When you came in the space was desultory, rectangular, warm after the drip of the winter night, and transfused with a brown-orange dust that was light. It was shaped like the house a child draws. Three groups of brown limbs spotted with brass took dim high-lights from shafts that came from a bucket pierced with holes, filled with incandescent coke, and covered in with a sheet of iron in the shape of a tunnel. Two men, as if hierarchically smaller, crouched on the floor beside the brazier; four, two at each end of the hut, drooped over tables in attitudes of extreme indifference. From the eaves above the parallelogram of black that was the doorway fell intermittent drippings of collected moisture, persistent, with glass-like intervals of musical sound. The two men squatting on their heels over the brazier — they had been miners — began to talk in a low sing-song of dialect, hardly audible. It went on and on, monotonously, without animation. It was as if one told the other long, long stories to which his companion manifested his comprehension or sympathy with animal grunts . . .
An immense tea-tray, august, its voice filling the black circle of the horizon, thundered to the ground. Numerous pieces of sheet-iron said, ‘Pack. Pack. Pack.’ In a minute the clay floor of the hut shook, the drums of ears were pressed inwards, solid noise showered about the universe, enormous echoes pushed these men — to the right, to the left, or down towards the tables, and crackling like that of flames among vast underwood became the settled condition of the night. Catching the light from the brazier as the head leaned over, the lips of one of the two men on the floor were incredibly red and full and went on talking and talking . . .
The two men on the floor were Welsh miners, of whom the one came from the Rhondda Valley and was unmarried; the other, from Pontardulais, had a wife who kept a laundry, he having given up going underground just before the war. The two men a the table to the right of the door were sergeants-major; the one came from Suffolk and was a time-serving man of sixteen years’ seniority as a sergeant in a line regiment. The other was Canadian of English origin. The two officers at the other end of the hut were captains, the one a young regular officer born in Scotland but educated at Oxford; the other, nearly middle-aged and heavy, came from Yorkshire, and was in a militia battalion. The one runner on the floor was filled with a passionate rage because the elder officer had refused him leave to go home and see why his wife, who had sold their laundry, had not yet received the purchase money from the buyer; the other was thinking about a cow. His girl, who worked on a mountainy farm above Caerphilly, had written to him about a queer cow: a black-and-white Holstein — surely to goodness a queer cow. The English sergeant-major was almost tearfully worried about the enforced lateness of the draft. It would be twelve midnight before they could march them off. It was not right to keep men hanging about like that. The men did not like to be kept waiting, hanging about. It made them discontented. They did not like it. He could not see why the depot quarter-master could not keep up his stock of candles for the hooded lamps. The men had no call to be kept waiting, hanging about. Soon they would have to be having some supper. Quarter would not like that. He would grumble fair. Having to indent for suppers. Put his account out, fair, it would. Two thousand nine hundred and ninety-four suppers at a penny half-penny. But it was not right to keep the men hanging about till midnight and no suppers. It made them discontented and them going up the line for the first time, poor devils.
The Canadian sergeant-major was worried about a pigskin leather pocket-book. He had bought it at the ordnance depot in the town. He imagined himself bringing it out on parade, to read out some return or other to the adjutant. Very smart it would look on parade, himself standing up straight and tall. But he could not remember whether he had put it in his kitbag. On himself it was not. He felt in his right and left breast pockets, his right and left skirt pockets, in all the pockets of his overcoat that hung from a nail within reach-of his chair. He did not feel at all certain that the man who acted as his batman had packed that pocket-book with his kit, though he declared he had. It was very annoying. His present wallet, bought in Ontario, was bulging and split. He did not like to bring it out when Imperial officers asked for something out of a return. It gave them a false idea of Canadian troops. Very annoying. He was an auctioneer. He agreed that at this rate it would be half-past one before they had the draft down to the station and entrained. But it was very annoying to be uncertain whether that pocket-book was packed or not. He had imagined himself making a good impression on parade, standing up straight and tall, taking out that pocket-book when the adjutant asked for a figure from one return or the other. He understood their adjutants were to be Imperial officers now they were in France. It was very annoying.
An enormous crashing sound said things of an intolerable intimacy to each of those men, and to all of them as a body. After its mortal vomiting all the other sounds appeared a rushing silence, painful to ears in which the blood audibly coursed. The young officer stood violently up on his feet and caught at the complications of his belt hung from a nail. The elder, across the table, lounging sideways, stretched out one hand with a downward movement. He was aware that the younger man, who was the senior officer, was just upon out of his mind. The younger man, intolerably fatigued, spoke sharp, injurious, inaudible words to his companion. The elder spoke sharp, short words, inaudible too, and continued to motion downwards with his hand over the table. The old English sergeant-major said to his junior that Captain Mackenzie had one of his mad fits again, but what he said was inaudible and he knew it. He felt arising in his motherly heart that yearned at the moment over his two thousand nine hundred and thirty-four nurslings a necessity, like a fatigue, to extend the motherliness of his functions to the orfcer. He said to the Canadian that Captain Mackenzie there going temporary off his nut was the best orfcer in His Majesty’s army. And going to make a bleedin’ fool of hisself. The best orfcer in His Majesty’s army. Not a better. Careful, smart, brave as a ‘ero. And considerate of his men in the line. You wouldn’t believe . . . He felt vaguely that it was a fatigue to have to mother an officer. To a lance-corporal, or a young sergeant, beginning to go wrong you could mutter wheezy suggestions through your moustache. But to an officer you had to say things slantways. Difficult it was. Thank God they had a trustworthy cool hand in the other captain. Old and good, the proverb said.
Dead silence fell.
‘Lost the — — they ‘aye,’ the runner from the Rhondda made his voice startlingly heard. Brilliant illuminations flickered on hut-gables visible through the doorway.
‘No reason,’ his mate from Pontardulais rather whined in his native sing-song, ‘why the bleedin’ searchlights, surely to goodness, should light us up for all the —— ‘Un planes to see. I want to see my bleedin’ little ‘ut on the bleedin’ Mumbles again, if they don’t.’
‘Not so much swear words, 0 Nine Morgan,’ the sergeant-major said.
‘Now, Dai Morgan, I’m telling you,’ 09 Morgan’s mate continued. ‘A queer cow it must have been whatever. Black-and-white Holstein it wass . . .
It was as if the younger captain gave up listening to the conversation. He leant both hands on the blanket that covered the table. He exclaimed:
‘Who the hell are you to give me orders? I’m your senior. Who the hell . . . Oh, by God, who the hell . . . Nobody gives me orders . . . ’ His voice collapsed weakly in his chest. He felt his nostrils to be inordinately dilated so that the air pouring into them was cold. He felt that there was an entangled conspiracy against him, and all round him. He exclaimed: ‘You and your —— pimp of a general . . .!’ He desired to cut certain throats with a sharp trench-knife that he had. That would take the weight off his chest. The ‘Sit down’ of the heavy figure lumping opposite him paralysed his limbs. He felt an unbelievable hatred. If he could move his hand to get at his trench-knife . . .
09 Morgan said: ‘The ——’s name who’s bought my bleedin’ laundry is Williams . . . If I thought it was Evans Williams of Castell Goch, I’d desert.’
‘Took a hatred for it cawve,’ the Rhondda man said. And-look you, before you could say . . . ’ The conversation of orfcers was a thing to which they neither listened. Officers talked of things that had no interest. Whatever could possess a cow to take a hatred of its calf? Up behind Caerphilly on the mountains? On an autumny morning the whole hillside was covered with spider-webs. They shone down the sun like spun glass. Overlooked the cow must be.
The young captain leaning over the table began a long argument as to relative seniority. He argued with himself, taking both sides in an extraordinarily rapid gabble. He himself had been gazetted after Gheluvelt. The other not till a year later. It was true the other was in permanent command of that depot, and he himself attached to the unit only for rations and discipline. But that did not include orders to sit down. What the hell, he wanted to know, did the other mean by it? He began to talk, faster than ever, about a circle. When its circumference came whole by the disintegration of the atom the world would some to an end. In the millennium there would be no giving or taking orders. Of course he obeyed orders till then.
To the elder officer, burdened with the command of a unit of unreasonable size, with a scratch headquarters of useless subalterns who were continually being changed, with N.C.O.’s all unwilling to work, with rank and file nearly all colonials and unused to doing without things, and with a depot to draw on that, being old established, felt that it belonged exclusively to a regular British unit and resented his drawing anything at all, the practical difficulties of his everyday life were already sufficient, and he had troublesome private affairs. He was lately out of hospital; the sackcloth hut in which he lived, borrowed from the Depot medical officer who had gone to England on leave, was suffocatingly hot with the paraffin heater going, and intolerably cold and damp without it; the batman whom the M.O. had left in charge of the hut appeared to be half-witted. These German air-raids had lately become continuous. The Base was packed with men, tighter than sardines. Down in the town you could not move in the streets. Draft-finding units were commanded to keep their men out of sight as much as possible. Drafts were to be sent off only at night. But how could you send off a draft at night when every ten minutes you had two hours of lights out for an air-raid? Every man had nine sets of papers and tags that had to be signed by an officer. It was quite proper that the poor devils should be properly documented. But how was it to be done? He had two thousand nine hundred and ninety-four men to send off that night and nine times two thousand nine hundred and ninety-four is twenty-six thousand nine hundred and forty-six. They would not or could not let him have a disc-punching machine of his own, but how was the Depot armourer to be expected to punch five thousand nine hundred and eighty-eight extra identity discs in addition to his regular jobs?
The other captain rambled on in front of him. Tietjens did not like his talk of the circle and the millennium. You get alarmed, if you have any sense, when you hear that. It may prove the beginnings of definite, dangerous lunacy . . . But he knew nothing about the fellow. He was too dark and good-looking, too passionate, probably, to be a good regular officer on the face of him. But he must be a good officer: he had the D.S.O. with a clasp, the M.C., and some foreign ribbon up. And the general said he was: with the additional odd piece of information that he was a Vice-Chancellor’s Latin Prize man . . . He wondered if General Campion knew what a Vice-Chancellor’s Latin Prize man was. Probably he did not, but had just stuck the piece of information into his note as a barbaric ornament is used by a savage chief. Wanted to show that he, General Lord Edward Campion, was a man of culture. There was no knowing where vanity would not break out.
So this fellow was too dark and good-looking to be a good officer: yet he was a good officer. That explained it. The repressions of the passionate drive them mad. He must have been being sober, disciplined, patient, absolutely repressed ever since 1914 — against a background of hell-fire, row, blood, mud, old tins . . . And indeed the elder officer had a vision of the younger as if in a design for a full-length portrait — for some reason with his legs astride, against a background of tapestry scarlet with fire and more scarlet with blood . . . He sighed a little; that was the life of all those several millions . . .
He seemed to see his draft: two thousand nine hundred and ninety-four men he had had command of for over a couple of months — a long space of time as that life went — men he and Sergeant-Major Cowley had looked after with a great deal of tenderness, superintending their morale; their morals, their feet, their digestions, their impatiences, their desires for women . . . He seemed to see them winding away over a great stretch of country, the head slowly settling down, as in the Zoo you will see an enormous serpent slowly sliding into its water-tank . . . Settling down out there, a long way away, up against that impassable barrier that stretched from the depths of the ground to the peak of heaven . . .
Intense dejection: endless muddles: endless follies: endless villainies. All these men given into the hands of the most cynically care-free intriguers in long corridors who made plots that harrowed the hearts of the world. All these men toys: all these agonies mere occasions for picturesque phrases to be put into politicians’ speeches without heart or even intelligence. Hundreds of thousands of men tossed here and there in that sordid and gigantic mud-brownness of mid-winter . . . By God, exactly as if they were nuts wilfully picked up and thrown over the shoulder by magpies . . . But men. Not just populations. Men you worried over there. Each man a man with a backbone, knees, breeches, braces, a rifle, a home, passions, fornications, drunks, pals, some scheme of the universe, corns, inherited diseases, a greengrocer’s business, a milk walk, a paper stall, brats, a slut of a wife . . . The Men: the Other Ranks! And the poor —— little officers. God help them. Vice-Chancellor’s Latin Prize men . . .
This particular poor —— Prize man seemed to object to noise. They ought to keep the place quiet for him . . .
By God, he was perfectly right. That place was meant for the quiet and orderly preparation of meat for the shambles. Drafts! A Base is a place where you meditate: perhaps you should pray: a place where in peace the Tommies should write their last letters home and describe ‘ow the guns are ‘owling ‘orribly.
But to pack a million and a half of men into and round that small town was like baiting a trap for rats with a great chunk of rotten meat. The Hun planes could smell them from a hundred miles away. They could do more harm there than if they bombed a quarter of London to pieces. And the air defences there were a joke: a mad joke. They popped off, thousands of rounds, from any sort of pieces of ordnance, like schoolboys bombarding swimming rats with stones. Obviously your best-trained air-defence men would be round your metropolis. But this was no joke for the sufferers.
Heavy depression settled down more heavily upon him. The distrust of the home Cabinet, felt by then by the greater part of that army, became like physical pain. These immense sacrifices, this ocean of mental sufferings, were all undergone to further the private vanities of men who amidst these hugenesses of landscapes and forces appeared pygmies! It was the worries of all these wet millions in mud-brown that worried him. They could die, they could be massacred, by the quarter million, in shambles. But that they should be massacred without jauntiness, without confidence, with depressed brows: without parade . . .
He knew really nothing about the officer in front of him. Apparently the fellow had stopped for an answer to some question. What question? Tietjens had no idea. He had not been listening. Heavy silence settled down on the hut. They just waited. The fellow said with an intonation of hatred:
‘Well, what about it? That’s what I want to know!’
Tietjens went on reflecting . . . There were a great many kinds of madness. What kind was this? The fellow was not drunk. He talked like a drunkard, but he was not drunk. In ordering him to sit down Tietjens had just chanced it. There are madmen whose momentarily subconscious selves will respond to a military command as if it were magic. Tietjens remembered having barked: ‘About . . . turn,’ to a poor little lunatic fellow in some camp at home and the fellow who had been galloping hotfoot past his tent, waving a naked bayonet with his pursuers fifty yards behind, had stopped dead and faced about with a military stamp like a guardsman. He had tried it on this lunatic for want of any better expedient. It had apparently functioned intermittently. He risked saying:
‘What about what?’
The man said as if ironically:
‘It seems as if I were not worth listening to by your high and mightiness. I said: “What about my foul squit of an uncle?” Your filthy, best friend.’
‘The general’s your uncle? General Campion? What’s he done to you?’
The general had sent this fellow down to him with a note asking him, Tietjens, to keep an eye in his unit on a very good fellow and an admirable officer. The chit was in the general’s own writing, and contained the additional information as to Captain Mackenzie’s scholastic prowess . . . It had struck Tietjens as queer that the general should take so much trouble about a casual infantry company commander. How could the fellow have been brought markedly to his notice? Of course, Campion was good-natured, like another man. If a fellow, half dotty, whose record showed that he was a very good man, was brought to his notice Campion would do what he could for him. And Tietjens knew that the general regarded himself, Tietjens, as a heavy, bookish fellow, able reliably to look after one of his protégés . . . Probably Campion imagined that they had no work to do in that unit: they might become an acting lunatic ward. But if Mackenzie was Campion’s nephew the thing was explained.
The lunatic exclaimed:
‘Campion, my uncle? Why, he’s yours!‘
‘Oh no, he isn’t.’ The general was not even a connection of his, but he did happen to be Tietjens’ godfather and his father’s oldest friend.
The other fellow answered:
‘Then it’s damn funny. Damn suspicious . . . Why should he be so interested in you if he’s not your filthy uncle? You’re no soldier . . . You’re no sort of a soldier . . . A meal sack, that’s what you look like . . . ’ He paused and then went on very quickly: ‘They say up at H.Q. that your wife has got hold of the disgusting general. I didn’t believe it was true. I didn’t believe you were that sort of fellow. I’ve heard a lot about you!’
Tietjens laughed at this madness. Then, in the dark brownness, an intolerable pang went all through his heavy frame — the intolerable pang of home news to these desperately occupied men, the pain caused by disasters happening in the darkness and at a distance. You could do nothing to mitigate them! . . . The extraordinary beauty of the wife from whom he was separated — for she was extraordinarily beautiful! — might well have caused scandals about her to have penetrated to the general’s headquarters, which was a sort of family party! Hitherto there had, by the grace of God, been no scandals. Sylvia Tietjens had been excruciatingly unfaithful, in the most painful manner. He could not be certain that the child he adored was his own . . . That was not unusual with extraordinarily beautiful — and cruel! — women. But she had been haughtily circumspect.
Nevertheless, three months ago, they had parted . . . Or he thought they had parted. Almost complete blankness had descended upon his home life. She appeared before him so extraordinarily bright and clear in the brown darkness that he shuddered: very tall, very fair, extraordinarily fit and clean even. Thoroughbred! In a sheath gown of gold tissue, all illuminated, and her mass of hair, like gold tissue too, coiled round and round in plaits over her ears. The features very clean-cut and thinnish; the teeth white and small; the breasts small; the arms thin, long and at attention at her sides . . . His eyes, when they were tired, had that trick of reproducing images on their retinas with that extreme clearness, images sometimes of things he thought of, sometimes of things merely at the back of the mind. Well, to-night his eyes were very tired! She was looking straight before her, with a little inimical disturbance of the corners of her lips. She had just thought of a way to hurt terribly his silent personality . . . The semi-clearness became a luminous blue, like a tiny gothic arch, and passed out of his vision to the right . . .
He knew nothing of where Sylvia was. He had given up looking at the illustrated papers. She had said she was going into a convent at Birkenhead — but twice he had seen photographs of her. The first showed her merely with Lady Fiona Grant, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Ulleswater — and a Lord Swindon, talked of as next minister for International Finance — a new Business Peer . . . All three walking straight into the camera in the courtyard of Lord Swindon’s castle . . . all three smiling! . . . It announced Mrs Christopher Tietjens as, having a husband at the front.
The sting had, however, been in the second picture — in the description of it supplied by the journal! It showed Sylvia standing in front of a bench in the park. On the bench in profile there extended himself in a guffaw of laughter, a young man in a top hat jammed well on to his head, which was thrown back, his prognathous jaw pointing upwards. The description stated that the picture showed Mrs Christopher Tietjens, whose husband was in hospital at the Front, telling a good story to the son and heir of Lord Birgham! Another of these pestilential, crooked newspaper-owning financial peers . . .
It had struck him for a painful moment whilst looking at the picture in a dilapidated mess anteroom after he had come out of hospital — that, considering the description, the journal had got its knife into Sylvia . . . But the illustrated papers do not get their knives into society beauties. They are too precious to the photographers . . . Then Sylvia must have supplied the information; she desired to cause comment by the contrast of her hilarious companions and the statement that her husband was in hospital at the Front . . . It had occurred to him that she was on the warpath. But he had put it out of his mind . . . Nevertheless, brilliant mixture as she was, of the perfectly straight, perfectly fearless, perfectly reckless, of the generous, the kind even — and the atrociously cruel, nothing might suit her better than positively to show contempt — no, no contempt! cynical hatred — for her husband, for the war, for public opinion . . . even for the interest of their child! Yet, it came to him, the image of her that he had just seen had been the image of Sylvia, standing at attention, her mouth working a little, whilst she read out the figures beside the bright filament of mercury in a thermometer . . . The child had had, with measles, a temperature that, even then, he did not dare think of. And — it was at his sister’s in Yorkshire, and the local doctor hadn’t cared to take the responsibility — he could still feel the warmth of the little mummy-like body; he had covered the head and face with a flannel, for he didn’t care for the sight, and lowered the warm, terrible, fragile weight into a shining surface of crushed ice in water . . . She had stood at attention, the corners of her mouth moving a little: the thermometer going down as you watched it . . . So that she mightn’t want, in damaging the father, atrociously to damage the child . . . For there could not be anything worse for a child than to have a mother known as a whore . . .
Sergeant-Major Cowley was standing beside the table. He said:
‘Wouldn’t it be a good thing, sir, to send a runner to the depot sergeant cook and tell him we’re going to indent for suppers for the draft? We could send the other with the 128’s to Quarter. They’re neither wanted here for the moment.’
The other captain went on incessantly talking — but about his fabulous uncle, not about Sylvia. It was difficult for Tietjens to get what he wanted said. He wanted the second runner sent to the depot quartermaster with a message to the effect that if G.S. candles for hooded lamps were not provided for the use of his orderly room by return of bearer he, Captain Tietjens, commanding Number XVI Casual Battalion, would bring the whole matter of supplies for his battalion that same night before Base Headquarters. They were all three talking at once: heavy fatalism overwhelmed Tietjens at the thought of the stubbornness showed by the depot quartermaster. The big unit beside his camp was a weary obstinacy of obstruction. You would have thought they would have displayed some eagerness to get his men up into the line. Let alone that the men were urgently needed, the more of his men went the more of them stayed behind. Yet they tried to stop his meat, his groceries, his braces, his identification discs, his soldiers’ small books . . . Every imaginable hindrance, and not even self-interested common sense! . . . He managed also to convey to Sergeant-Major Cowley that, as everything seemed to have quieted down, the Canadian sergeant-major had better go and see if everything was ready for falling his draft in . . . If things remained quiet for another ten minutes, the ‘All Clear’ might then be expected . . . He knew that Sergeant-Major Cowley wanted to get the Other Ranks out of the hut with that captain carrying on like that, and he did not see why the old N.C.O. should not have what he wanted.
It was as if a tender and masculine butler withdrew himself. Cowley’s grey walrus moustache and scarlet cheeks showed for a moment beside the brazier, whispering at the ears of the runners, a hand kindly on each of their shoulders. The runners went; the Canadian went. Sergeant-Major Cowley, his form blocking the doorway, surveyed the stars. He found it difficult to realize that the same pinpricks of light through black manifolding paper as he looked at, looked down also on his villa and his elderly wife at Isleworth beside the Thames above London. He knew it to be the fact, yet it was difficult to realize. He imagined the trams going along the High Street, his missus in one of them with her supper in a string bag on her stout knees. The trams lit up and shining. He imagined her having kippers for supper: ten to one it would be kippers. Her favourites. His daughter was in the W.A.A.C.’s by now. She had been cashier to Parks’s, the big butchers in Brent-ford, and pretty she had used to look in the glass case. Like as if it might have been the British Museum where they had Pharaohs and others in glass cases . . . There were threshing machines droning away all over the night. He always said they were like threshing machines . . . Crikey, if only they were! . . . But they might be our own planes, of course. A good welsh rarebit he had had for tea.
In the hut, the light from the brazier having fewer limbs on which to fall, a sort of intimacy seemed to descend, and Tietjens felt himself gain in ability to deal with his mad friend. Captain Mackenzie — Tietjens was not sure that the name was Mackenzie: it had looked something like it in the general’s hand — Captain Mackenzie was going on about the wrongs he had suffered at the hands of some fabulous uncle. Apparently at some important juncture the uncle had refused to acknowledge acquaintanceship with the nephew. From that all the misfortunes of the nephew had arisen . . . Suddenly Tietjens said:
‘Look here, pull yourself together. Are you mad? Stark, staring? . . . Or only just play-acting?’
The man suddenly sank down on to the bully-beef case that served for a chair. He stammered a question as to what — what — what Tietjens meant.
‘If you let yourself go,’ Tietjens said, ‘you may let yourself go a tidy sight farther than you want to.’
‘You’re not a mad doctor,’ the other said. ‘It’s no good your trying to come it over me. I know all about you. I’ve got an uncle who’s done the dirty on me — the dirtiest dirty ever was done on a man. If it hadn’t been for him I shouldn’t be here now.’
‘You talk as if the fellow had sold you into slavery,’ Tietjens said.
‘He’s your closest friend,’ Mackenzie seemed to advance as a motive for revenge on Tietjens. ‘He’s a friend of the general’s, too. Of your wife’s as well. He’s in with every one.’
A few desultory, pleasurable ‘pop-op-ops’ sounded from far overhead to the left.
‘They imagine they’ve found the Hun again,’ Tietjens said. ‘That’s all right; you concentrate on your uncle. Only don’t exaggerate his importance to the world. I assure you you are mistaken if you call him a friend of mine. I have not got a friend in the world.’ He added: ‘Are you going to mind the noise? If it is going to get on your nerves you can walk in a dignified manner to a dugout, now, before it gets bad . . . ’ He called out to Cowley to go and tell the Canadian sergeant-major to get his men back into their shelters if they had come out. Until the ‘All Clear’ went.
Captain Mackenzie sat himself gloomily down at table.
‘Damn it all,’ he said, ‘don’t think I’m afraid of a little shrapnel. I’ve had two periods solid of fourteen and nine months in the line. I could have got out on to the rotten staff . . . It’s damn it: it’s the beastly row . . . Why isn’t one a beastly girl and privileged to shriek? By God, I’ll get even with some of them one of these days . . . ’
‘Why not shriek?’ Tietjens asked. ‘You can, for me. No one’s going to doubt your courage here.’
Loud drops of rain spattered down all round the hut; there was a familiar thud on the ground a yard or so away, a sharp tearing sound above, a sharper knock on the table between them. Mackenzie took the shrapnel bullet that had fallen and turned it round and round between finger and thumb.
‘You think you caught me on the hop just now,’ he said injuriously. ‘You’re damn clever.’
Two stories down below someone let two hundred-pound dumb-bells drop on the drawing-room carpet; all the windows of the house slammed in a race to get it over; the ‘pop-op-ops’ of the shrapnel went in wafts all over the air. There was again sudden silence that was painful, after you had braced yourself up to bear noise. The runner from the Rhondda came in with a light step bearing two fat candles. He took the hooded lamps from Tietjens and began to press the candles up against the inner springs, snorting sedulously through his nostrils . . .
‘Nearly got me, one of those candlesticks did,’ he said. ‘Touched my foot as it fell, it did. I did run. Surely to goodness I did run, cahptn.’
Inside the shrapnel shell was an iron bar with a flattened, broad nose. When the shell burst in the air this iron object fell to the ground and, since it came often from a great height, its fall was dangerous. The men called these candlesticks, which they much resembled.
A little ring of light now existed on the puce colour of the blanket-covered table. Tietjens showed, silver-headed, fresh-coloured, and bulky; Mackenzie, dark, revengeful eyes above a prognathous jaw. A very thin man, thirtyish.
‘You can go into the shelter with the Colonial troops, if you like,’ Tietjens said to the runner. The man answered after a pause, being very slow thinking, that he preferred to wait for his mate, O9 Morgan whatever.
‘They ought to let my orderly room have tin hats,’ Tietjens said to Mackenzie. ‘I’m damned if they didn’t take these fellows’ tin hats into store again when they attached to me for service, and I’m equally damned if they did not tell me that, if I wanted tin hats for my own headquarters, I had to write to H.Q. Canadians, Aldershot, or some such place in order to get the issue sanctioned.’
‘Our headquarters are full of Huns doing the Huns’ work,’ Mackenzie said hatefully. ‘I’d like to get among them one of these days.’
Tietjens looked with some attention at that young man with the Rembrandt shadows over his dark face. He said: ‘Do you believe that tripe?’
The young man said:
‘No . . . I don’t know that I do . . . I don’t know what to think . . . The world’s rotten . . .
‘Oh, the world’s pretty rotten, all right,’ Tietjens answered. And, in his fatigue of mind caused by having to attend to innumerable concrete facts like the providing of households for a thousand men every few days, arranging parades states for an extraordinarily mixed set of troops of all arms with very mixed drills, and fighting the Assistant Provost Marshal to keep his own men out of the clutches of the beastly Garrison Military Police who had got a down on all Canadians, he felt he had not any curiosity at all left . . . Yet he felt vaguely that, at the back of his mind, there was some reason for trying to cure this young member of the lower middle classes.
‘Yes, the world’s certainly pretty rotten. But that’s not its particular line of rottenness as far as we are concerned . . . We’re tangled up, not because we’ve got Huns in our orderly rooms, but just because we’ve got English. That’s the bat in our belfry . . . That Hun plane is presumably coming back. Half a dozen of them . . . ’
The young man, his mind eased by having got off his chest a confounded lot of semi-nonsensical ravings, considered the return of the Hun planes with gloomy indifference. His problem really was: could he stand the —— noise that would probably accompany their return? He had to get really into his head that this was an open space to all intents and purposes. There would not be splinters of stone flying about. He was ready to be hit by iron, steel, lead, copper, or brass shell rims, but not by beastly splinters of stone knocked off house fronts. That consideration had come to him during his beastly, his beastly, his infernal, damnable leave in London, when just such a filthy row had been going on . . . Divorce leave! . . . Captain McKechnie second attached ninth Glamorganshires is granted leave from the 14/11 to the 29/11 for the purpose of obtaining a divorce . . . The memory seemed to burst inside him with the noise of one of those beastly enormous tin-pot crashes — and it always came when guns made that particular kind of tin-pot crash: the two came together, the internal one and the crash outside. He felt that chimney-pots were going to crash on to his head. You protected yourself by shouting at damned infernal idiots; if you could out-shout the row you were safe . . . That was not sensible but you got ease that way! . . .
‘In matters of Information they’re not a patch on us.’ Tietjens tried the speech on cautiously and concluded: ‘We know what the Enemy rulers read in the sealed envelopes beside their breakfast bacon-and-egg plates.’
It had occurred to him that it was a military duty to bother himself about the mental equilibrium of this member of the lower classes. So he talked . . . any old talk, wearisomely, to keep his mind employed! Captain Mackenzie was an officer of His Majesty the King: the property, body and soul, of His Majesty and His Majesty’s War Office. It was Tietjens’ duty to preserve this fellow as it was his duty to prevent deterioration in any other piece of the King’s property. That was implicit in the oath of allegiance. He went on talking:
The curse of the army, as far as the organization is concerned, was our imbecile national belief that the game is more than the player. That was our ruin, mentally, as a nation. We were taught that cricket is more than clearness of mind, so the blasted quarter-master, O.C. Depot Ordnance Stores next door, thought he had taken a wicket if he refused to serve out tin hats to their crowd. That’s the Game! And if any of his, Tietjens’, men were killed, he grinned and said the game was more than the players of the game . . . And of course if he got his bowling average down low enough he got promotion. There was a quartermaster in a west country cathedral city who’d got more D.S.O.’s and combatant medals than anyone on active service in France, from the sea to Peronne, or wherever our lines ended. His achievement was to have robbed almost every wretched Tommie in the Western Command of several weeks’ separation allowance . . . for the good of the taxpayer, of course. The poor —— Tommies’ kids went without proper food and clothing, and the Tommies themselves had been in a state of exasperation and resentment. And nothing in the world was worse for discipline and the army as a fighting machine. But there that quartermaster sat in his office, playing the romantic game over his A.F.B.’s till the broad buff sheets fairly glowed in the light of the incandescent gas. ‘And,’ Tietjens concluded, ‘for every quarter of a million sterling for which he bowls out the wretched fighting men he gets a new clasp on his fourth D.S.O. ribbon . . . The game, in short, is more than the players of the game.’
‘Oh, damn it!’ Captain Mackenzie said. ‘That’s what’s made us what we are, isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ Tietjens answered. ‘It’s got us into the hole and it keeps us there.’
Mackenzie remained dispiritedly looking down at his fingers.
‘You may be wrong or you may be right,’ he said. ‘It’s contrary to everything that I ever heard. But I see what you mean.’
‘At the beginning of the war,’ Tietjens said, ‘I had to look in on the War Office, and in a room I found a fellow . . . What do you think he was doing . . . what the hell do you think he was doing? He was devising the ceremonial for the disbanding of a Kitchener battalion. You can’t say we were not prepared in one matter at least . . . Well, the end of the show was to be: the adjutant would stand the battalion at ease: the band would play Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant would say: There will be no more parades . . . Don’t you see how symbolical it was: the band playing Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant saying There will be no more parades? . . . For there won’t. There won’t, there damn well won’t . . . No more Hope, no more Glory, no more parades for you and me any more. Nor for the country . . . Nor for the world, I dare say . . . None . . . Gone . . . Na poo, finny! No . . . more . . . parades!
‘I dare say you’re right,’ the other said slowly. ‘But, all the same, what am I doing in this show? I hate soldiering. I hate this whole beastly business . . . ’
‘Then why didn’t you go on the gaudy Staff?’ Tietjens asked. The gaudy Staff apparently was yearning to have you. I bet God intended you for Intelligence: not for the footslogging department.’
The other said wearily:
‘I don’t know. I was with the battalion. I wanted to stop with the battalion. I was intended for the Foreign Office. My miserable uncle got me hoofed out of that. I was with the battalion. The C.O. wasn’t up to much. Someone had to stay with the battalion. I was not going to do the dirty on it, taking any soft job . . . ’
‘I suppose you speak seven languages and all?’ Tietjens asked.
‘Five,’ the other said patiently, ‘and read two more. And Latin and Greek, of course.’
A man, brown, stiff, with a haughty parade step, burst into the light. He said with a high wooden voice:
‘Ere’s another bloomin’ casualty.’ In the shadow he appeared to have draped half his face and the right side of his breast with crape. He gave a high, rattling laugh. He bent, as if in a stiff bow, woodenly at his thighs. He pitched, still bent, on to the iron sheet that covered the brazier, rolled off that and lay on his back across the legs of the other runner, who had been crouched beside the brazier. In the bright light it was as if a whole pail of scarlet paint had been dashed across the man’s face on the left and his chest. It glistened in the firelight — just like fresh paint, moving! The runner from the Rhondda, pinned down by the body across his knees, sat with his jaw fallen, resembling one girl that should be combing the hair of another recumbent before her. The red viscousness welled across the floor; you sometimes so see fresh water bubbling up in sand. It astonished Tietjens to see that a human body could be so lavish of blood. He was thinking it was a queer mania that that fellow should have, that his uncle was a friend of his, Tietjens. He had no friend in trade, uncle of a fellow who in ordinary times would probably bring you pairs of boots on approval . . . He felt as he did when you patch up a horse that has been badly hurt. He remembered a horse from a cut on whose chest the blood had streamed down over the off foreleg like a stocking. A girl had lent him her petticoat to bandage it. Nevertheless his legs moved slowly and heavily across the floor.
The heat from the brazier was overpowering on his bent face. He hoped he would not get his hands all over blood, because blood is very sticky. It makes your fingers stick together impotently. But there might not be any blood in the darkness under the fellow’s back where he was putting his hand. There was, however: it was very wet.
The voice of Sergeant-Major Cowley said from outside:
‘Bugler, call two sanitary lance-corporals and four men. Two sanitary corporals and four men.’ A prolonged wailing with interruptions transfused the night, mournful, resigned, and prolonged.
Tietjens thought that, thank God, someone would come and relieve him of that job. It was a breathless affair holding up the corpse with the fire burning his face. He said to the other runner:
‘Get out from under him, damn you! Are you hurt?’ Mackenzie could not get at the body from the other side because of the brazier. The runner from under the corpse moved with short sitting shuffles as if he were getting his legs out from under a sofa. He was saying:
‘Poor —— 0 Nine Morgan! Surely to goodness I did not recognice the pore ——. Surely to goodness I did not recognice the pore ——’
Tietjens let the trunk of the body sink slowly to the floor. He was more gentle than if the man had been alive. All hell in the way of noise burst about the world. Tietjens’ thoughts seemed to have to shout to him between earthquake shocks. He was thinking it was absurd of that fellow Mackenzie to imagine that he could know any uncle of his. He saw very vividly also the face of his girl who was a pacifist. It worried him not to know what expression her face would have if she heard of his occupation, now. Disgust? . . . He was standing with his greasy, sticky hands held out from the flaps of his tunic . . . Perhaps disgust! . . . It was impossible to think in this row . . . His very thick soles moved gluily and came up after suction . . . He remembered he had not sent a runner along to I.B.D. Orderly Room to see how many of his crowd would be wanted for garrison fatigue next day, and this annoyed him acutely. He would have no end of a job warning the officers he detailed. They would all be in brothels down in the town by now . . . He could not work out what the girl’s expression would be. He was never to see her again, so what the hell did it matter? . . . Disgust, probably! . . . He remembered that he had not looked to see how Mackenzie was getting on in the noise. He did not want to see Mackenzie. He was a bore . . . How would her face express disgust? He had never seen her express disgust. She had a perfectly undistinguished face. Fair . . . 0 God, how suddenly his bowels turned over! . . . Thinking of the girl . . . The face below him grinned at the roof — the half face! The nose was there, half the mouth with the teeth showing in the firelight . . . It was extraordinary how defined the peaked nose and the serrated teeth were in that mess . . . The eye looked jauntily at the peak of the canvas hut-roof . . . Gone with a grin. Singular the fellow should have spoken! After he was dead. He must have been dead when he spoke. It had been done with the last air automatically going out of the lungs. A reflex action, probably, in the dead . . . If he, Tietjens, had given the fellow the leave he wanted he would be alive now!
Well, he was quite right not to have given the poor devil his leave. He was, anyhow, better where he was. And so was he, Tietjens. He had not had a single letter from home since he had been out this time! Not a single letter. Not even gossip. Not a bill. Some circulars of old furniture dealers. They never neglected him! They had got beyond the sentimental stage at home. Obviously so . . . He wondered if his bowels would turn over again if he thought of the girl. He was gratified that they had. It showed that he had strong feelings . . . He thought about her deliberately. Hard. Nothing happened. He thought of her fair, undistinguished, fresh face that made your heart miss a beat when you thought about it. His heart missed a beat. Obedient heart! Like the first primrose. Not any primrose. The first primrose. Under a bank with the hounds breaking through the underwood . . . It was sentimental to say Du bist wie eine Blume Damn the German language! But that fellow was a Jew . . . One should not say that one’s young woman was like a flower, any flower. Not even to oneself. That was sentimental. But one might say one special flower. A man could say that. A man’s job. She smelt like a primrose when you kissed her. But, damn it, he had never kissed her. So how did he know how she smelt! She was a little tranquil, golden spot. He himself must be a — eunuch. By temperament. That dead fellow down there must be one, physically. It was probably indecent to think of a corpse as impotent. But he was, very likely. That would be why his wife had taken up with the prize-fighter Red Evans Williams of Castell Goch. If he had given the fellow leave the prize-fighter would have smashed him to bits. The police of Pontardulais had asked that he should not be let come home — because of the prize-fighter. So he was better dead. Or perhaps not. Is death better than discovering that your wife is a whore and being done in by her cully? Gwell angau na gwillth, their own regimental badge bore the words. ’Death is better than dishonour‘ . . . No, not death, angau means pain. Anguish! Anguish is better than dishonour. The devil it is! Well, that fellow would have got both. Anguish and dishonour. Dishonour from his wife and anguish when the prize-fighter hit him That was no doubt why his half-face grinned at the roof. The gory side of it had turned brown. Already! Like a mummy of a Pharaoh, that half looked . . . He was born to be a blooming casualty. Either by shell-fire or by the fist of the prize-fighter . . . Pontardulais I Somewhere in Mid-Wales. He had been through it once in a car, on duty. A long, dull village. Why should anyone want to go back to it? . . .
A tender butler’s voice said beside him: ‘This isn’t your job, sir. Sorry you had to do it . . . Lucky it wasn’t you, sir . . . This was what done it, I should say.’
Sergeant-Major Cowley was standing beside him holding a bit of metal that was heavy in his hand and like a candlestick. He was aware that a moment before he had seen the fellow, Mackenzie, bending over the brazier, putting the sheet of iron back. Careful officer, Mackenzie. The Huns must not be allowed to see the light from the brazier. The edge of the sheet had gone down on the dead man’s tunic, nipping a bit by the shoulder. The face had disappeared in shadow. There were several men’s faces in the doorway.
Tietjens said: ‘No: I don’t believe that did it. Something bigger . . . Say a prize-fighter’s fist . . . ’
Sergeant-Major Cowley said:
‘No, no prize-fighter’s fist would have done that, sir . . . And then he added, ‘Oh, I take your meaning, sir . . . 0 Nine Morgan’s wife, sir . . . ’
Tietjens moved, his feet sticking, towards the sergeant-major’s table. The other runner had placed a tin basin with water in it. There was a hooded candle there now, alight; the water shone innocently, a half-moon of translucence wavering over the white bottom of the basin. The runner from Pontardulais said:
‘Wash your hands first, sir!’
‘Move a little out of it, cahptn.’ He had a rag in his black hands. Tietjens moved out of the blood that had run in a thin stream under the table. The man was on his knees, his hands rubbing Tietjens’ boot welts heavily, with the rags. Tietjens placed his hands in the innocent water and watched light purple-scarlet mist diffuse itself over the pale half-moon. The man below him breathed heavily, sniffing. Tietjens said:
‘Thomas, 0 Nine Morgan was your mate?’
The man’s face, wrinkled, dark and ape-like, looked up. ‘He was a good pal, pore old — — ’ he said. ‘You would not like, surely to goodness, to go to mess with your shoes all bloody.’
‘If I had given him leave,’ Tietjens said, ‘he would not be dead now.’
‘No, surely not,’ One Seven Thomas answered. ‘But it is all one. Evans of Castell Goch would surely to goodness have killed him.’
‘So you knew, too, about his wife!’ Tietjens said.
‘We thocht it wass that,’ One Seven Thomas answered, ‘or you would have given him leave, cahptn. You are a good cahptn.’
A sudden sense of the publicity that that life was came over Tietjens.
‘You knew that,’ he said. ‘I wonder what the hell you fellows don’t know and all!’ he thought. ‘If anything went wrong with one it would be all over the command in two days. Thank God, Sylvia can’t get here!’
The man had risen to his feet. He fetched a towel of the sergeant-major’s, very white with a red border.
‘We know,’ he said, ‘that your honour is a very goot cahptn. And Captain McKechnie is a fery goot cahptn, and Captain Prentiss, and Le’tennat Jonce of Merthyr..’
‘That’ll do. Tell the sergeant-major to give you a pass to go with your mate to the hospital. Get someone to wash this floor.’
Two men were carrying the remains of 0 Nine Morgan, the trunk wrapped in a ground sheet. They carried him in a bandy chair out of the hut. His arms over his shoulders waved a jocular farewell. There would be an ambulance stretcher on bicycle wheels outside.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08