July, 1915. My mouth does not get so dry as once it did, I notice, when walking in from Suicide Corner to the Cloth Hall. There I was this summer day, in Ypres again, in a silence like a threat, amid ruins which might have been in Central Asia, and I, the last man on earth, contemplating them. There was something bumping somewhere, but it was not in Ypres, and no notice is taken in Flanders of what does not bump near you. So I sat on the disrupted pedestal of a forgotten building and smoked, and wondered why I was in the city of Ypres, and why there was a war, and why I was a fool.
It was a lovely day, and, looking up at the sky over what used to be a school dedicated to the gentle Jesus, which is just by the place where one of the seventeen-inchers has blown a forty-foot hole, I saw a little round cloud shape in the blue, and then another, and then a cluster of them; the kind of soft little cloudlets on which Renaissance cherubs rest their chubby elbows and with fat faces inclined on their hands consider mortals from cemetery monuments. Then dull concussions arrived from heaven, and right overhead I made out two German 'planes. A shell-case banged the pavé and went on to make a white scar on a wall. Some invisible things were whizzing about. One's own shrapnel can be tactless.
There was a cellar near and I got into it, and while the intruders were overhead I smoked and gazed at the contents of the cellar--the wreckage of a bicycle, a child's chemise, one old boot, a jam-pot, and a dead cat. Owing to an unsatisfactory smell of many things I climbed out as soon as possible and sat on the pedestal again.
A figure in khaki came straight at me across the Square, its boots sounding like the deliberate approach of Fate in solitude. It stopped and saluted, and said: "I shouldn't stay 'ere, sir. They gen'ally begin about now. Sure to drop some 'ere."
At that moment a mournful cry went over us, followed by a crash in Sinister Street. My way home! Some masonry fell in sympathy from the Cloth Hall.
Better come with me till it blows over, sir. I've got a dug-out near.
We turned oft into a part of the city unknown to me. There were some unsettling noises, worse, no doubt, because of the echoes behind us ; but it is not dignified to hurry when one looks like an officer. One ought to fill a pipe. I did so, and stopped to light it. I paused while drawing at it, checked by the splitting open of the earth in the first turning to the right and the second to the left, or thereabouts.
"That's a big 'un, sir," said my soldier, taking half a cigarette from behind his ear and a light from my match; we then resumed our little promenade. By an old motor 'bus having boards for windows, and War Office neuter for its colour, but bearing for memory's sake on its brow the legend "Liverpool Street," my soldier hurried slightly, and was then swallowed up. I was alone. While looking about for possible openings I heard his voice under the road, and then saw a dark cavity, low in a broken wall, and crawled in. Feeling my way by knocking on the dark with my forehead and my shins, I descended to a lower smell of graves which was hollowed by a lighted candle in a bottle. And there was the soldier, who provided me with an empty box, and himself with another, and we had the candle between us. On the table were some official documents under a shell-nose, and a tin of condensed milk suffering from shock. Pictures of partly clad ladies began to appear on the walls through the gloom. Now and then the cellar trembled.
"Where's that old 'bus come from?" I asked.
"Ah! The poor old bitch, sir," said the soldier sadly.
"Yes, of course, but what's the matter with her?"
"She's done in, sir. But she's done her bit, she has," said my soldier, changing the crossing of his legs. "Ah! little did she think when I used to take 'er acrorse Ludget Circus what a 'ell of a time I'd 'ave to give 'er some day. She's a good ole thing. She's done 'er bit. She won't see Liverpool Street no more. . . . If medals wasn't so cheap she ought to ave one, she ought."
The cellar had a fit of the palsy, and the candle-light shuddered and flattened.
"The ruddy swine are ruddy wild to-day. Suthin's upset 'em. 'Ow long will this ruddy war last, sir?" asked the soldier, slightly plaintive.
"I know," I said. "It's filthy. But what about your old 'bus?"
"Ah! what about 'er. She ain't 'arf 'ad a time. She's seen enough war to make a general want to go home and shell peas. What she knows about it would make them clever fellers in London who reckon they know all about it turn green if they heard a door slam. Learned it all in one jolly old day, too. Learned it sudden, like you gen'ally learn things you don't forget. And I reckon I 'adn't anything to find out, either, not after Antwerp. Don't tell me, sir, war teaches you a lot. It only shows fools what they didn't know but might 'ave guessed.
"You know Poperinghe? Well, my trip was between there an' Wipers, gen'ally. The stones on the road was enough to make 'er shed nuts and bolts by the pint. But it was a quiet journey, take it all round, and after a cup o' tea at Wipers I used to roll home to the park. It was easier than the Putney route. Wipers was full of civilians. Shops all open. Estaminets and nice young things. I used to like war better than a school-boy likes Sat'd'y afternoons. It wasn't work and it wasn't play. And there was no law you couldn't break if you 'ad sense enough to come to attention smart and answer quick. Yes, sir.
"I knew so little about war then that I'm sorry I never tried to be a military expert. But my education was neglected. I can only write picture postcards. It's a pity. Well, one day it wasn't like that. It dropped on Wipers, and it wasn't like that. It was bloody different. I wasn't frightened, but my little inside was.
"First thing was the gassed soldiers coming through. Their faces were green and blue, and their uniform a funny colour. I didn't know what was the matter with 'em, and that put the wind up, for I didn't want to look like that. We could hear a gaudy rumpus in the Salient. The civvies were frightened, but they stuck to their homes. Nothing was happening there then, and while nothing is happening it's hard to believe it's going to. After seeing a Zouave crawl by with his tongue hanging out, and his face the colour of a mottled cucumber, I said good-bye to the little girl where I was. It was time to see about it.
"And fact is, I didn't 'ave much time to think about it, what with gettin' men out and gettin' reinforcements in. Trip after trip.
"But I shall never have a night again like that one. Believe me, it was a howler. I steered the old 'bus, but it was done right by accident. It was certainly touch and go. I shouldn't 'ave thought a country town, even in war, could look like Wipers did that night.
"It was gettin' dark on my last trip, and we barged into all the world gettin' out. And the guns and reinforcements were comin' up behind me. There's no other road out or in, as you know. I forgot to tell you that night comin' on didn't matter much, because the place was alight. The sky was full of shrapnel, and the high-explosives were falling in the houses on fire, and spreading the red stuff like fireworks. The gun ahead of me went over a child, but only its mother and me saw that, and a house in flames ahead of the gun got a shell inside it, and fell on the crowd that was mixed up with the army traffic.
"When I got to a side turning I 'opped off to see how my little lady was getting on. A shell had got 'er estaminet. The curtains were flying in little flames through the place where the windows used to be. Inside, the counter was upside down, and she was laying with glass and bottles on the floor. I couldn't do anything for her. And further up the street my headquarters was a heap of bricks, and the houses on both sides of it on fire. No good looking there for any more orders.
"Being left to myself, I began to take notice. While you're on the job you just do it, and don't see much of anything else except out of the corner of the eye. I've never 'eard such a row--shells bursting, houses falling, and the place was foggy with smoke, and men you couldn't see were shouting, and the women and children, wherever they were, turning you cold to hear 'em.
"It was like the end of the world. Time for me to 'op it. I backed the old 'bus and turned 'er, and started off--shells in front and behind and overhead, and, thinks I, next time you're bound to get caught in this shower. Then I found my officer. 'E was smoking a cigarette, and 'e told me my job. 'E gave me my cargo. I just 'ad to take 'em out and dump 'em.
"'Where shall I take 'em, sir?'
"'Take 'em out of this,' says he. 'Take 'em anywhere, take 'em where you like, Jones, take 'em to hell, but take 'em away,' says he.
"So I loaded up. Wounded Tommies, gassed Arabs, some women and children, and a few lunatics, genuine cock-eyed loonies from the asylum. The shells chased us out. One biffed us over on to the two rear wheels, but we dropped back on four on the top speed. Several times I bumped over soft things in the road and felt rather sick. We got out o' the town with the shrapnel a bit in front all the way. Then the old 'bus jibbed for a bit. Every time a shell burst near us the lunatics screamed and laughed and clapped their hands, and trod on the wounded, but I got 'er goin' again. I got 'er to Poperinghe. Two soldiers died on the way, and a lunatic had fallen out somewhere, and a baby was born in the 'bus; and me with no conductor and no midwife.
"I met our chaplain and says he: 'Jones, you want a drink. Come with me and have a Scotch.' That was a good drink. I 'ad the best part of 'alf a bottle without water, and it done me no 'arm. Next morning I found I'd put in the night on the parson's bed in me boots, and 'e was asleep on the floor."