Unlawful Possession by George A. Birmingham
When Willie Thornton, 2nd Lieutenant in the Wessex Fusiliers, was sent to Ireland, his mother was nervous and anxious. She had an idea that the shooting of men in uniform was a popular Irish sport and that her boy would have been safer in Germany, Mesopotamia, or even Russia. Willie, who looked forward to some hunting with a famous Irish pack, laughed at his mother. It was his turn to be nervous and anxious when, three weeks after joining his battalion, he received an independent command. He was a cheerful boy and he was not in the least afraid that anyone would shoot him or his men. But the way the Colonel talked to him made him uncomfortable.
"There's your village," said the Colonel.
William peered at the map spread on the orderly-room table, and saw, in very small print, the name Dunedin. It stood at a place where many roads met, where there was a bridge across a large river.
"You'll billet the men in your Court House," said the Colonel, "and you'll search every motor that goes through that village to cross the bridge."
"For arms, sir?" said Willie.
"For arms or ammunition," said the Colonel. "And you'll have to keep your eyes open, Thornton. These fellows are as cute as foxes. There isn't a trick they're not up to and they'll tell you stories plausible enough to deceive the devil himself."
That was what made Willie Thornton nervous. He would have faced the prospects of a straight fight with perfect self-confidence. He was by no means so sure of himself when it was a matter of outwitting men who were as cute as foxes; and "these fellows" was an unpleasantly vague description. It meant, no doubt, the Irish enemy, who, indeed, neither the Colonel nor Willie could manage to regard as an enemy at all. But it gave him very little idea of the form in which the enemy might present himself.
On the evening of Good Friday Willie marched his men into Dunedin and took possession of the Court House. That day was chosen because Easter is the recognized season for Irish rebellions, just as Christmas is the season for plum puddings in England, and May Day the time for Labour riots on the Continent. It is very convenient for everybody concerned to have these things fixed. People know what to expect and preparations can be properly made. The weather was abominably wet. The village of Dunedin was muddy and looked miserable. The Court House, which seldom had fires in it, was damp and uncomfortable. Willie unloaded the two wagons which brought his men, kit, and rations, and tried to make the best of things.
The next day was also wet, but Willie, weighted by a sense of responsibility, got up early. By six o'clock he had the street which led to the bridge barricaded in such a way that no motor-car could possibly rush past. He set one of his wagons across the street with its back to the house and its pole sticking out. In this position it left only a narrow passage through which any vehicle could go. He set the other wagon a little lower down with its back to the houses on the opposite side of the street and its pole sticking out. Anyone driving towards the bridge would have to trace a course like the letter S, and, the curves being sharp, would be compelled to go very slowly, Willie surveyed this arrangement with satisfaction. But to make quite sure of holding up the traffic he stretched a rope from one wagon pole to the other so as to block the centre part of the S. Then he posted his sentries and went into the Court House to get some breakfast.
The people of Dunedin do not get up at six o'clock. Nowadays, owing to the imposition of "summer time" and the loss of Ireland's half-hour of Irish time, six o'clock is really only half-past four, and it is worse than folly to get out of bed at such an hour. It was eight o'clock by Willie Thornton's watch before the people became aware of what had happened to their street. They were surprised and full of curiosity, but they were not in the least annoyed. No one in Dunedin had the slightest intention of rebelling. No one even wanted to shoot a policeman. The consciences, even of the most ardent politicians, were clear, and they could afford to regard the performance of the soldiers as an entertainment provided free for their benefit by a kindly Government. That was, in fact, the view which the people of Dunedin took of Willie Thornton's barricade, and of his sentries, though the sentries ought to have inspired awe, for they carried loaded rifles and wore shrapnel helmets.
The small boys of the village--and there are enormous numbers of small boys in Dunedin--were particularly interested. They tried the experiment of passing through the barricade, stooping under the rope when they came to it, just to see what the soldiers would do. The soldiers did nothing. The boys then took to jumping over the rope, which they could do when going downhill, though they had to creep under it on the way back. This seemed to amuse and please the soldiers, who smiled amiably at each successful jump. Kerrigan, the butcher, encouraged by the experience of the small boys, made a solemn progress from the top of the street to the bridge. He is the most important and the richest man in Dunedin, and it was generally felt that if the soldiers let him pass the street might be regarded as free to anyone. Kerrigan is a portly man, who could not have jumped the rope, and would have found it inconvenient to crawl under it. The soldiers politely loosed one end of the rope and let him walk through.
At nine o'clock a farmer's cart, laden with manure, crossed the bridge and began to climb the street. Willie Thornton came to the door of the Court House with a cigarette in his mouth and watched the cart. It was hoped by the people of Dunedin, especially by the small boys, that something would happen. Foot passengers might be allowed to pass, but a wheeled vehicle would surely be stopped. But the soldiers loosed the rope and let the cart go through without a question. Ten minutes later a governess cart, drawn by a pony, appeared at the top of the street. It, too, was passed through the barricade without difficulty. There was a general feeling of disappointment in the village, and most of the people went back to their houses. It was raining heavily, and it is foolish to get wet through when there is no prospect of any kind of excitement. The soldiers, such was the general opinion, were merely practising some unusual and quite incomprehensible military manouvre.
The opinion was a mistaken one. The few who braved the rain and stood their ground watching the soldiers, had their reward later on. At ten o'clock, Mr. Davoren, the auctioneer, drove into the village in his motor-car. Mr. Davoren lives in Ballymurry, a town of some size, six miles from Dunedin. His business requires him to move about the country a good deal, and he is quite wealthy enough to keep a Ford car. His appearance roused the soldiers to activity. Willie Thornton, without a cigarette this time, stood beside the barricade. A sentry, taking his place in the middle of the street, called to Mr. Davoren to halt. Mr. Davoren, who was coming along at a good pace, was greatly surprised, but he managed to stop his car and his engine a few feet from the muzzle of the sentry's rifle.
Willie Thornton, speaking politely but firmly, told Mr. Davoren to get out of the car. He did not know the auctioneer, and had no way of telling whether he was one of "these fellows" or not. The fact that Mr. Davoren looked most respectable and fat was suspicious. A cute fox might pretend to be respectable and fat when bent on playing tricks. Mr. Davoren, still surprised but quite good-humoured, got out of his car. Willie Thornton and his sergeant searched it thoroughly. They found nothing in the way of a weapon more deadly than a set of tyre levers. Mr. Davoren was told he might go on. In the end he did go on, but not until he, the sergeant, Willie Thornton, and one of the sentries had worked themselves hot at the starting-crank. Ford engines are queer-tempered things, with a strong sense of self-respect. When stopped accidentally and suddenly, they often stand on their dignity and refuse to go on again. All this was pleasant and exciting for the people of Dunedin, who felt that they were not wasting their day or getting wet in vain. And still better things were in store for them. At eleven o'clock a large and handsome car appeared at the end of the street. It moved noiselessly and swiftly towards the barricade. The chauffeur, leaning back behind his glass screen, drove as if the village and the street belonged to him. Dunedin is, in fact, the property of his master, the Earl of Ramelton; so the chauffeur had some right to be stately and arrogant. Every man, woman, and child in Dunedin knew the car, and there was tiptoe excitement. Would the soldiers venture to stop and search this car? The excitement became intense when it was seen that the Earl himself was in the car. He lay back very comfortably smoking a cigar in the covered tonneau of the limousine. Lord Ramelton is a wealthy man and Deputy Lieutenant for the county. He sits and sometimes speaks in the House of Lords. He is well known as an uncompromising Unionist, whose loyalty to the king and empire is so firm as to be almost aggressive.
There was a gasp of amazement when the sentry, standing with his rifle in his hands, called "Halt!" He gave the order to the earl's chauffeur quite as abruptly and disrespectfully as he had given it to Mr. Davoren. The chauffeur stopped the car and leaned back in his seat with an air of detachment and slight boredom. It was his business to stop or start the car and to drive where he was told. Why it was stopped or started or where it went were matters of entire indifference to him. Lord Ramelton let down the window beside him and put out his head.
"What the devil is the matter?" he said.
He spoke to the chauffeur, but it was Willie Thornton who answered him.
"I'm afraid I must trouble you to get out of the car, sir; you and the chauffeur."
He had spoken quite as civilly to Mr. Davoren half an hour before. He added "sir" this time because Lord Ramelton is an oldish man, and Willie Thornton had been well brought up and taught by his mother that some respect is due to age. He did not know that he was speaking to an earl and a very great man. Lord Ramelton was not in the least soothed by the civility.
"Drive on, Simpkins," he said to the chauffeur.
Simpkins would have driven on if the sentry had not been standing, with a rifle in his hands, exactly in front of the car. He did the next best thing to driving on. He blew three sharp blasts of warning on his horn. The sentry took no notice of the horn. The men of the Wessex Fusiliers are determined and well-disciplined fellows. Willie Thornton's orders mattered to that sentry. Lord Ramelton's did not. Nor did the chauffeur's horn.
Willie Thornton stepped up to the window of the car. He noticed as he did so that an earl's coronet surmounting the letter R was painted on the door. He spoke apologetically, but he was still quite firm. A coronet painted on the door of a car is no proof that the man inside is an earl. The Colonel had warned Willie that "these fellows" were as cute as foxes.
"I'm afraid I must trouble you to get out, sir," said Willie. "My orders are to search every car that goes through the village."
Lord Ramelton had once been a soldier himself. He knew that the word "orders" has a sacred force.
"Oh, all right," he said. "It's damned silly; but if you've got to do it, get it over as quick as you can."
He turned up the collar of his coat and stepped out into the rain. The chauffeur left his seat and stood in the mud with the air of a patient but rather sulky martyr. What is the use of belonging to the aristocracy of labour, of being a member of the Motor Drivers' Union, of being able to hold up civilisation to ransom, if you are yourself liable to be held up and made to stand in the rain by a common soldier, a man no better than an unskilled labourer. Nothing but the look of the rifle in the unskilled labourer's hand would have induced Simpkins to leave his sheltered place in the car.
Willie Thornton had every intention of conducting his search rapidly, perhaps not very thoroughly. Lord Ramelton's appearance, his voice, and the coronet on the panel, all taken together, were convincing evidence that he was not one of "these fellows," and might safely be allowed to pass.
Unfortunately there was something in the car which Willie did not in the least expect to find there. In the front of the tonneau was a large packing-case. It was quite a common-looking packing-case made of rough wood. The lid was neatly but firmly nailed down. It bore on its side in large black letters the word "cube sugar".
Willie's suspicions were aroused. The owners of handsome and beautifully-upholstered cars do not usually drive about with packing-cases full of sugar at their feet. And this was a very large case. It contained a hundredweight or a hundredweight and a half of sugar--if it contained sugar at all. The words of the Colonel recurred to Willie: "There's not a trick they're not up to. They'd deceive the devil himself." Well, no earl or pretended earl should deceive Willie Thornton. He gave an order to the sergeant.
"Take that case and open it," he said.
"Damn it," said the Earl, "you mustn't do that."
"My orders," said Willie, "are to examine every car thoroughly."
"But if you set that case down in the mud and open it in this downpour of rain the--the contents will be spoiled."
"I can't help that, sir," said Willie. "My orders are quite definite."
"Look here," said Lord Ramelton, "if I give you my word that there are no arms or ammunition in that case, if I write a statement to that effect and sign it, will it satisfy you?"
"No, sir," said Willie. "Nothing will satisfy me except seeing for myself."
Such is the devotion to duty of the young British officer. Against his spirit the rage of the empire's enemies breaks in vain. Nor are the statements of "these fellows," however plausible, of much avail.
Lord Ramelton swallowed, with some difficulty, the language which gathered on his tongue's tip.
"Where's your superior officer?" he said.
Willie Thornton believed that all his superior officers were at least ten miles away. He had not noticed--nor had anyone else--that a grey military motor had driven into the village. In the grey motor was a General, with two Staff Officers, all decorated with red cap-bands and red tabs on their coats.
The military authorities were very much in earnest over the business of searching motor-cars and guarding roads. Only at times of serious danger do Generals, accompanied by Staff Officers, go out in the wet to visit outpost detachments commanded by subalterns.
The General left his car and stepped across the road. He recognised Lord Ramelton at once and greeted him with cheery playfulness.
"Hallo!" he said, "Held up! I never expected you to be caught smuggling arms about the country."
"I wish you'd tell this boy to let me drive on," said Lord Ramelton. "I'm getting wet through."
The General turned to Willie Thornton.
"What's the matter?" he said.
Willie was pleasantly conscious that he had done nothing except obey his orders. He saluted smartly.
"There's a packing-case in the car, sir," he said, "and it ought to be examined."
The General looked into Lord Ramelton's car and saw the packing-case. He could scarcely deny that it might very easily contain cartridges, that it was indeed exactly the sort of case which should be opened. He turned to Lord Ramelton.
"It's marked sugar," he said. "What's in it really?"
Lord Ramelton took the General by the arm and led him a little way up the street. When they were out of earshot of the crowd round the car he spoke in a low voice.
"It is sugar," he said. "I give you my word that there's nothing it that case except sugar."
"Good Lord!" said the General. "Of course, when you say so it's all right, Ramelton. But would you mind telling me why you want to go driving about the country with two or three hundredweight of sugar in your ear?"
"It's not my sugar at all," said Lord Ramelton. "It's my wife's. You know the way we're rationed for sugar now--half a pound a head and the servants eat all of it. Well, her ladyship is bent on making some marmalade and rhubarb jam. I don't know how she did it, but she got some sugar from a man at Ballymurry. Wangled it. Isn't that the word?"
"Seems exactly the word," said the General.
"And I'm bringing it home to her. That's all."
"I see," said the General. "But why not have let the officer see what was in the case? Sugar is no business of his, and you'd have saved a lot of time and trouble."
"Because a village like this is simply full of spies."
"Spies!" said the General. "If I thought there were spies here I'd----"
"Oh, not the kind of spies you mean. The Dunedin people are far too sensible for that sort of thing. But if one of the shopkeepers here found out that a fellow in Ballymurry had been doing an illicit sugar deal he'd send a letter off to the Food Controller straightaway. A man up in Dublin was fined £100 the other day for much less than we're doing. I don't want my name in every newspaper in the kingdom for obtaining sugar by false pretences."
"All right," said the General. "Its nothing to me where you get your sugar."
Willie Thornton, much to his relief, was ordered to allow the Earl's car to proceed, un-searched. The chauffeur, who was accustomed to be dry and warm, caught a nasty chill, and was in a bad temper for a week. He wrote to the Secretary of his Union complaining of the brutal way in which the military tyrannised over the representatives of skilled labour. The people of Dunedin felt that they had enjoyed a novel and agreeable show. Lady Ramelton made a large quantity of rhubarb jam, thirty pots of marmalade, and had some sugar over for the green gooseberries when they grew large enough to preserve.