War, the Liberator, and Other Pieces/Gold Braid
In Memory of a Friend
“ I THINK this was the place, Sirr,” said the Sergeant, glaring through his periscope at the German trench sixty yards away. “It was on the parapet yonder—that he died, Sirr—was it not?”
His usually loud and hearty voice was hushed to that subdued tone in which the British soldier mentions the dead, and the Captain who stood beside him wondered why it should jar so. It wasn’t as if the Sergeant didn’t feel it, he thought—disgust at pretended reverence and emotion was natural and easy to understand—but he knew there was no veil of hypocrisy in this case for his candour to penetrate and his mind to revolt at. That hushed tone was offspring partly of pity for the dead man and partly of respect for his own grief at the loss of his friend, chiefly perhaps of reverence for an experience beyond the Sergeant’s knowledge and for the human spirit which had faced it. It was his own damned fastidiousness of mind that was wrong; always suspecting unreality subconsciously even when he knew it wasn’t there. No, perhaps it was that fear and reverence of death that irritated; he had never been afraid of death—nor had old Andy.
“Don’t put it in so high up, boys,” he said. ‘‘They’ll see it and knock this bay to hell.” The men lowered the wooden cross till the position met with their officer’s approval. He watched it sombrely—that little cross was all they had to show for Andy; that and memory. It was a good thing Andy didn’t care about being buried properly and death and hell and all that rot.
He read the inscription again as the men wired it into position against the parapet.
Lieut. ANDREW MACKAY
A CO. 1ST SUTHERLAND HIGHLANDERS
KILLED IN ACTION
IN THE GERMAN TRENCH
OPPOSITE THIS POINT.
His mind went back to that trench opposite this point three days ago—the yelling and the noise and the fierce excitement of killing, and Andy—Andy with his arm and half his side torn off, telling him to take the others. Andy’s lips telling them to leave him, but his eyes asking dumbly to be taken too. “I’m pretending to be damned brave, old man,” the eyes had said, “and I hope the men believe me—but surely you can see what I want.” He called himself a liar for thinking Andy hadn’t been afraid to die. “I’m afraid, Tagg,” the eyes had said, “afraid of dying here away among these bloody Bosches. Oh, take my body back anyway and bury me with my own people.” He supposed those queer feelings he had always laughed at, were strongest in the end—and he hadn’t been able to get the body in. Andy had died on the Bosche parapet and he’d had the wounded to bring in, and that was the end of it all. He would never see Andy again, never stumble into the dugout to talk the world over with him, never drink with him in the jolly old billet, nor argue about art and lose his temper with him—never—never again. He felt he could have given all the rest if only Andy had been left—damned selfish—but he wouldn’t have cared. What a bloody war it was. What was the sense of it all? And he used to think war was good fun—but then Andy had been there to enjoy it with him. Why couldn’t he die too?
“Look out, sirr,” said a man, “oil can coming over.” Instantly self-preservation reasserted itself. Gone was the mourner longing for death and peace; in his place a wary animal, alert and fearful, watched the falling bomb with rapid and instinctive calculation.