The Rough Road

Page 11 of 24


Perhaps one of the greatest influences which transformed Doggie into a fairly efficient though undistinguished infantryman was a morbid social terror of his officers. It saved him from many a guard-room, and from many a heart-to-heart talk wherein the zealous lieutenant gets to know his men. He lived in dread lest military delinquency or civil accomplishment should be the means of revealing the disgrace which bit like an acid into his soul. His undisguisable air of superior breeding could not fail to attract notice. Often his officers asked him what he was in civil life. His reply, "A clerk, sir," had to satisfy them. He had developed a curious self-protective faculty of shutting himself up like a hedgehog at the approach of danger. Once a breezy subaltern had selected him as his batman; but Doggie's agonized, "It would be awfully good of you, sir, if you wouldn't mind not thinking of it," and the appeal in his eyes, established the freemasonry of caste and saved him from dreaded intimate relations.

"All right, if you'd rather not, Trevor," said the subaltern. "But why doesn't a chap like you try for a commission?"

"I'm much happier as I am, sir," replied Doggie, and that was the end of the matter.

But Phineas, when he heard of it---it was on the East Coast---began: "If you still consider yourself too fine to clean another man's boots------"

Doggie, in one of his quick fits of anger, interrupted: "If you think I'm just a dirty little snob, if you don't understand why I begged to be let off, you're the thickest-headed fool in creation!"

"I'm nae that, laddie," replied Phineas, with his usual ironic submissiveness. "Haven't I kept your secret all this time?"

Thus it was Doggie's fixed idea to lose himself in the locust swarm, to be prominent neither for good nor evil, even in the little clot of fifty, outwardly, almost identical locusts that formed his platoon. It braced him to the performance of hideous tasks; it restrained him from display of superior intellectual power or artistic capability. The world upheaval had thrown him from his peacock and ivory room, with its finest collection on earth of little china dogs, into a horrible fetid hole in the ground in Northern France. It had thrown not the average young Englishman of comfortable position, who had toyed with sthetic superficialities as an amusement, but a poor little by-product of cloistered life who had been brought up from babyhood to regard these things as the nervous texture of his very existence. He was wrapped from head to heel in fine net, to every tiny mesh of which he was acutely sensitive.

A hole in the ground in Northern France. The regiment, after its rest, moved on and took its turn in the trenches. Four days on; four days off. Four days on of misery inconceivable. Four days on, during which the officers watched the men with the unwavering vigilance of kindly cats:

"How are you getting along, Trevor?"

"Nicely, thank you, sir."

"Feet all right?"

"Yes, thank you, sir."

"Sure? If you want to grouse, grouse away. That's what I'm talking to you for."

"I'm perfectly happy, sir."

"Darn sight more than I am!" laughed the subaltern, and with a cheery nod in acknowledgment of Doggie's salute, splashed down the muddy trench.

But Doggie was chilled to the bone, and he had no feeling in his feet, which were under six inches of water, and his woollen gloves being wet through were useless, and prevented his numbed hands from feeling the sandbags with which he and the rest of the platoon were repairing the parapet; for the Germans had just consecrated an hour's general hate to the vicinity of the trench, and its exquisite symmetry, the pride of the platoon commander, had been disturbed. There had also been a few ghastly casualties. A shell had fallen and burst in the traverse at the far end of the trench. Something that looked like half a man's head and a bit of shoulder had dropped just in front of the dug-out where Doggie and his section was sheltering. Doggie staring at it was violently sick. In a stupefied way he found himself mingling with others who were engaged in clearing up the horror. A murmur reached him that it was Taffy Jones who had thus been dismembered.... The bombardment over, he had taken his place with the rest in the reparation of the parapet; and as he happened to be at an end of the line, the officer had spoken to him. If he had been suffering tortures unknown to Attila, and unimagined by his successors, he would have answered just the same.

But he lamented Taffy's death to Phineas, who listened sympathetically. Such a cheery comrade, such a smart soldier, such a kindly soul.

"Not a black spot in him," said Doggie.

"A year ago, laddie," said McPhail, "what would have been your opinion of a bookmaker's clerk?"

"I know," replied Doggie. "But this isn't a year ago. Just look round."

He laughed somewhat hysterically, for the fate of Taffy had unstrung him for the time. Phineas contemplated the length of deep narrow ditch, with its planks half swimming on filthy liquid, its wire revetment holding up the oozing sides, the dingy parapet above which it was death to put one's head, the grey free sky, the only thing free along that awful row of parallel ditches that stretched from the Belgian coast to Switzerland, the clay-covered, shapeless figures of men, their fellows, almost undistinguishable even by features from themselves.

"It has been borne upon me lately," said Phineas, "that patriotism is an amazing virtue."

Doggie drew a foot out of the mud so as to find a less precarious purchase higher up the slope.

"And I've been thinking, Phineas, whether it's really patriotism that has brought you and me into this---what can we call it? Dante's Inferno is child's play to it."

"Dante had no more imagination," said Phineas, "than a Free Kirk precentor in Kirkcudbright."

"But is it patriotism?" Doggie persisted. "If I thought it was, I should be happier. If we had orders to go over the top and attack and I could shout 'England for ever!' and lose myself just in the thick of it------"

"There's a brass hat coming down the trench," said Phineas, "and brass hats have no use for rhapsodical privates."

They stood to attention as the staff officer passed by. Then Doggie broke in impatiently:

"I wish to goodness you could understand what I'm trying to get at."

A smile illuminated the gaunt, unshaven, mud-caked face of Phineas McPhail.

"Laddie," said he, "let England, as an abstraction, fend for itself. But you've a bonny English soul within you, and for that you are fighting. And so had poor Taffy Jones. And I have a bonny Scottish thirst, the poignancy of which both of you have been happily spared. I will leave you, laddie, to seek in slumber a surcease from martyrdom."

Doggie had been out a long time. He had seen many places, much fighting and endured manifold miseries. After one of the spells in the trenches, the worst he had experienced, A Company was marched into new billets some miles behind the lines, in the once prosperous village of Frlus. They had slouched along dead tired, drooping under their packs, sodden with mud and sleeplessness, silent, with not a note of a song among them---but at the entrance to the village, quickened by a word or two of exhortation from officers and sergeants, they pulled themselves together and marched in, heads up, forward, in faultless step. The C.O. was jealous of the honour of his men. He assumed that his predecessors in the village had been a "rotten lot," and was determined to show the inhabitants of Frlus what a crack English regiment was really like. Frlus was an unimportant, unheard-of village; but the opinion of a thousand Frluses made up France's opinion of the British Army. Doggie, although half stupefied with fatigue, responded to the sentiment, like the rest. He was conscious of making part of a gallant show. It was only when they halted and stood easy that he lost count of things. The wide main street of the village swam characterless before his eyes. He followed, not directions, but directed men, with a sheep-like instinct, and found himself stumbling through an archway down a narrow path. He had a dim consciousness of lurching sideways and confusedly apologizing to a woman who supported him back to equilibrium. Then the next thing he saw was a barn full of fresh straw, and when somebody pointed to a vacant strip, he fell down, with many others, and went to sleep.

The rveill sounded a minute afterwards, though a whole night had passed; and there was the blessed clean water to wash in---he had long since ceased to be fastidious in his ablutions---and there was breakfast, sizzling bacon and bread and jam. And there in front of the kitchen, aiding with the hot water for the tea, moved a slim girl, with dark, and as Doggie thought, tragic eyes.

Kit inspection, feet inspection, all the duties of the day and dinner were over. Most of the men returned to their billets to sleep. Some, including Doggie, wandered about the village, taking the air, and visiting the little modest cafs and talking with indifferent success, so far as the interchange of articulate ideas was concerned, with shy children. McPhail and Mo Shendish being among the sleepers, Doggie mooned about by himself in his usual self-effacing way. There was little to interest him in the long straggling village. He had passed through a hundred such. Low whitewashed houses, interspersed with perky balconied buildings given over to little shops on the ground floor, with here and there a discreet iron gate shutting off the doctor's or the attorney's villa, and bearing the oval plate indicating the name and pursuit of the tenant; here and there, too, long whitewashed walls enclosing a dairy or a timber-yard stretched on each side of the great high road, and the village gradually dwindled away at each end into the gently undulating country. There were just a by-lane or two, one leading up to the little grey church and presbytery and another to the little cemetery with its trim paths and black and white wooden crosses and wirework pious offerings. At open doors the British soldiers lounged at ease, and in the dim interiors behind them the forms of the women of the house, blue-aproned, moved to and fro. The early afternoon was warm, a westerly breeze deadened the sound of the distant bombardment to an unheeded drone, and a holy peace settled over the place.

Doggie, clean, refreshed, comfortably drowsy, having explored the village, returned to his billet, and looking at it from the opposite side of the way, for the first time realized its nature. The lane, into which he had stumbled the night before, ran under an archway supporting some kind of overhead chamber, and separated the dwelling-house from a warehouse wall on which vast letters proclaimed the fact that Veuve Morin et Fils carried on therein the business of hay and corn dealers. Hence, Doggie reflected, the fresh, deep straw on which he and his fortunate comrades had wallowed. The double gate under the archway was held back by iron stanchions. The two-storied house looked fairly large and comfortable. The front door stood wide open, giving the view of a neat, stiff little hall or living-room. An article of furniture caught his idle eye. He crossed the road in order to have a nearer view. It was a huge polished mahogany cask standing about three feet high and bound with shining brass bands, such as he remembered having seen once in Brittany. He advanced still closer, and suddenly the slim, dark girl appeared and stood in the doorway, and looked frankly and somewhat rebukingly into his inquisitive eyes. Doggie flushed as one caught in an unmannerly act. A crying fault of the British Army is that it prescribes for the rank and file no form of polite recognition of the existence of civilians. It is contrary to Army Orders to salute or to take off their caps. They can only jerk their heads and grin, an inelegant proceeding, which places them at a disadvantage with the fair sex. Doggie, therefore, sketched a vague salutation half-way between a salute and a bow, and began a profuse apology. Mademoiselle must pardon his curiosity, but as a lover of old things he had been struck by the beautiful tonneau.

An amused light came into her sombre eyes and a smile flickered round her lips. Doggie noted instantly how pale she was, and how tiny, faint little lines persisted at the corners of those lips in spite of the smile.

"There is no reason for excuses, monsieur," she said. "The door was open to the view of everybody."

"Pourtant," said Doggie, "c'tait un peu mal lev."

She laughed. "Pardon. But it's droll. First to find an English soldier apologizing for looking into a house, and then to find him talking French like a poilu."

Doggie said, with a little touch of national jealousy and a reversion to Durdlebury punctilio: "I hope, mademoiselle, you have always found the English soldier conduct himself like a gentleman."

"Mais oui, mais oui!" she cried, "they are all charming. Ils sont doux comme des moutons. But this is a question of delicacy---somewhat exaggerated."

"It's good of you, mademoiselle, to forgive me," said Doggie.

By all the rules of polite intercourse, either Doggie should have made his bow and exit, or the maiden, exercising her prerogative, should have given him the opportunity of a graceful withdrawal. But they remained where they were, the girl framed by the doorway, the lithe little figure in khaki and lichen-coloured helmet looking up at her from the foot of the two front steps.

At last he said in some embarrassment: "That's a very beautiful cask of yours."

She wavered for a few seconds. Then she said:

"You can enter, monsieur, and examine it, if you like."

Mademoiselle was very amiable, said Doggie. Mademoiselle moved aside and Doggie entered, taking off his helmet and holding it under his arm like an opera-hat. There was nothing much to see in the little vestibule-parlour: a stiff tasselled chair or two, a great old linen-press taking up most of one side of a wall, a cheap table covered with a chenille tablecloth, and the resplendent old cask, about which he lingered. He mentioned Brittany. Her tragic face lighted up again. Monsieur was right. Her aunt, Madame Morin, was Breton, and had brought the cask with her as part of her dowry, together with the press and other furniture. Doggie alluded to the vastly lettered inscription, "Veuve Morin et Fils." Madame Morin was, in a sense, his hostess. And the sons?

"One is in Madagascar, and the other---alas, monsieur!"

And Doggie knew what that "alas!" meant.

"The Argonne," she said.

"And madame your aunt?"

She shrugged her thin though shapely shoulders. "It nearly killed her. She is old and an invalid. She has been in bed for the last three weeks."

"Then what becomes of the business?"

"It is I, monsieur, who am the business. And I know nothing about it." She sighed. Then with her blue apron---otherwise she was dressed in unrelieved black---she rubbed an imaginary speck from the brass banding of the cask. "This, I suppose you know, was for the best brandy, monsieur."

"And now?" he asked.

"A memory. A sentiment. A thing of beauty."

In a feminine way, which he understood, she herded him to the door, by way of dismissal. Durdlebury helped him. A tiny French village has as many slanderous tongues as an English cathedral city. He was preparing to take polite leave, when she looked swiftly at him and made the faintest gesture of a detaining hand.

"Now I remember. It was you who nearly fell into me last night, when you were entering through the gate."

The dim recollection came back---the firm woman's arm round him for the few tottering seconds.

"It seems I am always bound to be impolite, for I don't think I thanked you," smiled Doggie.

"You were at the end of your tether." Then very gently, "Pauvre garon!"

"The sales Boches had kept us awake for four nights," said Doggie. "That was why."

"And you are rested now?"

He laughed. "Almost."

They were at the door. He looked out and drew back. A knot of men were gathered by the gate of the yard. Apparently she had seen them too, for a flush rose to her pale cheeks.

"Mademoiselle," said Doggie, "I should like to creep back to the barn and sleep. If I pass my comrades they'll want to detain me."

"That would be a pity," she said demurely. "Come this way, monsieur."

She led him through a room and a passage to the kitchen. They shared a pleasurable sense of adventure and secrecy. At the kitchen door she paused and spoke to an old woman chopping up vegetables.

"Toinette, let monsieur pass." To Doggie she said: "Au revoir, monsieur!" and disappeared.

The old woman looked at him at first with disfavour. She did not hold with Tommies needlessly tramping over the clean flags of her kitchen. But Doggie's polite apology for disturbing her and a youthful grace of manner---he still held his tin hat under his arm---caused her features to relax.

"You are English?"

With a smile, he indicated his uniform. "Why, yes, madame."

"How comes it, then, that you speak French?"

"Because I have always loved your beautiful France, madame."

"France---ah! la pauvre France!" She sighed, drew a wisp of what had been a cornet of snuff from her pocket, opened it, dipped in a tentative finger and thumb and, finding it empty, gazed at it with disappointment, sighed again and, with the methodical hopelessness of age, folded it up into the neatest of little squares and thrust it back in her pocket. Then she went on with her vegetables.

Doggie took his leave and emerged into the yard.

He dozed pleasantly on the straw of the barn, but it was not the dead sleep of the night. Bits of his recent little adventure fitted into the semi-conscious intervals. He heard the girl's voice saying so gently: "Pauvre garon!" and it was very comforting.

He was finally aroused by Phineas and Mo Shendish, who, having slept like tired dogs some distance off down the barn, now desired his company for a stroll round the village. Doggie good-naturedly assented. As they passed the house door he cast a quick glance. It was open, but the slim figure in black with the blue apron was not visible within. The shining cask, however, seemed to smile a friendly greeting.

"If you believed the London papers," said Phineas, "you'd think that the war-worn soldier coming from the trenches is met behind the lines with luxurious Turkish baths, comfortable warm canteens, picture palaces and theatrical entertainments. Can you perceive here any of those amenities of modern warfare?"

They looked around them, and admitted they could not.

"Apparently," said Phineas, "the Colonel, good but limited man, has missed all the proper places and dumps us in localities unrecognized by the London Press."

"Put me on the pier at Brighton," sang Mo Shendish. "But I'd sooner have Margit or Yarmouth any day. Brighton's too toffish for whelks. My! and cockles! I wonder whether we shall ever eat 'em again." A far-away, dreamy look crept into his eyes.

"Does your young lady like cockles?" Doggie asked sympathetically.

"Aggie? Funny thing, I was just thinking of her. She fair dotes on 'em. We had a day at Southend just before the war------"

He launched into anecdote. His companions listened, Phineas ironically carrying out his theory of adaptability, Doggie with finer instinct. It appeared there had been an altercation over right of choice with an itinerant vendor in which, to Aggie's admiration, Mo had come off triumphant.

"You see," he explained, "being in the fish trade myself, I could spot the winners."

James Marmaduke Trevor, of Denby Hall, laughed and slapped him on the back, and said indulgently: "Good old Mo!"

At the little school-house they stopped to gossip with some of their friends who were billeted there, and they sang the praises of the Veuve Morin's barn.

"I wonder you don't have the house full of orficers, if it's so wonderful," said some one.

An omniscient corporal in the confidence of the quartermaster explained that the landlady being ill in bed, and the place run by a young girl, the house had been purposely missed. Doggie drew a breath of relief at the news and attributed Madame Morin's malady to the intervention of a kindly providence. Somehow he did not fancy officers having the run of the house.

They strolled on and came to a forlorn little Dbit de Tabac, showing in its small window some clay pipes and a few fly-blown picture post-cards. Now Doggie, in spite of his training in adversity, had never resigned himself to "Woodbines," and other such brands supplied to the British Army, and Egyptian and Turkish being beyond his social pale, he had taken to smoking French Rgie tobacco, of which he laid in a stock whenever he had the chance. So now he entered the shop, leaving Phineas and Mo outside. As they looked on French cigarettes with sturdy British contempt, they were not interested in Doggie's purchases. A wan girl of thirteen rose from behind the counter.

"Vous dsirez, monsieur?"

Doggie stated his desire. The girl was calculating the price of the packets before wrapping them up, when his eyes fell upon a neat little pile of cornets in a pigeon-hole at the back. They directly suggested to him one of the great luminous ideas of his life. It was only afterwards that he realized its effulgence. For the moment he was merely concerned with the needs of a poor old woman who had sighed lamentably over an empty paper of comfort.

"Do you sell snuff?"

"But yes, monsieur."

"Give me some of the best quality."

"How much does monsieur desire?"

"A lot," said Doggie.

And he bought a great package, enough to set the whole village sneezing to the end of the war, and peering round the tiny shop and espying in the recesses of a glass case a little olive-wood box ornamented on the top with pansies and forget-me-nots, purchased that also. He had just paid when his companions put their heads in the doorway. Mo, pointing waggishly to Doggie, warned the little girl against his depravity.

"Mauvy, mauvy!" said he.

"Qu'est-ce qu'il dit?" asked the child.

"He's the idiot of the regiment, whom I have to look after and feed with pap," said Doggie, "and, being hungry, he is begging you not to detain me."

"Mon Dieu!" cried the child.

Doggie, always courteous, went out with a "Bon soir, mademoiselle," and joined his friends.

"What were you jabbering to her about?" Mo asked suspiciously.

Doggie gave him the literal translation of his speech. Phineas burst into loud laughter.

"Laddie," said he, "I've never heard you make a joke before. The idiot of the regiment, and you're his keeper! Man, that's fine. What has come over you to-day?"

"If he'd said a thing like that in Mare Street, Hackney, I'd have knocked his blinking 'ead orf," declared Mo Shendish.

Doggie stopped and put his parcel-filled hands behind his back.

"Have a try now, Mo."

But Mo bade him fry his ugly face, and thus established harmony.

It was late that evening before Doggie could find an opportunity of slipping, unobserved, through the open door into the house kitchen dimly illuminated by an oil lamp.

"Madame," said he to Toinette, "I observed to-day that you had come to the end of your snuff. Will you permit a little English soldier to give you some? Also a little box to keep it in."

The old woman, spare, myriad-wrinkled beneath her peasant's coiffe, yet looking as if carved out of weather-beaten oak, glanced from the gift to the donor and from the donor to the gift.

"But, monsieur---monsieur---why?" she began quaveringly.

"You surely have some one---lbas---over yonder?" said Doggie with a sweep of his hand.

"Mais oui? How did you know? My grandson. Mon petiot------"

"It is he, my comrade, who sends the snuff to the grand'mre." And Doggie bolted.

Free Learning Resources