(THE LAST OF THE WAR STORIES)
The Colonel of the Nth Blankshires was seated in his office. It was not an imposing room to look at. Furnished simply but tastefully with a table, officers, for use of, one, and a chair, ditto, one, it gave little evidence of the distressing scenes which had been enacted in it, and still less evidence of the terrible scene which was to come. Within these walls the Colonel was accustomed to deal out stern justice to offenders, and many a hardened criminal had been carried out fainting upon hearing the terrible verdict, “One day’s C.B.”
But the Colonel was not holding the scales of justice now, for it was late afternoon. With an expression of the utmost anxiety upon his face he read and re-read the official-looking document which he held in his hand. Even the photograph of the Sergeant-Major (signed, “Yours ever, Henry”), which stood upon his desk, brought him no comfort.
The door opened and Major Murgatroyd, second in command of the famous Blankshires, came in.
“Come in,” said Colonel Blowhard.
The Major saluted impressively, and the Colonel rose and returned his salute with the politeness typical of the British Army.
“You wished to see me, Colonel?”
“I did, Major.” They saluted each other again. “A secret document of enormous importance,” went on the Colonel, “has just reached me from the War Office. It concerns the Regiment, the dear old Regiment.” Both men saluted, and the Colonel went on hoarsely, “Were the news in this document to become public property before its time, nothing could avert the defeat of England in the present world-wide cataclysm.”
“Is it as important as that, Colonel?” said the Major, even more hoarsely if anything.
“It is, Major.”
The Major’s voice sank to a whisper.
“What would not Hindenburg give to see it,” he muttered.
“Ay,” said the Colonel. “I say that to myself day and night: ‘What not what–what would what–‘ Well, I say it to myself day and night. For this reason, Major, I have decided to entrust the news to no one but yourself. Our Officers are good lads and a credit to the dear old Regiment”–they saluted as before–“but in a matter of this sort one cannot be too discreet.”
“You are right, Colonel.”
The Colonel looked round the room apprehensively and brought his chair a little closer to the Major.
“The secret contained in this document–Are we alone?”
“Except for each other, Colonel.”
“The secret,” went on the Colonel, “is this: that, on and after the 23rd of the month, men in category X3 are to be included in category X2.”
“My God,” gasped the Major, “if Hindenburg knew!”
“He must not know, Major,” said the Colonel simply. “I can trust you not to disclose this until the time is ripe?”
“You can trust me, Colonel.”
They grasped hands and saluted.
At this moment the door opened and an orderly came in.
“You’re wanted by the Sergeant-Major, sir,” he told the Colonel.
“Ah, excuse me a moment,” said the latter to his second in command, knowing how much it annoys a sergeant-major to be kept waiting. He saluted and hurried out.
“Just a moment, orderly,” said the Major.
The orderly came back. “Yes, sir,” he said.
“Did you give that message to Miss Blowhard?”
“Yes, sir. She says she cannot play golf with you to-morrow because she is playing with Second-Lieutenant Lord Smith.” He saluted and withdrew.
Left alone the Major gave vent to his rage. “Lord Smith!” he stormed. “Curse him! What can she see in that puppy? Thrice have I used my influence to send him away on a musketry course, and thrice has he returned. Could I but turn him out of the Regiment for good, I might win the love of the fair Miss Blowhard, the Colonel’s daughter.” In a sudden passion he picked up the “Manual of Military Law” and flung it to the ground.
All at once an idea struck him and a crafty look came into his eyes.
“By jove,” he cried, “the secret document! The very thing.”
To put the document into an envelope was the work of a moment. Taking up a pen he printed on the outside in large capitals these words:
With a diabolical smile he sealed the envelope up, rang the bell, and ordered Second-Lieutenant Lord Smith to be brought before him.
“You wanted me, sir?” said Lord Smith on his arrival.
Of all the distinguished officers in the Nth Battalion, Lord Smith was perhaps the most brilliant. Although he had held his commission for three years he had only been arrested twice by the Provost-Marshal–the first time for wearing a soft cap when, as an officer and gentleman, he should have worn a hard one, and the second time, three months later, for wearing a hard cap when, as an officer and gentleman, he should have worn a soft one. Nobody can deny that these were serious blots on his career, but it was felt in the trenches that his skill with the rifle partially atoned for them.
“Ah, Smith, my boy,” said the Major genially, “I just wanted to know the address of your tailor. Wonderfully well-cut tunic this of yours.” He went over to him and, under pretence of examining the cut of his tunic, dropped the envelope cautiously into one of the pockets.
Somewhat surprised at the compliment paid to his tailor, but entirely unsuspicious, Lord Smith gave him the required address.
“Thanks,” said the Major. “By the way, I’ve got to go out now; would you mind waiting here till the Colonel comes back? He has left an extremely important document on his table and I do not like to leave the room unoccupied.”
“Certainly, sir,” said Lord Smith.
Left alone, our hero gave himself up to thought. For some reason he distrusted the Major; he felt that they were rivals for the hand of Rosamund Blowhard. On ten Sundays in succession he had been forced to attend Church Parade, what time the Major and Rosamund were disporting themselves on the golf links. It was only on Saturday afternoons that he had a chance of seeing her alone, and yet he felt somehow that she loved him.
“Ah, Smith, my boy,” said the Colonel as he bustled in. “Always glad to see you. My favourite subaltern,” he went on, with his hand on the young man’s shoulder; “the best officer who ever formed a four at bridge–I mean, who ever formed fours; and a holder of no fewer than three musketry certificates.”
Lord Smith smiled modestly.
“There, I must get on with my work,” went on the Colonel, sitting down at his table and turning over his papers. “You find me very–you find me–you find–good Heavens!”
“What is it, sir?”
“I don’t find it–I’ve lost it; the secret document!”
“Was it very important, sir?”
“Important!” cried the Colonel. “If Hindenburg–but we must get to work. Summon the guard, blow the fire-alarm, send for the Orderly Sergeant.”
In less than a minute the room was full of armed men, including the Major.
“Men of the Nth Blankshires,” said the Colonel, addressing them, “a document of enormous importance has been stolen from this room. Unless that document is recovered the fair name of the Regiment will be irretrievably tarnished.”
“Never!” cried a Corporal of the Signalling Section, and there was a deep murmur of applause.
“May I suggest, sir,” said the Major, “that the pockets of all should be searched? I myself am quite ready to set the example,” and as he spoke he drew out three receipted bills and a price list of tomatoes, and placed them before the Colonel.
One by one they followed his example.
Suddenly all eyes were fixed on Second-Lieutenant Lord Smith, as with horror and amazement upon his face he drew from his pocket the official-looking envelope.
“I swear I never put it there, sir,” he gasped.
“Perhaps I ought to tell you, sir,” said the Major, “that I asked Lord Smith to keep an eye upon the document during my absence. No doubt he placed it in his pocket for safety.”
Several men applauded this suggestion, for Lord Smith was a general favourite.
The Colonel gave one glance at the envelope, and then, with fire flashing from his eyes, held it up for all to see.
“How do you account for this?” he cried in a voice of thunder, and with a gasp of horror they read the fatal words:
The Colonel and the other officers drew their swords, the rank and file fixed bayonets; they hacked the buttons off Lord Smith’s tunic, they dug the stars out of his sleeves, they tore the regimental badge from his cap; they tore his collar, they tore his tie, they took his gold cigarette-case; and still he stood there, saying proudly, “I am innocent.”
“Go!” said the Colonel, pointing with his sword to the door.
Suddenly there was a commotion outside and a breathless figure pushed its way into the room.
“Father,” cried Rosamund Blowhard, “spare him. He is innocent.”
“Rosamund,” said George, for so we must call him now, “I am innocent. Some day the truth will be known.” Then he took a tender farewell of her and, casting a glance of mingled suspicion and hatred at the Major, he strode from the room.
The patient in the Xth bed at the Yth Base Hospital stirred restlessly.
“Water,” he murmured, “water.”
A soft-footed nurse rose and poured some over him. “Rosamund,” he breathed, and with a smile of content dropped peacefully asleep again.
Who was he, this mysterious patient in Number X bed? Obviously a gentleman from the colour of his pyjamas, his identity disc proclaimed him to be Private Smithlord of the Qth Blankshires. There was something strange about him. Only that morning he had received the V.C. from Sir Douglas Haig, the R.S.V.P. from General Petain, the Order of the Golden Elephant from our Japanese Allies, the Order of the Split Haddock from the President of Nicaragua, and the Order of the Neutral Nut from Brazil. Yet he cared for none of these things; he only murmured, “Rosamund!” Who was Private Smithlord?
Though so little was known of him, the story of his prowess was on every lip. An officer from his regiment who had gone out alone to an observation post had been surrounded and cut off by the enemy. Threatened on all sides by guns and bombs of every calibre, he had prepared to sell his life dearly. To attempt a rescue would have been madness; even the most reckless Town Major would have blenched at the idea; and the Regiment, in the comparative safety of their trench, could only look on helplessly.
All but Private Smithlord. Hastily borrowing the Colonel’s horse, he urged the gallant animal up the trench and away over the top. And then began a race such as had never been seen at Epsom or Melton Mowbray.
“Gad,” said a sporting subaltern, who in peace days had frequently entered for a Derby sweepstake at the National Liberal Club, “the beggar can ride–what?”
An answering cheer rang out from all ranks.
Over wire entanglements and across shell holes dashed Private Smithlord, firing rapidly with his revolver all the while. Nearer to the ill-fated officer he drew, and then suddenly he was in the midst of the enemy. Lashing out right and left, he fought his way to the man he had come to rescue, pulled him up behind him and, amidst a hurricane of bullets, charged back to the British lines. Nor did he pause till he arrived at the Colonel’s dug-out.
“I have brought him back, sir,” he said, and fainted. When he awoke it was to find himself in the Xth bed of the Yth Base Hospital.
And who is it in the next bed? It is the officer whom he rescued. Do we recognize him? Alas, no. Although unwounded by the enemy, the exposure of that terrible day had brought on a severe attack of mumps. We cannot recognize him. But the nurse assures us that it is our old friend, Major Murgatroyd.
“A visitor to see you,” said the nurse, coming in and waking Private Smithlord up.
“Can’t you say I’m out?” said Smithlord, expecting it was another foreign decoration and wondering what language he would have to speak this time.
“It’s an English Colonel,” said the nurse.
Smithlord saluted and begged the nurse to show him up at once. In another minute Colonel Blowhard had entered.
“I want to thank you,” said the Colonel, “for so gallantly rescuing an old friend of mine–Major Murgatroyd, belonging to the Nth Battalion Blankshires, but now attached to the Qth.”
Smithlord could hardly repress a start. In the excitement of the moment he had not recognized the features of the man he had saved. It was his old rival.
“It is curious,” went on the Colonel, “that in features you resemble another old friend of mine, Lord Smith.”
“My name is Smithlord, sir.”
“Ah! Any relation?”
“None,” said Smithlord, crossing his thumbs under the bedclothes.
“Do you mind ringing the bell?” he went on, feeling that at all costs he must turn the conversation. “I think it is time for my medicine.”
In answer to the Colonel’s ring a nurse appeared.
“Nurse Brown has just gone out,” she said. “Can I do anything for you?”
“Good Heavens! Rosamund!” cried the Colonel.
“Yes, father, it is I,” she replied simply. “I have come to France to find the man I love.”
“Murgatroyd?” said the Colonel. “But this gallant fellow was the man who–By the way, let me introduce you. Private Smithlord, my daughter, Rosamund.”
The two looked at each other face to face. The intuition and ready wit of the woman pierced the disguise which had baffled the soldier.
“Father,” she cried, “it’s not Smithlord, it’s Lord Smith. George!”
“Rosamund!” cried George. We cannot keep the secret any longer from our readers; it was Lord Smith.
“Tut, tut, sir, what is this?” said the Colonel. “I turned you out of the Regiment three weeks ago. What the deuce,” he said, for, like all military men, he was addicted to strong language–“what the deuce does this mean?”
“I was innocent, sir.”
“Father, he was innocent.”
“He was innocent,” said a hollow voice from the next bed.
In amazement they all looked at the officer lying there.
“Rosamund,” he cried, “am I so greatly changed?”
The Colonel handed him his pocket mirror.
“Yes,” sighed the Major, “I understand. But I am Major Murgatroyd.”
“Major Murgatroyd!” they all cried.
“This gallant fellow here, whom I now know to be Lord Smith, saved my life; I cannot let him suffer any longer. It was I who hid the secret document in his pocket. I did it for love of you, Rosamund.” He held out his hand. “Say you forgive me, my dear Lord Smith.”
Lord Smith shook his hand warmly.
But little more remains to tell. A month later our hero was back in England. Fortunately the Quartermaster had kept his buttons; and in a very short time he was back in the dear old uniform, and the wedding of Second-Lieutenant Lord Smith to Rosamund Blowhard was one of the events of the season.
And what of Major Murgatroyd? He has learnt his lesson; and as commandant of a rest camp on the French coast he is the soul of geniality to all who meet him.