A Prince of England
ALBERT RICHARD WETJEN
A poignant story of a heroic sacrifice and the fortitude that makes men great
PETER WARWICK would hardly have been accepted as a soldier in the haughty days before the war. He was too thin and bony, too pale and sickly looking, too narrow of shoulder and hollow of chest. Toward the end of 1917, however, England needed men, any sort of men so long as they could stand and shoot. There had been appalling losses on the Somme, and an army had perished at the second battle of Ypres, and after, in the swamps of Passchendaele. The flower of England had marched away and died. The glamor and the fervor were done and grimness sat in the heart of the land.
Conscription was rooted and the Law searched for those who would have denied the Law.
Judgment ran with the wind and an Empire squared its shoulders. Fight or perish!
The Law did not search for Peter Warwick. He came when he was old enough and the word had reached him. And he was glad. There was nobleness in his heart and strange gay visions behind his eyes. He marched with Drake and the archers who loosed their strings at Crecy.
He was one with Grenville of the shattered Revenge, and he felt the hand of Witherington upon his shoulder, the same Witherington who at Chevy Chase, his legs hacked off, fought on his stumps and with a broken sword. Romance belongs to youth and glory flames within keen, new blood. And Peter Warwick was just nineteen when he wound his first puttees about his skinny legs and wiped the grease from his first rifle.
STRANGE boy perhaps.
He had been born in Aldgate, that grimy dock district of London where all men are somewhat of the sea. Peter might have gone to sea himself had his father not died and his mother resolved to make her son a gentleman. She had begun as a lady’s maid in the West End, and after she had been left a widow she became a charwoman that Peter might be adequately fed and clothed. She sent him to business college for a year, after he had left the free school at fourteen, and then he became a clerk. A clerk is a gentleman in Aldgate, where half the men wear collars only to funerals, and so Peter’s mother died quite happy and very proud. And
Peter proceeded along his lonely way toward his destiny.
He remained a clerk; boarded and roomed in a cheap place at Highgate; read much of evenings and belonged to a mildly socialistic group which met twice a week to debate and discuss Karl Marx. When the war first swept the world and washed the old order into oblivion Peter Warwick was just sixteen, a weedy, gentle boy who moved awkwardly and was often forgetful. He had never in his life earned more than five dollars a week; had never owned more than one suit of clothes at a time; had never smoked nor drank, and would have been pitifully embarrassed if any girl so much as looked at him. His eyes were already a little weak and his shoulders were beginning to stoop. But for the murder
of an Archduke at Sarajevo he might have died of consumption or grown into a shrivelled and yellowish senior clerk with heavy spectacles and a timid dry manner. As it was, the night of August the fourth brought to him the first flicker of that spiritual passion that for a while was to blaze on all the earth.
It was reasonable enough in all conscience, for the
sickly, pale shell that was Peter Warwick to the eyes of men, wrapped about a heart that was worthy of a giant’s frame. This youth of under middle height and with weak blue eyes held the spirit of a great captain. Conscious of his own lacks, he revelled mightily in high deeds. He read and he dreamed. Should he walk down the street he was in imagination astride a charger, with a lance held high, the wind lifting his crest and his squire behind him carrying his shield. Should he pause for a moment while at his ledgers, the dusty dark area outside his window became a tossing sea and he was with Drake, harrying the Armada to ruin and destruction. He was intimate with all the heroes and alone in hls room he would talk with them, adopting a nautical speech for Drake and the rovers of his kind; turning to quainter jargon when he rode with Cromwell at Marston Moor or with Marlborough at Blenheim. He lived in glory and with a shining splendor. He sat with Alfred over the burning cakes and stole disguised with him into the tent of Guthram. He stood with Harold on the hill at Senlac and landed on Thanet with Hengist to harry the English shore. But greatest of all his heroes there was Edward, that stripling who had led the fight at Crecy; who had crossed the Pyrenees with all his army; who had taken as his crest the three plumes of a fallen king and the motto Ich Dien: Edward, the Black Prince, brightest flower of chivalry and the first captain of hls time. Peter Warwick had once gone to Canterbury and stood beside the great Prince’s tomb, silent and still for all one unforgettable summer afternoon. And it was as if the accolade had touched his shoulder.
T)ETER had been working late in his office on the night of August the fourth, and he emerged after dark, to be swallowed at once by the swaying dense crowds that packed the streets from wall to wall and rocked and shivered in the grip of the excitement that swept all England. It was impossible for Peter to get home to his room, even had he wanted to. He was a helpless chip carried on the torrent . . . This was War! The knights were arming for the battle and in the courtyards the archers stood beneath the torches. Trumpets lifted through the night ! Peter shivered with delicious ecstasy and held up his head.
Trafalgar Square was a solid mass of humanity, and Bond Street and Piccadilly were marching torrents, filled with the thunder of feet and the hot reek of
sweating bodies. From every window flags drooped and stirred. Stray snatches of martial music cut athwart the noise. Great lumbering buses were hopelessly isolated and groping at a snail’s pace through walls of solid flesh. Every window was lighted, and here and there glass shattered as hysterical madmen raided the shop of some frightened alien and sometimes dragged him and his family into the gutter. Policemen fought and struggled and were helpless, and the horses of the mounted squads were frantic and almost unmanageable. Cheering rose far off, growing louder, sweeping over the crowds and volleying away as massed thousands then lifted their voices in song.
Here and there men in naval or military uniforms were lifted on heaving shoulders, bobbing up and down while drinks were passed up to them and countless hands patted and mauled them. The bars were choked. Women fainted. Men clamored to enlist outside the recruiting offices. The palace of the king stood like an island in the midst of a tossing, cheering sea, and the trees swayed under the load of bodies sprawled on every limb. There was no stillness, save in the churches where some prayed. There was no sleep. All England was on its feet and the sword shivered in the sheath, waiting midnight and the declaration of war! Peter marched in glory.
There were grey men in silk hats and evening clothes jammed tight and singing beside navvies in corduroys and black cloth chokers. There were women with transfigured eyes and shining faces gripping the arms of clerks or costers whom they would have shunned the day before. A hundred thousand faces uplifted at once, turned to the summer stars, singing of God, and Country, and War ! Peter sang, and sobbed as he sang.
Emotion wracked the throat. Men wiped tears from their eyes, faltered and sang again.
Crowds marched in packed columns to Whitehall, where the Government offices were ablaze with lights and speakers stood on every corner. Crowds marched to Parliament.
Peter marched, and beside him there were his heroes, in mail and plate armor, in winged helmets and casques of graven steel. The pennants of the lances were lifting in the wind, and down all the roads of England men hurried to the sea. The blood was fire in Peter’s veins, and his eyes were brilliant and shining and wet. Until, in the grey dawn, when the crowds had thinned somewhat, Peter remembered that there was such a prosaic thing as work. And he went home, flushed and tingling still, and filled with high resolve.
The fervor passed, of course, even in Peter.
The war became a grim dullness, a sombre shadow above the nation; a matter of glaring placards calling for volunteers; women pinning white feathers on the coats of men; black headlines in the papers; marching troops; cripples in the street; frantic spy hunts and dark suspicions of erstwhile respectable citizens who chanced to have foreign sounding names.
Peter lived much as before, with his ledgers; with his debates in his mildly socialistic society; with his lonely talks to heroes that were dust; with his visions and his dreams, detached from all the world. He wanted to enlist, but he was not old enough and when he tried to lie they laughed at him. He looked so sickly and pale and weak. Lusty boys they would wink at and take. But not Peter Warwick. Not at first. Not until England needed men, any sort of men as long as they could stand and shoot. And in the meantime Peter dreamed, and suffered a little, and rode with the Black Prince on daring raids through the fields of France, against the massed grey ranks that were the foes of his country. Please God he would some day face them in reality!
rT'HE long months at training camp nearly killed Peter Warwick. Bitter-voiced and profane sergeants harried his body and seared his spirit. He polished equipment and learned to stick his bayonet into a straw dummy to the accompaniment of a ferocious snarling and yelling. He was taught that he was not supposed to think, and grew used to men addressing him as if he were a dog. All the roughness and callousness inevitable in a raw new camp of ten thousand raw men, all the stupidity and brutality and injustice that passed for army discipline beat upon him. He wilted a little, and bent beneath the weight of the appalling change from his old life and the difference to his beliefs. He bent, but he did not break. He was ill several times, but he did not die. There was an unbelievable and almost catlike virility in his lean body. There was a spiritual firmness that remained unmoved and unchallenged in spite of anything that might come. He accepted things
strong in the faith they were necessary. The great captains had suffered and triumphed. War was man work, and if he had less than the body of a man was it for him to complain, to wilt and crumble? He invested his officers with the names of his heroes and lived goldenly through all of a dreary winter on a dreary muddy plain. And there were many who were like him, sensitive youths culled from the cities and the borders of the land, alight with ideals their weary elders had long since cast out, borne up on the flame of high adventure which burns deep within the heart. England is a religion, and even a Cardiff dock-rat and a Cumberland farm lout may know a strange faint stir within him when a thousand bayonets come down to the “Present!” and the bugles lift for the flag!
Peter should have suffered more than most, because of his inability to become a good soldier. He never did seem able to get his rifle on his shoulder at the exact angle required, and he never could fix bayonets without fumbling and looking down, which was forbidden. Then
of Jerry ÜïCitchell
A Thrilling Novel of the Sea
By ALBERT RICHARD WETJEN
Shanghaied into one of his own ships . . . the woman he loved aboard . . . mutiny in the forecastle . . . what could a man do but fight it out? And what a fight! And what a story! Told with all the skill of a master craftsman, it will set your pulse a-racing as only a fulhblooded tale of the sea can. Sign on now with Jerry Mitchell, sailing
MACLEAN'S, NOVEMBER FIRST
his puttees were always giving trouble, and his uniform seemed always ready to fall away from him. His forgetfulness brought him much punishment, as when he appeared on parade with a button unfastened or his equipment on wrong. He tried hard to overcome these handicaps. He read the manual of arms until he knew it by heart. He spent much of his spare time drilling alone. But it seemed to be of no use. He was earnest and eager and willing, and he knew touches of mortification that hurt him a great deal. But try as he would, he was never more than a pale, thin clerk who looked somewhat ridiculous in his khaki.
"Great Scott, Warwick!” said Lieutenant Carstairs one day. “You look like a clotheshorse half the time. Put him in the rear rank, sergeant.”
Despair came very close to Peter Warwick that time. He always thought of the grey-haired colonel as the iron Duke of Wellington. The senior major was Cromwell of the grim visage and the lowering brow. Peter’s company captain was much like Drake, robust and merry and quick. But it was Lieutenant Carstairs, the platoon commander, who was the greatest of all, who was Edward, the Black Prince. Whenever he reprimanded Peter the whole day was gloomy and a dreariness came into the wind. And it seemed he was often reprimanding, though Peter always forgave him because a great captain must prepare his men for battle and in his heart Peter knew he was really so little a soldier.
The days when Lieutenant Carstairs found no cause to reprove him were golden ones for Peter. His heart would quicken and his chin tilt a little higher every time the lieutenant glanced at him. He hung on every note in the platoon commander’s voice, and when the parade or the drill came to an end he felt a keen regret. All his longings and his large desires to worship centred themselves upon the lieutenant. Having had no one to love for so long, Peter appropriated him to himself, invested him in dark armor and metaphorically laid at his feet all his loyalty and his dreams. Nor was it so foolish as it might seem, for Carstairs was everything a prince might be, as Peter learned by patient enquiry and research in Debrett’s peerage.
There was a Carstairs castle in Surrey, an ancient granite-walled place upon a wooded hill overlooking Carstairs village. The first of the name had built it, after the second crusade, and it had stood siege five times in as many centuries. The lieutenant himself was a tall man, clean-limbed and fair, with steady grey eyes and a crisp little mustache; and he talked with that mellow and drawling accent which the English public school stamps into the speech of all who attend it. His father was a baronet, on the staff of Plumer at Messines Ridge and at Ypres, and he was connected on his mother’s side with the house of Arundel whose chief was the hereditary Earl Marshal of England.
The lieutenant, as with most of his class, was not a man of particular understanding or intelligence. But he was brave and just, and pride stood stiffly within him. On his left breast he wore the ribbons of the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, and on his sleeve there was a thin strip of gold which told he had once been wounded. To all of his platoon he was something of a hero but to Peter Warwick he was the greatest, and he must have sometimes wondered at the tense and quivering little private in the rear rank whose peering blue eyes followed his every motion with a bright, dumb worship.
“You’ll get a short leave,” said Carstairs one day. “I expect we’ll be going over soon.” He spoke to the whole platoon, drawn up at ease to one side of a country road after a long-drawn skirmish drill. He passed packages of cigarettes around, waited until the blue smoke was rising from every face, and then resting one foot on a boulder and thrusting one hand into his breeches pocket he idly slapped his leg with his swagger stick.
“We’ll be replacements, I expect. Two companies leaving at a time. For Outram’s Own, the old First Battalion. You fellows needn’t get the wind up. It may be months before we go into the line. Just do as you’re told and take things easy. There’s nothing to it.” A twinge of conscience may have smote him, for his grey eyes softened as they ran over the intent faces of the boys. Many of them would die, he knew.
“W'hen will we get leave, sir?” someone asked, and the lieutenant slapped his leg and laughed.
“Tomorrow,” he said, and the boys looked at each other and the non-coms began to whisper together in low voices. Leave at once meant that training was ended and they would be going. Overseas. To the War.
Peter stared at Lieutenant Carstairs and gripped his rifle tight. He had spoken as the prince must have done to the files of his archers, when that day came for them to leave England and go to France. Exactly as Peter would be doing.
He swallowed excitedly and looked up at the blue spring sky, flecked with white clouds and sunny to the face. He stared at the budding hedges that lined the damp brown road; at the new grass thin upon the banks, and the early flowers showing glints of color between. Birds were whistling in the nearby woods and an airplane droned lazily above the crest of a hill. There was pale blue smoke rising from the chimneys of a distant cottage, and faint and far-off there came the crow of a cock. There were vagrant scents in the warm wet wind, and Peter drew a deep breath and was tremulous with emotion.
All this was England, the England of Drake and Grenville, of Nelson and Wellington, of the charge of the Light Brigade and the stand at Rorke’s Drift! Down this same road many men had gone; the legions under the Caesars, marching to the great wall that shut out the savage Scots; the Vikings roaring in from the sea to hammer on the doors of great cathedrals with the blades of their axes; the knights and men-at-arms, the archers and squires, bent for the slaughter at Senlac, for the Holy Land, for the shining day at Crecy. Down this same road had trooped stout rovers to make the
Armada but a memory and a jest; cavaliers and roundheads riding to die at Dunbar; red-coated guardsmen to hold the squares of Waterloo; bearded soldiers to charge through the fog at Inkerman. And last, the khaki columns which had swung away for the bloody rendezvous at Mons and Le Cateau. And now he stood there, Peter Warwick, with some sixty raw boys who were to fill the shattered ranks of Outram’s Own, that famous crack regiment of the line which had served at Minden and through the Crimea and the Mutiny. Peter looked at Lieutenant Carstairs again and his heart almost filled his breast . . . He was so young and he had so much to learn !
nPHE guns had been growing louder all the time, from an ominous distant rumbling to a louder mutter, and then a growling low thunder that shook the horizon and made the very ground tremble. Two companies of replacements marched at ease along a muddy highway, lined by half-leafed trees that dripped in the intermittent rain. Lorries lumbered by, ambulances, a battalion in column, cook-wagons, limbers, rain-streaked horses. Several times swift cars, careening madly and honking, allowed a glimpse of gold-capped staff officers. Cyclists passed and small groups of wounded, tunics unfastened and cigarettes dangling from the corners of tired mouths. There seemed to be unutterable confusion although everything moved with a seriousness and a purpose. Peter dreamed and plodded on, for this was France and there ahead of him plodded Carstairs, his trench coat flapping and his steel helmet over his eyes. This was adventure and War!
The two companies turned off the main highway to a narrower road, and the traffic thinned out. They seemed to be going in the direction of the rumbling guns, and what conversation there was grew strained. Cigarettes were tossed aside half-burned. A sick tenseness crept slowly over the files and some of the boys tried to pass their feelings off with grumbling oaths, more rarely with attempted humor which seemed flat and stale. Yet it was obvious the firing was still a long way off.
As evening fell, drawing a violet mist across all the rainy land, the replacements swung into a camouflaged rest camp where the street was a sea of soft mud, and dull-eyed men in muddy uniforms stared at them from every doorway. They ate cold canned beef and hard biscuits, washed down with weak tea, and then they huddled in their quarters and talked in low voices, depressed by the weather, the distant guns, the dull apprehension that sat in every boy’s stomach. Even Peter was disturbed a little. It was hard to retain illusion with the rain pattering on the roef and shaded lanterns flickering in the gusts that filled each hut.
About midnight an officer came round and brusquely woke the fitfully sleeping boys. They got up, shivering, and waited, hardly knowing where they were nor what was toward. A sergeant cautioned them not to strike a light, and then they heard an ominous droning above the rumble of the guns and the pattering of the rain. It grew louder and passed and was followed by a shattering crash that shook the huts. Stones and mud and metal pelted down at the end of the street and the drone came swinging back, accompanied by faint pop-pops that were vaguely like the far-off bursting of rockets. There "was another crash, and, surging to and fro in semi-panic, the frightened boys crowded to the doors, the bolder spirits stepping out into the mud.
Smoke billowed through the darkness. In the scud-filled sky they could see bright starry flickers of shrapnel, always accompanied by the faint pop-pops. The droning died away, and a group of non-coms led by two officers with flash lamps went down the street to inspect the damage.
“Laid a coupla eggs,” someone drawled indifferently.
“Sounds like they hit th’ fields and that’s all.”
Peter swallowed hard and licked his dry lips. This was the war and war was a man game. He did not want to be afraid. But he was afraid, a little. He thought desperately of Grenville dying on the deck of the Revenge, and then he heard Lieutenant Carstairs’
quiet, calm voice and felt better and somewhat comforted.
“Go on back to sleep. There’s no damage done.”
For six days the replacements drilled with what was left of the First Battalion of Outram's Own, and then a very resplendent and very tired and brusque brigadier came down from headquarters. There was a hurried inspection, and then in column of fours the battalion swung out of the rest camp, the brigadier taking the salute from the steps of the Salvation Army hut with dispatch riders, Red Cross orderlies, a few nurses, W. A. A. C.’s and some Y. M. C. A. workers grouped below him idly watching the files wrind away. The women waved once or twice, the men smoked and did nothing. Before the last file was clear the brigadier was in his car and roaring back to headquarters.
The indifference of it all made Peter wonder. No one seemed to care. The First Battalion was moving up to the line, possibly to die, and no one seemed to care. Peter remembered the singing, cheering crowds of the night of August the fourth and his wonderment increased. This was not War as he had expected. No bands to play as he marched to the battle. Nobody to cheer. There was no gaiety, no flags fluttering in the breeze. Did the men of old go out to die in this manner also? A first flicker of doubt came to him, and then he looked at Lieutenant Carstairs and felt ashamed of his doubt. The lieutenant had gone through all this before, had fought and been wounded, had been decorated for valor. He did not seem concerned, or afraid, and he was unaware of any indifference. Everything must be right. But Peter could not divest himself of a stubborn belief that the archers had not marched to Crecy in this manner, in moody silence and amid the drabness of mud and the chill spring rain.
When dusk came the battalion moved in wide-spaced sections along a high straight road that was bare of traffic, and a watery moon showed the tumbled ruins of farms. The thunder of the guns wras increasing and the northern horizon was lit as by flashes of lightning. At rare intervals men appeared, on cycles or on foot. Sometimes they spoke to the colonel, pointed and went on. It was all very mysterious, and not even the heavy crump-crump-crump of sixteen hundred boots on the road seemed real.
It must have been ten o’clock when the first shell came. There was an ever-increasing scream and then a blasting, shaking roar from the very middle of the road. Livid flame vomited upward, blinding and hot, to vanish instantly and drop utter darkness before shocked eyes. A great wind swept the sections and men stumbled and weaved; some fell. Stones and earth and gobs of warm flesh rained down. A fragment of hot steel brushed Peter’s hand, searing the skin and just drawing blood. The shell had fallen in the midst of the second platoon and there were a dozen men dead and dying. As quick as that! Like a snap of the fingers! One moment marching steadily along, half-hypnotized and silent. Then, next, twelve men blotted out and the battalion reeling and stunned and choking in thick fumes.
Whistles shrilled up and down the line. Officers shouted hoarsely. The older soldiers were swearing with a thick, cold ferocity, and many of the new replacements were whimpering with terror, some of them pushing aimlessly about and blundering against each other, half blind and wholly deaf.
It came again, the rising scream, but the shell burst far ahead, lighting up the ghastly scene as with a flash of lightning. Some semblance of order was restored, and the battalion turned off the road and splashed through a morass of black mud and water while shell after shell screamed overhead and fell on the road to one side of them, lighting the night with livid flickers until it seemed to Peter that he was in a ghastly nightmare. Each time he heard a shell he had to set his teeth and repress an overpowering instinct to duck his head.
“Five-nines,” he heard Lieutenant Carstairs say to the sergeant. “They must have a couple of batteries firing.”
“Sounds like'n eight-inch howitzer too,” answered the
Peter wondered how they could tell, and although he was shivering and had a sick, dull feeling in the pit of his stomach he knew a faint thrill of pride because the lieutenant’s voice seemed largely unconcerned. The Black Prince would have talked that way, so calmly and indifferently in the face of disaster. And disaster Peter knew it had been, for he retained a vivid picture burned into his brain, a picture seen when the second shell had spouted flame and lighted the road, the picture of black blood pumping from a khaki huddle and of a clenched white hand flung stiffly outward and turned to the dripping sky. What had been done for the dead and wrounded left behind, Peter never knew. He stumbled on, dazed, bewildered and deathly sick.
“Steady,” Lieutenant Carstairs kept saying. “Steady there. We’re under the stuff now. Steady there.”
His voice was like a cool and soothing oil flowing across raw flesh, and Peter straightened and peered toward him and desperately conjured dark armor about him, and plumes to his helmet, and the glint of vagrant light upon an upraised sword. The banners of England were lifting in the wind and the Black Prince ordered the charge! . Then the man behind Peter fell out and vomited horribly and sickness swept back on Peter again. The next thing he remembered they were all in a small wood, groping along a narrow path between shattered trees, falling into depressions and stumbling over splintered branches that old shell fire had lopped off. Then they all dropped suddenly into a trench on the edge of a field and walled in by tall parapets. They groped forward in an uneasy creaking column, with much whispering and nervous oaths.
“Steady,” said Lieutenant Carstairs. “Steady there.”
A curtain was drawn aside from an opening let into one of the walls and a faint light fell upon Peter’s face. He saw two strange officers talking to his colonel and the major, and then another column of creaking, pressing men wedged against the First Battalion, going the opposite way.
“They’re shelling the road,” Peter heard the colonel say. “You’d better skirt it to the north.”
The outgoing battalion was fiercely exultant and quick with eager movements. The men reeked of sweat and sour mud and the fumes of burned pow'der. Whispers ran up and down, roughly jesting, almost hysterically cheerful.
"Best of luck, mates!’’ “Give ’em ’ell!” “Don’t win th’ war ’till we get back!”
And so the First Battalion of Outram’s Own took over, and the ghosts of the old regiment filled the long dark trench as well, the men of Blenheim and Waterloo, of the Crimea and the Mutiny, of Inkerman and Mons. The battalion sergeant-major (he had been a corporal at Ypres) admonished the replacements.
“We got a reputation t’ maintain. Outram’s Own ain’t never gone back except under orders, an’ you boys want t’ remember that. Jest do as ye’re told an’ don’t get the wind up. There’s nothin' to it. Jerry’s scared already an’ don’t you forget it!”
He twisted his fine mustache, and the replacements looked at the ribbons on his
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Continued from page 5
chest and felt heartened. Outram’s Own had never fallen back. They had a reputation to maintain. A strong pride came to Peter Warwick and he leaned against the parados and imagined many things. He was with an army, on the eve of a great battle. And there was Carstairs, so straight and tall in the darkness, taking off his trench coat and talking to the battalion sergeant-major.
‘‘They’re all right, sir,” the sergeantmajor said. ‘‘Ain’t much snap to ’em, but we’ll bring ’em along.”
"We’ll have to,” answered the lieutenant drily. "From the look of things there’ll be a big push before long.”
As casually as that, Peter thought. There'll be a big push before long! So might a Prince speak to his captains. And they were all men together.
r"PHE big push was delayed for two
days, for the enemy laid down a sudden bombardment that filled the air with a sleet of steel and shook the earth with roaring concussions. The trenches were canyons of death, and the First Battalion, crouching in its dugouts, grew sick and dazed with the thunder and the fumes. Salvos of nine-point-twos made a thunderous karump-bam! during which the lighter and more vicious-sounding five-nines kept up a continuous blast of noise. And then batteries of eight-inch howitzers and some seventy-fives awoke to answer the enemy fire, and the world was blotted out in screaming fury that wilted the soul to a tiny shaking thing and drew bunds of iron tight across the pit of the stomach. Airplanes in close formation began to drone above. Runners went stumbling away. Twice men were sent crawling into the vortex to repair wires and twice they were wiped to oblivion. For ail of one long day the First Battalion was isolated with its division, and then, when the bombardment stopped, as suddenly as it had begun, the men stumbled out from cover to repel attack. The eight-inch howitzers and the seventy-fives Hung a few more rounds and ceased also, and a thick, aching silence beat against the ears of the half-stunned men. But there was no attack. Instead the enemy struck fifty miles away and broke through a thinlyheld line. There was no time to hurry back the supports which had been moved up behind Outram’s Own at the start of the bombardment. The sector was ordered to advance to relieve the pressure that had already rolled back an army corps on the left.
“Listen for orders,” warned Lieutenant Carstairs to his untried men. “Don’t lose touch, and follow me or the sergeants. And,” he coughed, “there’s a detail going out tonight. If you want tb post any letters ...”
He coughed again, lighted a cigarette and turned brusquely away. The dazed replacements looked at each other. If you want to post any letters! It is not good for untried men to be penned in a gullet of mud with little to do but think. Peter’s lips were dry and his heart pumped unevenly. This was not the War he had dreamed, not the gay advance of brave armies to mingle hand to hand. No bugles, no glamor, no great captains to watch heroic single combats and give rewards for valor. This was a screaming insanity that choked thought and turned the bowels to water. There had been dead men in the trench after the bombardment. There had been two dugouts caved in upon their occupants. A runner had returned holding his stomach with two hands, and through his fingers bright red had been trickling. This was not War!
It was already dark. Machine-guns crackled sharply once or twice. Star shells flared in the rainy sky, and the
horizon to the left was a roll of livid flame and a bellowing vortex of guns where the enemy attack was being pushed home. Peter sat on the firestep and gripped his rifle between cold fingers. He could see again the black blood spouting from the khaki huddle left in the road That and the futile white fist turned stiffly upward to the moonlit sky. It was not War! They had not even seen the enemy yet. Peter lighted a cigarette and wondered if he were a coward. His hands shook so. His legs would not support him. He fought desperately to bring back the glamor and the pride of things.
He was a soldier and an Englishman, fighting here in France where so many Englishmen had fought and made history. Somewhere in this land there was Crecy, where the archers had gained a nation. Across these very fields the Black Prince had ridden and all the chivalry of England had made the roads gay with bright armor and fluttering pennants, martial with the glint of lance-tips and the sun on shining swords. Here in France Englishmen had died, lord and laborer; young and old; at Mons and Messines, at Ypres and on the Somme. And here was Outram’s Own, fighting still after all the years of its glorious history, with a reputation to maintain. And here was Lieutenant Carstairs with his wound stripes and his medals, with his father who was a baronet of an ancient line, with his castle in Surrey and his calm Oxford drawl. All that a Prince might be, even such a Prince as that one whom Peter had loved, whose tomb he had stood beside for all one summer afternoon.
Peter remembered again that mad night of August the fourth, and the great crowds singing of England. He remembered the streets and the lanes of England; and the king in his palace; and the young Prince who was a soldier like himself. But all these remembrances did not seem to hearten him now, sitting on the firestep with the sick minutes ticking away, and that hour approaching when he would have to go up out of the sheltering trench and walk toward the enemy, with the lead cutting like a scythe, and men spouting blood and crumbling to ghastly ruin all about him.
He was afraid. He was deathly afraid. He did not want to die. He did not feel his spirit come to intimacy with the captains of old at this hour. He could not conjure them at all to come and stand beside him. He was not one with them. He had failed them. On the eve of battle he was afraid and his blood ran ice. He
smoked one cigarette after an other, and his jaw was so tight the little ridges of muscle stood out each side of it. But he did not want anyone to know he was afraid.
The long, long wait; the waning of the night; the men lined up; the warm, sweet issue of rum; the nervous final adjustment of belts and sagging pouches; the clicking of bayonets locking home; the whispers and mutters back and forth; the shaky jests; the purposeless swearing of some of the older men; the quietness of the married; the impatient officers biting their nails or staring at their wristwatches. And then the curt, “Stand to!” And at last the opening barrage.
' I TIE sombre pall of the sky began to lighten. A faint bar of light spread in the east, merging with the flashes of the roaring guns. And then several batteries of eighteen pounders opened with a snap, and a wall of smoke and vomiting earth lifted along the enemy wire. For ten minutes the blast continued, and then it lifted and crept toward the opposite trenches, to abruptly stop with the same suddenness with which it had begun.
Whistles shrilled through the morning air. Men rose out of the mist-hung earth and a long uneven line half-walked, halfran toward the curtain of subsiding smoke under which the barbed wire lay in shapeless rolls and tangles, with uncertain gaps between. Peter found himself stumbling behind Lieutenant Carstairs, with men to right and left of him and sweating sergeants running up and down to keep the line in some semblance of order. The major was ahead, with a drawn revolver in his hand, and, peering to right and left, Peter was heartened by the sight of a full division going into action through the mist, with Outram’s Own holding the centre.
There was an almost complete silence, except for the slopping of boots in the mud; the occasional imprecation as a man stumbled; the hard, nervous breathing; the creaking of equipment and the rattling of rifles. Far off, the guns shook and rumbled. A solitary frightened crow flapped toward the east. Far up came the drones of airplanes. But there was no firing, no rolling chatter of machine-guns. The uneven line of khaki reached the smoking, pitted ground where the wire was shattered; stumbled through. And Peter could see that Lieutenant Carstairs and the other officers were looking uneasily about them. It was impossible that the brief barrage had wiped out all the enemy defense.
They were past the wire then and Peter began to feel better. The men began to call jests back and forth as the first tension was passed. The parapet of the enemy trenches lay just ahead, halfconcealed in the mists that were rising from the ground and by the low, uneasy smoke that still weaved across the shell holes. Peter saw the major check in his stride and turn to say something to a captain just behind him. But whatever it was it was never uttered, for at that moment the earth heaved up and the sky was lost in gouts of mud and earth, fragments of wire and tossing bodies. And before the gouts had died there was a sleet of shrapnel let loose and the rolling roar of a barrage blotted out everything.
The entire left flank of Outram’s Own was smashed in blood and noise before the rest could drop and dig in. The whole ground had been mined and the listening posts had not discovered the fact. The advance of the division, with insufficient artillery preparation and with headquarters more intent on the enemy attack fifty miles to the east, was one of those stupendously idiotic manoeuvres for which the higher command was notorious. But it was too late to do anything now. The advance crumbled, thinned out and was definitely stopped. Machine-guns chattered beneath the shattering bursts of shrapnel and the whole division fell back to save itself from utter destruction, leaving behind a residue of men and things much as a retreating wave leaves upon the shore of the sea.
Peter Warwick had been knocked flat when the first mine had erupted, and he had neither the experience nor the control to remain in the mud. He scrambled up and stumbled about, utterly dazed. A man pitched in front of him and slithered a few feet, the top of his head sliced off and his brains spilling in the mud Another man was threshing in the wire and screaming in a high-pitched monotonous voice that ended with an abrupt gasp. All around men were falling and shouting, unheard in the uproar. Peter’s throat was dry as sand and his eyes were fixed and glassy with terror. He dropped his rifle and ran, ran anywhere, without aim or direction, like a panic-mad deer surrounded by huntsmen. His stomach was a quaking mass. Every nerve was shrieking within him and his feet seemed lead. He could not see, for the smoke was a choking curtain. Men collided against him, cursed and knocked him aside. One frightened boy from his own platoon lunged at him with a bayonet and sliced his thigh. Peter did not even feel the wound. He struck the boy in the mouth and rocked away. The noises and the screaming torrented upon him and dry racking whimpers were dragging from his throat.
He ran desperately and then something tapped him on the left ankle and his feet seemed to dissolve away. He pitched forward, slid down a steep wet slope, and his clawing fingers caught at a stump and checked his descent. He could vaguely hear what seemed to be rain pattering in water just below him, and then for a long time he closed his eyes and prayed. The dull groaning of someone at his side came to him next, and he tried to see but could not until a gust of wind scattered the smoke and disclosed the drawn and bloodstreaked face of Lieutenant Carstairs staring fixedly at him. „
Peter swallowed hard and the lieutenant drew a sobbing breath.
“Hit?” he asked. “Hit, Warwick? We ran into a trap.”
"DETER looked down at his shattered
ankle and his boot was full of blood. He was mildly surprised that he felt no
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pain and he was aware that he was thirsty. The slope was so steep he did not dare let go of the stump which kept him up until he had kicked a foothold in the wet clay with his sound boot. Then he was able to get at his canteen and swallow a few mouthfuls of water. Carstairs drank too, taking the canteen with a twisted smile, and Peter saw that the lieutenant had lost nearly all his equipment. His gas mask and gun were gone and his belt cut half through by a fragment of shell. He had evidently crawled through the wire, for his hands and face were deeply clawed and his clothing ripped in long streaks. The whole of his right leg from the knee down was wet and red, and there was an ugly red gash across his head from which blood oozed thickly into his left ear.
Peter breathed hard and was sick for a while. They were alone in an old shell hole, Carstairs and he, and the bottom was filled with scummy dark water in which unmentionable things were floating. And overhead the shells were screaming, crossing each other as the allied artillery sought the unsuspected batteries that had smashed a division.
“No chance to get back before dark,” whispered the lieutenant. “We’ll have to make the best of it. Are you hurt very badly, Warwick?”
Peter licked his lips but could not make his throat work and utter speech. The lieutenant checked an involuntary groan, and Peter saw the sweat standing thick upon his forehead.
The panic slowly ebbing from him and his sickness passing, Peter felt numbed and oppressed with a slow brooding terror that was a gnawing in his breast. He kicked out a better foothold, dug something of a hollow with his hands and was finally able to relax his grip of the stump and rest without the fear of sliding down into the scummy water.
Peter inched across and tried to make the lieutenant comfortable. Carstairs seemed entirely helpless, supporting himself by his sound foot on an outcropping stone and with the fingers of one hand buried convulsively in the wet clay above his head. Peter laid bare more of the stone for him, dug out a rough hollow that supported his lax body, and then awkwardly he bandaged the terrible bloody mass that had been the lieutenant’s knee. Later he got off his own boot and wound bandages and one of his puttees round the neat hole drilled through his ankle. These things he did in a dazed, mechanical way, as if his senses had been shocked to the verge of death. He never spoke.
He began to feel the first twinges of pain soon after bandaging his ankle. Twinges that grew and grew until his whole leg was a hot pulsing, and fiery stabs ran like sandpaper through his very marrow. More than once he had to set his teeth and fight back a faintness that brought cold sweat to all of his body.
He had grown indifferent to the screaming shells and the intermittent bursts of machine-gun fire above. He did not even notice the occasional fragment of smoking steel that plopped into the water. He sank into a semi-conscious state and was unaware of the scud-filmed sky, the spit of new rain and the warm wind wet upon his face and heavy with stale fumes. He seemed to move in vast arcs, as if on a great swing, and at other times he possessed a queerly acute detachment when he could stand off, as it were, and perceive himself huddled beside Lieutenant Carstairs on the clay slope of the old shell hole.
This stage passed and a strange quiet calmness came. Death did not seem terrifying at all, though it was very close and all around him. He was troubled by a wave of mortification, by a shrinking horror of himself. He was a coward. He had flung aside his rifle and run. He
supposed they would shoot him if he ever got back to hi3 own platoon. He had been so proud to be a soldier, to belong to Outram’s Own. He had wanted so much to be brave. And he was a coward. He had simply run. He was not fit to be of that company who had held the high road to Le Cateau, who had died at Mons. He was not fit. He was a coward. He had held communion with the heroes of old and they had talked with him and rode with him. He had dreamed high dreams and sworn greatly that he would be worthy of them, of England and the blood he bore. And he had betrayed it all. He had a brief sick vision of faces staring down at him, frowning and solemn and sad. Faces of Drake and Grenville, Nelson and Raleigh, Marlborough and Alfred the Great. A sea of faces from the temples of history. And looming over them the dark, armored figure of the Prince, of Edward the Black Prince beside whose tomb Peter had stood for so long and with such solemn rapture. And he had failed them all. He had run away.
TJTE STARED at Carstairs with a *■ -*■ shudder and the lieutenant’s face was the color of ashes. He breathed heavily, groaning at intervals. He was a man, Peter thought. A soldier and a man. He had fought and had never run away. There was pride within him, and a braveness. Even in his pain he had not complained, had not mentioned himself. He had asked if Peter was hit, and how badly. That was all. He was calm and confident and fine, a fit descendant of the Earls of Arundel and of the knights of the ancient breed. A great and hopeless envy welled in Peter and he closed his eyes to fight back unconsciousness once more. "
When he opened his eyes again it was to hear a strange sound breaking through the interminable screaming of the shells and the chatter of the machine-guns. Bells and whistles and gongs were sounding, a frantic medley as if all men had gone abruptly mad in the inferno of the battle. Lieutenant Carstairs opened his eyes as if he heard too, and then his hands moved by instinct to his breast to fall empty away again. Peter lifted his head, inched forward and stared, and a vague green mist hovered through the smoke before him, rolling and silent an 1 impalpable, filling all things, creeping toward him with the wind. He whimpered and huddled back in his hollow to stare at Carstairs. The lieutenant’s lips twitched in a faint smile.
“My . . . tough luck,” he whispered, and then he closed his eyes as a tired child might and his shoulders went slack as he lost consciousness again.
Peter lay quiet and still, until the first faint greenness lifted over the edge of the shell hole. Behind it he knew men would come, a flood of field grey launching the counter-attack. They would not kill a wounded man, would not kill Peter Warwick. They would take him to hospital and then keep him in a prison camp until the war was done. There were horrible stories told about prison camps, but wasn’t anything better than dying, being shattered by steel and lead, to lie at last a pitiful agonized huddle, pumping blood and with a fist turned up to the sky? Peter’s thoughts drifted, flickering rapidly.
He could see again the crowds on that night of August the fourth. He could hear again the massed voices lifted in song. (How many who sang then were alive now?) He thought of England and all it had meant to his foolish heart, his silly little heart which he had thought so big. There were the hedges budding in the spring; the grey face of the Abbey peering through the winter rain; the dusty streets of London in the summer; the heather on the hills of the North and the cattle deep in the grassy valleys; chimneys lazy with smoke and children going, to school across the fields. He remembered many things, and emotion
clawed at his throat and laid strong fingers upon his breast. His blue eyes grew misty and tired. So much there was, so much that was dear. The grey cathedrals where the bright dead lay; the brave flag whipping in the wind; the blue sea that hedged the rocky coasts; the grim dark tower that William the Norman had planned. So much, so much! There was all England fighting and dying, needing brave men who would save all this. The England of the knights and archers; of the Vikings and the wild Iceni; of the Legions of Rome and the iron-sheathed Roundheads; of the men who had filled the ranks of Outram’s Own through all the generations.
There was England and here was Peter Warwick, lacking of body and braveness. Not even a good soldier, for was he not too slow, too forgetful? . . . “You look like a clothes-horse. Put him in the rear rank, sergeant.” . . . Here was Peter Warwick who had summoned the heroes to talk with him, who had held high resolves to lift the sword they had dropped. And Peter Warwick was a coward and England did not want cowards. What would Edward, the Black Prince, have thought of him?
And there was Carstairs, wounded and helpless before the gas, with his father a baronet, with his castle in Surrey and his lady mother waiting at home. And Carstairs was England and England was warring with its back to the wall. And Carstairs had lost his mask . . . Peter had not thought it would be so much trouble to put a mask over the face of an unconscious man.
The green mist drifted into the shell hole, filled it, and went crawling on down wind toward the shattered division. Peter lay smiling until coughing racked him. He doubled up, clawing at the mud and clay, twisting in a fierce hot agony that seemed to tear him apart. His lungs were on fire and he could no longer see. He began to slip, his fingers digging furrows in the earth. Water splashed about his feet, rose to his knees and his waist. He was racked with coughing, and blood came frothy to his lips. He gave a whimper as the scummy water closed over him, and then he was gone. A wave rocked across the surface, and then another. Bubbles rose, and a thin hand lifted for a moment to clutch at the bonny sky. And then the hand disappeared and a sodden shoulder drifted idly and the waves subsided and the green mist settled down . . .
Lieutenant Carstairs sucked air through the mouthpiece of his mask as an irritation in his throat made him cough. He opened his eyes and tried to peer through the misty film that covered his eyepieces, but his brain was swimming and he clamped tight his lips from instinct. There was gas all about him and he wondered stupidly what had happened. Then something more disturbed him, reached down into the shadows of his semi-consciousness and brought him almost to the surface. He thought he heard the soft thudding of a horse’s hoofs and the creak of leather. He thought a rider came to the shell hole, and reached over, and lifted to his crupper a dripping khaki figure, as a man might lift a comrade and a brother. Then the rider touched his scalloped rein and the murky light glinted on a lance. There was a faint jar as of armor and the horse moved off, steadied to a gallop and to the charge. And the dark form of him who had first won three plumes to his crest was lost in the greenness of the gas, while behind him there seemed to flow a medley of laughing men in leather jerkins, and from this medley of men there came the rich twanging as they loosed the arrow hail. And then they too steadied to the charge . . . Lieutenant Carstairs drifted down nto the darkness again — frowning because two strange words persisted in his mind and he could not understand why they should. Just two strange words . . . Ich Dien!