The key-bugle remarked with singular distinction to the dawn:
dy I know a lad fair kind and Was never face so mind please my y
A sudden waft of pleasure at the seventeenth-century air that the tones gave to the landscape went all over Tietjens . . . Herrick and Purcell! . . . Or perhaps it was a modern imitation, Good enough. He asked:
‘What the devil’s that row, Sergeant?’
The Sergeant disappeared behind the muddied sacking curtain. There was a guard-room in there. The key-bugle said:
Fair kind . . . and Fair Fair Fair kind . . . and . . . and . . . and
It might be two hundred yards off along the trenches. Astonishing pleasure came to him from that seventeenth-century air and the remembrance of those exact, quiet words . . . Or perhaps he had not got them right. Nevertheless, they were exact and quiet. As efficient working beneath the soul as the picks of miners in the dark.
The Sergeant returned with the obvious information that it was 011 Griffiths practising on the cornet. Captain McKechnie ad promised to ear im after breakfast n recommend im to the Divisional Follies to play at the concert tonight, if e like im.
‘Well, I hope Captain McKechnie likes him!’
He hoped McKechnie, with his mad eyes and his pestilential accent, would like that fellow. That fellow spread seventeenth-century atmosphere across the landscape over which the sun’s rays were beginning to flood a yellow wash. Then, might the seventeenth century save the fellow’s life, for his good taste! For his life would probably be saved. He, Tietjens, would give him a pass back to Division to get ready for the concert. So he would be out of the strafe . . . Probably none of them would be alive after the strafe that Brigade reported to be coming in . . . Twenty-seven minutes, by now! Three hundred and twenty-eight fighting men against . . . Say a Division. Any preposterous number . . . Well, the seventeeth century might as well save one man!
What had become of the seventeenth century? And Herbert and Donne and Crashaw and Vaughan, the Silurist? . . . Sweet day so cool, so calm, so bright, the bridal of the earth and sky! . . . By Jove, it was that! . . . Old Campion flashing like a popinjay in the scarlet and gilt of the Major-General, had quoted that in the base camp, years ago. Or was it months? Or wasn’t it: ‘But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariots hurrying near,’ that he had quoted?
Anyhow, not bad for an old General!
He wondered what had become of that elegant collection of light yellow, scarlet and gilt . . . Somehow he always thought of Campion as in light yellow, rather than khaki, so much did he radiate light . . . Campion and his, Tietjens’, wife, radiating light together — she in a golden gown!
Campion was about due in these latitudes. It was astonishing that he had not turned up before. But poor old Puffles with his abominably weakened Army had done too jolly well to be replaced. Even at the request of the Minister whot hated him. Good for him!
It occurred to him that if he . . . call it ‘stopped one’ that day, Campion would probably marry his, Tietjens’, widow . . . Sylvia in crepe. With perhaps a little white about it!
The cornet — obviously it was not a key-bugle — remarked:
: her pass by . . . ing I did but view
and then stopped to reflect. After a moment it added meditatively:
. her . . . And . . now . . I . . love . till I die!
That would scarcely refer to Sylvia . . . Still, perhaps in crepe, with a touch of white, passing by, very tall . . . Say, in a seventeenth century street . . .
The only satisfactory age in England! . . . Yet what chance had it to-day? Or, still more, to-morrow? In the sense that the age of, say, Shakespeare had a chance. Or Pericles! or Augustus!
Heaven knew, we did not want a preposterous drumbeating such as the Elizabethans produced — and received. Like lions at a fair . . . But what chance had quiet fields, Anglican sainthood, accuracy of thought, heavy-leaved, timbered hedgerows, slowly creeping plough-lands moving up the slopes? . . . Still, the land remains . . .
The land remains . . . It remains! . . . At that same moment the dawn was wetly revealing; over there in George Herbert’s parish . . . What was it called? . . . What the devil was its name? Oh, Hell! . . . Between Salisbury and Wilton . . . The tiny church . . . But he refused to consider the plough-lands, the heavy groves, the slow highroad above the church that the dawn was at that moment wetly revealing — until he could remember that name . . . He refused to consider that, probably even to-day, that land ran to . . . produced the stock of . . . Anglican sainthood. The quiet thing!
But until he could remember the name he would consider nothing . . .
‘Are those damned Mills bombs coming?’
The Sergeant said:
‘In ten minutes they’ll be ere, sir. HAY Cumpny had just telephoned that they were coming in now.’
It was almost a disappointment: in an hour or so, without bombs, they might all have been done with. As quiet as the seventeenth century: in heaven . . . The beastly bombs would have to explode before that, now! They might, in consequence, survive . . . Then what was he, Tietjens, going to do! Take orders! It was thinkable . . .
‘Those bloody imbeciles of Huns are coming over in an hour’s time, Brigade says. Get the beastly bombs served out, but keep enough in store to serve as an emergency ration if we should want to advance . . . Say a third. For C and D Companies . . . Tell the Adjutant I’m going along all the trenches and I want the Assistant-Adjutant, Mr Aranjuez, and Orderly-Corporal Colley to come with me . . . As soon as the bombs come for certain! . . . I don’t want the men to think they’ve got to stop a Hun rush without bombs . . . They’re due to begin their barrage in fourteen minutes, but they won’t really come over without a hell of a lot of preparation . . . I don’t know how Brigade knows all this!’
The name Bemerton suddenly came on to his tongue. Yes, Bemerton, Bemerton, Bemerton was George Herbert’s parsonage. Bemerton, outside Salisbury . . . The cradle of the race as far as our race was worth thinking about. He imagined himself standing up on a little hill, a lean contemplative parson, looking at the land sloping down to Salisbury spire. A large, clumsily bound seventeenth-century testament, Greek, beneath his elbow . . . Imagine standing up on a hill! It was the unthinkable thing there!
The Sergeant was lamenting, a little wearily, that the Huns were coming.
‘Hi did think them bleeding ‘uns, ‘xcuse me, sir, wasn’ per’aps coming this morning . . . Give us a rest an’ a chance to clear up a bit . . . He had the tone of a resigned schoolboy saying that the Head might have given the school a holiday on the Queen’s birthday. But what the devil did that man think about his approaching dissolution?
That was the unanswerable question. He, Tietjens, had been asked several times what death was like . . . Once, in a cattle truck under a bridge, near a Red-Cross Clearing Station, by a miserable fellow called Perowne. In the presence of the troublesome lunatic called McKechnie. You would have thought that even a Movement Order Officer would have managed to send up the line that triangle differently arranged. Perowne was known to have been his wife’s lover; he, Tietjens, against his will, had been given the job, as second-in-command of the battalion, that McKechnie wanted madly. And indeed he had a right to it. They ought not to have been sent up together.
But there they had been — Perowne broken down, principally at the thought that he was not going to see his, Tietjens’, wife ever again in a golden gown . . . Unless, perhaps, with a golden harp on a cloud, for he looked at things like that. . . . And, positively, as soon as that baggage-car — it had been a baggage-car, not a cattle-truck! — had discharged the deserter with escort and the three wounded Cochin-Chinese platelayers whom the French authorities had palmed off on them . . . And where the devil had they all been going? Obviously up into the line, and already pretty near it: near Division Headquarters. But where? . . . God knew? Or when? God knew too! . . . A fine-ish day with a scanty remains of not quite melted snow in the cutting and the robins singing in the coppice above. Say February . . . Say St Valentine’s Day: which, of course would agitate Perowne some more . . . Well, positively as soon as the baggage-car had discharged the wounded who had groaned, and the sheepish escort who did not know whether they ought to be civil to the deserter in the presence of the orfcers, and the deserter who kept on defiantly — or if you like brokenheartedly, for there was no telling the difference — asking the escort questions as to the nature of their girls, or volunteering information as to the intimate behaviour of his . . . The deserter a gipsyfied, black-eyed fellow with an immense jeering mouth; the escort a Corporal and two Tommies, blond and blushing East Kents, remarkably polished about the buttons and brass numerals, with beautifully neatly put on puttees: obviously Regulars, coming from behind the lines; the Cochin-Chinese, with indistinguishable broad yellow faces, brown poetic eyes, furred top-boots and blue furred hoods over their bandaged heads and swathed faces. Seated, leaning back against the side of the box-truck and groaning now and then and shivering all the time . . .
Well, the moment they had been cleared out at the Deputy Sub RTO’s tin shed by the railway bridge, the fellow Perowne with his well-padded presence and his dark babu-Hinduish aspect had bubbled out with questions as to the hereafter according to Tietjens and as to the nature of Death; the immediate process of dissolution: dying . . . And in between Perowne’s questions McKechnie, with his unspeakable intonation and his dark eyes as mad as a cat’s, had asked Tietjens how he dared get himself appointed second-in-command of his, McKechnie’s own battalion . . . ‘You’re no soldier,’ he would burst out. ‘Do you think you are a b —— y infantryman? You’re a mealsack, and what the devil’s to become of my battalion . . . Mine . . . My battalion! Our battalion of pals!’
That had been in, presumably, February, and, presumably, it was now April. The way the dawn came up looked like April . . . What did it matter? . . . That damned truck had stayed under that bridge for two hours and a half . . . in the process of the eternal waiting that is War. You hung about and you hung about, and you kicked your heels and you kicked your heels: waiting for Mills bombs to come, or for jam, or for generals, or for the tanks, or transport, or the clearance of the road ahead. You waited in offices under the eyes of somnolent orderlies, under fire on the banks of canals, you waited in hotels, dug-outs, tin sheds, ruined houses. There will be no man who survives of His Majesty’s Armed Forces that shall not remember those eternal hours when Time itself stayed still as the true image of bloody War! . . .
Well, in that case Providence seemed to have decreed a waiting just long enough to allow Tietjens to persuade the unhappy mortal called Perowne that death was not a very dreadful affair . . . He had enough intellectual authority to persuade the fellow with his glued-down black hair that Death supplied His own anaesthetics. That was the argument. On the approach of Death all the faculties are so numbed that you feel neither pain nor apprehension . . . He could still hear the heavy, authoritative words that, on that occasion, he had used.
The Providence of Perowne! For, when he was dug out after, next night having been buried in going up into the trenches, they said, he had a smile like a young baby’s on his face. He didn’t have long to wait and died with a smile on his face . . . nothing having so much become him during his life as . . . Well, a becoming smile! During life he had seemed a worried, fussing sort of chap.
Bully for Perowne . . . But what about him. Tietjens? Was that the sort of thing that Providence ought to do to one? . . . That’s TEMPTING GOD!
The Sergeant beside him said:
‘Then a man could stand hup on an ill . . . You really mean to say, sir, that you think a man will be able to stand up on a bleedin’ ill . . . ’
Presumably Tietjens had been putting heart into that acting temporary Sergeant-Major. He could not remember what he had been saying to the N.C.O. because his mind had been so deeply occupied with the image of Perowne . . . He said:
‘You’re a Lincolnshire man, aren’t you? You come from a Fen country. What do you want to stand up on a hill for?’ The man said:
‘Ah, but you do, sir!’
‘You want to stand up! Take a look round . . . ’ He struggled for expression: ‘Like as if you wanted to breathe deep after bein in a stoopin posture for a long time!’
‘Well, you can do that here. With discretion. I did it just now . . .
The man said:
‘You, sir . . . You’re a law hunto yourself!’
It was the most considerable shock that Tietjens received in the course of his military career. And the most considerable reward.
There were all these inscrutable beings: the Other Ranks, a brownish mass, spreading underground, like clay strata in the gravel, beneath all this waving country that the sun would soon be warming: they were in holes, in tunnels, behind sackcloth curtains, carrying on . . . carrying on some sort of life: conversing, breathing, desiring. But completely mysterious, in the mass. Now and then you got a glimpse of a passionate desire: ‘A man could stand up on a bleedin’ ill!’; now and then you got — though you knew that they watched you eternally and knew the minutest gestures of your sleep — you got some sort of indication as to how they regarded you: ‘You are a law unto yourself!’
That must be hero-worship: an acting temporary regimental Sergeant-Major, without any real knowledge of his job, extemporising, not so long ago a carrier in an eastern county of remarkable flatness, does not tell his Acting Commanding Officer that he is a law unto himself without meaning it to be a flattering testimony: a certificate, as far as it went, of trustworthiness . . .
They were now crawling out into the light of day . . . from behind the sacking: six files that he had last night transferred from C to D Coy., D having been reduced to forty-three rank and file. They shuffled out, an extraordinary Falstaff’s battalion of muddy odd-come shorts; fell into some sort of alignment in the trench; shuffled an inch further this way, an inch further that; pushed up their chin-straps and pulled them down; humped up their packs by hunching their shoulders and jerking; adjusted their water bottles and fell into some sort of immobility, their rifles, more or less aligned, poked out before them. In that small company they were men of all sorts of sizes, of all sorts of disparities and grotesquenesses of physique. Two of them were music-hall comedians and the whole lot looked as if they made up a knock-about turn . . . The Rag Time Army: at its vocation: living and breathing.
The Sergeant called them to attention and they wavered back and forward. The Sergeant said:
The Commandin’ Officer’s lookin’ at you. FIX . . . B’ts!’ And, positively, a dwarf concealed under a pudding basin shuffled a foot length and a half forward in the mud, protruded his rifle-muzzle between his bent knees, jerked his head swiftly to strain his sight along the minute line . . . It was like a blurred fairy-tale! Why did that dwarf behave in a smart and soldierly manner? Through despair? It wasn’t likely!
The men wavered like the edge of a field of tall grass with the wind running along it; they felt round themselves for their bayonet-handles, like women attempting difficult feats with their skirts . . . The dwarf cut his hand smartly away to his side, as the saying is; the men pulled their rifles up into line. Tietjens exclaimed:
‘Stand at ease: stand easy,’ negligently enough, then he burst out in uncontrollable irritation: ‘For God’s sake, put your beastly hats straight!’ The men shuffled uneasily, this being no order known to them, and Tietjens explained: ‘No, this isn’t drill. It’s only that your hats all at sixes and sevens give me the pip!’ And the whispers of the men went down the little line:
‘You ‘eer the orfcer . . . Gives ’im the pip, we do! . . . Goin’ for a wawk in the pawk wiv our gels, we are . . . ’ They glanced nevertheless aside and upwards at each other’s tin-hat rims and said: ‘Shove ’im a shade forward, ‘Orace . . . You tighten your martingale, Erb!’ They were gaily rueful and impenitently profane: they had had thirty-six hours of let-off. A fellow louder-than-hummed:
‘“As I wawk erlong ther Bor dee Belong
Wiv an indipendent air . . . ”
W’ere’s me swegger-kine, you fellers!’
Tietjens addressed him:
‘Did you ever hear Coborn sing that, Runt?’ and Runt replied:
‘Yes, sir. I was the hind legs of the elephant when he sung it in the Old Drury panto!’ . . . A little, dark, beady-eyed Cockney, his enormous mouth moved lip on lip as if he were chewing a pebble in pride at the reminiscence. The men’s voices went on: ‘Ind legs ‘f the elephink! . . . good ol’ Helefink . . . I’ll go n see ‘n elephink first thing I do in Blighty!’
‘I’ll give every man of you a ticket for Drury Lane next Boxing Day. We’ll all be in London for the next Boxing Day. Or Berlin!’
They exclaimed polyphonically and low:
‘Oo-er! Djee ‘eer ’im? Di’djee ‘eer the orfcer? The noo C.O.?’
A hidden man said:
‘Mike it the old Shoreditch Empire, sir, n we’ll thenk you!’
‘I never keered fer the Lane meself! Give me the old Balham for Boxing Day.’ The Sergeant made the sounds for them to move off.
They shuffled off up the trench. An unseen man said: ‘Better’n a bleedin’ dipso!’ Lips said ‘Shhh!’
The Sergeant shouted — with an astonishing brutal panic:
‘You shut your bleedin’ mouth, you man, or I’ll shove you in the b —— y clink!’ He looked nevertheless at Tietjens with a calm satisfaction a second later.
‘A good lot of chaps, sir,’ he said. ‘The best!’ He was anxious to wipe out the remembrance of the last spoken word. ‘Give ’em the right sort of officers n they’ll beat the world!’
‘Do you think it makes any difference to them what officers they have?’ Tietjens asked. ‘Wouldn’t it be all the same if they had just anyone?’
The Sergeant said:
‘No, sir. They bin frightened these last few days. Now they’re better.’
This was just exactly what Tietjens did not want to hear. He hardly knew why. Or he did . . . He said:
‘I should have thought these men knew their job so well — for this sort of thing — that they hardly needed orders. It cannot make much difference whether they receive orders or not.’
The Sergeant said:
‘It does make a difference, sir,’ in a tone as near that of cold obstinacy as he dare attain to; the feeling of the approaching strafe was growing on them. It hung over them.
McKechnie stuck his head out from behind the sacking. The sacking had the lettering PXL in red and the word Minn in black. McKechnie’s eyes were blazing maniacally. Jumping maniacally in his head. They always were jumping maniacally in his head. He was a tiring fellow. He was wearing not a tin hat, but an officer’s helmet. The gilt dragon on it glittered. The sun was practically up, somewhere. As soon as its disc cleared the horizon, the Huns, according to Brigade, were to begin sending over their wearisome stuff. In thirteen and a half minutes.
McKechnie gripped Tietjens by the arm, a familiarity that Tietjens detested. He hissed — he really hissed because he was trying to speak under his breath:
‘Come past the next traverse. I want to speak to you.’
In correctly prepared trenches, made according to order as these had been to receive them in retreat, by a regular battalion acting under the orders of the Royal Engineers, you go along a straight ditch of trench for some yards, then you find a square block of earth protruding inwards from the parapet round which you must walk; then you come to another straight piece, then to another traverse, and so on to the end of the line, the lengths and dimensions varying to suit the nature of the terrain or the character of the soil. These outjuttings were designed to prevent the lateral spreading of fragments of shell bursting in the trench which would otherwise serve as a funnel, like the barrel of a gun to direct those parts of missiles into men’s bodies. It was also exciting — as Tietjens expected to be doing before the setting of the not quite risen sun — to crouch rapidly along past one of them, the heart moving very disagreeably, the revolver protruded well in advance, with half a dozen careless fellows with grenades of sorts just behind you. And you not knowing whether, crouching against the side that was just round the corner, you would or would not find a whitish, pallid, dangerous object that you would have no time to scrutinize closely.
Past the nearest of these McKechnie led Tietjens. He was portentous and agitated.
At the end of the next stretch of trench, leaning as it were against a buttress in an attitude of intense fatigue, was a mud-coloured, very thin, tall fellow; squatting dozing on his heels in the mud just beside that one’s foot was another, a proper Glamorganshire man of whom not many more than ten were left in the battalion. The standing man was leaning like that to look through a loophole that had been placed very close to the buttress of raw earth. He grunted something to his companion and continued looking intently. The other man grunted too.
McKechnie withdrew precipitately into the recessed pathway. The column of earth in their faces gave a sense of oppression. He said:
‘Did you put that fellow up to saying that damnable thing? . . . ’ He repeated: ‘That perfectly damnable thing! Damnable!’ Besides hating Tietjens he was shocked, pained, femininely lachrymose. He gazed into Tietjens’ eyes like a forsaken mistress fit to do a murder, with a sort of wistful incredulity of despair.
To that Tietjens was accustomed. For the last two months McKechnie whispering in the ear of the C.O. wherever Battalion Headquarters might happen to be McKechnie, with his arms spread abroad on the table and his chin nearly on the cloth that they had always managed to retain in spite of three precipitate moves, McKechnie, with his mad eyes every now and then moving in the direction of Tietjens, had been almost the most familiar object of Tietjens’ night landscape. They wanted him gone so that McKechnie might once again become Second in Command of that body of pals . . . That indeed was what they were . . . with the addition of a great deal too much of what they called Ooch.
Tietjens obviously could not go. There was no way of managing it: he had been put there by old Campion and there he must remain. So that by the agreeable irony of Providence there was Tietjens, who had wanted above all McKechnie’s present relatively bucolic job, hated to hell by half a dozen quite decent if trying young squits — the pals — because Tietjens was in his, McKechnie’s, desired position. It seemed to make it all the worse that they were all, with the exception of the Commanding Officer himself, of the little, dark, Cockney type and had the Cockney’s voice, gesture and intonation, so that Tietjens felt himself like a blond Gulliver with hair very silver in patches, rising up amongst a lot of Lilliputian brown creatures . . . Portentous and unreasonably noticeable.
A large cannon, nearer than the one that had lately spoken, but as it were with a larger but softer voice, remarked: Phohhhhhhhhh,’ the sound wandering round the landscape for a long while. After a time about four coupled railway-trains hurtled jovially amongst the clouds and went a long way away. Four in one. They were probably trying to impress the North Sea.
It might of course be the signal for the German barrage to begin. Tietjens’ heart stopped; his skin on the nape of the neck began to prickle: his hands were cold. That was fear: the BATTLE FEAR, experienced in strafes. He might not again be able to hear himself think. Not ever. What did he want of life? . . . Well, just not to lose his reason. One would pray: not that . . . Otherwise, perhaps a nice parsonage might do. It was just thinkable. A place in which for ever to work at the theory of waves . . . But of course it was not thinkable . . .
He was saying to McKechnie:
‘You ought not to be here without a tin hat. You will have to put a tin hat on if you mean to stop here. I can give you your four minutes if that is not the strafe beginning. Who’s been saying what?’
‘I’m not stopping here. I’m going back, after I’ve given you a piece of my mind, to the beastly job you have got me defiled with.’
‘Well, you’ll put on a tin hat to go there, please. And don’t ride your horse, if you’ve got it here, till after you’re a hundred yards at least down a communication trench.’
McKechnie asked how Tietjens dared give him orders and Tietjens said: Fine he would look with Divisional Transport dead in his lines at five in the morning in a parade hat. McKechnie with objurgations said that the Transport Officer had the right to consult the C.O. of a battalion he supplied. Tietjens said:
‘I’m commanding here. You’ve not consulted me!’
It appeared to him queer that they should be behaving like that when you could hear . . . oh, say: the wings of the angel of death . . . You can ‘almost hear the very rustling of his wings’ was the quotation. Good enough rhetoric . . . But of course that was how armed men would behave . . . At all times!
He had been trying the old trick of the military, clipped voice on the half-dotty subject. It had before then reduced McKechnie to some sort of military behaviour.
It reduced him in this case to a maudlin state. He exclaimed with a sort of lachrymose agony:
‘This is what it has come to with the old battalion . . . the b —— y, b —— y, b —— y old battalion of b —— rs!’ Each imprecation was a sob. ‘How we worked at it . . . And now . . . you‘ve got it!’
‘Well, you were Vice-Chancellor’s Latin Prizeman once. It’s what we get reduced to.’ He added: ’Vos mellificatis apes!’
McKechnie said with gloomy contempt:
‘You . . . You’re no Latinist!’
By now Tietjens had counted two hundred and eighty since the big cannon had said Phooooh’. Perhaps then it was not the signal for the barrage to begin . . . Had it been it would have begun before now; it would have come thumping along on the heels of the Phooooh’. His hands and the nape of his neck were preparing to become normal.
Perhaps the strafe would not come at all that day. There was the wind. If anything it was strengthening. Yesterday he had suspected that the Germans hadn’t got any tanks handy. Perhaps the ugly, senseless armadillos — and incapable at that! Under-engined! — had all got stuck in the marshes in front of G section. Perhaps the heavy artillery fire of ours that had gone on most of yesterday had been meant to pound the beastly things to pieces. Moving, they looked like slow rats, their noses to the ground, snouting crumbs of garbage. When they were still they looked merely pensive.
Perhaps the strafe would not come. He hoped it would not. He did not want a strafe with himself in command of the battalion. He did not know what to do: what he ought to do by the book. He knew what he would do. He would stroll about along those deep trenches. Stroll. With his hands in his pockets. Like General Gordon in pictures. He would say contemplative things as the time dragged on . . . A rather abominable sort of Time really . . . But that would introduce into the Battalion a spirit of calm that it had lately lacked . . . The night before last the C.O., with a bottle in each hand, had hurled them both at Huns who did not materialize for an hour and a half. Even the Pals had omitted to laugh. After that he, Tietjens, had taken command. With lots of the Orderly Room papers under both arms. They had had to be in a hurry. At night. With men suggesting pale grey Canadian trappers coming out of holes!
He did not want to command in a strafe: or at any other time! He hoped the unfortunate C.O. would get over his trouble by the evening . . . But he supposed that he, Tietjens, would get through it all right if he had to. Like the man who had never tried playing the violin!
McKechnie had suddenly become lachrymosely feminine: like a woman pleading, large-eyed, for her lover, his eyes explored Tietjens’ face for signs of treachery: for signs that what he said was not what he meant in his heart. He said:
‘What are you going to do about Bill? Poor old Bill that has sweated for his Battalion as you never . . . ’ He began again:
‘Think of poor old Bill! You can’t be thinking of doing the dirty on him . . . No man could be such a swine!’
It was curious how those circumstances brought out the feminine that was in man. What was that ass of a German Professor’s theory . . . formula? My plus Wx equals Man? . . . Well, if God hadn’t invented woman men would have had to do so. In that sort of place. You grew sentimental. He, Tietjens, was growing sentimental. He said:
‘What does Terence say about him this morning?’ The nice thing to have said would have been:
‘Of course, old man, I’ll do all I can to keep it dark!’ Terence was the M.O. — the man who had chucked his cap at the Hun orderly.
‘That’s the damnable thing! Terence is ratty with him. He won’t take a pill!’
‘What’s that? What’s that?’
McKechnie wavered: his desire for comfort became overpowering.
‘Look here! Do the decent thing! You know how poor Bill has worked for us! Get Terence not to report him to Brigade!’
This was wearisome: but it had to be faced.
A very minute subaltern — Aranjuez — in a perfectly impossible tin hat peered round the side of the bank. Tietjens sent him away for a moment . . . These tin hats were probably all right: but they were the curse of the army. They bred distrust! How could you trust a man whose incapable hat tumbled forward on his nose? Or another, with his hat on the back of his head, giving him the air of a ruined gambler! Or a fellow who had put on a soap-dish. To amuse the children: not a serious proceeding . . . The German things were better — coming down over the nape of the neck and rising over the brows. When you saw a Hun sideways he looked something: a serious proposition. Full of ferocity. A Hun against a Tommie looked like a Holbein landsknecht fighting a music-hall turn. It made you feel that you were indeed a rag-time army. Rubbed it in!
McKechnie was reporting that the C.O. had refused to take a pill ordered him by the M.O. Unfortunately the M.O. was ratty that morning — too much hooch overnight! So he said he should report the C.O. to Brigade. Not as being unfit for further service, for he wasn’t. But for refusing to take the pill. It was damnable. Because if Bill wouldn’t take a pill he wouldn’t . . . The M.O. said that if he took a pill, and stayed in bed that day — without hooch of course! — he would be perfectly fit on the morrow. He had been like that often enough before. The C.O. had always been given the dose before as a drench. He swore he would not take it as a ball. Sheer contrariety!
Tietjens was accustomed to think of the C.O. as a lad — a good lad, but young. They were, all the same, much of an age, and, for the matter of that, because of his deeply-lined forehead the Colonel looked the older often enough. But when he was fit he was fine. He had a hooked nose, a forcible grey moustache, like two badger-haired paintbrushes joined beneath the nose, pink skin as polished as the surface of a billiard ball, a noticeably narrow but high forehead, an extremely piercing glance from rather colourless eyes; his hair was black and most polished in slight waves. He was a soldier.
He was, that is to say, the ranker. Of soldiering in the English sense — the real soldiering of peace-time, parades, social events, spit and polish, hard worked summers, leisurely winters, India, the Bahamas, Cairo seasons and the rest he only knew the outside, having looked at it from the barrack windows, the parade ground and luckily for him, from his Colonel’s house. He had been a most admirable batman to that Colonel, had — in Simla — married the Colonel memsahib’s lady’s maid, had been promoted to the orderly-room, to the Corporals’ and Sergeants’ messes, had become a Musketry-Colour Sergeant, and two months before the war had been given a commission. He would have gained this before but for a slight — a very slight — tendency to overdrinking, which had given on occasion a similarly slight tone of insolence to his answers to Field-Officers. Elderly Field-Officers on parade are apt to make slight mistakes in their drill, giving the command to move to the right when technically, though troops are moving to the right, the command should be: ‘Move to the left ‘; and the officers’ left being the troops’ right, on a field-day, after lunch, Field-Officers of a little rustiness are apt to grow confused. It then becomes the duty of warrant-officers present if possible to rectify, or if not, to accept the responsibility for the resultant commotion. On two occasions during his brilliant career, being slightly elated, this wartime C.O. had neglected this military duty, the result being subsequent Orderly Room Strafes which remained as black patches when he looked back on his past life and which constantly embittered his remembrances. Professional soldiers are like that.
In spite of an exceptionally fine service record he remained bitter, and upon occasion he became unreasonable. Being what the men — and for the matter of that the officers of the battalion, too — called a b —— y h-ll of a pusher, he had brought his battalion up to a great state of efficiency; he had earned a double string of ribbons and by pushing his battalion into extremely tight places, by volunteering it for difficult services which, even during trench warfare, did present themselves, and by extricating what remained of it with singular skill during the first battle of the Somme on an occasion — perhaps the most lamentable of the whole war — when an entire division commanded by a political rather than a military general had been wiped out, he had earned for his battalion a French decoration called a Fourragère which is seldom given to other than French regiments. These exploits and the spirit which dictated them were perhaps less appreciated by the men under his command than was imagined by the C.O. and his bosom friend, Captain McKechnie who had loyally aided him, but they did justify the two in attaching to the battalion the sort of almost maudlin sentimentality that certain parents will bestow upon their children.
In spite, however, of the appreciation that his services had received the C.O. remained embittered. He considered that, by this time, he ought at least to have been given a brigade if not a division, and he considered that, if that was not the case, it was largely due to the two black marks against him as well at to the fact of his low social origin. And when he had a little liquor taken these obsessions exaggerated themselves very quickly to a degree that very nearly endangered his career. It was not that he soaked — but there were occasions during that period of warfare when the consumption of a certain amount of alcohol was a necessity if the human being were to keep on carrying on and through rough places. Then, happy was the man who carried his liquor well.
Unfortunately the C.O. was not one of these. Worn out by continual attention to papers — at which he was no great hand — and by fighting that would continue for days on end, he would fortify himself with whisky and immediately his bitterness would overwhelm his mentality, the aspect of the world would change, and he would rail at his superiors in the army and sometimes would completely refuse to obey orders, as had been the occasion a few nights before, when he had refused to let his battalion take part in the concerted retreat of the Army Corps. Tietjens had had to see to this.
Now, exasperated by the after effects of several days’ great anxieties and alcoholisms, he was refusing to take a pill. This was a token of his contempt for his superiors, the outcome of his obsession of bitterness.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08