Mitchell had not meant to desert. It was a June morning and he was taking a message to B Company. He was highly regarded by his officers, an intelligent and trustworthy man, steady under fire. He trudged along the pitted earth then stopped in surprise. In a gash in the earth a butterfly was sipping from a tiny flower. At that moment he started to run.
He saw a line of trees on the horizon. He swerved and headed for them. He was panting by the time he reached them and tumbled into the long, protective grass. He lay there for a moment, dazed by what he had done. The sunlight glittered through the branches. I must go back, he thought. If I go back now no-one will realise I’ve been missing. Then his eyes closed.
When he awoke there was the faint smudge of dawn above the German lines. He had slept for twenty hours. His stomach rippled with fear. The officers would think he had deserted.
He staggered up. The night was fading and, as he watched, the fragile lines of the trenches came into view. What had made him run? He should go back. If he went back now he could say he had got lost. If he delayed he would be shot as a deserter. He went fifty yards towards the lines and stopped. He would not fool Captain Bell. He darted back to the cover of the trees.
He had to think this out.
The sun had risen far above the horizon and the day was light and clear. He was not thinking at all but was listening to the sounds of birds chirping in a nest above his head. He had not heard sounds like this for years. Even when on leave the men were driven to fill the unfamiliar silence with their own clamour. The birds sounded sweet, and they paid no regard to the war and the killing and the waste.
He stood up and turned his back on the trenches. He plunged into the trees, walking fast to keep himself from thinking. He walked for hours and only gradually noticed that there was a sound following him. He reached a clearing and halted, feeling naked and vulnerable. Somebody was near. A snigger sounded close behind him. He spun round but no-one was there. It must be a madman hiding in the trees. Again, the laugh came loud and clear and he spun around once again to find nothing. Then his hand reached up and touched his mouth. It was working furiously, jabbering a mad, crazed cackle in a voice he could not recognise as his own. He shuddered and willed himself to stop. He failed. For an hour he stood rooted in the clearing, his mouth giving out great gusts and whoops of laughter, his eyes raining tears of anguish and fear.
At last the clearing fell quiet. He was exhausted. He looked around with dull eyes. He knew he had to think but three years of noise and slaughter and the swift obeying of orders had left his brain stale and weary. He banged his forehead as if he could pummel his mind into functioning.
Gradually, his thoughts began to clear. He had been away for thirty hours now. No-one would believe he had been lost for so long. Could he have been captured? He imagined himself telling the tale to the officers and their praise for his escape. But then he thought of their questions and the report he would have to write and knew that he could not pull it off.
He looked around wearily. He could not stay here for ever. There were rumours of mutineers’ camps in the forests but he guessed they would soon be discovered. Or perhaps he could find some peaceful village where they would shelter him. But no Frenchwoman would hide a British soldier when her own men were dying at the Front.
The long hours passed and night fell. He wondered what his mates would think of him. Perhaps he should go back. But if he did he was certain to face the long silent walk with the firing squad, the click of the rifles as they were readied. Only a madman would return. Then he thought back to his laughter in the clearing and shuddered.
He looked up at the stars and as he did when a child he asked them for the answer. But they were far away and silent. Finally, on the edge of sleep an answer came, yet one so lunatic that he truly did begin to think himself mad.
The following evening he knocked at Captain Bell’s door.
‘Mitchell,’Bell cried. ‘Where the hell have you been?’
‘I ran, sir,’ he replied, calmly.
The captain looked at him in astonishment. Every deserter they caught claimed he had got lost or captured.
‘Surely, Mitchell, you mean you got lost?’
‘I wasn’t lost. I was running from all this.’
The captain leaned back in his chair. ‘You do know the penalty for desertion?’
‘I do, sir.’
‘So why on earth did you come back?’
‘Because of King and Country?’Bell said. ‘Or not to let your mates down?’
Mitchell realised that Bell was trying to give him a way out.
‘I came back because I’m not a deserter,’ he answered.
The captain stared at him, his eyes giving nothing away.
‘You did desert,’ he said finally.
‘I ran. But I’m not a deserter.’
A candle began to gutter, causing the shadows of the two men to shudder then to shrink and to grow.
‘I don’t know whether you’re a hero or a fool, Mitchell,’ said the captain quietly.
‘A fool, I suspect, sir.’
‘You’re certainly an honest one.’
Bellstood up and stared at Mitchell. ‘Get some rest,’ he said.
Mitchell’s eyes narrowed, cautiously, uncertain. ‘Is that all sir?’
Mitchell did not move.
‘That’s all. Believe me, that’s all.’
Mitchell saluted and left.