‘We’re quieter as a rule,’ said the Boy. ‘But we’re filling up vacancies to-day. Hence the anxious faces of the Line and Militia. Look!’ There were four tables against the walls, and at each stood a crowd of uniforms. The centres of disturbance were non-commissioned officers who, seated, growled and wrote down names.
‘Come to my table,’ said Burgard. ‘Well, Purvis, have you ear-marked our little lot?’
‘I’ve been tellin’ ’em for the last hour we’ve only twenty-three vacancies,’ was the sergeant’s answer. ‘I’ve taken nearly fifty for Trials, and this is what’s left.’ Burgard smiled.
‘I’m very sorry,’ he said to the crowd, ‘but C Company’s full.’
‘Excuse me, Sir,’ said a man, ‘but wouldn’t sea-time count in my favour? I’ve put in three months with the Fleet. Small quick-firers, Sir? Company guns? Any sort of light machinery?’
‘Come away,’ said a voice behind. ‘They’ve chucked the best farrier between Hull and Dewsbury. ’Think they’ll take you an’ your potty quick-firers?’
The speaker turned on his heel and swore.
‘Oh, damn the Guard, by all means,’ said Sergeant Purvis, collecting his papers. ‘D’you suppose it’s any pleasure to me to reject chaps of your build and make? Vote us a second Guard battalion and we’ll accommodate you. Now, you can come into Schools and watch Trials if you like.’
Most of the men accepted his invitation, but a few walked away angrily. I followed from the smoking-room across a wide corridor into a riding-school, under whose roof the voices of the few hundred assembled wandered in lost echoes.
‘I’ll leave you, if you don’t mind,’ said Burgard. ‘Company officers aren’t supposed to assist at these games. Here, Matthews!’ He called to a private and put me in his charge.
In the centre of the vast floor my astonished eyes beheld a group of stripped men; the pink of their bodies startling the tan.
‘These are our crowd,’ said Matthews. ‘They’ve been vetted, an’ we’re putting ’em through their paces.’
‘They don’t look a bit like raw material,’ I said.
‘No, we don’t use either raw men or raw meat for that matter in the Guard,’ Matthews replied. ‘Life’s too short.’
Purvis stepped forward and barked in the professional manner. It was physical drill of the most searching, checked only when he laid his hand over some man’s heart.
Six or seven, I noticed, were sent back at this stage of the game. Then a cry went up from a group of privates standing near the line of contorted figures. ‘White, Purvis, white! Number Nine is spitting white!’
‘I know it,’ said Purvis. ‘Don’t you worry.’
‘Unfair!’ murmured the man who understood quick-firers. ‘If I couldn’t shape better than that I’d hire myself out to wheel a perambulator. He’s cooked.’
‘Nah,’ said the intent Matthews. ‘He’ll answer to a month’s training like a horse. It’s only suet. You’ve been training for this, haven’t you?’
‘Look at me,’ said the man simply.
‘Yes. You’re overtrained,’ was Matthews’ comment. ‘The Guard isn’t a circus.’
‘Guns!’ roared Purvis, as the men broke off and panted. ‘Number off from the right. Fourteen is one, three is two, eleven’s three, twenty and thirty-nine are four and five, and five is six.’ He was giving them their numbers at the guns as they struggled into their uniforms. In like manner he told off three other gun-crews, and the remainder left at the double, to return through the farther doors with four light quick-firers jerking at the end of man-ropes.
‘Knock down and assemble against time.’ Purvis called.
The audience closed in a little as the crews flung themselves on the guns, which melted, wheel by wheel, beneath their touch.
‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’ I whispered.
‘Huh!’ said Matthews scornfully. ‘They’re always doin’ it in the Line and Militia drill-halls. It’s only circus-work.’
The guns were assembled again and some one called the time. Then followed ten minutes of the quickest feeding and firing with dummy cartridges that was ever given man to behold.
‘They look as if they might amount to something—this draft,’ said Matthews softly.
‘What might you teach ’em after this, then?’ I asked.
‘To be Guard,’ said Matthews.
‘Spurs!’ cried Purvis, as the guns disappeared through the doors into the stables. Each man plucked at his sleeve, and drew up first one heel and then the other.
‘What the deuce are they doing?’ I said.
‘This,’ said Matthews. He put his hand to a ticket-pocket inside his regulation cuff, showed me two very small black boxspurs: drawing up a gaitered foot he snapped them into the box in the heel, and when I had inspected snapped them out again.
‘That’s all the spur you really need,’ he said.
Then horses were trotted out into the school barebacked, and the neophytes were told to ride.
Evidently the beasts knew the game and enjoyed it, for they would not make it easy for the men.
A heap of saddlery was thrown in a corner, and from this each man, as he captured his mount, made shift to draw proper equipment, while the audience laughed, derided, or called the horses towards them.
It was, most literally, wild horseplay, and by the time it was finished the recruits and the company were weak with fatigue and laughter.
‘That’ll do,’ said Purvis, while the men rocked in their saddles. ‘I don’t see any particular odds between any of you. C Company! Does anybody here know anything against any of these men?’
‘That’s a bit of the Regulations,’ Matthews whispered. ‘Just like forbiddin’ the banns in church. Really it was all settled long ago when the names first came up.’
There was no answer.
‘You’ll take ’em as they stand,’’
There was a grunt of assent.
‘Very good. There’s forty men for twenty-three billets.’ He turned to the sweating horsemen. ‘I must put you into the Hat.’
With great ceremony and a shower of company jokes that I did not follow, an enormous Ally Sloper top-hat was produced, into which numbers and blanks were dropped, and the whole was handed round to the riders by a private, evidently the joker of C Company.
Matthews gave me to understand that each company owned a cherished receptacle (sometimes not a respectable one) for the papers of the final drawing. He was telling me how his company had once stolen the Sacred Article used by D Company for this purpose and of the riot that followed, when through the west door of the schools entered a fresh detachment of stripped men, and the arena was flooded with another company.
Said Matthews as we withdrew, ‘Each company does Trials its own way. B Company is all for teaching men how to cook and camp. D Company keeps ’em to horse-work mostly. We call D the circus-riders and B the cooks. They call us the gunners.’
‘An’ you’ve rejected me,’ said the man who had done sea-time, pushing out before us. ‘The Army’s goin’ to the dogs!’
I stood in the corridor looking for Burgard.
‘Come up to my room and have a smoke,’ said Matthews, Private of the Imperial Guard.
We climbed two flights of stone stairs ere we reached an immense landing flanked with numbered doors. Matthews pressed a spring-latch and led me into a little cabin-like room. The cot was a standing bunk, with drawers beneath. On the bed lay a brilliant blanket; by the bed-head was an electric light and a shelf of books: a writing table stood in the window, and I dropped into a low wicker chair.
‘This is a cut above subaltern’s quarters,’ I said, surveying the photos, the dhurri on the floor, the rifle in its rack, the field-kit hung up behind the door, and the knicknacks on the walls.
‘The Line bachelors use ’em while we’re away; but they’re nice to come back to after “heef.”’ Matthews passed me his cigarette-case.
‘Where have you “heefed”?’ I said.
‘In Scotland, Central Australia, and North Eastern Rhodesia and the North-West Indian front.’
‘What’s your service?’
‘Four years. I’ll have to go in a year. I got in when I was twenty-two—by a fluke—from the Militia direct—on Trials.’
‘Trials like those we just saw?’
‘Not so severe. There was less competition then. I hoped to get my stripes, but there’s no chance.’
‘I haven’t the knack of handling men. Purvis let me have a half-company for a month in Rhodesia—over towards Lake Ngami. I couldn’t work ’em properly. It’s a gift.’
‘Do colour-sergeants handle half-companies with you?’
‘They can command ’em on the “heef.” We’ve only four company officers—Burgard, Luttrell, Kyd, and Harrison. Pigeon’s our swop, and he’s in charge of the ponies. Burgard got his company on the “heef.” You see, Burgard had been a lieutenant in the Line, but he came into the Guard on Trials like the men. He could command. They tried him in India with a wing of the battalion for three months. He did well, so he got his company. That’s what made me hopeful. But it’s a gift, you see—managing men—and so I’m only a senior private. They let ten per cent of us stay on for two years extra after our three are finished—to polish the others.’
‘Aren’t you even a corporal?’
‘We haven’t corporals, or lances for that matter, in the Guard. As a senior private I’d take twenty men into action; but one Guard don’t tell another how to clean himself. You’ve learned that before you apply . . . . Come in!’
There was a knock at the door, and Burgard entered, removing his cap.
‘I thought you’d be here,’ he said, as Matthews vacated the other chair and sat on the bed. ‘Well, has Matthews told you all about it? How did our Trials go, Matthews?’
‘Forty names in the Hat, Sir, at the finish. They’ll make a fairish lot. Their gun-tricks weren’t bad; but D Company has taken the best horsemen—as usual.’
‘Oh, I’ll attend to that on “heef.” Give me a man who can handle company-guns and I’ll engage to make him a horsemaster. D Company will end by thinkin’ ’emselves Captain Pigeon’s private cavalry some day.’
I had never heard a private and a captain talking after this fashion, and my face must have betrayed my astonishment, for Burgard said:
‘These are not our parade manners. In our rooms, as we say in the Guard, all men are men. Outside we are officers and men.’
‘I begin to see,’ I stammered. ‘Matthews was telling me that sergeants handled half-companies and rose from the ranks—and I don’t see that there are any lieutenants—and your companies appear to be two hundred and fifty strong. It’s a shade confusing to the layman.’
Burgard leaned forward didactically. ‘The Regulations lay down that every man’s capacity for command must be tested to the uttermost. We construe that very literally when we’re on the “heef.” F’r instance, any man can apply to take the command next above him, and if a man’s too shy to ask, his company officer must see that he gets his chance. A sergeant is given a wing of the battalion to play with for three weeks, a month, or six weeks—according to his capacity, and turned adrift in an Area to make his own arrangements. That’s what Areas are for—and to experiment in. A good gunner—a private very often—has all four company-guns to handle through a week’s fight, acting for the time as the major. Majors of Guard battalions (Verschoyle’s our major) are supposed to be responsible for the guns, by the way. There’s nothing to prevent any man who has the gift working his way up to the experimental command of the battalion on “heef.” Purvis, my colour-sergeant, commanded the battalion for three months at the back of Coolgardie, an’ very well he did it. Bayley ’verted to company officer for the time being an’ took Harrison’s company, and Harrison came over to me as my colour-sergeant. D’you see? Well, Purvis is down for a commission when there’s a vacancy. He’s been thoroughly tested, and we all like him. Two other sergeants have passed that three months’ trial in the same way (just as second mates go up for extra master’s certificate). They have E.C. after their names in the Army List. That shows they’re capable of taking command in event of war. The result of our system is that you could knock out every single officer of a Guard battalion early in the day, and the wheels ’ud still go forward, not merely round. We’re allowed to fill up half our commissioned list from the ranks direct. Now d’you see why there’s such a rush to get into a Guard battalion?’
‘Indeed I do. Have you commanded the regiment experimentally?’
‘Oh, time and again,’ Burgard laughed. ‘We’ve all had our E.C. turn.’
‘Doesn’t the chopping and changing upset the men?’
‘It takes something to upset the Guard. Besides, they’re all in the game together. They give each other a fair show, you may be sure.’
‘That’s true,’ said Matthews. ‘When I went to Ngami with my—with the half-company,’ he sighed, ‘they helped me all they knew. But it’s a gift—handling men. I found that out.’
‘I know you did,’ said Burgard softly. ‘But you found it out in time, which is the great thing. You see,’ he turned to me, ‘with our limited strength we can’t afford to have a single man who isn’t more than up to any duty—in reason. Don’t you be led away by what you saw at Trials just now. The Volunteers and the Militia have all the monkey-tricks of the trade—such as mounting and dismounting guns, and making fancy scores and doing record marches; but they need a lot of working up before they can pull their weight in the boat.’
There was a knock at the door. A note was handed in. Burgard read it and smiled.
‘Bayley wants to know if you’d care to come with us to the Park and see the kids. It’s only a Saturday afternoon walk-round before the taxpayer .... Very good. If you’ll press the button we’ll try to do the rest.’
He led me by two flights of stairs up an iron stairway that gave on a platform, not unlike a ship’s bridge, immediately above the barrelled glass roof of the riding-school. Through a ribbed ventilator I could see B Company far below watching some men who chased sheep. Burgard unlocked a glass-fronted fire-alarm arrangement flanked with dials and speaking-tubes, and bade me press the centre button.
Next moment I should have fallen through the riding-school roof if he had not caught me; for the huge building below my feet thrilled to the multiplied purring of electric bells. The men in the school vanished like minnows before a shadow, and above the stamp of booted feet on staircases I heard the neighing of many horses.
‘What in the world have I done ?’ I gasped.
‘Turned out the Guard—horse, foot, and guns!’
A telephone bell rang imperiously. Burgard snatched up the receiver.
‘Yes, Sir. . . What, Sir? . . . I never heard they said that,’ he laughed, ‘but it would be just like ’em. In an hour and a half? Yes, Sir. Opposite the Statue? Yes, Sir.’
He turned to me with a wink as he hung up.
‘Bayley’s playing up for you. Now you’ll see some fun.’
‘Who’s going to catch it?’ I demanded.
‘Only our local Foreign Service Corps. Its C.O. has been boasting that it’s en état de partir, and Bayley’s going to take him at his word and have a kit-inspection this afternoon in the Park. I must tell their drill-hall. Look over yonder between that brewery chimney and the mansard roof!’
He readdressed himself to the telephone, and I kept my eye on the building to the southward. A Blue Peter climbed up to the top of the flagstaff that crowned it and blew out in the summer breeze. A black storm-cone followed.
‘Inspection for F.S. corps acknowledged, Sir,’ said Burgard down the telephone. ‘Now we’d better go to the riding-school. The battalion falls in there. I have to change, but you’re free of the corps. Go anywhere. Ask anything. In another ten minutes we’re off.’
I lingered for a little looking over the great city, its huddle of houses and the great fringe of the Park, all framed between the open windows of this dial-dotted eyrie.
When I descended, the halls and corridors were as hushed as they had been noisy, and my feet echoed down the broad tiled staircases. On the third floor, Matthews, gaitered and armed, overtook me smiling.
‘I thought you might want a guide,’ said he. ‘We’ve five minutes yet,’ and piloted me to the sun-splashed gloom of the riding-school. Three companies were in close order on the tan. They moved out at a whistle, and as I followed in their rear I was overtaken by Pigeon on a rough black mare.
‘Wait a bit,’ he said, ‘till the horses are all out of stables, and come with us. D Company is the only mounted one just now. We do it to amuse the taxpayer,’ he explained, above the noise of horses on the tan.
‘Where are the guns?’ I asked, as the mare lipped my coat-collar.
‘Gone ahead long ago. They come out of their own door at the back of barracks. We don’t haul guns through traffic more than we can help . . . . If Belinda breathes down your neck smack her. She’ll be quiet in the streets. She loves lookin’ into the shop-windows.’
The mounted company clattered through vaulted concrete corridors in the wake of the main body, and filed out into the crowded streets.
When I looked at the townsfolk on the pavement, or in the double-decked trams, I saw that the bulk of them saluted, not grudgingly or of necessity, but in a light-hearted, even flippant fashion.
‘Those are Line and Militia men,’ said Pigeon. ‘That old chap in the top-hat by the lamp-post is an ex-Guardee. That’s why he’s saluting in slow time. No, there’s no regulation governing these things, but we’ve all fallen into the way of it somehow. Steady, mare!’
‘I don’t know whether I care about this aggressive militarism,’ I began, when the company halted, and Belinda almost knocked me down. Looking forward I saw the badged cuff of a policeman upraised at a crossing, his back towards us.
‘Horrid aggressive, ain’t we?’ said Pigeon with a chuckle when we moved on again and overtook the main body. Here I caught the strains of the band, which Pigeon told me did not accompany the battalion on “heef,” but lived in barracks and made much money by playing at parties in town.
‘If we want anything more than drums and fifes on “heef” we sing,’ said Pigeon. ‘Singin’ helps the wind.’
I rejoiced to the marrow of my bones thus to be borne along on billows of surging music among magnificent men, in sunlight, through a crowded town whose people, I could feel, regarded us with comradeship, affection—and more.
‘By Jove,’ I said at last, watching the eyes about us, ‘these people are looking us over as if we were horses.’
‘Why not? They know the game.’
The eyes on the pavement, in the trams, the cabs, at the upper windows, swept our lines back and forth with a weighed intensity of regard which at first seemed altogether new to me, till I recalled just such eyes, a thousand of them, at manœuvres in the Channel when one crowded battleship drew past its sister at biscuit-toss range. Then I stared at the ground overborne by those considering eyes.
Suddenly the music changed to the wail of the Dead March in Saul, and once more—we were crossing a large square—the regiment halted.
‘Damn!’ said Pigeon, glancing behind him at the mounted company. ‘I believe they save up their Saturday corpses on purpose.’
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘A dead Volunteer. We must play him through.’
Again I looked forward and saw the top of a hearse, followed by two mourning-coaches, boring directly up the halted regiment, which opened out company by company to let it through.
‘But they’ve got the whole blessed square to funeralise in!’ I exclaimed. ‘Why don’t they go round?’
‘Not so,’ Pigeon replied. ‘In this city it’s the Volunteer’s perquisite to be played through by any corps he happens to meet on his way to the cemetery. And they make the most of it. You’ll see.’
I heard the order, ‘Rest on your arms,’ run before the poor little procession as the men opened out. The driver pulled the black Flanders beasts into a more than funeral crawl, and in the first mourning-coach I saw the tearful face of a fat woman (his mother, doubtless), a handkerchief pressed to one eye, but the other rolling vigilantly, alight with proper pride. Last came a knot of uniformed men—privates, I took it—of the dead one’s corps.
Said a man in the crowd beside us to the girl on his arm, ‘There, Jenny! That’s what I’ll get if I have the luck to meet ’em when my time comes.’
‘You an’ your luck,’ she snapped. ‘’Ow can you talk such silly nonsense?’
‘Played through by the Guard,’ he repeated slowly. ‘The undertaker ’oo could guarantee that, mark you, for all his customers—well, ’e’d monopolise the trade, is all I can say. See the horses passagin’ sideways!’
‘She done it a purpose,’ said the woman with a sniff.
‘An’ I only hope you’ll follow her example. Just as long as you think I’ll keep, too.
We reclosed when the funeral had left us twenty paces behind. A small boy stuck his head out of a carriage and watched us jealously.
‘Amazing! amazing!’ I murmured. ‘Is it regulation?’
‘No. Town-custom. It varies a little in different cities, but the people value being played through more than most things, I imagine. Duddell, the big Ipswich manufacturer—he’s a Quaker—tried to bring in a bill to suppress it as unchristian.’ Pigeon laughed.
‘It cost him his seat next election. You see, we’re all in the game.’
We reached the Park without further adventure, and found the four company-guns with their spike teams and single drivers waiting for us. Many people were gathered here, and we were halted, so far as I could see, that they might talk with the men in the ranks. The officers broke into groups.
‘Why on earth didn’t you come along with me ?’ said Boy Bayley at my side. ‘I was expecting you.’
‘Well, I had a delicacy about brigading myself with a colonel at the head of his regiment, so I stayed with the rear company and the horses. It’s all too wonderful for any words. What’s going to happen next?’
‘I’ve handed over to Verschoyle, who will amuse and edify the school-children while I take you round our kindergarten. Don’t kill any one, Vee. Are you goin’ to charge ’em?’
Old Verschoyle hitched his big shoulder and nodded precisely as he used to do at school. He was a boy of few words grown into a kindly taciturn man.
‘Now!’ Bayley slid his arm through mine and led me across a riding-road towards a stretch of rough common (singularly out of place in a park) perhaps three-quarters of a mile long and half as wide. On the encircling rails leaned an almost unbroken line of men and women—the women outnumbering the men. I saw the Guard battalion move up the road flanking the common and disappear behind the trees.
As far as the eye could range through the mellow English haze the ground inside the railings was dotted with boys in and out of uniform, armed and unarmed. I saw squads here, half-companies there; then three companies in an open space, wheeling with stately steps; a knot of drums and fifes near the railings unconcernedly slashing its way across popular airs, and a batch of gamins labouring through some extended attack destined to be swept aside by a corps crossing the ground at the double. They broke out of furze bushes, ducked over hollows and bunkers, held or fell away from hillocks and rough sandbanks till the eye wearied of their busy legs.
Bayley took me through the railings, and gravely returned the salute of a freckled twelve-year-old near by.
‘What’s your corps?’ said the Colonel of that Imperial Guard battalion to that child.
‘Eighth District Board School, Fourth Standard, Sir. We aren’t out to-day.’ Then, with a twinkle, ‘I go to First Camp next year.’
‘What are those boys yonder—that squad at the double? ‘
‘Jew-boys, sir. Jewish Voluntary Schools, Sir.’
‘And that full company extending behind the three elms to the south-west?’
‘Private day-schools, Sir, I think. Judging distance, Sir.’
‘Can you come with us?’
‘Here’s the raw material at the beginning of the process,’ said Bayley to me.
We strolled on towards the strains of ‘A Bicycle Built for Two,’ breathed jerkily into a mouth-organ by a slim maid of fourteen. Some dozen infants with clenched fists and earnest legs were swinging through the extension movements which that tune calls for. A stunted hawthorn overhung the little group, and from a branch a dirty white handkerchief flapped in the breeze. The girl blushed, scowled, and wiped the mouthorgan on her sleeve as we came up.
‘We’re all waiting for our big bruvvers,’ piped up one bold person in blue breeches—seven if he was a day.
‘It keeps ’em quieter, Sir,’ the maiden lisped. ‘The others are with the regiments.’
‘Yeth, and they’ve all lots of blank for you,’ said the gentleman in blue breeches ferociously.
‘Oh, Artie! ’Ush!’ the girl cried.
‘But why have they lots of blank for us?’ Bayley asked. Blue Breeches stood firm.
‘’Cause—’cause the Guard’s goin’ to fight the Schools this afternoon; but my big bruvver says they’ll be dam-well surprised.’
‘Artie!’ The girl leaped towards him. ‘You know your ma said I was to smack——’
‘Don’t, please don’t,’ said Bayley, pink with suppressed mirth. ‘It was all my fault. I must tell old Verschoyle this. I’ve surprised his plan out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.’
‘What plan?’ I asked.
‘Old Vee has taken the battalion up to the top of the common, and he told me he meant to charge down through the kids; but they’re on to him already. He’ll be scuppered. The Guard will be scuppered.’
Here Blue Breeches, overcome by the reproof of his fellows, began to weep.
‘I didn’t tell,’ he roared. ‘My big bruvver he knew when he saw them go up the road . . . .’
‘Never mind! Never mind, old man,’ said Bayley soothingly. ‘I’m not fighting to-day. It’s all right.’
He rightened it yet further with sixpence, and left that band loudly at feud over the spoil.
‘Oh, Vee! Vee the strategist,’ he chuckled. ‘We’ll pull Vee’s leg to-night.’
Our freckled friend of the barriers doubled up behind us.
‘So you know that my battalion is charging down the ground?’ Bayley demanded.
‘Not for certain, Sir, but we’re preparin’ for the worst,’ he answered with a cheerful grin. ‘They allow the Schools a little blank ammunition after we’ve passed the Third Standard; and we nearly always bring it on to the ground of Saturdays.’
‘The deuce you do! Why?’
‘On account of those amateur Volunteer corps, Sir. They’re always experimentin’ upon us, Sir, comin’ over from their ground an’ developin’ attacks on our flanks. Oh, it’s chronic ’ere of a Saturday sometimes, unless you flag yourself’
I followed his eye and saw white flags fluttering before a drum and fife band and a knot of youths in sweaters gathered round the dummy breech of a four-inch gun which they were feeding at express rates.
‘The attacks don’t interfere with you if you flag yourself, Sir,’ the boy explained. ‘That’s a Second Camp team from the Technical Schools loading against time for a bet.’
We picked our way deviously through the busy groups. Apparently it was not etiquette to notice a Guard officer, and the youths at the twenty-five-pounder were far too busy to look up. I watched the cleanly finished hoist and shove-home of the full-weight shell from a safe distance, when I became aware of a change among the scattered boys on the common, who disappeared behind the hillocks to an accompaniment of querulous whistles. A boy or two on bicycles dashed from corps to corps, and on their arrival each corps seemed to fade away.
The youths at loading practice did not pause for the growing hush round them, nor did the drum and fife band drop a single note. Bayley exploded afresh. ‘The Schools are preparing for our attack, by Jove! I wonder who’s directin’ ’em. Do you know?’
The warrior of the Eighth District looked up shrewdly.
‘I saw Mr. Cameron speaking to Mr. Levitt just as the Guard went up the road. ’E’s our ’ead-master, Mr. Cameron, but Mr. Levitt, of the Sixth District, is actin’ as senior officer on the ground this Saturday. Most likely Mr. Levitt is commandin’.’
‘How many corps are there here?’ I asked.
‘Oh, bits of lots of ’em—thirty or forty p’r’aps, Sir. But the whistles says they’ve all got to rally on the Board Schools. ’Ark ! There’s the whistle for the Private Schools! They’ve been called up the ground at the double.’
‘Stop!’ cried a bearded man with a watch, and the crews dropped beside the breech wiping their brows and panting.
‘Hullo ! there’s some attack on the Schools,’ said one. ‘Well, Marden, you owe me three halfcrowns. I’ve beaten your record. Pay up!’
The boy beside us tapped his foot fretfully as he eyed his companions melting among the hillocks, but the gun-team adjusted their bets without once looking up.
The ground rose a little to a furze-crowned ridge in the centre so that I could not see the full length of it, but I heard a faint bubble of blank in the distance.
‘The Saturday allowance,’ murmured Bayley. ‘War’s begun, but it wouldn’t be etiquette for us to interfere. What are you saying, my child? ‘
‘Nothin’, Sir, only—only I don’t think the Guard will be able to come through on so narrer a front, Sir. They’ll all be jammed up be’ind the ridge if we’ve got there in time. It’s awful sticky for guns at the end of our ground, Sir.’
‘I’m inclined to think you’re right, Moltke. The Guard is hung up: distinctly so. Old Vee will have to cut his way through. What a pernicious amount of blank the kids seem to have!’
It was quite a respectable roar of battle that rolled among the hillocks for ten minutes, always out of our sight. Then we heard the ‘Cease fire’ over the ridge.
‘They’ve sent for the Umpires,’ the Board School boy squeaked, dancing on one foot. ‘You’ve been hung up, Sir. I—I thought the sand-pits ’ud stop you.’
Said one of the jerseyed hobbledehoys at the gun, slipping on his coat: ‘Well, that’s enough for this afternoon. I’m off,’ and moved to the railings without even glancing towards the fray.
‘I anticipate the worst,’ said Bayley with gravity after a few minutes. ‘Hullo! Here comes my disgraced corps.’
The Guard was pouring over the ridge—a disorderly mob—horse, foot, and guns mixed, while from every hollow of the ground about rose small boys cheering shrilly. The outcry was taken up by the parents at the railings, and spread to a complete circle of cheers, handclappmgs, and waved handkerchiefs.
Our Eighth District private cast away restraint and openly capered. ‘We got ’em! We got ’em !’ he squealed.
The grey-green flood paused a fraction of a minute and drew itself into shape, coming to rest before Bayley. Verschoyle saluted.
‘Vee, Vee,’ said Bayley. ‘Give me back my legions! Well, I hope you’re proud of yourself.’
‘The little beasts were ready for us. Deuced well posted too,’ Verschoyle replied. ‘I wish you’d seen that first attack on our flank. Rather impressive. Who warned ’em?’
‘I don’t know. I got my information from a baby in blue plush breeches. Did they do well?’
‘Very decently indeed. I’ve complimented their C.O. and buttered the whole boiling.’ He lowered his voice. ‘As a matter o’ fact, I halted five good minutes to give ’em time to get into position.’
‘Well, now we can inspect our Foreign Service corps. We shan’t need the men for an hour, Vee.’
‘Very good, Sir. Colour-sergeants!’ cried Verschoyle, raising his voice, and the cry ran from company to company. Whereupon the officers left their men, people began to climb over the railings, and the regiment dissolved among the spectators and the school corps of the city.
‘‘No sense keeping men standing when you don’t need ’em,’ said Bayley. ‘Besides, the Schools learn more from our chaps in an afternoon than they can pick up in a month’s drill. Look at those Board-schoolmaster captains buttonholing old Purvis on the art of war!’
‘’Wonder what the evening papers ’ll say about this,’ said Pigeon.
‘You’ll know in half an hour,’ Burgard laughed. ‘What possessed you to take your ponies across the sand-pits, Pij?’
‘Pride. Silly pride,’ said the Canadian.
We crossed the common to a very regulation parade-ground overlooked by a statue of Our Queen. Here were carriages, many and elegant, filled with pretty women, and the railings were lined with frockcoats and top-hats. ‘This is distinctly social,’ I suggested to Kyd.
‘Ra-ather. Our F.S. corps is nothing if not correct, but Bayley ’ll sweat ’em all the same.’
I saw six companies drawn up for inspection behind lines of long sausage-shaped kit-bags. A band welcomed us with ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave.’
‘What cheek!’ muttered Verschoyle. ‘Give ’em beans, Bayley.’
‘I intend to,’ said the Colonel grimly. ‘Will each of you fellows take a company, please, and inspect ’em faithfully. En état de partir is their little boast, remember. When you’ve finished you can give ’em a little pillow-fighting.’
‘What does the single cannon on those men’s sleeves mean?’ I asked.
‘That they’re big-gun men, who’ve done time with the Fleet,’ Bayley returned. ‘Any F.S, corps that has over twenty per cent big-gun men thinks itself entitled to play “A Life on the Ocean Wave”—when it’s out of hearing of the Navy.’
‘What beautiful stuff they are! What’s their regimental average?’
‘It ought to be five eight, height, thirty-eight, chest, and twenty-four years, age. What is it?’ Bayley asked of a private.
‘Fine nine and a half, Sir, thirty-nine, twenty-four and a half,’ was the reply, and he added insolently, ‘En état de partir.’ Evidently that F.S. corps was on its mettle ready for the worst.
‘What about their musketry average?’ I went on.
‘Not my pidgin,’ said Bayley. ‘But they wouldn’t be in the corps a day if they, couldn’t shoot; I know that much. Now I’m going to go through ’em for socks and slippers.’
The kit-inspection exceeded anything I had ever dreamed. I drifted from company to company while the Guard officers oppressed them. Twenty per cent, at least, of the kits were shovelled out on the grass and gone through in detail.
‘What have they got jumpers and ducks for?’ I asked of Harrison.
‘For Fleet work, of course. En état de partir with an F.S. corps means they are amphibious.’
‘Who gives ’em their kit—Government?’
‘There is a Government allowance, but no C.O. sticks to it. It’s the same as paint and gold-leaf in the Navy. It comes out of some one’s pockets. How much does your kit cost you?’—this to the private in front of us.
‘About ten or fifteen quid every other year, I suppose,’ was the answer.
‘Very good. Pack your bag—quick.’
The man knelt, and with supremely deft hands returned all to the bag, lashed and tied it, and fell back,
‘Arms,’ said Harrison. ‘Strip and show ammunition.’
The man divested himself of his rolled greatcoat and haversack with one wriggle, as it seemed to me; a twist of a screw removed the side plate of the rifle breech (it was not a bolt action). He handed it to Harrison with one hand, and with the other loosed his clip-studded belt.
‘What baby cartridges!’ I exclaimed. ‘No bigger than bulleted breech-caps.’
‘They’re the regulation .256,’ said Harrison. ‘No one has complained of ’em yet. They expand a bit when they arrive . . . . Empty your bottle, please, and show your rations.’
The man poured out his water-bottle and showed a two-inch emergency tin.
Harrison passed on to the next, but I was fascinated by the way in which the man re-established himself amid his straps and buckles, asking no help from either side.
‘How long does it take you to prepare for inspection ?’ I asked him.
‘Well, I got ready this afternoon in twelve minutes,’ he smiled. ‘I didn’t seethe storm-cone till half-past three. I was at the Club.’
‘Weren’t a good many of you out of town?’
‘Not this Saturday. We knew what was coming. You see, if we pull through the inspection we may move up one place on the roster for foreign service . . . . You’d better stand back. We’re going to pillow-fight.’
The companies stooped to the stuffed kitbags, doubled with them variously, piled them in squares and mounds, passed them from shoulder to shoulder like buckets at a fire, and repeated the evolution.
‘What’s the idea?’ I asked of Verschoyle, who, arms folded behind him, was controlling the display. Many women had descended from the carriages, and were pressing in about us admiringly.
‘For one thing, it’s a fair test of wind and muscle, and for another it saves time at the docks. We’ll suppose this first company to be drawn up on the dock-head and those five others still in the troop-train. How would you get their kit into the ship?’
‘Fall ’em all in on the platform, march ’em to the gangways,’ I answered, ‘and trust to Heaven and a fatigue party to gather the baggage and drunks in later.’
‘Ye-es, and have half of it sent by the wrong trooper. I know that game,’ Verschoyle drawled. ‘We don’t play it any more. Look!’
He raised his voice, and five companies, glistening a little and breathing hard, formed at right angles to the sixth, each man embracing his sixty-pound bag.
‘Pack away!’ cried Verschoyle, and the great bean-bag game (I can compare it to nothing else) began. In five minutes every bag was passed along either arm of the T and forward down the sixth company, who passed, stacked, and piled them in a great heap. These were followed by the rifles, belts, greatcoats, and knapsacks, so that in another five minutes the regiment stood, as it were, stripped clean.
‘Of course on a trooper there’d be a company below stacking the kit away,’ said Verschoyle, ‘but that wasn’t so bad.’
‘Bad!’ I cried. ‘It was miraculous!’
‘Circus-work—all circus-work!’ said Pigeon. ‘It won’t prevent ’em bein’ as sick as dogs when the ship rolls.’ The crowd round us applauded, while the men looked meekly down their self-conscious noses.
A little grey-whiskered man trotted up to the Boy.
‘Have we made good, Bayley?’ he said. ‘Are we en état de partir?’
‘That’s what I shall report,’ said Bayley, smiling.
‘I thought my bit o’ French ’ud draw you,’ said the little man, rubbing his hands.
‘Who is he?’ I whispered to Pigeon.
‘Ramsay, their C.O. An old Guard captain. A keen little devil. They say he spends six hundred a year on the show. He used to be in the Lincolns till he came into his property.’
‘Take ’em home an’ make ’em drunk,’ I heard Bayley say. ‘I suppose you’ll have a dinner to celebrate. But you may as well tell the officers of E Company that I don’t think much of them. I shan’t report it, but their men were all over the shop.’
‘Well, they’re young, you see,’ Colonel Ramsay began.
‘You’re quite right. Send ’em to me and I’ll talk to ’em. Youth is the time to learn.’
‘Six hundred a year?’ I repeated to Pigeon. ‘That must be an awful tax on a man. Worse than in the old Volunteering days.’
‘That’s where you make your mistake,’ said Verschoyle. ‘In the old days a man had to spend his money to coax his men to drill because they weren’t the genuine article. You know what I mean. They made a favour of putting in drills, didn’t they? And they were, most of ’em, the children we have to take over at Second Camp, weren’t they? Well, now that a C.O. is sure of his men, now that he hasn’t to waste himself in conciliatin’, an’ bribin’, an’ beerin’ kids, he doesn’t care what he spends on his corps, because every pound tells. Do you understand?’
‘I see what you mean, Vee. Having the male material guaranteed——’
‘And trained material at that,’ Pigeon put in. ‘Eight years in the schools, remember, as well as——’
‘Precisely. A man rejoices in working them up. That’s as it should be,’ I said.
‘Bayley’s saying the very same to those F.S. pups,’ said Verschoyle.
The Boy was behind us, between two young F.S. officers, a hand on the shoulder of each.
‘Yes, that’s all doocid interesting,’ he growled paternally. ‘But you forget, my sons, now that your men are bound to serve, you’re trebly bound to put a polish on ’em. You’ve let your company simply go to seed. Don’t try and explain. I’ve told all those lies myself in my time. It’s only idleness. I know. Come and lunch with me to-morrow and I’ll give you a wrinkle or two in barracks.’ He turned to me.
‘Suppose we pick up Vee’s defeated legion and go home. You’ll dine with us to-night. Goodbye, Ramsay. Yes, you’re en état de partir, right enough. You’d better get Lady Gertrude to talk to the Armity if you want the corps sent foreign. I’m no politician.’
We strolled away from the great white statue of The Widow, with sceptre, orb, and crown, that looked toward the city, and regained the common, where the Guard battalion walked with the female of its species and the children of all its relatives. At sight of the officers the uniforms began to detach themselves and gather in companies. A Board School corps was moving off the ground, headed by its drums and fifes, which it assisted with song. As we drew nearer we caught the words, for they were launched with intention:—
’Oo is it mashes the country nurse?|
’Oo is it takes the lydy’s purse?
Calls for a drink, and a mild cigar,
Batters a sovereign down on the bar,
Collars the change and says ‘Ta-ta!’
The Guardsman !
‘Why, that’s one of old Jemmy Fawne’s songs. I haven’t heard it in ages,’ I began.
‘Little devils!’ said Pigeon.
‘Speshul! Extra Speshul! Sports Edition!’ a newsboy cried. ‘’Ere y’are, Captain. Defeat o’ the Guard!’
‘I’ll buy a copy,’ said the Boy, as Pigeon blushed wrathfully. ‘I must, to see how The Dove lost his mounted company.’ He unfolded the flapping sheet and we crowded round it.
‘“Complete Rout of the Guard,”’ he read. ‘“Too Narrow a Front.” That’s one for you, Vee! “attack anticipated by Mr. Levitt, B.A.” Aha! “The Schools Stand Fast.”’
‘Here’s another version,’ said Kyd, waving a tinted sheet. ‘“To your tents, O Israel! The Hebrew Schools stop the Mounted Troops.” Pij, were you scuppered by Jew-boys?’
‘“Umpires Decide all Four Guns Lost,”’ Bayley went on. ‘By Jove, there’ll have to be an inquiry into this regrettable incident, Vee!’
‘I’ll never try to amuse the kids again,’ said the baited Verschoyle. ‘Children and newspapers are low things . . . . And I was hit on the nose by a wad, too. They oughtn’t to be allowed blank ammunition.’
So we leaned against the railings in the warm twilight haze while the battalion, silently as a shadow, formed up behind us ready to be taken over. The heat, the hum of the great city, as it might have been the hum of a camped army, the creaking of the belts, and the well-known faces bent above them, brought back to me the memory of another evening, years ago, when Verschoyle and I waited for news of guns missing in no sham fight.
‘A regular Sanna’s Post, isn’t it?’ I said at last. ‘D’you remember, Vee—by the market-square—that night when the wagons went out?’
Then it came upon me, with no horror, but a certain mild wonder, that we had waited, Vee and I, that night for the body of Boy Bayley; and that Vee himself had died of typhoid in the spring of 1902. The rustling of the papers continued, but Bayley, shifting slightly, revealed to me the three-day-old wound on his left side that had soaked the ground about him. I saw Pigeon fling up a helpless arm as to guard himself against a spatter of shrapnel, and Luttrell with a foolish tight-lipped smile lurched over all in one jointless piece. Only old Vee’s honest face held steady for a while against the darkness that had swallowed up the battalion behind us. Then his jaw dropped and the face stiffened, so that a fly made bold to explore the puffed and scornful nostril.
I waked brushing a fly from my nose, and saw the Club waiter lay out the evening papers on the table.