― (133) ―


'Tis no matter if I do halt; I have the wars for my colour, and my pension shall seem the more reasonable.


THE colour-sergeant had succeeded in working his ticket, it had gone through, as they phrased it, and he was leaving for home that night. He enhanced his own pleasure by expatiating on the many years of usefulness which still lay in front of his subordinates, a prospect which did not move them in the same way: and his purring satisfaction seemed to make it more difficult for them to find suitable words in which to express their regret at his departure. Congratulations on his release came more readily from their tongues. Bourne said nothing at all; as far as he was concerned in the matter, he was glad the old hypocrite was going; but he couldn't think of anything except the fate of poor Clinton, who had always been so decent to him. He wanted to see Sergeant Tozer and hear what had happened.

“I hoped that before I left,” said the colour-sergeant, dripping with the unction of benevolence, “I should see Johnson a corporal, and Bourne with a stripe.”

  ― (134) ―

Bourne, who never believed a word the old man said, looked up at him with startled surprise, which the other probably mistook for credulity, as he continued to purr pleasantly while lacing up his boots. Bourne, having made up his own bed and swept the floor, went outside to wash and shave, and after coming back for his tunic, crossed the road and found Sergeant Tozer.

“I'm damned sorry about it myself,” said the sergeant. “It was one o’ them sausages; they put wind up me, them things do. You can see the buggers in the air, but you can't always tell where they're going to land. All our stuff 'ad to be carried up to the fire-trench, you see, and put in position there, ready. After each pair o’ men 'ad dumped their load, they turned down a short bit of slit trench an’ waited in the trench be'ind where I was. Well, the 'un isn't much more'n fifty yards away just there, an’ 'e can 'ear a good deal of what's goin’ on in our trenches, same as we can 'ear a good deal of what's goin’ on in 'is. We 'eard this bloody thing go up. Two o’ our chaps 'ad just dumped their load an’ turned into the slit, an’ the officer who was takin’ over the stuff went into a small dug-out then to get a chit. We could see the dam’ thing comin’. Mr. Clinton an’ a couple o’ their sentries were the only people in the bay, an’ 'e got it proper, 'e did. Fair made me sick when we was puttin’ 'im on a stretcher; an’ all 'e said before they gave 'im

  ― (135) ―
morphia an’ took 'im away was: ‘I knew I'd get it 'ere, I knew.’ 'e kep’ on sayin’ it. One o’ the men on the firestep was 'urt too, but they said it was only a nice blighty one. Funny thing, don't you think, 'im sayin’ 'e knew 'e'd get it 'ere?”

“I don't know,” answered Bourne; “most of us have premonitions of the kind now and again, but they don't always prove right.”

“I've got a kind of fancy I'm goin' to come through it all,” said the sergeant. “D'you know what I couldn't 'elp thinkin' about Mr. Clinton? Well, 'e looked as though, now 'e knew, it didn't matter, it was all right. Of course, you could see 'e was in pain, until they gave 'im the morphia; an' 'e moaned a bit, an' you could see 'e was tryin' not to moan. I don't know what it was, but 'is face 'ad changed some'ow; it didn't 'ave that kind of sulky worried look any more. 'e knew 'is number was up all right.”

“It was rotten bad luck, after coming through the Somme without a scratch,” said Bourne. “I'm awfully sorry about him. Every time I was with him something funny would happen, and he was such a good sort. And he was always decent to the men, didn't lose his temper because he had got wind up or was beaten to the wide; he seemed to humour them and master them at the same time. He had such a clear low voice, did you ever notice

  ― (136) ―
it? He didn't have to shout to make himself heard.”

“Oh, the men all liked 'im,” agreed the sergeant. “You can't fool the men. You will get an officer sometimes full of shout an' swank, an' 'e'll put 'em through it, an' strafe 'em, an' then walk off parade feelin' that 'e 'as put the fear o' God into 'em. Well, 'e 'asn't. 'e thinks they respect 'im, an' all they think is that 'e wears a Sam Browne belt, and they wear one waist, web, ditto. Men don't mind a bit o' chatter. 'e were a nice chap, were Mr. Clinton, an' we all liked 'im.

“You know, to my way o' thinkin' some of us 'ns 'ave a dam' sight more religion than some o' the parsons who preach at us. We're willin' to take a chance, we are. 'uman nature's 'uman nature, an' you may be right or you may be wrong, but if you bloody well think you're right, you may as well get on with it. What does it matter if y'are killed? You've got to die some day. You've got to chance your arm in this life, an' a dam' sight more 'n your arm too sometimes. Some folk talk a lot about war bein' such a bloody waste; but I'm not so sure it's such a bloody waste after all. They think it's all about nothin', I suppose. Take some o' the men comin' out now. I don't mean the kids, but some o' the older men, who wouldn't join up till they was pushed. Those

  ― (137) ―
are the kind o' chaps who talk about what a bloody waste of life war is. They say there oughtn't to be no war, as though that 'elped matters. But when you send 'em over the top with a rifle, an' a bayonet, an' a few bombs, an' they find a big buck 'un in front o' them, they don't care a fuck about wastin' the other bugger's life, do they? Not a bit of it; it's their own bloody skins they think about, then. That's what they call their principle. 'arf o' them snivellin' conshies at 'ome 'd fight like rats if they was cornered. It's 'uman nature. You can make nearly any bloody coward fight if you tease 'im into the right 'umour. But what about us? Who 'as the better principle? Do they think we came out for seven bloody bob a week? I'm not troublin' about my bloody conscience. I've got some self-respect, I 'ave.”

Bourne appreciated Sergeant Tozer's point of view, because he understood the implications his words were intended to convey, even when he seemed to wander from the point. Life was a hazard enveloped in mystery, and war quickened the sense of both in men: the soldier also, as well as the saint, might write his tractate de contemptu mundi, and differ from him only in the angle and spirit from which he surveyed the same bleak reality.

He could not stay any longer, but went back to the orderly-room until within a few minutes of

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commanding-officer's orders, when as usual he went out, and finding a cool place sat by himself and smoked. He spoke scarcely a word to anyone except the signaller, who would whisper occasionally, or scribble something on a piece of paper, and push it along the table for him to read. The only person in whom he took any interest was the adjutant. When he had come in for the first time that day, Bourne had been going out with forms for one of the company-offices, and they had met in the doorway. Bourne stood to attention on one side of the door, as he passed in, and he noticed the look of weariness and anxiety on the officer's face. He felt a great deal of sympathy for him. Now and again through the day he glanced in his direction, to find him sitting there in his place, doing nothing, his chin in his left hand, his eyes fixed, and his young, rather handsome face filled with the trouble and perplexity of his thoughts. They all knew what his thoughts were. The colour-sergeant would interrupt him occasionally, on some matter of routine; and he would turn to it with a look of wearied resignation, and having settled it, fall to fidgetting with his papers for a few moments, and then relapse again into his melancholy brooding. It is so easy to settle these questions of routine. He was even oblivious of the fact that the colour-sergeant had made a separate peace with the enemy, and when reminded

  ― (139) ―
with modest delicacy of the fact, he had only looked at him with some embarrassment and said:

“Oh, yes, sergeant-major”—for that was Tomlinson's present rank, the old “colour-sergeant” being merely reminiscent of the rank, abolished earlier, with which he had retired from the pre-war army—“what time do you leave?”

“I relinquish my duties at six o'clock to-night, sir.”

“Well,” said the adjutant desperately, “you will be glad to have a rest, won't you?”

Bourne, typing orders, was just ticking off on the typewriter the statement “18075 Cpl. T.S. Reynolds to be sergeant,” and the date; and then a little later the notice of Sergeant Reynolds' appointment as orderly-room sergeant. He felt the hurt which the adjutant's preoccupation had given to the old man's vanity. Presently the chaplain came in, and immediately Captain Havelock got up and went out with him. Bourne remembered he wanted to ask the Padre to cash a cheque. And then quite suddenly he heard that curiously tinny old voice, which always reminded him of an emasculated tom-cat, behind him.

“Bourne, you will cease from duty here tonight at six o'clock.”

“Very good, sergeant-major,” said Bourne briefly; though the dismissal, which he had expected,

  ― (140) ―
took him by surprise at that particular moment. Evidently the sergeant-major thought there was some disappointment in his voice, and it roused in him the appetite to rub it in.

“You are not quite the man for the job,” he said, with satisfaction.

“No, sergeant-major,” said Bourne indifferently, and then added, simply as a matter of casual interest: “I shall be glad to go back to soldiering again.”

Nothing could have flicked them more acutely on the raw, than the implied distinction between their job and his; and, satisfied with the effect of this counter-thrust, he continued his typing. He had become almost an expert. A moment later the signaller looked up at him, and solemnly winked.

“ 'OW D'YOU feel?” said Sergeant-major Robinson when he presented himself at a few minutes after six, pack, rifle and bedding complete.

“Fat and idle, sergeant-major,” replied Bourne, smiling.

“We can cure that. You may go to Sergeant Tozer's 'ut: dare say 'e can make room for you.”

“ 'eard you was coming back, at tea-time,” said little Martlow, as Bourne dumped all his stuff on the ground beside him. “We're not goin' up the line to-night. First night off we've 'ad since we've been in this fuckin' 'ole. What are we goin' to do about it?”

  ― (141) ―

“Where's Shem?” Bourne asked him.

“Washin' 'isself. Let's go into bloody Mazingarbe an' 'ave a bon time, the three on us. I've got vingt frong an' a ten-bob note me mother sent me.”

Shem appeared in the doorway.

“Do you know where the Padre is billetted, Shem? Come and show me the way; and then I want to find Evans. You had better come along, too, Martlow, and we shall make a night of it.”

“What d'you want Evans for?” asked Martlow jealously.

“I want him to buy me some of that champagne, which is ‘réservée pour les officiers’; as he is the commanding-officer's servant, they'll sell it to him without fuss.”

“Ask Sergeant Tozer to come,” said Shem. “He has been pretty well fed-up lately.”

“All right, but I must find the Padre first. We shall have plenty of time to look for the sergeant later; or you may go and look for him, while I'm waiting for the Padre.”

They took a short cut behind Headquarter Company's huts and the orderly-room, coming out in a side street, or rather lane, in which some of the better houses had secluded themselves. Bourne knocked at a door, and Shem and Martlow, having told him they would meet him at an estaminet in the main street a couple of doors away from the corner, went off to look for Sergeant

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Tozer. No one answered his knock. Then an old woman crossing the yard told him the chaplain was not in, but he would be back later; she was vague when asked how much later. Bourne idled up and down the street, waiting. Presently out of one of the houses came the adjutant. He looked at Bourne as he acknowledged the salute.

“Are you waiting for anyone?” he asked.

“I am waiting to see the chaplain, sir.”

“He is with the commanding-officer. I do not think he will be long.”

That was encouraging. At last the tall lean figure of the Padre came out. He did not notice Bourne coming down the street, but turned away to go to his own billet, and Bourne followed him, overtaking him before he got to the door. He was surprised when Bourne told him that he was no longer in the orderly-room. There was no difficulty about the cheque, as he had plenty of money, which he needed for the use of the mess, and he was going into Noeux-les-Mines in the morning.

“Mr. Clinton died of wounds this afternoon. Do you know, he told me some days ago he had a feeling that he would be killed if he went into the line here? I think he told me, because in a way he was rather ashamed of it: when he did go up, he went quite cheerfully, as though he had put it out of his mind.”

Bourne shrank from talking about the incident

  ― (143) ―
with the Padre, even though the Padre was one of the best. He could only say, in some confusion, how sorry he was: it was odd to think he could speak more frankly about the matter with Sergeant Tozer.

“I don't know how you can go on as you are, Bourne,” said the chaplain, abruptly changing the subject. “I suppose even the luckiest of us have a pretty rough time of it out here; but if you were an officer, you might at least have what comfort there is to be found, and you would have a little privacy, and friends of your own kind. I wonder how you stick it. You haven't anyone whom you could call a friend among these men, have you?”

Bourne paused for quite an appreciable time.

“No,” he said, finally. “I don't suppose I have anyone, whom I can call a friend. I like the men, on the whole, and I think they like me. They're a very decent generous lot, and they have helped me a great deal. I have one or two particular chums, of course; and in some ways, you know, good comradeship takes the place of friendship. It is different: it has its own loyalties and affections; and I am not so sure that it does not rise on occasion to an intensity of feeling which friendship never touches. It may be less in itself, I don't know, but its opportunity is greater. Friendship implies rather more stable conditions, don't you think? You have time

  ― (144) ―
to choose. Here you can't choose, or only to a very limited extent. I didn't think heroism was such a common thing. Oh, it has its degrees, of course. When young Evans heard the Colonel had been left on the wire, he ran back into hell to do what he could for him. Of course he owed a good deal to the Colonel, who thought it a shame to send out a mere boy, and took him on as servant to try and give him a chance. That is rather a special case, but I have seen a man risking himself for another more than once: I don't say that they would all do it. It seems to be a spontaneous and irreflective action, like the kind of start forward you make instinctively when you see a child playing in a street turn and run suddenly almost under a car. At one moment a particular man may be nothing at all to you, and the next minute you will go through hell for him. No, it is not friendship. The man doesn't matter so much, it's a kind of impersonal emotion, a kind of enthusiasm, in the old sense of the word. Of course one is keyed-up, a bit overwrought. We help each other. What is one man's fate to-day, may be another's to-morrow. We are all in it up to the neck together, and we know it.”

“Yes, but you know, Bourne, you get the same feeling between officers, and between officers and men. Look at Captain Malet and the men, for instance.”

  ― (145) ―

“I don't know about officers, sir,” said Bourne, suddenly reticent. “The men think a great deal of Captain Malet. I am only talking about my own experience in the ranks. It is a hard life, but it has its compensations, the other men have been awfully decent to me; as they say, we all muck in together. You know, Padre, I am becoming demoralized. I begin to look on all officers, N.C.O.s, the military police, and brass-hats, as the natural enemies of deserving men like myself. Captain Malet is not an exception, he comes down on us occasionally, and disturbs the even tenor of our existence.”

“I don't doubt you deserve it. Were you fired from the orderly-room?”

“Yes. I should think that is the right term to use, sir. I was taken into the orderly-room on the understanding that I should be there for ten days, while Grace was undergoing medical treatment. I have completed my ten days, and Grace is still swinging the lead. The post is now vacant. It was not really my milieu. Between ourselves, Padre, there's not enough work in the orderly-room for three men, let alone four. Three are necessary when we are in the line; but they are now doing the sensible thing, and running it with two, until they can pick up a properly qualified clerk.”

“Well, I don't think you ought to stay as you are. I don't think it is the right place for you.

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You might be more useful in some other way. However, I have got to do some work now. Come in and see me again some night, though I think we shall be on the move again very soon. Do you know that man Miller?”

“Miller, who deserted just before the July show, sir? I don't know him. I know of him.”

“Well, he has been arrested down at Rouen. How he ever got so far I can't imagine. He found a woman there who sheltered him until his money was finished, and then handed him over to the police. I can't help wishing either that he had got clean away, or that something had happened to him. It's a beastly business. Good-night.”

“I am awfully sorry that you should be troubled about it, sir; it won't be very pleasant for any of us. I hope I haven't kept you, and I am really very much obliged about the cheque. Good-night, sir.”

“Good-night, Bourne; and look me up again some time. Good-night.”

As he hurried down the twilit street, Bourne thought it certainly seemed more than likely that a firing-party would be detailed for the purpose of ending the career of Lance-corporal Miller; and on the whole he was more sorry for the firing-party than for the prisoner. He had always thought that Miller should have spelt his name Müller, because he had a high square

  ― (147) ―
head like a Hun. It was a beastly business all right. When Miller disappeared just before the attack, many of the men said he must have gone over to the Hun lines and given himself up to the enemy. They were bitter and summary in their judgment on him. The fact that he had deserted his commanding-officer, which would be the phrase used to describe his offence on the charge-sheet, was as nothing compared to the fact that he had deserted them. They were to go through it while he saved his skin. It was about as bad as it could be, and if one were to ask any man who had been through that spell of fighting what ought to be done in the case of Miller, there could only have been one answer. Shoot the bugger. But if that same man were detailed as one of the firing-party, his feelings would be modified considerably.

Suddenly Bourne wondered what he himself would do, if he were detailed for the job. He tried to put that involuntary question he had asked himself aside, and he found it was impossible: he was one of those men who must try to cross a bridge before coming to it. It would be his duty; his conscience would not be too nice when there was a collective responsibility, but these justifications seemed unreal. The interval between the actual cowardice of Miller, and the suppressed fear which even brave men felt before a battle, seemed

  ― (148) ―
rather a short one, at first sight; but after all, the others went into action; if they broke down under the test, at least they had tried, and one might have some sympathy for them; others broke momentarily and recovered again, like the two men whom Sergeant-major Glasspool had brought to their senses. It might even be necessary to shoot fugitives for the sake of preventing panic. All these cases were in a different class, and might be considered with sympathy. If he were on the firing-party he would have to make the best of it; he took the same chance as the rest of them, none of whom would care for the job of an executioner.

He had forgotten to see Evans: but it would have been too late even if he had remembered, for Evans would be occupied in attending to the wants of the Major. He found Shem and Martlow at the corner, but no Sergeant Tozer, they had not been able to find him; so he told them to wait where they were, while he went into a small restaurant, where he had eaten once before. Presently he emerged again with a girl of about seventeen; and, to the astonishment of Shem and Martlow, turned with her away from them, up the street. He was walking quite affectionately, his hand on her arm.

“It's a bugger, ain't it?” exclaimed Martlow. “Wish I knew some bloody French.”

“Well, I'm not going to wait here for him,”

  ― (149) ―
said Shem a little sulkily. “Let's go into the estaminet and get a drink.”

They waited until he was out of sight round the bend in the street, and noticed that an older woman came to the restaurant door, and looked after the couple a little anxiously.

“'e 'asn't been the same, not since 'e 'as been in the orderly-room,” said Martlow. “All right, let's go in an' get a drink.”

They went into the estaminet and drank some vin rouge and grenadine, while they told each other what they really thought about Bourne, and the defects in his character, defects which had recently become more marked. In about twenty minutes Bourne reappeared, smiling, and asked if they were ready.

“Where 'ave you been?” they both asked him in one indignant breath.

“What is the matter with you?” said Bourne, surprised. “I have been to get Sergeant Tozer, of course. He is waiting in the restaurant.”

“We though you had cleared off with the girl,” said Shem, a little awkwardly; “and left us on our own.”

“Evidently your ideas want bucking up again,” said Bourne. “It was about time I came back. I didn't think you would become soft-witted in ten days.”

He was not offended by their sulkiness: if he were a little hurt at first, he put it aside and

  ― (150) ―
ragged them into a good humour. Sergeant Tozer was glad he was back again, and liked the quiet little eating-house, one could scarcely call it a restaurant, better than the big noisy room in the estaminet. They could only get an omelette and pommes frites in the way of food; but presently Madame and her daughter, who both waited on them, crowned the table with a couple of bottles of Clicquot. Madame went straight back to her kitchen, but Bourne started to protest to the girl. She tried to reason with him, apparently, but he would not listen to her, and at length, a little reluctantly, she went to a drawer in a dresser and brought out a card with a piece of faded green cord, by which he suspended it on the corks of the two bottles. On it was printed boldly, in letters all the same size, “Réservée pour les officiers.” Madame, returning with the food, promptly removed it: some one might see it, she protested. The military police were very troublesome. At last, to pacify her, Bourne put the card in his pocket, saying he would keep it as a souvenir of the war.

They ate and drank in great good humour after that, and little Martlow followed the movements of the girl, who waited on them, with round eyes of admiration. No one else came in that night, they had the room to themselves, and they finished their wine at their leisure. Then Bourne crossed to the kitchen door and asked for

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the bill, which brought forth Madame and the daughter to him; he laughed as he went into their minute and detailed statements, and gave them money. Then quite impudently he kissed them both, the old woman first, and the daughter afterwards.

“What did you want to kiss the old woman for?” said Martlow as soon as they were in the street.

“So that I could kiss the girl afterwards,” said Bourne, laughing in the darkness.

They turned the corner and came again to the huts. As Sergeant Tozer wanted to go into the company office for a minute, Bourne waited for him outside, and the other two went on by themselves.

“Don't let us go back to kip yet, sergeant,” said Bourne when the other returned. “Let us go a little way behind the huts, and sit down, and smoke and talk. It is such a ripping night. Look at that slag-heap over there, cutting the sky-line like the rock of Gibraltar. There's another towards Sains. The wine has enlivened without exciting me.…”

“It 'as gone a bit to my 'ead, too,” said the sergeant.

“To say it has gone to my head would be incorrect,” observed Bourne. “It has set my blood alight, it has warmed all my five senses simultaneously. I feel like a human being

  ― (152) ―
again. To tell you the plain, honest truth, sergeant, though I didn't want to stay in the orderly-room, when old Tomlinson came up to me in his cat-like way and told me to go back to my company, I felt a bit hipped by it. My vanity was hurt, and he seemed to get a kind of satisfaction out of it. But as you would put it, I have been in a bad skin ever since we left Sandpits.”

“You could 'ave worked it so that they'd 'ave let you stay in the orderly-room, if you 'ad wanted to stay there,” said the sergeant.

“I didn't want to stay there,” answered Bourne impatiently. “It bored me stiff, and I would rather be dog-tired than bored. I like being with the company. I like the swank of it, even if it's as empty as a drum. I like the swank of a drum. But if I had stayed in the orderly-room much longer, I should have become a lead-swinger too. I might have asked the colour-sergeant or the adjutant to send me back; but I didn't because I wanted to dodge carrying gas-cylinders. I was swinging the lead as it was. Of course, I don't mind swinging the lead a bit in the company, especially when I think I have earned a bit of a rest. It's a game, as they say.”

“Well, don't you come any o' those games on me,” said the sergeant with a note of warning in his voice. “That young Shem is the most artful bugger I know. 'e got off a workin'-party 'ere,

  ― (153) ―
when we wanted every man we could get. 'e got off with 'is boots, I think. They was worn-out, an' we didn't 'ave another pair to fit the bugger, 'e 'as got such short broad feet.”

“He got off with his eyes,” said Bourne laughing. “When an officer looks up and meets Shem's eyes, he always thinks he may conceivably be telling the truth. I can't work it like Shem. Anyway that is all in the game, so long as you don't overdo it. Do you think I'm windy?”

“You're not any more windy than the next man,” said the sergeant with a judicial air in answer to the abrupt question. “Sergeant-major Glasspool said you were all right, an' you've always been all right with me. Besides, if 'e thought you was shirkin' it, the Cap'n would be down on you. What do you want to ask me for; don't you know yourself?”

“I wanted another opinion,” said Bourne. “I don't think I'm windy. I am in the hell of a bloody funk, sometimes, but then everybody is. At first it seems to push me right over. I get a bit dazed; but when that has passed, funk only makes me think a damned sight quicker than usual. When I went to see the Padre to-night, he asked me why I wanted to stay with the company, and I said I liked the men. Well, you and I know that there are all sorts among the men. You know more than I do, because you

  ― (154) ―
have got to keep them together, and push them into it sometimes. What I said to him sounded rather silly after I had said it, but I suppose it was true all the same. I like the life better when I'm with the men. When I was in the orderly-room, and saw the men fall in on the road to go up the line, I felt out of it. Now that I'm back again I feel better.”

“Well, we'd better go to kip,” said the sergeant. “I'm glad you're back, if that's what you want. All the same you was dam' lucky. I 'aven't 'ad enough sleep for a week. It's cloudin' over now. We'll get some rain before mornin'.”