They gave Jimmie Higgins a couple of days to lie about in the grounds of the hospital, and make the acquaintance and hear the experiences of men who had lost arms and legs in battle, or had been burned by flame-throwers, or ruined for life by poison-gases. Strange as it might seem, Jimmie found among these men not a few with whom he could talk, whose point of view was close to his own. These Britishers had been through the mill; they knew. None of the glory stuff for them! Leave that for the newspaper scribblers, the bloody rascals who stayed at home and beat on tomtoms, driving other men to march in and die. You went and got yourself battered up, ruined for life—and then what would they do for you? It was a hard world to a man who was crippled and helpless. Yes, said Jimmie; the same hard world that it was to a Socialist, a dreamer of justice.
But there was the old dilemma, from which he had never been able to find escape, whether in Leesville, U.S.A., or on the high seas, or here in old England. What were you going to do about the Huns? To hold out your hand to them was like putting it into a tiger’s cage. No, by God, you had to fight them, you had to lick them, cost what it might! And the speaker would go on and tell of things he had seen: a Prussian officer who had shot a British surgeon in the back, after this surgeon had bound up his wounds; a commandant of a prison-camp who had withdrawn all medical aid in a typhus epidemic, and allowed his charges to perish like rats.
So, hell though it was, you had to go through with it; if you were a man, you had to set your teeth and grip your hands and take your share of the horror, whatever it might be. And Jimmie, being something of a little man in his way, would set his teeth and grip his hands and take in imagination, the share of the particular human wreck who happened to be talking to him. So Jimmie Higgins was battered back and forth, like a tennis-ball, between the two forces of Militarism and Revolution.
Just now was another crisis—the Huns had begun a furious drive in Flanders, the third battle of Ypres, and the British were falling back, not in rout, but in retreat which might become rout at any hour. The bulletins came in several times a day, and people in the streets would stop and read them, their faces full of fear. When the wind was right you could hear the guns across the Channel; Jimmie would lie at night and listen to the dull, incessant thunder—a terrific, man-made storm, in which showers of steel were raining down upon the heads of soldiers hiding in shell-holes and hastily-dug trenches. The war seemed very near indeed when the wind was right!
Still, a fellow has to live. Jimmie was in a foreign land for the first time in his life, and when they turned him loose, he and a couple of other American chaps went wandering about the streets, staring at the sights of this town, which had been a small harbour before the war, but now was a vast centre of the world’s commerce, one of the routes by which large sections of Britain were moved across the Channel every day.