Except when “roasting” Angell Herald, the Boy is not much given to speech. Humped up in the easiest chair available, he will sit apparently absorbed in the contemplation of his well-polished finger-nails, or preoccupied with the shapeliness of his shoes and the silkiness of his socks; yet his mind is keenly alert, as some of us occasionally discover to our cost. A sudden laugh from those about him will demonstrate that the Boy is awake and has scored a point, more often than not at Angell Herald’s expense.
There is something restful and refreshing in the fugitive smile that seems to flicker across the Boy’s face when, by accident, you catch his eye. He is one of those intensely lovable and sympathetic beings who seem constitutionally incapable of making enemies. As mischievous as a puppy, he would regard it as an “awful rag” to hide a man’s trousers when he is late for parade. Then he would be “most frightfully sorry” afterwards—and really mean it.
We all became much attached to him, and looked forward with concern to the time when he would be drafted out to the front again. After the Loos battle he had been attached to the depot of the Westshires at Wimbledon. From Windover we learned a great deal about the Boy, who seemed possessed of one unassailable conviction and one dominating weakness. The conviction was that he was “a most awful ass” and “rather a rotter”: the weakness was “the Mater.” He seldom spoke of her, but when he did a softness would creep into his voice, and his eyes would lose their customary look of amused indolence.
Mrs. Summers was something of an invalid, and whenever he could the Boy would spend hours in wheeling her bath-chair about Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, or sitting with her at home playing “Patience.” This he would do, not from a sense of duty; but because of the pleasure it gave him.
He seemed to go through life looking for things that would interest or amuse “the Mater.” From France he sent a stream of things, from aluminium rings to a German machine-gun. There had been some trouble with the Authorities over the machine-gun, which had been put on board a French train and the carriage heavily prepaid. The thing had been held up and enquiries instituted, which had resulted in the Boy paying a visit to the orderly-room to explain to his C.O. what he meant by trying to send Government property to S. Kensington.
“But, sir, we took it, and the men didn’t want it,” the Boy explained ingenuously.
“Boy,” said the Colonel, “In war there is only one thing personal to the soldier, and that is his identity disc.”
“I’m most awfully sorry, sir,” said the Boy with heightened colour.
“Now look here Boy,” said the Colonel, “If by chance you happen to capture a battery of howitzers, I must beg of you for the honour of the regiment not to send them home. Look at that!” He indicated a sheaf of official-looking papers lying on the table before him. Between Whitehall and G.H.Q. an almost hysterical exchange of official memoranda had taken place.
“These are the results of your trying to send a German machine-gun to your mother,” and in spite of himself the Colonel’s eyes smiled, and the Boy saluted and withdrew. There the incident had ended, that is officially; but out of it, however, grew a tradition. Whenever the 8th Westshires captured anything particularly unwieldy, the standing joke among the men was, “Better post it to the Kid’s mother.”
One day an enormously fat German prisoner was marched up to the Field Post Office labelled for the Boy’s mother. The Bosche, a good-humoured fellow, appeared to enter heartily into the joke, not so the post-office orderly, who threatened to report the post-corporal who had tendered the “packet.”
The morning following the taking of the B——n Farm after a desperate fight, the Senior Major, then in command, was surprised to see an enormous piece of cardboard fashioned in the shape of a label, attached to the wall. addressed
| MRS. SOMERS, |
| 860, Prince’s Gate, |
| S. Kensington, |
| London, S.W. |
| With love |
| from the Kid. |
Between men of the Westshires and their officers there was complete understanding, and the Senior Major had smiled back at the grinning faces that seemed to spring up all round him. Unfortunately the Divisional Commander, a martinet of the old school who could not assimilate the spirit of the new armies, had tactlessly chosen that afternoon on which to inspect the captured position. He had gazed fiercely at the label, demanding what the devil it meant, and without waiting for a reply, had expressed himself in unequivocal terms upon “damned buffoonery” and “keeping the men in hand.” Finally he had strutted off, his cheeks puffed out with indignation. That occurred after the Boy’s return to London.
Dick Little possessed an enormous bible with Gustave Doré’s illustrations, a strangely incongruous thing for him to own. One evening the Boy dug it out from the chaos of volumes that Dick Little calls his “library.” For some time he turned over the leaves industriously. I was puzzled to account for his interest in Doré’s impossible heights and unthinkable depths.
That night he staggered off with the Doré’s anticipations of eternity under his arm, which he had borrowed from Dick Little. Bindle watched him in obvious surprise.
“‘Andy little thing to read when yer strap-‘angin’ in a toobe,” he remarked drily.
“It’s a bible,” I explained.
“An’ wot’s Young ‘Indenburg want with a bible?” enquired Bindle in surprise.
“You’ve probably awakened in his young mind a thirst for theology,” remarked Dare, who had joined us. But Bindle did not smile. He was clearly puzzled.
On the following Sunday, Bindle tackled the Boy on the subject.
“Why jer go orf wi’ that little pocket bible, sir?” he enquired.
The Boy flushed.
“I thought the Mater would like to see it,” was the response, and Bindle began to talk about pigeons as if he had not heard.
We had often asked Windover to describe the Boy’s mother; but he had always put us off, saying that he could never describe anybody, except the Kaiser, and King Edward had done that before him.*
* Windover was evidently referring to King Edward’s remark, “The fellow is not a gentleman.”
Sallie was greatly interested in the Boy’s devotion to his mother, and she lost no opportunity of drawing him out. At first he was shy and uncommunicative; but when Sallie is set upon extracting anything from a man, S. Anthony himself would have to capitulate.
From the scraps of conversation I overheard, I came to picture a son full of tender solicitude and awkward devotion for a little white-haired lady with a beautiful expression, a gentle voice and a smile that she would leave behind as a legacy to her son.
I could see the old lady’s pride at the sight of the red and blue ribbon on the Boy’s tunic, at the letter his C.O. had written to the “Old Dad,” her thankfulness at his safe return.
We found ourselves wanting to meet this little white-haired old lady with the smile of sunshine, and hear her welcome us in a gentle, but rather tired voice.
She would be interested in the Night Club, concerned if we did not eat of her dainty scones, or would it be shortbread, anxious that we make a long call. There would be glances of meaning and affection exchanged between her and the Boy, which we would strive not to intercept, and feel self-conscious should we by chance do so. Then she would ask us to come again, saying how glad she always was to see her boy’s friends.
During the long talks that Sallie had with the Boy, Bindle used to fidget aimlessly about, the picture of discontent. He always became a little restive if Sallie showed too great an interest in the conversation of any man but himself. It was Bindle in a new guise.
One evening the Boy, who arrived late, was greeted by Bindle with,
“‘Ullo! sir, you doin’ the Romeo stunt? as Mr. Angell ‘Erald would say.”
“The what, J.B.?” enquired the Boy innocently.
“I see you last Thursday at South Ken. with a bowkay as if you was goin’ to a weddin’. ‘Ooo’s yer lady friend, Mr. ‘Indenburg?”
The Boy flushed scarlet.
“Mr. Bindle,” said Sallie severely, who has intuitions, “I’m cross with you.”
“Wi’ me, miss?” Bindle enquired in concerned surprise. “Wot ‘ave I done?”
“It’s all right,” broke in the Boy. “The flowers were for the Mater.”
Bindle became strangely silent, for some time afterwards. Later he said to me—
“‘E seems fond of ‘is mother.”
“Who?” I enquired.
“Young ‘Indenburg. I’m sorry for wot I said.” Then he added meditatively. “If I ‘ad a kid I’d like ‘im to grow up like ‘im,” and Bindle jerked his thumb in the direction of where the Boy stood listening to the General’s views upon army discipline.
“Mr. Bindle,” said Sallie who came up at that moment, having detached herself from Angell Herald’s saloon-bar civilities, “I’m going to see Mrs. Somers on Wednesday and I shall tell her about your remark. I think he’s a dear.”
“I’m sorry, miss,” said Bindle with genuine contrition.
“She must be a very wonderful and beautiful old lady to inspire such devotion.”
“The Boy’s mother,” I murmured.
“I’d like to see ‘er,” said Bindle seriously, and we knew he meant it.
The Sunday following I asked Sallie about her visit to the Boy’s mother, and I was struck at the strangeness of her manner. It was obvious that she did not wish to talk about it. I made several attempts, Bindle also tried; but with equal unsuccess.
If Sallie is determined not to talk about a thing, nothing will drag it out of her, and seeing that she had made up her mind I accordingly desisted. Bindle saw for himself that it would be better to let the matter drop.
“Funny thing ‘er not wantin’ to say anythink about it,” he muttered.
We were both greatly puzzled to account for Sallie’s strange behaviour. I noticed that her eyes were often on the Boy, and in them was an expression that I found baffling. Sometimes I thought it was pity, at others tenderness.
It was two weeks later that the mystery was solved. I had invited Bindle to tea in Kensington Gardens, and we had sat rather late bestowing the caterer’s cake and biscuits upon birds and gamins. In this Bindle took great delight. The game was to convey a piece of cake, or a biscuit, to a young urchin without being caught in the act by a keen-eyed waitress.
“When she catches yer it’s like bein’ pinched wi’ yer ‘and in a bishop’s pocket,” explained Bindle, which was rather a good description.
After tea we walked slowly through the Gardens. Suddenly Bindle clutched my arm.
“Look, sir! Look!” he cried excitably, pointing to a path that led off at right angles from the walk we were following. “It’s Young ‘Indenburg.”
I saw approaching us the Boy, pushing a bath-chair, the occupant of which was hidden by a black lace sunshade. Instinctively Bindle and I turned down the path, for we knew that in that bath-chair was the beautiful old lady who had given to us the Boy.
Suddenly the Boy looked up and saw us. He stooped down and said something to the occupant of the bath-chair. A second later the position of the black sunshade was altered and—several things seemed to happen all at once. The Boy stopped, came round to the front of the bath-chair and presented us, a strange tenderness alike in his voice and expression as he did so, Bindle dropped his stick and I received a shock.
Where was the beautiful, white-haired old lady, her smiling eyes, the gentle lovable mouth——? I shuddered involuntarily, and after a few minutes’ exchange of pleasantries, during which I behaved like a schoolboy and Bindle was absolutely dumb, I pleaded a pressing engagement and we made our adieux.
For some minutes we walked on in silence. I seemed to see nothing but that pinched and peevish face, to hear nothing but the querulous, complaining voice.
So that was the Boy’s mother. I turned to Bindle, curious to see the effect upon him. I had never before seen him look so serious.
“I’m glad I can’t remember my mother,” he said, and that seemed to end the matter. We never referred to it again. Somehow it would have seemed disloyal to the Boy. Later in the evening, when the Night Club was in session, the Boy said to me,
“I’m awfully glad you saw us to-day. I wanted you and J.B. to meet the Mater.”
There was on his face the same expression and in his voice the same softness I had noticed in the afternoon. I caught Sallie’s eye, and I remembered her reticence.
“Then he must get it from the Old Dad after all,” I murmured, and Sallie nodded and passed on to a group at the other end of the room.