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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 24


THE next morning I was tired, as you may believe. I ached in every limb when I went to my room that night, but a hot bath and a good sleep did wonders for me. No bombardment could have kept me awake that nicht! I would no ha' cared: had the Hun begun shelling Tramecourt itself, so long as he did not shell me clean out of my bed.

Still, in the morning, though I had not had so much sleep as I would have liked, I was ready to go when we got the word. We made about as early a start as usual; breakfast soon after daylight, and then out to the motor-cars and to wee Tinkle Tom. Our destination that day—our first, at least—was Albert, a town as badly smashed and battered as Arras or Ypres. These towns were long thinly held by the British—that is, they were just within our lines—and the Hun could rake them with his fire at his own evil will.

It did him no good to batter them to pieces as he did. He wasted shells upon them that must have been precious to him. His treatment of them was but a part of his wicked, wanton spirit of destructiveness. He could not see a place standing that he did not want to destroy, I think. It was not war he made, as the world had known war; it was a savage raid against every sign and evidence of civilization, and comfort and happiness. But always, as I think I have said before, one thing eluded him. It was the soul of that which he destroyed. That was beyond his reach, and sore it must have grieved him to come to know it. For come to know it he has, in France, and in Belgium, too, aye, and Serbia forbye.

We passed through a wee town called Doullens on our way from Tramecourt to Albert. And there, that morn, I saw an old French nun; an aged woman, a woman old beyond all belief or reckoning. I think she is still there, where I saw her that day. Indeed, it has seemed to me, often, as I have thought upon her, that she will always be there, gliding silently through the deserted streets of that wee toon, on through all the ages that are to come, and always a cowled, veiled figure of reproach and hatred for the German race.

There is some life in that wee place now. There are no more Germans, and no more shells come there. The battle line has been carried on to the east by the British; here they have redeemed a bit of France from the German yoke. And so we could stop there, in the heat of the morning, for a bit of refreshment at a cafe that was once, I suppose, quite a place in that sma' toon. It does but little business now; passing soldiers bring it some trade, but nothing like what it used to have. For this is not a town much frequented by troops, or was not, just at that time.

There was some trouble, too, with one of the cars, so we went for a short walk through the town. It was then that we met that old French nun. Her face and her hands were withered, and deeply graven with the lines of the years that had bowed her head. Her back was bent, and she walked slowly and with difficulty. But in her eyes was a soft, young light that I have often seen in the eyes of priests and nuns, and that their comforting religion gives them. But as we talked I spoke of the Germans.

Gone from her eyes was all their softness. They flashed a bitter and contemptuous hatred.

"The Germans!" she said. She spat upon the ground, scornfully, and with a gesture of infinite loathing. And every time she uttered that hated word she spat again. It was a ceremony she used ; she felt, I know, that her mouth was defiled by that word, and she wished to cleanse it. It was no affectation, as, with some folk, you might have thought it. It was not a studied act. She did it, I do believe, unconsciously. And it was a gesture marvellously expressive. It spoke more eloquently of her feelings than many words could have done.

She had seen the Germans! Aye! She had seen them come, in 1914, in the first days of the war, rolling past in great, grey waves, for days and days, as if the flood would never cease. She had seen them passing, with their guns, in those first proud days of the war, when they had reckoned themselves invincible, and been so sure of victory. She knew what cruelties, what indignities, they had put upon the helpless people whom the war had swept into their clutch. She knew the defilements of which they had been guilty.

Nor was that the first time she had seen Germans. They had come before she was so old, though even then she had not been a young girl— in the war of 1870, when Europe left brave France to her fate, because the German spirit and the German plan were not appreciated or understood. Thank God the world had learned its lesson by 1914, when the Hun challenged it again; so that the challenge was met and taken up, and France was not left alone to bear the brunt of German greed and German hate.

She hated the Germans, that old French nun. She was religious; she knew the teachings of her church. She knew that God says we must love our enemies. But He could not expect us to love His enemies.

Albert, when we came to it, we found a ruin indeed. The German guns had beaten upon it until it was like a rubbish heap in the backyard of hell. Their malice had wrought a ruin here almost worse than that at Arras. Only one building had survived, although it was crumbling to ruin. That was a church, and, as we approached it, we could see, from the great way off, a great gilded figure of the Holy Virgin, holding in her arms the infant Christ.

The figure leaned at such an angle, high up against the tottering wall of the church, that it seemed that it must fall at the next moment, even as we stared at it. But—it does not fall. Every breath of wind that comes sets it swaying, gently. When the wind rises to a storm it must rock perilously indeed. But still it stays there, hanging like an inspiration straight from Heaven to all who see it. The peasants who gaze upon it each day in reverent awe whisper to you, if you ask them, that when it falls at last the war will be over, and France will be victorious.

That is rank superstition, you say? Aye, it may be. But in the region of the front every one you meet has become superstitious, if that is the word you choose. That is especially true of the soldiers. Every man at the front, it seemed to me, was a fatalist. What is to be will be, they say. It is certain that this feeling has helped to make them indifferent to danger, almost, indeed, contemptuous of it. And in France, I was told, almost everywhere there were shrines in which figures of Christ or of His Mother had survived the most furious shelling. All the world knows, too, how, at Rheims, where the great cathedral has been shattered in the wickedest and most wanton of all the crimes of that sort that the Germans have to their account, the statue of Jeanne d'Arc, who saved France long ago, stands untouched.

How is a man to account for such things as that? Is he to put them down to chance, to luck, to a blind fate ? I, for one, cannot do so, nor will I try to learn to do it.

Fate, to be sure, is a strange thing, as my friends the soldiers know so well. But there is a difference between fate, or chance, and the sort of force that preserves statues like those I have named. A man never knows his luck; he does well not to brood upon it. I remember the case of a chap I knew, who was out for nearly three years taking part in great battles from Mons to Arras. He was scratched once or twice, but was never even really wounded badly enough to go to hospital. He went to London, at last, on leave, and within an hour of the time when he stepped from his train at Charing Cross he was struck by a 'bus and killed. And there was the strange case of Tamson, the baker, of which I told you earlier. No, a man never knows his fate.

So it seemed to me, as we drove toward Arras, and watched that mysterious figure, that God Himself had chosen to leave it there, as a sign and a warning and a promise all at once. There was no sign of life, at first, when we came into the town. Silence brooded over the ruins. We stopped to have a look around in that scene of desolation, and as the motors throbbed beneath the hoods, it seemed to me the noise they made was close to being blasphemous. We were right under that hanging figure of the Virgin and of Christ, and to have left the silence unbroken would have been more seemly.

But it was not long before the silence of the town was broken by another sound. It was marching men we heard, but they were scuffling with their feet as they came; they had not the rhythmic tread of most of the British troops we had encountered. Nor were these men, when they swung into sight, coming around a pile of ruins, just like any British troops we had seen. I recognized them at once as Australians—Kangaroos, as their mates in other divisions called them—by the way their campaign hats were looped up at one side. These were the first Australian troops I had seen since I had sailed from Sydney, in the early days of the war, nearly three years before. Three years! To think of it! and of what those years had seen!

"Here's a rare chance to give a concert!" I said, and held up my hand to the officer in command.

"Halt!" he cried, and then: "Stand at ease!"

I was about to tell him why I had stopped them, and make myself known to them, when I saw a grin rippling its way over all those bronzed faces —a grin of recognition. And I saw that the officer knew me, too, even before a loud voice cried out: "Good old Harry Lauder!"

That was a good Scots voice, even though its owner wore the Australian uniform.

"Would the boys like to hear a concert?" I asked the officer.

"That they would! By all means!" he said. "Glad of the chance! And so'm I! I've heard you just once before, in Sydney, away back in the summer of 1914."

Then the big fellow who had called my name spoke up again.

"Sing us 'Calligan,'" he begged. "Sing us 'Calligan,' Harry! I heard you sing it years agone, in Motherwell Toon Hall!"

"Calligan!" The request for that song took me back indeed, through all the years that I have been before the public. It must have been at least twenty-three years since he had heard me sing that song—all of twenty-three years. "Calligan" had been one of the very earliest of my successes on the stage. I had not thought of the song, much less sung it, for years and years. In fact, though I racked my brains, I could not remember the words. And so, much as I should have liked to do so, I could not sing it for him. But if he was disappointed, he took it in good part, and he seemed to like some of the newer songs I had to sing for them as well as he could ever have liked old "Calligan."

I sang for these Kangaroos a song I had not sung before in France, because it seemed to be an especially auspicious time to try it. I wrote it while I was in Australia, with a view, particularly, to pleasing Australian audiences, and so repaying them, in some measure, for the kindly way in which they treated me while I was there. I call it "Australia is the Land for Me," and this is the way it goes.

There's a land I'd like to tell you all about:

It's a land in the far South Sea,
It's a land where the sun shines nearly every day,
It's a land for you and me.
It's the land for the man with the big strong arm;
It's the land for big hearts, too;
It's a land we'll fight for, everything that's right for
Australia is the real true blue!

Refrain :

It's the land where the sun shines nearly every day,
Where the skies are ever blue,
Where the folks are as happy as the day is long,
And there's lots of work to do.
Where the soft winds blow, and the gum trees grow
As far as the eye can see,
Where the magpie chaffs and the cuckoo-burra laughs :
Australia is the land for me!

Those Kangaroos took to that song as a duck takes to water. They raised the chorus with me in a swelling roar as soon as they had heard it once to learn it, and their voices roared through the ruins like vocal shrapnel. You could hear them whoop "Australia is the Land for Me!" a mile away. And if anything could have brought down that swaying statue above us it would have been the way they sang. They put body and soul, as well as voice, into that final patriotic declaration of the song.

We had thought—I speak for Hogge and Adam and myself, and not for Godfrey, who did not have to think and guess, but to know—we had thought, when we rolled into Albert, that it was a city of the dead, utterly deserted and forlorn. But now, as I went on singing, we found that that idea had been all wrong. For as the Australians whooped up their choruses other soldiers popped into sight. They came pouring from all directions.

I have seen few sights more amazing. They came from cracks and crevices, as it seemed; from under tumbled heaps of ruins, and dropping down from shells of houses where there were certainly no stairs. As I live, before I had finished my audience had been swollen to a great one of two thousand men ! When they were all roaring out in a chorus you could scarce hear Johnson's wee piano at all, it sounded only like a feeble tinkle when there was a part for it alone.

I began shaking hands, when I had finished singing. That was a verra injudeecious thing for me to attempt there ! I had not reckoned with the strength of the grip of those laddies from the underside of the world. But I had been there, and I should have known.

Soon came the order to the Kangaroos: "Fall in!"

At once the new habit of stern discipline prevailed. They swung off again, and the last we saw of them they were just brown men, disappearing along a brown road, bound for the trenches.

Swiftly the mole-like dwellers in Albert melted away, until only a few officers were left beside the members of the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour. And I grew grave and distraught myself.


 


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