The Way to Tipperary
The Way to Tipperary
Illustrations by H. J. Mowat
IT had been a warm corner and was growing warmer, for the German shells came more quickly than ever as their infantry advance began. The stretcher-bearers had just cleared the trench of wounded; but it was still no place in which to be spending a blazing August afternoon. On the still air the malodorous, choking fumes of high explosives hung heavily; from the pools of blood drying in the sun-blaze rose a smell beyond words acrid; and clouds of flies worried the sweltering platoon.
At the left-hand corner of the trench Private George Taylor was complaining bitterly that the cup of tea they had been promised at four o'clock had not come; and it was now 4:50. He had, indeed, complained bitterly all the afternoon. At 1:45 he had complained bitterly, for five and twenty minutes, of indigestion. At 2:20 a fragment of shell tore half of the heel from his left boot; and for a quarter of an hour he had complained bitterly that the German gunner was out of sight. At 2:40 he had complained bitterly for ten minutes that the Gordons on their left had a nice shady wood to fight from, dwelling at length on the gross favoritism with which the Scotch regiments were treated. From 2:55 to 3:30 he had for the while lost interest in the world-conspiracy against him, and had slept peacefully.
At 3:30 he had awakened to complain bitterly that while he slept some one had scoffed the last half-cigarette he possessed from the left-hand pocket of his tunic. He was still complaining of this when, at 4:05, he found the half-cigarette in question in the right-hand pocket of his tunic, and till 4:30 he complained bitterly of his failing memory, owing to repeated nerve-shocks from Prussian shells. At 4:35 he complained bitterly of Captain Carter's refusal to let him crawl out of the trench and bring in some apples from the row of apple-trees on its left, which was being shelled more heavily than the trench itself.
But it must not be supposed that the flow of his complaint was continuous; he paused now and again for as long as two minutes at a time. Also it is only fair to George Taylor to say that no one took any notice of it except his chum, Joe Harris, who said stolidly perhaps as often as three times in the hour, "You brought it on yourself, George; an' well you know it."
Beyond Joe Harris, who was sleeping again, every two or three minutes Captain Carter raised his head to his loophole, and swept the ground in front of them with his glasses. He had not been popular with the men before the war. He drawled a little and was supercilious, with a gift of sarcasm very trying to those who may not answer back. But now they were very well content with him. He was shepherding and nursing them almost with a mother's care that he might bring them into action fit. He got them their share and more than their share of any food that was to be had; he saw to it that they had about a third more sleep than any other platoon in the battalion; and, above all, when they were in action, they felt themselves led.
Beyond Captain Carter two sleeping men snored peacefully; beyond them three men were playing nap; then came a corporal writing a letter, two more sleepers, a man reading, a little group yarning, and so on to the end of the trench.
For all his grouchiness, George Taylor did not miss much; and he saw Captain Carter's back stiffen, and that he kept his glasses fixed on a point on their right front. Then with a faint sigh of content he said:
"You can stop your everlasting 'grousing' for a bit, Taylor, and get ready to let your rifle do a little of the talking. They 're coming."
A ripple ran down the trench. The sleepers were awakened; the card-players put away their cards, the reader his book, the corporal his letter. They took their rifles, ready to thrust them through the loopholes.
"Ha! I know that tea 'll come when I 'm too busy to attend to it; and it 'll be stone-cold before I 've done," said George Taylor, with extraordinary bitterness. But he took up his rifle gently and ran a fond eye over it.
"Don't you worry about that tea, Taylor; the motors got away an hour and a half ago," said Captain Carter, who, as usual, had missed nothing.
George Taylor groaned. Captain Carter watched the advancing enemy through unmoving glasses. Then briskly he bade the picked marksmen sight their rifles for a thousand yards, the rest of the platoon for six hundred.
The men kept peeping through their loopholes despite his sharp orders to them to keep their heads down. The line of approaching infantry was not more than a mile away.
Presently George Taylor said in a persuasive tone:
"I 'm sure I could get a few from fifteen hundred down, sir."
"You won't—not in this glare," said Captain Carter, firmly.
George Taylor mumbled to himself a bitter complaint about never being appreciated at his true worth. Then he complained bitterly that the smoke was blurring the advancing line so that he would not be able to distinguish the officers and get one at every shot. Then looking round to see if the Gordons were yet engaged, he saw the girl.
As his eyes fell on her, she stood under the last apple-tree of the row, reaching up to pluck an apple; the sunlight, falling through the shrapnel-stripped boughs, lighted up clearly her brown hair and eyes and cheeks and very red lips; and in his surprise and consternation the picture stamped itself on George Taylor's brain as if bitten into it with an acid.
"Oh, Lord!" he almost yelped; and then he yelled ferociously: "Come out of it! Come out of it!"
The girl was already coming out of it. Indeed, she had only snatched at the apple as she came swiftly along the row of trees, and before the sound of his voice had died on the heavy air, she had slipped down into the trench beside him, and bitten into the apple with very white teeth.
George Taylor gazed at her with a ferocious eye and, breathing quickly, mopped the sweat-beads from his brow.
"You 've no business here, you know," he said thickly.
She shook her head, smiling at him, and, tapping her chest, said:
"Française—je suis Française."
"You 've—no—business—here," said George Taylor, raising his voice that she might understand him.
"Don't be so effusive to lady visitors, Taylor. You 'll lay yourself open to misapprehension," drawled Captain Carter over his shoulder; and he said a few words in French to the girl.
She answered him eagerly and quickly. He put the glasses to his eyes again, and, surveying the advancing infantry, drawled:
"She 's on her way to her uncle at Arras, and she appears to have decided to go with us."
George Taylor regarded her darkly and said bitterly:
"Nurses, that 's what we are—nurses. All we want is perambulators. I don't think!"
She smiled at him an engaging smile of childlike appeal, and he saw that she was munching her apple very hungrily. From a hole in the side of the trench on his left he drew a thick sandwich of bully beef that he had reserved to eat with the tea which never came.
"Oh, merci bien, monsieur!" she said with eager thankfulness, and again she smiled at him.
"Get ready!" said Captain Carter.
George Taylor put the barrel of his rifle through the loophole, and his keen eye ran along the advancing line, trying to pick out an officer. He found, or thought he found one, and watched him, waiting.
"A thousand! Get busy! And mark your men," said Captain Carter.
George Taylor got busy. He shot the German he believed to be an officer, and went on shooting without any hurry, aiming deliberately, and firing about every twenty seconds. Now and again he heaved a sigh of content, the sigh of a man thoroughly enjoying himself.
Captain Carter kept calling the range, and at about eight hundred yards the Germans began to fire volleys. Thousands of harmless bullets sang over the British trenches. Above the German line the shells from a couple of British batteries were bursting with admirable precision. Whenever one burst, there was a gap in it for half a minute. Sometimes a shell tore a lane through it before bursting. Not a shell seemed to be wasted. Scores of bodies strewed the fields for two hundred yards behind it.
Along the trench the inferior marksmen were fidgeting. They kept looking at Captain Carter with pleading, almost piteous, eyes; and some one at the other end of the trench was saying in tones of veritably poignant pathos:
"I could n't miss them if I tried. No; that I could n't."
"Now—now—now—keep quiet—keep quiet! You 'll be giving them a bellyful in about three minutes. Seven hundred!" said Captain Carter.
The German line still moved briskly forward under the impulsion of its officers just behind it, and still in far too close formation; about a hundred and fifty yards behind it a second line of equal strength advanced yet more briskly. The British artillery leaving the first line to the rifle-fire, began to shell the second with the same admirable precision.
"Now, ready, you others! Mark your men!" snapped Captain Carter; and then: "Six hundred! Give the beggars a clip!"
As if at a concerted signal the volley rang out all along the British trenches. Before the gust of lead the German line did not waver; it waggled. Men went down in scores, in hundreds. Then, shoved or driven, it came on again, firing wildly from the hip. A little more thinning, and it would be in proper open order.
George Taylor was still shooting quietly, humming quietly to himself with great satisfaction. He could pick out the officers with the greatest ease now, and he was picking them out.
The German line came on, the machine-guns and rifles tearing it. The second line, stumbling over the piles of the fallen, but so far only torn by the shells of the field-guns, was catching up the first quickly.
They were barely three hundred yards away when Captain Carter said in an uncommonly cheerful tone, "Fix bayonets!"
The clash, faint in the din of the firing, ran along the trenches.
George Taylor fixed his bayonet, and looked down at the girl. She was just finishing the sandwich.
He bent down, touched her shoulder, and said in her ear loudly and distinctly:
"I 'm—just—going— away—for—a little while. You stay here. Stay—here—till—I—come—back."
She smiled at him amiably. Captain Carter repeated the injunction in his serviceable French, and she nodded and smiled again.
George Taylor, with a sigh of relief, turned to his loophole and looked out for another German officer. He found one.
"Charge!" cried Captain Carter.
George Taylor came out of the trench in a scrambling jump, and rushed for the gray line. It was not above a hundred and fifty yards away, and he sprinted for it, yelling. He had just time to observe the grayness of the strained faces, and then he was observing the curious wobbling of the backs of the Germans as they ran. Every one round him was yelling, and he yelled and sprinted after a tall, long-legged German officer who was getting away at a very good pace. George Taylor had suddenly set his heart on having his helmet. The German was outpaced, and furthermore was jostled by his own men as they fled. George Taylor caught him inside of sixty yards, balanced himself, and drove his bayonet into his back, crying exultantly:
"Pass that on to William!"
He jerked his bayonet free from the falling man, turned sharply, and drove it into a flying private he had outstripped, just as a fragment of shell from a German gun, impartially shelling friend and foe, ripped away the tunic, the shirt, and a fragment of skin from his shoulder. He danced up and down, then stopped short, and cried with extraordinary bitterness:
"Gawd! Am I the only man in the 'ole British army these blighters can hit?"
He felt the wound, and found it only skin-deep. With a grunt of relief, he ran on. The flying Germans had run into their reserves, who had stood firm, and he ran into the jam. He could not use his bayonet; he could only shove, cursing furiously. Then a man on his left shouted, "Arsenal! Arsenal!" and they all shouted, "Arsenal! Arsenal!" and it seemed to give them the extra force to get through, George Taylor came through with half a dozen other men; and once through, they had room to use their bayonets, and began to dig their way back with them. They were still shouting, "Arsenal! Arsenal!" when they came out on the other side, the officers were blowing their whistles, and shouting to them to get back to the trenches.
George Taylor looked for the row of apple-trees, and found that he had been carried about fifty yards to the right of it. He fell back in a slanting course, therefore, firing as he went, and as he passed the officer he had bayoneted, he picked up his helmet and jammed it on to his head. He found himself in the company of Captain Carter, who was walking slowly back to the trenches with a calm and dignified air, reloading his revolver as he went. There was a pleasant light in his eyes, and the blade of his sword, hanging from his wrist, was dripping.
In his satisfaction he unbent so far as to say:
"Crowded hours of glorious life, Taylor. What?"
"You may well say so, sir," said George Taylor, with unusual cheerfulness; and he turned and fired into the swaying German line, which neither advanced nor retreated.
The shells were now bursting over them from a dozen batteries; but George Taylor was chiefly annoyed by the fact that he had only half a heel on his left boot. Twice he dropped down by a dead man and transferred the unused clips from his cartridge-belt to his own, which was feeling uncommonly light.
When he came to the edge of the trench he was pleased to see that the girl had followed his instructions and stayed where she was. He dropped down beside her with a smile on his sweaty, black, and bloody face; and she smiled amiably at him.
The order came to fall back; Captain Carter bade them get what was left of their kits and come on. George Taylor fastened the German officer's helmet to his knapsack, slung it on his back, surveyed the unpleasant-looking six hundred yards of bare stubble which lay between them and the wooded road down which their way lay, drew the girl gently to her feet, and with incredible bitterness said to the world in general:
"Ha! Off to England again!" The shrapnel was bursting freely about them; overhead was the long-drawn whine of thousands of bullets, for the German infantry had recovered enough to be wasting its ammunition furiously. He took the girl's hand and said loudly: "Run! Run!"
She understood his tugging hand, and they ran hard for a good forty yards. He stopped, dropped, and dragged her down with him. She laughed a little breathless laugh, and pulled her skirt down to her ankles. He saw that her big brown eyes were shining brightly, and he said very bitterly:
"Yes, it 's all very well; but you 've no business here, and well you know it."
Then he fired three careful shots at the German infantry, now advancing again. From it there came the sudden harsh rattle of machine-guns, and he swore softly. They could hit with those. His eyes ran along the line till he found them. He fired five careful shots at the gunners, and apparently most of the English line who had dropped to fire did the same, for before the gust of lead the German line about those guns thinned till there was a clear gap in it, and the harsh rattle died down to a mere splutter.
He dragged up the girl and ran on—ran till he was fairly dragging her along, panting breathlessly. Then he dropped again.
"Seven hundred!" cried the clear voice of Captain Carter on his left, without a suspicion of a drawl in it. "And keep those damned machine-guns quiet!"
George Taylor did his best to keep them quiet, and he was well seconded; they were quiet.
For a good five minutes he lay firing carefully, waiting for the girl to recover her breath. The rest of the line had gone back another fifty yards. From that distance Captain Carter was inquiring loudly, but querulously, whether George Taylor purposed to spend the night in that stubble-field. At last the girl was breathing easily; he took her hand, and they ran again. The line beyond them blazed away in hope to cover them. When they reached it, Joe Harris sprang up, as he had been bidden, from beside Captain Carter, caught the girl's other hand, and helped to pull her along. She giggled.
"That 's it! Larf! Larf!" said George Taylor, with veritably furious bitterness.
They were within a hundred and fifty yards of the road when they dropped again, the girl gasping, but still smiling. George Taylor and Joe Harris got to work again, sighting for nine hundred yards. The line came slowly back to them, running, dropping, firing, running. The shells were bursting short of it.
"Nine hundred!" cried Captain Carter. "Now get her into the road."
George Taylor and Joe Harris got her into the road. She sat down and panted at the foot of the bank; they did some careful shooting over the top of it, A dozen wounded men, helped along by whole comrades, came stumbling over it. Then came the rest of the platoon; and on the instant Captain Carter formed them up and sent them at the quick march down the road.
George Taylor, Joe Harris, and the girl led the way.
"The pleasantest afternoon I ever had—spoilt!" said George Taylor, in a bitter wail. "I like retiring to England under machine-gun fire-I like it,"—he looked round ferociously for some one to contradict him,—"but when it comes to escorting ladies under it, I don't. And that 's a fact,"
He looked round ferociously again, but slipped his arm gently through the girl's to help her along.
"You brought it on yourself, George; an' well you know it," said Joe Harris.
"Brought it on myself, parrot! What the hell are you talking about?" howled his suddenly indignant friend.
"You 'groused' till you got the best place in the trench to pot Germans from; an' it serves you right," said Joe Harris.
Honest indignation held George Taylor speechless; and they came down on to the rear of a company of Northamptons just formed up.
"Brought your missis with you, I see," said a man in the rear rank in the friendly tone of one setting out to make a new acquaintance.
George Taylor, for all his boiling indignation, took it as it was meant, and answered in a confidential tone of extraordinary bitterness:
"It 's always the way. You never can get a little quiet fun nowadays without the women chippin' in an' spoilin' everything."
"You may well say so," said the Northampton in a tone of genuine sympathy. "It 's them suffragettes."
"Get on there! Get on!" cried Captain Carter from the rear.
"Get on, hell!" said the Captain of the Northamptons in a tone of acrid protest. "Quick march!"
The Northamptons stepped out, and the platoon swung along after them.
"It 's the strain on the nerves; and she does n't speak a word of English, if you understand me," said George Taylor to the Northampton.
"You must be fair fed up," said the Northampton, over his shoulder, sympathetically.
Then away down the line of the Northamptons half a dozen voices began, "It 's a long way to Tip-per-ar-y."
Forthwith the two companies took up the tune as one man, and from them it went roaring up and down the whole length of the column. They were still full of the exaltation of the fight, and it was their song of triumph. The girl brightened to the tune, and stepped out more briskly, with brightly shining eyes. Even on the face of George Taylor was an expression of content. He took off his cap and put it gently on her bare head. She thanked him, smiling. He saw that her brown eyes were indeed very large.
They marched on for two hours through the dusk into the dark, with an occasional pause, when a block in the road ahead jammed the column, and with one rest of ten minutes. When the column jammed, and they were jostling and squabbling cheerfully with the Northamptons, the song died down; in five minutes after they had started again it had risen to a steady roar.
In the jams and during the rest George Taylor talked to the girl. Seeing that he was talking into her ear, he could talk quite loudly enough to be understood. He gathered that her name was Mathilde Lambert, and spent some time trying to teach her to call him "M. George," and not "M. Georges." She kept him so busy that for the whole two hours he did not discover a grievance.
At the end of the two hours they rested, and again marched on. They still sang "The Way to Tipperary"; but it was no longer a song of triumph, but a marching song; they were singing it less loudly, but doggedly. At half-past eight they came to a big lorry of the supply-train beside a farm-house. Three great fires were burning round the well in the yard, and every kind of vessel in which water could be boiled had been turned into a tea-pot. There was milk in the tea, and a biscuit with a dab of jam on it for each man.
Mathilde received her ration with the rest, and received the mug of a badly wounded man who was on the lorry. She made a little face at the first taste of the tea, but drank the last half of the cup with considerable relish. It was beyond belief grateful to their parched throats, and after it they grew cheerful again; the approved humorists began to crack their jokes, and George Taylor complained bitterly that the jam was apricot, and not strawberry. Captain Carter drew the platoon to the well at the back of the yard, and requisitioned half a dozen buckets. The men poured mugful after mugful of water down their throats, and filled their bottles. Mathilde herself drank two mugs. At the last moment George Taylor had the happiest thought: he obtained a spare water-bottle from the lorry, and had it filled with tea for her. Away down the road behind them the German guns were booming away.
Strengthened and refreshed, they set out again briskly, roaring "The Way to Tipperary." At the first jam George Taylor once more complained bitterly of this perpetual retirement to England.
Soon they were off again, singing again. On they went, hour after hour, growing wearier and wearier, marching doggedly, singing doggedly. If the song died on their weary lips, some one would shout, "Are we downhearted?" There would come a shout of, "No!" and the song would begin again. Mathilde was heavy on George Taylor's helping arm, and now and again she stumbled. By half-past eleven the loss of the heel of his left boot had grown a serious matter: it seemed to force little-used muscles into play, and produced most painful cramps in his leg if a halt were long coming. His shoulder was stiff and aching from the blow from the fragment of shell; but he was not grumbling now: every now and again he said something cheerful to Mathilde in a pleasant, loud voice. She did not understand him; but always she lifted a little to the sound of his voice, and murmured a faint, cheerful assent. Always behind them the guns boomed just as loud, and the sky was bright with burning villages fired in their advance by the triumphant Huns.
At about half-past twelve George Taylor's firm resolve to be Mathilde's sole helper weakened. The loss of his boot-heel was too much for him, and he bade Joe Harris, who had preserved an unbroken silence for nearly two hours, to take her other arm. Without a word, Joe took it and helped her along.
For the most part they were now marching in silence; but now and again some one would break out, "It 's a long way to Tipperary," and in a couple of minutes the whole column would be singing it doggedly and rather huskily.
The halts came often now; during them Captain Carter exhausted command, exhortation, cajolery, and abuse in his efforts to keep his men on their feet. Once they lay down, many would never get up again for an hour or two. George Taylor and Joe Harris let Mathilde lie down against the bank readily enough, and then they just leaned against one another. She was asleep on the instant every time; and when the column started again, they dragged her to her feet and along the road, almost sleeping still. At times they were very faint, and chilled by cold sweats. The booming of the German guns was now fainter and farther away, and the light from the burning villages was not so bright.
It was past two when the order came to halt and bivouac. It was the simplest matter in the world to bivouac that night: the brigade, empty, hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, dropped where it was halted, in massed formation, along the road and in the fields beside it.
George Taylor was hard put to it to provide for Mathilde. He went up and down shouting for a blanket for a lady. Then he came upon a large, snoring Northampton sleeping on an officer's mackintosh. He rolled him off it, and carried it to her. She was already lying fast asleep on the bare ground. He and Joe Harris lifted her gently on to the mackintosh, fastened it round her, and lay down very close to her, on each side, to keep her warm. The three of them slept like logs.
At five they were roused in a chill, gray dawn, and were at once set to work to intrench a position across the road. They were chilled and very stiff after their long march and sleeping cold on the hard ground; also they were famished, Joe Harris and George Taylor were in a little better case than their comrades, for Mathilde forced them to drink some of the tea from her water-bottle. George Taylor complained with incredible bitterness that there were no basins of water and soap. He could judge from the faces of his comrades what an abominable appearance he must present, and he resented it. He tried to explain to Mathilde by gestures that he deplored his condition and was not to blame for it. He hoped faintly that she understood him.
She sat on the mackintosh for a while, watching them with drowsy eyes as they dug away. Then she rose and walked away toward a big farm on the right, where the brigade staff had established itself. George Taylor did not see her start, and he looked after her with a puzzled, disappointed air. He thought that she had left them for good. He said nothing, but turned to his digging, and dug away steadily. They were given a rest about twenty minutes later, and of a sudden he saw her coming back. His face grew bright, and with inconceivable bitterness he complained that there were no larks singing in the morning sky. Even Captain Carter blinked a little at this monstrous demand on nature in northern France at the end of August.
Mathilde came up, smiling happily at him; and it was quite clear that she had washed her face. She looked quite fresh, and her big brown eyes were bright. She carried a small parcel wrapped in newspaper and a folded white cloth. She sat down beside George Taylor, took from the parcel two large slices of bread and butter, and gave one to him and one to Joe Harris. They had no difficulty in making her understand that they were grateful.
George Taylor had eaten half his slice when he saw the rather cold eye of Captain Carter rest on it with a greed he could not repress. At once he cut off two thirds of the remainder and offered it to him.
Captain Carter shook his head and said:
"No, no. Eat it yourself. We shall want all your shooting to-day; and the fuller your stomach, the better you 'll shoot."
"And the fuller your stomach, sir, the better shooting I shall get," said George Taylor, politely, but firmly.
But Captain Carter shook his head and said more firmly:
"No, no: eat it yourself. We shall all get something presently."
George Taylor understood that if the platoon did not eat. Captain Carter did not eat. He finished the slice, and he finished it thankfully.
Then Mathilde gave them coffee, still hot, from her water-bottle, and then she handed George Taylor the folded cloth. It was wringing wet; and she made signs to him to wash his face. He set to work on it eagerly, and dealt with it thoroughly. When he had done, there was a clearly visible, fresh-colored George Taylor above a week's growth of stubbly, brown bristles,—they did not hide his thin, sensitive, humorous lips,—but the cloth was black. He smiled a broad and sheepish smile at Mathilde, and she smiled back a smile of amiable congratulation.
"That 's first-class," he said loudly and distinctly.
Captain Carter translated the phrase for her. She nodded with emphasis and smiled, and said that it was indeed good—very good. She beamed on the transformed George.
Presently they were rested, and fell to their digging again. The soil was light below the baked surface, and by half-past six, when a British battery on their left opened fire, the trench was deep. At once Captain Carter bade Mathilde betake herself to the rear and continue her journey along the western road toward Arras. Mathilde smiled amiably, but shook her head. Neither the commands, adjurations, nor persuasion of either Captain Carter or George Taylor shook her resolve. She protested that where she was she felt quite safe from "les Bosches," and unless they carried her to the rear, there she would stay.
There was nothing for it: Captain Carter could not detach a squad to carry her to the rear; she must stay. Moreover, they were not insensible to the compliment she paid them. None the less, as he and Joe Harris dug out a deep niche for her in the wall of the trench, George Taylor complained with extraordinary bitterness of the modern intrusion of women into spheres in which they were wholly out of place.
The German batteries began to get to work about half-past seven, and the shrapnel was bursting over the trenches. Mathilde sat placidly in her niche between Joe Harris and George Taylor while he dwelt bitterly and at length on the modern woman's aversion from her own fireside. When at last the sun warmed her, she went to sleep; and he and Joe Harris and most of the company also slept.
Captain Carter, the lids of his eyes red from lack of sleep, since he had been busy for much of the time his men had slept during their bivouac, stood looking out over the wall of the trench; now and again he swept the ground in front with his glasses.
About nine o'clock a motor-omnibus came along the road to within three hundred yards of them, and presently each man received two biscuits. There was a veritable outburst of cheerfulness in the trenches. Presently it died down, and they went to sleep again. Captain Carter gave his glasses to a trustworthy sergeant, stretched himself out, and slept, too. They were now sweltering under a blazing sun.
Captain Carter slept heavily till the noisy hail of shrapnel with which the Germans prepared the way for their infantry attack awoke him.
Again the infantry made no impression on the intrenched English: they held them up at seven hundred yards; then the artillery beat them back. But the attack had awakened the men, and they began to talk and write letters and play nap. George Taylor and Mathilde gave one another instruction in English and French. The information their eyes conveyed to one another was not linguistic. Captain Carter slept again. Joe Harris and three other men with about thirty water-bottles crawled off to the farm on the right. The German shells had set it blazing; but they learned from the next trench that the well-tackle was still unbroken. Only three of them came back. They had left the fourth in the farm-yard. Joe Harris brought back his left boot and his cap. George Taylor put on the boot gratefully, and offered the cap to Mathilde in place of his own. She tried it on him, found that it fitted, and made signs to him that she preferred the one he had given her. He was pleased.
The German gun-fire grew hotter and hotter, but the casualties in the trench were trifling: three men were wounded, only one of them seriously. All the while the German infantry were coming up and massing in front. About noon they advanced to make their grand attack, and the order came to Captain Carter to retire. He looked longingly at the mass in close formation before he gave the order. A murmur of disappointment ran along the trench, and George Taylor said bitterly indeed:
"Precious little food and precious little fun, and off to old England again!"
Captain Carter sent them to the road at the double, a score at a time in loose formation. George Taylor and Joe Harris, holding Mathilde's hands, pulled her along as hard as she could go. Again she giggled, and George Taylor jerked out bitterly as he ran:
"That 's it! Larf again! Larf again! Just when we 're sweating to get you out of range. Oh, the sense that some women have!"
When they stopped, he was still scowling; but her gleeful, disarming smile quickly smoothed the scowl from his face. Once in the road, Captain Carter formed them up and sent them briskly down it. They were in much the same company as the day before—their own regiment, Northamptons, and Gordons. The German batteries had the range of the road; and for a good half-mile the shrapnel was bursting over them. Again the platoon was lucky: two men were hit, but not badly enough to fall out. Before they were out of the danger-zone a cheerful soul had burst out, "It 's a long way to Tipperary!" The song ran down the column in a cheerful roar. Mathilde joined in it; she seemed to have mastered enough of the unfamiliar words. During the halts she talked French and English with George Taylor.
Now they went fast, and now they went slowly; but hour after hour they marched on through the sweltering afternoon. They received no more food; but fortunately they obtained water at a deserted village. Mathilde seemed to bear the march better than she had borne that of the night before; she was not nearly so heavy on George Taylor's helping arm; she did not tire him. Indeed, they seemed to stimulate one another. Weary and very hungry, but still singing doggedly, the column came to Le Cateau in the short autumn twilight.
The platoon was billeted, along with two hundred other men, at a farm a mile to the right of the town. They found themselves in the very lap of luxury; there was not only a supper of bread and coffee, but straw to sleep on in the stables and stalls. The platoon had definitely adopted Mathilde as its mascot; it had decided, not perhaps unanimously, that it owed the fewness of its casualties that day to her presence with it. She was given a whole stall to herself.
She was also plied earnestly with bread and coffee; and when she had eaten and drunk her fill, she went to the people of the farm, and presently came back with three cigarettes. It was then that George Taylor, Joe Harris, and Captain Carter, smoking them, rose to the very height of luxury. The rest of the weary platoon went off to its stables; and as soon as Joe Harris and Captain Carter had finished their cigarettes, they went, too. Mathilde and George Taylor sat on yet a little while by the dying fire. They did not say anything; they did not want to talk; they could see one another's eyes.
Then with a sigh she rose, and he rose, too. They went slowly toward the door of the stable, and came out of the glow of the fire into the shadow under its wall. Hesitating and clumsily, he put his arm gently round her; she quivered and leaned against him. He bent down and kissed her.
"Oh, I do like you!" he said fervently.
She put her arms about him, held him, and murmured:
"That 's it. Je taim, je taim," said George Taylor.
They clung to one another, and then they went into the stable, treading carefully among the sleepers. At the entrance of her stall he kissed her again.
Joe Harris had kept his place for him next the partition. When he lay down, George murmured through a crack in it:
"Je taim, je taim."
She prayed for him.
Thrilled as they were, they were too weary to lie awake long; but when he had sunk into the very depths of sleep, she was praying for him still.
At five o'clock the column was awakened and, after more bread and coffee, marched out to some shallow trenches dug for them the day before by the people of Le Cateau, and set about deepening them.
On the way to them Mathilde and George Taylor said very little, but their hands kept touching as they went, and their eyes were eloquent enough.
It was not long before the German guns were booming away on their right; but it was nearly eight o'clock before a battery opened fire on the line of trenches in the middle of which the platoon was posted; and by that time they had dug themselves in in quite satisfactory fashion, and cleared much of the ground as far as a farm seven hundred yards away. As the morning wore on, it was plain that they were in a much bigger action than that of the day before; the British guns were more numerous, and the German guns far more numerous. But once more (it may be that Mathilde was indeed their mascot) the platoon suffered very little from the shrapnel. Two men were badly wounded by the same shell, and the fragment of another cut Captain Carter's left arm slightly. To most of the men it had begun to seem the natural mode of life to sit or lie in a trench with the shells bursting, about it; and to-day they talked or read or slept or played their cards without giving a thought to them. George Taylor pursued his acquisition of the French language with tranquil perseverance. It seemed to him that he was acquiring it under the most favorable circumstances from the most excellent teacher. At half-past twelve came the advance of the German infantry. They came to within five hundred yards of the trenches, and were driven back to the shelter of the farm; and there, sniping away in a wholly futile fashion, they were held.
All the while Mathilde sat placidly in a niche in the wall of the trench, plying her needle. Now and again George Taylor paused from his fairly successful efforts to pick off careless Germans to say a few carefully thought-out words in French to her. They were growing hungry; but no food came to them.
The firing in front was heavy enough; but on their right it was far heavier. None the less, when, soon after three o'clock, the order came to retire, there seemed no necessity to do anything of the kind, and George Taylor, who was thoroughly enjoying both the shooting and his lessons in French, complained more bitterly than ever of this new, but apparently incurable, habit of the British army of retiring to England.
To-day they retired at their ease and in excellent order, and once more took the western road to the sad strains of "The Way to Tipperary."
Then, as suddenly and as unexpectedly as the meeting, came the parting. They had not left the trenches half an hour when they came to a road running to the northwest across the road they were on, and a sign-post told them that it was the road to Cambrai and Arras.
Mathilde pointed to the sign-post with a faint cry of dismay as the column jammed and they came to a halt. Quickly she told Captain Carter that she must leave them, and he quickly told George Taylor. George nodded gloomily, and Mathilde gazed at him with parted lips and eyes swimming, and caught his hand.
Involuntarily they stepped out of the ranks, and stood on the Arras road, staring at one another with straining, anxious eyes. A group of refugees, coming through the ranks of the platoon, jostled them; they did not perceive it. George had lost all his French, and what there had been would have been useless in so great a crisis.
He turned to Captain Carter and said:
"Tell her I 'm coming back, sir—coming to Arras. Tell her I shall know French when I come."
Captain Carter translated quickly.
Mathilde nodded, and smiled at George through her tears, and spoke.
"She says you 're not to be long coming," said Captain Carter.
The jam loosened; the front ranks began to move. She threw her arms round George's neck; their lips clung in a long kiss; she loosed him; and mechanically he stepped into his place in the moving ranks.
"Adieu!" she cried, and choked on a sob.
"Good-by—adieu! I 'm coming back—to Arras," he struck himself on the chest, and raised his voice that she might understand and cried, "Me—Arras!"
She nodded and cried:
The platoon gave her a cheer and swept on. The trees by the road hid her from view.
George Taylor moved on heavily, frowning, his shoulders hunched.
"Damn this retiring!" he growled bitterly.
"You may well say so," said Joe Harris, sympathetically.
Twenty yards farther on George Taylor drew himself up; his face cleared a little, and he began:
"It 's a long way to Tipperary,
It 's a long way to go!"
It went roaring down the column.