"And do you go to any religious services, Tom?" I asked.
"I been to two or three," replied Tom, "but I don't hold much wi' religion. Still they're grand people, and you may ask any man in the camp, from the sergeant-major down to the newest recruit, and they will all tell you the same thing, The Y.M.C.A. is a fair God-send to us."
I found out afterwards that Alec McPhail had not followed Tom's example. Alec had discovered a wayside public-house about a mile from the camp, where he and several others of his companions spent most of their spare time.
"I'm noan religious," said Tom rather boastfully; "but the Y.M.C.A. showed me that I was making a fool of myself, and they have made me see that a soldier ought to be a gentleman. We're not a lot of riff-raff in the Army; we have come at the call of our King and Country to do our bit. And what I say is that a chap ought to live up to his job; we have got a big, grand job, and we chaps as is to do it ought to be worthy of our job."
Tom wrote regularly to Polly Powell during the time he was in the Surrey camp, although he could not help noticing that Polly's replies grew less and less frequent and less and less affectionate. When he had been there a little more than two months he received a letter from his mother telling him that Polly was walking out regularly with Jim Dixon. The letter from Tom's mother was characteristic.
"Dear Tom," she wrote, "thou'st been fooled by Polly Powell. I always said that Alice Lister was too good for thee, and thou used to get vexed about it. A man is not to blame for his mother, he can't choose her, so I can't blame thee for thy mother, but he is to be blamed for his wife; he makes his own choice there, and the man as chooses Polly Powell is a fool. When I wur a lass I lived on a farm, I wur only sixteen when I came to Brunford, and the farmer I lived wi' always said when he was buying a cow, 'be sure to look at the stock before you close the bargin.' Look at the stock Polly Powell has come from. I say nowt about her feyther because I don't know him, but I have seen her mother, and that's enough for me. Polly is just the image of what her mother was when she was her age. She's only twenty-four years older than Polly, but she's like Bethesda Chapel, she's broader nor she's long. That's what Polly will be in twenty years' time. Her mother's got a mustash too, and Polly gives every sign of having one by the time she's her mother's age. Besides, she's a flighty thing is Polly, and has no stayin' power; she goes wi' one chap one week and another the next. She's walked out wi' seven chaps since you left Brunford, and she only took up wi' Jim Dixon again because he's making a bit of brass. I daresay she'll tell you that she's only larking wi' Jim, and is true to you all the time; but if I were thee I'd sack her. There are plenty of lasses everywhere, and thou can do better nor her.
"I expect you will be going to France soon, and will be fighting them Germans. If they find thee as hard to deal wi' as I have, they'll have a tough job. But they are a bad lot, and I don't ask you to show 'em any mercy.
"Your affectionate mother, "MRS. MARTHA POLLARD.
"P.S.—Be sure to write and give Polly Powell the sack right away, she's noan thy sort. If you come across that German Emperor, don't be soft-hearted wi' 'im."
After Tom had read his mother's letter twice, he sat silent for some time. "So she's going out with Jim Dixon," he reflected; "well, I'm glad. After all, my liking for her was only top-water stuff, and she was doing me no good." The next minute Tom was whistling his way through the camp. "Yes," he continued, "mother's got what the writing chaps call 'a good literary style,' and she hits the bull's-eye every time. Gosh, what a fool I've been! Fancy giving up Alice Lister for a lass like that. I wonder if it's true that Alice has took up wi' that parson chap. I'd like to wring his neck, I would for sure."
At the end of nearly three months Tom was moved to another camp still nearer the south coast. He had a presentiment that the time was not far distant when he would have to cross the sea, and know in real earnest what soldiering was like. In a way he was glad of this; like all youths he longed for excitement, and wanted to come to close grips with the thing he had set out to do. On the other hand however, he could not help looking forward with dread. When on reading the newspapers he saw long lists of casualties, and heard stories of the men he had known, who went out healthy and strong and never came back again, and others who were brought home maimed for life, he had a strange feeling at his heart, and a sinking at the pit of his stomach. It was not that he felt afraid, but there was a kind of dread of the unknown. What would it be like to die?
"I hear we're off soon," said Alec McPhail to him one day.
"There's no telling," said Tom laconically.
"Ay, but we shall," replied Alec, "and I shall be glad, I'm getting sick of this life in the camps."
"I doan't wonder at it," said Tom.
"What micht ye mean by that?" asked the Scotchman.
"I am fair stalled wi' thee," said Tom. "I thought that you, being a thinking sort o' chap, would know better. You saw what a fool I was making of myself, and yet you kept on drinking and carousing, and making a ninny of yourself, as though you had no more brains nor a waterhen. Why, lad, with your education and cleverness, you might have been sergeant-major by now. Nay, nay, keep thee temper; I mean nowt wrong."
The Scotchman looked at Tom angrily for some seconds. He seemed on the point of striking him, then mastering himself he said, "Ay, Tom, you're richt, and yet I'm no' sure."
"What do you mean?" asked Tom.
"Tom, man," said the Scotchman, "ye canna think worse of me than I think of mysel'. I had a good home too, and a godly mither; as for my father he was a hard man, but just, very just. Ay, I know I ought to have known better, but the whisky got hold of me. Besides——"
"Besides what?" asked Tom.
"Ay, man, I'm not a hero when it comes to facing death. I fancy I'm as brave as most men about lots of things, but I just shiver when I think o' dying; then I tak' a wee drap of whisky, and it gi'es me courage."
"Poor sort of courage," replied Tom; "besides, you take more than a 'wee drap,' as you call it."
"Ay, it needs mair and mair. But it's this way, Tom; when I think of going over the water into those trenches, and when I think of the shells falling all around me; when I call to mind that men may be dying at my richt hand and on my left, blown all to smithereens, I get afraid, but after I have filled mysel' fou' of whisky I don't care. I know I ought to be ashamed of mysel'; I know, too, it's the wrang sort of courage. As for you, Tom, you have been wiser than me, you've got releegion."
"Nay, I've nowt o' th' sort," replied Tom, "I've just kept straight, that's all."
"But it's not enough, Tom," said the Scotchman.
"What does a' mean?" asked Tom.
"I mean that a man wants releegion," replied Alec very solemnly. "I have been a thinking lad all my life, and when I chucked releegion and professed to believe in Colonel Ingersoll I kenned fine I was making a fool of mysel'. It's either whisky or releegion to keep a man's courage up; that is, such a man as me."
"Then you think there's something after death?" said Tom.
"Ay, lad, I am sure of it. I'm a-thinking you're richt, Tom, in going to the Y.M.C.A. meetings, and I know you're wrang in not getting releegion. E'en when I'm fou' of whisky, I have known that releegion was necessary; and if I only had the strength I'd gi' up the whisky."
The next day the camp was in a great state of excitement; the men had received definite information that they were to start for the Front in two days' time. They did not know where they were going, but they were told it would be somewhere in France or Belgium. At first there was great cheering at this; the men shouted and boasted of what they would do when they were face to face with the Germans. After that, almost as if by prearrangement, a solemn silence fell among them; evidently they were thinking deeply. Some paid longer visits than usual to the wet canteen or public-houses; others, again, were seen walking alone as though they had no desire for company.
We who remain at home in safety, and talk about the heroism of the men going away to the Front, little realise the thoughts which pass through their minds. When the order to embark comes they don't say very much about it, and even when they do talk they speak of death almost lightly. "If I am potted," they say, "I am, and that's all about it." But that's not all they feel, as I have reason to know. They love their lives just as much as we do, and they long to go back and spend their days amongst their loved ones. It is only rare that cowardice is seen, and it is rarer still for them to make any boast; the average Englishman is not given to boasting; he has his duty to do, and he just does it, saying very little about it.
On the night before they were to embark for France, farewell meetings were held at the Y.M.C.A. huts, and Tom noticed that Alec McPhail found his way to the hut where he went. Perhaps eight hundred or a thousand men had gathered, and although high spirits prevailed, each man felt that he was breathing an atmosphere which was not usual. There was a look not common in the eyes of the lads; a set, stern expression on their faces. Afterwards when they had been to the Front and returned, they would go out again without such feeling as now possessed them. But these lads had never been to the war before; they were entering upon an unknown; they knew that in all probability a large number of them would never come back to England again. Each had a hope that he might escape, although the chances were against him.
Still they cheered at the old recitations, listened to the old songs, and joined in the choruses which they liked just as they had been doing for months; they were not going to show the white feather.
A special speaker had come to the hut that night. He had been working among the soldiers in the Y.M.C.A. tents on the Continent, and had come home for a short holiday; now he had come to this camp in order to speak to the men before their departure. It is said that months before he had been fond of telling humorous stories, and had delighted in making the soldiers laugh. He certainly had a sense of humour, and now and then could not refrain from some witticism which set the highly strung lads in roars of laughter. But the close of his address did not inspire mirth.
"My lads," he said, "you have done a brave thing; I don't say that you deserve much praise for it, because at a time like this if an able-bodied youth does not join the Army he fails in his duty; and you are only doing your duty. If you had not done what you have done, I should be ashamed of you. All the same you are brave lads. You have offered your all, your very lives, at the altar of duty. I am not going to try and describe to you what you will have to do, and possibly have to suffer; you will find out that soon enough. Possibly many of you are going to your death. I don't want to frighten you, but we have to face facts: I don't say it is an awful thing to die, but it is a tremendous thing. You know that you have souls as well as bodies. I am not going to argue it out with you; I needn't, because you know. I needn't try to prove to you that there is a God, because you know it, you feel it. There is no atheism out at the Front: some of you have tried to live without God, and you have made a mess of your lives. I tell you, my boys, it's a terrible thing to die without God. Some of you know what it is to believe in a personal Saviour; you have accepted Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came on earth to die for us that we might know God; and you have found Him to be a strength in temptation, a joy in sorrow. My lads, you all want that Saviour, and especially do you want Him now. You are embarking on the Great Unknown, and you need a Captain, a Guide, a Saviour: I have come to tell you about Him."
I am not going to try to describe the close of his address. This man had seen hundreds die, he had come face to face with the great realities of life, of death, and of religion. He knew what he was talking about because he had experienced it, and he made the men feel what he felt. That night when the meeting was over Tom Pollard found himself again with Alec McPhail.
"That chap was fair earnest," said Tom.
"Ay," replied the Scotchman, "he went richt down to the bottom of things. Come wi' me to the canteen, lad, I feel I must have a drink."
"Not if I know it," said Tom, "no drink for me to-night."
But the Scotchman rushed away towards the canteen, and Tom, scarcely knowing what he was doing, followed him. When they entered, they saw a number of men standing there drinking.
"Yes," they heard one man say, "that chap was right; I know I'm making a fool of myself, but I'm going to have another drink. My God! What would my mother say if she knew I wur off tomorrow morning!"
A lad with a pale, refined face, standing by his side, had a glass in his hand ready to lift to his lips. "Ay, and what would my mother say!" he said. "I know she would be praying for me."
At this some one uttered a coarse oath, but the lad threw the drink from him and left the canteen.
"Ay, he's richt," said the Scotchman as he watched him go. "Tom Pollard, man, I hinna prayed for years, but I am praying to-nicht. I ought to be a different man, for I ken the fundamentals of releegion, but I'm giving my heart to God to-nicht; I am for sure."
Tom followed the Scotchman out of the canteen towards one of the numerous sleeping-huts.
"I am giving my heart to God, Pollard," he said hoarsely, "and I'm writing to tell my mither about it this very nicht. Ay, man, something has come into my life stronger than the power of whisky!"
When Tom found his way to his own sleeping-hut that night, he was in a chastened frame of mind. "I'm noan going to turn religious," he said almost sullenly, "but I believe he's got the reight on't."
The next morning they were at Folkestone, where the big troopship lay in the harbour. Before mid-day the ship was crowded with soldiers. How many men were there Tom had not the slightest idea; but they filled every part of it. Generals, colonels, majors, non-commissioned officers, and privates were all huddled together. All over the ship officers and men were alike; they were going to the field of battle to die if need be for honour, duty, and the liberty of the world.
There were scarcely a score of civilians on board, and even they were in some way attached to the Army. Nurses wearing the Red Cross, religious workers with a look of wonder in their eyes, a few sent by the Government on some particular mission, but all were taking part in the great War which was staggering the world.
Perhaps a mile or more out at sea a great Destroyer proudly spurned the waves; she was to guard the troopship along her perilous passage.
Presently they landed at Boulogne.
"Where are we going?" said one of the soldiers in Tom's company as they entered a waiting train.
"I don't know," said Tom, "but what does it matter? We have nowt to do with that, we have just got to do our job."
They spent all the night in the troop-train, which was crowded almost to suffocation. Where they were going they didn't know, scarcely cared. Sometimes they were drawn up to a siding where they would stay for hours, then the train crawled on again. Presently the morning broke and Tom saw a flat and what seemed to him, after Surrey, an uninteresting piece of country. Everything was strange to him, even the trees looked different from those he had seen in Surrey. On and on the train crawled, until presently they had orders to alight.
It was now early morning, and after breakfast they were formed in marching order. Tom took but little notice of the country through which they marched, except that they were on a straight road, which was paved in the middle. As the day advanced the sun grew hot and scorching, but the men marched on uncomplainingly; there was little merriment, but much thought. Presently noon came, and again they stopped for food, after which there was another march. By this time Tom realised that he was indeed in the zone of war. He saw what looked to him miles of motor waggons filled with food and munitions, numbers of ambulance waggons marked with the Red Cross. More than one body of horse soldiers passed him, and again he saw numbers of men bivouacked near him; but everywhere there were soldiers, soldiers. Tom could not understand it, it was all so different from what he expected, neither could he see any order or purpose in that which was taking place around him. There was activity and movement everywhere, but he could co-ordinate nothing, he was simply bewildered.
Towards evening there was another resting-time, and each man gladly threw himself full length on the grass. For a moment there was a silence, then Tom heard a sound which gave him a sickening sensation; he felt a sinking, too, at the pit of his stomach: it was the boom, boom, boom of guns.
"Look at yon' airship in the sky!" cried one of the men. Each eye was turned towards it, then they heard the boom of guns again, after which there were sheets of fire around the aeroplane, and afterwards little clouds of smoke formed themselves.
"I am getting near at last," thought Tom. "I wonder now—I wonder——"
Tom discovered presently that his destination was the Ypres salient, one of the most "unhealthy" places, to use the term in favour among the soldiers, in the whole of the English battle line. Here the most tremendous battle ever fought in our British Army took place—indeed one of the most tremendous battles in the history of the world. A sergeant who was in a garrulous mood described it to Tom with a great deal of spirit.
"Yes," he said, "you have come to an unhealthy spot; still it may be good for you. The blessed Huns thought they were going to break through here about last September when the battle of Wipers was fought. They had six hundred thousand men to our hundred and fifty thousand. Then that blooming Kaiser made up his mind that he would break through our lines, and get to Calais. Yes, it was a touch and go with us. Fancy four to one, and they had all the advantage in big guns and ammunition. You think those big guns? Wait till you have heard Jack Johnson and Black Maria. Talk about hell! Hell was never as bad as the battle of Wipers. I thought we were licked once. I was in the part where our line was the thinnest, and we saw 'em coming towards us in crowds; there seemed to be millions of 'em; we had to rake out every cook and bottle-washer on the show. Lots of our men were fresh to the job, too, and had never smelt powder, or felt the touch of steel. But, by gosh, we let 'em know! Four to one, my boy, and we licked 'em, in spite of their big guns and their boasting. Aren't you proud of being a British Tommy?"
Tom listened with wide, staring eyes and compressed lips. There within a mile or two of the battle line he could picture all of which the sergeant spoke. As he looked he could see the brown line of earth away in the distance, and could discern too, here and there, dotted along this brown line, clouds of black smoke. All around him our guns were booming, while the distant sounds of the German guns reached him.
"Ay, it's a bit unhealthy," went on the sergeant, "but you will get used to it after a bit. There, hear that?"
Tom listened and heard the screaming of a shell in the air; the note it made was at first low, but it rose higher and higher and then dropped again.
"When the note gets to about B flat," said the sergeant, "you may know it's soon going to fall, and as soon as it has touched the ground the shell bursts and tears a big hole up."
"Are many killed?" asked Tom.
"Ay, there's a good lot of casualties every day, but not so much as there was at the second battle of Wipers. That was fair terrible. You see, the Germans could not drive us back nor break our lines. That was why they started bombarding the city. I was here and saw it. Man, you should have heard the women screaming, and seen the people flying for their lives. Whole streets of houses were burning, and all the time shells were falling and bursting. How many people were killed here God only knows, but there must have been hundreds of women and children. But what did those dirty swine of Germans care! They could not break our lines, and they had lost a hundred and fifty thousand men, so they turned their big guns upon the city. 'We can kill Belgian women and children, anyhow,' they said, 'and we can smash up the old town.' Are you a bit jumpy?"
"No n-n-no;—that is, a little bit," said Tom.
"Oh, it's quite quiet now," replied the sergeant. "I will walk through with you if you like and show you round. This is the great square; one of the biggest in the world. I saw it before it was bombarded; the Cathedral and the Cloth Hall were just wonderful; see what they are now! knocked into smithereens. See the trees around, how they are twisted and burnt? That house there I saw shelled myself. I had got a bit used to the shelling by that time, but I tell you it gave me a turn. It was the biggest house in the Square, and a great bomb caught it fair in the face; it seemed as though the whole world was shaking, and the noise fair deafened you. The house went down as though it were cardboard, and other houses around fell as though to keep it company, while others caught fire. Ay, they're sweet creatures, are those German swine."
"Doan't you hate 'em?" asked Tom.
"Hate 'em?" said the sergeant; "well, I don't know. Mind you, they are fine soldiers, and brave men too, or at least they seem brave; but it's discipline does it. They are just like machinery. Once when I was right in the middle of it, they attacked in close formation, and we turned our machine-guns on 'em. Ever seen a mowing machine in a wheat field? ever seen the wheat fall before the knives? Well, that's how they fell. Hundreds upon hundreds; but still they came on. Just as fast as one lot was killed, the others, knowing that they were going to certain death, came on, thinking they would wear us down by sheer numbers."
"Did they?" asked Tom.
"No, that time they didn't," replied the sergeant, "but another scrap I was in they did. That is their plan, you know; it is terribly costly, but when it succeeds it works havoc."
"Have you been wounded at all?" asked Tom.
"Yes, I have stopped two bullets, one in the foot and another in the shoulder, but I quickly got over it. I have been wonderfully lucky. You will get used to it after a bit; you seem a plucky chap; you don't look like the sort that runs away. Although, mind you, I have seen plucky chaps hook it."
"No, I'm not plucky," said Tom; "but I don't think I would run away."
"Wait till the shrapnel is falling around you; wait till great pieces of jagged shell mow men down on your right and on your left. Still we have stuck so far, and we must stick to the end. Still, from a military standpoint," and here the sergeant spoke judicially, "our holding Wipers is a bad policy. You see, it's a salient and the Germans guns are all around us; but if we made a straight line we should give them Wipers, and that would have a bad effect. Just look in here," and he pointed to a house, the front of which was completely blown away, but the rest of which remained comparatively intact.
"There's the room just as those poor blighters of Belgians left it," continued the sergeant. "See the baby's shoes, and the kiddy's dress? There are one or two pictures on the wall, not of much value, or those blooming souvenir-hunters would have got 'em."
"Do you think we shall lick 'em?" asked Tom.
"Lick 'em! Of course we shall," said the sergeant, who had served nearly twenty years in the Army. "Mind you, it will be no easy job. Up to now they have had the upper hand of us, both in men and munitions; but we are gaining on 'em now. What I can't stand is those blooming swipes, those shirkers who sit at home and who call themselves men. I tell you I'm for conscription out and out. This is no job to be played with; if we don't put forth our strength we can't beat 'em. But just think of those swine, who read the papers and talk about beating the Germans, who strut about with their patent-leather boots and fine clothes, and try to make out that they are gentlemen, but who won't face the music; that's what sickens me. Who are we fighting for, I should like to know? We are fighting for them, and for our women, and for the old country. They think they can stop at home and criticise, and then when we have done the work, share the benefits. Great God!"—and here the sergeant indulged in some unprintable language—"I would like to get hold of them."
"Isn't it dangerous here?" asked Tom, as another shrieking shell passed over their heads.
"Not just now," replied the other; "their shells are falling on the other side of the town. Of course," he added casually, "they may fall here any moment."
"I asked you just now," said Tom, "whether you hated the Germans?"
"Yes, you did," replied the sergeant, "and I went off on another tack. Hate 'em? Well, it's this way. At the beginning I don't know that I hated 'em so much. Yes, what you call Belgian atrocities were hellish; but 'twasn't that, and as long as they fought fair that was all I cared about. But when they got using that poisonous gas they came it a bit too strong. No, lad, I never hated 'em till then. But when they used that stuff and laughed about it, ay, and laughed to see our poor chaps writhing in agony, I felt I must kill every German I saw. Of course, we've got over it now a bit, and we're all supplied with helmets, but when they used it first we had simply nothing to defend us. Yes, I have done some rough bits of work in my time, but I never met with anything like that. When you see your own pals getting bluer and bluer in the face, and coughing and gasping, oh, I tell you it made us mad! We didn't feel like showing any mercy after that. Besides, they have no sense of fair play, the swipes. I was in a scrap once, and after a hard tussle, and after losing lots of men, a lot of Germans held up their hands and shouted, 'We surrender.' Our officer, a young chap new to the job, and knowing nothing of their tricks, instead of telling them to come to us, told us to go to them, they holding up their hands all the time; but no sooner did we get near them than they up with their pistols and shot two of our chaps. They thought our officer was going to take it lying down, and when they were taken prisoners they laughed and said everything was fair in war; but our young officer saw red, and he said 'No, my lads, you are going to kingdom come.' 'What!' shrieked those German swine, 'will you kill men after they have surrendered?' 'You are not men,' said the lieutenant; 'men don't shoot after they've surrendered—only Germans do that."
"And then?" asked Tom, "then——"
"Ah well," replied the sergeant grimly, "there were no questions asked in the morning."
"Great God!" said Tom, "what a ghastly thing war is!"
"Wait till you have seen it, my lad," replied the sergeant.
For some weeks Tom was in the neighbourhood of Ypres without taking any part in the righting. During that time he got accustomed to the constant booming of the guns, and to the fact that any moment a shell might fall near him and blow him into eternity. On more than one occasion, too, he roamed around the ruins of Ypres; and while he could not be called an imaginative lad he could not help being impressed by the ghastly desolation of this one-time beautiful city. In many of the streets not one stone was left upon another, not one of the inhabitants who had formerly lived there remained; all had fled; it was indeed a city of the dead. To Tom the ruins of the great Cloth Hall and the Cathedral were not the most terrible; what appealed to him most were the empty houses in which things were left by the panic-stricken people. Bedsteads twisted into shapeless masses; clothes half burnt; remnants of pieces of cloth which tradesmen had been in the act of cutting and stitching; children's toys, and thousands of other things which suggested to the boy the life the people had been living. Not a bird sang, not even a street dog roamed amidst the shapeless desolation; the ghastly horror of it all possessed him. Great gaping holes in the old ramparts of the city; trees torn up by their roots and scorched by deadly fire: this was Ypres, not destroyed by the necessities of war, but by pure devilry.
At last Tom's turn came to go up to the front trenches. It was with a strange feeling at heart that he, with others, crept along the pave road towards the communication trench. They had to be very careful, because this road was constantly swept by the German machine guns. Presently, when they came to a house used as a first dressing station close to the beginning of the communication trench, Tom felt his heart grow cold. Still, with set teeth, and a hard look in his eyes, he groped his way along the trench, through Piccadilly, and Haymarket, and Bond Street, and Whitehall (for in this manner do the soldiers name the various parts of the zigzag cuttings through the clay): while all the time he could hear the pep, pep, pep, pep of the machine guns, and the shrieking of the shells.
There was no romance in war now, it was a grim, ghastly reality. After following the lines of the trenches for well-nigh an hour he was informed that he had now reached the front line and was within a hundred or a hundred and fifty yards of the Huns. For the moment there was a comparative quiet, only occasionally did he hear the sound of a gun, while the shrieking of the shells was less frequent. Danger seemed very far away; he was in a deep hole in the ground, and above the earthworks were great heaps of sand-bags. How could he be hurt? The men whom his company was sent to relieve seemed in high good spirits too, they laughed and talked and bandied jokes. "There seems no danger here," thought Tom. An hour passed and still all was comparatively quiet.
"I would like to see those blooming German trenches," said a Lancashire lad, "and I will too."
He lifted his head above the sand-bags and looked towards the brown heaps of earth perhaps a hundred yards away.
"Dost'a see any Germans?" some one asked.
"I'm not sure," replied the lad, "but I believe I see the top of a German helmet."
"Duck down quickly," said another, "thou'st been holding thy head there too long."
"Nay, there's no danger," replied the lad, "it's all as quiet as——" But he did not finish the sentence; at that moment there was a crack of a rifle and a bullet passed through the poor boy's brain.
"That will be a warning for you fellows," said an officer who came up just then. "You must play no tricks; there have been hundreds of lads killed here who would never have been touched if they hadn't been careless and foolish. Let's have no more of your Hampstead Heath Bank Holiday skylarking."
Tom did duty at the front trench on several occasions, but nothing of importance took place. The Huns seemed comparatively quiet, and while there was severe artillery work on both sides, Tom did not receive a scratch.
The fourth time he went to the front lines, however, he felt that there was a change in the atmosphere, and he saw by the strained looks and the compressed lips of the men that something desperate was expected. The officers gave their orders with more sternness than usual; every one was alert.
Tom thought he knew what intense artillery work meant, but he realised that day that hitherto he had seen and heard nothing. Such a tornado of shells burst around him that it was like hell let loose. Hour after hour the Germans bombarded our trenches, tearing great holes in the ground, and undoing the work of months. It seemed to Tom that no man could escape.
"Oh," cried the boy, "if they would be quiet for only a minute! If one could only stop to take breath!"
But there was no cessation; it seemed as though the Germans were determined to make a final and overwhelming attack; as though all the explosives in the world were concentrated on those few miles.
The sights were horrible; he saw shells falling on groups of men, tearing them to pieces, while all around him were the shrieks and cries of the wounded. Some of the men who were yet untouched yelled as though they were mad, others laughed, but their laughter was not natural; it was frenzied, wild, just as though they were madmen.
"We can't stand it! We can't stand it!" cried the boy. "We shall all be blown into eternity. Why do we stay here like this?"
He spoke to the sergeant who had given him a description of the first battle of Ypres some time before. The sergeant was comparatively cool; he had been through it before.
"It's nothing to you whether we are doing anything or not," replied the sergeant, "besides, don't be a fool; our guns are giving them as hot a time as their guns are giving us. Don't lose your head."
"I wouldn't mind if I could do something," said the poor boy, trembling.
"Do! Unless I'm mistaken there will be enough for us all to do very soon. There! firing has ceased! Look out!"
It was as the sergeant said; almost suddenly there was a calm, and a few seconds later Tom heard a command which made his knees knock together.
What happened after that Tom could never describe; even if he could, he would not have done so. As he has said to me more than once, "It was not something to talk about, it was a matter of bayonet work; it was fighting face to face, steel to steel."
Tom didn't feel fear now; all that was gone. His muscles were hard, his thoughts were tense, he saw red! Presently he had a conviction that we were gaining ground, and he suddenly became aware of the fact that we had gained the better of the situation and had returned to our trenches. A number of the enemy had been taken prisoners, and the plot which the Germans had hatched had come to nothing. Immediately afterwards something happened which Tom never forgot. A German officer lay wounded some little distance from the trench which the English had taken, and piteously cried for help.
"Which of you chaps will volunteer to go and fetch him in?" cried a young officer whose bravery that day had been the talk of all the men.
Each looked to the other as if for response; they were dazed and bewildered by all they had gone through.
"I say," said another officer, "you can't expect any of the chaps to do that. Directly the Huns see any one going to him they will shoot him. Besides, he may be nearly dead; better put an end to him."
"But hear how he groans!" cried the young fellow. "There, I'll do it."
He leapt from the trench and rushed along the intervening space for perhaps about fifty yards; then lifting the German officer bodily, he brought him back to safety.
"I am parched—parched!" cried the German, as if in agony, "give me water." The young Englishman got a cup of water and held it to the German's lips, but even as he did so the German drew his revolver and shot him through the heart.
What happened to the German after that I will not try to relate. Why am I describing this, and why have I mentioned this incident? Only that our people at home may realise what heroes our lads are; what they have to face in order to save our country, and what kind of an enemy they have to deal with. I am describing it to try if possible to raise a blush of shame on the faces of those shirkers at home who are a disgrace to the name of Englishman.
Tom passed through this ordeal without a scratch, and by and by when his company was relieved, and he returned to a place of safety, the whole episode seemed but a ghastly dream. And yet it caused a great change to Tom's life. If he had been asked to describe it he would not have been able to do so; it was something subtle, elusive; but the change was there. He felt as though he had a new conception of life; and he realised its tremendousness as he had never realised it before.
He was by no means given to philosophising, but two things impressed him. One was the tremendous amount of heroism that lay latent in the commonplace lads who had come out with him. He knew many of them before they joined the Army; knew them just as they were. Humdrum workaday boys who did not seem capable of anything like heroism; but the war had brought out new qualities, fine qualities. He saw how those men were willing to sacrifice themselves for others; saw them doing all sorts of glorious deeds. One fellow impressed him tremendously. He himself was wounded, but not badly, for he could easily have crawled to a place of safety; and yet he remained with a comrade, holding his head on his knees and ministering to him as tenderly as a woman, in a spot where life could not be valued at a pin's purchase. Deeds like that are common at the Front.
The other thing which impressed him was the tremendous power of religion. Before he went up to the firing line he had heard one officer say to another, "I wish the chaplains could be allowed to go up to the front line of trenches. You see, when men have no religion to support them, the constant bombardment and danger make them jumpy." Tom realised what this meant after the action I have just described. He himself felt that he needed a Power greater than his own, to steady him.
Tom had just heard that he was to go on duty at the front trench again, when passing along by the canal towards one of the officers' dug-outs he saw a staff officer talking with the major of his own battalion. Tom lifted his hand to salute, when the staff officer turned and spoke to him.
"Ah, is that you, Pollard?"
"Yes, Mr. Waterman—that is, yes, sir," stammered Tom.
"I hope you are doing well," said Waterman.
"I am still alive, thank you, sir," and then he passed on.
"He's got a safe job anyhow," thought Tom, "he'll be at the Divisional Headquarters I expect; well, he's a clever fellow."
That night when Tom returned to the first line he was put on sentry duty. It was one of those silent, windless, starless nights, when under ordinary circumstances a solemn hush prevails. Even the trenches were silent that night. On both sides the guns had ceased booming; it seemed as though a truce had been agreed upon, and yet the air was tense with doom.
Tom could not help feeling it as he traversed that part of the trench in which his especial duty lay. Unimaginative as he was, his mind worked freely. He called to mind the engagement of a few days before, remembered what he had seen and heard.
Again and again he traversed the cutting in the earth; his rifle on his shoulder, and bayonet fixed. How silent it was! Not a man's voice was to be heard. He knew that sentries were all around him, but he could not hear a footstep; he knew, too, that many of the soldiers lay in their dug-outs, sleeping as peacefully as though they were at home. And yet he felt all alone. "Where's Jim Bates now, I wonder, and Arthur Wadge, and Bill Perkins, and George Wilson? they were killed, but are they really dead?" he said to himself. He had known these lads well; in fact, they had been pals of his, and he wondered what had become of them. Were they still alive? What had they felt like when they had to cross the deep, dark valley? What was death?
He thought of his old Sunday-schooldays, thought of his old beliefs. "Ay," cried Tom aloud, "if I could only feel that Christ was wi' me now I shouldn't care a bit; but I gave Him up months ago. Alice Lister believed in Him, ay, she did an' all. I wonder where Alice is now? Does she ever think about me, I wonder? does she pray for me as she said?"
He thought of what the man had said in the Y.M.C.A. hut on the night before they set sail for France. He had told the soldiers that they needed a personal Saviour, and that that Saviour was ever waiting, ever watching, to give them help; that He would be near all those who stretched out their lame hands of faith towards Him, and help them, strengthen them, comfort them. It was very unreal, it seemed a long way off too. And yet was it? Was Christ there just as the man had said?
"Boom!" The sound came from an enemy's gun, but he heard no shell screeching its way through space, saw no light of explosion. It was not repeated, although he waited, listening tensely. Minute after minute passed, still there was silence; evidently the English gunners were instructed not to reply.
What was the meaning of it? The silence became so tense that it seemed to make a noise; the air was laden with gloom.
"I wonder what it means," said the boy, and a great fear possessed him; he felt as though he were on the brink of a fathomless chasm, a chasm which was as black as ink.
Minute after minute he waited, and still no sound broke the silence.
He tried to comfort himself by remembering pleasant things that happened at Brunford, but in vain. It seemed to him as though he was surrounded by something fierce and terrible; was it a premonition of death, he wondered?
Again he called to mind what the Y.M.C.A. man had said on the night before they started for the Front. He had advised them to pray, and to put their trust in a loving God who had been revealed to them through Jesus Christ.
He still tramped the bit of trench which it was his duty to guard, looking eagerly into the darkness as if to discern the outline of an approaching enemy. "If I only could pray!" thought Tom, "if I only could!"
But he had not prayed for years, the very thought of prayer had gone out of his mind and heart; but oh! how he longed for something to comfort and steady him!
Well, why should he not pray? It could do no harm, it might even do him good.
Lifting his eyes towards the inky-black sky, he tried to formulate a prayer, but he could not, his thoughts could not shape themselves, his mind refused to work; he opened his lips and cried, "O God!"
That was all; he could think of nothing else to say, but he repeated the words again and again:
"O God!—O God!—O God!"
That was all. He had asked for nothing, he had indeed hardly thought of anything. Nevertheless he was comforted; the words he had uttered meant infinite things, for at the back of his mind he had a confused belief that God saw, that God listened, that God understood, and the thought changed everything.
"I wonder what Alice Lister is doing now," thought the boy presently. He did not know why it was, but somehow God seemed more real when he thought of the girl who had promised to pray for him.
 This incident was described to me as having actually taken place as I have set it down here.
What was Alice Lister doing on the night when Tom prayed? If it had been a night of wonder to Tom, it had been a night of decision to Alice Lister, who had to face another crisis in her life. While Tom had been offering his almost inarticulate prayer in the trenches in the Ypres salient, Alice Lister sat alone in her bedroom.
More than a year had passed since the Sunday afternoon when she had told Tom that he must make his choice between her and the life he seemed determined to lead. What it had cost her to do this I will not try to describe, for Alice had truly cared for Tom. It was true that he did not quite belong to her class, and it was also true that her parents had done their best to dissuade her from thinking about him; but Alice had been fond of Tom: something, she knew not what, had drawn her heart towards him. She had believed in him too; believed that he was possessed of noble qualities which only she understood. Then as she saw Tom drifting, she knew that her decisive step must be taken, and she had taken it.
Afterwards, when she was told how Tom had risen in the great crowd at the hall in the Mechanics' Institute, and had gone up to the platform and volunteered for active service, her heart had thrilled strangely. She did not understand much about the war, but she felt that Tom had done a noble thing. In spite of the fact, too, that he had left her to walk out with Polly Powell, she had a sense of possession; it seemed to her that Tom belonged to her more than to this highly coloured buxom girl who had taken him from her.
Then something happened which set the people at the church she attended talking freely. The young minister was a bachelor, and it was evident he was enamoured with Alice; he paid her marked attention, and eagerly sought to be in her company.
"That's something like," said many of Alice's friends; "Alice will make a splendid minister's wife."
But when at length Mr. Skelton proposed to Alice, she had no difficulty in answering him. He could offer her a far better position than Tom dreamed of; the work she would have to do as a minister's wife, too, would be thoroughly in accord with her tastes and desires. But Alice cared nothing for Mr. Skelton. Her heart was sad when she saw how pale he looked at her refusal, but she had no hesitation.
The problem which faced her now, however, was not so easy to settle. Young Harry Briarfield was not a comparative stranger like Mr. Skelton; she had known him all her life, they had been brought up together in the same town, they had gone to Sunday School together, they had sung duets together at concerts, and although she had never looked at Harry in the light of a lover she had always been fond of him.
Harry was in a good position too; his father was a manufacturer in a fairly large way, and he had just been admitted as a partner into the business. He was twenty-four years of age now, was highly respected throughout the town, and was looked upon as one who in a few years would hold his head high among commercial men.
During the last few weeks Harry had come often to Mr. Lister's house, ostensibly to talk about business, but really to see Alice.
Mr. and Mrs. Lister had nudged each other and smiled at Harry's frequent visits.
"I knew our Alice would do the right thing," said Mr. Lister to his wife; "for a time she went silly about that Pollard boy, but she threw him over of her own accord. Harry's a nice lad, and he's making a tidy bit of brass, while George Briarfield has about made his pile. In two or three years Harry will have the business entirely in his own hands, and then there will not be a better chance in Brunford for her."
Mrs. Lister sighed.
"I don't think our Alice has forgotten Tom Pollard, though," she replied.
"Nonsense," replied her husband, "what is the good of her thinking about Tom? I thought he would have done well at one time, and if he hadn't taken up with that Polly Powell lot he might have got on; but he did, and then he went for a soldier. What is the good of our Alice thinking about him? Even if the war were to finish next week and Tom were to come back, it would take him years, even if he had good luck, to make five pound a week, while Harry's making a thousand a year if he's making a penny."
"Ay, I know," replied Mrs. Lister, "but you can never judge a lass's heart. You know how it was wi' us, George; at the very time you asked me to be your wife you were only making thirty-three shillings a week, and William Pott was making hundreds a year. He was a far better chance nor you, George, and people said I was a fool for not taking him; but I couldn't."
"That was a different thing," said George Lister hastily, "that Pollard boy went wrong. Besides, we need not think about that now; Alice gave him up, and very likely he will be killed."
On the night when Tom was alone in the trenches, Harry Briarfield made his way to Mr. Lister's house, and it was not long before Alice and he were left alone together. Harry had made up his mind to make his proposal that night, and he had but little doubt as to the result.
"Look here, Alice," he said presently, "I want to say something to you, something very particular. You must have seen for a long time how fond I am of you, and perhaps you have wondered why I haven't spoken. I wanted to badly enough, but I waited until father took me into partnership. You see," he went on, "at the beginning of the war things were going bad with us; there was a boom in the cotton trade about a year ago, but when the war broke out there was a regular slump, and we thought we were going to be ruined. Now, however, things are going very well again. We have got some war contracts, and we are making money."
Alice's heart beat wildly, although by an effort she appeared calm.
"I wonder you have not joined the Army, Harry," she said; "every day there's a call for more men."
"Not if I know it," replied Harry. "At one time I did think of trying for a commission, but that would have been foolish: you see I might not have been able to have got it, and of course a man in my position could not go as a Tommy."
"Why not?" asked Alice quickly. "I am told that lots of men of every order join as privates."
"No, thank you," replied Harry, with a laugh. "I know one chap who did that; Edgar Burton. Do you know him? He joined at the beginning of the war, but he quickly got sick of it. He said the life was terrible; he described to me how he had to wash up dishes, and scrub the floors of his barracks, and how he had to be pals with a lot of chaps who didn't know the decencies of life. Besides, think of me on a shilling a day!"
"Still, if your country needs you?" suggested Alice.
"I am doing more important work at home," replied Harry; "they could not do without me at the mill. It's all very well for boys like Tom Pollard, who used to be so fond of you, but for people like me it's different."
There was a silence for a few minutes, and then Harry went on again:
"Alice, you know how fond I am of you—in fact, I have loved you all my life. You will marry me, won't you?"
Harry was very disappointed, and not a little surprised, that Alice did not answer in the affirmative right away; but he had conceded with fairly good grace when she had asked for a few days to think about it.
"It is all right," said Harry to himself as he left the house that night, "I am sure she means yes. And she's a fine lass, the finest in Brunford."
That was why Alice sat alone that night thinking. She had promised to give Harry her definite reply in three days' time, and although she was very fond of him she could not bring herself to give him the answer he desired. When he had left the house her father and mother had come into the room.
"Well, Alice, have you fixed it up?"
She shook her head, but didn't speak.
"Come now, lass, you needn't be so shy. I know he's asked you to wed him; he asked for my permission like a man, and then he told me he was going to speak to you to-night. You can't do better, my dear. Have you fixed it all up?"
"No," she said.
"What!" cried the father, "you don't mean to say you have been such a fool as to say no!"
"I have said nothing as yet," was her answer.
George Lister heaved a sigh of relief. "Ay, well," he said, "it's perhaps a good thing not to say yes at once. Hold him back two or three days and it will make him all the more eager. When a man comes to me to buy cloth I never shows as 'ow I am eager to sell. But of course you will take him?"
"I don't know," replied Alice.
"Don't know! Why don't you know? You like him, don't you?"
"I don't know, father," she replied, and then she rushed out of the room.
"What's the meaning of this, lass?" said George Lister to his wife. "Has she told you anything?"
"Not a word," said Mrs. Lister.
"But surely she can't be such a fool as to refuse Harry! Why, there isn't a better chap in Brunford! He's an only son, and his father's brass will go to him when he dies."
But Mrs. Lister did not speak a word; in her eyes was a far-away look, as though she saw something which her husband did not see.
As for Alice, she sat for a long time thinking in silence.
Harry's words still rang in her ears; the memory of the look on his face as he left her still remained. Still she could not make up her mind. Yes, she liked Harry, in a way she admired him. He was a teacher in the Sunday School, he was a good business man, he was clever, and he was respected in the town; and yet she hesitated.
Hour after hour passed away, and still she could not make up her mind. In spite of Harry Briarfield's words she had not forgotten the lad from whom she had parted months before. Why was it? She thought she had forgotten him. He had been unworthy of her; he had taken up with a girl whom she despised, a coarse, vulgar girl, and she had heard since that Polly Powell had been walking out with a number of young men. And Tom had preferred this kind of creature to her love. Her pride had been wounded, her self-respect had been shocked, and yet even now, while she was thinking of Harry Briarfield's proposal, her mind reverted to the boy who had gone away as a soldier.
The Town Hall clock boomed out the hour of midnight. Alice found herself mechanically counting the strokes of the deep-toned bell. Then she fell on her knees beside the bed, but the prayer which she had been wont to pray did not come to her lips. Her thoughts were far away; she pictured a distant battlefield; she imagined the boom of guns; she heard the clash of bayonets; she thought she heard the cries of wounded men, too; then a prayer involuntarily came to her lips:
"O God, save him! O God, help him and protect him!"
Thus it came to pass at the time Tom Pollard tried for the first time in many months to pray, and to formulate his distracted thoughts, Alice Lister was kneeling by her bedside also trying to pray.
Tom Pollard's mind was suddenly brought back to mundane things. It was now nearly one o'clock in the morning, and the night was chilly; a breeze having sprung up, the clouds had rolled away.
He distinctly heard a shout, and as far as he could make out it came from the German trenches, which were not far away.
"Holloa!" said Tom, "what is it?" He thought one of the other men on patrol duty had spoken to him.
"You belong to the Lancashires, don't you?"
"Of course I do," replied Tom; "what of that?" He was able to locate the voice now, and knew it came from a German trench.
"I have got something to tell you," and the words were followed by a laugh.
Whoever it was spoke in perfectly good English, although with a German accent.
"I reckon it'll be lies," was Tom's reply.
By this time another sentry, hearing Tom's voice, had rushed up to him.
"What is it? Who goes there?" he called out.
"Listen," whispered Tom, "it's one of the Bosches speaking to me. What is it?" he asked aloud.
"Only this," and the German laughed as he spoke: "you Lancashires are going to attack us at six o'clock to-morrow morning, eleven hundred strong, and we're ready for you. That's all," and again the German laughed.
"What does he mean?" said Tom to the man who stood by his side. "I know nothing about any attack. Do you?"
"I knows there's something on foot," replied the other, "but what it is I don't know."
"Do you think we ought to tell one of the officers?"
"Nay, it's not worth the trouble," was the reply; "besides, it's only a bit of bluff."
Two hours later the English trenches were full of movement; evidently, as the other sentry had told Tom, something was on foot. Orders were given in low, tense tones, and although it wanted some time to daylight, preparations were evidently being made for an attack.
The words which the German had spoken weighed heavily on Tom's mind. Of course he was only a private, but might not the news he had received mean something? The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that the German who spoke to him told the truth. Tom had no knowledge, and no warning, that an attack was to be made, and yet, within two hours from the time the German had spoken to him, preparations were being made for an attack. He knew, too, that his battalion was eleven hundred strong, having been reinforced only two days before. Seeing a young officer, he determined to speak to him and tell him what he had heard.
"It is very funny," said the subaltern, "I can't understand it a bit; but it's too late now, we must go through with it." All the same the subaltern found his way to his Colonel.
Precisely at six o'clock that morning the attack was made. From what Tom learnt afterwards, it had been conceived and prepared for in secret. None but those in high command had any knowledge whatever of it. But evidently the enemy knew. As the German soldier who had warned Tom said, "they were ready for them," and when the attack was made they were met by a storm of bullets. Indeed the whole adventure would have been disastrous had not the subaltern to whom Tom had spoken reported the conversation to a superior officer, who had hurriedly given orders for a number of the Black Watch to be brought up. As it was, although our loss of life was heavy, we did not have to yield any ground.
When the affair came to an end the Colonel of Tom's battalion sent for him.
"Now, my man," said the Colonel, "tell me exactly what you heard."
Tom told his story straightforwardly. It was little he had to say, and although the Colonel cross-questioned him very closely he was not able to shake him.
"This is very strange," said the Colonel to the Major when Tom had gone; "no one breathed a word about our plans, and as you know I laid everything before the General at the Divisional Headquarters. They were good plans too, and if the Germans had not got hold of them we should have made a big haul. What is the meaning of it?"
The Major shook his head.
"It was the biggest thing we had planned for months," went on the Colonel, "and I can't tell you how sick I am. We had everything in our favour too. There must be some treachery somewhere!"
"Where can the treachery be?" asked the Major. "You know what the Staff General said. It was to be kept absolutely quiet; the men were to know nothing about it until an hour before the time, and all the junior officers were to be kept in darkness. You know how careful the General is too."
"But the fact is there, man!" cried the Colonel, "we have the evidence of this lad, who could not possibly have been mistaken. He seemed an intelligent lad too; you saw how closely I cross-questioned him. Who is he?"
"I will send for his sergeant," was the Major's reply.
A few minutes later Sergeant Ashworth appeared on the scene. It was the sergeant to whom Tom had spoken when he first came to Ypres.
"Tell me what you know of Private Pollard," said the Colonel.
Sergeant Ashworth spoke freely about Tom.
"A smart lad, sir," he said, "intelligent, and well-behaved. I spoke to him about whether he would like his lance-corporal's stripe, but he didn't seem to want it. He would make a very good non-commissioned officer, sir."
"He seems a lad of some education," replied the Colonel.
"Yes, sir, a lot of those Lancashire lads are very well educated; they are quick and sensible too, and Pollard is one of the best of them. My opinion of him is that he is utterly trustworthy and intelligent."
"Now then, Blundell," and the Colonel turned to the Major, "what do you think?"
"Of course we must report it to Headquarters at once," replied the Major, "but for the life of me I can't see through it."
The incident as far as the men were concerned was simply regarded as an affair which had missed fire. How, they didn't know. But there it was; a number of their comrades had been killed, and many more had been wounded. Still it was what they had come to the Front for. Many of their attacks had failed, and no one seemed to know why.
As may be imagined, Tom thought a great deal about it. He knew by the Colonel's questions, and by the tone of his voice, that the affair was regarded as serious. Tom, although not brilliant, had a good deal of common sense. He was able to put two and two together, and his Lancashire gumption led him to see further than many gave him credit for. He kept his own counsel, but he had become alert to the finger-tips.
Altogether that night was the most wonderful in Tom's history. In a way he could not understand, it formed an epoch in his life; it affected him in many ways. From that time he felt the reality of God. It was not an impression which came to him for a moment and then passed away, it was something which became permanent. God was a personal Power ever present with him. He was not simply some great Eternal Abstraction, but He was a great loving Father, revealed through Jesus Christ His Son. All the teaching he had received in the Sunday School, all the addresses he had heard at the Y.M.C.A. huts, came back to him. He formulated no theories, he tried to shape no creeds, but there seemed to be a Spiritual Deposit in his life to which he had hitherto been a stranger. He was a child of the Great Eternal Father, and Jesus Christ had told him what that Father was like. He said nothing about it to any one, it was not something to talk about. To Tom it was very real, and in a vital sense the knowledge made him a new man; a new life pulsated through his being. What it was he could not tell, did not even care. But it was there. Indeed he had a greater love for his life than ever, but he was no longer afraid.
It was not until two days later that Tom received news that Alec McPhail was among the wounded and had been removed to a hospital some little distance from Ypres, on the road leading to Cassel. He had seen but little of McPhail since he had come to France, as the Scotchman's battalion of the Black Watch occupied the trench some three miles from where the Lancashires were situated. They had met occasionally near Ypres, but had had little to say to each other. When Tom heard he was wounded, however, he determined to go and see him.
"He got it bad," said a friend of McPhail's; "they told me at the dressing station that he was in no fit condition to be removed, but they had to do it."
"You don't mean to say he's going to die!" said Tom.
"Nay, I don't think it's so bad as that," replied the other, "but he's got it bad."
When Tom arrived at the little town where the hospital was situated he immediately asked for permission to see the wounded man.
The nurse shook her head. "I doubt if you can," she replied.
"Is he very bad?" asked Tom.
The nurse nodded. "Very bad indeed," she replied; "he was wounded the other morning when the attack was made. We seem to have lost a number of men."
"Yes," said Tom, "I was there and I heard that the Black Watch were called up."
For a few seconds there was a silence between them, while Tom scanned the nurse's face closely.
"Do you mean to say he's going to die?" asked Tom, and his voice trembled a little.
The nurse nodded. "I am afraid so," she said. "He's too ill to see any one, and I doubt if he would know you."
"I am sure he would like to see me," said Tom pleadingly; "you see we were pals in Lancashire, and we saw a goodish bit of each other while we were in the camp in Surrey. I would like to see him if I could, I would really."
"Well, I shall have to speak to the doctor," was the nurse's reply. "Will you wait here? I won't be long before I'm back."
A curious feeling came into Tom's heart. He did not know very much about McPhail, but he recalled the conversations that they had had in Lancashire, and he vividly remembered the night before they had started for the Front. McPhail had been very much wrought upon then. Tom had watched his face while they sat together in the Y.M.C.A. hut when the speaker was telling them about the deep needs of their lives. McPhail's face had become set and stern, although his lips quivered. Afterwards when they had gone to the canteen the Scotchman had uttered words which Tom never forgot.
He wondered now if McPhail had meant what he said, wondered too if he had realised the same experiences which he, Tom, had passed through. It seemed awful that this tall, stalwart Scotchman was going to die. Why should men be killed in this way? Why should that lonely Scotchwoman, McPhail's mother, have to suffer because of German sins?
The nurse came back to him. "He wants to see you," she said, "and the doctor says he may. He's been asking for you."
"Asking for me?" queried Tom.
"Yes, I didn't know anything about it. He's been telling another nurse that he wanted to see you. Pollard is your name, isn't it?"
A few seconds later Tom was admitted into the room where a number of men lay. McPhail was in a corner of the room partially hidden from the rest. The Scotchman gave Tom a smile of recognition as he came up to him.
"I felt sure ye'd come," he whispered. "They told me I couldna get at ye, but I had a feeling that I should see ye before I died."
Tom hesitated a second before replying.
"It may not be as bad as that," he said, "lots of chaps who have looked worse than you have got better."
"Nay," said McPhail, "I'm pipped, I have got to go. I'm not in any pain, though," he added quickly, "the doctor saw to that, but it willna be long afore I'm gone. Tom, I would like ye to write a letter to my mither. As I told you, she's a godly woman, and I've grieved her sair."
"I will do anything you ask me, McPhail," was Tom's reply. "Ay, but don't give up; you may get well yet, and have another smack at the Germans."
"Nay," replied the other, "I have done my bit. I would like to live a bit longer, but there, it's a' for the best. I'm not afraid, Tom; do you remember that night before we came out here, when we left the canteen together?"
"Ay, I remember."
"I settled it that night," said the Scotchman. "You remember me tellin' ye that I was always a thinking sort o' laddie? Weel, when I got away by mysel' that night I made up my mind, and I just accepted the way o' salvation, which my mither explained to me when I were a wee laddie. And it worked, Tom! It worked! I laughed at releegion when I was wi' you in Lancashire; but man, there's nothing else that stands by a man. Ay, and it works, it does. I want ye to write to my mither and tell her this. Tell her that I gave my life to the Lord on the night before I left England, that I have not touched a drap of drink since then, and that I died with the love of God in my heart. Will you tell her, Tom?"
"Ay," said Tom, "I will."
"Write down her address, will ye?"
Tom's hand trembled and the tears coursed down his face as he wrote the address of the woman who lived away in the Highlands of Scotland.
"It will comfort her," said McPhail when this was done. "It will make her feel that her teaching and her example were not in vain."
"Ay, but you must not die, you must not die," sobbed Tom.
"Dinna talk like that, lad," said the Scotchman. "I have been thinking it all oot sin' I have been here, and it's richt. It's a'richt. Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin, and you can't purge away iniquity without paying the price: I am a part of the price, Tom. The Son of God died that others might live. That's not only a fact, it is a principle. Thousands of us are dying that others may live. Christ died that He might give life and liberty to the world, and in a way that is what we are doing. I can't richtly explain it, it's too deep for me; but I see glimpses of the truth. Tom, have you learnt the secret yourself?"
"I think I have," replied Tom. "On the night of the attack I was on sentry duty, and while I was alone I—I prayed. I could not say it in words like, they wouldn't come, but I am sure I got the grip of it, and I feel as though God spoke to me."
"That's it, lad, that's it!" said the dying man eagerly. "Tom, do ye think ye could pray now?"
By this time the room had become very silent. The men who had been talking freely were evidently listening to that which I have tried to describe, but the two lads were not conscious of the presence of others.
"I don't know as I can pray in words," said Tom, "somehow prayer seems too big to put into words. I just think of God and remember the love of Jesus Christ. But happen I can sing if you can bear it."
"Ay, lad, sing a hymn," said the Scotchman. Tom knelt by the dying man's bed and closed his eyes. For some time nothing would come to him; his mind seemed a blank. Then he found himself singing the hymn he had often sung as a boy.
Jesu, Lover of my soul, Let me to Thy Bosom fly; While the nearer waters roll, While the tempest still is high; Hide me, O my Saviour, hide, Till the storm of life is past, Safe into the haven guide, O receive my soul at last.
"Ay, that's it, that's it," said the Scotchman, "it's a hymn I dinna ken, but it goes to the heart of things. Man, can ye recite to me the twenty-third Psalm?"
"Nay," replied Tom, "I forget which it is."
"That's because you were born and reared in a godless country," replied the Scotchman. "No Scottish lad ever forgets the twenty-third Psalm, especially those who canna thole the paraphrases. 'The Lord is my Shepherd,' surely ye ken that, Tom?"
"Ay," replied Tom eagerly, "I know that."
Then the two lads recited the psalm together:
"The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
"He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside still waters.
"He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His Name's sake.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me."
"Stop there!" said the Scotchman. "That's eno'. It's a' there, Tom; that's why I'm not afraid now. I'm in the valley of the shadow of death, but I dinna fear: the Lord is wi' me, and He's gotten hold of my hand."
"You must go now," said the nurse, coming up, "the doctor says you must not stay any longer."
"Good-bye," said the Scotchman, with a smile, "it's a' richt; you'll tell my mither, won't you?"
"Ay, I will," said Tom.
"And—and Tom," said the Scotchman almost eagerly, "although I shall be dead, I shall be near you, and mebbe—— Ay, but we shall meet in a better world, Tom. It's a' richt."
As Tom passed through the room where the sick and wounded men lay, he noticed that they looked towards him longingly, wonderingly. The atmosphere of the place seemed charged with something sacred. At that moment Tom knew the meaning of the word Sacrament.
The next day the Scotchman died. The nurse was with him to the very last, and just before he breathed his last breath he lifted his eyes to her with a smile.
"It's a' richt, nurse," he said, "what my mither taught me was true down to the very foundations."
"Ay, it was grand, it was grand!" said Tom Pollard when he heard the news. "It doesn't seem like death at all, it was just victory, victory!"
After that Tom did his work with a new light in his eyes. It seemed as though his visit to the Scotchman had removed the last remaining cloud which had hung in the sky of his faith.
"Yes," said Colonel Blount to Major Blundell, "there's treachery around; we may as well face it."
"A man must be as blind as a bat not to see that," was the Major's reply, "but where is it?"
"That's the question. But we cannot close our eyes to facts. Time after time our plans have been discovered, and not only discovered, but evidently revealed to the enemy. I've talked the matter over with General Withers, and while he agrees with me that these constant mishaps are strange, he cannot see where the treachery can come in. Why, man, he has even guarded himself against his own staff officers! He keeps his plans to himself, and only makes them known to those who have to carry them out; he's taken every precaution a man can take, and you know what a keen fellow Withers is! Yet before we can strike our blow, the Huns get wind of our intentions!"
The Colonel sighed as he spoke. The constant mishaps were getting on his nerves; he felt that his brother officers regarded him as incapable. He wondered sometimes whether he would be relieved of his command, so unsuccessful had he been.
And yet he had been known as a capable, far-seeing officer, and earlier in the war his name had been mentioned in the dispatches. He had been spoken of in the General Headquarters, too, as an officer of more than ordinary ability, and yet for the last few weeks everything he had touched seemed to miscarry. There had been no great set-back, but there had been no advance worth speaking of. A spirit of restlessness and suspicion was felt in the whole regiment. It seemed to them as though there was an Achan in the camp, yet no one knew who the traitor might be.
Of course all these misadventures might have been owing to unfortunate accidents, or because the plans of the British officers were not well thought out. All the same Colonel Blount could not understand it. He was an old soldier, he had served in India, had been through the Boer War, and he felt sure that the plans he had submitted to the Divisional Headquarters had been sound and good. He had been complimented upon them too, and yet they had ended in failure, and he had narrowly escaped disaster.
"If I could see a glimmer of light anywhere," said Colonel Blount to his senior major, "I wouldn't mind. But I can't. Only General Withers at the Divisional Headquarters, the Brigadier, you, and myself knew the details of our last scheme, and yet the Bosches got wind of them. It's maddening, maddening!"
"Whoever the blighter is he's got brains," said the Major.
"Ah, here are two staff officers coming now!"
For some time after this Colonel Blount was more than ordinarily active. He was constantly in communication with the commanding officers of other battalions, and there were frequent journeys to Headquarters; but no one knew what was on foot. The presence of staff officers was constantly noted, and all felt that some big action was to take place, but when or in what way no one knew. Even the Tommies in the trenches felt that something of more than ordinary importance was in the air, and they discussed it one with another. They, too, could not help realising that things had been going bad with them, and that, to say the least of it, the Germans were not getting the worst of it.
Tom Pollard felt this more keenly than any one. He had been the man who had been questioned by the Colonel, and he had more than once fancied that he had been specially watched. Indeed Tom had determined to keep both ears and eyes well open, and if possible to do a little detective work on his own account. He entertained suspicions too, which he dared not breathe to any one. They seemed so wild and unfounded that they would not bear the test of a minute's careful thought, and yet they constantly haunted him.
Of course he knew nothing of what was being settled between the officers; he had not the slightest idea of the nature of the plans which had miscarried, he like the others only had a vague feeling that something was wrong.
One day, while near the canal which runs round the foot of the old ramparts of the city, he noticed that the Brigadier and Colonel Blount were talking with two staff officers; one of the latter was a general, while the other was a captain. Tom felt sure that the captain was Waterman, whom he had known in Brunford.
Tom was reclining near a dangerous corner, close by the Potijze Road which runs straight to the beginning of the British communication trench. German shells were constantly screeching their way through the air, and falling in various parts of the old town; but by this time he had become so accustomed to these ominous sounds that he had almost ceased to take notice of them. There was only one chance in a hundred that one of them might fall near him, and as he had been so far fortunate, he, like hundreds of others in a similar condition, thought he might escape altogether. Besides, although he stood near the dangerous crossing he was in a sheltered position, and as the day was hot he sat under the shade of a wall and looked out on the ruins of the old city.
A few seconds later the group of officers passed close by him, and Tom immediately rose and saluted.
"Oh, this is the man," said Colonel Blount as he caught sight of Tom. "Come here, Pollard."
Tom did as he was commanded, not without some fluttering around the region of his heart.
"Now, Private Pollard," said Colonel Blount, "repeat what you told me some time ago."
Again Tom found himself submitted to a keen cross-examination after he had told his story, and he noticed that all the officers, including Waterman, listened very attentively.
"There's something wrong," said Tom to himself; "they tried to shake me, but they failed; I know what I heard well enough." And then he watched them as they quickly crossed the dangerous corner, and hurried into a sheltered position.
That same night, after the staff officers had returned to their Headquarters, Tom, who was passing the Water Tower, saw, much to his surprise, the retreating form of a staff officer. Of course this might mean nothing—he was utterly ignorant of the movements of those above him; all the same he felt as though hammers were beating against his forehead, so excited was he.
The next night Tom's company was ordered to relieve a number of men who had been a good many hours in the trenches, and just as the shadows of evening were falling they crept along the Potijze Road towards the communication trench. An hour later Tom had taken up his post in the zig-zag cutting with a feeling that something of importance was going to happen.
Hour after hour passed away, and still Tom wondered at what he had seen and heard. He had no definite data upon which to go, no tangible reason for his suspicions, and yet with that bulldog tenacity characteristic of the sharp Lancashire boy he kept thinking of what he ought to do. Presently he heard a voice which he recognised; it was that of Major Blundell, in reply to something that had been said to him.
"Yes, yes," said the Major, "I quite understand."
"You are sure you have the instructions plain?"
"Then I will get along here and speak to Captain Winfield."
"Let me come with you," said Major Blundell.
"Oh no, certainly not. I know the way perfectly well. Good night, Blundell."
"Good night, Waterman."
It was a fairly bright night, although a few clouds hung in the sky. Tom heard approaching footsteps, and then hid himself in a sharp corner of the trench while Waterman passed him. Tom followed noiselessly, all the time keeping out of sight of the man he watched. This he was able to do with comparative ease, owing to the zig-zag nature of the trench. Tom knew that at this particular point they were only a little more than a hundred yards from the German lines, and that the German snipers were constantly on the watch for any one who might happen to show himself above the sand-bags. He had not gone more than twenty yards when he saw Waterman stop and look around.
Tom stopped almost instinctively, still hidden by a sharp turn in the trench. The light was fairly good, and Tom's eyes were keen. He saw that the man had adopted a listening attitude. That particular part of the trench was for the moment deserted, although any moment a patrol might appear. Evidently Waterman was keenly watchful; he looked each way with evident care, and listened attentively. Then he took a piece of white paper from his pocket which seemed to be attached to something heavy. Even in the dim light Tom saw the white gleam of the paper which Waterman had taken from his pocket. Quick as a thought Waterman stepped on to the ledge of the trench, and then, leaning over the sand-bags, threw the paper towards the German lines. This done he stepped back and hurried quickly away.
For a second the lad was almost paralysed; then the meaning of it came to him like a flash of light, and before Waterman had proceeded half a dozen yards Tom had sprung upon him.
"What do you mean, fellow? Get away from me!" and Waterman struggled to free himself.
But Tom held on like grim death. "You are a German spy, that's what you are!" he said hoarsely. "A mean, skulking German spy!"
"This will mean death for you, my man," said Waterman, still struggling. "You are enough of a soldier to know that for a private to strike an officer in war time means court martial and death."
"It will not be I who will be court martialled," panted Tom. "Ah, you swine!" for at that moment Waterman had pulled out his pistol, and had not Tom struck his arm a bullet would have gone through his brain.
"I say, what's this?"
"A German spy!" cried Tom hoarsely, "he tried to shoot me, sir!"
"A German spy!" said the new-comer. "You must be mad."
"I am not mad, sir. I saw him."
"He is mad!" said Waterman. "I'm here on duty and the fellow attacked me. Pull him off, Lieutenant Penrose, he's strangling me!"
Tom recognised the new-comer although he had not seen him for months. It was Penrose who had been with him in Lancashire, and who had received his commission immediately after his arrival in Surrey.
"You know me, sir!" cried Tom, still holding on to the other; "you know I would not do a thing without reason, sir! Make him a prisoner, he's been giving information to the enemy!"
"Prove it!" said Waterman.
"Yes, I will prove it!" panted Tom. "Make him a prisoner, sir; I tell you he's been communicating with the enemy. I saw him not a minute ago!"
"What has he done?" asked Penrose.
"I saw him take a piece of paper from his pocket which was fastened to something heavy; then he threw it over the sand-bags towards the German lines. I tell you, sir, I saw him do it! Make him a prisoner."
By this time others had come up, and Waterman, whom Tom had released somewhat, laughed uneasily. "He's either a fool or a madman," he said; "he attacked me without a moment's warning, and without the slightest reason."
"Hold him fast, sir," cried Tom. "I'll soon prove to you whether it's without the slightest reason. Promise me you won't let him go, sir?"
Penrose, who had grasped the situation, replied quickly: "Of course I shall not let him go, but you must prove your accusation, Pollard. Where are you going?"
"I am going to get the paper he threw towards the German trenches," cried Tom. "That's it, sir, hold him fast!"
Tom was so excited that he had forgotten all about military rules and regulations. He acted just as he would have acted had he caught any one doing an outrageous deed before the war.
Waterman began to shout aloud, but Penrose was too quick for him. He placed his hand on the other's mouth, and said quietly, "No you don't, sir."
"Do you know what you are doing, Lieutenant?" said Waterman. "You are attacking your superior officer. Take away your men and let me go at once."
"Not until I get at the bottom of this," said Penrose quietly.
"I tell you the man is either a madman or a fool." Waterman was stammering painfully now.
"That will have to be proved," and Penrose gripped his arm tightly. "That's it, Jackson; take his revolver. As it happens," he went on to Waterman, "I know Pollard; he's a level-headed lad, and he would not have done this without reason. Ah, Major Blundell, will you come here a minute, sir," for by this time the Major, having heard the sound of voices, had rushed up.
"What's the matter?"
Penrose quickly told him what had taken place, and the young officer's words came like a bombshell upon this steady-going and rather dull officer. If it were true, all the mystery of the last few weeks was cleared up. But he could not believe it. Waterman was regarded as one of the most capable and trustworthy of the staff officers. He had shown zeal beyond the ordinary, and his intelligence and quickness of perception had more than once been remarked upon; indeed he had been mentioned in the dispatches as one who had rendered valuable service to the British Army; and now for an accusation like this to come fairly staggered the well-meaning faithful officer.
The whole affair had been so sudden too. Only a couple of minutes before, he had been discussing plans with Waterman, who had urged him to be more than ordinarily careful in carrying out the instructions from Headquarters, and yet here he was accused of communicating with the enemy, and seen by a trustworthy soldier to throw a missile towards the enemy's lines.
"Where is Pollard?" asked Major Blundell, for Tom had disappeared.
"He's gone to secure the paper he saw Captain Waterman throw," was Penrose's reply.
A second later Major Blundell was leaning over the sand-bags, looking across the "No-man's-Land" towards the enemy's trenches.
By this time a number of other men had gathered; as if by magic the news had flown, and for a moment even discipline was in abeyance.
As will be easily seen, Tom's work was not easy, and the space of ground between the English and the German lines was dangerous in the highest degree. Any one seen there was a target for both English and German rifles. But Tom did not think of this, indeed the thought of danger was at that time utterly absent from him. Just as at times the mind has subconscious powers, so there are times when the body is so much under the influence of excitement that ordinary laws do not seem to operate. At that time Tom seemed to be living hours in seconds, because he instinctively felt that great issues depended upon what he wanted to do. If he were right in his conclusions, as he felt sure he was, Waterman, who was naturally in the confidence of his superior officers, would have valuable information to impart. It came upon him too, like a flash of lightning, that Waterman had uttered a peculiar cry as he threw the missile across the intervening space. That was doubtless a prearranged signal between him and the Germans. If they had heard it, as was more than probable, one of their men would naturally be sent to find the paper. In that case the plans and arrangements which the English officers had made would be in the hands of the Germans.
Tom had noted the spot on which Waterman had stood when he threw his missile, and had also noticed the direction in which it had flown, at least he thought he had. But when he was in the open space he was not so sure. As fortune would have it, this particular bit of ground was not wired, and he moved without difficulty.
Tom looked around, bewildered; nowhere could he see the gleaming white paper which Waterman had thrown—in fact, nothing was plainly visible to him. He saw, dimly, the outline of the German trenches; saw the mounds of earth with the sandbags on their summits, but nothing else. A hundred yards or so is no great distance, but it is difficult to locate a small object in such a space at night. He could not tell how far Waterman had been able to throw the stone, or how near it might be to the German trench. But his eyes were young and keen; every faculty was more than ordinarily tense and active, and Tom was in deadly earnest. He had started to do this thing, and he would do it.
Presently he saw a white spot on the ground, and he felt as though hammers were beating against his temples. Crouching low, he made his way towards it, but he had only gone a few steps when he discerned the form of a man, apparently with the same object in view, creeping from a German trench. Like lightning Tom made a dash for it, but the other was nearer than he, and by the time he had reached it the German had secured it. As far as he could judge they were about half-way between the two lines, and he knew the danger of the task he had set himself. In a vague way he wondered whether the Germans had seen him, he also wondered whether the British were watching him. But this did not trouble him much; the one thought which filled his mind was that he must at all hazards secure the paper which Waterman had thrown.
Without hesitating a second, and without making a sound, he threw himself upon the German and well-nigh bore him to the ground. Then followed a hand-to-hand struggle, the details of which Tom was never clear about. As a lad he had been a football player and had made good muscle; he had played half-back for the Brunford football club for several seasons, and although he was by no means a giant, he was well built and strong. During the time he had been in the Army, too, every muscle in his body had been developed to its fullest capacity: his severe training told in his favour now, and Tom never dreamt of giving in. On the other hand, however, the German was a big, heavy man, and he also had undergone a severe training.
Tom felt his antagonist weakening; he knew it by his gurgling breath and his weakening grasp. He himself was also well-nigh spent, although he was not quite exhausted. Then, fearing lest the apparent weakness of his opponent was only a ruse by which he might gain advantage, Tom determined on an old football trick. A second later the German's shoulder blade snapped like a match, and Tom, seizing the paper, rushed back towards the English lines.
He had only fifty yards to cover, but such a fifty yards! His legs seemed of lead, too, while his head was swimming. No sooner had he commenced to stagger back, than the Germans opened fire on him; a hundred bullets whistled by him, while he heard yells of rage coming from the enemy's trenches.
He felt his strength leaving him, his head was swimming, his breath came in short, difficult gasps, and he knew he was wounded. He suffered no great pain, but by the burning sensations in his left arm and in his right shoulder he knew that the German bullets must have struck him. More than once he stumbled and fell.
He felt himself going blind; he heard cries from the English trenches which seemed like cheers, but he could see nothing, and the cries seemed to be a long, long way off. Still he struggled on. "I must get in! I must get in!" was the thought which possessed his bewildered brain. Then he fell heavily; after that all became dark.
When he returned to consciousness it seemed to him as though he saw a number of ghostly faces around him. He had a sort of feeling that he was dead, and that those faces belonged to the spirit world; but in a few seconds they became clearer.
"That's better, Tom, that's better! You are all right. You did it, lad! You did it!"
"Stand back there, and give him air. Heavens! There hasn't been a braver thing done by any man in the Army!"
He heard all this, but not clearly. They seemed to be stray sentences, uttered by many voices. But it didn't matter; only one thing mattered. Had he done what he had set out to do?
"Have you got it?" he gasped.
"Got it! I should think we have." It was Major Blundell who spoke. "It's all right, Pollard, you've done the trick."
"Have I, sir?" said Tom. "I—I feel very strange."
"You will soon get over it, you are only pumped!"
"Ay," laughed another, and the voice was as sweet music to Tom, "I've seen thee worse nor this i' the Brunford Cup Tie match."
"That thee, Nick?" he said, lapsing into the Brunford vernacular, which he had been trying to correct lately.
"Ay, Tom, it's me; tha'st done a good neet's work to-neet."
Tom's brain was clearer now; he knew where he was; knew, too, that he had succeeded. Something was still hammering at his temples, and his head was aching terribly, but he didn't mind; his heart was light.
"You have done well, Pollard." It was Major Blundell who spoke.
"Was what I got any good, sir?"
"Good! I should think it was."
"And Captain Waterman, have you got him?"
"That's all right, Pollard, he's safe enough," replied the Major.
"Thank you, sir," said Tom, "I don't care now."
What happened after that Tom didn't remember. He had a confused idea that he was carried down a long line of trenches, and that he heard cheering words during his journey. But nothing was plain to him, except a burning sensation in his left arm and in his right shoulder; for the rest he was faint, sick, and weary.
"You are feeling better now, are you not, Pollard?" It was the doctor who spoke.
"Yes, sir, I am feeling all right," replied Tom; "there is not much the matter with me, is there?"
"You are simply a miracle," replied the doctor, "only a couple of flesh wounds, that's all. You have lost a great deal of blood, of course, but you will soon be as fit as a fiddle again. I wonder that a hundred bullets did not go through you!"
"They came mighty near," was Tom's reply.
"You must be removed from here at once," said the doctor, "this region's too unhealthy for you."
An hour later Tom found himself away from the screech of shells.
As he reflected afterwards, it seemed to him a miracle that he had not been killed. No sooner had he mastered the German and seized the paper than bullets showered upon him like rain, and yet beyond these two slight flesh wounds he was wholly untouched. It was true he was very stiff and sore, but he knew that he would soon be as well as ever.
On the evening of the same day Colonel Blount came to see him.
"Pollard, my lad," said the colonel, "I felt I must come to see you. You have rendered the British Army and your country a great service, and you will get your reward."
"Thank you, sir, but I never thought about reward," said Tom simply.
"I'm sure you didn't," replied the colonel, "but this job's not at an end yet, my lad."
"No, sir," said Tom, mistaking his meaning, "we have got a stiff job before we lick the Germans."
"I didn't mean that," replied the colonel. "I mean this Waterman business is not at an end yet."
"No, sir," said Tom, "of course you will shoot him."
"He deserves a worse death than that," replied the Colonel grimly, "but you will have to give evidence against him."
"Yes, sir," replied Tom.
"Will you be well enough to come to-morrow night?"
The Colonel knew he was not acting according to strict regimental rules and regulations in speaking to a private in this fashion, but it was no ordinary case, and Colonel Blount was not a man to be tied down to military etiquette. Private though Tom Pollard was, he had rendered, as he had said, a signal service, not only to the Army, but to the British Nation.
The next evening Tom found himself in a large room amongst a number of officers, and standing at one corner, carefully guarded, was Waterman.
The evidence against Waterman was so clear, so overwhelming, that there was not the slightest doubt about the verdict which would be passed upon him. He had been caught practically red-handed in his deed of treachery; but this was not all. Tom Pollard's action had led to a number of other facts coming to light. He had by many cunning devices been in communication with the enemy; he had constantly made known the plans which he had learnt at the Divisional Headquarters, and had thus prepared the Germans for many of the attacks which we had made.
Tom could not help being impressed by the fact that even although Waterman's guilt was as clear as daylight, it was the evident desire of those who tried him to act fairly, and even generously, towards him. Everything that could be said in his favour was carefully listened to, and noted; and on the faces of more than one present was a look of concern almost amounting to pain. This, however, did not hide the truth that every man regarded him with horror, almost amounting to loathing. They respected an enemy who fought openly and fairly, but for a man who was a staff officer in the British Army and who consequently learnt many of the plans of that Army; for a man who had taken the oath to be faithful to his King and Country, and yet to act as he had acted, was ignominy too vile for expression.
But Waterman seemed to have no shame, no sense of guilt; he uttered no word of regret, but stood erect and almost motionless. His face was hard and set, in his eyes was a steely glitter; it seemed as though he defied his judges to do their worst, and to mock at their evident disgust.
Tom gave his evidence clearly, and without any waste of words.
"You knew him before you went into the Army, then?"
"Yes, sir," replied Tom.
"Tell us where."
Whereupon Tom told of Waterman's association with him in Brunford, and of the conversations he had had with the prisoner.
"I didn't quite understand at the time," said Tom, "why he seemed so sure of the Germans getting the best of it. He seemed to be glad when he told me of the tremendous strength of the German army, and the preparations they had made. He said he had been to Germany to school, and had lived there a long time; that was how he came to know so much about it. I could never quite make it out how an Englishman who loved his country could be so sure that the Germans would win. Besides, he didn't talk about it as though it would be a calamity, but something he would be proud of; but I don't know that I thought much of it at the time, especially when he told me he was going to receive a commission in our Army; but later on, when I found out the Germans knew what we were going to do, I wondered how they'd found out, and that led me to put one thing to another."
This was not strict evidence, and the officers knew it, but they allowed Tom to tell his story his own way.
"That was why I determined to watch him," went on Tom, "and—well, sir, that was how things turned out as they did."
When Tom's evidence came to an end he was told to retire. The lad was sorely grieved at this, because he would have liked to remain to the end; but after all, he was only a private, and he was there simply to give his evidence.