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- Tomaso's Fortune and Other Stories - 2/41 -
the few men capable of good humour before tiffin time.
By six o'clock he was ready to go. It was easy to see what sort of officer this cheery sailor was by the way his men worked.
While they were getting the machine-gun limbered up, Sam came back to my quarters, and took a hasty breakfast.
"Feel a bit down this morning," he said, with a gay smile. "Cheap-- very cheap. I hope I am not going to funk it. It is all very well for some of you long-faced fellows, who don't seem to have much to live for, to fight for the love of fighting. I don't want to fight any man; I am too fond of 'em all for that."
I went out after breakfast, and I gave him a leg up on to his very sorry horse, which he sat like a tailor or a sailor. He held the reins like tiller-lines, and indulged in a pleased smile at the effect of the yellow boots.
"No great hand at this sort of thing," he said, with a nod of farewell. "When the beast does anything out of the common, or begins to make heavy weather of it, I AM NOT."
He ranged up alongside his beloved gun, and gave the word of command with more dignity than he knew what to do with.
All that day I was employed in arranging quarters for the nurses. To do this I was forced to turn some of our most precious stores out into the open, covering them with a tarpaulin, and in consequence felt all the more assured that my chief was making a great mistake.
At nine o'clock in the evening they arrived, one of the juniors having ridden out in the moonlight to meet them. He reported them completely exhausted; informed me that he had recommended them to go straight to bed; and was altogether more enthusiastic about the matter than I personally or officially cared to see.
He handed me a pencil note from my chief at headquarters, explaining that he had not written me a despatch because he had nothing but a "J" pen, with which instrument he could not make himself legible. It struck me that he was suffering from a plethora of assistance, and was anxious to reduce his staff.
I sent my enthusiastic assistant to the nurses' quarters, with a message that they were not to report themselves to me until they had had a night's rest. Then I turned in.
At midnight I was awakened by the orderly, and summoned to the tent of the officer in command. This youth's face was considerably whiter than his linen. He was consulting with his second in command, a boy of twenty-two or thereabouts.
A man covered with sand and blood was sitting in a hammock-chair, rubbing his eyes, and drinking something out of a tumbler.
"News from the front?" I inquired without ceremony, which hindrance we had long since dispensed with.
"Yes, and bad news."
It certainly was not pleasant hearing. Some one mentioned the word "disaster," and we looked at each other with hard, anxious eyes. I thought of the women, and almost decided to send them back before daylight.
In a few moments a fresh man was roused out of his bed, and sent full gallop through the moonlight across the desert to headquarters, and the officer in command began to regain confidence. I think he extracted it from the despatch-bearer's tumbler. After all, he was not responsible for much. He was merely a connecting-link, a point of touch between two greater men.
It was necessary to get my men to work at once, but I gave particular orders to leave the nurses undisturbed. Disaster at the front meant hard work at the rear. We all knew that, and endeavoured to make ready for a sudden rush of wounded.
The rush began before daylight. As they came in we saw to them, dressing their wounds and packing them as closely as possible. But the stream was continuous. They never stopped coming; they never gave us a moment's rest.
At six o'clock I gave orders to awaken the nurses and order them to prepare their quarters for the reception of the wounded. At half- past six an Army Hospital Corps man came to me in the ward.
"Shockin' case, sir, just come in," he said. "Officer. Gun busted, sir."
"Take him to my quarters," I said, wiping my instruments on my sleeve.
In a few minutes I followed, and on entering my little room the first thing I saw was a pair of yellow boots.
There was no doubt about the boots and the white duck trousers, and although I could not see the face, I knew that this was Sammy Fitz- Warrener come back again.
A woman--one of the nurses for whom he had pleaded--was bending over the bed with a sponge and a basin of tepid water. As I entered she turned upon me a pair of calmly horror-stricken eyes.
"OH!" she whispered meaningly, stepping back to let me approach. I had no time to notice then that she was one of those largely built women, with perfect skin and fair hair, who make one think of what England must have been before Gallic blood got to be so widely disseminated in the race.
"Please pull down that mat from the window," I said, indicating a temporary blind which I had put up.
She did so promptly, and returned to the bedside, falling into position as it were, awaiting my orders.
I bent over the bed, and I must confess that what I saw there gave me a thrill of horror which will come again at times so long as I live.
I made a sign to Sister to continue her task of sponging away the mud, of which one ingredient was sand.
"Both eyes," she whispered, "are destroyed."
"Not the top of the skull," I said; "you must not touch that."
For we both knew that our task was without hope.
As I have said, I knew something of Fitz-Warrener's people, and I could not help lingering there, where I could do no good, when I knew that I was wanted elsewhere.
Suddenly his lips moved, and Sister, kneeling down on the floor, bent over him.
I could not hear what he said, but I think she did. I saw her lips frame the whisper "Yes" in reply, and over her face there swept suddenly a look of great tenderness.
After a little pause she rose and came to me.
"Who is he?" she asked.
"Fitz-Warrener of the Naval Brigade. Do you know him?"
"No, I never heard of him. Of course--it is quite hopeless?"
She returned to her position by the bedside, with one arm laid across his chest.
Presently he began whispering again, and at intervals she answered him. It suddenly occurred to me that, in his unconsciousness, he was mistaking her for some one else, and that she, for some woman's reason, was deceiving him purposely.
In a few moments I was sure of this.
I tried not to look; but I saw it all. I saw his poor blind hands wander over her throat and face, up to her hair.
"What is this?" he muttered quite distinctly, with that tone of self-absorption which characterizes the sayings of an unconscious man. "What is this silly cap?"
His fingers wandered on over the snowy linen until they came to the strings.
As an aspirant to the title of gentleman, I felt like running away-- many doctors know this feeling; as a doctor, I could only stay.
His fingers fumbled with the strings. Still Sister bent over the bed. Perhaps she bent an inch or two nearer. One hand was beneath his neck, supporting the poor shattered head.
He slowly drew off the cap, and his fingers crept lovingly over the soft fair hair.
"Marny," he said, quite clearly, "you've done your hair up, and you're nothing but a little girl, you know--nothing but a little girl."
I could not help watching his fingers, and yet I felt like a man committing sacrilege.
"When I left you," said the brainless voice, "you wore it down your back. You were a little girl--you are a little girl now." And he slowly drew a hairpin out.
One long lock fell curling to her shoulder. She never looked up, never noticed me, but knelt there like a ministering angel-- personating for a time a girl whom we had never seen.
"My little girl," he added, with a low laugh, and drew out another hairpin.
In a few moments all her hair was about her shoulders. I had never thought that she might be carrying such glory quietly hidden beneath the simple nurse's cap.
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