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A short story by A. A. Milne


Title:     Common
Author: A. A. Milne [More Titles by Milne]

Seated in your comfortable club, my very dear sir, or in your delightful drawing-room, madam, you may smile pityingly at the idea of a mascot saving anybody's life. "What will be, will be," you say to yourself (or in Italian to your friends), "and to suppose that a charm round the neck of a soldier will divert a German shell is ridiculous." But out there, through the crumps, things look otherwise.

Common had sat on the mantelpiece at home. An ugly little ginger dog, with a bit of red tape for his tongue and two black beads for his eyes, he viewed his limited world with an air of innocent impertinence very attractive to visitors. Common he looked and Common he was called, with a Christian name of Howard for registration. For six months he sat there, and no doubt he thought that he had seen all that there was to see of the world when the summons came which was to give him so different an outlook on life.

For that summons meant the breaking up of his home. Master was going wandering from trench to trench, Mistress from one person's house to another person's house. She no doubt would take Common with her; or perhaps she couldn't be bothered with an ugly little ginger dog, and he would be stored in some repository, boarded out in some Olympic kennel. "Or do you _possibly_ think Master might--"

He looked very wistful that last morning, so wistful that Mistress couldn't bear it, and she slipped him in hastily between the revolver and the boracic powder, "Just to look after you," she said. So Common came with me to France.

His first view of the country was at Rouen, when he sat at the entrance to my tent and hooshed the early morning flies away. His next at a village behind the lines, where he met stout fellows of "D" Company and took the centre of the table at mess in the apple orchard; and moreover was introduced to a French maiden of two, with whom, at the instigation of the seconds in the business--her mother and myself--a prolonged but monotonous conversation in the French tongue ensued, Common, under suitable pressure, barking idiomatically, and the maiden, carefully prompted, replying with the native for "Bow-wow." A pretty greenwood scene beneath the apple-trees, and in any decent civilization the great adventure would have ended there. But Common knew that it was not only for this that he had been brought out, and that there was more arduous work to come.

Once more he retired to the valise, for we were making now for a vill--for a heap of bricks near the river; you may guess the river. It was about this time that I made a little rhyme for him:

There was a young puppy called Howard,
Who at fighting was rather a coward;
He never quite ran
When the battle began,
But he started at once to bow-wow hard.

A good poet is supposed to be superior to the exigencies of rhyme, but I am afraid that in any case Common's reputation had to be sacrificed to them. To be lyrical over anybody called Howard Common without hinting that he--well, try for yourself. Anyhow it was a lie, as so much good poetry is.

There came a time when valises were left behind and life for a fortnight had to be sustained on a pack. One seems to want very many things, but there was no hesitation about Common's right to a place. So he came to see his first German dug-out, and to get a proper understanding of this dead bleached land and the great work which awaited him there. It was to blow away shells and bullets when they came too near the master in whose pocket he sat.

In this he was successful; but I think that the feat in which he takes most pride was performed one very early summer morning. A telephone line had to be laid, and, for reasons obvious to Common, rather rapidly. It was laid safely--a mere nothing to him by this time. But when it was joined up to the telephone in the front line, then he realized that he was called upon to be not only a personal mascot, but a mascot to the battalion, and he sat himself upon the telephone and called down a blessing on that cable, so that it remained whole for two days and a night when by all the rules it should have been in a thousand pieces. "And even if I didn't _really_ do it all myself," he said, "anyhow I _did_ make some of the men in the trench smile a little that morning, and there wasn't so _very_ much smiling going on just then, you know."

After that morning he lived in my pocket, sometimes sniffing at an empty pipe, sometimes trying to read letters from Mistress which joined him every day. We had gone North to a more gentlemanly part of the line, and his duties took but little of his time, so that anything novel, like a pair of pliers or an order from the Director of Army Signals, was always welcome. To begin with he took up rather more than his fair share of the pocket, but he rapidly thinned down. Alas! in the rigours of the campaign he also lost his voice; and his little black collar, his only kit, disappeared.

Then, just when we seemed settled for the winter, we were ordered South again. Common knew what that meant, a busy time for him. We moved down slowly, and he sampled billet after billet, but we arrived at last and sat down to wait for the day.

And then he began to get nervous. Always he was present when the operations were discussed; he had seen all the maps; he knew exactly what was expected of us. And he didn't like it.

"It's more than a fellow can do," he said; "at least to be certain of. I can blow away the shells in front and the shells from the right, but if Master's map is correct we're going to get enfiladed from the left as well, and one can't be _everywhere_. This wants thinking about."

So he dived head downwards into the deepest recesses of my pocket and abandoned himself to thought. A little later he came up with a smile....

Next morning I stayed in bed and the doctor came. Common looked over his shoulder as he read the thermometer.

"A hundred and four," said Common. "Golly! I hope I haven't over-done it."

He came with me to the clearing station.

"I only just blowed a germ at him," he said wistfully--"one I found in his pocket. I only just blowed it at him."

We went down to the base hospital together; we went back to England. And in the hospital in England Common suddenly saw his mistress again.

"I've brought him back, Missis," he said. "Here he is. Have I done well?"

* * * * *

He sits now in a little basket lined with flannel, a hero returned from the War. Round his neck he wears the regimental colours, and on his chest will be sewn whatever medal is given to those who have served faithfully on the Western Front. Seated in your comfortable club, my very dear sir, or in your delightful drawing-room, madam, you smile pityingly....

Or perhaps you don't.

[The end]
A. A. Milne's short story: Common