And All That England Means
Privately the army admitted that H. Oldfield Wilkin, ex-London wholesaler, might be "slightly nuts," but that was before Mr. Wilkin demonstrated how and why an Englishman fights
St. George he was for England, And right gallantly set free The lady left for dragon’s meat And tied up to a tree; But since he stood for England And all that England means, Unless you give him bacon You mustn’t give him beans. —G. K. C., with alteration by H. 0. W.
AS HE stepped into the open from that famous eating-house hard by Saint Paul’s Cathedral, there was a rather bitter expression on the normally serious if cherubic face of Mr. H Oldfield Wilkin.
It was not, however, the hellish yowling of the air-raid siren cleaving the traffic’s roar as his foot touched the pavement, that fixed this gloomy look on his countenance. Despondency had come with him through the restaurant’s swing doors. Not unmixed with anger, it had been in him even as he paid his lunch bill.
Mr. H. Oldfield Wilkin did not acknowledge the ululated warning by so much as a glance at the sky. While people all about him scurried to shelter he paused in moody contemplation of the restaurant window. And he shook his head over the poor couple of lobsters, the little heap of non-Dover soles, the solitary turbot and the tray of herrings that composed the window show. Time had been, and not so very far in the past, Wilkin remembered, when an ordered and cunning profusion had made this vrindow the most attractive in the City of I/)ndon; the red of fresh-boiled lobsters, portly, firm of flesh and lined with pink curd, shining harmonious with the deep ultramarine of living brothers—with the brown of luscious crabs, the mottled silver-blue of clean-run grilse and salmon, the leopardine gold dappling of trout, the sandy-grey of deep-shouldered soles—all, with the crimson of tomatoes, the green of parsley and crisp lettuce, fronds of fern and aspidistra, and the stoutly capacious kegs and tubs, making a picture such as would have tingled the fingers of any old Dutch painter worth his salt.
“ ’S a bit thick. Makes you think,” said H. Oldfield Wilkin to himself. And moodily, regardless of the mutter and thud now crescent from the east, with smoke puffs mushrooming brown and white in the sky, he sauntered west a little, then turned north by Saint Martin’s le Grand toward Smithfield through Little Britain. So immersed was he in his resentful gloom that he scarcely perceived how the streets had emptied, and the sudden sound of a voice in address of himself almost made him jump.
“Why don’t you take cover, sir?”
“Eh?” said PL Oldfield Wilkin. Then becoming aware of the gas mask on the chest of a blue raincoat, and of the inverted steel basin with the white “W” in front, he huniedl y apologized: “Oh! Sorry, my dear chap—sorry!”
The air-raid warden sought to improve the occasion.
“We don’t want casualties that needn’t happen, you know,” said he.
“I know—I know,” Wilkin effusively assured him. “ ’S stupid—’s annoying as jay-walking. I wasn’t noticing. Got something on my mind. No—” He swung to nod at the smoke puffs crackling in the eastern lift of the sky. “Those baskets—”
“Ahr!” the warden nodded with him. “ ‘Baskets’ is right. Skunks. After the poor folks again. Well, if you’re going to find that better ’ole, sir, you’d better beat it. We don’t want to be carrying you in there.” He stuck out a casual thumb, low-held, in the direction of Bart’s Hospital, while he kept his gaze critically on the air activity. “About over the Custom House I’d say they are. Can get here in a couple of shakes. Nearest shelter’s just round the corner there.”
“One under my office is about as near,” said Wilkin. “I’ll make for that.”
“Okay, sir. Don’t stop to pick flowers.”
“No,” replied Wilkin as he moved off. “Good luck, Mister Warden!—Baskets!” he repeated toward the sky. Then, with mildly exasperated emphasis: “Goshdarn, interfering baskets !”
In one for whom a general roundnessof figure soobviously impended, the rapidity of H. Oldfield Wilkin’s stride was remarkable. The normal expectation would have been to see him toddle, and indeed it would have been justified. For in the last year or two Wilkin’s daily progress along the city pavements had tended more and more toward the patent-leather tripping of your true boulevardier. At the moment, however, the resolution which ileetingly rescued the disappearing line of Wilkin’s jaw was manifest also in the lengthening of his paces, in the new ring of his firmly planted heels. Equally manifest was the fact that the thuds
and crashes growing more defined behind him to his right had nothing to do with his speed. That was the unhurrying speed of a man with some fixed determination.
“ ’S getting a bit too thick, this Jerry stuff,” murmured H. Oldfield Wilkin to himself as he climbed the stair to his office. “Makes you think. Those baskets’ve got to be stopped !”
He had more than half-completed the climb when a screaming whistle, followed by a roaring thud which rocked the steps under him, reminded him that his attenuated office staff would be in the reinforced cellar of the old building. He turned about on the stairs, and went down again.
“All right!” said H. Oldfield Wilkin, the line of his jaw now quite distinct. He nodded accurately in the direction of the North Sea or German Ocean. “You wait !”
HIS SISTER Marian laughed at him. kindly—as nice sisters will. She was two years older and, in her shoes, two inches taller than H. Oldfield Wilkin.
“With that?” said she. And she pointed to his incipient bay-window.
Wilkin drummed with the palms of his hands on the bulge, bravely. “That’s nothing.” he assured her. “Three weeks P.T.—you know, physical jerks—will take the sag out. I'm really fit enough. Couldn’t play two rounds of golf a day if I weren’t.”
“My dear How, you haven’t played golf for years. You’ve played at golf, smugly watching your handicap increase with your corporation. Less and less on the course, and more and more of the bar, the lunch room and the bridge table,” his sister accused him. “I don’t say you’ve backslid too far, but you’re going to ache more than a little before you toughen.” And she went on to what she knew beforehand would be an ineffective question: “Why the sudden decision, anyhow—after a year? Business bad?” “Practically dead. Control’s killed it. Can’t get enough of the stuff to handle. I tell you, Em, after this war there
won’t be a small wholesaler of edible fats left in the country. The big combines’ll have swiped the entire trade. But that’s not the reason why I’m going,” said Wilkin profoundly. “The Jerries are doing things to England.”
“They’ve been doing things to England for a year, yes, and longer.”
“I know. But things happen to make a chap think. I’m going to kill a whole bunch of the blighters.”
“At forty-two? You’ll be pushed into an office, How.” “Not me. Not if I don’t let myself be. Besides”—he took good time to say—“I’m not going to ask for a commission. I’m going back into the ranks.”
“Back to the ranks! What for, in the name of common sense?”
“I don't know. Soldiering’s become a lot more technical since my time. I want to kill Germans. If I join up simply to be pushed into an office,” said Wilkin, “I might as well stop at home. Begin building up a new business straightaway. As a ranker I can pretend to be too dumb for office work.”
What further doubts she had, his sister decided then to keep to herself. She had a sudden clear recollection of how futile it had been trying to dissuade H. O. W. from anything as a boy when his mind was set. Not that she wished to dissuade her brother from getting back into the Army. Her husband and a son were serving. H. O. W. had no family responsibilities. If, as he said, the war had killed his business, there was nothing in the world to keep him from serving. As long as he was fit.
That was the point of doubt in her mind. For it had seemed to her in recent years that H. O. W. was resolute in nothing so much as in faithfully seeking his own comfort. It had seemed that he worked, and worked hard, too, simply for the means wherewith to pay the best tailors and to develop his knowledge of fine wines and delicate food. Not ungenerous to her. his only sister, or her family, he yet seemed to live for himself. He dwelt in an expensive but well-run service-fiat— the adjectives not being necessarily synonymous—with his own efficient body-servant, and using cars serviced and driven on contract he had been at need to do scarcely a hand’s turn for himself from year’s end to year’s end. Save that he did pay a strict and regular attention to his business, he was to all intents and purposes an idler.
In the year the war had lasted, perhaps because of his attempts to save his business from dwindling, he had accepted its progress almost placidly, according the British successes or setbacks the stereotype enthusiasm or woe of merely passing interest. What, Marian wondered, had happened to rouse him? And, being roused, was it possible that a man so pampered could go through with the purpose H. O. W. now was fixed upon? Active service, even as an officer, would have been trial indeed for the man H. O. W. had become, but seeking to soldier in the ranks seemed sheer madness. Or was it?
Marian looked at her brother anew. The rolypolyness she had laughed at, sisterwise, seemed to leave him. She saw him as he had been twenty years before, in khaki, a compactly built if not very tall youngster, but at twenty a veteran soldier, if the medal ribbons on his chest and the stars on his shoulder straps were not meaningless. She saw him as he had been even before then, the round-faced, sober-browed and apparently humorless schoolboy at whose deliberate ways it was so easy to be tickled. He had not changed a bit, really.
Twenty-four years ago, in much the same way as now, he had walked into the family circle and quietly announced that he was a soldier. It had been just as like him to present the fait accompli then—for at eighteen he was still under authority—as it was now to assert the simple intention, as good as the completed fact in his maturer mind.
The enlistment in 1916 had looked like the sudden fulfillment of a resolve doggedly maintained right from the war’s start two years earlier. Because during that two years, all How’s spare moments had been devoted to school
corps activity and to the avid study of any manual on military technique he could lay hands on. But after twenty-four years Marian was as far as ever from knowing what thought or revelation, what incident or rumor, had turned resolve into sudden action. She did not know that the enlistment actually had been sudden on H. O. W.’s part. It merely had looked sudden to the family. For it liad been assumed that H. O. W.’s application and interest in things military would lead him to a commission by the normal route of the Officers Training Corps. At the same time, Marian still believed something had hapjxmed in 1916 to make H. O. W. suddenly decide on enlistment as against working for a commission by the more sheltered process of O.T.C.
And now, in 1940, something had happened in the same way to make H. O. W. all at once determine upon reenlisting. Marian would have given a good deal to find out what it was. But, from experience, she knew it would be useless to enquire.
“I fancy you’re still fairly well-muscled under the goose-grease, How.” she said aloud. “Organically, too, you’re healthy enough. It’s this decision to join up in the ranks that I’m doubtful about. You’ve been the sybarite so long that you’ve forgotten what plank beds, or none, and Army stew are like. Fortunately, you aren’t likely to be in the ranks for long. ”
“Surely when they see your M.C. and that, they’ll hunt up your record.”
“Oh, I shan’t be wearing my medals,” Wilkin said simply. “I couldn’t have been in the last war at my age.”
MOST of the British fighting services have their own variant of the Royal Engineers’ dictum: Once a sapper, always a sapper. The phrase in any of its variants simply expresses pride in one’s regiment.
On the idea, however, it was natural that having once been a rifleman, H. Oldfield Wilkin should want to reassume the black buttons and the badge of the convoluted bugle. But in order to reduce the chance of recognition by some former comrade still serving, instead of joining his old-time territorial unit, the Q.W.R.’s, he obtained admission to the K.L.R.’s, the regular establishment of the regiment. In more ways than one, as may be seen, this mitigated loyalty almost was the undoing of his plans. For territorial and regular battalions of the Rifles had been brigaded together, the officers of the various units wearing “Q.W.R.” or “K.L.R.” indifferently under the red-backed black pips of their shoulder straps, and the whole brigade forming part of a mechanized division.
Rifleman 817263 H. O. Wilkin did his best to remain an unremarkable member of the rank and file, but several things, ineluctable and almost ingrained in himself, were against it. There was, to begin with, his name. The production of his Civil Identity Card on enlistment precluded the use of a nom de guerre. And the repetition of his initials on the various items of his kit being noticed by the inevitable company wit, it was not long before he was generally known by his family and old-Army nickname of “How.” Again, he was so steeped in “Rifles” tradition that he quite failed to pretend ignorance of those peculiarities, as for instance of drill and movement, which pertain to the light infantry of the suspended bugle horn. He instinctively talked Rifles lingo.
“You’ve bin ’ere before!” accused the drill instructor at the depot.
“School corps, sergeant,” Wilkin equivocated.
“Sez you!” returned the non-com, but quite properly stifling inquisitiveness. “Like to know the school corps as does the ‘trail’ and the ‘shoulder.’ Well—you’ve got feet an’ ’ands, anyhow. Change over to the left flank !”
There was, again, the fierce intensity, remarkable in a Rifleman, that Wilkin put into his practice with the bayonet—or, in Rifles lingo, the “sword”—the sustained interest he had in the Bren gun, the odd knack he had with hand grenades.
“You’ll be puttin’ up a stripe pronto-presently if you don’t watch out,” said the sergeant-major of the company to which Wilkin ultimately was posted. It was safe to be jocular, he reckoned, with a cove as quietly keen as this ’un. But the reply he got almost staggered him.
“No, no, sergeant-major! The last thing I want is promotion.”
“The last thing you want is promo—” gawped the C.S.M. “Jeepers!”
Quickly veiling his astonishment—not proper in a C.S.M.—he found present opportunity for consultation with his company commander
“That there round-faced man, oldish, in Eleven platoon, sir—Wilkin. Thinkin’ of what you were savin’ in regard to promotions, sir, I’ve had my eye on that man.”
“So have I, sergeant-major. He’s all there, smart, in spite of his wooden look,” said the company commander. “Trouble is, what are we going to aim the chap at? Pity to waste him on the sword, though he has the real offensive spirit. I mean, he’s so obviously keen on the Bren. And then, well, you’ve seen for yourself, he has none of the usual first stickiness with the Mills bombs.”
“Quite so, sir. And he’s pretty good at maps.”
“The Admirable Crichton, huh? And I suppose he's a wizard with a car?”
“No, sir. At least, he says he’s not much good as a driver.”
“Oh? Not quite the complete Crichton, then! Well, I had better talk to him, I suppose?”
“That’s just it, sir. I happened to put out a feeler, and the idea of bein’ promoted fair upset him. Said it was the last thing he wanted.”
“Oh, he did, did he? Now, I wonder why. It can’t be laziness.”
“No ambition, sir?” the C.S.M. suggested.
“In a chap as keen as he is? Too much of a contradiction,” said the company commander. “No. There’s something odd there. I’ll look into it, sergeant-major— quietly.”
The company commander made the chance for himself a day or two later when watching Eleven platoon being tried out in the bomb pit. They were using live bombs. He waited until Wilkin had thrown his quota, then, with that particular squad leaving the pit, called him aside.
“Nice work, Wilkin,” he commended. “Particularly the burst you got with that last bomb. But there was something unorthodox in the throw, wasn’t there?”
The wooden face of Wilkin seemed to redden a trifle. “Yes, sir,” he admitted, "the handle—the ignition lever.”
“Oh, yes. I saw that. And a touch of controlled delay, perhaps, in the throw itself?”
“We don’t see many men taking the time to get an air burst like that, except after a lot of familiarity with bombs,” the company commander said quietly. “Rut, quite obviously, you knew what you were doing. Want to specialize in bombs?”
“No, sir. Not particularly. I’d sooner stick to rifle and swo—bayonet—I mean, sword, sir.”
“In preference even to the machine guns?”
“Can you tell me why?”
“Can’t quite explain, sir. I sort of feel I'd like to be footloose. I—I want to kill Germans.”
“I see,” said the company commander, not quite truthfully. For a moment he had the thought that he was talking to an idiot. But only for a moment. There was, certainly, a queerish glint in the grey eyes looking steadily into his. But it wasn't a mad or even a silly glint. It commanded, as it gave, respect. It made Captain Hetherington make something of an effort, made him want to avoid condescension to a man seemingly much more mature than himself. “You feel—you feel you’d like to—to look about you before settling down to a specialized job?” “That’s about it, sir.”
“The specialized job you’re looking for being that, in your idea, best adapted for killing Germans?”
“But surely you see, Wilkin, that efficient working of special teams can only be got by—uh—teamwork? By constant practice as crews? With the M.G.’s, for instance. We need men for rifle and sword, of course, but we haven’t the weight to be storm troops. We’re light infantry, remember, sharpshooters. We regard it as rather a pity to use intelligent chaps for rifle and sword. And don’t you see that if you remain footloose, as you call it, you won't be as nippy as we’d like you to be—as you yourself would like to be—when you do want to take up your specialized line of work?”
“No, sir. But we don’t quite know yet—do we?—what sort of turn fighting may take in the future. It may come that rifle and sword will be the weapons most needed after all.”
The company commander felt like growing angry. As far as was possible the battalion favored letting the men make a choice of weapon to become expert in. But this was rather overdoing it. Still, the discussion was of his own inviting, and he felt that it would be unjust all at once to become high-hat.
“I’m bound to say, Wilkin, that I find you rather a queer bird,” he said patiently. “Your words make sense, but I’ve a feeling that you’re talking rot. It’s obvious that you want to be a good soldier. I’ll say frankly that you have all the makings of one. You seem to be in earnest about your work. But you don’t seem to want to get on. What’s this I hear from Sergeant-major Stark about you not wanting promotion?”
“Am I being recommended for promotion, sir?”
“You were thought of. Put it that way.”
“Well, sir, if you please,” Wilkin said quietly, “I’d rather not be.”
“I don’t know that you can refuse to be promoted, Wilkin.”
“I don’t know that there’s anything in King’s Regs., sir, to make a man accept promotion if he doesn’t want it. But that’s a thing I’d rather not stand on—I mean, any rights I might have. I only say that it’d be hardly fair to force a responsibility on me that I don’t want. Supposing I had to be reduced for not being up to the job, that’d be a black mark against me that I really hadn’t earned.”
“Blast it, man! You’re trying to persuade me that you’re a fool!’’ said the company commander in exasperation. “I wonder what the devil you’re up to—oh, blazes!” he added under his breath. “All right, Wilkin. That’ll do. You can rejoin the platoon.”
HTHE WILKIN mystery—so to call it— came to agitate even battalion H.Q. But for a time Wilkin had respite from being definitely carpeted. The adjutant sought out the commander of C Company in mess.
“This chap Wilkins in your lot, Hetherington,” he began, as adjutants are apt to, peremptorily.
“Not ‘Wilkin-zizz,’ my dear lad. ‘Wilkin,’ all abrupt like that. No ‘zizz’ at all. I somehow fancy Rifleman Wilkin likely to be particular on the point,” said Hetherington.
“Oh, Wilkin, then! What’s the matter with this Wilkin?”
“Slightly nuts, balmy, cuckoo, perhaps. That’s all.”
“Then that’s all right. If you don’t want him, ‘Bombs’ and ‘Brens’ both do. They can toss up for him. They seem to think him a good man.”
“Therein they show unusual judgment.” “Why don’t you want him in C, then?” demanded the adjutant.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want him. I do. I won’t part with him without a struggle. I merely hinted that the chap seemed a little nuts or loopy.”
“ ‘Bombs’ said something about the chap not wanting promotion.”
“That’s right. Wilkin doesn’t. Thinks it’d interfere with his prospects of massacring the Hun, which, let me tell you, he thirsts to do with the cold iron. There isn’t a man in the brigade in whom the will to kill more breathes than in the outwardly wooden Wilkin.”
“But it’s rubbish, that!” snapped the adjutant. “Sheer nonsense! He can massacre the Hun perfectly well as a corporal. We can’t have it ! We can’t have suitable men refusing promotion, not in this battalion! I’ll put the fear of the King’s Regs, into this Wilkin.”
“Oh, yuh—oh, yuh!” smiled the commander of Company C. “Well now, my excellent and zealous Sanders, I do advise you to pick on someone you’re more likely to scare. This Wilkin has a coldburning and a compelling eye in a cheek of brass. Though he refused to rest on any rights he might have under King’s Regs., preferring to plead on simple equity for being left alone, I shrewdly surmise that Rifleman Wilkin knows the red book a sight better than you do, my beardless boy. Then there’s a fictitious calm and placidity about our Wilkin which, combined with this almost feral desire for Boche blood,” said Hetherington, a reader of Shakespeare, “well might fear the valiant. You’d look, I fear me, like a wren making prey where eagles dare not perch.”
“Blah! Long-winded blah! I’ll make this Wilkin toe the line if I’ve to sick the Old Man himself on him. If promising men are going to dodge the column—” the adjutant failed of words. “I tell you, in this battalion—”
“Discipline’s despicable—” moaned the third officer of the group.
“Parades are pathetic—” groaned Hetherington.
“Drill is diabolical—”
“The bombing’s a-bomb-inable—” “Target practice is terrible—”
“Thank heaven for the Navy!”
“All right, all right!” The adjutant grinned awry. “All the same, I wish some of you blokes had my job for a little. But seriously, Hetherington, are you advising that we leave this Wilkin alone in the meantime?”
“Seriously, Sanders, yes. I’ll be glad if
you will. It’d be a pity to give a keen chap like him anything of a grievance. He won’t spoil, I’m certain. He’s good enough for sergeant as he stands. I’m sure of it. I’d like to watch him for a while anyhow, and I fancy I’ll get some fun out of it. Ah!— que j’en suis épris de ce Wilkin—un original, vous pouvez m’en croire!”
The respite thus granted Wilkin might have lasted longer, but for carelessness in the man himself. He had a way—it had lasted from his previous soldiering—of punctuating his more rhythmic action with stanzas—not always quite accurate —from verses by G. K. Chesterton. As for example, while exercising with his favorite bayonet, or sword :
“St. George he ivas for E NG-land,
And before he SLEW the dragon He drank a pint of ENG—(Aatch, you basket !) lish ale Out OF an English FLA-gon!
For though he FAST right readily In hair-shirt OR in mail (Would you, you scum?),
It isn't SAFE to give him cakes Unless you give him ALE!”
In the two or three poems that Wilkin knew of Chesterton—his one remembered poet, apparently—there must have been expression for something suppressed in the man, a queer sort of ecstasy, that he couldn’t find vent for in words of his own. Because, when the brigade, linked with division, had moved down to the West Country to engage in “Army” excercises, the frequent unfolding of the colored counties as the trucks spun the riflemen along the white roads gave Wilkin his tongue:
“Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.”
Or when, with his platoon, Wilkin lay on a crest to help in the stopping of an imagined enemy, he would mutter as he worked his rifle bolt:
. And for to fight the Frenchmen I did not much desire But I did BAS H their baggonets because _ they came arrayed To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made.”
IT WAS perhaps because he normally had so little to say for himself that his comrades began to listen to his solemnfaced rhapsodies. Something of respect might have been there, because—as though a former habit of responsibility had to be exercised—he had a patient hearing for, and indeed seemed to attract, the troubled confidences of his more immediate comrades. Not readily fooled, he had solid advice to give and often a little help in coin when the need was truly urgent. But whether it was in simple liking, or because their largely cockney humor was tickled by his facially expressionless fervor, or again for the straight Englishness of the words themselves, his comrades in truck and tent made a stunt of Wilkin’s recitals.
“ ’Ere, ’Owie, give us,” some lad would say as the trucks made a long leg on manoeuvre. “Give’s that bit abaht S’nt Jaw’ge!”
And then the load, letting Wilkin speak the first six lines, and waiting as though breathlessly for the leading rhyme, would chorus deliberately in slowed tempo the rounding-off couplets: “St. George he is for England,
And shall wear the shield he wore When ive go out in armor With the battle-cross before.
But though he is jolly company And very pleased to dine,
It — is — un’l — safe ■—to — give — Hm — NUTS
Unless—you — give — ’im— WINE!”
Hetherington, that watchful commander of Company C, marvelled at and was graceful for this new “gag” his men were finding content in. A major problem for all commanders was, he knew, to keep these armed men amused and interested, in the necessarily long wait until the neglect of the politicians was repaired, and the British strength was built to the striking point. If the threatened invasion did not mature—and it was now long-delayed— there was a long dark winter to face. The millions of men in arms, kept away from thetr homes and families that lay always in danger of bombing by the Luftwaffe, might so readily grow weary and dispirited. The job of holding them in content was the whole country’s, of course, a matter for sensible and sympathetic organization. But it was one that, in little, faced actual commanders more closely. Organized entertainment was all ver/ well, but the proof of his men’s contentment that Hetherington always wished to see was their happiness in their own devices.
Passing the mess tent one evening with a subaltern while the men were finishing supper, he stopped to listen to a solo voice:
“His sins they were forgiven him; or tvhy do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear ...”
And then the semi-confused rumble, antiphonal almost, of the spoken chorus:
“The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.”
“I’m beginning to understand our Wilkin now—the sheer Englishness of him,” said Hetherington. “And we may well bless him for that gag. Grand, isn’t it?”
“Very good, sir,” returned the subaltern. “My lot fell for it first, but now it’s catching on with the whole company. Odd. There’s been a bit of a dust-up between my lot and Twelve platoon, sir. A chap in Twelve started to claim the gag as his, using the usual half-bawdv version of his own contriving—the verses are Chesterton’s, you know.”
“Yes, I know. And what happened?” “Oh, Eleven platoon got indignant. Said nobody was going to pinch and mess-up what they called ‘Old Howie’s stunt.’ And Plunkett—Eleven’s bruiser, you know— read the Riot Act to the would-be comic of Twelve. That, of course, was good enough for those of Twelve who opined that Eleven’s objections were mere snootiness and irrelevant, anyhow. They saw reason. I’m glad. too. It’s a good gag, keeps the men together. Too good to spoil.”
“You’re right, Lumsden,” Hetherington agreed. “Ah, that excellent mutt, Wilkin! We must fix it somehow that his proprietorship in the gag is established. If the bawdy ones start messing it about, the men will tire of it. And it’s good enough for the battalion. Let’s see, now—”
THERE was a distinct pause in the program at the battalion’s week-end concert. The “Old Man” fidgetted, for he had rather bragged to officers invited from other units of the light mobile division.
“There’s a lull!” came a mock warning voice from the back of the hall. The audience guffawed and stamped its feet approvingly. And the commander of Company C smiled into the V of his tunic.
The sergeant-major acting as compère came out of the wings and stepped down to the footlights. He was sorry to announce that “a n’itch” had occurred— what he might call a “technical ’itch.” A difficulty about getting up some pi ops for the remaining turns. But there was, he felt sure, no call for any wait in the progiam. The Second/Fifth K.L.R.’s never had wanted for talent. He would call for a volunteer turn.
A shout, perhaps suspiciously prompt, went up from one corner of the hall: “Howie! Good ol’ ’Owie Wilkin! Let’s ’ave ’Owie. Wilkin ! Come along, ’Owie ! Give us the bit about S’nt Jaw’ge, ’Owie! Can it, chaps—let’s ’ave ‘The Rollin’ English Road!’ ”
Hetherington became aware that the officer sitting next to him was sinking oddly into his seat. It was the recently arrived new second-in-command.
“What’s the matter, sir?” asked Hetherington. “Something wrong?”
“No, no, just a pang of memory, an amazing coincidence.”
The shouts for “ ’Owie Wilkin!” still went on, drowning by mere compactness of their origin all competing demands. The sergeant-major compère put up a silencing hand.
“I ’ave pleasure in calling upon Rifleman H. O. Wilkin to give us a turn.” he said.
Hetherington heard his neighbor’s lowbreathed ejaculation: “My lord!”
He saw' the new' major follow with fascinated gaze the compact figure, neat even in the rather sagging battle-dress, that came so reluctantly from the back of the hall to run. as if on sudden decision, smartly up the steps to the platform’s prompt-side wings. He saw the major stare, open-mouthed, at the rifleman who marched sturdily to the stage’s exact centre, turned, and stepped paces forward toward footlights, drill-fashion. And Hetherington caught the added whisper: “Good lord—Old Howie!”
Wilkin, thus in the limelight, was something very different from the elegantly clad, incipiently rotund and obviously rich-living merchant who had stepped so moodily out into Cheapside some months before. His bodily plumpness had gone. If his face still was round and chubby, it showed the browns and reds and bloomy blues that the outdoors puts into a healthy skin. His double chin had melted into no more than a plump little dewlap. For a moment or two he stood stock-still, his lips moving soundlessly as if in stagefright. Then his head went up, and his chest swelled at the low'er ribs.
“ ‘Saint George for England’ by G. K. Chesterton,” he announced incorrectly, though clearly, “but”— and he gulped a little—“you chaps in Eleven platoon have got to help.”
“Sure thing, Howie, we will !” came the answer, full-throated. “Let ’er rip, mate!”
“St. George he was for England,
And before he slew the dragon ...”
Not merely Eleven platoon, but most of Twelve, brave numbers of the entire C Company as well as clever ones of the whole battalion, weighed in to roll out the rounding couplets. Pleased with themselves in this, they took up the encore yell for “The Rolling English Road.” And they helped with that, too.
It was only when Wilkin came to the final verse that they left him alone. Some sense of the dramatic, perhaps something creeping into Wilkin’s voice, seemed to tell them it was better, more seemly maybe, to let the last line here drop solo.
“My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk ivith clearer eyes and ears thi: path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death ■
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen—”
All expression was in Wilkin’s voice alone, and even here—though the voice was splendidly clear and even rich—the expression lay rather in understanding, and simply in pause and pace of a level tone. Wilkin paused to let his chorus come in, and felt the call made on him by its silence. If surprise made him falter a little, he faltered in the right place:
“Before we go to—Paradise—by way of Kensal Green.”
Still the silence held, for countable seconds. Then came that long roll of handclapping, like the break of great waves, with which a male audience applauds when it is too stirred to give tongue.
“Oh, fine—splendid!” said the new second-in-command. “Good old woodenface. Good old Howie! But what the devil is he doing in the ranks? He’s younger than I am !”
“Then you kn©w Wilkin, sir?” Hetherington probed.
“Know him? Of course I know him. We were in the Brigade together, the Q.W.R.’s during the last show. He was my company commander youngest commander in the —” The major, babbling, checked himself on a sudden thought, and stared bleakly at his neighbor. “My lord, Hetherington, what am I saying? I beg you to forget all that. Keep it strictly under your hat. And yet, you knowI don’t know. Wilkin was never the man to blot his copybook.”
“I’d say it was extremely unlikely. Good soldier, of course.”
“One of the best. In the ranks at eighteen, won the Military Medal. Commissioned, won the Military Cross and had his company at twenty. We had heavy officer casualties, certainly, and Wilkin didn’t have even a Blighty. But it wasn’t altogether that. Man’s a fighting fool.”
“I’ll keep it to myself, sir, naturally, until you release me. The thing is, we could do with a sort of innocent bulge on Wilkin, all for the good of the battalion. Some bug he has about not accepting promotion. Wants to kill Jerries from the ranks. Odd—good man as he shows himself, good man as you say he is. But there’s the chap himself coming down the platform steps,” said Hetherington. ‘Are you going to talk to him, sir?”
“Heavens, no, not now, not before this crush! He might after all have hit some trouble. You never know. And he was my friend,” said the major. “Lean forward, Hetherington, and screen me!”
Y Y WHETHER or not the new second-in-
* * command intended seeking his old comrade privately, he was hardly given time to consider the expediency of such a move. The colonel himself stepped in. Wilkin’s contribution to the concert program had made a hit with the Old Man. lie liked the Chesterton verses, and he liked W'ilkin’s way of delivering them. Good stuff, said the colonel—thoroughly English, patriotic even, without being sloppy, and all the better for being spoken straightforwardly. A long-haired crooner, now, would have made drool of it. The colonel liked the way the men joined in. Do them gxxxi. It shoved the “all that England means” idea into them without any “jelly-bellied flag-flapping.” Great stunt. Good for morale. Must have some sort of guts in him, some sort of personality, to put such a stunt over, this chap, Wilkins.
At this point in his encomium to the adjutant, sudden recollection brought the Old Man up with a round-turn.
“Wilkins — Wilkins!” he murmured. “Stop a bit, though, Sanders. Isn’t Wilkins the man I’ve been hearing about —chap that Trafford and Gibb both would like to snaffle from Hetherington’s company?”
“That’s the man, sir. Name’s ‘Wilkin,’ though. No‘s’to it, sir.”
“Hah, difficult chap all round, it seems. No ‘s’ to his name—and wasn’t there something about him not wanting promotion?”
The adjutant explained Wilkin at
second-hand from Hetherington, and added a little from his own observation. The Old Man said, thereupon, that Wilkins’s notions were sheer nonsense, dangerous, not to be tolerated, and that he would not have them. What would happen to the battalion if all the good men refused steps in rank, hey?
The adjutant ventured the suspicion that Wilkin had soldiered before. It therefore followed that Wilkin must have understated his age on enlistment. Wilkin was, in fact, a veteran of the pievious war. Very tentatively, moreover, the adjutant hinted that perhaps Major Twining knew something of Wilkin. At all events the new second-in command had been showing an interest in the chap, while avoiding him, that seemed curious in a freshly attached officer. Why pick on Wilkin out of the whole battalion?
“Hah!” said the Old Man. “We must see about this. Won’t be promoted, won’t he? Wilkins without the ‘s,’ is he? I’ll soon Wilkins-without-the-ess him!”
Bluntly questioned, Major Twining, of course, had to reveal what he knew about Wilkin. In a matter involving discipline the colonel would permit no reticence. It did not much relieve Twining’s sense of guilt toward Wilkin that the colonel promised to walk in the affair like Agag.
The colonel certainly did try to move delicately. Before seeing Wilkin, he had a talk with Wilkin’s captain. Hetherington’s view was that Wilkin had offended—if he had offended—with assuredly praiseworthy motives. For the good of the battalion some sort of bulge was wanted on Wilkin, that was true. But if, on the other hand, making use of the bulge seemed the least likely to expose something—well —smelly, Hetherington was against making any use of the bulge at all. Wilkin left alone would be of more use to the battalion than Wilkin made uncomfortable.
“Oh, quite, Hetherington, quite. I appreciate that. But you can trust me to use tact,” said the Old Man. Like the generality who parade the word, he had about as much tact as a cart horse. “But this chap Wilkins—I mean, Wilkin!—has got to come up to scratch. Men capable of leading and instructing aren’t at all as plentiful as blackberries. I’ll talk to the chap like a Dutch uncle. And I’ll see him alone, of course.”
As a first tactful gambit, when Wilkin was left facing him alone over his desk, the Old Man looked up from the papers he was pretending to be absorbed in, and, in his own phrase, “fixed the fellah with his eye.” The regard he encountered was very still, very serene and respectful. The colonel rather liked it. And it is to his credit, maybe, that he still liked it when he was compelled by it to look away first. Seemed to be nothing shifty there, anyhow.
“Hah—yes!” said the colonel. He portentously turned over a paper on his desk, glowered at it, became aware that it obviously was the hugely scrawled letter he’d just received from his youngest daughter, and hastily covered it with a blank Army form. “Wilkins?”
“Wilkin, sir. Eighty-one, seventy-two, sixty-three, Wilkin, H. O.”
“Oh, yes, of course—Wilkin. Well, now, Wilkin, what’s your age, hey? Tell me that.”
“Enlistment age, thirty-five, sir. Actual age, forty-two.”
“Hey?” barked the colonel, not hiding his astonishment. “Well, by George, that’s frank ! You know, I suppose, it’s an offense to give false particulars on enlistment?”
“You know, too, that you could be turned out of the battalion for understating your age?”
“Oh, you do, do you?” said the colonel, now somewhat adrift. “Well, then, what d’you propose to do about it, Wilkin?”
“Respectfully, sir, isn’t that rather up to you?”
“Hey ! Up to me—what?”
“To propose to do something about it, sir.”
rT'HE COLONEL stared, penetratingly, suspecting impertinence. But he could discover in the face and eyes of Wilkin nothing but respect and simple seriousness.
“That’s not the only thing,” he stumbled on. “You declared on enlistment that you had no previous service, whereas— well—whereas you did actually serve in the last war, on active service, too?”
“Yes, sir. But if I might point out, sir, I couldn’t have served in the last war if my present age really was thirty-five.”
In spite of himself, apparently, the Old Man began to do mental arithmetic. Apparently, too, between the pretended and actual ages of Wilkin, he found himself in a tangle.
“I mean, sir,” Wilkin added helpfully, “I couldn’t be a soldier in 1916—not at the age of eleven.”
“No, no, of course not. Quite so, one lie to buttress the other, hey? Well, Wilkins —Wilkin—there’s no use beating about the bush. We might as well have the whole thing out. You not only served in the last war.” said the colonel, “but you served as an officer. You attained the rank of captain.”
“Acting-captain, sir. The actual rank wasn’t confirmed until retirement.”
“Acting-captain at twenty was pretty hot, my boy,” the Old Man said unguardedly. He was very little older than Wilkins, after all. But he snatched again at military brusqueness: “And I understand you won several decorations. What were they?” Without fuss Wilkin enumerated his string, British and foreign, a gaudy show, and added: “ . . . And of course, sir— ‘Squeak’and ‘Wilfred.’ ”
“ ‘Squeak’ and “Wilf—” breathed the Old Man. He just saved himself from looking down at his own chest on which, with that of a Royal occasion, the ribbons of the General Service and Victory medals thus slightingly alluded to made a comparatively meagre display. Being a soldier, he experienced a pang of envy, but being a real one, he let it last no longer than the little heave of his chest that it evoked. He contemplated his desk for a little, then looked up at Wilkin, and he spoke with sudden gentleness, though still bluntly: “You are in no personal trouble, Wilkin, I hope?”
“Thank you, sir, no.”
At that the Old Man came to his feet. Then—he said—he simply did not understand Wilkin at all. He did not consider it a good thing for a soldier not to wear decorations he had honestly earned, and particularly—as he imagined was the case with Wilkin—those that the King had personally invested the man with. He saw, of course, that Wilkin could not wear his ribbons and keep up the pretense of being only thirty-five. One lie led to another. It was a way lying had. And— dammit!—Wilkin had put him into a quandary. He could wink at the lie about Wilkin’s age. Officers reported well of Wilkin, and Wilkin was fit for his duties. But Wilkin couldn’t be permitted not to wear his decorations. At the same time, Wilkin couldn’t sport the M.C. without exposing the fact that he had once held a commission.
“And that, let me tell you, Wilkin,” said the colonel, “can be a very embarrassing thing, not only for yourself, but for your comrades in the ranks.”
But for one thing—the Old Man went on—in spite of the good reports he’d had of Wilkin, he wouldn’t have tolerated the situation for a moment. The one thing was the Chesterton thing Wilkin had got the men into doing with him. He liked the thing itself. It was manly, it was English, it was a thousand times better for the men than this—this “swing” and crooner piffle they were so fond of. And then the fact that Wilkin had got the men into doing it with him showed—it showed that the men thought a deal of Wilkin. Liked him, in fact.
“And—well—what on earth,” the colonel exploded off at a tangent, “what the devil made you, with your fine record, join up in the ranks?”
“I wanted to get into the show as quickly as I could, sir,” Wilkin said meekly.
“But, heavens, man!—having stopped out for a year, surely you could have had the patience to wait a bit longer for a commission?”
“It’s hard to explain, sir. I’d have come in at the beginning if I'd thought I'd be any good. And, no, that’s not quite true. Since the last show I had built up a tidy business. I was handling stuff the country needed, edible fats. But gradually the supplies I was allowed to handle got smaller and smaller. Control, you know, sir. I’ve no grouch about that. Distribution's easier, quicker. Then I saw that I wasn’t doing any good. Hanging onto what I hadn’t got, and didn’t need, anyhow. And—well, sir—something happened that started me to think. The Jerries were doing things to England. I wanted to kill a few of them. Myself. Not through anybody else. So I joined up. Sorry, sir, to make such a long song about it. ”
“But I still don’t understand you, Wilkin. If you’re physically fit to be in the ranks of this battalion, you’re certainly fit to be a combatant officer.”
“One would think so, sir, thinking ord'narly. But you know how things are worked. I was afraid they’d stick me in an office. After twenty-odd years of civilian life and at forty-two, one’s a dug-out. And in a sense it’s true. It isn’t just that I’m a back-number because warfare’s miles more technical than in my time. There’s more in it than that. If I’d been really fit for a commission, or fit to lead men at all. I'd have stuck in the Territorials after the last war. But I was too keen to pick up some business and start off on my own. I did start off on my own, and I did well. It was interesting, too. But I let it become the most important thing there was. Like a lot of others, people that ought to have known better—whose business it was to know better—I shut my eyes to the trouble that was brewing up. And like those others, I’m to blame for this war.
“It’s this way, sir: I was so dashed
interested in building up a bank account and tending it,” said Wilkin, “that I forgot—I forgot what England means.”
THAT H. O. Wilkin ultimately became “Sergeant Wilkin” was the result of compromise. Because the Jerries were doing things to England, he wanted to kill a bunch of them. But because he had wakened up so tardily to the need for killing them, and because he wanted to kill them himself, and not vicariously, he wanted to stop in the ranks. And he wanted to stop in the battalion.
The colonel felt that Wilkin was wasted in the ranks. He felt this even more later on when he had Wilkin’s record looked up in the Brigade annals. But he was not certain, if he insisted on Wilkin applying for a commission, that he would be able to get him attached to the battalion. This was a point which Wilkin himself put forward. And rather putting the good of the battalion before the good of the Brigade, or of the Army in general, the colonel wanted Wilkin in the battalion. Secretly, and perhaps nebulously, the colonel wanted the Chesterton gag kept up. It would have been rather difficult of course for Wilkin to keep the gag up as an officer. It was just possible that he could keep it going as a corporal. And then, the colonel felt, there was a kind of earnestness about the chap, as if this being in the ranks was a sort of crusade with him, or a kind of expiation, that forcing him would be ungenerous.
“Dash it all !” the Old Man said later to his adjutant and Hetherington—and that he saw need for explanation may indicate how sadly he was bewildered. “The chap has some right to know what he wants, and I can’t interfere with what’s really a matter of conscience. Of course, if the man wasn’t so obviously the clean potato, that’d be a different matter. And I don’t believe any harm is done. The chap’s too steady. We can afford to wait. I’ve a
notion Wilkin will pick up all he wants to pick up of what’s new from where he is.”
“If you and Sanders think it right, sir.” said Hetherington, “I'd rather like to do a bit of shuffling so that Wilkin can have two stripes straightaway. There isn’t much fun in being a lance-corporal.”
“Hum—well, if it can be done without treading on any toes,” the colonel conceded doubtfully. “I’m not going to have the battalion upset, mind that—not for twenty Wilkins!”
And so the tailor stitched on Wilkin’s two stripes with the same needle that he used for affixing Wilkin’s medal ribbons.
Company C accepted the elevation and beribboning of Wilkin with comparative calm. It said it had always known there was something about Old Howie. Romantic rumors travelled round the battalion for a time, then died out. But the chorus for the Chesterton gag had additional support with each concert. Wilkin’s stunt became, in fact, the standard piece in the battalion’s entertainment repertoire. It was regarded as a distinguishing feature of the Second Fifth K.L.R.’s. The only mob that went in for spoken poetry in chorus !
The man most pleased with the compromise was the commander of Company C. It dawned on Hetherington that by it he had acquired an extra subaltern as well as a fine N.C.O. He had a man who could lead a bombing party or direct a Bren-gun team with equal certainty, but who shone even more in handling a bayonet squad and imbuing it with an awesome ferocity.
Hetherington watched his new non-com covertly but closely. It would be hardly human, he thought, for the chap not to put on airs now that his record had not to be concealed, or for him not to slip up somehow. But the modest common sense in Wilkin which made contact with his erstwhile junior, Major Twining, so comfortable for both men, kept him out of trouble with either the ranks or the junior officers, and ultimately—strictest test of all—in the sergeants’ mess. Wilkin won and held respect for that simple attribute which, according to Holy Writ, will let a man stand before kings: he was faithful in his business. And then, Hetherington chuckled, the chap worked as hard to remain non-commissioned as he could have done had he wanted to be a field-marshal.
The history of Henry Oldfield Wilkin now reaches a point of difficulty. Because against full revelation of the circumstances in which Sergeant H. O. Wilkin displayed such a combination of resource, chill ferocity, and courage in the face of the enemy, there is raised the knuckly and forbidding finger of the British Censor.
Let it be said, then, in a mere whisper, that it was in one of those still secret excursions which, exploring the enemy strength, are pieliminary to the grandscale operations whereby, it is hoped, the Nazi swarms will be swept out of Western Europe. It is a pity, maybe, that so much of vivid and colorable detail must be cast into the discard. To tell of the dark voyage, of the lap-lapping of black water against the vessels creeping secretly up to the dunes, of the sudden inferno of sheeting white flame and deafening metallic clangor that sheared the murk and silence of the night as Navy and Air Force let loose a deluge of bomb and shell on enemy gun emplacement and troop concentration; to speak of the aluminum flaies making broad day about the targets as bank upon bank of light bombers dived vertiginous, what time the fighters, darting wasplike high above them, riddled and harried their Nazi oposites; that indeed would be to work up a curtain of heightened drama for a pedestrian tale.
But this, to be sure, is the story of one man. an unassuming and even dull sort of fellow, whose restricted view of a quite epic affair was that it provided—strictly within the tactical scheme, of coursea nice chance for wiping out a lot of the “interfering baskets” who sought to straighten out the rambling roads and ways of England.
For this reason there is no real need to risk the blanks of censorship in these pages by being too explicit. The methods whereby beach entanglements were so speedily dealt with in the affray may remain, as they are, an exasperating puzzle to the Nazi command. You are to take it for granted that picked companies of the Rifle Brigade, penetrating swiftly and deep i to the enemy positions north of the port attacked, as far as their main force is concerned, got into a happy posture for dealing death and destruction when the devastating pressure on the enemy centre brought about the anticipated retirement. The concern here is to follow the fortunes of Sergeant H. O. Wilkin.
TT WAS the luck of his company, under -*• Captain Hetherington, to be placed on the left of the Rifles, attack. Company C’s paiticular task was to create and hold such a bulge as would provide a relatively unhampered retreat for the main force when the moment came.
The coast line on which the Rifles made their landing ran roughly northward from the harbor. If it can be conceived that the area cleared and held by the Rifles took the shape of a bent leg cut square across the thigh, the line of severance—running west-to-east—would mark the position of the main force. The position followed the run of some sandy hummocks to some distance landward of the port’s easterly outskirts, and then turned on a northrunning line along another sandy ridge much of the same irregular kind. If it be conceived, further, that this north-running line formed the outward swell of the thigh, and that the leg bent so that the calf came into the sea through the beach-gap, Company C can be pictured as holding the curve of the knee and the upper shin. Close air-reconnaissance and intelligence from other sources had provided the penetrating troops with a fairly accurate idea of the defensive .strong-points here to be mastered. In a perhaps not blameworthy reliance on the impenetrability of their beach entanglements, these strongpoints to the north of the town were but lightly held by the enemy, and in general the Rifles had little difficulty in taking them.
It happened, however, that just, where Wilkin ultimately had to function there was trouble. This was caused by the existence of a strong-point outside the curve of Company C’s objective disposition. It lay opposite to where, in the imagined knee, the top of the patella would have been. Now, although the existence of this little fortress was known, it had been reported as lying much nearer the line of the objective curve than it did in actual fact, and complete details of its construction and strength were lacking. Its interference with the movements of the landing party that were carried out in the dark was merely tentative, suspicious. It made its presence felt, in fact, too late to hinder the rapid swing of the main body toward the north and back of the town. But it quickly became obvious that there would be another story to tell once the Rifles were in retirement to the shore, for that would have to be done most likely in the full glare of enemy flares.
The arrival of Wilkin’s platoon opposite the strong-point coincided with the crash and blaze which announced the bombardment of the port proper. At that moment, it had been reckoned, the platoon should have been in a position to surprise the point, but through the miscalculation or misinformation as to the strong-point’s actual placing, Wilkin and his officers were still seeking a means for tackling it efficiently when the lights went up.
Luckily, the men were safely in cover and awaiting orders among the tussocks of the dunes, but it evilly chanced that both Captain Hetherington and his subaltern, Lumsden, had taken up a half-kneeling posture at the end of a small valley unseen in the dunes. This exposed them to fire from the strong-point. And no sooner did the blaze begin than a burst from a
machine gun poured through the gap and knocked both officers over.
“Oh, the devil!” gasped Hetherington. “ ‘Shot like a rabbit in a ride !’ But not the ‘crammer’s pride’—just plain fool.”
Wilkin was already dragging the subaltern into cover. He peered into the boy’s face, and turned to Hetherington. “Not badly hurt, I hope, sir?”
“ ‘Mor-tew-ally, I fear,’ ’’quoted Hetherington. But Wilkin quite missed the plucky humor intended in the old gag. He did not know he had given the cue.
“No, no—!” said he.
“Well, maybe not. In the groin, anyhow,” Hetherington grinned. He attempted to rise. “No. Can’t be done. I’m out of it, Wilkin,” he confessed. “Lumsden?”
“Gone west, I’m afraid, sir.”
“Poor young fellow—a good boy, Wilkin. God rest him! Well, Sergeant Wilkin,” said Hetherington, “it looks as if it’s now entirely up to you. Somebody’s made a blooming error.”
He listened intently for a moment or two to the machine guns that were hailing bullets over the heads of the party.
“That post needs artillery attention. It’s much stronger than was thought,” he went on. “I don’t think I need outline the situation to you, Wilkin.”
“We have to think of the battalion getting back.”
“Yes, sir. I know. Leave it to me. I’ll do all I can.”
Bidding the men lie close to earth, he got on a knee, cautiously, and looked about him. He called a man to give first-aid to the captain, then went off at a rapid crawl to the left. In a little he was back again, and went scouting once more, but to the right. This time he was longer away. When he got back, he called the platoon corporal and issued orders so that both the men and Hetherington could hear them.
Corporal Jewkes was to take the Bren guns and most of the men up to the right of the strong-point.
Wilkin himself was taking a smaller party out to the left, and would try to capture the post from that side. Jewkes was to watch for air bursts of two bombs which Wilkin would try to secure over the strong-point. If Jewkes saw the bursts, he was to hold the fire from his Brens. He was to allow Wilkin and party twelve minutes. If after that time Jewkes saw reason to believe that Wilkin and party had failed, he was to try and capture the post with his party, using a concentration of Bren-gun fire to cover the advance of a bombing party.
“You get the idea, Jewkes. You see what damage this strong-point can do to the battalion as it retires. If everything else fails, you’ll do your best to keep the strong-post gunners down with enfilade fire. Understood?”
“Yes, sir—I mean, sergeant.”
“That’s the boy! Now, listen again. Detail two men to stand by Captain Hetherington; he must be got back to the boats. They’re to wait before moving him until the battalion is actually retiring. Mr. Lumsden, I’m sorry to say, is done for. You can do nothing for him, and nobody must attempt it. As a soldier he wouldn’t want any man risked for him now.
“Now, I want four men to come with me. Make it five. I’m not asking for volunteers, savvy?” he said to the men. “I want the men I want. Plunkett?” “Betcherlife, sarge!” “Hilyard-Crumley-Bostock-Hodge?” “Right, sergeant—Okay, sarge—Sure thing—Me, too!”
“Good !” said Wilkin. “Let me have an apron of bombs, Lenthall. Got yours, Plunkett?”
“All fixed and ready, sarge.”
“Then, let’s go, boys! Tuck in your tupennies and keep low. Remember all you’ve been taught about taking covei.” “Luck, Wilkin!” Hetherington managed faintly.
“Thank’ee, sir, and good luck to you.
I’ve a notion we’ll be coming back for you fairly soon.”
V\ 71LKIN now had a fair conception of the strong-point’s setting. He knew it was dug and built about a sleepered hut rather sunk in a hollow of the dunes, though generally on a higher level than the ground he was leaving. To the left, however, there was nothing of a continuously held line that the Rifles there had been able to contact. The first defense on the left was a smaller post some distance away and more toward the shore, but this the Rifles had already surprised. So far, moreover, there was no indication that the enemy was sending reinforcements to occupy such a line. What defenses there were seemed to be much farther inland, probably strong enough, but they were exhibiting surprisingly little activity. It seemed that for the moment the Germans had their hands full with the stuff that was raining on them in the town and harbor.
It was extremely unlikely, nevertheless, that they had so badly forgotten their soldiering as to leave the position on their right flank as it was for long. Wilkin only hoped there might be time enough to deal with this strong-point before the Jerries tumbled to the fact that the northern landing party was generally content with its gains, and had no intention of courting annihilation in testing the defensive depths. One thing was certain. There was bound to be an entrance to the post on the landward side. And that, he reckoned, was the place to aim for. The post, he had discovered, was well wired in rather nrore than a semicircle some distance out from it. He hoped that getting behind the post would not entail too wide and too difficult a circuit, otherwise Corporal Jewkes would be getting his Brens into action before the promised air bursts could be shown over the post.
Quickly but cautiously, Wilkin led his party well out to the left. He made contact with Rifles there, and warned them of what was toward. Then he struck inland and began circling in behind the post.
It presently became evident how skilfully the locus of the general incursion had been chosen, and how completely the enemy had been surprised. Certainly the nature of the country inland was not favorable for any utilization of the port as an invasion bridgehead, but it was not so unfavorable as to excuse the sketchiness of the Nazis defenses. For, though not without the exercise of some skill and judgment, Wilkin brought his party to the rear of the post without serious obstacle, or interference that he could not dodge. In fact, the changed sound of the machine-gun bursts from the post was informing him that he was right in its rear, just as he came upon the timbered ramp that led down to it.
“Down along this, sarge?” whispered the platoon bruiser.
“Lord, no! Along the outside of the heaped sand either side. You and Hilyard and Crumley take the far bank. Creep up to fair bombing distance of the gun emplacements, but keep well down and doggo until you see my two bursts. Then empty your apron at them, Plunkett. When I give you the yell—over and into them with the sword, all six of us. Got it?”
“Good. Let’s go!”
Either Jewkes had been overeager, or else the circuit had taken longer than Wilkin calculated, because out to the left of the post on his new facing the Brens began to stutter even as he bowled the first of his bombs into the air. A lovely burst, but not quite satisfactory to Wilkin. He drew the pin of the second bomb, let the lever fly, then counted cool seconds to the absolute point of danger before he threw. This was the technique he had learned from a bowlegged Scots corporal of the old B. E. F., who swore that no bomb was any good which was thrown before it “ettled to swell.” A much better burst. The apprehension he felt that the overeager Jewkes might have got his men on the other side was partly allayed by the shower of bombs that now began to fall with his into the strong-point. Plunkett at least was alive and active. Hell crashed and streaked in the post.
Wilkin came to his feet, bayoneted rifle in liis hands.
‘The sword, lads!” he yelled in a voice such as his men had never heard from him, even, at the utmost distance of the parade ground. “Let the baskets have it—cold !” Over the top he straddled and slithered, his two men after him. He saw Plunkett make a clean jump over the farther bank, half-parapet, into the pit, the two other men tumbling after, and as he envied the wild Irishman that leap, he found an instant to be thankful that none of the far trio had taken hurt. His own lot to one side of the sunken hut, Plunkett’s to the other, they swept round to the seaward face of the post. The bombs had played the devil with the defenders, for the Rifles stumbled among huddled forms as they ran, but in the still-concontinuing light of the bombardment flares it could be seen that a couple of the Germans were trying to bring a machine gun face about.
“ ‘St. George he was for ENG-land!’ ” muttered Wilkin as his bayonet sank home. He saw Plunkett step high on a dark heap on the pit floor, his rifle above his head, and stab down over something the second gunner tried to raise as a shield. Then some instinct warned him to wheel about. Men were pouring round from the back of the central hut.
“Back the way you came, Plunkett!” He saw one of his own two men crumple under a revolver shot, and the other unthinkingly move to support his mate.
“Leave him, Bostock!” Wilkin ordered sharply. “Look to yourself—into them, boy!”
Bayonet low, he shouldered past the two, sensed resistance in front of him, and stabbed. The bayonet grated on bone. Streaking of flame before him at waist level, the blasting of a Tommy gun, a searing along the skin of his left side. He threw himself flat-backed against the hut wall, and stabbed one-handed crosswise beyond the flame streaks. They went out, and weight threw his bayonet-point down. He withdrew it with a twist. Two-handed again, stab and stab at what on that dark side of the hut were only shadows, but at each thrust an impact. Coolly, mercilessly, what time his muttered recitative went on, he thrust—never too deep to hinder quick recovery. Then there were no more shadows. Only, farther along the alleyway, the gleam of a half-dulled bayonet beyond the low huddle of writhing men, and the flat shape of a British steel helmet.
“Pax, Plunkett—it’s Wilkin!”
“Oh, bhoy—oh, bhoy! An’ the ize av ye, too. Niver a ruddy wan left for ould Plunk’, avin at the back of thim! The fightin’ wee smout that ye are!”
“That’ll do, Plunkett! Your two men all right?”
“Okay. Nothin’ to stop us that side, hardly. They all came your road.”
“Hodge is down. Leave Crumley with me. Take Hilyard and work out beyond the wire that side you were on, down to where the others are. Mark the easiest way against the time we have to clear out, and for getting Jewkes and the rest of the men up here. Give Corporal Jewkes that word: he is to bring the Brens and all the men up here—all but the two looking after Captain Hetherington. They’re still to stand by to take the company commander down to the boats. Hurry! I want the defense of this post swung about against attack from the rear. It may mean the safety of the battalion, so jump to it, Plunk! Got it?”
“Right, sarge! I’ve got it!”
CAPTAIN HETHERINGTON could move around sooner than could Sergeant H. O. Wilkin. For, apart from that puncture in his left side, the shell that
so nearly drowned Company C in its barge, after the Rifles had got safely off shore, had unshipped a steel cleat and driven it into Wilkin’s thigh, damaging the bone. Hetherington came to see Wilkin in hospital and found him with a visitor— Wilkin’s sister, Marian.
“It must have been epic, Wilkin, simply j epic,” said Hetherington, when introduc! tions had been made. “Rifleman Plunkett j has lapsed into his native brogue about j it, revealing the true descriptive gift. You now have your own private Celtic bard. His saga of your sword work is wonderful j and lurid, full of strange words and oaths. I ‘The bloody-handed, wee, fightin’ smout j that he is!’ says he—saving your presence, Mrs. Beverley.”
“Plunkett needn’t put up any song-anddance about me,” said Wilkin, with an uneasy glance at his smiling sister. “He did a first-class job himself, as did the other boys. I hope they’re looking after him, sir.”
“Hetherington to you, Wilkin. It only anticipates things a little, for you’ve fought yourself out of the ranks for good. You’ll be commissioned again before that leg mends, I’m certain. And surely to goodness you’ve had all the sword work you’ll ever want. Oh, yes. Plunkett’s all right. I should have said, Lance-corporal Plunkett. And I think he’s good for what he calls a ‘gong’—the Military Medal. But I do think the Distinguished Conduct Medal is a trifle meagre for your job of work. You saved the battalion from a certain bad gruelling.”
“Rub of the game,” said Wilkin. “If it hadn’t been for that unlucky machine-gun burst, it’d’ve been up to you.”
“ ‘To him that hath—’ ” he said. “Fate probably dazzled by the existing rainbow on your chest. I hope I may do as well when my turn does come. Gunga Din.”
It was lunchtime in the hospital, and a nurse approached with Wilkin’s tray.
“Good lord!” breathed Wilkin, when he saw what was displayed on it. “Where on earth did these come from?”
“Mrs. Beverley brought them in,” said the nurse. “Let me sort your pillows, sergeant, so that you can enjoy them properly. There!”
“Terribly good of you, Em,” murmured Wilkin. “You must have gone to a lot of trouble.”
“No bother at all, How,” said his sister.
“I remembered how much you liked them, that’s all.”
“I wish I’d thought of it. They’re so English, somehow. Singularly appropriate for this particular hero,” grinned Hetherington. “Native, if you remember your Sam Weller, Mrs. Beverley.”
“But this is marvellous—marvellous,” said Wilkin.
Something strange was happening to his face, something that made Hetherington and his sister simply stare. For Wilkin actually was grinning.
“ ’S rich—rich!” he chuckled. “Me in bed and—and believing they simply couldn’t be got these days—”
He looked up from the tray and caught his visitors exchanging a glance that was all bewilderment.
“What do you think it was, Marian— Hetherington—that made me go to war with the Jerries, that decided me to enlist?”
“I’d give a good deal to know,” said Marian.
“Oh, ‘St. George he was for England, and all that England means,’ ” ventured Hetherington. “The Jerries were doing ¡ things to W’ilkin’s England, and Wilkin | simply had to kill a bunch of them.”
“That came later. A sort of gradual lealization. What first made me mad with those interfering baskets—made me see how they were interfering with England —was the fact that one day at lunch I couldn’t get any oysters. And, mind you,” said Wilkin seriously, “the ‘R’ had just got back into the month !”