Chapter III -- Picked For Service
The coming of the police cleared the little crowd of would-be rioters away in no time. There were only three or four of the Bobbies, but they were plenty. A smiling sergeant came up to Franklin.
"More of your Boy Scout work, sir?" he said, pleasantly. "I heard you standing them off! That was very well done. If we can depend on you to help us all over London, we'll have an easier job than we looked for."
"We saw a whole lot of those fellows piling up against the shop here," said Franklin. "So of course we pitched in. We couldn't let anything like that happen."
"There'll be a lot of it at first, I'm afraid, sir," said the sergeant. "Still, it won't last. If all we hear is true, they'll be taking a lot of those young fellows away and giving them some real fighting to do to keep them quiet."
"Well, we'll help whenever we can, sergeant," said Franklin. "If the inspector thinks it would be a good thing to have the shops that are kept by Germans watched, I'm quite sure it can be arranged. If there's war I suppose a lot of you policemen will go?"
"We'll supply our share, sir," said the sergeant. "I'm expecting orders any minute -- I'm a reservist myself. Coldstream Guards, sir."
"Congratulations!" said Franklin. He spoke a little wistfully. "I wonder if they'll let me go? I think I'm old enough! Well, can we help any more here tonight?"
"No, thank you, sir. You've done very well as it is. Pity all the lads don't belong to the Boy Scouts. We'd have less trouble, I'll warrant. I'll just leave a man here to watch the place. But they won't be back. They don't mean any real harm, as it is. It's just their spirits -- and their being a bit thoughtless, you know."
"All right," said Franklin. "Glad we came along. Good-night, sergeant. Fall in! March!"
There was a cheer from the crowd that had gathered to watch the disturbance as the scouts move away. A hundred yards from the scene of what might have been a tragedy, except for their prompt action, the scouts dispersed. Dick, Mercer and Harry Fleming naturally enough, since they lived so close to one another, went home together.
"That was quick work," said Harry.
"Yes. I'm glad we got there," said Dick. "Old Dutchy's all right - he doesn't seem like a German. But I think it would be a good thing if they did catch a few of the others and scrag them!"
"No, it wouldn't," said Harry soberly. "Don't get to feeling that way, Dick. Suppose you were living in Berlin. You wouldn't want a lot of German roughs to come and destroy your house or your shop and handle you that way, would you?"
"It's not the same thing," said Dick, stubbornly. "They're foreigners."
"But you'd be a foreigner if you were over there!" said Harry, with a laugh.
"I suppose I would," said Dick. "I never thought of that! Just the same, I bet Mr. Grenfel was right. London's full of spies. Isn't that an awful idea, Harry? You can't tell who's a spy and who isn't!"
"No, but you can be pretty sure that the man you suspect isn't," suggested Harry, sagely. "A real spy wouldn't let you find it out very easily. I can see one thing and that is a whole lot of perfectly harmless people are going to be arrested as spies before this war is very old, if it does come! We don't want to be mixed up in that, Dick -- we scouts. If we think a man's doing anything suspicious, we'll have to be very sure before we denounce him, or else we won't be any use."
"It's better for a few people to be arrested by mistake than to let a spy keep on spying, isn't it?"
"I suppose so, but we don't want to be like the shepherd's boy who used to try to frighten people by calling 'Wolf! Wolf!' when there wasn't any wolf. You know what happened to him. When a wolf really did come no one believed him. Wo want to look before we leap."
"I suppose you're right, Harry. Oh, I do hope we can really be of some use! If I can't go to the war, I'd like to think I'd had something to do -- that I'd helped when my country needed me!"
"If you feel like that you'll be able to help, all right," said Harry. "I feel that way, too not that I want to fight. I wouldn't want to do that for any country but my own. But I would like to be able to know that I'd had something to do with all that's going to be done."
"I think it's fine for you to be like that," said Dick. "I think there isn't so much difference between us, after all, even if you are American and I'm English. Well, here we are again. I'll see you in the morning, I suppose?"
"Right oh! I'll come around for you early. Goodnight!"
Neither of them really doubted for a moment that war was coming. It was in the air. The attack on the little shop that they had helped to avert was only one of many, although there was no real rioting in London. Such scenes were simply the result of excitement, and no great harm was done anywhere. But the tension of which such attacks were the result was everywhere. For the next three days there was very little for anyone to do.
Everyone was waiting. France and Germany were at war; the news came that the Germans had invaded Luxembourg, and were crossing the Belgian border.
And then, on Tuesday night, came the final news. England had declared war. For the moment the news seemed to stun everyone. It had been expected, and still it came as a surprise. But then London rose to the occasion. There was no hysterical cheering and shouting; everything was quiet. Harry Fleming saw a wonderful sight a whole people aroused and determined. There was no foolish boasting; no one talked of a British general eating his Christmas dinner in Berlin. But even Dick Mercer, excitable and erratic as he had always been, seemed to have undergone a great change.
"My father's going to the war," he told Harry on Wednesday morning. He spoke very seriously. "He was a captain in the Boer War, you know, so he knows something about soldiering. He thinks he'll be taken, though he's a little older than most of the men who'll go. He'll be an officer, of course. And he says I've got to look after the mater when he's gone."
"You can do it, too," said Harry, surprised, despite himself, by the change in his chum's manner. "You seem older than I now, Dick, and I've always thought you were a kid!"
"The pater says we've all got to be men, now," said Dick, steadily. "The mater cried a bit when he said he was going -- but I think she must have known all the time he was going. Because when he told us -- we were at the breakfast table -- she sort of cried a little, and then she stopped.
"I've got everything ready for you,' she said.
"And he looked at her, and smiled. 'So you knew I was going?' he asked her. And she nodded her head, and he got up and kissed her. I never saw him do that before he never did that before, when I was looking on," Dick concluded seriously. "I hope he'll come back all right, Dick," said Harry. "It's hard, old chap!"
"I wouldn't have him stay home for anything!" said Dick, fiercely. "And I will do my share! You see if I don't! I don't care what they want me to do! I'll run errands -- I'll sweep out the floors in the War Office, so that some man can go to war! I'll do anything!"
Somehow Harry realized in that moment how hard it was going to be to beat a country where even the boys felt like that! The change in the usually thoughtless, light-hearted Dick impressed him more than anything else had been able to do with the real meaning of what had come about so suddenly. And he was thankful, too, all at once, that in America the fear and peril of War were so remote. It was glorious, it was thrilling, but it was terrible, too. He wondered how many of the scouts he knew, and how many of those in school would lose their fathers or their brothers in this war that was beginning. Truly, there is no argument for peace that can compare with war itself! Yet how slowly we learn!
Grenfel had gone, and the troop was now in charge of a new scoutmaster, Francis Wharton. Mr. Wharton was a somewhat older man. At first sight he didn't look at all like the man to lead a group of scouts, but that, as it turned out, was due to physical infirmities. One foot had been amputated at the time of the Boer War, in which he had served with Grenfel. As a result he was incapacitated from active service, although, as the scouts soon learned, he had begged to be allowed to go in spite of it. He appeared at the scout headquarters, the pavilion of a small local cricket club, on Wednesday morning.
"I don't know much about this -- more shame to me," he said, cheerfully, standing up to address the boys. "But I think we can make a go of it -- think we'll be able to do something for the Empire, boys. My old friend John Grenfel told me a little; he said you'd pull me through. These are war times and you'll have to do for me what many a company in the army does for a young officer."
They gave him a hearty cheer that was a promise in itself.
"I can tell you I felt pretty bad when I found they wouldn't let me go to the front," he went on. "It seemed hard to have to sit back and read the newspapers when I knew I ought to be doing some of the work. But then Grenfel told me about you boys, and what you meant to do, and I felt better. I saw that there was a chance for me to help, after all. So here I am. These are times when ordinary routine doesn't matter so much you can understand that. Grenfel put the troop at the disposal of the commander at Ealing. And his first request was that I should send two scouts to him at once. Franklin, I believe you are the senior patrol leader? Yes? Then I shall appoint you assistant scoutmaster, as Mr. Greene has not returned from his holiday in France. Will you suggest the names of two scouts for this service?"
Franklin immediately went up to the new scoutmaster, and they spoke together quietly, while a buzz of excited talk rose among the scouts. Who would be honored by the first chance? Every scout there wanted to hear his name called.
"I think they'll take me, for one," said Ernest Graves. He was one of the patrol to which both Harry Fleming and Dick Mercer belonged, and the biggest and oldest scout of the troop, except for Leslie Franklin. He had felt for some time that he should be a patrol leader. Although he excelled in games, and was unquestionably a splendid scout, Graves was not popular, for some reason, among his fellows. He was not exactly unpopular, either; but there was a little resentment at his habit of pushing himself forward.
"I don't see why you should go more than anyone else, Graves," said young Mercer. "I think they'd take the ones who are quickest. We're probably wanted for messenger work."
"Well, I'm the oldest. I ought to have first chance," said Graves.
But the discussion was ended abruptly.
"Fleming! Mercer!" called Mr. Wharton.
They stepped forward, their hands raised in the scout salute, awaiting the scoutmaster's orders. "You will proceed at once, by rail, to Ealing," he said. "There you will report at the barracks, handing this note to the officer of the guard. He will then conduct you to the adjutant or the officer in command, from whom you will take your orders."
"Yes, sir," said both scouts. Their eyes were afire with enthusiasm. But as they passed toward the door, Dick Mercer's quick ears caught a sullen murmur from Graves.
"He's making a fine start," he heard him say to Fatty Wells, who was a great admirer of his. "Picking out an AMERICAN! Why, we're not even sure that he'll be loyal! Did you ever hear of such a thing?"
"You shut up!" cried Dick, fiercely, turning on Graves. "He's as loyal as anyone else! We know as much about him as we do about you, anyhow -- or more! You may be big, but when we get back I'll make you take that back or fight --"
"Come on," said Harry, pulling Dick along with him. "You mustn't start quarreling now - it's time for all of us to stand together, Dick. I don't care what he says, anyhow."
He managed to get his fiery chum outside, and they hurried along, at the scout pace, running and walking alternately, toward the West Kensington station of the Underground Railway. They were in their khaki scout uniforms, and several people turned to smile admiringly at them. The newspapers had already announced that the Boy Scouts had turned out unanimously to do whatever service they could, and it was a time when women -- and it was mostly women who were in the streets -- were disposed to display their admiration of those who were working for the country very freely.
They had little to say to one another as they hurried along; their pace was such as to make it wise for them to save their breath. But when they reached the station they found they had some minutes to wait for a train, and they sat down on the platform to get their breath. They had already had one proof of the difference made by a state of war.
Harry stopped at the ticket window.
"Two-third class -- for Ealing," he said, putting down the money. But the agent only smiled, having seen their uniforms.
"On the public service ?" he questioned.
"Yes," said Harry, rather proudly.
"Then you don't need tickets," said the agent. "Got my orders this morning. No one in uniform has to pay. Go right through, and ride first-class, if you like. You'll find plenty of officers riding that way."
"That's fine!" said Dick. "It makes it seem as if we were really of some use, doesn't it, Harry?"
"Yes," answered Harry. "But, Dick, I've been thinking of what you said to Graves. What did you mean when you told him you knew more about me than you did about him? Hasn't he lived here a long time?"
"No, and there's a little mystery about him. Don't you know it?"
"Never heard of such a thing, Dick. You see, I haven't been here so very long and he was in the patrol when I joined.",
"Oh, yes, so he was! Well, I'll tell you, then. You know he's studying to be an engineer, at the Polytechnic. And he lives at a boarding house, all by himself. Not a regular boarding house, exactly. He boards with Mrs. Johnson, you know. Her husband died a year or two ago, and didn't leave her very much money. He hasn't any father or mother, but he always seems to have plenty of money. And he can play all sorts of games, but he won't do them up right. He says he doesn't care anything about cricket!"
"How old is he?"
"Sixteen, but he's awfully big and strong."
"He certainly is. He looks older than that, to me. Have you ever noticed anything funny about the way he talks?"
"No. Why? Have you?"
"I'm not sure. But sometimes it seems to me he talks more like the people do in a book than you and I do. I wonder why he doesn't like me?" pondered Harry.
"Oh, he likes you as well as he does anyone, Harry. He didn't mean anything, I fancy, when he said that about your being chosen just now. He was squiffed because Mr. Wharton didn't take him, that's all. He thinks he ought to be ahead of everyone."
"Well, I didn't ask to be chosen. I'm glad I was, of course, but I didn't expect to be. I think perhaps Leslie Franklin asked Mr. Wharton to take me."
"Of course he did! Why shouldn't he?"
Just then the coming of the train cut them short. From almost every window men in uniform looked out. A few of the soldiers laughed at their scout garb, but most of them only smiled gravely, and as if they were well pleased. The two scouts made for the nearest compartment, and found, when they were in it, that it was a first-class carriage, already containing two young officers who were smoking and chatting together.
"Hullo, young 'uns!" said one of the officers. "Off to the war?"
They both laughed, which Harry rather resented. "We're under orders, sir," he said, politely. "But, of course, they won't let us Scouts go to the war."
"Don't rag them, Cecil," said the other officer. "They're just the sort we need. Going to Ealing, boys?"
Harry checked Dick's impulsive answer with a quick snatch at his elbow. He looked his questioner straight in the eye.
"We weren't told to answer any questions, sir," he said.
Both the officers roared with laughter, but they sobered quickly, and the one who had asked the question flushed a little.
"I beg your pardon, my boy," he said. "The question is withdrawn. You're perfectly right - and you're setting us an example by taking things seriously. This war isn't going to be a lark. But you can tell me a few things. You're scouts, I see. I was myself, once - before I went to Sandhurst. What troop and patrol?"
Dick told him, and the officer nodded.
"Good work!" he said. "The scouts are going to turn out and help, he? That's splendid! There'll be work enough to go all around, never you fear."
"If, by any chance, you should be going to Ealing Barracks," said the first officer, rather shyly, "and we should get off the train when you do, there's no reason why you shouldn't let us drive you out, is there? We're going there, and I don't mind telling you that we've just finished a two hour leave to go and say good-bye to - to -"
His voice broke a little at that. In spite of his light-hearted manner and his rather chaffing tone, he couldn't help remembering that good-bye. He was going to face whatever fate might come, but thoughts of those he might not see again could not be prevented from obtruding themselves.
"Shut up, Cecil," said the other. "We've said good-bye - that's the end of it! We've got other things to think of now. Here we are!"
The train pulled into Ealing station. Here the evidences of war and the warlike preparations were everywhere. The platforms were full of soldiers, laughing, jostling one another, saluting the officers who passed among them. And Harry, as he and Dick followed the officers toward the gate, saw one curious thing. A sentry stood by the railway official who was taking up tickets, and two or three times he stopped and questioned civilian passengers. Two of these, moreover, he ordered into the ticket office, where, as he went by, Harry saw an officer, seated at a desk, examining civilians.
Ealing, as a place where many troops were quartered, was plainly very much under martial law. And outside the station it was even more military. Soldiers were all about and automobiles were racing around, too. And there were many women and children here, to bid farewell to the soldiers who were going - where? No one knew. That was the mystery of the morning. Everyone understood that the troops were off; that they had their orders. But not even the officers themselves knew where, it seemed.
"Here we are - here's a car!" said the officer called Cecil. "Jump aboard, young 'uns! We know where you're going, right enough. Might as well save some time."
And so in a few minutes they reached the great barracks. Here the bustle that had been so marked about the station was absent. All was quiet. They were challenged by a sentry and Harry asked for the officer of the guard. When he came he handed him Wharton's letter. They were told to wait - outside. And then, in a few minutes, the officer returned, passed them through, and turned them over to an orderly, who took them to the room where Colonel Throckmorton, who was seemingly in charge of important affairs, received them. He returned their salute, then bent a rather stern gaze upon them before he spoke.