Everton felt a glow of pride as he looked at them. These men were his friends, his fellows, his comrades: they were of the Hotwater Guards—his regiment, and his battalion. He had heard often enough that the Guards Brigades were the finest brigades in the Army, that this particular brigade was the best of all the Guards, that his battalion was the best of the Brigade. Hitherto he had rather deprecated these remarks as savoring of pride and self-conceit, but now he began to believe that they must be true; and so believing, if he had but known it, he had taken another long step on the way to becoming the perfect soldier, who firmly believes his regiment the finest in the world and is ready to die in proof of the belief.
“Dusty Miller,” the next file on his left, who was eating bread and cheese, spoke to him.
“Why don’t you eat some grab, Toffee?” he mumbled cheerfully, with his mouth full. “In a game like this you never know when you’ll get the next chance of a bite.”
“Don’t feel particularly hungry,” answered Toffee with an attempt to appear as off-handed and casual and at ease as his questioner. “So I think I’d better save my ration until I’m hungry.”
Dusty Miller sliced off a wedge of bread with the knife edge against his thumb, popped it in his mouth, and followed it with a corner of cheese.
“A-ah!” he said profoundly, and still munching; “there’s no sense in saving rations when you’re going into action. I’d a chum once that always did that; said he got more satisfaction out of a meal when the job was over and he was real hungry, and had a chance to eat in comfort—more or less comfort. And one day we was for it he saved a tin o’ sardines and a big chunk of cake and a bottle of pickled onions that had just come to him from home the day before; said he was looking forward to a good feed that night after the show was over. And—and he was killed that day!”
Dusty Miller halted there with the inborn artistry that left his climax to speak for itself.
“Hard luck!” said Toffee sympathetically. “So his feed was wasted!”
“Not to say wasted exactly,” said Dusty, resuming bread and cheese. “Because I remembers to this day how good them onions was. Still it was wasted, far as he was concerned—and he was particular fond o’ pickled onions.”
But even the prospect of wasting his rations did nothing to induce Toffee to eat a meal. The man on Toffee’s right was crouched back on the firing-step apparently asleep or near it. Dusty Miller had turned and opened a low-toned conversation with the next man, the frequent repetition of “I says” and “she says” affording some clew to the thread of his story and inclining Toffee to believe it not meant for him to hear. He felt he must speak to some one, and it was with relief that he saw Halliday, the man on his other side, rouse himself and look up. Something about Toffee’s face caught his attention.