John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was a Scottish novelist and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada, the 15th since that country’s confederation.
After a brief career in law, Buchan simultaneously began writing and his political and diplomatic career, serving as a private secretary to the colonial administrator of various colonies in Southern Africa, and eventually wrote propaganda for the British war effort in First World War. The following short story is set in this era. Buchan is probably most famous, in literary circles, for his book The Thirty-Nine Steps.
The King of Ypres
Private Peter Galbraith, of the 3rd Lennox Highlanders, awoke with a splitting headache and the consciousness of an intolerable din. At first he thought it was the whistle from the forge, which a year ago had pulled him from his bed when he was a puddler in Motherwell, He scrambled to his feet, and nearly cracked his skull against a low roof. That, and a sound which suggested that the heavens were made of canvas which a giant hand was rending, cleared his wits and recalled him to the disagreeable present. He lit the dottle in his pipe, and began to piece out his where- abouts.
Late the night before, the remnants of his battalion had been brought in from the Gheluvelt trenches to billets in Ypres. That last week he had gone clean off his sleep. He had not been dry for a fortnight, his puttees had rotted away, his greatcoat had disappeared in a mud-hole, and he had had no stomach for what food could be got. He had seen half his battalion die before his eyes, and day and night the shells had burst round him till the place looked like the ironworks at Motherwell on a foggy night. The worst of it was that he had never come to grips with the Roches, which he had long decided was the one pleasure left to him in life. He had got far beyond cursing, though he had once had a talent that way. His mind was as sodden as his body, and his thoughts had been focussed on the penetrating power of a bayonet when directed against a pluilip Teutonic chest. There had been a German barber in Motherwell called Schultz, and he imagined the enemy as a million Schultzes — large, round men who talked with the back of their throat.
In billets he had scraped off the worst part of the mud, and drunk half a bottle of wine which a woman had given him. It tasted like red ink, but anything liquid was better than food. Sleep was what he longed for, but he could not get it. The Roches were shelling the town, and the room he shared with six others seemed as noisy as the Gallowgate on a Saturday night. He wanted to get deep down into the earth where there was no sound; so, while the others-snored, he started out to look for a cellar. In the black darkness, while the house rocked to the shell reverberations, he had groped his way down the stairs, found a door which led to another flight, and, slipping and stumbling, had conie to a nar- row, stuffy chamber which smelt of potatoes. There he had lain down on some sacks and fallen into a f rowsty slumber.
His head was spinning, but the hours of sleep had done him good. He felt a slight appetite for breakfast, as well as an intolerable thirst. He groped his way up the stairs, and came out in a dilapidated hall lit by a dim November morning.
There was no sign of the packs which had been stacked there the night before. He looked for a Boche’s helmet which he had brought in as a souvenir, but that was gone. Then he found the room where he had been billeted. It was empty, and only the stale smell of tobacco told of its occupants.
Lonely,’ disconsolate, and oppressed with thoughts of future punishment, he moved towards the street door. Suddenly the door of a side room opened and a man came out, a furtive figure with a large, pasty face. His pockets bulged, and in one hand was a silver candlesticL At the sight of Galbraith he jumped back and held up a pistol.
“Pit it down, man, and tell’s what’s come ower this place?” said the soldier. For answer, a bullet sang past his ear and shivered a plaster Venus.
Galbraith gave his enemy the butt of his rifle and laid him out From his pockets he shook out a mixed collection of loot He took possession of his pistol, and kicked him with some vehemence into a cupboard.
“That yin’s a thief,” was his spoken reflection.
“There’s something michty wrong wi’ Wipers the day.”
His head was clearing, and he was getting very wroth. His battalion had gone oflf and left him in a cellar, and miscreants were abroad. It was time for a respectable man to be up and doing. Besides, he wanted his breakfast He fixed his bayonet, put the pistol in his pocket, and emerged into the November drizzle.
The streets suddenly were curipusly still. The occasional shell-fire came to his ears as if through layers of cotton-wool. He put this down to dizziness from lack of food, and made his way to what looked like an estaminet. The place was full of riotous people who were helping themselves to drinks, while a distracted land- lord wrung his hands. He flew to Galbraith, the tears running down his cheeks, and implored him in broken words.
“Vere zc Engleesh?” he cried. “Ze mechants rob me. Zere is une emeute. Vere ze oflScers?”
“That’s what I’m wantin’ to ken myscl’,” said Galbraith.
“Zey are gone,” wailed the innkeeper. “Zere is no gendarme or anyzing, and I am rob.”
“Where’s the polis? Get the Provost, man. D’ye tell me there’s no polis left?”
“I am rob,” the wail continued. “Ze mechants rob ze magasins and ve rill be assassines.”
Light was dawning upon Private Galbraith. The British troops had left Ypres for some reason which he could not fathom, and there was no law or order in the little city. At other times he had hated the law as much as any man, and his relations with the police had often been strained. Now he realised that he had done them an injustice. Disorder suddenly seemed to him the one thing intolerable. Here had he been undergoing a stiff discipline for weeks, and if that was his fate no civilian should be allowed on the loose. He was a British soldier — marooned here by no fault of his own — and it was his business to keep up the end of the British Army and impose the King’s peace upon the unruly. His temper was getting hot, but he was curiously happy. He marched into the estaminet. “Oot o’ here, ye scum!” he bellowed. “Sortez, ye cochons!”
The revellers were silent before the apparition. Then one, drunker than the rest, flung a bottle which grazed his right ear. That put the finishing touch to his temper. Roaring like a bull, he was among them, prodding their hinder parts with his bayonet, and now and then reversing his rifle to crack a head. He had not played centre-forward in the old days at Celtic Park for nothing. The place emptied in a twinkling — all but one man whose legs could not support him. Him Private Galbraith seized by the scruff and the slack of his trousers, and tossed into the street.
“Now I’ll hae my breakfast,” he said to the trembling landlord.
Private Galbraith, much the better for his exercise, made a hearty meal of bread and cold ham, and quenched his thirst with two bottles of Hazebrouck beer. He had also a little brandy and pocketed the flask, for which the landlord refused all payment. Then, feeling a giant refreshed, he sallied into the street.
“I^m off to look for your Provost,” he said. “If ye have ony mair trouble, ye’ll find me at the Toun Hall.”
A shell had plumped into the middle of the causeway, and the place was empty. Private Galbraith, despising shells, swaggered up the open, his disreputable kilt swinging about his putteeless legs, the remnant of a bonnet set well on the side of his shaggy red head, and the light of battle in his eyes. For once he was arrayed on the side of the angels, and the thought encour- aged him mightily. The brandy had fired his imagination.
Adventure faced him at the next corner. A woman was struggling with two men — a slim pale girl with dark hair. No sound came from her lips, but her eyes were bright with terror. Galbraith started to run, shouting sound British oaths. The men let the woman go, and turned to face him. One had a pistol, and for the second time that day a bullet just missed its mark. An instant later a clean bayonet thrust had ended the mortal career of the marksman, and the other had taken to his heels.
‘I’ll learn thae lads to be sae free wi’ their popguns’ said the irate soldier. Haud up, Mem. It’s a’ by wi’ noo. Losh! The wumman’s fentit”
Private Galbraith was as shy of women as of his Commanding Officer, and he had not bargained for this duty. She was clearly a lady from her dress and appearance, and this did not make it easier. He supported her manfully, addressing to her the kind of encouragements which a groom gives to a horse. “Canny now, Mem. Haud up 1 YeVe no cause to be feared.”
Then he remembered the brandy in his pocket, and with much awkwardness managed to force some drops between her lips. To his vast relief she began to come to. Her eyes opened and stared uncomprehendingly at her preserver. Then she found her voice.
“Thank God, the British have come back I” she said in excellent English.
“No, Menx; not yet. “It’s just me, Private Galbraith, ^C Company, 3rd Battalion, Lennox Highlanders. Ye keep some bad lots in this toun.”
“Alasl what can we do? The place is full of spies, and they will stir up the dregs of the people and make Ypres a hell. Oh, why did the
British go? Our good men are all with the army, and there are only old folk and wastrels left
“Rely upon me, Mem,” said Galbraith stoutly. “I was just settin* oflF to find your Provost.”
She puzzled at the word, and then understood.
“He has gonel” she cried. “The Mairc went to Dunkirk a week ago, and there is no authority in Ypres.”
“Then we’ll make yin. Here’s the minister. We’ll speir at him.”
An old priest, with a lean, grave face, had come up.
“Ah, Mam’selle Omerine,” he cried, “the devil in our city is unchained. Who is this soldier?”
The two talked in French, while Galbraith whistled and looked at the sky. A shrapnel shell was bursting behind the cathedral, making a splash of colour in the November fog. Then the priest spoke in careful and constrained English.
“There is yet a chance for a strong man. But he must be very strong. Mam’selle will summon her father. Monsieur le Procureur, and we will meet at the Mairie. I will guide you there, mon brave’
The Grande Place was deserted, and in the middle there was a new gaping shell-hole. At the door of a great building, which Galbraith assumed to be the Town Hall, a feeble old porter was struggling with a man. Galbraith scragged the latter and pitched him into the shell-hole. There was a riot going on in a cafe on the far side which he itched to have a hand in, but he postponed that pleasure to a more convenient season.
Twenty minutes later, in a noble room with frescoed and tapestried walls, there was a strange conference. The priest was there, and Galbraith, and Mam’selle Omerine, and her father, M. St Marais. There was a doctor too, and three elderly citizens, and an old warrior who had left an arm on the Yser. Galbraith took charge, with Mam’selle as his interpreter, and in half an hour had constituted a Committee of Public Safety. He had nervous folk to deal with.
“The Germans may enter at any moment, and then we will all be hanged,” said one.
“Nae doot,” said Galbraith ;• “but ye needna get your throats cut afore they come.”
“The city is full of the ill-disposed,” said another. “The Boches have their spies in every alley. We who are so few cannot control them.”
“If it’s spies,” said Galbraith firmly, “III take on the job my lone. D’ye think a terrier dowg’s feared of a wheen rottens ?”
In the end he had his way, with Mam’selle’s help, and had put some confidence into civic breasts. It took him the best part of the afternoon to collect his posse. He got every wounded Belgian that had the use of his legs, some well- grown boys, one or two ancients, and several dozen robust women. There was no lack of weapons, and he armed the lot with a strange collection of French and English rifles, giving pistols to the section leaders. With the help of the Procureur, he divided the city into beats and gave his followers instructions. They were drastic orders, for the situation craved for violence.
He spent the evening of his life. So far as he remembered afterwards, he was in seventeen different scraps. Strayed revellers were leniently dealt with — the canal was a cooling experience. Looters were rounded up, and, if they showed fight, summarily disposed of. One band of bullies made a stout resistance, killed two of his guards, and lost half a dozen dead. He got a black eye, a pistol-bullet through his sleeve, a wipe on the cheek from a carving-knife, and he lost the remnants of his bonnet Fifty-two prisoners spent the night in the cellars of the Mairie.
About midnight he found himself in the tapestried chamber. “We’ll hae to get a Proclamation,” he had announced ; “a gude strong yin, for we maun conduct this job according to the rules.” So the Procureur had a document drawn up bidding all inhabitants of Ypres keep in- doors except between the hours of lo a. m. and noon, and 3 and 5 p. m. ; forbidding the sale of alcohol in all forms ; and making theft and violence and the carrying of arms punishable by death. There was a host of other provisions which Galbraith imperfectly understood, but when the thing was translated to him he approved its spirit. He signed the document in his large sprawling hand — “Peter Galbraith, 1473, Pte., 3rd Lennox Highlanders, Acting Provost of Wipers.”
“Get that prentit,” he said, “and pit up copies at every street corner and on a’ the public-hooses. And see that the doors o’ the publics are boardit up. That’ll do for the dky. I’m feelin’ verra like my bed.”
Mam’selle Omerine watched him with a smile. She caught his eye and dropped him a curtsey.
“Monsieur le Roi d’Ypres,” she said.
He blushed hotly.
For the next few days Private Galbraith worked harder than ever before in his existence. For the first time he knew respoQsibility, and that toil which brings honour with it. He tasted the sweets of office; and he, whose aim in life had been to scrape through with the minimum of exertion, now found himself the inspirer of the maximum in others.
At first he scorned advice, being shy and nervous. Gradually, as he felt his feet, he became glad of other people’s wisdom. Especially he leaned on two, Mam’selle Omerine and her father. Likewise the priest, whom he called the minister.
By the second day the order in Ypres was remarkable. By the third day it was phenomenal ; and by the fourth a tyranny. The little city for the first time for seven hundred years fell under the sway of a despot. A citizen had to be on his best behaviour, for the Acting Provost’s eye was on him. Never was seen so sober a place. Three permits for alcohol and no more were issued, and then only on the plea of medical necessity. Peter handed over to the doctor the flask of brandy he had carried oft from the estaminet — Provosts must set an example.
The Draconian code promulgated the first night was not adhered to. Looters and violent fellows went to gaol instead of the gallows. But three spies were taken and shot after a full trial. That trial was the master eflPort of Private Galbraith — ^based on his own regimental experience and memories of a SheriflP Court in Lanarkshire, where he had twice appeared for poaching. He was extraordinarily punctilious about forms, and the three criminals — their guilt was clear, and they were the scum of creation — had some- thing more than justice. The Acting Provost pronounced sentence, which the priest translated, and a file of mutiles in the yard did the rest.
“If the Boches get in here we’ll pay for this day’s work,” said the judge cheerfully; “but I’ll gang easier to the grave for havin’ got rid o’ thae swine.”
On the fourth day he had a sudden sense of dignity. He examined his apparel, and found it very bad. He needed a new bonnet, a new kilt, and puttees, and he would be the better of a new shirt. Being aware that commandeering for personal use ill suited with his office, he put the case before the Procureur, and a Cotnmis’sion de Ravitaillement was appointed. Shirts and puttees were easily got, but the kilt and bonnet were difficulties. But next morning Mam’selle Omerine brought a gift. It was a bonnet with such a dicing round the rim as no Jock ever wore, and a skirt — it is the truest word — of that pattern which graces the persons of small girls in France. It was not the Lennox tartan, it was not any kind of tartan, but Private Galbraith did not laugh. He accepted the garments with a stammer of thanks — “They’re awfu’ braw, and I’m much obliged, Mem” — and, what is more, he put them on. The Ypriotes saw his splendour with approval. It was a proof of his new frame of mind that he did not even trouble to reflect what his comrades would think of his costume, and that he kissed the bonnet affectionately before he went to bed. That night he had evil dreams. He suddenly saw the upshot of it all — ^himself degraded and shot as a deserter, and his brief glory pricked like a bubble. Grim forebodings of court-martials assailed him. What would Mam’selle think of him when he was led away in disgrace — ^he who for a little had been a king? He walked about the floor in a frenzy of disquiet, and stood long at the window peering over the Place, lit by a sudden blink of moonlight. It could never be, he decided. Something desperate would happen first The crash of a shell a quarter of a mile off reminded him that he was in the midst of war — war with all its chances of cutting knots.
Next morning no Procureur appeared. Then came the priest with a sad face and a sadder tale. Mam’selle had been out late the night before on an errand of mercy, and a shell, crashing through a gable, had sent an avalanche of masonry into the street She was dead, with- out pain, said the priest, and in the sure hope of Heaven.
The others wept, but Private Galbraith strode from the room, and in a very little time was at the house of the Procureur. He saw his little colleague laid out for death after the fashion of her Church, and his head suddenly grew very clear and his heart hotter than fire.
“I maun resign this job,” he told the Committee of Public Safety. “I’ve been forgettin’ that I’m a sodger and no a Provost It’s my duty to get a nick at thae Boches.”
They tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant His rule was ortTy and he was going back to senre.
But he was not allowed to resign. For that afternoon, after a week’s absence, the British troops came again into Ypres.
They found a decorous little city, and many people who spoke of “le Roi” — which they assumed to signify the good King Albert Also, in a corner of the cathedral yard, sitting disconsolately on the edge of a fallen monument, Company Sergeant-Major Macvittie of the 3rd Lennox Highlanders found Private Peter Gal- braith.
“Ma God, Galbraith, yeVe done it this time! You’ll catch it in the neck I Absent for a week wi’out leaye, and gettin’ yourseP up to look like Harry Lauder! You come along wi’ me!”
“I’ll come quiet,” said Galbraith with strange meekness. He was wondering how to spell Omerine St Marais in case he wanted to write it in his Bible.
The events of the next week were confusing to a plain man. Galbraith was very silent, and made no reply to the chaff with which at first he was greeted. Soon his fellows forbore to chaff him, regarding him as a doomed man who had come well within the pale of the ultimate penalties.
He was examined by his Commanding Officer, and interviewed by still more exalted personages. The story he told was so bare as to be unintelligible. He asked for no mercy, and gave no explanations. But there were other witnesses besides him — ^the priest, for example, and Monsieur St Marais, in a sober suit of black and very dark under the eyes.
By-and-by the court gave its verdict Private Peter Galbraith was found guilty of riding roughshod over the King’s Regulations ; he had absented himself from his battalion without permission; he had neglected his own duties and usurped without authority a number of superior functions ; he had been the cause of the death or maltreatment of various persons who, whatever their moral deficiencies, must be regarded for the purposes of the case as civilian Allies. The Court, however, taking into consideration the exceptional circumstances in which Private Galbraith had been placed, inflicted no penalty and summarily discharged the prisoner.
Privately, his Commanding Officer and the still more exalted personages shook hands with him, and told him that he was a devilish good fellow and a credit to the British Army.
But Peter Galbraith cared for none of these things. As he sat again in the trenches at St Eloi in six inches of water and a foot of mud, he asked his neighbour how many Germans were opposite them.
“I was hearin’ that there was maybe fifty thoosand,” was the answer.
Private Galbraith was content. He thought that the whole fifty thousand would scarcely atone for the death of one slim, dark-eyed girl.
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