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A short story by George A. Birmingham

Sir Galahad

Title:     Sir Galahad
Author: George A. Birmingham [More Titles by Birmingham]

The order, long expected and eagerly desired, came at last. The battalion moved out from dusty and crowded barracks to a camp in the wilderness. Lieutenant Dalton, a cheerful boy who had been taught Holy Scripture in his childhood, wrote to his mother that the new camp was "Somewhere in the wilderness beyond Jordan between the river of Egypt and the great sea." This description of the situation was so entirely inaccurate that the Censor allowed it to pass without complaint. Old Mrs. Dalton told her friends that her son was living under the shadow of Mount Sinai. He was, in fact, nowhere near either Jordan or Sinai. He was some miles east of the Suez Canal. For a week or so officers and men rejoiced in their new quarters. There was plenty of elbow room; no more of the overcrowding they had suffered since they landed. They had, indeed, miles of totally unoccupied desert at their disposal. Each tent might have stood in its own private grounds, three acres or so in extent, if that had not been felt by the colonel to be an inconvenient arrangement. There was also--and this particularly pleased the battalion--the prospect of a fight with the Turks. Everyone believed when the move was made that a battle was imminent, and the battalion, which had no experience of fighting, was most anxious to show what it could do.

After awhile the enthusiasm for the new camp began to fade. The Turks did not put in an appearance, and life was as peaceful as it had been in the English camp where the battalion was trained. The situation of the camp, though roomy, was not exciting. Both officers and men began to find existence exceedingly dull. Lieutenant Dalton, who at this time wrote long letters to his mother, told her that he understood at last why the Children of Israel were so desperately anxious to get back to Egypt and were inclined to rag Moses about the want of melons and cucumbers. At the end of the month the whole battalion was bored to exasperation.

The desert which stretched in front of the camp was intolerably flat The sun rose with pitiless regularity, shone with a steady glare for a great many hours, and then set. That was all that ever happened. The coming of a cloud into the sky would have been greeted with cheers. No cloud appeared A sandstorm, however disagreeable, would have been welcomed as a change. The sand stayed quietly where it was. The men tried football, and gave it up because of the blistering heat. They played "House" until even the excitement of that mild gamble exhausted itself. No other form of amusement suggested itself. There was not even any work to do. Had the battalion belonged to the Brigade of Guards it would no doubt have gone on doing barrack-square drill every day and all day long until the men learned to move like parts of a machine. But this was a Territorial battalion, and the colonel held reasonable views about modern warfare. The value of drill, a mechanical business, was in his opinion easily exaggerated. Had the battalion belonged to an Irish regiment there would probably have been several interesting fights and some means of obtaining whisky would have been devised. In such ways the men would have escaped the curse of monotony, and the officers would have been kept busy in the orderly room. But this battalion came from the English Midlands. The men did not want to fight each other, and had no overpowering desire to get drunk. When the morning parades were over they lay in their tents and grumbled peacefully. Under such circumstances tempers often wear thin, and a habit of bickering takes possession of a mess. It is greatly to the credit of everyone concerned that there was no sign of bad temper among the officers of the battalion. The colonel lived a good deal by himself in his tent, but was always quietly good-humoured. Lieutenant Dalton, an incurably merry boy, kept the other subalterns cheerful. Only Captain Maitland was inclined to complain a little, and he had a special grievance, an excuse which justified a certain amount of grumbling. He slept badly at night, and liked to read a book of some sort after he went to bed. The mess had originally possessed an excellent supply of books, some hundred volumes of the most varied kind supplied by the Camps Libraries' Association at home. Unfortunately, almost all the books were left behind when the move was made. Only three volumes were to be found in the new camp--one novel, a treatise on the culture of apple trees, and Mallory's "Morte D'Arthur."

Captain Maitland blamed the chaplain for the loss.

"You ought to have looked after those books, padre," he said. "It's a padre's business to look after books."

The Rev. John Haddingly, C.F., was a gentle little man, liked by the officers because he was entirely unassuming, and popular with the men because he was always ready to help them. He accepted the whole blame for the loss of the books without an attempt to defend himself.

"I'm awfully sorry, Maitland," he said. "I ought to have seen to those books. I did look after the Prayer Books. They're here all right; at least most of them are."

"Prayer Books!" said Maitland. "If they were even whole Prayer Books! But those little yellow tracts of yours! They haven't even got the Thirty-Nine Articles in them. If they were pukka Prayer Books I'd borrow one and try to read it. I expect there are lots of interesting things in the small print parts of the Prayer Book, the parts you padres never read out. But what's the good of the books you have? Nothing in them but what we all know off by heart."

Haddingly sighed. He was painfully conscious of the shortcomings of the Field Service Books supplied for the use of the troops. Dalton came to his defence.

"Don't strafe the padre," he said. "He brought along a church, an entire church. Is there another padre in the whole Army who could have got a church to a place like this?"

Dalton's almost incredible statement was literally true. Haddingly had succeeded, contrary to all regulations, in bringing with him from England a corrugated iron church. It was quite a small one, it folded up and could be packed flat When unpacked and erected it was undeniably a church. It had a large cross at one end of it outside. Inside it was furnished with an altar, complete with cross and candlesticks, a collapsible harmonium and a number of benches. Chaplains have certainly no right to load up troopships with churches, but Haddingly had somehow got his to Egypt. By what blandishments the transport officer had been induced to drag the thing out into the desert beyond the canal no one knew. Haddingly was one of those uncomplainingly meek men who never stand up for themselves. It is a curious fact, but it is a fact, that a really helpless person gets things done for him which the most aggressive and masterful men cannot accomplish. The success in life of women of the "clinging" kind is an illustration of this law.

Haddingly smiled with joy at the mention of his church. It stood, securely bolted together, a little outside the camp. No one, the cross being disproportionately large, could possibly mistake it for anything but a church. In front of it was a notice board, a nice black notice board with a suggestion of Gothic architecture about it. On the board, in bright white letters, was a list of services and the name of the church--St John in the Wilderness.

Originally, before the move into the desert, it had been simply St John the Evangelist, but Haddingly felt that the new circumstances demanded a change of dedication. Everyone, from the colonel down to the humblest private, was secretly proud of the church. The possession of such a thing gave a certain distinction to the battalion. Haddingly was a good deal chaffed about it; but the building was in a fair way to become a regimental mascot "I'm not strafing the padre," said Captain Maitland, "but I wish we had a few of the books we left behind."

"To listen to you talking," said Dalton, "anyone would think you were some kind of literary swell--Hall Came and Wordsworth rolled into one, whereas we all know that the only thing you take an interest in is horses." Captain Maitland was very far from being a literary swell or claiming any such title. The books he really liked, the only books he read when he had a free choice, were sporting stories with a strong racing and betting interest But in camp in the wilderness no sporting stories were obtainable. The one novel which remained to the mess dealt with the sex problem, a subject originally profoundly uninteresting to Maitland, who had a healthy mind He read it, however, as a remedy for insomnia. It proved effective. A couple of chapters sent him to sleep every night, so the book lasted a good while.

Every morning at breakfast Maitland used to propound the problems raised by the chapters which he had read the night before. The mess got into the way of holding informal debates on the divorce laws. When he finished the book, Maitland declared that he intended to devote himself to Eugenics and the more enlightened kind of social reform as soon as the war was over.

"I never thought of it before," he said, "but I can see now that the future of the Empire really depends on the proper legislation for child welfare, on ante-natal clinic, and the abolition of the old empiric methods of marriage."

"Wait till after I'm married before you begin," said Dalton.

Haddingly was a little pained. He said things about the sanctity of marriage and the family as a divine institution. No one else took Maitland seriously. It was felt that when the war came to an end--if it ever did--he would go back to horse-racing and leave the scientific aspects of marriage in decent obscurity.

When he had finished the novel he took the book on apple trees to bed with him. He became, after a short time, interested in that subject. He announced that when the war was over he intended to buy a small place in Devonshire and go in for orchards.

"Apple growing," he said, "is just exactly the peaceable, shady kind of life a man wants after being stuck down in a desert like this."

"With your taste for the turf," said Dalton, "you'll get into a shady kind of life all right, whether you plant apple trees or not."

Dalton was an irreverent boy. Haddingly was greatly pleased at the thought of Maitland sitting innocently under an apple tree.

The turn of Mallory came next Maitland left it for the last because the print was very small and the only light in his tent was a feeble candle. When he got fairly started in the book he became profoundly interested, and the other members of the mess were treated at breakfast time to a good deal of information about medieval warfare.

"As far as I can make out," Maitland said, "every officer in those days was knighted as soon as he got his commission."

"Jolly good idea," said Dalton. "I should buck about like anything if they made me a K.C.B."

"You wouldn't have been an officer or a knight," said Maitland. "You'd have been the court fool. You've no idea whatever of chivalry."

Like most simple men who read very little, Maitland took the books he did read seriously and was greatly influenced by them. The apple tree treatise made him want to be a gardener. A slow and careful study of Mallory filled him with a profound admiration for medieval romance.

"The reason modern war is such a sordid business," he said, "is that we've lost the idea of chivalry."

"Chivalry is all very well," said Dalton, "if there's anyone to chival about. I haven't read much about those old knights of yours, Maitland; but so far as I can make out from what you tell us they were always coming across damsels, fair, distressed, and otherwise fetching. Now, I haven't seen a damsel since I left England. How the deuce can I be chivalrous? I defy anyone, even that Lancelot blighter of yours, to go into raptures about the old hag you turned out of the camp yesterday for selling rotten dates to the men."

Dalton was not the only member of the mess who made jokes about the knights of King Arthur's fellowship. But Maitland went on reading out selected passages from Mallory, and there is no doubt that everyone, even Dalton, became interested. Haddingly, the padre, made no attempt to conceal the fact that he was profoundly influenced.

He had always been proud of his church, but had hitherto been content to use it in the normal way for parade services on Sunday morning. The services were undeniably popular. The men enjoyed singing hymns, and they listened patiently to the sermons because they liked Haddingly. The officers, who also liked Haddingly, attended the Sunday morning services with great regularity. Dalton, though he preferred playing rag-time on the piano, accompanied the hymns on the harmonium.

Haddingly was greatly moved by Maitland's account of the medieval spirit. He took to spending half an hour in the church every morning before breakfast Nobody knew what he did there. The officers, through feelings of delicacy, never asked him questions about these new devotions. The men, who were getting to know and like Haddingly better and better as time went on, regarded his daily visits to the church as proof that their padre was one who knew his job and did it thoroughly.

One morning--the mess had then been discussing medieval chivalry for about a fortnight--Maitland read out a passage from Mallory about a visit paid by Sir Galahad to a lonely chapel among the mountains, "where he found nobody at all for all was desolate." Haddingly had just spent his lonely half hour in the church of St John in the Wilderness. He sighed. He found nobody there in the mornings, and could not help wishing that the battalion contained a Galahad. Dalton felt that something must be done to preserve the credit of the mess and the dignity of English manhood. He felt sure that sentiment about desolate chapels was an unwholesome thing. He scoffed:

"All very well for Gallipot," he said, "but----"

"Galahad," said Maitland.

"Galahad, or Gallipot, or Golly-wog," said Dalton. "If a man has a silly name like that, it doesn't matter how you spell it. The point is that it would be simply ridiculous to attempt that sort of thing now. Suppose, for instance---- I put it to you, padre. Suppose you saw Maitland mounted on one of the transport gee-gees trotting tap to that tin cathedral of yours--on a week-day, mind! I'm not talking about Sundays. Suppose he got down and went inside all by himself, what would you think, padre? There's only one thing you could think, that Maitland had been drinking."

"Sir Galahad," said Maitland, "went in to say his prayers. He was on his way to a battle. They didn't have to wait months and months for a battle in those days. They had a scrap of some sort about once a week."

He sighed. The Turks had failed to do what was expected of them, and life in the camp was intolerably dull.

He looked at Haddingly. It was plainly a padre's duty to support a spiritual and romantic view of life against the profane jibes of Dalton. Haddingly spoke judicially.

"The general tone of society in those days," he said, "seems to have been very different from what it is now. Men had much less difficulty in giving expression to their emotions. No doubt we still feel much as they did, but----"

Haddingly became aware that no one was listening to him. The attention of everyone at the table was attracted by something else. The men sat stiffly, listening intently. Haddingly heard a faint, distant humming sound. It grew louder.

"Jiminy!" said Dalton, "an aeroplane!"

The breakfast table was laid in the open air outside the mess tent The men rose from their seats and stared in the direction of the coming sound. It was the first time that an aeroplane had approached the camp in the desert. Its coming was an intensely exciting event, an unmistakable evidence of activity somewhere; surely a sign that activity everywhere might be expected.

The sound increased in volume. The machine appeared, a distant speck in the clear sky. It grew rapidly larger, flying fast. It was seen to be a biplane. It passed directly over the camp, flying so low that the head of the pilot was plainly visible. In a few minutes it passed from sight. The hum of its engines grew fainter. But till the sound became inaudible no one spoke.

Then a babble of inquiry and speculation broke out Where was the thing going? What was it doing? What did its sudden swift voyage mean? For the rest of the day the camp was less sleepy than usual. Men everywhere discussed the aeroplane. Dalton was not the only one who envied the members of the Flying Corps. It seemed a very desirable thing to be able to rush through the air over unknown deserts; to have the chance of seeing strange and thrilling things, Arab encampments, green oases, mirages, caravans and camels; to drop bombs perhaps on Syrian fortresses; to estimate the numbers of Turkish columns on the march, to reckon their strength in artillery; to take desperate risks; to swerve and dart amid clouds of bursting shrapnel. How much more gloriously exciting such a life than that of men baking slowly in the monotony of a desert camp.

Maitland, stimulated by his reading to an unnatural effort of imagination, recognized in the men of the Flying Corps the true successors of Mallory's adventurous knight-errants. For them war still contained romance. Chivalry was still possible. Haddingly caught the thought and expanded it Knights of old had this wonderful spirit, because to them the forests through which they roamed were unknown wastes, where all strange things might be expected. Then when all the land became familiar, mapped, intersected with roads, covered thick with towns, sailors inherited the spirit of romance. Afterwards all the seas were charted, policed, and ships went to and fro on ocean highways. The romance of adventure was lost to seamen, lost to the world, until the airmen came and found it again by venturing on new ways.

In the evening the aeroplane returned. Once more its engines were heard. Once more it appeared, a speck, a shape, a recognizable thing. But this time it did not pass away. On reaching camp it circled twice, and then, with a long swift glide, took the ground outside the camp a few yards beyond Haddingly's church of St. John in the Wilderness. The pilot stepped out of the machine.

"Good man," said Dalton. "Friendly of him dropping in on us like this. Must want a drink after that fly. Eight hours at least. I'll go and bring him along to the mess. Hope he'll tell us what he's been doing. Wonder if the Turks potted at him."

The pilot left his machine. He walked stiffly, like a man with cramped limbs, towards the camp.

"Something wrong with the engine, perhaps," said Dalton. "Or he's short of petrol. I'll fetch him along. A whisky and soda in a big tumbler is the thing for him. I dare say he'll stay for dinner."

He started and walked quickly towards the machine. The airman, approaching the camp, reached the church. Instead of passing it he stopped, opened the door, and went in. Dalton paused and looked back.

"Must have mistaken your tin cathedral for the mess, padre," he said. "I'll run on and fetch him out."

"If he's made a mistake," said Haddingly, "he'll find it out for himself and come out without your fetching him."

Dalton stood still. His eyes were on the door of the church. Maitland and Haddingly were gazing at it too. The other officers, gathered in a group outside the mess tent, stood in silence, staring at the church. It seemed as if hours passed. In fact, nearly half an hour went by before the door of the church opened and the airman came out. He turned his back on the camp and went towards his machine. Neither Dalton nor anyone else made an attempt to overtake him. The noise of the engine was heard again. The machine raced a few yards along the ground and then rose in steep flight. It passed across the camp and sped westwards, its shape sharply outlined for a minute against the light of the setting sun. Then it disappeared.

Maitland took Haddingly by the arm and led him to his tent The two men sat down together on the camp bedstead. Maitland opened Mallory's "Morte d'Arthur," and read aloud:

"Then Sir Galahad came unto a mountain, where he found an old chapel, and found there nobody, for all was desolate, and there he kneeled before the altar and besought of God wholesome counsel."

"I suppose it was just that," said Haddingly.

Dalton put his head into the tent.

"I thought I'd find you here," he said. "I just wanted to ask the padre something. Was that Sir Golliwog come to life again or just some ordinary blighter like me suffering from nerve strain?"

Haddingly had no answer to give for a moment.

"He can't have really wanted to sit in that church for half an hour," said Dalton. "What the dickens would he do it_ for?_"

"He might have wanted to pray," said Haddingly.

Not even his profession justified the saying of such a thing as that outside church. But every excuse must be made for him. He had been soaked in Mallory for a fortnight Deserts, even when there are camps in them, are queer places, liable to upset men's minds, and the conduct of the airman was certainly peculiar.

"Of course, if you put it that way," said Dalton, "I've nothing more to say. All the same, he might have come into the mess for a drink. I'm not complaining of his doing anything he liked in the way of going to church; but I don't see that a whisky and soda would have hurt him afterwards. He must have wanted it."

[The end]
George A. Birmingham's short story: Sir Galahad