine scent. For a while she stood watching the bowed figure at the table, and then she tip-toed across to him and laid her hand on his head.
With a quick start he looked up, and into his face there came the light of all the ages, the light of the man for the woman he loves.
"Marie," he whispered hoarsely. "Marie—que je t'adore." He caught her to him and kissed her on the lips. Then, with a bitter groan, he pushed her away and sat down again.
"Fritz, what is it?" she cried in wondering tones. "You sent for me, my dear. Why? I came; but it is not right for me to come to you here—in your dug-out."
"I was ordered to send for you, my Marie." His French was pure if guttural.
"Ordered!" An adorable look of amazement came on her face. "And you liked not this order, my Fritz. But why? It is not right for me to be here, I know; but now that I have come, it is very nice, mon ami. Why do you look so glum?"
For a while he did not reply, but paced the dug-out with long, uneven steps. And the Kid, watching his lady of the jasmine, saw her bite her lips, as a look of puzzled fear came into her great round eyes. At last the man paused in front of her and took her roughly by the arms, so that she cried out.
"You love me, Marie?" he demanded hoarsely. "You love me enough to marry me when this accursed war is over?" His voice sank over the last few words, and he glanced, half fearfully, at the curtained door.
"But of course, my Fritz," she answered softly. "You have been good to me, and you are different to these others. Mon Dieu! they frighten me—those harsh, brutal men; but they have been good to me and the little mother for your sake. It is terrible, I suppose—a French girl and a German officer; but the little god Love, mon ami, he laughs at the great god Mars—sometimes. Poor little me—I cannot help myself." She laughed adorably, and the Kid laughed with her. She seemed to him like the spirit of the Spring, when the bluebells are flowering and the world is young. But on the German's face there was no answering smile. It was set and stern, and imprinted with a look of such utter hopelessness that the Kid, who saw it over the girl's shoulder, almost cried out with the pain of it.
"Do you love me enough, Marie," he went on at length, "to do a big thing for me—a very big thing?"
"That depends on what it is." She spoke gaily, but the Kid could see her body stiffen slightly. "I'm no good at big things."
"Will you go to Paris for me?" His voice was dull and jerky.
"Paris!" She gazed at him in amazement. "But how, and why?"
"It will be easy to get you there." He seized on the part of her question which postponed for a few seconds the hideous thing he was to ask her. "We can arrange all that quite easily. You see——" He rambled on with the method of making plans for the journey, until he caught her eyes, and the look in them made his faltering words die away to a dreadful silence.
"And why do you want me to go to Paris, Fritz?" Her voice was hardly above a whisper.
Twice he essayed to speak; twice he failed to do more than falter her name. Then with a gasping cry he took her in his arms and kissed her passionately. "They shan't," he muttered; "by God! they shan't." And it was as the Kid watched the scene, with parted lips and quickened breath, that the curtain moved aside, and he saw the Colonel, like an evil spirit, regarding the pair with cold malevolence.
"Delightful!" he remarked after a few moments of cynical observation; "delightful! Lieutenant Rutter, you are to be congratulated. Mademoiselle—you are charming; all that my young friend has said, and more."
He moved forward and stood by the table, while Marie—her face as white as death—clung to her lover. "Who is he, Fritz, this ugly old man?" she whispered terrified.
"Permit me to introduce to you . . ." Fritz forced the words from his dry lips, only to stop at the upraised hand of the other.
"My name, dear young lady, is immaterial," he remarked genially. "Just an ugly old man, who has had no time to bask in the sunshine of the smiles of your charming sex." He sat down and lit a cigar. "So you are going to become a German's wife! Ah, Fritz, my boy, you're a lucky dog! You'll have to guard your Marie carefully from the rest of the garrison, when we have finally won and the war is over." He gave a grating laugh, and blew out a cloud of smoke.
"What do you want of me?" asked Marie, in a terrified whisper, looking at him like a bird at a snake.
"A little service, my dear young Fraeulein to be—a little service to the Fatherland. You must not forget that Germany is now your country in spirit, if not in actual truth. You are pledged to her just as you are pledged to your Fritz—in fact, he being an officer, the two are one and the same thing." He smiled again, and waved his cigar gently in the air. "And not only will your service benefit the country that you have chosen as your own, but it will benefit you, because it will bring the end of the war, and with it your marriage, closer."
He paused to let the words sink in, but she still watched him fascinated.
"One thing more." His eyes gleamed dully through the haze of smoke as he fixed them on her. "Unless this little service is fulfilled, though it won't make any difference to the ultimate result as far as Germany is concerned, it will make a very considerable difference as far as you and—er—Fritz are concerned."
"What do you mean?" The girl hardly breathed the words.
"I mean that there will be no marriage. Painful—but true."
The Kid watched the young officer's arm tighten convulsively round her waist—and began to see red. Then the harsh guttural voice continued. "Well, now, without wasting any more time, let us come to the point. I had proposed to let Lieutenant Rutter explain things to you; but—er—from one or two things I overheard, it struck me he might not make them clear." The beady eyes came slowly round to the Lieutenant. "That is why I interrupted." Once again he stared at the trembling girl. "To be brief, Mademoiselle Marie, we anticipate an attack—a big attack—by the English. We have good information that it is coming in this neighbourhood."
The Kid pricked up his ears; what the devil was the man talking about? "We have every reason to hope that Ovillers, Fricourt, Thiepval are impregnable; at the same time—in war—one never leaves things to chance." The Kid's astonishment turned to stupefaction; he himself had been in the storming of Ovillers. "And the chance," continued the imperturbable voice, "in this matter is the probable action of the French—your charming compatriots—er—compatriots, that were, Fraeulein. We anticipate this offensive in about a month or six weeks; and the matter on which we require all the confirmation we can is whether the French, after their hideous losses at Verdun, can play any important part in this operation of the enemy. That is where you can help us."
For a moment there was dead silence, and then the girl turned her stricken face to the man beside her. "Dear God!" she muttered, "is this why you made love to me? To make me a spy?"
"Marie—no, on my honour; I swear it!" Forgetful of the man sitting at the table Fritz stretched out his hand in an agony of supplication.
"Lieutenant Rutter." With a snarl the Colonel stood up. "You forget yourself. I am speaking. A truce to this fooling. Mademoiselle"—he turned again on the girl—"we have other things to do beside babble of love. Call it spying if you will, but we want information, and you can help us to get it—must help us to get it."
"And what if I refuse?" Superbly she confronted him; her voice had come back; her head was thrown up.
"In the first place you will not marry Lieutenant Rutter; and in the second place—have you heard that the Comte de St. Jean was taken prisoner at Verdun?"
"Philippe. Oh, monsieur, where is he?" The girl threw herself on her knees before him. "I implore you—he is my only brother."
"Indeed. Well, if you ever desire to see him again you will carry out my suggestion. Otherwise——" he paused significantly.
"Oh, you could not! You could not be so cruel, so vile as to harm him if he is a prisoner. It would break my mother's heart."
"Mademoiselle, there is nothing which I would scruple to do—nothing—if by so doing I advanced the glorious cause of our Fatherland." The man's small eyes gleamed with the fire of a fanatic; revolting though he was, yet was there an element of grandeur about him. Even the Kid, watching silently from the bed, felt conscious of the power which seemed to spring from him as he stood there, squat and repulsive, with the lovely French girl kneeling at his feet. He saw her throw her arms around his knees, and turn up her face to his in an agony of pleading; and then of a sudden came the tragedy.
Discipline or no discipline, a man is a man, and Fritz Rutter had reached the breaking-point. Perhaps it was the sight of the woman he loved kneeling at the feet of one of the grossest sensualists in Europe, perhaps—— But who knows?
"Marie," he cried hoarsely, "it's not true. Philippe is dead; they cannot hurt him now. Get up, my dear, get up." With folded arms he faced the other man as the girl staggered to her feet. Heedless of the blazing passion on the Colonel's face, she crept to Fritz and hid her face against his chest. And as she stood there she heard the voice of her tormentor, thick and twisted with hate.
"For that, Lieutenant Rutter, I will have you disgraced. And then I will look after your Marie. Orderly!" His voice rose to a shout as he strode to the door.
"Good-bye, my love." Fritz strained her to him, and the Kid saw her kiss him once on the lips. Then she disengaged herself from his arms, and walked steadily to where the Colonel still shouted up the entrance. Outside there was the sound of many footsteps, and the girl paused just behind the cursing maniac in the door.
"So you will look after me, will you, monsieur?" Her voice rose clear above the noise, and the man turned round, his malignant face quivering. The Kid watched it fascinated, and suddenly he saw it change. "I think not," went on the same clear voice; and the guttural cry of fear rang out simultaneously with the sharp crack of a revolver.
"My God!" Rutter stood watching the crumpling figure as it slipped to the ground in front of the girl; and then with a great cry he sprang forward. And with that cry, which seemed to ring through his brain, there came the power of movement to the Kid. He hurled himself off the bed towards the girl—his girl—his lady of the jasmine. But he was too late. The second shot was even truer than the first, and as her head hit the floor she was dead.
Regardless of Rutter the Kid knelt down beside her, and as he did so, he got it—in the face.
"What the blazes are you doing?" roared an infuriated voice. "Damn you! you young fool—you've nearly killed me."
Stupefied the boy looked around. The same dug-out; the same officers of B company; the same beer bottles; but where was the lady of the jasmine? Where was the man who lay dead in the doorway? Where was Rutter?
He blinked foolishly, and looked round to find the lamp still burning and his brother officers roaring with laughter. All, that is, except the Doctor on whose stomach he had apparently landed.
But the Kid was not to be put off by laughter. "I tell you it happened in this very dug-out," he cried excitedly. "She killed the swine in the doorway there, and then she killed herself. This is where she fell, Doc, just where you're lying, and her head hit the wall there. Look, there's a board there, nailed over the wall—where her head went. Don't laugh, you fool! don't laugh—it happened. I dreamed it. I know that now; but it happened for all that—before the big advance. I tell you she had light golden hair—ah! look." The Doctor had prised off the board, and there on the wall an ominous red stain showed dull in the candlelight. Slowly the Doctor bent down and picked up something with his fingers. Getting up he laid it on the table. And when the officers of B Company had looked at it, the laughter ceased. It was a little wisp of light golden hair—and the end was thick and clotted.
"To-morrow, Kid, you can tell us the yarn," said the Doctor quietly. "Just now you're going to have a quarter-grain of sleep dope and go to bed again."
* * * * * *
The following evening the officers of B Company, less the Kid, who was out, sat round the table and talked.
"What do you make of it, Doc?" asked the Company Commander. "Do you really think there is anything in the Kid's yarn? I mean, we know he dreamed it—but do you think it's true? I suppose that tired as he was he would be in a receptive mood for his imagination to run riot."
For a long while the Doctor puffed stolidly at his pipe without answering. Then he leaned forward and put his hand in his pocket.
"Imagination, you say. Do you call that imagination?" He produced the lock of hair from a matchbox. "Further, do you call that imagination? I found it under the pillow this morning." On the table beside the match-box he placed a small pocket handkerchief, and from it there came the faint, elusive scent of jasmine. "And last of all, do you call that imagination? I found it in one of the books yonder." He placed an old envelope in front of him, and the others crowded round. It was addressed to Ober-Lieutenant Fritz Rutter.
The man stirred uneasily, and a faint moan came from his lips. A numbness seemed to envelop his body from the waist downwards, and in the intervals of a stabbing pain in his head, he seemed to hear people whispering near by. A figure passed close to him, the figure of a girl with fair hair, in a grey dress—the figure of a girl like Molly. A red-hot iron stabbed his brain; his teeth clenched on his lips; he fought with all his will, but once again he moaned; he couldn't help it—it was involuntary. The girl stopped and came towards him; she was speaking to him, for he heard her voice. But what was she saying? Why did she speak so indistinctly? Why—ah, but her hand on his forehead was cool. It seemed to quiet those raging devils in his head; it helped him, as Molly always helped him. It seemed to—why, surely, it must be Molly herself, with her dear, soft touch, and her lips ready to kiss, and the sweet smell of her hair mounting to his brain like wine. Something pricked his arm: something that felt like the needle of a syringe; something that . . . But anyway, what the deuce was she doing? Then suddenly he recalled that pin at the back of her dress, where he'd pricked his wrist so badly the first time he'd kissed her.
He laughed gently at the remembrance; and the hand on his forehead trembled. For laughter to be a pleasant thing to hear it is essential that the person who laughs should be in full possession of—well, it is better, at any rate, that his head should not have been hit by a bomb, especially if it was his lower jaw that bore the brunt.
"What are you trembling for, Molly?" The voice was tender. "The pain has quite gone—I must have had a touch of the sun."
But for a question to be answered it must be audible; and the girl whose hand was on his forehead heard no words. Merely was there a great and wonderful pity in her eyes, for the remnant—the torn-up remnant—who had fought and suffered for her. And the remnant, well, he was way back in the Land of Has-been. Did I not say that the pin was at the back of Molly's waist?
The woods were just at their best, with the glorious yellow and brown of early autumn, touched with the gold of the setting sun. In a clearing a boy was sitting on a fallen tree-trunk, puffing furiously at a cigarette. Twice had the smoke gone the wrong way, and once had it got into his eyes; but when one is aged sixteen such trifles are merely there to be overcome. The annoying thing was that he was still engaged in absorbing the overflowing moisture from his eyes, with a handkerchief of doubtful cleanliness, when a girl came into the glade and started to laugh.
"There's no good pretending, Billy. The smoke has got into your eyes, and your handkerchief is dirty, and you aren't impressing me in the slightest."
"Hallo, Molly! I wasn't expecting you so soon." The smoker looked a little sheepish.
"Indeed! Then if I'm not wanted, I'll go away again."
"No, no, Molly—don't do that." The boy rose eagerly, and went towards her. Then he stopped awkwardly, and putting his hands in his pocket, fidgeted with his feet.
"Well—why not?" The girl smiled provokingly. "And what are you hopping about for? Are you going to try to learn to dance, as I suggested?"
"I will if you will teach me, Molly—dear." He took a step forward eagerly—and then paused again, aghast at the audacity of that "dear." Something in the cool, fresh young girl standing so easily in front of him, smiling with faint derision, seemed to knock on the head all that carefully thought out plan which had matured in his mind during the silent watches of the previous night. It had all seemed so easy then. Johnson major's philosophy on life in general and girls in particular was one thing in the abstract, and quite another when viewed in the concrete, with a real, live specimen to practice on. And yet Johnson major was a man of much experience—and a prefect of some standing at school.
"My dear fellows," he had said on one occasion when holding the floor in his study, "I don't want to brag, and we do not speak about these things." The accent on the we had been wonderful. It implied membership of that great body of youthful dare-devils to whom the wiles of women present no terrors. "But women, my dear fellows, why—good lord, there's nothing in it when one knows the way to manage them. They adore being kissed—provided it's done the right way. And if you don't know the right way instinctively, it comes with practice, old boy, it comes with practice." Billy had listened in awe, though preserving sufficient presence of mind to agree with the speaker in words of suitable nonchalance.
Of course, Johnson major must have been right; but, devil take it, there seemed remarkably little instinct available at the present moment; and up to date in Billy's career, practice in the proper procedure had been conspicuous by its absence.
"I think you're rather dull to-day." The girl was speaking again, and there was more than a hint of laughter in her voice. "What's the matter with you? Has that cigarette made you feel sick?"
"Certainly not. I—er—oh, Molly, I——"
The desperate words trembled on his lips—trembled and died away under the laughter in her eyes.
"Yes?" she murmured inquiringly. "What is it, Billy?"
Oh, woman, woman! Just sixteen, but at two you have learned the beginnings of the book of Eve.
"I—er—I—oh, dash it, let's go for a walk!" With a gasp of relief he swung on his heel; the fatal plunge had been put off for a little; he hadn't made a fool of himself—yet, at any rate. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Not if you don't." The girl was walking demurely beside him, down the narrow lane carpeted with its first layers of auburn brown. "Are you sure it's wise? Two so close together might not be good for you."
Two close together—not good for him! Absurd; it was nothing to what he was accustomed to, and yet—why, his head was throbbing, throbbing as he looked at the girl beside him? What was that distant noise like the slow beating of a mighty drum, that seemed to quiver and vibrate in the air till it filled his brain with a great rush of sound, and then sobbed away into silence? What was the matter with his right hand that it burned and twitched so ceaselessly? Surely he hadn't burnt himself with the cigarette! He looked down to see, but somehow things were indistinct. It almost seemed as if he hadn't got a hand; the woods were hazy—Molly seemed far away. In her place was a man, a man with a stubby growth on his chin, a man who bent over him and muttered something.
"Gawd, Ginger, the poor devil ain't dead neither! Lift him up carefully. There's his right arm over there, and his back—— Oh, my gawd! Poor devil!"
Thus had the battalion stretcher-bearers found him the day before. . . .
The man became irritable.
"Go away at once! Can't you see I'm with a lady. Molly, dear, where are you? What is this dirty-looking fellow doing here at all?"
But Molly for the moment seemed aloof. He saw her there, standing in the path in front of him—so close and yet somehow so curiously far away.
"Molly, do you hear that noise—that strange beating in the air? I think I'm going to be ill. Perhaps two close together are too much."
But no—apparently not. Suddenly everything was clear again, and there was Molly with the autumn wind blowing the soft tendrils of hair back from the nape of her neck; Molly, with the skirt that betokens the half-way period between flapperhood and coming out; Molly, with her lithe young figure half turned from him as she watched the sun sinking over the distant hills.
"They adore being kissed." The words of the wonderful Johnson major were ringing in his brain as he watched her, and suddenly something surged up within him. What matter rules and theories? What matter practice? There is only one way to kiss a girl, and rules and theories avail not one jot. With a quick step he had her in his arms, and, with his pulses hammering with the wonder of it, he watched her face come round to his. He kissed her cheek, her eyes, her mouth—shyly at first, and then with gathering confidence as a boy should kiss a girl.
The sweetness of it, the newness of it, the eternal joy of a woman in a man's arms for the first time! Surely it had never been quite like that with any one else before. Of course, other people kissed, but—this was different. Suddenly the girl disengaged her arms and wound them gently round his neck. She pulled his head towards her, and kissed him again and again, while he felt her heart beating against his coat.
"Billy, my dear!"
Almost he missed the whispered words coming faintly from somewhere in the neighbourhood of his tie.
"Molly—Molly, darling—I love you!"
The boy's voice was shaky, his grip almost crushed her.
"Do you, Billy? I'm so glad! I want you to love me, because—because——"
She looked at him shyly.
"Say it, sweetheart, say it." He held her at arm's-length—no longer bashful, no longer wondering whether he dared; but insistent, imperious, a young god for the moment. "Because what?"
"Because I love you too, you darling!"
Once again she was in his arms, once again did time cease, while the lengthening shadows stole softly towards them; and a squirrel, emboldened by their stillness, watched for a while with indulgent eyes.
At last the girl gently turned away, and the boy's arms fell to his side.
"Molly, you've got a pin in your waistband. Look, you've pricked my wrist."
"Billy, my dear, let me do it up. Why didn't you tell me, you poor old boy?"
"I didn't notice it, I didn't even feel it, you darling."
The boy laughed gladly as she bound his handkerchief round the wounded arm; and, bending forward, kissed her neck, just where the hair left it, just where—but what had happened? Where was she? She had gone, the trees had gone, the sun had set, and it was dark, terribly dark.
Once again that mighty drum beat close by, and voices came dimly through a haze to the man's brain. Some one was touching him, a finger was probing gently over his head, a sentence came to him as if from a vast distance.
"Good God! Poor devil! If we have to go we must leave him. Any movement would kill him at once."
"I won't have you touching the bandage that Molly has put on!" said the man angrily. "My wrist will be quite all right; it's absurd to make a fuss about a pin-prick."
And perhaps because there are sounds to which no man can listen unmoved, the quiet-faced doctor drew out his hypodermic syringe. The girl with the grey dress, her steps lagging a little with utter physical weariness, paused at the foot of his bed, and waited with an encouraging smile.
"Molly," he cried eagerly, "come and talk to me! I've been dreaming about you."
But she merely continued to smile at him, though in her eyes there was the sadness of a divine pity. Then once again something pricked his arm. A great silence seemed to come down on him like a pall, a silence that was tangible, in which strange faces passed before him in a jumbled procession. They seemed to swing past like fishes drifting across the glass window of an aquarium—ghostly, mysterious, and yet very real. A man in a dirty grey uniform, with a bloodstained bandage round his forehead, who leered at him; Chilcote, his company commander, who seemed to be shouting and cheering and waving his arm; a sergeant of his platoon, with a grim smile on his face, who held a rifle with a fixed bayonet that dripped.
"All right, Chilcote," he shouted, "we'll have the swine out in a minute!"
But Chilcote had gone, and through the silence came a muffled roar.
"The drum again!" he muttered irritably. "What the devil is the good of trying to surprise the Huns if we have the band with us! You don't want a band when you're attacking a village! A band is for marching to, and dancing, not for fighting." Of course, if it was going to continue playing, they might just as well have a dance, and be done with it. He laughed a little. "You've had too much champagne for supper, my boy," he soliloquised. "What do you mean by 'might as well have a dance'? Can't you see that awe-inspiring gentleman in the red coat is on the point of striking up now?" He looked across the room, a room that seemed a trifle hazy, and thought hard. Surely he hadn't had too much to drink, and yet the people were so vague and unreal? And why the deuce did a ballroom band have a big drum? He gave it up after a moment, and silently watched the scene.
He remembered now quite clearly, and with an amused laugh at his momentary forgetfulness, he looked at his programme. The third supper extra was just beginning, and two dances after that he had four in succession with Molly—the fateful hour when he had determined to try his luck.
At present she was having supper with a nasty-looking man, with long hair and an eyeglass, who was reputed to be a rising politician, in the running for an under-secretaryship, and was also reputed to be in love with Molly. He looked savagely round the room, and, having failed to discover them, he strolled to the bar to get a drink.
"Hallo, Billy; not dancing? She loves me; she loves me not! Cheer up, dearie!"
An inane-looking ass raised his whisky-and-soda to his lips with a fatuous cackle.
"I wonder they don't have a home for people like you, Jackson," remarked Billy curtly. "Whisky-and-soda, please."
He gave his order to the waiter and lit a cigarette. He hardly heard what the irrepressible Jackson was saying, but allowed him to babble on in peace while his thoughts centred on Molly. How absolutely sweet she was looking in that shimmering, gauzy stuff that just went with her hair, and showed off her figure to perfection! If only she said "yes," he'd arrange the party going back in the cars so that he got her alone in the two-seater. If only—good lord, would the dance never come?
He looked up, and saw her passing into the ball-room with her supper partner; and, as he did so, she looked half round and caught his eye. Just a second, no more; but on her lips had trembled the faintest suspicion of a smile—a smile that caused his heart to beat madly with hope, a smile that said things. He sat back in his chair and the hand that held his glass trembled a little.
"I don't believe you've been listening to me, Billy." The egregious Jackson emitted a plaintive wail. "I don't believe you've heard a word I said."
"Perfectly correct in both statements, dear boy!" Billy rose abruptly to his feet and smacked him on the back. "One must give up something in Lent, you know."
"But it isn't Lent." Jackson looked aggrieved. "And you've made me spill my drink."
But he spoke to the empty air and a melancholy waiter, for Billy was back in the ballroom, waiting. . . .
"You smiled at me, lady, a while ago," he said softly in her ear, as they swung gently through the crowded room. "I thought it was a smile that said things. Was thy servant very presumptuous in thus reading his queen's glance? Confound you, sir; that's my back!"
He glared furiously at a bull-necked thruster in a pink coat.
"Hush, Billy!" laughed the girl, as they lost him in the crowd. "That's our master!"
"I don't care a hang who he is, but he's rammed one of my brace-buttons into my spine! He's the sort of man who knocks you down and tramples on your face, after supper!"
For a few moments they continued in silence, perhaps the two best dancers in the room, and gradually she seemed to come closer to him, to give herself up entirely to him, until, as in a dream, they moved like one being and the music softly died away. For a moment the man stood still, pressing the girl close to him, and then, with a slight sigh that was almost one of pain, he let her go.
"Are you glad I taught you to dance?" she asked laughingly; while the room shouted for an encore.
"Glad," he whispered, "glad! Ah! my lady, my lady, to dance with you is the nearest approach to heaven that we poor mortals may have. For all that"—he steered her swiftly through the expectant couples towards a door covered with a curtain—"I want an answer to a question I asked you just before my spine was broken!" He held up the curtain for her to pass through, and piloted her to an easy-chair hidden behind some screens in a discreetly lighted room. "Did your smile say things, my lady? Did you tell me something as you went into the ballroom with that long-haired lawyer?"
"My dear boy, I wasn't smiling at you! I was smiling at that nice Mr. Jackson man."
"Molly, you're a liar! You know you hate that ass; you told me so yourself yesterday!"
"All the more reason to smile at him. Billy, give me a cigarette." She leaned towards him slightly as he offered her his case, and their eyes met. Her breath came a little quicker as she read the message blazing out of his, and then she looked away again. "And a match, please," she continued quietly.
"Confound the match and the cigarette, too!" His voice was shaking. "Molly, Molly, I know I'm mad! I know it's just the height of idiocy from a so-called worldly point of view, but I can't help it. I've tried and struggled; I've been away for two years and haven't seen you. But, oh! my dear, the kisses you gave me when you were a flapper, before you came out, before your mother got this bee in her bonnet about some big marriage for you—those kisses are still burning my lips. I can feel them now, princess, and the remembrance of 'em drives me mad! I know I'm asking you to chuck your mother's ambitions; I know I've got nothing to offer you, except the old name, which doesn't count for much these days. But, oh! my lady, I just worship the very ground you walk on. Is there just a chance for me? I'd simply slave for you, if you'd let me!"
Through the closed door came stealing the soft music of a waltz, while from another corner came the sound of a whispered tete-a-tete. Very still was the girl as she sat in the big arm-chair, with the man pleading passionately at her side. Once she caught her breath quickly when he recalled the time gone by—the time before her mother's political ambitions had ruthlessly waged war on her, and done their best to drive Nature out of her outlook on life; and, when he had finished speaking, she gave a little tired smile.
"Billy boy," she whispered, "is that how you've felt about it all this while?"
He made no answer, but, stretching out his hands, he took hold of her two wrists.
"You've really remembered those kisses when we were kids?" she went on softly.
"Remembered them? Dear heavens, my lady, I wouldn't lose that remembrance for untold wealth! It's been with me in Alaska; it's been with me in Hong Kong. I've woken up at nights with the feel of your lips on mine, and all the glory of you, and the sweetness; and it's helped me on when everything was black, and made things bright when the world was rotten!" With a bitter sigh he took his hands away and sat back in his chair. "And I've failed! Jove! the wild schemes and the plans, the golden visions and the Eldorados—all failed. Just a little money, just enough to have a burst in England, just enough to be able to see you. And then it slipped out. Lady, dear, I never meant to before I came to the Towers. I knew you were there, but I never meant to ask you. Wash it out, my princess; wash it out! I haven't said a word. You've been teaching me a new step; let's go back and dance. I've been mad this evening, and, unless we go back and dance, I can't guarantee remaining sane!"
But the girl made no move. With parted lips she swayed towards him, while he watched her, with the veins standing out on his forehead. "Billy—I don't care; I'm mad, too!" The scent she used was mounting to his brain—the nearness of her was driving him mad.
"Molly, get back to that ballroom; get back quick, or——" He spoke through his clenched teeth.
"Or what, Billy boy?" She smiled deliciously.
And then he kissed her: a kiss that seemed to draw her soul to her lips: a kiss that lifted him until he travelled through endless spaces in a great aching void where time and distance ceased, and nothing happened save a wonderful ecstasy, and ever and anon the mighty booming of a giant drum.
He seemed to be treading on air, and though the ballroom had vanished, and the discreet apartment with shaded lights had faded away, yet he was very conscious of the nearness of his girl. But just now, he could not see her—she eluded him, leaving an ever-present feeling that she would be waiting for him round the next of those intangible masses he seemed to be drifting through.
"You don't mind waiting, my princess?" he murmured ceaselessly. "After this war it will all come right. Just now I've got to go—I must go out there; but afterwards, it will all come right—and we'll live in a house in the country and grow cabbages and pigs. You'll wait, you say? Ah! my dear, my dear; it's sweet of you; but perhaps you ought to have married the lawyer man. You might have been Mrs. Prime Minister one of these days."
For a while the tired brain refused to act; the man felt himself falling into unplumbed depths—depths which echoed with monstrous reverberations.
"Molly, where are you, dear? It's cold, and my head is throbbing to beat the band. If only that cursed drum would stop! Do you hear it echoing through the air? And the noise hurts—hurts like hell, Molly. Ah! Heaven, but it's cold; and I can't see you, my lady; I don't know where you are."
Once again he became conscious of figures moving around him. They seemed to be carrying motionless men past his feet—men on stretchers covered with blankets. With staring eyes he watched the proceeding, trying to understand what was happening. In front of him was a window in which the glass had been smashed, leaving great jagged pieces sticking out from the sides of the frame. He wondered vaguely why it had been left in such a dangerous condition; when he and Molly had their house such a thing would never be allowed to happen—if it did it would be mended at once. He asked one of the passing figures what had caused the damage, and when he got no answer he angrily repeated the question.
He fretted irritably because no one seemed to take any notice of him, and suddenly his head began throbbing worse than ever. But the hazy indistinctness was gone; the man was acutely conscious of everything around him. Memory had come back, and he knew where he was and why he was there. He remembered the fierce artillery bombardment; he recalled getting over the parapet, out on to the brown shell-pocked earth, sodden and heavy with the drenching rain; he recalled the steady shamble over the ground with boots so coated with wet mud that they seemed to drag him back. Then clear in his mind came the picture of Chilcote cheering, shouting, lifting them on to the ruins of what once had been a village; he saw Chilcote falter, stop, and, with a curious spinning movement, crash forward on to his face; he saw the Germans—he saw fierce-faced men like animals at bay, snarling, fighting; he heard once again that trembling cry of "Kamerade"; and then—a blank. The amazing thing was that it was all jumbled up with Molly. He seemed to have been with her lately—and yet she couldn't have been out there with him. He puzzled a bit, and then gave it up: it hurt his head so terribly to think. He just lay still, gazing fixedly at the jagged, torn pane of glass. . . .
"They are all out, Doctor, except this one."
A woman was speaking close beside him, and his eyes slowly travelled round in the direction of the voice. It was another woman—a woman he hadn't seen before—swaying slightly as if she would drop.
"Good heavens! it's Billy Saunders!"
A man in khaki was bending over him—a man whom he recognised as a civilian doctor he'd known at home—a man, moreover, who knew Molly.
"Do you know me, old chap?"
"Of course," answered the man. "What's all the trouble?"
The doctor bit his lip, and the man noticed his hand clench hard. Then there started a low-voiced conversation, a conversation to which he listened attentively—his hearing seemed abnormally acute.
"Has he spoken since he's been in, sister?"
"No—only those dreadful moans. The whole of his face—absolutely hopeless—spinal cord."
The man lying motionless caught the disjointed words. What did they mean? They were mad—insane. Dying? He—Billy Saunders! What about Molly—his Molly? What about. . . . Gentle fingers once again touched his head, and, looking up, he saw the doctor's eyes fixed on his.
"They're shelling the hospital, dear old man; we've got to get—— Great Scott, look out!"
Like the moan of a giant insect, the shrill whine came through the air, rising to an overwhelming scream. There was a deafening crash—a great hole was torn in the wall just by the window with the jagged pane, and the room filled with stifling black fumes. A sudden agonising stab, and the man, looking up, saw Molly in front of him. She was standing in the acrid smoke—beckoning.
"I'm coming, dear, I'm coming!" he cried; "it's good of you to have waited, girl of mine—so good."
* * * * * *
"Are you hurt, sister?" The doctor, who had been crouching by the bed, stood up.
"Not touched, thank you." She was white and shaking. "Did you hear the bits whizzing through the room?"
"I did," remarked the doctor grimly, holding out an arm from which the blood already dripped. "And I felt one of them too. But there's no time to lose—I don't know what to do about him, poor old chap."
He turned once again to the bed, and even as he turned he knew that the decision had been made for him: and he thanked the Maker. Billy Saunders had also felt a bit—a jagged bit—through the heart.
BENDIGO JONES—HIS TREE
My story—such as it is—concerns a camouflage tree and Bendigo Jones: both of which—or whom—will require a little more introduction. That Bendigo would indignantly repudiate any such necessity, I am fully aware; nevertheless, even at the risk of offending him, I propose to outline briefly his claims to greatness, before embarking on the incident in his military career which forms the subject of these pages.
First however—the camouflage tree. It is only meet that the material and sordid details of the stage properties should be given, before branching into any discussion of the capabilities of the actor. The phrase, then, does not imply—as the ignorant might possibly be led to believe—a new type of tree. It does not grow in the tropics amongst a riotous tangle of pungent undergrowth; it does not creak sadly in the north wind on the open hill. It shelters not the hibiscus anthropoid, it gives not lodging to the two-tailed newt. From a botanical point of view, the tree is a complete and utter frost. It is, in point of hard and bitter fact, not a tree at all.
"Camouflage" is that which conceals: it is a fraud, and speaketh not the truth. I am not even certain whether it is a noun or a preposition, but the point is immaterial. Along with other canons of military matters, its virtue lies in its application rather than in its etymology. What the eye doth not see the trench mortars do not trouble is as true to-day as when Noah first mentioned the fact; and camouflage is the application of this mighty dictum.
The value of any particular piece of camouflage depends entirely on its capability for deceit; but to the youthful enthusiast I would speak a word of warning. I have in mind the particular case of young Angus MacTaggart, a lad from Glasgow, with freckles and a sunny disposition. He was a sapper by trade, and on his shoulders there devolved, on one occasion, the job of covering a trench mortar emplacement with a camouflage of wire and grass which would screen the hole in which sat the mortar from the prying gaze of Hun aeroplanes. It was a deep hole, for the mortar was large; and the screen of wire was fastened to a framework of wood. When the gun wished to do its morning hate, a pessimistic individual first scoured the heavens with his glasses in search of Hun planes. If the scouring revealed nothing, the screen was lowered, and the gun was made ready. Then the detachment faded away, and the gun was fired by a man of great personal bravery by means of a long string. Ever since the first trench mortars, which consisted of a piece of piping down which a jam-tin bomb was dropped, in the hopes that when the charge at the bottom was lighted, the bomb would again emerge, I have regarded trench mortars as dangerous and unpleasant objects, and the people who deal with them as persons of a high order of courage. One remembers the times when the bomb did not emerge, but stuck half way and exploded violently; one remembers when the entire gun fell over and propelled the bomb in the direction of battalion headquarters; above all, one remembers the loathing and contumely with which the mere arrival of the trench mortar in any part of the trenches was greeted. Then there was no attempt at camouflage; one's sole endeavour was to avoid being killed by the beastly thing.
To return, however, to Angus. Though of a sunny disposition, as I have said, he was a somewhat earnest individual—and thorough withal. He determined that as a camouflage, his should stand pre-eminent; it should be the model and pattern of all camouflages. He succeeded.
Labouring at night—largely with his own fair hands—he produced a screen cunningly woven with grasses and weeds which he swore would defy the most lynx-eyed pilot. He even went so far as to place in the centre of it a large bunch of nettles, which he contended gave it an air of insouciance and lightheartedness that had been lacking before.
Now, as I mentioned above, the value of camouflage depends on its capability for deceit; and it is by this criterion that I claim his work as a success. It should be added, however, in no uncertain tones, that it is the Germans whom one is desirous of deceiving, and that is where my warning to the youthful enthusiast comes in.
The thing came too quickly for warning. Suddenly from above the inhabitants of the hole, with whom Angus was consuming a midday glass of port, was heard the voice: "It must be somewhere about here, sir, I think." The voice was right—it was.
They came through in a phalanx of fire, and descended abruptly on the detachment below. It was a magnificent compliment to the work, but it was unfortunate that the General should have been the one to consume the nettles. However, I have always thought that Angus's voice of disgust as he contemplated the wreckage of his screen did not improve matters.
"The door," he remarked, with painful distinctness, "is full of possibilities." With that he left.
I trust the moral of my digression is obvious. . . . Having then, in a few well-chosen phrases, discussed one type of camouflage, I would pass on and lead the thirster for information still farther into the by-paths of knowledge. Just as there are many and divers types of deceit, varying from that which conceals what is, to that which exposes what is not—involved that last, but think it out—so are there many types of camouflage. And the particular one with which I am concerned, deals with a tree.
On a certain slight eminence in what was otherwise a flat and dreary outlook, there stood the stump of a tree. It was a tired stump, strongly reminiscent of the morning after. It had had a hard life, and much of its pristine glory had faded. No longer did the sprightly sparrow chirrup cheerfully to its young from leafy branches; no longer did cattle recline in its shade during the heat of the day. It was just a stump—a stump complete with splinters.
Its sole claim to notoriety lay in its position. It commanded a view of the German lines which was not to be had elsewhere; in fact, from the eminence on which it stood you could obtain the only good observation of the opposite trenches in that particular sector of the line.
It was the Brigade Major who first suggested the idea in the fertile brain of the C.R.E. of the Division, who happened to be talking to him at the moment. They were in the support line trenches, and close to where they stood, the tree—gaunt, repulsive and toothpicky—raised its stunted head to heaven.
"What a pity that tree ain't hollow!" ruminated the Staff officer thoughtfully. "Splendid view from it of the Huns. Can't do anything in that line, can you, Colonel?"
The C.R.E. thoughtfully considered the proposition. "Afraid not, old boy," he answered after a few moments' deliberation. "Bit of a job hollowing out a tree. All the same, you're quite right. It would make a great O.P."
"Why not make another down in your yard, and put it up instead?" The Brigadier joined in the discussion. "We must have better observation in this sector if we possibly can."
"Cut this one down one night and put up a dummy in its place." The C.R.E once again considered the wretched stump. "Not a bad idea, General; the only question is who is to do it. It will have to be a good model, or the Huns will spot the difference; and . . ." Suddenly his face cleared. "By Jove! I've got it—Bendigo Jones. He's the man for the job."
"And who the deuce is Bendigo Jones?" asked the General, as the Sapper rapidly jotted down something in his note-book. "He sounds like a prize fighter or the inventor of a patent medicine."
"Bendigo Jones, General, is my latest acquisition. I have it on no less an authority than his own that he is a very remarkable man. I gather that he is futurist by inclination, and dyspeptic by nature, which I take to be a more or less natural sequence of events. At present he adorns my office, and looks intense."
"He sounds rather like a disease," murmured the Brigade Major. "From what you say, I gather he considers himself an artist."
"He sculpts, or whatever a sculptor does when he gets busy." The Colonel smiled gently. "How he ever blew out here I cannot imagine, but these things will occur. I offended him mortally, I regret to say, the first day he arrived, by confessing that I had never even heard his name, much less seen his work, but I think he's forgiven me. I allowed him to arrange the timber yard to-day more aesthetically, and the Sergeant-major thinks he is soft in the head, so Bendigo is supremely happy."
"He sounds a perfect treasure," remarked the Brigadier drily. "However, as long as he models that tree and we get it up somehow, and I never see him, I shall be quite happy, old boy."
"It shall be done," answered the C.R.E., "by our little Bendy himself. A life-size, hollow camouflage stump shall replace the original, complete with peephole and seat."
Thus lightly was settled the immediate future of one of the world's great ones. In view, however, of the fact that the world is so often lamentably ignorant of greatness, it now becomes necessary for me to carry out my second introduction and enlighten the Philistines as to what they have missed by their miserable and sordid materialism.
Be it known then that for several years Bendigo Jones had been in the habit of inflicting upon a long-suffering and inoffensive public a series of lumps of material. What these lumps were supposed to represent no one has yet discovered; and I am given to understand that unless the proud perpetrator noted it himself on completion, he too was usually unable to elucidate the mystery. It was not of great account, as he ran not the slightest risk of contradiction whatever he said; and as no person ever willingly went twice to his exhibitions, he could vary the title daily without fear of discovery. Another great point about his work was its many-sidedness. A lump looked at from one side would perhaps represent "Pelican with young," while on the other "The Children's Hour, or six o'clock at Mud View Villa," would be depicted. This, needless to say, economised greatly in space and matter; and in case any special exhibit failed to arrive in time, or was thrown away by mistake, an old one turned upside down at once remedied the defect.
His nearest approach to fame occurred during the period which followed the perpetration of his celebrated "Mother with her Child." It was announced that the gifted sculptor had worked on it for five years; and a certain amount of light was thrown on his methods by an interview he managed to get published in some obscure journal.
"Rising with a hoarse cry," ran this effusion, "Mr. Bendigo Jones hurled himself at his work. With a single blow he removed a protuberance, and then sank back exhausted.
"'You see the difference,' he cried, 'you see how I have altered her expression.'
"'Whose?' I murmured dazedly.
"'Why, the face of the woman. Ah! dolt, blockhead, have you no eyes—have you no soul?'
"'But you told me that was a church at sunset,' I remonstrated feebly.
"'What has that to do with it?' he shouted. 'It is what I like to make it, fool. What is a name? Nothing—a bagatelle. I have changed my mind every day for the last five years, and now my life's work is done—done.'
"Mr. Bendigo Jones sobbed quietly, and I stole away. It was not for me to gaze on such grief. And as I went through the open window I heard his final whisper.
"'It shall be none of these things. I will pander to vile utilitarianism. It shall be—"A City Magnate at Lunch."'"
It may be remembered that when it was finally put on view in London, enormous interest was aroused by an enterprising weekly paper offering prizes to the extent of a thousand pounds to any one who could guess what it was; and though Bendigo Jones's pocket was helped considerably by his percentage of the gate money, his pride suffered considerably when the answers were made public. They ranged from, "Model of the first steam engine when out of control," to "An explosion of a ship at sea," both of which happy efforts gained a bag of nuts. The answer adjudged most nearly correct was sent in by a Fulham butcher, who banked on "Angry gentleman quarrelling with his landlord on quarter-day": which at any rate had the merit of making it human.
But I have digressed enough; I will return to my sad story. How our friend ever did arrive in France is as much of a mystery to me as it was to the Colonel; presumably a ruthless government, having decided it required men, roped him in along with the other lesser lights. The fiat went forth, and so did Bendigo—mildly protesting: to adorn in the fullness of time the office of the C.R.E. of whom I have spoken. And he was sitting there exhausted by his labours in helping the Sergeant-major rearrange the timber yard aesthetically, when a message arrived that the Colonel wished to speak to him.
"I understand, Jones, that you are a sculptor," remarked that officer genially, as our hero entered the office. "Now, can you model a tree?"
Bendigo gazed dreamily out of the window. "A tree," he murmured at length. "A little, beautiful tree. Green with the verdant loveliness of youth . . . green . . . green."
"It isn't," snapped the Colonel. "It's brown, and damned hideous, and full of splinters."
"Only to the eye of unbelief, sir." The sculptor regarded him compassionately. "To us—to those who can see things as they ought to be—more, as they spiritually are . . . it is different."
A door closed somewhat hastily, and the sounds from the next room seemed to indicate that the Adjutant's cough was again troubling him. The Colonel however remained calm.
"I have no doubt, Jones," he remarked dispassionately, "that what you have just said has some meaning. It is even remotely possible that you know what it means yourself. I don't; and I do not propose to try. I propose, on the other hand, to descend to the sordid details of what I wish you to do. You will commence without delay." He leaned back in his chair, and proceeded to fill his pipe.
"Up the line there is a tree stump standing on rising ground, which I wish you to copy. The model must be sufficiently good to deceive the Germans. It will be hollow, and of such a size as will accommodate an observer. The back will be hinged. When your model is made, the real tree stump will be removed one night and the sham one substituted. Do you follow me?"
It is more than doubtful if he even heard. A slight attack of dyspepsia shook him as the Colonel finished speaking, and he passed his hands twice through his hair. "The thought—the future vista—is beautiful," he murmured. "And think; think of the advertisement. To-morrow, sir, I will gaze upon it, and fashion it in clay. Then I will return and commence the great work."
He faded slowly through the door; and after a long pause the Colonel spoke. "I wonder," he remarked thoughtfully to the Adjutant who had returned: "I wonder why such things are. . . ."
* * * * * *
I am given to understand that the arrival of Bendigo Jones at the scene of his labours the next morning caused such a sensation amongst those privileged to witness the spectacle that the entire trench was blocked for two hours. To only a chosen band was vouchsafed the actual sight of the genius at work; the remainder had to be content with absorbing his remarks as they were passed down the expectant line. And it was doubtless unfortunate that the Divisional General should have chosen the particular moment when the divine fire of genius was at its brightest to visit the support line in company with his G.S.O.I. and a galaxy of other bright and shining luminaries of the military world.
"What is the meaning of this extraordinary crush in the trench this morning?" he remarked irritably to his Staff officer, as the procession was again held up by a knot of interested men.
"I really don't know, sir," murmured that worthy. "It's most unusual; it's . . ."
His words were drowned by howls of delighted laughter from round the traverse in front, and the next moment a perspiring soldier forced his way into the bay where the great ones were temporarily wedged. It was the special runner who was carrying the latest gem from the lips of Bendigo—at work a little farther up—to the expectant and breathless audience.
"Hay! little sandbag! Ho! little sandbag! 'Ow beautiful hart thou in textchah."
"Go on, Bill. Did the perisher say that?" An incredulous member of the group looked doubtful.
"Did 'e say it?" The carrier of news looked scornfully at the doubter. "Did 'e say it? Lumme! 'E said it twice, and then he buried 'is mug in its loverly fragrant surface, and pricked his nose on Ginger's bayonet. 'E's mad, boys; 'e's as mad as a plurry 'atter; 'e's got bats in 'is belfry."
Now, in spite of what I know of Bendigo Jones, I must admit that this reputed remark taxes even my credulity. Mad he undoubtedly was when viewed by the sordid standards of the vandals around him, but this inspiring ode to a sandbag grew somewhat, I cannot but help thinking, in the transmission. The regrettable thing was that it should have reached this stage when it was unwittingly presented to the Divisional General.
"Gangway!" he roared, as the hilarity remained unabated: "gangway!" He elbowed his way through the suddenly silent throng and confronted the special runner. "Now, my man, tell me—what is all this tommy rot about?"
"Bloke farther up the trenches, sir, wot don't seem quite right in the 'ead." Somewhat confused at the sudden appearance of the powers that be, the perspiring harbinger of bons mots relapsed into an uncomfortable and depressing silence.