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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 7

JOHN'S mother, his sweetheart and I, all saw him off at Glasgow. The fear was in all our hearts, and I think it must have been in all our eyes, as well; the fear that every father and mother and sweetheart in Britain shared with us in these days whenever they saw a boy off for France and the trenches. Was it for the last time % Were we seeing him now so strong and hale and hearty, only to have to go the rest of our lives with no more than a memory of him to keep ?

Aweel, we could not be telling that. We could only hope and pray! And we had learned again to pray, long since. I have wondered, often, and Mrs. Lauder has wondered with me, what the fathers and mothers of Britain would do in these black days without prayer to guide them and sustain them. So we could but stand there, keeping back our tears and our fears, and hoping for the best. One thing was sure: we might not let the laddie see how close we were to greetin'. It was for us to be so brave as God would let us be. It was hard for him. He was no boy, you ken, going blindly and gaily to a great adventure; he had need of the finest courage and devotion a man could muster that day.

For he knew fully now what it was that he was going back to. He knew what the Huns had made of war; which had been bad enough, in all conscience, before they introduced the horrors that make it worse than hell. And he was highly strung. He could live over, and I make no doubt he did, in those days after he had his orders to go back, every grim and dreadful thing that was waiting for him out there. He had been through it all, and he was going back. He had come out of the valley of the shadow, and now he was to ride down into it again.

And it was with a smile he left us. I shall never forget that. His thought was all for us whom he was leaving behind. His care was for us, lest we should worry too greatly and think too much about him.

"I'll be all right," he told us. "You're not to fret about me, any of you. A man does take his chances out there; but they're the chances every man must take these days, if he's a man at all. I'd rather be taking them than be safe at home."

We did our best to match the laddie's spirit and be worthy of him. But it was cruelly hard. We had lost him. and found him again, and now he was being taken from us for the second time. It was harder, much harder, to see him go this second time than it had been at first, and it had been hard enough then, and bad enough. But there was nothing else for it. So much we knew. It was a thing ordered and inevitable. And it was not many days before we had slipped back into the way things had been before John was invalided home.

It is a strange thing about life, the way that one can become used to things. So it was with us. Strange things, terrible things, outrageous things, that, in time of peace, we would never have dared so much as to think possible, came to be the matters of every day for us. It was so with John. We came to think of it as natural that he should be away from us, and in peril of his life every minute of every hour. It was not easier for us. Indeed, it was harder than it had been before, just as it had been harder for us to say good-bye the second time. But we thought less often of the strangeness of it. We were really growing used to the war, and it was less the monstrous, strange thing than it had been, in our daily lives. War had become our daily life and portion in Britain. All who were not slackers were doing their part, every one. Man and woman and child were in it, making sacrifices. The happy days of peace lay far behind us, and we had lost our touch with them and our memory of them was growing dim. We were all in it. We had all to suffer alike, we were all in the same boat, we mothers and fathers and sweethearts of Britain. And so it was easier for us not to think too much and too often of our. own griefs and cares and anxieties.

John's letters began to come again in a steady stream. He was as careful as ever about writing. There was scarcely a day that did not bring its letter to one of the three of us. And what bonnie, brave letters they were! They were as cheerful and as bright as his first letters had been. If John had bad hours and bad days out there, he would not let us know it. He told us what news there was, and he was always cheerful and bright when he wrote. He let no hint of discouragement creep into anything he wrote to us. He thought of others first, always and all the time; of his men, and of us at home. He was quite cured and well, he told us, and going back had done him good instead of harm. He wrote to us that he felt as if he had come home. He felt, you ken, that it was there, in France and in the trenches, that men should feel at home in those days, and not safe in Britain by their ain firesides.

It was not easy for me to be cheerful and comfortable about him, though. I had my work to do. I tried to do it as well as I could, for I knew that that would please him. My band still went up and down the country, getting recruits, and I was speaking, too, and urging men myself to go out and join the lads who were fighting and dying for them in France. They told me I was doing good work; that I was a great force in the war. And I did, indeed, get many a word and many a handshake from men who told me I had induced them to enlist.

"I'm glad I heard you, Harry," man after man said to me. "You showed me what I should be doing, and I've been easier in my mind ever since I put on the khaki!"

I knew they'd never regret it, no matter what came to them. No man will, that's done his duty. It's the slackers who couldn't or wouldn't see their duty that men should feel sorry for ! It's not the lads who gave everything and made the final sacrifice.

It was hard for me to go on with my work of making folks laugh. It had been growing harder steadily ever since I had come home from America and that long voyage of mine to Australia, and had seen what war was and what it was doing for Britain. But I carried on, and did the best I could.

That winter I was in the big revue at the Shaftesbury Theatre, in London, that was called "Three Cheers." It was one of the gay shows that London liked, because it gave some relief from the war and made the Zeppelin raids that were beginning to be frequent now, a little easier to bear. And it was a great place for the men who were back from France. It was partly because of them that I could go on as I did. We owed them all we could give them. And when they came back from the mud and the grime and the dreariness of the trenches, they needed something to cheer them up; needed the sort of production we gave them. A man who has two days' leave in London does not want to see a serious play or a problem drama, as a rule. He wants something light, with lots of pretty girls and jolly tunes and people to make him laugh. And we gave him that. The house was full of officers and men, night after night.

One day word came from John that he was to have leave, just after Christmas, that would bring him home for the New Year's holidays. His mother went home to make things ready; for John was to be married when he got his leave. I had my plans all made. I meant to build a wee hoose for the two of them, near our own hoose at Dunoon, so that we might be all together, even though my laddie was in a home of his own. And I counted the hours and the days against the time when John would be home again.

While we were playing at the Shaftesbury, I lived at a hotel in Southampton Bow called the Bonnington. But it was lonely for me there. On New Year's Eve—it fell on a Sunday—Tom Vallance, my brother-in-law, asked me to tea with him and his family in Clapham, where he lived. It is a pleasant place, a suburb of London on the south-west, and I was glad to go. And so I drove out with a friend of mine, in a taxicab, and was glad to get out of the crowded part of the city for a time.

I did not feel right that day. Holiday times were bad, hard times for me then. We had always made so much of Christmas, and here was the third Christmas that our boy had been away. And so I was depressed. And then, there had been no word for me from John for a day or two. I was not worried, for I thought it likely that his mother or his sweetheart had heard, and had not time yet to let me know. But, whatever the reason, I was depressed and blue, and I could not enter into the festive spirit that folk were trying to keep alive despite the war.

I must have been poor company during that ride to Clapham in the taxicab. We scarcely exchanged a word, my friend and I. I did not feel like talking, and he respected my mood, and kept quiet himself. I felt, at last, that I ought to apologize to him.

"I don't know what's the matter with me," I told him. "I simply don't want to talk. I feel sad and lonely. I wonder if my boy is all right?"

"Of course he is!" my friend told me. "Cheer up, Harry. This is a time when no news is good news. If anything were wrong with him they'd let you know."

Well, I knew that, too. And I tried to cheer up, and feel better, so that I would not spoil the pleasure of the others at Tom Vallance's house. I tried to picture John as I thought he must be —well, and happy, and smiling the old, familiar boyish smile I knew so well. I had sent him a box of cigars only a few days before, and he would be handing it around among his fellow officers. I knew that. But it was no use. I could think of John, but it was only with sorrow and longing. And I wondered if this same time in a year would see him still out there, in the trenches. Would this war ever end? And so the shadows still hung about me when we reached Tom's house.

They made me very welcome, did Tom and all his family. They tried to cheer me, and Tom did all he could to make me feel better, and to reassure me. But I was still depressed when we left the house and began the drive back to London.

"It's the holiday—I'm out of gear with that, I'm thinking,'' I told my friend.

He was going to join two other friends, and, with them, to see the New Year in in an old-fashioned way, and he wanted me to join them. But I did not feel up to it; I was not in the mood for anything of the sort.

"No, no, I'll go home and turn in," I told him. "I'm too dull to-night to be good company."

He hoped, as we all did, that the New Year that was coming would bring victory and peace. Peace could not come without victory; we were all agreed on that. But we all hoped that the New Year would bring both—the new year of 1917. And so I left him at the corner of Southampton Row, and went back to my hotel alone. It was about midnight, a little before, I think, when I got in, and one of the porters had a message for me.

"Sir Thomas Lipton rang you up," he said, "and wants you to speak with him when you come in."

I rang him up at home directly.

"Happy New Year, when it comes, Harry ! " he said. He spoke in the same bluff, hearty way he always did. He fairly shouted in my ear. "When did you hear from the boy % Are you and Mrs. Lauder well?"

"Aye, fine," I told him. And I told him my last news of John.

"Splendid!" he said. "Well, it was just to talk to you a minute that I rang you up, Harry. Good night: Happy New Year again."

I went to bed then. But I did not go to sleep for a long time. It was New Year's morning, and I lay thinkng of my boy, and wondering what this year would bring him. It was early in the morning before I slept. And it seemed to me that I had scarce been asleep at all when there came a pounding at the door, loud enough to rouse the heaviest sleeper there ever was.

My heart almost stopped. There must be something serious indeed for them to be rousing me so early. I rushed to the door, and there was a porter, holding out a telegram. I took it and tore it open. And I knew why I had felt as I had the day before. I shall never forget what I read:

"Captain John Lauder killed in action, December 28. Official. War Office."

It had gone to Mrs. Lauder at Dunoon first, and she had sent it on to me. That was all it said. I knew nothing of how my boy had died, or where— save that it was for his country.

But later I learned that when Sir Thomas Lip-ton had rung me up he had intended to condole with me. He had heard on Saturday of my boy's death. But when he spoke to me, and understood at once, from the tone of my voice, that I did not know, he had not been able to go on. His heart was too tender to make it possible for him to be the one to give me that blow—the heaviest that ever befell me.


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