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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 broken.”

“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 down.

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 finer.”

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 canteen—eat, 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 afternoon.

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 curates.

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 here?”

“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 Christmas, too?”

“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 might.”

“I don't see what I can do.”

“Well, try,” said Digby. “If you'd seen the poor fellow——But 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, and—there is no denying it—because 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 fellow-worker.

“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 carols?”

“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 it.”

“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 note—La-a-a”—he 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 no more.

“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 second bass——”

“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 to-morrow?”

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 one—even the sergeant-major—had 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 hospital—but 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 abruptly.

“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 Willmot.

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 cowards.”

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 look it.”

“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 here.”

“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 to live.”

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 me”—the cake, chocolate, and cigarettes were spread out on the floor—“I'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 together.

“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.”