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Action Front Boyd Cable

The Fear Of Fear

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"It's a good reputation to have if you can keep it," said Halliday. "But it makes it worse if you can't."

"I wish," said Toffee enviously, "I was as sure of keeping it as you are to-day."

Halliday pulled his hand from his pocket and held it beside him where only Toffee could see it. It was quivering like a flag-halliard in a stiff breeze. He thrust it back in his pocket.

"Doesn't look too sure, does it?" he said grimly. "And my heart is shaking a sight worse than my hand."

He was interrupted by the arrival of a group of German shells on and about the section of trench they were in. One burst on the rear lip of the trench, spattering earth and bullets about them and leaving a choking reek swirling and eddying along the trench. There was silence for an instant, and then an officer's voice called from the near traverse. "Is anybody hit there!" A sergeant shouted back "No, sir," and was immediately remonstrated with by an indignant private busily engaged in scraping the remains of a mud clod from his eye.

"You might wait a minute, Sergeant," he said, "afore you reports no casualties, just to give us time to look round and count if all our limbs is left on. And I've serious doubts at this minute whether my eye is in its right place or bulging out the back o' my head; anyway, it feels as if an eight-inch Krupp had bumped fair into it."

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When the explosion came, Toffee Everton had instinctively ducked and crouched, but he noticed that Halliday never moved or gave a sign of the nearness of any danger. Toffee remarked this to him.

"And I don't see," he confessed, "where that fits in with this hand- and heart-shaking o' yours."

Halliday looked at him curiously.

"If that was the worst," he said, "I could stand it. It isn't. It isn't the beginning of the least of the worst. If it had fell in the trench, now, and mucked up half a dozen men, there'd have been something to squeal about. That's the sort o' thing that breaks a man up--your own mates that was talking to you a minute afore, ripped to bits and torn to ribbons. I've seen nothing left of a whole live man but a pair o' burnt boots. I've seen--" He stopped abruptly and shivered a little. "I'm not going to talk about it," he said. "I think about it and see it too often in my dreams as it is. And, besides," he went on, "I didn't duck that time, because I've learnt enough to know it's too late to duck when the shell bursts a dozen yards from you. I'm not so much afraid of dying, either. I've got to die, I've little doubt, before this war is out; I don't think there's a dozen men in this battalion that came out with it in the beginning and haven't been home sick or wounded since. I've seen one-half the battalion wiped out in one engagement and built up with drafts, and the other half wiped out in the next scrap. We've lost fifty and sixty and seventy per cent. of our strength at different times, and I've come through it all without a scratch. Do you suppose I don't know it's against reason for me to last out much longer? But I'm not afraid o' that. I'm not afraid of the worst death I've seen a man die--and that's something pretty bad, believe me. What I'm afraid of is myself, of my nerve cracking, of my doing something that will disgrace the Regiment."

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Action Front
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