There are always bores in a Regimental Mess who want to talk about their adventures when you want to talk about yours. Mullins was as bad as any of them, but with this difference. The adventures of the others were adventures in search of the material; a petticoat, a golf ball, a gun emplacement. Mullins had only spiritual adventures. If, during those early days of training, he had fallen off the cliffs into the sea, he would have told you of his emotions on the way down, and said not a word of the splash at the bottom. Recovering in hospital, he would not have wondered whether he would always carry on his body the scars of the accident; he would have contemplated only the new scars on his soul. “Do I look different?” he would have asked his nurse quite seriously, his face swathed in bandages, and would have been surprised at her polite prevarication. What he would have meant would have been, “Don’t you understand that, as a result of this extraordinary experience, I am a finer Mullins altogether?”

This is not to say that he was indifferent to his personal appearance. He was very tall and thin, talked in a high voice, and walked with his head well back in the endeavour to balance a pair of glasses on a nose apparently not meant for glasses. Had he been indifferent to his appearance, he would have worn spectacles. Spectacles may or may not be ugly, but they would have hidden from you the essential Mullins. The essential Mullins, in a material world where people fight each other, and the short-sighted must suffer no handicap in the battle, could be expressed more clearly by pince-nez. So Mullins strode past you on the parade-ground with his head in the air, and if you did not realise at a glance all the astonishing things that he meant to himself, you did at least admit that he was an interesting-looking person. Which would have pleased him enormously to hear.

He went to France. He had often spoken of the changes in his mental and spiritual attitude which were likely to be caused by the battlefields of France, but he had never wondered, as many so much less introspective have wondered, whether he would be afraid. He knew he would not be afraid, simply because whatever might come to him only offered him yet another of those spiritual adventures for which he hungered. Death least of all he feared. For to a man like Mullins, whose every adventure is an adventure of the soul, the next world was simply an escape from the trammels of the body; a communion of spirits unfettered by spectacles and such-like matters, in which (I suspect) Mullins would do most of the communing.

But he had another reason for looking upon Death with a kindly eye. He was already in communication with many of those who had begun the adventure of the next world. 

In his actions in this world he was influenced by what they of the next world told him – indeed, that is my story, as will be seen – and now he was eager to join them, and himself to get to that great work of helping and guiding the earth-bound mortals whom he had left behind, but of whom he had never quite been one.

All this sounds strange, and perhaps a little uncanny, but it was Mullins. If I say simply that he was a Spiritualist, you will think of table-rappings and other stupidities, and do him an injustice. If I say that he was just a Christian who really believed all that other Christians profess, I may be nearer the truth; save that I do not know at all what his religion was. All I know is that he believed the barrier between this world and the next to be a slight one, and was himself quite ready to pass it.

And, of course, still more ready to talk about it.

Above: War Drawings by Muirhead Bone- Gordon Highlanders- Officer's Mess (IWM Art.IWM REPRO 000684 5)

To be absolutely without fear is not the only virtue required by a Company Commander in action. Mullins was given his company, and then taken away from it. He disregarded the material too openly. He saw beyond the crown on his sergeant-major’s arm into the blankness in his sergeant-major’s soul – and preferred to consult his batman, whose arm was devoid of anything but wound-stripes, but whose soul shone with crossed swords and stars. He was wrong about the sergeant-major, and wrong about the batman; and of course still more wrong about the proper duty of an officer. So he was taken from his company and made Intelligence Officer instead.

He did not mind. As Intelligence Officer he had much more scope. No soul is so clogged by the material as a company commander’s, whose twin cares must ever be the stomachs and the feet of others. True, a company commander is the lord of his Company Mess, and nobody can stop him doing all the talking, whereas the Intelligence Officer at HQ Mess must let the Colonel say something on occasion. But it must be remembered that the Intelligence Officer’s duties will take him to every part of the line, and consequently into all four Company Messes, and that if one Mess is temporarily alert, another may be in that peaceful state when the uninterrupted soliloquy of a soul contemplating itself is inexpressibly soothing.

But it was not all soliloquy, of course. He had his arguments with the unbelievers. The unbelievers were of two kinds; the materialists who held that there was no life beyond the grave, and the religious who held that there was such a life and that we should know all about it one day, but certainly not to-day. All alike scouted his pretence that the spirits of the dead could and did communicate with the living. Mullins argued earnestly with them, but did not resent their attitude. They were just blind; they were waiting until he could open their eyes with the proof; possibly in this world, but more probably from that next world, when, as a spirit of the dead, he would have something to say to them.

It was after Mullins had been out a year, had won the Military Cross, and had shown himself as good an Intelligence Officer as he was a bad Company Commander, that he came into possession of the famous stick. A great friend of his had been killed, and Mullins, home on leave, had called on that friend’s people. He had been asked to choose a memento of the dead man, and had chosen his stick, a short heavy one with plenty of weight in the head. During that night the dead man talked with Mullins, and told him how glad he was that Mullins had his stick. “That stick will do great things for you,” he said. “It will save the lives of many of your battalion.”

Mullins still had four days of leave; four days in which to tell everybody in London of this wonderful communication with the dead. Some, perhaps, believed; some smiled. Mullins himself was happy and excited. To the friends who saw him off, his last remark was “Look out for news of the old stick”, and he waved it gleefully at them. Two days later everybody in the battalion had heard that Mullins’s new stick was going to save their lives, and had indicated that he was a silly ass… They also told him that he was just in time for the new push.

The battalion was held up, and resented it. The leading company on the left licked its wounds in a disused trench – God knows what trench or whose, for this bit of country had been fought over, backwards and forwards, for two years – and wondered what to do about it. A hundred and fifty yards away, a German machine-gun was engaged in keeping their heads down for them.

Above: A Maxim gun crew.

The Company Commander squinted up at it, and squinted again at his watch, and cursed all machine-guns. Suppose they charged it – but 150 yards was the devil of a way, and that damned machine-gun had killed enough of them already. Suppose he sent a couple of men out to stalk it? Slow work, but – he looked at his watch again. Why the devil had this happened, when everything had been going so well before? And here they were – stuck – and seemed to have lost the swing of it. Momentum – that was the word – momentum all gone. Well, something would have to be done.

He looked along the trench, considering…

And from the extreme right of it a tall, thin figure emerged from the ruck and hoisted itself leisurely over the top. Mullins. He carried no revolver. His tin-hat was on the back of his head, his coat-collar, for some reason, turned up. Both his hands were in his pockets, and in the crook of his left arm lay the famous stick.

With an air of pleasant briskness he walked towards the machine-gunner. He did not hurry, for this was not so much an operation against the enemy, as a demonstration to unbelievers on the home-front. Neither did he dawdle. He just went to the machine-gun as in peace days he would have gone to the post on a fresh spring morning.

He had 150 yards to go. From time to time his right hand came out of his pocket, fixed his glasses more firmly on his nose, and returned to his pocket again. So, at Oxford, he must have walked along the High to a lecture many, many times, hands in pockets, hunched shoulders, coat-collar up, and gown or books tucked under the left arm. So he walked now… and still he was not hit.

I have tried to explain Mullins to you; I shall not try to explain that machine-gunner. He may have thought Mullins was coming to surrender. The astonishing spectacle of Mullins may have disturbed his aim. The numerous heads popping up to gape at the back-view of Mullins may have kept him too busy to attend to Mullins. Or – there may have been other reasons.

So Mullins walked up to the machine-gunner. A yard away from him he took his right hand from his pocket, withdrew the stick from the crook of his left arm and in a friendly way hit the machine-gunner over the head with it. The man collapsed. Mullins picked him up by the collar, shook him to see if he was shamming, dropped him, replaced the stick in the crook of his left arm, fixed his glasses on his nose, took the man by the collar again and started to drag him back to the British trench. Once or twice he got a little entangled between the stick, the prisoner and the attention necessary for his glasses, hesitating between dropping the stick and fixing the glasses with his left hand, and dropping the prisoner and fixing them with his right. But in the end he arrived safely at the trench with all three possessions. Once there, he handed the prisoner over, and then stood beaming down at the Company Commander.

“Well,” he said, pushing his glasses firmly on to his nose, “and what about the jolly old stick now?”

If this were not a true story, I should say that Mullins got the Victoria Cross. Actually they gave him a bar to his Military Cross. The real “Mullins”, if he reads this, will recognise the incident, though he will protest that I have quite misunderstood his personality and have failed altogether to appreciate his spiritual attitude. Perhaps I have. A writer must be allowed his own way in these matters. We start with a fact or two, the impression of a face, and in a little while we do not know how much is reality and how much is our daydream.

A. A. Milne
This piece was originally previewed in the Daily Telegraph
To read more short stories by A. A. Milne, search for ‘The Complete Short Stories of AA Milne’, introduced by Gyles Brandreth