“It’s no good,” said the Captain, “leaving them all the afternoon to chew it over. They’d only be talking themselves into a state that is first cousin to insubordination.”
“I wish,” said the other Captain, “they had asked us to go across and take another slice of the German trench. The men would do it a lot quicker and surer, and a lot more willing, than they’d dig a new one.”
“The men,” said the Colonel tartly, “are not going to be asked what they’d like any more than I’ve been. I want you each to go down quietly and have a look over at the new ground, tell the company commanders what the job is, and have a talk with me after as to what you think is the best way of setting about it.”
That afternoon Lieutenant Riley and Lieutenant Brock took turns in peering through a periscope at the line of the new trench, and discussed the problem presented.
“It’s all very fine,” grumbled Riley, “for the O.C. to say the men must dig because he says so. You can take a horse to the water where you can’t make it drink, and by the same token you can put a spade in a man’s hand where you can’t make him dig, or if he does dig he’ll only do it as slow and gingerly as if it were his own grave and he was to be buried in it as soon as it was ready.”
“Don’t talk about burying,” retorted Brock. “It isn’t a pleasant subject with so many candidates for a funeral scattered around the front door.”
He sniffed the air, and made an exclamation of disgust:
“They haven’t even been chloride-of-limed,” he said. “A lot of lazy, untidy brutes that battalion must have been we have just relieved.”
Riley stared again into the periscope: “It’s German the most of them are, anyway,” he said, “that’s one consolation, although it’s small comfort to a sense of smell. I say, have a look at that man lying over there, out to the left of the listening-post. His head is towards us, and his hair is white as driven snow. They must be getting hard up for men to be using up the grandfathers of that age.”
Brock examined the white head carefully. “He’s a pretty old stager,” he said, “unless he’s a young ’un whose hair has turned white in a night like they do in novels; or, maybe he’s a General.”
“A General!” said Riley, and stopped abruptly. “Man, now, wait a minute. A General!” he continued musingly, and then suddenly burst into chuckles, and nudged Brock in the ribs. “I have a great notion,” he said, “gr-r-reat notion, Brockie. What’ll you bet I don’t get the men coming to us before night with a petition to be allowed to do some digging?”
Brock stared at him. “You’re out of your senses,” he said. “I’d as soon expect them to come with a petition to be allowed to sign the pledge.”
“Well, now listen,” said Riley, “and we’ll try it, anyway.”
He explained swiftly, while over Brock’s face a gentle smile beamed and widened into subdued chucklings.