A ValorRuined Man
A story of the courage of men, the irony of facts and the valor that knows no recrimination
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
STRETCHED out on his chicken-wire bunk with a haversack under his head, Starling, commander of “C” Company, looked up sharply from his reading as a mud-plastered runner from battalion headquarters pushed aside the gas curtain and entered the dugout. He handed Starling a message, and stood rigidly to attention, blinking in the candle light, after the gloom of the trench. Starling flipped open the envelope, read the message, initialed his acknowledgment, and when the runner had departed, warmed with rum, he read it again—slowly. Then his eyes dropped to a passage in his book—a tattered copy of Moby Dick, a breath of the free, open sea that somehow had found its way into the winter trenches. He followed the lines:
Starling tumbled down the short flight of steps and hurled himself forward.
“That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone, bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars.”
Starling’s fine eyes puckered; lost themselves in the damp shadows of his cave. After a space he summoned his orderly.
“My compliments to Mr. Blake of Eleven Platoon. Ask him to report here at once.” Blake came, his pinched face red with cold, stamping, and slapping the fresh snow from his boots and trench coat. He straightened in the candle light, essayed a smile; but his heart thumped with trepidation. Starling spoke with calculated, matter-of-fact cheeriness.
“Battalion has given “C” Company a job— daybreak patrol to go out this morning. You’re next on the slate, Blake, so you’ll take it. Jerry’s got a machine-gun in that ruined red house at C eleven, a two four nine two. Take eight men and a Lewis Gun and shift him. You’ll go with them, of course.” The younger man’s head was bent. He did not look up, but the blood rushed to his face, then ebbed, leaving it pasty white. His stomach trembled with dread. He lied, miserably, knowing that Starling knew he was lying, yet powerless to control himself, his shaking fingers plucking at his lips.
“I . . .could you . . . could you detail someone else, sir? . . . I’m not feeling just ... a touch of trench fever . . .” Shame overcame him. “God, Starling, I can’t! . . . Don’t you see? It’s not fair to the men . .
Men of Starling’s caste do not recognize cowardice as such; they acknowledge only degrees of courage. Blake had been a good soldier in the early days at Loos, and after. And he was only twenty-two. Starling’s gaze buoyed him up; returned to him a shred of his self-respect. He said, casually:
“I’ll have to send Johns, then. He likes patrols. Sorry you’re not feeling fit, Blake. This is the second time, and I don’t want the company talking. Keep your teeth into it, lad—and send the SergeantMajor down when you go up.’
Blake returned to his platoon.
AT dawn the patrol under Johns went out, shadowy figures crouching through the mist. An hour later they tumbled back into the fire trench, jubilant, with two casualties and five prisoners, their job well done.
At the end of its tour the battalion was withdrawn and billeted near Poperinghe, and Starling did what he could in his quiet, unobstrusive way to buttress Blake’s courage. The other’s cracking nerves found strength and comfort in his company commander’s steadfastness and understanding. His spirit revived in the safety of the present, and Starling began to have hope.
“C” Company officers messed together in the kitchen of an abandoned farmhouse, and after the drab monotony of the trenches they made their brief holiday a merry one. On the last day out of the line they sat about the dinner table, Starling at the head, lean and bronzed, his deep kindly eyes reflecting the smile under his thin mustache. Beside him was Blake, his mind at peace in spite of the fact that they were moving up into the trenches the following night. The others were Smith and Patterson, subalterns of Nine and Ten Platoons, Hyde-Bennett, who was a guest from “A” Company, and Number Twelve platoon commander, Johns. Johns was a hearty, red-faced bulk of a man whom a bullet through the vocal cords had endowed with a feminine voice. He was a formidable and ruthless fighter, and was worshipped by his men, who called him Bloody Mary.
Hyde-Bennett, a genial Irishman, spilled whisky into his glass.
“Nice bag of prisoners you fellows got in your raid, the other morning,” he said. “I was on leave last time in, but I heard about it.”
Bloody Mary chuckled.
“It wasn’t a raid, Major. It was a blasted patrol. Sorry we didn’t get their officer, too. Let me tell you— it’s rather funny. We went out at daybreak and down the sunken road that runs through our wire to the railway embankment. We hadn’t gone a hundred yards when my sergeant heard something. We flopped and lay still, then I crawled up the bank and had a dekko on the other side. There was an enemy patrol, by gad, resting, and cramming themselves with wurst, or some such muck, before working up to have a peep at us. I sent the Lewis gun up the bank; then the rest of us skulked through the culvert and said good-morning. You’d have laughed. They put up a scrap, of course, and it was rather sordid for a minute or two. Then their officer—only a kid he was, too—gave a squawk and legged it, off up the road. Left his men flat, by cripes! You’re a fine officer, thought I, and up the road after him. Well, I caught him.”
Starling, who happened to glance at Blake, cut in swiftly:
“Shut your mouth, Mary, and pass the whisky!” Johns waived the interruption with a grin.
“And I caught him—right in the angle of the red house, and his Luger might have been cheese for all the use he tried to make of it. He backed into the wall, his eyes bulged with fright, and when he saw me so close he shrieked like a bally guinea-pig. They heard him clear back at the culvert. I let him squeak for a second or two. Then my bullet got him—” Bloody Mary indicated a point under his left jaw—“just there. It blew a hole in his cocoanut you could—”
Starling’s voice rapped out again, unmistakable in its sharp command:
“Shut up, Johns!”
Bloody Mary’s eyes opened wide.
“What for?” he demanded, aggrieved. “The little stinker deserved it, didn’t he, for letting his men down? Well then!—and I hate a quitter!”
Blake jumped to his feet, his face chalk white. He murmured something and his chair tumbled backward as he made for the door.
“Hullo! What’s wrong with old Blake?” Patterson asked.
“He’s been under the weather a bit, lately,” Starling told them. ,“Never mind him. He’ll be all right.” Johns sympathized. “Bit of red flannel next his belly—that’s what he needs. Fine thing, red flannel. I remember one time near Mons—”
Starling found Blake in his bunk, weak with nausea. “It’s no good sir,” he moaned. “I’m done in. This trip in the line will finish me.”
He buried his face in his hands. Starling sat with him until dawn, but Blake had spoken truth.
NEXT day blew in on the wings of an icy gale, snowladen, and an hour after a hot midday dinner the battalion moved up. It was dusk, and shrapnel crashed over the Grand Place as the long column wound through the pitted streets, past the stark, uplifted finger of the Cloth Hall and out over the Menin Road to the deathhaunted bog of the Ypres Salient. The wind had dropped but snow fell steadily in large wet flakes, each plodding infantryman moving under a little blurred canopy of white. The savage thunder of gunfire was softened, the tread of the heavily burdened fighting men cushioned by the fall, and the delicate beauty of ruined eaves, caught in the half-light, drew comment from depths beneath the cynicism in which it was phrased.
Starling fell out by the side of the pavé and watched his beloved troglodytes stumble past, laden with fighting equipment, firewood, water, wire, and odds and ends of comforts and necessities for the winter trenches. He passed an encouraging word or two, then fell in with Blake as his platoon came past.
“How is it going, Don?” he murmured, almost casually.
Blaked turned a white face in the gloom, shook his head, said nothing.
Starling wrapped his fingers with sane, even pressure around the other’s arm, and squeezed.
“Hang on, boy,” he said gently. “Keep hold of yourself. We go on divisional rest after this trip in, and that means three weeks out of the line.”
There was an undercurrent of thrill in his voice.
A hidden battery slammed from a nearby copse, and Blake jumped.
“Steady, man,” Starling warned. “It’s our own guns. Keep your teeth into it, and don’t let your men down. You’ll be all right.”
With a last friendly grip the company commander regained his place in the column.
The battalion turned off to the right, some distance beyond the Ramparts, through a portal of twisted iron and shell-riven poplars, and out over the white open fields toward the Railway Dugouts and Zillebeke Lake. Men strung out into indistinct heaving files. “Shell hole on the left . . . wire underfoot . . . wire overhead . . . shell hole . . .” The litany of guarded warning traveled continuously back along the column. Ghostly flares quavered skyward from the front line at Hill 60 and Sanctuary Wood and Hooge. Scattered shelling began to drop in the fields behind, and just ahead, where the communication trench began. It grew heavier. Casualties .occurred in the leading company. An order came back, to take cover in the nearby dugouts until the hostile fire slackened. Starling made his way along his company, passing the word ; and when he came to Eleven Platoon a question jumped to his lips, quickly stifled. Blake was not with his platoon.
Starling summoned his second-in-command. “Take over and get the company under cover,” he directed. “I have a little job to do. I’ll be back presently.”
He watched them get under way, his mind casting about for a line of action. Panic tugged but he stamped it down. Then, as by inspiration, he remembered that a half mile back along their track was an abandoned gun emplacement. Swiftly he calculated the time it would take to reach it. It was not likely the battalion would move for another half hour, and in any case it could be overtaken in the communication trench. Starling plunged back along the battalion track.
It was quite dark, but the falling snow seemed to shed a soft aura of its own. He had a feeling of intense isolation. The waves of gunfire receded to a deep murmur, rimming the silent fields, and old trenches and straggling wire seemed to grope toward him, reaching with ghostly fingers as though in search of the reassuring presence of living man.
From somewhere close by, a battery of heavy howitzers coughed, and immediately upon the reports came the quick scream and burst of an enemy shell. Starling flung himself down and dirt showered over him. It hardly had settled when another landed, and another— wide, this time, searching for the battery. Starling hurried past the danger spot. Again the rush of displaced air warned him and he dropped. Starling, in the act of getting to his feet, checked himself suddenly, regardless of another warning scream. The concussion knocked him headlong, but he scrambled upright and raced toward a faint glimmer of light that he had seen issuing from beneath the ground. A light in these old gunpits, deserted by all but scavenging rats, meant one thing only.
He fell heavily into the remnant of trench and ran along it, looking for an entry. He found it, by tumbling down a short flight of broken steps into a low vaulted cellar with part of the roof blown away.
Blake was sitting on an ammunition box in the flickering light of a candle stump, his equipment strewn on the ground about him. His eyes, black pools of utter defeat, stared with grim and awful purpose down the barrel of his service pistol.
Wordlessly Starling hurled himself forward and clapped his left hand over the muzzle. The weapon roared. A thin curtain of biting smoke arose between them and Starling raised his shattered hand. Blake swayed stupidly to his feet and reeled backward, then jerked upright, his face a mask of horror in the candle light. “Oh, God, what have I done!” he gasped.
Starling set his jaws in agony and fumbled for his field dressing. He managed words.
“Don’t waste time! Get your equipment on and get back to your platoon. It’s at Railway Dugouts. Move, man!”
Frantically, inadequately, he pulled at his tunic.
Where was that confounded bandage?
Blake stumbled toward him, half crying. “Here— let me do it,” he rasped.
Halfway he stopped, and his head jerked up. “Get down, Starling!” he screamed and bore him to the floor. Dimly, Starling was aware of his interposing flesh. The gun-pit dissolved in a moil of stone dust and flame.
E. J. DINSMORE
THE president of the court had read the charge. “The accused, Captain John Anthony Starling, Second Battalion, the Royal Northerns, is charged with misbehavior before the enemy in such manner as to show cowardice, in that he, at Ypres, when his battalion was proceeding for duty in the trenches, did absent himself without leave.
“Two: That he did, subsequent upon the above occurrence, commit upon himself a self-inflicted wound, with the intention of evading duty with his battalion.”
The room was still. A hard driving rain that froze as it fell, assailed the tall windows of the chateau. The poplars in the courtyard creaked and swayed before the late winter gale. Like surf against iron cliffs the sullen diapason of gunfire penetrated the room, punctuated by nearer thuddings. The embers in the grate settled with a little rustle, the flame leaping rosily over the heavy furniture.
Then it subsided.
Starling wrenched his mind from futilities; from the throbbing flesh under his bandage; from the utter impossibility of defense against this monstrous charge. His eyes rested, in turn, upon the president of the court, an impassive face, not unkind, with a touch of crisp gray at the temples, and on his broad chest four rows of service decorations; the judge-advocate, toying with a ruler, small and dark, conveying, despite his atmosphere of Inns of Court, a certain pawky humor;members of the court, all of a type—service-worn khaki, incisive lips, clear, health-flushed skins, and about their eyes the tell-tale crow’s-feet of days and nights of bloody vigil in the trenches. Men of Starling’s own kind. His eyes came to rest on the prosecutor.
Captain Neylan was an oldish man—a combatant officer lately promoted to Staff.
The war had interrupted his brilliant career as a prosecuting lawyer whose obsession was facts. And when he had piled up sufficient facts of the right sort the culprit inevitably was imprisoned or hanged. In Neylan’s life sentiment did not exist. One was guilty or one was not, and facts do not lie. Besides separating him from his career the war had told upon his temper. There was a trace of acid in his thin, infrequent smile, and as he definitely disapproved a certain laxity allowable in courts-martial in favor of the prisoner, he made his impatience with such well-meant blunderings obvious. But this fellow Starling was so obviously guilty that even he, the accused, had refused to accept any palliation of the facts, and had resisted every effort of the court to help him. This was the man upon whom Starling’s eyes were fixed.
The president’s voice dropped like a pebble into the pool of silence.
“Guilty, or not guilty?”
“Not guilty, sir.”
Even as he said it, Starling realized its uselessness. If only he could meet these men in the easy atmosphere of a regimental mess.
How quickly he could make them see! Here, they were emotionally suspended; gripped in the impersonal functioning of a military-legal machine. He had to admit facts. And facts were damning. Listen! The prosecutor was elaborating the charge.
“While under fire on the way to the trenches prisoner disappeared. He reappeared later at the Regimental Aid Post with a pistol bullet through his left hand. Mark this, gentlemen; a pistol bullet far behind the front line.
Prisoner states that it was not self-inflicted.
Medical evidence says that the wound was received when the hand was less than one inch from the muzzle of the weapon. We have the evidence of Captain Starling’s subalterns and secondin-command as to his absence. It was reluctantly given, but it is there. One alone did not testify—an unfortunate young officer named Blake who is presumed to have been totally destroyed by a shell while the regiment was moving up. We must not ignore the character of the evidence by the battalion commander, that Captain Starling was a competent and courageous officer, even though the witness displayed rather more warmth in rendering his evidence than was justified by later facts. Undoubtedly, Captain Starling was a keen soldier; still, there are the facts which the prisoner himself does not deny. There were no actual witnesses of the deed, of course, but when circumstantial evidence is so strong, guilt must be presumed.”
The president leaned forward.
“Have you anything to say, Captain Starling?” Starling thought deeply. He thought of his battalion; and somewhat of himself. But mostly he thought of Blake, who, not too late, had redeemed himself.
“I can only say, sir, that I did not try to evade duty with my battalion; and I did not shoot myself.”
“That is all the defense you offer?”
“That is all.”
The prosecutor sensed the feeling of the court. Starling’s manner had told. He shot forward his jaw. “Why were you absent at such a time.”
“I was on a self-imposed mission involving the honor of my battalion.”
The prosecutor permitted himself a smile in the direction of the president; but that old connoisseur of men was intent upon the prisoner.
The prosecutor continued.
“What was that mission?”
“I decline to answer.”
The president of the court turned from his contemplation of Starling’s pale, firm lips.
“Captain Starling has told us that it involves a question of honor,” he said, very quietly.
The prosecutor flushed deeply. He returned to the attack.
“Your wound was not self-inflicted?”
“Was it accidental?”
“Was it done by human agency?”
“Who did it?”
“I decline to say.”
“You mean that, knowing your very life may depend upon giving the Court that information, you still decline?”
Starling breathed deeply. His knuckles whitened.
“Yes. I decline.”
The windows shook in their frames under the distant drumfire. Somewhere a tiny clock tinkled the hour.
“That will do, Captain Neylan,” the president said.
SENTENCE for cowardice in wartime is not always death. Much is left to the discretion of the court, and much is taken into account. And a recommendation for mercy invariably brings results. Men have escaped with imprisonment for life, or for lesser terms, and even upon occasion have been set free, to return to the contempt of their fellows.
Starling was cashiered. And, being the type of man he was, he immediately enlisted as a private in a line regiment under his own name. When he returned to France he was a corporal. Among the slag heaps and shell craters of Loos, Sergeant Starling led the remnant of his platoon in bloody assault against a strong point, carried it, and held it against cruel counter-attacks for sixteen rather heroic hours. Then promotion’s bony finger moved, and John Anthony Starling was again an officer and—quaint thought—a gentleman, It was shortly after this that he once more met the prosecutor, who was then Staff Major of a neighboring brigade. There was nothing much to the meeting, really. Neylan was a visitor to Starling’s battalion mess, and was discussing a point of training with his host when Starling entered the room.
“To my mind,” the host was saying, over a glass of whisky-soda, “the Lewis gun has been of great value in teaching the men— hello! Here’s Starling! Come here, John. I want you to meet—”
“Yes,” interrupted Neylan, thoughtfully, gazing through Starling into infinity, “The Lewis gun is a useful weapon. So, for that matter, is the service pistol—in the proper hands. You can’t get away from that fact.” That is all there was to it; but Starling, being the dull, obstinate fellow he was, applied for and was granted a transfer to a battalion in Neylan’s brigade, just in time to take punishment in the epic fight for Gravendaele Ridge.
Ponderous howitzers squatted in the mud and roared, endlessly. One lone planked road stretched over the morass, bracketed by bursting shells. Shell holes, filled to the brim with stinking water, and the only homes the weary fighters knew, were churned by high explosives into a revolting bog that stretched into the dusk as far as eye could see. The ridge, gray and brooding in the rain and the murk, stood, a grim barrier against further progress. At its feet glistened the viscid pools where men had died in thousands in the fruitless morning attack. Enemy wire, cunningly laid under mud and water in a swamp at the foot of the slope, had entangled the infantrymen as they rushed forward to the assaulL What hope for human life under the murderous fire from the crest, and the rolling barrage that immediately dropped on them and smashed them in their helplessness, until hope was not, and terror was numb, and only speedy oblivion was prayed for. Those of the attackers who were not shot to bits, had drowned in the mud. And now it was night, and Brigade Headquarters was frantic.
The situation at the front was obscure, enemy shellfire methodically destroying communications and roads as fast as they were laid. And until definite information was forthcoming it was impossible to plan another attack. There were rumors that part of a battalion had got through the swamp and was cut off and fighting desperately on the ridge all day, and until long after nightfall. Neylan, who had gone forward to glean what he could of information, found himself at two o’clock in the morning in an improvised dugout of the Signal Corps—a reeking hole in the mud—-with a battalion commander of the Aberdeens. The place was being pounded by high explosive. The telephone buzzed madly, and the signaler appeared to be in difficulty.
“What the devil’s the matter?” Neylan snapped. “Who’s trying to get through?”
The man turned a perplexed face.
“You’d better take it, sir. I can’t make out what they’re driving at.”
Neylan snatched the headpiece; listened; questioned briefly. Then he jumped up, and turned to the infantry commander.
“It’s a forward observation post, reporting signals from the face of the ridge with an electric torch, sir. Some lunatic is defending a pillbox he captured this morning against continual attacks. How he got his men through that ghastly swamp God knows. Let’s go up forward and see what it’s all about.”
In a lull between bursts they got to the top. There was rain and icy darkness, but the road gave them direction, and twenty minutes brought them to the front line, a series of shell holes thinly held by machine gunners, huddled, soaked and shivering but alert, under inadequate tarpaulins. One of their officers, a young man, who seemed to see like a cat in the dark, pointed into the gloom ahead.
“It was from directly in front, and near the top of the ridge, I judge, that the signal came,” he told them as they splashed about in the uncertain foothold. “I think—there it is again!”
Out of the dark and the ruin and the sinister loom of the great ridge came a series of flashes—pinpoint dashes and dots of light.
“It’s Morse—S.O.S.!” the machinegunner said.
Desperately the little garrison in the beleaguered pillbox sent their message into the night:
HOLDING PILLBOX NEAR CREST ONE HUNDRED YARDS WEST OF ROAD STOP THIRTEEN ALL RANKS STOP AMMUNITION LOW STOP BELIEVE ENEMY STRENGTH LIGHT STOP CAN GUIDE SUPPORTS UNDER COVER DARKNESS THROUGH SWAMP FOR DAWN ATTACK AND SMASH HIS DEFENSE STOP I WILL MEET SUPPORTS CRATER PILLBOX YOUR EDGE OF SWAMP AT FIVE OCLOCK AM STOP GOD SAKE COME END MESSAGE.
The light flashed again, once or twice, evidently the beginning of a signature; faded, to a tiny indecipherable glow; then blackness.
“Battery gone!” the Aberdeen colonel grunted. “He’s a soldier, whoever he is! I heard that nearly a company had got cut off up there. Only thirteen left. What can we do?”
Representing Brigade, the decision was Neylan’s. He thought rapidly.
“We’ll use your battalion, sir,” he said. “They’re fresh, comparatively, and they are close at hand. It may be only a trick, of course, but we’ll have to chance that. If we can get a battalion through that swamp and into a jumpingoff place on the slope we should take the ridge an hour after dawn. Lord, what a chance, after that awful mess of yesterday!”
“You’ll find us ready,” the Highlander replied curtly.
“I’ll have Brigade take steps to follow us up, then. The Aberdeens had better move into position on the left of the plank road, about five hundred yards in rear of Crater Pillbox. Then you and I will move up and meet this fellow, and make sure of things before we commit ourselves.”
An hour and a half later the kilted Aberdeens, heads bent to the pelting downpour, plodded through mud and darkness toward the ridge. No talking, no smoking, was the order, and the hardened, dour fighting men moved in purposeful silence. At their head Neylan and their battalion commander stumbled and splashed, keeping direction with utmost difficulty. Incessant flashes of gunfire played like sheet lightning through the dripping night, and occasionally the column was halted by bursts of heavy but sporadic shellfire ahead. They arrived in position, and company by company the battalion disposed itself in shell holes.
“If you are ready, sir,” Neylan then said, “we’ll take a couple of runners with us and carry on to Crater Pillbox. This brush track runs right past it. There will be plenty of time to send word back to the battalion if it is to move up.”
Two battalion scouts were detailed to accompany them and the little party plowed on. After a time one of the scouts reported a deeper smudge in the blackness—Crater Pillbox. And as they swung slightly to the right and made for it they saw it suddenly ringed by dullglowing spots of bursting flame.
An express train hurtled overhead and dropped. A shower of mud and debris pelted them. Three more. A full salvo in all. Up to their necks in waterlogged shell holes they took cover. Crump! Crump! Crump! Crump!
A barrage fell on them. The tortured earth spouted fountains of mud and steel and flame. The din was colossal. Between the bursts Neylan heard the deep groans of someone badly hit. He shouted, and his mouth was stopped by flying mud. Desperately he floundered out of his shell hole, reckless of the whistling death all about, and groped blindly through the. uproar, searching for his companions. They were gone. Himself only, left. He staggered blindly forward in the direction of the concrete pillbox; felt the cobbles of a road beneath his floundering boots. With red fury, destruction rained from the sky, and by a hundred miracles he escaped it. Where was that cursed pillbox? It was cover. He had to find cover. His whole instinct of selfpreservation was bent upon it; yet it could not drive completely through his mind a thought of that desperate leader of a forlorn hope waiting for his supports.
Out of the screaming blackness a shell-burst showed him a glimpse of a dugout entrance in a pulverized trench. He dived into it, headlong, and scrambled his way down the rubbish-littered shaft. He knew it for one of the jumping-off places of yesterday’s attack. Here for a time he would find safe harbor, if a direct hit did not land on the exit and bury him alive. When the storm had cleared he would carry on. Bruised and terribly shaken he scooped the streaming muck from his eyes and face. The earth above and around him trembled and rocked under the impact of huge projectiles. He fumbled for a match to see his watch, and unheeding cut his finger on the broken crystal and twisted metal guard. Well, he could guess the time; and that fellow would have to wait. Nothing could live in that hurricane of steel above. He crouched, with thumping heart, as part of the wall fell in and the stout roof timbers cracked under the burst of a shell. Close! So was that! Another of those, and he’d be done for, beneath thirty feet of earth.
He listened; and presently his trained ears told him of the gradual slackening of the barrage. It was just a routine strafe, probably, put down on the chance of catching troops moving up to attack. How narrowly the Aberdeens had missed it. And their colonel . . .
Better get out of this and on with his job. It must be after five. He wondered if the other man had lived through it. In the sound shelter of the pillbox, probably he had. Outside, was comparative quiet now. Here goes! Painfully he clawed his way up, over the loose rubbish and more noisesome wastage of the battered shaft, and had almost gained the top when the concussion of a shell-burst in the trench outside blew him back and cracked his skull against a beam. He rolled over and lay motionless halfway down the shaft.
THE watery light of early morning was pouring through the narrow entrance when Neylan’s swimming brain fought its way back to consciousness. He staggered to his feet and crept by agonized degrees toward the open, one thought only dinning through his confused mind; a thought that somehow took him in the pit of the stomach like a blow. It was full day, almost, and what of the attack?
Outside, he straightened with difficulty, and looked about him. Behind, was a vast churned sea of earth, thousands of shell pools reflecting the steel-gray sky. Dazed, incredulous, he saw dots of horses and ammunition limbers, and guns, and infantrymen, moving forward, a host of them, crawling across the mud. He turned to the ridge. Its crest was a feather of spouting flame; but on the near slope tiny khaki blobs worked upward in battle formation. Stunned, he watched them as they disappeared in small groups into the smoke of the crest, supported by the thundering fire of a thousand guns. And as his haggard, unbelieving eyes swept the foreground to the grim bulk of Crater Pillbox, he saw coming toward him over the pitted road five scarecrow figures, moving with the shambling, limp-armed gait of utter weariness.
They were caked in blood and slime, and their blackened faces were those of men who had dwelled long in the valley of the shadow. At their head marched one, helmetless, taller, and more rugged than the rest, whose uncertain feet were kept to the road only by force of an indomitable will, and whose eyes, red holes in a mask of clay, burned with an unquenchable light. Neylan did not need to be told they were the lone survivors of the ridge; and their leader was Starling.
The former prosecutor sickened with terrible realization of his own position. His duty had been to keep the rendezvous at all cost. He had failed. While these men and their mates had been fighting and dying like gods, and depending on him for rescue, he had been safe under cover. And Starling, whom he had once nailed to the cross with facts, had caught him creeping out of a dugout, hours after the danger had passed.
When Starling halted, his men dropped their rifles and sprawled on the muddy road to rest. Their commander stood upright, swaying gently on widely planted legs. Neylan felt his gaze, and the hot color surged to his face and neck. What could he say? How could he plead? Urgently, he felt the need of pleading.
But when he raised his head Starling’s eyes were not on him. They were turned to the battle-torn heights beyond. And when their eyes did meet the ragged soldier’s eyes were washed clean of all but a transcendental happiness.
“Look, Neylan; look! man, look! They’ve taken the ridge!” A gusty sigh that came from his innermost heart blew through the cracked lips. “It’s a miracle, really! Last night . . . that barrage. I knew you couldn’t get through it. But my chaps were waiting for me on the ridge, so I dodged through, and by amazing luck stumbled over the colonel of the Aberdeens. He was badly cracked up, and thought you were killed, but he told me where his battalion was. I found ’em, and after the fire lifted we moved up. I had blasted a way through the swamp with bombs, and it served. The Aberdeens got into position with the rest of the brigade to back ’em—thanks to your work, I’m told. And after we’d seen the attack get under way . . . well, here we are. We’ve dwindled a bit, but we’re all more or less sound. What happened to you, though? Knocked out? I thought you had been. Damned tough, missing the fun, eh? By the way— do you happen to have a tot of rum in your bottle? My fellows here . . .”
The staff man cried out.
“Heavens, you don’t understand, man! While you were doing my job and your own too, I was deep in a dugout. Safe. Never mind the reason. You caught me coming out. I’ve got to face facts . . . especially after the way I hounded . . .”
“Facts? To blazes with facts,” said Starling, equably. “I asked you if you had any rum.”