'There's our hut!' said the young hut-leader, pointing through iron palings at a couple of toy Noah's Arks built large. 'No – that's the nth Division's cinema. The Y.M.C.A. is the one beyond.'
The enclosure behind the palings had been a parade-ground in piping times; and British squads, from the pink French barracks outside the gates, still drilled there between banks of sterilised rubbish and lagoons of unmedicated mud. The place was to become familiar to me under many aspects. I have known it more than presentable in a clean suit of snow, and really picturesque with a sharp moon cocked upon some towering trees, as yet strangely intact. It was at its best, perhaps, as a nocturne pricked out by a swarm of electric torches, going and coming along the duck-boards in a grand chain of sparks and flashes. But its true colours were the wet browns and drabs of that first glimpse in the December dusk, with the Ark hull down in the mud, and the cinema a sister ship across her bows.
The hut-leader ushered me on board with the courtesy of a young commander inducting an elderly new mate; the difference was that I had all the ropes to learn, with the possible exception of one he had already shown me on our way from the local headquarters of the Y.M.C.A. The battered town was full of English soldiers, to whom indeed it owed its continued existence on the right side of the Line. In the gathering twilight, and the deeper shade of beetling ruins, most of them saluted either my leader's British warm, or my own voluminous trench-coat (with fleece lining), on the supposition of officers within. Left to myself, I should have done the wrong thing every time. It is expressly out of order for a camp-follower to give or take salutes. Yet what is he to do, when he gets a beauty from one whose boots he is unfit to black? My leader had been showing me, with a pleasant nod and a genial civilian gesture, easier to emulate than to acquire.
In the hut he left me to my own investigations while he was seeing to his lamps. The round stove in the centre showed a rosy chimney through the gloom, like a mast in a ship's saloon; and in the two half-lights the place looked scrupulously swept and garnished for our guests, a number of whom were already waiting outside for us to open. The trestle tables, with nothing on them but a dusky polish, might have been mathematically spaced, each with a pair of forms in perfect parallels, and nothing else but a piano and an under-sized billiard-table on all the tidy floor. The usual display of bunting, cheap but cheerful, hung as banners from the joists, a garish vista from platform to counter. Behind the counter were the shelves of shimmering goods, biscuits and candles in open cases on the floor, and as many exits as a scene in a farce. One door led into our room: an oblong cabin with camp beds for self and leader, tables covered with American cloth, dust, toilet requisites, more dust, candle-grease and tea-things, and a stove of its own in roseate blast like the one down the hut.
The crew of two orderlies lived along a little passage in their kitchen, and were now at their tea on packing-cases by the boiler fire.
At 4.30 the unkempt couple staggered in with the first urn, and I took my post at the tap. One of them shuffled down the hut to open up; our young skipper stuck a carriage candle in its grease on the edge of the counter, over his till, saying he was as short of paraffin as of change; and into the half-lit gloom marched a horde of determined soldiers, and so upon the counter and my urn in double file. 'Tea, please, sir!' 'Two teas!' 'Coop o' tay, plase!' The accents were from every district I had ever known, and were those of every class, including the one that has no accent at all. They warmed the blood like a medley of patriotic airs, and I commenced potman as it were to martial music.
It was, perhaps, the least skilled labour to be had in France, but that evening it was none too light. Every single customer began with tea: the mugs flew through my hands as fast as I could fill them, until my end of the counter swam in livid pools, and the tilted urn was down to a gentle dribble. Now was the chance to look twice at the consumers of our innocuous blend. One had a sheaf of wound-stripes on his sleeve; another was fresh trench-mud from leathern jerkin (where my view of him began) to the crown of his shrapnel helmet; many wore the bonnets of a famous Scotch Division, all were in their habit as they fought; and there they were waiting for their tea, a long perspective of patient faces, like school-children at a treat. And here was I, fairly launched upon the career which a facetious density has summed up as 'pouring out tea and prayer in equal parts,' and prepared to continue with the first half of the programme till further orders: the other was less in my line – but I could have poured out a fairly fluent thanksgiving for the atmosphere of youth and bravery, and most infectious vitality, which already filled the hut.
In the meantime there was much to be learnt from my seasoned neighbour at the till, and to admire in his happy control of gentlemen on their way up the Line. Should they want more matches than it suited him to sell, then want must be their master; did some sly knave appear at the top of the queue, without having worked his way up past my urn, then it was: 'I saw you, Jock! Go round and come up in your turn!' Or was it a man with no change, and was there hardly any in the till? – 'Take two steps to the rear, my friend, and when I have the change I'll serve you!' When he had the change, the sparks might have flown with it through his fingers; he was lightning calculator and conjuror in one, knew the foul franc note of a dubious bank with less than half an eye, and how to refuse it with equal firmness and good-humour. I hardly knew whether to feel hurt or flattered at being perpetually 'Mr.' to this natural martinet, my junior it is true by decades, but a leader I was already proud to follow and obey.
In the first lull he deserted me in order to make tea in our room, but took his with the door open, shouting out the price of aught I had to sell with an endearing verve, name and prefix included every time. It made me feel more than ever like the mate of a ship, and anxious to earn my certificate.
Then I had my tea – with the door shut – and already an aching back for part of the fun. For already the whole thing was my idea of fun – the picnic idea – an old weakness. Huts especially were always near my heart, and our room in this one reminded me of bush huts adored for their discomfort in my teens. Of the two I preferred the bush fireside, a hearth like a powder-closet and blazing logs; but candles in their own grease-spots were an improvement on the old slush-lamp of moleskin and mutton-fat. The likeness reached its height in the two sheetless bunks, but there it ended. Not a sound was a sound ever heard before. The continual chink of money in the till outside; the movement of many feet, trained not to shuffle; the constant coughing of men otherwise in superhuman health; the crude tinkle of the piano at the far end of the hut – the efficient pounding of the cinema piano – the screw-like throb of their petrol engine – the periodical bringing-down of their packed house, no doubt by the ubiquitous Mr. Chaplin! Those were the sounds to which we took our tea in the state-room of the Ark. She might have been on a pleasure-trip all the time.
That first night I remember going back and diving into open cases of candles, and counting out packets of cigarettes and biscuits, sticks of chocolate, boxes of matches, and reaching down tinned salmon, sardines, boot-laces, boot-polish, shaving-soap and tooth-paste, button-sticks, 'sticks of lead' (otherwise pencils), writing-pads, Nosegay Shag, Royal Seal, or twist if we had it, and shouting for the prices as I went, coping with the change by light of luck and nature, but doling out the free stationery with a base lingering relief, until my back was a hundred and all the silver of the allied realms one composite coin that danced without jingling in the till. Gold stripes meant nothing to me now; shrapnel helmets were as high above me as the stars; the only hero was the man who didn't want change. Often in the early part I thought the queue was coming to an end; it was always the sign for a fresh influx; and when the National Anthem came thumping from the cinema, the original Ark might have sunk under such a boarding-party of thirsty tea-drinkers as we had still to receive. I noted that they called it tea regardless of the contents of the urn, which changed first to coffee and then to cocoa as the night wore on: tea was the generic term.
At last the smarter and tarter of the two orderlies, he who compounded the contents of the urns, sidled without ceremony to the commander's elbow.
'It wants a minute to the 'alf-hour, sir.'
Gramophone alone could give the husky tone of chronic injury, palette and brush the red eyes of resentment turned upon his kind beyond the counter. Our leader consulted his wrist-watch with a brisk gesture.
'I'll serve the next six men,' he ultimated, and the seventh man knocked at his heart in vain. Green curtains closed the counter in the wistful faces of the rest; if I can see them still, it is the heavenly music of those curtain-rings that I hear! The mind's eye peeps through once more, and spies the last gobblers at the splashed tables littered with mugs and empty tins; the last dawdlers on a floor ankle-deep in the envelopes of twopenny and half-franc packets of biscuits; and a little man broom-in-hand at the open door, spoiling to sweep all the lot into outer darkness.
In the kitchen, while both orderlies fell straight to work upon this Augean scene, our versatile leader, as little daunted by the hour, gave further expression to his personality in an omelette worthy of the country, and in lashings of Suchard cocoa made with a master hand. I remember with much gratitude that he also made my yawning bed, and that we turned in early to the tune of rain:
A fusillade upon the roof,
A tattoo on the pane.
Only the pane was canvas, and the fusillade accompanied by some local music from the guns outside the town.
As 'the true love-story commences at the altar,' so the real work of a hut only begins at the counter. You may turn out to be the disguised prince of salesmen, and yet fail to deliver the goods that really matter. I am not thinking of 'goody' goods at all, but of the worker's personality such as it may be. It is not more essential for an actor to 'get across the footlights' than it is for the Y.M.C.A. counter-jumper to start by clearing that obstacle, and mixing with the men for all he can show himself to be worth.
The Ark was such a busy canteen that all this is easier said than it was done. Every morning we were kept at it as continuously from eleven to one as ever we were from four-thirty to eight-thirty. Those were our business hours; and though it was never quite such fierce shopping in the forenoon, it was then that the leader would go off in quest of fresh supplies and I was apt to be left in charge. This happened my very first morning. Shall I ever forget the intimidating multitude of Army boots seen under the door before we opened! And there was another of the early days, when the Somersets stormed our parapet in full fighting paraphernalia, with only me to stand up to them. Not much chance of foregathering then; but never an hour, seldom a single transaction within the hour, but brought me from the other side some quaint remark, some adorable display of patience, courtesy, or homely fun. The change difficulty was chronic, and mutually most exasperating; it was over that stile the men were always helping each other or helping me, with never a trace of the irritation I felt myself. They were the most delightful customers one could wish to serve. But that made it the more tantalising to have but a word with them on business. My young chief was once more my better here; he had only to be behind the counter to 'get across' as much as he liked, and in as few words. But I required a slack half-hour when I could take my pipe down the hut and seek out some solitary, or make overtures to the man at the piano.
It was generally the man's chum who responded in the first instance; for every ?neas in the new legions has his staunch Achates, who collects the praise as for the firm, adding his own mite in a beaming whisper. 'He has his own choir in Edinburgh,' said one Jock of another who was playing and singing the Scottish songs with urgent power. The piano is the surest touchstone in a hut. It brings out the man of talent – but also the bore who hammers with one thick-skinned finger – but also the prevailing lenience that puts up with the bore. I have been entreated to keep my piano locked and the key in the till; and once on the counter I found an anonymous notice, with a line requesting me to affix it to the instrument without delay: 'If you do play, do play – If you don't play, don't!' But a pianist of any pretensions has a crowd round him in a minute; and a splendid little audience it always is. The set concert, as I heard it, was not a patch on these unpremeditated recitals.
One night the hut was full of Riflemen, one of whom was strumming away to his own contentment, but with only the usual trusty chum for audience. I brought my pipe to the other side of the piano, and the performer got up and talked across to me for nearly an hour. He was a dark little garrulous fellow of no distinction, and he talked best with his eyes upon the keyboard, but the chum's broad grin of eager admiration never ceased to ply between us. The little Rifleman had borne a charmed life indeed, especially on Passchendaele Ridge, the scene of his latest misadventures. He was as idiomatic as Ortheris in his generation, but I only remember: 'I looked a fair Bairnsfather, not 'alf!' He was the nearest approach to a 'Bairnsfather' I ever encountered in the flesh, but the compliment to the draughtsman is no smaller for that. A third Rifleman, less demonstratively uncritical than the chum, joined the party; and at the end I ventured to ask all three in turn what they had been doing before the war.
'I,' said the little man, 'was a house-painter at Crewe.'
'And I,' said the grinning chum, 'was conductor of a 28 motor-'bus. I expect we've often dropped you at the Y.M.C.A. in Tottenham Court Road, sir.'
'And you?' – I turned to the last comer – 'if it isn't a rude question?'
'Oh, I,' said he, with the pride that would conceal itself, 'I'm in the building line. But I operate a bioscope at night!'
The historic present put his attitude in a nutshell. He might have been operating that bioscope the night before, be due back the next, and just having a look at things in France on his night off. His expert eye was not perceptibly impressed with the spectacle of war as he was seeing it off the films; but the house-painter seemed to be making the most of his long holiday from house-painting, and my old friend the conductor did not sigh in my hearing for his 28.
I took the party back with me to the counter, where they honoured me by partaking of cocoa and biscuits as my guests. It was all there was to do for three such hardy and mature philosophers; and I never saw or heard of them again, long as their cap-badge set me looking for one or other of their pleasant faces underneath. It was always rather sad when we had made friends with a man who never came near us again. In times of heavy fighting it was no wonder, but in the winter it seemed in the nature of a black mark against the hut.
There were two other Riflemen who were in that night, and hit me harder in a softer spot. They were both tragically young, one of them a pretty boy in a muffler that might have been knitted by any mother in the land. They were not enjoying their war, these two, but they smiled none the less as they let it out; they had come in of their own free will, as soon as ever their tender years allowed, and survived all the carnage of the Somme and of Passchendaele. They could afford to smile; but they had also outlived their romantic notions of a war, and were too young to bear it willingly in any other spirit. They had honest shudders for the horrors they had seen, and they frankly loathed going back into the mud or ice of the December trenches.
'Every time,' said the pretty boy, as they took cocoa with me, 'it seems worse.'
'But for the Y.M.C.A.,' said the other, with simple feeling, 'I believe I should have gone mad.'
That was something to hear. But what was there to say to such a pair? One had been a clerk in Huddersfield; the other, a shade less gentle, but, to equalise the appeal, an only child, foreman of some works in Derbyshire. Indubitably they were both wishing themselves back in their old situations; but equally without a doubt they were both still proud of the act of sacrifice which had brought them to this. The last was the frame of mind to recall by hook or crook. One can be proud of such boys, even if their spirit is not all it was, and so perhaps make them prouder of themselves; the hard case is the man who waited for compulsion, who has no old embers of loyalty or enterprise to coax into a modest flame. This type takes a lot of waking up, and yet, like other heavy sleepers, once awake may do as well as any.
At the foot of our hut, beyond piano, billiard-table, and platform (only the case the billiard-table had come in), was the Quiet Room in which the men were entitled to read and write without interruption. One of those first nights I peeped in there with my pipe, at a moment of fourfold psychology.
In one corner two men were engaged in some form of violent prayer or intercession; not on their knees, but seated side by side. One, and he much the younger of the two, appeared to be wrestling for the other's soul, to be at all but physical grips with some concrete devil of his inner vision; at any rate he was making a noise that entirely destroyed the character of our Quiet Room. But the other occupants, so far from complaining, seemed equally wrapped up in their own affairs, and oblivious to the pother. The third man was writing a tremendous letter, at great speed, face and hands and flying pencil strongly lighted by a candle-end almost under his nose, more shame for our poor lamplight! The fourth and last of the party, a good-looking Guardsman with a puzzled frown, poising the pencil of an unready scribe, at once invoked my aid in another form of literary enterprise. He was making his will in his field pocket-book; could I tell him how to spell the pretty name of one of his little daughters? Would I mind looking it all over, and seeing if it would do?
'Going up the Line for the first time on Tuesday,' he explained, 'and it's as well to be prepared.'
He was perfectly calm about it. He had thought of everything; his wife, I remember, was to have 'the float and the two horses, to do the best she can with'; but the little girls were specifically remembered, and the identity of each clinched by their surname after the one that took more spelling. A dairyman, I imagined from his mild phlegmatic face; but it seemed he was the village butcher somewhere in Leicestershire. His date of enrolment bespoke either the conscript or the eleventh-hour volunteer, and his sad air made me decide which in my own mind. He had obviously no stomach for the trenches, but on the other hand he showed no fear. It was the kind of passive courage I longed to fan into enthusiasm, but knew I never could. I am glad I had not the impertinence to try. Two or three weeks later, I found myself serving a delightfully gay and jaunty Guardsman, in whom I suddenly recognised my friend.
'Come back all right, then?' I could only say.
'Rather!' said he, with schoolboy gusto. He was another being; the trenches themselves had wrought the change. I would not put a V.C. past that butcher if he is still alive, or past any other tardy patriot for that matter. Patriotism is a ray of inner light, and may never even come to a glow of carnal courage; on the other hand, it is the greatest mistake to impute cowardice to the shirker. Selfishness is oftener the restraining power, insensibility oftener still. After all, even in the officer class, it was not everybody who could see that personal considerations ceased to exist on the day war broke out. This busy butcher had been a fine man all the time, and not unnaturally taken up with the price of sheep, the tricks of the weather, the wife and the little girls. May the float and the two horses yet be his to drive more furiously than of old!