Read CHAPTER XIII - THE CONVERT of Mud and Khaki Sketches from Flanders and France , free online book, by Vernon Bartlett, on

John North, of the Non-Combatant Corps, leaned over the counter and smiled lovingly up into the shop girl’s face. By an apparent accident, his hand slid across between the apple basket and the tins of biscuits, and came into gentle contact with hers. Knowing no French, his conversation was strictly limited, and he had to make amends for this by talking with his hand by gently stroking her palm with his earth-stained thumb.

Mademoiselle Therese smiled shyly at him and her hand remained on the counter.

Private John North, thus encouraged, grew still bolder. He clasped her fingers in his fist, and was just wondering if he dared kiss them, when a gruff voice behind him caused him to stiffen, and to pretend he wanted nothing but a penny bar of chocolate.

“Now then, come orf it,” said the newcomer, a private with the trench mud still caked on his clothes. “She’s my young laidy, ain’t yer, Therese?”

Therese smiled rather vaguely, for she knew no more Cockney than John North knew French.

“You clear out of ‘ere,” continued the linesman. “I don’t want none o’ you objector blokes ’anging around this shop, and if you come ’ere again I won’t arf biff you one.”

Unfortunately, it is the nature of woman to enjoy the sight of two men quarrelling for her favours, and Therese, guessing what was happening, was so unwise as to smile sweet encouragement at John North.

Even a Conscientious Objector loses his conscience when there is a woman in the case. John North turned up his sleeves as though he had been a boxer all his life, and proceeded to trounce his opponent with such vigour that the biscuit tins were hurled to the ground and the contents of a box of chocolates were scattered all over the floor.

As far as we are concerned, Mademoiselle Therese passes out of existence from this moment, but the little incident in her shop was not without consequences. In the first place, the Military Police cast the two miscreants into the same guard room, where, from bitter rivals, they became the best of friends. In the second place, John North, having once drawn blood, was no longer content with his former life, and wanted to draw more.

In the end he joined the Westfords, and fired his first shot over the parapet under direct tuition from his new friend. It matters little that his first shot flew several yards above the German parapet; the intention was good, and it is always possible that the bullet may have stung into activity some corpulent Hun whose duty called on him to lead pack horses about behind the firing line.

For weeks Holy John, as his company called him, passed out of my life. There were many other things to think of bombs and grenades, attacks and counter-attacks, “barrages” and trench mortars, and all the other things about which we love to discourse learnedly when we come home on leave. John North was, for the time, completely forgotten.

But one day when the Great Push was in full swing, I met him again. From his former point of view he had sadly degenerated; from ours he had become a useful fellow with a useful conscience that told him England wanted him to “do in” as many Huns as he could.

I was supervising some work on a trench that had been German, but was now ours the red stains on the white chalk told of the fight for it when a voice I knew sounded from farther up the trench.

“If you don’t bloomin’ well march better, I won’t arf biff you one, I won’t,” I heard, as the head of a strange little procession came round the traverse. At the rear of six burly but downcast Germans, came Private John North, late Conscientious Objector, driving his prisoners along with resounding oaths and the blood-chilling manoeuvres of a bayonet that he brandished in his left hand.

“They’ll all mine, sir, the beauties,” he said as he passed me. “Got ’em all meself, and paid me little finger for ’em, too,” and he held up a bandaged right arm for my inspection.

And, far down the trench, I heard him encouraging his prisoners with threats that would delight a pirate or a Chinaman.

How he, single-handed, captured six of the enemy I do not know, but he was the first man to reach the German wire, they tell me, and he brought in two wounded men from No Man’s Land.

Personally, then, it hardly seems to me that six Germans are enough to pay for the little finger of Holy John, erstwhile Conscientious Objector.