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The kicking twelfth.

The Spitzbergen army was backed by tradition of centuries of victory.  In its chronicles, occasional defeats were not printed in italics, but were likely to appear as glorious stands against overwhelming odds.  A favourite way to dispose of them was frankly to attribute them to the blunders of the civilian heads of government.  This was very good for the army, and probably no army had more self-confidence.  When it was announced that an expeditionary force was to be sent to Rostina to chastise an impudent people, a hundred barrack squares filled with excited men, and a hundred sergeant-majors hurried silently through the groups, and succeeded in looking as if they were the repositories of the secrets of empire.  Officers on leave sped joyfully back to their harness, and recruits were abused with unflagging devotion by every man, from colonels to privates of experience.

The Twelfth Regiment of the Line ­the Kicking Twelfth ­was consumed with a dread that it was not to be included in the expedition, and the regiment formed itself into an informal indignation meeting.  Just as they had proved that a great outrage was about to be perpetrated, warning orders arrived to hold themselves in readiness for active service abroad ­in Rostina.  The barrack yard was in a flash transferred into a blue-and-buff pandemonium, and the official bugle itself hardly had power to quell the glad disturbance.

Thus it was that early in the spring the Kicking Twelfth ­sixteen hundred men in service equipment ­found itself crawling along a road in Rostina.  They did not form part of the main force, but belonged to a column of four regiments of foot, two batteries of field guns, a battery of mountain howitzers, a regiment of horse, and a company of engineers.  Nothing had happened.  The long column had crawled without amusement of any kind through a broad green valley.  Big white farm-houses dotted the slopes; but there was no sign of man or beast, and no smoke from the chimneys.  The column was operating from its own base, and its general was expected to form a junction with the main body at a given point.

A squadron of the cavalry was fanned out ahead, scouting, and day by day the trudging infantry watched the blue uniforms of the horsemen as they came and went.  Sometimes there would sound the faint thuds of a few shots, but the cavalry was unable to find anything to engage.

The Twelfth had no record of foreign service, and it could hardly be said that it had served as a unit in the great civil war, when His Majesty the King had whipped the Pretender.  At that time the regiment had suffered from two opinions, so that it was impossible for either side to depend upon it.  Many men had deserted to the standard of the Pretender, and a number of officers had drawn their swords for him.  When the King, a thorough soldier, looked at the remnant, he saw that they lacked the spirit to be of great help to him in the tremendous battles which he was waging for his throne.  And so this emaciated Twelfth was sent off to a corner of the kingdom to guard a dockyard, where some of the officers so plainly expressed their disapproval of this policy that the regiment received its steadfast name, the Kicking Twelfth.

At the time of which I am writing the Twelfth had a few veteran officers and well-bitten sergeants; but the body of the regiment was composed of men who had never heard a shot fired excepting on the rifle-range.  But it was an experience for which they longed, and when the moment came for the corps’ cry ­“Kim up, the Kickers” ­there was not likely to be a man who would not go tumbling after his leaders.

Young Timothy Lean was a second lieutenant in the first company of the third battalion, and just at this time he was pattering along at the flank of the men, keeping a fatherly lookout for boots that hurt and packs that sagged.  He was extremely bored.  The mere far-away sound of desultory shooting was not war as he had been led to believe it.

It did not appear that behind that freckled face and under that red hair there was a mind which dreamed of blood.  He was not extremely anxious to kill somebody, but he was very fond of soldiering ­it had been the career of his father and of his grandfather ­and he understood that the profession of arms lost much of its point unless a man shot at people and had people shoot at him.  Strolling in the sun through a practically deserted country might be a proper occupation for a divinity student on a vacation, but the soul of Timothy Lean was in revolt at it.  Some times at night he would go morosely to the camp of the cavalry and hear the infant subalterns laughingly exaggerate the comedy side of the adventures which they had had out with small patrols far ahead.  Lean would sit and listen in glum silence to these tales, and dislike the young officers ­many of them old military school friends ­for having had experience in modern warfare.

“Anyhow,” he said savagely, “presently you’ll be getting into a lot of trouble, and then the Foot will have to come along and pull you out.  We always do.  That’s history.”

“Oh, we can take care of ourselves,” said the Cavalry, with good-natured understanding of his mood.

But the next day even Lean blessed the cavalry, for excited troopers came whirling back from the front, bending over their speeding horses, and shouting wildly and hoarsely for the infantry to clear the way.  Men yelled at them from the roadside as courier followed courier, and from the distance ahead sounded in quick succession six booms from field guns.  The information possessed by the couriers was no longer precious.  Everybody knew what a battery meant when it spoke.  The bugles cried out, and the long column jolted into a halt.  Old Colonel Sponge went bouncing in his saddle back to see the general, and the regiment sat down in the grass by the roadside, and waited in silence.  Presently the second squadron of the cavalry trotted off along the road in a cloud of dust, and in due time old Colonel Sponge came bouncing back, and palavered his three majors and his adjutant.  Then there was more talk by the majors, and gradually through the correct channels spread information which in due time reached Timothy Lean.

The enemy, 5000 strong, occupied a pass at the head of the valley some four miles beyond.  They had three batteries well posted.  Their infantry was entrenched.  The ground in their front was crossed and lined with many ditches and hedges; but the enemy’s batteries were so posted that it was doubtful if a ditch would ever prove convenient as shelter for the Spitzbergen infantry.

There was a fair position for the Spitzbergen artillery 2300 yards from the enemy.  The cavalry had succeeded in driving the enemy’s skirmishers back upon the main body; but, of course, had only tried to worry them a little.  The position was almost inaccessible on the enemy’s right, owing to steep hills, which had been crowned by small parties of infantry.  The enemy’s left, although guarded by a much larger force, was approachable, and might be flanked.  This was what the cavalry had to say, and it added briefly a report of two troopers killed and five wounded.

Whereupon Major-General Richie, commanding a force of 7500 men of His Majesty of Spitzbergen, set in motion, with a few simple words, the machinery which would launch his army at the enemy.  The Twelfth understood the orders when they saw the smart young aide approaching old Colonel Sponge, and they rose as one man, apparently afraid that they would be late.  There was a clank of accoutrements.  Men shrugged their shoulders tighter against their packs, and thrusting their thumbs between their belts and their tunics, they wriggled into a closer fit with regard to the heavy ammunition equipment.  It is curious to note that almost every man took off his cap, and looked contemplatively into it as if to read a maker’s name.  Then they replaced their caps with great care.  There was little talking, and it was not observable that a single soldier handed a token or left a comrade with a message to be delivered in case he should be killed.  They did not seem to think of being killed; they seemed absorbed in a desire to know what would happen, and how it would look when it was happening.  Men glanced continually at their officers in a plain desire to be quick to understand the very first order that would be given; and officers looked gravely at their men, measuring them, feeling their temper, worrying about them.

A bugle called; there were sharp cries, and the Kicking Twelfth was off to battle.

The regiment had the right of line in the infantry brigade, and the men tramped noisily along the white road, every eye was strained ahead; but, after all, there was nothing to be seen but a dozen farms ­in short, a country-side.  It resembled the scenery in Spitzbergen; every man in the Kicking Twelfth had often confronted a dozen such farms with a composure which amounted to indifference.  But still down the road came galloping troopers, who delivered information to Colonel Sponge and then galloped on.  In time the Twelfth came to the top of a rise, and below them on the plain was the heavy black streak of a Spitzbergen squadron, and behind the squadron loomed the grey bare hill of the Rostina position.

There was a little of skirmish firing.  The Twelfth reached a knoll, which the officers easily recognised as the place described by the cavalry as suitable for the Spitzbergen guns.  The men swarmed up it in a peculiar formation.  They resembled a crowd coming off a race track; but, nevertheless, there was no stray sheep.  It was simply that the ground on which actual battles are fought is not like a chess board.  And after them came swinging a six-gun battery, the guns wagging from side to side as the long line turned out of the road, and the drivers using their whips as the leading horses scrambled at the hill.  The halted Twelfth lifted its voice and spoke amiably, but with point, to the battery.

“Go on, Guns!  We’ll take care of you.  Don’t be afraid.  Give it to them!” The teams ­lead, swing and wheel ­struggled and slipped over the steep and uneven ground; and the gunners, as they clung to their springless positions, wore their usual and natural airs of unhappiness.  They made no reply to the infantry.  Once upon the top of the hill, however, these guns were unlimbered in a flash, and directly the infantry could hear the loud voice of an officer drawling out the time for fuses.  A moment later the first 3.2 bellowed out, and there could be heard the swish and the snarl of a fleeting shell.

Colonel Sponge and a number of officers climbed to the battery’s position; but the men of the regiment sat in the shelter of the hill, like so many blindfolded people, and wondered what they would have been able to see if they had been officers.  Sometimes the shells of the enemy came sweeping over the top of the hill, and burst in great brown explosions in the fields to the rear.  The men looked after them and laughed.  To the rear could be seen also the mountain battery coming at a comic trot, with every man obviously in a deep rage with every mule.  If a man can put in long service with a mule battery and come out of it with an amiable disposition, he should be presented with a medal weighing many ounces.  After the mule battery came a long black winding thing, which was three regiments of Spitzbergen infantry; and at the backs of them and to the right was an inky square, which was the remaining Spitzbergen guns.  General Richie and his staff clattered up the hill.  The blindfolded Twelfth sat still.  The inky square suddenly became a long racing line.  The howitzers joined their little bark to the thunder of the guns on the hill, and the three regiments of infantry came on.  The Twelfth sat still.

Of a sudden a bugle rang its warning, and the officers shouted.  Some used the old cry, “Attention!  Kim up, the Kickers!” ­and the Twelfth knew that it had been told to go on.  The majority of the men expected to see great things as soon as they rounded the shoulder of the hill; but there was nothing to be seen save a complicated plain and the grey knolls occupied by the enemy.  Many company commanders in low voices worked at their men, and said things which do not appear in the written reports.  They talked soothingly; they talked indignantly; and they talked always like fathers.  And the men heard no sentences completely; they heard no specific direction, these wide-eyed men.  They understood that there was being delivered some kind of exhortation to do as they had been taught, and they also understood that a superior intelligence was anxious over their behaviour and welfare.

There was a great deal of floundering through hedges, climbing of walls and jumping of ditches.  Curiously original privates tried to find new and easier ways for themselves, instead of following the men in front of them.  Officers had short fits of fury over these people.  The more originality they possessed, the more likely they were to become separated from their companies.  Colonel Sponge was making an exciting progress on a big charger.  When the first song of the bullets came from above, the men wondered why he sat so high; the charger seemed as tall as the Eiffel Tower.  But if he was high in the air, he had a fine view, and that supposedly is why people ascend the Eiffel Tower.  Very often he had been a joke to them, but when they saw this fat, old gentleman so coolly treating the strange new missiles which hummed in the air, it struck them suddenly that they had wronged him seriously; and a man who could attain the command of a Spitzbergen regiment was entitled to general respect.  And they gave him a sudden, quick affection ­an affection that would make them follow him heartily, trustfully, grandly ­this fat, old gentleman, seated on a too-big horse.  In a flash his tousled grey head, his short, thick legs, even his paunch, had become specially and humorously endeared to them.  And this is the way of soldiers.

But still the Twelfth had not yet come to the place where tumbling bodies begin their test of the very heart of a regiment.  They backed through more hedges, jumped more ditches, slid over more walls.  The Rostina artillery had seemed to be asleep; but suddenly the guns aroused like dogs from their kennels, and around the Twelfth there began a wild, swift screeching.  There arose cries to hurry, to come on; and, as the rifle bullets began to plunge into them, the men saw the high, formidable hills of the enemy’s right, and perfectly understood that they were doomed to storm them.  The cheering thing was the sudden beginning of a tremendous uproar on the enemy’s left.

Every man ran, hard, tense, breathless.  When they reached the foot of the hills, they thought they had won the charge already, but they were electrified to see officers above them waving their swords and yelling with anger, surprise, and shame.  With a long murmurous outcry the Twelfth began to climb the hill; and as they went and fell, they could hear frenzied shouts ­“Kim up, the Kickers!” The pace was slow.  It was like the rising of a tide; it was determined, almost relentless in its appearance, but it was slow.  If a man fell there was a chance that he would land twenty yards below the point where he was hit.  The Kickers crawled, their rifles in their left hands as they pulled and tugged themselves up with their right hands.  Ever arose the shout, “Kim up, the Kickers!” Timothy Lean, his face flaming, his eyes wild, yelled it back as if he were delivering the gospel.

The Kickers came up.  The enemy ­they had been in small force, thinking the hills safe enough from attack ­retreated quickly from this preposterous advance, and not a bayonet in the Twelfth saw blood; bayonets very seldom do.

The homing of this successful charge wore an unromantic aspect.  About twenty windless men suddenly arrived, and threw themselves upon the crest of the hill, and breathed.  And these twenty were joined by others, and still others, until almost 1100 men of the Twelfth lay upon the hilltop, while the regiment’s track was marked by body after body, in groups and singly.  The first officer ­perchance the first man, one never can be certain ­the first officer to gain the top of the hill was Timothy Lean, and such was the situation that he had the honour to receive his colonel with a bashful salute.

The regiment knew exactly what it had done; it did not have to wait to be told by the Spitzbergen newspapers.  It had taken a formidable position with the loss of about five hundred men, and it knew it.  It knew, too, that it was great glory for the Kicking Twelfth; and as the men lay rolling on their bellies, they expressed their joy in a wild cry ­“Kim up, the Kickers!” For a moment there was nothing but joy, and then suddenly company commanders were besieged by men who wished to go down the path of the charge and look for their mates.  The answers were without the quality of mercy; they were short, snapped, quick words, “No; you can’t.”

The attack on the enemy’s left was sounding in great rolling crashes.  The shells in their flight through the air made a noise as of red-hot iron plunged into water, and stray bullets nipped near the ears of the Kickers.

The Kickers looked and saw.  The battle was below them.  The enemy were indicated by a long, noisy line of gossamer smoke, although there could be seen a toy battery with tiny men employed at the guns.  All over the field the shrapnel was bursting, making quick bulbs of white smoke.  Far away, two regiments of Spitzbergen infantry were charging, and at the distance this charge looked like a casual stroll.  It appeared that small black groups of men were walking meditatively toward the Rostina entrenchments.

There would have been orders given sooner to the Twelfth, but unfortunately Colonel Sponge arrived on top of the hill without a breath of wind in his body.  He could not have given an order to save the regiment from being wiped off the earth.  Finally he was able to gasp out something and point at the enemy.  Timothy Lean ran along the line yelling to the men to sight at 800 yards; and like a slow and ponderous machine the regiment again went to work.  The fire flanked a great part of the enemy’s trenches.

It could be said that there were only two prominent points of view expressed by the men after their victorious arrival on the crest.  One was defined in the exulting use of the corps’ cry.  The other was a grief-stricken murmur which is invariably heard after a fight ­“My God, we’re all cut to pieces!”

Colonel Sponge sat on the ground and impatiently waited for his wind to return.  As soon as it did, he arose and cried out, “Form up, and we’ll charge again!  We will win this battle as soon as we can hit them!” The shouts of the officers sounded wild, like men yelling on ship-board in a gale.  And the obedient Kickers arose for their task.  It was running down hill this time.  The mob of panting men poured over the stones.

But the enemy had not been blind to the great advantage gained by the Twelfth, and they now turned upon them a desperate fire of small arms.  Men fell in every imaginable way, and their accoutrements rattled on the rocky ground.  Some landed with a crash, floored by some tremendous blows; others dropped gently down like sacks of meal; with others, it would positively appear that some spirit had suddenly seized them by their ankles and jerked their legs from under them.  Many officers were down, but Colonel Sponge, stuttering and blowing, was still upright.  He was almost the last man in the charge, but not to his shame, rather to his stumpy legs.  At one time it seemed that the assault would be lost.  The effect of the fire was somewhat as if a terrible cyclone were blowing in the men’s faces.  They wavered, lowering their heads and shouldering weakly, as if it were impossible to make headway against the wind of battle.  It was the moment of despair, the moment of the heroism which comes to the chosen of the war-god.

The colonel’s cry broke and screeched absolute hatred; other officers simply howled; and the men, silent, debased, seemed to tighten their muscles for one last effort.  Again they pushed against this mysterious power of the air, and once more the regiment was charging.  Timothy Lean, agile and strong, was well in advance; and afterwards he reflected that the men who had been nearest to him were an old grizzled sergeant who would have gone to hell for the honour of the regiment, and a pie-faced lad who had been obliged to lie about his age in order to get into the army.

There was no shock of meeting.  The Twelfth came down on a corner of the trenches, and as soon as the enemy had ascertained that the Twelfth was certain to arrive, they scuttled out, running close to the earth and spending no time in glances backward.  In these days it is not discreet to wait for a charge to come home.  You observe the charge, you attempt to stop it, and if you find that you can’t, it is better to retire immediately to some other place.  The Rostina soldiers were not heroes, perhaps, but they were men of sense.  A maddened and badly-frightened mob of Kickers came tumbling into the trench, and shot at the backs of fleeing men.  And at that very moment the action was won, and won by the Kickers.  The enemy’s flank was entirely crippled, and, knowing this, he did not await further and more disastrous information.  The Twelfth looked at themselves and knew that they had a record.  They sat down and grinned patronisingly as they saw the batteries galloping to advance position to shell the retreat, and they really laughed as the cavalry swept tumultuously forward.

The Twelfth had no more concern with the battle.  They had won it, and the subsequent proceedings were only amusing.

There was a call from the flank, and the men wearily adjusted themselves as General Richie, stern and grim as a Roman, looked with his straight glance at a hammered and thin and dirty line of figures, which was His Majesty’s Twelfth Regiment of the Line.  When opposite old Colonel Sponge, a podgy figure standing at attention, the general’s face set in still more grim and stern lines.  He took off his helmet.  “Kim up, the Kickers!” said he.  He replaced his helmet and rode off.  Down the cheeks of the little fat colonel rolled tears.  He stood like a stone for a long moment, and wheeled in supreme wrath upon his surprised adjutant.  “Delahaye, you d ­d fool, don’t stand there staring like a monkey!  Go, tell young Lean I want to see him.”  The adjutant jumped as if he were on springs, and went after Lean.  That young officer presented himself directly, his face covered with disgraceful smudges, and he had also torn his breeches.  He had never seen the colonel in such a rage.  “Lean, you young whelp! you ­you’re a good boy.”  And even as the general had turned away from the colonel, the colonel turned away from the lieutenant.

The upturned face.

“What will we do now?” said the adjutant, troubled and excited.

“Bury him,” said Timothy Lean.

The two officers looked down close to their toes where lay the body of their comrade.  The face was chalk-blue; gleaming eyes stared at the sky.  Over the two upright figures was a windy sound of bullets, and on the top of the hill Lean’s prostrate company of Spitzbergen infantry was firing measured volleys.

“Don’t you think it would be better ­” began the adjutant, “we might leave him until to-morrow.”

“No,” said Lean.  “I can’t hold that post an hour longer.  I’ve got to fall back, and we’ve got to bury old Bill.”

“Of course,” said the adjutant, at once.  “Your men got intrenching tools?”

Lean shouted back to his little line, and two men came slowly, one with a pick, one with a shovel.  They started in the direction of the Rostina sharpshooters.  Bullets cracked near their ears.  “Dig here,” said Lean gruffly.  The men, thus caused to lower their glances to the turf, became hurried and frightened merely because they could not look to see whence the bullets came.  The dull beat of the pick striking the earth sounded amid the swift snap of close bullets.  Presently the other private began to shovel.

“I suppose,” said the adjutant, slowly, “we’d better search his clothes for ­things.”

Lean nodded.  Together in curious abstraction they looked at the body.  Then Lean stirred his shoulders suddenly, arousing himself.

“Yes,” he said, “we’d better see what he’s got.”  He dropped to his knees, and his hands approached the body of the dead officer.  But his hands wavered over the buttons of the tunic.  The first button was brick-red with drying blood, and he did not seem to dare touch it.

“Go on,” said the adjutant, hoarsely.

Lean stretched his wooden hand, and his fingers fumbled the blood-stained buttons.  At last he rose with ghastly face.  He had gathered a watch, a whistle, a pipe, a tobacco pouch, a handkerchief, a little case of cards and papers.  He looked at the adjutant.  There was a silence.  The adjutant was feeling that he had been a coward to make Lean do all the grizzly business.

“Well,” said Lean, “that’s all, I think.  You have his sword and revolver?”

“Yes,” said the adjutant, his face working, and then he burst out in a sudden strange fury at the two privates.  “Why don’t you hurry up with that grave?  What are you doing, anyhow?  Hurry, do you hear?  I never saw such stupid ­”

Even as he cried out in his passion the two men were labouring for their lives.  Ever overhead the bullets were spitting.

The grave was finished.  It was not a masterpiece ­a poor little shallow thing.  Lean and the adjutant again looked at each other in a curious silent communication.

Suddenly the adjutant croaked out a weird laugh.  It was a terrible laugh, which had its origin in that part of the mind which is first moved by the singing of the nerves.  “Well,” he said, humorously to Lean, “I suppose we had best tumble him in.”

“Yes,” said Lean.  The two privates stood waiting, bent over their implements.  “I suppose,” said Lean, “it would be better if we laid him in ourselves.”

“Yes,” said the adjutant.  Then apparently remembering that he had made Lean search the body, he stooped with great fortitude and took hold of the dead officer’s clothing.  Lean joined him.  Both were particular that their fingers should not feel the corpse.  They tugged away; the corpse lifted, heaved, toppled, flopped into the grave, and the two officers, straightening, looked again at each other ­they were always looking at each other.  They sighed with relief.

The adjutant said, “I suppose we should ­we should say something.  Do you know the service, Tim?”

“They don’t read the service until the grave is filled in,” said Lean, pressing his lips to an academic expression.

“Don’t they?” said the adjutant, shocked that he had made the mistake.

“Oh, well,” he cried, suddenly, “let us ­let us say something ­while he can hear us.”

“All right,” said Lean.  “Do you know the service?”

“I can’t remember a line of it,” said the adjutant.

Lean was extremely dubious.  “I can repeat two lines, but ­”

“Well, do it,” said the adjutant.  “Go as far as you can.  That’s better than nothing.  And the beasts have got our range exactly.”

Lean looked at his two men.  “Attention,” he barked.  The privates came to attention with a click, looking much aggrieved.  The adjutant lowered his helmet to his knee.  Lean, bareheaded, stood over the grave.  The Rostina sharpshooters fired briskly.

“Oh Father, our friend has sunk in the deep waters of death, but his spirit has leaped toward Thee as the bubble arises from the lips of the drowning.  Perceive, we beseech, Oh Father, the little flying bubble, and ­”

Lean, although husky and ashamed, had suffered no hesitation up to this point, but he stopped with a hopeless feeling and looked at the corpse.

The adjutant moved uneasily.  “And from Thy superb heights ­” he began, and then he too came to an end.

“And from Thy superb heights,” said Lean.

The adjutant suddenly remembered a phrase in the back part of the Spitzbergen burial service, and he exploited it with the triumphant manner of a man who has recalled everything, and can go on.

“Oh God, have mercy ­”

“Oh God, have mercy ­” said Lean.

“Mercy,” repeated the adjutant, in quick failure.

“Mercy,” said Lean.  And then he was moved by some violence of feeling, for he turned suddenly upon his two men and tigerishly said, “Throw the dirt in.”

The fire of the Rostina sharpshooters was accurate and continuous.

One of the aggrieved privates came forward with his shovel.  He lifted his first shovel-load of earth, and for a moment of inexplicable hesitation it was held poised above this corpse, which from its chalk-blue face looked keenly out from the grave.  Then the soldier emptied his shovel on ­on the feet.

Timothy Lean felt as if tons had been swiftly lifted from off his forehead.  He had felt that perhaps the private might empty the shovel on ­on the face.  It had been emptied on the feet.  There was a great point gained there ­ha, ha! ­the first shovelful had been emptied on the feet.  How satisfactory!

The adjutant began to babble.  “Well, of course ­a man we’ve messed with all these years ­impossible ­you can’t, you know, leave your intimate friends rotting on the field.  Go on, for God’s sake, and shovel, you.”

The man with the shovel suddenly ducked, grabbed his left arm with his right hand, and looked at his officer for orders.  Lean picked the shovel from the ground.  “Go to the rear,” he said to the wounded man.  He also addressed the other private.  “You get under cover, too; I’ll finish this business.”

The wounded man scrambled hard still for the top of the ridge without devoting any glances to the direction from whence the bullets came, and the other man followed at an equal pace; but he was different, in that he looked back anxiously three times.

This is merely the way ­often ­of the hit and unhit.

Timothy Lean filled the shovel, hesitated, and then in a movement which was like a gesture of abhorrence he flung the dirt into the grave, and as it landed it made a sound ­plop.  Lean suddenly stopped and mopped his brow ­a tired labourer.

“Perhaps we have been wrong,” said the adjutant.  His glance wavered stupidly.  “It might have been better if we hadn’t buried him just at this time.  Of course, if we advance to-morrow the body would have been ­”

“Damn you,” said Lean, “shut your mouth.”  He was not the senior officer.

He again filled the shovel and flung the earth.  Always the earth made that sound ­plop.  For a space Lean worked frantically, like a man digging himself out of danger.

Soon there was nothing to be seen but the chalk-blue face.  Lean filled the shovel.  “Good God,” he cried to the adjutant.  “Why didn’t you turn him somehow when you put him in?  This ­” Then Lean began to stutter.

The adjutant understood.  He was pale to the lips.  “Go on, man,” he cried, beseechingly, almost in a shout.  Lean swung back the shovel.  It went forward in a pendulum curve.  When the earth landed it made a sound ­plop.

The shrapnel of their friends.

From over the knolls came the tiny sound of a cavalry bugle singing out the recall, and later, detached parties of His Majesty’s 2nd Hussars came trotting back to where the Spitzbergen infantry sat complacently on the captured Rostina position.  The horsemen were well pleased, and they told how they had ridden thrice through the helterskelter of the fleeing enemy.  They had ultimately been checked by the great truth, and when a good enemy runs away in daylight he sooner or later finds a place where he fetches up with a jolt, and turns face the pursuit ­notably if it is a cavalry pursuit.  The Hussars had discreetly withdrawn, displaying no foolish pride of corps at that time.

There was a general admission that the Kicking Twelfth had taken the chief honours of the day, but the artillery added that if the guns had not shelled so accurately the Twelfth’s charge could not have been made so successfully, and the three other regiments of infantry, of course, did not conceal their feelings, that their attack on the enemy’s left had withdrawn many rifles that would have been pelting at the Twelfth.  The cavalry simply said that but for them the victory would not have been complete.

Corps’ prides met each other face to face at every step, but the Kickers smiled easily and indulgently.  A few recruits bragged, but they bragged because they were recruits.  The older men did not wish it to appear that they were surprised and rejoicing at the performance of the regiment.  If they were congratulated they simply smirked, suggesting that the ability of the Twelfth had been long known to them, and that the charge had been a little thing, you know, just turned off in the way of an afternoon’s work.

Major-General Richie encamped his troops on the position which they had from the enemy.  Old Colonel Sponge of the Twelfth redistributed his officers, and the losses had been so great that Timothy Lean got command of a company.  It was not much of a company.  Fifty-three smudged and sweating men faced their new commander.  The company had gone into action with a strength of eighty-six.  The heart of Timothy Lean beat high with pride.  He intended to be some day a general, and if he ever became a general, that moment of promotion was not equal in joy to the moment when he looked at his new possession of fifty-three vagabonds.  He scanned the faces, and recognised with satisfaction one old sergeant and two bright young corporals.  “Now,” said he to himself, “I have here a snug little body of men with which I can do something.”  In him burned the usual fierce fire to make them the best company in the regiment.  He had adopted them; they were his men.  “I will do what I can for you,” he said.  “Do you the same for me.”

The Twelfth bivouacked on the ridge.  Little fires were built, and there appeared among the men innumerable blackened tin cups, which were so treasured that a faint suspicion in connection with the loss of one could bring on the grimmest of fights.  Meantime certain of the privates silently readjusted their kits as their names were called out by the sergeants.  These were the men condemned to picket duty after a hard day of marching and fighting.  The dusk came slowly, and the colour of the countless fires, spotting the ridge and the plain, grew in the falling darkness.  Far-away pickets fired at something.

One by one the men’s heads were lowered to the earth until the ridge was marked by two long shadowy rows of men.  Here and there an officer sat musing in his dark cloak with a ray of a weakening fire gleaming on his sword-hilt.  From the plain there came at times the sound of battery horses moving restlessly at their tethers, and one could imagine he heard the throaty, grumbling curse of the drivers.  The moon died swiftly through flying light clouds.  Far-away pickets fired at something.

In the morning the infantry and guns breakfasted to the music of a racket between the cavalry and the enemy, which was taking place some miles up the valley.

The ambitious Hussars had apparently stirred some kind of a hornet’s nest, and they were having a good fight with no officious friends near enough to interfere.  The remainder of the army looked toward the fight musingly over the tops of tin cups.  In time the column crawled lazily forward to see.

The Twelfth, as it crawled, saw a regiment deploy to the right, and saw a battery dash to take position.  The cavalry jingled back grinning with pride and expecting to be greatly admired.  Presently the Twelfth was bidden to take seat by the roadside and await its turn.  Instantly the wise men ­and there were more than three ­came out of the east and announced that they had divined the whole plan.  The Kicking Twelfth was to be held in reserve until the critical moment of the fight, and then they were to be sent forward to win a victory.  In corroboration, they pointed to the fact that the general in command was sticking close to them, in order, they said, to give the word quickly at the proper moment.  And in truth, on a small hill to the right, Major-General Richie sat on his horse and used his glasses, while back of him his staff and the orderlies bestrode their champing, dancing mounts.

It is always good to look hard at a general, and the Kickers were transfixed with interest.  The wise men again came out of the east and told what was inside the Richie head, but even the wise men wondered what was inside the Richie head.

Suddenly an exciting thing happened.  To the left and ahead was a pounding Spitzbergen battery, and a toy suddenly appeared on the slope behind the guns.  The toy was a man with a flag ­the flag was white save for a square of red in the centre.  And this toy began to wig-wag wag-wig, and it spoke to General Richie under the authority of the captain of the battery.  It said:  “The 88th are being driven on my centre and right.”

Now, when the Kicking Twelfth had left Spitzbergen there was an average of six signalmen in each company.  A proportion of these signallers had been destroyed in the first engagement, but enough remained so that the Kicking Twelfth read, as a unit, the news of the 88th.  The word ran quickly.  “The 88th are being driven on my centre and right.”

Richie rode to where Colonel Sponge sat aloft on his big horse, and a moment later a cry ran along the column:  “Kim up, the Kickers.”  A large number of the men were already in the road, hitching and twisting at their belts and packs.  The Kickers moved forward.

They deployed and passed in a straggling line through the battery, and to the left and right of it.  The gunners called out to them carefully, telling them not to be afraid.

The scene before them was startling.  They were facing a country cut up by many steep-sided ravines, and over the resultant hills were retreating little squads of the 88th.  The Twelfth laughed in its exultation.  The men could now tell by the volume of fire that the 88th were retreating for reasons which were not sufficiently expressed in the noise of the Rostina shooting.  Held together by the bugle, the Kickers swarmed up the first hill and laid on the crest.  Parties of the 88th went through their lines, and the Twelfth told them coarsely its several opinions.  The sights were clicked up to 600 yards, and, with a crashing volley, the regiment entered its second battle.

A thousand yards away on the right the cavalry and a regiment of infantry were creeping onward.  Sponge decided not to be backward, and the bugle told the Twelfth to go ahead once more.  The Twelfth charged, followed by a rabble of rallied men of the 88th, who were crying aloud that it had been all a mistake.

A charge in these days is not a running match.  Those splendid pictures of levelled bayonets, dashing at headlong pace towards the closed ranks of the enemy are absurd as soon as they are mistaken for the actuality of the present.  In these days charges are likely to cover at least the half of a mile, and to go at the pace exhibited in the pictures a man would be obliged to have a little steam engine inside of him.

The charge of the Kicking Twelfth somewhat resembled the advance of a great crowd of beaters who, for some reason, passionately desired to start the game.  Men stumbled; men fell; men swore; there were cries:  “This way!” “Come this way!” “Don’t go that way!” “You can’t get up that way!” Over the rocks the Twelfth scrambled, red in the face, sweating and angry.  Soldiers fell because they were struck by bullets, and because they had not an ounce of strength left in them.  Colonel Sponge, with a face like a red cushion, was being dragged windless up the steeps by devoted and athletic men.  Three of the older captains lay afar back, and swearing with their eyes because their tongues were temporarily out of service.

And yet-and-yet, the speed of the charge was slow.  From the position of the battery, it looked as if the Kickers were taking a walk over some extremely difficult country.

The regiment ascended a superior height, and found trenches and dead men.  They took seat with the dead, satisfied with this company until they could get their wind.  For thirty minutes purple-faced stragglers rejoined from the rear.  Colonel Sponge looked behind him, and saw that Richie, with his staff, had approached by another route, and had evidently been near enough to see the full extent of the Kickers’ exertions.  Presently Richie began to pick a way for his horse towards the captured position.  He disappeared in a gully between two hills.

Now it came to pass that a Spitzbergen battery on the far right took occasion to mistake the identity of the Kicking Twelfth, and the captain of these guns, not having anything to occupy him in front, directed his six 3.2’s upon the ridge where the tired Kickers lay side by side with the Rostina dead.  A shrapnel came swinging over the Kickers, seething and fuming.  It burst directly over the trenches, and the shrapnel, of course, scattered forward, hurting nobody.  But a man screamed out to his officer:  “By God, sir, that is one of our own batteries!” The whole line quivered with fright.  Five more shells streaked overhead, and one flung its hail into the middle of the 3rd battalion’s line, and the Kicking Twelfth shuddered to the very centre of its heart, and arose, like one man, and fled.

Colonel Sponge, fighting, frothing at the month, dealing blows with his fist right and left, found himself confronting a fury on horseback.  Richie was as pale as death, and his eyes sent out sparks.  “What does this conduct mean?” he flashed out between his fastened teeth.

Sponge could only gurgle:  “The battery ­the battery ­the battery!”

“The battery?” cried Richie, in a voice which sounded like pistol shots.  “Are you afraid of the guns you almost took yesterday?  Go back there, you white-livered cowards!  You swine!  You dogs!  Curs!  Curs!  Curs!  Go back there!”

Most of the men halted and crouched under the lashing tongue of their maddened general.  But one man found desperate speech, and yelled:  “General, it is our own battery that is firing on us!”

Many say that the General’s face tightened until it looked like a mask.  The Kicking Twelfth retired to a comfortable place, where they were only under the fire of the Rostina artillery.  The men saw a staff officer riding over the obstructions in a manner calculated to break his neck directly.

The Kickers were aggrieved, but the heart of the colonel was cut in twain.  He even babbled to his major, talking like a man who is about to die of simple rage.  “Did you hear what he said to me?  Did you hear what he called us? Did you hear what he called us?

The majors searched their minds for words to heal a deep wound.

The Twelfth received orders to go into camp upon the hill where they had been insulted.  Old Sponge looked as if he were about to knock the aide out of the saddle, but he saluted, and took the regiment back to the temporary companionship of the Rostina dead.

Major-General Richie never apologised to Colonel Sponge.  When you are a commanding officer you do not adopt the custom of apologising for the wrong done to your subordinates.  You ride away; and they understand, and are confident of the restitution to honour.  Richie never opened his stern, young lips to Sponge in reference to the scene near the hill of the Rostina dead, but in time there was a general order N, which spoke definitely of the gallantry of His Majesty’s 12th regiment of the line and its colonel.  In the end Sponge was given a high decoration, because he had been badly used by Richie on that day.  Richie knew that it is hard for men to withstand the shrapnel of their friends.

A few days later the Kickers, marching in column on the road, came upon their friend the battery, halted in a field; and they addressed the battery, and the captain of the battery blanched to the tips of his ears.  But the men of the battery told the Kickers to go to the devil ­frankly, freely, placidly, told the Kickers to go to the devil.

And this story proves that it is sometimes better to be a private.

And if he Wills, we must die.”

A sergeant, a corporal, and fourteen men of the Twelfth Regiment of the Line had been sent out to occupy a house on the main highway.  They would be at least a half of a mile in advance of any other picket of their own people.  Sergeant Morton was deeply angry at being sent on this duty.  He said that he was over-worked.  There were at least two sergeants, he claimed furiously, whose turn it should have been to go on this arduous mission.  He was treated unfairly; he was abused by his superiors; why did any damned fool ever join the army?  As for him he would get out of it as soon as possible; he was sick of it; the life of a dog.  All this he said to the corporal, who listened attentively, giving grunts of respectful assent.  On the way to this post two privates took occasion to drop to the rear and pilfer in the orchard of a deserted plantation.  When the sergeant discovered this absence, he grew black with a rage which was an accumulation of all his irritations.  “Run, you!” he howled.  “Bring them here!  I’ll show them ­” A private ran swiftly to the rear.  The remainder of the squad began to shout nervously at the two delinquents, whose figures they could see in the deep shade of the orchard, hurriedly picking fruit from the ground and cramming it within their shirts, next to their skins.  The beseeching cries of their comrades stirred the criminals more than did the barking of the sergeant.  They ran to rejoin the squad, while holding their loaded bosoms and with their mouths open with aggrieved explanations.

Jones faced the sergeant with a horrible cancer marked in bumps on his left side.  The disease of Patterson showed quite around the front of his waist in many protubérances.  “A nice pair!” said the sergeant, with sudden frigidity.  “You’re the kind of soldiers a man wants to choose for a dangerous outpost duty, ain’t you?”

The two privates stood at attention, still looking much aggrieved.  “We only ­” began Jones huskily.

“Oh, you ‘only!’” cried the sergeant.  “Yes, you ‘only.’  I know all about that.  But if you think you are going to trifle with me ­”

A moment later the squad moved on towards its station.  Behind the sergeant’s back Jones and Patterson were slyly passing apples and pears to their friends while the sergeant expounded eloquently to the corporal “You see what kind of men are in the army now.  Why, when I joined the regiment it was a very different thing, I can tell you.  Then a sergeant had some authority, and if a man disobeyed orders, he had a very small chance of escaping something extremely serious.  But now!  Good God!  If I report these men, the captain will look over a lot of beastly orderly sheets and say ­’Haw, eh, well, Sergeant Morton, these men seem to have very good records; very good records, indeed.  I can’t be too hard on them; no, not too hard.’” Continued the sergeant:  “I tell you, Flagler, the army is no place for a decent man.”

Flagler, the corporal, answered with a sincerity of appreciation which with him had become a science.  “I think you are right, sergeant,” he answered.

Behind them the privates mumbled discreetly.  “Damn this sergeant of ours.  He thinks we are made of wood.  I don’t see any reason for all this strictness when we are on active service.  It isn’t like being at home in barracks!  There is no great harm in a couple of men dropping out to raid an orchard of the enemy when all the world knows that we haven’t had a decent meal in twenty days.”

The reddened face of Sergeant Morton suddenly showed to the rear.  “A little more marching and less talking,” he said.

When he came to the house he had been ordered to occupy the sergeant sniffed with disdain.  “These people must have lived like cattle,” he said angrily.  To be sure, the place was not alluring.  The ground floor had been used for the housing of cattle, and it was dark and terrible.  A flight of steps led to the lofty first floor, which was denuded but respectable.  The sergeant’s visage lightened when he saw the strong walls of stone and cement.  “Unless they turn guns on us, they will never get us out of here,” he said cheerfully to the squad.  The men, anxious to keep him in an amiable mood, all hurriedly grinned and seemed very appreciative and pleased.  “I’ll make this into a fortress,” he announced.  He sent Jones and Patterson, the two orchard thiefs, out on sentry-duty.  He worked the others, then, until he could think of no more things to tell them to do.  Afterwards he went forth, with a major-general’s serious scowl, and examined the ground in front of his position.  In returning he came upon a sentry, Jones, munching an apple.  He sternly commanded him to throw it away.

The men spread their blankets on the floors of the bare rooms, and putting their packs under their heads and lighting their pipes, they lived in easy peace.  Bees hummed in the garden, and a scent of flowers came through the open window.  A great fan-shaped bit of sunshine smote the face of one man, and he indolently cursed as he moved his primitive bed to a shadier place.

Another private explained to a comrade:  “This is all nonsense anyhow.  No sense in occupying this post.  They ­”

“But, of course,” said the corporal, “when she told me herself that she cared more for me than she did for him, I wasn’t going to stand any of his talk ­” The corporal’s listener was so sleepy that he could only grunt his sympathy.

There was a sudden little spatter of shooting.  A cry from Jones rang out.  With no intermediate scrambling, the sergeant leaped straight to his feet.  “Now,” he cried, “let us see what you are made of!  If,” he added bitterly, “you are made of anything!”

A man yelled:  “Good God, can’t you see you’re all tangled up in my cartridge belt?”

Another man yelled:  “Keep off my legs!  Can’t you walk on the floor?”

To the windows there was a blind rush of slumberous men, who brushed hair from their eyes even as they made ready their rifles.  Jones and Patterson came stumbling up the steps, crying dreadful information.  Already the enemy’s bullets were spitting and singing over the house.

The sergeant suddenly was stiff and cold with a sense of the importance of the thing.  “Wait until you see one,” he drawled loudly and calmly, “then shoot.”

For some moments the enemy’s bullets swung swifter than lightning over the house without anybody being able to discover a target.  In this interval a man was shot in the throat.  He gurgled, and then lay down on the floor.  The blood slowly waved down the brown skin of his neck while he looked meekly at his comrades.

There was a howl.  “There they are!  There they come!” The rifles crackled.  A light smoke drifted idly through the rooms.  There was a strong odour as if from burnt paper and the powder of fire-crackers.  The men were silent.  Through the windows and about the house the bullets of an entirely invisible enemy moaned, hummed, spat, burst, and sang.

The men began to curse.  “Why can’t we see them?” they muttered through their teeth.  The sergeant was still frigid.  He answered soothingly as if he were directly reprehensible for this behaviour of the enemy.  “Wait a moment.  You will soon be able to see them.  There!  Give it to them.”  A little skirt of black figures had appeared in a field.  It was really like shooting at an upright needle from the full length of a ball-room.  But the men’s spirits improved as soon as the enemy ­this mysterious enemy ­became a tangible thing, and far off.  They had believed the foe to be shooting at them from the adjacent garden.

“Now,” said the sergeant ambitiously, “we can beat them off easily if you men are good enough.”

A man called out in a tone of quick, great interest.  “See that fellow on horseback, Bill?  Isn’t he on horseback?  I thought he was on horseback.”

There was a fusilade against another side of the house.  The sergeant dashed into the room which commanded that situation.  He found a dead soldier on the floor.  He rushed out howling:  “When was Knowles killed?  When was Knowles killed?  Damn it, when was Knowles killed?” It was absolutely essential to find out the exact moment this man died.  A blackened private turned upon his sergeant and demanded:  “How in hell do I know?” Sergeant Morton had a sense of anger so brief that in the next second he cried:  “Patterson!” He had even forgotten his vital interest in the time of Knowles’ death.

“Yes?” said Patterson, his face set with some deep-rooted quality of determination.  Still, he was a mere farm boy.

“Go in to Knowles’ window and shoot at those people,” said the sergeant hoarsely.  Afterwards he coughed.  Some of the fumes of the fight had made way to his lungs.

Patterson looked at the door into this other room.  He looked at it as if he suspected it was to be his death-chamber.  Then he entered and stood across the body of Knowles and fired vigorously into a group of plum trees.

“They can’t take this house,” declared the sergeant in a contemptuous and argumentative tone.  He was apparently replying to somebody.  The man who had been shot in the throat looked up at him.  Eight men were firing from the windows.  The sergeant detected in a corner three wounded men talking together feebly.  “Don’t you think there is anything to do?” he bawled.  “Go and get Knowles’ cartridges and give them to somebody who can use them!  Take Simpson’s too.”  The man who had been shot in the throat looked at him.  Of the three wounded men who had been talking, one said:  “My leg is all doubled up under me, sergeant.”  He spoke apologetically.

Meantime the sergeant was re-loading his rifle.  His foot slipped in the blood of the man who had been shot in the throat, and the military boot made a greasy red streak on the floor.

“Why, we can hold this place,” shouted the sergeant jubilantly.  “Who says we can’t?”

Corporal Flagler suddenly spun away from his window and fell in a heap.

“Sergeant,” murmured a man as he dropped to a seat on the floor out of danger, “I can’t stand this.  I swear I can’t.  I think we should run away.”

Morton, with the kindly eyes of a good shepherd, looked at the man.  “You are afraid, Johnston, you are afraid,” he said softly.  The man struggled to his feet, cast upon the sergeant a gaze full of admiration, reproach, and despair, and returned to his post.  A moment later he pitched forward, and thereafter his body hung out of the window, his arms straight and the fists clenched.  Incidentally this corpse was pierced afterwards by chance three times by bullets of the enemy.

The sergeant laid his rifle against the stone-work of the window-frame and shot with care until his magazine was empty.  Behind him a man, simply grazed on the elbow, was wildly sobbing like a girl.  “Damn it, shut up,” said Morton, without turning his head.  Before him was a vista of a garden, fields, clumps of trees, woods, populated at the time with little fleeting figures.

He grew furious.  “Why didn’t he send me orders?” he cried aloud.  The emphasis on the word “he” was impressive.  A mile back on the road a galloper of the Hussars lay dead beside his dead horse.

The man who had been grazed on the elbow still set up his bleat.  Morton’s fury veered to this soldier.  “Can’t you shut up?  Can’t you shut up?  Can’t you shut up?  Fight!  That’s the thing to do.  Fight!”

A bullet struck Morton, and he fell upon the man who had been shot in the throat.  There was a sickening moment.  Then the sergeant rolled off to a position upon the blood floor.  He turned himself with a last effort until he could look at the wounded who were able to look at him.

“Kim up, the Kickers,” he said thickly.  His arms weakened and he dropped on his face.

After an interval a young subaltern of the enemy’s infantry, followed by his eager men, burst into this reeking interior.  But just over the threshold he halted before the scene of blood and death.  He turned with a shrug to his sergeant.  “God, I should have estimated them at least one hundred strong.”