Tietjens reclined on the reverse slope of the considerable mound. In the sunlight. He had to be alone. To reflect on his sentimental situation and his machine guns. He had been kept so out of the affairs of the unit that he had suddenly remembered that he knew nothing whatever about his machine guns, or even about the fellow who had to look after him. A new fellow called Cobbe, who looked rather vacant, with an immense sunburnt nose and an open mouth. Not, on the face of him, alert enough for his job. But you never knew.
He was hungry. He had eaten practically nothing since seven the night before, and had been on his feet the greater part of the time.
He sent Lance-Corporal Duckett to ‘A’ Company dugout, to ask if they could favour him with a sandwich and some coffee with rum in it: he sent Second-Lieutenant Aranjuez to ‘B’ Company to tell them that he was coming to take a look round on their men and quarters. ‘B’ Company Commander for the moment was a very young boy just out from an O.T.C. It was annoying that he had an outside Company. But Constantine, the former Commander, had been killed the night before last. He was, in fact, said to be the gentleman whose remains hung in the barbed wire which was what made Tietjens doubtful whether it could be he. He should not have been so far to the left if he had been bringing his Company in. Anyhow, there had been no one to replace him but this boy — Bennett. A good boy. So shy that he could hardly give a word of command on parade, but yet with all his wits about him. And blessed with an uncommonly experienced Company Sergeant-Major. One of the original old Glamorganshires. Well, beggars could not be choosers! The Company had reported that morning five cases of the influenza that was said to be ravaging the outside world. Here then was another thing for which they had to thank the outside world — this band of rag-time solitaries! They let the outside world severely alone; they were, truly, hermits. Then the outside world did this to them. Why not leave them to their monastic engrossedness?
Even the rotten and detestable Huns had it! They were said by the Divisional news-sheets to have it so badly that whole Divisions were incapable of effective action. That might be a lie, invented for the purpose of heartening us; but it was probably true. The German men were apparently beastly underfed, and, at that, only on substitute-foods of relatively small percentage of nutritive value. The papers brought over by that N.C.O. had certainly spoken urgently of the necessity of taking every precaution against the spread of this flail. Another circular violently and lachrymosely assured the troops that they were as well fed as the civilian populations and the Corps of Officers. Apparently there had been some sort of scandal. A circular of which he had not had time to read the whole ended up with an assertion something like: ‘Thus the honour of the Corps of Officers has been triumphantly vindicated.’
It was a ghastly thought, that of that whole vast territory that confronted them, filled with millions of half-empty stomachs that bred disorders in the miserable brains. Those fellows must be the most miserable human beings that had ever existed. God knows, the life of our own Tommies must be Hell. But those fellows . . . It would not bear thinking of.
And it was curious to consider how the hatred that one felt for the inhabitants of those regions seemed to skip in a wide trajectory over the embattled ground. It was the civilian populations and their rulers that one hated with real hatred. Now the swine were starving the poor devils in the trenches!
They were detestable. The German fighters and their Intelligence and staffs were merely boring and grotesque. Unending nuisances. For he was confoundedly irritated to think of the mess they had made of his nice clean trenches. It was like when you go out for an hour and leave your dog in the drawing-room. You come back and find that it has torn to pieces all your sofa-cusions. You would like to knock its head off . . . So you would like to knock the German soldiers’ heads off. But you did not wish them much real harm. Nothing like having to live in that hell on perpetually half empty, windy stomachs with the nightmares they set up! Naturally influenza was decimating them.
Anyhow, Germans were the sort of people that influenza would bowl over. They were bores because they came for ever true to type. You read their confounded circulars and they made you grin whilst a little puking. They were like continual caricatures of themselves and they were continually hysterical . . . Hypochondriacal . . . Corps of Officers . . . Proud German Army . . . His Glorious Majesty . . . Mighty Deeds . . . Not much of the Rag-time Army about that, and that was welling out continuously all the time . . . Hypochondria!
A rag-time army was not likely to have influenza so badly. It felt neither its moral nor its physical pulse . . . Still, here was influenza in 13’ Company. They must have got it from the Huns the night before last. ‘B’ Company had had them jump in on top of them; then and there had been hand-to-hand fighting. It was a nuisance. ‘B’ Company was a nuisance. It had naturally been stuck into the dampest and lowest part of their line. Their company dugout was reported to be like a well with a dripping roof. It would take 13’ Company to be afflicted with such quarters . . . It was difficult to see what to do — not to drain their quarters . . . but to exorcise their ill-luck. Still, it would have to be done. He was going into their quarters to make a strafe, but he sent Aranjuez to announce his coming so as to give the decent young Company Commander a chance to redd up his house . . .
The beastly Huns! They stood between him and Valentine Wannop. If they would go home he could be sitting talking to her for whole afternoons. That was what a young woman was for. You seduced a young woman in order to be able to finish your talks with her. You could not do that without living with her. You could not live with her without seducing her; but that was the by-product. The point is that you can’t otherwise talk. You can’t finish talks at street corners; in museums; even in drawing-rooms. You mayn’t be in the mood when she is in the mood — for the intimate conversation that means the final communion of your souls. You have to wait together — for a week, for a year, for a lifetime, before the final intimate conversation may be attained . . . and exhausted. So that . . .
That in effect was love. It struck him as astonishing. The word was so little in his vocabulary . . . Love, ambition, the desire for wealth. They were things he had never known of as existing — as capable of existing within him. He had been the Younger Son, loafing, contemptuous, capable, idly contemplating life, but ready to take up the position of the Head of the Family if Death so arranged matters. He had been a sort of eternal Second-in-Command.
Now: what the Hell was he? A sort of Hamlet of the Trenches? No, by God he was not . . . He was perfectly ready for action. Ready to command a battalion. He was presumably a lover. They did things like commanding battalions. And worse!
He ought to write her a letter. What in the world would she think of this gentleman who had once made improper proposals to her; balked; said ‘So long!’ or perhaps not even ‘So long!’ And then walked off. With never a letter! Not even a picture postcard! For two years! A sort of a Hamlet all right! Or a swine!
Well, then, he ought to write her a letter. He ought to say: ‘This is to tell you that I propose to live with you as soon as this show is over. You will be prepared immediately on cessation of active hostilities to put yourself at my disposal. Please. Signed, Xtopher Tietjens, Acting O.C. 9th Glams.’ A proper military communication. She would be pleased to see that he was commanding a battalion. Or perhaps she would not be pleased. She was a Pro-German. She loved these tiresome fellows who tore his, Tietjens’, sofa-cushions to pieces.
That was not fair. She was a Pacifist. She thought these proceedings pestilential and purposeless. Well, there were times when they appeared purposeless enough. Look at what had happened to his neat gravel walks. And to the marl too. Though that served the purpose of letting him sit sheltered. In the sunlight. With any number of larks. Someone once wrote:
‘A myriad larks in unison sang o’er her, soaring out of sight!’
That was imbecile really. Larks cannot sing in unison. They make a heartless noise like that produced by the rubbing of two corks one on the other . . . There came into his mind an image. Years ago: years and years ago: probably after having watched that gunner torment the fat Hun, because it had been below Max Redoubt . . . The sun was now for certain shining on Bemerton! Well, he could never be a country parson. He was going to live with Valentine Wannop! . . . he had been coming down the reverse side of the range, feeling good. Probably because he had got out of that O.P. which the Germans guns had been trying to find. He went down with long strides, the tops of thistles brushing his hips. Obviously the thistles contained things that attracted flies. They are apt to after a famous victory. So myriads of swallows pursued him, swirling round and round him, their wings touching; for a matter of twenty yards all round and their wings brushing him and the tops of the thistles. And as the blue sky was reflected in the blue of their backs — for their backs were below his eyes — he had felt like a Greek God striding through the sea . . .
The larks were less inspiring. Really, they were abusing the German guns. Imbecilely and continuously, they were screaming imprecations and threats. They had been relatively sparse until just now. Now that the shells were coming back from a mile or so off the sky was thick with larks. A myriad — two myriad — corks at once. Not in unison. Sang o’er him, soaring out of sight! . . . You might almost say that it was a sign that the Germans were going to shell you again. Wonderful ‘hinstinck’ set by the Almighty in their little bosoms! It was perhaps also accurate. No doubt the shells as they approached more and more shook the earth and disturbed the little bosoms on their nests. So they got up and shouted; perhaps warning each other; perhaps mere defiance of the artillery.
He was going to write to Valentine Wannop. It was a clumsy swine’s trick not to have written to her before. He had proposed to seduce her; hadn’t done it and had gone off without a word . . . Considering himself rather a swell, too!
Did you get a bit to eat, Corporal!’
The Corporal balanced himself before Tietjens on the slope of the mound. He blushed, rubbing his right sole on his left instep, holding in his right hand a small tin can and a cup, in his left an immaculate towel containing a small cube.
Tietjens debated whether he should first drink of the coffee and army rum to increase his zest for the sandwiches, or whether he should first eat the sandwiches and so acquire more thirst for the coffee . . . It would be reprehensible to write to Valentine Wannop. The act of the cold-blooded seducer. Reprehensible! . . . It depended on what was in the sandwiches. It would be agreeable to fill the void below and inwards from his breastbone. But whether do it first with a solid or warm moisture?
The Lance-Corporal was deft . . . He set the coffee tin, cup and towel on a flat stone that stuck out of that heap; the towel, unfolded, served as a tablecloth; there appeared three heaps of ethereal sandwiches. He said he had eaten half a tin of warm mutton and haricot beans, whilst he was cutting the sandwiches. The meat in the sandwiches consisted of foie gras, that pile: bully beef reduced to a paste with butter that was margarine, anchovy paste out of a tin and minced onion out of pickles; the third pile was bully beef nature, seasoned with Worcester sauce . . . All the materials he had at disposal!
Tietjens smiled on the boy at his work. He said this must be a regular chef. The boy said:
‘Not a chef, yet, sir!’ He had a camp stool hung on his trenching tool behind his hip. He had been chief assistant to one of the chief cooks in the Savoy. He had been going to go to Paris. ‘What you call a marmiton, sir!’ he said. With his trenching tool he was scooping out a level place in front of the flat rock. He set the camp stool on the flattened platform.
‘You used to wear a white cap and white overalls?’
He liked to think of the blond boy resembling Valentine Wannop dressed all in slim white. The Lance-Corporal said:
‘It’s different now, sir!’ He stood at Tietjens’ side, always caressing his instep. He regarded cooking as an Art. He would have preferred to be a painter, but Mother hadn’t enough money. The source of supply dried up during the War . . . If the C.O. would say a word for him after the War . . . He understood it was going to be difficult to get jobs after the War. All the blighters who had got out of serving, all the R.A.S.C., all the Lines of Communication men would get first chance. As the saying was, the further from the Line the better the pay. And the chance, too!
‘Certainly I shall recommend you. You’ll get a job all right. I shall never forget your sandwiches.’ He would never forget the keen, clean flavour of the sandwiches or the warm generosity of the sweet, be-rummed coffee! In the blue air of that April hill-side. All the objects on that white towel were defined: with iridescent edges. The boy’s face, too! Perhaps not physically iridescent. His breath, too, was very easy. Pure air! He was going to write to Valentine Wannop: ‘Hold yourself at my disposal. Please. Signed . . . ’ Reprehensible! Worse than reprehensible! You do not seduce the child of your father’s oldest friend. He said:
‘I shall find it difficult enough to get a job after the War!’ Not only to seduce the young woman, but to invite her to live a remarkably precarious life with him. It isn’t done! The Lance-Corporal said:
‘Oh, sir; no, sir! . . . You’re Mr Tietjens, of Groby!’
He had often been to Groby of a Sunday afternoon. His mother was a Middlesbrough woman. Southbank, rather. He had been to the Grammar School and was going to Durham University when . . . Supplies stopped. On the eight nine fourteen . . .
They oughtn’t to put North Riding, Yorkshire, boys in Welsh-traditioned units. It was wrong. But for that he would not have run against this boy of disagreeable reminiscences.
‘They say,’ the boy said, ‘that the well at Groby is three hundred and twenty feet deep, and the cedar at the corner of the house a hundred and sixty. The depth of the well twice the height of the tree!’ He had often dropped stones down the well and listened: they made an astonishingly loud noise. Long: like echoes gone mad! His mother knew the cook at Groby. Mrs Harmsworth. He had often seen . . . he rubbed his ankles more furiously, in a paroxysm . . . Mr Tietjens, the father, and him, and Mr Mark and Mr John and Miss Eleanor. He once handed Miss Eleanor her riding crop when she dropped it . . .
Tietjens was never going to live at Groby. No more feudal atmosphere! He was going to live, he figured, in a four-room attic-flat, on the top of one of the Inns of Court. With Valentine Wannop. Because of Valentine Wannop!
He said to the boy:
‘Those German shells seem to be coming back. Go and request Captain Gibbs as soon as they get near to take his fatigues under cover until they have passed.’
He wanted to be alone with Heaven . . . He drank his last cup of warm, sweetened coffee, laced with rum . . . He drew a deep breath. Fancy drawing a deep breath of satisfaction after a deep draught of warm coffee, sweetened with condensed milk and laced with rum! . . . Reprehensible! Gastronomically reprehensible! . . . What would they say at the Club? . . . Well, he was never going to be at the Club! The Club claret was to be regretted! Admirable claret! And the cold sideboard!
But, for the matter of that, fancy drawing deep breaths of satisfaction over the mere fact of lying — in command of a battalion! — on a slope, in the clear air, with twenty thousand — two myriad! — corks making noises overhead and the German guns directing their projectiles so that they were slowly approaching! Fancy!
They were, presumably, trying out their new Austrian gun. Methodically, with an infinite thoroughness. If, that is to say, there really was a new Austrian gun. Perhaps there wasn’t. Division had been in a great state of excitement over such a weapon. It stood in Orders that every one was to try to obtain every kind of information about it, and it was said to throw a projectile of a remarkable, High Explosive efficiency. So Gibbs had jumped to the conclusion that the thing that had knocked to pieces his projected machine-gun emplacement, had been the new gun. In that case they were trying it out very thoroughly.
The actual report of the gun or guns — they fired every three minutes, so that might mean that there was only one and that it took about three minutes to re-load — was very loud and rather high in tone. He had not yet heard the actual noise made by the projectile, but the reports from a distance had been singularly dulled. When, presumably, the projectile had effected its landing, it bored extraordinarily into the ground and then exploded with a time-fuse. Very likely it would not be very dangerous to life, but, if they had enough of the guns and the H.E. to plaster the things all along the Line, and if the projectiles worked as efficiently as they had done on poor Gibbs’ trench, there would be an end of trench warfare on the Allied side. But, of course, they probably had not either enough guns or enough High Explosive and the thing would very likely act less efficiently in other sorts of soils. They were very likely trying that out. Or, if they were firing with only one gun they might be trying how many rounds could be fired before the gun became ineffective. Or they might be trying only the attrition game: smashing up the trenches which was always useful and then sniping the men who tried to repair them. You could bag a few men in that way, now and then. Or, naturally, with planes . . . There was no end to these tiresome alternatives! Presumably, again, our planes might spot that gun or battery. Then it would stop!
Reprehensible! . . . He snorted! If you don’t obey the rules of your club you get hoofed out, and that’s that! If you retire from the post of Second-in-Command of Groby, you don’t have to . . . oh, attend battalion parades! He had refused to take any money from Brother Mark on the ground of a fantastic quarrel. But he had not any quarrel with Brother Mark. The sardonic pair of them were just matching obstinacies. On the other hand you had to set to the tenantry an example of chastity, sobriety, probity, or you could not take their beastly money. You provided them with the best Canadian seed corn; with agricultural experiments suited to their soils; you sat on the head of your agent; you kept their buildings in repair; you apprenticed their sons; you looked after their daughters when they got into trouble and after their bastards, your own or another man’s . But you must reside on the estate. You must reside on the estate. The money that comes out of those poor devils’ pockets must go back into the land so that the estate and all on it, down to the licensed beggars, may grow richer and richer and richer. So he had invented his fantastic quarrel with Brother Mark: because he was going to take Valentine to live with him. You could not have a Valentine Wannop having with you in a Groby the infinite and necessary communings. You could have a painted doxy for the servants’ hall, quarrelling with the other maids, who would want her job, and scandalizing the parsons for miles round. In their sardonic way the tenants appreciated that: it was in the tradition and all over the Riding they did it themselves. But not a lady: the daughter of your father’s best friend! They wanted Quality women to be Quality and they themselves would go to ruin, spend their dung-and-seed-money on whores and wreck the fortunes of the Estate, sooner than that you should indulge in infinite conversations . . . So he hadn’t taken a penny of their money from his brother, and he wouldn’t take a penny when he in turn became Groby. Fortunately, there was the heir . . . Otherwise he could not have gone with that girl!
Two pangs went through him. His son had never written to him: the girl might have married a War Office clerk! On the rebound! That was what it would be: a civilian War Office clerk would be the most exact contrast to himself! . . . But the son’s letters would have been stopped by the mother. That was what they did to people who were where he was. As the C.O. had said! And Valentine Wannop, who had listened to his conversation, would never want to mingle intimately in another’s! Their communion was immutable and not to be shaken!
So he was going to write to her: freckled, downright, standing square on feet rather widely planted apart, just ready to say: ‘Oh, chuck it, Edith Ethel!’ . . . She made the sunlight!
Or no: by Heavens, he could not write to her! If he stopped one or went dotty . . . Wouldn’t it make it infinitely worse for her to know that his love for her had been profound and immutable? It would make it far worse, for by now the edges of passion had probably worn less painful. Or there was the chance of it! . . . But impenitently he would go on willing her to submit to his will: through mounds thrown up by Austrian projectiles and across the seas. They would do what they wanted and take what they got for it!
He reclined, on his right shoulder, feeling like some immense and absurd statue: a collection of meal-sacks done in mud: with grotesque shorts revealing his muddy knees . . . The figure on one of Michelangelo’s Medici tombs. Or perhaps his Adam . . . He felt the earth move a little beneath him. The last projectile must have been pretty near. He would not have noticed the sound, it had become such a regular sequence. But he noticed the quiver in the earth . . .
Reprehensible! He said. For God’s sake let us be reprehensible! And have done with it! We aren’t Hun strategists for ever balancing pros and cons of militant morality!
He took with his left hand the cup from the rock. Little Aranjuez came round the mound. Tietjens threw the cup downhill at a large bit of rock. He said to Aranjuez’s wistful enquiring eyes:
‘So that no toast more ignoble may ever be drunk out of it!’
The boy gasped and blushed:
‘Then you’ve got some one that you love, sir!’ he said in his tone of hero-worship. ‘Is she like Nancy, in Bailleul?’ Tietjens said:
‘No, not like Nancy . . . Or, perhaps, yes, a little like Nancy!’ He did not want to hurt the boy’s feelings by the suggestion that any one unlike Nancy could be loved. He felt a premonition that that child was going to be hurt. Or, perhaps, it was only that he was already so suffering.
The boy said:
‘Then you’ll get her, sir. You’ll certainly get her!’ ‘Yes, I shall probably get her!’ Tietjens said.
The Lance-Corporal came, too, round the mound. He said that ‘A’ Company were all under cover. They went all together round the heap in the direction of ‘B’ Company’s trench down into which they slid. It descended sharply. It was certainly wet. It ended practically in a little swamp. The next battalion had even some yards of sand-bag parapet before entering the slope again with its trench. This was Flanders. Duck country. The bit of swamp would make personal keeping in communication difficult. Where Tietjens had put in his tile-syphons a great deal of water had exuded. The young O.C. Company said that they had had to bale the trench out, until they had made a little drain down into the bog. They baled out with shovels. Two of the shovels still stood against the brushwood revetments of the parapet.
‘Well, you should not leave your shovels about!’ Tietjens shouted. He was feeling considerable satisfaction at the working of his syphon. In the meantime we had begun a considerable artillery demonstration. It became overwhelming. There was some sort of Bloody Mary somewhere a few yards off, or so it seemed. She pooped off. The planes had perhaps reported the position of the Austrian gun. Or we might be strafing their trenches to make them shut up that weapon. It was like being a dwarf at a conversation, a conflict — of mastodons. There was so much noise it seemed to grow dark. It was a mental darkness. You could not think. A Dark Age! The earth moved.
He was looking at Aranjuez from a considerable height. He was enjoying a considerable view. Aranjuez’s face had a rapt expression — like that of a man composing poetry. Long dollops of liquid mud surrounded them in the air. Like black pancakes being tossed. He thought: ‘Thank God I did not write to her. We are being blown up!’ The earth turned like a weary hippopotamus. It settled down slowly over the face of Lance-Corporal Duckett who lay on his side, and went on in a slow wave.
It was slow, slow, slow . . . like a slowed down movie. The earth manoeuvred for an infinite time. He remained suspended in space. As if he were suspended as he had wanted to be in front of that cockscomb in whitewash. Coincidence!
The earth sucked slowly and composedly at his feet.
It assimilated his calves, his thighs. It imprisoned him above the waist. His arms being free, he resembled a man in a life-buoy. The earth moved him slowly. It was solidish.
Below him, down a mound, the face of little Aranjuez, brown, with immense black eyes in bluish whites, looked at him. Out of viscous mud. A head on a charger! He could see the imploring lips form the words: ‘Save me, Captain!’ He said: ‘I’ve got to save myself first!’ He could not hear his own words. The noise was incredible.
A man stood over him. He appeared immensely tall because Tietjens’ face was on a level with his belt. But he was a small Cockney Tommy really. Name of Cockshott. He pulled at Tietjens’ two arms. Tietjens tried to kick with his feet. Then he realized it was better not to kick with his feet. He was pulled out. Satisfactorily. There had been two men at it. A second, a Corporal had come. They were all three of them grinning. He slid down with the sliding earth towards Aranjuez. He smiled at the pallid face. He slipped a lot. He felt a frightful burning on his neck, below and behind the ear. His hand came down from feeling the place. The finger tips had no end of mud and a little pinkishness on them. A pimple had perhaps burst. He had at least two men not killed. He signed agitatedly to the Tommies. He made gestures of digging. They were to get shovels.
He stood over Aranjuez, on the edge of liquid mud. Perhaps he would sink in. He did not sink in. Not above his boot tops. He felt his feet to be enormous and sustaining. He knew what had happened, Aranjuez was sunk in the issuing hole of the spring that made that bog. It was like being on Exmoor. He bent down over an ineffable, small face. He bent lower and his hands entered the slime. He had to get on his hand and knees.
Fury entered his mind. He had been sniped at. Before he had had that pain he had heard, he realized, an intimate drone under the hellish tumult. There was reason for furious haste. Or, no . . . They were low. In a wide hole. There was no reason for furious haste. Especially on your hands and knees.
His hands were under the slime, and his forearms. He battled his hands down greasy cloth; under greasy cloth. Slimy, not greasy! He pushed outwards. The boy’s hands and arms appeared. It was going to be easier. His face was now quite close to the boy’s, but it was impossible to hear what he said. Possibly he was unconscious. Tietjens said: ‘Thank God for my enormous physical strength!’ It was the first time that he had ever had to be thankful for great physical strength. He lifted the boy’s arms over his own shoulders so that his hand might clasp themselves behind his neck. They were slimy and disagreeable. He was short in the wind. He heaved back. The boy came up a little. He was certainly fainting. He gave no assistance. The slime was filthy. It was condemnation of a civilization that he, Tietjens, possessed of enormous physical strength, should never have needed to use it before. He looked like a collection of meal-sacks; but, at least, he could tear a pack of cards in half. If only his lungs weren’t . . .
Cockshott, the Tommie, and the Corporal were beside him. Grinning. With the two shovels that ought not to have stood against the parapet of their trench. He was intensely irritated. He had tried to indicate with his signs that it was Lance-Corporal Duckett that they were to dig out. It was probably no longer Lance-Corporal Duckett. It was probably by now ‘it.’ The body! He had probably lost a man, after all!
Cockshott and the Corporal pulled Aranjuez out of the slime. He came out reluctantly, like a lugworm out of sand. He could not stand. His legs gave way. He drooped like a flower done in slime. His lips moved, but you could not hear him. Tietjens took him from the two men who supported him between the arms and laid him a little way up the mound. He shouted in the ear of the Corporal: ‘Duckett! Go and dig out Duckett! At the double!’
He knelt and felt along the boy’s back. His spine might have been damaged. The boy did not wince. His spine might be damaged all the same. He could not be left there. Bearers could be sent with a stretcher if one was to be found. But they might be sniped coming. Probably, he, Tietjens, could carry that boy; if his lungs held out. If not, he could drag him. He felt tender, like a mother, and enormous. It might be better to leave the boy there. There was no knowing. He said: ‘Are you wounded?’ The guns had mostly stopped. Tietjens could not see any blood flowing. The boy whispered ‘No, sir!’ He was, then, probably just faint. Shell shock, very likely. There was no knowing what shell shock was or what it did to you. Or the mere vapour of the projectile.
He could not stop there.
He took the boy under his arm as you might do a roll of blankets. If he took him on his shoulders he might get high enough to be sniped. He did not go very fast, his legs were so heavy. He bundled down several steps in the direction of the spring in which the boy had been. There was more water. The spring was filling up that hollow. He could not have left the boy there. You could only imagine that his body had corked up the spring-hole before. This had been like being at home where they had springs like that. On the moors, digging out badgers. Digging earth drains, rather. Badgers have dry lairs. On the moors above Groby. April sunlight. Lots of sunlight and skylarks.
He was mounting the mound. For some feet there was no other way. They had been left in the shaft made by that projectile. He inclined to the left. To the right would take them quicker to the trench, but he wanted to get the mound between them and the sniper. His breathing was tremendous. There was more light falling on them.
Exactly! . . . Snap! Snap! Snap! . . . Clear sounds from a quarter of a mile away . . . Bullets whined. Overhead. Long sounds, going away. Not snipers. The men of a battalion. A chance! Snap! Snap! Snap! Bullets whined overhead. Men of a battalion get excited when shooting at anything running. They fire high. Trigger pressure. He was now a fat, running object. Did they fire with a sense of hatred or fun! Hatred probably. Huns have not much sense of fun.
His breathing was unbearable. Both his legs were like painful bolsters. He would be on the relatively level in two steps if he made them . . . Well, make them! . . . He was on the level. He had been climbing: up clods. He had to take an immense breath. The ground under his left foot gave way. He had been holding Aranjuez in front of his own body as much as he could, under his right arm. As his left foot sank in, the boy’s body came right on top of him. Naturally this stiffish earth in huge clods had fissures in it. Apertures. It was not like regular digging.
The boy kicked, screamed, tore himself loose . . . Well, if he wanted to go! The scream was like a horse’s in a stable on fire. Bullets had gone overhead. The boy rushed off, his hands to his face. He disappeared round the mound. It was a conical mound. He, Tietjens, could now crawl on his belly. It was satisfactory.
He crawled. Shuffling himself along with his hips and elbows. There was probably a text-book way of crawling. He did not know it. The clods of earth appeared friendly. For bottom soil thrown to the top they did not feel or smell so very sour. Still, it would take a long time to get them into cultivation or under grass. Probably, agriculturally speaking, that country would be in a pretty poor condition for a long time . . .
He felt pleased with his body. It had had no exercise to speak of for two months — as second-in-command. He could not have expected to be in even the condition he was in. But the mind had probably had a good deal to do with that! He had, no doubt, been in a devil of a funk. It was only reasonable. It was disagreeable to think of those Hun devils hunting down the unfortunate. A disagreeable business. Still, we did the same . . . That boy must have been in a devil of a funk. Suddenly. He had held his hands in front of his face. Afraid to see. Well, you couldn’t blame him. They ought not to send out schoolgirls. He was like a girl. Still, he ought to have stayed to see that he, Tietjens, was not pipped. He might have thought he was hit from the way his left leg had gone down. He would have to be strafed. Gently.
Cockshott and the Corporal were on their hands and knees digging with the short-handled shovels that are known as trenching tools. They were on the rear side of the mound.
‘We’ve found im, sir,’ the Corporal said. ‘Regular buried. Just seed his foot. Dursen’t use a shovel. Might cut im in arf!’
‘You’re probably right. Give me the shovel!’
Cockshott was a draper’s assistant, the Corporal a milkman. Very likely they were not good with shovels.
He had had the advantage of a boyhood crowded with digging of all sorts. Duckett was buried horizontally, running into the side of a conical mound. His feet at least stuck out like that, but you could not tell how the body was disposed. It might turn to either side or upwards. He said:
‘Go on with your tools above! But give me room.’
The toes being to the sky, the trunk could hardly bend downwards. He stood below the feet and aimed terrific blows with the shovel eighteen inches below. He liked digging. This earth was luckily dryish. It ran down the hill conveniently. This man had been buried probably ten minutes. It seemed longer but it was probably less. He ought to have a chance. Probably earth was less suffocating than water. He said to the Corporal:
‘Do you know how to apply artificial respiration?’ ‘To the drowned?’
‘I do, sir. I was swimming champion of Islington baths!’ A rather remarkable man, Cockshott. His father had knocked up the arm of a man who had tried to shoot Mr Gladstone in 1866 or thereabouts.
A lot of earth falling away, obligingly, after one withdrawal of the shovel Lance-Corporal Duckett’s thin legs appeared to the fork, the knees dropping.
‘E ain’t rubbin’ ‘is ankles this journey!’
The Corporal said:
‘Company Commander is killed, sir. Bullet clean thru the ed!’
It annoyed Tietjens that here was another head wound. He could not apparently get away from them. It was silly to be annoyed, because in trenches a majority of wounds had to be head wounds. But Providence might just as well be a little more imaginative. To oblige one. It annoyed him, too, to think that he had strafed that boy just before he was killed. For leaving his shovels about. A strafe leaves a disagreeable impression on young boys for quite half an hour. It was probably the last incident in his life. So he died depressed . . . Might God be making it up to him!
He said to the Corporal:
‘Let me come.’ Duckett’s left hand and wrist had appeared, the hand drooping and improbably clean, level with the thigh. It gave the line of the body; you could clear away beside him.
“E wasn’t on’y twenty-two,’ the Corporal said. Cockshott said: ‘Same age as me. Very particular e was about your rifle pull-throughs.’
A minute later they pulled Duckett out, by the legs. A stone might have been resting on his face, in that case his face would have been damaged. It wasn’t, though you had had to chance it. It was black but asleep . . . As if Valentine Wannop had been reposing in an ash-bin. Tietjens left Cockshott applying artificial respiration very methodically and efficiently to the prostrate form.
It was to him a certain satisfaction that, at any rate, in that minute affair he hadn’t lost one of the men but only an officer. As satisfaction it was not militarily correct, though as it harmed no one there was no harm in it. But for his men he always felt a certain greater responsibility; they seemed to him to be there infinitely less of their own volition. It was akin to the feeling that made him regard cruelty to an animal as a more loathsome crime than cruelty to a human being, other than a child. It was no doubt irrational.
Leaning, in the communication trench, against the corrugated iron that boasted a great whitewashed A, in, a very clean thin Burberry boasting half a bushel of badges of rank — worsted crowns and things! — and in a small tin hat that looked elegant, was a slight figure. How the devil can you make a tin hat look elegant! It carried a hunting switch and wore spurs. An Inspecting General. The General said benevolently:
‘Who are you?’ and then with irritation: ‘Where the devil is the officer commanding this Battalion? Why can’t he be found?’ He added: ‘You’re disgustingly dirty. Like a blackamoor. I suppose you’ve an explanation.’
Tietjens was being spoken to by General Campion. In a hell of a temper. He stood to attention like a scarecrow. He said:
‘I am in command of this Battalion, sir. I am Tietjens, second-in-command. Now in command temporarily. I could not be found because I was buried. Temporarily.’
The General said:
‘You . . . Good God!’ and fell back a step, his jaw dropping. He said: ‘I’ve just come back from London!’ And then: ‘By God, you don’t stop in command of a Battalion of mine a second after I take over!’ He said: ‘They said this was the smartest battalion in my unit!’ and snorted with passion. He added: ‘Neither my galloper nor Levin can find you or get you found. And there you come strolling along with your hands in your pockets!’
In the complete stillness, for, the guns having stopped, the skylarks. too, were taking a spell, Tietjens could hear his heart beat, little dry scraping sounds out of his lungs. The heavy beats were very accelerated. It gave an effect of terror. He said to himself:
‘What the devil has his having been in London to do with it?’ And then: ‘He wants to marry Sylvia! I’ll bet he wants to marry Sylvia!’ That was what his having been to London had to do with it. It was an obsession with him: the first thing he said when surprised and passionate.
They always arranged these periods of complete silence for the visits of Inspecting Generals. Perhaps the Great General Staffs of both sides arrange that for each other. More probably our guns had split themselves in the successful attempt to let the Huns know that we wanted them to shut up — that we were firing with what Papists call a special intention. That would be as effective as a telephone message. The Huns would know there was something up. Never put the other side in a temper when you can help it.
‘I’ve just had a scratch, sir. I was feeling in my pockets for my field-dressing.’
The General said:
‘A fellow like you has no right to be where he can be wounded. Your place is the lines of communication. I was mad when I sent you here. I shall send you back.’
‘You can fall out. I want neither your assistance nor your information. They said there was a damn smart officer in command here. I wanted to see him . . . Of the name of . . . Of the name of . . . It does not matter. Fall out . . .
Tietjens went heavily along the trench. It came into his head to say to himself:
‘It is a land of Hope and Glory!’ Then he exclaimed: ‘By God! I’ll take the thing before the Commander-in-Chief. I’ll take the thing before the King in Council if necessary. By God I will!’ The old fellow had no business to speak to him like that. It was importing personal enmity into service matters. He stood still reflecting on the terms of his letter to Brigade. The Adjutant Notting came along the trench. He said:
‘General Campion wants to see you, sir. He takes over this Army on Monday.’ He added: ‘You’ve been in a nasty place, sir. Not hurt, I trust!’ It was a most unusual piece of loquacity for Notting.
Tietjens said to himself:
‘Then I’ve got five days in command of this unit. He can’t kick me out before he’s in command.’ The Huns would be through them before then. Five days’ fighting! Thank God!
‘Thanks. I’ve seen him. No, I’m all right. Beastly dirty!’ Notting’s beady eyes had a tinge of agony in them. He said:
‘When they said you had stopped one, sir, I thought I should go mad. We can’t get through the work!’
Tietjens was wondering whether he should write his letter to Brigade before or after the old fellow took over. Notting was saying:
‘The doctor says Aranjuez will get through all right.’
It would be better, if he were going to base his appeal on the grounds of personal prejudice. Notting was saying:
‘Of course he will lose his eye. In fact it . . . it is not practically there. But he’ll get through.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54