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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 5


AS I went about the country now, working hard to recruit men, to induce people to subscribe to the war loan, doing all the things in which I saw a chance to make myself useful, there was now an ever-present thought. When would John go out ? He must go soon. I knew that, so did his mother. We had learned that he would not be sent without a chance to bid us good-bye. There we were better off than many a father and mother in the early days of the war. Many's the mother who learned first that her lad had gone to France when they told her he was dead. And many's the lassie who learned in the same way that her lover would never come home to be her husband.

But by now Britain was settled down to war. It was as if war were the natural state of things, and everything was adjusted to war and those who must fight it. And many things were ordered better and more mercifully than they had been at first.

It was in April that word came to us. We might see John again, his mother and I, if we hurried to Bedford. And so we did. For once I heeded no other call. It was a sad journey, but I was proud and glad as well as sorry. John must do his share. There was no reason why my son should take fewer risks than another man's. That was something all Britain was learning in those days. We were one people. We must fight as one; one for all; all for one.

John was sober when he met us. Sober, aye! But what a light there was in his eyes! He was eager to be at the Huns. Tales of their doings were coming, back to us now, faster and faster. They were tales to shock me. But they were tales, too, to stir up the courage and sharpen the steel of every man who could fight and meant to go.

It was John's turn to go. So it was he felt. And so it was his mother and I bid him farewell, there at Bedford. We did not know whether we would ever see him again, the bonnie laddie! We had to bid him good-bye, lest it be our last chance. For in Britain we knew, by then, what were the chances they took, those boys of ours who went out.

"Good-bye, son—good luck!"

"Good-bye, Dad. See you when I get leave!"

That was all. We were not allowed to know more than that he was ordered to France. Whereabouts in the long trench line he would be sent we were not told. "Somewhere in France." That phrase, that had been dinned so often into our ears, had a meaning for us now.

And now, indeed, our days and nights were anxious ones. The war was in our house as it had never been before. I could think of nothing but my boy. And yet, all the time I had to go on. I had to carry on, as John was always bidding his men do. I had to appear daily before my audiences, and laugh and sing, that I might make them laugh, and so be better able to do their part.

They had made me understand, my friends, by that time, that it was really right for me to carry on with my own work. I had not thought so at first. I had felt that it was wrong for me to be singing at such a time. But they showed me that I was influencing thousands to do their duty, in one way or another, and that I was helping to keep up the spirit of Britain, too.

"Never forget the part that plays, Harry," my friends told me. "That's the thing the Hun can't understand. He thought the British would be poor fighters because they went into action with a laugh. But that's the thing that makes them invincible. You've your part to do in keeping up that spirit."

So I went on, but it was with a heavy heart, oftentimes. John's letters were not what made my heart heavy. There was good cheer in every one of them. He told us as much as the censor's rules would let him, of the front, and of conditions as he found them. They were still bad, cruelly bad. But there was no word of complaint from John.

The Germans still had the better of us in guns in those days, although we were beginning to catch up with them. And they knew more about making themselves comfortable in the trenches than did our boys. No wonder. They spent years of planning and making ready for this war. And it has not taken us so long, all things considered, to catch up with them.

John's letters were cheery and they came regularly, too, for a time. But I suppose it was because they left out so much, because there was so great a part of my boy's life that was hidden from me, that I found myself thinking more and more of John as a wee bairn and as a lad growing up.

He had been a real boy. He had the real boy's spirit of fun and mischief. There was a story I had often told of him that came to my mind now. We were living in Glasgow. One drizzly day, Mrs. Lauder kept John in the house, and he spent the time standing at the parlour window looking down on the street, apparently innocently interested in the passing traffic.

In Glasgow it is the custom for the coal dealers to go along the streets with their lorries, crying their wares, after the manner of a vegetable pedlar in America, muffin men in London, and of fishwives in Edinburgh. If a housewife wants any coal, she goes to the window when she hears the hail of the coal man, and holds up a finger, or two fingers, according to the number of sacks of coal she wants.

To Mrs. Lauder's surprise, and finally to her great vexation, coal men came tramping up our stairs every few minutes all afternoon, each one staggering under the weight of a hundredweight sack of coal. She had ordered no coal and she wanted no coal, but still the coal men came, a veritable pest of them.

They kept on coming, too, until she discovered that little John was the author of their grimy-pilgrimages to our door. He was signalling every passing lorry from the window in the Glasgow coal code!

I watched him from that window another day when he was quarrelling with a number of playmates in the street below. The quarrel ended in a fight. John was giving one lad a pretty good pegging, when the others decided that the battle was too much his way, and jumped on him.

John promptly executed a strategic retreat. He retreated with considerable speed, too. I saw him running; I heard the patter of his feet on our stairs, and a banging at our door. I opened it and admitted a flushed, dishevelled little warrior, and I heard the other boys shouting up the stairs what they would do to him.

By the time I got the door closed, and got back to our little parlour, John was standing at the window, giving a marvellous pantomime for the benefit of his enemies in the street. He was putting his small, clenched fist now to his nose, and now to his jaw, to indicate to the youngsters what he was going to do to them later on.

Those, and a hundred other little incidents, were as fresh in my memory as if they had only occurred yesterday. His mother and I recalled them over and over again. From the day John was born, it seems to me the only things that really interested me were the things in. which he was concerned. I used to tuck him in his crib at night. The affairs of his babyhood were far more important to me than my own personal affairs.

I watched him grow and develop, with enormous pride ; and he took great pride in me. That to me was far sweeter than praise from crowned heads. Soon he was my constant companion. He was my business confidant. More; he was my most intimate friend.

There were no secrets between us. I think that John and I talked of things that few fathers and sons have the courage to discuss. He never feared to ask my advice on any subject, and I never feared to give it to him.

I wish you could have known my son as he was to me. I wish all fathers could know their sons as I knew John. He was the most brilliant conversationalist I have ever known. He was my ideal musician.

He took up music only as an accomplishment, however. He did not want to be a performer, although he had amazing natural talent in that direction. Music was born in him. He could transpose a melody in any key. You would whistle an air for him, and he could turn it into a little opera at once.

However, he was anxious to make for himself in some other line of endeavour, and while he was often my piano accompanist, he never had any intention of going on the stage.

When he was fifteen years old, I was commanded to appear before King Edward, who was a guest at Rufford Abbey, the seat of Lord and Lady Savile, situated in a district called the Dukeries, and I took John as my accompanist.

I gave my usual performance, and while I was making my changes, John played the piano. At the close, King Edward sent for me, and thanked me. It was a proud moment for me, but a prouder moment came when the King spoke of John's playing, and thanked him for his part in the entertainment.

There were curious contradictions, it often seemed to me, in John. His uncle, Tom Vallance, was in his day, one of the very greatest football players in Scotland. But John never greatly liked the game. He thought it was too rough. He thought any game was a poor game in which players were likely to be hurt. And yet—he had been eager for the rough game of war, the roughest game of all!

Ah, but this war was not a game to him ! He was not one of those who went out with a light heart, as they might have entered upon a football match. All honour to those who went into the war so; they played a great part and a noble part! But there were more who went, to war as my boy did—taking it upon themselves as a duty and a solemn obligation. They had no illusions. They did not love war. No ; John hated war, and the black ugly horrors of it. But there were things he hated more than he hated war. And one was a peace won through submission to injustice.

Have I told you how my boy looked? He was slender, but he was strong and wiry. He was about five feet five inches tall; he topped his Bad by a handspan. And he was the neatest boy you might ever have hoped to see. Aye, but he did not inherit that from me ! Indeed, he used to reproach me, oftentimes, for being careless about my clothes. My collar would be loose, perhaps, or my waistcoat would not fit just so. He did not like that, and he would tell me so !

When he did that, I would tell him of times when he was a wee boy, and would come in from play with a dirty face; how his mother would order him to wash, and how he would painstakingly mop off just enough of his features to leave a dark ring abaft his cheeks, and above his eyes, and below his chin.

"You wash your face, but never let on to your neck," I would tell him when he was a wee laddie.

He had a habit then of parting and brushing about an inch of his hair, leaving the rest all topsyturvy. My recollection of that boyhood habit served me as a defence in later years when he would call my attention to my own disordered hair.

I linger long, and I linger lovingly over these small details, because they are part of my daily thoughts. Every day some little incident comes up to remind me of my boy. A battered old hamper, in which I carry my different character make-ups, stands in my dressing-room. It was John's favourite seat. Every time I look at it I have a vision of a tiny wide-eyed boy perched on the lid, watching me make ready for the stage. A lump rises in my throat.

In all his life, I never had to admonish my son once ; not once. He was the most considerate lad I have ever known. He was always thinking of others; he was always doing for others.

It was with such thoughts as these that John's mother and I filled in the time between his letters. They came as if by a schedule. We knew what post should bring one. And once or twice a letter was a post late, and our hearts were in our throats with fear. And then came a day when there should have been a letter, and none came. The whole day passed. I tried to comfort John's mother. I tried to believe myself that it was no more than a mischance of the post. But it was not that.

We could do nought but wait. Ah, but the folks at home in Britain know all too well those sinister breaks in the chains of letters from the front! Such a break may mean nothing or anything.

For us, news came quickly. But it was not a letter from John that came to us. It was a telegram from the War Office, and it told us no more than that our boy was wounded and in hospital.


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