Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
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The young man vanished for his sixteen days, and in his absence came the bale of theology from Tottenham Court Road.
'Now I've got something for you,' said I when I saw his keen face again; and lifted off its shelf Dr. Norman Macleod's most weighty tome. I cannot check the Parisian typist who rendered the title Caraid nan Gaidherl; the subject, however, was the only one that interested the Scottish Rifleman, and I took the tongue for his very own. My mistake!
'But that'll be in Gaelic,' said he, without opening the book. 'I have never studied Gaelic, though a Highlander born. Now, had it been Hebrew,' and he really smiled, 'I micht have managed!'
I saw he might; for obviously he had been a theological student when he felt it incumbent upon him (especially as such) to play a Jock's part in the Holy War. I saw, too, that his smile was shy and gentle in its depths, only grim on top. I think, after all, he would have given his last cigarette to a prisoner of anything like his own manhood.
But there was one worse failure than any deficiency on our shelves, and that, alas! was my own poor dear New Book Table. I had not looked after it as I ought, and neither had my friend and fellow-worker; in my eagerness to keep our respective departments ideally distinct, this fancy one had fallen between two stools. Several of the new books were missing before we actually missed one; then we took nightly stock, and with mortifying results. At last it could go on no longer, and the new books were replaced by old bound volumes of magazines, more difficult to deport. But I was determined to have it out with the hut; and I chose the next Sunday evening service, in the course of which I made it a rule to have my say about things in general, for the delicate duty.
I didn't a bit like doing it, as I held my regular readers above suspicion, and they formed the bulk of the little congregation; and that night I was in any case more nervous than I meant them to see, as for once I had decided to tackle the 'sermon' myself. It was the first evening of Summer Time; lamplight was unnecessary; and the splendid men sitting at ease in the arm-chairs, which they had drawn up to the platform end, or at the tables or on the floor, made a great picture in the soft warm dusk. One candle glimmered at the piano, and one on that egregious rostrum, as I stood up behind it and trembled in my boots.
I told them the New Book Table had ceased to exist as such; that I had prostrated myself before fifteen of my natural enemies, in order to spread that table to their liking; but that there had been so many desertions from my crack corps that we were obliged to disband it. Not quite so pat as all that, but in some such words (and to my profound relief) I managed to get a laugh, which enabled me to say I thought it hard luck on the ninety-and-nine just persons that the hundredth man should borrow books without going through the preliminary formalities.But I added that if they came across any of the deserters, and would induce them to return to their unit, I should be greatly obliged. They were jolly enough to clap before I launched into my discourse, and it was what their rum ration must have been to them. I wish as much could be done for poor deacons before going over their top.
But the point is that at least one deserter did return next day; and what touched me more, the little gifts of books, which they had taken to bringing me for the library, increased and multiplied from that night. Nor must I forget the humorist (not one of my high-brows) who button-holed me on my way back to the counter: —
'Beg yer pardon, Mr. 'Ornung, but that pinchin' them new books – wasn't a Raffles trick, was it?'
But if we failed where I had thought we were doing something extra clever, we met with great success in a less deliberate innovation for which I can claim but little credit.
In our quiet hut there was no need for the usual Quiet Room; but there it was, at the platform end, as much use as in the heart of the Great Sahara. I had thought of turning it into a little informal sort of lecture-room, for readings and other entertainments which might not be to everybody's taste. But I had no time to organise or run a side-show; neither of us had a spare moment in the beginning. Though we never opened in the morning, except to officers who cared to come in as friends, there was plenty to do behind the scenes – parcels of new books to unpack and acknowledge, supplementary catalogues to prepare – all manner of preparations and improvements that took the two of us all our time. Then my second mate, the minister, fell from Heaven – for he was just our man.
He had made a hobby of the literary evening in his Border parish; had come out armed with a number of vivacious appreciations of his favourite authors, the very thing for our Quiet Room. I handed it over to him forthwith, and we embarked together upon a series of Quiet Room Evenings, which I do believe were a joy to all concerned. At any rate we always had an audience of forty or fifty enthusiasts, who took part in the closing discussion, and in time might have been encouraged to put up a better lecture than either of us. The minister, however, was very good; and what he had cut out, in his unselfish pursuit of brevity, I could sometimes put into a more ponderous performance at the end. It was a greater chance than any that one got on Sunday evening; for though I promise them there was never any previous idea of improving the occasion, yet it was impossible to sit, pipe in mouth, chatting about some great writer to that roomful of thinking, fighting men, and not to touch great issues unawares. Life and death – wine and women – I almost shudder to think what subjects were upon us before we knew where we were! But a great, big, heavenly heart beat back at me, the composite heart of fifty noblemen on easy terms with Death; and if they heard anything worth remembering, it came from themselves as much as though they had written the things down and handed them up to me to read out. I have known an audience of young schoolboys as kindlingly responsive to a man who loved them; but here were grown soldiers on the battle's brink; and their high company, and their dear attention, what a pride and privilege were they!
If only it had been earlier in the season, not the very hush before the hurricane! There were so many lives and works that we were going to thresh out together – Francis Thompson's, for one. He had crept into our evening with Edgar Allan Poe. I had promised them a long evening with Francis; the stretcher-bearers, especially, were looking forward to it as much as I was; but I had to send for the books, and they were not in time.
And on the last of these Quiet Room Evenings, a young lad in a Line regiment had stayed behind and said:
'May we have a lecture on Sir John Ruskin, sir?'
I said of course they might – but I was not competent to deliver it myself. His books were on the way, however, for there had been more than one inquiry for them. They also arrived too late.
I had never seen the boy before, nor did I again. I may this winter. He shall have his 'lecture on Sir John Ruskin' – if I have to get it up myself!
WRITERS AND READERS
For my own ends I kept a kind of librarian's ledger, in which was entered, under the author's name, every book that ever went out, together with its successive dates of departure and return. This amateurish scheme may not have been worth the labour it entailed, in spare moments at the counter or last thing at night, after a turn-over of perhaps a hundred volumes, many of which needed new labels before retiring to the shelf. But I was never sorry I had let myself in for it. Theoretically, one had only to look up a book in this ledger to tell whether it was in or out; but in practice my reward was not then, but is now, when I can see at a glance who really were our popular authors, and which books of theirs were never without a partner, and which proved wall-flowers.
Statistics, however, are notoriously bad witnesses; and some of mine would not stand cross-examination. Thus, take him for all in all, the author of The First Hundred Thousand may add the blue ribbon of the Rest Hut to his collection; but then, we had practically all his books, and some of them four or five deep. Nor was the one that had more outings than anything of anybody's on our shelves on that account the most popular; it may even have been the author's nearest approach to a bad penny. On the other hand, our four copies of The First Hundred Thousand were out almost as long as we were open, and all four 'failed to return.' As for its sequel, our only copy eloped with its first partner: had all our authors been Ian Hays there would have been no carrying on the library after the first hundred thousand seconds.
The run on these two books was the more noteworthy in view of the fighting reader's distaste for 'shop.' It was the flattering exception to a very human rule; for I find, taking a good many days at random, that while all but thirteen of every hundred issues were novels, less than three of the thirteen were books about the war. Some forty-nine readers out of fifty wanted something that would take them out of khaki, and nearly nine out of ten pinned their faith to fiction.
How many preferred a really good novel is another and a more invidious matter; but nothing was more refreshing than the way the older masters held their own. Dickens was in constant demand, especially among the older men; and they really read him, judging by the days the immortal works stayed out. Again, it was worth noting that here in France A Tale of Two Cities had twice as many readers as Pickwick, which came next in order of popularity. Thackeray was not fully represented, but we had all his best and they were always out. Of the Bront?s we had next to nothing, of Reade and Trollope far too little; but It is Never too Late to Mend enchanted a Sapper, a Machine Gunner, and a Red Cross man in turn, while Orley Farm would have headed our first day's list had it been there in time. George Eliot was never without readers, but Miss Braddon had more, and The Woman in White only one! After Dickens, however, the most popular Victorian was the first Lord Lytton.
I confess it rejoiced my heart to hand out the protagonists of a belittled age at least as freely as their 'opposite numbers' of the present century. But I had my surprises. Scott (Sir Walter!) was a firm wall-flower for the first fortnight; probably the Jocks knew him off by heart; and, of course, the same thing may apply to their unnatural neglect of the so-called Kaleyard School of other days. There was, at any rate, nothing clannish about their reading. It was a Jock who took The Unspeakable Scot for its only airing; and more than three-fourths of my Stevensonians were Sassenachs. But one could still conjure with the name of Stevenson, as with many another made in his time. Mr. Kipling's soldiers are adored by legions created in their image. Sir H. Rider Haggard was never on the Rest House shelf. Messrs. Holmes and Watson were the most flourishing of old firms, and Gerard the only Brigadier taken seriously at my counter. Ruritania, too, got back some of its own trippers from the Five Towns; for though you would have thought there was adventure enough in the air we breathed, there was more realism, and it was against the realism we all reacted. Mr. Bennett, to be sure, did not occupy nearly enough space in our capricious catalogue; neither, for that matter, did Mr. Weyman, Mr. Galsworthy, Mr. Vachell, nor yet Miss Marie Corelli or Sir Thomas Hall Caine. The fault was not mine, I can assure them.
Mr. H. G. Wells, on the other hand, utilised a better chance by tying with the author of Ars?ne Lupin, and just beating Mr. Phillips Oppenheim, for a place it would be unprofitable to compute. Even they could not live the pace of Mr. Charles Garvice, who in his turn succumbed to the lady styled the Baroness Horsy by her fondest slaves; to these two and to Miss Ethel Dell, among others I have or have not presumed to mention, I could wish no greater joy than my job at that counter when their books were coming in, and 'another by the same author, if you've got one,' being urgently demanded in their place. The most enthusiastic letter ever written for an autograph could not touch the eager tone, the live eye, the parted lips of those unconscious tributes. It is not the look you see in Mudie's as you wait your turn; but I have seen it in small boys chasing pirates with 'Ballantyne the Brave,' and in one old lady who fell in love every Sunday of her dear life with the hero of The Family Herald Supplement. It was even better worth seeing in a soldier with Just a Girl in his ruthless hand, and The One Girl in the World trembling on a reverential tongue. The man might have been performing prodigies of dreadful valour up the Line, but his soul had been on leave with a lady in marble halls.
There were two young Privates in the A.S.C. who bolted their Garvice at about two days to the book; and two trim Corporals of the Rifle Brigade who made as short work of the other magicians. This type of reader always hunted in couples, sharing the most sympathetic of all the passions, if not the books themselves, which would double the rate of consumption. They were the hard drinkers at my bar; but the hardest of all was a lean young Jock, who smiled as hungrily as Cassius, and arrived punctually at six every evening to change his book. He looked delicate, and was, I think, like other regular attendants, on light duty in the town; in any case he took his bottle of fiction a day without fail, and once, when it was raining, drained it under my nose and wanted another. I refused to serve him. Unlike the other topers, he was a sardonic critic. One night he banged the counter with a book in my own old line, and the invidious comment:
'He can do what you no can!'
I said I was sure, but inquired the special point of superiority.
'He can kill his mon as often as he likes,' said McCassius, grimly, 'and bring him to life again. Fufty times he has killed yon mon – fufty times!'
They were very nice to me about my books – but very honest! There was a certain stretcher-bearer, a homely old fellow with a horse-shoe moustache and mild brown eyes; not from the high-brow unit, but perhaps a greater reader than any of them; and one of those who eschewed the novel. Scenes of Clerical Life (on top of Lenotre's Incidents of the French Revolution, and our two little volumes of Elia) had been his only dissipation until, our friendship ripening, he weighed me with his tranquil eyes and asked for Raffles. I seemed to detect a streak of filial piety in the departure, and gave him as fair warning as I could; but only the book itself could put him off. He returned it without a word to temper his forgiving smile, and took out The Golden Treasury as a restorative. Poetry he loved with all his gentle soul; but when, at a later stage, he asked if I thought he could 'learn to write poetry,' the wounds of vanity were at least anointed.
He used to take down Mr. David Somervell's capital Companion to the Golden Treasury from the Poetry Shelf; and it was delightful to watch his bent head wagging between text and note, a black-rimmed forefinger creeping down either page, and his back as round as it could possibly have been before the war. He told me he was a Northamptonshire shoemaker by trade; and though you would trust him not to scamp a sole or bump a stretcher, there was nothing to show that the war meant more to him than his last, or life more than a chance of reading – the shadow lengthening in the sunshine that he found in books. Once I said how I envied him all that he had read; very gently – even for him – he answered that he owed it all to his mother, who had taught him when he was so high, and would be eighty-one come Tuesday. The man himself was only forty; but he was one of those guileless creatures who make one unconsciously look up to them as elders as well as betters. And at the front, where the old are so gloriously young, and the young so pathetically old, nothing is easier than to forget one's own age: often enough mine was brought home to me with a salutary shock.
'When I was up the Line,' said one of my friends, bubbling over with a compliment, 'a chap said to me, "You know that old – that – that elderly man who runs the Rest Hut? He's the author of Raffles!"'
Disastrous refinement! And the fellow grinned as though he had not turned what might have been a term of friendship into one of pure opprobrium. Elderly! One would as lief be labelled Virtuous or Discreet.
Another of my poetry lovers did really write it – but not his own – there was too much of a twinkle in his brown eyes! They were twinkling tremendously when I saw them first, fixed upon the Poetry Shelf, and the tightest upper lip in the hut seemed to be keeping down a cheer. No sooner had we spoken than he was saying he kept his own anthology in his field pocket-book – and could I remember the third verse of 'Out of the night that covers me'? Happily I could; and so made friends with a man after my heart of hearts.
In the first place, he spoke the adorable accent of my native heath or thereabouts; and the things he said were as good as the way he said them. Sense and sensibility, fun and feeling, candour and reserve, all were there in perfect partnership, and his twinkling eyes lit each in turn. Before the war he had been a postal telegraphist, and 'there wasn't a greater pacifist alive'; now he was an R.E. signaller attached to the Guards, and as for pacifism – the twinkle sharpened to a glitter and his upper lip disappeared.
Yet another man of forty, he had joined up early, and assigned any credit to his wife – 'good lass!' He was splendid about her and their cheery life together; there was a happy marriage, if you like! 'Ever a rover,' as he said romantically (but with the twinkle), he might be in a post-office, but his heart was not; and it seemed the couple were one spirit. Every summer they had taken their holiday tramping the moors, their poets in their pack: 'when we were tired we would sit down and read aloud.' No wonder the Poetry Shelf made him twinkle! There were two cheery children, 'shaping' as you would expect; their dad borrowed my If to copy out for the small boy's birthday, as well as in his field anthology.
Loyalty to one's own, when so impassioned, is by way of draining the plain man's stock: perfect home lives are not so common that the ordinary middle-aged ratepayer makes haste to give up one for the wars. But the anthologist had not been 'wrapped up' like the rest of us. His loyalties did not even end at his country. That first afternoon, I remember, he told me he had been 'a bit of a Theosophist.'
'Aren't you one now?'
'No; but I still have a warm corner in my heart for them.'
I thought that very finely said of a creed outlived. Give me a warm corner for an old love, be it man, woman, or sect!
Daily he dropped in to read and chat; not to take out a book until his turn came for the Line. It was just when the German push seemed imminent to many, was indeed widely expected at a date when my friend would still be at his dangerous post. He knew well what it might mean at any moment; and I think he said, 'The wireless man must be the last to budge,' with the smile he kept for the things he meant; but for once his eyes were not doing their part. 'Well, thank God I've had it!' he said of his happy past as we locked hands. 'And nothing can take it away from you,' I had the nerve to say; for these may be the comforts of one's own heart, but it seems an insolence to offer them to a younger man with a harder grip on life. Happily we understood each other. 'And many happy chats had we,' he had written on the back of the photograph he left me. He had also written his wife's address. David Copperfield went with him when we parted. I wondered if I should ever see either of them again.
Sure enough, on the predicted night, came the roll of drum-fire, as like thunder as a noise can be; but it was our drum-fire, as it happened, and down came my friend next day to tell me all about it. No-Man's Land had been 'boiling like cocoa' under our shells; he was full of the set-back administered to Jerry, of the fun of underground wireless and the genius of Charles Dickens. I sent him back with Joseph Vance, and we talked of nothing else at our next meeting. It was our last; but I treasure a letter (telling of 'the ruined city of our friendship,' among other things), and a field-card of more recent date; and have every hope that the writer is still lighting up underground danger-posts with his wise twinkle, and still adding to his field anthology.
Yet another hard reader was a Coldstream Guardsman, a much younger man, and one of the handsomest in the hut. He, too, if you will believe me, had brown eyes – a thing that could not happen to three successive characters in a novel – but of another order altogether. If they had never killed a lady in their time, their molten glow belied them. This young man liked a classic author of full flavour. Tom Jones was probably his favourite novel, but we had it not. De Maupassant would have enchanted him – but not the coarse translations on vile paper – or Rousseau's or Cellini's open secrets. As it was he had to put up with Anatole France, and oddments of Swift and Wilde; nor do I forget his justifiable disgust on discovering too late that our Gulliver was a nursery version. He was a delightful companion across the counter: subtle, understanding, soft-spoken, in himself a romantic figure, yet engagingly vulnerable to romance.
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