The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land by Ralph Connor
Chapter XV. Thinning Ranks
"Three months in that hell-hole of the salient have made their mark on this battalion," said Transport Sergeant Mackay.
"Yes, there's quite a lot of these round the first line and back about here," replied the pioneer sergeant, who was putting the finishing touches upon some crosses, that were to be sent up the line that night.
"That's so, Fatty. Whose is that cross you are finishing?"
"That's Lieutenant Salford's, a fine young officer he was, too. Always had a smile. The deeper the mud the more Sally smiled. And this here is Lieutenant Booth's. There's a chap now that picked up wonderful. Two months ago everybody thought he was a big soft slob, and those bombers say that he was all, right. And here's the M. O.'s. Poor old doc! There was a man, now, if there ever was one. He wasn't afraid of nothing. He would go walking about with a smile when a bombardment was on, and in that last big show the other day, they say him and the chaplain--there's another peach-- they 'carried on' wonderful. I wasn't around there at the time, but the boys at the dressing station told me that them two worked back and forward getting out the wounded, I think they had about thirty injured up at that time, as if it was a kind of er summer shower that was falling, let alone H. E.'s and whizzbangs, and then after they got the last man out, the M. O. went in with some stretcher bearers, just lookin' around before he left, and a shell came and got 'em all, and they say it was about the last shell that was throwed. And that's where poor Harry Hobbs got his, too. The Pilot went out just a minute before, and when he came back that's what he saw. They say he was terrible cut up over the M. O. Funny thing, the M. O.'s face was just as quiet as if he had gone to sleep, but the rest of the boys, well you could hardly get 'em together, and the Pilot walkin' up and down there lookin' like a lost man. We buried 'em right there by Maple Copse. I want to tell you, sergeant, that that's the hardest job I ever done in this war. The Pilot, he broke right down in the middle of the service. It must have been hard for him. I've been with him now at every funeral and he stands up to his work like a man. He takes it kind of cheery almost, but when we was puttin' down the M. O. and poor Harry, the Pilot just couldn't appear to stand it. I cried like a baby, and you ought to have seen the crowd, the O. C. and the adjutant and the pioneers, and they are all pretty hardened up by this time. They have done enough plantin' anyhow. They just all went to pieces. The shells was goin' overhead among the trees, something awful, but nobody minded more than if they had been pea- shooters. First time I ever seen the Pilot break, and I have been with him ever since the first one we buried, and that was big Jim Berry. A sniper got him. You don't remember? I guess you don't see much or get much of the news back here."
"Back here!" exclaimed Sergeant Mackay. "What do you mean, 'back here'? Don't I have to go up every night with the transport, and through that barridge, too. This aint no 'safety first' job."
"I know, sergeant. I'm not sayin' you ain't at war. Believe me, I'd rather be up front than to go up round Hell Fire Corner and come back by the Menin Gate every night like you fellows. I ain't sayin' nothing about that, but you don't see things that I see, and you don't get the news same as I do. Now, about Jim Berry, you know, he was goin' to do some snipin' in place of McCuaig, who went to the machine gun company."
"McCuaig, in the machine gun company! I never heard that."
"Well, that's what I'm sayin'," said Sergeant Matthews, "you don't get some of the chances to get news down here, same as me. You see, when we're sewin' up the boys and fixin' 'em up like, and when we're fixin' up the graves and puttin' on the crosses, you get kind of thinkin' about things, and kind of lonesome, and so the boys keep telling the news to cheer themselves up, and that's how I heard about McCuaig. You see, McCuaig was snipin' the first tour, and he's a killer, you bet, and he had only cut three natches in his rifle. The boys say he had got four of the Huns, but he had only put down three natches on his rifle to be sure, and after he seen the machine gun work, stoppin' a raid, he comes to the officer, and says he, givin' him his rifle: 'Say, this is all right for sport, but it ain't good enough for killin' these devils. I'd like to get on to your gang, if I can,' and they put him right onto the machine gun. Say, he's sleepin' with that Lewis gun ever since. Just pets it like a baby. What was I tellin' you? Oh, yes, about McCuaig and Jim Berry. Well, he took McCuaig's place snipin' and a good sniper he was too. He used to hunt, you know, up in the mountains with Jim Knight every fall. Well, he started out snipin' the day after McCuaig quit, and McCuaig gave him his rifle too, and took him up to the 'hide.' Well, big Jim was always a careless cuss, you know. He gets his eye on the hole, sightin' his rifle, and McCuaig was watchin' through one of them new things--"
"Yes, that's it, Paris cope. Them French is mighty smart fellows, you bet. When along walks a Hun. 'There he comes!' sings out McCuaig. 'Didn't see him until he got past,' says Jim, pretty mad, because Jim hated to show that he'd got 'buck fever,' or something, and waited for the next. 'Here he comes!' says McCuaig, again. 'Bang!' goes Jim. 'I've got him,' he shouts, hoppin' up to get a good look, when McCuaig grabs him and jerks him down, swearin' somethin' awful, and tellin' him he wasn't shootin' no mountain goats. 'Oh shaw!' says Jim. 'They can't get me.' 'You keep your head down, Jim,' said McCuaig. That's the very last words he said to him, just as he was leavin' him. He wasn't down the next day when bang! goes Jim's rifle, and again up he jumps to see what he'd got, when ping! goes a Boche bullet right through his head. You know McCuaig was real mad, and he stood quiet at that hole for three hours. Then he got Corporal Thom to shove up a hat on a rifle, when ping! comes the bullet and bang! goes Jim's rifle. 'Guess he won't shoot no more, unless there's shootin' in hell,' says he, and makes another natch. Say, the boys all felt bad about Jim and so did the Pilot. Well, we had to plant him that night, as we was goin' out next day. It was out beyond the Loop. You don't know where that is, I guess."
"Of course, I do," asserted Mackay indignantly. "I've been all around that front line. What are you givin' us!"
"Oh, you have, eh! Well, I wouldn't unless I had to, you bet. It's no place for a man with a waist line like mine. Well, as I was sayin', that cemetery was right out in the open, right under observation, and exposed to machine guns, snipers, whizbangs, all the hull bloody lot of 'em. Wasn't no place for a cemetery anyway, I say. I'm not after any bomb proof job but a cemetery should be--"
"Should be a quiet and retired spot," suggested one of the transport boys.
"Yes. What's the use of getting livin' men shot up when they're buryin' dead men, I want to know. Not saying anything about the officers that's always round, and the chaplain. I say a cemetery should be somewhere out of sight, like Maple Copse; now, there's a good place, except that the roots make it hard diggin'. Up against a railway bank like that down at Zillebeck, by the Railway Dugouts, there's a lovely place."
"How would the Ramparts do, sergeant?" enquired another transport lad.
"Ramparts? You mean at Ypres? Yes," said the sergeant, with a grin, "but I'd hate to turn out the Brigade Headquarters Staff."
"Go on, sergeant."
"Well, as I was sayin', that's no place for a cemetery up there beyond the Loop, but I didn't know so much about it then, you bet. That's where we had to bury Jim. It was a awful black night, and of course, just as we got out to the trench to go 'overland' to the cemetery, them flares started up something awful. I don't know what they was lookin' for, but when they went up, I want to tell you, I felt about the size of a tree, and I wisht I was one. Well, Jim, you know, was pretty heavy, an awful heavy carry he was for the boys. I was tryin' to hurry 'em along, but that Pilot, he heads the procession, and on he goes at a funeral march pace. Now I believe in doin' things right. I've heard of some pioneers that hurries their job. I don't believe in that, but when you are going across the open on a dark night, with them flares going up, I say between flares is a good time to get a move on, but, no, that there Pilot, he just goes that pace and no more. I want to tell you the boys was nervous and the officers too. The O. C. and Major Bustead was there. I could see the major fussin' to get on. Well, we got Jim down all right, and just as the Pilot got started, darned if they didn't open up the biggest kind of a machine gun chorus you ever heard."
"What did you do, sergeant?"
"Me? Well, I started huggin' mud and saying all the good words I could think of. Even the O. C. got down on his knees, and the major, he near got into the grave, but that darned Pilot stood up there getting taller every minute, and goin' on with his prayer, and the boys sayin' 'Amen!' that loud and emphatic that I thought he'd take the hint and cut out somethin', but cut out nothin'! Seemed as if his memory was workin' over time, the way he kept a fetchin' up things that he could a easily forgot, and when he comes to the benediction, the whizbangs begin to come. Up goes his hand, the way they do. I thought to myself that that was a kind of unnecessary display. I looks up and there he was, more like a tree than ever. In fact, I says to myself--it's queer how you think things at times like that--darned if they won't think the darned fool is a tree, for nothin' but a darned tree would stand up in the flare light and look so much like a tree anyhow. I guess that's what saved him. He never moved until he was done, and then didn't he stay with us pioneers after the rest had gone until we filled up. Say, he's all right."
"You bet he's all right," said Sergeant Mackay, "and he's gettin' in his work with the boys."
"What do you mean, 'gettin' in his work'?" enquired the pioneer sergeant.
"Oh, well, you know," said Sergeant Mackay awkwardly, "he's makin' 'em think a lot different about things. I know he has 'em tied up all right in their language." And this was as near to a confession of faith as the sergeant cared to go.
"Oh, I can see a difference myself up the line," said the pioneer sergeant. "The boys used to get out of his way. He used to jump on 'em something fierce. You remember?"
"Well, they just love to have him drop in now and they tell him things. I saw Corporal Thom the other night showin' him his girl's picture, and the Pilot thought she was a fine girl too, and got her address down, and said he was going to write her and tell her what a fine chap the corporal was, and you ought to see Corporal Thom swell up until he 'most bust his tunic."
"Oh, I know the corporal's dippy about the Pilot," said Sergeant Mackay.
"Yes, and the officers, too," said the pioneer sergeant. "There's Captain Duff. Well, you know what a holy terror he is."
"He's all right," said Sergeant Mackay stoutly. "He was my chief for about a month here, and he was the first one to get this transport licked into shape, you bet."
"I'm not saying anything against Captain Duff, but he was a roughneck, you know well enough, and I guess he hadn't much use for the Pilot."
"Oh, I know all about that," said Sergeant Mackay. "The Pilot used to go up with us on the transport. It was awful hard on Captain Duff, handlin' the column and the mules and all the rest, to hold in when the Pilot was along. The captain, he had to come round now and then to the rear. There he would have a lovely time for a few minutes, with the Pilot safe up in front. But the Pilot calmed him down all right."
"Yes, and there's that young Captain Fraser," said the pioneer sergeant, with a note of enthusiasm in his monotonous voice. "There a soldier. He just loved fightin'. I remember the night he got his wound. It was on a raid of course. If there was a raid on, Captain Neil was sure to be there. He just about got his arm blown off, but they say he's goin' to be all right. I was at the regimental aid post when they fetched him in. Oh, he was a dirty mess, face all cut up, and his arm hangin', and not a word out of him until the Pilot comes along. Then he begins to chirp up and the Pilot starts jollyin' him along one minute and sayin' Psalms to him the next minute, and little prayers, and the boys around listenin', sometimes grinnin' and sometimes all choked up, but I'm awful glad Captain Neil is comin' round all right."
By this time the pioneer sergeant had his crosses finished.
"Well," he said, as he set the crosses against the wall, "there's three of the finest officers we ever had in this battalion. You take 'em up to-night when you go, sergeant."
"We're not going up to-night. The boys are coming out this evening," replied Sergeant Mackay.
"No? Is that so? I never heard that. Guess I'll have to go up with some other outfit. Comin' out this evening? Well, it's time they were. They've had one hell all the time, I hear, this tour."
"Yes," continued Sergeant Mackay, "and the highlanders are sending up their band to meet them and play them out. I call that a mighty fine thing to do. You know our own band had to go up with water and rations last night, and they can't get out until to-night. So the Highlanders' band--"
"Pretty good band, too, isn't it?"
"Best pipe band in the army," said Sergeant Mackay with enthusiasm.
"Oh, a pipe band!" exclaimed the pioneer sergeant in a disappointed tone.
"Yes, a pipe band, what else?" enquired Sergeant Mackay truculently.
"Why don't they send up their real band, when they're doin' it, anyway?"
"What!" shouted Sergeant Mackay. "I'll tell you. For the same reason that they don't make you O. C. in this battalion, you damned fat lobster! There now, you've started me swearin' again, and I was quittin' it."
Sergeant Mackay's wrath at the slur cast upon the pipe band, the only band, in his opinion, worthy of any real man's attention, was intensified by his lapse into his habit of profanity, which, out of deference to the Pilot, he for some weeks had been earnestly striving to hold in check.
"Oh well, Scotty, don't spoil your record for me. I guess a pipe band is all right for them that likes that kind of music. For me, I can't ever tell when they quit tunin' up and begin to play."
Sergeant Mackay looked at him with darkening face, evidently uncertain as to what course he should adopt--whether to "turn himself loose" upon this benighted Englishman or to abandon him to his deserved condition of fatuous ignorance. He decided upon the latter course. In portentous silence he turned his back upon Fatty Matthews and walked the whole length of the line to get a mule back over the rope. It took him some little time for the mule had his own mind about the manoeuvre and the sergeant was unwontedly deliberate and gentle with him. Then, the manoeuver executed, he walked slowly back to the pioneer sergeant and in restrained and carefully chosen speech addressed him.
"Look here, Fatty, I'm askin' you, don't you ever say things like that outside of these lines, for the sake of the regiment, you know. I'd really hate the other battalions to know we had got such--" He halted himself abruptly and then proceeded more quietly, "A man as you in this battalion. My God, Fatty, they'd think your brains had run down into your pants. I know they haven't, because I know you haven't any." He took a fresh breath, and continued his address in a tone of patient remonstrance. "Why, man, don't you know that wherever the British Army has gone, its Highland regiments have cleared the way; and that when the pipes get playin' the devil himself couldn't hold them back?"
"I don't wonder," said Fatty innocently. "They make a man feel like fightin' all right."
Sergeant Mackay scanned his face narrowly, uncertain as to whether he should credit the pioneer sergeant with intelligence sufficient to produce a sarcasm.
"What I mean is," exclaimed Fatty, seeking to appease the wrathful transport sergeant, "when you hear them pipes, you get so stirred up, you know, that you just feel like kullin' somebody."
This apparently did not improve matters with Sergeant Mackay.
"Oh, darn it, you know what I mean!"
"No, Fatty," said the sergeant solemnly. "I don't know what you mean, but I'll suggest this to you, Fatty. You go down to that Pete mule, down there at the end of the line and talk to him. I guess he'll understand you. I'm busy just now."
"I don't see what you're so hot about," said the pioneer sergeant in an aggravated voice, "but I'm going to see the boys come in anyway."
When the distant sound of the pipes coming from the direction of the front line was heard in camp, men of the various transport lines and base units lined up to watch the battalion come in. For the rumour had run that they had had a bad go, that they had beaten back no less than three rather formidable raids of the enemy and had been badly cut up. More than that, by reason of the lack of reinforcements, they had had to do a double tour, so that they were returning from an experience of thirteen days, in what was indeed the veritable mouth of hell.
"I guess they are all pretty well all in," said Sergeant Matthews, who, standing with his pioneers, had been carefully avoided by his friend Sergeant Mackay. That enthusiastic Scot had for the time being abandoned his transport, and was fraternising with the transport men of the Highlanders, with whom he was sure he would feel himself in more complete accord.
"Here they come, boys," said a Scot, as the sound of the pipes grew louder. "There's a drummer for ye. Listen 'til that double roll, wull ye?"
"Ay, Danny, the boys will be shovin' out their chests and hitchin' their hips about something awful."
"Ye may say that, Hec. Will ye look at young Angus on the big drum, man, but he has got the gr-rand style on him."
"Ay, boys, they are the la-ads," said Sergeant Mackay, yielding to the influence of his environment and casually dropping into the cadence of the Highlanders about him, which, during his ten years in the west, his tongue had well-nigh lost. "It's a very fine thing, your pipers are doing, playing our boys out in this way, and we won't be forgetting that in a hurry."
"Why for no?" enquired Hec, in surprise. "It's the Highlanders themselves that love a bonny fighter."
Down the road, between lines of silent men, came the pipers with waving kilts and flying tartans, swinging along in their long swaying stride, young Angus doing wonders on the big drum, with his whirling sticks, and every piper blowing his loudest, and marching his proudest. Behind them came the men of the battalion marching at attention, their colonel at their head, grave of face and steady. Behind the colonel marched Major Bayne, in place of the senior major, whom illness had prevented from accompanying the battalion on this last tour, no longer rotund and cheery as was his wont, but with face grey, serious and deep lined. After him at the head of A Company marched Captain Duff, his rugged, heavy face looking thinner and longer than its wont but even fiercer than ever. With eyes that looked straight before then, heedless of the line of silent onlookers, the men marched on, something in their set, haggard faces forbidding applause. At the rear of the column marched the chaplain alone, and every one knew that he had left up in the Salient behind him his friend and comrade, the M. O., whose place in all other marching had been at his right hand. All knew too how during this last go, in the face of death in its most terrifying form, they had carried out their wounded comrades one by one until all were brought to safety. And all knew too, how the chaplain carried with him that day a sore and lonely heart for the loss of one who was more to him than batman, and who had become his loyal and devoted friend. The chaplain's face was gaunt and thin, with hollow cheeks, but for all that, it wore a look of serene detachment.
"Say, he looks awful tough," said a voice in Sergeant Mackay's ear.
Sergeant Mackay turned sharply around upon Fatty Matthews.
"Tough! Tough!" he exclaimed, with a choke in his voice. "You're a damned liar, that's what you are. He looks fine. He looks fine," he added again furiously. "He looks as if hell itself couldn't scare him."
In the sergeant's eyes strange lights were glistening.
"Yes, you're right, sergeant," said Fatty Matthews humbly. "You're right, and that's where he's been, too, I guess."
Bravely and gallantly, with the historic and immortal "Cock o' the North" shrilling out on the evening air, the pipers played them on to the battalion parade ground, where they halted, silent still and with that strange air of detached indifference still upon them. They had been through hell. Nothing else could surprise them. All else, indeed, seemed paltry.
Briefly, but with heart-reaching words, the colonel thanked the pipers for what he called "an act of fine and brotherly courtesy." Then turning to his men, he spoke a few words before dismissal.
"Men, you have passed through a long and hard time of testing. You have not failed. I am not going to praise you, but I want you to know that I am proud of you. Proud to be your commanding officer. I know that whatever is before us, you will show the same spirit of endurance and courage.
"We have lost this time twenty-nine men, eleven of them killed, and with these three very brave and very gallant officers, among them our medical officer, a very great loss to this battalion. These men did their duty to the last. We loved them. We shall miss them, but to-day we are proud of them. Let us give three cheers for our gallant dead."
With no joyous outburst, but with a note of fierce, strained determination, came the cheers. In spite of all he could do, Barry could not prevent a shudder as he heard the men about him cheering for those whom he had so recently seen lying, some of them sorely mutilated, in their grey blankets.
"Now, men," concluded the O. C., "we must 'carry on.' You will have a couple of hours in which to clean up and have supper, and then we shall have to-night a cinema show, to which I hope you will all come, and which I hope you will all greatly enjoy."
The colonel's little speeches, as a rule, elicited appreciative cheers, but this afternoon there was only a grave silence. After dismissal, the men went to their huts and were soon busy giving themselves a "high mark scrub" preliminary to the hot bath and "jungle hunt" in which they would indulge themselves to-morrow.
As Barry was moving off the parade ground, the junior major caught up to him, and took him by the arm and said:
"I have sent around my batman to your hut. He will look after you until I can pick out a man from the new draft. We all know how you feel about Hobbs, old man."
"Thank you, major," said Barry quietly. "I appreciate that."
"You will be around to-night," continued the major.
"No, I think not. I have a lot of things to do. All those letters to write." Barry shuddered as he spoke. For nothing in all his ministerial experience was to him a more exhausting and heartbreaking task than the writing of these letters to the relatives and friends of his dead comrades.
"I think you had better come," said the major earnestly. "I know the O. C. would like it, and the boys would like it too."
"Do you think so?" said Barry. "Then I'll be there."
"Good man," said Major Bayne, patting him on the shoulder. "That's the stuff we like in this battalion."
Barry found his hut in order, his things out for airing, his tub ready, and supper in preparation.
"Thanks, Monroe," he said to Major Bayne's batman, as he passed into his hut.
As he entered his hut and closed the door, for the first time there swept over his soul an appalling and desolating sense of loneliness. It was his first moment of quiet, his first leisure to think of himself for almost two weeks. With the loss of his batman there had been snapped the last link with that old home life of his, now so remote but all the dearer for that. It came to him that while he remained a soldier, this was to be his continual experience. Upon his return from every tour new gaps would stare at him. Up in the lines they did not so terribly obtrude themselves, but back here in rest billets they thrust themselves upon him like hideous mutilations upon a well loved face. He could hardly force himself to remove his muddy, filthy clothes. He would gladly have laid himself down upon his cot just as he was, and given himself up to the luxury of his grief and loneliness, until sleep should come, but his life as a soldier had taught him something. These months of discipline, and especially these last months of companionship with his battalion through the terrible experiences of war, had wrought into the very fibre of his life a sense of unity with and responsibility for his comrades. His every emotion of loss, of grief, of heart-sickness carried with it the immediate suggestion and remembrance that his comrades too were passing through a like experience, and this was his salvation. Weary, sick, desolate as he felt himself in this hour, he remembered that many of his comrades were as he, weary, and sick and desolate. He wondered how the major's batman felt.
"Well, Monroe," he said with an attempt at a voice of cheer, "pretty tough go this time."
"Yes, sir, very tough," said Monroe. "I lost my chum this time," he added after a few moments' silence.
"Poor chap," said Barry. "I'm awfully sorry for you. It's hard to leave a friend up there."
"It is that, sir," replied Monroe, and then he added hurriedly but with hesitation, "and if you will pardon me, sir, we all know it's awful tough for you. The boys all feel for you, sir, believe me."
The unexpected touch of sympathy was too much for Barry's self- control. A rush of warm tears came to his eyes and choked his voice. For some minutes he busied himself with his undressing, but Monroe continued speaking.
"Yes, sir, the Wapiti bunch is getting pretty small. Corporal Thom was with me--"
"Corporal Thom!" cried Barry. "Was Corporal Thom your chum?"
"Yes, sir, for six years we was on the Bar U. M. together. We was awful close friends. He was a good chum."
"Corporal Thom!" exclaimed Barry again; "he was your chum! He was a great friend of mine too. You have indeed suffered a great loss."
"He thought a lot of you, sir," said Monroe. "He has often talked to me about you."
"But what a splendid death!" cried Barry. "Perfectly glorious!"
"I didn't hear, sir," said Monroe; "I came down three days ago, and only heard that a bomb got him."
"Oh, splendid," said Barry. "Nothing finer in the war. Let me tell you about it. There was an enemy raid coming up. The corporal had got wind of it and called his men out. They rushed into the front line bay. Just as they got there, eight or ten of them, a live bomb fell hissing among them. They all rushed to one end of the bay, but the corporal kicked the bomb to the other end, and then threw himself on top of it. He was blown to pieces, but no one else was hurt."
During the recital of this tale, Monroe stood looking at Barry and when he had finished his eyes were shining with tears.
"Ay, sir, he was a man, sir," he said at length.
"Yes, you have said it, Monroe. He was a man, just a common man, but uncommonly like God, for He did the same thing. He gave Himself for us."
Monroe turned away to his work in silence.
"Monroe," said Barry, calling him back, "look here, lad, it would not be right for us to grieve too much for Corporal Thom. We ought to be thankful for him and proud of him, should we not?"
"Yes, sir, I know, sir, but," he added while his lip trembled, "you hate to lose your chum."
Only under compulsion of his conscience did Barry go to the cinema show that night, which in this camp was run under the chaplain service and by a chaplain. He knew what the thing would be like. His whole soul shrunk from the silly, melodramatic films which he knew would constitute the programme as from a nauseating dose of medicine. The billboard announced a double header, a trite and, especially to Canadians, a ridiculous representation of the experiences of John Bull and his wife and pretty daughter as immigrants to the Canadian Northwest, which was to be followed by the immortal Charlie Chaplin.
The cinema hut was jammed--the whole battalion, now much reduced in numbers, officers and men being present, and with them the men of the base units and transports of other battalions. It was in some senses an unusual gathering. There was an entire absence of the wonted chaff and uproarious horseplay; instead a grave and almost bored air rested upon the men's faces. The appalling experiences of the past thirteen days seemed to dwarf all other things in comparison. They had been in the presence of the Big Thing; all else seemed petty; they had been looking into death's cold eyes; after that other sights seemed trivial. Many of them carried sore hearts for their comrades with whom they had at other times foregathered in just such circumstances as these, but nevermore again.
It was the custom in the battalion, as the officers came into such gatherings as this, to receive them with a ripple of applause, but to-night there was silence. Barry arrived late. When he appeared there fell upon the men a hush, and then as he moved toward the front seats reserved for the officers, the men began to rise until the whole battalion was standing silent and motionless, and so remained until he had found a seat. It was Major Bayne who called his attention to this unusual demonstration, which was reserved only for great occasions and for nothing less than a battalion commander.
"They are saluting you, Pilot," said Major Bayne in a whisper, himself standing with the other officers.
Barry quickly lifted his eyes, saw the men standing, with all eyes directed toward him, slowly looked over the rows of faces, smiled a bright but slightly wavering smile, turned and saluted the Commanding Officer, and sat down all trembling and shaken by this most touching tribute of sympathy and affection.
The show began with some pictures of great allied leaders which excited a mild interest and drew some perfunctory applause. Then came the tragic comedy of John Bull's experiences as an immigrant, when just as the interest began to deepen, the machine blew up, and the pictures were off for the night.
Ordinarily such a contretemps would have been by no means fatal to the evening's enjoyment, for in the battalion there was no lack of musical and other talent, and an impromptu entertainment was easily possible. Ordinarily, too, in such an emergency there would at once have arisen a demand for the chaplain, who had come to be recognised as a great standby in times of need such as this. To- night, however, everything seemed changed. The mild suggestion of one of the men that the chaplain should take the piano was promptly discouraged by the dissenting growls of the others present. They knew well how their chaplain was feeling.
"What shall we do?" asked Major Bayne of Barry.
"Get Coleman to the piano. He is a perfect wizard," suggested Barry, indicating a young lieutenant who had come to the battalion with the recent draft, and who had done some accompaniments for Barry's violin playing.
Lieutenant Coleman, on being called for, went to the piano, and began to play. He was indeed a wizard as Barry had said, with a genius for ragtime and popular music hall ditties, and possessed also of the further gift of improvisation that made his services invaluable on just such an occasion as this.
From one popular air to another he wandered, each executed with greater brilliance than the last, but he failed to excite anything more than a mild interest and approval. The old songs which on other occasions had been wont to let loose the song birds of the battalion seemed to have lost their power. It was not gloom, but a settled and immovable apathy which apparently nothing could break.
"This is going awfully slow," said Major Bayne to Barry. "I wish something could be done."
"The boys are tired out," answered Barry, himself weary and sick of the performance and longing more than anything else for solitude and his cot.
The Commanding Officer came over and sat beside them. He was obviously worried and uneasy.
"I don't like this," he said to the major. "Coleman is doing his best, and is doing mighty well, but there is no heart in the boys, and it isn't entirely due to physical weakness. I wish we could start something that would wake them up before they leave. They would sleep much better."
"The Pilot here can do it," said Major Bayne in an undertone, "but I rather hate to ask him for he is pretty much all in."
They sat a little while longer listening to the men's half hearted drawling of "The Tulip and the Rose."
"This won't do," said the O. C. abruptly. "Get Dunbar over here."
"Dunbar," said the O. C. when Barry had come to him. "This thing is as dull as ditchwater. I want to get the boys started up a bit. They are hopelessly dull. Look at their eyes. Do you know what they are seeing?"
"Yes, sir," said Barry, "they are seeing what they have been looking at for the last thirteen days."
"You are right, Dunbar, and that's what I want them to forget. Now I know you don't feel very fit, and I hate to ask you, but I believe you can do something for the men with that violin of yours. What do you say?"
"I have already sent a man for it," said Major Bayne. "I knew he'd do it, and his violin lies there under the piano."
Without announcement or preface Barry walked straight to the stage where Coleman, having miserably failed to strike fire with "The Tulip and the Rose," was grinding out, with great diligence and conscientious energy, "Irish Eyes." Barry picked up his violin from the floor, mounted the stage, laid his violin on the piano, then he took his place behind the pianist and, bending over him, reached down, caught him under the legs and while still in full tide of his performance, lifted him squarely off the stool and deposited him upon a chair at one side of the stage. Then, ignoring the amazed look upon Coleman's face, he proceeded gravely to tune his violin to the piano. The act itself, the cool neatness with which it was performed, the astonished face of the outraged pianist, all together created a situation excessively funny. The effect upon the audience was first one of surprise, then of unalloyed delight. Immediately every man in the hall was wide awake, and as the humour of the situation grew upon them, they began to cheer in quite a lively manner.
When Barry put his violin to his chin they cheered again, for often had he bewitched them with the magic of his instrument.
Before he began to play, he glanced over his shoulder at the discomfited Coleman and remarked in an undertone, perfectly audible throughout the hall, "Now we'll have some music."
Again the audience went off in a perfect storm of delighted cheers, which were renewed from time to time as Barry would turn looking with a grave face upon the still amazed Coleman, not yet quite recovered from his first astonishment.
When quiet was finally restored, Barry began to play. For his opening number he made a daring choice. It was the intricate but altogether tuneful Ballade and Polonaise by Vieuxtemps. Throughout the somewhat lengthy number he held his audience fixed under the mastery of his art. It was a triumph immediate and complete. When he had finished the last brilliant movement of the Polonaise, the men burst again into enthusiastic cheering, moved not only by the music but more by the spirit of their chaplain, which they could not fail to understand and appreciate.
He had already achieved what the O. C. had desired, but he was not yet done with them. Having finished his classical selection, which he was quite well aware Coleman could not touch, he turned to the latter and gravely motioned him to the piano stool. Coleman hesitated, not knowing quite what would be demanded of him.
"Come on, Coleman, be a sport," shouted a young officer, the audience joining once more in encouraging cheers.
Still Coleman hesitated. One never knew just what vagary the chaplain might put on. Failing to move him by imploring gesture, Barry finally approached him, and with elaborate, courteous formality, offered him his hand, and finally conducted him to the piano stool. Again the delighted audience went into a roar of cheers.
From that moment, and for a full hour, Barry had them at his will, now listening spellbound to some simple old heart song, now beating hand and foot to a reel, now roaring to the limit of their lung power some old and well-loved popular air.
"Ain't he a bird?" said the major to the Commanding Officer.
"He's fine," assented the Commanding Officer with a great sigh. "I can't tell you what a burden he has lifted from me. It's worth a week's rest to the men, and, poor chaps, they need it." Lowering his voice, he leaned over to the major and said, "We may be going up again to-morrow night."
"To-morrow night, colonel!" exclaimed the major, aghast.
"Not a word, but I have exceedingly grave news. The front line is driven in. One of the battalions holding is completely wiped out."
"Wiped out? Good God, and where are the enemy?"
"As far as I can hear, although I haven't the particulars, they have broken through from Hooge to Hill 60, are through Sanctuary Wood, and down to Maple Copse. Two relief battalions have gone up and are holding. The chances are we shall have to go to back them up to-morrow evening. It's hard on the boys, for they have come through a long and bitter experience, but not a word of this, major, to any one. We shall let them have their rest to-night. That's why I was so anxious about this entertainment. That's why I am particularly grateful to that Pilot of ours. He is a wonder, and by the look of him he is about all in. He is staying magnificently with the game. And now, major, I am going to do something that will please him immensely. At least I think it will."
At a pause in the music, the O. C. arose and moved toward the stage. Barry at once stepped back to the rear. Standing before the men, the O. C. spoke briefly:
"I wish to thank in your name, men, our chaplain, and his assistant, Mr. Coleman, for the very delightful evening they have given us. I know how you feel by the way I feel myself. I need say no more, and now, seeing that we have missed our parade service for the last two Sundays, and as I should not like the chaplain to become rusty in his duty, I'm going to ask him to bring our very pleasant evening to a close with a little service such as he himself would suggest."
Hardly were the words out of his mouth, when Barry took up his violin and said:
"Boys, did you have a good time to-night?"
"Yes, sir; you bet we had, sir."
"Well, then, if you had, sing this," and recited for them the first verses of the old hymn,
"Abide with me, fast falls the even tide."
When they had sung the first verse, he said again:
"Now sing these words," and once more he recited the stirring verse:
"I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless."
When they had finished the verse, he said to them
"Shall we have another?"
"Go on, sir!" they said. "Sure thing!" "Finish it up!"
"Then," said Barry, "sing these words":
"I need Thy presence every passing hour, What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power."
Then when he had finished the verse, he dropped the violin and, moving to the edge of the platform, said, in a voice vibrant with emotion:
"Don't sing these words, but say them as I play them for you."
He then recited the moving words with which the old hymn closes:
"Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies; Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee, In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me."
"I want every one of you to say the words to himself as I play them."
In long-drawn, tremulous notes he voiced the beautiful plea for aid in the hour of man's supreme need, which finds expression in the first two lines. Then, with his bow gripping the strings in a great sweeping crescendo, he poured forth in full strong chords the triumphant faith with which the hymn closes.
He laid his violin on the piano, stood quite a few moments looking upon them, then said:
"Men, listen to these great words. They might have been written for us, and for these days;" and he recited to them the words of the Hebrew psalm, eloquent of courage in the face of a crumbling world:
"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.
Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved. God shall help her and that right early.
The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved; he uttered his voice, the earth melted.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
Come, behold the words of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.
He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder: he burneth the chariot in the fire.
Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge."
Then they followed him in the General Confession, and the Lord's prayer.
"Captain Dunbar," said the O. C., offering him his hand, "you have done for us to-night a greater thing than you know just now. You will understand better tomorrow. With all my heart I thank you on the men's behalf and on my own behalf, for I assure you I needed it as much as they did. I want to assure you, too, sir, that I received to-night the thing I needed."
"Thank you, sir," said Barry simply, too weary to utter another word, and staggered out, half dead with exhaustion.
Half an hour later, as he was leisurely undressing, and drinking the cup of cocoa which Monroe had prepared for him, a message summoned him to the orderly room. There he found Colonel Leighton with Major Bayne and the company commanders.
"I have a communication here for you, Captain Dunbar," said the O. C., "from your D. A. C. S.," and he passed him a little slip.
It was the announcement of his "leave."
"Well, what do you think of that?" said the O. C. "How does that suit you?"
"Well, sir," said Barry, uncertainty and hesitation in his voice, "I'd like the leave, all right, but can I conveniently be spared just now?"
"Most certainly," said the O. C., "and, what's more, I want you to go to-night. Can you get ready?"
"I suppose so, sir," said Barry, wearily.
"By Jove! listen to him," said the O. C. "He hates to leave us, doesn't he?" And they all laughed. "Now, Dunbar," he said, "no more posing. You catch the leave train to-night at Poperinghe. As a matter of fact, I think it starts somewhere about twelve."
"Thank you, sir," said Barry. "I think I can catch it."
"Then good luck!" said the O. C., rising from his chair. "Every one of us here would like to be in your place, but since it isn't himself, every man is glad that it should be you."
Still Barry hesitated.
"I really hate to leave you, sir, just now," he said. "I mean that," he added with a little nervous laugh.
"Oh, come on, Dunbar," said the O. C. in a voice whose gruffness might signify almost any emotion, but with a touch upon his shoulder that Barry knew meant comradeship. "Say good-bye to the boys here, and get out."
They had just finished the plan for the campaign of the next night, and every man in that little company knew that for him this might be his last "Good-bye" to the chaplain. It only added to the depth of their feeling that they knew that of all this Barry was unconscious. But, whether it was that unconsciously he had gathered something of the real significance of the situation, or whether it was that he himself had reached the limit of emotional control, as he passed from man to man, shaking hands in farewell, his lips refused to utter a single word, but in his eyes were unshed tears that spoke for him.
Major Bayne followed him to the door, and outside:
"Take my horse and Monroe with you, and good-bye, old man. All sorts of good luck. Remember that we all feel to-night that you are really one of us, and that we are better men because we have known you. Goodbye."
Again Barry was conscious of that strange suggestion, almost of impending calamity.
"I hate to go, major," he said. "I believe I'll wait."
"Nonsense," said the major impatiently. "Take your leave when you get your chance, and have a good time. You have earned it."