Just as the train was going out the compartment was stormed by a figure in khaki, with a rifle, a bad cold, a wife, a basket, a small bundle, and two babies. Setting his rifle down in the corner, he said:
"Didn't think we shud ever 'a caught it!"
His lean face was streaming with perspiration, and when he took off his overcoat there rose the sweetish sourish scent of a hot goatskin waistcoat. It reached below his waist, and would have kept cold out from a man standing in a blizzard, and he had been carrying a baby, a rifle, a bundle, a basket, and running, on a warmish day.
"Grand things, these," he said, and took it off. He also took off his cap, and sat down with the elder baby in a howling draught.
"Proper cold I've caught comin' over here," he added.
His wife, quite a girl, broad-faced, fresh-coloured, with small grey eyes and a wonderfully placid, comely face, on which a faint shadow seemed printed, sat beside him with the younger baby, a real hairless one, as could be seen when its white knitted cap slipped. The elder baby, perhaps two years old, began whimpering a little. He jigged it gently, and said:
"We 'ad a lot o' trouble wi' this one yesterday. The Doctor didn't think 'er fit to travel; but I got to see the old people down there, before I go back out across. Come over Sunday night—only got a week's leave. So here we are," and he laughed.
"What is your corps?" I asked.
"Join since the war?"
He looked at me as if to say: What a question!
"Twelve years' service. Been everywhere—India, South Africa, Egypt. Come over to the front from Egypt."
"Beg pardon? Wipers? No, Labassy."
He winked. "Proper rough time."
He looked straight at me, and his eyes—Celtic-grey, with a good deal of light in them—stared, wide and fixed, at things beyond me, as only do the eyes of those who have seen much death. There was a sort of burnt-gunpowder look about their rims and lashes, and a fixity that nothing could have stared down.
"The Kazer he says it'll all be over by April!" He laughed, abandoning the whole of him to enjoyment of that joke.
He was thin as a rail; his head with its thick brown hair was narrow, his face narrowish too. He had irregular ears, and no feature that could be called good, but his expression was utterly genuine and unconscious of itself. When he sat quiet his face would be held a little down, his eyes would be looking at something—or was it at nothing?—far-off, in a kind of frowning dream. But if he glanced at his babies his rather thick mouth became all smiles, and he would make a remark to his wife about them. Once or twice she looked at him softly, but I could never catch him responding to that; his life was rather fuller than hers just now. Presently she took from him the elder baby which, whimpering again, was quieted at once by her broad placidity. The younger baby she passed to him; and, having secured it on his knee, he said:
"This one's a proper little gem; never makes a sound; she's a proper little gem. Never cude stand hearin' a baby cry." It certainly was an admirable baby, whether her little garments were lifted so that you saw portions of her—scarlet from being held too tight, whether the shawl was wrapped over her too much or too little, or her little knitted trousers seemed about to fall off. For both these babies were elegantly dressed, and so was the mother, with a small blue hat and a large-checked blouse over her broad bosom, and a blue skirt all crumbs and baby. It was pleasant to see that he had ceased to stream with perspiration now, and some one at the other end of the carriage having closed the window, he and the babies no longer sat in a howling draught—not that they had ever noticed it.
"Yes," he said suddenly, "proper rough time we 'ad of it at first. Terrible—yu cude 'ardly stick it. We Engineers 'ad the worst of it, tu. But must laugh, you know; if yu're goin' to cop it next minute—must laugh!" And he did. But his eyes didn't quite lose that stare.
"How did you feel the first day under fire?"
He closed one eye and shook his head.
"Not very grand—not very grand—not for two or three days. Soon get used to it, though. Only things I don't care about now are those Jack Johnsons. Long Toms out in South Africa—now Jack Johnsons—funny names—" and he went into a roar. Then leaning forward and, to make sure of one's attention, sawing the air with a hand that held perhaps the longest used handkerchief ever seen, "I seen 'em make a hole where you could 'ave put two 'underd and fifty horses. Don't think I shall ever get to like 'em. Yu don't take no notice o' rifle fire after a little—not a bit o' notice. I was out once with a sapper and two o' the Devons, fixin' up barbed wire—bullets strikin' everywhere just like rain. One o' the Devons, he was sittin' on a biscuit-tin, singin': 'The fields were white wi' daisies'—singing. All of a sudden he goes like this—" And giving a queer dull "sumph" of a sound, he jerked his body limp towards his knees—"Gone! Dig a hole, put 'im in. Your turn to-morrow, perhaps. Pals an' all. Yu get so as yu don't take no notice."
On the face of the broad, placid girl with the baby against her breast the shadow seemed printed a little deeper, but she did not wince. The tiny baby on his knees woke up and crowed faintly. He smiled.
"Since I been out there, I've often wished I was a little 'un again, like this. Well, I made up my mind when first I went for a soldier, that I'd like to 'ave a medal out of it some day. Now I'll get it, if they don't get me!" and he laughed again: "Ah! I've 'ad some good times, an' I've 'ad some bad times——"
"But never a time like this?"
"Yes, I reckon this has about put the top hat on it!" and he nodded his head above the baby's. "About put the top hat on! Oh! I've seen things—enough to make your 'eart bleed. I've seen a lot of them country people. Cruel it is! Women, old men, little children, 'armless people—enough to make your 'eart bleed. I used to think of the folk over 'ere. Don't think English women'd stand what the French and Belgian women do. Those poor women over there—wonderful they are. There yu'll see 'em sittin' outside their 'omes just a heap o' ruins—clingin' to 'em. Wonderful brave and patient—make your 'eart bleed to see 'em. Things I've seen! There's some proper brutes among the Germans—must be. Yu don't feel very kind to 'em when yu've seen what I've seen. We 'ave some games with 'em, though"—he laughed again: "Very nervous people, the Germans. If we stop firin' in our lines, up they send the star shells, rockets and all, to see what's goin' on—think we're goin' to attack—regular 'lumination o' fireworks—very nervous people. Then we send up some rockets on our side—just to 'ave some fun—proper display o' fireworks." He went off into a roar: "Must 'ave a bit o' fun, you know."
"Is it true they can't stand the bayonet?"
"Yes, that's right—they'll tell yu so themselves—very sensitive, nervous people."
And after that a silence fell. The elder babe was still fretful, and the mother's face had on it that most moving phenomenon of this world—the strange, selfless, utterly absorbed look, mouth just loosened, eyes off where we cannot follow, the whole being wrapped in warmth of her baby against her breast. And he, with the tiny placid baby, had gone off into another sort of dream, with his slightly frowning, far-away look. What was it all about?—nothing perhaps! A great quality, to be able to rest in vacancy.
He stirred and I offered him the paper, but he shook his head.
"Thank yu; don't care about lookin' at 'em. They don't know half what we do out there—from what I've seen of 'em since I come back, I don't seem to 'ave any use for 'em. The pictures, too—" He shrugged and shook his head. "We 'ave the real news, y'see. They don't keep nothin' from us. But we're not allowed to say. When we advance there'll be some lives lost, I tell yu!"
He nodded, thinking for a second perhaps of his own. "Can't be helped! Once we get 'em on the run, we shan't give 'em much time." Just then the baby on his knee woke up and directed on him the full brunt of its wide-open bright grey eyes. Its rosy cheeks were so broad and fat that its snub nose seemed but a button; its mouth, too tiny, one would think, for use, smiled. Seeing that smile he said:
"Well, what do yu want? Proper little gem, ain't yu!" And suddenly looking up at me, he added with a sort of bashful glee: "My old people'll go fair mad when they see me—go fair mad they will." He seemed to dwell on the thought, and I saw the wife give him a long soft smiling look. He added suddenly:
"I'll 'ave to travel back, though, Saturday—catch the six o'clock from Victoria, Sunday—to cross over there."
Very soon after that we arrived at where he changed, and putting on his goatskin, his cap, and overcoat, he got out behind his wife, carrying with the utmost care those queer companions, his baby and his rifle.
Where is he now? Alive, dead? Who knows?
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