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Action Front Boyd Cable

A Benevolent Neutral

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"I see," said Courtenay. "Just joined up to get a finger in the fighting?"

"Yes an' no," said the sergeant, going on with his work in a manner that showed plainly he was a thoroughly competent workman. "It was a matter of business in the first place, a private business deal that--"

"I beg your pardon," said Courtenay hastily, reddening to his ear-tips. "Please don't think I meant to question you. I say, are you sure I can't help with that? It's too bad my sitting here watching you do all the work."

The sergeant straightened himself slowly from the bench and looked at Courtenay, a quizzical smile dawning on his thin lips. "Why now, Loo-tenant," he said, "there's no need to get het up none. I know you Britishers hate to be thought inquisitive--'bad form,' ain't it!--but I didn't figure it thataway, not any. I'd forgot for a minute the difference 'tween--" He broke off and looked down at his sleeve, nodding to the stripes and then to the lieutenant's star. "An' if you don't mind I'll keep on forgetting it meantime. 'Twon't hurt discipline, seeing nobody's here anyway. Y' see," he went on, stooping to his work again, "I'm not used to military manners an' customs. A year ago if you'd told me I'd be a soldier, and in the British Army, I'd ha' thought you clean loco."

Courtenay laughed. "There's a good many in the same British Army can say the same as you," he said.

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"I was in London when the flare-up came, an' bein' interested in business I didn't ball up my intellect with politics an' newspaper war talk. So a cable I had from the firm hit me wallop, an' plumb dazed me. It said, 'Try secure war contract. One hundred full-powered available now. Two hundred delivery within month.' Then I began to sit up an' take notice. Y' see, I'm in with a big firm of auto builders--mebbe you know 'em--Rawbon an' Spedding, the Rawbon bein' my dad? No? Well, anyhow, I got the contract, got it so quick it made my head swim. Gee, that fellow in the War Office was buyin' up autos like I'd buy pipe-lights. The hundred lorries was shipped over, an' I saw 'em safe through the specified tests an' handed 'em over. Same with the next two hundred, an' this"--tapping his toe on the floor--"is one of 'em right here."

"I see how the lorry got here," said Courtenay, hugely interested, "but I don't see how you've managed to be aboard. You and a suit of khaki and a sergeant's stripes weren't all in the contract, I suppose?"

"Nope," said the sergeant, "not in the written one, mebbe. But I took a fancy to seein' how the engines made out under war conditions, an' figured I might get some useful notes on it for the firm, so I fixed it to come right along."

"But how?" asked Courtenay--"if that's not a secret."

"Why, that guy in the testin' sheds was plump tickled when I told him my notion. He fixed it all, and me suddenly discoverin' I was mistook for a Canadian I just said 'M-m-m' when anybody asked me. I had to enlist though, to put the deal through, an' after that there wasn't trouble enough to clog the works of a lady's watch. But there was trouble enough at the other end. My dad fair riz up an' screeched cablegrams at me when I hinted at goin' to the Front. He made out it was on the business side he was kickin', with the attitude of the U-nited States toward the squabble thrown in as extra. Neutrals, he said we was, benevolent neutrals, an' he wasn't goin' to have a son o' his steppin' outside the ring-fence o' the U-nited States Constitution, to say nothing of mebbe losin' good business we'd been do in' with the Hoggheimers, an' Schmidt Brothers, an' Fritz Schneckluk, an' a heap more buyers o' his that would rear up an' rip-snort an' refuse to do another cent's worth of dealing with a firm that was sellin' 'em autos wi' one hand an' shootin' holes in their brothers and cousins and Kaisers wi' the other. I soothed the old man down by pointing out I was to go working these lorries, and the British Army don't shoot Germans with motor-lorries; and I'd be able to keep him posted in any weak points, if, and as, and when they developed, so he could keep ahead o' the crowd in improvements and hooking in more fat contracts; and lastly, that the Schmidt customer crowd didn't need to know a thing about me being here unless he was dub enough to tell 'em. So I signed on to serve King George an' his missus an' kids for ever an' ever, or duration of war, Amen, with a mental footnote, which last was the only part I mentioned in mailing my dad, that I was a Benevolent Neutral. An' here I am."

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