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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 6


"WOUNDED and in hospital!" That might have meant anything. And for a whole week that was all we knew. To hope for word more definite until—and unless —John himself could send us a message, appeared to be vain. Every effort we made ended in failure. And, indeed, at such a time, private inquiries could not well he made. The 'messages that had to do with the war and with the business of the armies, had to be dealt with first.

But at last, after a week in which his mother and I almost went mad with anxiety, there came a note from our laddie himself. He told us not to fret—that all that ailed him was that his nose was split and his wrist bashed up a bit! His mother looked at me and I at her. It seemed bad enough to us ! But he made light of his wounds, aye, and he was right! When I thought of men I'd seen in hospitals—men with wounds so frightful that they may not be spoken of—I rejoiced that John had fared so well.

And I hoped, too, that his wounds would bring him home to us—to Blighty, as the Tommies were beginning to call Britain. But his wounds were not serious enough for that, and so soon as they were healed, he went back to the trenches.

"Don't worry about me," he wrote to us. "Lots of fellows out here have been wounded five and six times, and don't think anything of it. I'll be all right so long as I don't get knocked out."

He didn't tell us then that it was the bursting of a shell that gave him his first wound stripe. But he wrote to us regularly again, and there were scarcely any days in which a letter did not come either to me or to his mother. When one of those breaks did come it was now doubly hard to bear.

For now we knew what it was to dread the sight of a telegraph messenger. Few homes in Britain there are that do not share that knowledge now. It is by telegraph, from the War Office, that bad news comes first. And so, with the memory of that first telegram that we had had, matters were even worse, somehow, than they had been before. For me the days and nights dragged by as if they would never pass.

There was more news in John's letters now. We took some comfort from that. I remember one in which he told his mother how good a bed he had finally made for himself the night before. For some reason he was without quarters, either a billet or a dug-out. He had to skirmish around, for he did not care to sleep simply in Flanders mud. But at last he found two handfuls of straw, and with them made his couch.

"I got a good two hours' sleep," he wrote to his mother. "And I was perfectly comfortable. I can tell you one thing, too, Mother. If I ever get home after this experience, there'll be one in the house who'll never grumble ! This business puts the grumbling out of your head. This is where the men are. This is where every man ought to be."

In another letter he told us that nine of his men had been killed.

"We buried them last night," he wrote, "just as the sun went down. It was the first funeral I have ever attended. It was most impressive. We carried the boys to one huge grave. The padre said a prayer, and we lowered the boys into the ground, and we all sang a little hymn: 'Peace, Perfect Peace!' Then I called my men to attention again, and we marched straight back into the trenches, each of us, I dare say, wondering who would be the next."

John was promoted for the second time in Flanders. He was now a captain, having got his step on the field of battle. Promotion came swiftly in those days to those who proved themselves worthy. And all of the few reports that came to us of John showed us that he was a good officer. His men liked him, and trusted him, and would follow him anywhere. And little better than that can be said of any officer.

While Captain John Lauder was playing his part across the Channel, I was still trying to do what I could at home. My band still travelled up and down, the length and width of the United Kingdom, skirling and drumming and drawing men by the score to the recruiting office.

There was no more talk now of a short war. We knew now what we were in for.

But there was no thought or talk of anything save victory. Let the war go on as long as it must, it could end only in one way. We had been forced into the fight; but we were in, and we were in to stay. John, writing from France, was no more determined than those at home.

It was not very long before there came again a break in John's letters. We were used to the days—far apart—that brought no word. Not until the second day and the third day had passed without a word, did Mrs. Lauder and I confess our terrors and our anxiety to ourselves and one another. This time our suspense was comparatively shortlived. Word came that John was in hospital again; at the Duke of Westminster's hospital at Le Toquet, in France. This time he was not wounded; he was suffering from dysentery, fever and a nervous breakdown. That was what staggered his mother and me. A nervous breakdown ! We could not reconcile the John we knew with the idea that the words conveyed to us. He had been highly strung, to be sure, and sensitive. But never had he Been the sort of boy of whom to expect a breakdown so severe as this must be if they had sent him to hospital.

We could only wait to hear from him, however. And it was several weeks before he was strong enough to be able to write to us. There was no hint of discouragement in what he wrote then. On the contrary, he kept on trying to reassure us, and if he ever grew downhearted, he made it his business to see that we did not suspect it. Here is one of his letters; like most of them it was not about himself.

"I had a sad experience yesterday," he wrote to me. "It was the first day I was able to be out of bed, and I went over to a piano in a comer against the wall, sat down, 'and began playing very softly, more to myself than anything else.

"One of the nurses came to me, and said a Captain Webster, of the Gordon Highlanders, who lay on a bed in the same ward, wanted to speak to me. She said he had asked who was playing, and she had told Mm Captain Lauder—Harry Lauder's son. ' Oh,' he said, 'I know Harry Lauder very well. Ask Captain Lauder to come here!'

"This man had gone through ten operations in less than a week. I thought perhaps my playing had disturbed him, but when I went to Ms bedside, he grasped my hand, pressed it with what little strength he had left, and thanked me. He asked me if I could play a hymn. He said he would like to hear 'Lead, Kindly Light.'

"So I went back to the piano and played it as softly and as gently as I could. It was Ms last request. He died an hour later. I was very glad I was able to soothe Ms last moments a little. I am very glad now that I learned the hymn at Sunday School as a boy."

Soon after we received that letter there came what we could not but think great news. John was ordered home! He was invalided, to be sure, and I warned his mother that she must be prepared for a shock when she saw him. But no matter how ill he was, we would have our lad with us for a space. And for that much British fathers and mothers had learned to be grateful.

I had warned John's mother, but it was I who was shocked when I saw him first on the day he came back to our wee hoose at Dunoon. His cheeks were sunken, his eyes very bright, as a man's are who has a fever. He was weak and thin, and there was no blood in his cheeks. It was a sight to wring one's heart to see the laddie so brought down—him who had looked so braw and strong the last time we had seen him.

That had been when he was setting out for the wars, you ken ! And now he was back, sae thin and weak and pitiful, as I had not seen him since he had been a bairn in his mother's arms.

Aweel, it was for us, his mother and I, and all the folks at home, to mend him, and make him strong again. So he told us, for he had but one thing on his mind—to get back to his men.

"They'll be needing me, out there," he said. "They're needing men. I must go back so soon as I can. Every man is needed there."

"You'll be needing your strength back before you can be going back, son," I told Mm. "If you fash and fret it will take you but so much the longer to get back."

He knew that. But he knew things I could not know, because I had not seen them. He had seen things that he saw over and over again when he tried to sleep. His nerves were shattered utterly. It grieved me sore not to spend all my time with him, but he would not hear of it. He drove me back to my work.

"You must work on, Dad, like every other Briton," he said. "Think of the part you're playing. Why you're more use than any of us out there; you're worth a brigade!"

So I left him on the Clyde, and went on about my work. But I went back to Dunoon as often as I could, and as I got a day or a night to make the journey. At first there was small change of progress. John would come downstairs about the middle of the day, moving slowly and painfully. And he was listless; there was no life in him; no spring.

"How did you rest, son?" I would ask him.

He always smiled when he answered.

"Oh, fairly well," he'd tell me. "I fought three or four battles though, before I dropped off to sleep."

He had come to the right place to be cured, though, and his mother was the nurse he needed. It was quiet in the hills of the Clyde, and there was rest and healing in the heather about Dunoon. Soon his sleep became better and less troubled by dreams. He could eat more, too, and they saw to it, at home, that he ate all they could stuff into him.

So it was a surprisingly short time, considering how bad he had looked when he first came back to Dunoon, before he was in good health and spirits again. There was a bonnie, wee lassie who was to become Mrs. John Lauder before very long; she helped our boy, too, to get back Ms strength. Soon he was ordered from home. For a time he had only light duties with the Home Reserve. Then he went to school. I laughed when he told me he had been ordered to school, but he didna crack a smile.

"You needn't be laughing," he said. "It's a bombing school I'm going to nowadays. If you're away from the front for a few weeks, you find everything changed when you get back. Bombing is going to be important."

John did so well in the bombing school that he was made an instructor and assigned, for a while, to teach others. But he was impatient to be back with his own men, and they were clamouring for him. And so, on September 16, 1916, his mother and I bade him good-bye again, and he went back to France, and the men his heart was wrapped up in.

"Yon's where the men are Dad!" he said to me, just before he started.


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