Each man who took his instructions and pocketed his message and walked up the cellar steps knew that he might never walk down them again, that he might not take a dozen paces from them before the bullet found him. He knew that its finding might come in black dark and in the middle of an open field, that it might drop him there and leave him for the stretcher-bearers to find some time, or for the burying party to lift any time. Each man who carried out a message was aware that he might never deliver it, that when some other hand did so, and the message was being read, he might be past all messages, lying stark and cold in the mud and filth with the rain beating on his gray unheeding face; or, on the other hand, that he might be lying warm and comfortable in the soothing ease of a bed in the hospital train, swaying gently and lulled by the song of the flying wheels, the rock and roll of the long compartment, swinging at top speed down the line to the base and the hospital ship and home. An infinity of possibilities lay between the two extremes. They were undoubtedly the two extremes: the death that each man hoped to evade, the wound whose painful prospect held no slightest terror but only rather the deep satisfaction of a task performed, of an escape from death at the cheap price of a few days’ or weeks’ pain, or even a crippled limb or a broken body.
A man forgot all these things when he came down the cellar steps and crept to a corner to snatch what sleep he could, but remembered them again only when he was wakened and sent out into their midst, and into all the toils and terrors the others had passed, or were to go into or even then were meeting.
The signalers at the instruments, the sergeants who gathered them in and sent them forth, gave little or no thought to the orderlies. These men were hardly more than shadows, things which brought them long screeds to be translated to the tapping keys, hands which would stretch into the candle-light and lift the messages that had just “buzzed” in over their wires. The sergeant thought of them mostly as a list of names to be ticked off one by one in a careful roster as each man did his turn of duty, went out, or came back and reported in. And the man who sent messages these men bore may never have given a thought to the hands that would carry them, unless perhaps to wonder vaguely whether the message could get through from so and so to such and such, from this map square to that, and if the chance of the messages getting through—the message you will note, not the messenger—seemed extra doubtful, orders might be given to send it in duplicate or triplicate, to double or treble the chances of its arriving.
The night wore on, the orderlies slept and woke, stumbled in and out; the telephonists droned out in monotonous voices to the telephone, or “buzzed” even more monotonous strings of longs and shorts on the “buzzer.” And in the open about them, and all unheeded by them, men fought, and suffered wounds and died, or fought on in the scarce lesser suffering of cold and wet and hunger.