Once more he retired to the valise, for we were making now for a vill—for a heap of bricks near the river; you may guess the river. It was about this time that I made a little rhyme for him:
There was a young puppy called Howard,
Who at fighting was rather a coward;
He never quite ran
When the battle began,
But he started at once to bow-wow hard.
A good poet is supposed to be superior to the exigencies of rhyme, but I am afraid that in any case Common’s reputation had to be sacrificed to them. To be lyrical over anybody called Howard Common without hinting that he—well, try for yourself. Anyhow it was a lie, as so much good poetry is.
There came a time when valises were left behind and life for a fortnight had to be sustained on a pack. One seems to want very many things, but there was no hesitation about Common’s right to a place. So he came to see his first German dug-out, and to get a proper understanding of this dead bleached land and the great work which awaited him there. It was to blow away shells and bullets when they came too near the master in whose pocket he sat.
In this he was successful; but I think that the feat in which he takes most pride was performed one very early summer morning. A telephone line had to be laid, and, for reasons obvious to Common, rather rapidly. It was laid safely—a mere nothing to him by this time. But when it was joined up to the telephone in the front line, then he realized that he was called upon to be not only a personal mascot, but a mascot to the battalion, and he sat himself upon the telephone and called down a blessing on that cable, so that it remained whole for two days and a night when by all the rules it should have been in a thousand pieces. “And even if I didn’t really do it all myself,” he said, “anyhow I did make some of the men in the trench smile a little that morning, and there wasn’t so very much smiling going on just then, you know.”
After that morning he lived in my pocket, sometimes sniffing at an empty pipe, sometimes trying to read letters from Mistress which joined him every day. We had gone North to a more gentlemanly part of the line, and his duties took but little of his time, so that anything novel, like a pair of pliers or an order from the Director of Army Signals, was always welcome. To begin with he took up rather more than his fair share of the pocket, but he rapidly thinned down. Alas! in the rigours of the campaign he also lost his voice; and his little black collar, his only kit, disappeared.
Then, just when we seemed settled for the winter, we were ordered South again. Common knew what that meant, a busy time for him. We moved down slowly, and he sampled billet after billet, but we arrived at last and sat down to wait for the day.
And then he began to get nervous. Always he was present when the operations were discussed; he had seen all the maps; he knew exactly what was expected of us. And he didn’t like it.