One Man's Initiation-1917 - lightnovelgate.com
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Brancardiers were asleep in the two tiers of bunks that filled up the sides, and at the table at the end a lieutenant of the medical corps was writing by the light of a smoky lamp.
"They are landing some round here to-night," he said, pointing out two unoccupied bunks. "I'll call you when we need a car."
As he spoke, in succession the three big guns went off. The concussion put the lamp out.
"d.a.m.n," said Tom Randolph.
The lieutenant swore and struck a match.
"The red light of the poste de secours is out, too," said Martin.
"No use lighting it again with those unholy mortars.... It's idiotic to put a poste de secours in the middle of a battery like this."
The Americans lay down to try to sleep. Sh.e.l.l after sh.e.l.l exploded round the dugout, but regularly every few minutes came the hammer blows of the mortars, half the time putting the light out.
A sh.e.l.l explosion seemed to split the dugout and a piece of eclat whizzed through the blanket that curtained off the door. Someone tried to pick it up as it lay half-buried in the board floor, and pulled his fingers away quickly, blowing on them. The men turned over in the bunks and laughed, and a smile came over the drawn green face of a wounded man who sat very quiet behind the lieutenant, staring at the smoky flame of the lamp.
The curtain was pulled aside and a man staggered in holding with the other hand a limp arm twisted in a mud-covered sleeve, from which blood and mud dripped on to the floor.
"h.e.l.lo, old chap," said the doctor quietly. A smell of disinfectant stole through the dugout.
Faint above the incessant throbbing of explosions, the sound of a claxon horn.
"Ha, gas," said the doctor. "Put on your masks, children." A man went along the dugout waking those who were asleep and giving out fresh masks. Someone stood in the doorway blowing a shrill whistle, then there was again the clamour of a claxon near at hand.
The band of the gas mask was tight about Martin's forehead, biting into the skin.
He and Randolph sat side by side on the edge of the bunk, looking out through the crinkled isingla.s.s eyepieces at the men in the dugout, most of whom had gone to sleep again.
"G.o.d, I envy a man who can snore through a gas-mask," said Randolph.
Men's heads had a ghoulish look, strange large eyes and grey oilcloth flaps instead of faces.
Outside the constant explosions had given place to a series of swishing whistles, merging together into a sound as of water falling, only less regular, more sibilant. Occasionally there was the rending burst of a sh.e.l.l, and at intervals came the swinging detonations of the three guns.
In the dugout, except for two men who snored loudly, raspingly, everyone was quiet.
Several stretchers with wounded men on them were brought in and laid in the end of the dugout.
Gradually, as the bombardment continued, men began sliding into the dugout, crowding together, touching each other for company, speaking in low voices through their masks.
"A mask, in the name of G.o.d, a mask!" a voice shouted, breaking into a squeal, and an unshaven man, with mud caked in his hair and beard, burst through the curtain. His eyelids kept up a continual trembling and the water streamed down both sides of his nose.
"O G.o.d," he kept talking in a rasping whisper, "O G.o.d, they're all killed. There were six mules on my waggon and a sh.e.l.l killed them all and threw me into the ditch. You can't find the road any more. They're all killed."
An orderly was wiping his face as if it were a child's.
"They're all killed and I lost my mask.... O G.o.d, this gas ..."
The doctor, a short man, looking like a gnome in his mask with its wheezing rubber nosepiece, was walking up and down with short, slow steps.
Suddenly, as three soldiers came in, drawing the curtain aside, he shouted in a shrill, high-pitched voice:
"Keep the curtain closed! Do you want to asphyxiate us?"
He strode up to the newcomers, his voice strident like an angry woman's.
"What are you doing here? This is the poste de secours. Are you wounded?"
"But, my lieutenant, we can't stay outside ..."
"Where's your own cantonment? You can't stay here; you can't stay here,"
"But, my lieutenant, our dugout's been hit."
"You can't stay here. You can't stay here. There's not enough room for the wounded. Name of G.o.d!"
"But, my lieutenant ..."
"Get the h.e.l.l out of here, d'you hear?"
The men began stumbling out into the darkness, tightening the adjustments of their masks behind their heads.
The guns had stopped firing. There was nothing but the constant swishing and whistling of gas-sh.e.l.ls, like endless pails of dirty water being thrown on gravel.
"We've been at it three hours," whispered Martin to Tom Randolph.
"G.o.d, suppose these masks need changing."
The sweat from Martin's face steamed in the eyepieces, blinding him.
"Any more masks?" he asked.
A brancardier handed him one. "There aren't any more in the abri."
"I have some more in the car," said Martin.
"I'll get one," cried Randolph, getting to his feet.
They started out of the door together. In the light that streamed out as they drew the flap aside they saw a tree opposite them. A sh.e.l.l exploded, it seemed, right on top of them; the tree rose and bowed towards them and fell.
"Are you all there, Tom?" whispered Martin, his ears ringing.
"Bet your life."
Someone pulled them back into the abri. "Here; we've found another."
Martin lay down on the bunk again, drawing with difficulty each breath.
His lips had a wet, decomposed feeling.