IT was time to take to the motor-cars again, and I
was glad of the thought that we would have a bracing ride. I needed
something of the sort, I thought. My emotions had been deeply stirred,
in many ways, that day. I felt tired and quite exhausted. This was by
all odds the most strenuous day the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour
had put in yet in France. So I welcomed the idea of sitting back
comfortably in the car and feeling the cool wind against my cheeks.
First, however, the entertainers were to be
entertained. They, the officers of the divisional staff, took us to a
hut, where we were offered our choice of tea or a wee hauf yin. There
was good Scots whisky there, but it was the tea I wanted. It was very
hot in the sun, and I had done a deal of clambering about. So I was
glad, after all, to stay in the shade a while and rest my limbs.
Getting out through Arras turned out to be a ticklish
business. The Germans were verra wasteful o' their shells that day,
considering how much siller they cost! They were pounding away, and more
shells, by a good many, were falling in Arras than had been the case
when we arrived at noon. So I got a chance to see how the ruin that had
been wrought had been accomplished.
Arras is a wonderful sight, noble and impressive even
in its destruction. But it was a sight that depressed me. It had angered
me, at first, but now I began to think, at each ruined house that I saw:
"Suppose this were at hame in Scotland!" And when such thoughts came to
me I thanked God for the brave lads I had seen that day who stood, out
here, holding the line, and so formed a bulwark between Scotland and
such black ruin as this.
We were to start for Tramecourt now, but on the way
we were to make a couple of stops. Our way was to take us through St.
Pol and Hesdin, and, going so, we came to the town of Le Quesnoy. Here
some of the 11th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were stationed. My
heart leaped at the sight of them. That had been my boy's regiment,
although he had belonged to a different battalion, and it was with the
best will in the world that I called a halt and gave them a concert.
I gave two more concerts, both brief ones, on the
rest of the journey, and so it was quite dark when we approached the
chateau at Tramecourt. As we came up I became aware of a great stir and
movement that was quite out of the ordinary routine there. In the
grounds I could see tiny lights moving about, like fireflies, coming, as
I thought, from electric torches.
"Something extraordinary must be going on here," I
remarked to Captain Godfrey. "I wonder if General Haig has arrived, by
"We'll soon know what it's all about," he said,
philosophically. But I dare say he knew already.
Before the chateau there was a brilliant spot of
light, standing out vividly against the surrounding darkness. I could
not account for that brilliantly lighted spot then. But we came into it
as the car stopped; it was a sort of oasis of light in an inky desert of
surrounding gloom. And as we came full into it and I stood up to descend
from the car, stretching my tired, stiff legs, the silence and the
darkness were split by three tremendous cheers.
It wasn't General Haig who was arriving. It was Harry
"What's the matter here?" I called, as loudly as I
"Been waitin' for ye a couple of 'ours, 'Arry,"
called a loud Cockney voice in answer. "Go it now! Get it off your
chest! " Then came explanations. It seemed that a lot of soldiers, about
four hundred strong, who were working on a big road job about ten miles
from Tramecourt, had heard of my being there, and had decided to come
over in a body and beg for a concert. They got to the chateau early, and
were told it might be eleven o'clock before I got back. But they didn't
care; they said they'd wait all night, if they had to, to get a chance
to hear me. And they made some use of the time they had to wait.
They took three big acetylene headlights from
motor-cars, and connected them up. There was a little porch at the
entrance of the chateau, with a short flight of steps leading up to it,
and we decided that that would make an excellent makeshift theatre.
Since it would be dark they decided they must have lights, so that they
could see me; just as in a regular theatre at hame. That was where the
headlights they borrowed from motor-cars came in. They put one on each
side of the porch and one off in front, so that all the light was
centred right on the porch itself, and it was bathed in as strong a
glare as ever I sang in on the stage. It was almost blinding, indeed, as
I found when I turned to face them and to sing for them. Needless to
say, late though it was and tired as I was, I never thought of refusing
to give them the concert they wanted.
I should have liked to eat my dinner first, but I
couldn't think of suggesting it. These boys had done a long, hard day's
work. Then they had marched ten miles, and, on top of all that, had
waited two hours for me and fixed up a stage and a lighting system. They
were quite as tired as I, I decided; and they had done a lot more. And
so I told the faithful Johnson to bring wee Tinkle Tom along, and get
him up to the little stage, and I faced my audience in the midst of a
storm of the ghostliest applause I ever hope to hear!
I could hear them, d'ye ken, but I could no see a
face before me! In the theatre, bright though the footlights are, and
greatly as they dim what lies beyond them, you can still see the white
faces of your audience. At least, you do see something; your eyes help
you to know the audience is there, and, gradually, you can see
perfectly, and pick out a face, maybe, and sing to some one person in
the audience, that you may be sure of your effects.
It was utter Stygian darkness that lay beyond the
pool of blinding light in which I stood. Gradually I did make out a
little of what lay beyond, very close to me. I could see dim outlines of
human bodies moving around. And now I was sure there were fireflies
about. But then they stayed so still that I realized, suddenly, with a
smile, just what they were—the glowing ends of cigarettes!
There were many tall poplar trees around the chateau.
I knew where to look for them, but that night I could scarcely see them.
I tried to find them, for it was a strange, weird sensation to be there
as I was, and I wanted all the help fixed objects could give me. I
managed to pick out their feathery lines in the black distance; the
darkness making them seem more remote than they were, really. Their
branches, when I found them, waved like spirit arms, and I could hear
the wind whispering and sighing among the topmost branches.
Now and then what we call in Scotland a "batty bird"
skimmed past my face, attracted, I suppose, by the bright light. I
suppose that bats that have not been disturbed before for generations
have been aroused by the blast of war through all that region, and have
come out of dark cavernous hiding-places, as those that night must have
done, to see what it is all about, the tumult and the shouting!
They were verra disconcerting those bats! They
bothered me almost as much as the whizz bangs had done, earlier in the
day. They swished suddenly out of the darkness against my face, and I
would start back, and hear a ripple of laughter run through that unseen
audience of mine. Aye, it was verra funny for them, but I did not like
that part of it a bit. No man likes to have a bat touch his skin. And I
had to duck quickly to evade those winged cousins of the mouse, and then
hear a soft guffaw arising as I did it.
I have appeared, sometimes, in theatres in which it
was pretty difficult to find the audience. And such audiences have been
nearly impossible to trace, later, in the box-office reports. But that
is the first time in my life, and, up to now, the last, that I ever sang
to a totally invisible audience. I did not know then how many men there
were : there might have been forty, or four hundred, or four thousand.
And, save for the titters that greeted my encounters with the bats, they
were amazingly quiet as they waited for me to sing. It was just about
ten minutes before eleven when I began to sing, and the concert wasn't
over until after midnight. I was distinctly nervous as I began the verse
of my first song, and it was a great relief when there was a round of
applause; that helped to place my audience and give me its measure, at
But I was almost as disconcerted a bit later as I had
been by the first incursion of the bats. I came to the chorus, and
suddenly, out of the darkness, there came a perfect gale of sound. It
was the men taking up the chorus, thundering it out. They took the song
clean away from me; I could only gasp and listen. The roar from that
unseen chorus almost took my feet from under me, so amazing was it, and
so unexpected, somehow, used as I was to have soldiers join in a chorus
with me, and disappointed as I should have been had they ever failed to
But after that first song, when I knew what to
expect, I soon grew used to the strange surroundings. The weirdness and
the mystery wore off, and I began to enjoy myself tremendously. The
conditions were simply ideal; indeed, they were perfect, for the
sentimental songs that soldiers always like best. Imagine how "Roam in'
in the Gloamin' " went that nicht!
I had meant to sing three or four songs. But instead
I sang nearly every song I knew. It was one of the longest programmes I
gave during the whole tour, and I enjoyed the concert, myself, better
than any I had yet given.
My audience was growing all the time, although I did
not know that. The singing brought up crowds from the French village,
who gathered in the outskirts of the throng to listen, and, I make no
doubt, to pass amazed comments on these queer English.
At last I was too tired to go on. And so I bade the
lads good nicht, and they gave me a great cheer, and faded away into the
blackness. And I went inside, rubbing my eyes, and wondering if it was
no all a dream!