Dick had been on guard in the front line for an hour, when he received word that a patrol was going out. A moment later they passed him, an officer and two men, and he saw them quietly climb over the parapet which had been hastily improvised when the battalion took over the position. They had been gone only a couple of minutes when pistol-shots rang out, and the flares thrown up revealed a shadowy fight between two patrols that had met in the dark. The firing stopped, and Durwent’s eyes, staring into the blackness, saw two men crouching low and dragging something after them. He challenged, to find that it was the patrol returning, and that the one they were bringing back was the officer, killed.
The trench was so narrow that they could not carry him back, and they left the body lying on the parapet until a stretcher could be fetched.
Dulled as he had become to terrible sights, the horror of that silent, grotesque figure began to freeze Dick Durwent’s blood. A few minutes before it had been a thing of life. It had loved and hated and laughed; its veins had coursed with the warm blood of youth; and there it sprawled, a ghastly jumble of arms and legs—motionless, silent, dead. He tried to keep his eyes turned away, but it haunted him. When he stared straight ahead into the dark it beckoned to him—he could see the fingers twitching! And not till he crept near could he be satisfied that, after all, it had not moved.
‘Sherwood!’ He heard a quivering voice to his right. It was the nearest sentry, an eighteen-year-old boy, who had called him by the name given him by Austin Selwyn, the name under which he had enlisted.
‘What’s the matter?’ called Durwent.
Without his rifle, the little chap stumbled towards him, and, dark as it was, Dick could see that his face was livid and his eyes were wide with terror.
‘Sherwood,’ whimpered the boy, ’I can’t stand it—I’ve lost my nerve. . . . That thing there—there. . . . It moves. It’s dead, and it moves. . . . Look, it’s grinning at me now! I’m going back. I can’t stay here—I can’t.’
‘Steady, steady,’ said Durwent, gripping the boy by the shoulder and shaking him roughly. ’Pull yourself together. Don’t be a kid. You’ve seen far worse than this and never turned a hair.’
‘I can’t help it,’ whined the boy. ’There’s dead men walking out there all over. Can’t you see them? They whisper in the dark—I can hear them all the time. I’m going back.’
‘You can’t, you little idiot. They’ll shoot you.’
‘I don’t care. Let them shoot.’
’Where’s your rifle? Get back to your post. If you’re caught like this, there’ll be a firing-party at daybreak for you.’
‘I don’t care,’ cried the lad hysterically. ’They can’t keep me here. I’m going’——
’Here’—— Throwing the young fellow against the parapet and holding him there by leaning heavily against him, Durwent felt for his water-bottle and withdrew the stopper. ‘Drink this,’ he said, forcing the mouth of the flask between the boy’s lips. ’Take a shot of rum. It will put the guts back into you.’