On the Firing Line

Contents:
Author: Anna Chapin Ray

Chapter Seventeen

Christmas morning found the camp at Lindley wakening to a general atmosphere of peace and good will to man. Scarcely fifty miles away at Tweefontein, De Wet’s midnight charge had left behind it sixty men sleeping their last grim sleep in defiance of the peace ordained for the Christmas dawn. And, midway between the camp of the living and the line of the dead, there lay the little town of Bethlehem.

After the frosty night, the day came, hot and clear, with the sun beating down from a cloudless sky and the mirage dancing upon the distant horizon. To the men from the north, it was a bit of a shock to exchange Christmas greetings, while the thermometer went sliding up to the mark of one hundred degrees. Nevertheless, they hailed one another lustily, and threw themselves into the spirit of the holiday feast with the zest of schoolboys.

For full three months now, the greater number of the troopers had been dodging up and down over the surface of the Orange River Colony on the heels of the tireless De Wet. After accomplishing forty futile miles a day, after subsisting chiefly upon army biscuits and bully beef, they had earned their right to rest. This, at least, was the opinion of their adjutant.

All the day before, there had been flying rumors of a forced march on the following morning; but no orders had been given, and just at nightfall had come the definite announcement that no move would be made until after Christmas. Those who had seen their adjutant going away from the colonel’s tent, half an hour before, were able to draw their own conclusions. The rest accepted the fact as it stood, and made no effort to account for the change in their plans. It was enough for them that two thousand sheep were to be roasted, to the end that every man might eat his fill; and they took an eager hand, next morning, in scooping out the ant-hill and kindling the fires inside. Then, seated on the ground, they spun their yarns while they waited until the white-hot earth on top of the hill gave notice that the oven was ready for the roast.

Carew, meanwhile, was unpacking the neat little parcel which had come to him with Christmas greeting from the Daughters of the Empire. Lined up for inspection before breakfast, every trooper had received an exactly similar parcel; every one had given expression to his thankful heart; then every one had gone away to inspect the offering.

"This is kind of the ladies, very kind," Carew was observing, with a perfectly grave face, as he drew out a handkerchief of spotty red cotton and a khaki-colored nightcap. "Look, Weldon! These fit my complexion to a charm, and will be wonderfully warm and comfortable. What is in your grab bag?"

"Ditto, apparently," Weldon answered. "I think I shall keep these to sport about at home in."

Carew shook his head.

"Oh, no. The kind ladies wish us to use them now, and you should accept the gift according to the spirit in which it is given." Taking off his wide felt hat, he replaced it with the wool nightcap, covered the nightcap with the handkerchief and then put on the hat over all the rest. "And what have we here?" he continued. "A pipe? Oh, the naughty ladies! Cigarettes?" He smelled at them gingerly, then sneezed into a corner of the scarlet kerchief. "Matches, shoelaces, and, by George, a cake of soap! Now, if we only had a farmer’s almanac and a flannel chest-protector, we’d be quite complete."

Weldon laughed. Then he beckoned to a little trooper standing beside the nearest ant-hill.

"Paddy," he said gravely; "these toys are excellent toys. If anything should happen to me, I’ll will them to you."

Paddy thrust his hand into his pocket, drew out his own nightcap and dangled it by its khaki-colored tip.

"And look at it!" he said slowly. "The spirit is willing and full of peace; but what would I be doing with that thing, I who never had a hat on my head till I was ten years old, let alone a cap?"

"Wrap your feet in it, then," Carew suggested. "It’s large enough for them both. Paddy, who eats at your ant-hill?"

The little Irishman winked knowingly.

"Them as invites theirselves, first off. If it’s you and Mr. Weldon, so much the better for Paddy. The rum ration is doubled, the day; knowing the habits of you both, I’m thinking I see my way to getting six times gloriously drunk. There’s beer by the hogshead, too. It’ll be a mighty Christmas dinner, the first in years I’ve eaten without cooking."

"You generally eat it raw?" Carew questioned blandly.

"Praised be Patrick, no; but it’s Paddy who has done the cooking. This year, I am free from my pots and kettles, and can eat with the best of them. Little Canuck dear, don’t ever enlist as a cook. Nothing spoils the stomach of you like the smell of the warming broth."

"You like the change, then, Paddy?" Weldon asked, as he thriftily packed up his parcel and stowed it away in his pocket, with an eye to the gratitude of Kruger Bobs.

"Like, is it? I rejoice greatly and shout, as the Book bids us. It’s a man’s work I’m doing now; it’s with men that I am doing that work, and it’s a man who leads me on to do that work, meaning Captain Frazer."

"Where is the Captain now?"

Paddy dropped down on the ground, midway between his friends and his ant-hill.

"Over yonder, doing the work of an honest man and a warrior."

"That goes without saying. What now?"

But Paddy chose to speak in metaphors.

"He’s thrown down his sword and picked up his bottle," he responded enigmatically.

"Not drinking?" Weldon asked incredulously.

"No, little one; not doing, but doing by. He’s administering advice and physic to them cormyrants of Queenslanders. The Colonials are a hard race to manage and a greedy." Paddy spoke with an accent of extreme disfavor.

"What have the poor Queenslanders done?"

"Poor it is; not poor in spirit, but poor in judgment. They’ve converted the top course of their dinner into the bottom course of their breakfast, and now they’re suffering according. Next time, when their kyind officers order them up, each a little Crosse and Blackwell plum pudding, they’ll know enough to eat them up hot on a full stomach, not bolt them down cold on top of a lone layer of dogbread. Man is permitted to make such errors but once in his life, without having Providence get after him and slay him. Little Canuck?" "Paddy?"

"The top of the ant-hill is white with heat, and the lambie must enter the roasting tomb. Will you and Mr. Carew eat with me?"

"We’ve no intention of eating anywhere else, Paddy. We know your cooking of old."

"It’s an honor you’ll be doing me, then. And, moreover—" Paddy hesitated, with the words sticking to his lips.

"What now?"

"Think you the Captain—I mean the Adjutant; but he’ll always be the Captain to me—would he take it amiss, think you, little one, if I sent him a bit of the joint, for the sake of old times? He’ll like be eating truffled ostrich and locust sauce at the mess; but Paddy’d like to have a hand in his Christmas dinner. It’s all I can do for him, and he’s done much for me."

"Try him and see, Paddy," Weldon advised. "If I know Captain Frazer, he’ll have nothing to-day that will please him more."

With feasting and story-telling and the inevitable letters to wife and sweetheart, the sunshiny day lost itself in twilight and the twilight in the chill of night. Along the line of the blockhouses for miles away, lights began to twinkle out from the narrow loopholes. Throughout the camp, answering lights twinkled back at them till the night was spotted thick with dots of yellow, winking up at the yellow stars above. And around the camp and the blockhouses lay the dark, measureless veldt, and the veldt was very still.

Stillness was not in the camp, however. Even the gluttonous Queenslanders had recovered from their woes of the morning; and, from end to end of the great enclosure, there was a spirit of merrymaking born of the feast day, the dinner and the unwonted allowance of rum. In the groups scattered about the camp fires, tongues wagged freely of home, of boyhood, of adventures in past years. War talk was tabooed that night. According to his custom, Tommy ignored the present and ranged at large over the remote past and yet remoter future.

Carew, with the easy adaptability which marked him, was the central figure of one of the groups where he acted as a species of toastmaster, to direct the trend of the stories and lead the singing. Weldon sat slightly apart, watching the firelit group before him, while his mind trailed lazily to and fro, from home, with its holly wreaths in the windows, to Cape Town where the flower-boxes edging a wide veranda would be a mass of geranium blossoms now, and where, in the shady western end, would sit a tall girl with hair the color of the yellow flame. Strangely enough, to his honest, straightforward mind it never occurred to doubt that she was thinking of him, sending a Christmas wish in his direction. More than once she had given proof of her liking for him, her interest in his concerns. Her blue eyes had met his eyes steadily, kindly. Weldon had certain old-fashioned notions of womanhood which not all of his social life had been able to beat out of him. Far back in his boyhood, his mother, still a social leader at home, had told him it was unmanly to flirt. A good and loyal woman would have no share in flirtation; women of the other sort could have no share in his life. Weldon was no Galahad. He had danced and dined with many women, had given sympathy to some, chaff to others; nevertheless, his relations with them had been curiously direct and simple. Quite unconsciously to himself, his mother’s code had become ingrained in the very fibre of his being. And now he was ready to stand or fall by his judgment that Ethel Dent, Cooee as he called her in his secret heart, was as good and loyal as a woman could be. The future seemed to him so obvious that he made no effort to forecast it. He was content to wait.

"Christmas is nearly over, Weldon."

He roused himself abruptly, as Captain Frazer dropped down at his side.

"Yes; but the revel will outlast the day," he answered, laughing. "Tommy is in his glory now, and it will take more than taps to make him subside."

"Perhaps. He has rioted most joyously. Christmas has been no empty mockery to him." Weldon’s quick ear detected a ring of melancholy in the Captain’s voice.

"Has it to you?"

The Captain sat silent for a moment, his eyes fixed on the winking fires.

"Not really. Of course, we all have been a bit homesick, and I can see no shame in confessing it. Besides, after one gets out of his windsor-tie stage of life, these especial holidays seem to mark time so. One thinks back to this time, last year; and one has to wonder a bit where he will be, a year from now. A good deal can happen in a year."

"For better, or for worse," Weldon added.

The words caught the Captain’s ear.

"Yes, for better or for worse," he repeated; "in sickness and in health. A year is a long time. Tell me, have you heard lately from Miss Dent?"

Long afterwards, the question came back to Weldon, with the obvious association of ideas. Now he answered, with perfect unconcern,—

"Not for three or four weeks."

"I have heard since you, then. She wrote, last week, and sent greeting to you and Mr. Carew."

"Thank you. Give mine back to her; that is, if you are writing."

"I shall write, to-night," the Captain said briefly.

"Then please send her my wishes for Christmas and New Year’s both. You might also remind her to write to me. She writes wonderfully good letters." Turning his eyes from the fire, the Captain watched him steadily for a moment. Unconscious of his companion’s gaze, Weldon was staring out across the camp, his lips framed to a noiseless whistling, his face full of dreamy content. The Captain studied the happy, resolute young face, drew a deep breath and then turned to the fire once more.

"Yes," he assented. "But you would know that, from hearing her talk."

Suddenly, Weldon’s lips straightened, and he faced the Captain directly.

"I like Miss Dent," he said frankly. "Of course, you know that. But, moreover, I have always felt I owed her a debt of gratitude for introducing me to you. I know one doesn’t usually say such things, Captain Frazer," he laughed, in sudden boyish embarrassment; "but it is a little different on Christmas night, you know. Next year, we may be miles apart, and so, if you don’t mind, I’d like to say that you have been wonderfully good to me, this year, and that I appreciate it."

Captain Frazer took the outstretched hand, slim, but hard now, and a bit stubby about the nails.

"Thank you, Weldon," he answered. "This may be our only Christmas together, and I am glad you told me."

The silence about them was broken by the voices of the soldiers singing around the camp fires and by the bagpipes playing somewhere across the distance. Then, after a little, they fell to talking of other things, with the natural antipathy of healthy men to any recurrence of a momentary outburst of sentiment.

Around them, the fires flared and flamed across the darkness; beyond them, the veldt stretched away, sinister, mysterious; and from above the stars twinkled down upon them, smiling a Christmas blessing alike on those who were doomed to glory and those who were doomed to death. For an instant, the sudden pause in the singing and laughter seemed typical of the short, sudden pause in their active lives. Then, as the Captain rose, the singing broke out once more, Carew’s voice leading.

"Good-night, Weldon. I must go back to my quarters."

"And to your letters?"

"Yes, to my letters. And may next Christmas be good to us both!"

Weldon rose and saluted, then stood looking after his companion as he walked away, head and shoulders erect and his lips smiling slightly, as if in anticipation of the task before him. And, meanwhile, from the fire near by came the lusty chorus,—

"A little brown cot, a shady green spot,
No happier home I find.
My heart’s fairly gone, for I love only one,
She’s the gi-irl I le-eft behind."

The voices, rollicking even in their sentimentality, dropped away into silence; the fire flared up and then suddenly died away into darkness. But, even in the darkness, Weldon could see the dim outline of the Captain’s figure, moving steadily forward along his self-appointed way.

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Chicago: Anna Chapin Ray, "Chapter Seventeen," On the Firing Line, ed. White, John S. (John Stuart), 1847-1922 and trans. Boswell, Robert Bruce in On the Firing Line (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917), Original Sources, accessed April 19, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D2I3PIFAYWBV7T6.

MLA: Ray, Anna Chapin. "Chapter Seventeen." On the Firing Line, edited by White, John S. (John Stuart), 1847-1922, and translated by Boswell, Robert Bruce, in On the Firing Line, Vol. 22, New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917, Original Sources. 19 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D2I3PIFAYWBV7T6.

Harvard: Ray, AC, 'Chapter Seventeen' in On the Firing Line, ed. and trans. . cited in 1908, 1917, On the Firing Line, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 19 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D2I3PIFAYWBV7T6.