The Second Bass
by James Owen Hannay
An Extract from
Our Casualty And Other Stories
Be careful, Bates, said Miss Willmot; we don't want your neck
No fear, miss, said Lance-Corporal Bates; I'm all right.
Lance-Corporal Bates had three gold bars on the sleeve of his tunic.
He might fairly be reckoned a man of courage. His position, when Miss
Willmot spoke to him, demanded nerve. He stood on the top rail of the
back of a chair, a feeble-looking chair. The chair was placed on a
table which was inclined to wobble, because one of its legs was half an
inch shorter than the other three. Sergeant O'Rorke, leaning on the
table, rested most of his weight on the seat of the chair, thereby
balancing Bates and preventing an upset. Miss Willmot sat on the corner
of the table, so that it wobbled very little. Bates, perilously
balanced, hammered a nail, the last necessary nail, into the wall
through the topmost ray of a large white star. Then he crept cautiously
Standing beside Miss Willmot he surveyed the star.
Looks a bit like Christmas, don't it, miss? he said.
The glitters on it, said Sergeant O'Rorke, is the beautifullest
that ever was seen. The diamonds on the King's Crown wouldn't be
The star hung on the wall of the canteen opposite the counter. It
was made of cotton wool pasted on cardboard. The wool had been supplied
by a sympathetic nurse from a neighbouring hospital. It was looted from
the medical stores. The frosting, which excited Sergeant O'Rorke's
admiration, was done with sugar. It was Miss Nelly Davis, youngest and
merriest of Miss Willmot's helpers, who suggested the sugar, when the
powdered glass ordered from England failed to arrive.
There can't be any harm in using it, she said. What we're getting
now isn't sugar at all, it is fine gravel. A stone of it wouldn't
sweeten a single urn of tea.
Miss Willmot took the sugar from her stores as she accepted the
looted cotton-wool, without troubling to search for excuse or
justification. She was a lady of strong will. When she made up her mind
that the Christmas decorations of her canteen were to be the best in
France she was not likely to stick at trifling breaches of regulations.
She looked round her with an expression of justifiable satisfaction.
The long hut which served as a canteen looked wonderfully gay.
Underneath the white star ran an inscription done in large letters made
of ivy leaves. Miss Willmot, in the course of two years' service in the
canteen of a base camp, had gained some knowledge of the soldier's
heart Her inscription was calculated to make an immediate appeal. A
Merry Christmas, it ran, And the Next in Blighty. The walls of the
hut were hung round with festoons of coloured paper. Other festoons,
red, blue, and green stretched across the room from wall to wall under
the low ceiling. Chinese lanterns, swinging on wires, threatened the
head of anyone more than six feet in height Sergeant O'Rorke, an Irish
Guardsman until a wound lamed him, now a member of the camp police
force, had to dodge the Chinese lanterns when he walked about Jam-pots
and cigarette-tins, swathed in coloured paper, held bunches of holly
and sprigs of mistletoe. They stood on the tables and the window sills.
But the counter was the crowning glory of the canteen. In the middle
of it stood an enormous Christmas cake, sugar-covered, bedecked with
flags. Round the cake, built into airy castles, were hundreds of
crackers. Huge dishes, piled high with mince pies, stood in rows along
the whole length of the counter on each side of the cake. Behind them,
rising to the height of five steps, was a long staircase made of
packets of cigarettes.
Sure, it's grand, said Sergeant O'Rorke; and there isn't one only
yourself, miss, who'd do all you be doing for the men.
Miss Willmot's eyes softened. They were keen, grey eyes, not often
given to expressing tender feeling. At home in the old days men spoke
of her as a good sport, who rode straight and played the game; but they
seldom tried to make love to her. Women said she was a dear, and that
it was a thousand pities she did not marry. It was no sentimental
recollection of bygone Christmases which brought the look of softness
into her eyes. She was thinking that next day the men for once would
feast to the full in the canteeneat, drink, smoke, without paying a
penny. She knew how well they deserved all she could do for them, these
men who had done so much, borne so much, who still had so much to do
and bear. Miss Willmot thanked God as she stood there that she had
money to spend for the men.
Tea! tea! tea! Tea's ready. Come along, Miss Willmot.
The call came from behind the counter. Miss Nelly Davis stood there,
a tall, fair girl in a long blue overall.
I've made toast and buttered it, and Mr. Digby's waiting.
Good evening, miss, and a happy Christmas to you, said Bates.
If there's a happy Christmas going these times at all, said
Sergeant O'Rorke, it's yourself deserves it.
Thank you, thank you both, said Miss Willmot If it hadn't been
for your help I'd never have got the decorations done at all.
The men left the hut, and Miss Willmot locked the door behind them.
The canteen was closed until it opened in all its glory on Christmas
She passed through a door at the back of the counter, slipped off
her overall, stained and creased after a long day's work, then she went
into the kitchen.
Miss Nelly Davis was bending over a packing-case which stood in the
middle of the kitchen floor. It served as a table, and she was
spreading a cloth on it In front of the stove stood a young man in
uniform, wearing the badges of a fourth class Chaplain to the Forces.
This was Mr. Digby. Once he had been the popular curate of St
Ethelburga's, the most fashionable of London churches. In those days
Miss Willmot would have treated him with scorn. She did not care for
Now he was a fellow-worker in the Camp. His waterproof hung dripping
behind the kitchen door. Drops of rain ran down his gaiters. He was
trying to dry the knees of his breeches before the stove. Miss Willmot
greeted him warmly.
Terrific night, he said; rain coming down in buckets. Water
running round the camp in rivers. I say, Miss Davis, you'll have to get
out another cup. The Major's coming to tea.
There isn't a fourth cup, said Miss Nelly. You'll have to drink
out of a mug.
Right-o! Mugs hold more, anyway.
All padres are greedy, said Miss Nelly. What's bringing the Major
I've arranged a practice of the Christmas carols, said Digby.
Bother your old carols, said Miss Nelly.
Must have a practice, said Digby. You and Miss Willmot are all
right; but the Major is frightfully shaky over the bass. It won't do to
break down to-morrow. By the way, Miss Willmot, there's something I
want to speak to you about before the Major comes. There's
Before the Major comes, Nelly, said Miss Willmot, give me some
tea. He always looks shocked when I drink four cups, so let me get
through the first two before he arrives.
I wouldn't sit there if I were you, said Digby.
There's a drip coming through the roof just there which will get
you on the back of the neck every time you lean forward.
Miss Willmot shifted the biscuit-tin. It was not easy to find a spot
to put it The roof of the kitchen leaked badly in several places.
Look here, Miss Willmot, said Digby. I wonder if you could do
anything about this. I've just been round to the guard-room. There's a
poor devil there
Language! language! said Miss Nelly.
She was on her knees beside the stove rescuing her plate of toast
from danger. Drops of water were falling on it from the knees of
Digby's breeches every time he moved.
There is, said Digby, speaking with great precision, an
unfortunate man at this moment incarcerated in the cell behind the
guard-room, under the stern keeping of the Provost Sergeant I hope that
way of saying it satisfies you, Miss Davis.
For goodness' sake, don't talk Camp shop, said Miss Davis. Let's
have our tea in peace.
Drink, I suppose, said Miss Willmot Why will they do it, just at
This isn't a drunk, said Digby. The wretched devil has been sent
down here under arrest from No. 73 Hospital. He's to be
court-martialled. He's only a boy, and a decent-looking boy, too. I
hate to think of his being shut up in that cell all by himself at
Christmas with nobody to do anything for him.
What can we do? said Miss Willmot.
I can't do anything, of course, said Digby, but I thought you
I don't see what I can do.
Well, try, said Digby. If you'd seen the poor fellowBut
you'll do something for him, won't you?
Digby had a fine faith in Miss Willmot's power to do something
under any circumstances. Experience strengthened his faith instead of
shattering it. Had not Miss Willmot on one occasion faced and routed a
medical board which tried to seize the men's recreation-room for its
own purposes? And in the whole hierarchy of the Army there is no power
more unassailable than that of a medical board. Had she not obtained
leave for a man that he might go to see his dying mother, at a time
when all leave was officially closed, pushing the application through
office after office, till it reached, noted and forwarded for your
information, please, the remote General in Command of Lines of
Communication? Had she not bent to her will two generals, several
colonels, and once even a sergeant-major? A padre, fourth class, though
he had once been curate of St. Ethelburga's, was a feeble person. But
Miss Willmot! Miss Willmot got things done, levelled entanglements of
barbed red tape, captured the trenches of official persons by virtue of
a quiet persistence, andthere is no denying itbecause the things
she wanted done were generally good things.
The Major opened the door of the kitchen. He stood for a moment on
the threshold, the water dripping from his cap and running down his
coat, great drops of it hanging from his white moustache. He was nearer
sixty than fifty years of age. The beginning of the war found him
settled very comfortably in a pleasant Worcestershire village. He had a
house sufficiently large, a garden in which he grew wonderful
vegetables, and a small circle of friends who liked a game of bridge in
the evenings. From these surroundings he had been dug out and sent to
command a base camp in France. He was a professional soldier, trained
in the school of the old Army, but he had enough wisdom to realize that
our new citizen soldiers require special treatment and enough human
sympathy to be keenly interested in the welfare of the men. He grudged
neither time nor trouble in any matter which concerned the good of the
Camp. He had very early come to regard Miss Willmot as a valuable
Padre, he said, I put it to you as a Christian man, is this an
evening on which anyone ought to be asked to practise Christmas
Hear, hear, said Miss Nelly.
We've only had one practice, sir, said Digby, and I've put up
notices all over the Camp that the carols will be sung to-morrow
evening. It's awfully good of you to come.
And of me, said Miss Nelly.
You're here, in any case, said Digby. The men are tremendously
pleased, sir, he added, that you're going to sing. They appreciate
They won't appreciate it nearly so much when they hear me, said
the Major. I haven't sung a part for, I suppose, twenty years.
Christmas carols have been sung, and we may suppose practised
beforehand, in odd places, amid curious surroundings. But it is
doubtful whether even the records of missionaries in heathen lands tell
of a choir practice so unconventional as that held on Christmas Eve in
the kitchen of Miss Willmot's canteen.
The rain beat a tattoo on the corrugated iron roof. It dripped into
a dozen pools on the soaking floor, it fell in drops which hissed on to
the top of the stove. There was no musical instrument of any kind. The
tea-tray was cleared away and laid in a corner. The Major,
white-haired, lean-faced, smiling, sat on the packing-case in the
middle of the room. Miss Willmot sat on her biscuit-tin near the stove.
Miss Nelly perched, with dangling feet, on a corner of the sink in
which cups and dishes were washed Digby, choir-master and conductor,
stood in front of the stove.
Now then, he said, we'll begin with 'Nowell.' Major, here's your
noteLa-a-ahe boomed out a low note. Got it?
La-a-a, growled the Major.
Miss Willmot, alto, said Digby, la-a-a. That's right Miss Davis,
a third higher, la-a-a. My tenor is F. Here's the chord. La, la, la,
la. Now, one, two, three. 'The first Nowell the angels did say'
The rain hammered on the roof. The Major plodded conscientiously at
his bass. Miss Nelly sang a shrill treble. Digby gave the high tenor
notes in shameless shouts. Good King Wenceslas followed, and God
rest you merry, gentlemen. Then the Major declared that he could sing
I wish you'd get another bass, padre, he said. I'm not trying to
back out, but I'm no good by myself. If I'd somebody to help me, a
There's nobody, said Digby. I've scoured the whole camp looking
for a man.
If only Tommy were here, said Miss Nelly.
Tommy has a splendid voice. And I don't see why he mightn't be here
instead of stuck in that silly old hospital He's quite well. He told me
so yesterday. A bullet through the calf of the leg is nothing. Major,
couldn't you get them to send Tommy over to the Camp just for
The Major shook his head. He had every sympathy with Miss Nelly. He
knew all about Tommy. So did Miss Willmot. So did Digby. Miss Nelly
made no secret of the fact that she was engaged to be married to Tommy
Collins. She was proud of the fact that he was serving as a private in
the Wessex Borderers, wishing to work his way up through the ranks to
the commission that he might have had for the asking. No Wessex man
ever entered the canteen without being asked if he knew Private 7432
Collins, of the 8th Battalion. Every oneeven the sergeant-majorhad
to listen to scraps read out from Tommy's letters, written in trenches
or in billets. When Tommy was reported wounded, Miss Willmot had a bad
day of it with an almost hysterical Nelly Davis. When the wound turned
out to be nothing worse than a hole in the calf of the leg, made by a
machine-gun bullet, Miss Nelly cried from sheer relief. When, by the
greatest good luck in the world, Private 7432 Collins was sent down to
73 General Hospital, no more than a mile distant from the Camp, Miss
Nelly went wild with joy.
Can't be done, said the Major. If it were any other hospitalbut
the people in No. 73 don't like me.
The Major was a stickler for extreme accuracy in the filling in of
all official papers. The staff of No. 73 Hospital cured its patients of
their wounds, but sometimes turned them loose afterwards,
insufficiently, occasionally even wrongly, described and classified.
The Major invariably called attention to these mistakes.
The Major, though particular on some points, was a kindly man. He
did not want to speak evil of the hospital authorities. He was also a
little tired of hearing about Tommy Collins. He changed the subject
By the way, Miss Willmot, he said, it's all right about the men's
Christmas dinner. I spent an hour this morning strafing everybody in
the cook-house. I told them they must try to make the Yorkshire
pudding. Heaven knows what it will be like?
If they'll only follow the receipt I gave them said Miss
If, said Digby. But those cooks are rotters.
Anyhow, said the Major, there'll be a decent dinner. Roast beef,
plum pudding, oranges, and then all the things you have for them in the
canteen. They'll not do badly, not at all badly.
He rubbed his hands together and smiled with benevolent
satisfaction. He had arranged to eat his own Christmas dinner at the
unholy hour of three in the afternoon. He meant to see that all went
well at the men's dinner, and that their tea was sufficient. He meant
to look in for an hour at the canteen festivities. He had promised to
sing Christmas carols. From three to four was the only time left at
which he could dine. But that thought did not spoil his satisfaction.
Digby saw, or thought he saw, his opportunity.
There's one poor fellow in the guard-room, sir, he said. Will he
get any Christmas dinner?
He winked at Miss Willmot as he spoke. This was the time for her to
back up his charitable appeal.
Ah, said the Major, I'm afraid I can't do much for him. It's a
serious charge, a case of a Field General Court Martial. I'm afraid
there's no doubt about the facts. I'm sorry for him. He's quite young;
but it's a disgraceful thing for any man to do.
The Major's face hardened. For many offences and most offenders he
had some sympathy; but a man who sinned against the code of military
honour had little pity to expect from the Major.
Miss Willmot looked up.
Is it very bad? she asked.
One of those cases of self-wounding, said the Major. Shot himself
in the leg with his own rifle.
There are cases of this kind, a few of them. Some wretch, driven
half frantic by terror, worn out with hardships, hopeless of any end of
his sufferings, seeks this way out. He gains a week of rest and
security in a hospital ward. Then he faces the stern judgment of a
court martial, and pays the penalty.
Poor fellow! said Miss Willmot. Poor boy! What he must have gone
through before he did that!
He went through no more than any other man went through, said the
Major; but they stuck it and he shirked. There are men enough who
deserve our pity, Miss Willmot We can't afford to waste sympathy on
Miss Willmot was of another mind. For her there was a law higher
even than the Major's lofty code of chivalry and honour. She had pity
to spare for cowards.
The Major himself was not wholly consistent As he rose to leave the
kitchen he spoke of the prisoner again.
He doesn't look like a man who'd do it. He looks like a gentleman.
That makes it worse, of course, much worse. All the same, he doesn't
Well? said Digby, when the Major left.
I can't do anything, said Miss Willmot In a case of this kind
there's nothing to be done.
But Miss Willmot made up a little parcel before she left the
canteen. There were cigarettes in it, and chocolate, and a couple of
mince pies, and a large slice of cake, and some biscuits. Afterwards
she acted lawlessly, offended against discipline, treated rules and
regulations with contempt.
Sergeant O'Rorke was sitting in the guard-room playing patience when
Miss Willmot entered. He stood up at once and saluted.
Terrible weather, miss. I'll never say again that it rains in the
County Galway. Sure, it doesn't know how. A man would have to come to
France to find out what rain is.
Sergeant, said Miss Willmot, I want to speak to your prisoner.
Sergeant O'Rorke scratched his ear doubtfully. Miss Willmot had no
right to see the prisoner. He had no right to open the door of the cell
for her. They had hammered some respect for discipline into Sergeant
O'Rorke when he served in the Irish Guards. But they had not hammered
the Irish nature altogether out of him. He was willing to go to great
lengths, to take risks in order to oblige a friend whom he liked and
respected. He had an Irishman's feeling that laws and regulations are
not meant to apply to ladies like Miss Willmot.
Did you think to ask leave of the Major, miss? he said.
No, said Miss Willmot, I didn't ask anybody's leave.
That's a pity now, said O'Rorke; but sure the Major would never
have said no if you'd have asked him.
He fitted the key into the lock and flung open the door of the cell.
Prisoner, 'tention, he said.
Miss Willmot entered the small square room, lit by a single electric
light. It was entirely bare of all furniture, save a single rug, which
lay rolled up in a corner. The walls and floor were lined with sheets
of zinc A young man stood stiffly to attention in the middle of the
room. Miss Willmot stared at him.
Then she turned to Sergeant O'Rorke. Shut the door please,
sergeant, and wait outside.
The young man neither stirred nor spoke.
Tommy! said Miss Willmot.
7432! Private Collins, miss, 8th Wessex Borderers.
He spoke in a tone of hard, cold fury.
Tommy, said Miss Willmot.
Awaiting trial by Field General Court Martial on a charge of
deliberately wounding himself in the leg.
Tommy, said Miss Willmot again, you didn't do that.
The boy broke down suddenly. The hardness and the anger vanished.
Miss Willmot, he said, for God's sake don't tell Nelly that I'm
You didn't do it, said Miss Willmot.
Of course I didn't do it, he said. There's been some infernal
blunder. I didn't know what the damned idiots meant when they put me
under arrest I didn't know what the charge was till they marched me in
to the C.O. here. He told me. Oh, the Army's a nice thing, I can tell
you. I was expecting to get my stripe over that raid when I got hit
with a bullet in my leg, and here I am charged with a coward's trick. I
suppose they'll prove it I suppose they've got what they call evidence.
I only hope they'll shoot me quick and have done with it I don't want
Miss Willmot went over to the boy and took his hand. She led him to
the corner of the bare room. They sat down together on the folded
blanket She talked to him quietly, sanely, kindly. For half an hour she
sat there with him. Before she left, hope had come back to him.
Don't you worry about my being here, he said If things are
cleared up in the end I shan't mind a bit about spending a night or two
in this cell. With all the things you've brought methe cake,
chocolate, and cigarettes were spread out on the floorI'll have a
merry Christmas, better than the trenches, anyhow. But, I say, don't
tell Nelly. She might fret.
The Christmas festivities in the Camp were enormously successful.
The men had cold ham for breakfast, a special treat paid for by the
Major. They assembled for church parade, and Digby gave them the
shortest sermon ever preached by a padre. The Major, who liked to play
the piano at church service, was so startled by the abrupt conclusion
of the discourse, that he started O Come, All ye Faithful, in a key
so low that no one could sing the second line. The Major pulled himself
As you were, he said, and started again.
The men, thoroughly roused by the novelty of the proceedings, yelled
the hymn. The dinner was all that could be hoped. Sweating cooks
staggered into the dining-hall with huge dishes of meat and steaming
cauldrons of potatoes. Sergeants, on that day acting as servants to the
men, bore off from the carving-tables plates piled high. The Yorkshire
pudding looked like gingerbread, but the men ate it The plum pudding
was heavy, solid, black.
The Major, smiling blandly, went from table to table. Miss Nelly,
flushed with excitement and pleasure, laughed aloud. Only Miss Willmot
looked on with grave eyes, somewhat sad. She was thinking of Tommy
Collins in his cell, with the weight of an intolerable accusation
hanging over him.
Later on, not even Miss Willmot had time to be thoughtful. There was
a pause in the festivities for an hour or two after dinner. The men
smoked, slept, or kicked at a football with spasmodic fits of energy.
Then the canteen was opened. Miss Willmot's great cake was cut The men
passed in a long file in front of the counter. Miss Willmot handed each
man a slice of cake. Other ladies gave crackers and mince pies. Digby,
garrulous and friendly, distributed cigarettes. The Major stood at the
far end of the room under the glistening white star. He was waiting for
the moment to arrive at which he should make his speech, a speech sure
to be received with genuine applause, for it was to be in praise of
Miss Willmot The Major did that kind of thing well. He had the proper
touch, could catch the note appropriate for votes of thanks. He knew
his talent, and that Christmas Day he meant to do his best.
An orderly entered the canteen, looked round it, caught sight of the
Major. He pushed his way through a crowd of laughing men who munched
cake, smoked furiously, and decked each others' heads with paper caps
from crackers. He reached the Major at last, and handed him a note. The
Major read it and swore. Then he began to push his way towards the
counter. The orderly followed him.
Gangway, he called, gangway, men. Make way for the Major.
Way was made at last The Major seized Digby by the arm.
It's a damned nuisance, he said. I beg pardon, padre, an infernal
nuisance. I've got to go to the orderly room. Those fellows in No. 3
Hospital are ringing me up. Why couldn't they keep quiet on Christmas
Day? I must go though, and I may be kept. You'll have to make the
speech and thank Miss Willmot.
Digby escaped making the speech in the end. Just as the distribution
of cakes and mince pies had finished, when Digby was searching
frantically for an opening sentence, the Major returned. He made two
speeches. One was in a low voice across the counter to Miss Willmot.
The other was to the men. It was all about Miss Willmot. It was
beautifully phrased. But she did not hear a word of it She was scarcely
aware of the men's cheers, though the paper festoons swayed to and fro,
and the Chinese lanterns shook with the violence of the shouting. For
the Major had said this to her:
It's all right about that boy in the guard-room, the prisoner you
know, who was to have been court-martialled. Some blatant idiot of an
orderly sergeant mixed up two sets of papers, and put the wrong man
under arrest. They're sending over the right man now. I told Sergeant
O'Rorke to bring that poor boy straight here from the guard-room. Keep
a bit of cake for him.
It was while the men were cheering the Major's other speech that
Tommy Collins, guided by Sergeant O'Rorke, entered the canteen.
Miss Nelly saw him at once. She stretched herself across the counter
to grasp his hands, upsetting the few remaining mince pies, and
scattering crackers right and left. If the counter had not been so
broad and high she would in all probability have kissed him.
Oh, Tommy! she said. And I'd given up all hope of seeing you.
This is just a perfect Christmas box. How did you get here?
Tommy Collins looked appealingly to Miss Willmot. His eyes begged
her as plainly as if words had crossed his lips not to tell the story
of his arrest.
Now you are here, said Miss Nelly, you must help us with the
carols. The Major's a perfect darling, but he can't sing bass for nuts.
You'll do it, won't you? I'm singing, and so is Miss Willmot.