The Human Touch - H.C. McNeile - ebook

The Human Touch ebook

H. C. Mcneile



Shorty Bill the sniper is a fun type, but with a cool head. He cuts a new tag on his rifle with each new kill. Herman Cyril McNeile despised the Germans. He was a soldier, a member of the Royal Engineers. This story is about simple guys who became real soldiers in the war.

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Liczba stron: 391

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§ I

It was about the size of an ordinary tennis lawn at the top, and it was deep enough to contain a workman’s cottage. It was a crater–a mine crater. Suddenly one morning the ground near by had shaken as if there was an earthquake; dugouts had rocked, candles and bottles had crashed wildly onto the cursing occupants lying on the floor, and IT had appeared. Up above, a great mass of earth and debris had gone towards heaven, and in the fullness of time descended again; a sap-head with its wooden frames had disappeared into small pieces; the sentry group of three men occupying it had done likewise. And when the half-stunned occupants of adjacent dugouts and saps, and oddments from the support line had removed various obstacles from their eyes and pulled themselves firmly together in order to go and investigate, they found that the old front line trench had been cut in two and blocked by the explosion. About twenty yards of it had lain within the radius of destruction of the mine, and had passed gently away; so that instead of a trench to walk along, the explorers found themselves confronted with a great mass of newly thrown up earth which blocked their way. One, more curious than discreet, climbed on top to see what had occurred. He had even got so far as to inform his pals below that it was “Some ‘ole,” when with an ominous ‘phut he slithered a few feet backwards and lay still, with his boots drumming gently against one another.

“Gawd!” A corporal spat viciously. “Wot the ‘ell’s’e want to go and get up there for? Don’t show yerselves, and get a hold on ‘is legs. That’s right; ‘eave ‘un in.”

In silence the investigators looked at the price of curiosity, and then they covered up his face and took him away. And somewhere in the Hun lines a sniper laughed gently and consumed what was left of his breakfast sausage.

Thus did the crater occur, and with it four vacancies in the roll of the South Devons. Viewed impersonally it seemed a very small result for such a very large hole; but in a performance where the entire bag of a fifteen-inch shell is quite possibly a deserted patch in an inoffensive carrot field, cause and effect have taken unto themselves new standards.

The main result of the crater was the activity produced in the more serious band of investigators who came on the scene a little later. The front line was cut; therefore, the front line must be joined together again. The far lip of the crater was adjacent to our own front line; therefore, the far lip must be held by a bombing party. And so, through both the walls of earth which blocked the trench, a gallery was pushed by sappers working day and night, while every evening a party of Infantry crept out to the far lip, and sat inside during the night watching for any activity on the part of the Hun.

Which brings us to a certain morning when Shorty Bill sat at the bottom of the crater, and ruminated on life. On each side of him two black holes appeared in the walls of the crater–holes about six feet high and three feet wide–which led by timbered shafts to the two broken ends of the front line trench. In front there rose steeply a wall of earth, along the top of which ran a strand of barbed wire.

It was like sitting at the bottom of a great hole in the dunes, where one’s horizon is the broken line of sand and coarse grass above. There was no wind, and the sun warmed him pleasantly as he lay stretched out with his tin hat tilted over his eyes. The fact that there was nothing but fifty odd yards between him and the gentlemen from Berlin disturbed him not at all; the fact that he was thirty odd yards in front of our own front line disturbed him even less.

The sun was warm, the sky was cloudless; he had breakfasted well; and–this was the main point–he was in possession of a letter: one might almost say the letter. It had come with the mail the previous day, and as Shorty’s correspondence was not of the bulk which had ever caused the regimental postman to strike for higher wages, it had occasioned consider able comment. And spice had been added to the comment by the fact that Shorty had just returned from leave in England.

Shorty, however, was not to be drawn. Completely disregarding all comments, scandalous and otherwise, he had placed the letter in his pocket, to ponder on and digest at a future date, when separated from the common herd. And now, with his eyes half closed, he lay thinking at the bottom of the crater. Beside him, close at hand, was his rifle; and though to a casual observer he might have seemed half asleep, in reality he was very far from it. Almost mechanically his eyes roved along the edge of tumbled earth in front of him; his brain might be busy with things hundreds of miles away, but his subconscious mind was acutely awake: watching, waiting–just in case a Boche head did appear and look down on him from the other side. Shorty didn’t make mistakes; in the game across the water it is advisable not to. More over, other people did make them, and had you looked at Shorty’s rifle you would have seen on the stock a row of little nicks–cut with a knife. Those nicks were the mistakes of the other people...

Short, almost squat, with a great scar across his cheek, due to faulty judgment as to the length of reach in a bear’s fore paw, he looked a tough customer. He was a tough customer, and yet those grey eyes of his, with the glint of humour in them, told their own story. Tough perhaps, but human all the while. A man to trust; a man who wouldn’t let a woman or a pal down. And as an epitaph few of us will deserve more than that: many will ask for less–in vain...

A noise behind him made him look round, and a man stepped out of one of the wooden galleries.

“Hullo, Shorty,” remarked the new-comer. “You’re here, are you?” He sat down beside him and stretched himself comfortably. “Nice and warm, it is, too.”

For a moment Shorty did not answer, and then he spat reflectively. “What was it you taught them guys at Oxford, son?” he remarked gently.

“Higher mathematics, Shorty. A dull subject, and sometimes now I wonder how the devil I ever stuck it.”

“Was it much good to ‘em?” Shorty’s tone was still soft and mild. “Were you one of the big noises at your school?”

The new-comer shuddered slightly. “We will pass over the word school, Shorty,” he gulped; “and as for the other part of your question, I dare say other people would be able to answer you better than I can.”

“Wal, I guess it cuts no ice either way. But if you intend to go back, if you’re a sort of national institootion like Madame Tussaud’s waxworks or the Elephant and Castle, you’d better be making tracks for your ticket now.”

John Mayhew, sometime tutor in the realms of the purest and highest and deadliest mathematics, who would keep his pupils occupied for an hour trying to follow one step on the board, looked at his friend in mild surprise.

“I don’t want my ticket now, Shorty.”

“Oh, don’t you? I was thinking I could come and certify you as being insane.” Shorty sat up and scowled. “After all these months, training you and turning you into a man–wasting me time on you showing you tricks, an’ little ways of making the other man pass out first–you goes and comes into this blinking crater same as if you was blowing into a fancy resturant with your glad rags on. Yer gun hung over your shoulder, yer ‘ands in yer pockets–singin’ a love song. Oh, it’s cruel!” With a hopeless gesture of resignation he dismissed the subject, and lay back once again.

“But, damn it, Shorty, I knew you were here.” There are many undergraduates who would willingly have given a month’s pay to have seen John Mayhew’s face at that moment. Men who had battled on paper for hours, only to confess themselves utterly defeated; men who had heard John’s famous remark, “Well, gentlemen, I can supply you with information, but I regret that I cannot supply you with brains,” would have given a month’s–nay, a year’s pay to have seen him then. Utterly crestfallen, he contemplated the irate little man beside him, and confessed miserably to himself that his excuse was poor.

“Knew I was here!” Shorty Bill snorted. “You didn’t know nothing of the blinking sort. You never knows where I am. There might have been a crowd of Boches in here for all you knew. Come round a corner, I tells yer again and again, unless you knows yer all right, with yer gun ready to stab or shoot. Don’t go ambling about like a nursemaid pushing the family twins.”

John Mayhew preserved a discreet silence, and for a while the two men watched an aeroplane above them, and listened to the ‘plop of a British Archie, which was apparently trying to hit it. A cannon-ball from one of our 60-pounder trench mortars passed overhead, its stalk wobbling drunkenly behind it, and from the German trenches came the dull crack of the explosion; while away down the line a machine gun let drive a belt at some target. But everything was peaceful in the crater: peaceful and warm...

“What have you got there, Shorty?” Mayhew broke the silence, after watching his companion for a while out of the corner of his eye. Clutched in Shorty’s hand was the letter, at which every now and then he stole a furtive glance.

“A letter from a little gal I met in England, son. Nice little gal.”

“Good. Are you going to get spliced?”

“Wal, I dunno as she’s that sort.” Shorty Bill frowned at the sky “She ain’t...wal...she’s not...” He seemed to have some difficulty in finding his words.

John Mayhew smiled slightly; for a mathematical genius he was very human. “I see. But perhaps if we never do anything worse, Shorty, than she’s done, we’ll not do so badly.”

Once again did his companion sit up. “You’re right, son: right clean through. They’re the salt of the earth some of them girls; and I reckons it was our fault to start with. Care to see?” He paused and went on shyly, “Care to see what she says?”

In silence Mayhew took the letter, and for a second or two his eyes were a little dim. The cheap scent, the common pink paper, the pathos of it all, hit him–hit him like a blow. Two years ago he would have recoiled in disgusted contempt–the whole atmosphere would have struck him as so utterly commonplace and tawdry. But in those two years he had learned in the Book of Life; he had realised this his pre-war standards did not survive the test of Death: that they were the things which were cheap and tawdry. He had got bigger; he had got a little nearer the heart of things...

“DERE BILL” (so ran the letter), “I likes you: better than any of the others. Why have I got to do it, Bill? I hates them, and a lady come down to-day and give me a track. Blarst her! It will always be you, Bill. Come home soon again. ROSE.”

“P.S.–Am nitting you a pare of socks.”

The letter dropped unheeded from Mayhew’s hand, and his mind went back to his own leave. Then again it was the woman who had been all that mattered. She didn’t use cheap scent or pink paper–but...

“It’s a leveller,” he muttered. “By God! this war is a leveller.”

“What’s that, mate?” demanded Shorty, picking up his precious letter. But John Mayhew made no answer; he was back with his thoughts...back on leave...

A little picture came to him, a picture full of that Cursed cynical humour that chokes a man, and then makes him laugh–with the laughter of a man who is in the pit...

The man had driven up in a taxi just in front of him. He got out and his wife stood by him while he fumbled in his pocket for some money. Then the girl–she was just a girl, that’s all, with the suffering of the world in her eyes–leant forward and touched his on the arm.

“I think, Bob, I’d like him to wait, old boy. I don’t want to have to go looking round for one, after...”

He looked at her, and she looked away quickly–too quickly. Instinctively his hand went out towards her; then it dropped to his side, and he turned to the driver.

“Will you wait for this lady? I’m going off by the leave train.” He took his bag from the man and grinned gently at his wife. “Jolly good idea of yours, old thing. Let’s go and find a seat.”

Round every Pullman were gathered small crowds of officers and their friends, while the wooden barrier beside the platform was crowded with men in khaki and their womenkind, each little group intent on its own affairs; each little group obsessed, with that one damnable idea–“Dear God! but it’s over; he’s going back again.”

They met on a common footing–the women. Wife, mistress, mother, what matter the actual tie in the face of that one great fact–that helpless feeling of utter impotence. For a week or ten days they had had him, and now it was the end. There was so much to say, and only such a little while to say it in; so many things had been forgotten, so many things they had wanted to ask about, which, in the excitement of having him back, had slipped their memory. And now, the system was claiming him again, the inexorable machine was taking him away.

Mayhew had wandered slowly up the platform, catching a word here and there. A small child held in her father’s arms was diligently poking his face with a wet finger, while her mother, with one eye on the clock and another on her offspring, was speaking disjointedly.

“Ain’t she a wonder, Bill? An’ you will tell me if you gets yer parcels: I’m sending them regular. That’s all right, old gal. I’ll do fine.”

Close beside them two flappers giggled hysterically, with their arms round the necks of a couple of gunner-drivers; and pacing up and down a youngster, with his arm through that of a white-haired man, was talk ing earnestly.

Mayhew, his seat taken, got to the end of the platform, and leaned against a pile of baggage. The stoker, smoking a short clay pipe, was leaning unconcernedly from the engine, and the steam was screeching through the safety-valve. Then, above the uproar, he heard the girl of the taxi speaking close by. To move meant being seen: and at such times there is only one man for the woman.

“Oh, my dear, my dear!” she said; “but it’s been good having you again.” She raised her swimming eyes to the man and smiled. “I’m not going to cry, Bob–at least, not very much. You will write, old man, won’t you. It’s all the little things I want to know: whether your servant is looking after you, and whether you’re comfortable, and if you get wet, and your clothes are mended.” She smiled again–a wan little smile. “You once said you couldn’t tell me any of the interesting things, because of the Censor. Dear, the things I want to know, the Censor won’t object to. I don’t care what part of the front you’re on–at least, not much. It isn’t that that I want to hear about. It’s just you; you, my darling. And more especially–now.” She said the last word so softly that he scarce heard it.

For a while the man looked out over the network of lines into the blue of the summer’s morning. To save his life at the moment he could not have spoken without breaking down, and as a nation we do not break down in public. The night before, in the hotel where they were staying–well, that is different perhaps. And the place on which we stand is Holy Ground–so let us leave it at that...

“Of course I’ll write, old thing,” he got out after a bit, and his tone was almost flippant. “I always do write–pages of drivel."  

An Australian beside him was kissing a girl whose painted cheeks told their own tale.

“Here’s a quid, Kid,” he was saying. “You’d better take it; it’s about the lot I’ve got left.”

“I don’t want it, Bill.” The girl pushed it away. “Oh, my God, what a bloody thing this war is! Have made you happy, old man?” She clung to his arm, and the soldier looked down into her eyes quizzically. “Yes, Kid. You’ve made me happy right enough.”

He tilted up her face with his hand and kissed her lips. “Poor Kid,” he muttered. “You’ve got a rotten life, my gal–and you’re white inside. Take the bally flimsy; I wish I could make it more. I’d like to think you could take a bit of a rest. There, there–don’t cry: I’ll come and see you again in six months, or may be a year.”

They moved away, and John Mayhew followed them with his eyes. “Pages of drivel,” he repeated mechanically. “God! but this is the devil for women."  

“Take your seats, please.” The guard’s voice rose above the din.

“Good-bye, my darling, and God bless you.” For just a moment he watched the man called Bob hold her two hands, and with his eyes tell her the things which it is not given to mortals to say. Then he kissed her on the lips, and without a word she turned and left him. Once she looked back and waved–a little flash of white fluttering for an instant out of the crowd. And then a kindly taxi driver helped her to find the step she couldn’t see; and the curtain had rung down once again...  

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