This tale was written so long ago that I have honestly forgotten how much of it, if any, may be my own and how much is in Christopher Mervyn’s own words. But it is certain that Mervyn is dead, with Blore and Warrender. Macworth died ten years ago of tubercle after gas. Morrison Haylock’s father is a Peer of the Realm, and every trace of the 26th Battalion (Birdfanciers), Welland and Withan Rifles, has vanished. Nothing, unless some sort of useless moral, remains of a tale of 1915.
MEN, in war, will instinctively act as they have been taught to do in peace — for a certain time. The wise man is he who knows when that time is up. Mr. Morrison Haylock (Vertue and Pavey, Contractors, E.C.) did not know. But I give the tale, with a few omissions for decency’s sake, from the pen of Christopher Mervyn, anciently a schoolmaster of an ancient foundation, and later Lieutenant in the 26th (Birdfanciers) Battalion, Welland and Withan Rifles, quartered at Blagstowe. He wrote, being then second Lieutenant:—
. . . We older men have learned most. It is hard for anyone over thirty, with what he was used to think the rudiments of a mind, to absorb the mechanics of militarism. My Lieutenant, aged twenty-two, says to me:—‘The more civilian rot a man has in his head, the less use he is as a subaltern.’ He is quite right. I make mistakes which, a year ago, I should have called a child of sixteen a congenital idiot for perpetrating. I am told so with oaths and curses and that sort of sarcasm (I recognise it now) which I used to launch at the heads of junior forms. So I die daily, but, I believe, am being slowly reborn . . .
Macworth tells me he has told you of our little affair with Haylock, the unjust caterer, and that you propose to dress it up in the public interest. Don’t! The undraped facts, as I shall give them to you, are far beyond anything in the range of your art. I suppose I ought to be ashamed of my share in the row, but I have dug up the remnant of my civilian conscience. It is quite impenitent.
. . . The awful food for which the officers’ mess pays six shillings a head! You say things are as bad in other messes under other contractors, but that is Satan’s own argument — the arch-excuse for inefficiency. You are wise enough never to break bread with us, so I can’t make you realise the extraordinary and composite vileness of our meals nor the ‘knotted horrors of the Anglo–Parisienne’ menus — Jambons à la Grecque, for instance, which are clods of rancid bacon on pats of green dirt, supposed to be spinach; or our deep yellow blancmange, daubed with pink sauce that tastes of cat. Food is the vital necessity to men in hard work. One comes to lunch and dinner — breakfast is always a farce — with the primitive emotions, and when, week after week, the food is not only uneatable but actively poisonous, as our sardine savouries are, one’s emotions become more than primitive. I’m prepared to suffer for my country, but ptomaine poisoning isn’t cricket!
As you know, our battalion is quartered in Blagstowe Gaol, a vast improvement on huts. We should have been quite content had they only given us prisoners’ food. We tried every remedy our civilian minds could suggest. We threatened our mess-steward, who was merely insolent. We pleaded and implored. We tried to write to the papers, but here the law of libel interfered. My platoon sergeant (he’s a partner in Healey and Butts, solicitors) expounded it to us. The C.O. wrote officially to the directors of that infernal tripeshop, Haylock, Vertue, and Pavey. The rest of us weighed in with a round-robin. I composed it. Not half a bad bit of English either. We begged to have our army rations given us, ‘simple of themselves,’ but by some devilish chicane they were all mixed up, we were told, in the Jambons à la Grecque and the catty blancmange and couldn’t be dissected out . . .
If a man is not properly fed, he automatically takes to drink. I didn’t know this till I did. I steadily overdrank for a fortnight out of pure hunger. I can hold my liquor, but it isn’t fair on the youngsters, my seniors . . .
On account of some scare or other, we had to furnish pickets to hold up all cars on the London road, take owners’ names and addresses, and check drivers’ licences. My picket was at the south entrance to the town, close to the main gate of the Gaol, and out of pure zeal and bad temper, I had put up a barricade made of a scaffold-pole resting on a baker’s cart at one end and on a cement barrel at the other. About nine o’clock a natty little grey and black self-driven coupe came from Brighton way at the rate of knots. It didn’t brake soon enough after the outlying sentry had warned it of my barricade, and so knocked my scaffoldingpole down. Very good dependence for a quarrel, even before the driver gave me his name, which he did at the top of his voice. He sat in the glare of his own electrics with an Old E.H.W. School tie on his false bosom, bawling: ‘I’m Haylock. Carry on, you men! I tell you, I’m Haylock.’ He is one of the push-and-go type — with a lot of rib-fat — not semitic, but the flower of the Higher Counterjumpery, by Transatlantic out of Top–Hat. He was in a hurry; ‘hustling’ I presume. I was monolithically military and — glory be! — he hadn’t his licence on him. My duty as second Lieutenant was clear. No licence, no passage, and ‘Come to the guard-room for examination.’ Then, to put it coarsely, he broke loose. In his pauses, Private Gillock, who poses as a wit, was stage-whispering me for leave to ‘put a shot into his radiator.’ (The New Armies are horrid quick on the trigger.) I dismounted him from his wheel, detailed Gillock to drive — he mangled the gears consumedly — and ran the whole confection into the guard-room, which, when the Gaol we inhabit is at work, is the condemned cell. I was perfectly sober at the time — no thanks to Haylock and his minions. I was savage, though not murderous, from semi-starvation and indigestion. I was glad to have some means of honourably annoying him, but I assure you that not till the lock of the condemned cell clicked, and I realised that this purveyor of filthy delicatessen was at my mercy, did my real self wake up and sing. I went to the anteroom and told them that God had delivered to us Morrison Haylock. We all ran out to the condemned cell. No one spoke a word. That is how revolutions are made. I unlocked the door and — condemned cells are remorselessly lighted — there sat Haylock on the cot behind his flaming O.E.H.W. tie. At least, that was our united impression afterwards. As you know, it’s the deuce and all of a tie, invented to match that school’s attitude towards life and taste and the Eternal Verities.
Anyhow, it fetched us up dead. We all looked at Mackworth, who’s an O.E.H.W., though a very junior lieutenant. The door was shut; and it’s sound-tight for reasons connected with the last nights of the condemned. Mackworth took charge. He began ‘What was your House at school?’ Haylock gave it with a smile. He thought — but he couldn’t have really — that he’d fallen among friends. ‘What’s your name?’ Mackworth went on in the prefectorial, which is the orderly-room, voice. Haylock gave that too, quite perkily. I expect his suborned press would call him ‘breezy’ and ‘genial.’
‘Is it?’ said Mackworth. ‘Then take that!’ and he smacked the brute’s head — a full open handed smite, just as one smacks a chap who isn’t big enough to beat. It was sudden, I admit, but as inevitable as the highest art, and it carried conviction and atmosphere at once, for Haylock yapped and his hand went up to the hurt place absolutely on the old school lines. Then Norgate, who is a corn-factor in a solid way and my very rude Company Captain, pulled the hand down, and gave him another slap on the chops. Warrender and Blore, boys under twenty-two, but my seniors, followed, and I finished up with a judicial stinger. Someone said, ‘There!’ in the very tone of virtuous youth (forgive the alliteration), and everyone felt that justice had been done. Even Haylock did, for all the grown-man dropped from him too, and he snuffled: ‘What’s that for?’ Fat Norgate, who is forty if a day, stood in front of him with a ready hand and shouted: ‘You jolly well know what it’s for.’
To him, Haylock trying to put his tie and collar straight (how well one remembers the attitude!) ‘No, I don’t. And, anyhow, I can’t be supposed to look after ’em all.’
Norgate (triumphantly to the rest of us): ‘That proves him a liar. He said he doesn’t know what it’s for.’ Not one of us by the way had uttered a word about our grievance till then.
Me (ferociously clutching my sword in lieu of a cane): ‘Haylock, you’re a dirty little thief.’ I wasn’t a second Lieutenant. I wasn’t even a beak any more. I was just starving, outraged Boy.
Haylock (with equal directness): ‘Ugh! That’s what you think, you big brute! I don’t get much out of it. I wish to God I had never touched the rotten contracts.’
‘That’s confession and avoidance,’ said my platoon sergeant, of Healey and Butts. He’d slipped in with us, professionally and gratuitously as he explained, to give legal colour to the proceedings. But we weren’t legal for the moment. Then Mackworth, whom we all regarded as head prefect in the matter, went on: ‘Nobody asked you to touch ’em. You did it for your own beastly profits, and you’ve got to look after our grub properly or you’ll be toed all round the parade-ground.’
I give the exact words. Then we all began to talk at once, each man recalling fragments of dreadful menus and what followed on ’em. Silence is the Mother of Revolution, but Speech is the Father of Atrocities. The more we dwelt on our wrongs, the redder we saw, but — I stick to it — that flaming Old E.H.W. tie saved and steadied us.
Haylock, who was blue-scared, backed into a corner. His knuckles weren’t in his eyes, but that was the effect he produced. He still had enough rags of speech left to assure us that he was on his way down to investigate our complaints when I arrested him. I said — I mean, I roared —‘What a deliberate lie! You were bunking up to town as hard as you could go when I collared you.’
Omnes (diverted for the moment from murder) ‘Oh, you damned liar!’
Haylock: ‘I’m not, I tell you.’
Omnes: ‘Shut up. You are.’
Another pause. Then Norgate: ‘Well, hurry up! What are you going to do about it?’
Haylock: ‘I’ll speak to my agents.’
Mackworth: ‘Swear you will. At once.’
Haylock: ‘I swear I will. Right now.’
Me (and it’s not my fault that I love English): ‘None of your Transatlantic slang here. Say “at once”.’
Haylock: ‘At once. At once! I’ll do it the minute I get to town. I swear I will.’
That seemed enough for us seniors (I speak of age, not rank), but we hadn’t allowed for the necessary cruelty (a wise provision of nature) of the young. Warrender, my lieutenant, and Blore, another angry child, said that Haylock must have supper with us before he left. They indicated mess cake, what (and it was much) was left over of the eternal blancmange, a sardine savoury, and the mess sherry. We protested. They said he deserved to be poisoned, and that they didn’t value their commissions a tinker’s curse. A vindictive lot! But Haylock slipped the noose round his own neck when he assured us that he ‘wouldn’t report anyone’ for the recent proceedings. We groaned with disgust, and escorted him from the condemned cell to the anteroom, as our guest. It was twenty minutes before we could dig up the mess-steward, who, when he saw Haylock, came near to swooning. Haylock re-established himself in his own esteem by telling him off in the tradesmen’s style, which I had never heard before. It justifies the Teuton’s hatred of England. Warrender and Blore added cold meat from the sideboard — the greener slices for choice — to our guest’s simple fare. Lastly, Mackworth, whose mind, except on parade, when mine doesn’t function, moves slowly, lectured —‘jawed’— Haylock on the disgrace he had brought on their school. He ended with the classical tag: ‘I’ve a great mind to give you a special licking on my own account for the House’s sake. You’ve got off very cheap with only your head smacked.’
‘Thank you,’ said Haylock, mouthing through our ossuary. ‘You see my partners were educated privately.’
Debased as the dog was, he couldn’t keep the proper note of scorn out of his voice. We are of all nations the most incomprehensibly marvellous!
He left at midnight, fulfilled with garbage — we looking at him as the islanders looked at St. Paul. But he took no hurt — dura ilia messorum — the indurated intestines of the mess-caterer and the reforms began next day. We had clean, well-cooked gammon of bacon with pease pudding, followed by excellent treacle-roll and an anchovy toast that was toast and anchovy, not to mention twentieth century eggs. The mess-steward drops on all fours and wags his tail when we whistle now. The C.O. pretends officially to believe that it was the outcome of his letter. One learns to lie in the Army quicker even than on the land.
I don’t know what Mackworth may have told you, but these are the bald facts. Use them as I furnish them. There are volumes, social, political, and military in them, but for this occasion, do abstain from dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s. Circumstances, not scribes, are making the public to think.
After which, it is only fair to tell you that I tied up my platoon on parade this morning owing to an exalted mentality which for the moment (I was thinking over the moral significance of Old School ties and the British social fabric) prevented me from distinguishing between my left hand and my right. Nineveh was saved because there were six hundred thousand inhabitants in just my case, as I told Norgate afterwards. I won’t tell you what he told me on the parade-ground!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10