Chapter 22: The Guns of the North
But no more shells fell.
The night grew dark and showed a field of glittering stars, for the air was sharpening again towards frost. We waited for an hour, crouching just behind the far parapets, but never came that ominous familiar whistle.
Then Sandy rose and stretched himself. ‘I’m hungry,’ he said. ‘Let’s have out the food, Hussin. We’ve eaten nothing since before daybreak. I wonder what is the meaning of this respite?’
I fancied I knew.
‘It’s Stumm’s way,’ I said. ‘He wants to torture us. He’ll keep us hours on tenterhooks, while he sits over yonder exulting in what he thinks we’re enduring. He has just enough imagination for that ... He would rush us if he had the men. As it is, he’s going to blow us to pieces, but do it slowly and smack his lips over it.’
Sandy yawned. ‘We’ll disappoint him, for we won’t be worried, old man. We three are beyond that kind of fear.’
‘Meanwhile we’re going to do the best we can,’ I said. ‘He’s got the exact range for his whizz-bangs. We’ve got to find a hole somewhere just outside the castrol, and some sort of head-cover. We’re bound to get damaged whatever happens, but we’ll stick it out to the end. When they think they have finished with us and rush the place, there may be one of us alive to put a bullet through old Stumm. What do you say?’
They agreed, and after our meal Sandy and I crawled out to prospect, leaving the others on guard in case there should be an attack. We found a hollow in the glacis a little south of the castrol, and, working very quietly, managed to enlarge it and cut a kind of shallow cave in the hill. It would be no use against a direct hit, but it would give some cover from flying fragments. As I read the situation, Stumm could land as many shells as he pleased in the castrol and wouldn’t bother to attend to the flanks. When the bad shelling began there would be shelter for one or two in the cave.
Our enemies were watchful. The riflemen on the east burnt Very flares at intervals, and Stumm’s lot sent up a great star-rocket. I remember that just before midnight hell broke loose round Fort Palantuken. No more Russian shells came into our hollow, but all the road to the east was under fire, and at the Fort itself there was a shattering explosion and a queer scarlet glow which looked as if a magazine had been hit. For about two hours the firing was intense, and then it died down. But it was towards the north that I kept turning my head. There seemed to be something different in the sound there, something sharper in the report of the guns, as if shells were dropping in a narrow valley whose rock walls doubled the echo. Had the Russians by any blessed chance worked round that flank?
I got Sandy to listen, but he shook his head. ‘Those guns are a dozen miles off,’ he said. ‘They’re no nearer than three days ago. But it looks as if the sportsmen on the south might have a chance. When they break through and stream down the valley, they’ll be puzzled to account for what remains of us ... We’re no longer three adventurers in the enemy’s country. We’re the advance guard of the Allies. Our pals don’t know about us, and we’re going to be cut off, which has happened to advance guards before now. But all the same, we’re in our own battle-line again. Doesn’t that cheer you, Dick?’
It cheered me wonderfully, for I knew now what had been the weight on my heart ever since I accepted Sir Walter’s mission. It was the loneliness of it. I was fighting far away from my friends, far away from the true fronts of battle. It was a side-show which, whatever its importance, had none of the exhilaration of the main effort. But now we had come back to familiar ground. We were like the Highlanders cut off at Cite St Auguste on the first day of Loos, or those Scots Guards at Festubert of whom I had heard. Only, the others did not know of it, would never hear of it. If Peter succeeded he might tell the tale, but most likely he was lying dead somewhere in the no-man’s-land between the lines. We should never be heard of again any more, but our work remained. Sir Walter would know that, and he would tell our few belongings that we had gone out in our country’s service.
We were in the castrol again, sitting under the parapets. The same thoughts must have been in Sandy’s mind, for he suddenly laughed.
‘It’s a queer ending, Dick. We simply vanish into the infinite. If the Russians get through they will never recognize what is left of us among so much of the wreckage of battle. The snow will soon cover us, and when the spring comes there will only be a few bleached bones. Upon my soul it is the kind of death I always wanted.’ And he quoted softly to himself a verse of an old Scots ballad:
‘Mony’s the ane for him maks mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane.
Ower his white banes, when they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.’
‘But our work lives,’ I cried, with a sudden great gasp of happiness. ‘It’s the job that matters, not the men that do it. And our job’s done. We have won, old chap--won hands down--and there is no going back on that. We have won anyway; and if Peter has had a slice of luck, we’ve scooped the pool ... After all, we never expected to come out of this thing with our lives.’
Blenkiron, with his leg stuck out stiffly before him, was humming quietly to himself, as he often did when he felt cheerful. He had only one song, ‘John Brown’s Body’; usually only a line at a time, but now he got as far as the whole verse:
‘He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so true,
And he frightened old Virginny till she trembled through and through.
They hung him for a traitor, themselves the traitor crew,
But his soul goes marching along.’
‘Feeling good?’ I asked.
‘Fine. I’m about the luckiest man on God’s earth, Major. I’ve always wanted to get into a big show, but I didn’t see how it would come the way of a homely citizen like me, living in a steam-warmed house and going down town to my office every morning. I used to envy my old dad that fought at Chattanooga, and never forgot to tell you about it. But I guess Chattanooga was like a scrap in a Bowery bar compared to this. When I meet the old man in Glory he’ll have to listen some to me.’
It was just after Blenkiron spoke that we got a reminder of Stumm’s presence. The gun was well laid, for a shell plumped on the near edge of the castro. It made an end of one of the Companions who was on guard there, badly wounded another, and a fragment gashed my thigh. We took refuge in the shallow cave, but some wild shooting from the east side brought us back to the parapets, for we feared an attack. None came, nor any more shells, and once again the night was quiet.
I asked Blenkiron if he had any near relatives.
‘Why, no, except a sister’s son, a college-boy who has no need of his uncle. It’s fortunate that we three have no wives. I haven’t any regrets, neither, for I’ve had a mighty deal out of life. I was thinking this morning that it was a pity I was going out when I had just got my duo-denum to listen to reason. But I reckon that’s another of my mercies. The good God took away the pain in my stomach so that I might go to Him with a clear head and a thankful heart.’
‘We’re lucky fellows,’ said Sandy; ‘we’ve all had our whack. When I remember the good times I’ve had I could sing a hymn of praise. We’ve lived long enough to know ourselves, and to shape ourselves into some kind of decency. But think of those boys who have given their lives freely when they scarcely knew what life meant. They were just at the beginning of the road, and they didn’t know what dreary bits lay before them. It was all sunshiny and bright-coloured, and yet they gave it up without a moment’s doubt. And think of the men with wives and children and homes that were the biggest things in life to them. For fellows like us to shirk would be black cowardice. It’s small credit for us to stick it out. But when those others shut their teeth and went forward, they were blessed heroes... ‘
After that we fell silent. A man’s thoughts at a time like that seem to be double-powered, and the memory becomes very sharp and clear. I don’t know what was in the others’ minds, but I know what filled my own...
I fancy it isn’t the men who get most out of the world and are always buoyant and cheerful that most fear to die. Rather it is the weak-engined souls who go about with dull eyes, that cling most fiercely to life. They have not the joy of being alive which is a kind of earnest of immortality ... I know that my thoughts were chiefly about the jolly things that I had seen and done; not regret, but gratitude. The panorama of blue noons on the veld unrolled itself before me, and hunter’s nights in the bush, the taste of food and sleep, the bitter stimulus of dawn, the joy of wild adventure, the voices of old staunch friends. Hitherto the war had seemed to make a break with all that had gone before, but now the war was only part of the picture. I thought of my battalion, and the good fellows there, many of whom had fallen on the Loos parapets. I had never looked to come out of that myself. But I had been spared, and given the chance of a greater business, and I had succeeded. That was the tremendous fact, and my mood was humble gratitude to God and exultant pride. Death was a small price to pay for it. As Blenkiron would have said, I had got good value in the deal.
The night was getting bitter cold, as happens before dawn. It was frost again, and the sharpness of it woke our hunger. I got out the remnants of the food and wine and we had a last meal. I remember we pledged each other as we drank.
‘We have eaten our Passover Feast,’ said Sandy. ‘When do you look for the end?’
‘After dawn,’ I said. ‘Stumm wants daylight to get the full savour of his revenge.’
Slowly the sky passed from ebony to grey, and black shapes of hill outlined themselves against it. A wind blew down the valley, bringing the acrid smell of burning, but something too of the freshness of morn. It stirred strange thoughts in me, and woke the old morning vigour of the blood which was never to be mine again. For the first time in that long vigil I was torn with a sudden regret.
‘We must get into the cave before it is full light,’ I said. ‘We had better draw lots for the two to go.’
The choice fell on one of the Companions and Blenkiron. ‘You can count me out,’ said the latter. ‘If it’s your wish to find a man to be alive when our friends come up to count their spoil, I guess I’m the worst of the lot. I’d prefer, if you don’t mind, to stay here. I’ve made my peace with my Maker, and I’d like to wait quietly on His call. I’ll play a game of Patience to pass the time.’
He would take no denial, so we drew again, and the lot fell to Sandy.
‘If I’m the last to go,’ he said, ‘I promise I don’t miss. Stumm won’t be long in following me.’
He shook hands with his cheery smile, and he and the Companion slipped over the parapet in the final shadows before dawn.
Blenkiron spread his Patience cards on a flat rock, and dealt out the Double Napoleon. He was perfectly calm, and hummed to himself his only tune. For myself I was drinking in my last draught of the hill air. My contentment was going. I suddenly felt bitterly loath to die.
Something of the same kind must have passed through Blenkiron’s head. He suddenly looked up and asked, ‘Sister Anne, Sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?’
I stood close to the parapet, watching every detail of the landscape as shown by the revealing daybreak. Up on the shoulders of the Palantuken, snowdrifts lipped over the edges of the cliffs. I wondered when they would come down as avalanches. There was a kind of croft on one hillside, and from a hut the smoke of breakfast was beginning to curl. Stumm’s gunners were awake and apparently holding council. Far down on the main road a convoy was moving--I heard the creak of the wheels two miles away, for the air was deathly still.
Then, as if a spring had been loosed, the world suddenly leaped to a hideous life. With a growl the guns opened round all the horizon. They were especially fierce to the south, where a rafale beat as I had never heard it before. The one glance I cast behind me showed the gap in the hills choked with fumes and dust.
But my eyes were on the north. From Erzerum city tall tongues of flame leaped from a dozen quarters. Beyond, towards the opening of the Euphrates glen, there was the sharp crack of field-guns. I strained eyes and ears, mad with impatience, and I read the riddle.
‘Sandy,’ I yelled, ‘Peter has got through. The Russians are round the flank. The town is burning. Glory to God, we’ve won, we’ve won!’
And as I spoke the earth seemed to split beside me, and I was flung forward on the gravel which covered Hilda von Einem’s grave.
As I picked myself up, and to my amazement found myself uninjured, I saw Blenkiron rubbing the dust out of his eyes and arranging a disordered card. He had stopped humming, and was singing aloud:
‘He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so true
And he frightened old Virginny... ‘
‘Say, Major,’ he cried, ‘I believe this game of mine is coming out.’
I was now pretty well mad. The thought that old Peter had won, that we had won beyond our wildest dreams, that if we died there were those coming who would exact the uttermost vengeance, rode my brain like a fever. I sprang on the parapet and waved my hand to Stumm, shouting defiance. Rifle shots cracked out from behind, and I leaped back just in time for the next shell.
The charge must have been short, for it was a bad miss, landing somewhere on the glacis. The next was better and crashed on the near parapet, carving a great hole in the rocky kranz. This time my arm hung limp, broken by a fragment of stone, but I felt no pain. Blenkiron seemed to bear a charmed life, for he was smothered in dust, but unhurt. He blew the dust away from his cards very gingerly and went on playing.