"Not right in the head," barked the General. "God bless my soul! It must be the heat. Dreadful. What shall we do, Curtis?" He appealed for support to his Staff officer.
"I think, sir, the Doctor might precede us," answered the other resourcefully, "and see if the man is dangerous. If so, no doubt he will arrange for his removal before he does any harm."
The A.D.M.S., or Assistant Director of Medical Services—the official title of the principal bolus booster in a Division—emerged with a sickly smile from behind a corner, and advanced unwillingly to the head of the procession.
"Excellent idea," remarked the General affably. "You can prescribe for him when you see the symptoms, old boy. Probably a most interesting case—provided he doesn't stab you on sight."
"Sit on his head, Doc., if he comes for you," remarked the Staff officer, gracefully handing over the position of leader, "and, above all, dear old thing, don't let him bite you. Give him a Number Nine to chew, and we'll bind him when he becomes unconscious."
"It's all jolly fine for you to laugh," said the Doctor peevishly. "I'm fat and you're thin, and you can hide behind me."
They reached the bay of the trench next to Bendigo, just as a further great utterance was starting on its way. In the excitement of the moment, caused by the General's sudden appearance, much of this gem was lost.
What was heard, however, did not diminish the Doctor's alarm.
"Howls in the leafy verdure," he remarked anxiously. "Good Heavens, General, he must be up the tree stump!"
"That's all right, sir!" remarked a sergeant reassuringly. "'E's quite 'armless. It's his spirit mind, 'e says. He thinks the tree is full of leaves."
"Yes—but who is howling in it," asked the General irritably. "I don't hear a sound."
"It's his spirit mind again, sir," answered the sergeant respectfully. "There ain't no one 'owling really; 'e means howls wot 'oot."
The procession paused awhile to digest this momentous fact, and the Staff officer seized the opportunity to again comfort the Doctor.
"Get him at once, old sport, before he becomes homicidal. You never know when the phase will change. He may fish in his tin hat with a bent pin first or he may shoot you on sight, but I'd go at once if I were you. You stand more chance."
Undoubtedly the sight which confronted them on rounding the traverse justified their worst fears. The Doctor recoiled with a choking noise and endeavoured to wave the Staff officer forward.
"Not on your life, Doc.," remarked that worthy grimly—"not on your life. Go right in; and with your bulk you oughtn't to feel it much, wherever he kicks you."
Personally, I maintain the whole thing was rather hard on Bendigo. Before sending him up the line he should have been labelled; some warning as to his habits should have been noised abroad by the town crier. Then the unfortunate episode with the General would never have occurred. He would have made allowances, and withdrawn early for light refreshment.
But when a man whose face is of the type peculiar—the sort that you give the baby to play with—practises the habits of fourteen years unsuccessful dyspeptic futurism in a support line trench on a hot day, the result is likely to be full of incident. True—the wretched Bendigo knew no better; but no more did the General. And life is made of these trifling misunderstandings. . . .
The entranced spectators stiffened to attention as the procession of great ones—partially hidden behind the Doctor—advanced with due military precautions. Even the phlegmatic and weary Sapper who was assisting the genius, with base utilitarian details, such as the size of the trap door at the back of the proposed model, showed signs of animation. Not so Bendigo. With an expression on his face suggestive of great internal pain, he remained seated on the fire-step muttering softly to himself and clasping to his bosom a large lump of what appeared to be mud.
Suddenly he placed it on the step beside him and rose with an air of determination. The staff performed two or three nimble steps of the foxtrot variety to the rear, and as they did so Bendigo sprang to the assault. With a sweeping half-arm blow he struck the mud and the mud retaliated. While it lasted the action was brisk, but the issue was never in doubt. After two minutes in fighting, Bendigo withdrew exhausted, and most of the mud went with him. What was left looked tired.
"A clear case of shell shock," muttered the Staff officer nervously in the Doctor's ear. "For Heaven's sake do something!"
"Yes, but what the deuce am I to do?" Perspiring freely the gallant officer advanced slowly in the direction of Bendigo, who suddenly perceived him.
The sculptor smiled wearily and pointed a languid hand at the result of his labours. "A great work, my friend," he murmured. "One of my most wonderful studies."
"Doubtless," remarked the Doctor cautiously. "Don't you think—er—you'd better lie down?"
"The leafy foliage; the wonderful green effect; the tree—as I see it. Fresh, fragrant, superb." Bendigo burbled on, heedless of his mundane surroundings.
"What is the fool talkin' about?" howled the General, who was standing on tip toe trying to see what was happening.
"Hush, sir, I beg of you!" The Doctor looked round nervously. "A most peculiar——"
"I won't hush," roared his irascible senior. "Why should I hush? Some idiot is standing on my feet; and I'm wedged in here like a sardine. Let me speak to him." The General forced his way forward. "Now, you—my man, what the devil are you doing? And what's that damned lump of mud on the fire-step?"
"I am Bendigo Jones," returned the other dreamily. "Sculptah—artist—genius."
"I didn't ask who you were," barked the now infuriated General. "I asked you what that thing that looks like an inebriated blancmange is meant to be."
"That model?" Bendigo bent forward and gazed at it lovingly. "That is yonder tree as I see it. The base materialist with the foot rule will inform you of the mundane details."
The Sapper alluded to scowled heavily at the unconscious Bendigo. Somewhat uncertain as to what a base materialist might be, he felt dimly that it was a term to be resented.
"I was sent up 'ere, sir, with 'im to help 'im make a model of that there stump," he remarked morosely. "That's the fifteenth mess 'e's made this morning; and 'e's carried on 'orrible over the 'ole lot. If I might say so, sir, 'e don't seem quite right in his 'ead."
"I am inclined to agree with you," answered the General grimly. "He must be swept up and . . ."
Exactly what fate was in store for Bendigo will never be known. One of those visitations of fate which occur periodically in the trenches interrupted the General's words, and ended the situation in more ways than one.
"Look out, sir," cried a sergeant, with a sudden shout. "Rum jar coming."
It came: wobbling, turning, and twisting, the little black object descended from the skies towards them, and the crouching occupants of the trench heard it hit the ground a few yards away. Then it burst with a deafening roar: a roar which was followed by an ominous creaking.
It was the phlegmatic Sapper—the base materialist—who broke the news first.
With an expression of great relief on his face he gazed over the top of the trench. "Thank 'Eavens! you can't make a sixteenth, mate. The whole plurry tree's nah poo."
"Nah poo," murmured Bendigo Jones. "Nah poo. What is nah poo?" He stood up and peered over the top also. "I see no change. To some eyes it might seem that the tree had fallen; to mine it lives for ever—fragrant and cool." He descended and trod heavily on the General's toe. "To you, sir, as a man of understanding, I give my morning's labours. I have rechristened it. It symbolises 'Children at play in Epping Forest.'"
Magnificently he thrust the lump of disintegrating dirt into the arms of his outraged superior. "It is yours, sir; I, Bendigo Jones, have given you my masterpiece."
Then he departed.
* * * * * *
The only man who really suffered was the base materialist. Two hours later he rolled up for his dinner, in a mood even more uncommunicative than usual.
"'Ullo, Nobby," remarked the cook affably, "you don't seem yer usual chatty self this morning. An' wot 'ave you got on your neck?"
"Less of it," returned the other morosely. "It's Hepping Forest. And that"—he plucked a fragment from his hair—"that is the bally twins playin' ''Unt the slipper.'"
Even the cook was stirred out of his usual air of superiority by this assertion, and contemplated the speaker with interest. "You don't say." He inspected the phenomenon more closely. "I thought as 'ow it was mud."
"It is." Nobby was even more morose. "It belonged to that 'orror Bendigo Jones, and 'e went and give it to the General." The speaker swallowed once or twice. "Then the General, 'e gives it back, in a manner of speaking. Only Bendy had gone by the time it come, and—I 'adn't. Lumme! wot a life."
THE SONG OF THE BAYONET
Two men were seated at a table in a restaurant. Dinner was over, and from all around them came the murmur of complacent and well-fed London. A string band of just sufficient strength gave forth a ragtime effort; a supreme being hovered near to ensure that the '65 brandy was all it should be. Of the men themselves little need be said: my story is not of them. Only their conversation, half serious, half joking, brought back the picture of Jimmy O'Shea—Irishman, cowpuncher, general scallywag, and his doctrines of war and the way of his death. As I sat at the next table lazily watching pictures in the haze of tobacco smoke, their words conjured up the vision of that incomparable fighter who paid the great price a year ago, and now lies somewhere near Le Rutoire in the plains beyond Loos. For their talk was of a strange thing: the bayonet and the psychology of killing. . . .
"Have you ever killed a man, Joe? that is, killed him with a bayonet?" It was the man in mufti who was speaking; and his companion—a Major in khaki—laughed shortly.
"I can't say that I have. I've shot one or two Huns, but I've never put a bayonet into one."
The other grunted. "They were teaching me to use a bayonet this morning. It's rather fun. An intensely pugilistic little man stamped his foot at me, and brandished a ball on the end of a stick in front of my face. One's aim and object, as far as I could tell from the book of the words, was to stab the ball with the point of one's bayonet, and at the same time grunt in a manner calculated to cause alarm and despondency to every one within earshot. At times you hit the ball with the butt of the rifle; at others you kick it, endeavouring if possible not to stub your toe. Everything depends on what part of the German's anatomy it is supposed to represent at the moment." He paused and relit his cigar; then he smiled slightly. "I rather enjoyed it. The pugilistic warrior was quite pleased with me. He barked 'stomach' at me out of my turn, and there was the dam ball about a yard away. I stabbed it, kicked it, hit it with my butt, and fell down, all in the course of two seconds. But you know, Joe,"—again he paused slightly—"it's one thing to joke and talk about it here. I can't help thinking it's going to be a very different matter when one gets to the real goods. Fancy putting a foot of cold steel into a man's body."
A woman paused by their table on the way out.
"So you've actually joined up, you poor dear. Your wife told me you quite liked it."
"Yes, dear lady." He stood up and bowed. "After refusing me a commission for two years they've pushed me into what I believe they call the Feet. It's rather jolly. I haven't felt so well for years."
"And what do you do?" She adjusted her wrap to pass on.
"Oh! learn to stab people, and kick them in the tummy; and all sorts of little parlour tricks like that."
"You dreadful man! I don't believe you're a bit bloodthirsty really." She shook a reproving finger at him and laughed. "But I shan't mind a bit if you kill a lot of those nasty Germans."
She drifted away, and the man in mufti sat down again. "The last time I saw her she had a concert for the wounded at her house. A slightly bow-legged woman of great bulk was singing about her soldier lover, who saved her icckle bruvver. My hostess cried—she's that type. Only a little of course; but one tear somehow arrived."
The soldier laughed. "There are a few like that; thank heaven! not many. They've learned, Dick; they're learning every day."
"Up to a point. I am learning to stab people; a thing which, when you actually come down to it, is beyond her comprehension. She vaguely knows that that is a soldier's job—or one of them; but it means nothing to her. And I don't know that it means very much more to me."
"You'll find it will, my dear fellow, when the moment comes, and you've got your rag out and are seeing red. Let's go."
The two men got up; waiters hastened forward; and in a few moments their table was empty. For a brief space the curtain of imagination had been lifted; the drama of grim stark death had flashed into a setting of luxury and life. . . .
And with the rise of the curtain Jimmy O'Shea had stepped on to the boards; for no man who knew him could ever hear the word bayonet without recalling him, if only for a second.
He was a mixture was Jimmy—one of those strange jumbles of character in which no country is more rich than Ireland. He would not take a commission, though times and again he was offered one by his Colonel.
"I can teach the boys more as a sergeant, sir," he would answer; "teach them better how to score the points that win."
"You bloodthirsty ruffian," laughed the Colonel. "Your old doctrine, I suppose, of close-quarter work."
"You have it, sir," answered O'Shea quietly. "Every dead German is one point up to us; every dead Englishman is a point down. I am teaching the boys how to kill, and not be killed themselves."
"But what the devil do you suppose they have been taught?" The C.O. would lean back and light a cigarette. "To sit and pick buttercups, and ask the Huns to shoot 'em?"
"Shooting, is it?" Jimmy's tone expressed immeasurable scorn. "The shooting will look after itself. It's the bayonet I talk to them about, and where to put it, and how to use it. As you know yourself, sir, a man will shoot to kill, where he'll hesitate to use his bayonet—if he's new."
"That's so. It's instinctive at times."
"Bedad, sir, they have no instinct when I've finished with them—save one. Kill clean and kill fast; and God help you if you slip. . . ."
It is possible that when a person has given no thought to war, and the objects of war, this distinction may seem strange. Death is a big matter to the average being, and one of some finality; and the manner of one's going may strike him as of little account. In which assumption he is perfectly right—if he is the member of the party who is going to be killed. But that is not the idea which a man going into a scrap should hold for a moment. A man goes into a scrap to kill—not to be killed. To die for one's country may be glorious; to kill for one's country is very much more so, and a deuced sight less uncomfortable. Wherefore, as Jimmy O'Shea would have said, if you'd asked him, "It's outing the other swine you're after, me bucko; not being outed yourself. Once you've got your manicured lunch hooks (as a phrase for hands I liked that sentence) on the blighter's throat, it's up to you to kill him before he kills you. And don't forget it's no dress rehearsal show. You won't fail twice."
Now I do not wish to appear over-bloodthirsty, or to pretend for one moment that war is a gigantic and continuous shambles. It is not. But the essence of war is man power, and the points are scored by putting men out of action, without being put out of action yourself. The idea may not be nice—but war is not nice: one may not approve of the sea being salt, but disapproval does not alter hard truth. And having once granted that fact—and surely none can deny it—it is the different methods of scoring points which must be discussed. Some are impersonal—some are not: some are done in cold blood—some in hot. The whole thing is just a question of human nature; and in war, above every other known thing in this world, it is human nature that tells: it is human nature that is the great deciding factor. A man throws a bomb into a saphead full of Huns. He lies there covered by the darkness, crouching, waiting—— One, two, three—and the sharp roar of the explosion shatters the peace of the night. Guttural cursings and a dreadful agonised moaning follow in the silence that seems the more intense through the contrast. And with a smile of great content wreathing his face, the bomber creeps stealthily away to avoid intrusive flares. The matter was impersonal, the groaning Hun was a Hun, not an individuality. . . .
A couple of men, mud-caked and weary, with a Lewis gun between them, are peering over the top in an early light of dawn. Beside them there are others: tense, with every nerve alert, looking fixedly into the grey shadows, wondering, a little jumpy.
"Wot is it, Bill?" A man at the bottom of the trench is fixing a rifle grenade in his rifle. "Shall I put this one over?"
"Gawd knows." Bill is craning his head from side to side, standing on the fire-step. "Lumme! there they are. Let 'em 'ave it, Joe. It's a ruddy working party." Drawing a steady hand he fires, only to eject his spent cartridge at once and fire again. With a sudden phlop the rifle grenade goes drunkenly up into the mist; with a grunt of joy the Lewis gun and its warrior discharge a magazine at the dim-seen figures. And later, with intense eagerness, the ground in front will be searched with periscopes for the discovering and counting of the bag. The matter is impersonal; the dead are Huns, not individuals. . . .
But with a bayonet the matter is different. No longer is the man you fight an unknown impersonality. He stands before you, an individual whose face you can see, whose eyes you can read. He has taken unto himself the guise of a man; he has dropped the disguise of an automaton. In those eyes you may read the redness of fury or the greyness of terror; in either case it is you or him. And a soldier's job is to kill. . . .
In nine cases out of ten he has forfeited the right to surrender, for as Jimmy used to say, "There's only one method of surrendering, and that's by long-distance running. When the blackguards come out of their trenches fifty yards away and walk towards you bleating, 'Yes, sare; coming at once, sare, thick or clear, sare;' you may take 'em prisoners, boys."
Thus the doctrine in brief of Jimmy O'Shea, sergeant and cowpuncher, scallywag and sahib, devil and tender-hearted gentleman. I lifted my glass in a silent toast. The music was sobbing gently; the voices of women came stealing into my reverie; the smell of the brandy in my glass brought back a memory of other women, other brandy. . . .
The square in the old French town was alive with market carts, which lumbered noisily over the cobble stones, while around the pavements, stalls and barrows did a roaring trade. It was market-day, and the hot summer sun shone down on the busy crowds. Soldiers and civilians, women and small children bargained and laughed and squabbled over the prices of "oofs" and other delicacies for the inner man. Except for the khaki and the ever present ambulance which threaded its way through the creaking country carts, it might have been peace time again in Northern France. Yet eight or nine miles away were the trenches.
Facing the square was an open-air cafe, where a procession of large light beers was pursuing its way down various dry throats, belonging to officers both French and British: beer that was iced, and beautiful to behold. Away down a little farther on sat Jimmy O'Shea; not admitted into the sacred portals marked "Officers only," but none the less happy for that. In front of him was a small glass of cognac. . . .
It was just as a stout and somewhat heated Frenchman in civilian clothes got up from the little table next to mine that it happened. There was no sound of warning—it just occurred. The house by the clock was there one moment; the next moment it was not. A roar filled the air, drowning the clattering carts; bricks, tables, beds went hurtling up into space; walls collapsed and crashed on to the cobbles. A great cloud of stifling dust rose swiftly and blotted out the scene. Then silence—the silence of stupefaction settled for a while on the watching hundreds, while bricks and stones rained down on them from the sky.
It was the little Frenchman who spoke first. "Mon Dieu! une bombe. Et moi je suis le Maire." He walked unsteadily towards the cloud of dust, and with his going pandemonium broke loose. Mechanically the beer went down our throats, while in all directions carts bumped and jolted, wheels got locked, barrows overturned. Still the same blue sky; still the same serene sun; but in the place of a quiet grey house—wreckage, dust, death. And around us the first frenzy of panic.
"Do you put that down to an aeroplane?" I looked up to see Jimmy O'Shea beside me. "All right, mother." He was patting an excited woman on her back. "I'll help you." He started to pick up the contents of her barrow, which reposed principally in the gutter, having been knocked off by a bolting horse. "No need to get your wind up. You're cutting no ice in this show; you're only on as a super."
The woman somewhat naturally did not understand a word; but O'Shea had a way with women and children, wherein lay the charm of his strange mixture of character.
"Now these eggs, mother dear, these eggs. Bedad! they've gone to their last long rest. We can't even scramble them. Oofs, dear heart, oofs; napoo—finis."
"C'est tout napoo." She even laughed as she looked at the concentrated essence of yellow and white flowing slowly down the gutter. "Mon Dieu! voila une autre." Another thunderous roar; another belching, choking cloud of dust and death, and a house on the other side of the square collapsed.
"It's no aeroplane, sir," said Jimmy, with his eyes on the sky. "It's a long-range gun, or I'm a Dutchman." He looked down to find a little girl clasping his knee and whimpering. "And phwat is it, me angel?" He caught her up in his arms and laughed. "Shure! and I've forgotten me little glass of stuff. Come along with me and find it."
He strode away, only to return with her in a second or two, laughing all over her face. Yes—he had a way with him, had Jimmy O'Shea.
But it was in the final tableau of that morning's work that I remember him best. It was a long-range gun as he said; and they put in fifteen twelve-inch shells in an hour, round about the square. Two got the hospital, and one hit a barber's shop where an officer was being shaved. I remember we saw him with half his face lathered, and later on we found his hand still gripping the arm of the chair. As for the barber—God knows——
We sorted out the remnants of some children from the debris of one house; and I left O'Shea after a while with a little kid of eight or nine in his arms. She was booked for God's nursery, and the passing was not going to be easy, for she was hit—nastily. And it was while Jimmy was nursing the poor torn atom with the tenderness of a woman that another sergeant of his battalion came on the scene to see if he could help.
"God! Jimmy," I heard him say, "this makes one sick."
"Sick!" O'Shea's voice was quiet. "Sick! I've stuck many of them, thank the powers, but never again—never again, my bucko—will it be anywhere save in the stomach. Anything else is too quick."
I looked at his face; and I understood. . . .
Yes—I understood because I had seen: otherwise, I should not. He would have been talking another language—one to which I was a stranger: even as were those around me, in that London restaurant, strangers—even as the men, when they first come to France, are strangers. That is the point which is in danger at times of being overlooked, especially by those who remain behind. The men are not changed in nature because they don a khaki coat, or even because they go into the trenches. They have gone to a new school, that is all; and if they would do well they must learn all the lessons—the many and very divergent lessons—they are taught. For in the hotch-potch of war there is a strange mixture of the material and the spiritual; and though at present I am concerned with the former, the latter is just as important. It is the material side of which the men such as Jimmy O'Shea are the teachers. Unless the pupils learn from the O'Sheas, they will have to do so from the Hun. And the process may not be pleasant. . . .
There are many branches of the main lesson: the counters in the game may be shells or bombs or rifle bullets or bayonets. But the method of scoring is the same in each case—one down or one up. And of them all the bayonet is the counter which is at once the most deadly and the most intolerant of mistakes. A good friend, a hard taskmaster is the bayonet, and O'Shea was the greatest of all its prophets. . . . The main object of his life was to imbue his men, and any one else he could persuade to listen, with its song. His practical teaching was sound, very sound; his verbal lashings were wonderful, unique. He'd talk and talk, and one's joy was to watch his audience. A sudden twitch, a snap of the jaw, and a bovine face would light up with unholy joy. The squad drawn up ready for practice, with the straw-filled sacks in front of them, would mutter ominously, and teeth would show in a snarl. Absurd, you say; not a bit; just a magnetic personality, and men of the right stuff. Dash it! I've seen even the Quartermaster, whose ways do not lie near such matters, hopping about from one leg to the other when Jimmy's peroration rose to its height.
"Have you a child, MacNab, a little wee kid?" he would begin.
"I have, sargint," MacNab would answer.
"Then can you imagine that wee kid with his little hands cut off? Is it a boy, MacNab?"
"It is, sargint."
"It is. That's good. But they preferred doing it to boys, MacNab. Listen to me, the lot of you. Don't mind the aeroplane. Number Two in the rear rank. They're like gooseberries out here." Number Two's eyes would abruptly come to earth again and focus themselves on the man in front. "I want you to think," Jimmy would go on quietly, "of the dirty, lousy crowd of German waiters you remember at home in the days before the war. Do you remember their greasy-looking clothes, and their greasy-looking faces, and the way you used to treat 'em as the scum of the world? Would you have one of them, MacNab, cut the hands off your kid; would you, me bucko?"
"I would not, sargint." MacNab's slow brain was working; his eyes were beginning to glint.
"Then come out here." Jimmy's voice rose to a shout. "Come out and move. Do you see that sack? do you see that white disc? Run at it, you blighter; run, snarl, spit. That's the German who has killed your kid. The white paper is his heart; run, man, run. Stab him, kill him; stuff your bayonet in him, and scream with rage."
The bewildered MacNab, on the conclusion of this tirade, would amble up to the sack, push his gun feebly in its direction, completely miss it—and look sheepishly into space.
"Mother of heaven! The first competitor in Nuts and May. Did you hear me tell you to hit the sack, MacNab? For God's sake, man, stick your bayonet in; hit it with your butt; kick it; tear it in pieces with your teeth; worry it; do anything—but don't stand there looking like a Scotchman on Sunday. The dam thing's laughing at you."
And so at last MacNab would begin. Bits of sacking would fly in all directions, streams of straw and sawdust would exude. He's kicked it twice, and hit it an appalling welt with the butt of his gun. The sweat pours from his face; but his eyes are gleaming, as he stops at last from sheer exhaustion.
"Splendid, MacNab; you're a credit to Glasgow, me boy. Are you beginning to feel what it's like to stick your point into something, even though it's only a sack?"
But MacNab is already more than half ashamed of his little outburst; he is unable to understand what made him see red—and somewhat uncomfortably he returns to his place in the squad. Only, if you look at Jimmy, you will see the glint of a smile in his eyes: the squad is new—the beginning has not been bad. He knows what made MacNab see red; by the time he has finished with him, the pride of Glasgow will never see anything else. . . .
And yet what do they know of seeing red, these diners of London? It is just as well, I grant, that they should know nothing; but sometimes one wonders, when they talk so glibly of the trenches, when they dismiss with a casual word the many months of hideous boredom, the few moments of blood-red passion of the overseas life, what would they think—how would they look—if they did know.
Would they look as did O'Neil's bride, when the robber chief's head arrived at the breakfast table? Lest there be any unfortunates who know not Kipling let me quote:
As a derelict ship drifts away with the tide The Captain went out on the Past from his Bride, Back, back, through the springs to the chill of the year, When he hunted the Boh from Maloon to Tsaleer. As the shape of a corpse dimmers up through deep water, In his eye lit the passionless passion of slaughter, And men who had fought with O'Neil for the life Had gazed on his face with less dread than his wife. . . .
Perhaps—who knows? It is difficult to imagine the results of an impossibility—and knowledge in this case is an impossibility. Still at times the grim cynicism of the whole thing comes over one with a rush, and one—laughs. It is the only solution—laughter. Let us blot it out, all this strange performance in France: let us eat, drink and be merry. But some quotations are better not finished. . . .
"Come and join us at our table." A girl was speaking, an awfully dear girl, one to whom I had been among the many "also rans." Her husband—an officer in the infantry—grinned affably from another table.
"In a moment," I answered her, "I will come, and you won't like me at all when I do." Then I remembered something. "Why do you dine with that scoundrel?"
"Who?—My funny old Dick? A dreadful sight, isn't he, but quite harmless."
"Is he? You ask him about the German at Les Boeufs whom he met unexpectedly, and see what he says."
The "Ballad of Boh da Thone" came back—the humour of it. Dick—the old blackguard—a rifle butt, and a German's head after he'd hit it—one side; a boiled shirt, dress clothes, and a general air of complacent peacefulness—the other. And the girl: it is always the girl who points the contrast. . . .
I laughed. "Go away, and talk to your harmless husband. I am wrapped in thought, or was, till you disturbed me."
What did she know—God bless her—of the details, the filthy, necessary details of war. To her it was just a parting from one man, who went into an unknown land where there was danger—hideous, intangible danger.
But of the reality. . . .
It is all contained in the one axiom—Kill, and kill at once, so as to have a maximum of time to kill more. And with the bayonet, do not let it be imagined for a moment that the work is easy. Bayonet fighting requires perfect condition, a fair share of strength, and a quick eye. Mistakes, when a man comes to the real thing, are not likely to occur twice, and there are many things which a man must learn who aspires to become even as Jimmy O'Shea.
How to go round a traverse when a Boche is on the other side, and it's him or you; how to take on three men in succession, when the last one throws his arms round your neck, and burbles, "Ve vos friends—nein?" Jimmy was great on that point: with the bayonet jabbed upwards into the chin, and the sapient remark, "Ve vos, ma tear." But enough; this is not a treatise on bayonet fighting, and I have in mind to tell of O'Shea's last fight.
There is just one more scene which comes back vividly before I reach the end, and that is the final exercise he gave his men in their training. When they'd thrust and parried and stabbed; when they'd jumped trenches and thrust their bayonets into sacks on the other side; when they'd been confronted with strange balls of straw in unexpected places, and kicked them or jabbed them or bit them as the case might be—then came the gem, the bonne bouche.
These preliminary practices were only one stroke, one thrust; the last was a fight to the death in a manner of speaking, and it was generally preceded by one of Jimmy's better stories. The best he kept for recital just before going over the top; so as to send 'em along frothing at the mouth, as he put it.
"You don't remember Captain Trent, do you, boys?" he'd begin. "Just stand easy a while, and I'll tell you about him. After that you've got to fight a bit. He was a great officer, boys, a grand officer—one of the best. Did you ever hear how he was killed? Come out here, Malvaney; we'll just start the scrapping while I tell you. Do you see this straw ball on the top of the stick? As long as it's off the ground, it's a German. Hit it, stick it, bite it, kick it, and go on till I put it on the ground again. And curse, you blighter, curse. Just think it's the German who stuck his bayonet into Captain Trent—one of your officers—while he was lying on the ground wounded in the head."
The ball began to dance. "Go on, Malvaney. Kill it, man, kill it; grunt, snarl; think of the swine and what they've done. Jab, jab—up in his throat. I'll get you a live one to practise on one day." At last the ball would come to rest, and Malvaney—his teeth bared, snarling—would face Jimmy, who stood there smiling grimly. And in a few seconds Malvaney would grin too, and the blood lust would die out of his eyes. . . .
"Good boy—not half bad!" O'Shea would nod approvingly. "The worst of it is the swine will never stand up to you—bayonet to bayonet. They prefer women and wounded men—like the Captain. Come here, MacNab, and get an appetite for your dinner. You can just rest a while—I'll get on a bit with that story. It was way back in the Spring, down south a bit; and we went over the top. Have you been over the top, MacNab?"
"I have that," answered the Scotchman in a reminiscent tone.
"How many did you kill?"
"Four-r—ah'm thinking; but ah'm no certain aboot one of them."
"Four! And none too dusty. Hit it, MacNab, me boy"—the ball would dance in his face—"hit it, as if 'twas the one of which you are not certain. Listen here, boys"—once again the ball was at rest on the ground—"I was behind Captain Trent when we went over—in the third wave; and when I got to the Germans I was just in time to see it." Jimmy's pauses were always dramatic.
"See wot, sargint?" An interested and comparatively new arrival to the battalion would lean forward.
"Captain Trent lying at the bottom of the trench—he'd gone over with the first wave—and a Hun pulling a bayonet out of him. Moreover, Captain Trent was wounded in the head." His voice gathered in fury. "Think of it, me bohunks; then think of a conscientious objector; and then come and kill this ruddy ball. A dirty filthy scut of a German waiter murdering a wounded Englishman. Hit it, MacNab; hit it; stab it, kick it; think you're scrambling for whisky in a prohibited area."
"Wot did you do, sargint?" The new arrival was still interested.
"What would you have done, Marmaduke? Come here, my boy; come here and breathe blood."
The new arrival—a little bashful at his sudden notoriety—stepped forward. "I'd have killed him, sargint."
"Then kill this ball; go on—kill it. Damme, boy; you're jumping about like an old woman looking for a flea in a bed. Move, boy, move; the ball's the flea, and you're the old trout. Bite it, boy, bite it; stamp on it; take out your fork and stick it with that." The ball came to rest; the new arrival mopped his brow. "Did I ever tell you how to kill a man with your dinner fork, by sticking it into his neck? I will some day; it's a good death for a Hun."
"Did you catch that there swine, sergeant?" Another voice from the squad took up the tale.
"Did I catch him? Did I catch him? If I hadn't caught him, Percival, I wouldn't be here now. I wouldn't dare look an exempted indispensable in the face—let alone you. And for a fat man he ran well."
"Didn't 'e fight?" Marmaduke had more or less recovered his breath.
"Fight!" O'Shea grinned at the recollection. "He looked up; he saw me about five yards away; he gave one squawk like the female ducked-billed platypus calling to her young, and he faded round the traverse like the family do when the landlord comes for the rent. Come here, O'Sullivan—and break up the home."
Marmaduke retired, to be replaced by a brawny Irishman.
"I caught him, O'Sullivan—hit, man, hit—just as he reached his dug-out. Kick it, man; you can't use your butt from there. Jab, jab—you blighter; for God's sake use your gun as if you loved it. He stuck in the door, O'Sullivan, for half a second. There's the ball—that's his back. Go on. Good, good." With an awful curse the Irishman lunged and the ball dropped to the ground.
"Dead," O'Shea grinned. "That's what I did; through the back. But the blamed thing stuck; I couldn't get it out. What do you do then, Marmaduke?"
"Put a round in, sargint, and blow it out."
"Good boy, Marmaduke. You'll be a Field-Marshal before you've done. That's what I did too; and I blew the swine down the entrance. Now then, half with sticks and half with rifles; go on—fight——"
This, as I said, was one of Jimmy's better stories. Incidentally it had the merit of being true. . . .
But one could continue indefinitely. Some one will write a book one day about Jimmy O'Shea, and the manner of his life. If so, order an advance copy; it will be the goods. Just at the moment it was the manner of his death that had me. I was back again in derelict Vermelles, with its spattered water tower, and the flat desolate plain in front. Loos is out of sight over the hill; only the great slag heap lies squat and menacing on one's left, with the remnants of Big Willie and Little Willie near to its base in the old blood-soaked Hohenzollern redoubt. Cambrin, Guinchy, La Bassee—silent and haunted, teeming with ghosts, lie stagnant in the morning sun. The cobwebs drift across the Hulluch road, and in the distance, by the first bend, a man pushing a wheeled stretcher comes slowly walking back to the dressing station. It's still going on: nothing much has changed; and yet—the cigar is good; the brandy superb: the brandy Jimmy preferred. He only spent one leave in England; as a sergeant he couldn't get more; but I dined with him one night, dress clothes and all complete, and we drank that brandy. One need hardly say, perhaps, that the writing on the register of his birth would have been hard put to it to spell O'Shea. There have been many like him this war, from "the legions of the lost ones and the cohorts of the damned"; and they've come to us out of the waste places, out of the lands that lie beyond the mountains. Unhonoured, unknown, they've finished the game; and having finished, they lie at peace. Britain called them; they came—those so-called wasters; look to it, you overmuch righteous ones, who have had to be dragged by the hairs of your heads—bleating of home ties and consciences. . . .
I forget which of the stories I heard him telling the men that morning before they went over. He read one lot a thing he swore he'd got out of a German paper—Heaven knows if it was true. I remember it ended up: "Above all things show no mercy to the accursed English. They are the starters of this war; so spit on them, kick them, use them as the swine they are."
"There you are, boys," cried Jimmy cheerily, "listen to what the pretties say about you. You'll be into 'em in a minute; and don't forget what I've told you about the way to use your gun. Kill fast and kill clean. Don't you put up with any back lash from a sausage-eating waiter. Remember you're English, me boys; and remember the Regiment—the Regiment that's never yet failed."
And so he went on; worth a hundred times his weight in gold to men going in for the first time.
"Your point is at his throat, boy, don't forget it. You ain't playing the goat with a dam lump of straw now; you're going to get a bit of your own back with a real live Fritz. And if you make a mistake you may not have a chance of making another. Go there steady; don't get blown, or you'll find you won't be able to do what you'd like when you bump Master Boche."
He passed me with a salute and a wink.
"Coming over?" he asked me.
"I am, Jimmy, with some wire and other atrocities."
"Good," he said. "The boys are simply frothing blood."
He went on; and that was the last time I saw Jimmy O'Shea alive.
Ye Gods! My Lord ——, some day I'll tell you of your son's end. You kicked him out—perhaps rightly; though mercy was never your strong point. But if any of the belted ancestors in that gallery of yours did as much for England as Jimmy did, or died as gloriously as Jimmy died, well, you should be a proud man, prouder even than you are. He sent the boys over raving mad with blood, and they struck Bavarians—and good Bavarians: men who could fight, and men who did fight. They were at it, teeth, feet, and steel for ten minutes: primitive, lustful fighting; and then the Bavarians broke; with the boys after them, stabbing and cursing. One or two were left, though they wouldn't surrender, more power to them. A Bavarian officer, in fact, concluded the eventful career of Sapper O'Toole, the company rum-swallowing champion. True he brained that officer with a coil of barbed wire on the end of a pick helve, even as the bullet entered his heart; but he was a great loss to us. And it was just as we surged over their bodies that we came to the tableau.
Jimmy lay round the traverse. We found him at the bottom when we'd sorted out the litter. There were six of them he'd done in in all; you could trace what had happened. They'd been lining the trench, and he'd taken them in order. It was in the fifth that his bayonet stuck. He couldn't get it out. It was still there. At that moment, evidently, Number Six had come at him, and he'd had no time. So they closed; and, my God! they'd fought.
I think they both must have gone out about the same time. Jimmy was shot through the heart by the Bavarian's revolver; the Bavarian's throat was cut with Jimmy's clasp knife.
No bad end, my lord; what say you? I will show you the exact spot some day, and your son's grave near by. I'd have his picture in the gallery if I were you. . . . I've got a snapshot I can let you have, taken in France. But I treasure it; and unless you hang it in the place of honour, amongst the Raeburns—I keep it. Mark you, he deserves that place of honour. . . .
* * * * * *
"Captain Johnson's compliments, sir, and are you coming over to have a liqueur at his table?"
The waiter's voice cut in on my thoughts. The band was hitting a ragtime stunt; London had dined and was pleased with itself; Dick and his lady were beckoning. For the moment it felt like coming to from an anaesthetic.
I shook myself and got up. Of course I was drinking a liqueur with them: another glass of brandy—Jimmy O'Shea's brandy.
"Are you in love?" queried the girl anxiously as I sat down. "You've been muttering to yourself and squinting and Dickie got worried about you."
"Not more than usual—though I'm glad to learn the symptoms." Then I looked at her, and the wonder of a girl in love hit me almost like a blow. In it lay the answer to my thoughts. No longer a cynical amusement in their failure to realise the contrast, but rather a mighty thankfulness. For it is they, in their blessed ignorance, who keep us sane.
I raised my glass. "To things as they are, my lady," I murmured. And from the land of shadows Jimmy drank with me.
I. THE SEED II. THE FIRST LESSON III. AN IMPERSONAL DEMONSTRATION IV. SOMEWHAT MORE PERSONAL V. A PROJECT AND SOME SIDE ISSUES VI. THE SECOND LESSON, AND SOME FURTHER SIDE ISSUES VII. THE THIRD LESSON, AND A DIGRESSION VIII. THE THIRD LESSON IS LEARNED IX. "AND OTHER FELL ON GOOD GROUND"
I have in my mind the tale of a superior young man—a very superior young man, genteel, and thoroughly versed in the intricacies of etiquette. The majority of the human race was, without any loss to itself, unaware that he existed; but the "ladies" and "gentlemen" on the staff of Mogg's Mammoth Emporium viewed him as the supreme arbiter of elegance. And just because the average human being would have asserted—and asserted correctly—that for such as him there is no hope save drowning in puppyhood, I would tell his story. It is the exception which proves the rule. It is the proof that we are the slaves of custom and environment; and that, given something as the bed-rock, much may be done by a good teacher. There was something in this very superior young man as it turned out, though few would have suspected it, had they seen him before the war. But then, no one can ever listen to a person of the male sex proffering a good line of stockings in Lisle thread at one and eleven-three without experiencing a strong desire to be sick. Which goes back to what I said before: the whole thing is one of environment. The stocking vendors knew no better; for want of the necessary teaching they took to their nauseating trade. It's all in the Old Book—how shall they learn, unless they be taught? Had they had the teaching—well, listen to the story of this very superior young "gentleman," one time deputy chief stomach bender of Mogg's Mammoth Millinery Emporium—terms. Strictly Cash. What the sub deputy chief waistcoat creaser will say if he reads these words I shudder to think. You see, the very superior young "gentleman" was so genteel.
A hot morning sun shone down on the outskirts of the town. Nothing moved, nothing stirred; utter silence brooded over the houses that once had been buzzing with people—the people of Arras. Now their only occupants were rats. The little gardens at the back were dank with unchecked weeds, save where a great conical hole showed the clean brown earth. And at the bottom of each of these holes lay a pool of foetid green water. The walls were crumbling, decay was rampant, the place breathed corruption. Occasionally the silence would be broken by a crash, and a little heap of brick rubble would subside into the road, raising a cloud of thick choking dust. Occasionally there would be another sound, like the drone of a great beetle, followed by a dull echoing roar and a bigger cloud of dust. Occasionally would come the ping-phut of a stray bullet; but of human life there was no sign.
Not, that is to say, to the casual observer; but to the man who looked out of the aeroplane circling above much was visible which you or I would not see. To him there came the vision of an occasional move behind some mouldering wall: sometimes an upturned face, sometimes the glint of steel. In one garden by a broken cucumber frame a man was polishing his bayonet, and the flash from it caught the observer's eye. Just opposite—thirty yards away—two or three men were sitting round a fire from which the smoke curled slowly up. And the bayonet cleaner was clothed in khaki, while the cookers had on a dirty field grey; between them lay No Man's Land. But to the casual observer—silence: silence and death and the dreadful stink of corruption. Many others had cleaned bayonets and cooked stews under these same conditions, and many in the doing thereof had gone suddenly, and without warning, into the great Silence. For it was a sniper's paradise, as the victims—could they have spoken—would have testified. As it was they lay there lightly buried, and the same fool men made the same fool mistakes and came and joined them. As I say, it was a sniper's paradise. . . .
Into this abode of joy, then, came the very superior young "gentleman." It was principally owing to the fact that Miss Belsize—the "lady" who dispensed camisoles, or some equally seductive garments—had flatly refused to accompany him any longer to the High Street Picture Palace if he remained in his frock coat, that our friend had donned khaki. For a long while he had stoutly affirmed that he was indispensable; then the transfer of affection on the part of camisoles to a dangerous-looking corporal from the wild and woolly West decided him. He did not like that corporal. No man who, meeting a comparative stranger, beat him on the back painfully, and, having looked his latest glad rags up and down, remarked with painful distinctness, "Lumme! is it real?" could possibly be considered a gentleman. But Miss Belsize had laughed long and laughed loud; and—well, I will not labour the point. In due course our superior one found himself in the haunt of death I have briefly described above, still full of self-importance and as inconceivably ignorant as the majority are who come for the first time to the game across the water.
Recently arrived with a draft it was his initial experience of war in France, in contrast with training in England; in fact, the morning in question was his first visit to the trenches. And because many better men than he have endeavoured to conceal a peculiar sinking of the stomach by an assumed bravado, let us not blame him for the attitude he endeavoured to take up.
"Pretty quiet, isn't it, corporal?" he remarked airily, as his section came to rest in a trench behind a mass of broken brick and cobble stones. "Lor', look at that glass up there, hidden in the stones." For a moment curiosity mastered him, and he reached up towards it with his hand. The next instant he gave a cry of anger, as a jolt in his ribs with a rifle doubled him up. "What the deuce——" he began angrily.
"Don't you deuce me, my lad," said the corporal dispassionately, "or you and me will quarrel. Just you do what you're told, and I'll write and tell your ma you're a good little boy." The corporal—a man of few words—went on his way, leaving our hero—whose name by the way was Reginald Simpkins—fuming.
"If that blighter hits me again," he remarked when the N.C.O. was out of hearing, "I'll——"
"You'll what?" An old soldier looked at him scornfully. "He goes an' saves yer mouldy life and then yer bleats. Got yer bib, Reggie darling?"
"Not so much of your row." The corporal had come back again. "This ain't a ruddy colony of rooks in the nesting season. Now, Simpkins, you and Ginger—first relief. There's your periscope—you can relieve them other two."
"Where's the periscope?" asked Reginald of his companion in a whisper.
"The glass up there, you flat-faced perisher—hidden in the stones. Wot d'you think it is? A noyster laying eggs!"
The trench settled down to silence as the company relief was completed, and Reginald morosely nursed his grievance. Much of the gentle flattery to which he had been accustomed at Mogg's Mammoth Emporium seemed conspicuous by its absence in this new sphere in which he found himself. Not to put too fine a point on it, people seemed positively rude at times, even ruder than they had been at home. He confided as much in an aggrieved whisper to the unsympathetic Ginger.
"Rude!" That worthy spat with violence and accuracy. "You wait till you bump into Shorty Bill. Rude! Gawd! 'E's a 'oly terror."
"Who is Shorty Bill?" queried Reggie, his eyes fixed on the glass whose mysteries he was beginning to understand.
But Ginger was in no mood for further confidences. "You'll find out fast enough 'oo Shorty is. 'E's down 'ere to-day. You watch that there periscope. This ain't no rest cure—this bit 'ere. It's 'ell."
"It seems pretty quiet," ventured the watcher after a short silence.
"Yus! That's wot the last man said wot I was with behind this wall. There's 'is brains on that stone behind you."
With an involuntary shudder Reginald looked round at the stone, on which the grim stains still remained. "What did it?" he asked, barely above a whisper.
"Black Fritz," answered the other. "'E's a sniper, what lives opposite; and 'e's paid for 'is keep that swine 'as—paid for 'is keep. Charlie Turner, an' 'Arry, an' Ginger Woodward, an' Nobby Clark, an' the sergeant-major, an' two orficers. Yus—'e's paid for 'is keep, 'e 'as—'as Master Black Fritz."
"And he's over there," said Reggie, a little breathlessly.
"Yus. Where the 'ell do you think 'e is? In an aeryplane?" Once again Ginger spat dispassionately, and then relapsed into a silence from which he refused to be drawn until the presence of two more men beside him indicated that the hour of relief had come.
"Now look here, Simpkins," said the corporal when the relief was completed, "this is your first visit to the trenches, isn't it? Well, you can sit down now and have a sleep, or you can write or read if you like. But, whatever you do, don't go showing your ugly face over the top; because this place ain't healthy." He turned away, and Reggie was left to his own resources.
"Come round the corner," said Ginger in his ear. "I'll show you a spot to sleep. I know this 'ere bit like me own back parlour."
And so—had any one been sufficiently interested in his doings to report the fact—it might have been noted that ten minutes later our friend was sitting on the fire step writing a lurid epistle to Miss Belsize, while Ginger lay peacefully asleep beside him, breaking the complete silence with his snores.
At last the letter was finished, and Reggie gave way to meditation. Everything was so utterly different to what he had anticipated that he could hardly believe he was actually in that mystic place the trenches. To his left a crumbling wall ran along until it bent out of sight, a wall which in most places was three or four feet high, but which at one spot had been broken down until it was almost flush with the ground, and the bricks and rubble littered the weeds. In front of him lay the town, desolate, appalling, with a few rooks cawing discordantly round the windowless houses. And over everything brooded an oppressive hot stinking stillness that almost terrified him. . . .
After a while his gaze settled on the place where the wall was broken down, and his imagination began to play. If he went there—it was only about ten yards away—he would be able to look straight at the Germans. So obsessed did he become with this wonderful idea that he woke up the sleeping Ginger and confided it to him. There being a censor of public morals I will refrain from giving that worthy warrior's reply when he had digested this astounding piece of information; it is sufficient to say that it did not encourage further conversation, nor did it soothe our hero's nerves. He was getting jangled—jangled over nothing. It was probably because there was such a complete nothing happening that the jangling process occurred. A shell, a noise, anything; but not this awful, silent stagnation. He bent down mechanically and picked up half a brick; then just as mechanically he bowled the half-brick at the lump of debris behind the broken bit of the wall. And it was that simple action which changed our very superior young "gentleman" into a man: on such slender threads hang the destinies even of nations.
He watched the brick idly as it went through space; he watched it idly as it hit the ground just by a clump of dock leaves; and from that moment idly ceases to be the correct adverb. Five seconds later, with a pricking sensation in his scalp and a mouth oddly dry, he was muttering excitedly into the ear of the now infuriated Ginger.
"A man where, you ruddy perisher?" he grunted savagely. "Fust yer tells me if you goes and looks at the 'Uns you can see 'em; and then you says there's a man in the nettles. You ought to be locked up."
"There is, I tell you. I heaved a brick at that bunch of leaves, and it hit something that grunted." Reginald was still clutching his companion's arm.
"Un'and me, Clara," said the other peevishly, "this ain't a sixpenny 'op."
He got up—impressed in spite of himself by the other's manner—and peered at the mass of debris. "Wot d'yer want with 'eaving bricks for, anyway," he continued irately after a long inspection which revealed nothing. "This 'ere ain't a bean-feast where you gets the bag of nuts."
"Watch this time, Ginger." Once again a large fragment came down in the neighbourhood of the dock leaves—followed by an unmistakable groan.
"Lumme, mate," said Ginger hoarsely, "wot is it?" The two men stood peering at the rubbish, not ten yards away. "I'll go and get the corporal. You . . ." But he didn't finish his sentence.
Two shots rang out almost simultaneously. One was from the German lines, and there was a short stifled scream from the other side of the traverse. The other was from the rubbish heap ten yards away, and the blast made a piece of hemlock rock violently. Otherwise the rubbish heap was lifeless—save for a sepulchral voice—"Got him." There was a crash of falling bricks from a house opposite—the sound of what seemed to be a body slithering down—and then silence.
Ginger's grip relaxed, and he grinned gently. "Gawd 'elp you, Reginald; you 'ave my blessing. You've been dropping the brickyard on Shorty Bill's back." He faded rapidly away, and our friend was left alone, gazing with fascinated eyes at the miraculous phenomenon which was occurring under his very nose. Suddenly and with incredible swiftness a portion of the rubbish heap, with dock leaves, nettles, old cans, and bricks adhering to it, detached itself from the main pile and hurled itself into the trench. With a peculiar sliding movement it advanced along the bottom, and then it stopped and stood upright. Speechless with amazement, Reginald found himself gazing into the eyes of a man which were glaring at him out of a small slit in the sacking which completely covered him. A pair of dirty earth-stained hands gently laid down a rifle on the fire-step—a rifle with a telescopic sight. Then from the apparition came a voice.
"Say, kid, are you the son of a ——, who has been practising putting the weight in my back? Don't speak, son, don't speak, or I might forget my manners. Once in the ribs—and once in the small of the back. God above, my lad, if I'd missed Black Fritz, after lying up there for him for eight hours as part of the scenery, I'd have——"
"'Ullo, Shorty." The corporal rounded the traverse. "Fritz has got another. Poor old Bill Trent. Copped clean through the 'ead."
The corporal, followed by the strange uncouth being in sacking, with his leaves and bricks hanging about him, moved away, and Reginald followed. With his heart thumping within him he looked at the dreadful thing that ten minutes before had been a speaking, seeing, man; and as he looked something seemed to be born in his soul. With a sudden lightning flash of insight he saw himself in a frock coat behind the counter; then he looked at the silent object on the step, and his jaw set. He turned to Shorty Bill.
"I'm dam sorry about that brick; but I'm new to the game, and I had no idea you were there. Didn't you say you'd got Black Fritz?"
"'Ave you, Shorty—'ave you got the swine?" An eager chorus assailed him, but the man in the sack had his eyes fixed on the very superior young "gentleman." At length he turned to the men around.
"Yep—I got him. Half left—by the base of that red house. He came out of the top window. You can see a black thing there through a periscope." The men thronged to have a look, and Shorty Bill turned to the stone thrower.
"Can you shoot?"
"A little; not much I'm afraid."
"Like to learn the game? Yep?—Right. I'll teach you. It's great." He moved slowly away and turned up a communication trench, while into the eyes of Mogg's pride there came a peculiar look quite foreign to his general disposition. A game—a great game! He looked again at the poor still thing on the step, and his teeth clenched. Thus began his fall from gentility! . . .
THE FIRST LESSON
It was not a very rapid descent. The art of sniping and its attendant pastime scouting is not learned in a day. Moreover, in company with the other games that are played in the trenches, it has the one dominant feature about it. One mistake made in the rules is one too many; there is no chance of making a second. True, the player will have taught the man who takes his place yet another of the things not to do; but personally—even at the risk of being dubbed a pessimist—the method of teaching is one I would prefer to see others employ, sentiments which were shared to the full by Shorty Bill. Therefore our superior young friend, having gazed upon the result of a sniper's bullet, and in the gazing remoulded his frock-coated existence, could not have come under a better master.
Shorty Bill was a bit of a character. Poacher and trapper, with an eye like a lynx and a fore-arm like a bullock's leg, he was undoubtedly a tough proposition. What should have made him take a liking to Reginald is one of those things which passes understanding, for two more totally dissimilar characters can hardly be imagined. Our friend—at the time of the shooting of Black Fritz—was essentially of that type of town-bred youth who sneers at authority behind its back and cringes to its face. Such a description may sound worse than the type deserves; for all that, it is a true one of the street-bred crowd—they've been reared on the doctrine. Shorty was exactly the reverse. Shorty, on one occasion, having blocked six miles of traffic with a fractious mule, and being confronted suddenly by an infuriated Staff officer who howled at him, smiled genially and electrified the onlookers by remarking pleasantly, "Dry up, little man; this is my show." That was Shorty in front of authority. Behind its back—well, his methods may not have commended themselves to purists in etiquette, but I have known officers sigh with relief when they have found out unofficially that Shorty had taken some little job or other into his own personal care. There are many little matters—which need not be gone into, and which are bound to crop up when a thousand men are trying to live as a happy family—where the unofficial ministrations of our Shorty Bills—and they are a glorious if somewhat unholy company—are worth the regimental sergeant-major, the officers, and all the N.C.O.'s put together. But—I digress; sufficient has been said to show that the two characters were hardly what one would have expected to form an alliance.
The gentle art of sniping in the battalion when Bill joined with a draft had been woefully neglected. In fact, it was practically non-existent. It is not necessary to give any account of how Bill got the ear of his platoon commander, how he interested him in the possibilities of sniping in trench warfare, or any other kind of warfare for that matter, and how ultimately his platoon officer became mad keen, and with the consent of his C.O. was made Battalion sniping officer. Though interesting possibly to students of the gun and other subjects intimately connected with sniping, I have not the time to describe the growth of the battalion scouts from a name only to the period when they became a holy terror to the Hun. I am chiefly concerned with the development of our frock-coated friend into a night prowler in holes full of death and corruption, and one or two sage aphorisms from the lips of Shorty Bill which helped that development. They were nothing new or original, those remarks of his teacher, and yet they brought home to him for the first time in his life the enormous gulf which separated him from the men who live with nature.
"Say, kid, do you ever read poetry?" remarked Bill to him one night soon after the episode of the brick-bats as they sat in an estaminet. "I guess your average love tosh leaves me like a one-eyed codfish; but there's a bit I've got in me head writ by some joker who knows me and the likes o' me.
"'There's a whisper on the night wind, there's a star agleam to guide us, And the wild is calling, calling . . . let us go.'"
Shorty contemplatively finished his beer. "'The wild is calling.' Ever felt that call, kid?"
"Can't say I have, Shorty." His tone was humble; gone was the pathetic arrogance that had been the pride of Mogg's; in its place the beginnings of the realisation of his utter futility had come, coupled with a profound hero worship for the man who had condescended to notice him. "When are you going to teach me that sniping game?"
The real sniping commander of the battalion—I mean no disrespect to the worthy young officer who officially filled that position—looked at the eager face opposite him and laughed.
"You'd better quit it, son. Why, to start with, you're frightened of the dark."
"I'm damned if I am." The aggrieved Percy waxed indignant.
"Oh, cut it out! I don't mean you're frightened of going to bed in the dark, or that you want a nightlight or a nurse. But yours is a town dark: standing under lamps gettin' the glad from a passing skirt. But in the real dark, when it's pressing round you like a blanket, and there are things moving, and people breathing near by, and you don't know whether it's a German or a pal, or where the wire is, or which way your own trenches are—what then, son, what then? Why, I reckon you don't even know which the Pole Star is, or what it's there for?"
"I guess not, Shorty," remarked the other, abashed; "but I'd soon learn, if you'd teach me."
"Well, I'll see. An' there's that blamed old woman with a face like a wet street tryin' to shut up the shop. Give me another, mother darling; no good your na-poohing me—I'm going to have it if I takes it."
Being what he was he got it, and that evening the lessons began. Going back to their billet, they had to cross a field. It was a pitch-black night, and before they had proceeded twenty yards Reggie could hardly see his hand in front of his face.
"Dark, Shorty, ain't it?" he remarked.
There was no answer, and he stopped and repeated the question. Still no answer, though he seemed to feel some one close by. Something brushed his face, and then silence. With a short laugh he walked on—a laugh which had just the faintest touch of bravado in it. Four times in the distance to the billet did that something brush his face again, and though each time he felt that there was some one near him, yet he heard nothing. The fourth time he stopped and spoke.
"Is that you, Shorty?" The next instant he gave a jump of pure nervous fright. From within six inches of his ear came the single word "Yep."
"Jove! You did give me a start." He laughed a little shakily. "Where have you been?"
"Circling round you, son, dusting your face with my glove. Understand now what I meant by helpless in the dark?"
Thus ended the first lesson. . . .
The others followed in due course. The correct way to crawl through grass so as to avoid being mistaken for a rhinoceros going to water; the power of observation so as to be able to spot a change in the German trenches—maybe, only a few sand bags moved, but just enough to place the position of a machine gun; the value of disguise to defeat the curious on the other side; patience, the way to fire a rifle, the use of his eyes. All these and certain other things was he taught.
And the certain other things were mysterious and secret. They occurred at odd times and in odd places, and the instructor was always Shorty Bill personally.
"Some men," he would say, "like killing with a rifle; I do for one. Some like killing with a revolver; not bad either, and essential, son, when you're out on the tiles by night and can't carry a rifle. A rifle is a dam nuisance at night if one's on patrol, whatever any one says to the contrary. An' if you don't carry a gun you can't use a bayonet, which is a beautiful method of sticking 'em." Shorty thoughtfully removed his pipe. "I was almost converted to the bayonet one day by a pal of mine. He's dead now, poor devil, but he lived well. He was givin' tongue over the beauties of picking Huns out of dug-out entrances with the bayonet like winkles out of their shells with a pin. Gosh! it was great—that boy's palaver. He almost converted me, an' then I showed him a couple o' little stunts of mine." Shorty put his pipe in his pocket. "Come here, son, an' pay attention. It was through forgetting in the excitement of the moment and not payin' attention that my pal the winkle plucker went west."
Thus the mysterious lesson would start. "There'll come a time one night, boy, when you're out in the dark, an' you're crawling near the wire, when you'll feel on a sudden there's some one near you. Maybe, by the smell of him, you'll know it's a Boche. Well—then it's up to you to make good. You can plug him with your hand gun when you've got his dirty face dead set; but if you start shooting practice in No Man's Land, the audience join in. So I'll just show you a couple o' little tricks—silent tricks, which you can use when you get your hands on him. They kill just as clean if not cleaner than a gun, and no one's the wiser. Now come at me as if you meant to hurt me. No; not as if you were out pushing the baby in the pram, but just as if you was goin' all out to kill me. That's better, son; an' where are you now?"
To be correct our one and only Reginald was lying on his face with the unpleasant knowledge in his brain that if he moved an inch his left arm would snap at the elbow; and that kneeling above him Shorty held, in the neighbourhood of his ear, a villainous weapon of his own invention, which resembled a cross between a bill-hook and a kukri.
"You see the idea, boy, don't you? Now, you ask him if he'd like to surrender, and if you don't understand what he says or he seems doubtful like, put your clasp knife in there." Reginald felt a prick under his right ear. "Right in—you take me. Get up, and we'll do it again."
"Where did you learn that, Shorty?" asked our pupil as he got up.
"A Jap taught me that an' a good few more in Los Angeles. Jujitsu, he said it was; dam good sense I call it. Come on—it takes practice."
And Reginald Simpkins practised. With growing confidence he practised day in, day out. Mogg's had faded into the limbo of forgotten things; his horizon consisted of a foetid shell hole, a panting, writhing Hun fighting for his life in the darkness of the night, a cracking arm and then . . . His imagination never took him beyond that point. Sufficient of the old Adam of gentility still remained to prevent him picturing the final tableau. You see, Reginald Simpkins had not as yet killed anything larger than a rat, and even then he had bungled. . . .
AN IMPERSONAL DEMONSTRATION
As was proper and fitting his first head was gained cold-bloodedly and from a distance. It was his blooding into the ranks of the snipers. His probationary period was over; Shorty Bill had professed himself satisfied. The battalion had moved from the place in which we found them, and had gone farther north. The country was flat and desolate; periodically the ground would shake and tremble, and in No Man's Land chalk and rubble and the salmon-pink fumes of ammonal would shoot upwards, showing that the men of the underworld still carried on. Slag-heaps, sandbags, and desolate mounds of earth formed the scenery for his debut, while the orchestra consisted of rum jars and rifle grenades.
D Company it was who had lost a sergeant through a German sniper; and the fact was duly reported. Now when a German sniper takes the life of a man in a battalion which goes in for the art itself, it is an unwritten law that from that moment a blood feud exists between the German and English snipers opposite. Though it takes a fortnight to carry out, yet death is the only finish.
Wherefore, one morning, just as the first pale glints of dawn came stealing over the silent land, Reginald Simpkins climbed carefully into a great mound of sandbags which had conveniently been deposited just behind the front line by the miners. But it is doubtful if Miss Belsize of the camisole department would have recognised him. No longer the frock coat and pearl tie, no longer the patent-leather boots and immaculate trousers. In their place a dirty-faced man in khaki, tastefully draped in flapping sandbags—his boots covered, his hands stained. Very cautiously he made himself comfortable; with immense care he laid his rifle—also covered with sacking—in the direction he required; and then he covered his front and sides with filled bags. Through a hole—also carefully arranged—his screened telescope covered the bit of German trench where the day before the German sniper had lain. Then he waited.
The mists cleared away; the morning sun shone down. From his point of vantage—for he was seven or eight feet above the trenches below—he watched the German lines. His fingers itched to pull the trigger two or three times; and once when he saw a German officer come out of his dug-out in the second line and lean against the back of the trench, smoking a fat cigar, he almost yielded to the temptation. But the splintering of a periscope glass below him, as a German bullet hit it, told him that the sniper was there—hidden somewhere, and watching too; and he knew that, perfect though his position was for one shot, that one shot would probably give him away. And that one shot was for the sniper, and not to be wasted on a fat Ober Lieutenant. . . .
Three or four hours passed, and the silence was complete. The perspiration trickled down his neck as he lay there motionless and clouded the eyepiece of his telescope. Then suddenly he saw a little black object shoot up into the air from the junction of two trenches near the German support line—an object which turned over and over in the air, and fell with a soft thud fifty yards to his right. A roar—and some sandbags and lumps of chalk flew in all directions, while fragments pattered down on Reginald out of the sky.
"Hope to God they don't come any closer," he muttered, watching the next rum jar shoot up. "Anyway, I've marked the place they're coming from." Then his eyes came back to the sniper's locality, and as they did so a quiver of excitement ran through him. Utterly regardless of the second rum jar which burst with a crack behind him, he knew for the first time the feeling of the big game man who has stalked his quarry successfully. There, five yards to the left of where he had been looking, a little stunted bush was moving—and there was no wind. Trembling with excitement he focussed his telescope on the bush, and even as he did so, he knew his vigil was over. The thing which up to that moment he had taken for a log was a man—the man, the sniper. He could see the faint outline of his face, now that his attention was drawn to it, and with infinite care he drew a bead on the centre of it. Then suddenly he started shaking with nervous keenness; his left hand wobbled like a jelly through sheer excitement until he almost sobbed with rage. The German moved again as another rum jar burst, confident that the English would have gone to ground to escape the trench mortaring. It was that arrogant movement that infuriated our friend. It struck him as a deliberate challenge. And for just a moment the German's face and the crossed hairs of his telescopic sight coincided, and coincided steadily.
It seemed to Reginald that his pressing the trigger and the wild convulsive lurch of the man opposite were simultaneous. With his eye to the telescope he watched the log that writhed and squirmed; then it grew still, and the disguise had gone. No more a log: just a motionless twisted form; while something that showed dark and ominous through the telescope spread round its head. The sergeant of D Company was avenged. . . .
With a feeling rather as if he personally had won the war, our hero slipped backwards into the boyau beside him, and went in search of Shorty Bill. Two hours later he found him and poured out the story. Shorty listened in silence; then he spoke.
"I've heard men talk like you, son, when they've kissed their first woman. Have you reported where that trench mortar is?"
"God! Shorty, I clean forgot. I'll go and do it now," remarked Reggie, his ardour somewhat damped.
"I should dam well think you'd better." Shorty relit his pipe, and grinned amiably. "Well done, kid; but for Holy Mike's sake don't crow over one plurry Boche. When you've touched three figures we'll celebrate. . . ."
He may have been right; but even on his own showing, is there any kiss which is quite like the first? Is there any Hun, who——? Still, possibly the analogy is unfortunate. Anyway, I have given the account of his first cold-blooded victim; I will follow with his first hot-blooded one.
SOMEWHAT MORE PERSONAL
It occurred about six weeks later in the same part of the line; and as a mark of special favour he had been allowed to accompany Shorty on one of his nightly prowls. That worthy was wont to remark that two men on a joy ride in No Man's Land was one too many; wherefore it must be assumed that Reginald had grown in wisdom and cunning, and found favour in the sight of his taskmaster.
They slipped over the top about ten p.m. Shorty was armed as usual merely with the villainous billhook-kukri of his own design, while Reggie carried a revolver and a clasp knife which resembled a young bayonet. It was not a reconnoitring patrol as laid down in the book of the words; it was merely a pleasure ramble, so Shorty said, as they passed silently out of a sap and disappeared in the darkness.
The first thing Reggie did was to kick a tin and fall into a shell hole, where he was joined by Shorty.
"Frightening rooks, son," he remarked kindly, "or rehearsing as a knockabout comedian? About twenty-five yards from here on our left is the German sap party that I am visiting to-night. I like 'em to know I'm coming."
"Sorry, Shorty," muttered the delinquent. "I never saw the ruddy thing."
"You don't say. I thought you'd a-done it on purpose," returned the other with ponderous sarcasm. "Now you stop here; I'm goin' to that sap—an' I'll come back for you."
Like a wraith Shorty faded into the night, leaving our friend alone with his thoughts. A Lewis gun was firing away down the line in short bursts, while Verey lights and flares went up every now and then with a faint hiss. Above, the low-flying clouds scudded over the sky, and our friend lay back in his shell hole and pondered. With an inward chuckle he wondered what the beautiful Miss Belsize and the other fair ones of Mogg's would say if they could see him at that moment. A sense of physical well-being was on him, and he stretched himself luxuriously. The next instant he was struggling impotently in a grip that throttled him.
"Quite so," remarked a voice as the grip relaxed, and by the light of a flare he found Shorty occupying the shell hole once again. "A ruddy lot o' good you are. Killed and dead as mutton by now, if I'd been a Boche."
Reggie reddened in the darkness with shame. "I wasn't thinking, Shorty. I—er . . ." His words died away.
"Thinking! You flat-footed clam—this show ain't a debating society, nor yet a penny reading." Shorty snorted with rage. "Go over to that saphead there—d'you see it—an' see what thinking does." His hand pointed to a low hummock of chalk behind a crater. "Go an' look in, I tell you; an' if ever you sit out here again dreaming like a love-sick poet, I hope to God it happens to you. You'll deserve it."
With a push like the kick of an elephant's hind leg he propelled the wretched Reggie in the required direction. Puzzled and surprised, but feeling very ashamed of himself, he moved cautiously towards the low mound that stood up dimly outlined against the night sky. Once on the short journey he crouched motionless while a flare burnt itself out twenty yards away, only to move forward immediately the darkness settled again with quickened step. There is no time so good to movement as the few seconds after the eyes of possible watchers have been dazzled. . . .
And so he came to the saphead, and cautiously peered in. Under ordinary circumstances his action was that of a fool; but Shorty had ordered, and those who knew Shorty got in the habit of carrying out his instructions. For a while in the blackness he could see nothing. He noted the sap running back towards the German lines; but at the head of it there was no sign of life. He carefully stretched farther over, and as he looked at the bottom of the trench he made out a dark, huddled figure. Then the next flare went up, and Reginald Simpkins got the shock of his life.
The green ghostly light came flooding in, and then went out as abruptly as it had come. But the moment was enough. Clear stamped on his brain, like a photographic exposure, was the image of two men. One lay at the bottom of the trench and grinned at the sky with his throat cut from ear to ear; the other—huddled in a corner with his hand still clutching a bomb—was even as he looked turning on his head and his knees, only to subside with a squelch in the mud, kick spasmodically, and lie still.
"Right in—you take me?—with your clasp knife." Shorty's words came back to him and he gasped. So this was what his teacher had meant, when he'd sent him to see the dangers of thinking.
It was just as he was visualising the scene: the sudden ghostly appearance of Shorty on top of the unsuspecting Germans; the sudden stroke of that awful weapon; the feeble attempt to get the bomb; the——well, it was just then that Reggie found himself contemplating from about six inches range the glaring face of a Prussian N.C.O. who had suddenly materialised. By the light of a flare down the line he watched, as he lay on top of the ground, with his head over the edge of the sap, the ring of the Prussian's revolver as it moved up towards his face.
What happened, happened quickly: most of these things are touch and go. The bullet whizzed past his face into the night—his left hand hit the revolver just in time; and even as the bullet went wide his right hand struck sideways with the knife. It sank into the Prussian's neck; he felt a rush of something warm and sticky, and then he was grabbed from behind.
"Quick," muttered Shorty in his ear, "hop it; hop it like hell. I'll guide you."
Blinded and dazed by the blast of the revolver, he stumbled mechanically after his leader. "Into this shell hole for a moment," whispered Bill imperatively, as a machine gun let drive with a few rounds which passed over them like a flight of cockchafers. "Now come on. Home this trip, my boy—I didn't know that swab was there. . . ."
"I killed him, Bill," said Reginald, half an hour later, as he sat rubbing his eyes on the fire step of their own trenches to get the stinging of the cordite out.
"You done well, son," said Bill; "an' if any one doubts it—show 'em your hand."
By the light of a match Reggie looked at it, and he shuddered. It bore, as Bill implied, the proof of death.
He was silent too awhile; the first hot-blooded one is more rattling to the nerves than a stranger three hundred yards away. Then a great thought struck him, and he cursed.
"I've left my knife in his neck, Bill. What a blasted idiot!"
A PROJECT AND SOME SIDE-ISSUES
It is quite possible that there are some who, having read thus far, will consider that the education of Reginald Simpkins as a soldier was now complete. Transformed from a dreadful being who cut up silks and things and discoursed on the merits of what I understand is known as lingerie, he had become a man: a man with a quick hand and a sure eye, a man who had met one of his kind in fair fight and killed him. In his mind there had been born pride—the right sort of pride. Not the spurious article which had passed for it at Mogg's—that unpleasant type of conceit of which pimples and a high collar are the outward and visible sign. No, not that at all. He had cast that off with his frock coat, and in its place had grown the inherent pride which is the birthright of a man.
It was just because the metamorphosis had been so complete, and the growth had been so rapid, that his education was by no means finished. It had only just begun.
So far I have dealt principally with one phase in the gentle game of war: the phase that concerns itself with outing the wily Hun by means of a rifle bullet. True, Reginald had tasted of other pleasant methods under the kindly guidance of Shorty Bill; he had even gone so far as to enter into wordy warfare with the battalion exponent of bayonet fighting with regard to the relative merits of the bayonet G.S. and the weapon that he had presented to the Huns on his night prowl. In fact, our friend was beginning to hold opinions—and quite decided opinions—of his own. He was still in his infancy, I admit; but to those who were privileged to watch his growth he seemed a hopeful specimen. The seed appeared to be falling on good soil.
But it may be remembered that with regard to the question of the sower, the seed which fell on stony ground appeared good for a time, until it was found that there was nothing behind it. Precocity is a dangerous thing, and in his new school Reginald was certainly precocious. Nowadays it is necessary to form judgments quickly in the Army: the game is being played at such high pressure. And so mistakes are bound to occur, though the Honourable James Lascelles disliked making them now, just as much as he did in the days when he could take his time.
The thing in question at the moment was the fitness of our friend for the stripe when a vacancy occurred; and the Honourable Jimmy, being the Adjutant of the South Devons, and having the headquarter specialists under his eye, was somewhat intimately concerned with the solution of the question. I think I have failed to mention previously that it was the South Devons that Reginald adorned—that celebrated regiment known to the Army and the world at large by the more familiar soubriquet of the "Stick 'em and be damned."
So when the edict of Toby Seymour, the C.O., went forth, the Adjutant seized the opportunity of trying to find out a little more fully whether it really was good soil in Reginald's case, or whether it was stony. To-day the edict would seem almost a matter of routine; at that time things were different. Toby ordered a raid, and it was so.
It was to be a raid on a large scale: no isolated affair like the pilgrimages of Shorty Bill, but an affair where the enemy's trenches were to be entered by a large party. No silent, stealthy work, but a thorough good jolly, with bombs and noises complete.
To-day raids are stale, and things of but little account. Sometimes the bag is large, and sometimes the bag is small; but the performance occurs twice nightly, with frequently a matinee thrown in. Then they were something new, and enterprises to be talked about.
The project first took concrete form in the back room of a certain estaminet which served as the Headquarters mess when the battalion was resting after a spell in the trenches. The omelette had been successful, the port had recently arrived, and that pleasing, though somewhat selfish, glow which comes even to the best of us when we realise that it is the other fellow who is out in the cold wet night permeated the room.
"Sarah Jane," remarked Toby to his second-in-command, as he thoughtfully sipped his port, "I have been thinking."
"Have you, dear old soul? That's very jolly."
"I have been thinking," went on the C.O., "that the boys require waking up. There is a danger of their degenerating into trench machines. They want ginger."
The second-in-command looked at his Colonel keenly. "I agree with you," he returned after a short silence. "But it's rather hard to give 'em anything to ginger with in the middle of winter and in this locality. The division will probably be pulling out to train shortly, and then——"
"No—that won't do," Toby interrupted him. "I don't mean that sort of ginger. How many men of this battalion feel instinctively, and know as a positive fact, that—man for man—they are better than the Huns? That's the point, and training behind won't help that; at least, it won't start it. Once give it to them as a foundation, and the training will gain five hundred per cent. in its value."
"True, O king, but how?"
"They must fight the Germans, and find out for themselves. We've got some new drafts, Sarah—quite a number of new drafts who not only have never fought the Hun, but who have never even seen him. Their horizon is bounded by a dirty sandbag and a smell; and I maintain that their value as fighting troops is not one quarter what it might be."
He carefully lit his pipe while the rest of the mess watched him curiously—wondering what was in his mind.
"Listen to me, you fellows." Toby leant forward in his chair and emphasised his remarks with his ancient and powerful briar. "Every one in this room is—for want of a better word—blooded. We have all, thank Heavens! had the unforgettable pleasure of killing Huns at close quarters, with our own hands. Now that broadens one's horizon at once. We are not bounded by sandbags and stinks; when we are in the trenches, we know—our imagination tells us—that over the way are men whom we can visualise: living, actual beings whose ideal and object in life is to kill us. Not so, I regret to say, with a new draft: how can you expect it? To them the Hun is a strange something living in a trench, whom they never see, and whom they don't particularly want to. One might almost say that 'live and let live' is bound to be the way they look at life at present. Until the terrier sees the rat he has no wish to kill it; and until he has killed it he has no idea what a delightful occupation it is. Same with the men; and we've got to alter it."