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VIII

… ambition,
The soldier's virtue, rather makes choice of loss
Than gain which darkens him.

Shakespeare

CAPTAIN MALET watched Sergeant Tozer drilling his section on some of the waste land beyond the huts. It had rained a little in the night, and there was no dust. They had been doing some rapid wiring with screw-pickets, but there was not enough material for the work done to provide any test of efficiency. Afterwards, to wake them up, the sergeant gave them a little extended order drill, and Bourne being the last man on the right, the sergeant amused himself by giving the order left wheel repeatedly, so that Bourne sweated at the double for the greater part of that hour. Almost as soon as he dropped into quick march, on coming into line with the pivotal man again, there would be a shrill whistle from the sergeant, who, standing very erect, would sweep his outstretched arm round a quarter of the horizon, and Bourne was at the double again, saying, under his breath and while he had any breath, things that were more sincere than complimentary. Captain Malet completely misunderstood the sergeant's motives. He had


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believed him to be a strict, efficient, but kindly instructor, and yet this looked very much like a kind of punishment drill. He struck at a few clods of earth irritably with his great ash stick. He did not like this kind of thing. He waved to the innocent sergeant to halt his men, and advanced on him.

“The men don't seem to be working very well this morning, sergeant,” he said with ominous amiability. “They don't keep a proper interval, and they don't wheel round evenly. I shall take them myself for a few minutes. You get on the left flank, will you, and let us see if we can't improve matters a bit.”

Sergeant Tozer was disturbed. He was not quite sure from the start that Captain Malet's method was the right one, and he became convinced before two minutes had elapsed that it was entirely wrong. Captain Malet gave the order right wheel repeatedly, and Sergeant Tozer was doubling over clods and stubble for all he was worth, while Bourne merely made a right turn, and continued at a leisurely pace in the direction indicated. Bourne realised the significance of the matter immediately, and could with difficulty restrain his laughter. He wished he were on the other flank, and next to the sergeant: it would be worth while doubling if he could only hear what the sergeant must be saying to the circumambient air. The sergeant


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would see the point, too, and was certainly bursting with a sense of injustice. Probably the men thought nothing more about the matter than that it was rather good fun to see Sergeant Tozer taking quite a lot of unnecessary exercise. At last Captain Malet signalled to retire, thus bringing the men back towards himself; and having halted them, he called up a hot and indignant sergeant to listen to his views on the performance.

“Sergeant, these men all seem inclined to slow down to an infantryman's pace, and I think that on parade, at any rate, they might keep to our own quick, short step. Of course, one can't expect to get quite the same pace out of them under these conditions: they carry a bit more weight out here, than they do at home. And it's very hot to-day, isn't it? That man on the right there; no, he's on the left now, he seems to be a bit slow. He shouldn't think about the other men. He seemed inclined to check his pace a little, as though to give 'em time to swing round into the new alignment.”

He spoke slowly, giving the sergeant time to recover from his exertions.

“That man 'as been in the orderly-room the last ten days, sir. 'e may be a bit slack, an' out o' condition for the moment; but as a rule 'e's not bad at 'is drill. I thought 'e wanted a bit of extra work to get fit, sir, that's why I put 'im out on a flank.”




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“Oh, that was it, was it?” said Captain Malet, enlightened. “What do you think of your men, sergeant? Let me have your own opinion.”

“I don't think they're a bad lot o' men, sir,” replied Sergeant Tozer, secretly indignant that there could be any question on the subject.

“No. I don't think they're a bad lot at all,” Captain Malet agreed. “When I come along with a few criticisms, I don't want you to think I am dissatisfied. I think you always keep to a high standard, and that gives me the impression that you handle your men well. Get 'em into extended order again, and double 'em down the field and back again. Then they may fall out for ten minutes and smoke.”

Sergeant Tozer struck his rifle in salute, and turned to the men. Calling them to attention, standing them at ease again, and then calling them up with a bark, he told them off with considerable vigour and snap. He not only, by this means, did something to restore his prestige; but he also managed to convey the impression, that his own contempt, for their utter lack of all soldierly qualities, was only an ineffectual echo of Captain Malet's opinion; and, in that way, he got home as well on his company officer, who quite appreciated the fact. Then, as he had been ordered, he extended the men, and sent them about a hundred and fifty yards and back again


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at the double. When he halted them they looked at him indignantly, panting like blown cattle. He considered them for a little while with an air of patient disparagement, and telling them to fall out for ten minutes returned to Captain Malet.

“Fuckin' slave drivers, that's what they are!” said Minton, flinging himself on the ground. “What's the cunt want to come down 'ere buggerin' us about for, 'aven't we done enough bloody work in th' week?”

Captain Malet talked to the sergeant for a few minutes on matters of casual interest, glancing occasionally in the direction of the resting men.

“Sergeant, I want to speak to Bourne; not yet, let him cool off and finish his cigarette. I think he might go for a commission. There's a great wastage in officers, and they seem to be running short. They are always pressing us to recommend likely men. I think he might do, don't you? What's your own opinion of him?”

“I don't know what to think of 'im, sir. 'e's a queer chap. When 'e first came to us we all took 'im for a dud, but after a few days 'e seemed quite able to take care of 'imself; fact I thought 'e was gettin' a little too much of 'is own way; thought 'e might be gettin' a bit fresh, an' decided to keep an eye on 'im. I couldn't find any fault with 'im, 'e could take a


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tellin' off without showin' temper. 'e was a well-disciplined man. 'e didn't try to make friends with anyone, but 'e was quite friendly, if anyone wanted to talk to 'im. 'e wouldn't be put upon, either. All the men got to like 'im. 'e's a gentleman all right, an' better educated than we are, but 'e never talks of 'imself. 'e seems out o' place in the ranks some'ow.”

“You seem rather doubtful about him,” Captain Malet observed.

“It isn't that, sir,” said the sergeant. “I think 'e might make a very good officer. 'e's not quite the build of a soldier; bit light, sir; but he's pretty smart. Only 'e says 'e don't want to leave the comp'ny, sir.”

“Well, a man can't shirk his responsibilities in that way. He might have stayed in the orderly-room if he had liked. I was rather interested to see what he would do, and I was rather glad he didn't stay there. Did he say anything to you about it?”

“Well, only between ourselves, sir,” said the sergeant, discreetly.

“Not for the use of the young, eh? I see. Well, bring him up to me, and I shall have a talk with him.”

The sergeant saluted, took a few steps towards the men, and then shouted Bourne's name. Captain Malet saw his man get up, after the momentary hesitation of surprise, dust the grass


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and dry earth from his trousers, pick up his rifle and double towards them. Yes, he was a bit light; pity he hadn't a bit more stamina; it counts for such a lot; and he acknowledged Bourne's salute.

“So you've given up the crown and the glory, Bourne,” he said, humouring him with an easy smile.

“I don't know about the crown and the glory, sir. I was dumped.”

“I am under the impression that you probably asked for it. You didn't go out of your way to make friends, did you? Why did you stay there so long, if you didn't like it?”

“I wanted to dodge work for a bit, sir.”

“I don't think that is a very creditable proceeding,” said Captain Malet, and noticed the uneasy resentment flickering in Bourne's face. “I like to get out of a man all he is worth. I work 'em until they drop, isn't that what they say? Then if the medical officer thinks they're past work, they can get a slacker's job among the details: it's usually rather a dirty, greasy, lousy kind of job, but I suppose they do some necessary work. Anyway they have done some, by the time I have finished with them, if they never do any more. Of course, I do my best to find out in what way a man can be most useful, but it's often a case of hit or miss, one hasn't time.”




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He paused and looked at Bourne, who remained quite impassive under his gaze.

“As a matter of fact,” continued Captain Malet, “I thought you deserved a bit of a rest. I think you do pretty well as a rule; as far as your work with the company is concerned I haven't any fault to find with you. You're not windy, at least you keep your head. But you haven't the build.”

“Sir, after all I am a good deal heftier than some of the boys.…”

“Now, you know I'm right,” said Captain Malet firmly. “These boys, as you call them, train on, most of them will fill out and make two of you. You are as fit as you ever will be, and you're quite fit now, in the pink, I should say. But all these men are hardened to all kinds of manual labour, which you can't do. I bet you were never in proper training until you joined the army. You won't train on, you're much more likely to train off. If you crock up, you will only be a damned nuisance. You are out of place where you are. I believe you have a certain amount of influence over the men about you; I don't mean that you try to influence them, but quite naturally they think you know a bit more than they do, and they are likely to be swayed by your opinion. Well, that's all wrong: you've no business in your position to have any influence over the men. Oh, yes, you


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get some stout fellow with bags of courage, and the other men look up to him. That is different. I don't say they don't admire your pluck, in fact I believe they do, but that isn't what influences them. It is something else. You ought to go in for a commission.”

“I would much rather stay with the company, sir.”

“It isn't a question of what you would much rather do,” said Captain Malet, a little irritably. “It is a question of what you ought to do. You have no right to shirk your responsibilities in the matter. I said that to Sergeant Tozer, when he said he thought you would rather stay with the company. Well, I say it to you, too, and I mean it.”

“Well, sir,” said Bourne, firmly, “may I say what I think?”

“What is it?” asked Captain Malet, looking at his boot, and hitting it impatiently with his ash-stick.

“I was asked if I would take a commission when I first enlisted; that was at Milharbour, sir; and when the adjutant spoke to me I told him that I had absolutely no experience of men, not even the kind of experience that a public-school boy gets from being one of a large community. I didn't want to shirk my responsibilities, but I told him I thought it would be better if I got a little experience of men and of


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soldiering before trying for a commission. He hadn't thought of it in that way, but he agreed immediately he saw the point. Well, now, I think we were both wrong. Experience in the ranks doesn't help one a bit. I have only taken on the colour of the ranks. It would be very difficult for me now to look at war or to consider the men from the point of view which an officer is bound to take.”

“Oh, you can forget all that,” said Captain Malet cheerfully. “If you take my advice I shall get the matter under way at once; but I won't press you for an answer to-day, in case you want time to think things over. I am sure it is the wisest thing you can do in the circumstances.”

“There's only one other thing, sir. I don't want to be a trouble to you, but it looks as though they were getting us ready for another show. I don't want to slip away before the show. I would rather take my chance and go afterwards.”

“Very well, Bourne,” said Captain Malet after hesitating, perplexed, for a second or two. “Have it your own way. Only I can't promise you that you will remain in the company the whole time. It won't make much difference: you won't miss the show. You may go now.”

He looked after him curiously as he went back to the men, and then he turned to Sergeant Tozer.




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“You're right, sergeant, he's a queer chap. You can carry on with some drill now; but I shouldn't bustle the men any more. They have had a fairly hard time the last few days, and we move away to-morrow. You needn't make things easy for Bourne, you know; in fact it would be better if you put him through it a bit. He looks at a question upside down and inside out, and then in the long run he does just what an ordinary sensible man would do. Keep him at it.”

The other men were rather curious to know why Bourne had been sent for, and Martlow, with his irrepressible curiosity, asked him; but Bourne refused to say anything, and the sergeant's order to fall in again prevented further questions. They had an easy hour. When they went back to the huts, for their midday meal, he was still silent and preoccupied. The men took it that he had been told off for something, very likely for his failure to give satisfaction in the orderly-room; and a martyr to authority always moved their profounder sympathies, though when he was out of hearing they agreed, that if a man tried to be too clever he was bound to come a mucker. Shem, who knew him, after a suspicious and furtive scrutiny, left him alone; and Sergeant Tozer also held aloof, somewhat reluctantly, as the interview at which he had assisted in the morning had embarrassed him a little. However,


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he was quite clear in his own mind on one point: he wasn't going to bustle Bourne about just to please the company commander, so long as he went on quietly with his work. If a man thought he were being treated unjustly, it made him restive, then he became really troublesome and ended on the mat. There was no sense in it.

Bourne ate very little, and then went off to smoke alone. He had the faculty of withdrawing right into himself, his consciousness shrinking into its inmost recesses, contracting to a mere point, while the bodily part of him followed its ordinary train of habit unconsciously, like an automaton. He did not resent anything that Captain Malet had said to him. He felt a kind of vague impersonal resentment against enveloping circumstances, that was all. When one was in the ranks, one lived in a world of men, full of flexible movement and human interest: when one became an officer, one became part of an inflexible and inhuman machine; and though he thought that the war as a moral effort was magnificent, he felt that as a mechanical operation it left a great deal to be desired.

They paraded again at two, and at three there was a kit-inspection, during which Bourne's tinhat was condemned for the second time. Mr. Marsden, who had come back to them after having been slightly wounded on the Somme, was the first to examine the hat, and then Mr.


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Sothern remembered that it had been condemned at Méaulte. He reminded the sergeant-major of the fact, and turned to Bourne again.

“Did you see the quartermaster-sergeant about it?” he asked Bourne.

Bourne had a very vivid recollection of his interview with the quartermaster-sergeant, a bad old devil like the colour-sergeant, only violent as well because he drank. He had gone, too, pensioned-off, and had reached by this time the summit of his ambition in the proprietorship of a pub.

“Yes, sir,” Bourne replied mechanically.

“What did he say?” continued Mr. Sothern inquisitively.

“He told me to go to buggery, sir,” replied Bourne very quietly.

Sergeant-major Robinson, and Sergeant Tozer as well, were scandalized that Bourne should divulge even part of a conversation so obviously intended to be confidential. The officers seemed to be only a little surprised by his candour.

“What d'you mean, talkin' like that?” said the sergeant-major severely. “ 'e only meant 'e didn't 'ave any.”

Bourne thought that the quartermaster-sergeant's words might be interpreted in various ways; but in the face of the sergeant-major's righteous indignation, he didn't feel called on to supply any alternative glosses; so he stood to


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attention rigidly while he was told off by Mr. Marsden, Mr. Sothern, and the sergeant-major in succession. The sergeant-major thought it necessary to say to Mr. Marsden that Quartermaster-sergeant Leak had gone home.

“ 'e was no good, sir. 'e was too old, an' it made 'im irritable-like,” he remarked with reasonable indulgence.

“See that this man has a new steel-helmet by to-night,” said Mr. Marsden imperiously.

“There are none here, sir,” protested the sergeant-major. “There may be a few at the quartermaster's stores in Noeux-les-Mines; but even there, they've probably got all their stuff packed ready for the move.”

“Then see that he gets one at the first possible opportunity,” said Mr. Marsden; and with this indefinite extension of the original time-limit he passed, somewhat hastily, to a detailed criticism of the next man's deficiencies.

All the men had pricked up their ears to hear Bourne being told off for the second time that day. Bloody shame, wasn't it? Once the buggers get their knives into you, you can't go right. No pleasin' 'em. Well, you've got to tell the truth, haven't you? But the sergeant-major's inadvertent reference to the prospect of a move effectively routed these desultory sympathies with a stronger interest, and as soon as they went for their tea they heard it was in orders: breakfast


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at eight, all huts to be cleaned up and ready for inspection by company officers at nine, and the battalion to be on parade, ready to move off, at nine-thirty. Bourne drank his tea alone, but Martlow invaded his solitude.

“Look 'ere, Bourne, you're comin' out wi' me, to-night, an' I'm goin' to pay, see? I've got plenty money; an' I'm not always goin' out with you, an' let you stan' treat. So you come along with Shem an' me, an' we'll 'ave a little bit of a beano on our own. An' you don't want to mind what any bloody off'cer says to you, see? You want to take it the right way. It don't do no 'arm.”

It was the solemnity of Martlow's expression which overcame Bourne's already diminishing reserve. The notion that he couldn't take an ordinary telling-off made him inclined to laugh, but he restrained himself.

“All right, kid,” he said gratefully. “We shall go out and have a beano together.”

“An' I stan' treat,” said Martlow, immensely pleased; but then a sudden doubt clouded the youthful brow.

“I won't 'ave enough money to get real champagne,” he said, facing the difficulty frankly: “but the other stuff's just as good, only it don't make you so drunk; an' after all we don't want to get pissed-up with a long day's march in front of us to-morrow, do we?”




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“Oh, I only like champagne occasionally,” said Bourne in a casual way; “as a rule I like beer or vin blanc better.”

“Beer here's bloody,” said Martlow. “All right, I'll go an' tell Shem, 'e's lyin' down outside.”

Bourne wasn't alone for long in the hut; he was putting away his mess-tin and knife, when Sergeant Tozer came in, and noted the symptoms of recovery.

“Comin' down the village with me to-night?” he inquired briefly.

“Martlow has just asked me to go out with him, sergeant. Otherwise I should. I think he wants to return the compliment, you know; but thanks all the same.”

“ 'e's a decent kid,” said the sergeant. “I was goin' to ask 'im an' Shem to come too. But I'll leave it to some other night. It might look as though I were buttin' in. 'ave you told 'em anything about what Cap'n Malet said to you?”

“No, I'm not going to say anything about it, until it's more or less settled.”

“Quite right. They think Cap'n Malet gave you a tellin'-off.”

“Well? How would you describe it?”

“ 'e's a good officer, is Cap'n Malet; an' 'e's a nice gentleman too, but 'e may be wrong in a lot o' things. I thought there was a lot in what 'e said to you, because I've often thought like


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that about you myself. You've got a pull over us in some ways.…”

“Well, you've got a pull over me in other ways.”

“Yes, but that don't even things out, it makes 'em worse. I thought there was something in what you said to the Cap'n. Only you didn't say all that you was thinkin'.…”

“How the hell can you ever say all that you are thinking to an officer, without being bloody rude?” said Bourne indignantly.

The sergeant enjoyed the humour of it.

“You weren't polite about the quarter-bloke to Mr. Marsden.”

“That was a different thing. It's so damned silly. A private is ordered to complete some deficiency in his kit, and he goes to the quarter-bloke for it and gets nothing but abuse for his trouble. What can he say to the quarter-bloke? At the next kit inspection, he gets ticked off by the officer for not doing something, that the officer knows bloody well he can't do. You have never heard me grouse about anything to the men, have you? Very well. I may tell you, that there are precious few mistakes made in the army, that are not ultimately laid on the shoulders of the men. A fool of a clerk in the orderly-room sends in the wrong state to Brigade, and the men can do without their tea when they come back from a working-party, wet and tired at four


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o'clock in the morning, having had nothing since five. Yes, Captain Malet put that right, and he was the only company officer I know with guts enough to do it. Some general streaks off in a car, at about forty miles an hour, to go on a binge in Amiens; an unfortunate sentry spots his pennon, just in time to turn out the guard to present arms to a cloud of dust. The general comes back with a fat head next morning, and reports them for slackness, with the result that there's a parade of guard-mounting, and Jerry comes over and bombs the lot. They're not exceptional cases, and you know as well as I do, the same sort of stupidities happen every day. I only hope to God Jerry salutes the swine some day with a 5·9 or something equally effective. The war might be a damned sight more tolerable if it weren't for the bloody army. I shall get another tin-hat, when I can find one for myself in the trenches, I suppose, because I'm pretty sure I will not get one through the official channels. What do I do, when I want anything now? I go to the snobs for it. But they don't happen to have a tin-hat, at the moment. I don't know whether Mr. Marsden, and Mr. Sothern, think they look impressive when they're ticking me off; but what I do know is, that a storekeeper, with a lance stripe up, has much more say, in the matter of getting me a tin-hat, than either of them.”




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“Well, there's something in that,” said Sergeant Tozer, feeling for his tobacco. “But it were silly to repeat what the quarter-bloke said. It didn't matter, as far as the officers were concerned; but it got up the sergeant-major's back. If Mr. Marsden can't alter things, do you think you can?”

“I know perfectly well they can't be altered. They have got to run the machine more or less as it has been handed over to them; and because I know that, I have never groused to anyone, until I started grousing to you a few minutes ago. If the sergeant-major has got his back up with me, I dare say I can stick it. The last time I heard from him, was when he asked me to pinch him some notebooks and pencils, out of the orderly-room. But don't worry, I shall forget it. I have given you a rough notion of my reason for not wanting to take a commission; but if it's up to me to take one, there's no option, is there? I mustn't shirk my responsibilities.”

“You're all right,” said Sergeant Tozer, and paused to light his pipe very deliberately. “Only you'll have to watch your step, you know. There are too many people interested in you, at present, for you to play the fool in safety.”

Bourne said nothing, but lit another cigarette, and they smoked in quiet. Then little Martlow came back and sat quietly beside them. He looked at the sergeant a little dubiously, and


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Bourne knew that he was telling himself that his money wouldn't run to the entertainment of three people beside himself. He could see Martlow determining firmly not to ask the sergeant; and then quite suddenly Corporal Greenstreet put his head in the hut.

“Bourne here?”

“Yes, corporal.”

“Company guard to-night, six o'clock.”

“Very good, corporal. Just gives me time to get ready. I'm sorry, Martlow, but we'll go on a binge together some other night. I dare say the sergeant-major thinks I have had too cushy a time lately.”

“It's a bloody army!” said Martlow in disappointed tones, and he sat there looking at Bourne with his under lip thrust out in temper.

“Oh, I don't know,” said Bourne cheerfully. “It's all right in peace time, as the old sweats say.”

He looked at Sergeant Tozer with an almost laughing face, and the sergeant took his pipe out of his mouth.

“You an' Shem 'ad better come out with me to-night then, Martlow; it's about up to me. We can 'ave some eggs and chips, and then go and take a peek at a couple of estaminets. It'll pass the time. You might be able to bring Bourne back some vin blanc.”




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“That's a damned good plan, Martlow. Cut along and tell Shem.”

“e' don't seem keen on it,” said the sergeant, as Martlow went reluctantly.

“He's disappointed about his own show, otherwise he would be bucked by it. It is awfully decent of you, sergeant.”

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