As president of the court, the senior officer handed a sealed envelope to the prisoner. Not a word was spoken on either side. The sergeant’s command rang out, and the noise of metalled heels upon the floor was startlingly loud.
Still without a word, carrying the unread sentence in his hand, Durwent was marched back to the hut. Again the women cast curious glances, and a little urchin in a cocked-hat stood at the salute as they passed.
When he was alone once more, Dick broke the seal of the envelope, and without his face altering, except that the shadows grew darker beneath his eyes, he read the finding of the court.
He was to be shot.
He read it twice. With a long, quivering intake of the breath, he tore the thing slowly into a dozen pieces and threw them into a corner.
Walking to the end of the hut, he leaned against the ledge of a little window, and looked out towards the horizon where the great blue of the sky stooped to earth. There was the laughter of soldiers, and from an adjoining meadow came the neighing of a restive horse. The sunlight deepened, and from a hundred branches birds were trilling welcome to the promise of another summer.
Two hours passed. The warmth of early afternoon was giving way to the cool mood of twilight—but the solitary figure had not moved.
Nine days had passed when a motor-lorry drew up on the road, and the same sergeant ordered Dick Durwent to take his place outside the hut with his escort. The prisoner asked as to his destination, and was told that the sentence, having been confirmed, was to be promulgated before his unit.
They had been travelling for half-an-hour when they reached a field in which Durwent saw two companies of his battalion drawn up in the form of a hollow square. Faint with shame, staggering under the hideous cruelty of the whole thing, he was marched into the centre and ordered to take a pace forward, while the commanding officer read the sentence of court-martial to the men: that Private Sherwood, being found guilty of drunkenness while on guard—it being further proved that he had obtained unlawful possession of the liquor—was to be shot at dawn, and that the sentence would be carried out the following morning.
Although his senses reeled with the shock and ignominy of it all, the prisoner’s bearing showed no sign of it. With his head erect, he looked into the faces of the men whom he had lived and slept and fought beside; men with whom he had shared privation and danger; men who had been his comrades through it all. But as he searched their faces he felt an overpowering loneliness. In the eyes of every one there was horror; To be killed in battle—what was that? But to be shot like a cur in the grizzly morning! Yet their horror, their anger, was against the military law, and was born of a fear that the same thing might come to them. It was that which cut him to the quick. It was not that he was to be shot the next day, but that they might meet a similar fate. That was the fear which drove the blood from their cheeks and left their lips parted in awe.