Several times since that fateful Fourth of August he had said: "I sh'll 'ave to go."
And the farmer and his wife would look at him, he with a sort of amusement, she with a queer compassion in her heart, and one or the other would reply smiling: "That's all right, Tom, there's plenty Germans yet. Yu wait a bit."
His mother, too, who came daily from the lonely cottage in the little combe on the very edge of the big hill to work in the kitchen and farm dairy, would turn her dark taciturn head, with still plentiful black hair, towards his face which, for all its tan, was so weirdly reminiscent of a withered baby, pinkish and light-lashed, with forelock and fair hair thin and rumpled, and small blue eyes, and she would mutter:
"Don't yu never fret, boy. They'll come for 'ee fast enough when they want 'ee." No one, least of all perhaps his mother, could take quite seriously that little square short-footed man, born when she was just seventeen. Sure of work because he was first-rate with every kind of beast, he was yet not looked on as being quite 'all there.' He could neither read nor write, had scarcely ever been outside the parish, and then only in a shandrydan on a Club treat, and he knew no more of the world than the native of a small South Sea Island. His life from school age on had been passed year in, year out, from dawn till dark, with the cattle and their calves, the sheep, the horses and the wild moor ponies; except when hay or corn harvest, or any exceptionally exacting festival absorbed him for the moment. From shyness he never went into the bar of the Inn, and so had missed the greater part of village education. He could of course read no papers, a map was to him but a mystic mass of marks and colours; he had never seen the sea, never a ship; no water broader than the parish streams; until the war had never met anything more like a soldier than the constable of the neighbouring village. But he had once seen a Royal Marine in uniform. What sort of creatures these Germans were to him—who knows? They were cruel—he had grasped that. Something noxious, perhaps, like the adders whose backs he broke with his stick; something dangerous like the chained dog at Shapton Farm; or the big bull at Vannacombe. When the war first broke out, and they had called the younger blacksmith (a reservist and noted village marksman) back to his regiment, the little cowman had smiled and said: "Wait till regiment gets to front, Fred'll soon shoot 'em up."
But weeks and months went by, and it was always the Germans, the Germans; Fred had clearly not yet shot them up; and now one and now another went off from the village, and two from the farm itself; and the great Fred returned slightly injured for a few weeks' rest, and, full of whisky from morning till night, made the village ring; and finally went off again in a mood of manifest reluctance. All this weighed dumbly on the mind of the little cowman, the more heavily that because of his inarticulate shyness he could never talk that weight away, nor could anyone by talk relieve him, no premises of knowledge or vision being there. From sheer physical contagion he felt the grizzly menace in the air, and a sense of being left behind when others were going to meet that menace with their fists, as it were. There was something proud and sturdy in the little man, even in the look of him, for all that he was 'poor old Tom,' who brought a smile to the lips of all. He was passionate, too, if rubbed up the wrong way; but it needed the malevolence and ingenuity of human beings to annoy him—with his beasts he never lost his temper, so that they had perfect confidence in him. He resembled indeed herdsmen of the Alps, whom one may see in dumb communion with their creatures up in those high solitudes; for he too dwelt in a high solitude cut off from real fellowship with men and women by lack of knowledge, and by the supercilious pity in them. Living in such a remote world his talk—when he did say something—had ever the surprising quality attaching to the thoughts of those by whom the normal proportions of things are quite unknown. His short square figure, hatless and rarely coated in any weather, dotting from foot to foot, a bit of stick in one hand, and often a straw in the mouth—he did not smoke—was familiar in the yard where he turned the handle of the separator, or in the fields and cowsheds, from daybreak to dusk, save for the hours of dinner and tea, which he ate in the farm kitchen, making sparse and surprising comments. To his peculiar whistles and calls the cattle and calves, for all their rumination and stubborn shyness, were amazingly responsive. It was a pretty sight to see them pushing against each other round him—for, after all, he was as much the source of their persistence, especially through the scanty winter months, as a mother starling to her unfledged young.
When the Government issued their request to householders to return the names of those of military age ready to serve if called on, he heard of it, and stopped munching to say in his abrupt fashion: "I'll go—fight the Germans." But the farmer did not put him down, saying to his wife:
"Poor old Tom! 'Twidden be 'ardly fair—they'd be makin' game of 'un."
And his wife, her eyes shining with motherliness, answered: "Poor lad, he's not fit-like."
The months went on—winter passing to spring—and the slow decking of the trees and fields began with leaves and flowers, with butterflies and the songs of birds. How far the little cowman would notice such a thing as that no one could ever have said, devoid as he was of the vocabulary of beauty, but like all the world his heart must have felt warmer and lighter under his old waistcoat, and perhaps more than most hearts, for he could often be seen standing stock-still in the fields, his browning face turned to the sun.
Less and less he heard talk of Germans—dogged acceptance of the state of war having settled on that far countryside—the beggars were not beaten and killed off yet, but they would be in good time. It was unpleasant to think of them more than could be helped. Once in a way a youth went off and ''listed,' but though the parish had given more perhaps than the average, a good few of military age still clung to life as they had known it. Then some bright spirit conceived the notion that a county regiment should march through the remoter districts to rouse them up.
The cuckoo had been singing five days; the lanes and fields, the woods and the village green were as Joseph's coat, so varied and so bright the foliage, from golden oak-buds to the brilliant little lime-tree leaves, the feathery green shoots of larches, and the already darkening bunches of the sycamores. The earth was dry—no rain for a fortnight—when the cars containing the brown-clad men and a recruiting band drew up before the Inn. Here were clustered the farmers, the innkeeper, the grey-haired postman; by the Church gate and before the schoolyard were knots of girls and children, schoolmistress, schoolmaster, parson; and down on the lower green a group of likely youths, an old labourer or two, and apart from human beings as was his wont, the little cowman in brown corduroys tied below the knee, and an old waistcoat, the sleeves of his blue shirt dotted with pink, rolled up to the elbows of his brown arms. So he stood, his brown neck and shaven-looking head quite bare, with his bit of stick wedged between his waist and the ground, staring with all his light-lashed water-blue eyes from under the thatch of his forelock.
The speeches rolled forth glib; the khaki-clad men drank their second fill that morning of coffee and cider; the little cowman stood straight and still, his head drawn back. Two figures—officers, men who had been at the front—detached themselves and came towards the group of likely youths. These wavered a little, were silent, sniggered, stood their ground—the khaki-clad figures passed among them. Hackneyed words, jests, the touch of flattery, changing swiftly to chaff—all the customary performance, hollow and pathetic; and then the two figures re-emerged, their hands clenched, their eyes shifting here and there, their lips drawn back in fixed smiles. They had failed, and were trying to hide it. They must not show contempt—the young slackers might yet come in, when the band played.
The cars were filled again, the band struck up: 'It's a long long way to Tipperary.'
And at the edge of the green within two yards of the car's dusty passage the little cowman stood apart and stared. His face was red. Behind him they were cheering—the parson and farmers, school children, girls, even the group of youths. He alone did not cheer, but his face grew still more red. When the dust above the road and the distant blare of Tipperary had dispersed and died, he walked back to the farm dotting from one to other of his short feet. All that afternoon and evening he spoke no word; but the flush seemed to have settled in his face for good and all. He milked some cows, but forgot to bring the pails up. Two of his precious cows he left unmilked till their distressful lowing caused the farmer's wife to go down and see. There he was standing against a gate moving his brown neck from side to side like an animal in pain, oblivious seemingly of everything. She spoke to him:
"What's matter, Tom?" All he could answer was:
"I'se goin', I'se goin'." She milked the cows herself.
For the next three days he could settle to nothing, leaving his jobs half done, speaking to no one save to say:
"I'se goin'; I'se got to go." Even the beasts looked at him surprised.
On the Saturday the farmer having consulted with his wife, said quietly:
"Well, Tom, ef yu want to go, yu shall. I'll drive 'ee down Monday. Us won't du nothin' to keep yu back."
The little cowman nodded. But he was restless as ever all through that Sunday, eating nothing.
On Monday morning arrayed in his best clothes he got into the dog-cart. There, without good-bye to anyone, not even to his beasts, he sat staring straight before him, square, and jolting up and down beside the farmer, who turned on him now and then a dubious almost anxious eye.
So they drove the eleven miles to the recruiting station. He got down, entered, the farmer with him.
"Well, my lad," they asked him, "what d'you want to join?"
It was a shock, coming from the short, square figure of such an obvious landsman. The farmer took him by the arm.
"Why, yu'm a Devon man, Tom, better take county regiment. An't they gude enough for yu?"
Shaking his head he answered: "Royal Marines."
Was it the glamour of the words or the Royal Marine he had once seen, that moved him to wish to join that outlandish corps? Who shall say? There was the wish, immovable; they took him to the recruiting station for the Royal Marines.
Stretching up his short, square body, and blowing out his cheeks to increase his height, he was put before the reading board. His eyes were splendid; little that passed in hedgerows or the heaven, in woods or on the hillsides, could escape them. They asked him to read the print.
Staring, he answered: "L."
"No, my lad, you're guessing."
The farmer plucked at the recruiting officer's sleeve, his face was twitching, and he whispered hoarsely:
"'E don' know 'is alphabet."
The officer turned and contemplated that short square figure with the browned face so reminiscent of a withered baby, and the little blue eyes staring out under the dusty forelock. Then he grunted, and going up to him, laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Your heart's all right, my lad, but you can't pass."
The little cowman looked at him, turned, and went straight out. An hour later he sat again beside the farmer on the way home, staring before him and jolting up and down.
"They won't get me," he said suddenly: "I can fight, but I'se not goin'." A fire of resentment seemed to have been lit within him. That evening he ate his tea, and next day settled down again among his beasts. But whenever, now, the war was mentioned, he would look up with his puckered smile which seemed to have in it a resentful amusement, and say:
"They a'nt got me yet."
His dumb sacrifice passing their comprehension, had been rejected—or so it seemed to him He could not understand that they had spared him. Why! He was as good as they! His pride was hurt. No! They should not get him now!
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