― (84) ―


I begin to find an idle and fond bondage in the oppression of aged tyranny, who sways not as it hath power but as it is suffered.


FOR the next few days they were continually on the move, and Bourne did nothing for the orderly-room but help to stow and unstow a few tin deed-boxes, eating, marching, and sleeping with his company. Captain Malet had gone on leave unexpectedly, and Captain Havelock became adjutant in his place. The roads were dusty, a lot of the route pavé, hot and unyielding to the feet, and the flat stones worn or shifted to an uneven surface; while the sycamores or poplars bordering the sides were not close enough to give much shelter from a pitiless sun. At the end of the second day's march after leaving Beaumetz, they halted under a stone wall which must have been about fifteen feet high, with a single arched gate-way opening in it. On the other side of the road pollarded willows leaned away from them to over-hang a quick-flowing little river, full of bright water. Several of the new men had fallen out, and would be on the mat for it in the morning, and they were all tired enough, the sweat having soaked through their shirts and tunics to show in

  ― (85) ―
dark patches on the khaki where the equipment pressed on it.

On the other side of the archway was a wide courtyard, with the usual midden in the centre of it; at the back, a large house, half-farm, half-chateau, with a huge stone-built barn on one side, flanking the yard, and on the other almost equally substantial stables and out-buildings. It was conventual in appearance, with a prosperous air. When they pushed open the great doors of the barn, and entered into that cool empty space, which would have held two companies at a pinch, it had seemed to offer them the pleasantest lodging they had known for months: it was as lofty as a church, the roof upheld by unwrought beams and rafters, the walls pierced with narrow slits for light and air, and the floor thick-littered with fine, dry straw. Some panicky fowls flew up into their faces, and then fled precipitately as they took possession. They slipped off their equipment and wet tunics, and unrolled their puttees before sprawling at ease.

“Cushy place, this,” said Shem contentedly. “Wonder what the village is like, it would be all right if we were billeted here for a week; that is, unless we're going on to some decent town.”

“Some bloody thing's bitin' my legs,” said Martlow after a few minutes.

  ― (86) ―

“Mine, too,” said Bourne. “What the hell …?”

“I'm alive with the buggers,” said Pritchard angrily.

Men were scratching and cursing furiously, for the straw swarmed with hen-fleas, which seemed to bite them in a hundred different places at one and the same time. Compared with these minute black insects of a lively and vindictive disposition, lice were merely caressing in their attentions; and the amount of profane blasphemy which broke from the surprised and discomfited men was of an unusual fervour. For the moment they were routed, scratching themselves savagely with dirty finger-nails; and then gradually the bites decreased, and they seemed, with the exception of an occasional nip, to have become immune, hen-fleas apparently preferring a more delicate pasture. They caught one or two with considerable difficulty, and examined them curiously: after all, they were not so repulsive as the crawling, white, crab-like lice, which lived and bred, hatching in swarms, on the hairy parts of one's body. These were mere raiding pleasure-seekers, and when the first onset had spent its force, the fitful skirmishes which succeeded it were endurable.

Old soldiers say that one should never take off boots and socks, after a march, until one has cooled down, and the swelling in legs and feet has

  ― (87) ―
vanished; bathing hot swollen feet only makes them tender. They rested until tea was ready, and in the distribution of rations they were lucky; a loaf of bread among four, and a tin of butter and a pot of jam among six. Shem, Bourne, and Martlow ate, smoked and then, taking towels and soap, followed the river until they found some seclusion, and there they stripped and bathed. They did not know that bathing had been forbidden, and even after they had dressed themselves partly again they sat on the bank with their feet on the gravel bottom, letting the water ripple over them. One of the regimental police found them there, and rapped out an adjectival comment on their personal characters, antecedents, and future prospects, which left nothing for the imagination to complete. As they showed an admirable restraint under the point and emphasis of his remarks, he contented himself with heading them back to billets, with a warning that the village was out of bounds, and then took his own way along the forbidden road in search of pleasure, like a man privileged above his kind.

“They don't care a fuck 'ow us'ns live,” said little Martlow bitterly. “We're just 'umped an' bumped an' buggered about all over fuckin' France, while them as made the war sit at 'ome waggin' their bloody chins, an' sayin' what they'd 'ave done if they was twenty years

  ― (88) ―
younger. Wish to Christ they was, an' us'ns might get some leaf an' go 'ome an' see our own folk once in a while.”

“Too bloody true,” Shem agreed. “Five bloody weeks on the Somme without a bath, and thirteen men to a loaf; and when they take you back for a rest you can't wash your feet in a river, or go into a village to buy bread. They like rubbing it in all right.”

“What are you chewing the fat about?” asked Bourne. “You've had a bathe, and you're not paying for it. Can't you take an ordinary telling-off without starting to grouse about it? You don't want to drink someone else's bathwater in your morning-tea, do you? I'm going over to the house to inspect the inhabitants. There's a mad'moiselle there, Martlow; just about your mark.”

“You please yourself,” said Martlow. “I'm not goin'; I don't like the look of the fam'ly.”

Bourne found the womenfolk hospitable enough, and pleased himself enormously. He bought a couple of glasses of wine from Madame, who asked him not to tell the other men, as there were too many of them. Snatches of soldiers' choruses came from the barn across the yard, and Madame was full of praise of the English, their courage, their contentment. She asked Bourne if he sang, and he laughed, lifting up his voice:

‘Dans le jardin de mon père, les lilas sont fleuris. …’

  ― (89) ―

She seemed astonished by that, and beamed at him, her red face bright with sweat.

‘Auprès de ma blonde, qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon,
Auprès de ma blonde, qu'il fait bon dormir. …’

but he knew no more than a few lines of it. She knew it well enough, and told him it was not proper, at which he cocked his head aside and looked at her knowingly; and then, satisfied that he had turned that flank, gave his attention to the girl, who ignored it discreetly. She was not really pretty, but she had all the bloom and venusty of youth, with those hazel eyes which seem almost golden when they take the light under dark lashes. Two oldish men came in, and looked at Bourne with grave suspicion, while Madame and the girl bustled to get their evening meal. Every time either of these ladies approached him, Bourne, with an excessive politeness, rose from his chair, and this seemed to increase the suspicion of the younger man.

“Asseyez-vous, monsieur,” he said with a tranquil sarcasm. “Elles ne sont pas immortelles.”

“C'est dommage, monsieur,” Bourne replied, apt enough for all his clumsy French, and Madame beamed at him again; but the discouragement the men offered to his presence there was too strong for him, and he took up his cap,

  ― (90) ―
thanking her for her kindness, bowing respectfully to Mademoiselle, and finally saluting the two hobereaux so punctiliously that they were constrained to rise and acknowledge his elaborate courtesy. As he crossed the courtyard in the half-dark he laughed softly to himself, and then whistled the air of Auprès de ma blonde loudly enough for them to hear in the lighted room. No one could tell what luck to-morrow might bring.

The girl had moved him a little. She had awakened in him that sense of privation, which affected more or less consciously all these segregated males, so that they swung between the extremes of a sticky sentimentalism and a rank obscenity, the same mind warping as it were both ways in the attempt to throw off the obsession, which was less desire than a sheer physical hunger, and could not feed itself on dreams. In the shuddering revulsion from death one turns instinctively to love as an act which seems to affirm the completeness of being. In the trenches, the sense of this privation vanished; but it pressed on men whenever they moved back again to the borders of civilised life, which is after all only the organization of man's appetites, for food or for women, the two fundamental necessities of his nature. In the trenches his efforts were directed to securing an end, which perhaps has a prior claim on his attention, for in comparison with the business of keeping himself alive,

  ― (91) ―
the pursuit of women, or even of food, may seem to rank only as the rather trivial diversion of a man's leisure moments; and in the actual agony of battle, these lesser cupidities have no place at all, and women cease to exist so completely that they are not even irrelevant. Afterwards, yes. Afterwards all the insubordinate passions released by battle, and that assertion of the supremacy of one's own particular and individual will, though these may be momentarily quiescent from exhaustion, renew themselves and find no adequate object, unless in the physical ecstasy of love, which is less poignant.

Unfortunately they moved off again next morning, and the girl, standing with her own people in the yard, watched them go, as though she regretted vaguely the waste of good men. About the middle of the day something in the character of the countryside seemed familiar, and the reminiscence teased their memory to make it more definite, until they came upon a signpost which told them they were marching in the direction of Noeux-les-Mines, and reminiscence became anticipation. The thought of a town where decent conditions still prevailed, and where they might have a bon time, put new heart into them, and the marching column broke into cheerful song. They had put, at least partially, their own words to the air of a song sufficiently sentimental:

  ― (92) ―
‘Oh, they've called them up from Weschurch,
And they've called them up from Wen,
And they'll call up all the women,
When they've fucked up all the men.”

After which the adjuration to keep the home-fires burning seemed rather banal. Entering Noeux-les-Mines they were exuberant; but after they had passed the lane leading from the main street to the camp, the chorus of song became less confident. When the great slag-heap and the level-crossing had been left behind them, they reconciled themselves to the less joyful, but still tolerable prospect of Mazingarbe. Then Mazingarbe, with its brick-built brewery, fell behind them too.

“We're goin' into the bloody line again,” shouted Minton, who was marching just ahead of Bourne.

“Well, it's cushy enough up this part o' the line now,” said Pritchard resignedly.

“Cushy be buggered,” said Minton angrily.

They continued a little way along the road to Vermelles, and halted finally in Philosophe, a mining village, brick-built and grimy, from which the inhabitants had been evacuated. There they fell out and went to billets in sullen silence. Almost immediately Shem and Martlow were posted with fieldglasses and whistles to give warning of the approach of enemy aircraft. The troops were ordered to keep close in to the houses

  ― (93) ―
when moving about the village, and to take cover when the whistles were blown.

Bourne went off to the orderly-room. The main street of Philosophe was at right angles to the road from Mazingarbe to Vermelles, and at the end of it was another street, roughly parallel to the road, the orderly-room being in the third house down on the left. The village was practically undamaged by shellfire, but it was a dour, unlovely place. One or two families remained there, and children either belonging to them, or to Mazingarbe, which was not far away, passed up and down the street with large baskets on their arms at intervals through the day, shouting, “Engleesh pancakes, Engleesh pancakes,” with a curious note of melancholy or boredom in their high-pitched voices.

Bourne, quite inadvertently, had improved his position in the orderly-room. The colour-sergeant, with his usual irony, had referred to the possibility of making him a permanent member of the orderly-room staff, and Bourne had replied with great firmness that he would prefer to go back to his company. As they saw at once that he really meant it, they became more friendly. While he and the lance-corporal unpacked the boxes, he asked for the notebooks and pencils which Sergeant-Major Robinson wanted, and got them without any difficulty. When he and the lance-corporal went for their dinners, he took

  ― (94) ―
them to the sergeant-major, with whom were Sergeant Tozer and the quarter-bloke.

“You're bloody lucky to be in the orderly-room for a spell,” the sergeant-major told him. “The C.O. thinks the men have got slack, and says that all time available must be spent in drill. Company-guards as well as headquarter-guard are to parade outside the orderly-room for inspection at eleven o'clock every morning; an' I suppose there'll be working-parties up the line every bloody night. How do you like Captain Havelock in th' orderly-room? The men call him Janey. Saw him walking over to Brigade with the C.O. a few minutes ago. Brigade's at Le Brèbis. Captain Malet's coming back to the company in a few days. We're going to spend most of our time carrying bloody gas-cylinders up Potsdam Alley: that's what I heard anyway.”

The prospect of carrying gas-cylinders, which weighed about a hundred and eighty pounds apiece, and were slung on a pole carried on the shoulders of two men, proved conclusively to Bourne that the orderly-room had its uses. The work was made more difficult by the fact that the men had to wear their P.H. gas helmets, which were hot and suffocating. He went back to the orderly-room in a somewhat chastened frame of mind.

The next day each company in turn marched back to the brewery in Mazingarbe for baths.

  ― (95) ―
They stripped to the buff in one room, handing over towel, socks, shirt, and underpants to the men in charge, who gave them clean things in exchange: these were rolled up in a bundle, ready, and a man took what he was given without question, except in the case of an impossible misfit or a garment utterly useless, in which case he might ask his sergeant-major to intervene, though even his intervention was not always effective. It was invariably the same at casualty-clearing-stations or divisional baths, the lead-swingers in charge and their chums took the best of the stuff they handled, and the fighting-men had to make shift as best they could with their leavings. The men left their clean change with their boots and khaki, and passed naked into one large room in which casks, sawn in two and standing in rows, did duty for baths. There were a few improvised showers. Here they splashed and soaped themselves, with a riotous noisiness and a good deal of indecent horseplay.

“Dost turn thysen to t' wall, lad, so's us 'ns sha'n't see tha dick?” one man shouted at a shy young newcomer; and when the boy turned a red and indignant face over his shoulder, he was met with derision, and another man pulled him out of the tub, and wrestled with him, slippery as they both were with soap. They were distinctly fresh. Rude and brutal as it was, there was a boisterous good-humour about it; and laughing

  ― (96) ―
at his show of temper and humiliation, some other men intervened, and they let him slip out of their hands back to his tub, where he continued the washing of himself as modestly as he could. Finally, after fighting for the showers, they dried, dressed themselves and marched away, another company taking their place.

IN the orderly-room Bourne sat next to the signaller, at a long table which was pushed in to the wall under two windows. He sat with his back to the room, looking out into the street, down which a few soldiers passed occasionally. During the few days they had been at Philosophe he had sunk into a fit of depression, which was not usual with him. He did not understand the reason for it himself. He told himself he was only one of thousands whose life, when they were out of the line, was blank emptiness: men who were moved about France and saw nothing but the roads they travelled and the byres in which they slept. They were mere automatons, whose only conscious life was still in England. He felt curiously isolated even from them. He was not of their county, he was not even of their country, or their religion, and he was only partially of their race. When they spoke of their remote villages and hamlets, or sleepy market-towns in which nothing happened except the church clock

  ― (97) ―
chiming the hour, he felt like an alien among them; and in the vague kind of home-sickness which troubled him he did not seek company, but solitude.

The day after they went to the baths he was entering orders in the book, when the commanding-officer came in, and asked brusquely for a sheet of foolscap and a pencil. Bourne got what was wanted and returned to his place, completing the entry and closing the book softly. He never did any typewriting while the commanding-officer was in the room or during orders-hour. So he looked out of the window as the various guards fell in for inspection. The orderly officer, Mr. Sothern, and the regimental were on parade, and made a preliminary inspection of the men. Then the regimental came over to the orderly-room, entered it, and saluted. The adjutant put on his cap, and went out of the room, and the regimental followed him. They were in the passage leading to the front-door, when Bourne, looking out of the window, saw a blinding flash followed instantly by an explosion, and a shower of glass fell on the table in front of him. For an instant the street was a blur; but he saw the regimental rush out, evidently shouting orders to the men, who took cover. Nine were left lying on the paving-stones. Then there was a second explosion, evidently in the other street. Bourne's first instinct was to rush out and try to help. He

  ― (98) ―
flung a foot over the form on which he sat, and turning, saw the commanding-officer shrinking in his chair, eyes staring out of a blank face, and teeth bared in a curious snarl, the old colour-sergeant with his finger-tips on the floor in the posture of an ape walking, and Johnson cowering against the wall. Reynolds was standing up to it, cool, still, as though he listened.

“Sit still,” whispered the signaller to Bourne warningly; but as the corporal went to the door, Bourne followed him.

“Can we help?” he said quietly.

“No,” said the corporal sternly. “The stretcher-bearers are there already. You shouldn't have left your place. Come outside with me, now.”

They went into the street, and the adjutant and orderly-officer brushed by them into the orderly-room. It was extraordinarily still again, and the last of the wounded was being carried away by the stretcher-bearers. The C.O., with Captain Havelock and the orderly-officer, came out again and disappeared round the corner into the main street, so that Bourne and the corporal were the only two left on the scene. They looked at the blood on the paved roadway, and then up to the sky, where a few puffs of white smoke showed still against the blue, but, as they watched them, drifted and faded gradually from sight.

  ― (99) ―

“So much for their bloody parades,” said Bourne bitterly to the corporal.

“I suppose it's war,” answered Reynolds with a touch of fatalism.

“War,” exclaimed Bourne. “They post men with fieldglasses and whistles to give warning of enemy aircraft; the troops are ordered to show themselves as little as possible in the streets, and to keep close to the houses, and the police are told to make themselves a nuisance to any thoughtless kid who forgets; and then, having taken all these precautions, fifty men are paraded in the middle of the street opposite the orderly-room, as a target, I suppose, and are kept standing there for twenty minutes or half-an-hour. It's a bloody nice kind of war.”

“What's the use of talking about it? If Jerry hadn't taken all his stuff down to the Somme, we'd be shelled to shit in half-an-hour. Come inside and get on with it.”

The colour-sergeant glanced at them enigmatically as they came into the room, and Bourne, without speaking, began to clear away the litter of broken glass from the table and floor, stacking the larger pieces in a heap. The lance-corporal came to his help, and when they had taken up all they could manage with their hands, Bourne swept up the splinters. Then he sat down to his typing. Every now and again the instrument in front of the signaller would tick

  ― (100) ―
out a message in Morse, and the signaller would take it down on a slip, which he passed to Johnson, who handed it to the colour-sergeant. Bourne, typing orders, heard broken fragments of conversation behind him, and sometimes the signaller speaking softly with a hand up to his mouth into the transmitter. It was meaningless to him, for he was not thinking of it.

“… surprise … quiet place, not a sound … artillery on the Somme … all so quiet and still … swank, that's what it is … I'm too old for this … not a bomb … anti-aircraft battery … it was a bomb all right … says two shells didn't explode … major … what … yes … thought he'd get under the table … does put wind up … quite a cushy part … aeroplanes …”

It was all so much senseless babble to him. When he had finished typing orders, he put in a clean sheet, and typed whatever came into his head, to practise speed; odd bits of verse, Latin tags, Aequam memento rebus in arduis Servare mentem. He had a text of Horace with Conington's translation in his pocket. “And richer spilth the pavement stain,” that was pavimentum mero; why did that come into his head now? “Richer spilth” was ill-sounding anyway, and “stain” on top of it made an ugly line. Well, it didn't matter, it was all experience, and gave him some mechanical occupation to fill in time.

  ― (101) ―
He kept on striking the keys: “Than e'er at pontiff's supper ran.” What he needed was to go on a big drunk somewhere, and break this bloody monotony. When he had filled up the sheet he took it out to turn, so that he could use the other side; but first he looked at it, to see how many mistakes he had made, and then through the window he saw two men swilling and sweeping the street. Yes; Fritz is mighty careless where he drops a dixie. He rested his chin on clasped hands and watched them in a kind of reverie. Men were cheap in these days, that is to say men who were not coalminers or ship's rivetters, to whom war only meant higher wages. Officers were scarce, but they might be scarcer by one or two, without much harm being done. They had a good lot of officers on the whole. Major Shadwell and Captain Malet, who took the last ounce out of you, but anyway pulled their own weight as well, and poor Mr. Clinton, who was plucky but played out, and Mr. Sothern, who was a bit of an ass, but a very decent chap. There was that old brigadier, who had spoken to him in Trones Wood: he must have been sixty, but he wasn't too old to come and do his bit, and stuck it too. But there were some who could be quite easily spared. It would soon be time for dinner.

“Bourne,” said the colour-sergeant, suddenly; “Lance-Corporal Johnson is taking some books to the quartermaster in Noeux-les-Mines. You

  ― (102) ―
will help him carry them in; and I dare say he will find you useful while he's there. You will stay there to-night, and come back to-morrow afternoon. Be ready to start at three o'clock. You had better bring your pack here after dinner, and go straight away.”

“Very good, sir,” said Bourne quietly, with none of the surprise he felt. He didn't anticipate any particular liveliness in the company of Lance-corporal Johnson, but he might come upon some unpremeditated pleasure. Putting his things together, and covering up his typewriter, he considered his financial position; and though it was satisfactory, he wondered whether he could get a cheque cashed through the chaplain, or Mr. White, the transport-officer, who would probably be seeing the field-cashier shortly, as another pay-day was approaching. He had to look ahead, and either of them would manage a fiver for him. At last the colour-sergeant told him he might go; he took up his mess-tin and haversack, in which he carried a knife and fork, a notebook and pencils, so that he could put his equipment together after he had eaten, and started off with the lance-corporal, but they went to different cookers. Sergeant Tozer was getting his own dinner at the cooker, and he and Abbot looked at him, but Bourne only nodded to them and went over to where Lance-Corporal Jakes was superintending the dishing out of dinners.

  ― (103) ―

“Was you in the orderly-room when that bloody bomb dropped?” inquired Corporal Jakes.

“Yes. I was looking out of the window.”

“Knock some of the swank out of that bloody regimental you're so pally with,” said one of the men angrily, and Bourne looked at him quietly: he was a pretty tough proposition from Lancashire, called Chapman.

“I expect he will carry out his orders as usual,” Bourne said, stooping to get his food. “What the hell has it got to do with you who my pals are?”

“Well, that one will get a bit of extra weight if 'e's not careful.”

“When you talk silly, you ought to talk under your breath,” said Bourne, leaning forward a little, so that his face was about a foot away from Chapman's. “Anyone who didn't know you as well as I do might think you meant it.”

“We don't want any of that talk 'ere,” said Jakes, positive and solemn.

“Not when there are two poor buggers dead, and five more not much better.”

“Well, we don't want any more talk about it. It don't do no good; an' you've got no call to butt in; nobody said anythink to you. If you can't talk reas'nable you can keep your bloody mouth shut.”

“What did they think about it in th' orderly-room?” Martlow asked him.

  ― (104) ―

“What does everybody think about it?” replied Bourne. “They think it was damned silly to have a parade there. You can't think anything else. What they are saying now is that it was not a bomb at all, but a shell, or rather two shells from one of our own anti-aircraft batteries. Were you on aeroplane guard, Martlow?”

“No bloody fear,” said Martlow hastily. “I 'ad enough t'day before yesterday. You can't see nowt, an' you get a crick in your bloody neck; an' them field-glasses is not 'arf as good as what the C.O. pinched off me.”

“I didn't hear any whistles, not till t'boomb burst,” said Chapman, somewhat mollified by food. “You ask Bill. 'e was on airyplane guard.”

“First thing I see was a shell burstin', an' then another,” said Bill Bates nervously; “an' I blew me whistle as soon as I see the first shell. T' sun was in me eyes. What d'you want to bring me into 't for?”

“You've got no call to worry, kid,” said Jakes. “You was on the other side o' the town.”

“Well, then, what's 'e want to bring me into 't for?” asked Bates, with indignation.

The sight of Bourne putting his equipment together created a diversion, and when he explained the reason they looked at him as though he were one of those who had all the luck.

“I think we must be going to move somewhere

  ― (105) ―
else,” said Bourne to Shem, “or Lance-Corporal Johnson wouldn't go in full pack. We shall have to carry a lot of stuff. Do you or Martlow want me to bring anything back?”

“Bring what you like,” said Shem smiling. “Martlow and I have mucked in together, since you've been in the orderly-room.”

“Well, the three of us can muck in together now,” said Bourne.

“When you come back to the company, you mean,” said Martlow.

BOURNE showed no curiosity concerning the business which had brought them into Noeuxles-Mines. He was glad to dump the box which he and Lance-Corporal Johnson had carried the three miles from Philosophe on the floor of the quartermaster's office. They had carried it between them. It had those handles which hang down when not in use, but turn over and force one's knuckles against the ends of the box when it is lifted. By reversing the grip, one may save one's knuckles, but only at the expense of twisting one's elbow, and the muscles of the forearm. Having tried both ways, they passed their handkerchiefs through the handles, and knotted the corners, so that it was slung between them, but the handkerchiefs being of different sizes, the weight was not equally distributed. The quartermaster's

  ― (106) ―
store was a large shed of galvanised iron, which may have been a garage originally. He was not there, but the carpenter, who was making wooden crosses, of which a pile stood in one corner, thought he might be at the transport lines; on the other hand, he might be back at any moment, so they waited for as long as it took to smoke a cigarette, watching the carpenter, who, having finished putting a cross together, was painting it with a cheap-looking white paint.

“That's the motto of the regiment,” said the carpenter, taking up one on which their badge and motto had been painted carefully. “It's in Latin, but it means ‘Where glory leads.”’

Bourne looked at it with a sardonic grin.

“You're a bit of an artist with the paint-brush, Hemmings,” he said, to cover up his thought.

“Well, I take a bit o' pride in me work. It don't last, o' course, the paint's poor stuff, and that wood's too soft; but you might just as well try to make a good job of it.”

“What about going down to the transport-lines?” asked Johnson.

“I'm ready, corporal,” said Bourne, and they left Hemmings to his work.

“Not very cheerful, sitting there with a lot of wooden crosses,” said Johnson, as they turned into the street.

“Why not?” Bourne asked him callously. “Would you like stone ones any better?”

  ― (107) ―

“As soon as we see the quartermaster, we shall be able to look for our billets,” said Johnson, not wishing to pursue the subject. “Then we can dump our packs and look round the town. He won't want me until the morning.”

“I hope we find some place where we can get a decent drink,” said Bourne. “Why don't we get a rum issue every night, or a bottle of beer with dinner? The French get their wine. Did you see that shop as we came through Mazingarbe, with bottles of Clicquot and Perrier Jouet in the window, and a label on them, Réservée pour les officiers? Bloody cheek. Half of them don't know whether they are drinking champagne or cider. And we have to be content with that filthy stuff they sell us in the estaminets.”

“I don't know anything about wine,” said Johnson primly. “Sometimes when I took my girl out in Blighty we would go into a hotel, a respectable house, you know, and have a glass of port wine and a biscuit. And port wine and brandy is good for colic, it's binding. I've got a photo of my girl in my pocket-book. Here it it. It's only a snap, of course, not very good; and the sun was in her eyes. Do you think she's nice looking?”

“Awfully pretty,” said Bourne, who could be a fluent liar on occasion. He really thought that she looked rather binding, too; but they were turning into the transport-lines, and Johnson

  ― (108) ―
buttoned the photograph into his pocket again. The quartermaster was not there, nor was the transport officer, so they inspected the houses, and Bourne stroked the nose of the old grey mare, who drew the Maltese cart for the officers' mess. His conscience was a little sensitive on her account. The officers' mess-cart generally preceded the Lewis gun cart which Bourne helped to pull on the march; and whenever they came to a hill, if the officer were preoccupied with other matters, Bourne would hitch his rope to the mess-cart and leave it to the mare. She bore no malice, the old lady, as though she knew we had a pretty thin time. The mules did not move him to any sentiment; to him they seemed symbolical of modern war, grotesque, stubborn, vindictive animals. There was nothing for it but to trudge back to the quartermaster's stores again; and they found him this time. He talked to the lance-corporal and gave them a chit for the Town-major, so they went off to look for him; he was out too, but a corporal in the office took matters into his own hands, and showed them to some billets in a back street, on the way to get his own tea. They would have to go to the Town-major's office again, to make sure that it was all right. A thin woman of about forty, with a long-suffering expression on her face, was the only occupant of the house; and she left her work in the kitchen to show them into an empty

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room. Bourne noticed that the floor-boards were clean.

Mais c'est tout ce qu'il y a de plus commode, madame,” said Bourne, and he began to tackle her at once on the prospect of getting a more or less civilized meal.

Mais, monsieur, l'enchérissement est tel …”

But he would not be denied, insinuating himself into her good graces with the flexibility of an eel in a bundle of grass; but after making a number of suggestions, he had to leave it to her, only he insisted on her getting him a bottle of good wine, Barsac for choice; and he gave her some notes with which to do her marketing.

O, là, là!” she cried amusedly.

“What does she say?” inquired Johnson.

“That's the French for ‘Good God,’ ” said Bourne, laughing. They followed her out into the kitchen, where she collected her shawl and basket, her sleek head needing no hat, while they went on into the yard, and surveyed the vegetables which she grew in a little garden at the end of it. Then they heard a familiar sound, though it seemed strange there: the long whine of a shell through the air, and its explosion on the outskirts of the town. She had come out with her basket, and looked up at the sky very much as though she were wondering whether it would rain. Then again came the whining sound.

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Ah, des obus!” she said in a tranquil tone, and set off on her errands.

“You'd think these Frenchies had lived in a war for years, and years, and years,” said Johnson.

“Well, you do get accustomed to it, don't you?” replied Bourne. “It seems to me sometimes as though we had never known anything different. It doesn't seem real, somehow; and yet it has wiped out everything that came before it. We sit here and think of England, as a lot of men might sit and think of their childhood. It is all past and irrecoverable, but we sit and think of it to forget the present. There were nine of us practically wiped out by a bomb this morning, just outside our window, and we have already forgotten it.”

“It wasn't a bomb, it was an anti-aircraft shell.”

“Was it?” Bourne asked indifferently. “What really happened?”

“An anti-aircraft battery reported in answer to inquiries by Brigade that they had fired nine rounds on an enemy plane, and the fifth and sixth failed to explode.”

That would give an accidental colour to the incident. One might anticipate an attack by enemy aircraft and avoid unreasonable exposure to it; but one could not anticipate a defective shell, which failed of its object and then exploded

  ― (111) ―
on striking the hard pavement of a street. Bourne kept what he thought to himself; but the men had said that no whistles were blown until after the first explosion, and the men on aeroplane guard had said that they did not actually see the plane, but blew their whistles when puffs of smoke appeared from the first couple of shells. If they were right, the official version was untrue, for the explosion which had killed two men in the street must have occurred before the shelling began. The practical futility of an aeroplane guard chosen at random from among the men was not a relevant consideration: they had not been trained to that particular work. It was also irrelevant to say that the bomb found its target by the merest chance. Bourne took the men's point of view that these parades were silly and useless; and then he reflected, with a certain acidity of thought, that there was a war on, and that men were liable to be killed rather cursorily in a war.

They waited until Madame returned from her shopping; and she exhibited a bottle of Barsac in triumph to Bourne. She was giving them an omelette, a fillet of beef, and what Johnson called “chips,” with a salad and cream cheese, and Bourne became eloquent in the appreciation of her zeal. They left her to prepare it, and went off to the Town-major's office, when the same corporal whom they had seen in the afternoon

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told them that they might have the billets they were in for that night. They asked him to meet them at an estaminet and have a drink, and he told them of one at which he might look in later. Then they went for half an hour to sit in a room full of noise and smoke, where they drank vin blanc.

Back at their billets they had a satisfactory wash in a bucket with plenty of clean water; and then Madame gave them their meal. Bourne tried to persuade her to eat with them; she declined firmly but amiably, only relenting so far as to drink a glass of wine. She didn't give very much attention to the lance-corporal, but she talked readily enough to Bourne. Her husband was at the front, and her daughter, who was to marry a man also with the colours, had gone to some relations to be out of the battle zone. She would marry when the war finished. When the war finished! When would it finish? She gave a low, curious laugh that expressed the significance of the tragedy more closely than any tears could do. She was extraordinarily tranquil in her pessimism: it was not so much as though she despaired, but as though she suppressed hope in herself for fear it would cheat her in the end. But all this pessimism was apparently for the course which the war was taking: she was perfectly clear that the Hun had to be defeated. The world for her was ruined, and

  ― (113) ―
that was irreparable; but justice must be done; and for her justice was apparently some divine law, working slowly and inexorably through all the confused bickerings of men. She interested him, because though she was a comparatively uneducated woman, her thought was clear, logical, and hard.

He tried to speak hopefully to her, wondering whether he were not only trying to speak hopefully to himself. She admitted that the Hun was stopped; and England's strength was increasing: “Maintenant elle est très bien montée,” as she put it; though perhaps her manner implied that it was a tardy atonement for years of culpable negligence. There was in her some trace of that spirit which he had noticed among the older men in the ranks, a spirit which had ceased to hope for itself and yet was undefeated.

He finished the wine, of which Johnson had only drunk a couple of glasses, while she cleared away the plates and dishes. Then she called him into the room in which he and the lance-corporal were to sleep; and he found she had left there a pile of eight blankets, which were legally, perhaps, the property of the French Republic, as they were all horizon blue in colour. One apiece was enough to cover them, and by folding three for each bed they could sleep on softness. Bourne had long ago ceased to trouble about where or when he slept; but her kindness

  ― (114) ―
touched him, and he thanked her so warmly that perhaps she was touched too. A little thing meant a lot in these days. He no longer wanted to go out on the spree; he had had a decent meal and some good wine, and he would have been quite content to sit where he was until it were time to sleep; but Johnson had arranged to meet the corporal, and he had better go; after all there was little chance of any indecorous behaviour with Johnson.

They found the estaminet full of troops, and the corporal, who had been talking to a few men, came across to them. He was evidently at home in the place, for as soon as they had taken possession of a table, one of the two girls who were serving drinks came for their order, and he pulled her towards him familiarly, seating her on his knee, slipping his hand round her waist upwards under her arm so that he could feel her left breast, caressing it with inquisitive fingers, while she squealed and wriggled to make him more adventurous. Bourne felt the contagion of the place take hold of him, and course in his veins like a subtle flame; it was as though there were some enormous carnal appetite loose among them, feeding on them as fire on its fuel; from all sides came the noise of loud unsteady talk, senseless arguments suddenly uplifted to the pitch of quarrelling, and swept aside again by a torrent of hard, almost mirthless laughter,

  ― (115) ―
while through it all drifted irrelevantly the sound of raucous voices, with the quality of a hand-saw, singing:

‘And the old folks at home, they will sit all night and listen,
In the eve'ning,
By the moon'light,
By the moon'light.’

There was just that waft of nostalgia through the riot of beastly noise, which rose to drown it; and Bourne found the girl looking at him, as the corporal fondled her, with her insolent and furtive eyes. She exasperated him, so that he almost felt the lust of cruelty which such women provoke in some men, and she saw it.

“What the hell are we going to drink?” he asked with abrupt impatience; and the corporal shifting in his chair, the girl rose, straightened her skirts, and then, lifting both arms to smoothe her hair with her hands, came round the table, and stood beside Bourne, purring, with the composed perversity of a cat. He did not want the bloody woman, he said angrily to himself: and ignoring her, he discussed drinks with the corporal, who had no ideas beyond the cheap champagne which Bourne only drank when he could get nothing else. They would not give him any café-cognac there, but she suggested the privacy of an adjoining apartment.

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“Very well. You drink the champagne, if you like it,” said Bourne, sending the girl away with the order. He got up and pushed his way over to the bar, from where Madame, hot and tightly buttoned, and Monsieur, surveyed their barbaric customers as from a position of legal, if not moral superiority. Bourne tackled Monsieur, and after some hesitation the man left the bar and returned with a half-bottle of white wine and the assurance that it was good. He paid for it, they drew the cork for him, gave him a clean glass; and he took it back to the table with him.

“I don't want to go into any back parlours for the sake of some cognac in my coffee. If you would rather have some of this, corporal .…”

But the corporal preferred the champagne which the girl brought; and Bourne paid for it, throwing in a small tip. He did not drink much of his wine, though it was tolerable; he did not want to drink; and he knew that the place would soon close for the night. Johnson and the corporal had plenty to say to each other, and he only needed to join in the conversation out of civility now and again. So he sat there quietly smoking, and drinking a little wine, until it was time to leave. The girl looked at him sulkily, when they said good-night.