― (176) ―


But thy speaking of my tongue, and I thine, most truly-falsely, must needs be granted to be much at one.


BOURNE never slept much: as soon as he put out his cigarette and rolled himself up in his blankets, he would sleep like a log for an hour or two perhaps, and then so lightly that the least sound would wake him. It was a legend among the other men, that nobody ever woke, during the night, without finding Bourne sitting up and smoking a cigarette. Company guard didn't bother him in the least. It was a cushy guard, without formality; and he liked the solitude and emptiness of the night. One bathed one's soul in that silence, as in a deep, cold pool. Earth seemed to breathe, even if it were only with his own breathing, giving consciousness a kind of rhythm, which was neither of sound nor of motion, but might become either at any moment. The slag-heaps, huge against the luminous sky, might have been watch-towers in Babylon, or pyramids in Egypt; night with its enchantments, changing even this flat and unlovely land, into a place haunted by fantastic imaginings. Morning gave again to life, its sordid realities.

  ― (177) ―
He got himself some tea at the cooker, yarned to Abbot while he drank it, and was washed and shaved before the rest of his hut were fully awake.

The battalion fell in on the road, at about twenty minutes past nine; and five minutes later the commanding officer, and the adjutant, rode down the line of men; perhaps less with the object of making a cursory inspection, than for the purpose of advertising the fact, that they had both been awarded the Military Cross, for their services on the Somme.

“Wonder they 'ave the front to put 'em up,” said Martlow, unimpressed.

Major Shadwell and Captain Malet had no distinctions.

“I don't want no medals meself,” added Martlow, disinterestedly.

Bourne was struck by the adjutant's horsemanship; when the grey he rode trotted, you saw plenty of daylight, between his seat and the saddle; and the exaggerated action made it seem as if, instead of the horse carrying the adjutant, the adjutant were really propelling the horse. However, he brought to the business the same serious attention, which he gave to less arduous duties, at other times. The men were forbidden to drink from their water-bottles on the march until permission were given. They moved off, and, by ten o'clock, were marching through

  ― (178) ―
Noeux-les-Mines again; and presently word was passed along that they were going to Bruay. There was no doubt about it this time: Captain Malet had told Sergeant-major Robinson, and the men swung forward cheerfully, in spite of dust and heat, opening out a bit, so that the air could move freely between them. On the whole their march discipline was pretty good. They arrived at their new billets at about one o'clock.

Bruay was built on two sides of a valley, and their billets were naturally in the poorer part of the town; in one of the uniform streets which always seem to lay stress on the monotony of modern industrial life. It was a quarter given up to miners. The street, in which A Company had billets, was only about a hundred yards long, led nowhere, and ended abruptly, as though the builders had suddenly tired of their senseless repetition. But it was all very clean; dull and dingy, but clean. Some of the houses were empty, and Bourne, Shem, and Martlow, with the rest of their section, were in one of these empty houses. The town, however, was for the most part earlier than the days when towns came to be planned. You could see that the wisdom of cattle, which in such matters is greater than the wisdom of man, had determined the course of many of its sinuous streets, as they picked their way to and from their grazing, guided only by the feel of the ground beneath them, and the

  ― (179) ―
gradients with which they were confronted. So the town still possessed a little charm and character. It had its Place, its sides all very unequal, and all of it on the slope. Even the direction of the slope was diagonally across it, and not merely from side to side or end to end. Perhaps the cattle had determined that too, for the poor fool man has long since lost his nature. Houses in the older parts of the town, though modest and discreet, still contrived to have a little air of distinction and individuality. They refused to be confounded with each other. They ignored that silly assumption that men are equal. They believed in private property.

It was obviously the intention of authority that the men should be given an opportunity to have a bon time. They were to be paid at two o'clock, and then were free to amuse themselves.

“You're comin' out with me to-night,” said Martlow to Bourne decisively.

“Very well,” said Bourne, dumping his pack on the floor of the room they occupied, and opening the window. They were upstairs; and he looked out and down, into the street. There were five or six corporals, and lance-corporals, standing just outside; and both Corporal Greenstreet and Lance-corporal Jakes spotted him immediately, and shouted for him to come. He went, a little reluctantly, wondering what they wanted.

  ― (180) ―

“You're the man we was lookin' for,” said Corporal Greenstreet. “The sergeants are runnin' a sergeants' mess for the couple of days we'll be 'ere; an' we don't see why we can't run a corporals' mess.”

“Well, run one, corporal,” said Bourne disinterestedly. “There's nothing in King's Regs. against it, so far as I know.”

“Well, we can't run it ourselves. That's where you come in, you know the lingo a bit, an' you always seem able to get round the old women. A corporal don't get a sergeant's pay, you know, but we want to do it as well as we can. There'll be eight of us; Jakes, Evans, an' Marshall are in billets 'ere, an' we could 'ave the mess 'ere, if she'd do the cookin'. You 'ave a talk to 'er.”

“This is all very well,” said Bourne reasonably; “but now we're in a decent town I want to have a good time myself. I've just told Martlow I should go out with him to-night.”

“Well, I've got 'im down for company guard to-night.”

“Have you, corporal? Well, you just take him off company guard, or there's absolutely nothing doing. Every time we arrange to go out on a bit of a spree together, he, or Shem, or myself are put on company guard. I was on last night.”

“Well, Sergeant-major Robinson told me to

  ― (181) ―
put you on guard last night. 'e said it would do you good, you were gettin' a bit fresh.”

“I guessed that,” said Bourne. “He didn't want to be nasty, of course, but he thought he would give me a reminder. I don't mind taking my share of guards. But, if you put one of us on, you might just as well put us all on together, and make a family party of it. I don't mind helping you to run a mess, but I want to have a good time, too.”

“Well, you muck in with us,” said Corporal Greenstreet.

“An' you needn't put anythin' in the kitty,” added Lance-corporal Jakes.

“Oh, thanks all the same, but I like to pay my own way,” said Bourne coolly. “I don't mind going in and asking madame what can be done in the matter; and then, if we can come to some arrangement, I shall see about buying the grub; but before things go any further, it has got to be clearly understood that neither Shem, nor Martlow, is on any guard to-night. We three are going out on a spree together. I shall muck in with you to-morrow night.”

“That's all right,” said Corporal Greenstreet hastily. “I'll get some other bugger for the bloody guard, if there is a guard. I've 'ad no orders yet.”

“It's just as well to take the possibility into consideration,” said Bourne; “but mind you,

  ― (182) ―
you would do it just as well on your own, without me.”

“Come on. You parlez-vous to the old woman,” said Corporal Greenstreet, and hurried him through the house into the forefront of the battle, which was the kitchen. Madame was a very neat and competent-looking woman, and she faced Bourne with her two daughters acting as supports immediately behind her. Bourne got through the preliminary politesses with a certain amount of credit. She had already understood that the corporals required her assistance in some way, but they had failed apparently to make matters clear.

“Qu'est-ce que ces messieurs désirent?” she inquired of Bourne, coming to the point with admirable promptitude, and when he explained matters they launched into a discussion on ways and means. Then Bourne turned to Corporal Greenstreet.

“I suppose it is pukka that we stay here two nights, is it?”

“That's accordin' to present plans. Of course you can't be certain of anything in the bloody army. Does it make any differ to 'er?”

“Not much,” said Bourne. “You can have grilled fillet of steak with fried onions, and chips and beans, or you can have a couple of chickens. I am wondering what sort of sweet you can have.”

  ― (183) ―

“Could we 'ave a suet puddin' wi' treacle?”

“No, I don't think so,” said Bourne reflectively. “I don't think the French use suet much in cooking, and anyway I don't know the French for suet, if they do. Suif is lard, I think. Could you pinch a tin of pozzy out of stores? Then you might have a sweet omelette with jam in it. Perhaps it would be better to buy some decent jam, you don't want plum and apple, do you? Only I want to make the money go as far as possible. I like those little red currants in syrup which used to come from Bar-le-Duc.”

“Get 'em. I don't care a fuck where they come from. We don't want any bloody plum an' apple when we can get better. An' don't you worry about the money, not in reason anyway. They've only let us come 'ere for a couple of days to 'ave a bon time before they send us up into the shit again. Might just as well get all we can, while we can.”

Bourne turned to Madame again, and asked her if she would do the marketing for them, and the upshot of it was that they both agreed to go together. Bourne turned to Corporal Greenstreet and asked him about money.

“Will it do if we all put twenty francs into the kitty to start with?”

“I don't think I shall want so much: give me ten each, and if that isn't enough, then you can each give me up to another ten. I am going

  ― (184) ―
to let her buy the wine because she knows somebody in the trade, and says she can get us good sound wine, which you don't get in estaminets, fairly cheap.”

“Dinner's up, corporal,” said Corporal Marshall, putting his head in the door; and thanking Madame, they left to get their meal rather hurriedly.

“Where've you bin?” said Martlow indignantly to Bourne, and Shem burst out laughing at the way in which the question was put.

“What the bloody 'ell is 'e laughin' at?” said Martlow, his face all in a pucker.

“I have been doing my best to get you off company guard to-night.”

“Me!” exclaimed Martlow. “Me, on bloody company guard to-night, an' the only cushy town we've been in! It's a bugger, ain't it? D'you mean to say they 'ad me on bloody guard?”

“Well, I have taken on the job of rationing officer to the corporals' mess, on condition they find someone else in your place: that is if they should mount a guard to-night; they may give it a miss. It isn't a bad stew to-day, is it? Seems to me a long time since we had any fresh meat, except for a few weevils in the biscuits. As soon as I have had dinner, I shall go off with Corporal Greenstreet, and make the other corporals ante up. Then I shall be back in time to

  ― (185) ―
get my pay; and afterwards I shall go out and do the marketing with Madame. When we have had tea, the three of us had better hop it to the other side of the town right away, in case they come along and pinch us for any fatigues. There's a cinema, up there. And look here, Martlow, you're not going to pay for everything to-night, see? We shall have to make the most of our opportunity to have a bon time, as it may be our last chance. I hate the thought of dying young.”

“Well, I'll stan' the supper,” said Martlow reasonably. “I've got about three weeks' pay, an' me mother sent me a ten-bob note. I wish she wouldn't send me any money, as she wants all she gets, but there's no stoppin' 'er.”

“Shem can pay for the drinks afterwards. Of course, he has got money. To be a Jew and not to have money would be an unmitigated misfortune. Enough to make one deny the existence of Providence. He never will offer to pay unless you make him. He wouldn't think it prudent. But all the same, if you are broke to the wide, Shem will come down quite handsomely; he doesn't mind making a big splash then, as it looks like a justification of his past thrift. Shem and I understand each other pretty well, only he thinks I'm a bloody fool.”

“I don't think you're a bloody fool,” said Shem indulgently; “but I think I could make

  ― (186) ―
a great deal more use of your brains than you do.”

“Shem thinks he is a practical man,” said Bourne, “and a cynic, and a materialist; and would you believe it, Martlow, he had a cushy job in the Pay Office, to which all his racial talent gave him every claim, and he was wearing khaki, and he had learnt how to present arms with a fountain-pen: the most perfect funkhole in Blighty, and he chucks the whole bloody show to come soldiering! Here you are, clean out my dixie, like a good kid, and my knife and fork. I must chase after these corporals. I wouldn't trust any of them round the corner with a threepenny bit; not unless I were a sergeant.”

He found Corporal Greenstreet ready, and they set off together; the corporal had collected all the money except from Corporal Farman and Lance-corporal Eames.

“What about Corporal Whitfield?” Bourne asked him.

“ 'e's no bloody good,” said Greenstreet. “ 'e never will join in with us in anything. Do you know, 'e gets at least one big parcel out from 'ome every week, an' I've never seen 'im give away a bite yet. In any case, 'e's no good to us. 'e's a Rechabite.”

“What the hell is that?” inquired Bourne, somewhat startled.

  ― (187) ―

“I don't know. It's some kind o' sex or other, I think. They don't drink, an' they don't smoke either; but you ought to see the bugger eat. 'e's no bloody good to us.”

“I don't know anything about him,” Bourne explained.

“No, an' you don't want to,” said Greenstreet earnestly. “I'm in the same billets as I was last time, but I 'aven't 'ad time to look in on 'em yet. An old maid owns the 'ouse, an' she 'as an 'ousekeeper: cook-'ousekeeper, I should say. They're very decent to all us. Respectable people, you know; I should say the old girl 'ad quite a bit o' rattle to 'er. Lives comfortable anyway. Likes you to be quiet an' wipe your feet on the mat. You know.”

The house was in one of the streets leading off the Place; and it had a gate at the side giving access to a small yard, with a garden, half flowers, half vegetables; there was a tree bright with early red apples, and a pollarded plane with marvellously contorted branches and leaves already yellowing. Corporal Farman was just coming out of the door, as they entered the gate, and he handed over his ten francs cheerfully. He and Corporal Greenstreet were perhaps the two best-looking men in the battalion, fairhaired, blue-eyed and gay-complexioned. The ménagère, recognising the latter, waved a welcome to him from the doorway.

  ― (188) ―

“She's been askin' about you, corporal.”

“Bonjour, Monsieur Greenstreet,” she cried, rolling each ‘r’ in her throat.

“Bongjour, madame, be there in 'arf a tick. I'll meet you up at the company office, corporal, and show you the billets. Bourne's runnin' the show.”

Farman waved a hand, and departed on his own business. Corporal Greenstreet and Bourne went into the house, after using the door-mat rather ostentatiously; but even so the ménagère looked a little suspiciously at Bourne.

“Vous n'avez pas un logement chez nous, monsieur,” she said firmly.

“C'est vrai, madame; mais j'attends les ordres de monsieur le caporal.”

He spoke deliberately, with a little coldness in his manner, de haut en bas, as it were, and after a further penetrating glance in his direction, she ignored him for the moment. Corporal Greenstreet left his pack in a room off the kitchen, but one step higher and with a wooden floor instead of tiled; then he returned, and the woman opened on him rapidly, expressing her pleasure at seeing him, and her further gratification at seeing him so obviously in good health. He did not understand one word of what she said. but the pleasure and recognition in her face flattered him agreeably.

“Ah, oui, madame,” he said with a gallant effort.

  ― (189) ―

“Mais vous n'avez pas compris, monsieur.”

“Ah, oui, compris, madame. Glad to be back, compris? Cushy avec mademoiselle.”

The expression on the face of the ménagère passed very rapidly from astonishment to indignation, and from indignation to wrath. Before Corporal Greenstreet realised what was about to happen, she had swung a muscular arm, and landed a terrific box on his ear, almost knocking him into a scuttle containing split wood and briquettes for the stove. Bourne, thinking with a rapidity only outstripped by her precipitate action, decided that the Hindustani “cushy” and the French “coucher” must have been derived from the same root in Sanskrit. He interposed heroically between the fury and her victim, who without any hesitation had adopted the role of a non-combatant in trying circumstances.

“Mais madame, madame,” he protested, struggling to overcome his mirth. “Vous vous méprenez. ‘Cushy’ est un mot d'argot militaire qui veut dire doux, confortable, tout ce qu'il y a de plus commode. Monsieur le caporal ne veut pas dire autre chose. Il veut vous faire un petit compliment. Calmez-vous. Rassurez-vous, madame. Je vous assure que monsieur a des manières très correctes, très convenables. Il est un jeune homme bien élevé. Il n'a pour vous, ainsi que pour mademoiselle, que des sentiments très respectueux.”

  ― (190) ―

Bourne's French was only sufficient, when circumstances allowed him an economical use of it; and these were enough to make him a bankrupt even in English. Madame was now moving about her kitchen with the fine frenzy of a prima donna, in one of the more ecstatic moments of grand opera. Every emotion has its appropriate rhythm, and she achieved what was proper to her own spontaneously, through sheer natural genius. Perhaps she was too great an artist, to allow Bourne's words to have their full effect at once. She could not plunge from this sublimity to an immediate bathos. Innocence in adversity was the expression patent on the corporal's face, and perhaps the sight of it brought into her mind some mitigating element of doubt; which she resisted at first as though it were a mere feminine weakness.

“Nous nous retirons, madame, pour vous donner le temps de calmer vos nerfs,” said Bourne, with some severity. “Nous regrettons infiniment ce malentendu. Monsieur le caporal vous fera ses excuses quand vous serez plus à même d'accepter ses explications. Permettez, madame. Je suis vraiment désolé.”

He swept the corporal out of the house, and into the street, and finding a secluded corner, collapsed.

“What the fuckin' 'ell is't all about?” the awed but exasperated corporal inquired. “I go into

  ― (191) ―
th' 'ouse, an' only get as far as 'ow d'you do, when she 'ands me out this bloody packet. You'll get a thick ear yourself, if you don't stop laffin'.”

Bourne, when he had recovered sufficiently, explained that the housekeeper had understood him to express his intention of going to bed with her mistress.

“What! D'you mean it? Why, the old girl's about sixty!”

Bourne whistled the air of Mademoiselle from Armentieres, leaving the corporal to draw his own conclusions from it.

“Look 'ere,” said Corporal Greenstreet, with sudden ferocity. “If you tell any o' them other buggers what 'as 'appened I'll …”

“Oh, don't be a bloody fool,” said Bourne, suddenly firing up too. “If there's one thing that fills me with contempt, it is being asked not to tell. Do you think I have got no more sense than a kid or an old woman? You would look well with that tin can tied to your tail, wouldn't you? We had better get moving. They will have started to pay out by now.”

“Wish to God I knew a bit o' French,” said the corporal earnestly.

“I wish to God you wouldn't mix the little you do know with Hindustani,” said Bourne.

THE whole company were in the street, waiting

  ― (192) ―
to be paid: they formed in little groups, and men would pass from one group to another, or two groups would merge together, or one would suddenly split up completely, distributing its members among the others. Their movements were restless, impatient, and apparently without object. Corporal Greenstreet, finding Lance-corporal Eames, collected his subscription to the mess, and then handed over the whole eighty francs to Bourne. Presently a couple of men brought a table and an army blanket out of one of the houses. The table was placed on the foot-path parallel to the street, and the blanket was spread over it. One of the men went back into the house and returned with two chairs, followed by Quartermaster-sergeant James, who detailed the same two men as witnesses. Almost immediately afterwards Captain Malet appeared with a new subaltern, a Mr. Finch, who was not yet twenty, though he had already been in action with another battalion, and had been slightly wounded. The quartermaster-sergeant called the company, now grouped in a semi-circle in front of the table, to attention, saluted, and Captain Malet, acknowledging the salute, told them to stand easy.

There was a moment's pause; and then one of the witnesses brought a third chair for the quartermaster-sergeant, who sat on Captain Malet's left. The three then proceeded to

  ― (193) ―
count the notes and arrange them in bundles, while the men in front shifted from one foot to another, and whispered to each other. The sergeant-major, who had been to the orderly-room, returned and saluted Captain Malet. He was the first man to be paid, and then the quarter-master-sergeant, and Sergeant Gallion and Sergeant Tozer. The others were paid in alphabetical order; and as each man's name was called he came forward, saluted, and was ordered to take off his cap, so that the officer could see whether his hair had been properly cut. Men had a strong objection to their hair being cropped close. They had been inclined to compromise by having it machined at the back and sides, and leaving on the crown of the head a growth like Absalom's, concealing it under the cap. In the case of a head wound, this thick hair, matted with dried blood, which always became gluey, made the dressing of the wound much more difficult for the doctor and his orderlies, delaying other equally urgent cases. In consequence, all men were ordered to remove their caps before receiving their pay, and if a man's hair were not cropped it was only credited to him; and there were formal difficulties in the way of any attempt to recover arrears.

Bourne had always liked his hair very short. He objected to growing a moustache, which collected bits of carrot and meat from the

  ― (194) ―
eternal stew. He thought it inconsistent in the Army Council to make men grow hair in one place and shave it in another, as though they were French poodles. He had once, when they were discussing the matter in the tent, told the men that they should be made to shave all over, as then they would not provide so many nurseries for lice. They thought the suggestion indecent.

“Don't be a bloody fool,” Minton had objected. “Fancy a man 'avin' to let 'is trousers down before 'e gets 'is pay!”

“But the commanding-officer wants to put us all in kilts,” Bourne had replied in a reasonable tone; and Major Blessington's avowed preference for a kilted regiment had always been a ground of resentment.

His name being early on the list, and his head almost shaven, he was soon free; and he left immediately to take Madame marketing. She had insisted that he should be present, so that he would know exactly how much everything cost. After Corporal Greenstreet's involuntary collision with the housekeeper, Bourne had become a little anxious as to the possibility of any misunderstanding with this other, more tractable but equally muscular, lady with whom he had to deal. However, when he presented himself in her kitchen, he found that she had changed her mind, and had decided that the elder of her two

  ― (195) ―
daughters should take her place. She explained that she had other work to do in the house.

The daughter was waiting, demurely clothed in black, which perhaps enhanced her complexion, but seemed in any case to be the uniform dress of nubile maidens in France. She carried a large basket, but wore no hat, content with the incomparable sleekness of her black hair, which was rolled up just above the nape of her neck. It was something about her neck, the back of her small head, and the way her little ears were set, flat against her bright hair, which attracted Bourne's appraising eyes. She knew, because she put up a hand, to smoothe or to caress it; and a question came into her eyes quickly, and was gone again, like a rabbit appearing and disappearing in the mouth of a burrow. Apart from the firm but delicate modelling of the back of her head and neck, and her rather large eyes, at once curious and timid, she had little beauty. Her forehead was low and rather narrow, her nose flattish, and her mouth too large, with broad lips, scarcely curving even when she smiled. She had good small teeth.

Bourne had always treated women with a little air of ceremony, whatever kind of women they might be. The case of the girl at Noeux-les-Mines was exceptional, but she was of the type who try to stimulate desire as by an irritant, and he had too sensitive a skin. All the same he had

  ― (196) ―
reproached himself a little on her account, for after all it was her vocation in life. Now, he professed that he was entirely in the hands of Madame; he did not think it necessary that he should go, but if she wished it, it would be a great pleasure to accompany Mademoiselle. Madame was flattered by his confidence, but thought it right that he should go; perhaps she had less confidence in him than he in her; or was it only that she was interested where he was indifferent? He followed the girl out into the street. The greater part of the company were still waiting to draw their pay; and, as Bourne and the girl passed behind them, the men turned curiously to look at the pair.

“ 'ullo, Bourne! Goin' square-pushin'?” one of his acquaintances asked him with a grin.

Bourne only looked at him, and moved a little closer to the girl, a combative feeling rising in him. After all, if the girl were not beautiful, she had poise and character. She ignored all those eyes, which were filled with desire, and furtive innuendo, and provocative challenge; as though indifferent to the tribute which all men pay, one way or another, to the mystery she embodied. With women of her race, it was still a mystery. It gave her the air of saying that she could choose for herself as she pleased, her own will being all that mattered. Even Captain Malet, as Bourne passed on the other side of the street with a

  ― (197) ―
correct if perfunctory salute, glanced up at them with a fleeting interest.

“So that's the way he spends his money, is it?” he murmured, half to himself and half to the quartermaster-sergeant; though the two witnesses, all ears and attention, naturally overheard him.

As soon as they had turned the corner she spoke to Bourne, opening out quite frankly. She had two brothers, who had been at the front, but were now working in a mine. They were apparently on a kind of indefinite leave, but were liable to be recalled at any moment to the colours. Then, others, who had also earned a rest from trench life, would take their place. C'est dure, la guerre. But all the same she felt about it as did so many of them, to whom war seemed as natural and as inevitable as a flood or an earth-quake. Bourne had noticed very much the same feeling among peasants close to the line. They would plough, sow, and wait for their harvest, taking the chance that battle might flow like lava over their fields, very much as they took the chance of a wet season or of a drought. If the worst happened, then the ruin of their crops might seem mere wanton mischief on the part of a few irresponsible generals; and whether it were a German or a British Army which ravaged their fields and shattered their homesteads, did not affect their point of view very materially. On

  ― (198) ―
the whole, however, their pessimism was equal to the occasion.

“C'est la guerre,” they would say, with resignation that was almost apathy: for all sensible people know that war is one of the blind forces of nature, which can neither be foreseen nor controlled. Their attitude, in all its simplicity, was sane. There is nothing in war which is not in human nature; but the violence and passions of men become, in the aggregate, an impersonal and incalculable force, a blind and irrational movement of the collective will, which one cannot control, which one cannot understand, which one can only endure as these peasants, in their bitterness and resignation, endured it. C'est la guerre.

The demure little person hurrying beside him with her basket realized that the war made life more precarious, chiefly because it resulted in a scarcity of provisions, and a rise, if only a restricted rise, in prices. There was something always a little disconcerting to the soldier in the prudence, foresight, and practical sense of the civilian mind. It is impossible to reconcile the point of view, which argues that everything is so scarce, with that opposed point of view, which argues that time is so short. She was amazed at his extravagance, as she bought under his supervision chickens and beef and eggs and potatoes and onions, and then four bottles of wine. Salad

  ― (199) ―
and beans her mother's garden could provide; but as an afterthought, when buying the red currants in syrup, he bought some cream cheese. Then, their shopping completed, they turned back. She touched him lightly on the arm once, and asked him why he had no stripes on his sleeve.

“Je suis simple soldat, moi,” he explained awkwardly.

“Mais pourquoi …?” And then, noticing his expression, she turned away from the subject with what was no more than the shadow of a shrug. Women must be always stimulating some man's ambition. He followed her movement, as she half turned away from him, almost with suffering in his eyes. He wanted to kiss that adorable neck, just where the black hair was lifted from it, leaving uncaught a frail mesh that was almost golden in the light. Then that pathetic face, almost monkey-like, with its lustrous velvet eyes, turned to him; and touching his sleeve again, she told him that he could, if he would, do her a great service, but it must be kept a profound secret. He asked her what it was, startled a little by her manner. She had a friend, an English soldier who had been billeted on them for ten days, not very long ago, and she gave the name of his regiment. He had written to her three letters, and she had written to him, but he knew no French, and she only knew a few

  ― (200) ―
words of English. She had promised him that she would learn, so that she might write to him in his own language. Would Bourne help her? The hand, a little red and shiny from work, fluttered on his sleeve. Would Bourne translate his letters to her, and help her to write him a letter in English? Bourne, amazed, tried to picture the man to himself, as though his mind were a kind of crystal in which he might expect to see visions, as a moment before he had been dreaming dreams. It baffled him.

“Restez, monsieur, restez un moment,” she said, placing her basket on the footpath; and then, putting a hand into her blouse, and hunching her shoulders a little as she forced it slightly but perceptibly between her breasts and corset, she drew out a letter, an authentic letter stamped with the postmark of the field service post-office B.E.F., and with the name of the officer who had censored it scrawled across the lower left-hand corner of the envelope She gave it to him.

“Lisez, monsieur. Je serai très contente si vous voulez bien la lire. Vous êtes si gentil, et je n'aime que lui.”

It was a simple letter. There was no self-consciousness intervening between the writer and the emotion which he tried to put into words, though he had been conscious enough of the censorship, and perhaps of other things intervening

  ― (201) ―
between them. Her hand fluttered again on Bourne's sleeve, as she coaxed him to translate it for her; and he did his best, his French halting more than ever, as he studied the handwriting, thinking it might give him some notion of the writer. The script was clear, rather large, commonplace enough: one might say that he was possibly a clerk. Everything was well, that went without saying; they were having a quiet spell; the village where they had their rest-billets had been evacuated by its inhabitants, except for a few old people; the war could not last much longer, for the Hun must know that he could not win now; and then came the three sentences which said all he could say: “I shall go back and find you some day. I wish we were together again so that I could smell your hair. I love you always, my dearest.” There were signs of haste in the handwriting, as though he had found some difficulty at that point in opening his heart.

“C'est tout?”

“Je ne puis pas traduire ce qu'il y a de plus important, mademoiselle: les choses qu'il n'a pas voulu écrire.”

“Comme vous avez le cœur bon, monsieur! Mais vraiment, il était comme ça. Il aimait flairer dans mes cheveux tout comme un petit chien.”

She tucked the letter away into that place of

  ― (202) ―
secrets, and lifted her hand again, to caress the beloved hair. Suddenly he became acutely jealous of this other man. He stooped, and picked up her basket.

“Ah, mais non, monsieur!” she protested. “C'est pas permis qu'un soldat anglais porte un panier dans les rues. C'est absolument défendu. Je le sais bien. Il m'a dit toujours, que c'était défendu.”

“Had he?” thought Bourne, and tightened his grip on the handle of it.

“Je porterai le panier, mademoiselle,” he said quietly.

“Mais pourquoi …?” she asked anxiously.

“Parcequ'apparemment, mademoiselle, c'est mon métier,” he said with an ironic appreciation of the fact. She looked at him with troubled eyes.

“Vous voulez bien m'aider à écrire cette petite lettre, monsieur?”

“Mademoiselle, je ferai tout ce que je puis pour vous servir.”

She suddenly relapsed into anxious silence.