The Rough Road

Page 9 of 24


The regiments of the new armies have gathered into their rank and file a mixed crowd transcending the dreams of Democracy. At one end of the social scale are men of refined minds and gentle nurture, at the other creatures from the slums, with slum minds and morals, and between them the whole social gamut is run. Experience seems to show that neither of the extreme elements tend, in the one case to elevate, or in the other to debase the battalion. Leading the common life, sharing the common hardships, striving towards common ideals, they inevitably, irresistibly tend to merge themselves in the average. The highest in the scale sink, the lowest rise. The process, as far as the change of soul state is concerned, is infinitely more to the amelioration of the lowest than to the degradation of the highest. The one, also, is more real, the other more apparent. In the one case, it is merely the shuffling-off of manners, of habits, of prejudices, and the assuming of others horribly distasteful or humorously accepted, according to temperament; in the other case, it is an enforced education. And all the congeries of human atoms that make up the battalion, learn new and precious lessons and acquire new virtues---patience, obedience, courage, endurance.... But from the point of view of a decorous tea-party in a cathedral town, the tone---or the standard of manners, or whatever you would like by way of definition of that vague and comforting word---the tone of the average is deplorably low. The hooligan may be kicked for excessive foulness; but the rider of the high horse is brutally dragged down into the mire. The curious part of it all is that, the gutter element being eliminated altogether, the corporate standard of the remaining majority is lower than the standard of each individual.

By developing a philosophical disquisition on some such lines did Phineas McPhail seek to initiate Doggie into the weird mysteries of the new social life. Doggie heard with his ears, but thought in terms of Durdlebury tea-parties. Nowhere in the mass could he find the spiritual outlook of his Irish poet-warrior. The individuals that may have had it kept it preciously to themselves. The outlook, as conveyed in speech, was grossly materialistic. From the language of the canteen he recoiled in disgust. He could not reconcile it with the nobler attributes of the users. It was in vain for Phineas to plead that he must accept the lingua franca of the British Army like all other things appertaining thereto. Doggie's stomach revolted against most of the other things. The disregard (from his point of view) of personal cleanliness universal in the ranks, filled him with dismay. Even on Salisbury Plain he had managed to get a little hot water for his morning tub. Here, save in the officers' quarters---curiously remote, inaccessible paradise!---there was not such a thing as a tub in the place, let alone hot water to fill it. The men never dreamed of such a thing as a tub. As a matter of fact, they were scrupulously clean according to the lights of the British Tommy; but the lights were not those of Marmaduke Trevor. He had learned the supreme wisdom of keeping lips closed on such matters and did not complain, but all his fastidiousness rebelled. He hated the sluice of head and shoulders with water from a bucket in the raw open air. His hands swelled, blistered and cracked; and his nails, once so beautifully manicured, grew rich black rims, and all the icy water in the buckets would not remove the grime.

Now and then he went into the town and had a hot bath; but very few of the others ever seemed to think of such a thing. The habit of the British Army of going to bed in its day-shirt was peculiarly repellent. Yet Doggie knew that to vary from the sacred ways of his fellow-men was to bring disaster on his head.

Some of the men slept under canvas still. But Doggie, fortunately as he reckoned (for he had begun to appreciate fine shades in misery), was put with a dozen others in a ramshackle hut of which the woodwork had warped and let in the breezes above, below, and all round the sides. Doggie, though dismally cold, welcomed the air for obvious reasons. They were fortunate, too, in having straw palliasses---recently provided when it was discovered that sleeping on badly boarded floors with fierce draughts blowing upwards along human spines was strangely fatal to human bodies---but Doggie found his bed very hard lying. And it smelt sour and sickly. For nights, in spite of fatigue, he could not sleep. His mates sang and talked and bandied jests and sarcasms of esoteric meaning. Some of the recruits from factories or farms satirized their officers for peculiarities common to their social caste and gave grotesque imitations of their mode of speech. Doggie wondered, but held his peace. The deadly stupidity and weariness of it all! And when the talk stopped and they settled to sleep, the snorings and mutterings and coughings began and kept poor Doggie awake most of the night. The irremediable, intimate propinquity with coarse humanity oppressed him. He would have given worlds to go out, even into the pouring rain, and walk about the camp or sleep under a hedge, so long as he could be alone. And he would think longingly of his satinwood bedroom, with its luxurious bed and lavender-scented sheets, and of his beloved peacock and ivory room and its pictures and exquisite furniture and the great fire roaring up the chimney, and devise intricate tortures for the Kaiser who had dragged him down to this squalor.

The meals---the rough cooking, the primitive service---the table manners of his companions, offended his delicate senses. He missed napkins. Never could he bring himself to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand and the back of his hand on the seat of his trousers. Nor could he watch with equanimity an honest soul pick his teeth with his little finger. But Doggie knew that acquiescence was the way of happiness and protest the way of woe.

At first he made few acquaintances beyond those with whom he was intimately associated. It seemed more politic to obey his instincts and remain unobtrusive in company and drift away inoffensively when the chance occurred. One of the men with whom he talked occasionally was a red-headed little cockney by the name of Shendish. For some reason or the other---perhaps because his name conveyed a perfectly wrong suggestion of the Hebraic---he was always called "Mo" Shendish.

"Don't yer wish yer was back, mate?" he asked one day, having waited to speak till Doggie had addressed and stamped a letter which he was writing at the end of the canteen table.

"Where?" said Doggie.

"'Ome, sweet 'ome. In the family castle, where gilded footmen 'ands sausage and mash about on trays and quarts of beer all day long. I do."

"You're a lucky chap to have a castle," said Doggie.

Mo Shendish grinned. He showed little yellow teeth beneath a little red moustache.

"I ain't 'alf got one," said he. "It's in Mare Street, Hackney. I wish I was there now."

He sighed, and in an abstracted way he took a half-smoked cigarette from behind his ear and relit it.

"What were yer before yer joined? Yer look like a clerk." He pronounced it as if it were spelt with a "u."

"Something of the sort," replied Doggie cautiously.

"One can always tell you eddicated blokes. Making your five quid a week easy, I suppose?"

"About that," said Doggie. "What were you?"

"I was making my thirty bob a week regular. I was in the fish business, I was. And now I'm serving my ruddy country at one and twopence a day. Funny life, ain't it?"

"I can't say it's very enjoyable," said Doggie.

"Not the same as sitting in a snug orfis all day with a pen in your lily-white 'and, and going 'ome to your 'igh tea in a top 'at. What made you join up?"

"The force of circumstances," said Doggie.

"Same 'ere," said Mo; "only I couldn't put it into such fancy language. First my pals went out one after the other. Then the gels began to look saucy at me, and at last one particular bit of skirt what I'd been walking out with took to promenading with a blighter in khaki. It'd have been silly of me to go and knock his 'ead off, so I enlisted. And it's all right now."

"Just the same sort of thing in my case," replied Doggie. "I'm glad things are right with the young lady."

"First class. She's straight, she is, and no mistake abaht it. She's a------"

He paused for a word to express the inexpressive she.

"---A paragon---a peach?"---Doggie corrected himself. Then, as the sudden frown of perplexed suspicion was swiftly replaced by a grin of content, he was struck by a bright idea.

"What's her name?"

"Aggie. What's yours?"

"Gladys," replied Doggie with miraculous readiness of invention.

"I've got her photograph," Shendish confided in a whisper, and laid his hand on his tunic pocket. Then he looked round at the half-filled canteen to see that he was unobserved. "You won't give me away if I show it yer, will yer?"

Doggie swore secrecy. The photograph of Aggie, an angular, square-browed damsel, who looked as though she could guide the most recalcitrant of fishmongers into the paths of duty, was produced and thrust into Doggie's hand. He inspected it with polite appreciation, while his red-headed friend regarded him with fatuous anxiety.

"Charming! charming!" said Doggie in his pleasantest way. "What's her colouring?"

"Fair hair and blue eyes," said Shendish.

The kindly question, half idle yet unconsciously tactful, was one of those human things which cost so little but are worth so much. It gave Doggie a devoted friend.

"Mo," said he, a day or two later, "you're such a decent chap. Why do you use such abominable language?"

"Gawd knows," smiled Mo, unabashed. "I suppose it's friendly like." He wrinkled his brow in thought for an instant. "That's where I think you're making a mistake, old pal, if you don't mind my mentioning it. I know what yer are, but the others don't. You're not friendly enough. See what I mean? Supposin' you say as you would in a city restoorang when you're 'aving yer lunch, 'Will yer kindly pass me the salt?'---well, that's standoffish---they say 'Come off it! 'But if you look about and say, 'Where's the b------y salt?' that's friendly. They understand. They chuck it at you."

Said Doggie, "It's very---I mean b------y---difficult."

So he tried to be friendly; and if he met with no great positive success, he at least escaped animosity. In his spare time he mooned about by himself, shy, disgusted, and miserable. Once, when a group of men were kicking a football about, the ball rolled his way. Instead of kicking it back to the expectant players, he picked it up and advanced to the nearest and handed it to him politely.

"Thanks, mate," said the astonished man, "but why didn't you kick it?"

He turned away without waiting for a reply. Doggie had not kicked it because he had never kicked a football in his life and shrank from an exhibition of incompetence.

At drill things were easier than on Salisbury Plain, his actions being veiled in the obscurity of squad or platoon or company. Many others besides himself were cursed by sergeants and rated by subalterns and drastically entreated by captains. He had the consolation of community in suffering. As a trembling officer he had been the only one, the only one marked and labelled as a freak apart, the only one stuck in the eternal pillory. Here were fools and incapables even more dull and ineffective than he. A plough-boy fellow-recruit from Dorsetshire, Pugsley by name, did not know right from left, and having mastered the art of forming fours, could not get into his brain the reverse process of forming front. He wept under the lash of the corporal's tongue; and to Doggie these tears were healing dews of Heaven's distillation. By degrees he learned the many arts of war as taught to the private soldier in England. He could refrain from shutting his eyes when he pressed the trigger of his rifle, but to the end of his career his shooting was erratic. He could perform with the weapon the other tricks of precision. Unencumbered he could march with the best. The torture of the heavy pack nearly killed him; but in time, as his muscles developed, he was able to slog along under the burden. He even learned to dig. That was the worst and most back-breaking art of all.

Now and then Phineas McPhail and himself would get together and walk into the little seaside town. It was out of the season and there was little to look at save the deserted shops and the squall-fretted pier and the maidens of the place who usually were in company with lads in khaki. Sometimes a girl alone would give Doggie a glance of shy invitation, for Doggie in his short slight way was not a bad-looking fellow, carrying himself well and wearing his uniform with instinctive grace. But the damsel ogled in vain.

On one such occasion Phineas burst into a guffaw.

"Why don't you talk to the poor body? She's a respectable girl enough. Where's the harm?"

"Go 'square-pushing'?" said Doggie contemptuously, using the soldiers' slang for walking about with a young woman. "No, thank you."

"And why not? I'm not counselling you, laddie, to plunge into a course of sensual debauchery. But a wee bit gossip with a pretty innocent girl------"

"My dear good chap," Doggie interrupted, "what on earth should I have in common with her?"


"I feel as old as hell," said Doggie bitterly.

"You'll be feeling older soon," replied Phineas, "and able to look down on hell with feelings of superiority."

Doggie walked on in silence for a few paces. Then he said:

"A thing I can't understand is this mania for picking up girls---just to walk about the streets with them. It's so inane. It's a disease."

"Did you ever consider," said Phineas, "how in a station less exalted than that which you used to adorn, the young of opposite sexes manage to meet, select and marry? Man, the British Army's going to be a grand education for you in sociology."

"Well, at any rate, you don't suppose I'm going to select and marry out of the street?"

"You might do worse," said Phineas. Then, after a slight pause, he asked: "Have you any news lately from Durdlebury?"

"Confound Durdlebury!" said Doggie.

Phineas checked him with one hand and waved the other towards a hostelry on the other side of the street. "If you will give me the money in advance, so as to evade the ungenerous spirit of the no-treating law, you can stand me a quart of ale at the Crown and Sceptre and join me in drinking to its confusion."

So they entered the saloon bar of the public-house. Doggie drank a glass of beer while Phineas swallowed a couple of pints. Two or three other soldiers were there, in whose artless talk McPhail joined lustily. Doggie, unobtrusive at the end of the bar, maintained a desultory and uncomfortable conversation with the barmaid, who was of the florid and hearty type, about the weather.

Some days later, McPhail again made allusion to Durdlebury. Doggie again confounded it.

"I don't want to hear of it or think of it," he exclaimed, in his nervous way, "until this filthy horror is over. They want me to get leave and go down and stay. They're making my life miserable with kindness. I wish they'd let me alone. They don't understand a little bit. I want to get through this thing alone, all by myself."

"I'm sorry I persuaded you to join a regiment in which you were inflicted with the disadvantage of my society," said Phineas.

Doggie threw out an impatient arm. "Oh, you don't count," said he.

A few minutes afterwards, repenting his brusqueness, he tried to explain to Phineas why he did not count. The others knew nothing about him. Phineas knew everything.

"And you know everything about Phineas," said McPhail grimly. "Ay, ay, laddie," he sighed, "I ken it all. When you're in Tophet, a sympathetic Tophetuan with a wee drop of the milk of human kindness is more comfort than a radiant angel who showers down upon you, from the celestial Fortnum and Mason's, potted shrimps and caviare."

The sombreness cleared for a moment from Doggie's young brow.

"I never can make up my mind, Phineas," said he, "whether you're a very wise man or an awful fraud."

"Give me the benefit of the doubt, laddie," replied McPhail. "It's the grand theological principle of Christianity."

Time went on. The regiment was moved to the East Coast. On the journey a Zeppelin raid paralysed the railway service. Doggie spent the night under the lee of the bookstall at Waterloo Station. Men huddled up near him, their heads on their kit-bags, slept and snored. Doggie almost wept with pain and cold and hatred of the Kaiser. On the East Coast much the same life as on the South, save that the wind, as if Hun-sent, found its way more savagely to the skin.

Then suddenly came the news of a large draft for France, which included both McPhail and Shendish. They went away on leave. The gladness with which he welcomed their return showed Doggie how great a part they played in his new life. In a day or two they would depart God knew whither, and he would be left in dreadful loneliness. Through him the two men, the sentimental Cockney fishmonger and the wastrel Cambridge graduate, had become friends. He spent with them all his leisure time.

Then one of the silly tragi-comedies of life occurred. McPhail got drunk in the crowded bar of a little public-house in the village. It was the last possible drink together of the draft and their pals. The draft was to entrain before daybreak on the morrow. It was a foolish, singing, shouting khaki throng. McPhail, who had borrowed ten pounds from Doggie, in order to see him through the hardships of the Front, established himself close by the bar and was drinking whisky. He was also distributing surreptitious sixpences and shillings into eager hands, which would convert them into alcohol for eager throats. Doggie, anxious, stood by his side. The spirit from which McPhail had for so long abstained, mounted to his unaccustomed brain. He began to hector, and, master of picturesque speech, he compelled an admiring audience. Doggie did not realize the extent of his drunkenness until, vaunting himself as a Scot and therefore the salt of the army, he picked a quarrel with a stolid Hampshire giant, who professed to have no use for Phineas's fellow-countrymen. The men closed. Suddenly some one shouted from the doorway:

"Be quiet, you fools! The A.P.M.'s coming down the road."

Now the Assistant Provost Marshal, if he heard hell's delight going on in a tavern, would naturally make an inquisitorial appearance. The combatants were separated. McPhail threw a shilling on the bar counter and demanded another whisky. He was about to lift the glass to his lips when Doggie, terrified as to what might happen, knocked the glass out of his hand.

"Don't be an ass," he cried.

Phineas was very drunk. He gazed at his old pupil, took off his cap, and, stretching over the bar, hung it on the handle of a beer-pull. Then, staggering back, he pointed an accusing finger.

"He has the audacity to call me an ass. Little blinking Marmaduke Doggie Trevor. Little Doggie Trevor, whom I trained up from infancy in the way he shouldn't go------"

"Why Doggie Trevor?" some one shouted in inquiry.

"Never mind," replied Phineas with drunken impressiveness. "My old friend Marmaduke has spilled my whisky and called me an ass. I call him Doggie, little Doggie Trevor. You all bear witness he knocked the drink out of my mouth. I'll never forgive him. He doesn't like being called Doggie---and I've no---no pred'lex'n to be called an ass. I'll be thinking I'm going just to strangle him."

He struck out his bony claws towards the shrinking Doggie; but stout arms closed round him and a horny hand was clamped over his mouth, and they got him through the bar and the back parlour into the yard, where they pumped water on his head. And when the A.P.M. and his satellites passed by, the quiet of The Whip in Hand was the holy peace of a nunnery.

Doggie and Mo Shendish and a few other staunch souls got McPhail back to quarters without much trouble. On parting, the delinquent, semi-sobered, shook Doggie by the hand and smiled with an air of great affection.

"I've been verra drunk, laddie. And I've been angry with you for the first time in my life. But when you knocked the glass out of my hand I thought you were in danger of losing your good manners in the army. We'll have many a pow-wow together when you join me out there."

The matter would have drifted out of Doggie's mind as one of no importance had not the detested appellation by which Phineas hailed him struck the imagination of his comrades. It filled a long-felt want, no nickname for Private J. M. Trevor having yet been invented. Doggie Trevor he was and Doggie Trevor he remained for the rest of his period of service. He resigned himself to the inevitable. The sting had gone out of the name through his comrades' ignorance of its origin. But he loathed it as much as ever; it sounded in his ears an everlasting reproach.

In spite of the ill turn done in drunkenness, Doggie missed McPhail. He missed Mo Shendish, his more constant companion, even more. Their place was in some degree taken, or rather usurped, for it was without Doggie's volition, by "Taffy" Jones, once clerk to a firm of outside bookmakers. As Doggie had never seen a racecourse, had never made a bet, and was entirely ignorant of the names even of famous Derby winners, Taffy regarded him as an astonishing freak worth the attention of a student of human nature. He began to cultivate Doggie's virgin mind by aid of reminiscence, and of such racing news as was to be found in the Sportsman. He was a garrulous person and Doggie a good listener. To please him Doggie backed horses, through the old firm, for small sums. The fact of his being a man of large independent means both he and Phineas (to his credit) had kept a close secret, his clerkly origin divined and promulgated by Mo Shendish being unquestioningly accepted, so the bets proposed by Taffy were of a modest nature. Once he brought off a forty to one chance. Taffy rushed to him with the news, dancing with excitement. Doggie's stoical indifference to the winning of twenty pounds, a year's army pay, gave him cause for great wonder. As Doggie showed similar equanimity when he lost, Taffy put him down as a born sportsman. He began to admire him tremendously.

This friendship with Taffy is worth special record, for it was indirectly the cause of a little revolution in Doggie's regimental life. Taffy was an earnest though indifferent performer on the penny whistle. It was his constant companion, the solace of his leisure moments and one of the minor tortures of Doggie's existence. His version of the Marseillaise was peculiarly excruciating.

One day, when Taffy was playing it with dreadful variations of his own to an admiring group in the Y.M.C.A. hut, Doggie, his nerves rasped to the raw by the false notes and maddening intervals, snatched it out of his hand and began to play himself. Hitherto, shrinking morbidly from any form of notoriety, he had shown no sign of musical accomplishment. But to-day the musician's impulse was irresistible. He played the Marseillaise as no one there had heard it on penny whistle before. The hut recognized a master's touch, for Doggie was a fine executant musician. When he stopped there was a roar: "Go on!" Doggie went on. They kept him whistling till the hut was crowded.

Thenceforward he was penny-whistler, by excellence, to the battalion. He whistled himself into quite a useful popularity.

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