A few nights later still, and the pretty ex-clerk was smiling through his collar of soft muffler across the counter. He, too, had made his tour without disaster, or as much discomfort as he feared, and so had his chum the whilom foreman. These reunions were always a delight to me, sometimes a profound reassurance and relief. But those first three jolly Riflemen had vanished from my ken, and I wish I knew their fate.
I see from my diary it was on a Sunday night I found that memorable quartette so diversely employed in our Quiet Room. So, after all, there had been something to lead up to the most singular feature of the scene. Sunday is Sunday in a Y.M.C.A. hut, and in ours it was no more a day of rest than it is in any regular place of worship; for that is exactly what we were privileged to provide for a very famous Division whose headquarters were then in our immediate neighbourhood.
Overnight the orderlies would work late arranging the chairs church-fashion, moving the billiard-table, and preparing the platform for a succession of morning services. These might begin with a celebration of the Holy Communion at nine, to be followed by a C. of E. parade service at ten and one for mixed Nonconformists, or possibly for Presbyterians only, at eleven; the order might be reversed, and the opening celebration was not inevitable; but the preparations were the same for all denominations and all degrees of ceremonial.
In a secular sense the hut was closed all morning. But in our private precincts those Sabbaths were not so easy to observe. The free forenoon was too good a chance to count the week's takings, amounting in a busy canteen like ours to several thousand francs; this took even a quick hand all his time, what with the small foul notes that first defied the naked eye, and then fell to shreds between the fingers; and often have I watched my gay young leader, his confidence ruffled by an alien frown, slaving like a miser between a cross-fire of stentorian hymns. For the cinema, ever our rival, was in similar request between the same hours; and we were lucky if the selfsame hymn, in different keys and stages, did not smite simultaneously upon either ear.
On a Sunday afternoon we opened at four instead of half-past, and drove a profane trade as merrily as in the week until the hut service at six-thirty. During service the counter was closed; and after service, in our hut, we drew a firm line at tea and biscuits for what was left of the working night.
Neither of ourselves being ordained of any denomination, we as a rule requisitioned one of the many ministers among the Y.M.C.A. workers in our district to preach the sermon and offer up the prayers: almost invariably he was the shepherd of some Nonconformist fold at home, and a speaker born or made. But the men themselves set matters going, congregating at the platform end and singing hymns – their favourite hymns – not many of them mine – for a good half-hour before the pastor was due to appear.
The hymns were always started by the same man, a spectacled N.C.O. in a Red Cross unit, with a personality worthy of his stripes. I think he must have been a street preacher before the war; at any rate he used to get leave to hold a service of his own on Tuesday evenings, and I have listened to his sermon more than once. Indeed, it was impossible not to listen, every rasping word of the uncompromising harangue being more than audible at our end of the hut, no matter what we were doing. The man had an astounding flow of spiritual invective, at due distance the very drum-fire of withering anathema, but sorry stuff of a familiar order at close range. It was impossible not to respect this red-hot gospeller, who knew neither fear nor doubt, nor the base art of mincing words; and he had a strong following among the men, who seemed to enjoy his onslaughts, whether they took them to heart or not. But I liked him better on a Sunday evening, when his fiery spirit was content to 'warm the stage' for some meek minister by a preliminary service of right hearty song.
But those ministers were wonders in their way; not a man of them so meek upon the platform, nor one but had the knack of fluent, pointed, and courageous speech. They spoke without notes, from the break of the platform, like tight-sleeved conjurors; and they spoke from their hearts to many that beat the faster for their words. In that congregation there were no loath members; only those who liked need sit and listen; the rest were free to follow their own devices, within certain necessary limitations. The counter, to be sure, had those green curtains drawn across it for the nonce. But all at that end of the hut were welcome as ever to their game of draughts, their cigarettes and newspapers, even their murmur of conversation. It generally happened, however, that the murmur died away as the preacher warmed to his work, and the bulk of the address was followed in attentive silence by all present. I used to think this a greater than any pulpit triumph ever won; and when it was all over, and the closing hymn had been sung with redoubled fervour, a knot of friendly faces would waylay the minister on his passage up the hut.
And yet how much of his success was due to the sensitive response of these simple-hearted, uncomplaining travellers in the valley of Death! No work of man is easier to criticise than a sermon, no sort of criticism cheaper or maybe in poorer taste; and yet I have felt, with all envy of their gift and their sincerity, that even these powerful preachers were, many of them, missing their great opportunity, missing the obvious point. Morality was too much their watchword, Sin the too frequent burden of their eloquence. It is not as sinners that we should view the men who are fighting for us in the great war against international sin. They are soldiers of Christ if ever such drew sword; then let them contemplate the love of Christ, and its human reflex in their own heroic hearts, not the cleft in the hoof of all who walk this earth! That, and the grateful love we also bear them, who cannot fight ourselves, seem to me the gist of war-time Christianity: that, and the immortality of the soul they may be rendering up at any moment for our sake and for His.
It is hateful to think of these great men in the light of their little sins. What thistledown to weigh against their noble sacrifice! Yet there are those who expatiate on soldiers' sins as though the same men had never committed any in their unregenerate civil state, before putting hand to the redemption of the world; who would charge every frailty to the war's account, as if vice had not flourished, to common knowledge and the despair of generations, in idyllic villages untouched by any previous war, and run like a poisoned vein through all the culture of our towns. The point is not that the worst has still to be eradicated out of poor human nature, but that the best as we know it now is better than the best we dared to dream in happier days.
Such little sins as they denounce, and ask to be forgiven in the sinner's name! Bad language, for one; as if the low thoughtless word should seriously belittle the high deliberate deed! The decencies of language let us by all manner of means observe, but as decencies, not as virtues without which a man shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Taste is the bed-rock of this matter, and what is harmless at one's own fireside might well empty a public hall and put the police in possession. To stigmatise mere coarseness of speech as a first-class sin is to defeat an admirable end by the unwitting importation of a false yet not unnatural glamour.
The thing does matter, because the modern soldier is less 'full of strange oaths' than of certain fa?ons de parler which must not be suffered to pass into the currency of the village ale-house after the war. They are base coin, very; but still the primary offence is against manners, not morals; and public opinion, not pulpit admonition, is the thing to put it down.
In a Y.M.C.A. hut the wise worker will not hear very much more than he is meant to hear; but there are times when only a coward or a fool would hold his own tongue, and that is when an ounce of tact is worth a ton of virtue. It is well to consider every minute what the men are going through, how entirely the refining influence of their womankind has passed out of their lives, and how noticeably far from impropriety are the thoughts that clothe themselves in this grotesque and hateful habit of speech.
Let me close a tender topic with the last word thereon, as spoken by a Canadian from Vimy Ridge, who came into my hut (months later, when I had one of my own) but slightly sober, yet more so than his friends, with whom remonstrance became imperative.
'I say! I say!' one had to call down from the counter. 'The language is getting pretty thick down there!'
'Beg pardon, sir. Very sorry,' said my least inebriated friend, at once; then, after a moment's thought – 'But the shells is pretty thick where we come from!'
It was a better answer than he knew.
Soon the shy wintry sun was wearing a veil of frosted silver. The eye of the moon was on us early in the afternoon, ever a little wider open and a degree colder in its stare. All one day our mud rang like an anvil to the tramp of rubicund customers in greatcoats and gloves; and the next day they came and went like figures on the film next-door, silent and outstanding upon a field of dazzling snow.
But behind the counter we had no such seasonable sights to cheer us; behind the counter, mugs washed overnight needed wrenching off their shelf, and three waistcoats were none too many. In our room, for all the stove that reddened like a schoolgirl, and all the stoking that we did last thing at night, no amount of sweaters, blankets, and miscellaneous wraps was excessive provision against the early morning. By dawn, which leant like lead against our canvas windows, and poked sticks of icy light through a dozen holes and crannies, the only unfrozen water in the hut was in the kitchen boiler and in my own hot-water bottle. I made no bones about this trusty friend; it hung all day on a conspicuous nail; and it did not prevent me from being the first up in the morning, any more than modesty shall deter me from trumpeting the fact. One of us had to get up to lay the stove and light the fire, and it was my chance of drawing approximately even with my brisk commander. No competing with his invidious energy once he had taken the deck; but here was a march I could count on stealing while he slept the sleep of the young. Often I was about before the orderlies, and have seen the two rogues lying on their backs in the dim light of their kitchen, side by side like huge dirty children. As for me, blackened and bent double by my exertions, swaddled in fleece lining and other scratch accoutrements, no doubt I looked the lion grotesque of the party; but, by the time the wood crackled and the chimney drew, I too had my inner glow.
So we reached the shortest day; then came a break, and for me the Christmas outing of a lifetime.
The Y.M.C.A. in that sector had just started an outpost of free cheer in the support line. It was a new departure for the winter only, a kind of cocoa-kitchen in the trenches, and we were all very eager to take our turn as cooks. The post was being manned by relays of the workers in our area, one at a time and for a week apiece; but at Christmas there were to be substantial additions to the nightly offering. It was the obvious thing to suggest that extra help would be required, and to volunteer for the special duty. But one may jump at such a chance and yet feel a sneaking thrill of morbid apprehension, and yet again enjoy the whole thing the more for that very feeling. Such was my case as I lit the fire on the morning of the 21st of December, foolishly wondering whether I should ever light it again. By all accounts our pitch up the Line was none too sheltered in any sense, and the severity of the weather was not the least intimidating prospect. But for forty mortal months I would have given my right eye to see trench life with my left; and I was still prepared to strike that bargain and think it cheap.
The man already on the spot was coming down to take me back with him: we met at our headquarters over the mid-day meal, by which time my romantic experience had begun. I had walked the ruined streets in a shrapnel helmet, endeavouring to look as though it belonged to me, and had worn a gas-mask long enough to hope I might never have to do so for dear life. The other man had been wearing his in a gas-alarm up the Line; he had also been missed by a sniper, coming down the trench that morning; and had much to say about a man who had not been missed, but had lain, awaiting burial, all the day before on the spot where we were to spend our Christmas … It was three o'clock and incipient twilight when we made a start.
Our little headquarters Ford 'bus took us the first three miles, over the snow of a very famous battle-field, not a whole year old in history, to the mouth of a valley planted with our guns. Alighting here we made as short work of that valley as appearances permitted, each with a shifty eye for the next shell-hole in case of need; there were plenty of them, including some extremely late models, but it was not our lot to see the collection enlarged. Neither had our own batteries anything to say over our heads; and presently the trenches received us in fair order, if somewhat over-heated. I speak for myself and that infernal fleece lining, which I had buttoned back into its proper place. It alone precluded an indecent haste.
But in the trenches we could certainly afford to go slower, and I for one was not sorry. It was too wonderful to be in them in the flesh. They were almost just what I had always pictured them; a little narrower, perhaps; and the unbroken chain of duck-boards was a feature not definitely foreseen; and the printed sign-boards had not the expected air of a joke, might rather have been put up by order of the London County Council. But the extreme narrowness was a surprise, and indeed would have taken my breath away had I met my match in some places. An ordinary gaunt warrior caused me to lean hard against my side of the trench, and to apologise rather freely as he squeezed past; a file of them in leather jerkins, with snow on their toe-caps and a twinkle under their steel hat-brims, almost tempted me to take a short cut over the top. I wondered would I have got very far, or dropped straight back into the endless open grave of the communication trench.
Seen from afar, as I knew of old, that was exactly what the trenches looked like; but from the inside they appeared more solid and rather deeper than any grave dug for the dead. The whole thing put me more in mind of primitive ship-building – the great ribs leaning outwards – flat timbers in between – and over all sand-bags and sometimes wire-work with the precise effect of bulwarks and hammock-netting. Even the mouths of dug-outs were not unlike port-holes flush with the deck; and many a piquant glimpse we caught in passing, bits of faces lit by cigarette-ends and half-sentences or snatches of sardonic song; then the trench would twist round a corner into solitude, as a country road shakes off a hamlet, and on we trudged through the thickening dusk. Once, where the sand-bags were lower than I had noticed, I thought some very small bird had chirped behind my head, until the other man turned his and smiled.
'Hear that?' he said. 'That was a bullet! It's just about where they sniped at me this morning.'
I shortened my stick, and crept the rest of the way like the oldest inhabitant of those trenches, as perhaps I was.
It was nearly dark when our journey ended at one of those sunken roads which make a name for themselves on all battle-fields, and duly complicate the Western Front. Sometimes they cut the trench as a level crossing does a street, and then it is not a bad rule to cross as though a train were coming. Sometimes it is the trench that intersects the sunken road; this happened here. We squeezed through a gap in the sand-bags, a gap exactly like a stile in a stone fence, and from our feet the bleak road rose with a wild effect into the wintry sunset.
It was a road of some breadth, but all crinkled and misshapen in its soiled bandage of frozen snow. Palpable shell-holes met a touchy eye for them on every side; one, as clean-cut as our present footprints, literally adjoined a little low sand-bagged shelter, of much the same dimensions as a blackfellow's gunyah in the bush. This inviting habitation served as annex to a small enough hut at least three times its size; the two cowered end to end against the sunken roadside, each roof a bit of bank-top in more than camouflage, with real grass doing its best to grow in real sods.
'No,' said the other man, 'only the second half of the hut's our hut. This first half's a gum-boot store. The sand-bagged hutch at the end of all things is where we sleep.'
The three floors were sunk considerably below the level of the road, and a sunken track of duck-boards outside the semi-detached huts was like the bottom of a baby trench. We looked into our end; it was colder and darker than the open air, but cubes of packing-case and a capacious boiler took stark shape in the gloom.
'I should think we might almost start our fire,' said the other man. 'We daren't by daylight, on account of the smoke; we should have a shell on us in no time. As it is, we only get waifs and strays from their machine-guns; but one took the rim off a man's helmet, as neat as you could do it with a pair of shears, only last night out here on these duck-boards.'
Yet those duck-boards outside the hut were the next best cover to the hut itself; accordingly the men greatly preferred waiting about in the open road, which the said machine-guns could spray at pleasure on the chance of laying British dust. So I gathered from the other man: so I very soon saw for myself. Night had fallen, and at last we had lighted our boiler fire, with the help of a raw-boned orderly supplied by the battalion of Jocks then holding the front line. And the boiler fire had retaliated by smoking all three of us out of the hut.
This was an initial fiasco of each night I was there; to it I owe sights that I can still see as plain as the paper under my pen, and bits of dialogue and crashes of orchestral gun-fire, maddeningly impossible to reproduce. Are there no gramophone records of such things? If not, I make a present of the idea to those whom it officially concerns. They are as badly needed as any films, and might be more easily obtained.
The frosty moon was now nearly full, and a grey-mauve sky, wearing just the one transcendent jewel of light, as brilliant in its way as the dense blue of equatorial noon. Upon this noble slate the group of armed men, waiting about in the road above the duck-boards, was drawn in shining outline; silvered rifles slung across coppery leathern shoulders; earthenware mugs turned to silver goblets in their hands, and each tilted helmet itself a little fallen moon. A burst of gun-fire, and not a helmet turned; the rat-tat-tat of a machine-gun, but no shining shoulder twinkled with the tiniest shrug. And yet the devil's orchestra might have been tuning up at their feet, under the very stage they trod with culpable unconcern.
Two melodramatic little situations (as they seemed to me, but not to them) came about for our immediate benefit, and in appropriately quick succession as I remember them. A wounded Jock figured in each; neither was a serious case; the first one too light, it was feared, to score at all. The man did just come limping along our duck-boards, but only very slightly, though I rather think a comrade's arm played a fifth-wheel part in the proceedings. It was only a boot that had been sliced across the instep. A shoemaker's knife could not have made a cleaner job so far; but 'a bit graze on ma fut' was all the sufferer himself could claim, amid a murmur of sympathy that seemed exaggerated, ill as it became a civilian even to think so.
The other casualty was a palpable hit in the fore-arm. First aid had been applied, including an empty sand-bag as top bandage, before the wounded man appeared with his escort in the moonlight; but now there was a perverse shortage of that very commiseration which had been lavished upon the man with the wounded boot. This was a real wound, 'a Blighty one' and its own reward: the man who could time matters to so cynical a nicety with regard to Christmas, and then only 'get it in the arrum,' which notoriously means a long time rather than a bad one, was obviously not a man to be pitied. He was a person to be plied with the driest brand of North British persiflage. Signs of grim envy did not spoil the joke, for there were those of as grim a magnanimity behind it all; and the pale lad himself, taking their nonsense in the best of part, yet shyly, as though they had a right to complain, and he only wished they could all have been wounded and sent home together, was their match in simple subtlety and hidden kindness. And between them all they were better worth seeing and hearing than the moonlight and the guns.