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  • 1916
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sprung five bob! Come oot an’ I’ll stan’ ye a slider.’

‘I regret I cannot accept your kind invitation.’

‘Haw, haw! It’s you for the language! But I say!’ He leaned over the counter. ‘What way are ye no greetin’?’

She flushed hotly, wondering how much he knew or guessed, but replied coolly enough: ‘I have nothing to weep about. Have you?’

‘Plenty, by Jings! I expected to see yer eyes an’ nose rid, onyway, Christina.’

‘Indeed! Is that how it affects you?’

He looked hard at her. ‘My! ye’re a game yin!’ he said admiringly. ‘Weel, I maun slope,’ he went on, with a sigh that sounded absurd, coming from him. ‘I suppose ye’ve nae message for Macgreegor–something ye forgot to say at the last meenute? Eh?’

Christina was at a loss. Apparently he knew nothing, yet his manner was odd.

‘No message, thank you,’ said she slowly.

‘Then I’ll bid ye guid-bye–an’ I could bet ye a bob ye’ll never see me again. So I’ll tell ye something.’ His words came with a rush. ‘Ye’re aboot the nicest girl I ever kent, Christina. Macgreegor’s a luckier deevil nor he deserves. But I’ll look efter him for ye in Flanders. Trust me for that. Noo that we’re really boun’ for the Front, in a day or so, things is different–at least I’m feelin’ different. Dinna laugh! I–I dinna want to ha’e ony enemies but the Germans. I’ve jist been an’ kissed ma aunt–dammit! An’ noo’–he caught her hand, pulled her to him–‘I’m gaun to kiss _you_! There!’ He turned and bolted.

Christina’s hand went to her cheek, and fell back to her side. Her colour ebbed as swiftly as it had flowed. She began to shake. ‘Bound for the Front, in a day or so.’ . . .

Later she went to the sitting-room where her employer was once more absorbing comfort from a cup. ‘Miss Tod,’ she said quietly, ‘I want to gang hame.’

In the evening she posted a small package with this note enclosed–

‘I am sending the ring Mrs. McOstrich said I was to give you when the time came for you to go. I hope it will bring you good luck. God bless you.

‘CHRISTINA.’

She lay awake most of the night, wondering if she might not have written more, wondering what answer he would send, wondering–wondering. . . .

And as she fell asleep in the grey of morning, hours before the package would be delivered at the camp, a long train, at an outlying station, started on its way south, and six hundred eager lads shouted in the face of all things.

‘We’re awa’ this time, by Goad!’ yelled Willie in his friend’s ear.

And Macgregor laughed wildly and wrung his friend’s hand.

XXI

‘HULLO, GLESCA HIELANDERS!’

Like a trodden, forgotten thing Private Macgregor Robinson lay on the Flanders mud, under the murk and rain. A very long time it seemed since that short, grim struggle amid the blackness and intermittent brightness. The night was still rent with noise and light, but the storm of battle had passed from the place where he had fallen. He could not tell whether his fellows had taken the enemy’s trench or retired to their own. He had the vaguest ideas as to where he was. But he knew that there was pain in his left shoulder and right foot, that he was athirst, also that he had killed a man–a big stout man, old enough to have been his father. He tried not to think of the last, though he did not regret it: it had been a splendid moment.

He was not the only soldier lying there in the mud, but the others, friend or foe, were quite still. The sight of them in the flashes distressed him, yet always his gaze drifted back to them. His mind was a medley of thoughts, from the ugliest to the loveliest. At last, for he was greatly exhausted, his head drooped to his uninjured arm, his eyes closed. For a while he dozed. Then something disturbed him, and he raised himself and peered. In the flicker of a distant flare he saw a shape approaching him, crawling on hands and knees, very slowly, pausing for an instant at each still figure. It made Macgregor think of a big dog searching for its master–only it wore a helmet. Macgregor, setting his teeth, drew his rifle between his knees and unfixed the bayonet. . . .

‘Hist! Is that you, Macgreegor?’

‘Wullie!’

‘Whisht, ye—-!’

‘Oh, Wullie’–in a whisper–‘I’m gled to see ye!’

‘I believe ye!’ gasped Willie, and flattened out at his friend’s side, breathing heavily. At the end of a minute or so–‘Ha’e ye got it bad, Macgreegor?’ he inquired.

‘So, so. Arm an’ leg. I’m feelin’ rotten, but I’m no fini shed yet. Ha’e ye ony water? Ma bottle’s shot through.’

‘Here ye are. . . . Feelin’ seeck-like?’

‘I’m seeck at gettin’ knocked oot at the vera beginnin.’

‘Never heed. Did ye kill yer man?’

‘Ay.’

‘Same here. . . . In the back. . . . Ma Goad!’

‘Ha’e we ta’en their trench?’

‘Ay; but no enough o’ us to baud it.

We’re back in the auld place. Better luck next time. No safe to strike a match here; could dae fine wi’ a fag.’

There was a silence between them, broken at last by Macgregor.

‘Hoo did ye find me, Wullie? What way are ye no back in the trench?’

‘Wasna gaun back wi’oot ye–I seen ye drap–even if ye had been a corp. . . . Been snokin’ aroun’ seekin’ ye for Guid kens hoo lang. I’m fair hingin’ wi’ glaur.’

‘. . . I’m obleeged to ye, Wullie, but ye shouldna ha’e done it. Whauraboots are we?’

‘I wisht I was sure. Lost ma bearin’s. I doobt we’re nearer the Germans nor oor ain lot. That’s the reason I’m weerin’ this dish-cover. But it’s your turn to weer it. Ye’ve been wounded a’ready.’

‘Na, na, Wullie!’

‘Dae what I tell ye, ye —-!’ Willie made the exchange of headgear. . . . ‘I say, Macgreegor!’

‘What?’

‘This is Flanders. Ye mind oor bet? Weel, we’re quits noo. I’m no owin’ ye onything–eh?’

Macgregor grinned in spite of everything. ‘Ay, we’re quits noo, Wullie, sure enough.’

‘If ever we get oot o’ this, will ye len’ us dew francs?’

”Deed, ay. . . . Wullie, ye’re riskin’ yer life for me.’

‘Awa’ an’ chase yersel’! I wonder what that girl o’ yours is thinkin’ aboot the noo–if she’s no sleepin’.’

There was a pause till Macgregor said awkwardly: ‘Christina’s finished wi’ me.’

‘Eh?’

‘I couldna tell ye afore; but she had got wind o’ Maggie.’

‘Maggie! Oh, hell! But no frae me, Macgreegor, no frae me! Ye believe that?’

‘Oh, ay.’

Willie let off sundry curses. ‘But I suppose I’m to blame,’ he said bitterly.

‘Naebody to blame but masel’.’

‘But did ye no explain to Christina? A’ ye did was to canoodle wi’ the wrang girl, pro tem.–a thing that happens daily. I couldna fancy a girl that naebody had ever wanted to cuddle; an’ if I was a girl I couldna fancy a chap that—-‘

‘Nae use talkin’ aboot it, Wullie,’ Macgregor said sadly, wearily.

‘Aw, but her an’ you ‘ll mak’ it up afore ye’re done. If ye dinna, I’ll want to kill masel’ an’ Maggie forbye. A’ the same, I wisht fat Maggie was here the noo. I could dae fine wi’ a bit squeeze.’

‘My! ye’re a fair treat!’ said Macgregor, chuckling in his misery.

”_Sh_! Keep still! Something comin’!’

The distant gun-fire had diminished. There were appreciable silences between the blasts. But during a flash Macgregor detected a helmeted crawling shape. Willie’s hand stole out and grasped the bayonet.

‘Number twa!’ he muttered, with a stealthy movement. ‘I maun get him!’

But Macgregor’s ears caught a faint sound that caused him to grip the other’s wrist.

‘Wait,’ he whispered.

The helmeted shape came on, looking neither to right nor left, and as it came it sobbed. And it passed within a few yards of them, and into the deeper gloom, sobbing, sobbing.

‘Oh, Christ!’ sighed Willie, shuddering.

‘Put yer arm roun’ me, Mac. I’m feart.’

Five minutes later he affected to jeer at himself. ‘Weel, I’m rested noo,’ he continued, ‘an’ it’s time we was gettin’ a move on. Mornin’s comin’, an’ if we’re spotted here, we’re done for. Can ye creep?’

Macgregor tried and let out a little yelp.

‘Na, ye canna. Ye’ll jist ha’e to get on ma back.’

‘Wullie, gang yersel’—-‘

‘Obey yer corporal!’

‘Ye’re no a corp—-‘

‘If they dinna mak’ me a corporal for this, I’ll quit the service! Onyway, I’m no gaun wi’oot ye. Same time, I canna guarantee no to tak’ ye to the German lines. But we maun risk that. Ye’ll ha’e to leave yer rifle, but keep on the dish-cover till I gi’e ye the word. . . . Noo then! Nae hurry. I’ll ha’e to creep the first part o’ the journey. Are ye ready? Weel, here’s luck to the twa o’ us!’

There is no authentic description of that horrible journey save Willie’s, which is unprintable.

It was performed literally by inches. More than once Willie collapsed, groaning, under his burden. Macgregor, racked as he was, shed tears for his friend’s sake. Time had no significance except as a measure of suspense and torture. But Willie held on, directed by some instinct, it seemed, over that awful shell-fragment-studded mire, round the verges of shell-formed craters, past dead and wounded waiting for succour–on, on, till the very guns seemed to have grown weary, and the rain ceased, and the air grew chillier as with dread of what the dawn should disclose, and the blackness was diluted to grey.

‘Drap the —- dish-cover,’ croaked Willie, and halted for a minute’s rest.

Then on again. But at long last Willie muttered: ‘I think it’s oor trench. If I’m wrang, fareweel to Argyle Street! I’ll ha’e to risk gi’ein’ them a hail in case some silly blighter lets fly in this rotten licht. Slip doon, Mac–nae hurry–nae use hurtin’ yersel’ for naething. I’ll maybe ha’e to hurt ye in a meenute. . . . N’ for it!’ He lifted up his voice. ‘Hullo, Glesca Hielanders!’

It seemed an age until–

‘Right oh!’ came a cheerful response.

‘Hurray!’ yelled Willie, and rose stiffly to his feet.

Then with a final effort, he gave Macgregor the ‘fireman’s lift,’ and staggered and stumbled, amid shots from the other side, into safety.

XXII

NO HERO, YET HAPPY

Christina was arranging the counter for the day’s business when the postman brought her a letter in a green envelope with the imprint ‘On Active Service’. Her heart leapt only to falter as her eyes took in the unfamiliar writing. Then under the ‘Certificate’ on the left-hand side she perceived the signature–‘W. Thomson.’ Something dreadful must have happened! She sat down and gazed at the envelope, fingering it stupidly. At last she pulled herself together and opened it. The letter was dirty, ill-written, badly spelt; but so are many of the finest-spirited letters of these days.

‘If you are wanting a perfeck man, by yourself a statute from the muesum. Then you can treat him cold and he will not nottice other girls when you leav him for to enjoy yourself. Mac was not for haveing army when he first seen Maggie, but he was vext at you, and I eggged him on with telling him he was feared, and he took her in a cab becaus it was poring, and maybe he gave her a bit sqeese, I do not no for certin, but it is more like she began it, for Maggie woud rather take a cuddel nor a good dinner anny day. Likewize there is times when a chap must sqeese something. It is no dash use for a girl to expeck her intended to keep looking at her when she is not there, unless she makes it worth his while with nice letters and so fourth. He gets soon fed up on cold nothings. Mac does not care a roten aple for Maggie, but you left him nothing better, and she is a nice girl and soft with a man, so God forgive you as I will not till I hear you are reddy to kiss him again. Mac is wounded in 2 places, but not mortle. He got wounded saveing my life. I am not wounded yet. He garded my back, which saved me. Probly you will see him soon, so prepare to behave yourself. Remmember you alowed me to kiss you??? Hopping you will take this good advice more kindly nor usual.

Yours resp.
W. THOMSON,
Lce. Corp. 9th H.L.I.

P.S.–If you was less proud and more cuddelsom, you woud not loss much fun in this world.–W. T., Lce. Corp. 9th H.L.I.

* * * * *

Macgregor was in a small hospital not far from London. While not to be described as serious, his wounds were likely to keep him out of action for several months to come. He was comfortable, and the people were very kind. Their English speech puzzled him almost as much as his Scotch amused them.

More tired than pained, he lay idly watching the play of light on his old-fashioned ring, the gift of Mrs. McOstrich. It had reached him just before he was borne from France, too late, he thought, to bring him luck. But the only luck he wanted now was Christina. He had her brief note by heart. There was kindness but no comfort in the words; forgiveness, maybe, but no promise of reconciliation. Truly he had made a horrid mess of it; nevertheless he rebelled against taking all the blame. Christina could not have cared much when she would listen to no explanations. . . . Now he had a great longing for the touch of his mother and the smile of his father, the soft speech of Jeannie and the eager pipings of wee Jimsie. Also, he wondered, with a sort of ache, how Willie was faring.

A nurse appeared, sorted his pillow, chatted for a moment, then went and drew down the blinds against the afternoon sun. And presently Macgregor dropped into a doze.

He awoke to what seemed a dream. Of all people, Aunt Purdie was seated at his bedside.

In a hesitating way, quite unlike her, she put out her hand, laid it on his and patted gently.

‘What’s up?’ he exclaimed in astonishment.

‘How do you do, Macgregor?’ she said formally yet timidly.

‘Fine, thenk ye,’ he answered from sheer force of habit. Then–‘Ye’ve come a lang road to see me,’ he said, gratitude asserting itself.

‘It _is_ a conseederable distance,’ she returned, with some recovery of her old manner. ‘Your uncle said I must go the moment he heard where you were, and I quite homologated him. We was all copiously relieved to hear of the non-seriosity of your wounds. I have letters for you from your parents and sister, forbye your brother James. Your mother was anxious to come, too, but decided to wait for my report, your condeetion not being grave. All well at home and proud of you, but I was en rout before I heard the most gratifying news.’ She cleared her throat with an important cough, and Macgregor hoped none of the other chaps in the ward were listening. ‘I am exceedingly proud of you, Macgregor!’

‘Me? What for?’

‘Ah, do not distimulate, my boy; do not be too modest. You have saved a comrade’s life! It was magneeficent!’

‘Eh?’

‘Oh, I know all about it–how you protected your friend William with your wounded body—-‘

Macgregor’s hand went to his head. ‘I suppose I’m sober,’ he muttered. ‘Wha was stuffin’ ye wi’ a’ this, Aunt Purdie?’

Aunt Purdie’s manner was almost sprightly as she whispered–

‘Your betrothed!’

‘Ma what?’

‘Christina, her own self, told me. So there you are, young man!’

Macgregor’s head wagged feebly on the pillow. ‘There’s a bonny mix-up somewhaur,’ he said; ‘it was Wullie saved ma life.’ Then, with an effort–‘When did ye see her?’

‘Now understand, Macgregor, there must be no excitement. You must keep calm. I am doing my best to break it gently. H’m, h’m! As a matter of fac’, I seen–saw–your fiancy about ten minutes ago.’ She is without!’

‘Wi’oot what?’

‘She is in an adjacent apartment.’

‘Here?’

‘I am going to despatch her to you now,’ said Aunt Purdie, enjoying herself thoroughly. ‘But mind!–no deleterious excitement!’ She rose with a look on her gaunt face which he had never seen before.

‘Aunt Purdie,’ he whispered, ‘did she want to come?’

‘My dear nephew, without exaggeration I may say that she fairly jamp–jumped–at my invitation I Well, I’ll see you subsequently.’

‘God bless ye,’ he murmured, and closed his eyes till he felt she had gone from the ward.

He knew when Christina came in, but did not look directly at her till she was beside him. By that time she had controlled the quiver at her mouth. And when he looked he realized that he had no defence whatsoever in the Maggie affair. Nothing was left him but love and regret.

She touched his hand and seated herself. ‘I couldna help comin’,’ she said, smiling. ‘Are ye feelin’ better?’

‘Oh, ay. But I maun tell ye the truth.’

‘No a word, Mac, noo or ever. I’ll no listen.’

‘But it’s a’ nonsense aboot me savin’ a comrade. Wullie Thomson saved me. I canna think hoo ye heard sic a story, but it’s got to be stopped. An’ though I’m terrible gled to see yer face again, I’m vexed ye cam’ a’ that lang road thinkin’ I was a hero. Still, there’s a chap in the next bed that’s gaun to get a medal for—-‘

‘We’ll talk aboot it later,’ she interrupted gently. ‘But I’ll jist tell ye that a’ I took the journey for was to see a lad that was wounded. An’ I think’–a faint laugh–‘I’ve got a wound o’ ma ain.’

He sighed, his eyes on his ring. ‘Ye had aye a kind heart, Christina. I’m obleeged to ye for comin’. . . I wud like to tell ye something–no as an excuse, for it wud be nae excuse, but jist to get quit o’ the thing–aboot the time when ye was in Aberdeen—-‘

‘Oh, never!’

‘Jist that. Weel, I’ll no bother ye,’ he said, with hopeless resignation. Next moment he was ashamed of himself. He must change the subject. He actually smiled. ‘Hoo did ye leave Miss Tod? Still drinkin’?’

Christina may not have heard him. She was surveying the ward. Macgregor’s only near neighbour was apparently sound asleep, and the only patient sitting up was intent on a game of draughts with a nurse. But had all been awake and watching, she would still have found a way.

She passed her handkerchief lightly across her eyes and put it in her sleeve. Then with the least possible movement she knelt down by the bedside.

‘Christina!’ he exclaimed under his breath, for her face was near to his.

Her fingers went to the neck of her white blouse and drew out a narrow black ribbon. From it hung, shining, the tiny wreckage of her engagement ring.

‘Mac, dear,’ she whispered, ‘can–can we no ha’e it mended?’