When the charge broke and the remnants lapped back like spent waves, Sergeant O’Flaherty, a bullet through the left side, dropped beside him, and as weary castaways fight half listlessly for shore, they crawled and pushed and edged themselves into a shell crater. Clay’s shoulder and back were bleeding profusely and he searched heavily and clumsily for his first-aid package.
“That’ll be that until the Seventeenth Sussex gets reorganized,” remarked O’Flaherty, sagely. “Two weeks in the rear and two weeks home.”
“Damn good regiment it was, O’Flaherty,” said Clay. They would have seemed like two philosophic majors commenting from safe behind the lines had it not been that Clay was flat on his back, his face in a drawn ecstasy of pain, and that the Irishman was most evidently bleeding to death. The latter was twining an improvised tourniquet on his thigh, watching it with the careless casual interest a bashful suitor bestows upon his hat.
“I can’t get up no emotion over a regiment these nights,” he commented disgustedly. “This’ll be the fifth I was in that I seen smashed to hell. I joined these Sussex byes so I needn’t see more o’ me own go.”
“I think you know everyone in Ireland, Sergeant.”
“All Ireland’s me friend, Captain, though I niver knew it ’till I left. So I left the Irish, what was left of them. You see when an English bye dies he does some play actin’ before. Blood on an Englishman always calls rouge to me mind. It’s a game with him. The Irish take death damn serious.”
Clayton rolled painfully over and watched the night come softly down and blend with the drifting smoke. They were certainly between the devil and the deep sea and the slang of the next generation will use “no man’s land” for that. O’Flaherty was still talking.
“You see you has to do somethin’. You haven’t any God worth remarkin’ on. So you pass from life in the names of your holy principles, and hope to meet in Westminster.”
“We’re not mystics, O’Flaherty,” muttered Clay, “but we’ve got a firm grip on God and reality.”
“Mystics, my eye, beggin’ your pardon, Captain,” cried the Irishman. “A mystic ain’t no race, it’s a saint. You got the most airy way o’ thinkin’ in the wurruld an yit you talk about plain faith as if it was cloud gazin’. There was a lecture last week behind Vimy Y.M.C.A., an’ I stuck my head in the door; ‘Tan-gi-ble,’ the fellow was sayin’, ‘we must be Tan-gi-ble in our religion, we must be practical’ an’ he starts off on Christian brotherhood an’ honorable death—so I stuck me head out again. An’ you got lots a good men dyin’ for that every day—tryin’ to be tan-gi-ble, dyin’ because their father’s a duke or because he ain’t. But that ain’t what I got to think of. An’ right here let’s light a pipe before it gets dark enough for the damn burgomasters to see the match and practice on it.”
Pipes, as indispensible as the hard ration, were going in no time, and the sergeant continued as he blew a huge lungful of smoke towards the earth with incongruous supercaution.
“I fight because I like it, an’ God ain’t to blame for that, but when it’s death you’re talkin’ about I’ll tell you what I get an’ you don’t. Père Dupont gets in front of the Frenchies an’ he says:
‘Allons, mes enfants !’ fine! an’ Father O’Brien, he says: ‘Go on in byes and bate the Luther out o’ them’—great stuff! But can you see the Reverent Updike—Updike just out o’ Oxford, yellin’ ‘mix it up, chappies,’ or ‘soak ’em blokes’?—No, Captain, the best leader you ever get is a six-foot rowin’ man that thinks God’s got a seat in the House o’ Commons. All sportin’ men have to have a bunch o’ cheerin’ when they die. Give an Englishman four inches in the sportin’ page this side of the whistle an’ he’ll die happy—but not O’Flaherty.”
But Clay’s thoughts were far away. Half delirious, his mind wandered to Eleanor. He had thought of nothing else for a week, ever since their parting at Rochester, and so many new sides of what he had learned were opening up. He had suddenly realized about d**k and Eleanor; they must have been married to all intents and purposes. Of course Clay had written to Eleanor from Paris, asking her to marry him on his return, and just yesterday he had gotten a very short, very kind, but definite refusal. And he couldn’t understand at all.
Then there was his sister—Eleanor’s words still rang in his ear. “They either put on trousers and act as chauffeurs all day or put on paint and dance with officers all night.” He felt perfectly sure that Clara was still, well—virtuous. Virtuous—what a ridiculous word it seemed, and how odd to be using it about his sister. Clara had always been so painfully good. At fourteen she had sent to Boston for a souvenir picture of Louisa M. Alcott to hang over her bed. His favorite amusement had been to replace it by some startling soubrette in tights, culled from the pages of the “Pink Un.” Well Clara, Eleanor, d**k, he himself, were all in the same boat, no matter what the actuality of their innocence or guilt. If he ever got back—
The Irishman, evidently sinking fast, was talking rapidly.
“Put your wishy-washy pretty clothes on everythin’, but it ain’t no disguise. If I get drunk it’s the flesh and the devil; if you get drunk it’s your wild oats. But you ain’t disguisin’ death, not to me you ain’t. It’s a damn serious affair. I may get killed for me flag, but I’m goin’ to die for meself. ‘I die for England’ he says. ‘Settle up with God, you’re through with England’ I says.”
He raised himself on his elbow and shook his fist toward the German trenches.
“It’s you an’ your damn Luther!” he shouted. “You been protestin’ and analyzin’ until you’re makin’ my body ache and burn like hell; you been evolvin’ like Mister Darwin, an’ you stretched yourself so far that you’ve split. Everythin’s in-tan-gi-ble except your God. Honor an’ Fatherland an’ Westminster Abbey, they’re all in-tan-gi-ble except God an’ sure you got him tan-gi-ble. You got him on the flag an’ in the constitution. Next you’ll be writin’ your bibles with Christ sowin’ wild oats to make him human. You say he’s on your side. Onc’t, just onc’t, he had a favorite nation and they hung Him up by the hands and feet and his body hurt him and burn’t him,” his voice grew fainter. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is wit’ thee—” His voice trailed off; he shuddered and was dead.
The hours went on. Clayton lit another pipe, heedless of what German sharpshooters might see. A heavy March mist had come down and the damp was eating into him. His whole left side was paralyzed and he felt chill creep slowly over him. He spoke aloud.
“Damned old mist—damned lucky old Irishman—Damnation.” He felt a dim wonder that he was to know death but his thoughts turned as ever to England, and three faces came in sequence before him. Clara’s, d**k’s and Eleanor’s. It was all such a mess. He’d like to have gone back and finished that conversation. It had stopped at Rochester—he had stopped living in the station at Rochester. How queer to have stopped there—Rochester had no significance. Wasn’t there a play where a man was born in a station, or a handbag in a station, and he’d stopped living at—what did the Irishman say about cloaks, Eleanor said something about cloaks, too, he couldn’t see any cloaks, didn’t feel sentimental—only cold and dim and mixed up. He didn’t know about God—God was a good thing for curates—then there was the Y.M.C.A. God—and he always wore short sleeves, and bumpy Oxfords—but that wasn’t God—that was just the man who talked about God to soldiers. And then there was O’Flaherty’s God. He felt as if he knew him, but then he’d never called him God—he was fear and love, and it wasn’t dignified to fear God—or even to love him except in a calm respectable way. There were so many Gods it seemed—he had thought that Christianity was monotheistic, and it seemed pagan to have so many Gods.
Well, he’d find out the whole muddled business in about three minutes, and a lot of good it’d do anybody else left in the muddle. Damned muddle—everything a muddle, everybody offside, and the referee gotten rid of—everybody trying to say that if the referee were there he’d have been on their side. He was going to go and find that old referee—find him—get hold of him, get a good hold—cling to him—cling to him—ask him—