The “Assassins,” as Carruthers called Tims’ men, were all-powerful at the Night Club. They were always in sufficient strength to form a majority; but in reality Bindle exercised a sort of unconscious despotism. When a question arose, we instinctively looked to Bindle, who in turn looked to Sallie.
“When I first ‘eard that frogs come out o’ tadpoles, I couldn’t ‘ardly believe it,” Bindle once remarked, “but when I looks at the Assassins an’ remembers that they’ll become doctors in top ‘ats, with a you-leave-it-to-me-an’-I’ll-save-yer-if-I-can look, well, after that I’ll believe anythink.”
“What’s the matter with us?” enquired Roger Blint, a little dark man with a quiet manner and a violent soul.
“Well, as far as I can see, there ain’t nothink wrong wi yer as men; but doctors—!” Bindle shook his head despondently. “I wouldn’t trust my young life to one of yer.”
Bindle fixed his gaze on Jim Colman, the recognised leader of all demonstrations, physical and vocal. Colman has the instincts of a mob-leader, but the most delicate “touch” among the younger men at Tims. He is destined for Harley Street and a baronetcy.
“Look at Mr. Colman,” continued Bindle. “‘Ow’d jer like to ‘ave ‘im ‘oldin’ yer ‘and an’ tellin’ yer to get ready for an ‘arp?”
“Well, what about Bill?” enquired Colman. “He looks harmless enough—what?”
Bill Simmonds is a little sandy fellow, with a bald, conical head, who beams upon the world through gold-rimmed spectacles, which give him a genial, benevolent expression. He looks for all the world like “a clever egg,” as Dare once described him.
“Well,” remarked Bindle, judicially, examining Bill Simmonds’ face, “I might be prepared to trust ‘im wi’ my soul; but as for my body, well, give me Mr. Dennett or Mr. Smith. I’m like Mrs. B.; I like ’em big.”
Hugh Dennett is an international three-quarter who has made football history, whereas Archie Smith was the amateur champion heavy-weight when the war broke out.
“I ain’t got anythink to say against you as sports,” said Bindle encouragingly; “but as doctors, well, well!” And again he shook his head with mournful conviction.
Tims’ men never talk “shop,” but from scraps of conversation among themselves that I have overheard, theirs is a strenuous life. Sometimes they do not see their beds for three consecutive nights; yet they are always cheery and regard whatever they have to do as their “bit.” One complaint they have, that they are not allowed to go to the front.
All seem to find in the Night Club relaxation from strenuous days and sleepless nights. According to Bindle, who is a recognised authority upon such matters, they are a cheer-o! crowd. It was they who had been loudest in their support of Sallie’s election, and when “the Boy’s” story came to be told, they were equally definite in their view that he must be invited to join our exclusive circle. These were the only two instances of stories told at the Night Club resulting in our membership being increased. Incidentally the Boy fell in love with Sallie, and this formed an additional bond of sympathy between him and us.
To his brother officers he was always “The Boy.” The men, with more directness of speech, referred to him as “The Kid,” whilst at Whitehall he was known as Second Lieut. Richard St. John Custance Summers, of the 8th Service Battalion Westshire Regiment.
How he managed to secure his commission no one ever knew.
“Must ‘a been ‘is bloomin’ smile,” was the opinion of the platoon sergeant, expressed to the company-sergeant-major. “The men make fools o’ theirselves about the Kid.”
Chubby-faced, languid of manner, forgetful and “frightfully sorry” afterwards, even in his khaki he did not look more than sixteen. At mess he sat as if he had collapsed from sheer lack of bone necessary to keep him rigid. He literally lolled through life.
In carrying out his duties, such as he was unsuccessful in evading, he gave the impression of being willing in spirit, but finding great difficulty in getting his body to respond to his wishes.
One day the Colonel, a big blue-eyed man, whom the men called “the Kid’s nurse,” had told him that he had “the spirit of a martinet, but the body of a defaulter,” which was not a bad description for the C.O., who did not incline to epigram.
When given an order, the Boy would salute, with that irresistible smile of his that got him out of some scrapes and into others, then off he would lounge, all legs and arms, like a young colt, although as a matter of fact he was below medium height. When he made a mistake the N.C.O.’s and men contrived to correct it, with the result that his was the smartest platoon in the battalion. The Senior Major had once said to him:
“Boy, you’re the slackest young cub I’ve ever met, yet you get more out of the men than the Colonel and I combined. How is it?”
“I suppose, sir,” replied the Boy with great seriousness, “they see I’m such an awful ass that they’re sorry for me.”
The Boy got more leave and took more leave than any other officer in the division, and no one seemed to resent it. He never did anything in quite the same way as another youngster would, and he was a constant source of interest to his brother officers.
One roystering night he had returned to his quarters in a state ill-befitting “an officer and a gentleman,” and the company-sergeant-major, aided by a corporal, had put him to bed and they had mutually sworn eternal secrecy. In the morning, although the two non-coms. had managed to convey to him that only they knew of the episode, the Boy had gone to the Colonel, and before the other officers said:
“I returned to barracks last night drunk, sir. I was very drunk and I think I was singing. I’m sorry. It sha’n’t occur again.”
The Colonel asked who had seen him, and on being told that only the company-sergeant-major and a corporal knew of the incident, he burst out with:
“Then why the devil do you tell me about it?”
“I wanted you to know, sir. It was rather rotten of me. I know you hate it, sir, and it’s a bad example.”
The C.O. turned aside to hide a smile. The idea of the Boy being an example to anyone or anything amused him; but being a disciplinarian, and understanding something of the Boy’s nature, he stopped a week-end leave due some ten days hence, and from the Boy’s smile as he saluted he saw that he had done the right thing.
One day the Boy was given charge of his company in a sham fight, at which as everybody knew the Brigadier was to be present.
With his command, the Boy was like a kitten with a skein of wool. He got it hopelessly tangled. Perspiring and swearing N.C.O.’s strove in vain to evolve order and find out exactly where they were.
1Suddenly, with a yell to fix bayonets and charge, the Boy darted forward followed by the men in a manner that would have broken the heart of a drill-sergeant. They had blundered upon an enemy field battery in the act of limbering up, and the Boy returned to camp with six guns and a stream of prisoners, and the Brigadier had spoken to the Colonel of the exploit.
“Talk about luck! Blimey! That Kid’ll save the bloomin’ regiment one o’ these days,” grinned a private, as the boy marched with rather a bored air at the head of his day’s bag.
The Boy continued to avoid as if by instinct all the duties he possibly could. Indeed, he was apparently aided and abetted by officers and men alike. When at last the word arrived to prepare to entrain for an unknown destination, the Boy’s chief concern had been about his kit. The C.O.’s instructions had been definite and incisively expressed. He ordered that nothing be taken that was not absolutely necessary, and had added that he did not want to see France lumbered up with cast-off articles of kit of the 8th Westshires.
There had been rather a heated argument between the Boy and his captain as to the interpretation of the word “necessaries.”
“My boot-trees and manicure set,” said the Boy, “are as necessary to me as your trousers are to you.”
“Rot!” the captain had replied. “You’ll be thinking more of your skin than of your nails when you get out there.”
The Boy had compromised by leaving the boot-trees and taking a pocket manicure set.
In the trenches he was the same imperturbable, languid half boy, half man he had been in England. He was as indifferent to shells and bullets as to the grins of the men as he lolled against the parados polishing his nails. Sometimes he would bewail the lost boot-trees as he surveyed his hopeless-looking foot-gear.
At first the uncleanliness of trench life had roused him from his accustomed languor, but later he accepted this and what it entailed, not with philosophic calm, but because protest involved effort.
Even when towards the end of the September that culminated in Loos it became known that the 8th Westshires were to take part in “the big push,” and whilst officers and men were eagerly discussing their chances, he remained his sunny, imperturbable self.
On the night before the charge, the Colonel had sent for him to go to his dug-out, and there had told him that early in the morning he was to go back with an important message to Divisional headquarters and await a reply, which he was to bring back after the action. Without a word the Boy gave the necessary acknowledgment and saluted, but there was a mutinous look in his eyes as he wheeled round and left the Colonel’s dug-out.
He spoke to no one, although many of his brother officers watched him to see how he would take it. The C.O. had conferred with the Senior Major, and decided that he could not risk the Boy’s life, a view that was entirely endorsed by every officer and man in the regiment.
For hours the Boy stood brooding and polishing his nails. Then, just before “stand-to” he disappeared. His captain was the first to discover the fact, and enquiry was made along the whole line of trenches, but no one had seen the Boy for at least half an hour.
The guns had opened their brazen throats in a frenzy of hate. Overhead shells whistled and hissed, lumbered and howled as they tore towards the enemy trenches, a hurricane of screaming hate. Gusts of shrapnel spat death from above, and rifle and machine-gun bullets buried themselves impotently in the sandbags amid little puffs of dust. Slowly dawn shivered into day—a day of greyness and of death.
In the assembly-trench the 8th Westshires were waiting. Heavy-eyed and silent they gazed towards the enemy lines, hidden by a curtain of dense yellow smoke. Against the parapet scaling ladders were placed ready. At a word, a short snapping sound barked along the trench, the ladders suddenly became alive, as men scrambled up and passed over the top, or fell backward with a dull thud.
“No rushing, a steady advance in open order,” had been the Colonel’s last words to his officers.
The 8th Westshires formed up and, as steady as on parade, advanced. They had not proceeded more than thirty yards when with a sigh a breeze swept past them and carried the yellow gas beyond the first enemy trench, like a curtain of fairy gauze.
Machine-guns and rifles poured a merciless fire into the Westshires. Everywhere men were dropping, silently or with little coughs of surprise. They advanced a further twenty yards and then faltered. With a shout the Colonel dashed on waving his stock. The moment of uncertainty seemed to pass, when suddenly the Colonel dropped.
“My God!” muttered the Senior Major, as he saw the indecision pass like a wave along the line; he also noticed several men had turned and were stealing back to the trenches they had just left. “They’ll—they’ll——” and there was a sob in his voice.
Just at the moment when retreat seemed inevitable, a figure rose from a small shell-crater, and with a yell that no one heard waved on the Westshires.
“It’s the Boy,” gasped an officer. “Where the hell——”
“It’s the bloomin’ Kid. Well I’m damned!” roared the colour sergeant. “‘Ere, come on, or they’ll nab ‘im.”
This was enough for the Westshires. Capture the Kid? Not if they knew it. With a howl they raced for the enemy trench, overtaking the Boy two yards from the sand-bags. The men’s blood was up. They tumbled into the first trench, and with a sickening “sog sog” their bayonets got to work. Little coughs and grunts told of men doubled up. Everywhere cries of “Kamerad” were heard.
“It’s no use yellin’, sonny,” one man was heard to say. “You’ve got to ‘ave it—you’ve go to ‘ave it!” and he drove his bayonet into a German’s massive loins. NORFLOXACIN NICOTINATE
The Boy had come through untouched. Like a moth he flitted about from place to place, and wherever he was, there the fighting would be at its fiercest. Not only had the second line of trenches been taken in accordance with instructions, but the Westshires had crushed all resistance in the first, which they should have left to a following battalion. The work done, the Boy called two stretcher-bearers, and went back in search of the Colonel.
That night the Colonel sat in a German dugout, with a heavily bandaged leg. He had refused to go to the rear. He must first see the Boy.
When he entered, the Boy saluted and stood as if waiting for something that he knew would happen, but in which he was not particularly interested.
“What have you to say?” the Colonel enquired with unsmiling eyes. In the 8th Westshires officers and men alike dreaded the absence of that smile which seemed so much a part of the Colonel’s eyes.
The Boy hung his head. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, in a low, husky voice.
“You remember my orders?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Yet you absented yourself without leave.”
“It was——” the Boy stopped; his voice seemed suddenly to forsake him. Then after a moment’s pause the words came in a rush.
“It was the old dad, sir. I’ve never let him know I’m such a rotter. If he knew I was sent to rear before the charge it would have crocked him. He—he—thinks no end of me.”
The Boy stopped again and looked at the Colonel. “I crept out this morning, and lay in a small crater near our trench until the advance. I was going to join up and I thought I should get killed. He would sooner have me dead than not there. I’m sorry, sir—I’m——” The Boy’s voice trailed off into a sob.
“You know what you did to-day?” enquired the Colonel. The smile was back in his eyes, but the Boy did not see it.
“Deserted!” The word came out with a jerk.
“Yes, you deserted—that is, technically—but you saved the whole battalion from being cut up and—possibly disgraced.”
The Boy looked at the C.O. in wonder. He blinked his eyes uncertainly.
“I—I don’t——”
“Listen, Boy! You were sent out by my orders on listening-patrol, and told to join up with the Battalion when it advanced. You did so, do you understand?”
“But listening-patrols aren’t sent out under bombardment, sir.”
“Damn you, Boy, what the devil do you mean? Am I C.O. or you?” The Colonel wanted to laugh and simulated anger to preserve his authority.
“I’m sorry, sir; but——”
“Well, never mind about listening-patrol. I shall send an account of your services to the General that will get you the D.S.O., possibly the V.C. I will write to the—er—old dad myself.” The Colonel’s voice was husky.
“Now, get out, Boy, damn it—get out at once!”
And the Boy got out.
There was the vigour of conviction in Bindle’s play with his mallet, and the hum of talk at the conclusion of the story made it obvious that the Boy had considerably enlarged the circle of his friends.
“He’s a dear!” Sallie blinked her eyes vigorously. They were suspiciously moist.
“‘Ere, ‘ere, miss,” agreed Bindle. As a matter of fact Bindle always agrees with anything that Sallie says.
“I say, Windover, couldn’t you bring him round one night?” enquired Dick Little.
“I’ll try,” said Windover. “He’s stationed at Wimbledon now.”
“And did he get the V.C.?” enquired the practical-minded Angell Herald.
“No, the D.S.O.,” replied Windover, “with promotion to a first lieutenancy.”
“What a shame,” said Sallie, and turning to Windover she said, “You will bring him, Winnie, won’t you?” Sallie and Windover are old friends.
And that is how the Boy became a “Night-Clubber.” He is a strange combination of impudence and innocence; but there is one way of bringing him to heel. It was quite by accident that I discovered it.
One evening he had been roasting poor Angell Herald rather badly, and although that astute person was sublimely unaware of what was taking place, both Dick Little and I thought things had gone far enough.
I happened to have with me the manuscript of the story of how the Boy got his D.S.O. Without a word I started reading from it in a loud voice. I had not got six lines down the page before he slowly dragged himself out of the armchair in which he was lounging, his face crimson, and, walking towards the door, remarked:
“You’ll find me on the mat when you’ve done reading rot.”
That is the Boy all over.