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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 10


I HAD not believed it possible. But there I was, not only back at work, back upon the stage to which I thought I had said good-bye for ever, but successful as I had thought I could never be again. And so I decided that I would remain until the engagement of "Three Cheers" closed. But my mind was made up to retire after that engagement. I felt that I had done all I could, and that it was time for me to retire, and to cease trying to make others laugh. There was no laughter in my heart, and often and often, that season, as I cracked my merriest jokes, my heart was sore and heavy and the tears were in my eyes.

But slowly a new sort of courage came to me. I was able to meet my friends again, and to talk to them, of myself and of my boy. I met brother officers of his, and I heard tales of him that gave me a new and even greater pride in him than I had known before. And my friends begged me to carry on in every way.

"You were doing a great work and a good work, Harry," they said. "The boy would want you to carry on. Do not drop all the good you were doing."

I knew that they were right. To sit alone and give way to my grief was a selfish thing to do at such a time. If there was work for me to do still, it was my duty to try to do it, no matter how greatly I would have preferred to rest in quiet. At this time there was great need of making the people of Britain understand the need of food conservation, and so I began to go about London making speeches on that subject wherever people could be gathered together to listen to me. They told me I did some good. And at least, I tried.

And before long I was glad, indeed, that I had listened to the counsel of my friends, and had not given way to my selfish desire to nurse my grief in solitude and silence. For I realized that there was a real work for me to do. Those folk who had' begged me to do my part in lightening the gloom of Britain had been right. There was so much sorrow and grief in the land, that it was the duty of all who could dispel it, if even for a little space, to do what they could. I remembered that poem of Ella Wheeler Wilcox—"Laugh, and the World Laughs With You." And so I tried to laugh, and to make the part of the world that I chanced to be in, laugh with me. For I knew there was weeping and sorrowing enough.

And all the time. I felt that the spirit of my boy was with me, and that he knew what I was doing, and why, and was glad; and that he understood that if I laughed it was not because I thought less often of him, or missed him less keenly and bitterly than I had done from the very beginning.

There was much praise for my work from high officials, and it made me proud and glad to know that the men who were at the head of Britain's effort in the war thought I was being of use. One time I spoke with Mr. Balfour, the former Prime Minister, at Drury Lane Theatre to one of the greatest war gatherings that was ever held in London.

And always and everywhere there were the hospitals, full of the laddies who had been brought home from France. Ah, but they were pitiful, those laddies who had fought, and won, and been brought back to be nursed back to the life they had been so bravely willing to lay down for their country ! But it was hard to look at them, and know how they were suffering, and to go through with the task I had set myself of cheering them and comforting them in my own way. There were times when it was all I could do to get through with my programme.

They never complained. They were always bright and cheerful, no matter how terrible their wounds might be; no matter what sacrifices they had made of eyes and limbs. There were men in those hospitals who knew that they were going out no more than half the men they had been. And yet they were as brave and careless of themselves as if their wounds had been but trifles. I think the greatest exhibition of courage and nerve the world has ever seen was to be found in those hospitals in London and, indeed, all over Britain, where those wonderful lads kept up their spirits always, though they knew they could never again be sound in body.

Many and many of them there were who knew that they could never walk again the shady lanes of their hameland or the little streets of their hame towns. Many and many more there were who knew that, even after the bandages were taken from about their eyes, they would never gaze again upon the trees and the grass and the flowers growing upon their native hillsides, that never again could they look upon the faces of their loved ones. They knew that everlasting darkness was their portion upon this earth.

But one and all they talked and laughed and sang. And it was there among the hospitals, that I came to find true courage and good cheer. It was not there that I found talk of discouragement, and longing for an early peace even though the final victory that could alone bring a real peace and a worthy peace had not been won. No; not in the hospitals could I find and hear such talk as that. For that I had to listen to those who had not gone—who had not had the courage and the nerve to offer all they had and all they were and go through that hell of hells that is modern war.

I saw other hospitals besides the ones in London. After a time, when I was very tired, and far from well, I went to Scotland for a space to build myself up and get some rest. And in the far north I went fishing on the river Dee, which runs through the Durrie estate. And while I was there the Laird heard of it. And he sent word to tell me of a tiny hospital hard by where a guid lady named Mrs. Baird was helping to nurse disabled men back to health and strength. He asked me would I no call upon the men and try to give them a little cheer. And I was glad to hear of the chance to help.

I laid down my rod forthwith, for here was better work than fishing, and in my ain country. They told me the way that I should go, and that this Mrs. Baird had turned a little school-house into a convalescent home, and was doing a fine and wonderful work for the laddies she had taken in. So I set out to find it, and I walked along a country road to come to it.

Soon I saw a man, strong and hale, as it seemed, pushing a wheel chair along the road toward me. And in the chair sat a man, and I could see at once that he had lost the use of his legs; that he was paralyzed from the waist down. It was the way he called to him who was pushing him that made me tak notice.

"Go to the right, mon!" he would call. Or, a moment later, "To the left now."

And then they came near to disaster. The one who was pushing was heading straight for the side of the road, and the one in the chair bellowed out to him :

"Whoa there!" he called. "Mon—ye're taking me into the ditch! Where would ye be going with me, anyway?"

And then I understood. The man who was pushing was blind! They had but the one pair of eyes and the one pair of legs between the two of them, and it was so that they contrived to go out together without taking help from any one else. And they were both as cheerful as wee laddies out for a lark. It was great sport for them. And it was they who gave me my directions to get to Mrs. Baird's.

They disputed a little about the way. The blind man, puir laddie, thought he knew. And he did not—not quite. But he corrected the man who could see but could not walk.

"It's the wrong road you're giving the gentleman," he said. "It's the second turn he should be taking, not the first."

And the other would not argue with him. It was a kindly thing, the way he kept quiet, and did but wink at me, that I might know the truth. He trusted me to understand and to know why he was acting as he was, and I blessed him in my heart for his thoughtfulness. And so I thanked them, and passed on, and reached Mrs. Baird's, and found a royal welcome there, and when they asked me if I would sing for the soldiers, and I said it was for that that I had come, there were tears in Mrs. Baird's eyes. And so I gave a wee concert there, and sang my songs, and did my best to cheer up those boys.

Ah, my puir, brave Scotland—my bonnie little Scotland!

No part of all the United Kingdom, and, for that matter, no part of the world, has played a greater part, in proportion to its size and its ability, than has Scotland in this war for humanity against the black force that has attacked it. Nearly a million men has Scotland sent to the army— out of a total population of five millions. One in five of all her people have gone. No country in the world has ever matched that record. Ah, there were no slackers in Scotland! And they are still going—they are still going! As fast as they are old enough, as fast as restrictions are removed, so that men are taken who were turned back at first by the recruiting officers, as fast as men see to it that some provision is made for those they must leave behind them, they are putting on the king's uniform and going out against the Hun. My country, my ain Scotland, is not great in area. It is not a rich country in worldly goods or money. But it is big with a bigness beyond measurement, it is rich beyond the wildest dreams of avarice, in patriotism, in love of country, and in bravery.

We have few young men left in Scotland. It is rarely indeed that in a Scottish village, in a glen, even in a city, you see a young man in these days. Only the very old are left, and the men of middle age. And you know why the young men you see are there. They cannot go, because, although their spirit is willing their flesh is too weak to let them go, for one reason or another. Factory and field and forge—all have been stripped to fill the Scottish regiments and keep them at their full strength. And in Scotland, as in England, women have stepped in to fill the places their men have left vacant. This war is not to be fought by men alone. Women have their part to play, and they are playing it nobly, day after day. The women of Scotland have seen their duty; they have heard their country's call, and they have answered it.

You will find it hard to discover any one in domestic service to-day in Scotland. The folk who used to keep servants sent them packing long since, to work where they would be of more use to their country. The women of each household are doing the work about the house, little though they may have been accustomed to such tasks in the days of peace. And they glory and take pride in the knowledge that they are helping to fill a place in the munitions factories, or in some other necessary war work.

Do not look along the Scottish roads for folk riding in motor-cars for pleasure. Indeed, you will waste your time if you look for pleasure-making of any sort in Scotland to-day. Scotland has gone back to her ancient business of war, and she is carrying it on in the most businesslike way, sternly and unremittingly. But that is true all over the United Kingdom; I do not claim that Scotland takes the war more seriously than the rest of Britain. But I do think that she has set an example by the way she has flung herself, tooth and nail, into the mighty task that confronts us all; all of us allies who are leagued against the Kaiser and his plan to conquer the world and make it bow its neck in submission under his iron heel.

Let me tell you how Scotland takes this war. Let me show you the home-coming of a Scottish soldier, back from the trenches on leave. Why, he is received with no more ceremony than if he were coming home from his day's work!

Donald—or Jock might be his name, or Andy! —steps from the train at his old hame town. He is fresh from the mud of the Flanders trenches, and all his possessions and his kit are on his back, so that he is more like a beast of burden than the natty creature old tradition taught us to think a soldier must always be. On his boots there are still dried blobs of mud from some hole in France that is like a crater in hell. His uniform will be pretty sure to be dirty, too, and torn; and perhaps, if you looked closely at it, you would see stains upon it that you might not be far wrong in guessing to be blood.

Leave long enough to let him come home to Scotland—a long road it is from France to Scotland these days—has been a rare thing for Jock. He will have been campaigning a long time to earn it; months certainly, and maybe even years. Perhaps he was one of those who went out first. He may have been mentioned in dispatches ; there may be a distinguished conduct medal hidden about him somewhere; worth all the iron crosses the Kaiser ever gave ! He has seen many a bloody field, be sure of that. He has heard the sounding of the gas alarm, and maybe got a whiff of the dirty poison gas the Huns turned loose against our boys. He has looked Death in the face so often that he has grown used to him. But now he is back in Scotland, safe and sound, free from battle and the work of the trenches for a space, home to gain new strength for his next bout with Fritz across the water.

When he gets off the train Jock looks about him, from force of habit. But no one has come to the station to meet him, and he looks as if that gave him neither surprise nor concern. For a minute, perhaps, he will look around him, wondering, I think, that things are so much as they were; fixing in his mind the old familiar scenes that have brought him cheer so often in black, deadly nights in the trenches or in lonely billets out there in France. And then, quietly, and as if he were indeed just home from some short trip, he shifts his pack, so that it lies comfortably across his back, and trudges off. There would be cabs around the station, but it would not come into Jock's mind to hail one of the drivers. He has been used to using Shanks's Mare in France when he wanted to go anywhere, and so now he sets off quietly, with his long, swinging soldier's stride.

As he walks along he is among scenes familiar to him since his boyhood. Yon house, yon barn, yon wooded rise against the sky, are landmarks for him. And he is pretty sure to meet old friends. They nod to him, pleasantly, and with a smile, but there is no excitement, no strangeness, in their greeting. For all the emotion they show, these folk to whom he has come back, as from the grave, they might have seen him yesterday, and the day before that, and the war never have been at all. And Jock thinks nothing of it that they are not more excited about him. You and I may be thinking of Jock as a hero, but that is not his idea about himself. He is just a Tommy, home on leave from Trance, one of a hundred thousand, maybe. And if he thought at all about the way his home folk greeted him it would be just that he could not expect them to be making a fuss about one soldier out of so many. And, since he, Jock, is not much excited, not much worked up, because he is seeing these good folk again, he does not think it strange that they are not more excited about the sight of him. It would be if they did make a fuss over him, and welcome him loudly, that he would think it strange!

And at last he comes to his own old home. He will stop and look around a bit. Maybe he has seen that old house a thousand times out there, tried to remember every line and corner of it. And maybe, as he looks down the quiet village street, he is thinking of how different France is. And, deep down in his heart, Jock is glad that everything is as it was, and that nothing has been changed. He could not tell you why; he could not put his feeling into words. But it is there, deep down, and the truer and the keener because it is so deep. Ah, Jock may take it quietly, and there may be no way for him to show his heart, but he is glad to be home.

And at his gate will come, as a rule, Jock's first real greeting. A dog, grown old since his departure, will come rushing out, barking, wagging his tail, and licking the soldier's hand. And Jock will lean down, and give his old dog a pat. If the dog had not come he would have been surprised and disappointed. And so, glad with every fibre of his being, Jock goes in, and finds father and mother and sisters within. They look up at his coming, and their happiness shines for a moment in their eyes. But they are not the sort of people to show their emotions or make a fuss. Mother and girls will rise and kiss him, and begin to take his gear, and his father will shake him by the hand.

"Well," the father will ask, "how are you getting along, lad?"

And—"All right," he will answer. That is the British soldier's answer to that question, always and everywhere.

Then he sits down, happy and at rest, and lights his pipe, maybe, and looks about the old room which holds so many memories for him. And supper will be ready, you may be sure. They will not have much to say, these folk of Jock's; but if you look at his face as dish after dish is set before him, you will understand that this is a feast; that has been prepared for him. They may have been going without all sorts of good things themselves, but they have contrived, in some fashion, to have them all for Jock. All Scotland has tightened its belt, and done its part, in that fashion, as in every other, toward the winning of the war. But for the soldiers the best is none too good. And Jock's folk would rather make him welcome so, by proof that takes no words, than by demonstrations of delight and of affection.

As he eats, they gather round him at the board, and they tell him all the gossip of the neighbourhood. He does not talk about the war, and, if they are curious—probably they are not!—they do not ask him questions. They think that he wants to. forget about the war and the trenches and the mud, and they are right. And so, after he has eaten his fill, he lights his pipe again, and sits about. And maybe, as it grows dark, he takes a bit walk into town. He walks slowly, as if he is glad that for once he need not be in a hurry, and he stops to look into shop windows as if he had never seen their stocks before, though you may be sure that, in a Scottish village, he has seen everything they have to offer, hundreds of times.

He will meet friends, maybe, and they will stop and nod to him. And perhaps one of sis will stop longer.

"How are you getting on, Jock?" will be the question.

"All right!" Jock will say. And he will think the question rather fatuous, maybe. If he were not all right, how should he be there? But if Jock had lost both legs, or an arm, or if he had been blinded, that would still be his answer. Those words have become a sort of slogan for the British Army, a phrase that typifies its spirit.

Jock's walk is soon over, and he goes home by an old path that is known to him, every foot of it, and goes to bed in his own old bed. He has not broken into the routine of the household, and he sees no reason why he should. And the next day it is much the same for him. He gets up as early as he ever did, and he is likely to do a few odd bits of work that his father has not had time to come to. He talks with his mother and the girls of all sorts of little, Commonplace things, and with his father he discusses the affairs of the community. And in the evening he strolls down town again, and exchanges a few words with friends, and learns, perhaps, of boys who haven't been lucky enough to get home on leave; of boys with whom he grew up, who have gone west.

So it goes on for several days, each day the same. Jock is quietly happy. It is no task to entertain him; he does not want to be entertained. The peace and quiet of home are enough for him; they are change enough from the turmoil of the front and the ceaseless grind of the life in the army in France.

And then Jock's leave nears its end, and it is time for him to go back. He tells them, and he makes his few small preparations. They will have cleaned his kit for him, and mended some of his things that needed mending. And when it is time for him to go they help him on with his pack and he kisses his mother and the girls good-bye, and shakes hands with his father.

"Well, good-bye," Jock says. He might be going to work in a factory a few miles off. "I'll be all right. Good-bye, now. Don't you cry, now, mother, and you, Jeannie and Maggie. Don't you fash yourselves about me. I'll be back again. And if I shouldn't come back—why, I'll be all right."

So he goes, and they stand looking after him, and his old dog wonders why he is going, and where, and makes a move to follow him, maybe. But he marches off down the street, alone, never looking back, and is waiting when the train comes. It will be full of other Jocks and Andrews, and Tarns, on their way back to France, like him, and he will nod to some he knows as he settles down in the carriage.

And in just two days Jock will have travelled the length of England, and crossed the Channel, and ridden up to the front. He will have reported himself, and have been ordered, with his company, into the trenches. And on the third night, had you followed him, you might see him peering over the parapet at the lines of the Hun, across No Man's Land, and listening to the whine of bullets and the shriek of shells over his head, with a star shell, maybe, to throw a green light upon him for a moment.

So it is that a warrior comes and that a warrior goes, in a land where war is war; in a land where war has become the business of all, every day. and has settled down into a matter of routine.


 


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