The Conscript

A Story of the War

WILLIAM BYRON October 1 1915

The Conscript

A Story of the War

WILLIAM BYRON October 1 1915

The Conscript

A Story of the War


THE young doctor, who had kept intently at work as his visitor talked, suddenly straightened up and regarded the other through his thick glasses with an air of aroused interest. In one hand he clutched a test tube, his long, sensitive, capable fingers wrapped almost protectingly around it.

“No, Karl,” he said, with finality, “I am not going to offer myself for the front. If I am drafted for service, I suppose

then I must go. But until then-”

His visitor, who was garbed in a worn uniform that flaunted an empty sleeve, made an impatient gesture.

“But, remember,” he protested, “you were all for war. I talked peace, while you were for placing the whole world under German kultur. Nothing would content you but absolute world domin-

“Exactly,” said the doctor, quietly. “And now that the war has come,” said the other, “now that Germany has stirred herself to war at the bidding of those who held the same views as you professed—now you refuse to do your part. You owe it to your country—”

“Exactly,” repeated the doctor. “I owe it to my country—to stay here. I would give an arm too for my country, or a life perhaps—my own, which ordinarily I would be free to do. But I would in so doing rob the world of the lives of countless millions—which I am not free to do!”

He paused, a heavy frown drawing grim lines around eyes and brow.

“Listen,” he went on. “Everything has gone wrong. We willed war, yes; but not this kind of war. Who could have told that it would not be the same as Germany’s other wars—a furious campaign of a few weeks, the grand, victorious pounding of an efficient war machine through hostile land, and then peace at the cost of some thousands of soldiers’ lives? But this-—this war of nations and not of armies—this is different. If we could have known what it meant—national life stopped, trade ruined, useful lives by the hundreds of thousands thrown away in futile fighting—there would have been no war, Karl! We have created a Frankenstein, a monster that has run amuck and is crushing civilization under foot. I have lost a brother, whose work in the cause of science had he lived would have been beyond computation, a friend who bid fair to fill the vacant place of Wagner and scores of others to whom I was very close, specialists all of them, men of wonderful promise—unnecessary loss, Karl, a criminal loss that men such as these should die as soldiers. I have come to hate and dread the monster that we have let loose on the world!”

TT E paused again. When he resumed ^ ^ an undercurrent of excitement crept into his voice.

“The loss of life in this war has been appalling!” he said. “Full-bodied men

are dying in hundreds of thousands. But every year that this old world spins on its axis more people still die fiom a deadlier cause than war—men of all ages, delicate women, little children with the hectic fever in their cheeks and the racking cough that spells their doom. The white plague-”

He held the test tube up to the light with a hand that shook slightly. It contained a pale-colored fluid of glistening transparency.

“I have found it!” he said, in a tone of voice that expressed something of triumph, but more of wonder and reverence. “Here it is—the serum that will cure consumption. I hold in my hand the lives of millions of the world’s diseased and their descendants!”

His excitement communicated itself to his companion. The soldier rose and regarded the contents of the tube with interest.

“You are sure of it?” he asked, after a moment.

“I know,” said the doctor, quietly. “It is not like those other cures that quacks have foisted on the world. It is a cure for all cases—the greatest medical discovery of centuries. I need just four weeks more to confirm the quantities and retrace every phase of my experiments. I must be sure of everything to the last

milligram, you know. And then!—-------

Then I can prove to the world that tuberculosis need no longer be feared!

“And that is why I can’t offer myself for service in the war that I, in a small way, helped to bring about,” he concluded. “That is why I dread this war—for fear I may be dragged into it before I have had a chance to complete my work, just as my dead brother and friends

' I ' HERE was a rap at the door. The -*• doctor carefully placed the test tube with its precious contents' back into a holder and answered the summons. The curiosity of the soldier drew him to the bench, and with his remaining hand he lifted the tube up for a closer inspection. As he gazed almost with fascination at the seemingly innocuous fluid, a cry from the door drew his attention that way.

With fear and rage convulsing every feature of his usually mild face, the young doctor strode back into the room, a slip of paper crumpled in his hand.

“I am drafted!” he cried. “My God, Karl, drafted for immediate service! Do you realize what that means? I must abandon my work and go out to the trenches, to kill and perhaps be killed! I have almost in my grasp the secret that will lift from the world its heaviest load of woe. But I must drop it and march out as a private with a rifle over my shoulder —cannon-fodde ! If I am killed-”

He broke off aghast, too startled even

to utter a word of warning. For the soldier had essayed with his unsteady hand to replace the tube in the holder and had allowed it to graze the sharp edge of a burner.

There was a slight crash, a splintering of glass and the secret of life for countless millions poured in an opalescent stream down the soldier’s faded grey uniform.

* I * HERE was a long period of silence.

The doctor had sunk on a low bench, his head in his hands. The soldier gazed at him with a rueful air of remorse.

“It was all I had,” said the doctor finally. “That is, all of the complete mixture. I could replace it, of cqurse—if I had time. But to-night I start for training camp!”

“But surely someone can be found to intrust your secret to! Why not get an assistant to complete the experiment?”

“That is impossible—now,” said the doctor. “I work by methods of my own. The greatest genius that lives couldn’t pick up the threads where I have left them. We would have to work together for weeks.”

“Then,” cried the soldier, “get leave of absence, for the necessary time. It could be secured.”

But the other laughed almost vindictively at the suggestion.

“You, a German soldier, and do not know that there is nothing of sufficient importance in this world to override military orders! Did they stop to consider what the death of my brother Max or my friends would mean? In the eyes of the military machine that we, in our blindness have built up, it is more essential that Private Anton Hangard, drafted to-day, report for duty on the exact minute named in the orders, than that Dr. Hangard complete his discovery of a cure for the disease that kills its hundreds of thousands every year. How the officers would laugh at this latest excuse of an unwilling conscript!”

With bitter resignation, he gathered up his papers and threw them haphazard into a drawer. Then he turned his face, livid and tragic, on his penitent compan-

“If I fall, Karl—the secret dies with me—Think of what that means!”

A WEARY surgeon and an anxiousY*. eyed nurse walked slowly along the narrow aisle between the rows of cots. It was the end of another day for them, a day crammed with hasty operations and feverishly rapid work among the everincreasing stream of wounded that came to them from off where the dull roar of the guns day and night told of active fighting.

They paused for a moment at one of

the cots and gazed down at an emaciated figure tossing wearily in the last delirium.

“Poor Hangard,” said the surgeon. “He gave great promise when I knew him years ago at Munich. But it’s all over with him—acute miliary*, contracted through exposures in the trenches. We’ve had lots of such cases. It takes them off in a few weeks. I wouldn’t give Hangard a day now.”

•Galloping consumption.

The dying man ceased his tossing and lay still. His eyes opened and fixed themselves on the surgeon.

“Yes, I am close to the border,” he said faintly, “You see I had made a special study of this particular affliction of the flesh—from which I am dying. But you are too liberal, doctor. Personally, I give myself less than an hour.”

There was another pause. Again, Han-

gard roused his straying faculties and began to speak in tones of entreaty:

“Go-to my place at Munich. I have

data——there. Try, try-”

His head dropped back on the pillow. The hectic fever that had burned in his cheeks, slowly died down. The racking cough grew less violent with weakness. His eyelids fluttered. They could barely catch his last words:

“The supreme irony-”