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THERE are many things about the late war (writes Dr. Halkeith-Sinclair, of Curzon Street) which I do not understand even in these days, when its secrets form the subject of daily official and unofficial communications, so that we learn of new and wonderful ships, marvellous new explosives, undreamt- of aeroplanes, and the like. Half-way through the narrative they told of the Magnificent Ensign Smith, I found myself wondering why the Government of the United States of America had been so grudging of the recognition it gave to his unparalleled devotion.
I came into this story in a most prosaic and commonplace fashion. At 9.30 one night in December I was in my surgery in Curzon Street, Mayfair, when I was rung up by the Hotel Savoy- Carlton. I was not in the best of moods, for two hours previously I had been called to a shooting case by the police, and no practitioner—and certainly no practitioner of my standing—cares to get mixed up in a criminal trial, involving as it does hours wasted in draughty court-houses. It was the manager of the Savoy-Carlton who called me.
"I wish you would come over, doctor, and see an American lady who arrived to-day by the Lapland."
"What is the matter with her?" I asked.
"I think she is pretty ill. I have had telegraphic instructions from some American officers in France to do everything possible for her, and I am rather scared of her appearance."
"All right, I'll come over," said I. I drove down to the Savoy-Carlton, which is one of the best hotels in London, and Colloni, the manager was waiting for me in the entrance hall.
"I'm sorry to bring you over, doctor, but I am afraid the lady is very ill. I wonder the American authorities allowed her to travel."
"Is she old or young?" I asked.
"She is old," he said, "and arrived here at five o'clock in a state of collapse. The American officers I spoke of had already booked a suite for her, and as Americans are amongst my best customers I do not want to offend them, otherwise I should have sent her straight to a hospital."
He took me up in the elevator, and there I saw my patient. There is a certain beauty about age, a quality which is called caducity, which means the beauty of decaying things. Her hair was white, her face was one of infinite sweetness, and I saw what I have so often seen in women's faces when they are approaching the great last test of their fortitude, an inspiring majesty. The nurse who was in attendance said she was the sweetest old lady she had ever attended, but "sweet" seems to me to be too mild and sugary a word. You could not call the Canadian Rockies sweet, or the tropical heavens, or the Grand Canyon, or the Valley of Chamonix—and She held something of the dignity of all these things.
I made a brief examination. There was no need to look far for the trouble. She had reached the end of all her physical resources, and it was little short of a miracle that she had been able to make the long journey from America.
She looked up into my face, which was as expressionless as I could make it, and smiled.
"You wonder I am alive," she said.
"Well, I wouldn't say that, Mrs. Smith," said I, pulling up a chair and summoning all my stock of reserve cheerfulness. "You are certainly a very daring lady to have taken this journey."
She smiled again.
"It was vanity," she said, and I laughed.
"Oh, yes, it was vanity."
Her voice was quite strong. She spoke without effort, and, so far as I could see, her respiration was normal. But it is absurd and profitless for a doctor to attempt to gauge by any scientific formula the values of will. Still more unsatisfactory must be any examination which science makes into the life-value of love.
"I am the mother of Ensign Smith," she said, and spoke with assurance, as though Ensign Smith were so well known a character that there was no need for further explanation.
"Oh, yes." said I.
She smiled again.
"Of course you're English, and you are not taking quite the same interest in our boys as we, and I cannot expect you to understand just how an American mother feels about her son who has died so gloriously—for Liberty."
Her eyes lit up with a light that rivalled the eyes of youth, a faint colour showed in the pale, wasted cheeks, and the thin hands which lay on the coverlet gripped the down-quilt.
"I don't think you ought to talk very much," said I; "it will excite you and keep you awake."
She shook her head slowly.
"Do you know what time the Continental train arrives in London?" she asked.
I explained to her that the Continental trains kept no particular time, especially the troop trains, and apparently it was the troop train she was expecting.
"They will be here," she said, with conviction, and was silent for a while, her head turned on her pillow, her eyes half closed.
Presently she raised them again.
"My son, Ensign Smith, won the Medal of Honour in the Argonne!"
"That's splendid!" I said, with enthusiasm, for I knew how jealously that medal is awarded in the American Army.
"Yes, it was splendid. But you don't know how splendid it was. You see Jimmy—" she hesitated. "Why, I'll tell you all about him, because he has so wonderfully redeemed his faults. Jimmy was a great trouble to me, dear lad. He went with the wrong set, and there was some—some unpleasantness in New York. He was always a delicate boy, and we spoilt him, I guess, and he got mixed up with evil men and women, and he—well, they used to come and tell me about him, and it well-nigh broke my heart. And even when he enlisted they said he was—drunk. But we worked hard for him, and the Governor, my brother-in-law, used his influence, and, well, Jimmy made good." She closed her eyes and smiled and repeated: "Yes, Jimmy made good. He was killed in the Argonne Forest. We didn't know what had happened, because the official news was that he had died, and I wrote to an officer who came from Palata, and he wrote back a beautiful letter about Jimmy, and said he had done splendidly and was going to be awarded the Medal of Honour."
She paused, and I hoped that she was not going to speak again, although I was more than interested. A doctor cannot afford to indulge in his emotions, but my heart went out to that pathetic figure with her beautiful pride.
But she was not, as I hoped, going to sleep. She was just thinking, and the smile did not leave her face.
"I knew he would not he awarded the Medal of Honour except for something very grand," she said; "and they couldn't tell me anything at Washington. Why, you'd think they would know everything at Washington, wouldn't you?"
"Well, they were just too busy, I guess. So one day the thought came to me that I would go to France, or perhaps to England, where I could get into touch with his comrades and his officers."
A light dawned on me.
"I see: so you told them you were coming and they offered to meet you here?"
She nodded again.
"I have had a telegram from France. A deputation from the regiment is on its way. Isn't that wonderful? A deputation from the regiment to tell me about jimmy!"
There came a tap at the door at that moment, and I walked over and answered it. It was the manager.
"There are three American officers, the gentlemen who hired the suite, and they want to see the lady. Can they, do you think?"
"I don't think it will make very much difference," said I, in a low voice.
"Is she so ill?"
"Perhaps I had better go down and see them, and explain."
When I turned my head I saw her eager eyes fixed on mine.
"They have come?" she asked.
"They have just come. Do you mind if I go down and see them?"
"Please don't keep them too long, doctor," she said. "I know just how sick I am, and I am only living to hear about Jimmy."
This I knew to be the truth.
I found the three officers waiting by the elevator, and the manager introduced me.
There was a tall, grey major and two younger officers, tired, brown-faced men, with the mud of France on their boots and that strange, set look which men wear who have been through the hell of the Argonne.
"You understand, Major," I said, "that Mrs. Smith is practically in extremis."
"I guessed that," said the Major—his name was Shore. "How long do you think she will live?"
"It is very difficult to tell," said I. "It may sound brutal to you, but she ought to be dead now. It is extraordinary that in her condition she can be either conscious or alive."
Major Shore exchanged glances with his two companions.
"Will you come up with us, doctor?" he said. "I'm pretty scared. I would like to have you around—in case."
I understood, and we went up in the elevator together in silence, and I did not speak again till I introduced them severally by their names—Major Shore, Captain Urqhuart, and Lieutenant van Roos.
I shall always remember the expectancy in her face, the fine comradeship in that shaking hand she extended to them, and shall never get from my mind the picture of those three solemn men sitting around the bed their faces contrasting with the live, joyous expression that she wore.
"It is very kind of you gentlemen to humour an old woman," she said. "Maybe you will have children of your own one of these days, and yon will know how I feel about Jimmy. And Jimmy had so many enemies who would never believe that he had that side to his character."
"Surely," said the Major, clearing his throat. "Why, jimmy was the gamest boy that ever served in the 34th, wasn't he, Urqhuart?"
"He was fine," said the captain, huskily. "I don't think I have ever had a better boy under me. He was in my company."
"And you lived with him?"
She was speaking half to herself, in a sort of rapt ecstasy. "Shared the same tent with him, perhaps?"
"Saw him every day! Why, that almost deifies you boys in my eyes."
"He was with me!" It was young van Roos who spoke. "The day we went over!"
"Did he show any—" She hesitated to frame the words.
"He was the bravest of the brave," said van Roos, stoutly. "He was the first over. He went right ahead of the men. There was a big redoubt immediately in front of us, a regular nest of machine-guns, and our men were falling by the score, but Jimmy went on."
"Encouraging them, you see. Mrs. Smith," said Major Shore. "In moments like that example is everything. The bravest of soldiers wouldn't face that kind of fire if they saw their officer faltering."
"That's why Jimmy was so extraordinary," put in Urqhuart. "We never expected him to make that kind of show. The men rallied and went up after him, and we took the redoubt ten minutes later."
"Was he alive then?" she whispered.
"Yes, he was alive then," said Shore. "He wasn't killed till—later."
"And didn't the men think he was wonderful?" she asked.
"They surely did," said Urqhuart; "how could they think anything else? They called him the Magnificent Ensign Smith."
"Did they really, did they really?" she cried, clasping her hands. "I know, you wrote and told me!"
"There was nothing Jimmy wouldn't face." It was Shore who spoke now. They seemed to take it in turns to supplement the record of the boy's heroism. "Nothing worried him—shells, bombs, or machine-gun fire. He took it all laughing."
"And was he a good boy?" she asked, timidly. "I know boys get a little wild when they are out of the battle-line, and there are many temptations to young men. Did he drink?"
"Oh, no!" The three spoke together.
"No," said Major Shore, "I never met a better living fellow than Jimmy. He was just the cleanest lad you could wish to meet."
"He simply spent all his time studying military books," said van Roos. "We used to get rather tired of his studious ways. When the other fellows were going out to paint the town red you would always find Jimmy sitting tight in billets with a book on his knee."
"It made a man of him. It made a man of him!" she whispered.
"Why, it's difficult to believe that Jimmy was ever anything else," said Urqhuart, shaking his head; "he was just made for soldiering. You don't get many Jimmies, even in our Army."
She lay with closed eyes, and for five minutes nobody spoke.
"Tell me how he died," she said, after a while.
"It was at a little village called Piedmont," said Urqhuart. "It lay in a valley between two steep hills, and it was covered by a stream which flowed right across the line of advance. The village had been consolidated by the Germans, who held it in strength. Their batteries had got our positions registered to an inch, and the whole of the hillside was sprinkled with machine- guns. The Virginian regiment on our right had to work round the knoll to the east of the village, and we had to make a frontal attack straight into the gap. The engineers threw over a light bridge, but it was shot away by the German guns. Then the general called for volunteers to swim the stream under fire and establish a position on the north bank so that we could enfilade the German trenches which curved round the village to the west."
"Well, Jimmy volunteered," said van Roos. "Yes, Jimmy volunteered to lead a platoon across. Of course, it was all done in a hurry, the arrangements were very hasty, and he had to take what men he could find in his sector. Our guns put down a barrage on the village, and Jimmy went over."
"Was he first across the stream?" she asked, hopefully.
"Absolutely first," said Shore. "I saw him through my glasses. I was back in an observation post and had a good view. He got into a ditch on the other side of the stream, and half-a-dozen men crawled in with him. It was certain death for the first to cross, even if they got to the other side."
"Jimmy had only six men," said Urqhuart.
"The next wave that tried to cross were shot to pieces, so Jimmy and his six went on and carried the first German machine- gun post at the point of the bayonet."
"Isn't that wonderful?" said the old woman in a hushed voice. "Don't you boys feel kind of proud of having served with him?"
"And was he—"
"He was killed right there in the German trench, killed instantaneously," said Shore.
"But his sacrifice was not in vain?" she asked.
"No," said Urqhuart. "Indeed no. He held the enemy at a critical point, and gave us just the opportunity we wanted."
"And they gave him the Medal of Honour?"
Major Shore put his hand in his pocket and brought out a flat leather care. He pressed a catch and it sprang open, revealing the simple emblem of valour. She took it reverently in both hands and raised it to her lips.
"Jimmy! Jimmy!" she whispered.
I have never seen anything more beautiful than the smile on her face when I took the medal from her dead hands.
Urqhuart was standing up by the other side of the bed.
"Is she dead?" he asked, in a low voice.
I nodded, and that big soldier went down on his knees by the side of the bed and sobbed as if his heart would break.
Presently be grew calmer and stumbled to his feet, wiping his face.
"Thank God, thank God!" he said. "Thank God that's over!"
He looked at the two men, from one strained face to the other.
"I don't know how you fellows feel, but I feel—horrible," he said, and they nodded.
I think with any encouragement they would have broken down, for their eyes were wet.
"It was my fault," Shore said; "I wanted to make it easy for her when I wrote about the Medal of Honour." He took the medal from my hands and fastened it to his own breast.
I stared at him.
"But didn't he get it?" I asked. "Surely a man who behaved—"
He shook his head, and though he smiled his lips were drooping.
"Ensign Smith," he said, "was shot for cowardice in the face of the enemy."