The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land by Ralph Connor
Chapter X. France
"France, sunny France!" The tone carried concentrated bitterness and disgust. "One cursed fraud after another in this war."
"Cheer up!" said Barry. "There's worse to come--perhaps better. This rain is beastly, but the clouds will pass, and the sun will shine again, for in spite of the rain this is 'sunny France.' There's a little homily for you," said Barry, "and for myself as well, for I assure you this combination of mal de mer and sleet makes one feel rotten."
"Everything is rotten," grumbled Duff, gazing gloomily through the drizzling rain at the rugged outline of wharves that marked the Boulogne docks.
"Look at this," cried Duff, sweeping his hand toward the deck. "You would think this stuff was shot out of the blower of a threshing machine--soldier's baggage, kits, quartermaster's stores--and this is a military organisation. Good Lord!"
"Lieutenant Duff! Is Lieutenant Duff here?" It was the O. C.'s voice.
"Yes, sir," said Duff, going forward and saluting.
"Mr. Duff, I wish you to take charge of the Transport for the present. Lieutenant Bonner is quite useless--helpless, I mean. You will find Sergeant Mackay a reliable man. Sorry I couldn't give you longer notice. I think, however, you are the man for the job."
"I'll do my best, sir," said Duff, saluting, as the O. C. turned away.
"What did I tell you, Duff?" said Barry. "You certainly are in for it, and you have my sympathy."
"Sympathy! Don't you worry about me," said Duff. "This is just the kind of thing I like. I haven't run a gang of navvies in the Crow's Nest Pass for nothing. You watch my smoke. But, one word, Pilot! When you see me bearing down, full steam ahead, give me room! I'll make this go or bust something." Then in a burst of confidence, he took Barry by the arm, and added in a low voice: "And if I live, Pilot, I'll be running something in this war bigger than the Transport of a battalion before I'm done."
Barry let his eyes run over the powerful figure, the rugged, passionate face, lit up now with gleaming eyes, and said:
"I believe you, Duff. Meantime, I'll watch your smoke."
"Do!" replied Duff with superb self-confidence. And it was worth while during the next hour to watch Duff evolve order out of chaos. First of all he put into his men and into his sergeant the fear of death. But he did more than that. He breathed into them something of his own spirit of invincible determination. He had them springing at his snappy orders with an eagerness that was in itself the larger half of obedience, and as they obeyed they became conscious that they were working under the direction of a brain that had a perfected plan of action, and that held its details firmly in its grasp.
Not only did Duff show himself a master of organisation and control, but in a critical moment he himself leaped into the breach, and did the thing that balked his men. Did a heavy transport wagon jamb at the gangway, holding up the traffic, with a spring, Duff was at the wheel. A heave of his mighty shoulders, and the wagon went roaring down the gangway. Did a horse, stupid with terror, from its unusual surroundings, balk, Duff had a "twitch" on its upper lip, and before it knew what awful thing had gripped it, the horse was lifted clear out of its tracks, and was on its way to the dock.
Before he had cleared the ship, Duff had a circle of admirers about him, gazing as if at a circus.
"An energetic officer you have there," said the brass hat standing beside the colonel.
"A new man. This is his first time on the transport," replied the colonel.
"Quite remarkable! Quite remarkable!" exclaimed the brass hat. "That unloading must have been done in record time, and in spite of quite unusual conditions."
The boat being clear and the loads made up, Duff approached the Commanding Officer.
"All ready, sir," he announced. "Shall we move off? I should like to get a start. The roads will be almost impassable, I'm afraid."
"Do you know the route?" asked the Commanding Officer.
"Yes, sir, I have it here."
"All right, go ahead, Duff. A mighty good piece of work you have done there."
"Thank you, sir," said Duff, saluting and turning away.
"Move off, there," he shouted to the leading team.
The driver started the team but they slipped, plunged and fell heavily. Duff was at their heads before any other man could move.
"Get hold here, men," he yelled. "Take hold of that horse. What are you afraid of?" he cried to a groom who was gingerly approaching the struggling animal. "Now then, all together!"
When he had the team on their feet again, he said to the grooms standing at their heads, "Jump up on the horses' backs; that will help the them to hold their footing."
There was some slight hesitation on the part of the grooms.
"Come on!" he roared, and striding to the horse nearest him, he flung himself upon its back.
A groom mounted the other, and once more a start was made, but they had not gone more than a few steps, when the groom's horse fell heavily, and rolled over on its side, pinning the unfortunate man beneath him.
There was a shriek of agony. In an instant Duff was off his horse and at the head of the fallen animal.
"Medical officer here!" he shouted. "Now then, two of you men. One of you pull out that man while we lift."
The horse's head and shoulders were lifted clear, and the injured man was pulled out of danger.
"Take him out of the way, please, doctor," said Duff, to the M. O., who was examining the groom.
His sergeant literally sprang to his side.
"Get me a dozen bags," he said.
"Bags, sir? I don't know where--"
"Bags," repeated Duff savagely. "Canvas, anything to wrap around these horses' feet."
The sergeant without further words plunged into the darkness, returning almost immediately with half a dozen bags.
"Thanks, sergeant; that's the way to move. Now get some more!"
Under Duff's directions the bags were tied about the feet of the horses, thus enabling them to hold their footing, and the transport moved off in the darkness.
Returning from the disposing of the injured man, the M. O. found Barry shivering with the cold, and weak from his recent attack of seasickness.
"There will be no end of a sick parade to-morrow morning, and you'll be one of them," grumbled the M. O. "If they don't move them out of here soon they'll take them away in ambulances. There are a hundred men at this moment fit to go to hospital, but the O. C. won't hear of it."
"Doc, they ought to have something hot. The kitchens are left behind, I understand. Let me have a couple of your men, and let me see what I can do."
"It's no use, I've tried all the hotels about here. They're full up."
"No harm trying, doc," said Barry, and off he went.
But he found the hotels full up, as the doctor had said. After much inquiry, he found his way to the Y. M. C. A. A cheerful but sleepy secretary, half dead with the fatigue of a heavy day ministering to soldiers "going up the line," could offer him no help at all.
"Do you mean to say that there is no place in this town," said Barry desperately, "where a sick man can get a dish of coffee?"
"Sick man!" cried the secretary. "Why, certainly! Why not try the R. A. M. C.? They've a hospital half a mile up the street. They will certainly help you out. I'll come with you."
"No, you don't," said Barry. "You go back to bed. I'll find the place."
Half a mile up the street, as the secretary had said, Barry came upon the flaring lantern of the R. A. M. C., at the entrance to a huge warehouse, the gate of which stood wide open.
Entering the courtyard, Barry found a group of men about a blazing fire.
"May I see the officer in charge?" he asked, approaching the group.
The men glanced at his rank badges.
"Yes, sir," said a sergeant, clicking his heels smartly. "Can I do anything for you, sir?"
"Thank you," said Barry, and told him his wants.
"We have plenty of biscuits," said the sergeant, "and coffee, too. You are welcome to all you can carry, but I don't see how we can do any more for you. But would you like to see the officer in charge, sir?"
"Thank you," said Barry, and together they passed into another room.
But the officer was engaged elsewhere. While they were discussing the matter, a door opened, and a young girl dressed in the uniform of a V. A. D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) appeared.
"What is it, sergeant?" she inquired, in a soft but rather tired voice.
The sergeant explained, while she listened with mild interest. Then Barry took up the tale, and proceeded to dilate upon the wretched condition of his comrades, out in the icy rain. But his story moved the V. A. D. not at all. She had seen too much of the real misery and horrors of war. Barry began to feel discouraged, and indeed a little ashamed of himself.
"You see, we have just come over," he said in an apologetic tone, "and we don't know much about war yet."
"You are Canadians?" cried the girl, a new interest dawning in her eyes. As she came into the light, Barry noticed that they were brown, and that they were very lustrous.
"I love the Canadians," she exclaimed. "My brother was a liaison artillery officer at Ypres; with them, at the time of the gas, you know. He liked them immensely." Her voice was soft and sad.
Unconsciously Barry let his eyes fall to the black band on her arm.
"He was with the Canadians, too, when he was killed at Armentieres, three months ago."
"Killed!" exclaimed Barry. "Oh, I am so sorry for you."
"I had two brothers," she went on, in her gentle even tone. "One was killed at Landrecies, on the retreat from Mons, you know."
"No," said Barry, "I'm afraid I don't know about it. Tell me!"
"It was a great fight," said the girl. "Oh, a splendid fight!" A ring came into her voice and a little colour into her cheek. "They tried to rush our men, but they couldn't. My oldest brother was there in charge of a machine gun section. The machine guns did wonderful work. The colonel came to tell us about it. He said it was very fine." There was no sign of tears in her eyes, nor tremor in her voice, only tenderness and pride.
"And your mother is alone now?" inquired Barry.
"Oh, we gave up our house to the government for a hospital. You see, father was in munitions. He's too old for active service, and mother is matron in the hospital. She was very unwilling that I should come over here. She said I was far too young, but of course that's quite nonsense. So you see, we are all in it."
"It is perfectly amazing," said Barry. "You British women are wonderful!"
The brown eyes opened a little wider.
"Wonderful? Why, what else could we do? But the Canadians! I think they're wonderful, coming all this way to fight."
"I can't see that," said Barry. "That's what that old naval boy at Devonport said, but I can't see that it's anything wonderful that we should fight for our Empire."
"Devonport! A naval officer!" The girl lost her calm. She became excited. "What was his name?"
"I have his card here," said Barry, taking out his pocket book and handing her the card.
"My uncle!" she cried. "Why, how perfectly splendid!" offering Barry her hand. "Why, we're really introduced. Then you're the man that Uncle Howard--" She stopped abruptly, a flush on her cheek. Then she turned to the N. C. O. "Yes, sergeant, that will do," as the man brought half a dozen large biscuit cans and as many large bottles of prepared coffee.
As Barry's eyes fell upon the biscuit cans an idea came to him.
"Will these cans hold water?" he inquired.
"Yes, sir," replied the sergeant.
"Then, we're fixed," cried Barry, in high delight. "This is perfectly fine."
"What do you mean?" asked the girl.
"We'll dump the biscuits, and boil the coffee in the cans. I haven't camped on the Athabasca for nothing. Now we're all right and I suppose we must go."
The V. A. D. hesitated a moment, then she took the sergeant to one side, and entered into earnest and persuasive talk with him.
"It's against regulations, miss," Barry heard him say, "and besides, you know, we're expecting a hospital train any minute, and every car will be needed."
"Then I'll take my own car," she said. "It's all ready and has the chains on, sergeant, I think."
"Yes, it's quite ready, but you will get me into trouble, miss."
"Then, I'll get you out again. Load those things in, while I run and change-- I'm going to drive you out to your camp," she said to Barry as she hurried away.
The sergeant shook his head as he looked after her.
"She's a thoroughbred, sir," he said. "We jump when she asks us for anything. She's a real blooded one; not like some, sir--like some of them fullrigged ones. They keep 'er 'oppin'."
"Fullrigged ones?" inquired Barry.
"Them nurses, I mean, sir. They loves to 'awe them--them young 'Vaddies,' as we call them--V. A. D., you know, sir. They keeps 'em a 'oppin' proper--scrubbin' floors, runnin' messages, but Miss Vincent, she mostly drives a car."
While the sergeant was dilating upon the virtues and excellences of the young V. A. D., his men ran out her car, and packed into it the biscuit tins and coffee. By the time the sergeant was ready she was back, dressed in a chauffeur's uniform.
Barry had thought her charming in her V. A. D. dress, but in her uniform she was bewitching. He noticed that her hair clustered in tiny ringlets about her natty little cap, in quite a maddening way. One vagrant curl over her ear had a particular fascination for his eyes. He felt it ought to be tucked in just a shade. He was conscious of an almost irresistible desire to do the tucking in. What would happen if--
"Well, are you ready?" inquired the girl in a quick, businesslike tone.
"What? Oh, yes," said Barry, recalled to the business of the moment.
During the drive the girl gave her whole attention to her wheel, as indeed was necessary, for the road was dangerously slippery, and she drove without lights through the black night. Barry kept up an endless stream of talk, set going by her command, as she took her place at the wheel. "Now tell me about Canada. I can listen, but I can't talk."
In the full tide of his most eloquent passages, Barry found himself growing incoherent at times, for his mind was in a state of oscillation between the wonderful and lustrous qualities of the brown eyes that he remembered flashing upon him in the light of the fire, and that maddening little curl over the girl's ear.
In an unbelievably short time, so it seemed to him, they came upon the rear of a marching column.
"These are your men, I fancy," she said, "and this will be your camp on the left; I know it well. I've often been here."
She swung the car off the road into an open field, set out with tents, and brought the car to a stop beside an old ruined factory.
"This, I believe, will be the best place for your purpose," she said, and sprang from her seat, and ran to the ruin, flashing her torchlight before her. "Here you are," she said. "This will be just the thing."
Barry followed her a few steps down into the long, stone-flagged cellar.
"Splendid! This is the very thing," he cried enthusiastically. "You are really the most wonderful person."
"Now get your stuff in here," she ordered. "But what will you do for wood? There is always water," she added, "in some tanks further on. Come, I'll show you."
Barry followed her in growing amazement and admiration at her prompt efficiency.
"Now then, there are your tanks," she said. "As for wood, I don't know what you will do, but there is a garden paling a little further on, and, of course--"
"Don't worry about that," said Barry.
"I won't," with a gay laugh; "I know you Canadians, you see."
Together they returned to the car.
Before she mounted to her seat she turned to Barry, and offered him her hand and said: "I think it is perfectly ripping that we were introduced in this way. Though I don't know your name yet," she added shyly.
"Awfully stupid of me," said Barry, and he gave her his name, adding that of the regiment, and his rank.
"Good-bye, then," she said, climbing into her car, and starting her engine.
"But," said Barry, "I must see you safely back."
She laughed a scornful but, as Barry thought, a most delicious little laugh.
"Nonsense! We don't do that sort of thing here, you know. We're on our own."
A little silence fell between them.
"When does your battalion march?" she asked abruptly.
"Perhaps to-morrow. I don't know."
"If you do go then," she said, with again that little touch of shyness, "I suppose I won't see you again."
"See you again," exclaimed Barry, his tone indicating that the possibility of such a calamity was unthinkable, "why, of course I shall see you again. I must see you again--I--I--I just must see you again."
"Good night, then," she said in a soft, hurried voice, throwing in her clutch.
Barry stood listening in the dark to the hum of her engine, growing more faint every moment.
"Some girl, eh?" said a voice. At his side he saw Harry Hobbs. Barry turned sharply upon him.
"Now then, Hobbs, some wood and we will get a fire going and look lively! And, Hobbs, I believe there's a fence about fifty yards down there, which you might find useful. Now move. Quick!" Unconsciously he tried to reproduce, in uttering the last word, Duff's tone and manner. The effect was evident immediately.
Hobbs without further words departed in the darkness. Again Barry stood listening to the hum of the engine, until he could no longer hear it in the noise and confusion of the camp, but in his heart Harry's words made music.
"Some girl, eh?"
As he stood there in the darkness, hearing that music in his heart, a voice broke in, swearing hard and deep oaths. It was the M. O.
"Hello, doc, my boy; come here," cried Barry.
The M. O. approached. He was in a state of rage that rendered coherent speech impossible.
"Oh, quit it, doc. Let me show you something."
He led him into the ruin, where his spoils were cached.
"Biscuits, my boy, and coffee. Hold on! Listen! I'm going to get a fire going here and in twenty minutes there'll be six cans of fragrant delicious coffee, boiling hot."
"Why, how the--"
"Doc, don't talk! Listen to me! You round up your sick men, and bring them quietly over here. I don't know how many I can supply, but at least, I think, a hundred."
"Why, how the devil--?"
"Go on; I haven't time to talk to you. Get busy!"
Working by flashlight, the men cut open the tins, dumped the biscuits on a blanket spread in a corner of the cellar, while Barry made preparations for a fire.
"Here, Hobbs, you punch two holes in these cans, just an inch from the top."
Soon the fire was blazing cheerily. In its light Barry was searching through the ruin.
"By Jove," he shouted, "the very thing. Just made for us."
He pulled out a long steel rod from a heap of rubbish and ran with it to the fire.
"Here, boys, punch a hole in this wall. Now then, for the cans. String them on this rod."
In twenty minutes the coffee was ready.
"How is it?" he inquired anxiously, handing a mess tin full to one of his men.
The boy tasted it.
"Like mother made," he said, with a grin. "Gee, but it's good."
At that moment the doctor appeared at the cellar door.
"I say, old chap," he said, "there will be a riot here in fifteen minutes. That coffee smells the whole camp."
"Bring 'em along, doc. The sick chaps first. By Jove, here's the sergeant major himself."
"What's all this?" inquired the sergeant major in his gruffest voice. "Who's responsible for this fire?"
"Coffee, sergeant major?" answered Barry, handing him a tin full.
"Drink it first, sergeant major."
The sergeant major took the mess tin and tasted the coffee.
"Well, this is fine," he declared, "and it's what the boys want. But this fire is against orders, sir. I ought to have it put out."
"You will have it put out over my dead body, sergeant major," cried the M. O.
"And mine," added Barry.
"By gad, we'll chance the zeps, sir," said the sergeant major. "This freezin' rain will kill more men than a bomb. Bring in your men, sir," he added to the M. O. "But I must see the O. C."
The sergeant major's devotion to military discipline was struggling hard with his humanity, which, under his rugged exterior, beat warm in his heart.
"Why bother with the O. C.?" said the M. D.
"But I must see him," insisted the sergeant major.
He had not far to go to attain his purpose.
"Hello! What the devil is this?" exclaimed a loud voice at the door.
"By gad, it's the old man himself," muttered the M. O. to Barry. "Now look out for ructions."
In came the O. C., followed by a brass hat. Barry went forward with a steaming tin of coffee.
"Sorry our china hasn't arrived yet, sir," he said cheerfully, "but the coffee isn't bad, the boys say."
"Why, it's you, Dunbar," said the colonel, peering into his face, and shaking the rain drops from his coat. "I might have guessed that you'd be in it. Where there's any trouble," he continued, turning to the brass hat at his side, "you may be quite sure that the Pilot or the M. O. here will be in it. By Jove, this coffee goes to the right spot. Have a cup, major?" he said as Barry brought a second tin.
"It's against regulations, you know," said the major, taking the mess tin gingerly. "Fires are quite forbidden. Air raids, and that sort of thing, don't you know."
"Oh, hang it all, major," cried the O. C. "The coffee is fine, and my men will be a lot better for it. This camp of yours, anyway, is no place for human beings, and especially for men straight off the boat. As for me, I'm devilish glad to get this coffee. Give me another tin, Pilot."
"It's quite irregular," murmured the major, still drinking his coffee. "It's quite irregular! But I see the door is fairly well guarded against light, and perhaps--"
"I think we'll just carry on," said the colonel. "If there is any trouble, I'll assume the responsibility for it. Thank you, Pilot. Just keep guard on the light here, sergeant major."
"All right, sir. Very good, sir, we will hang up a blanket."
Meanwhile the news had spread throughout the camp, and before many minutes had passed the cellar was jammed with a crowd of men that reached through the door and out into the night. The crowd was becoming noisy and there was danger of confusion. Then the pilot climbed up on a heap of rubbish and made a little speech.
"Men," he called out, "this coffee is intended first of all for the sick men in this battalion. Those sick men must first be cared for. After that we shall distribute the coffee as far as it will go. There is plenty of water outside, and I think I have plenty of coffee. Sergeant major, I suggest that you round up these men in some sort of order."
A few sharp words of command from the sergeant major brought order out of confusion, and for two hours there filed through the cellar a continuous stream of men, each bringing an empty mess tin, and carrying it away full of hot and fragrant coffee.
By the time the men had been supplied the officers were finished with their duties, and having got word of the Pilot's coffee stall, came crowding in. One and all they were vociferous in their praise of the chaplain, voting him a "good fellow" and a "life-saver" of the highest order. But it was felt by all that Corporal Thom expressed the general consensus of opinion to his friend Timms. "That Pilot of ours," he declared, "runs a little to the narrow gauge, but in that last round up he was telling us about last Sunday there won't be the goat run for him. It's him for the baa baas, sure enough."
And though in the vernacular the corporal's words did not sound quite reverent, it was agreed that they expressed in an entirely satisfactory manner the general opinion of the battalion.
An hour later, wearied as he was, Barry crawled into his icy blankets, but with a warmer feeling in his heart than he had known since he joined the battalion. But before he had gone to sleep, there came into his mind a thought that brought him up wide awake. He had quite forgotten all about his duty as chaplain. "What a chance you had there," insisted his chaplain's conscience, "for a word that would really hearten your men. This is their first night in France. To-morrow they march up to danger and death. What a chance! And you missed it."
Barry was too weary to discuss the matter further, but as he fell asleep he said to himself, "At any rate, the boys are feeling a lot better," and in spite of his sense of failure, that thought brought him no small comfort.