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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 23


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 any chance?"

"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 Lauder!

"What's the matter here?" I called, as loudly as I could.

"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 once.

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 do so.

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!

"It wasn't Sir Douglas Haig who arrived, was it, Harry?" Godfrey said, slyly.


 


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