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Her Right by James Owen Hannay

An Extract from - Our Casualty And Other Stories

Mrs. Jocelyn was generally considered a clever woman. Her husband respected her intellect. He was, and still is, Professor of Psychology in one of our younger Universities, so he could give an expert's opinion on any question of mental capacity. Her sons said she was clever. There were two young Jocelyns, Ned, a barrister, and Tom, a junior master in a public school. Ned used to give me his opinion of his mother very often.

“The mater is extraordinarily clear-headed,” he would say. “If you want to see your way through a muddle, just you talk it over with her. It's an awful pity she——”

Then Ned would shrug his shoulders. He was a loyal son, and he never said in plain words what the pity was. Tom spoke in the same way.

“Dad's all right,” he used to say, “European reputation and all that; but the mater has the brains of our family. If only she wouldn't——”

I agreed with both of them. Mrs. Jocelyn was one of the cleverest women I ever met, but—well, on one subject she was an intolerable bore. That subject was Woman's Suffrage. She could not keep off it for very long, and once she started there was no stopping her. All her friends suffered. It cannot be said that she argued. She demanded, aggressively insisted on sex equality, on justice and right for women, right in every sphere of life, political right, social right, economic right, all kinds of other right.

This, of course, was in the old days before the war. Since August, 1914, most things have changed. Professor Jocelyn, indeed, still lectures on psychology, half-heartedly now, to a rapidly dwindling class of young women. But Ned Jocelyn's name is painted in black letters on a brown wooden cross at the head of a grave—one of a long row of graves—in a French cemetery. Tom is trying to learn to walk without crutches in the grounds of an English hospital. Mrs. Jocelyn is out in France, working in a canteen, working very hard. It is only occasionally now that she demands a “right;” but when she does, she demands it, so I understand, with all her old ferocious determination to get it This is the story of how she once demanded and took a “right.”

It was nearly midday, and the camp lay under a blazing sun. It was early in July, when all England and all France were throbbing with hope, pride and terror as the news of the “Big Push” came in day by day. There was little calm, and few hearts at ease in those days, but Number 50 Convalescent Camp looked peaceful enough. It is miles from the firing line. No shells ever burst over it or near it. Only occasionally can the distant rumble of the guns be heard. A spell of dry weather had cracked the clay of the paths which divided it into rectangles. The grass was burnt and brown. The flower beds, in spite of diligent watering, looked parched. The great white tents, marquees guyed up with many ropes, shone with a blinding glare. In the strips of shade made by the fly sheets of the tents, men lay in little groups. Their tunics were unbuttoned or cast aside. They smoked and chatted, speaking slowly and briefly. Oftener they slept.

Only in one corner of the camp was there any sign of activity. Near the main entrance is the orderly room. Inside, a sweating adjutant toiled at a mass of papers on the desk before him. From time to time a sergeant entered the room, saluted, spoke sharply, received his orders, saluted and went out again. From the clerk's room next door came the sound of voices, the ceaseless clicking of a typewriter, and the frequent clamorous summons of a telephone bell. Outside, orderlies hurried, stepping quickly in one direction or another, to the Quarter-master's stores, to the kitchen, to the wash-houses, to twenty other points in the great camp to which orders must go, and from which messages must return. The bugler stood in the verandah outside the orderly room, ready to blow his calls or strike the hours with a hammer on a suspended length of railway line. At the entrance gate, standing sharply to attention as a guardsman should, even under a blazing sun, was Private Malley, of the Irish Guards, wounded long ago, now wearing the brassard of the Military Police. He saw to it that no person unauthorized entered the camp. Above him, limp from its staff, hung the Red Cross flag, unrecognizable that day, since there was no faintest breeze to stir its folds.

Close by the flag staff is the little dressing station. Here the men in the camp, men discharged from hospital, are seen by the doctors and the period of their rest and convalescence is decided. They are marked “Fit,” and go to the fighting again, or sent back and enjoy good quarters and pleasant food for a while longer. Or—best hope—marked “Blighty” and go home. This is the routine. But sometimes there is a difference. There had been a difference every day since the “Big Push” started. Outside the dressing station was a group of forty or fifty men. They lay on the ground, most of them sound asleep. They lay in the strangest attitudes, curled up, some of them; others with arms and legs flung wide, the attitudes of men utterly exhausted, whose overpowering need is rest. Some sat huddled up, too tired to sleep, blinking their eyes in the strong sunshine. Most of these men wore bandages. Bandages were on their heads, their hands, their arms and legs, where sleeves and trousers had been cut away. Some of them had lost their caps. One here and there had lost a boot. Many of them wore tattered tunics and trousers with long rents in them. All of them were covered with mud, mud that had dried into hard yellow cakes. These were men sent straight down from the field dressing stations, men who had been slightly wounded, so slightly that there was no need for them to go to hospital. Among them there was one man who neither lay huddled nor sprawled. He sat upright, his knees drawn up to his chest, held tight in his clasped hands. He stared straight in front of him with wide, unblinking eyes. Of all the men in the group, he was the muddiest His clothes were caked with mud. His face was covered with mud. His hair was matted with mud. Also his clothes were the raggedest of all. The left leg of his trousers was rent from knee to waistband. The skin of his thigh shone white, strangely white compared to his face and hands, through the jagged tear. The sleeves of his tunic were torn. There was a hole in the back of it, and one of his shoulder straps was torn off. He was no more than a boy, youthful-looking compared even to the men, almost all of them young, who lay around him. He had a narrow face with that look of alert impudence which is common on the faces of gutter snipes in large cities.

As he sat staring he spoke now and then, spoke to himself, for there was no one to listen to him.

“We beat them,” he said once. “We gave them the damnedest beating. We strafed them proper, and they ran. The Prussian Guards they was.”

His accent betrayed him. He must have come from Lancashire, from some grimy Lancashire town, from Warrington or Bolton, from Liverpool itself perhaps, or Manchester. Before the war there were crowds of such boys there. They made up the football crowds on Saturday afternoons. They made the countryside hideous on bank holiday afternoons. They were the despair of church and chapel, of the social reformer, and often of the police. This boy was under-sized, of poor chest development, thin-limbed, weedy; but there was a curious light in those staring eyes of his.

He turned to the man on his right, a great, heavy-jawed Irishman with a bandaged knee, who was sound asleep.

“Wake up, Pat,” he says, “wake up till I tell you how we strafed Fritz. Out in the open it was, the Prussian Guards.”

But the Irishman slept on. Neither shaking nor shouting roused a sign of intelligence in him. The boy turned to the man on his left, a Canadian, an older man with a gentle, worn face. Perhaps because he was older or more utterly wearied out, or in pain this man waked and raised himself on one elbow.

“We went for them proper,” said the boy. “Prussians they was and Guards. They thought they'd walk over us; but by God we talked to them, talked to them with the bayonet, we did.”

A slow smile played across the Canadian's face.

“Say, Tommy,” he said, “what's your name?”

“Wakeman, Private Wakeman, No. 79362. Gosh, Canada, but we handled them and they ran.”

“They certainly did run some,” said the Canadian slowly.

Then Wakeman poured out his story, a wonderful story, told in jerky sentences, garnished with blasphemies and obscene words. He had been a member of the Lewis Gun team. Very early in the advance the bursting of a high explosive shell had buried him, buried the whole gun team with its officer, buried the gun. Wakeman and three other men and the officer had crawled out from the mud and débris. Somehow they had unearthed the gun. Driven on by a kind of frenzy, they had advanced again, halting, firing a drum of cartridges, advancing again. Once more a shell caught them and buried them. Once more Wakeman crawled out, clawed his way out with hooked fingers, bit the loose clay with his mouth, bored through it with his head, dug at it with his toes. This time he and the officer were alone. They struggled to recover their gun, working fiercely, till a bullet hit the officer. After that Wakeman went on by himself, managed somehow to get among the men of the company to which his gun team belonged, and possessed himself of a rifle. At that point his story became incoherent. But about one thing he was clear. He and the others of his company had met in straight hand to hand fighting the proudest troops of Germany. By stabbing, lunging, battering with clubbed rifles, they had put the Prussian Guard to flight.

“Well,” drawled the Canadian, “they did run. They certainly did run some. And what's the matter with you, sonny? Hit?”

“Buried,” said Wakeman, “buried twice, and shrapnel in my leg, little bits.”

The bits were little, but there were a good many of them. Half an hour later Wakeman passed into the dressing station in his turn. The doctor looked him over, scribbled a word or two on the label which hung from the lad's breast pocket, and patted him on the shoulder.

“You'll be all right, my boy,” he said. “No shell shock. No D.A.H. Get along with you. Feeling a bit hungry, eh?”

“Thank you, sir,” said Wakeman. “Yes, sir, feel as if I could do with a bit of something to eat The way of it was this, sir. We strafed them proper, we did. The Prussian Guards they was, and——”

But the doctor had no time to listen to the story. “Get along now. Get along. The sooner the dressing is done, the sooner you'll get your dinner.”

The story, which the doctor would not hear, bubbled out into the ears of the nursing sister who picked the scraps of shrapnel out of Wakeman's leg. They were tiny fragments, most of them, but there were a great many, and it took the nurse twenty minutes to get through her job. The story was told twice over in jerks and snatches, just as it had been told to the Canadian, only the obscene words were unuttered and the oaths, when they slipped out now and then, were followed by apologies. Every soldier, even a Lancashire gutter snipe, has in him this curious instinct. His talk is commonly full of blasphemies and obscenities, devoid of all sense or meaning, efforts at futile emphasis, apparently necessary and inevitable. But if there is a woman within earshot, no such words pass his lips. A girl might sit all day among these men, and, if they knew she was there, her ears would never be sullied with the sound of a foul word.

Released at last from the dressing station, Wakeman and five or six others were taken to the bathhouse. The corporal who led the way, the bath orderly who provided soap and towels, and the wounded Irishman who was given the bath next to Wakeman's, all heard scraps of the story, learnt the essential fact that Wakeman and his pals had strafed the Prussian Guard. It was the Irishman who reduced the excited boy to silence for a few minutes.

“What do you want to be talking that way for?” he said. “Didn't we all give them hell? Didn't I bring back three prisoners myself. Three? It's five I would have had, only for a stray shell that bursted alongside of the communication trench and lifted two of them off me. Bad luck to that same shell, for a bit of it took me under the knee. But what matter? Only, mind this, what you did to the Prussian Guard wasn't in it with what that shell did to them two Boches. You'd have been sorry for the blighters, so you would, if so be you could have found a bit of either of them big enough to be sorry for.”

Wakeman had no reply to make to that. It is not possible with a bayonet, or even with a Lewis gun, to cause the total disappearance of an enemy's body.

After his bath, with a clean shirt on him and a clean pair of socks, Wakeman dined. There is no lack of good food in Number 50 Convalescent Camp, and men recovering from wounds often have healthy appetites. But Wakeman ate, gorged himself, to the astonishment even of the kitchen orderlies. Plateful after plateful of stewed meat and potatoes, steaming and savoury, disappeared. Yet there was no sign about the boy of the lassitude of repletion. His eyes remained bright and glanced rapidly here and there. His body was still alert, the movements of his hands quick and decisive.

After dinner, rest Wakeman found himself with other new-comers in a tent in the corner of the camp. The Irishman was there, still lamenting in picturesque phrases the loss of his two prisoners.

“And the biggest of them—a fine figure of a man he was—had the beautifullest helmet on him that ever was seen; worth twenty francs it was, any day, and me without a penny in my pocket But where was it after the shell bursted? Tell me that if you can.”

The Canadian was there, patiently ready to listen to any story, having apparently no story of his own to tell. Wakeman began again.

“It was the Prussian Guard,” he said, “and we gave them proper hell, we did, out in the open. No blasted machine guns. Just them and us with the bayonet And——”

He talked in vain. In the tent were beds, real beds with mattresses of woven wire, and palliasses stuffed with straw. Stretched flat on his back the Irishman snored. His head pillowed on his folded arm the Canadian slept peacefully, a quiet smile, like a child's, on his face. Wakeman looked at them and snorted with contempt For him no sleep was possible. He pulled a bench to the door of the tent, and sat in the sunshine. He found the lid of a cigarette tin and set to work to scrape the mud off his clothes and boots. But the work wearied him. With a piece of string he laced up the long rent in his trousers, cutting holes in the material with the blade of a knife. Then, still obstinately disinclined for sleep, he went out to explore the camp.

At one end of the camp is a hut, a long, low building. It is one of those canteens and recreation huts, which, working through various organizations, the public at home provides for the men in France. They are familiar enough to everyone in France, and the men know that there is a welcome for them however often they pass the doors. In this hut Mrs. Jocelyn works all day long and every day.

Sometimes she cooks, making vast puddings, stewing cauldrons full of prunes or figs. Sometimes she stands behind the counter serving bowls of tea, coffee, cocoa, lemonade, to thirsty men. Sometimes, half asphyxiated with tobacco smoke, she sits at the piano and hammers out rag-time tunes, while the men crowd round her, their faces close to her as they peer at the music, their voices threatening her with deafness when they bellow in her ears. Sometimes she sits for an hour beside some dull-eyed victim of shell shock, patiently trying to coax or trick him back to some interest in life again, giving him, literally, her own vitality, until, “virtue gone out” of her, she must seek fresh strength for herself in the less exhausting toil of a scullery maid. Thus she pays to man the debt she owes to God for the cross over the grave of one son dead, and the unconquerable spirit of the other crippled.

It was a slack hour when Private Wakeman, in his grotesquely tattered clothes, limped through the door. Only a few men were in the hut, writing or playing draughts. A boy at the piano was laboriously beating out a discordant version of “Tennessee.” Mrs. Jocelyn sat on a packing-case, a block of paper on her knee, writing a letter to a man who had left the camp to go up the line again. Another woman, a fellow worker, was arranging plates of cakes and biscuits on the counter, piling bowls ready to hand for the crowd of men who would come later, clamouring for tea.

Private Wakeman stood in the middle of the hut and looked around him. He sought companionship, longed to find some one to whom he could tell his story and make his boast about the Prussian Guard. His eyes wandered from one to another of the men who were writing or playing games. He found little encouragement. It seemed impossible to join himself to any one of them. He looked at the lady busy with the bowls and plates. His eyes rested at last on a great dish of stewed figs which stood on the counter. He had eaten an incredible quantity of food in the dining-hall two hours before, soup, beef, potatoes, cabbage, pudding, cheese. But he had not eaten stewed figs. His whole boy's nature rose in him in one fierce longing for stewed figs. He remembered. Before he went into the attack he had possessed half a franc and two sous. He thrust his hand into his one trouser pocket. It was empty. He tore at the string with which he had laced up the slit in his trousers. On that side there was not a pocket left. It and all it ever contained, were gone. He fumbled in the pockets of his tunic, found three mangled cigarettes, the stump of a pencil, a letter from his mother, and, at last, two English penny stamps, survivals of days which seemed years ago, when he had been in camp in England.

His eyes were fixed on the stewed figs. The longing in him grew fiercer, intolerable. He approached the counter slowly. He laid on it the two stamps, dirty almost beyond recognition. He smoothed them out carefully.

“Lady,” he said, “I haven't got no money but——”

The worker laid down her bowls, looked at the two stamps, and then at the boy. She was a woman of experience and discernment She saw the muddy, tattered clothes. She read the look of desire in the eyes. She understood.

“What do you want?” she said.

“Stewed fruit, lady, and—and custard.”

She turned from the boy to Mrs. Jocelyn.

“It's clean against all rules,” she said. “I know I oughtn't to, but I must—-I simply must give this boy something.”

Mrs. Jocelyn looked up from her writing. She saw all that the other had seen. She had talked with many men. One glance was enough for her. She knew what the boy had been through. With swift intuition she guessed at what he felt and how he yearned. She saw the name of his regiment on his one remaining shoulder strap. It was her dead boy's regiment, and every man in it was dear to her. Already the other lady was at work, putting a spoonful of stewed figs on a soup plate. Mrs. Jocelyn seized her by the arm and dragged her roughly back from the counter.

“Don't dare to do it,” she said, “it's my right No one else has so good a right to do it as I have.”

So Private Wakeman sat down to a plate piled with stewed figs, swamped with a yellowish liquid called custard in canteens in France. Beside him were jam tarts and great slabs of cake. From a mouth never empty, though he swallowed fast, came in short gushes the story of the strafing of the Prussian Guard, told at last to ears which drank in greedily every word of it.

So Mrs. Jocelyn claimed and took at last her dearest right.