The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land by Ralph Connor
Chapter VIII. A Question of Nerve
"Gentlemen, may I introduce Captain Dunbar, your sky-pilot, padre, chaplain, anything you like? They say he's a devil of a good preacher. The Lord knows you need one."
So Barry's commanding officer introduced him to the mess.
He bowed in different directions to the group of officers who, in the ante-room of the mess, were having a pre-prandial cocktail. Barry found a place near the foot of the table and for a few minutes sat silent, getting his bearings.
Some of the officers were known to him. He had met the commanding officer, Colonel Leighton, a typical, burly Englishman, the owner of an Alberta horse ranch, who, well to do to begin with, had made money during his five years in the country. He had the reputation of being a sporting man, of easy morality, fond of his glass and of good living. He owed his present position, partly to political influence, and partly to his previous military experience in the South African war. His popularity with his officers was due largely to his easy discipline, and to the absence of that rigidity of manner which is supposed to go with high military command, and which civilians are wont to find so irksome.
Barry had also met Major Bustead, the Senior Major of the Battalion, and President of the mess, an eastern Canadian, with no military experience whatever, but with abounding energy and ambition; the close friend and boon companion of Colonel Leighton, he naturally had become his second in command. Barry was especially delighted to observe Major Bayne, whom he had not seen since his first meeting with him some months ago on the Red Pine Trail. Captain Neil Fraser and Lieutenant Stewart Duff were the only officers about the table whom he recognised, except that, among the junior lieutenants, he caught the face of young Duncan Cameron, the oldest son of his superintendent, and a fine, clean-looking young fellow he appeared.
Altogether Barry was strongly attracted by the clean, strong faces about him. He would surely soon find good friends among them, and he only hoped he might be able to be of some service to them.
The young fellow on his right introduced himself as Captain Hopeton. He was a young English public school boy, who, though a failure as a rancher, had proved an immense success in the social circles of the city. Because of this, and also of his family connections "at home," he had been appointed to a Civil Service position. A rather bored manner and a supercilious air spoiled what would otherwise have been a handsome and attractive face.
After a single remark about the "beastly bore" of military duty, Hopeton ignored Barry, giving such attention as he had to spare from his dinner to a man across the table, with whom, apparently, he had shared some rather exciting social experiences in the city.
For the first half hour of the meal, the conversation was of the most trivial nature, and was to Barry supremely uninteresting. "Shop talk" was strictly taboo, and also all reference to the war. The thin stream of conversation that trickled from lip to lip ran the gamut of sport, spiced somewhat highly with society scandal which, even in that little city, appeared to flourish.
To Barry it was as if he were in a strange land and among people of a strange tongue. Of sport, as understood by these young chaps, he knew little, and of scandal he was entirely innocent; so much so that many of the references that excited the most merriment were to him utterly obscure. After some attempts to introduce topics of conversation which he thought might be of mutual interest, but which had fallen quite flat, Barry gave up, and sat silent with a desolating sense of loneliness growing upon his spirit.
"After the port," when smoking was permitted, he was offered a cigarette by Hopeton, and surprised that young man mightily by saying that he never smoked. This surprise, it is to be feared, deepened into disgust when, a few moments later, he declined a drink from Hopeton's whisky bottle, which a servant brought him.
Liquors were not provided at the mess, but officers were permitted to order what they desired.
As the bottles circulated, tongues were loosened. There was nothing foul in the talk, but more and more profanity, with frequent apology to the chaplain, began to decorate the conversation. Conscious of a deepening disgust with his environment, and of an overwhelming sense of isolation, Barry cast vainly about for a means of escape. Of military etiquette he was ignorant; hence he could only wait in deepening disgust for the O. C. to give the signal to rise. How long he could have endured is doubtful, but release came in a startling, and, to most of the members of the mess, a truly horrifying manner.
In one of those strange silences that fall upon even the noisiest of companies, Colonel Leighton, under the influence of a somewhat liberal indulgence in his whisky bottle, began the relation of a tale of very doubtful flavour. In the midst of the laughter that followed the tale, Barry rose to his feet, his face white and his eyes aflame, and in a voice vibrating with passion, said:
"May I be excused, sir?"
"Why, certainly," said the colonel pleasantly, adding after a moment's hesitation, "is there anything wrong, Dunbar? Are you ill?"
"No, sir." Barry's voice had the resonant quality of a cello string. "I mean, yes, sir," he corrected. "I am ill. The atmosphere surrounding such a tale is nauseating to me."
In the horrified silence that followed his remark, he walked out from the room. Upon his ears, as he stood in the ante-room, trembling with the violence of his passion, a burst of laughter fell. A sudden wrath like a hot flame swept his body. He wheeled in his tracks, tore open the door, and with head high and face set, strode to his place at the table and sat down.
Astonishment beyond all words held the company in tense stillness. From Barry's face they looked toward the colonel, who, too dumfounded for speech or action, sat gazing at his chaplain. Then from the end of the table a few places down from Barry, a voice was heard.
"Feel better, Dunbar?" The cool, clear voice cut through the tense silence like the zip of a sword.
"I do, thank you, sir," looking him straight in the eye.
"The fresh air, doubtless," continued the cool voice. "I always find myself that even a whiff of fresh air is a very effective antidote for threatening vertigo. I remember once--" continued the speaker, dropping into a conversational tone, and leaning across the table slightly toward Barry, "I was in the room with a company of men--" And the speaker entered upon a long and none too interesting relation of an experience of his, the point of which no one grasped, but the effect of which every one welcomed with the profoundest relief. He was the regimental medical officer, a tall, slight man, with a keen eye, a pleasant face crowned by a topknot of flaming hair, and with a little dab of hair of like colour upon his upper lip, which he fondly cherished, as an important item in his military equipment.
"Say, the old doc is a lifesaver, sure enough," said a young subaltern, answering to the name of "Sally," colloquial for Salford, as he stood amid a circle of officers gathered in the smoking room a few minutes later. "A lifesaver," repeated Sally, with emphasis. "He can have me for his laboratory collection after I'm through."
"He is one sure singing bird," said another sub, a stout, overgrown boy by the name of Booth. "The nerve of him," added Booth in admiration.
"Nerve!" echoed a young captain, "but what about the pilot's nerve?"
"Sui generis, Train, I should say," drawled Hopeton.
"Suey, who did you say?" inquired Sally. "What's her second name? But let me tell you I could have fallen on his neck and burst into tears of gratitude. For me," continued Sally, glancing about the room, "I don't hold with that dirt stuff at mess. It isn't necessary."
"Beastly bad form," said Hopeton, "but, good Lord! Your Commanding Officer, Sally! There's such a thing as discipline, you know."
"What extraordinary thing is it that Sally knows?" inquired Major Bustead, who lounged up to the group.
"We were discussing the padre's break, Major, which for my part," drawled Hopeton, "I consider rotten discipline."
"Discipline!" snorted the major. "By Gad, it was a piece of the most damnable cheek I have ever heard at a mess table. He ought to be sent to Coventry. I only hope the O. C. will get him exchanged."
The major made no effort to subdue his voice, which was plainly audible throughout the room.
"Hush, for God's sake," warned Captain Train, as Barry entered the door. "Here he is."
But Barry had caught the major's words. For a moment he stood irresolute; then walked quietly toward the group.
"I couldn't help hearing you, Major Bustead," he said, in a voice pleasant and under perfect control. "I gather you were referring to me."
"I was, sir," said the major defiantly.
"And why should I be sent to Coventry, or exchanged, may I ask?" Barry's voice was that of an interested outsider.
"Because," stuttered the Major, "I consider, sir, that--that--you have been guilty of a piece of damnable impertinence toward your Commanding Officer. I never heard anything like it in my life. Infernal cheek, I call it, sir."
While the major was speaking, Barry stood listening with an air of respectful attention.
"I wonder!" he said, after a moment's thought. "If I thought I had been impertinent, I should at once apologise. But, sir, do you think it is part of my duty to allow any man, even my Commanding Officer, to--pardon the disgusting metaphor, it is not so disgusting as the action complained of--to spit in my soup, and take it without protest? Do you, sir?"
"I--you--" The major grew very red in the face. "You need to learn your place in this battalion, sir."
"I do," said Barry, still preserving his quiet voice and manner. "I want to learn--I am really anxious to learn it. Do you mind answering my question?" His tone was that of a man who is earnestly but quite respectfully seeking information from a superior officer.
"Your question, sir?" stuttered the major, "your--your--question. Damn your question, and yourself too."
The major turned abruptly away. Barry heard him quite unmoved, stood looking after him in silence a moment or two, then, shaking his head, with a puzzled expression on his face, moved slowly away from the group.
"Oh, my aunt Caroline," breathed Sally into his friend Hopeton's ear, resting heavily meanwhile against his shoulder. "What a score! What a score!"
"A bull, begad! a clean bull!" murmured Hopeton, supporting his friend out of the room as he added, "A little fresh air, as a preventative of vertigo, as the old doc says, eh, Sally."
"Good Lord, is he just a plain ass, or what?" inquired young Booth, his eye following Barry down the room.
"Ass! A mule, I should say. And one with a good lot of kick in him," replied Captain Train. "I don't know that I care for that kind of an animal, though."
Before many hours had passed, the whole battalion had received with undiluted joy an account of the incident, for though the Commanding Officer was popular with his men, to have him called down at his own mess by one of his own officers was an event too thrilling to give anything but unalloyed delight to those who had to suffer in silence similar indignities at the hands of their officers.
A notable exception in the battalion, however, was Sergeant Major McFetteridge, who, because of his military experience, and of his reputation as a disciplinarian, had been recently transferred to the battalion. To the sergeant major this act of Barry's was but another and more flagrant example of his fondness for "buttin' in," and the sergeant major let it be known that he strongly condemned the chaplain for what he declared was an unheard of breach of military discipline.
Of course there were others who openly approved, and who admired the chaplain's "nerve in standing up to the old man." In their opinion he was entirely justified in what he had said. The O. C. had insulted him, and every officer at the mess, by his off-colour story, but on the whole the general result of the incident was that Barry's life became more and more one of isolation from both officers and men. For this reason and because of a haunting sense of failure the months of training preceding the battalion's departure for England were for Barry one long and almost uninterrupted misery. It seemed impossible to establish any point of contact with either the officers or the men. In their athletics, in their social gatherings, in their reading, he was quietly ignored and made to feel that he was in no way necessary. An impalpable but very real barrier prevented his near approach to those whom he was so eager to serve.
This unexpressed opposition was quickened into active hostility by the chaplain's uncompromising attitude on the liquor question. By the army regulations, the battalion canteen was dry, but in spite of this many, both of the officers and the men, freely indulged in the use of intoxicating drink. The effect upon discipline was, of course, deplorable, and in his public addresses as well as private conversation, Barry constantly denounced these demoralising habits, winning thereby the violent dislike of those especially affected, and the latent hostility of the majority of the men who agreed with the sergeant major in resenting the chaplain's "buttin' in."
It was, therefore, with unspeakable joy that Barry learned that the battalion was warned for overseas service. Any change in his lot would be an improvement, for he was convinced that he had reached the limit of wretchedness in the exercise of his duty as chaplain of the battalion.
In this conviction, however, he was mistaken. On shipboard, he discovered that there were still depths of misery which he was called upon to plumb. Assigned to a miserable stateroom in an uncomfortable part of the ship, he suffered horribly from seasickness, and for the first half of the voyage lay foodless and spiritless in his bunk, indifferent to his environment or to his fate. His sole friend was his batman, Harry Hobbs, but, of course, he could not confide to Harry the misery of his body, or the deeper misery of his soul.
It was Harry, however, that brought relief, for it was he that called the M. O. to his officer's bedside. The M. O. was shocked to find the chaplain in a state of extreme physical weakness, and mental depression. At once, he gave orders that Barry should be removed to his own stateroom, which was large and airy and open to the sea breezes. The effect was immediately apparent, for the change of room, and more especially the touch of human sympathy, did much to restore Barry to his normal health and spirits. A friendship sprang up between the M. O. and the chaplain. With this friendship a new interest came into Barry's life, and with surprising rapidity he regained both his physical and mental tone.
The doctor took him resolutely in hand, pressed him to take his part in the daily physical drill, induced him to share the daily programme of sports, and, best of all, discovering a violin on board, insisted on his taking a place on the musical programme rendered nightly in the salon. As might be expected, his violin won him friends among all of the music lovers on board ship, and life for Barry began once more to be bearable.
Returning strength, however, recalled him to the performance of his duties as chaplain, and straightway in the exercise of what he considered his duty, he came into conflict with no less a personage than the sergeant major himself. The trouble arose over his batman, Harry Hobbs.
Harry was a man who, in his youthful days, had been a diligent patron of the London music halls, and in consequence had become himself an amateur entertainer of very considerable ability. His sailor's hornpipes, Irish jigs, his old English North-country ballads and his coster songs were an unending joy to his comrades. Their gratitude and admiration took forms that proved poor Harry's undoing, and besides some of them took an unholy joy in sending the chaplain's batman to his officer incapable of service.
Barry's indignation and grief were beyond words. He dealt faithfully with the erring Hobbs, as his minister, as his officer, as chaplain, but the downward drag of his environment proved too great for his batman's powers of resistance. Once and again Barry sought the aid of the sergeant major to rescue Harry from his downward course, but the old sergeant major was unimpressed with the account of Harry's lapses.
"Is your batman unfit for duty, sir?" he inquired.
"Yes, he is, often," said Barry indignantly.
"Did you report him, sir?" inquired the sergeant major.
"No, I did not."
"Then, sir, I am afraid that until you do your duty I can do nothing," answered the sergeant major, with suave respect.
"If you did your duty," Barry was moved to say, "then Hobbs would not need to be reported. The regulations governing that canteen should prevent these frequent examples of drunkenness, which are a disgrace to the battalion."
"Do I understand, sir," inquired the sergeant major, with quiet respect, "that you are accusing me of a failure in duty?"
"I am saying that if the regulations were observed my batman and others would not be so frequently drunk, and the enforcing of these regulations, I understand, is a part of your duty."
"Then, sir," replied the sergeant major, "perhaps I had better report myself to the Commanding Officer."
"You can please yourself," said Barry, shortly, as he turned away.
"Very good, sir," replied the sergeant major. "I shall report myself at once."
The day following, the chaplain received an order to appear before the O. C. in the orderly room.
"Captain Dunbar, I understand that you are making a charge against Sergeant Major McFetteridge," was Colonel Leighton's greeting.
"I am making no charge against any one, sir," replied Barry quietly.
"What do you say to that, Sergeant Major McFetteridge?"
In reply, the sergeant major gave a full and fair statement of the passage between the chaplain and himself the day before.
"Is this correct, Captain Dunbar?" asked the O. C.
"Substantially correct, sir, except that the sergeant major is here on his own suggestion, and on no order of mine."
"Then I understand that you withdraw your charge against the sergeant major."
"I withdraw nothing, sir. I had no intention of laying a charge, and I have laid no charge against the sergeant major; but at the same time I have no hesitation in saying that the regulations governing the canteen are not observed, and, as I understand that the responsibility for enforcing these regulations is in the sergeant major's hands, in that sense I consider that he has failed in his duty."
But the sergeant major was too old a soldier to be caught napping. He had his witnesses ready at hand to testify that the canteen was conducted according to regulations, and that if the chaplain's batman or any others took more liquor than they should, neither the corporal in charge of the canteen nor the sergeant major was to be blamed.
"All I can say, sir," replied Barry, "is that soldiers are frequently drunk on this ship, and I myself have seen them when the worse for liquor going into the canteen."
"And did you report these men to their officers or to me, Captain Dunbar, or did you report the corporal in charge of the canteen?"
"No, sir, I did not."
"Then sir, do you know that you have been guilty of serious neglect of duty?" said the colonel sternly.
"Do I understand, sir, that it is my duty to report to you every man I see the worse for liquor on this ship?"
"Most certainly," replied the colonel, emphatically. "Every breach of discipline must be reported."
"I understood, sir, that an officer had a certain amount of discretion in a matter of this kind."
"Where did you get that notion?" inquired the colonel. "Let me tell you that you are wrong. Discretionary powers lie solely with me."
"Then, sir, I am to understand that I must report every man whom I see the worse for liquor?"
"And every officer, as well, sir?"
The colonel hesitated a moment, fumbled with his papers, and then blurted out:
"Certainly, sir. And let me say, Captain Dunbar, that an officer, especially an officer in your position, ought to be very careful in making a charge against a N. C. O., more particularly the sergeant major of his battalion. Nothing is more calculated to drag down discipline. The case is dismissed."
"Sir," said Barry, maintaining his place before the table. "May I ask one question?"
"The case is dismissed, Captain Dunbar. What do you want?" asked the colonel brusquely.
"I want to be quite clear as to my duty, in the future, sir. Do I understand that if any man or officer is found under the influence of liquor, anywhere in this ship, and at any hour of the day or night, he is to be reported at once to the orderly room, even though that officer should be, say, even the adjutant or yourself?" Barry said, gazing up at the colonel with a face in which earnestness and candour were equally blended.
The colonel gazed back at him with a face in which rage and perplexity were equally apparent. For some moments, he was speechless, while the whole orderly room held its breath.
"I mean--that you--you understand--of course," stuttered the colonel, "that an officer must use common sense. He must be damned sure of what he says, in other words," said the colonel, rushing his speech.
"But, sir," continued Barry.
"Oh, go to the devil, sir," roared the colonel. "The case is dismissed."
Barry saluted and left the room.
"Is the man an infernal and condemned fool, or what is the matter with him?" exclaimed the colonel, turning to his adjutant in a helpless appeal, while the orderly room struggled with its grins.
"The devil only knows," said Major Bustead. "He beats me. He is an interfering and impertinent ass, in my opinion, but what else he is, I don't know."
It is fair to say that the sergeant major bore the chaplain no grudge for his part in the affair. The whole battalion, however, soon became possessed of the tale, adorned and expanded to an unrecognisable extent, and revelled in ecstasy over the discomfort of the C. O. The consensus of opinion was that on the whole the sergeant major had come off with premier honours, and as between the "old man" and the "Sky Pilot," as Barry was coming to be called, it was about an even break. As for the Pilot, he remained more than ever a mystery, and on the whole, the battalion was inclined to leave him alone.
The chaplain, however, had partially, at least, achieved his aim, in that the regulations governing the canteen were more strictly enforced, to the vast improvement of discipline generally, and to the immense advantage of Harry Hobbs in particular.
Soon after this, another event occurred which aided materially in bringing about this same result, and which also led to a modification of opinion in the battalion in regard to their chaplain.
To the civilian soldier the punctilio of military etiquette is frequently not only a bore, but at times takes on the appearance of wilful insult which no grown man should be expected to tolerate. To the civilian soldier born and brought up in wide spaces of the far Northwest this is especially the case.
It is not surprising, therefore, that McCuaig, fresh from his thirty-five years of life in the Athabasca wilds, should find the routine of military discipline extremely irksome and the niceties of military etiquette as from a private to an officer not only foolish but degrading both to officer and man. Under the patient shepherding of Barry's father, he had endured much without protest or complaint, but, with the advent of Sergeant Major McFetteridge, with his rigid military discipline and his strict insistence upon etiquette, McCuaig passed into a new atmosphere. To the freeborn and freebred recruit from the Athabasca plains, the stiff and somewhat exaggerated military bearing of the sergeant major was at first a source of quiet amusement, later of perplexity, and finally of annoyance. For McFetteridge and his minutiae of military discipline McCuaig held only contempt. To him, the whole business was a piece of silly nonsense unworthy of serious men.
It was inevitable that the sergeant major should sooner or later discover this opinion in Private McCuaig, and that he should consider the holding of this opinion as a tendency toward insubordination. It was also inevitable that the sergeant major should order a course of special fatigues calculated to subdue the spirit of the insubordinate private.
It took McCuaig some days to discover that in these frequent fatigues and special duties, he was undergoing punishment, but once made, the discovery wrought in him a cold and silent rage, which drove him to an undue and quite unwonted devotion to the canteen, which in turn transformed the reserved, self-controlled man of the wilds into a demonstrative, disorderly and quarrelsome "rookie" aching for trouble.
Under these circumstances, an outburst was inevitable. Corporal Ferry, in charge of the canteen, furnished the occasion.
"No more for you, McCuaig. You've got more aboard now than you can carry."
To the injury of being denied another beer was added the insult of suggesting his inability to carry what he had. This to a man of McCuaig's experience in every bar and camp and roadhouse from Edmonton to the Arctic circle, was not to be endured.
He leaned over the improvised bar, until his face almost touched the corporal's.
"What?" he ejaculated, but in the single expletive there darted out such concentrated fury, that the little corporal sprang back as from a striking snake.
"You can't have any more beer, McCuaig," said the corporal, from a safe distance.
"Watch me, sonny!" replied McCuaig.
With a single sweep of his hand, he snatched two bottles from the ledge behind the corporal's head. Holding one aloft, he knocked the top off the other, drank its contents slowly and smashed the empty bottle at the spot where the corporal's head had been; knocked the top off the second bottle and was proceeding to drink it, in a more or less leisurely fashion.
"Private Timms! Private Mulligan!" shouted Corporal Ferry, reappearing from beneath the counter. "Arrest that man!"
"Wait, sonny; give me a chance," cried McCuaig, in a wild, high, singsong voice. Lifting his bottle to his lips, he continued to drink slowly, keeping his eye upon the two privates, who were considering the best method of carrying out their orders.
"There, sonny, fill that up again," cried McCuaig, good-naturedly, when he had finished his drink, tossing the second bottle at the head of the corporal, who, being on the alert, again made a successful disappearance.
"Now, then, boys, come on," said McCuaig, backing toward the wall, and dropping his hands to his hips. With a curse of disappointment that he found himself without his usual weapons of defence, McCuaig raised a shout, sprang into the air, cracked his heels together in a double rap, and swinging his arms around his head, yelled:
"Come on, my boys! I'm hungry, I am! Meat! Meat! Meat!"
With each "meat," his white teeth came together with a snap like that of a hungry wolf. Such was the beastly ferocity in his face and posture that both Private Timms and Private Mulligan, themselves men of more than average strength, paused and looked at the corporal for further orders.
"Arrest that man," said the corporal again, preserving at the same time an attitude that revealed a complete readiness for swift disappearance. "Private McTavish," he added, calling upon a tall Highlander who was gazing with admiring eyes upon the raging McCuaig, "assist Private Timms and Private Mulligan in arresting that man."
"Why don't you come yourself, sonny?" inquired McCuaig. With a swift sidestep and a swifter swoop of his long arm, he reached for the corporal, who once more found safety in swift disappearance.
At that instant, the Highlander, seeing his opportunity, flung himself upon McCuaig, and winding his arms around him, hung to him grimly, crying out:
"Get hold of his legs! Queeck! Will you?"
When the sergeant major, attracted by the unwonted uproar, appeared upon the scene, there was a man on every one of McQuaig's limbs, and another one astride his stomach. "Heavin' like sawlogs shootin' a rapid," as Private Corbin, a lumberjack from the Eau Claire, was later heard to remark.
"What is he like now?" inquired the colonel, after listening to the sergeant major's report of the Homeric combat.
"He is in a compartment in the hold, sir, and raging like one demented. He very nearly did for Major Bustead, smashing at him with a scantling that he ripped from the ship's timbers, sir. He still has the scantling, sir."
"Let him cool off all night," said the Commanding Officer, after consultation with the adjutant.
Barry, who with difficulty had restrained himself during the sergeant major's report, slipped from the room, found the M. O., to whom he detailed the story and dragged him off to visit the raging McCuaig.
They found a corporal on guard outside.
"I would not open the door, sir. He is really dangerous."
"Oh, rot!" replied the M. O. "Open up the door!"
"Excuse me, sir," said the corporal, "it is not safe. At present, he is clean crazy. He is off his nut entirely."
The M. O. stood listening at the door. From within came moaning sounds as from a suffering beast.
"That man is suffering. Open the door!" ordered the M. O. peremptorily.
The corporal, with great reluctance, unlocked the padlock, shot back the bolt, and then stood away from the door.
"It is the medical officer, McCuaig," said the doctor, opening the door slightly.
Bang! Crash! came the scantling upon the door jamb, shattering it to pieces. The whole guard flung themselves against the door, shoved it shut, and shot the bolt.
"I warned you, sir," said the panting corporal. "Better leave him until morning. He's a regular devil!"
"He is no more a devil than you are, corporal," said Barry, in a loud, clear voice. "He is one of the best men in the battalion. More than that, he is my friend, and if he spends the night there, I spend it with him."
So saying, and before any one could stop him, Barry shot back the bolt, opened the door, and with his torchlight flashing before him, stepped inside.
"Hello, McCuaig," he called, in a quiet, clear voice, "where are you? It's Dunbar, you know."
He drew the door shut after him. The corporal was for following him, but the M. O. interposed.
"Stop out!" he ordered. "Stay where you are! You have done enough mischief already."
"But, sir, he'll kill him!"
"This is my case," said the M. O. sharply. "Fall back all of you, out of sight!"
Together they stood listening in awestruck silence, expecting every moment to hear sounds of conflict, and cries for help, but all they heard was the cool, even flow of a quiet voice, and after some minutes had passed, the sound of moans, mingled with a terrible sobbing.
The M. O., moving toward the corporal and his guard, said in a low tone:
"Take your men down the passage and keep them there until I call for you."
"Sir," began the corporal.
"Will you obey my orders?" said the M. O. "I'm in command here! Go!"
Without further words, the corporal moved his men away.
Half an hour later, the sergeant major, going his rounds, received a rude shock. In the passage leading to McCuaig's compartment, he met four men, bearing on a stretcher toward the sick bay a long silent form.
"Who have you got there, corporal?" he inquired in a tone of kindly interest.
"McCuaig?" roared the sergeant major. "And who--"
"Medical officer's orders."
"Silence there," said a sharp voice in the rear. "Carry on, men."
And past the astonished sergeant major, the procession filed with the medical officer and the chaplain at its tail end.
After the sergeant major had made his report to the O. C., as was his duty, the M. O. was sent for. What took place at that interview was never divulged to the mess, but it was known that whereas the conversation began in very loud tones by the Officer Commanding, it ended half an hour later with the M. O. being shown out of the room by the colonel himself, who was heard to remark:
"A very fine bit of work. Tell him I want to see him when he has a few minutes, and thank you, doctor, thank you!"
"Who does the old man want to see?" inquired Sally, who, with Hopeton and Booth, happened to be passing.
"The chaplain," snapped the M. O., going on his way.
"The chaplain? By Jove, he's a queer one, eh?"
The M. O. turned sharply back, and coming very close to Sally, said in a wrathful voice:
"A queer one? Yes, a queer one! But if some of you damned young idiots that sniff at him had just half his guts, you'd be twice the men you are.--Shut up, Hopeton! Listen to me--" and in words of fiery rage that ran close to tears, he recounted his experience of the last hour.
"By Jove! Doc, some guts, eh?" said Sally in a low tone, as he moved away.