BILL did n’t live in the proverbial gilded cage, hung between lace curtains, where he could scatter birdseed and music over his admiring friends. Bill’s home was at the bottom of a mine in a northern sector of the Allies’ lines in France. It was damp and dark — at least, that part of it not reached by the light of flickering candles was dark. There were no lace curtains. The walls and ceiling were provided by Mother Earth herself, aided and abetted by carefully selected Welshmen who had devoted their lives to learning the simplest and quickest way to shore the galleries of a mine. For these talents they were enlisted in the Corps of Engineers.

Not far from ’Chalk Street,’ a trench that wound through a labyrinth of piled bags of chalk, there lay an insignificant branch trench not dignified by a name. At the end of this smaller trench two dark holes led down into the earth. The smaller one, to the right hand, ended far below, in a tangle of wrecked timbers and caving earth. It was a relic of the days of German occupation. Within the opposite hole, leading steeply down into the earth, was a ramp of heavy planking, crossed at intervals with slats, that one might brace the feet for safe descent. At the mouth a working party of infantry passed an endless stream of bags of chalk from hand to hand, to be piled finally in even rows about the tops of the adjacent trenches. This was done at night. Before dawn a few shovelsful of earth were scattered over the new bags, that the watchful ‘Fritz’ might not deduce from them the mining operations that were in progress, and ‘ strafe ’ the locality.

At intervals of a few feet along the ramp leading down into the mine sat chalk-smeared soldiers, each in a little circle of light from his candle stuck to a near-by timber with a handful of the plastic chalk. Overhead, and at the sides, the chalk bulged inward between the shoring of timber and planking. Weird shadows from the candlelight danced about the walls. From the bottom of the shaft came the incessant creaking of a hand-windlass hoisting the chalk bags from a still lower level. These were handed up to the men posted along the ramp, who in turn passed them to the party at the mouth of the pit, for final disposal.

About the windlass was grouped a little party of soldiers who relieved each other at the hoisting. A series of ladders with hand ropes led to the lower gallery eighty feet below the hoist. Here men of the Engineer Corps were at work. Some were busily picking the chalk from the walls, while others shoveled the lumps into the bags for hoisting above.

The chamber was some twenty or thirty feet square, and was lighted by candles stuck on convenient ledges scooped out here and there in the hard chalk. By the light of one of these Sergeant Campbell of the Engineers, and Corporal Murray of the Infantry, argued over a muddy slip of paper which the sergeant held and slapped with a chalky forefinger to emphasize his remarks.

‘ Ye ’ll get no more candles,’ he said.

’The last shift o’ infantry warked every mon by a half candle, and it’s in their thievin’ pockets were the other halves. D’ye think the Engineers are proveedin’ candles for a’ the doogoots in the sector? Can ye no baud ye’ lads in hond?’ The sergeant was no Welshman, though he had, in his time, worked much in the coal districts of Wales. ‘ I ’ll gie ye fifty, nor you nor any other body shall hae more! ’

Thesigned slip for obtaining the candles once safely in hand, the corporal began an angry reply, but ceased abruptly. Both men looked upward to a little wicker cage hanging on the wall. The sounds of pick and shovel ceased, and the men stood leaning idly on their tools, as most exquisite song poured from the throat of the little feathered songster in the cage. ‘ That Bill bird was spilling it again,’ in the language of the men.

The tiny canary, with head tipped back, and eyes half closed, trilled on, unconscious of its grim surroundings and the listening men. With wings a-flutter, and little body swelling in its effort,thesong flowed on, while the men stood embarrassed by their own emotion at the homelike sound. It was not unusual for Bill to sing, but each song was like a first appearance, and gained for him a sympathetic hearing that a prima donna might have envied. The trills and runs went up and down as the little singer willed, sounding strangely sweet in the unusual surroundings. Somewhere a man dropped a tool, and the reverberating clang of metal ended the song, and brought a shower of curses on the clumsy one.

An Engineer officer slid down the ladder and strode up to the sergeant, wiping his hands on his riding breeches as he came. The two non-commissioned officers came smartly to attention, but the sappers, mindful of the Field Service Regulations which ignore officers where work is to be done, busied themselves with their digging.

‘Good-night, sir,’ said the sergeant;

‘there’s been no change.’

‘Very good, sergeant. I’ve just come from listening in Number 54. Fritz is at work near there, but too late. We shall “ blow ” him at 8.45 tonight. You can warn your men, though they will not feel it much here. The Germans are loading their mine-chamber over 54. We have loaded under their sub-gallery and can get them “cold.” If they are still working, we can cut off their whole party besides harvesting their explosives.’

‘Oh! In the new sap, sir?’ queried the delighted sergeant.

‘ Yes,’ replied the officer; ‘ I’ll show you here. We heard them at 53 degrees northwest, at about forty feet distance and above. They were dragging ammunition boxes.’

The officer spread out a map of the mines and an outline of the trenches above, lie and the sergeant examined them with much technical discussion.

The nearest sapper had ceased work, to repeat to a comrade what he had overheard about Sap 54. Noticing this, the sergeant turned to them and spoke sharply.

‘ Now, then, laddie, do ye get on wi’ ye’ wark. Fritz will no blow ye the night. When he does ye ’ll ken naught about it. ’T is like the passing “ whizzbang ”: if ye ken aught about it there’s no harm done.’

The men silently began to shovel, with an enthusiasm that deceived no one.

The officer rolled his maps and called for silence. The men dropped their tools and sat down. The sergeant sent the infantry corporal above to warn every one to be quiet for ‘ listening.’

Unslinging an instrument from his shoulder, the officer scooped out a small hollow in the chalk with a hand-pick, and, applying the instrument to a flat surface, listened intently. The men stood silent, scarcely breathing. No one moved, or shuffled his feet, for to the chiophone, or to any microphone, the least sound is a crashing noise. Perhaps you have seen a head nurse maintain silence in a hospital while a surgeon used a stethoscope. The listening instruments used in mining work are far more sensitive. It is said that to them the sound of a fly walking on a window-pane is like that of a charging squadron of cavalry. The sound of German picks and shovels, or of boxes of explosive being moved, can be heard for considerable distances.

After some fifteen minutes of patient listening, the officer put away his instrument and prepared to leave.

‘There is nothing doing here,’ he said. ‘ Mind the “ blow ” at 8.45. You should feel it but little here, sergeant.’

‘ I ken, sir. A bit of a mild earthquake, and a draught of air to snuff the candles it always is, sir.’

The officer consulted a compass, and made a few entries in a note-book. The sergeant gave him some slips of paper bearing reports of the progress of the work, and the number of bags of chalk removed in the last four-hour shift.

‘Air been all right, sergeant? ’ the officer asked.

‘Aye, sir; Bill here was singing us a whole grand opera just before you come, sir.’

‘Ah! that’s good,’ said the officer, taking down Bill’s cage and inspecting the bird. ‘ If Bill keeps bright and cheerful, one of our worst difficulties is avoided. Don’t let the men be feeding him rubbish. Canaries are not expensive, but it is difficult getting them when we want them.’

Hanging the cage up, the officer shook his finger playfully at the bird. ‘Remember, Bill,’ he said, ‘the lives of this tunneling company depend on you. Your duty is a hard one; but when the air gets dangerously bad, you must fall from your little perch and die. You ’re one of the army now, Bill, and you must give your life when the time comes, just as we must, that the “ Unspeakable Hun ” shall never crush civilization.’

The sergeant smiled. ‘ I’m thinking, sometimes, Bill’s ancestors may have come from the Hartz Mountains in Germany, sir, but I dinna mention it to the men, for he has many friends among them the noo, an’ they’d haud it against him.’

‘Well, sergeant, the bird’s duty is so simple, and so involuntary, that we need n’t worry about his nationality, He could n’t betray us even if he was disloyal.’

The officer laughed as he turned away to mount the ladder. But he little knew. Poor Bill had heard the cock crow thrice, and though his little heart was loyal to his rough friends, who fed and tended him down there in the earth, he had been marked for a traitor — an innocent, but not less deadly one.


After the officer left, Campbell busied himself with the work. As it neared the hour for the blow in 54, he directed a few extra timbers to be placed at points that he thought required a greater margin of safety. The explosion, although at a considerable distance, would rock the ground severely. The consequent compression on the supporting timbers at other parts of the mine would be very severe.

When the work was well under way, he took down Bill’s cage and tidied it. He saw to the food, and after rinsing the little cup, refilled it from the military water-bottle at his own belt. Afterward he devoted a few moments to petting the bird which had become a great favorite with the men.

At 8.40 he ordered them to ‘ knock off.’ The men sat about talking in low voices. The sergeant bent his arm so as to bring his wrist-watch conveniently in sight. It had been set with headquarters by telephone. During the last two or three minutes he called off the time at intervals to the men. ‘ Eight — forty-three! — and-a-half! — fortyfour! — forty-four-and-a-half! ’

The men, knowing from experience the shock that would reach them even at that distance, rose and stood, some standing on tiptoe and opening their mouths, as artillerymen do when a heavy gun is to be fired.

‘Forty-five!’ There was no immediate shock. Some planking seemed to twist and writhe. A timber creaked. Then, for a second or two, all the timber-work groaned and swayed. Bits of chalk fell here and there as the earth undulated. A few seconds later came a dull boom, muffled and distant.

As the timbers settled into place with a final shiver, Bill’s cage fell to the floor, bounced, rolled a few feet, and lay still. Sergeant Campbell and one of the men sprang to pick it up. Just then, a current of cool, fresh air, smelling of the night, rushed in and filled the place. Without a preliminary flicker the candles went out. A wick or two glowed red in the darkness. A soldier relighted one instantly. By its light the sergeant stooped for the cage. At that moment Bill fluttered from its open door, and eluding the sergeant’s fumbling fingers, flitted across the chamber and up the shaft.

Campbell, with an expression of annoyance, sat down. The men were relighting the candles.

‘Do ye be watchin’ the candles, boys,’ said Campbell. ‘Bill’s deserted, an’ ye ’ll hae to take warnin’ o’ bad air fra’ the candles for the rest o’ the night. I hae no doot the air is guid enough, but’t will be no harm to watch if the candles burn poorly. I hae no need to tell ye. Ye all ken the canaries are put in the mine to gie ye warnin’ when the air gets bad. The wee birds can no stand the bad air. He ’s gone the noo, and it’s no much harm for the present.’

Campbell, thinking no more of the bird for the moment, set to work examining the timbers for signs of damage from the ’blow.’ He ordered some adjustments and repairs here and there, and then sat down on a box to fill in a report blank. A soldier picked up the empty cage and set it on the sergeant’s box.

Gazing absently at it for a moment, Campbell sprang to his feet with an exclamation. ‘Lloyd,’ he called to a man working near him. ‘ Drop yer wark and double up to the nearest infantry officer ye can find in the trenches above. Tell him — and mind ye get it straight — tell him the canary assigned to this gallery has escaped, and I be fearin”t will settle in No Man’s Land. Jump to it, lad! ’

As the man hurriedly ascended the shaft, the sergeant wrote two notes and dispatched them by other messengers to the infantry officers holding the trenches above. As he wrote he cursed himself for his stupidity. Why had he not realized at once that the Germans — expert as they were in mining — would deduce from the presence of the canary that the carefully concealed mining operations were in progress? How fortunate, he thought, that there were yet a few hours of darkness. He thought the bird would not sing in the dark. Would the bird go to the German trenches? Thoughts raced through the brain of the anxious man.

Above, Lloyd had found a major of infantry, and halted that astonished officer. ’From Sergeant Campbell to the nearest infantry officer, sir,’ he began, mumbling the official message form. ‘ Bill’s escaped! ’ Seeing nothing but blank amazement in the officer’s face, he began afresh. ’Bill, our canary in Gallery 47, has got away. The sergeant thinks he might give the game away to the Germans, sir.’

The major quickly grasped the situation. First acknowledging the message, he strode away to take steps in the matter. At the next turn of the trench he met the colonel commanding the sector, who was making a tour of inspection. The major stopped him and hurriedly explained matters. The colonel immediately sent messages to subordinates, and little Bill soon became an object of great interest to the officers and men of two battalions. Men peered anxiously about the corners of the trenches. Scouts and patrols in No Man’s Land attempted the almost hopeless task of searching for Bill.

In a zealous search for the bird, Sergeant Lacy of the Scouts crawled nearly to the German wire. The ground was under fire, and he ran more risk than he had in winning his D.C.M. at Mt. Sorrel. On his return he was very impolite to a facetious Irishman, who suggested that he go again after Bill and take a handful of salt.

As the eastern sky behind the German trenches turned from blue to gray, eager eyes scanned the ground between the lines. Men were more than usually alert in observation of the German trenches. Fritz must have wondered at the reckless expenditure of ammunition that met every attempt on his part to use a periscope to observe the ground. The appearance of one was the signal for a fusillade. Men were detailed to keep telescopes and fieldglasses directed on the German trenches and report every attempt at observation. Every ear was listening for the dreaded chirp. One song in greeting of the approaching day, and the harm would be done.

A bomber, at his post near the head of a sap, glanced over the ground with a field-glass. His heart leaped as he spied a downy ball of yellow perched on the shell-shattered stump of a bush. With astonishing swiftness the news spread through the trench. Without waiting for orders men fired their rifles at the bird. A military rifle is designed to hit large objects at great distances, and is a poor tool to hit small objects close by. Poor Bill, too inexperienced to be alarmed, sat quietly preening and dressing his feathers, quite unconscious of his notoriety. The increasing fire and signs of activity, coming at the favorite attacking hour of dawn, alarmed the Germans. Although it was nearly daylight, a flaring rocket went aloft from their trench. It burst and set adrift the familiar display of red and green lights, now pale and sickly looking in the morning light. Before they reached the ground, Fritz’s distant artillery responded sympathetically. The rifle-practice at the bird was continued under a rapidly increasing ‘strafe.’

Impatient officers directed the efforts to destroy the tell-tale bird, but rifle-fire proved ineffectual. Bombers were trying to reach the bush with their grenades.

‘Lord love a poleeceman!’ shouted a cockney, pulling the pin from a bomb.

‘ ’Ere yer hare. ’It the bloomin’ bird and get a V.C.’

Absorbed in the enjoyment of his joke, he continued to hold the foursecond bomb. A shout from his comrades warned him to throw it, just in time for it to burst outside the trench.

Several hundred rounds of ammunition expended had only caused Bill to hop from branch to branch, and look reproachful at the interruption to his morning toilet. A bullet clipped a twig close to him. A machine-gun barked away, its bullets enveloping the bush in a cloud of chalk. Bill merely circled about the bush and relighted, to the exasperation of the officers. Settled once more, he ruffled his feathers in annoyance, and began a search for possible worms about the bush.

As the rattle of small arms continued, a sergeant, in charge of a Stokesgun crew, begged an officer for a chance to try his weapon. The officer, amused at the contrast between the tiny bird and the deadly, thirty-yards destructive radius of the Stokes projectile, smilingly assented.

The gun was carefully plumbed and sighted. The sergeant had cut a special fuse for so short a range. With one of his gunners he awaited the result of a volley of bombs just thrown. As the smoke cleared, Bill was seen to make another of his circular flights and settle down again.

‘ Now! ’ said the sergeant.

The gunner held the long, deadly cylinder over the mouth of the mortar, and dropped it in. There was the usual muffled report of the propelling charge, sounding like a fire-cracker exploding in an iron pipe, followed by the swish of the returning projectile as it shot out of the mouth of the gun, and went hurtling into the air. Eager eyes followed its course as it mounted, spinning end over end. Its force expended, it fell earthward with ever-increasing speed. The fuse was well timed. As the heavy bomb struck the earth nearby, the now cautious bird poised himself for flight, but too late. The vicious crash of the explosion swept bomb, bird, and bush into the limbo of forgotten things.

At the mouth of the mine the men still piled the endless stream of chalk bags in preparation for the day that would see even the scene of the incident blown away.

Down in the mine the big Scotch sergeant drew a small, yellow feather from the empty cage, and thoughtfully laid it away in his pay-book beside the sprig of heather he carried there.