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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 22


I WAS sorry to be leaving the Highland laddies in that trench. Aye! But for the trench itself I had nae regrets—na, none whatever! I know no spot on the surface of this earth, of all that I have visited, and I have been in many climes, that struck me as less salubrious than yon bit o' trench. There were too many other visitors there that day, along with the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour. They were braw laddies, yon, but no what you might call over-particular about the company they kept. I'd thank them, if they'd be havin' me to veesit them again, to let me come by my lane.

Getting away was not the safest business in the world, either, although it was better than staying in yon trench. We had to make our way back to the railway embankment, and along it for a space, and the embankment was being heavily shelled. It was really a trench line itself, full of dugouts, and as we made our way along, heads popped in all directions, topped by steel helmets. I was eager to be on the other side of yon embankment, although I knew well enough that there was no I WAS sorry to be leaving the Highland laddies in that trench. Aye! But for the trench itself I had nae regrets—na, none whatever! I know no spot on the surface of this earth, of all that I have visited, and I have been in many climes, that struck me as less salubrious than yon bit o' trench. There were too many other visitors there that day, along with the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour. They were braw laddies, yon, but no what you might call over-particular about the company they kept. I'd thank them, if they'd be havin' me to veesit them again, to let me come by my lane.

Getting away was not the safest business in the world, either, although it was better than staying in yon trench. We had to make our way back to the railway embankment, and along it for a space, and the embankment was being heavily shelled. It was really a trench line itself, full of dugouts, and as we made our way along, heads popped in all directions, topped by steel helmets. I was eager to be on the other side of yon embankment, although I knew well enough that there was no sanctuary on either side of it, nor for a long space behind it.

That was what they called the Frenchy railway cutting, and it overlooked the ruined village of Athies. And not until after I had crossed it was I breathing properly. I began, then, to feel more like myself, and my heart and all my functions began to be more normal.

All this region we had to cross now was still under fire, but the fire was nothing to what it had been. The evidences of the terrific bombardments there had been were plainly to be seen. Every scrap of exposed ground had been nicked by shells; the holes were as close together as in a honeycomb. I could not see how any living thing had come through that hell of fire, but many men had. Now the embankment fairly buzzed with activity. The dugouts were everywhere, and the way the helmeted heads popped out as we passed, inquiringly, made me think of the prairie dog towns I had seen in Canada and the western United States.

The river Scarpe flowed close by. It was a narrow, sluggish stream, and it did not look to me worthy of its famous name. But often, that spring, its slow-moving waters had been flecked by a bloody froth, and the bodies of brave men had been hidden by them, and washed clean of the trench mud. Now, uninviting as its aspect was, and sinister as were the memories it must have evoked in other hearts beside my own, it was water. And on so hot a day water was a precious thing to men who had been working as the laddies hereabout had worked and laboured.

So each bank was dotted with naked bodies, and the stream itself showed head after head, and flashing white arms as men went swimming. Some were scrubbing themselves, taking a Briton's keen delight in a bath, no matter what the circumstances in which he gets it; others were washing their clothes, slapping and pounding the soaked garments in a way to have wrung the hearts of their wives, had they seen them at it. The British soldier, in the field, does many things for himself that folks at hame never think of. But many of the men were just lying on the bank, sprawled out and sunning themselves like alligators, basking in the warm sunshine and soaking up rest and good cheer.

It looked like a good place for a concert, and so I quickly gathered an audience of about a thousand men from the dugouts in the embankment and obeyed their injunctions to "Go it, Harry! Gie us a song, do now!"

As I finished my first song, my audience applauded me and cheered me most heartily, and the laddies along the banks of the Scarpe heard them, and came running up to see what was afoot. There were no ladies thereabout, and they did not stand on a small matter like getting dressed. Not they! They came running just as they were, and Adam, garbed in his fig leaf, was fully clad compared to most of them. It was the barest gallery I ever saw, and the noisiest, too, and the most truly appreciative.

High up above us aeroplanes were circling, so high that we could not tell from which side they came, except when we saw some of them being shelled, and so knew that they belonged to Fritz. They looked like black pinheads against the blue cushion of the sky, and no doubt they were vastly puzzled as to the reason of this gathering of naked men. What new tricks were the damned English up to now? So, I have no doubt, they were wondering! It was the business of their observers, of course, to spot just such gatherings as ours, although I did not think of that just then —except to think that they might drop a bomb or two, maybe.

But scouting aeroplanes, such as those were, do not go in for bomb dropping. There are three sorts of aeroplanes. First come the scouting planes, fairly fast, good climbers, able to stay in the air a long time. Their business is just to spy out the lay of the land over the enemy's trenches, not to fight or drop bombs. Then come the swift, powerful bombing planes, which make raids, flying long distances to do so. The Huns use such planes to bomb unprotected towns and kill women and babies; ours go in for bombing ammunition dumps and trains and railway stations and other places of military importance, although, by now, they are perhaps indulging in reprisals for some of Fritz's murderous raids, as so many folk at hame in Britain have prayed they would.

Both scouting and bombing planes are protected by the fastest flyers of all, by the battle planes, as they are called. These fight other planes in the air, and it is the men who steer them and fight their guns who perform the heroic exploits that you may read of every day. But much of the great work in the air is done by the scouting planes, which take desperate chances, and find it hard to fight back when they are attacked. And it was scouts who were above us now, and, doubtless, sending word back by wireless of a new and mysterious concentration of British forces along the Scarpe, which it might be a good thing for the Hun artillery to strafe a bit.

So, before very long, a rude interruption came to my songs, in the way of shells dropped unpleasantly close. The men so far above us had given their guns the range, and so, although the gunners could not see us, they could make their presence felt.

I have never been booed or hissed by an audience, since I have been on the stage. I understand that it is a terrible and a disconcerting experience, and one calculated to play havoc with the stoutest of nerves. It is an experience I am by no means anxious to have, I can tell you! But I doubt if it could seem worse to me than the interruption of a shell. The Germans, that day, showed no ear for music, and no appreciation of art, my art, at least.

And so it seemed well to me to cut my programme, to a certain extent, at least, and bid farewell to my audience, dressed and undressed. It was a performance at which it did not seem to me a good idea to take any curtain calls. I did not miss them, nor feel slighted because they were absent. I was too glad to get away with a whole skin.

The shelling became very furious now. Plainly the Germans meant to take no chances. They couldn't guess what the gathering their aeroplanes had observed might portend, but, if they could, they meant to defeat its object, whatever that might be. Well, they did not succeed, but they probably had the satisfaction of thinking that they had, and I, for one, do not begrudge them that. They forced the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, to make a pretty wide detour, away from the river, to get back to the main road. But they fired a power of shells to do so.

When we finally reached the road I heard a mad sputtering behind. I looked around in alarm, because it sounded, for all the world, like one of those infernal whizz bangs, chasing me. But it was not. The noise came from a motor cycle, and its rider dashed up to me and dropped one foot to the ground.

"Here's a letter for you, Harry," he said.

It was a package that he handed me. I was surprised; I was not expecting to have a post delivered to me on the battlefield of Arras! It turned out that the package contained a couple of ugly-looking bits of shell, and a letter from my friends the Highlanders on the other side of the railway embankment. They wrote to thank me for singing for them, and said they hoped I was none the worse for the bombardment I had undergone.

"These bits of metal are from the shell that was closest to you when it burst," their spokesman wrote. "They nearly got you, and we thought you'd like to have them to keep as souvenirs."

It seemed to me that that was a singularly calm and phlegmatic letter! My nerves were a good deal overwrought, as I can see now.

Now we made our way slowly back to division head-quarters, and there I found that preparations had been made for very much the most ambitious and pretentious concert that I had yet had a chance to give in France. There was a very large audience, and a stage or platform had been set up, with plenty of room on it for Johnson and his piano. It had been built in a great field, and all around me, when I mounted it, I could see kilted soldiers, almost as far as my eye could reach. There were many thousands of them there ; indeed, all of the Highland Brigade that was not actually on duty at the moment was present, and a good many other men beside, for good measure.

Here was a sight to make a Scots heart leap with pride! Here, before me, was the flower of Scottish manhood. These regiments had been through a series of battles, not so long since, that had sadly thinned their ranks. Many a Scottish grave had been filled that spring; many a Scottish heart at hame had been broken by sad news from this spot. But there they were now, before me—their ranks filled up again, splendid as they stretched out, eager to welcome me and cheer me. There were tears in my eyes as I looked around at them.

Massed before me were the best men Scotland had had to offer ! All these men had breathed deep of the hellish air of war. All had marched shoulder to shoulder and kilt to kilt with death. All were of my country and my people. My heart was big within me with pride of them, and that I was of their race, as I stood up to sing for them.

Johnson was waiting for me to be ready. Little "Tinkle Tom," as we called the wee piano, was not very large, but there were times when he had to be left behind. I think he was glad to have us bring him back again, and to be doing his part, instead of leaving me to sing alone, without his help.

Many distinguished officers were in that great assemblage. They all turned out to hear me, as well as the men; and among them' I saw many familiar faces and old friends from hame. But there were many faces, too, alas, that I did not see. And when I inquired for them later I learned that many of them I had seen for the last time. Oh, the sad news I learned, day after day, oot there in France! Friend after friend of whom I made inquiry was known, to be sure. They could tell me where, and when, and how, they had been killed.

Up above us, as I began to sing, our aeroplanes were circling. No Boche planes were in sight now, I was told; but there were many of ours. And. sometimes one came swooping down, its occupants curious, no doubt, as to what might be going on, and the hum of its huge propeller would make me falter a bit in my song. And once or twice one flew so low and so close that I was almost afraid it would strike me, and I dodged in what I think was mock alarm, much to the amusement of the soldiers.

I had given them two songs when a big man arose, far back in the crowd. He was a long way from me, but his great voice carried to me easily, so that I could hear every word he said.

"Harry," he shouted, "sing us 'The Wee Hoose Amang the Heather' and we'll a' join in the chorus!"

For a moment I could only stare out at them. Between that sea of faces, upraised to mine, and my eyes, there came another face, the smiling, bonnie face of my boy John, that I should never see again with mortal eyes. That had been one of his favourite songs for many years. I hesitated. It was as if a gentle hand had plucked at my very heart strings, and played upon them. Memories— memories of my boy—swept over me in a flood. I felt a choking in my throat, and the tears welled into my eyes.

But then I began to sing, making a signal to Johnson to let me sing alone. And when I came to the chorus, true to the big Highlander's promise, they all did join in the chorus! And what a chorus that was! Thousands of men were singing.

There's a wee hoose amang the heather,
There's a wee hoose o'er the sea.
There's a lassie in that wee hoose
Waiting patiently for me.
She's the picture of perfection—
I would na tell a lee
If ye saw her ye would love her
Just the same as me!

My voice was very shaky when I came to the end of that chorus, but the great wave of sound from the kilted laddies rolled out, true and full, unshaken, unbroken. They carried the air as steadily as a ship is carried upon a rolling sea.

I could sing no more for them, and then, as I made my way, unsteadily enough, from the platform, music struck up that was the sweetest I could have heard. Some pipers had come together, from twa or three regiments, unknown to me, and now, very softly, their pipes began to skirl. They played the tune that I love best, "The Drunken Piper." I could scarcely see to pick my way, for the tears that blinded me, but in my ears, as I passed away from them, there came, gently wailing on the pipes, the plaintive plea—

"Will ye no come back again?"


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