At the Front by Henry Seton Merriman

     "Some one who is not girlish now"

It was only yesterday that I saw her. It happened that the string of carriages was stopped at that moment, and I went to the door of her comfortable-looking barouche.

"Do you ever feel that shoulder," I asked, raising my hat, "at the changes of the weather, or when it is damp?"

She turned and looked at me in surprise. Her face had altered little. It was the face of a happy woman, despite a few lines, which were not the marks left by a life of gaiety and dissipation. They were not quite the lines that Time had drawn on the faces of the women in the carriages around her. In some ways she looked younger than most of them, and her eyes had an expression which was lacking in the gas-wearied orbs of her fashionable sisters. It was the shadowy reflection of things seen.

She looked into my face—noting the wear and tear that life had left there. Then suddenly she smiled and held out her hand.

"You!" she said. "You—how strange!"

She blushed suddenly and laughed with a pretty air of embarrassment which was startlingly youthful.

"No," she went on, in answer to my question; "I never feel that shoulder now—thanks to you."

There were a number of questions I wanted to ask her. But I had fallen into a habit, years ago, of restraining that inexpedient desire; and she did not seem to expect interrogation. Besides, I could see many answers in her face.

"You limped just now," she said, leaning towards me with a little grave air of sympathy which was quite familiar to me—like an old friend forgotten until seen again. "You limped as you crossed the road."

"I shall limp until the end of the chapter."

"And you have been at that work ever since?"

"Yes."

She looked past me over the trees of the Park—as if looking back into a bygone period of her life.

"Will you come and dine to-morrow night?" she said suddenly. "Fred will be... very pleased to see you. And—I want to show you the children."

The line of carriages moved on slowly towards the Park gate, and left me baring a grizzled old bullet-head in answer to her smile and nod.

As I limped along it all came back to me. A good many years before—in the days when hard work was the salt of life—I was entrusted with my first field hospital. I was sent up to the front by the cleverest surgeon and the poorest organizer that ever served the Queen.

Ah, that WAS a field hospital! My first! We were within earshot of the front—that is to say, we could hear the platoon firing. And when the wounded came in we thought only of patching them up temporarily—sewing, bandaging, and plastering them into travelling order, and sending them down to the headquarters at the coast. It was a weary journey across the desert, and I am afraid a few were buried on the way.

Early one morning, I remember, they brought in Boulson, and I saw at once that he had come to stay. We could not patch him up and send him off. The jolting of the ambulance waggon had done its work, and Boulson was insensible when they laid him on one of the field-cots. He remained insensible while I got his things off. The wound told its own story. He had been at the hand-to-hand work again, and a bayonet never meets a broad-headed spear without trouble coming of it. Boulson meant to get on—consequently I had had him before. I had cut his shirt off him before this, and knew that it was marked "F.L.G.M.," which does not stand for Boulson.

Boulson's name was not Boulson; but that was not our business at the time. We who patch up Thomas Atkins when he gets hurt in the interests of his Queen and country are never surprised to find that the initials on his underlinen do not tally with those in the regimental books. When the military millennium arrives, and ambulance services are perfect, we shall report things more fully. Something after this style—"Killed: William Jones. Coronet on his razor-case. Linen marked A. de M.F.G."

While I was busy with a sponge, Boulson opened his eyes and recognized me.

"Soon got YOU back again," I remarked, with ghastly professional cheeriness.

He smiled feebly. "Must get into the despatches somehow," he answered, and promptly fainted again.

I took especial care of Boulson, being mindful of a letter I had received while he was recovering from his last wound. It was a long and rambling letter, dated from a place on the west coast of Ireland. It was signed with a name which surprised me, and the writer, who addressed me as "Sir," and mentioned that he was my humble servant, stated that he was Boulson's father. At least he said he thought he was Boulson's father—if Boulson was tall and fair, with blue eyes, and a pepper-castor mark on his right arm, where a charge of dust-shot had lodged from a horse-pistol. There had, he informed me, been family misunderstandings about a foolish fancy formed by Boulson for a military career. And Boulson had gone off—God bless him—like the high-spirited Irishman that he was—to enlist as a private soldier. And then came the news of the serious wound, and if there was a God in heaven (which I never doubted), any kindness and care that I could bestow upon Boulson would not be forgotten at the last reckoning. And more to a like effect.

Moreover, Boulson pulled through and was duly sent down to the fine, roomy convalescent hospital on the coast, where they have ice, and newspapers, and female nurses fresh from Netley.

This second wound was, however, a more serious affair. While others came and went, Boulson seemed inclined to stay for ever. At all events he stayed for ten days, and made no progress worth mentioning.

At the end of that time I was sitting at my table writing perversions of God's truth to the old gentleman on the west coast of Ireland when I heard the rumble of ambulance waggons. I thought that it was only a returned empty—there having been an informal funeral that evening—so hardly disturbed myself.

Presently, however, some one came and stood in front of my table outside the tent. I looked up, and looked into the face of one of the few women I have met who make me believe in love stories.

"Halloa!" I said, somewhat rudely.

"I beg to report myself," she answered quietly. There was a peculiar unsteadiness in her eyes. It seemed to me that this woman was labouring under great excitement.

"Did the Surgeon-Major send you?" I asked.

"I volunteered."

"Hum! I think I ought to have been asked first. This is no place for women."

"Wherever there is nursing to be done, we can hardly be out of place," she answered, with a determination which puzzled me.

"Theoretically," I answered; and, seeing that she had arrived, I made a shift to find her suitable quarters and get her to work.

"Have you any serious cases?" she asked, while unpacking and setting out for my inspection sundry stores she had brought.

"I have Boulson again," I answered. "The man you had in the spring."

She buried her head in the case, and did not answer for some seconds.

When at length she did speak, her voice was indifferent and careless.

"Badly hurt?" she asked.

"Yes."

She finished unpacking her stores rather hurriedly, and expressed her readiness to go round the cots with me.

"Are you not too tired after your journey?"

"No, I—I should like to begin at once. Please let me."

I took her round, and altogether I was pleased with her.

In a day or two I almost became resigned to her presence, though I hate having women anywhere near the action. It is always better to get the nasty cases cleaned up before the women see them.

Then suddenly came bad news. There was something wrong at the front. Our fellows were falling back upon us. A final stand was to be made at our position until reinforcements came up.

I sent for Nurse Fielding, and told her to get ready to leave for headquarters at once. I was extremely business-like and formal. She was neither. That is the worst of women.

"Please let me stay," she said. "Please."

I shook my head.

"I would rather stay and be killed than go away and be safe."

That aroused my suspicions. Perhaps they ought to have been aroused before; but, then, I am only a man. I saw how the Surgeon-Major had been managed.

"Please," she repeated softly.

She laid her hand on my arm, and did not withdraw it when she found that the sleeve was wet with something that was thicker than water.

"Please," she whispered.

"Oh, all right—stay!"

I was sorry for it the next day, when we had the old familiar music of the bullets overhead.

Later in the morning matters became more serious. The enemy had a gun with which they dropped six-pound shot into us. One of these fell on to the corner of our hospital where Boulson lay. It tore the canvas, and almost closed Boulson's career.

Nurse Fielding was at him like a terrier, and lifted him bodily from his cot. She was one of those largely framed fair women who have strength, both physical and mental.

She was carrying him across the tent when I heard the thud of a bullet. Nurse Fielding stopped for a moment and seemed to hesitate. She laid Boulson tenderly down on the ground, and then fell across him, while the blood ran from her cotton bodice over his face and neck.

And that was what I meant when I asked the lady in the barouche at the Park gate whether she ever felt that shoulder now. And the man I dine with to-night is not called Boulson, but he has a charge of dust-shot—the result of a boyish experiment—in his right arm.