The Man Who Would Be Great
He exchanged sonatas for shells and in battle’s roar heard music of the spheres
G. H. CHARLES
OWEN LANIER reached for the window-blind. For a moment he delayed compliance with the requirements of the law in order to gaze into the moonlit night. The hush following London’s warning was now absolute. It was the lull before the storm. Searchlights, shooting upward in powerful, clear-cut streams, were criss-crossing in frantic restlessness, forming geometric designs of triangles as they searched the sky.
He could distinctly hear the hum of an ascending plane. Some fool was going up to help repel the enemy. Lanier tried to find him, and failed. Then, on what might be the pilot’s ast ride heavenwards, he slowly pulled down the blind.
One of his guests remained. “Do you stay because of me, Owen?” she asked.
He was not quite sure how to answer her. There would be, he knew, an unsteadiness in his voice.
“Well,” he said, “I usually run over to the tube at Dover Street. I think—we ought to go.
You see, Margaret, it’s so senseless — risking things. The whole street would crash if a bomb—”
In her young, oval face there wasn’t a trace of fear. Against the cushions she was singularly at ease, her lips tranquil, the clinging material of her dress draping the crossed, slender ankles.
Lanier loved her. He had loved her since the afternoon, three months ago, when, in a babel of encomium for his playing, her admiration had been reserved until the moment she left and had then been expressed in a word of thanks when for an instant her hand rested in his.
Plop, plop, plop! Distant; high above! As though someone had begun to shake blankets away above the clouds. But Lanier knew what it heralded; knew by experience. The play spread, became more general, was joined by a subdued rat-tat-tat-tat-tat; the whole thing enormously childish.
All at once the quiet of Chelsea was invaded by the whine of a falling shell-splinter. A roof-slate was dislodged. As it shattered on the pavement the sound accentuated the feeling of absolute local desertion.
He shuddered. “Shall we go?” he suggested in a shaky voice.
She smiled at him. “I simply loathe the idea of running from them. Of course it isn’t that, exactly. One shouldn’t invite injury. But to pack into an underground station with all those weeping females—”
A dull, heavy thud came roaring like a tidal wave. An answering reverberation passed through the room. The blanket-shaking grew louder. A nearby defense-gun started to bark; its crack! crack! crack! ear-splitting.
Owen Lanier’s pretense of calm deserted him on the instant. “It’s hideous!” he cried. “Hideous!”
“War,” he shouted. “War. The fact of it. The cause of it. The delight taken in it by these swaggering generals, men who revel in killing, boast of it, shout with joy when they smash down the art-work of centuries, men to whom an artist is a term of reproach, something contemptible, because he doesn’t join them and brandish a sword.”
He realized he had said too much. The expression of her lips hadn’t altered; but a sign of regret, disappointment, dwelt in her eyes. He dropped down beside her on the divan, raised her hand in apology.
“I’m sorry, Margaret,” he hurried on, impulsively. “England is at war, fighting for the cause of humanity. I realize that. I admire her for it. It’s the military mind I hate. The roots of war. That poisonou; growth under the very tree of life. The world is beautiful. But surely it is music and dancing that makes it so. Listen to that hellish noise out there, then try and think of Chopin, Shelley, Corot—”
She hadn’t removed her hand. “But history,” she said, “proves that war stimulates the poet, the writer, and the musician.”
He denied it. “An artist’s soul is strangled by the military glove. In the place of a pen they hand him a bayonet. For me it would be the substitution of the kettledrum for Chopin! Six months of that sort of thing and my career would be blasted—cut down by the sword!” He was speaking vindictively. “It’s five years since I left Canada, and I’ve yet to convince my father I can make a greater name through my music than he with his hardware. I will convince him—and this war shall not stop me!”
His face had gone white; but Lady Margaret Terrill was not looking at him. The raiders were now definitely over the city. Not far away two or three anti-aircraft guns spat viciously. Pieces of twisted steel, hot and sizzling, fell in screeches of frustration. Great, heavy thuds— woom, woom,—shook London to her foundations. One bomb, quite near, rattled the windows of the studio.
Under this visitation of death Owen Lanier had an insane desire to confess his love. “Margaret,”—he had a protective arm about her—“have you any use for me at all? I mean, deep down in your heart?”
“I like you awfully, Owen.”
“Because I play well—on the piano?”
“For your ambition—your courage.”
He looked at her. “I have no courage,” he said. “Not, at least, as the daily newspapers rate it. Deeds of bravery—back of a machine-gun? No,” he repeated, emphatically.
Again she smiled at him.
“It’s true,” he said. “Possibly my hatred of war springs from that. Physically, I’m a coward. I know I am.” “I know you’re not.”
The fury of the German raid was now directly overhead. For twenty minutes they sat there, silent, tense. Finally, the sound of bursting shrapnel moved east.
“Margaret,” he said in quiet confession, “I want to tell you something. My name isn’t Lanier. It’s Jones. My father is William Owen Jones. Wholesale hardware; Montreal and Toronto.”
She appeared to be considering this; then she said: “Jones is a good name. As good as any other. It suggests integrity. Honest weight.”
“Trade,” he clarified. “Why did you take the name Lanier?”
“It was my mother’s name. Owen Jones, painted on a deliverywagon, is all right. But I can’t see it on a program.”
“When the war is over,” she told him very quietly, “I’m going to earn my own living. And I wouldn’t mind selling pots and pans—that’s hardware, isn’t it? — wouldn’t mind at all if I thought I could make a success of it.”
On her veiled rebuke Owen had no time to dwell. Down the street had come a despatchrider sounding the all clear. The pipe of the horn, like that blown on a child’s trumpet, was indescribably silly. It gave to the terrors of an air-raid an atmosphere of absurdity; as if the sound of guns, crash of bomb, had been a stupid trick of the imagination.
Rising, Owen went to the fireplace, lit a cigarette with a prodigious amount of insensibility to further danger. Lady Margaret Terrill hadn’t moved. “Owen,” she said, “just now, when the guns were roaring, I kept hearing strains of your music. Do you know what it sang of? It sang of a man who had gone up in his plane, was climbing through his own shellfire, was blinded by the glare of his own search-lights. It sang that he was offering his life—so that you and I—” Owen slowly squashed his cigarette in the ash-tray. Then, with an impulsive movement, he was on his knees beside her. “Margaret,” he said, emotionally, “do you know what I want in life? Most of all?”
For the first time that evening she was perceptibly effected. She started, tried to rise; but he stopped her. “I can’t help telling you. You must have known it. Ever since the day I first saw you I’ve been hoping that —some time—you and I . . . Tell me, Margaret. Can you promise—when I’ve made a name for myself—?”
She had risen; was moving away. He was beside her instantly, and in trying to stay her she was suddenly in his arms.
“I can’t, Owen. I can’t—because—because I don’t know.”
“Everything depends on you.” He spoke desperately. “Don’t ask me, Owen. Please. There is so much to be done. You have your work; I have mine. They are so widely separated. In a few hours I’ll be in uniform again —one of hundreds of thousands to whom thoughts of country must come first.”
“But, Margaret—after I’ve made a name—?”
“Your name—my name—what does that matter?”
The hauteur in her eyes spread, unmistakably, to her question, causing him to release her. What happened then was to haunt him for weeks to come. She went to the door.
Erect, aristocratic, lovely, she turned and faced him.
“Owen,” —and now she spoke quietly, regretfully— “we—we mustn’t see each other again.”
A tremor ran through him.
“You have your career to think of—a name to make. That, I can see, is more important to you than anything.” “Margaret—for God’s sake—what do you mean?”
“I mean—I don’t want to see you—ever again, Owen.” “But—but why? I’m an artist—not a soldier.”
“Please don’t ask me. I can’t explain without hurting you.” She tried to smile at him. “We’ve been awfully good friends, Owen—and I still like you—fearfully. That’s why—I think—I’ve decided that it’s best we—” She continued to look at him. “Besides, I am leaving for France, to-morrow. To drive an ambulance behind the lines. Please, Owen—try to understand. And don’t think I am anything but sincere when I wish you all the luck in the world. I want you to succeed—and I know you will. You are destined to be a great artist. Only, Owen—I don’t think I want to share that greatness with you. I’m sorry.”
She had paled. For a moment longer she waited. Crushed, his head lowered, Owen Lanier didn’t move. He heard her footsteps recede, heard her open the front door, go down the steps and walk quickly away.
TN LONDON, the Engineers recruited a battalion for home service. It was composed of men whose responsibilities precluded their going over to France. They constructed bridges, built prison-camps, repaired the damage done by the Zeppelins and generally did the work required of them.
Owen joined the battalion. Given a uniform, a number, he was known as Sapper Jones. A week after he had enlisted a dreadful thing happened. One morning, when he was helping to build a pontoon over a placid English river a log fell on his left hand, practically severing the little finger. It was amputated an hour later, and with it was amputated every vestige of the ego that was Owen Lanier. Gone, his ambitions, his career, his music, the greatness he hoped to achieve; gone like a broken lamp. On the agony of that hour,> the affliction of a tortured soul, the bitterness of the cup that had to be drained to the very dregs, it is unnecessary to speak. Therefore, gone from this story is Owen Lanier. The rest of it is about Sapper Jones.
On his discharge from the hospital, he joined a draft of reinforcements to the Engineers in France. With him went a tall, th;n man who wrote sentimental verse. Sapper Grover hoped the war might vitalize his poetry. Sapper Jones had a grimmer motive.
They landed at Havre, went up to the front in boxcars, and eventually found themselves in a dug-out back of Vimy Ridge. In that ridge the enemy had blown three huge craters, around which ten thousand men lay rotting. It seemed, indeed, that the moment a big raid was started the Germans sprang a mine and stopped it. The largest crater—the Montreal—was wide and deep enough to drown a battalion. Projecting trenches had been run into it by both armies, and at the end of them mud-plastered machine-gun crews kept a miserable vigil by day and by night.
Near the Montreal were two other craters. The Twins they were called. Around them, between them, in front and behind them, men had fought like maniacs. Back in Ottawa and Glasgow,, women received letters from the Government saying their loved ones were missing. It was just as well they didn’t know that the miniature lakes round these craters hid from the sight of heaven their husbands, their brothers and their sons.
The R. E.’s were there to run a tunnel under and beyond the Twins and blow the enemy out of position. To that end they started to dig back in the supports, fifty feet below ground. When Sapper Jones arrived on the scene, a tunnel had already been run half a kilometre toward the enemy.
This tunnel, or sap, sloped gently upward and was of such dimensions that it accommodated two men and no more. It had telephone and electric-light wiring, and there was another wire by means of which, and a listening-set, the officer oKsergeant in charge could hear the German engineers conducting their own operations. Put the apparatus over your ears and listen! Pick, pick, pick. A faint, eerie sound! The enemy, fifty feet away! Slightly above, let us say, to the left! Naturally the Germans had similar instruments and could just as easily locate the whereabouts of the R.E.’s.
Sapper Jones had just finished his shift. That meant he had been working at the end of the sap for some hours, and was now relieved. Four weeks of active service had altered him. Lying on his bunk in the men’s dug-out of the main shaft he looked like some disreputable, muddy and shapeless figure of the earth’s belly. The mail had arrived, and in front of a lighted candle he held the pages of a letter. As he read his mouth twitched.
“Look at him,” said the sergeant. “He’ll eat the bloody thing when he’s through reading of it.” “Hey, Sapper!” called a voice. “Don’t believe a word she says. They’re all liars—every blasted one of ’em. Look at me! My skirt waited till I come across here, then married another bloke. One of them home-battalion men, too. Damn her eyes!”
“Don’t scare him,” said another. “He’s got the wind-up up as it is.”
There was a general laugh at this.
A man came out of the tunnel. He was literally plastered with mud.
“Who t’hell’s that?” demanded the sergeant. “You, Pickthorpe?”
“Righto,” was the reply; “behind this bloody clay. The Heinies are all quiet. Reckon they’ve got their mine all prepared. There ain’t a sound from any of ’em.”
Sapper Jones wasn’t listening. “. . . and I’d love to see you in your uniform,” he read. “You see, Owen, your postcard had gone from place to place until it reached me. I have been transferred many times.”
Her letter—he saw by the envelope—had been addressed to the training camp near London, to the hospital, re-addressed to Ridley, and finally sent out here. Obviously, she still thought he was in England.
“And you speak too modestly of what you have done, Owen. The fact that you deliberately interfered with your studies in order to help, fills me with admiration. It doesn’t matter if it’s only for home service. I realize, precisely, the sacrifice you made.”
He recalled the morning he had written to her; the day before his accident. He had not written since.
“The day,” the letter continued, “you give your first recital will be the happiest of my life. I can hear them cheering you, acclaiming you. Yours will be a greater triumph because in this hour of anguish you placed your music second and your love for humanity first.”
Sapper Jones stopped reading and glanced at his hands. He had grown accustomed to their unsightliness. The fingernails were lined with dirt the knuckles cut and bruised. The left hand was positively ugly. He tried to visualize it resting on the white keys of a piano, and laughed.
If she only knew! If only she could see him as he lay here on his filthy bunk! His face; his hands! If only she knew why he had volunteered for active service! But she would never know. She belonged to the past. She was behind him, a dream-vision, definitely lost to him like his music, his career.
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Wearily he returned to her letter. “Write to me,” she begged; “to my old address in Cadogan Square, for I am ordered back to London. Of course I’m fearfully disappointed. But I’ve one consolation. Can you possibly guess what it is?”
“Hey! you!” yelled the sergeant. “What’s the idea? Trying to work a sick leave or something? Didn’t I tell you to hop up them stairs and get some fresh air into you? You’ll be crawling up that sap again in a couple of hours.”
“I guess I will go up for a while,” said Owen, lifting himself off his bunk and rummaging in his kit-bag for writing paper and envelope.
“Better take your tin-lizzie and gas mask,” insinuated a voice. “They may be shelling upstairs.”
“Dry up. Don’t scare the kid.”
Owen slowly mounted the long flight of wooden steps.
“It’s a wonder some of you aren’t ashamed of yourselves,” put in Sapper Grover. “To begin with, it was damned decent of Jones to offer his services. He gave every indication of being a great artist.”
“What did he give?”
“Oh, what’s the use of trying to explain? You rats couldn’t understand what it means to study music for years and years, and then—”
There was a complaint to this. “Hey! Paddywhisky! give us a tune on your mouth-organ.”
So requested, Sapper Timeat—a short little man, lately a London taxi-driverobliged with a rendition of Tipperary.
UP ABOVE, blinking his eyes in the pale, cold sunshine, quaking every time an enemy shell whistled overhead, Sapper Jones propped his back against the side of the trench and began to compose a letter.
“I’ve been out here a month now,” he wrote, “and nothing of Owen Lanier remains. I’m Sapper Jones, and if the war ended to-morrow I couldn’t step back into my former role. That’s over and done with, Margaret. I decided—quite suddenly—I wasn’t meant for a pianist. My father was right, and I’ve written to tell him so—”
He ducked as a shell came over to burst with sickening ferocity about forty yards away, sending up the dirt and stones in all directions. It was some time before his hand was steady enough to continue writing.
“Strange as it may seem to you,” he wrote on, “I have lost all desire for fame. The best I can hope for is a career as traveling-salesman for William O. Jones and Co., Montreal and Toronto. And— even more curiously—-if I ever come through this war—I shall be happy to accept my father’s offer.
“Freed from that curse for greatness, I see life more fully, more completely. Music, now, is nobler to me, a grander and bigger thing than I had ever supposed when immersed in it to the extent of making it merely a ladder of personal gain.
“I should like to compose. Perhaps I will. Sonatas, string-quartettes, all to you, Margaret—and the dear memory of you. But, first, I must prove to myself that I possess what is most needed before one can accomplish anything. I dread that test as I dread nothing else on earth. I am afraid of failure.
“But I can tell you this. There'is not a day, not a night, when I don’t calm my fears with the recollection that once—in a studio in Chelsea—I found the courage to tell you I loved you, I had the supreme daring to ask you to be my wife. No matter what I do, I shall never find the courage to ask you again.”
He wrote his name, his regimental number and particular battalion at the foot of the letter, placed it in an envelope, then descended the shaft and handed it over to the orderly officer to be censored.
“Not givingaway anystate secrets, are you?” asked Lieutenant Grosvenor.
“No, sir. Merely the secret of my own life.”
The officer smiled. “Then I’ll let it go. Fasten the thing up and stick it in the mail-bag.”
For the next few days, the operations of the Engineers were partly suspended, the sap given over to the listeners. Canadian G.H.Q. was anxious to put over a big raid; holding back only for fear the enemy might spring one of their infernal mines. It was pre-supposed the German engineers had one primed, ready to be exploded by means of an electric contact-wire controlled in some dug-out back of their lines
A mine is a fearful thing, with enough deadly explosive packed at the end of a long tunnel to blow no-man’s-land to hell, catch the infantry stop them and disconcert their retreat; throwing the whole line into confusion. Or, a tunnel can be bored under the opposing position, mined, and blown, smashing trenches, dug-outs and machine-gun emplacements to smithereens. So, for the time, G.H.Q. held back and waited.
One morning Fritz came over and almost got through into the supports. The news brought panic to the Engineers working down below. There was a wild scramble to get out of the shaft before a hand-bomb, thrown by a Heinie,' buried all of them in for ever.
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Rushed into action, they fought side by side with the retiring infantry. A dread terror seized hold of Owen. Propping himself against a parapet, he put his rifle to his shoulder. It wobbled wretchedly. He lacked the strength of finger to pull the trigger . . .
The enemy was repulsed, the front line—such as it was—regained. The
company of Engineers, short _one officer and four men, wént back down their shaft. There, Sapper Jones pitched forward on his bunk.
“Jones.” Sapper Grover laid a hand on his back. “You’ve got to pull yourself together, old man.”
“Get to hell away from me.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I’ll never get used to it.”
“I know just how you feel,” was the whisper. “I feel the same way. I manage to hide it that’s all. That’s what we’re all doing. But, you see, the boys are talking. I’d punch their heads if I were you.” “About—me?”
“Yes, old man.”
“What are they saying?”
Sapper Grover, the poet, didn’t tell him. “They don’t understand, that’s the trouble. They don’t know that you— you—Jones, why don’t you go for that Cockney taxi-driver? Knock his teeth down his throat.”
Owen sat up, hunched his shoulders. For a moment his eyes gleamed wickedly; then he shook his heád. “It’s true—what they say.”
“Rot!” said Sapper Grover. “With that look in your eye! That jaw of yours! Don’t make me laugh.” He patted him on the shoulder. “You’ve got more stuff in you than you think, old man.”
A sudden and dramatic commotion interrupted them. The telegrapher had run across the men’s dug-out to the officers’ quarters. Two or three men caught a whisper of news. * Lieutenant Grosvenor came into view. In the inadequate lighting, his face showed up dead white. He immediately rushed over to the telephone. “R. E. headquarters,” he shouted. “Rush, will you? It’s fearfully important.”
Sapper Grover approached a corporal. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Gawd knows! Something’s gone wrong at the end of the sap.”
Suspense. A growing sense of impending danger. An interminable wait. Then, down the steps, came a colonel of Canadian infantry. He was directed to the officers’ dug-out. Other Canadian officers followed. One was a staff-major.
There was a rush to the entrance of the tunnel as Sergeant Wilcox and a man appeared there.
“It’s true, sir,” the sergeant reported to his captain “There’s no mistake about it.”
They, too, were hurried into the officers’ quarters. A further wait. Men talked in whispers. The telegrapher kept running back and forth with messages to and from the various headquarters. He had been forbidden to speak to any of the men.
A sergeant appeared. “Line up, men,” was his command. “Line up. Two deep. Jump to it. Now then, number off.”
They did so, and totalled forty-three. The staff-major suddenly materialized in the gloom, his face thrown into relief by the candle on one of the upper bunks. He looked haggard.
“Men,”he commenced, “a serious thing has just happened. Sergeant Wilcox reports we have dug right into a prepared German mine. It is wired and ready to be used against us. We can, of course, blow it up ourselves. That would destroy our plans and force us to retire from the position.”
“Men, we want a volunteer! He must do the job alone. The Germans have their geophone, and if one of their engineers should choose to listen-in the volunteer is bound to be detected. The whole Canadian brigade will be withdrawn from the line. There won’t be a man near him, above or below. We want him to go up that sap, work through that prepared mine, and, if possible, cut the contact wires on the other side of it. We can then quickly control his tunnel and have nothing to fear from his dynamite.”
“The volunteer will find our telephone instrument beside him. The moment he accomplishes his task, he will call divisional headquarters—and the 3rd division will immediately go over in the biggest raid we’ve attempted. We then hope to catch Fritz flat-footed.”
“Men, it is an ordeal from which the bravest of—you might well quail. It is the deliberate offer of a life. I’m putting it to you squarely. There’s one chance in a thousand that it can be done. Not”—he gulped painfully—“not a man with wife and children. It should be a man who— who. . .”
He had stopped speaking.
In the profound silence a man took a step to the front! Instantly, all eyes, the whites showing, were turned on him. The major walked up to him, saluted, then took the volunteer’s hand and raised it to his lips. Further word he was unable to. utter.
Sapper Jones stood there in a trance. The awful silence of officers and men pierced his consciousness and informed him of what he had done. He had volunteered—for death. He had taken one step forward from the ranks. Why? What had prompted him? The sheer amazement, the fantasy of it, held him rigid. In a moment he would crumble to the floor. They’d see him grovelling at their feet, cursing them, their country and their war. It was all so unreal, so contradictory to his nature, that Sapper Jones began to smile. These colonels and majors and captains would find out in a moment just what he was; the worst coward in the whole of France.
As in a dream he saw andTheard many things. The men cheered him. Officers came up and shook his hand. One, a grayhaired colonel, embraced him. A short, thick-set little man—the London taxidriver—stood before him, wiping his snub nose with his forefinger. “Gawd’s truth, sapper! I take it all back. I could cut my bloody tongue out ...”
And Sapper Grover. The poet seemed to be swallowing his words. “You don’t know how I admire you, old man. But I knew you had the stuff.”
Owen said nothing. He couldn’t speak. His throat—or something. He dropped on his bunk, lit a cigarette. The hand that held * the flame shook preposterously. Surely everyone could see that? Surely, they weren’t taking him seriously? Did they think he really meant it?
Final instructions. Owen heard them as from a great distance. He was to start at once. As soon as they got clear. Be sure to telephone to D.H.Q. The moment he cut their wires. That is if—if he ever got through their packed bags of high-explosive! Incidents passed before his eyes that he saw only dimly. Men rushing all over the place. Collecting their kit. The bunks swept clean! All except one. His own! The last straggler going up the stairs . . . “Good luck, old man.”
A creeping sense of abject loneliness came oven him. There he sat, alone, craven! Alone with the guttering candleflame. Alone with the rat in the far corner. The cigarette dropped from his fingers. His chin sank until it touched his chest. Sapper Jones; once Owen Lanier, the pianist! Ten thousand men depending on him! The whole of France! England! His own country, Canada! That was what the colonel had told him, and the words written in huge, threatening letters in the gloom seemed to press him down into the ground—the grave.
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With a valiant effort he straightened himself, looked at his wrist-watch. By now they’d be figuring he would be on his way up the sap. Well they figured wrong. He’d stay where he was. They could say what they liked to him. Let them investigate. They’d find him sitting where they had last seen him, alone with the rats, the deserted bunks . . . God! what was he doing! On his feet! Walking toward the tunnel! Going forward! Sapper Jones wanted to laugh at himself! By God! he was crazy!
The sap was faintly illuminated by the smallest of electric-light bulbs. Under them Sapper Jones began to crawl. It was suffocatingly close. His shirt was wringing wet. Sweat and mud trickled down his neck, his arms, his legs. Here was the timber-support where, only yesterday morning, he had torn his sleeve. He stopped to look at it. The piece of cloth still clung to the nail.
He thought he had been crawling only a few minutes when, to his absolute amazement, he saw he had come to the end of his journey. At once his heart began sounding like a trip-hammer. The enemy would hear it! They could hear anything, once they put a listening-set over their ears. Sapper Jones sat on his haunches. A cursory glance at the wall— purely out of curiosity—and he saw what had caused the removal of a brigade of Canadians from the line. There it was! The unmistakable evidence of a German mine! He, Sapper Jones, was to break through, remove that deadly cordite, remove it delicately—as delicately as he had once played a Chopin nocturne—and no matter if he closed the avenue of escape behind him, he was to go on and cut the German contact and geophone wires. If . . . he could.
This, then, was the end! This, his recital. Here, the artist who might have achieved greatness. The career he had planned for himself had led him to the end of a sap where any moment he might be blown into a million fragments.
An uncontrollable fit of shivering took hold of him, and flinging himself full length on the floor of the tunnel he buried his face deep in the mud. “Margaret,” he whispered. “Margaret.”
Gradually a great calm came over him. It was as though someone had stretched out arms to help him. He sat up, reached for his water-bottle and drank a mouthful of water.
BACK of the supports, men waited.
Only a few of them knew why they had been withdrawn. A rumor spread round that the Germans were about to spring a mine, but that thanks to the Intelligence Corps the brigade had been taken out in time. Three cheers for the Intelligence Corps!
The herald of night strode over Vimy Ridge. With it came the rain. Men, lying where they were in trenches and shell-holes, began to grumble. They were wet through. They were cold. They were miserable.
In the several battalion headquarters, officers spoke curtly. Plans to meet any eventuality were'gone into hurriedly and as thoroughlyTas possible. Anxious eyes kept straying in the direction of the ridge. The tension grew in proportion to passing time, became acute, until seasoned officers were in danger of losing their nerve.
The colonel of the R.E.’s hadn’t spoken to anyone. He sat near the telephone in D.H.Q., his face hard as stone. The night closed down like a shroud. Into it, at any moment, a great blood-red tongue of flame might shoot, thundering the universe, lifting the top off Vimy Ridge and hurling trenches, dug-outs and missing bodies up to a black heaven.
Slowly the night faded into a dawn that came up cold and clammy. The rain continued. It saturated and chilled to the marrow a brigade of waiting Canadians. It poured down the steps of a deserted Engineers’ shaft and ran in rivulets along a woeful front-line that had now been abandoned twelve hours.
At six a.m. there was a dramatic stir in D.H.Q. Orders passed from officer to officer with the rapidity of wildfire. The brigade got no breakfast that morning! They were rushed back into the front line and, on a signal, went over in an irresistible wave. Back in their dug-outs, the German engineers frantically tried to spring their mine. It didn’t work. They had to retreat before they could find out what was wrong with it.
At seven o’clock, while the Canadians were fortifying themselves in Fritz’s front lines and preparing to meet a counterattack, a man—covered with mud and slime—came out from the position. The R.E. colonel and his junior officer went to meet him.
Sapper Jones had aged terribly. He tottered, was caught in the lieutenant’s arms, and in that posture he feebly saluted his colonel.
Ambulance men carried him to D.H.Q. There they laid him on a camp-bed. Staff officers gathered about him. In his pocket they found a length of German contact and listening wire and the pliers that had cut it. They wanted to talk to him, but his eyes remained closed and he lay there as if dead.
In the Engineers’ headquarters the mail had just arrived. With it came a special telegram addressed to Sapper Jones of the 14th company. It was thought to be an. excellent way of approaching the man.
They watched him open it. The grayhaired colonel held a light for him so that he could read the message. It was short and compromising.
“Your letter received. Refuse to marry Owen Lanier, but expect to be Mrs. Jones first leave you get. Love. M.”
He read the telegram several times, while the drying mud round the corners of his eyes began to show little wrinkles.
“Oh, boy!” he said, looking at his colonel.
A sergeant-major came pompously down the steps. Behind him was a tall, bronzed general whose handsome face was known the world over.
“ ’Shun!” barked the sergeant.
A score of staff-officers stood stiffly at the attention. Sapper Jones also struggled to his feet and tried to remain steady.
“Don’t salute,” said the general, emotionally. “Let me salute you.” He did so, then turned to his officers. “Gentlemen!” he commanded.
Well-groomed, soldierly, their uniforms faced with red and gold, their belts and boots brilliantly polished, they faced a ragged, dirty-looking man whose hands were torn and bleeding, whose face looked old under its grime, a man like the scarecrow of a soldier; and him they solemnly saluted. Then the general went over and gently took him into his arms.
“My dear lad!” he said. “Do you realize what you’ve done for us?”
Sapper Jones was thinking only of his telegram. He could feel it with the stump of his little finger.
“You have enabled us to forestall the plans of the enemy; you have permitted us to proceed with our own; you have saved us months of desperate work. You have protected the lives of thousands of our men.”
The famous general now held him at arm’s length.
“It is a deed that will be preserved in history. Canada will count you amongst her most illustrious men.”
His eyes were moist. “I only wish,” he continued, “I could convey to you my " thanks—the thanks of my officers and men. I haven’t the words to command. But I am sending you to London immediately. There is someone there who wants to see you and who will thank you in the name of all of us.
Sapper Jones laughed. “How did you know that, sir?” he asked.