There sleeps in Shrewsbury
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad if things went right
Than most that sleep outside.
If things went right.... Do not, I pray you, think that in saying this I am holding the candle to that deadly doctrine of determinism, or that, like the tragic novelist, I see man only as a pitiful animal caught in the trap of blind circumstance. If I believed that I should say “Better dead.” But what I do say is that we are so variously composed that circumstance does play a powerful part in giving rein to this or that element in us and making the scale go down for good or bad, and that often the best of us only miss the wrong turning by a hair’s breadth. Dirt, it is said, is only matter in the wrong place. Put it in the right place, and it ceases to be dirt. Give that man with twenty-seven convictions against him a chance of revealing the better metal that is in him, and, lo! he is hailed as a hero and decorated with the V.C.
“Well, have you heard the news?”
It was the landlord of the Blue Boar who spoke. He stopped me in the village street—if you can call a straggling lane with a score of thatched cottages and half a dozen barns a street—evidently bursting with great tidings. He is an old soldier himself, and his views on the war are held in great esteem. I hadn’t heard the news, but, whatever it was, I could see from the landlord’s immense smile that there was nothing to fear.
“Jim has got a commission,” said the landlord, and he said it in a tone that left no doubt that now things would begin to move. For Jim is his son, a sergeant-major in the artillery, who has been out at the front ever since Mons.
The news has created quite a sensation. But we are getting so used to sensations now that we are becoming blase. There has never been such a year of wonders in the memory of any one living. The other day thousands of soldiers from the great camp ten miles away descended on our “terrain”—I think that’s the word—and had a tremendous two-days’ battle in the hills about us. They broke through the hedges, and slept in the cornfields, and ravished the apple-trees in my orchard, and raided the cottagers for tea, and tramped to and fro in our street and gave us the time of our lives.
“I never seed such a sight in my life,” said old Benjamin to me in the evening. “Man and boy, I’ve lived in that there bungalow for eighty-five year come Michaelmas, and I never seed the like o’ this before.... Yes, eighty-five year come Michaelmas. And my father had that there land on a peppercorn rent, and the way he lost it was like this—”
Happily at this moment there was a sudden alarum among the soldiers, and I was able to dodge the familiar rehearsal of old Benjamin’s grievance.