But they did sing over our heads; they did keep the blue above us vocal with their shrill, whining cries; it was astounding to look up into the unruffled heavens and see no trace of their course. As one gazed, the crash came in the streets a few hundred yards away; and often after the crash, by an interval of seconds, a noise as of some huge cart shooting its rubbish. Somebody said it was like a great lash whistling over us and cracking amid the herd of living houses just beyond. It really was; and what followed was the groan as yet another piece was taken out of the palpitating town.
Two things came home to us while the day was young. It was biggish stuff that was coming in, at a longish range; and it was coming in on business, not on pleasure. Its business was to feel for barracks, batteries, and other sound investments for valuable munitions; not to have a sporting flutter here, there, and everywhere; much less to indulge in the sheer luxury of pestling a ruined area to powder. If or when they made some ground, and brought up their field-guns, it would be a different matter; then it might pay them to keep us skipping in all parts of the town at once; but, for the present, we in our part were in quite ignoble security – unless Fritz lost his strength! We had, however, to remember that we were in a straight line between wicket and wicket; nor did his singing deliveries give us much chance of forgetting the fact.
News was not long in reaching us from less fortunate localities. The station was catching it; and we had a busy hut all but adjoining the station. We looked upon our comrades at the Station Hut with mingled envy and commiseration, when one or two of them dropped in to recount their adventures and escapes. A short-pitched one had killed four officers in the street in their direction. And it so happened that business took me to the spot during the course of the morning.
It would be idle to pretend it was an enjoyable expedition. A friend went with me; we wore our shrapnel helmets, and everybody we met was wearing his. That alone gave the streets an altered appearance; otherwise everything wore its normal aspect; the March sun was more like May than ever, the sky more innocently blue, the cool light hand of spring softer and more caressing. On the way we met two chaplains of the Guards, who gave us details of the tragedy; on its scene we saw clean wounds on the stone facing of a house, the chipped places standing out in the strong sunlight, but did not investigate too closely. Two of the officers had been standing in the doorway, two crossing the open space we skirted; two had been killed outright, and two were dying or dead of their wounds. Shells whistled continuously as we walked, but not one burst before our eyes.
On my return the mate and I had a look at a dungeon under the Town Hall, as a possible sleeping-place. It was part of an underground system for which the town was famous. One could walk for miles, from chamber to chamber, as one can crawl from cell to cell in the foundations of most big houses.
'This is not the push,' I was stoutly assured. 'This is only a feint, man. They are not such fools …'
After lunch we opened to the bang and whistle of our own guns, for a change. The sacred mid-day meal was never followed up by enemy gun-fire in my hearing; the time-table obviously included a methodical siesta, which it was our daily delight to spoil. Not that my Rest Hut crowd betrayed much pleasure in the proceedings; for once, indeed, I could not help thinking them rather a stolid lot. There they sat as usual under the sunny skylights, dredging the day's news as though it were the one uninteresting thing in the hut, or playing dominoes and draughts, like a nurseryful of unnaturally good children. It is difficult to describe their demeanour. To say that they looked as though nothing was happening is to imply a studied unconcern; and there was certainly nothing studied on their side of the counter; on ours, it seemed as if the Rest Hut had only needed this external din to make it really restful.
'Our friend Jerry's a bit saucy this morning,' said the emissary of a sick Sergeant who sent for a fresh Maurice Hewlett every day that week. It was the first comment of the afternoon on the day's events. 'Our friend Jerry' had risen from his siesta and was giving us whistle and bang for our bang and whistle; and still every shot sounded plumb over the hut. It was like the middle of a tennis-court during a hard rally; but I never heard anybody suggest that either side might hit into the net.
Then, I remember, came a new-comer, a husky lad with a poisoned wrist.
'Gimme one o' them books.'
I had my formula in such cases.
'Who is your favourite author?'
'Don't know as I have one; gimme any good yarn.'
'What's the best yarn you ever read?'
'I don't often read one.'
'The last you did read?'
Lost in the mists. I set The Hound of the Baskervilles on him, and saw him well bitten by the book before the afternoon was out or the bombardment by way of abating. There was no tea-interval on the other side, that I remember; but we had ours as usual in my room, and it was either that afternoon or the next that an eminent Oxford professor, out on a lecturing tour, gave us his company. He was delightfully interested in the library, and spent most of the afternoon behind the counter, making out a list of books he talked of sending us, chatting with the men, and endearing himself to us all. I daresay he was the oldest man who had ever entered the hut; but I still see him perched on top of our little home-made step-ladder, in overcoat and muffler and soft felt hat, while the shells burst nearer, or at any rate made more noise, as the day drew in. Book in hand, and a kindly, interested, quizzical smile upon his face, the professor looked either as though he never heard one of them, or as though he had heard little else all his life. He cheered one more than the cheeriest soldier, for his was not the insensibility of usage, but the selfless preoccupation of a lofty soul.
Earlier in the week I had accepted an invitation to dine that evening with a mess at the other end of the town. It was quite the wrong end for dinner at such a time; it was the end where the German shells were feeling about for things worth smashing. They kept skimming across the streets as I found my way through the dusk, and ours came skimming back; it was the tennis-court again, but this time one seemed to be crossing it on gigantic stilts, head and shoulders above the chimney-pots. But nothing happened. It was a seasoned mess, all padres and doctors, to the best of my recollection; and they gave one a confidence more welcome than all their conscious hospitality. I enjoy my evening immensely – as I look back.
There was a window at each end of the dinner-table. No sooner were we seated than there occurred outside one of these windows about the loudest explosion I ever heard. No chair was pushed back, and I am bound to say that was the end of it; they said it was further off than I can yet believe. They also seemed to think it was a bomb. There I trusted they were right. Bombs cannot go on falling on or even about the same place. But in fifteen minutes to the tick we had the same thing outside the other window. This time the glass came tinkling down, and it was thought worth while to inquire whether there were any casualties in the kitchen. There were none: no doubt some chair would have been pushed back if the answer had been in the affirmative.
And that was all, except a great deal of shell-talk, and comparison of hair-breadth escapes, between my two hosts (both of whom had borne charmed lives – but who has not, out there?) when the rest were gone, and a shower of stuff in the soft soil of the garden as I was going myself. Perhaps 'shower' is too strong a word; but one of the many things I can still hear is the whizz and burial of at least one lethal fragment close beside us in the dark. The kind pair insisted on walking back with me, and were strong in their advice to me to seek a cellar for the night. This being their own intention, and the idea that I found in the mind of my mate on regaining the Rest Hut, he and I spent the next hour in transferring our beds and bedding to the dungeon aforesaid, where I for one slept all the better for the soothing croon of shells high overhead in waking intervals.
It was officially computed that over eight hundred large shells arrived in our little town that day, the historic 21st March, 1918.
Two capital nights we passed in our ideal dungeon. It was deep yet dry, miraculously free from rats, and so very heavily vaulted, so tucked away under tons of d?bris, and yet so protected by the standing ruins, that it was really difficult to imagine the projectile that could join the party. There was, to be sure, a precipitous spiral staircase to the upper air, but even it did not descend straight into our lair. Still, a direct hit on the stairs would have been unpleasant; but one ran as much risk of a direct hit by lightning in peace-time. It seems indecent to gloat over a safety verging on the ignoble at such a time; but those two nights it was hard to help it; and the dim morning light upon the warm brick arches, bent like old shoulders under centuries of romance, added an appeal not altogether to the shrinking flesh.
The day between had been very like the first day. I thought the bombardment a shade less violent; but worse news was always coming in. Far fewer books were taken out, far fewer men had their afternoon to themselves, but only too many were their tales of bloodshed, especially on the outskirts of the town. They told them simply, stoically, even with the smile that became men whose turn it might be next; but the smile stopped short at the lips. Still worse hearing was the fall of village after village in sectors all too near our own; and yet more sinister rumours came from the far south. Our greatest anxieties were naturally nearest home, and our chief comfort the unruffled faces of such officers as passed our way. 'He seems to be meeting with some success, too!' as one vouchsafed from his saddle, after an opening in the style of the gentleman who was still demanding Hewletts for his Sergeant.
The second night we had a third cellarman, leader of one of the outlying huts now being abandoned every day. Almost hourly our headquarters were filling up with refugee workers flushed with their sad adventures; but this young fellow had been through more than most; a man had been killed in his hut, and he himself was in the last stages of exhaustion. He had been fast asleep when we descended from the turmoil for our night of peace; and fast asleep I left him in the morning, little thinking that most of us had spent our last night in the neighbourhood.
It was another of those brilliant days we shall remember every March that we may live to see. The devil's choristers were still singing through the blue above, still thundering their own applause in the doomed quarter of the town. Yet to stand blinking in the keen sunlight, snuffing the pure invigorating air, was to vote the whole thing weak and unconvincing. The picturesque ruins were not real ruins. The noises were not the noises of a real bombardment; they were too simple and too innocuous, one had heard them better done upon the stage. It seemed particularly impossible that anything could happen to me, for instance, at the head of my cellar stairs, or to the very immaculate Jocks' Padre picking his way towards me, over a mound of last year's ruins, to us as old as any other hill.
But it was that Padre who struck the sinister note at once. What were we going to do? Do! His meaning was not clear to me; he made it clear without delay. His Jocks —our Jocks – the rocks of my military faith! – had gone away back. Divisional Headquarters, at all events, had shifted out of that; it was the same with the other Divisions in the Corps, the Padre thought; and he took it we should all be ordered back if we didn't go! A place with a ridge had been taken by the enemy, who had only to get his field-guns up – and that was only a question of hours – to make the town a great deal unhealthier than it was already.
I was horrified. It was the one thing I had never contemplated, being turned out of the little old town! After all, it had been an unhealthier spot a year ago than it yet threatened to become again. A year ago the very Line had curled through its narrow rim of suburbs; and yet the troops had stuck to the town; there had been cellarage for all, barricades in streets swept by machine-guns, and a Y.M.C.A. hut run by a valiant veteran through thick and thin. One or two of us, at least, had been prepared for the same thing over again, plus our Rest Cave and all our books at a safe depth underground. That prospect had thrilled and fascinated; the one now foreshadowed seemed too black to come true.
But at breakfast we had it officially from the mere boy (from a Public School, however) in local charge of the lot of us. We had better get packed; it would be safer; but he hoped, perhaps more heartily than any of us, that the extremity in view would not arise. So we pulled out kit-bags and suit-cases of which we had forgotten the sight – and my jolly little room never looked itself again. No room does, once you start packing the belongings that made it what it was; but I never hated that hateful job so much in all my life. Nor did I ever do it worse – which is saying even more. Two days and nights under continuous shell-fire, even when it is only the music of those spheres that he hears incessantly, does find a man out in one way or another. My way was forgetfulness and, I fear, a certain irritability. There are some of my most cherished little possessions that I shall never see again, and a good friend or so with whom I fear I was a trifle gruff. I hope they have forgiven me. But a shell-burst may be easier to bear than a pointless question, especially when you are asking one or two yourself.
At lunch-time the A.P.M. sent in for me. I found him outside in the sun, with the D.A.A. and Q.M.G., I think it was – both of them very grave and business-like in their shrapnel helmets, their gas-masks hooked up under their chins. They, too, wanted to know what we proposed to do; they, too, explained exactly why the town would presently become no place for any of us. But it was not for me to speak for the other workers, who by this time were most of them on the spot; we were all as sheep in the absence of our Public School shepherd, who had gone off in the Ford to seek instructions at Area Headquarters. Some of them, indeed, took the opportunity of speaking for themselves; and who had a better right? It may be only my impression that we all had a good deal to say at the same time: I know I voiced my dream about the Rest Cave. The official faces were not encouraging; indeed, they put their discouragement in words open to an ominous construction. They did not say Janiculum was lost, but they left us perhaps deservedly uneasy on the point.
And it was all idiotically, if not shamefully, exasperating! Those heavy shells still raining into the town; untold pain and damage ensuing every minute; the town-crier with his bell even then upon his rounds, warning civilians to evacuate; little parties of them already under way, here a toothless old lady in her Sunday weeds, a dignified old gentleman pushing a superannuated perambulator full of household gods, a prancing terrier loving the sad excitement of it all; and a man old enough to know better thinking only of his makeshift hut, hardly at all about their lifelong homes compulsorily abandoned in their poor old age, yet with a step so proud and so unfaltering! The perambulator, perhaps, was now a nobler and a sadder treasure than any it contained. But just then the hut was home and treasure-house to me; filled day by day with hearts of gold and souls of iron; and now what would become of it and them!
For the first time since the first day of all, nobody was there when we opened; but presently a handful drifted in, as unconcerned as the terrier in the road, but without a symptom of the dog's ingenuous excitement. What was it to them if the day was big with all our fates! It would not be their first big day; but it was not their day at all just yet, whatever it might be to us. To them it was still a May day come in March, the air was still charged with the fulness of life, and the hut with all that they had found in it hitherto. It was only to us, in our narrow, keen experience, that everything was spoilt, or spoiling before our eyes.
'It's too good a day to waste in war,' said one of them across an idle counter.
It was not his first utterance recorded in these notes; and there seemed a touch of affectation about it. But he was one of the clever lot I liked, and what I thought his self-consciousness only drew us closer; for I defy you to live under shell-fire, for the first time, without thinking of yourself, and what the next moment may mean to you – and what the moment after – at the back of your mind. It is another thing when your hands are full. But the peculiar traffic at our counter had dwindled steadily during the bombardment. And it had lost even more in character than in bulk. Impossible, at least for me, to keep up the tacit pretence that a book was more important than a battle; it had taken our visitor from Oxford (whom I suspect of an eager assent to the proposition) to turn a really deaf ear to the song and crash of high explosive. Mine was hardened, but it heard everything; my mind employed itself on each report; and for the last two days the men and I had been talking War.
But to this young man I talked about his friends whom I might never see again. He had brought back a bundle of their books, and in their names he thanked me for my 'kindness' to them: as if it were all on one side! As if they had not, all of them, done more for me than I for them! They were doing things up to the end; bringing back their books, at their plain inconvenience, on their way to the forefront of the fight; even bringing me, to the eleventh hour, their little offerings of books, the last tokens of their good-will.
It was hard to tell them we were closing down, it might be only for a day or two; harder still to say what one felt without striking an unhelpful note; and I took no risks. We could only refuse their money all the afternoon, entertain them as best we could, and pack them off with a hand-grip and 'Good luck!'
There was trouble, too, behind the scenes. Our dear old Madame was one of those for whom the town-crier had rung a knell; by half-past three she must be out of house, home, and native place. But it was not the shipwreck of her simple life that brought the poor soul in tears to the hut. All the world knows how the homely French take the personal tragedies of war, with the national shrug and a dry eye for their share of the national burden; and Madame was French to her finger-tips. She was therefore an artist, who put her hand to nothing she was not minded to finish as creditably as the good God would let her. Think, then, of her innocent shame at having to deliver our week's laundry wringing wet from the mangle! It was the last mortification; and all our protestations were powerless to assuage the sting to her sensibilities. As for her helpmate, our orderly, for all his capabilities he had never replaced the two heroes of the other hut in my affections; and at this juncture he had managed to get a little drunk. But from information since received one can only wonder it did not happen oftener; for the man had tragedy in his life, and his story would be the most dramatic in these pages had I the heart to tell it. By us he had done more than his duty, and for the hut almost as much as Madame herself. The last sight of each was saddening, and yet a part of the closing scenes, as the pair had been part of our lives.
By half-past five the Y.M.C.A. men had their orders: all to evacuate except four of the youngest or strongest, who might stay for the present to help with the walking wounded. Only too naturally, the Rest Hut was not represented among the chosen. But permission was given us to remain open another hour; and there were perhaps a dozen readers under the still sunny skylights to the end. It went hardest of all to tell them they would have to go. Two or three looked up from the papers to ask in dismay about their lecture. I had forgotten there was to have been a lecture; but here were these children waiting to take their places for the promised treat, and more came later. Nothing all day had illustrated quite so graphically the difference between their point of view and ours; to them bursting shells, falling houses, and emptying town were all in the day's work. They had to carry on just the same; it was more than distasteful to be obliged to point out that we could not. The lecturer, I said, if he was still alive, would be in the thick of things by this time. That went home; he is the man they all read, the man who has sung the praises of the private soldier with an understanding enthusiasm unsurpassed by any war correspondent in any war. A week earlier the hut would have been full to bursting; it shall burst if they like one night this winter – all being better than that Saturday in March – and a war still on!