CRICH, THE ORDERLY, sat on a camp-stool cheering Parker, who lay suspiciously quiet. Parker had come from Queensland, via New Jersey, among other cities, and the registered voters of Colesberg had shot him across the spine below the shoulders.
‘My stomach’s a trifle out of order,’ said Parker cheerily. ‘They can’t get it to work. Except for that I don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with me.’
Crich looked at me, to signify that it would b, better for Parker if he had a little more feeling. ‘We’re comin’ on beautifully, ain’t we?’ said Crich, and Parker nodded.
‘I’m the last o’ four—all spinal cases — all in this tent too!’ said Parker. ‘I’ve seen ’em all go, and here am I hangin’ on by my finger-nails. They all went, didn’t they?’
‘Yes,’ said Crich, his braces round his hips; ‘an’ they all called for me ‘fore they went. ‘Member Tommy?
Parker smiled. Sir Philip Sidney smiled very much in that fashion. ‘Oh, yes. I was on special allowance of brandy, but Tommy he always looked for a little of mine in his lemonade.’ Couldn’t speak much, but he used to roll his eyes to my bed. Tommy liked his tot of brandy and lemonade. When did he go, Crich ?’
‘Yes’day afternoon. You was asleep, Parker. He said “Crich, old man, where are you?” he said. “Right here in front o’ you,” I says, and I went up to ‘im, ’cause I knew what was comin’. “I can’t see you, Crich,” he says. Then I laid ‘old of his arms by my two ‘ands. “That’s better,” he says. “If I Can’t see you I can feel you,” he says. “Don’t let go, Crich,” he says, and in a minute or two he was off, as quiet as anything. You was asleep, Parker. Oh, yes, they all asked for old Crich to take ‘old of when they went off Parker’s goin’ to best the lot of ’em.’ Thus to me. ‘Last o’ four spinal cases, he is, an’ he’s goin’ to Netley , an’ he’ll be all right in a few weeks. ‘Ave some more tomatoes, Parker?’
The giant turned his head and raised an arm. He could not quite reach the tomatoes. Crick stepped across the tent, and lavishly douched the cut fruit with oil and vinegar, and exhibited Parker in the act of eating. Then Parker talked of real estate speculations in Orange, New Jersey, and stock-riding in Queensland; Crick supplying an ever-appreciative chorus. I watched the superbly-built body, so all alive to the chest-line, so all dead below, and it seemed to me unfair that nervous anxiety to make Cape Colony a ‘little haven of peace’ had led a ‘neutral Government’ to postpone the ordinary preparations for war till the Colesberg rebels (all registered voters, remember) could conveniently mangle Parker’s spinal cord. I laid it upon Crich, the hairy-chested and adequate, that Parker must not die, and Crich hopefully hopeless said, out of Parker’s hearing, that he would do his damnedest.
That was some weeks ago. I have seen Parker twice or thrice since, but to-day his bed is empty. He has bested the registered voter of Colesberg, all the young doctors who prophesied death, and Crich, who couldn’t see any other way out of it.
He has gone home in a steamer to Netley, with the chance of living, half-dead for a year or two, and the ghost of a chance that he may partially recover. This is a load off my mind. For some absurd reason Parker was my war-fetish. He held on through the black days ere Ladysmith was relieved; he heard of Cronje’s surrender, and now, at Madeira, he will learn that Bloemfontein is his and ours.
The war goes better. With Parker and Bloemfontein disposed of we can attend to the hospitals. Dinniss, the light-moustached Sergeant Major of a Horse battery, has gone away; but not before he saved the lives of three or four depressed and morbid, by his cheerfulness and his yarns.
Dinniss has six-and-twenty years’ service. He refused his majority eleven years ago, because it was not in his beloved battery, and he is an encyclopaedia of military knowledge — the unofficial brand. I heard him tell his tent confidentially that if he had known what sort of a silly sort of war this war was going to turn out, he would have retired on his laurels early in October.
He caught something at Magersfontein, which has kept him in bed for a few weeks, but now he is at the Front again. He was more or less in charge of the Horse battery which, out of pure politeness, stood still to take the Boer fire when our naval gun on the left of the line did not see the flag of truce, went on firing, and brought down a fresh Boer fusillade.
Said Dinniss: ‘Of course, we sat tight to show it was a mistake, but the shells were makin’ our horses skittish, so I said: “Send a driver to their heads. They’re a little shy.” I looked round, an’ there wasn’t any drivers! D’you know what they were doin’ Chasin’ rats round a bush! Yiss! Rat-huntin’ under fire. On my worrud, I don’t believe drivers have sowls. No, not one!’
‘Were they Cockneys, by any chance, Dinniss?’ ‘Ye may say so. We come from St. John’s Wood, London, N.W.’ The tent and the orderlies grieved when Dinniss left, for he had great authority, and most persuasive tact. Now, Derby of the Inniskillings had no authority. He lived on his tongue and his skill in outflanking orderlies. Derby got it badly in the leg, and hopped like a cock robin in scarlet flannel between the tents. He was marked for England, and the day before he sailed all Rondebosch was too small for his transports.
A visitor came by with pipes and tobacco to give the men, and Derby steered him towards a convalescent. ‘D’you want to buy a pipe?’ said Derby with a serious face. ‘They’re only threepence, and the baccy’s one and threepence a stick. It’s dirt cheap.’ The convalescent fingered the stock and demanded cigarettes. ‘I’m sorry,’ said Derby, ‘but we’re sold out of cigarettes. If you’ll give your order, maybe this man will —’ Then the convalescent tumbled to the jest, and Derby had to run for it all between the tent-pegs. There should be lively times on Derby’s boat home, but he is the kindest of souls to an invalid.
The Twins are not on their feet yet. They are both Australians, both have broken legs, they lie side by side, their legs in slings, and the one loyally caps the other’s tallest yarns. A few days back talk turned on what blackfellows could do with a boomerang.
A Fusilier cut to pieces with barbed wire, a 9th Lancer, and a West Yorkshireman told the twins to draw it mild. Sticks could not twist and turn in that way. It was as absurd as the word Woolloomooloo. Entered then from another tent Rae, of Manitoba, hit at Slinger’s or Arundel.
Rae said he did not understand boomerangs, but things could be made to curve in the air, for all the 9th Lancer said. For instance, there was a game called baseball. Rae illustrated with his sound arm how a pitcher sends in a curved ball, and the Twins, applauding, welcomed him as an ally. They had a file of Australian papers with pictures of boomerangs. Would the 9th Lancer please get them out from the shelf, and they would explain. So, under the pines planted in South Africa by men from the North, Welshman,Tyke ,Cockney, and Canadian bent their heads over a Melbourne weekly, while a Queenslander read the letterpress
Johnson, of a Highland regiment — he looked very like Alan Breck had tried to stop a shell-splinter with his stomach, and it cost him eight weeks’ agony. The first time we met he walked crab-fashion, his blue eyes alight with pain. Hear, O Heaven, and bear witness, O Earth, that there would be no more of South Africa for Johnson and his stomach! A fortnight later we sat in the sun with a whispering Guardsman, half of whose larynx had been put out of commission by a down-dropping bullet.
But Johnson was a changed man. He had developed a scheme, and explained it as he sat grasping his ankles and rocking to and fro. They were going to send him to Green Point with other convalescents. The odds were they would send him home, and that did not suit Johnson’s revised book. ‘I’m a saddler by trade. They’ll not overlook the likes of me when they’re repairing collars and harnesses. I’ll not be sent home till the war is over — if I can help it. Surely they’ll need a collar-maker. Then I’ll be able to get back again.’
He went off to draw his kit, walking corkily, and the Guardsman whispered husky congratulations. But there is no spring in McConnell, sergeant of another Highland regiment — nothing but sour disgust. He got it in the hand, round Paardeberg, a rending, shattering bullet, that has marked him for England. And there is what is left of his Company to consider, and there is his unpaid debt to the Boer, drawing interest every day, and there is his right hand throbbing and aching in the night watches. His chief interest is the daily paper and the list of the Boer dead. He lies in his corner, smoking, brooding, and meditating how to escape England. But his hand—his right hand, with the iron-hard forearm — is useless. He always comes back to that.
Not far from him lies Carter, who went downhill by reason of a fractured thigh and some fever.
Then he got bed-sores — two, he told me — and then they got him an air-mattress. Carter came near to losing his life, but the story in the ward is that Neeld, a graceless Cockney Highlander, bucked him up, precisely as Dinniss bucked up the man shot through the lungs.
Anyhow, Carter is spared, which is a sign of grace, and they have taken him out for a small walk in a wheeled chair. ‘He kep’ askin’ us all the way uphill if he was too heavy,’ said one of Carter’s steeds — a convalescent with a head-wound. ‘Well, you see, it’s voluntary, not compulsory, takin’ convalescents out,’ says Carter, rather tremulous about the mouth.
‘You don’t weigh more’n a rat now,’ is the answer, and then, the voice touched with a beautiful tenderness, ‘Did ye like it, ‘Arry?’
Did he like it? After three months he has seen trees and sunshine, and felt the big sky above him. He picked up the good dirt of the earth and let it run through his fingers. Now he is going to sleep. In a little while Mylton will be fit to wheel out. He hails from St. John, New Brunswick — the old city of many fires over against the racing Fundy tide. The scent of the Wynberg pine-needles makes him one jelly of home-sickness. Providence sent to his bedside one who knows his city, and street by street and suburb by suburb, ‘from Castor in the Forum to Mars without the wall’—from the fragrant lumber-mills to Loch Lomond. Mylton goes over it all rejoicing. Yes, he knows, moreover, Dalhousie, Gaspe, and Baie Chaleur. And how he longs to see them! Two yards away a Yorkshire Reservist points out to a man who is fashioning a canvas and wool belt that of all places under heaven there is none like to Bradford. He is married, with four children and a damaged shoulder; but all will be well when he returns to Bradford, ‘in t’ steamer.’
Lascelles, Tasmanian Mounted Infantry, holds quite other views. He had come through much rough-and-tumble work, ending with abscess of the liver. That removed, they have put him to light duty at Maitland Camp till he is fit to sit a horse. His eyes are sunk and heavy, but he sees far. He is the son of a Hobart fruitgrower. What about fruit-growing in this country? Is himself an apple man, but understands peaches and plums. Has noticed while in hospital that many apples sent to convalescents were full of codlin-grub, which he considers far more serious than Boers.
What about red-scale and the other fruit-pests? What about packing and freight-rates? In Tasmania the wood for an apple-crate costs threepence halfpenny, and the completed article less than fivepence. On the other hand, South Africa is nearer London than Hobart. Lascelles works out the sum in his head, and emerges to say that he has dug up many samples of soil round Kimberley; has also looked over many farms up-country as he rode through.
Lascelles thinks that Tasmania being a small place — a young man might do worse than settle here and grow up in a new country, eh? It is represented to Lascelles that he is the kind of man we need badly. Yes, Mr. Lascelles, this is the one land for the new man of colonial experience — for open-air men used to large spaces and plain living – thousands of them. Here is everything — horses, cattle, wool, and fruit. Do you know any more young men of the same views Manitoba ranchers, New Zealand sheep-men, fruitgrowers of the South?
If so, bring them along, and we will make such a country as the world has never seen. Lascelles admits that he has talked to several friends about the wisdom of settling here after the war. They think well of it. In twenty minutes I have pledged the honour of the Empire to the hilt on behalf of Lascelles & Co. If they mean business everything shall be made easy for their first start. I will lend them money on mortgage (at least, you will, and we shall get four per cent on it). I will slap down railways along the valleys where the fruit grows, so that no farm need haul her dried prunes more than five miles to the rail. (This is not so mad as it sounds, for such valleys are few.)
I will arrange low freights, if I have to go on my knees to German shipping firms. I will break the Covent Garden fruit-ring into flinders. I will erect coldstorage warehouses by the acre, and chilled fruit-cars at 40° uniform shall be as common as cattle-trucks on all our lines. I will develop under the care of half-a-dozen picked Canal officers from India such a scheme of irrigation (it will not cost more than three millions to begin with) as shall beat the Bara Doab, Colorado, and the Queensland colonies combined.
Mr. Lascelles accepts everything calmly. He is young and has the divine faith. ‘In twenty years’ time!’ he says, and his eye with a budding stye on it glows.
‘Ah, but it’s all a gamble,’ I make haste to qualify. ‘One has to take one’s chances.’
‘I’ll take ’em,’ says Mr. Lascelles; and, when you come to think of it, a man who has been risking his life for a few weeks is not going to be deterred by the prospect of one fruit farm or a score, for that matter failing on Iris hands.
Meantime, will you please take notes of the few schemes I have committed you to? Because in five years you will be lending money on them and they will pay more than trappy gold-reefs or South American tramways. The tents arc full of boys who, with a little steering, would settle here. Nixon, of Vancouver, for instance, is in real estate and life insurance when he is at home. He was also in the Canadian rush on the Paardeberg laager. Being a youth of cheerful and speculative temperament, he would be shrewd enough to pronounce on the chances of a new country if any one brought him the facts and the figures — and the fancies. As it is, lie lies in bed with a bullet through his leg and thinks about a Vancouver girl. Colliss, also a Western man in real estate, would be another splendid recruit. He shed his blood for the country with a vengeance, the bullet narrowly missing an artery. He would stay in the country if properly approached. He is sinful proud of the fact that of eight hundred and fifty Canadians engaged in this business not more than four hundred and sixty are at this date available. And they were not cut down by sickness nor cut off by Boer patrols. We may assume, then, that among the hospitals are three hundred Canadians of the very stamp and breed we require — young, sound, clean, intelligent, well educated, of whom seventy-five per cent hold or have held land. Three hundred possible heads of sane and soaped families. And not a man to show them maps and photos and plans to lure them to stay in South Africa. We shall let all these beautiful men, and hundreds and hundreds more, go back to their own place and never lift finger to stay them. Truly we are the most wasteful as we are the most idle nation under heaven!
Derby, and Dinniss, and Crich, and Neeld, and Johnson, and the young postman at Crieff, and my own postman at Rottingdean (he is here in a bearer company), and the man that drives the big brewery wagon at Newhaven (he is here in the Black Watch, and was hit at Magersfontein), must go home when the war is ended. Blessings and thanks go with them. They are all either Reserve men, their places waiting for them, or men of the Regular Line without a trade.
But we need Mylton when he gets better, and Nixon, and Colliss, and Lascelles, and the Twins, and a few thousand more of their kidney to stay and inherit.
For the land is a good land. It has been wilfully and wickedly starved — starved by policy and craft through many years lest an incompetent race should be found out before the face of the nations.