[Not the world's greatest short story, perhaps, but it will suffice until the greatest comes along.]
"A Source of Irritation" by Stacy Aumonier (1918)
[The Strand Magazine, February 1918]
To look at old Sam Gates you would never suspect him of having nerves. His sixty-nine years of close application to the needs of the soil had given him a certain earthy stolidity. To observe him hoeing, or thinning out a broad field of turnips, hardly attracted one's attention. He seemed so much part and parcel of the whole scheme. He blended into the soil like a glorified swede. Nevertheless, the half-dozen people who claimed his acquaintance knew him to be a man who suffered from little moods of irritability.
And on this glorious morning a little incident annoyed him unreasonably. It concerned his niece Aggie. She was a plump girl with clear blue eyes and a face as round and inexpressive as the dumplings for which the county was famous. She came slowly across the long sweep of the downland and putting down the bundle wrapped up in a red handkerchief which contained his breakfast and dinner, she said:
"Well, Uncle, is there any noos?"
Now this may not appear to the casual reader to be a remark likely to cause irritation, but it affected old Sam Gates as a very silly and unnecessary question. It was, moreover, the constant repetition of it which was beginning to anger him. He met his niece twice a day. In the morning she brought his bundle of food at seven, and when he passed his sister's cottage on the way home to tea at five she was invariably hanging about the gate. And on each occasion she always said, in exactly the same voice:
"Well, Uncle, is there any noos?"
"Noos!" What "noos" should there be? For sixty-nine years he had never lived further than five miles from Halvesham. For nearly sixty of those years he had bent his back above the soil. There were indeed historic occasions: once, for instance, when he had married Annie Hachet. And there was the birth of his daughter. There was also a famous occasion when he had visited London. Once he had been to a flower show at Market Roughborough. He either went or didn't go to church on Sundays. He had had many interesting chats with Mr. James at "The Cowman," and three years ago had sold a pig to Mrs. Waig. But he couldn't always have interesting "noos" of this sort up his sleeve. Didn't the silly gaffir know that for the last three weeks he had been thinning out turnips for Mr. Dodge on this very same field? What "noos" could there be?
He blinked at his niece, and didn't answer. She undid the parcel, and said:
"Mrs. Goping's fowl got out again last night."
He replied, "Ah!" in a non-committal manner, and began to munch his bread and bacon. His niece picked up the handkerchief, and humming to herself, walked back across the field. It was a glorious morning, and a white sea-mist added to the promise of a hot day. He sat there munching, thinking of nothing in particular, but gradually subsiding into a mood of placid content. He noticed the back of Aggie disappear in the distance. It was a mile to the cottage, and a mile and a half to Halvesham. Silly things, girls! They were all alike. One had to make allowances. He dismissed her from his thoughts and took a long swig of tea out of a bottle. Insects buzzed lazily. He tapped his pocket to assure himself that his pouch of shag was there, and then he continued munching. When he had finished, he lighted his pipe and stretched himself comfortably. He looked along the line of turnips he had thinned, and then across the adjoining field of swedes. Silver streaks appeared on the sea below the mist. In some dim way he felt happy in his solitude amidst this sweeping immensity of earth and sea and sky.
And then something else came to irritate him. It was one of "these dratted airyplanes." "Airyplanes" were his pet aversion. He could find nothing to be said in their favour. Nasty, noisy, vile-smelling things that seared the heavens, and make the earth dangerous. And every day there seemed to be more and more of them. Of course "this old war" was responsible for a lot of them, he knew. The war was "a plaguey noosance." They were short-handed on the farm. Beer and tobacco were dear, and Mrs. Stevens' nephew had been and got wounded in the foot.
He turned his attention once more to the turnips. But an "airyplane" has an annoying genius for gripping one's attention. When it appears on the scene, however much we dislike it it has a way of taking stage-centre; we cannot help constantly looking at it. And so it was with old Sam Gates. He spat on his hands, and blinked up at the sky. And suddenly the aeroplane behaved in a very extraordinary manner. It was well over the sea when it seemed to lurch in a drunken manner, and skimmed the water. Then it shot up at a dangerous angle and zigzagged. It started to go farther out, and then turned and made for the land. The engines were making a curious grating noise. It rose once more, and then suddenly dived downwards and came plump down right in the middle of Mr. Dodge's field of swedes!
Finally, as if not content with this desecration, it ran along the ground, ripping and tearing up twenty-five yards of good swedes, and then came to a stop. Old Sam Gates was in a terrible state. The aeroplane was more than a hundred yards away, but he waved his arms, and called out:
"Hi! you there, you mustn't land in they swedes! They're Mister Dodge's."
The instant the aeroplane stopped a man leapt out, and gazed quickly round. He glanced at Sam Gates, and seemed uncertain whether to address him or whether to concentrate his attention on the flying-machine. The latter arrangement appeared to be his ultimate decision. He dived under the engine, and became frantically busy. Sam had never seen anyone work with such furious energy. But all the same, it was not to be tolerated. It was disgraceful. Sam started out across the field, almost hurrying in his indignation. When he approached within earshot of the aviator, he cried out again:
"Hi! you mustn't rest your old airyplane here. You've kicked up all Mr. Dodge's swedes. A nice thing you've done!"
He was within five yards when suddenly the aviator turned and covered him with a revolver! And, speaking in a sharp, staccato voice, he said:
"Old Grandfather, you must sit down. I am very occupied. If you interfere or attempt to go away, I shoot you. So!"
Sam gazed at the horrid glittering little barrel, and gasped. Well he never! To be threatened with murder when you're doing your duty in your employer's private property! But, still, perhaps the man was mad. A man must be more or less mad to go up in one of those crazy things. And life was very sweet on that summer morning, in spite of sixty-nine years. He sat down among the swedes.
The aviator was so busy with his cranks and machinery that he hardly deigned to pay him any attention, except to keep the revolver handy. He worked feverishly, and Sam sat watching him. At the end of ten minutes he seemed to have solved his troubles with the machine, but he still seemed very scared. He kept on glancing round and out to sea. When his repairs were completed, he straightened his back and wiped the perspiration from his brow. He was apparently on the point of springing back into the machine and going off, when a sudden mood of facetiousness, caused by relief from the strain he had endured, came to him. He turned to old Sam, and smiled; at the same time remarking:
"Well, old grandfather, and now we shall be all right, isn't it?"
He came close up to Sam, and then suddenly started back.
"Gott!" he cried. "Paul Jouperts!"
Sam gazed at him, bewildered, and the madman started talking to him in some foreign tongue. Sam shook his head.
"You no right," he remarked, "to come bargin' through they swedes of Mr. Dodge's."
And then the aviator behaved in a most peculiar manner. He came up and examined his face very closely, and gave a gentle tug at his beard and hair, as if to see whether it were real or false.
"What is your name, old man?" he said.
The aviator muttered some words that sounded something like "mare vudish!" and then turned to his machine. He appeared to be dazed and in a great state of doubt. He fumbled with some cranks, but kept glancing at old Sam. At last he got into the car and started the engine. Then he stopped, and sat there deep in thought. At last he suddenly sprang out again, and, approaching Sam, he said very deliberately:
"Old grandfather, I shall require you to accompany me."
"Eh?" he said. "What be talkin' about? 'company? I got these here lines o' tarnips—I be already behoind——"
The disgusting little revolver once more flashed before his eyes.
"There must be no discussion," came the voice. "It is necessary that you mount the seat of the car without delay. Otherwise I shoot you like the dog you are. So!"
Old Sam was hale and hearty. He had no desire to die so ignominiously. The pleasant smell of the downland was in his nostrils. His foot was on his native heath. He mounted the seat of the car, contenting himself with a mutter:
"Well, that be a noice thing, I must say! Flyin' about the country with all they tarnips on'y half thinned——"
He found himself strapped in. The aviator was in a fever of anxiety to get away. The engines made a ghastly splutter and noise. The thing started running along the ground. Suddenly it shot upwards, giving the swedes a last contemptuous kick. At twenty minutes to eight that morning old Sam found himself being borne right up above his fields and out to sea! His breath came quickly. He was a little frightened.
"God forgive me!" he murmured.
The thing was so fantastic and sudden, his mind could not grasp it. He only felt in some vague way that he was going to die, and he struggled to attune his mind to the change. He offered up a mild prayer to God, Who, he felt, must be very near, somewhere up in these clouds. Automatically he thought of the vicar at Halvesham, and a certain sense of comfort came to him at the reflection that on the previous day he had taken a "cooking of runner beans" to God's representative in that village. He felt calmer after that, but the horrid machine seemed to go higher and higher. He could not turn in his seat and he could see nothing but sea and sky. Of course the man was mad, mad as a March hare. Of what earthly use could he be to anyone? Besides, he had talked pure gibberish, and called him Paul Something, when he had already told him that his name was Sam. The thing would fall down into the sea soon, and they would both be drowned. Well, well! He had reached the three-score years and ten.
He was protected by a screen, but it seemed very cold. What on earth would Mr. Dodge say? There was no one left to work the land but a fool of a boy named Billy Whitehead at Deric's Cross. On, on, on they went at a furious pace. His thoughts danced disconnectedly from incidents of his youth, conversations with the vicar, hearty meals in the open, a frock his sister wore on the day of the postman's wedding, the drone of a psalm, the illness of some ewes belonging to Mr. Dodge. Everything seemed to be moving very rapidly, upsetting his sense of time. He felt outraged and yet at moments there was something entrancing in the wild experience. He seemed to be living at an incredible pace. Perhaps he was really dead, and on his way to the Kingdom of God? Perhaps this was the way they took people?
After some indefinite period he suddenly caught sight of a long strip of land. Was this a foreign country? or were they returning? He had by this time lost all feeling of fear. He became interested, and almost disappointed. The "airyplane" was not such a fool as it looked. It was very wonderful to be right up in the sky like this. His dreams were suddenly disturbed by a fearful noise. He thought the machine was blown to pieces. It dived and ducked through the air, and things were bursting all round it and making an awful din; and then it went up higher and higher. After a while these noises ceased, and he felt the machine gliding downwards. They were really right above solid land, trees, and fields, and streams, and white villages. Down, down, down they glided. This was a foreign country. There were straight avenues of poplars and canals. This was not Halvesham. He felt the thing glide gently and bump into a field. Some men ran forward and approached them, and the mad aviator called out to them. They were mostly fat men in grey uniforms, and they all spoke this foreign gibberish. Someone came and unstrapped him. He was very stiff, and could hardly move. An exceptionally gross-looking man punched him in the ribs, and roared with laughter. They all stood round and laughed at him, while the mad aviator talked to them and kept pointing at him. Then he said:
"Old grandfather, you must come with me."
He was led to a zinc-roofed building, and shut in a little room. There were guards outside with fixed bayonets. After a while the mad aviator appeared again, accompanied by two soldiers. He beckoned him to follow. They marched through a quadrangle and entered another building. They went straight into an office where a very important-looking man, covered with medals, sat in an easy chair. There was a lot of saluting and clicking of heels.
The aviator pointed at Sam and said something, and the man with the medals started at sight of him, and then came up and spoke to him in English.
"What is your name? Where do you come from? Your age? The name and birthplace of your parents?"
He seemed intensely interested, and also pulled his hair and beard to see if they came off. So well and naturally did he and the aviator speak English that after a voluble cross-examination they drew apart, and continued the conversation in that language. And the extraordinary conversation was of this nature:
"It is a most remarkable resemblance," said the man with medals. "Unglaublich! But what do you want me to do with him, Hausemann?"
"The idea came to me suddenly, excellency," replied the aviator, "and you may consider it worthless. It is just this. The resemblance is so amazing. Paul Jouperts has given us more valuable information than anyone at present in our service. And the English know that. There is an award of twenty-five thousand francs on his head. Twice they have captured him, and each time he escaped. All the company commanders and their staff have his photograph. He is a serious thorn in their flesh."
"Well?" replied the man with the medals.
The aviator whispered confidently:
"Suppose, your excellency, that they found the dead body of Paul Jouperts?"
"Well?" replied the big man.
"My suggestion is this. To-morrow, as you know, the English are attacking Hill 701, which we have for tactical reasons decided to evacuate. If after the attack they find the dead body of Paul Jouperts in, say, the second lines, they will take no further trouble in the matter. You know their lack of thoroughness. Pardon me, I was two years at Oxford University. And consequently Paul Jouperts will be able to—prosecute his labours undisturbed."
The man with the medals twirled his moustache and looked thoughtfully at his colleague.
"Where is Paul at the moment?" he asked.
"He is acting as a gardener at the Convent of St. Eloise at Mailleton-en-haut, which, as you know, is one hundred metres from the headquarters of the British central army staff."
The man with the medals took two or three rapid turns up and down the room. Then he said:
"Your plan is excellent, Hausemann. The only point of difficulty is that the attack started this morning."
"This morning?" exclaimed the other.
"Yes. The English attacked unexpectedly at dawn. We have already evacuated the first line. We shall evacuate the second line at eleven-fifty. It is now ten-fifteen. There may be just time."
He looked suddenly at old Sam in the way that a butcher might look at a prize heifer at an agricultural show, and remarked casually:
"Yes, it is a remarkable resemblance. It seems a pity not to . . . do something with it."
Then, speaking in German, he added:
"It is worth trying, and if it succeeds, the higher authorities shall hear of your lucky accident and inspiration, Herr Hausemann. Instruct Oberleutnant Schutz to send the old fool by two orderlies to the east extremity of trench 38. Keep him there till the order of evacuation is given. Then shoot him, but don't disfigure him, and lay him out face upwards."
The aviator saluted and withdrew, accompanied by his victim. Old Sam had not understood the latter part of the conversation, and he did not catch quite all that was said in English, but he felt that somehow things were not becoming too promising, and it was time to assert himself. So he remarked when they got outside:
"Now, look'ee here, mister, when be I goin' back to my tarnips?"
And the aviator replied with a pleasant smile:
"Do not be disturbed, old grandfather; you shall . . . get back to the soil quite soon."
In a few moments he found himself in a large grey car, accompanied by four soldiers. The aviator left him. The country was barren and horrible, full of great pits and rents, and he could hear the roar of artillery and the shriek of shells. Overhead, aeroplanes were buzzing angrily. He seemed to be suddenly transported from the Kingdom of God to the Pit of Darkness. He wondered whether the vicar had enjoyed the runner beans. He could not imagine runner beans growing here, runner beans, ay! or anything else. If this was a foreign country, give him dear old England.
Gr-r-r-r—Bang! Something exploded just at the rear of the car. The soldiers ducked, and one of them pushed him in the stomach and swore.
"An ugly-looking lout," he thought. "If I was twenty years younger I'd give him a punch in the eye that 'ud make him sit up."
The car came to a halt by a broken wall. The party hurried out and dived behind a mound. He was pulled down a kind of shaft and found himself in a room buried right underground, where three officers were drinking and smoking. The soldiers saluted and handed a typewritten despatch. The officers looked at him drunkenly, and one came up and pulled his beard and spat in his face, and called him "an old English swine." He then shouted out some instructions to the soldiers, and they led him out into the narrow trench. One walked behind him and occasionally prodded him with the butt-end of a gun. The trenches were half-full of water, and reeked of gases, powder, and decaying matter. Shells were constantly bursting overhead, and in places the trenches had crumbled and were nearly blocked up. They stumbled on, sometimes falling, sometimes dodging moving masses, and occasionally crawling over the dead bodies of men. At last they reached a deserted-looking trench, and one of the soldiers pushed him into the corner of it and growled something, and then disappeared round the angle. Old Sam was exhausted. He lay panting against the mud wall, expecting every minute to be blown to pieces by one of those infernal things that seemed to be getting more and more insistent. The din went on for nearly twenty minutes, and he was alone in the trench. He fancied he heard a whistle amidst the din. Suddenly one of the soldiers who had accompanied him came stealthily round the corner. And there was a look in his eye old Sam did not like. When he was within five yards the soldier raised his rifle and pointed it at Sam's body. Some instinct impelled the old man at that instant to throw himself forward on his face. As he did so, he was conscious of a terrible explosion, and he had just time to observe the soldier falling in a heap near him, when he lost consciousness.
His consciousness appeared to return to him with a snap. He was lying on a plank in a building, and he heard someone say:
"I believe the old boy's English."
He looked round. There were a lot of men lying there, and others in khaki and white overalls were busy amongst them. He sat up and rubbed his head, and said:
"Hi, mister, where be I now?"
Someone laughed, and a young man came up and said:
"Well, old thing, you were very nearly in hell. Who the devil are you?"
Someone else came up, and the two of them were discussing him. One of them said:
"He's quite all right. He was only knocked out. Better take him to the colonel. He may be a spy."
The other came up, and touched his shoulder, and remarked:
"Can you walk, uncle?"
"Ay, I can walk all right."
"That's an old sport!"
The young man took his arm and helped him out of the room, into a courtyard. They entered another room, where an elderly, kind-faced officer was seated at a desk. The officer looked up, and exclaimed:
"Good God! Bradshaw, do you know who you've got there?"
The younger one said, "No. Who, sir?"
"By God! it's Paul Jouperts!" exclaimed the colonel.
"Paul Jouperts! Great Scott!"
The older officer addressed himself to Sam. He said:
"Well, we've got you once more, Paul. We shall have to be a little more careful this time."
The young officer said:
"Shall I detail a squad, sir?"
"We can't shoot him without a court-martial," replied the kind-faced senior.
Then Sam interpolated:
"Look'ee, here, sir. I'm fair sick of all this. My name bean't Paul. My name's Sam. I was a-thinnin' a line of tarnips——"
Both officers burst out laughing, and the younger one said:
"Good! damn good! Isn't it amazing, sir, the way they not only learn the language, but even take the trouble to learn a dialect?"
The older man busied himself with some papers.
"Well, Sam," he remarked, "you shall be given a chance to prove your identity. Our methods are less drastic than those of your Boche masters. What part of England are you supposed to come from? Let's see how much you can bluff us with your topographical knowledge."
"Oi was a-thinnin' a loine o' tarnips this morning at 'alf-past seven on Mr. Dodge's farm at Halvesham, when one o' these 'ere airyplanes come roight down among the swedes. I tells e' to get clear o' that, when the feller gets out o' the car, 'e drahs a revowlver and e' says, 'You must 'company—I—' "
"Yes, yes," interrupted the senior officer; "that's all very good. Now, tell me—Where is Halvesham? What is the name of the local vicar? I'm sure you'd know that."
Old Sam rubbed his chin.
"I sits under the Reverend David Pryce, mister, and a good God-fearin' man he be. I took him a cookin' o' runner beans only yesterday. I works for Mr. Dodge what owns Greenway Manor and 'as a stud farm at Newmarket they say."
"Charles Dodge?" asked the younger officer.
"Ay, Charlie Dodge. You write and ask 'un if he knows old Sam Gates."
The two officers looked at each other, and the older one looked at Sam more closely.
"It's very extraordinary," he remarked.
"Everybody knows Charlie Dodge," added the younger officer.
It was at that moment that a wave of genius swept over old Sam. He put his hand to his head, and suddenly jerked out:
"What's more, I can tell 'ee where this yere Paul is. He's acting a gardener in a convent at——"
He puckered up his brow and fumbled with his hat, and then got out:
The older officer gasped:
"Mailleton-en-haut! Good God! What makes you say that, old man?"
Sam tried to give an account of his experience, and the things he had heard said by the German officers. But he was getting tired, and he broke off in the middle to say:
"Ye haven't a bite o' somethin' to eat, I suppose, mister, and a glass o' beer? I usually 'as my dinner at twelve o'clock."
Both the officers laughed, and the older said:
"Get him some food, Bradshaw, and a bottle of beer from the mess. We'll keep this old man here. He interests me."
While the younger man was doing this, the chief pressed a button and summoned another junior officer.
"Gateshead," he remarked, "ring up G.H.Q. and instruct them to arrest the gardener in that convent at the top of the hill, and then to report."
The officer saluted and went out, and in a few minutes a tray of hot food and a large bottle of beer was brought to the old man, and he was left alone in the corner of the room to negotiate this welcome compensation. And in the execution he did himself and his county credit. In the meanwhile the officers were very busy. People were coming and going and examining maps and telephone-bells were ringing furiously. They did not disturb old Sam's gastronomic operations. He cleaned up the mess tins and finished the last drop of beer. The senior officer found time to offer him a cigarette, but he replied:
"Thank'ee kindly, but I'd rather smoke my pipe."
"Oh, all right. Smoke away."
He lighted up, and the fumes of the shag permeated the room. Someone opened another window, and the young officer who had addressed him at first suddenly looked at him and exclaimed:
"Innocent, by God! You couldn't get snag like that anywhere but in Norfolk."
It must have been over an hour later when another officer entered, and saluted.
"Message from G.H.Q., sir," he said.
"They have arrested the gardener at the convent of St. Eloise, and they have every reason to believe that he is the notorious Paul Jouperts."
The colonel stood up, and his eyes beamed. He came over to old Sam and shook his hand.
"Mr. Gates," he said, "you are an old brick. You will probably hear more of this. You have probably been the means of delivering something very useful into our hands. Your own honour is vindicated. A loving government will probably award you five shillings or a Victoria Cross, or something of that sort. In the meantime, what can I do for you?"
Old Sam scratched his chin.
"Oi want to get back 'ome," he said.
"Well, even that might be arranged."
"Oi want to get back 'ome in toime for tea."
"What time do you have tea?"
"Foive o'clock or thereabouts."
A kindly smile came into the eyes of the colonel. He turned to another officer standing by the table, and said:
"Raikes, is anyone going across this afternoon with despatches?"
"Yes, sir," replied the other officer. "Commander Jennings is leaving at three o'clock."
"You might ask him to come and see me."
Within ten minutes a young man in a flight-commander's uniform entered.
"Ah, Jennings," said the colonel, "here is a little affair which concerns the honour of the British army. My friend here, Sam Gates, has come over from Halvesham in Norfolk in order to give us valuable information. I have promised him that he shall get home to tea at five o'clock. Can you take a passenger?"
The young man threw back his head and laughed.
"Lord!" he exclaimed. "What an old sport! Yes, I expect I could just manage it. Where is the Godforsaken place?"
A large ordnance-map of Norfolk (which had been captured from a German officer) was produced, and the young man studied it closely.
At three o'clock precisely old Sam, finding himself something of a hero and quite glad to escape from the embarrassment which this position entailed, once more sped skywards in an "airyplane."
At twenty minutes to five he landed once more amongst Mr. Dodge's swedes. The breezy young airman shook hands with him and departed inland. Old Sam sat down and surveyed the field.
"A noice thing, I must say," he muttered to himself, as he looked along the lines of unthinned turnips. He still had twenty minutes, and so he went slowly along and completed a line which he had commenced in the morning. He then deliberately packed up his dinner-things and his tools, and started out for home.
As he came round the corner of Stillway's Meadow, and the cottage came in view, his niece stepped out of the copse with a basket on her arm.
"Well, Uncle," she said, "is there any noos?"
It was then that old Sam became really irritated.
"Noos!" he said. "Noos! drat the girl! What noos should there be? Sixty-nine year I live in these here parts, hoein' and weedin' and thinnin' and mindin' Charlie Dodge's sheep. Am I one o' these here story-book folk havin' noos 'appen to me all the time? Ain't it enough, ye silly dab-faced zany, to earn enough to buy a bite o' some'at to eat, and a glass o' beer, and a place to rest a's head o'night, without always wantin' noos, noos, noos! I tell 'ee, it's this that leads 'ee to 'alf the troubles in the world. Devil take the noos!"
And turning his back on her, he went fuming up the hill.