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|Blank Cartridges||Ian Hay|
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"Squoad--'Shun! Move to the right in fours. Forrm--fourrrs!"
The audience addressed looks up with languid curiosity, but makes no attempt to comply with the speaker's request.
"Come away now, come away!" urges the instructor, mopping his brow. "Mind me: on the command 'form fours,' odd numbers will stand fast; even numbers tak' a shairp pace to the rear and anither to the right. Now--forrm fourrs!"
The squad stands fast, to a man. Apparently--nay, verily--they are all odd numbers.
The instructor addresses a gentleman in a decayed Homburg hat, who is chewing tobacco in the front rank.
"Yous, what's your number?"
The ruminant ponders.
"Seeven fower ought seeven seeven," he announces, after a prolonged mental effort.
The instructor raises clenched hands to heaven.
"Man, I'm no askin' you your regimental number! Never heed that. It's your number in the squad I'm seeking. You numbered off frae the right five minutes syne."
Ultimately it transpires that the culprit's number is ten. He is pushed into his place, in company with the other even numbers, and the squad finds itself approximately in fours.
"Forrm--two deep!" barks the instructor.
The fours disentangle themselves reluctantly, Number Ten being the last to forsake his post.
"Now we'll dae it jist yince more, and have it right," announces the instructor, with quite unjustifiable optimism. "Forrm--fourrs!"
This time the result is better, but there is confusion on the left flank.
"Yon man, oot there on the left," shouts the instructor, "what's your number?"
Private Mucklewame, whose mind is slow but tenacious, answers--not without pride at knowing--
(Thank goodness, he reflects, odd numbers stand fast upon all occasions.)
"Weel, mind this," says the sergeant--"Left files is always even numbers, even though they are odd numbers."
This revelation naturally clouds Private Mucklewame's intellect for the afternoon; and he wonders dimly, not for the first time, why he ever abandoned his well-paid and well-fed job as a butcher's assistant in distant Wishaw ten long days ago.
And so the drill goes on. All over the drab, dusty, gritty parade-ground, under the warm September sun, similar squads are being pounded into shape. They have no uniforms yet: even their instructors wear bowler hats or cloth caps. Some of the faces under the brims of these hats are not too prosperous. The junior officers are drilling squads too. They are a little shaky in what an actor would call their "patter," and they are inclined to lay stress on the wrong syllables; but they move their squads about somehow. Their seniors are dotted about the square, vigilant and helpful--here prompting a rusty sergeant instructor, there unravelling a squad which, in a spirited but misguided endeavour to obey an impossible order from Second Lieutenant Bobby Little, has wound itself up into a formation closely resembling the third figure of the Lancers.
Over there, by the officers' mess, stands the Colonel. He is in uniform, with a streak of parti-coloured ribbon running across above his left-hand breast-pocket. He is pleased to call himself a "dug-out." A fortnight ago he was fishing in the Garry, his fighting days avowedly behind him, and only the Special Reserve between him and embonpoint. Now he finds himself pitchforked back into the Active List, at the head of a battalion eleven hundred strong.
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