The ‘All Clear’ went at once after that. Its suddenness was something surprising, the mournful-cheerful, long notes dying regretfully on a night that had only just gone quiet after the perfectly astonishing row. The moon had taken it into its head to rise; begumboiled, jocular and grotesque, it came from behind the shoulder of one of the hut-covered hills and sent down the lines of Tietjens’ huts long, sentimental rays that converted the place into a slumbering, pastoral settlement. There was no sound that did not contribute to the silence, little dim lights shone through the celluloid casements. Of Sergeant-Major Cowley, his numerals gilded by the moon in the lines of A Company, Tietjens, who was easing his lungs of coke vapours for a minute, asked in a voice that hushed itself in tribute to the moonlight and the now keen frost:
‘Where the deuce is the draft?’
The sergeant-major looked poetically down a ribbon of whitewashed stones that descended the black down-side. Over the next shoulder of hill was the blur of a hidden conflagration.
‘There’s a Hun plane burning down there. In Twenty-Seven’s parade ground. The draft’s round that, sir,’ he said. Tietjens said:
‘Good God!’ in a voice of caustic tolerance. He added, ‘I did think we had drilled some discipline into these blighters in the seven weeks we have had them . . . You remember the first time when we had them on parade and that acting lance-corporal left the ranks to heave a rock at a sea-gull . . . And called you ‘OP’ Hunkey! . . . Conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline? Where’s that Canadian sergeant-major? Where’s the officer in charge of the draft?’
Sergeant-Major Cowley said:
‘Sergeant-Major Ledoux said it was like a cattle-stampede on the . . . some river where they come from. You couldn’t stop them, sir. It was their first German plane . . . And they going up the line to-night, sir.’
‘To-night!’ Tietjens exclaimed. ‘Next Christmas!’ The sergeant-major said:
‘Poor boys!’ and continued to gaze into the distance. ‘I heard another good one, sir,’ he said. ‘The answer to the one about the King saluting a private soldier and he not taking any notice is: when he’s dead . . . But if you marched a company into a field through a gateway and you wanted to get it out again but you did not know any command in the drill book for change of direction, what would you do, sir? . . . You have to get that company out, but you must not use About Turn, or Right or Left Wheel . . . There’s another one, too, about saluting . . . The officer in charge of draft is Second-Lieutenant Hotchkiss . . . But he’s an A.S.C. officer and turned of sixty. A farrier he is, sir in civil life. An A.S.C. major was asking me, sir, very civil, if you could not detail someone else. He says he doubts if Second Lieutenant Hitchcock . . . Hotchkiss could walk as far as the station, let alone march the men, him not knowing anything but cavalry words of command, if he knows them. He’s only been in the army a fortnight . . . ’
Tietjens turned from the idyllic scene with the words:
‘I suppose the Canadian sergeant-major and Lieutenant Hotchkiss are doing what they can to get their men come back.’
He re-entered the hut.
Captain Mackenzie in the light of a fantastically brilliant hurricane lamp appeared to be bathing dejectedly in a surf of coiling papers spread on the table before him.
‘There’s all this bumph,’ he said, ‘just come from all the headquarters in the bally world.’
Tietjens said cheerfully:
‘What’s it all about?’ There were, the other answered, Garrison Headquarter orders, Divisional orders, Lines of Communication orders, half a dozen A.F.W.B. two four two’s . A terrific strafe from First Army forwarded from Garrison H.Q. about the draft’s not having reached Hazebrouck the day before yesterday. Tietjens said:
‘Answer them politely to the effect that we had orders not to send off the draft without its complement of four hundred Canadian Railway Service men — the fellows in furred hoods. They only reached us from Etaples at five this afternoon without blankets or ring papers. Or any other papers for the matter of that.’
Mackenzie was studying with increased gloom a small buff memorandum slip:
‘This appears to be meant for you privately,’ he said.
‘I can’t make head or tail of it otherwise. It isn’t marked private.’
He tossed the buff slip across the table.
Tietjens sank down bulkily on to his bully-beef case. He read on the buff at first the initials of the signature, ‘E.C. Genl.’, and then: ‘For God’s sake keep your wife off me. I will not have skirts round my H.Q. You are more trouble to me than all the rest of my command put together.’
Tietjens groaned and sank more deeply on to his beef case. It was as if an unseen and unsuspected wild beast had jumped on his neck from an over-hanging branch. The sergeant-major at his side said in his most admirable butler manner:
‘Colour-Sergeant Morgan and Lance-Corporal Trench are obliging us by coming from depot orderly room to help with the draft’s papers. Why don’t you and the other officer go and get a bit of dinner, sir? The colonel and the padre have only just come in to mess, and I’ve warned the mess orderlies to keep your food ‘ot . . . Both good men with papers, Morgan and Trench. We can send the soldiers’ small books to you at table to sign . . . ’
His feminine solicitude enraged and overwhelmed Tietjens with blackness. He told the sergeant-major that he was to go to hell, for he himself was not going to leave that hut till the draft was moved off. Captain Mackenzie could do as he pleased. The sergeant-major told Captain Mackenzie that Captain Tietjens took as much trouble with his rag-time detachments as if he had been the Coldstream adjutant at Chelsea sending off a draft of Guards. Captain Mackenzie said that that was why they damn well got their details off four days faster than any other I.B.D. in that camp. He would say that much, he added grudgingly and dropped his head over his papers again. The hut was moving slowly up and down before the eyes of Tietjens. He might have just been kicked in the stomach. That was how shocks took him. He said to himself that by God he must take himself in hand. He grabbed with his heavy hands at a piece of buff paper and wrote on it a column of fat, wet letters
a and so on.
He said opprobriously to Captain Mackenzie:
‘Do you know what a sonnet is? Give me the rhymes for a sonnet. That’s the plan of it.’
‘Of course I know what a sonnet is. What’s your game?’ Tietjens said:
‘Give me the fourteen end-rhymes of a sonnet and I’ll write the lines. In under two minutes and a half.’
Mackenzie said injuriously:
‘If you do I’ll turn, it into Latin hexameters in three. In under three minutes.’
They were like men uttering deadly insults the one to the other. To Tietjens it was as if an immense cat were parading, fascinated and fatal, round that hut. He had imagined himself parted from his wife. He had not heard from his wife since her four-in-the-morning departure from their flat, months and eternities ago, with the dawn just showing up the chimney-pots of the Georgian roof-trees opposite. In the complete stillness of dawn he had heard her voice say very clearly ‘Paddington’ to the chauffeur, and then all the sparrows in the inn waking up in chorus . . . Suddenly and appallingly it came into his head that it might not have been his wife’s voice that had said ‘Paddington’, but her maid’s . . . He was a man who lived very much by rules of conduct. He had a rule: Never think on the subject of a shock at a moment of shock. The mind was then too sensitized. Subjects of shock require to be thought all round. If your mind thinks when it is too sensitized its then conclusions will be too strong. So he exclaimed to Mackenzie:
‘Haven’t you got your rhymes yet? Damn it all!’ Mackenzie grumbled offensively:
‘No, I haven’t. It’s more difficult to get rhymes than to write sonnets . . . death, moil, coil, breath . . . ’ He paused.
‘Heath, soil, toil, staggereth,’ Tietjens said contemptuously. ‘That’s your sort of Oxford young woman’s rhyme . . . Go on . . . What is it?’
An extremely age-faded and =military officer was beside the blanketed table. Tietjens regretted having spoken to him with ferocity. He had a grotesquely thin white beard. Positively, white whiskers! He must have gone through as much of the army as he had gone through with those whiskers, because no superior officer — not even a fieldmarshal — would have the heart to tell him to take them off! It was the measure of his pathos. This ghost-like object was apologizing for not having been able to keep the draft in hand: he was requesting his superior to observe that these Colonial troops were without any instincts of discipline. None at all. Tietjens observed that he had a blue cross on his right arm where the vaccination marks are as a rule. He imagined the Canadians talking to this hero . . . The hero began to talk of Major Cornwallis of the R. A. S. C.
Tietjens said apropos of nothing:
‘Is there a Major Cornwallis in the A.S.C.? Good God!’
The hero protested faintly:
Tietjens said kindly:
‘Yes. Yes. The Royal Army. Service Corps.’
Obviously his mind until now had regarded his wife’s ’Paddington‘ as the definite farewell between his life and hers . . . He had imagined her, like Eurydice, tall, but faint and pale, sinking back into the shades . . . ’Che faro senz’ Eurydice? . . . ’ he hummed. Absurd! And of course it might have been only the maid that had spoken . . . She too had a remarkably clear voice. So that the mystic word ‘Paddington’ might perfectly well be no symbol at all, and Mrs Sylvia Tietjens, far from being faint and pale, might perfectly well be playing the very devil with half the general officers commanding in chief from Whitehall to Alaska.
Mackenzie — he was like a damned clerk — was transferring the rhymes that he had no doubt at last found, on to another sheet of paper. Probably he had a round, copybook hand. Positively, his tongue followed his pen round, inside his lips. These were what His Majesty’s regular officers of to-day were. Good God! A damned intelligent, dark-looking fellow. Of the type that is starved in its youth and takes all the scholarships that the board schools have to offer. Eyes too big and black. Like a Malay’s . . . Any blasted member of any subject race.
The A.S.C. fellow had been talking positively about horses. He had offered his services in order to study the variation of pink-eye that was decimating all the service horses in the lines. He had been a professor — positively a professor — in some farriery college or other. Tietjens said that, in that case, he ought to be in the A.V.C. — the Royal Army Veterinary Corps perhaps it was. The old man said he didn’t know. He imagined that the R.A.S.C. had wanted his service for their own horses . . .
‘I’ll tell you what to do, Lieutenant Hitchcock . . . For, damn it, you’re a stout fellow . . . ’ The poor old fellow, pushing out at that age from the cloisters of some provincial university . . . He certainly did not look a horsy sportsman . . .
The old lietutenant said:
‘Hotchkiss . . . ’ And Tietjens exclaimed:
‘Of course it’s Hotchkiss . . . I’ve seen your name signing a testimonial to Pigg’s Horse Embrocation . . . Then if you don’t want to take this draft up the line . . . Though I’d advise you to . . . It’s merely a Cook’s Tour to Hazebrouck . . . No, Bailleul . . . And the sergeant-major will march the men for you . . . And you will have been in the First Army Lines and able to tell all your friends you’ve been on active service at the real front . . . ’
His mind said to himself while his words went on . . .
‘Then, good God, if Sylvia is actively paying attention to my career I shall be the laughing-stock of the whole army. I was thinking that ten minutes ago! . . . What’s to be done? What in God’s name is to be done?’ A black crape veil seemed to drop across his vision . . . Liver . . .
Lieutenant Hotchkiss said with dignity:
‘I’m going to the front. I’m going to the real front. I was passed A1 this morning. I am going to study the blood reactions of the service horse under fire.’
‘Well, you’re a damn good chap,’ Tietjens said. There was nothing to be done. The amazing activities of which Sylvia would be capable were just the thing to send laughter raging like fire through a cachinnating army. She could not thank God, get into France: to that place. But she could make scandals in the papers that every Tommie read. There was no game of which she was not capable. That sort of pursuit was called ‘pulling the strings of shower-baths’ in her circle of friends. Nothing. Nothing to be done . . . The beastly hurricane lamp was smoking.
‘I’ll tell you what to do,’ he said to Lieutenant Hotchkiss.
Mackenzie had tossed his sheet of rhymes under his nose. Tietjens read: Death, moil, coil, breath . . . Saith— The dirty Cockney!’ Oil, soil, wraith . . .
‘I’d be blowed,’ Mackenzie said with a vicious grin, ‘if I was going to give you rhymes you had suggested yourself . . . ’
The officer said:
‘I don’t of course want to be a nuisance if you’re busy.’
‘It’s no nuisance,’ Tietjens said. ‘It’s what we’re for. But I’d suggest that now and then you say “sir” to the officer commanding your unit. It sounds well before the men . . . Now you go to No. XVI I.B.D. Mess ante-room . . . The place where they’ve got the broken bagatelle-table . . . ’
The voice of Sergeant-Major Cowley exclaimed tranquilly from outside:
-Fall in now. Men who’ve got their ring papers and identity disks — three of them — on the left. Men who haven’t, on the right. Any man who has not been able to draw his blankets tell Colour-Sergeant Morgan. Don’t forget. You won’t get any where you’re going. Any man who hasn’t made his will in his Soldier’s Small Book or elsewhere and wants to, to consult Captain Tietjens. Any man who wants to draw money, ask Captain Mackenzie. Any R.C. who wants to go to confession after he has got his papers signed can find the R.C. padre in the fourth hut from the left in the Main Line from here . . . And damn kind it is of his reverence to put himself out for a set of damn blinking mustard-faced red herrings like you who can’t keep from running away to the first baby’s bonfire you sees. You’ll be running the other way before you’re a week older, though what good they as asks for you thinks you’ll be out there God knows. You look like a squad of infants’ companions from a Wesleyan Sunday school. That’s what you look like and, thank God, we’ve got a Navy.’
Under cover of his voice Tietjens had been writing:
‘Now we affront the grinning chops of Death,’ and saying to Lieutenant Hotchkiss: ‘In the I.B.D. ante-room you’ll find any number of dirty little squits of Glamorgan-shires drinking themselves blind over La Vie Parisienne . . . Ask any one of them you like . . . ’ He wrote:
‘And in between the carcases and the moil
Of marts and cities, toil and moil and coil . . . ’
‘You think this difficult!’ he said to Mackenzie. ‘Why, you’ve written a whole undertaker’s mortuary ode in the rhymes alone,’ and went on to Hotchkiss: ‘Ask anyone you like as long as he’s a P.B. officer . . . Do you know what P.B. means? No, not Poor B——y, Permanent Base. Unfit . . . If he’d like to take a draft to Bailleul.’
The hut was filling with devious, slow, ungainly men in yellow-brown. Their feet shuffled desultorily; they lumped dull canvas bags along the floor and held in unliterary hands small open books that they dropped from time to time. From outside came a continuing, swelling and descending chant of voices; at times it would seem to be all one laugh, at times one menace, then the motives mingled fugally, like the sea on a beach of large stones. It seemed to Tietjens suddenly extraordinary how shut in on oneself one was in this life . . . He sat scribbling fast: ‘Old Spectre blows a cold protecting breath . . . Vanity of vanities, the preacher saith . . . No more parades, not any more, no oil . . . ’ He was telling Hotchkiss, who was obviously shy of approaching the Glamorganshires in their ante-room . . . ‘Unambergris’d our limbs in the naked soil . . . ’ that he did not suppose any P.B. officer would object. They would go on a beanfeast up into the giddy line in a first-class carriage and get draft leave and command pay too probably . . . ‘No funeral struments cast before our wraiths . . . ’ If any fellow does object, you just send his name to me and I will damn well shove it into extra orders . . .
The advanced wave of the brown tide of men was already at his feet. The extraordinary complications of even the simplest lives . . . A fellow was beside him Private Logan, formerly, of all queer things for a Canadian private, a trooper of the Inniskillings: owner, of all queer things, of a milk-walk or a dairy farm, outside Sydney, which is in Australia . . . A man of sentimental complications, jauntiness as became an Inniskilling, a Cockney accent such as ornaments the inhabitants of Sydney, and a complete distrust of lawyers. On the other hand, with the completest trust in Tietjens. Over his shoulder — he was blond, upright, with his numerals shining like gold, looked a lumpish, café-au-lait, eagle-nosed countenance: a half-caste member of one of the Six Nations, who had been a doctor’s errand boy in Quebec . . . He had his troubles, but was difficult to understand. Behind him, very black-avised with a high colour, truculent eyes and an Irish accent, was a graduate of McGill University who had been a teacher of languages in Tokyo and had some sort of claim against the Japanese Government . . . And faces, two and two, in a coil round the hut . . . Like dust: like a cloud of dust that would approach and overwhelm a landscape: every one with preposterous troubles and anxieties, even if they did not overwhelm you personally with them . . . Brown dust . . .
He kept the Inniskilling waiting while he scribbled the rapid sestet to his sonnet which ought to make a little plainer what it all meant. Of course the general idea was that, when you got into the line or near it, there was no room for swank: typified by expensive funerals. As you might say: No flowers by compulsion . . . No more parades! . . . He had also to explain, while he did it, to the heroic veterinary sexagenarian that he need not feel shy about going into the Glamorganshire Mess on a man-catching expedition. The Glamorganshires were bound to lend him, Tietjens, P.B. officers if they had not got other jobs. Lieutenant Hotchkiss could speak to Colonel Johnson, whom he would find in the mess and quite good natured over his dinner. A pleasant and sympathetic old gentleman who would appreciate Hotchkiss’s desire not to go superfluously into the line. Hotchkiss could offer to take a look at the colonel’s charger: a Hun horse, captured on the Marne and called Schomburg, that was off its feed . . . He added: ‘But don’t do anything professional to Schomburg. I ride him myself!’
He threw his sonnet across to Mackenzie, who with a background of huddled khaki limbs and anxious faces was himself anxiously counting out French currency notes and dubious-looking tokens . . . What the deuce did men want to draw money — sometimes quite large sums of money, the Canadians being paid in dollars converted into local coins — when in an hour or so they would be going up? But they always did and their accounts were always in an incredibly entangled state. Mackenzie might well look worried. As like as not he might find himself a fiver or more down at the end of the evening for unauthorized payments. If he had only his pay and an extravagant wife to keep, that might well put the wind up him. But that was his funeral. He told Lieutenant Hotchkiss to come and have a chat with him in his hut, the one next the mess. About horses. He knew a little about horse-illness himself. Only empirically, of course.
Mackenzie was looking at his watch.
‘You took two minutes and eleven seconds,’ he said. ‘I’ll take it for granted it’s a sonnet . . . I have not read it because I can’t turn it into Latin here . . . I haven’t got your knack of doing eleven things at once . . . ’
A man with a worried face, encumbered by a bundle and a small book, was studying figures at Mackenzie’s elbow. He interrupted Mackenzie in a high American voice to say that he had never drawn fourteen dollars seventy-five cents in Thrasna Barracks, Aldershot.
Mackenzie said to Tietjens:
‘You understand. I have not read your sonnet. I shall turn it into Latin in the mess: in the time stipulated. I don’t want you to think I’ve read it and taken time to think about it.’
The man besides him said:
‘When I went to the Canadian Agent, Strand, London, his office was shut up . . . ’
Mackenzie said with white fury:
‘How much service have you got? Don’t you know better than to interrupt an officer when he is talking? You must settle your own figures with your own confounded Colonial paymaster: I’ve sixteen dollars thirty cents here for you. Will you take them or leave them?’
‘I know that man’s case. Turn him over to me. It isn’t complicated. He’s got his paymaster’s cheque, but doesn’t know how to cash it and of course they won’t give him another . . .
The man with slow, broad, brown features looked from one to the other officer’s face and back again with a keen black-eyed scrutiny as if he were looking into a wind and dazed by the light. He began a long story of how he owed Fat-Eared Bill fifty dollars lost at House. He was perhaps half Chinese, half Finn. He continued to talk, being in a state of great anxiety about his money. Tietjens addressed himself to the cases of the Sydney Inniskilling ex-trooper and the McGill graduate who had suffered at the hands of the Japanese Educational Ministry. It made altogether a complicated effect. ‘You would say,’ Tietjens said to himself, ‘that, all together, it ought to be enough to take my mind up.’
The upright trooper had a very complicated sentimental history. It was difficult to advise him before his fellows. He, however, felt no diffidence. He discussed the points of the girl called Rosie whom he had followed from Sydney to British Columbia, of the girl called Gwen with whom he had taken up in Aberystwyth, of the woman called Mrs Hosier with whom he had lived maritally, on a sleeping-out pass, at Berwick St. James, near Salisbury Plain. Through the continuing voice of the half-caste Chinaman he discussed them with a large tolerance, ex-p aiming that he wanted them all to have a bit, as a souvenir, if he happened to stop one out there. Tietjens handed him the draft of a will he had written out for him, asked him to read it attentively and copy it with his own hand into his soldier’s small book. Then Tietjens would witness it for him. He said:
‘Do you think this will make my old woman in Sydney part? I guess it won’t. She’s a sticker, sir. A regular July bur, God bless her.’ The McGill graduate was beginning already to introduce a further complication into his story of complications with the Japanese Government. It appeared that in addition to his scholastic performances he had invested a little money in a mineral water spring near Kobe, the water, bottled, being exported to San Francisco. Apparently his company had been indulging in irregularities according to Japanese law, but a pure French Canadian, who had experienced some difficulties in obtaining his baptismal certificate from a mission somewhere in the direction of the Klondike, was allowed by Tietjens to interrupt the story of the graduate; and several men without complications, but anxious to get their papers signed so as to write last letters home before the draft moved, overflowed across Tietjens’ table . . .
The tobacco smoke from the pipes of the N.C.O.’s at the other end of the room hung, opalescent, beneath the wire cages of the brilliant hurricane lamps hung over each table; buttons and numerals gleamed in the air that the universal khaki tinge of the limbs seemed to turn brown, as if into a gas of dust. Nasal voices, throat voices, drawling voices, melted into a rustle so that the occasional high, sing-song profanity of a Welsh N.C.O.: Why the hell haffn’t you got your 124? Why the —— hell haffn’t you got your 124? Don’t you know you haff to haff your bleedin’ 124’s? seemed to wail tragically through a silence . . . The evening wore on and on. It astounded Tietjens, looking at one time at his watch, to discover that it was only 21 hrs. 19. He seemed to have been thinking drowsily of his own affairs for ten hours . . . For, in the end, these were his own affairs . . . Money, women, testamentary bothers. Each of these complications from over the Atlantic and round the world were his own troubles: a world in labour: an army being moved off in the night. Shoved off. Anyhow. And over the top. A lateral section of the world . . .
He had happened to glance at the medical history of a man beside him and noticed that he had been described as CI . . . It was obviously a slip of the pen on the part of the Medical Board, or one of their orderlies. He had written C instead of A. The man was Pte. 197394 Thomas Johnson, a shining-faced lump of beef, an agricultural odd jobman from British Columbia where he had worked on the immense estates of Sylvia Tietjens’ portentous ducal second cousin Rugeley. It was a double annoyance. Tietjens had not wanted to be reminded of his wife’s second cousin, because he had not wanted to be reminded of his wife. He had determined to give his thoughts a field day on that subject when he got warm into his flea-bag in his hut that smelt of paraffin whilst the canvas walls crackled with frost and the moon shone . . . He would think of Sylvia beneath the moon. He was determined not to now! But 197394 Pte. Johnson, Thomas, was otherwise a nuisance and Tietjens cursed himself for having glanced at the man’s medical history. If this preposterous yokel was C3 he could not go on a draft . . . C1 rather! It was all the same. That would mean finding another man to make up the strength and that would drive Sergeant-Major Cowley out of his mind. He looked up towards the ingenuous, protruding, shining, liquid, bottle-blue eyes of Thomas Johnson . . . The fellow had never had an illness. He could not have had an illness — except from a surfeit of cold, fat, boiled pork — and for that you would give him a horse’s blue ball and drench which, ten to one, would not remove the cause of the belly-ache . . .
His eyes met the non-committal glance of a dark, gentlemanly thin fellow with a strikingly scarlet hatband, a lot of gilt about his khaki and little strips of steel chain-armour on his shoulders . . . Levin . . . Colonel Levin, G.S.O. II, or something, attached to General Lord Edward Campion . . . How the hell did fellows get into these intimacies of commanders of units and their men? Swimming in like fishes into the brown air of a tank and there at your elbow . . . —— spies! . . . The men had all been called to attention and stood like gasping codfish. The ever-watchful Sergeant-Major Cowley had drifted to his, Tietjens’, elbow. You protect your orfcers from the gawdy Staff as you protect your infant daughters in lambswool from draughts. The dark, bright, cheerful staffwallah said with a slight lisp:
‘Busy, I see.’ He might have been standing there for a century and have a century of the battalion headquarters’ time to waste like that. ‘What draft is this?’
Sergeant-Major Cowley, always ready in case his orfcer should not know the name of his unit or his own name, said:
‘No. 16 I.B.D. Canadian First Division Casual Number Four Draft, sir.’
Colony Levin let air lispingly out between his teeth.
‘No. 16 Draft not off yet . . . Dear, dear! Dear, dear! . . . We shall be strafed to hell by First Army . . . ’ He used the word hell as if he had first wrapped it in eau-de-cologned cotton-wadding.
Tietjens, on his feet, knew this fellow very well: a fellow who had been a very bad Society water-colour painter of good family on the mother’s side: hence the cavalry gadgets on his shoulders. Would it then be good . . . say good taste to explode? He let the sergeant-major do it. Sergeant-Major Cowley was of the type of N.C.O. who carried weight because he knew ten times as much about his job as any Staff officer. The sergeant-major explained that it had been impossible to get off the draft earlier. The colonel said:
‘But surely, sergeant-majah . . . ’
The sergeant-major, now a deferential shopwalker in a lady’s store, pointed out that they had had urgent instructions not to send up the draft without the four hundred Canadian Railway Service men who were to come from Etaples. These men had only arrived that evening at 5.30 . . . at the railway station. Marching them up had taken three-quarters of an hour. The colonel said:
‘But surely, sergeant-majah . . . ’
Old Cowley might as well have said ‘madam’ as ‘sir’ to the red hat-band . . . The four-hundred had come with only what they stood up in. The unit had had to wangle everything: boots, blankets, tooth-brushes, braces, rifles, iron-rations, identity disks out of the depot store. And it was now only twenty-one twenty . . . Cowley permitted his commanding officer at this point to say:
‘You must understand that we work in circumstances of extreme difficulty, sir . . . ’
The graceful colonel was lost in an absent contemplation of his perfectly elegant knees.
‘I know, of course . . . ’ he lisped. ‘Very difficult . . . He brightened up to add: ‘But you must admit you’re unfortunate . . . You must admit that . . . ’ The weight settled, however, again on his mind.
‘Not, I suppose, sir, any more unfortunate than any other unit working under a dual control for supplies . . . ’
The colonel said:
‘What’s that? Dual . . . Ah, I see you’re there, Mackenzie . . . Feeling well . . . feeling fit, eh?’
The whole hut stood silent. His anger at the waste of time made Tietjens say:
‘If you understand, sir, we are a unit whose principal purpose is drawing things to equip drafts with . . . ’ This fellow was delaying them atrociously. He was brushing his knees with a handkerchief!‘I’ve had,’ Tietjens said, ‘a man killed on my hands this afternoon because we have to draw tin-hats for my orderly room from Dublin on an A.F.B. Canadian from Aldershot . . . Killed here . . . We’ve only just mopped up the blood from where you’re standing . . . ’
The cavalry colonel exclaimed:
‘Oh, good gracious me! . . . ’ jumped a little and examined his beautiful shining knee-high aircraft boots. ‘Killed! . . . Here! . . . But there’ll have to be a court of inquiry . . . You certainly are most unfortunate, Captain Tietjens . . . Always these mysterious . . . Why wasn’t your man in a dug-out? . . . Most unfortunate . . . We cannot have casualties among the Colonial troops . . . Troops from the Dominions, I mean . . . ’
Tietjens said grimly:
The man was from Pontardulias . . . not from any Dominion . . . One of my orderly room . . . We are forbidden on pain of court martial to let any but Dominion Expeditionary Force men go into the dug-outs . . . My Canadians were all there . . . It’s an A.C.I. local of the eleventh of November . . . ’
The Staff Offcer said:
‘It makes of course, a difference! . . . Only a Glamorgan-shire? You say . . . Oh well . . . But these mysterious . . . ’
He exclaimed, with the force of an explosion, and the relief:
‘Look here . . . can you spare possible ten . . . twenty . . . eh . . . minutes? . . . It’s not exactly a service matter . . . so per . . . ’
‘You see how we’re situated, colonel . . . ’ and like one sowing grass seed on a lawn, extended both hands over his papers and towards his men . . . He was choking with rage. Colonel Levin had, under the chaperonage of an English dowager, who ran a chocolate store down on the quays in Rouen, a little French piece to whom he was quite seriously engaged. In the most naïve manner. And the young woman, fantastically jealous, managed to make endless insults to herself out of her almost too handsome colonel’s barbaric French. It was an idyll, but it drove the colonel frantic. At such times Levin would consult Tietjens, who passed for a man of brains and a French scholar as to really nicely turned compliments in a difficult language . . . And as to how you explained that is was necessary for a G.S.O. II, or whatever the colonel was, to be seen quite frequently in the company of very handsome V.A.D.’s and female organizers of all arms . . . It was the sort of silliness as to which no gentleman ought to be consulted . . . And here was Levin with the familiar feminine-agonized wrinkle on his bronzed-alabaster brow . . . Like a beastly soldier-man out of a revue. Why didn’t the ass burst into gesture and a throaty tenor . . .
Sergeant-Major Cowley naturally saved the situation. Just as Tietjens was as near saying Go to hell as you can be to your remarkably senior officer on parade, the sergeant-major, now a very important solicitor’s most confidential clerk, began whispering to the colonel . . .
‘The captain might as well take a spell as not . . . We’re through with all the men except the Canadian Railway batch, and they can’t be issued with blankets not for half an hour . . . not for three-quarters. If then! It depends if our runner can find where Quarter’s lance-corporal is having his supper, to issue them . . .! The sergeant-major had inserted that last speech deftly. The Staff officer, with a vague reminiscence of his regimental days, exclaimed:
‘Damn it! . . . I wonder you don’t break into the depot blanket store and take what you want . . . ’
The sergeant-major, becoming Simon Pure, exclaimed:
‘Oh, no, sir, we could never do that, sir . . . ’
‘But the confounded men are urgently needed in the line,’ Colonel Levin said. ‘Damn it, it’s touch and go! . . . We’re rushing . . . ’ He appreciated the fact again that he was on the gawdy Staff, and that the sergeant-major and Tietjens, playing like left backs into each other’s hands, had trickily let him in.
‘We can only pray, sir,’ the sergeant-major said, ‘that these ’ere bloomin’ ‘Uns has got quartermasters and depots and issuing departments, same as ourselves.’ He lowered his voice into a husky whisper. ‘Besides, sir, there’s a rumour . . . round the telephone in depot orderly room . . . that there’s a W.O. order at ‘Edquarters . . . countermanding this and other drafts . . . ’
Colonel Levin said: ‘Oh, my God!’ and consternation rushed upon both him and Tietjens. The frozen ditches, in the night, out there; the agonized waiting for men; the weight upon the mind like a weight upon the brows; the imminent sense of approaching unthinkableness on the right or the left, according as you looked up or down the trench; the solid protecting earth of the parapet then turns into pierced mist . . . and no reliefs coming from here . . . The men up there thinking naïvely that they were coming, and they not coming. Why not? Good God, why not? Mackenzie said:
‘Poor —— old Bird . . . His crowd had been in eleven weeks last Wednesday . . . About all they could stick . . . ’
‘They’ll have to stick a damn lot more,’ Colonel Levin said. ‘I’d like to get at some of the brutes . . . ’ It was at that date the settled conviction of His Majesty’s Expeditionary Force that the army in the field was the tool of politicians and civilians. In moments of routine that cloud dissipated itself lightly: when news of ill omen arrived it settled down again heavily like a cloud of black gas. You hung your head impotently . . .
‘So that,’ the sergeant-major said cheerfully, ‘the captain could very well spare half an hour to get his dinner. Or for anything else . . . ’ Apart from the domestic desire that Tietjens’ digestion should not suffer from irregular meals he had the professional conviction that for his captain to be in intimate private converse with a member of the gawdy Staff was good for the unit . . . ‘I suppose, sir,’ he added valedictorily to Tietjens, ‘I’d better arrange to put this draft, and the nine hundred men that came in this afternoon to replace them, twenty in a tent . . . It’s lucky we didn’t strike them . . .
Tietjens and the colonel began to push men out of their way, going towards the door. The Inniskilling-Canadian, a small open brown book extended deprecatingly, stood, modestly obtrusive, just beside the door-post. Catching avidly at Tietjens’ ‘Eh?’ he said:
‘You’d got the names of the girls wrong in your copy, sir. It was Gwen Lewis I had a child by in Aberystwyth that I wanted to have the lease of the cottage and the ten bob a week. Mrs Hosier that I lived with in Berwick St. James, she was only to have five guineas for a soovneer . . . I’ve took the liberty of changing the names back again.’
Tietjens grabbed the book from him, and bending down at the sergeant-major’s table scrawled his signature on the bluish page. He thrust the book back at the man and said:
‘There . . . fall out.’ The man’s face shone. He exclaimed:
‘Thank you, sir. Thank you kindly, captain . . . I wanted to get off and go to confession. I did bad . . . ’ The McGill graduate with his arrogant black moustache put himself in the way as Tietjens struggled into his British warm.
‘You won’t forget, sir, . . . ’ he began.
‘Damn you, I’ve told you I won’t forget. I never forget. You instructed the ignorant Jap in Asaki, but the educational authority is in Tokyo. And your flagitious mineral-water company had their headquarters at the Tan Sen spring near Kobe . . . Is that right? Well, I’ll do my best for you.’
They walked in silence through the groups of men that hung around the orderly room door and gleamed in the moonlight. In the broad country street of the main line of the camp Colonel Levin began to mutter between his teeth:
‘You take enough trouble with your beastly crowd . . . a whole lot of trouble . . . Yet . . . ’
‘Well, what’s the matter with us?’ Tietjens said. ‘We get our drafts ready in thirty-six hours less than any other unit in this command.’
‘I know you do,’ the other conceded. ‘It’s only all these mysterious rows. Now . . . ’
Tietjens said quickly:
‘Do you mind my asking: Are we still on parade? Is this a strafe from General Campion as to the way I command my unit?’
The other conceded quite as quickly and much more worriedly:
‘God forbid.’ He added more quickly still: ‘Old bean!’, and prepared to tuck his wrist under Tietjens’ elbow. Tietjens, however, continued to face the fellow. He was really in a temper.
‘Then tell me,’ he said, ‘how the deuce you can manage to do without an overcoat in this weather?’ If only he could get the chap off the topics of his mysterious rows they might drift to the matter that had brought him up there on that bitter night when he should be sitting over a good wood fire philandering with Mlle Nanette de Bailly. He sank his neck deeper into the sheepskin collar of his British warm. The other, slim, was with all his badges, ribands and mail, shining darkly in a cold that set all Tietjens’ teeth chattering like porcelain. Levin became momentarily animated:
‘You should do as I do . . . Regular hours . . . lots of exercise . . . horse exercise . . . I do P.T. every morning at the open window of my room . . . hardening . . . ’
‘It must be very gratifying for the ladies in the rooms facing yours,’ Tietjens said grimly. ‘Is that what’s the matter with Mlle Nanette, now? . . . I haven’t got time for proper exercise . . .
‘Good gracious, no,’ the colonel, said. He now tucked his hand firmly under Tietjens’ arm and began to work him towards the left hand of the road: in the direction leading out of camp. Tietjens worked their steps as firmly towards the right and they leant one against the other. ‘In fact, old bean,’ the colonel said, ‘Campy is working so hard to get the command of a fighting army — though he’s indispensable here — that we might pack up bag and baggage any day . . . That is what has made Nanette see reason . . . ’
‘Then what am I doing in this show?’ Tietjens asked. But Colonel Levin continued blissfully:
‘In fact I’ve got her almost practically for certain to promise that next week . . . or the week after next at latest . . . she’ll . . . damn it, she’ll name the happy day.’
‘Good hunting! . . . How splendidly Victorian!’
‘That’s, damn it,’ the colonel exclaimed manfully, ‘what I say myself . . . Victorian is what it is . . . All these marriage settlements . . . And what is it . . . Droits du Seigneur? . . . And notaires . . . And the Count, having his say . . . And the Marchioness . . . And two old grand aunts . . . But . . . Hoopla! . . . ’ He executed with his gloved right thumb in the moonlight a rapid pirouette . . . ‘Next week . . . or at least the week after . . . ’ His voice suddenly dropped.
‘At least,’ he wavered, ‘that was what it was at lunchtime . . . Since then . . . something happened . . . ’
‘You’ve not been caught in bed with a V.A.D.?’ Tietjens asked.
The colonel mumbled:
‘No . . . not in bed . . . Not with a V.A.D . . . Oh, damn it, at the railway station . . . With . . . The general sent me down to meet her . . . and Nanny of course was seeing off her grandmother, the Duchesse . . . The giddy cut she handed me out . . .
Tietjens became coldly furious.
‘Then it was over one of your beastly imbecile rows with Miss de Bailly that you got me out here,’ he exclaimed. ‘Do you mind going down with me towards the I.B.D. headquarters? Your final orders may have come in there. The sappers won’t let me have a telephone, so I have to look in there the last thing . . . ’ He felt a yearning towards rooms in huts, warmed by coke-stoves and electrically lit, with acting lance-corporals bending over A.F.B.’s on a background of deal pigeon-holes filled with returns on buff and blue paper. You got quiet and engrossment there. It was a queer thing: the only place where he, Christopher Tietjens of Groby, could be absently satisfied was in some orderly room or other. The only place in the world . . . And why? It was a queer thing . . .
But not queer, really. It was a matter of inevitable selection if you came to think it out. An acting orderly-room lance-corporal was selected for his penmanship, his power of elementary figuring, his trustworthiness amongst innumerable figures and messages, his dependability. For this he differed a hair’s breadth in rank from the rank and file. A hairbreadth that was to him the difference between life and death. For, if he proved not to be dependable, back he went — returned to duty! As long as he was dependable he slept under a table in a warm room, his toilette arrangements and washing in a bully-beef case near his head, a billy full of tea always stewing for him on an always burning stove . . . A paradise! . . . No! Not a paradise: the paradise of the Other Ranks! . . . He might be awakened at one in the morning. Miles away the enemy might be beginning a strafe . . . He would roll out from among the blankets under the table amongst the legs of hurrying N.C.O.’s and officers, the telephone going like hell . . . He would have to manifold innumerable short orders on buff slips on a typewriter . . . A bore to be awakened at one in the morning, but not unexciting: the enemy putting up a tremendous barrage in front of the village of Dranoutre: the whole nineteenth division to be moved into support along the Bailleul-Nieppe road. In case . . .
Tietjens considered the sleeping army . . . That country village under the white moon, all of sackcloth sides, celluloid windows, forty men to a hut . . . That slumbering Arcadia was one of . . . how many? Thirty-seven thousand five hundred, say for a million and a half of men . . . But there were probably more than a million and a half in that base . . . Well, round the slumbering Arcadias were the fringes of virginly glimmering tents . . . Fourteen men to a tent . . . For a million . . . Seventy-one thousand four hundred and twenty-one tents round, say, one hundred and fifty I.B.D.’s, C.B.D.‘s, R.E.B.D.’s . . . Base depots for infantry, cavalry, sappers, gunners, airmen, anti-airmen, telephone-men, vets, chiropodists, Royal Army Service Corps men, Pigeon Service men, Sanitary Service men, Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps women, V.A.D. women — what in the world did V.A.D. stand for? — canteens, rest-tent attendants, barrack damage superintendents, parsons, priests, rabbis, Mormon bishops, Brahmins, Lamas, Imams, Fanti men, no doubt, for African troops. And all ready dependent on the acting orderly-room lance-corporals for their temporal and spiritual salvation . . . For, if by a slip of the pen a lance-corporal sent a Papist priest to an Ulster regiment, the Ulster men would lynch him, and all go to hell. Or, if by a slip of the tongue at the telephone, or a slip of the typewriter, he sent a division to Westoutre instead of to Dranoutre at one in the morning, the six or seven thousand poor devils in front of Dranoutre might all be massacred and nothing but His Majesty’s Navy could save us . . .
Yet, in the end, all this tangle was satisfactorily unravelled; the drafts moved off, unknotting themselves like snakes, coiling out of inextricable bunches, sliding vertebrately over the mud to dip into their bowls — the rabbis found Jews dying to whom to administer; the vets, spavined mules; the V.A.D.’s, men without jaws and shoulders in C.C.S.’s; the camp-cookers, frozen beef; the chiropodists, ingrowing toe-nails; the dentists, decayed molars; the naval howitzers, camouflaged emplacements in picturesquely wooded dingles . . . Somehow they got there — even to the pots of strawberry jam by the ten dozen!
For if the acting lance-corporal, whose life hung by a hair, made a slip of the pen over a dozen pots of jam, back he went, Returned to duty . . . back to the frozen rifle, the ground-sheet on the liquid mud, the desperate suction on the ankle as the foot was advanced, the landscapes silhouetted with broken church towers, the continual drone of the planes, the mazes of duckboards in vast plains of slime, the unending Cockney humour, the great shells labelled Love to Little Willie . . . Back to the Angel with the Flaming Sword. The wrong side of him! . . . So, on the whole, things moved satisfactorily . . .
He was walking Colonel Levin imperiously between the huts towards the mess quarters, their feet crunching on the freezing gravel, the colonel hanging back a little; but a mere light-weight and without nails in his elegant bootsoles, so he had no grip on the ground. He was remarkably silent. Whatever he wanted to get out he was reluctant to come to. He brought out, however:
‘I wonder you don’t apply to be returned to duty . . . to your battalion. I jolly well should if I were you . . . ’
‘Why? Because I’ve had a man killed on me? . . . There must have been a dozen killed to-night.’
‘Oh, more, very likely,’ the other answered. ‘It was one of our own planes that was brought down . . . But it isn’t that . . . Oh, damn it! . . . Would you mind walking the other way? . . . I’ve the greatest respect . . . oh, almost . . . for you personally . . . You’re a man of intellect . . . ’
Tietjens was reflecting on a nice point of military etiquette.
This lisping, ineffectual fellow — he was a very careful Staff officer or Campion would not have had him about the place! — was given to moulding himself exactly on his general. Physically, in costume as far as possible, in voice — for his lisp was not his own so much as an adaptation of the general’s slight stutter — and above all in his uncompleted sentences and point of view . . .
Now, if he said:
‘Look here, colonel . . . ’ or ‘Look here, Colonel Levin . . . ’ or ‘Look here, Stanley, my boy . . . ’ For the one thing an officer may not say to a superior whatever their intimacy was: ‘Look here, Levin . . . ’ If he said then:
‘Look here, Stanley, you’re a silly ass. It’s all very well for Campion to say that I am unsound because I’ve some brains. He’s my godfather and has been saying it to me since I was twelve, and had more brain in my left heel than he had in the whole of his beautifully barbered skull . . . But when you say it you are just a parrot. You did not think that out for yourself. You do not even think it. You know I’m heavy, short in the wind, and self-assertive . . . but you know perfectly well that I’m as good on detail as yourself. And a damned sight more. You’ve never caught me tripping over a return. Your sergeant in charge of returns may have. But not you . . . ’
If Tietjens should say that to this popinjay, would that be going farther than an officer in charge of detachment should go with a member of the Staff set above him, though not on parade and in a conversation of intimacy? Off parade and in intimate conversation all His Majesty’s poor —— officers are equals . . . gentlemen having his Majesty’s commission: there can be no higher rank and all that Bilge! . . . For how off parade could this descendant of an old-clo’ man from Frankfurt be the equal of him, Tietjens of Groby? He wasn’t his equal in any way — let alone socially. If Tietjens hit him he would drop dead; if he addressed a little sneering remark to Levin, the fellow would melt so that you would see the old spluttering Jew swimming up through his carefully arranged Gentile features. He couldn’t shoot as well as Tietjens, or ride, or play a hand at auction. Why, damn it, he, Tietjens, hadn’t the least doubt that he could paint better water-colour-pictures . . . And, as for returns . . . he would undertake to tear the guts out of half a dozen new and contradictory A.C.I.’s — Army Council Instructions — and write twelve correct Command Orders founded on them, before Levin had lisped out the date and serial number of the first one . . . He had done it several times up in the room, arranged like a French blue-stocking’s salon, where Levin worked at Garrison headquarters . . . He had written Levin’s blessed command order while Levin fussed and fumed about their being delayed for tea with Mlle de Bailly . . . and curled his delicate moustache . . . Mlle de Badly, chaperoned by old Lady Sachse, had tea by a clear wood fire in an eighteenth-century octagonal room, with blue-grey tapestried walls and powdering closets, out of priceless porcelain cups without handles. Pale tea that tasted faintly of cinnamon!
Mlle de Bailly was a long, dark high-coloured Provençale. Not heavy, but precisely long, slow, and cruel; coiled in a deep arm-chair, saying the most wounding, slow things to Levin, she resembled a white Persian cat luxuriating, sticking out a tentative pawful of expanding claws. With eyes slanting pronouncedly upwards and a very thin hooked nose . . . almost Japanese . . . And with a terrific cortege of relatives, swell in a French way. One brother a chauffeur to a Marshal of France . . . An aristocratic way of shirking!
With all that, obviously even off parade, you might well be the social equal of a Staff colonel: but you jolly well had to keep from showing that you were his superior. Especially intellectually. If you let yourself show a Staff officer that he was a silly ass — you could say it as often as you liked as long as you didn’t prove it! — you could be certain that you would be for it before long. And quite properly. It was not English to be intellectually adroit. Nay, it was positively un-English. And the duty of field officers is to keep messes as English as possible . . . So a Staff officer would take it out of such a regimental inferior. In a perfectly creditable way. You would never imagine the hash headquarters warrant officers would make of your returns. Until you were worried and badgered and in the end either you were ejected into, or prayed to be transferred to . . . any other command in the whole service . . .
And that was beastly. The process, not the effect. On the whole Tietjens did not care where he was or what he did as long as he kept out of England, the thought of that country, at night, slumbering across the Channel, being sentimentally unbearable to him . . . Still, he was fond of old Campion, and would rather be in his command than any other. He had attached to his staff a very decent set of fellows, as decent as you could be in contact with . . . if you had to be in contact with your kind . . . So he just said:
‘Look here, Stanley, you are a silly ass,’ and left it at that, without demonstrating the truth of the assertion.
The colonel said:
‘Why, what have I been doing now? . . . I wish you would walk the other way . . .
‘No, I can’t afford to go out of camp . . . I’ve got to come to witness your fantastic wedding-contract to-morrow afternoon, haven’t I? . . . I can’t leave camp twice in one week . . .
‘You’ve got to come down to the camp-guard,’ Levin said. ‘I hate to keep a woman waiting in the cold . . . though she is in the general’s car . . .
‘You’ve not been . . . oh, extraordinarily enough, to bring Miss de Bailly out here? To talk to me?’
Colonel Levin mumbled, so low Tietjens almost imagined that he was not meant to hear:
‘It isn’t Miss de Bailly!’ Then he exclaimed quite aloud: ‘Damn it all, Tietjens, haven’t you had hints enough? . . .
For a lunatic moment it went through Tietjens’ mind that it must be Miss Wannop in the general’s car, at the gate, down the hill beside the camp guard-room. But he knew folly when it presented itself to his mind. He had nevertheless turned and they were going very slowly back along the broad way between the huts. Levin was certainly in no hurry. The broad way would come to an end of the hutments; about two acres of slope would descend blackly before them, white stones to mark a sort of coastguard track glimmering out of sight beneath a moon gone dark with the frost. And, down there in the dark forest, at the end of that track, in a terrific Rolls-Royce, was waiting something of which Levin was certainly deucedly afraid . . .
For a minute Tietjens’ backbone stiffened. He didn’t intend to interfere between Mlle de Bailly and any married woman Levin had had as a mistress . . . Somehow he was convinced that what was in that car was a married woman . . . He did not dare to think otherwise. If it was not a married woman it might be Miss Wannop. If it was, it couldn’t be . . . An immense waft of calm, sentimental happiness had descended upon him. Merely because he had imagined her! He imagined her little, fair, rather pug-nosed face: under a fur cap, he did not know why. Leaning forward she would be, on the seat of the general’s illuminated car: glazed in: a regular raree show! Peering out, shortsightedly on account of the reflections on the inside of the glass . . .
He was saying to Levin:
‘Look here, Stanley . . . why I said you are a silly ass is because Miss de Bailly has one chief luxury. It’s exhibiting jealousy. Not feeling it; exhibiting it.’
‘Ought you,’ Levin asked ironically, ‘to discuss my fiancée before me? As an English gentleman. Tietjens of Groby and all.’
‘Why, of course,’ Tietjens said. He continued feeling happy. ‘As a sort of swollen best man, it’s my duty to instruct you. Mothers tell their daughters things before marriage. Best men do it for the innocent Benedict . . . woman . . . ’
‘I’m not doing it now,’ Levin grumbled direly.
‘Then what, in God’s name, are you doing? You’ve got a cast mistress, haven’t you, down there in old Campion’s car? . . . ’ They were beside the alley that led down to his orderly room. Knots of men, dim and desultory, still half filled it, a little way down.
‘I haven’t,’ Levin exclaimed almost tearfully. ‘I never had a mistress . . .
‘And you’re not married?’ Tietjens asked. He used on purpose the schoolboy’s ejaculation Tummy!’ to soften the jibe. ‘If you’ll excuse me,’ he said, ‘I must just go and take a look at my crowd. To see if your orders have come down.’
He found no orders in a hut as full as ever of the dull mists and odours of khaki, but he found in revenge a fine upstanding, blond, Canadian-born lance-corporal of old Colonial lineage, with a moving story as related by Sergeant-Major Cowley:
‘This man, sir, of the Canadian Railway lot, ‘is mother’s just turned up in the town, come on from Eetarpels. Come all the way from Toronto where she was bedridden.’ Tietjens said:
‘Well, what about it? Get a move on.’
The man wanted leave to go to his mother who was waiting in a decent estaminet at the end of the tramline just outside the camp where the houses of the town began.
Tietjens said: ‘It’s impossible. It’s absolutely impossible. You know that.’
The man stood erect and expressionless; his blue eyes looked confoundedly honest to Tietjens who was cursing himself. He said to the man:
‘You can see for yourself that it’s impossible, can’t you?’ The man said slowly:
‘Not knowing the regulations in these circumstances I can’t say, sir. But my mother’s is a very special case . . . She’s lost two sons already.’
‘A great many people have . . . Do you understand, if you went absent off my pass I might — I quite possibly might — lose my commission? I’m responsible for you fellows getting up the line.’
The man looked down at his feet. Tietjens said to himself that it was Valentine Wannop doing this to him. He ought to turn the man down at once. He was pervaded by a sense of her being. It was imbebile. Yet it was so. He said to the man:
‘You said good-bye to your mother, didn’t you, in Toronto, before you left?’
The man said:
‘No, sir.’ He had not seen his mother in seven years. He had been up in the Chilkoot when war broke out and had not heard of it for ten months. Then he had at once joined up in British Columbia, and had been sent straight through for railway work, on to Aldershot where the Canadians had a camp in building. He had not known that his brothers were killed till he got there and his mother, being bedridden at the news, had not been able to get to Toronto when his batch had passed through. She lived about sixty miles from Toronto. Now she had risen from her bed like a miracle and come all the way. A widow: sixty-two years of age. Very feeble.
It occurred to Tietjens as it occurred to him ten times a day that it was idiotic of him to figure Valentine Wannop to himself. He had not the slightest idea where she was: in what circumstances, or even in what house. He did not suppose she and her mother had stayed on in that dog-kennel of a place in Bedford Park. They would be fairly comfortable. His father had left them money. ‘It is preposterous,’ he said to himself, ‘to persist in figuring a person to yourself when you have no idea of where they are.’ He said to the man:
‘Wouldn’t it do if you saw your mother at the camp gate, by the guard-room?’
‘Not much of a leave-taking, sir,’ the man said; ‘she not allowed in the camp and I not allowed out. Talking under a sentry’s nose very likely.’
Tietjens said to himself:
‘What a monstrous absurdity this is of seeing and talking, for a minute or so! You meet and talk . . . ’ And next day at the same hour. Nothing . . . As well not to meet or talk . . . Yet the mere fantastic idea of seeing Valentine Wannop for a minute . . . She not allowed in the camp and he not going out. Talking under a sentry’s nose, very likely . . . It had made him smell primroses. Primroses, like Miss Wannop. He said to the sergeant-major:
‘What sort of a fellow is this?’ Cowley, in open-mouthed suspense, gasped like a fish. Tietjens said:
‘I suppose your mother is fairly feeble to stand in the cold?’
‘A very decent man, sir,’ the sergeant-major got out, ‘one of the best. No trouble. A perfectly clean conduct sheet. Very good education. A railway engineer in civil life . . . Volunteered, of course, sir.’
‘That’s the odd thing,’ Tietjens said to the man, ‘that the percentages of absentees is as great amongst the volunteers as the Derby men or the compulsorily enlisted . . . Do you understand what will happen to you if you miss the draft?’
The man said soberly:
‘Yes, sir. Perfectly well.’
‘You understand that you will be shot? As certainly as that you stand there. And that you haven’t a chance of escape.’
He wondered what Valentine Wannop, hot pacifist, would think of him if she heard him. Yet it was his duty to talk like that: his human, not merely his military duty. As much his duty as that of a doctor to warn a man that if he drank of typhoid-contaminated water he would get typhoid. But people are unreasonable. Valentine too was unreasonable. She would consider it brutal to speak to a man of the possibility of his being shot by a firing party. A groan burst from him. At the thought that there was no sense in bothering about what Valentine Wannop would or would not think of him. No sense. No sense. No sense . . .
The man, fortunately, was assuring him that he knew, very soberly, all about the penalty for going absent off a draft. The sergeant-major, catching a sound from Tietjens, said with admirable fussiness to the man:
‘There, there! Don’t you hear the officer’s speaking? Never interrupt an officer.’
‘You’ll be shot,’ Tietjens said, ‘at dawn . . . Literally at dawn.’ Why did they shoot them at dawn? To rub it in that they were never going to see another sunrise. But they drugged the fellows so that they wouldn’t know the sun if they saw it: all roped in a chair . . . It was really the worse for the firing party. He added to the man:
‘Don’t think I’m insulting you. You appear to be a very decent fellow. But very decent fellows have gone absent.’ He said to the sergeant-major:
‘Give this man a two-hours’ pass to go to the . . . whatever’s the name of the estaminet . . . The draft won’t move off for two hours, will it?’ He added to the man: ‘If you see your draft passing the pub you run out and fall in. Like mad, you understand. You’d never get another chance.’
There was a mumble like applause and envy of a mate’s good luck from a packed audience that had hung on the lips of simple melodrama . . . an audience that seemed to be all enlarged eyes, the khaki was so colourless . . . They came as near applause as they dared, but there was no sense in worrying about whether Valentine Wannop would have applauded or not . . . And there was no knowing whether the fellow would not go absent, either. As likely as not there was no mother. A girl very likely. And very likely the man would desert . . . The man looked you straight in the eyes. But a strong passion, like that for escape — or a girl — will give you control over the muscles of the eyes. A little thing that, before strong passion! One would look God in the face on the day of judgement and lie, in that case.
Because what the devil did he want of Valentine Wannop? Why could he not stall off the thought of her? He could stall off the thought of his wife . . . or his not-wife. But Valentine Wannop came wriggling in. At all hours of the day and night. It was an obsession. A madness . . . What those fools called ‘a complex’! . . . Due, no doubt, to something your nurse had done, or your parents said to you. At birth . . . A strong passion . . . or no doubt not strong enough. Otherwise he, too, would have gone absent. At any rate, from Sylvia . . . Which he hadn’t done. Or hadn’t he? There was no saying . . .
It was undoubtedly colder in the alley between the huts. A man was saying: ‘Hoo . . . Hooo . . . Hoo . . . ’ A sound like that, and flapping his arms and hopping . . . ‘Hand and foot, mark time! Somebody ought to fall these poor devils in and give them that to keep their circulations going. But they might not know the command . . . It was a Guards’ trick, really . . . What the devil were these fellows kept hanging about here for? he asked.
One or two voices said that they did not know. The majority said gutturally:
‘Waiting for our mates, sir . . . ’
‘I should have thought you could have waited under cover,’ Tietjens said caustically. ‘But never mind; it’s your funeral, if you like it . . . ’ This getting together . . . a strong passion. There was a warmed reception-hut for waiting drafts not fifty yards away . . . But they stood, teeth chattering and mumbling ‘Hoo . . . Hoo . . . ’ rather than miss thirty seconds of gabble . . . About what the English sergeant-major said and about what the officer said and how many dollars did they give you . . . And of course about what you answered back . . . Or perhaps not that. These Canadian troops were husky, serious fellows, without the swank of the Cockney or the Lincolnshire Moonrakers. They wanted, apparently, to learn the rules of war. They discussed anxiously information that they received in orderly rooms, and looked at you as if you were expounding the gospels . . .
But, damn it, he, he himself, would make a pact with Destiny, at that moment, willingly, to pass thirty months in the frozen circle of hell, for the chance of thirty seconds in which to tell Valentine Wannop what he had answered back . . . to Destiny! . . . What was the fellow in the Inferno who was buried to the neck in ice and begged Dante to clear the icicles out of his eyelids so that he could see out of them? And Dante kicked him in the face because he was a Ghibelline . . . Always a bit of a swine, Dante . . . Rather like . . . like whom? . . . Oh, Sylvia Tietjens . . . A good hater! . . . He imagined hatred coming to him in waves from the convent in which Sylvia had immured herself . . . Gone into retreat . . . He imagined she had gone into retreat. She had said she was going. For the rest of the war . . . For the duration of hostilities or life, whichever were the longer . . . He imagined Sylvia, coiled up on a convent bed . . . Hating . . . Her certainly glorious hair all round her . . . Hating . . . Slowly and coldly . . . Like the head of a snake when you examined it . . . Eyes motionless: mouth closed tight . . . Looking away into the distance and hating . . . She was presumably in Birkenhead . . . A long way to send your hatred . . . Across a country and a sea in an icy night . . .! Over all that black land and water . . . with the lights out because of air-raids and U-boats . . . Well, he did not have to think of Sylvia at the moment. She was well out of it . . .
It was certainly getting no warmer as the night drew on . . . Even that ass Levin was pacing swiftly up and down in the dusky moon-shadow of the last hutments that looked over the slope and the vanishing trail of white stones . . . In spite of his boasting about not wearing an overcoat; to catch women’s eyes with his pretty Staff gadgets he was carrying on like a leopard at feeding time . . .
‘Sorry to keep you waiting, old man . . . Or rather your lady . . . But there were some men to see to . . . And, you know . . . “The comfort and — what is it? — of the men comes before every — is it ‘consideration’? — except the exigencies of actual warfare” . . . My memory’s gone phut these days . . . And you want me to slide down this hill and wheeze back again . . . To see a woman!
Levin screeched: ‘Damn you, you ass! It’s your wife who’s waiting for you at the bottom there.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54