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HOW RIFLEMAN BROWN CAME TO VALHALLA
by
Gilbert Frankau

To the lower Hall of Valhalla, to the heroes of no renown
Relieved from his spell at the listening post, came Rifleman Joseph Brown
With never a rent in his khaki nor smear of blood on his face
He flung his pack from his shoulders, and made for an empty space.

The killer-men of Valhalla looked up from the banquet board
At the untouched breech of his rifle, at the unfleshed point of his sword.
And the unsung dead of the trenches, the kings who have never a crown
Demanded his pass to Valhalla from Rifleman Joseph Brown.

“Who comes unhit, to the party?” a one legged Corporal spoke.
And the gashed heads nodded approval through the rings of the Endless Smoke
“Who comes for the beer and the Woodbines of the never-closed Canteen
With the barrack-shine on his bayonet and a full-charged magazine?”

Then Rifleman Brown looked round him at the nameless men of the line.
At the wounds of the shell and the bullet, at the burns of the bomb and the mine.
At the tunics, virgin of medals but crimson-clotted with blood.
At the ankle-boots and the puttees, caked stiff with the Flanders mud.
At the myriad short Lee-Enfields that crowded the rifle-rack.
Each with its blade to the sword-cross brown, and its muzzle powder-black.

And Rifleman Brown said never a word, yet he felt in the soul of his soul,
His right to the beer of the lower hall, though he came to drink it, whole.
His right to the fags of the free Canteen, to a seat at the banquet board
Though he came to the men who had killed their man, with never a man to his sword.

“Who speaks for the stranger Rifleman, O boys of the free Canteen?
Who passes the chap with the unmaimed limbs and the kit that is far too clean?”
The gashed heads eyed him about their beers, the gashed lips sucked at their smoke
There were three at the board of his own platoon, but not a man of them spoke.

His mouth was mad for the tankard froth and the biting whiff of a fag
But he knew that he might not speak for himself to the dead men who do not brag
A gun-butt crashed on the gateway, a man came staggering in
His head was cleft with a great red wound from the temple-bone to the chin.

His blade was dyed to the bayonet-boss with the clots that were barely dry,
And he cried to the men who had killed their man, “Who passes the Rifleman?... I.”
By the four I slew, by the shell I stopped, if my feet be not too late
I speak the word for Rifleman Brown that a chap may speak for his mate.”
The dead of lower Valhalla, the heroes of dumb renown
They pricked their ears to the tale of the earth as they set their tankards down.

“My mate was on sentry this evening when General happened along,
And asked what he’d do in a gas attack. Joe told him, “Beat on the gong.”
“What else?” “Open fire, sir.” Joe answered. “Good God, man,” our General said,
“By the time you’d beaten the bloodstained gong the chances are you’d be dead
Just think, lad.” “Gas -helmet, of course, sir.” “Yes dammit, and gas helmet first.”
So Joe stood dumb to attention, and wondered why he’d been cursed.

The gashed heads turned to the Rifleman, and now it seemed that they knew
Why the face that had never a smear of blood was stained to the jaw-bones, blue.
“He was posted again at midnight.” The scarred heads craned to the voice
As the man with the blood-red bayonet spoke up for the mate of his choice.
“You know what it’s like in a listening post, the 'Very' candles aflare
Their bullets smacking the sand-bags, our Vickers combing your hair,
How your ears and your eyes get jumpy, till each known tuft that you scan
Moves and crawls in the shadows till you’d almost swear it was man.
You know how you peer and snuff at the night when the North-East gas-winds blow.”
“By the One who made us and maimed us,” quoth lower Valhalla, “We know.”

“Sudden, out of the blackness, sudden as Hell, there came,
Roar and rattle of rifles, spurts of machine-gun flame.
And Joe stood up in the forward sap to try and fathom their game
Sudden their shells come screaming; sudden his nostrils sniff
The sickening reek of the rotten pears, the death that kills with a whiff.
Death! and he knows it certain, as he bangs on his cartridge case
With the gas-cloud’s claws at his windpipe and the gas-clouds wings on his face.
We heard his gong in our dug-out, he only whacked on it twice
We whipped our gas-bags over our heads, and manned the steps in a trice.
For the cloud would have caught us for sure as Fate if he’d taken the Staff’s advice.”

His head was cleft with a great red wound from the chin to the temple-bone
But his voice was as clear as a sounding gong, “I’ll be damned if I’ll drink alone,
Not even in lower Valhalla! Is he free of your free Canteen
My mate who comes with the unfleshed point and the full-charged magazine?”

The gashed heads rose at the Rifleman, o’er the rings of the Endless Smoke
And loud as the roar of a thousand guns Valhall’s answer broke.
And loud as the crash of a thousand shells their tankards clashed on the board
“He is free of the mess of the killer-men, your mate of the unfleshed sword
For we know the worth of his deed on earth, as we know the speed of the death
Which catches its man by the back of the throat and gives him water for breath.
As we know how the helmet cloth may tarry seconds too long
When the very life of the front-line trench is staked on the beat of a gong.
By the four you slew, by the case he smote, by the grey gas-cloud and the green
We pass your mate for the Enless Smoke and the beer of the free Canteen.”

In the lower hall of Valhalla, with the heroes of no renown
With our nameless dead of the Marne and the Aisne, of Mons, and of Wipers town
With the men who killed 'ere they died for us, sits Rifleman Joseph Brown.

 
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