MILTON folded his serviette neatly, rolled it with a certain absent-minded precision, and threaded it through the bone ring. His face was grave and thought-drawn.
There was a network of tiny lines beneath his eyes. He had not slept the previous night, though the billet was an unusually comfortable one. Wilmott had kept his part of the agreement, and both divisional and corps headquarters had been splendid. His telegrams, sent by the faithful Wilmott every hour, had been prefaced "X. M." (and "X. M." [the symbols and code letters given in this story differ, for obvious reasons, from those employed in the field] meant "very urgent: clear the line") and had been brought to Milton's billet within a quarter of an hour of their dispatch from London. So he had contented himself with sitting in a big armchair, in riding breeches and slippers, waiting, waiting.
A wire came at two o'clock. "All well so far," it ran. Another at two-fifteen to the same effect. There had been one at three, another a few minutes after four, and then silence.
There was some delay on the wire: a derailed engine on a Kentish line had sent a telegraph pole sprawling and had brought chaos to the orderly cords of copper and guttapercha, which carried all manner of breathless inquiries, orders, advice, and confidential information. To add to the annoyance, a daring Aviatik had bombed Pessy, smashing one end of the transmitting room of the F. T. O.
"And I hope," said the general, leaning over the table and employing that mildness of tone which invariably accompanied his most ardent expression of views, "I hope that the 'bird' will arrive home to find his breakfast cold and a nasty note from the All Highest. Gott strafe Aviatiks!"
He was a broad red man with a high forehead, a bald head, and an untidy mustache, and he spoke with a certain jovial slowness which suggested that he had not made up his mind whether to be amused or very angry indeed.
One of the aides went to the door and opened it.
"Leave it open and blow the rain!" said the brigadier; "they are having an extra long hate this morning."
The bang-bang of artillery came with remarkable clearness, for the wind was blowing from the trenches. The rifle fire was almost as fierce and as incessant as the patter of rain that was falling upon the wooden roof of the barn which was, for the moment, the headquarters of the 914th Brigade.
Langley, the thin-faced aide, stood in the open doorway twisting his little mustache thoughtfully. "There's a telegram for somebody," he announced.
Milton jumped up from the table and walked quickly to the door to meet the dripping orderly. His face fell as he took the envelope. "For you," he said, and handed it to the brigadier. That stout man smiled sympathetically.
'I shouldn't worry if I were you, Milton," he said as he opened the envelope. "I quite understand how bad you are feeling." He glanced down at the message.
'Vicars has gone," he said briefly.
There was a murmur of sincere commiseration.
"Hard luck—when, sir?"
"This morning," said the general. "'Crumped' in his funk hole. Gathersole wants you, Milton."
Another orderly was at the door with a rain-spotted envelope in his hand. Milton did not dare hope it was for himself. Again the general took the message and rose heavily from the table. "General attack in front of the 800th," he said briefly. "We go forward in support—get 'em moving, Langley—C. O.'s to see me at once. Move up to the south of Loos Wood and support the left of the 800th; they're pulling back. Milton, they want you badly. I want you too, but it's for divisional work. Go along and see the general—he's keen on you—quotes your book and all that sort of thing."
IN June, 1913, there was published in London and New York Milton's Theory of Values. It was a little book of 132 pages and attracted some attention, for Major Milton of the Staff College was a person who enjoyed considerable fame in military circles. His theory was an old one, and the book enjoyed its popularity among soldiers for exactly the same reason that so many books are popular, namely, because it put old facts in a new and readable way.
Milton's view was the very negation of the humanitarian view. Life was nothing—success in battle was everything. Sentimentality was the poison of national and military systems. "Do you mourn the grain of wheat you eat in the shape of a bread morsel?" asked Milton, "Would you preserve all grain for seed?" He proved that if you did Nature would step in and vitiate the value of wheat as a foodstuff. Destruction was essential to creation, and so on and so forth.
At the Staff College they called him the "man of blood." His wife called him Jacky, and when her friends told her how pleased she must be that her husband was now in his element (for he was in the hottest part of the Flanders battle line), she looked at them strangely and said that perhaps it would be better if he were at home. They wondered at this, but there was no occasion for their bewilderment. A stained gray car dropped him at headquarters, and his interview with the divisional general was short.
"... poor old Vicars has gone," said the general. "All the wires have been messed up. Did you get your good news, by the way? I'm sorry —the devil is in the wires to-day. You'll find everything made good. Here is the rough idea."
HE was closeted with the divisional commander for half an hour, studying the map and jotting down the notes of his superior's orders.
"Hold 'em up—that is all we need do. Keep a fatherly eye on No. 16—there's a new regiment there and they're rather jumpy. Keep 63 up to the mark; he's a lethargic devil—poor old Vicars knew 'em all like a book."
Milton made his way on foot to his position. He was under shell fire for half an hour before he came up to the bomb-proof shelter. He had to pass the shattered dugout wherein Vicars had sat amid a ganglion of telephone wires directing affairs for his general until a chance shot from the enemy's 8.2 had wrecked the shelter.
Vicars himself, his hands crossed on his breast and his face mercifully hidden beneath a wagon cover, lay by the side of the sodden road. Milton scarcely gave him a glance as he passed. Vicars had been one of his best friends, but there was no time for sorrow or sentiment—especially sentiment. He remembered with a whimsical smile the dead man's weakness: he was the most truculent bridge player in the division.
Milton came to the new shelter. Men were piling earth upon its roof and a dozen engineers in their shirt sleeves, despite the pouring rain, were sorting out a confusion of wire with maddening deliberation—maddening to the infantry officers who watched the operation, perfectly understandable to the phlegmatic R. E. officer who superintended the proceedings.
"We shall be ready for you in ten minutes, sir," he said.
Milton sat down under a dripping privet hedge, philosophical and calm. The roar and crash of the battle impressed him less to-day than ever it had done. He saw a greater battle—a terrific combat, between the cruel and inexorable and the weak and helpless. He sensed with a numb anguish the fight that the woman he loved was waging in solitude and suffering, and the sweat stood on his forehead at the thought.
What was Vicars? What were these men who he knew were falling by the score with every tick of his watch? What cause would justify so overwhelming a terror as waited by her pillow?
Phew! He stood up and whistled. The hand he raised to wipe his damp face was shaking.
He nodded and slid down the steep bank into the roomy apartment which the engineers had prepared. They had created some sort of ventilation, but there was no light save the four electric lights fed from portable batteries and the one big oil lamp turned low, but raised in a moment of emergency. A narrow table in the middle of the room was covered by a map on which an officer was arranging little oblong blocks of wood, each bearing a symbol.
"You'll find these correct, sir," said the officer, and Milton made no reply. He threw his hat to a chair, took up the telephone helmet and held it while the other explained rapidly all that had taken place in the last hour. Then Milton fastened the receivers to his ears, adjusted the vulcanite mouthpiece, and opened his notebook. He pressed in a plug.
"Hullo, 10! Hullo! Yes—it's all right; they crumped us, but the wires are all working now. Hang on to your present trench.... Yes.... Yes, I know! But you must repair it.... I'll do what I can for you."
He fitted another plug.
"Hullo, 27! Shrapnel in front of No. 10. Shorten your range by fifty yards—10 says you're firing between trenches.
"Hullo, 28! What are you doing? Can you put a little shrapnel in front of 10?
"Hullo, 16! No, no! The wires have been smashed. You must hold on with your teeth—we are sending two battalions to support you."
They came at him without ceasing.
The red disks clicked down one after the other; the deep-toned buzzer growled; "smack" went the plug, and—
"'Lo—'lo—18 talking. There's a battery to our right front giving us hell! The Canadians are getting it ... they've signaled their wire is cut by shrapnel ... no, no ... phone line. I mean ... see what you can do with those guns, my dear chap."
Some of the voices were calm, almost jocular; some conveyed their tense mood; some were frankly nerve-ragged; 17 was imperious; 45, under heavy fire and losing heavily, drawled an insulting inquiry as to the health of Battery 20.
"For God's sake, send him to see an oculist—he's shelling everything except the Bosches."
Milton put in his plug.
"Hullo, 29! Your firing is erratic. Hullo, hullo!"
"Beg pardon, sir"—the voice through the phone was pure cockney and pitched in its most strident key—"whole bloomin' battery's wiped out, sir—all except me an' another feller. We're workin' No. 2 gun. 'Jack Johnson' hit us fair an' square. We're both drivers, but we're doin' our best."
Milton licked his dry lips. "All right; hang on and cease firing. What is your name?"
"Driver Gold, sir." The voice was eager. He nosed distinction—and deservedly so. He was husky with the tremendous consciousness of his act. "No. 17435, Driver G. Gold, 104th Battery, R. F. H., sir— me an' Driver Percer; we've bin workin' one gun for half an hour. Major's dead under the next limber, an' told us to go on firin', sir—'Fire to the last.'"
"All right—get under cover and leave the gun," said Milton sharply and cut off all further eloquence by pulling out the plug. He slipped it into the next hole. "Hullo, 41! Do you know that 29 is out of action? Send up a detachment."
"Hullo! H. Q. Mark Drivers Gold and Percer, 104th Battery, for inquiry.
"Hullo! What's that, 16? Going back? You can't go back... it doesn't matter a damn! You've got to hold on. Who is it speaking, eh? Where is the colonel ... is he? I'm sorry, but you must hold on, my boy. The men don't want to come back? Of course not; don't be a strategist—hold on!"
HOW cheerfully, how carelessly, he condemned them to death! He knew the boy who had spoken—a youngster who had dined at headquarters mess a week or two ago, full of bubbling enthusiasm, all achuckle with happiness at the thought of the fun ahead. Now his voice was high-pitched, almost wailing. Milton could imagine the gray of his face and the blue-black shadows that come under the eyes of men who have not slept for nights together.
He looked up at the big moon-faced clock over the switchboard. The hands pointed to five minutes after nine. Wilmott's first wire told him of the beginning. Had the end come?
Oh, it was so much greater a thing that she was fighting for.
For these pieces in the game, that moved in blind obedience to his word, there was a chance that they might come through the mad-bull smash of battle unscathed. For her—he winced.
The general came into the shelter and looked for a long time at the map while Milton went mechanically about his work, admonishing, encouraging, imploring. He was the croupier of fate. Though he might not spin the wheel, he could call the winners and table the losses.
"Hullo, 85! Get your guns going on 14, please.
"Hullo, 19! Go ahead now and carry that breastwork ... machine guns? Exactly where? Wait!
"Hullo, 37! Hullo, 38! Hullo, 43! Dead center of position before 19—H. E. shells and rapid-fire.
"Hullo, 19! Are we hitting? Good!
"Hullo, 37! Go ahead with your H. E.; you're making direct hits.
"Hullo, 19! Are we hitting? Good! good!
"Hullo, 37! 'Lo!—38! Lengthen your range before 19.
"Hullo, 19! Off you go and good luck!"
The divisional general stood by the table taking in the situation which the map revealed, and his face was grave. A whole line of trenches had been lost; in some cases the second line was gone and the enemy attack was developing in fury.
Milton was an automaton, working out the combinations exactly, precisely, cold-bloodedly. The general frowned, and yet his chief of staff was doing nothing to which exception might be taken. He was playing the game correctly.
"Hullo, 19! What has happened? But you must take it! Try again. I know, I know. How many men have you left?"
The general, watching the other's face, saw the grimace and guessed the answer which had been given.
"Try again—the safety of the line depends on it. Tell the men. I'll give you artillery support.
"Hullo, 37! Shrapnel in front of 19."
Click went the plug to another hole.
"Hullo, 38! Shrapnel in front of 19.
"Hullo, 45! Shrapnel in front of 19.
"Hullo, 19! How's that? Good!"
He looked up at the clock and half turned his head to the door of the chamber.
"Did you get your wire, Milton?"
The major shook his head.
"It is damnable, sir!" he said fretfully. "Four hours—five hours all but ten minutes and not a word. It's awful."
Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Fansome stared at him thoughtfully, and stood watching and listening as the nimble fingers of his subordinate manipulated the red plugs or re-pinned a new position on the map before him.
"We shall lose that salient," said the general suddenly as yet another little block came back on the mottled map. Milton shook his head.
"It is holding and so is 29. The main attack must succeed there if it succeeds at all. They've tried three times and failed."
"We're losing a tremendous number of men," said the general clearing his throat.
"What is a—" Milton stopped short. He was going to ask what was a life or two, but somehow the words would not come.
"Nineteen will never get up!" said the general, and then the buzzer croaked.
"Hullo, 19! Good! Dig yourselves in and hold on!
He called six artillery numbers rapidly.
"Nineteen are at 22; put shrapnel all round them, and go on till I tell you to stop.
"Hullo, 77! Hullo, sir! Take your battalion up to support 19, please—get 'em up into 19's old trenches."
The general rubbed his unshaven chin, and it was a gesture of indecision. "Will that save it?" he asked.
Milton did not answer. He was listening with puckered brow to the urgent voice at the other end of the wire.
"... it is impossible for us to hold on, sir. Half the trench is blown in and both my machine guns are out of action. It is murder to keep us here. How many? I don't suppose there are thirty men left on their feet, and the Bosches are bombing. Oh, God!" There was silence. Milton showed his teeth and waited. Presently another voice spoke.
"Mr. Fulton's killed, sir. What shall we do? Sergeant Appleby is speaking."
"Hold on, sergeant—I'll do what I can."
"Hullo, 33! Shrapnel in front of 16; go on till I tell you to stop.
"Hullo, hullo—stop shrapnel in front of 19 and give it to 16—as hard as you can. Hullo, Heavy Battery, put a few shells behind 16.
"Hullo, 10! Hullo, sergeant! Our heavy shells are falling behind you. Bolt back to the craters and dig in."
The voice was a new one to Milton. The indicator had fallen on a connection which he had not used—the red line which connected him with general headquarters, miles away in the rear.
It was a faint voice and was half smothered in a confused babble of talk as though fifty men were all speaking at once. Scraps came to him.
"Yes ... not tonight ... cases consigned to Havre. Yes. I'm returning ... it should be on Army Form B. 76."
A gruffer note nearer at hand.
"Divisional H. Q.... take this...."
"Yes, yes!" said Milton hoarsely, for he had recognized the first "Hullo." Again the faint voice. "Awfully kind.... War Office.... Jacky dear, can you hear?"
"Yes," he whispered.
"It is a boy, dear... Dr. Wilmott says... beautiful child.... I'm so happy."
Then the telephone clicked.
"Finished, sir," said the gruffer voice.
The indicator of 16 fell.
"Got to the crater, sir; think we can hold on."
Milton did not answer; he lay over the table, his head on his arm sobbing like a child.