An army — especially in peace time — is a very complex and nicely adjusted affair, and though active operations against an enemy force are apt to blunt niceness and upset compensations — as they might for a chronometer — and although this of ours, according to its own computation, was only a rag-time aggregation, certain customs of times when this force was also Regular had an enormous power of survival.
It may seem a comic affair that a Colonel commanding a regiment in the midst of the most breathless period of hostilities, should refuse to take a pill. But the refusal, precisely like a grain of sand in the works of a chronometer, may cause the most singular perturbations. It was so in this case.
A sick officer of the very highest rank is the subordinate of his doctor the moment he puts himself into the M.O.’s hands: he must obey orders as if he were a Tommy. A Colonel whole and in his senses may obviously order his M.O. to go here and there and to perform this or that duty; the moment he becomes sick the fact that his body is the property of His Majesty the King comes forcibly into operation and the M.O. is the representative of the sovereign in so far as bodies are concerned. This is very reasonable and proper, because sick bodies are not only of no use to the King, but are enormously detrimental to the army that has to cart them about.
In the case that Tietjens had perforce to worry over, the matter was very much complicated in the first place by the fact of the great personal dislike that the C.O. had manifested — though always with a sort of Field-Officer’s monumental courtesy — towards himself, and then because Tietjens had a very great respect for the abilities of the Commanding Officer as Commanding Officer. His rag-time battalion of a rag-time army was as nearly on the level of an impeccable regular battalion as such a unit with its constantly changing personnel could possibly be. Nothing had much more impressed Tietjens in the course of even the whole war, than the demeanour of the soldier whom the other night he had seen firing engrossedly into invisibility. The man had fired with care, had come down to re-load with exact drill movements — which are the quickest possible. He had muttered some words which showed that his mind was entirely on his job like a mathematician engrossed in an abstruse calculation. He had climbed back on to the parapet; continued to fire engrossedly into invisibility; had returned and re-loaded and had again climbed back. He might have been firing off a tie at the butts!
It was a very great achievement to have got men to fire at moments of such stress with such complete tranquillity. For discipline works in two ways: in the first place it enables the soldier in action to get through his movements in the shortest possible time; and then the engrossment in the exact performance begets a great indifference to danger. When, with various sized pieces of metal flying all round you, you go composedly through efficient bodily movements, you are not only wrapped up in your task, but you have the knowledge that that exact performance is every minute decreasing your personal danger. In addition you have the feeling that Providence ought to — and very frequently does — specially protect you. It would not be right that a man exactly and scrupulously performing his duty to his sovereign, his native land and those it holds dear, should not be protected by a special Providence. And he is!
It is not only that that engrossed marksman might — and very probably did — pick off an advancing enemy with every second shot, and thus diminish his personal danger to that extent; it is that the regular and as if mechanical falling of comrades spreads disproportionate dismay in advancing or halted troops. It is no doubt terrible to you to have large numbers of your comrades instantaneously annihilated by the explosion of some huge engine, but huge engines are blind and thus accidental; a slow, regular picking off of the man beside you is evidence that human terribleness that is not blind or accidental is cold-bloodedly and unshakably turning its attention to a spot very near you. It may very shortly turn its attention to yourself.
Of course, it is disagreeable when artillery is bracketting across your line: a shell falls a hundred yards in front of you, another a hundred yards behind you: the next will be halfway between, and you are halfway between. The waiting wrings your soul; but it does not induce panic or the desire to run — at any rate to nearly the same extent. Where, in any event, could you run to?
But from coldly and mechanically advancing and firing troops you can run. And the C.O. was accustomed to boast that on the several occasions when, imitating the second battalion of the regiment, he had been able to line his men up on tapes before letting them go in an attack and had insisted that they should advance at a very slow double indeed, and in exact alignment, his losses had been not only less than those of every other battalion in the Division, but they had been almost farcically negligible. Faced with troops advancing remorselessly and with complete equanimity the good Wurtembergers had fired so wildly and so high that you could hear their bullets overhead like a flock of wild-geese at night. The effect of panic is to make men fire high. They pull too sharply on their triggers.
These boasts of their Old Man naturally reached the men: they would be uttered before warrant officers and the orderly room staff; and the men — than whom in this matter none are keener mathematicians — were quick to see that the losses of their battalion until lately, at any rate, had been remarkably smaller than those of other units engaged in the same places. So that hitherto, though the men had regarded their Colonel with mixed feelings, he had certainly come out on top. That he was a b —— y h-ll of a pusher did not elate them; they would have preferred to be reserved for less dangerous enterprises than those by which the battalion gained its remarkable prestige. On the other hand, though they were constantly being pushed into nasty scrapes, they lost less than units in quieter positions, and that pleased them. But they still asked themselves: ‘If the Old Man let us be quiet shouldn’t we lose proportionately still less? No one at all?’
That had been the position until very lately: until a week or so, or even a day or so before.
But for more than a fortnight this Army had been what amounted to on the run. It retreated with some personal stubbornness and upon prepared positions, but these prepared positions were taken with such great speed and method by the opposing forces attacking it, that hostilities had assumed the aspect almost of a war of movement. For this these troops were singularly ill-adapted, their training having been almost purely that suited for the process of attrition known as trench-warfare. In fact, though good with bombs and even with the bayonet, and though courageous and composed when not in action, these troops were singularly inept when it was a matter of keeping in communication with the units on either side of them, or even within their own unit, and they had practically no experience in the use of the rifle when in motion. To both these branches the Enemy had devoted untiring attention all through the period of relative inaction of the winter that had now closed, and in both particulars their troops, though by now apparently inferior in morale, were remarkably superior. So it appeared to be merely a matter of waiting for a period of easterly winds for this Army to be pushed into the North Sea. The easterly winds were needed for the use of the gas without which, in the idea of the German leaders, it was impossible to attack.
The position, nevertheless, had been desperate and remained desperate, and standing there in the complete tranquillity and inaction of an April morning with a slight westerly breeze, Tietjens realized that he was experiencing what were the emotions of an army practically in flight. So at least he saw it. The use of gas had always been extremely disliked by the enemy’s men, and its employment in cylinders had long since been abandoned. But the German Higher Staff persisted in preparing their attacks by dense screens of gas put over by huge plasterings of shells. These screens the enemy forces refused to enter if the wind blew in their direction.
There had come in, then, the factor which caused him himself to feel particular discomfort.
The fact that the battalion was remarkably ably commanded and unusually well-disciplined had not, of course, been overlooked by either brigade or division. And the brigade, too, happened to be admirable. Thus — these things did happen even in the confused periods that preceded the final breaking up of trench warfare — the brigade was selected to occupy positions where the enemy divisions might be expected to be hottest in attack, the battalion was selected to occupy the hottest points in that hottest sector of the line. The chickens of the C.O.’s efficiency had come home to roost.
It had been, as Tietjens felt all over his body, nearly more than flesh and blood could stand. Do what the C.O. had been able to do to husband his men, and do what discipline could do to aid in the process, the battalion was reduced to not more than a third of what would have been a reasonable strength for the position it had had to occupy — and to abandon. And it was small comfort to the men that the Wiltshires on their right and the Cheshires on their left were in far worse case. So the aspect of the Old Man as a b —— y h-11 of a pusher became foremost in their considerations.
To a sensitive officer — and all good officers in this respect are sensitive — the psychology of the men makes itself felt in innumerable ways. He can afford to be blind to the feelings of his officers, for officers have to stand so much at the hands of their seniors before the rules of the service give them a chance to retaliate, that it takes a really bad Colonel to put his own mess in a bad way. As officer you have to jump to your C.O.’s orders, to applaud his sentiments, to smile at his lighter witticisms and to guffaw at those that are more gross. That is the Service. With the Other Ranks it is different. A discreet warrant-officer will discreetly applaud his officer’s eccentricities and good humours, as will a Sergeant desirous of promotion; but the rank and file are under no such compulsion. As long as a man comes to attention when spoken to that is all that can be expected of him. He is under no obligation to understand his officer’s witticisms, so he can still less be expected to laugh at or to repeat them with gusto. He need not even come very smartly at attention . . .
And for some days the rank and file of the battalion had gone dead, and the C.O. was aware that it had gone dead. Of the various types of Field-Officer upon whom he could have modelled himself as regards the men he had chosen that of the genial, rubicund, slightly whiskeyfied C.O. who finished every sentence with the words: ‘Eh, what?’ . . . In him it was a perfectly cold-blooded game for the benefit of the senior non-commissioned officers and the Other Ranks, but it had gradually become automatic.
For some days now, this mannerism had refused to work. It was as if Napoleon the Great had suddenly found that the device of pinching the ear of a grenadier on parade had suddenly become ineffective. After the ‘Eh, what!’ like a pistol shot the man to whom it was addressed had not all but shuffled, nor had any other men within earshot tittered and whispered to their pals. They had all remained just loutish. And it is a considerable test of courage to remain loutish under the Old Man’s eyes!
All this the C.O. knew by the book, having been through it. And Tietjens knew that the C.O. knew it; and he half suspected that the C.O. knew that he, Tietjens, knew it . . . And that the Pals and the Other Ranks also knew: that, in fact, everyone knew that everyone knew. It was like a nightmare game of bridge with all hands exposed and all the players ready to snatch pistols from their hip-pockets . . .
And Tietjens, for his sins, now held the trump card and was in play!
It was a loathsome position. He loathed having to decide the fate of the C.O. as he loathed the prospect of having to restore the morale of the men — if they survived.
And he was faced now by the conviction that he could do it. If he hadn’t felt himself get his hand in with that dozen of disreputable tramps he would not have felt that he could do it. Then he must have used his moral authority with the doctor to get the Old Man patched up, drugged up, bucked up, sufficiently to carry the battalion at least to the end of the retreat of the next few days. It was obvious that that must be done if there was no one else to take command — no one else that was pretty well certain to handle the men all right. But if there was anyone else to take over, didn’t the C.O.’s condition make it too risky to let him remain in authority? Did it, or didn’t it? Did it, or didn’t it?
Looking at McKechnie coolly as if to see where next he should plant his fist he had thus speculated. And he was aware that at the most dreadful moment of his whole life his besetting sin, as the saying is, was getting back on him. With the dreadful dread of the approaching strafe all over him, with a weight on his forehead, his eyebrows, his heavily labouring chest, he had to take . . . Responsibility. And to realize that he was a fit person to take responsibility.
He said to McKechnie:
‘The M.O. is the person who has to dispose of the Colonel.’
‘By God, if that drunken little squit dares . . .
‘Derry will act along the lines of my suggestions. He doesn’t have to take orders from me. But he has said that he will act along the lines of my suggestions. I shall accept the moral responsibility.’
He felt the desire to pant: as if he had just drunk at a draft a too great quantity of liquid. He did not pant. He looked at his wrist-watch. Of the time he had decided to give McKechnie thirty seconds remained.
McKechnie made wonderful use of the time. The Germans sent over several shells. Not such very long distance shells either. For ten seconds McKechnie went mad. He was always going mad. He was a bore. If that were only the German customary pooping off . . . But it was heavier. Unusual obscenities dropped from the lips of McKechnie. There was no knowing where the German projectiles were going. Or aimed at. A steam laundry in Bailleul as like as not. He said:
‘Yes! Yes! Aranjuez!’
The tiny subaltern had peeped again, with his comic hat, round the corner of the pinkish gravel buttress . . . A good, nervous boy. Imagining that the fact that he had reported had not been noticed! The gravel certainly looked more pink now the sun was come up . . . It was rising on Bemerton! Or perhaps not so far to the west yet. The parsonage of George Herbert, author, of Sweet day so cool, so calm, so bright, the bridal of the earth and sky!
It was odd where McKechnie who was still shouting got his words for unnatural vice. He had been Latin Prize Man. But he was probably quite pure. The words very likely meant nothing to him . . . As to the Tommies! . . . Then, why did they use them!
The German artillery thumped on! Heavier than the usual salvoes with which methodically they saluted the dawn. But there were no shells falling in that neighbourhood. So it might not be the barrage opening the Great Strafe! Very likely they were being visited by some little German Prince and wanted to show him what shooting was. Or by Field-Marshal Count von Brunkersdorf! Who had ordered them to shoot down the chimney of the Bailleul steam laundry. Or it might be sheer irresponsibility such as distinguished all gunners. Few Germans were imaginative enough to be irresponsible, but no doubt their gunners were more imaginative than other Germans.
He remembered being up in the artillery O.P. — what the devil was its name? — before Albert. On the Albert-Bécourt-Bécordel Road! What the devil was its name? A gunner had been looking through his glasses. He had said to Tietjens: ‘Look at that fat . . .!’ And through the glasses lent him, Tietjens had seen, on a hillside in the direction of Martinpuich, a fat Hun, in shirt and trousers, carrying in his right hand a food tin from which he was feeding himself with his left. A fat, lousy object: suggesting an angler on a quiet day. The gunner had said to Tietjens:
‘Keep your glass on him!’
And they had chased that miserable German about that naked hillside, with shells, for ten minutes. Whichever way he bolted, they put a shell in front of him. Then they let him go. His action, when he had realized that they were really attending to him, had been exactly that of a rabbit dodging out of the wheat the reapers have just reached. At last he just lay down. He wasn’t killed. They had seen him get up and walk off later. Still carrying his bait can!
His antics had afforded those gunners infinite amusement. It afforded them almost more when all the German artillery on that front, imagining that God knew what was the matter, had awakened and plastered heaven and earth and everything between for a quarter of an hour with every imaginable kind of missile. And had then, abruptly, shut up . . . Yes . . . Irresponsible people, gunners!
The incident had really occurred because Tietjens had happened to ask that gunner how much he imagined it had cost in shells to smash to pieces an indescribably smashed field of twenty acres that lay between Bazentin-le-petit and Mametz Wood. The field was unimaginably smashed, pulverized, powdered . . . The gunner had replied that with shells from all the forces employed it might have cost three million sterling. Tietjens asked how many men the gunner imagined might have been killed there. The gunner said he didn’t begin to know. None at all, like as not! No one was very likely to have been strolling about there for pleasure, and it hadn’t contained any trenches. It was just a field. Nevertheless, when Tietjens had remarked that in that case two Italian labourers with a steam plough could have pulverized that field about as completely for, say, thirty shillings the gunner had taken it quite badly. He had made his men poop off after that inoffensive Hun with the bait can, just to show what artillery can do.
. . . At that point Tietjens had remarked to McKechnie:
Tor my part, I shall advise the M.O. to recommend that the Colonel should be sent back on sick leave for a couple of months. It is within his power to do that.’
McKechnie had exhausted all his obscene expletives. He was thus sane. His jaw dropped:
‘Send the C.O. back!’ he exclaimed lamentably. ‘At the very moment when . . . ’
‘Don’t be an ass. Or don’t imagine that I’m an ass. No one is going to reap any glory. In this Army. Here and now!’ McKechnie said:
‘But what price the money? Command pay! Nearly four quid a day. You could do with two-fifty quid at the end of his two months!’
Not so very long ago it would have seemed impossible that any man could speak to him about either his private financial affairs or his intimate motives.
‘I have obvious responsibilities . . . ’
‘Some say,’ McKechnie went on, ‘that you’re a b —— y millionaire. One of the richest men in England. Giving coal mines to duchesses. So they say. Some say you’re such a pauper that you hire your wife out to generals . . . Any generals. That’s how you get your jobs.’
To that Tietjens had had to listen before . . .
Max Redoubt . . . It had come suddenly on to his tongue — just as, before, the name of Bemerton had come, belatedly. The name of the artillery observation post between Albert and Bécourt-Bécordel had been Max Redoubt! During the intolerable waitings of that half-forgotten July and August the name had been as familiar on his lips as . . . say, as Bemerton itself . . . When I forget thee, oh my Bemerton . . . or, oh my Max Redoubt . . . may my right hand forget its cunning! . . . The unforgettables! . . . Yet he had forgotten them! . . .
If only for a time he had forgotten them. Then, his right hand might forget its cunning. If only for a time . . . But even that might be disastrous: might come at a disastrous moment. . . . The Germans had suppressed themselves. Perhaps they had knocked down the laundry chimney. Or hit some G.S. wagons loaded with coal . . . At any rate, that was not the usual morning strafe. That was to come. Sweet day so cool — began again.
McKechnie hadn’t suppressed himself. He was going to get suppressed. He had just been declaring that Tietjens had not displayed any chivalry in not reporting the C.O. if he, Tietjens, considered him to be drunk — or even chronically alcoholic. No chivalry . . .
This was like a nightmare! . . . No it wasn’t. It was like fever when things appear stiffly unreal . . . And exaggeratedly real! Stereoscopic, you might say!
McKechnie with an accent of sardonic hate begged to remind Tietjens that if he considered the C.O. to be a drunkard he ought to have him put under arrest. King’s Regs exacted that. But Tietjens was too cunning. He meant to have that two-fifty quid. He might be a poor man and need it. Or a millionaire, and mean. They said that was how millionaires became millionaires: by snapping up trifles of money that, God knows, would be godsends to people like himself, McKechnie.
It occurred to Tietjens that two hundred and fifty pounds, after this was over, might be a godsend to himself in a manner of speaking. And then he thought:
‘Why the devil shouldn’t I earn it?’
What was he going to do? After this was over.
And it was going over. Every minute the Germans were not advancing they were losing. Losing the power to advance . . . Now, this minute! It was exciting.
‘No!’ McKechnie said. ‘You’re too cunning. If you got poor Bill cashiered for drunkenness you’d have no chance of commanding. They’d put in another pukka colonel. As a stop-gap, whilst Bill’s on sick leave, you’re pretty certain to get it. That’s why you’re doing the damnable thing you’re doing.’
Tietjens had a desire to go and wash himself. He felt physically dirty.
Yet what McKechnie said was true enough! It was true! . . . The mechanical impulse to divest himself of money was so strong that he began to say:
‘In that case . . . ’ He was going to finish: ‘I’ll get the damned fellow cashiered.’ But he didn’t.
He was in a beastly hole. But decency demanded that he shouldn’t act in panic. He had a mechanical, normal panic that made him divest himself of money. Gentlemen don’t earn money. Gentlemen, as a matter of fact, don’t do anything. They exist. Perfuming the air like Madonna lilies. Money comes into them as air through petals and foliage. Thus the world is made better and brighter. And, of course, thus political life can be kept clean! . . . So you can’t make money.
But look here: this Unit was the critical spot of the whole affair. The weak spots of Brigade, Division, Army, British Expeditionary Force, Allied Forces . . . If the Hun went through there . . . Fuit Ilium et magna gloria . . . Not much glory!
He was bound to do his best for that unit. That poor b —— y unit. And for the poor b —— y knockabout comedians to whom he had lately promised tickets for Drury Lane at Christmas . . . The poor devils had said they preferred the Shoreditch Empire or the old Balham . . . That was typical of England. The Lane was the locus classicus of the race, but these rag-time . . . heroes, call them heroes! — preferred Shoreditch and Balham!
An immense sense of those grimy, shuffling, grouching, dirty-nosed pantomime-supers came over him and an intense desire to give them a bit of luck, and he said:
‘Captain McKechnie, you can fall out. And you will return to duty. Your own duty. In proper head-dress.’
McKechnie, who had been talking, stopped with his head on one side like a listening magpie. He said:
‘What’s this? What’s this?’ stupidly. Then he remarked: ‘Oh, well, I suppose if you’re in command . . . ’
‘It’s usual to say “sir,” when addressing a senior officer on parade. Even if you don’t belong to his unit.’ McKechnie said:
‘Don’t belong! . . . I don’t . . . To the poor b —— y old pals!
‘You’re attached to Division Headquarters, and you’ll get back to it. Now! At once! . . . And you won’t come back here. Not while I’m in command . . . Fall out . . . ’
That was really a duty — a feudal duty! — performed for the sake of rag-time fellows. They wanted to be rid — and at once! — of dipsomaniacs in command of that unit and having the disposal of their lives . . . Well, the moment McKechnie had uttered the words: ‘The poor b —— y old pals,’ an illuminating flash had presented Tietjens with the conviction that, alone, the C.O. was too damn good an officer to appear a dipsomaniac, even if he were observably drunk quite often. But, seen together with his fellow McKechnie, the two of them must present a formidable appearance of being alcoholic lunatics!
The rest of the poor b —— y old pals didn’t really any more exist. They were a tradition — of ghosts! Four of them were dead: four in hospital: two awaiting court-martial for giving stumer cheques. The last of them, practically, if you excepted McKechnie, was the collection of putrescence and rags at that moment hanging in the wire apron . . . The whole complexion of Headquarters would change with the going of McKechnie.
He considered with satisfaction that he would command a very decent lot. The Adjutant was so inconspicuous you did not even notice him. Beady-eyed, like a bird! Always preoccupied. And little Aranjuez, the signalling officer! And a fat fellow called Dunne, who had represented Intelligence since the Night Before Last! ‘A’ Company Commander was fifty, thin as a pipe-stem and bald; ‘B’ was a good, fair boy, of good family; ‘C’ and ‘D’ were subalterns, just out. But clean . . . Satisfactory!
What a handful of frail grass with which to stop an aperture in the dam of — of the Empire! Damn the Empire! It was England! It was Bemerton Parsonage that mattered! What did we want with an Empire! It was only a jerrybuilding Jew like Disraeli that could have provided us with that jerry-built name! The Tories said they had to have someone to do their dirty work . . . Well: they’d had it!
He said to McKechnie:
‘There’s a fellow called Bemer — I mean Griffiths, 0 Eleven Griffiths, I understand you’re interested in for the Divisional Follies. I’ll send him along to you as soon as he’s had his breakfast. He’s first-rate with the cornet.’
‘Yes sir,’ saluted rather limply and took a step.
That was McKechnie all over. He never brought his mad fits to a crisis. That made him still more of a bore. His face would be distorted like that of a wild-cat in front of its kittens’ hole in a stone wall. But he became the submissive subordinate. Suddenly! Without rhyme or reason!
Tiring people! Without manners! . . . They would presumably run the world now. It would be a tiresome world.
McKechnie, however, was saluting. He held a sealed envelope, rather small and crumpled, as if from long carrying. He was talking in a controlled voice after permission asked. He desired Tietjens to observe that the seal on the envelope was unbroken. The envelope contained ‘The Sonnet’.
McKechnie must, then, have gone mad! His eyes, if his voice was quiet, though with an Oxford-Cockney accent — his prune-coloured eyes were certainly mad . . . Hot prunes!
Men shuffled along the trenches, carrying by rope-handles very heavy, lead-coloured wooden cases: two men to each case. Tietjens said:
‘You’re “D” Company? . . . Get a move on! . . . ’
McKechnie, however, wasn’t mad. He was only pointing out that he could pit his Intellect and his Latinity against those of Tietjens: that he could do it when the great day came!
The envelope, in fact, contained a sonnet. A sonnet Tietjens, for distraction, had written to rhymes dictated by McKechnie . . . for distraction in a moment of stress . . .
Several moments of stress they had been in together. It ought to have formed a bond between them. It hadn’t . . . Imagine having a bond with a Highland-Oxford-Cockney!
Or perhaps it had! There was certainly the sonnet. Tietjens had written it in two and a half minutes, he remembered, to stave off the thought of his wife who was then being a nuisance . . . Two and a half minutes of forgetting Sylvia! A bit of luck! . . . But McKechnie had insisted on regarding it as a challenge. A challenge to his Latinity. He had then and there undertaken to turn that sonnet into Latin hexameters in two minutes. Or perhaps four . . .
But things had got in the way. A fellow called O9 Morgan had got himself killed over their feet. In the hut. Then they had been busy: with the Draft!
Apparently McKechnie had sealed up that sonnet in an envelope. In that envelope. Then and there. Apparently McKechnie had been inspired with a blind, Celtic, snorting rage to prove that he was better as a Latinist than Tietjens as a sonneteer. Apparently he was still so inspired. He was mad to engage in competition with Tietjens.
It was perhaps that that made him not quite mad. He kept sane in order to be fit for this competition. He was now repeating, holding out the envelope, seal upwards:
‘I suppose you believe I have not read your sonnet, sir. I suppose you believe I have not read your sonnet, sir . . . To prepare myself to translate it more quickly.’
‘Yes! No! . . . I don’t care.’
He couldn’t tell the fellow that the idea of a competition was loathsome to him. Any sort of competition was loathsome to Tietjens. Even competitive games. He liked playing tennis. Real tennis. But he very rarely played because he couldn’t get fellows to play with, that beating would not be disagreeable . . . And it would be loathsome to be drawn into any sort of competition with this Prize-man . . . They were moving very slowly along the trench, McKechnie retreating sideways and holding out the seal.
‘It’s your seal, sir!’ he was repeating. ‘Your own seal. You see, it isn’t broken . . . You don’t perhaps imagine that I read the sonnet quickly and made a copy from memory?’
. . . The fellow wasn’t even a decent Latinist. Or verse-maker, though he was always boasting about it to the impossible, adenoidy, Cockney subalterns who made up the battalion’s mess. He would translate their chits into Latin verse . . . But it was always into tags. Generally from the Aeneid. Like:
‘Conticuere omnes‘, or ’Vino somnoque sepultum!’
That was, presumably, what Oxford of just before the War was doing.
‘I’m not a beastly detective . . . Yes, of course, I quite believe it.’
He thought of emerging into the society of little Aranjuez who was some sort of gentle earnest Levantine with pleasure. Think of thinking of a Levantine with pleasure! He said:
‘Yes. It’s all right, McKechnie.’
He felt himself solid. He was really in a competition with this fellow. It was deterioration. He, Tietjens, was crumpling up morally. He had accepted responsibility: he had thought of two hundred and fifty pounds with pleasure: now he was competing with a Cockney-Celtic-Prizeman. He was reduced to that level . . . Well, as like as not he would be dead before the afternoon. And no one would know.
Think of thinking about whether any one would know or no! . . . But it was Valentine Wannop that wasn’t to know. That he had deteriorated under the strain! . . . That enormously surprised him. He said to his subconscious self:
‘What! Is that still there!’
That girl was at least an admirable Latinist. He remarked, with a sort of sardonic glee that, years before, in a dog-cart, emerging from mist, somewhere in Sussex-Udimore! — she had made him look silly. Over Catullus! Him, Tietjens! . . . Shortly afterwards old Campion had run into them with his motor that he couldn’t drive but would drive.
McKechnie, apparently assuaged, said:
‘I don’t know if you know, sir, that General Campion is to take over his Army the day after to-morrow . . . But, of course, you would know.’
‘No. I didn’t . . . You fellows in touch with Headquarters get to hear of things long before us.’ He added:
‘It means that we shall be getting reinforcements . . . It means the Single Command.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54