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The Middle Parts of Fortune: Volume II




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XI

Where is this straw, my fellow?
The art of our necessities is strange,
That can make vile things precious.

Shakespeare

SERGEANT-MAJOR CORBET of Headquarter Company was a cheerful, alert, and intelligent man: an excellent signaller himself, he looked on the eight men who had come from the various companies for instruction with a more or less favourable eye. He did not notice signs of a blazing intellect on any of their faces, which he glanced at cursorily; but he had not expected anything different; and he had a lively faith in the things which, under the educative influence of himself and of Corporal Hamley, were yet to come.

“Corporal Hamley has taken the section out, and it is not worth while sending you after him, as you wouldn't get there until it would be time to come back. The Signals section is billeted just opposite that estaminet. You can wait there for him. He will tell you where your billets are.”

So they found their way to a yard enclosed by barns and byres, where one of the orderly-runners, who were also billeted there, pointed


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out that part of the premises allotted to the signallers. Finding a place to themselves, Bourne, Shem, and Martlow sat down in the straw to investigate the contents of Bourne's parcel. It was a large parcel from some well-known West End stores, securely packed in a box of that thin wood known as three-ply; and Bourne, pulling out his jack-knife from the pocket of his tunic, and slipping from under his shoulder-strap the lanyard by which it was secured, prised the box open with a steel spike probably intended for punching holes in leather, or for removing stones from a horse's hoof. The first sight of the contents was a little disappointing, as a great deal of room was taken up by a long loaf of bread, called by some a sandwich loaf because it cuts into square slices, and is intended to be made into sandwiches.

“What do they want to send us out bread for?” Martlow exclaimed indignantly, as though the parcel had been addressed to them collectively.

A tin of chicken, a small but solid plum cake, a glass of small scarlet strawberry jam, and a tin of a hundred Russian cigarettes.

“Yes, I wonder why they sent the bread. He's a sensible chap, but perhaps the bread was his wife's idea. You know, Martlow, my friend is about fifty-five, but he is a very good sport, and married for love last year.”




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“Well, never mind 'im now,” said Martlow. “I'm feelin' a bit peckish. Let's eat the chicken, and then we shan't 'ave to carry it about.”

“We can save the cake for tea,” said Shem. “I suppose they only sent the bread to fill up the box, but it will come in useful with the chicken.”

“Open the chicken, then,” said Bourne; “and cut some bread, Martlow.”

Martlow, however, was too interested in watching Shem opening the tin to turn to the loaf immediately. He waited until he saw the carved fowl, set in pale, quivering jelly.

“Looks all right,” he said, and grabbed the loaf.

It was fast in the box, and needed a bit of effort to pull it out.

“Bloody fine packers!” said Martlow; “they don't care 'ow …

He gave a wrench, and it came up by the end he grasped: the other end, as soon as it was released from the pressure of the box, fell off, and a bottle with a white capsule over the cork slid out and would have fallen to the floor, but that Shem caught it.

“Well, you can fuck me!” exclaimed the astonished Martlow.

“Here, hide it, hide it quick!” said the excited Shem. “There'd be no end of a bloody row if they got to know your friends were


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sending you bottles o' Scotch. Bloody fine packers! I should think they were! They've scooped out nearly all the crumb. We'll have to eat dry crust with the chicken. Here, open it quick; and let's all have a tot, and then put the rest away in your pack.”

“Shem,” said Bourne earnestly, “if I ever get a Victoria Cross I shall send it to Bartlett as a souvenir.”

“You don't want to go lookin' for no Victoria Crosses,” said Martlow in a didactic vein, “you want to be bloody careful you don't get a wooden cross instead.”

They gave the bones of the chicken to a dog in the yard, so that nothing of it was wasted; and the empty tin they threw into a pit dug for the purpose in a bit of field behind the yard. Shem poured some more whisky into Bourne's cooker, the lid of which fitted quite tight. That would be good in their tea, he said, as he corked the bottle and, folding it in the skirt of Bourne's overcoat, concealed it in his pack. Then, each smoking a Russian cigarette, they awaited placidly the return of Corporal Hamley from his arduous duties.

Corporal Hamley was rather like Sergeant Tozer in build, a lean, raw-boned man; but of a dark complexion, where the other man was fair and ruddy; and of a softer nature, where the other, if reflective and sensible, was still hard


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and sharp. The corporal, too, just because he was a little weaker than Sergeant Tozer, was inclined to be influenced by what he may have heard of a man's character before he had sufficient experience to form an opinion about him for himself. Someone had evidently prejudiced him against Bourne and Shem. When the new men fell in for his inspection outside the stable, he was inclined to single the two of them out from the rest, by looking at them fixedly, while he delivered to the squad a little homily on the whole duty of man. There being only billets for four men in the stables, he divided the parade arbitrarily into two, and Martlow, Shem, and Bourne, with a big dark man called Humphreys, were sent off to other billets about a hundred and fifty yards away down a by-road, where there were some more orderlies and some snipers. It was inconvenient being so far away from the rest of their section.

“Doesn't seem to like us much,” said Shem, in a pleased voice.

“No bloody love lost, then,” said Martlow stoically.

“He's all right,” said Bourne. “In fact, I think he's probably a nice chap, only he doesn't know us, and somebody has been telling him that we need watching. Did you hear what he said about the regimental? I don't think I have spoken to the regimental since we were at


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Beaumetz, except to say good-morning, sir, if I passed him. The corporal will be all right in a couple of days, you'll see. Mr. Rhys is a pretty difficult proposition, I believe; a nice chap, but liable to cut up rough any morning when he happens to have a fat head. He and Mr. Pardew are boozing-chums, you know: when they get canned up they get canned up together; and when I was in the orderly-room I used to notice that whenever Mr. Rhys was ratty with the signallers, Mr. Pardew was ratty with the snipers. Isn't it nice to think we've got three-quarters of a bottle of good Scotch whisky?”

“We want to keep that, until we can have a quiet beano on our own. We'll have what I put in your cooker for tea, and we'll have another tot at tea-time to-morrow, then it will last three or four days. We can get something at the estaminet. Mind you don't pull it out with your overcoat. Put a sock round it, and then keep your towel on top of it.”

“It'll look dam' funny 'im pullin' 'is coat out ev'ry time 'e wants 'is tow'l, won't it?” Martlow suggested. “It'll be all right in a sock.”

Bourne proved to be right about the corporal, who may have watched them with a little suspicion for two or three days, but by that time had become more favourable toward them. They had to begin at the beginning; learning the Morse code, flag-wagging, a succession of acks,


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and practice on the buzzer. Martlow, whose whole wit lay in his quick teachable senses, was easily the best pupil, and Bourne the least satisfactory of the three, Shem having considerably greater power of applying himself to the matter in hand. Madeley, one of the signallers usually on duty in the orderly-room, had become friendly with Bourne there, though they only saw each other casually. Perhaps he helped to correct Corporal Hamley's point of view. On their part, they liked their work and the men in their section.

Their first day the whole battalion paraded at nine o'clock in the main street at Reclinghem, and Major Shadwell made a brief inspection of them. It was really extraordinary, but one could not help being struck by the changed feeling among the men, as he passed along the ranks. It was not simply that they liked him, but he belonged to them, he belonged to their own earth. His rather stern and uncompromising manner did not matter a damn to them. It was the general opinion that here was a man who should be sent home on a senior officers' course, and then come back and command them for the duration. It was not that he was popular among them as other officers were: their feeling towards him was not without affection, but had more in it of appreciation and respect.

One might have thought that this feeling would


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tell against the new colonel, who arrived and took over command that night; but when Colonel Bardon inspected them in the morning, he moved along the ranks with an air of quiet efficiency, with a great deal of reserve, as though past experience had told him that, if he were inspecting these silent rigid men, they also were inspecting him, with a penetration and a power of judgment equal to his own. The severity of his clean-cut face was that of Major Shadwell's; he was shorter in stature, but compactly built, well-balanced and alert, with grey-blue eyes that were keen and quick in sizing-up his men. That seemed to be his whole object, to find out the kind of men he had to command; and the answer to his question was for his own private mind. There was nothing of the romantic swagger and arrogance to which, in the past couple of months, they had become accustomed and indifferent. Bourne always had the illusion that his own senses stretched right along the line of men on either side of him. When one is standing to attention, one is still, erect, with eyes looking straight in front of one, but as the footsteps of authority come closer and closer, one seems to apprehend something of the reality before it is visible; then into one's field of vision, at first vague and indeterminate, then suddenly in sharp definition, comes a face, cold and unrecognising but keen and searching in its scrutiny,


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and it blurs again and is gone. For those brief seconds one feels one's breath being drawn in through one's nostrils and filling the cavity of one's chest, and then its expiration, and once again the in-draught of air. One feels that one should either restrain one's breathing, as in aiming at a target, or else, as the only possible alternative, snort, as a dog or a horse might, at the apprehension of some possible danger. Those were Bourne's feelings, anyway, when he first met the scrutiny of those incisive eyes. Colonel Bardon passed, like some impersonal force, and the tension relaxed. Then Madeley, next to him in the ranks, whispered under his breath, and practically without moving his lips:

“Well, he looks like a bloody soldier, anyway.”

After all, that was what mattered most to them; and since their duty and service implied some reciprocal obligations on his side, their opinion meant more to him than perhaps he knew. They were his men all right, if he handled them well, that was settled when once they had looked into the just, merciless face: and the companies marched off to their drills, and the specialists to their duties, well aware that presently there would be another big killing of men. They marched out of the village, past the stone calvary at the end of it, and men who had known all the sins of the world lifted, to the agony of the figure on the cross, eyes that


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had probed and understood the mystery of suffering.

SHEM was the moving spirit in an episode which might have brought himself, Bourne, and Martlow face to face with Colonel Bardon in a more unpleasant aspect. They were content with their work, and Corporal Hamley, and the section in general; but already the question had been raised as to what would be their duties when the battalion went into the line. Obviously they would be unable to act as signallers, except perhaps in the subsidiary duties, such as helping to repair or lay lines. Even Martlow, whose light touch and quick ear made him a very apt pupil on the buzzer, would scarcely be qualified for the duty. There being a shortage among the runners, they might be useful in that capacity.

Then it was arranged that for three consecutive days the whole battalion was to practise an attack, and once again this question emerged. They were told by the corporal that they were to report to their companies. Shem, who was quite a reliable person where all serious duties were concerned, but an inveterate lead-swinger with regard to any parades or fatigues which he considered unnecessary, promptly made a grievance of the matter.

“Well, we've got to go.”




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“We haven't got to go,” said Shem. “I am willing to bet nobody in A Company knows anything about our going to them. We have only got to get into the loft here every morning, and we have a couple of days' rest. It's a gift.”

“Please yourself,” said Bourne reflectively; “but I would just as soon go out with the company.”

“We'd be on the mat,” said Martlow, dubiously.

“If one goes back to the company the lot of us will have to go. There's no sense in our going, unless we are going over the top with the company. These bloody practices are no good anyway. A lot o' brass hats make the most elaborate plans, and they issue instructions to all concerned, and officers are taken to inspect a model of the position to be attacked, and then we're buggered about, and taken over miles o' ground, all marked out with tape to represent trenches; and then when everything is complete, and every man is supposed to know exactly what he has to do, the whole bloody thing is washed out, and we all go over the top knowing sweet fuck-all of what we are supposed to be doing.”

Shem's simple and perspicuous account of Staff methods reduced Bourne to compromise: he proposed to visit his friends in A Company, Sergeant-major Robinson and Sergeant Tozer,


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and find out how the land lay. Shem was recalcitrant.

“You will only give the show away,” he said obstinately. He refused to walk up to A Company's billets with Bourne, who went with Martlow eventually.

“I don't mind bein' on the mat, if it's wo'th it,” said Martlow reflectively.

“It isn't,” said Bourne. “However, old Shem wants it, and we have to hang together.”

The sergeant-major and Quartermaster-sergeant Deane were surprised when Bourne put his head in at the door, and asked if there were any parcels for him.

“Do you want a parcel every bloody day?” inquired the quarter-bloke. “You got a good 'un two days ago, didn't you?”

“I expected a small parcel of cigarettes,” said Bourne innocently. “I've got a few good ones left, but I'm running out of gaspers. Try one of these, sergeant-major. Mr. Rhys forgot his cigarette-case yesterday, we were about a mile and a half the other side of Reclinghem, flagwagging; and when we had an easy he asked me for a cigarette, if, mind you! if, it were a decent one. Like a fool I gave him one of these, and he has forgotten his cigarette-case all day to-day. I can't keep the officers in cigarettes. I want some gaspers: they're good enough for the troops.”




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“You've got a 'ide, you 'ave,” said the sergeant-major, lighting one as Bourne offered the case to the quarter-bloke.

“'ow d'you like the sigs.?” inquired the latter, lighting his.

“Oh, it's cushy enough,” said Bourne indifferently. “I was always content with the company. Apparently they don't know what they're going to do with us when we go into the line. I suppose we shall know more or less tomorrow, as when we go over the top we shall presumably go over with the section with which we practise. They say we may be used as orderlies.”

“You can't say, really,” said Sergeant-major Robinson, “because they generally muck everything up at the last minute. Seems to me all these practices are just so much eye-wash for the Staff; an' if anything goes wrong they can say it's not for want o' preparation. Anyway, whether you go with the runners or with the sigs. to-morrow, you'll 'ave an easier time than we'll 'ave. I'm the bugger who has most of the work to do in these stunts. When you get your commission, Bourne, don't you ever let your sergeant-major down. Don't you ever forget that 'e does all the bloody work.”

The reference to the possibility of a commission infuriated Bourne. The sergeant-major had forgotten the presence of Martlow, sitting quietly


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on a box by the doorway, and now looking at Bourne with the round eyes of astonishment.

“Why don't they send us back to the company for the attack?” he exclaimed, with an impatience which was impatience at the sergeant-major's blundering indiscretion, and an attempt to cover it.

“Oh, you're a bloody fool!” said the sergeant-major. “You've got a cushy job with the sigs. until you go 'ome, an' you don't want to go askin' for trouble. When you 'ave the chance of an easy, you take it. You won't find bein' a second loot as cushy a job as you think; an' if you want to make a good officer, don't you be too ready to tick off your comp'ny sergeant-major when any little thing goes wrong. You just remember all the work'e does, an' all 'is responsibilities, see?”

“Well, I have not put in for a commission yet, sergeant-major,” said Bourne, trying to affect an indifference under Martlow's eyes. “What's in orders; may I have a look?”

He glanced at the couple of typewritten sheets as if to hide his embarrassment.

“Them's part two orders you're lookin' at. Part one's the first page.”

He glanced through them quickly. The sergeant-major could not teach him anything about orders. Then he put them back on the table.

“Well, we shall have to move back. If a parcel should come for me, I suppose the postcorporal


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will bring it along. Good-night, sergeant-major. Good-night, sir.”

He and Martlow went out into the twilight.

“Shall we get a drink here, or wait until we get back to Reclinghem?” he asked Martlow.

“Wait,” said the other briefly.

They stepped out in silence for a little while, and then Martlow turned his face up sideways to him.

“Bourne, are you goin' to be an officer?”

The question itself seemed to divide them sharply from each other. There was something cool, remote, and even difficult in the tone in which it was asked. It was as though the boy had asked him if he were going over to surrender to the Hun.

“Yes,” he answered a little harshly, accepting bitterly all the implications in the question.

They were approaching the church, and came suddenly through the shadows on the old curé, in his soutane and broad-brimmed hat. Bourne drew himself up a little and saluted him. The old man took his hat right off, and bowed, standing uncovered, in something like an attitude of prayer, while they passed; and even though he had noticed before the kind of reverence which some French priests put into their courtesy towards a soldier, the trivial incident filled Bourne with a sense of trouble. He thought he had heard somewhere that it was unlucky to


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meet a priest in the dusk; and as the thought flitted through his mind, he had the sensation of goose flesh all up his spine. He was a reticent and undemonstrative man, but after a few more steps through the silent shadows he put his arm round Martlow's neck, his hand resting on his shoulder.

“I don't want it. I have got to go,” he said.

“We're all right as we are, the three on us, aren't we?” said Martlow, with a curious bitterness like anger. “That's the worst o' the bloody army: as soon as you get a bit pally with a chap summat 'appens.”

“Well, it has got to be,” said Bourne. “I am not going before the show comes off, anyway. The three of us shall be together, and then … well, it's not much use looking ahead, is it?”

They did not say much more for the rest of the way, but picked up Shem, and then went into the estaminet in Reclinghem for a drink. Shem laughed scornfully when they told him that the company did not apparently expect them to report in the morning.

“What did I tell you?” he said; and Bourne, in a sulky way, told him he had better go and buy some provisions.

“We'll get our bread and cheese ration,” he added.




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IN THE morning they drew a bread and cheese ration with the rest of Headquarter Company, and then secreted themselves in a loft over their billets. Through some slats, in a ventilating window at the gable end, they could just see the front of the house; and presently the military policeman billeted there came out, with his stick in his hand, and proceeded briskly about his duty. They knew his times, more or less, but what they failed to appreciate for the moment was the fact that to-day's stunt rather disturbed the normal routine of duty, making his movements less definitely calculable. Bourne had lost the schoolboy spirit of truancy, which was still predominant in Shem and Martlow, and he was rather bored. The whole joy of disobedience is in the sense that one has chosen freely for oneself, and Bourne had not chosen freely, he had fallen in with Shem's plan: on the other hand, though he was equally involved with them now, he was not primarily responsible for it, and was free to criticise it from an almost disinterested point of view. There was a certain amount of pleasure in that, as it brought him into opposition with Shem, and naturally enough he liked to maintain a kind of moral, or immoral, ascendancy over his ally. He was bound, of course, to do his best to secure the success of Shem's plan, and if it failed he was certain to suffer equally with its author, but among themselves he could


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always disclaim responsibility, except in so far as an amiable weakness of character, by vitiating his better judgment, had engaged him in it. These considerations were all that gave him a kind of zest in the exploit.

The military policeman had been gone for little more than half an hour, and they did not expect him back until about a quarter to twelve. They were, therefore, rather surprised to hear obviously military footsteps in the yard, and a certain amount of anxiety mingled with their surprise when the footsteps turned into the stables beneath them, passed by the ladder which gave access to the loft, and then moved down the length of the building from one partition to another. Someone was evidently inspecting their billets. He returned to the foot of the ladder, and then they held their breath, for the ladder was only secured in position by a hook fixed to a beam under the entrance to the loft and fastening to a staple in the ladder itself. The ladder moved, as a hand was placed on it, and someone was now ascending. Bourne, with the foolish mirth which sometimes overcomes one in the face of danger, could have laughed at the sight of Shem and Martlow couched on a pile of little sheaves, and watching the entrance like two animals prepared to defend their lair; and laughter came in an explosion when Humphreys' face suddenly appeared above the floor level, its


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expression changing swiftly from guilt surprised to disappointment as he recognised them.

“What the bloody 'ell do you want to come 'ere for?” Martlow shot at him in rage.

“I've got as much right 'ere as you 'ave,” he replied, truculently.

“The question of right in this connection is of merely academic interest,” said Bourne, delighted by the position of affairs; “but you would admit that we have a prior claim, and are therefore in a stronger position than you are. I am not going to conceal from you, Humphreys, the fact that your presence is unwelcome to us. If you're going to argue the toss with us, you will finish by being chucked out on your head. Yes, by the three of us if necessary. We haven't found you very companionable in the past few days, and an impartial consideration of your character and habits has reconciled us to the fact. However, you are here, and we have to make the best of your company, as of other inconveniences inherent in the situation; but if you become at all objectionable, we'll push you down the bloody ladder and take the consequences. Is that clear to your somewhat atrophied intellect?”

“Well, there's room for four on us,” said Humphreys, with unexpected modesty.

“That's all right,” said Bourne, whose main objects were to take charge of the situation, and


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forestall any unreasonable quarrelling on the part of Shem or Martlow. “This loft is a common refuge for the four of us; but don't you do anything to give the show away. I think I am the oldest soldier here, so that naturally I'm in charge. If we all end on the mat, I am the person who will bear the chief responsibility.”

“Shoo,” said Martlow, lifting a hand to warn them, and they heard more movement in the yard, a cackle of high female voices which invaded the stables, and then again the ladder moved, tilting a little as some one ascended.

“My God, we're holding a bloody reception,” said Bourne, under his breath.

The face of Madame, the proprietress of the farm, appeared above the floor, and turned from one to the other in a spirit of inquiry.

“Bon jour, madame!” said Bourne, with great self-possession. “J'espère que notre présence ici ne vous dérange point. Nous nous trouvons un peu fatigués après de marches longues, et des journées assez laborieuses. Or, nous avons pris la résolution de nous reposer ici, pendant que le régiment fait des manœuvres dans les champs. ça n'a pas d'importance, je crois; ces exercices sont vraiment inutiles. Nous ne ferons pas de mal ici.”

“Mais ce n'est pas très régulier, monsieur,” she replied dubiously; and some excited queries came from her two friends below. Bourne


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thought her objection incontrovertible but a little pedantic. Only half of her had risen through the floor, and there she paused in doubt, as though emerging, like a conjured spirit, from the shades.

“Montez, madame, je vous en prie”; he implored her. “Comme vous dites, ce n'est pas régulier, et ce sera vraiment dommage si nous sommes découverts. Montez, madame, vous et vos amies; et puis nous causerons ensemble.”

It took him some time to persuade her that they were not deserters, and that their escapade was without much significance except to themselves, but eventually he succeeded. She mounted the remaining rungs of the ladder; and, filled with curiosity, her two friends followed her, one, fat and rubicund, the other, one of those anaemic, childless women who haunt the sacristies of village churches. Shem and Martlow both looked as though they were half-inclined to cut and run for it. Humphreys merely stared at the invasion with pugnacious resentment. Only Bourne seemed to grasp the essential fact that they were all in reality the prisoners of the three women, who had by now constituted themselves a jury of matrons for the purpose of trying the case. He had to play the part of advocate, not only in his own cause, but in that of these accomplices who from sheer stupidity did nothing to ingratiate themselves with their judges.




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“For God's sake, smile!” he said, desperately, and Martlow at least responded by breaking into a broad grin, which gave them a less criminal appearance. Women are notoriously influenced by a man's facial expression, and flatter themselves that their response to it is some subtle power of intuition. They have, in reality, about as much intuition as an egg. Bourne's too elaborate manner and Martlow's grinning humour were saving graces in the present situation, and the women discussed their right course of action, in what they thought was a reasonable spirit. They had to be humoured, and, considering their entire lack of charm, Bourne hoped that none of them might prove to have a romantic nature.

Madame, seated on the floor, took up a sheaf and stripped the ears from it, threshing off those which did not come away as she pulled it through her hand, into a cloth spread on the floor. Shem, Martlow, and Bourne, had been standing clear of the sheaves since she had arrived, but Humphrcys was sitting on a pile. She made up her mind, after consultation with her sister Fates, and having finished her threshing, stood and delivered judgment. They could not stay in the loft, it was malsaine, she declared, as the grain stored there was her vivres for the winter. On the other hand, she would not betray them to the police. She thought they would be sufficiently


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safe from arrest in the further stable; and then, turning on Humphreys, she told him to get up. Bourne told him what she said, but he would not move, and he was rude. Even though she did not understand what he said, his manner was rude enough to be unmistakable, and reading in it a defiance of her authority, she advanced on him, and, before Bourne could interpose, had slapped him, first on one cheek, and then with the other hand on the other, while she told him what she thought of him. She did not raise her voice. She stood over him like a cat swearing at a dog, in a low hissing invective, and ready to claw him if he showed the least sign of fight. Humphreys, of course, though he was a stupid, surly fellow, would not have retaliated against a woman; but he looked as though he were almost suffocated with anger. Bourne interposed again, as in the case of Corporal Greenstreet; but this time he did not try to soothe the angry woman, he turned on the angry man.

“You're the bloody fool who is going to get us all in the mush,” he said, in a rage quite equal to their own. “I'm not going to tell you twice. You take up your kit, and get down that bloody ladder quick.”

“What'd she want…?”

Madame advanced again with that purring hiss.




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“Are you going?” said Bourne, the last strand of his control wearing thin. “There's your bloody pack.”

He threw the pack down the ladder, and grumbling and arguing, Humphreys descended after it. They all had their hackles up by now, and Bourne told Shem and Martlow to get down with an air of curt authority. The women were flushed with triumph, but they were inclined to look on Bourne with a favourable eye, so he approached Madame again, and asked her if she had no other place where they might hide themselves, for that day, and the next, perhaps even for the third. At last she led him across the yard, and showed him a small room with a cement floor. It may have been a dairy, or a store-room of some kind, and it had two doors, one going out at the side of the house on to a narrow strip of grass bounded by an unkempt hedge with fields beyond; and the other into a passage, on the other side of which the military policeman had his lodging.

Bourne was satisfied. He made sure that Madame intended no further move against Humphreys, and excused him as well as he could. She would not have Humphreys in the house, but said he might remain where he was. Then Bourne went back to the stables, and telling Humphreys that he would probably be all right where he was, that he


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could please himself whether he stayed there or not, but that if he went back to the loft Madame would almost certainly inform the policeman who was billeted there, he took Shem and Martlow to the house with him. Then he asked Madame to let them have some coffee, and paid her for it. With the coffee they drank a little of the fast-dwindling, but carefully-hoarded whisky. They heard the military policeman return at twelve o'clock. They could keep track of his movements more easily now, and aired themselves outside the house when he went out in the afternoon. They were glad when the battalion returned at four o'clock, and they could slip out and mingle with the men.

The second day was pleasanter, as they took more chances, getting out into the fields; and Bourne, after stalking the policeman until he saw him well on the road to Vincly, turned back and bought a bottle of wine at one of the estaminets to eke out their whisky, of which they only had a tot each left. On that errand he ran into Evans, now servant to the new Colonel.

“Lookin' for trouble?” Evans inquired, grinning. Bourne gave him a drink, and learned that the battalion would carry out the same practice the next day, unless it rained, but as there were no facilities for drying the men's clothes, they wouldn't risk a wetting.

The next day, after the battalion had moved


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out, a storm broke, and the men were brought back. The three absentees had a certain amount of difficulty in getting back to the signals section unobserved: they had to get wet first; and Martlow became a little too wet by standing under a spout which took the water off the roof. They had been absent from parade for three consecutive days, and had not found much pleasure in ill-doing. The same afternoon they were taken to some pit-head baths at a mine three miles away; and the next morning, the justice of fate, which is a little indiscriminating as to the pretexts on which it acts, descended on them. They were the last to fall in on parade, and Mr. Rhys had a fat head. They were not really late, and other sections were still falling in; but the officer ordered Corporal Hamley to take their names, and they went before Captain Thompson at half-past eleven. Bourne merely pointed out that they occupied different billets from the rest of the section, and some distance away, but he did not attempt to justify himself. It was wisdom on his part. Captain Thompson, after cautioning them strictly, dismissed the charge. Martlow seemed aggrieved by the injustice of this disciplinary act, but Bourne laughed at him:

“If we got twenty-eight days first field punishment for something we had not done we should still have deserved it,” he said. “I


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suppose that kind of balance is always evened out in the end.”

IMMEDIATELY after dinner, a thrill of excitement passed rapidly from company to company: all parades were cancelled, billets were to be cleaned up, and the battalion was to be ready to march at half-past five. It was some time since they had marched by night. For once, too, they had some definite details: they were to march to St. Pol, and entrain there for the front. It was very curious to see how the news affected them; friends grouped themselves together, and talked of it from their individual points of view, but the extraordinary thing was the common impulse moving them, which gathered in strength until any individual reluctances and anxieties were swept away by it. A kind of enthusiasm, quiet and restrained because aware of all it hazarded, swept over them like fire or flood. Even those who feared made the pretence of bravery, the mere act of mimicry opened the way for the contagion, and another will was substituted for their own, so that ultimately they too gave themselves to it. They might fail or break, they might shrink back at the last in an agony of fear, but this overpowering impulse for the time being swept them on towards its own indeterminate ends, as one


  ― (254) ―
common impulse might move in a swarm of angry bees.

The light was failing rapidly as they fell in, and they moved off in silence, marching to attention. A Company would join up with them at the cross-roads, marching to meet them from Vincly. They noticed that their new Colonel had a good word of command, which carried well without breaking in the effort. Shortly after A Company had joined them they had the order to march at ease, and then to march easy. A few minutes later, Bourne again saw the old curé of Vincly. He was standing by the roadside, watching them pass, his head uncovered and bowed, in his characteristic attitude of humility, which seemed at once beautiful and ominous. Bourne felt a kind of melancholy, a kind of home-sickness, stilling the excitement which had filled him a little while ago. He watched the colour draining out of earth, leaving all its contours vague and gray, except where the shadowy woods and downs took a sharper outline against a sky as luminous and green as water flowing over limestone. Some stars, pallid as yet, hung in it. He had the feeling that he had relinquished everything. It was not that silly feeling of sacrifice, the sense of being a vicarious atonement for the failure of others: the wind with which some men puff out an idle vanity. Memory drifted up on to the verge of his thought


  ― (255) ―
a phrase: la résignation, c'est la défaite de l'âme; but it was not quite that, for there was no sense of defeat. He had ceased, in some curious way, to have any self-consciousness at all; it was as though his mind were brimmed up with peace, with a peace that still trembled a little on its surface, as though a breath would suffice to spill it; though he had the certainty in his heart that presently it would become still, and mirror only the emptiness of the night.

The rhythm of all those tramping feet, slurring the stresses slightly, held him in its curious hypnosis. He was aware of it all only as one might be aware of a dream. The men sang, sang to keep up cheerful hearts:

“'ere we are, 'ere we are, 'ere we are, again,
Pat and Mac, and Tommy and Jack, and Joe!
Never mind the weather! Now then, all together!
Are wé dówn' eártéd? NO! ('ave a banana!)
'ere we are, 'ere we are …”

It might have gone on indefinitely, but the men suddenly switched on to Cock Robin, into which some voices would interject “another poor mother 'as lost 'er son,” as though to affront the sinister fate against which they were determined to march with a swagger. As they marched through one little village, at about ten o'clock, doors suddenly opened and light fell through the doorways, and voices asked them where they were going.




  ― (256) ―

“Somme! Somme!” they shouted, as though it were a challenge.

“Ah, no bon!” came the kindly pitying voices in reply; and even after the doors closed again, and they had left that village behind, the kindly voices seemed to drift across the darkness, like the voices of ghosts: “Somme! Ah, no bon!”

And that was an enemy to them, that little touch of gentleness and kindliness; it struck them with a hand harsher than death's, and they sang louder, seeing only the white road before them, and the vague shadows of the trees on either hand. At last the singing died away; there was nothing but the trampling of myriad feet; or they would halt for ten minutes, and the darkness along the roadside became alive as with fireflies from the glow of cigarettes through a low mist.

It must have been midnight when they reached St. Pol; and there again their singing sent out a noisy challenge to the darkness, but now they sang one of their regimental marching-songs, chronicling in parody their own deeds: it was the air of the Marseillaise:

“At La Clytte, at La Clytte,
Where the Westshires got well beat,
And the bullets blew our buttons all away,
And we ran, yes, we ran,
From that fuckin' Alleman;
And now we are happy all the day!”




  ― (257) ―

Windows were thrown up, and recognizing only the patriotic air, some of the virtuous townspeople joined in the singing; but after all there must be some misunderstanding in any alliance between two separate peoples. The men laughed with great delight, and then the order to march to attention imposed silence on them. They turned into a big camp, which Bourne was told was a hospital, and after waiting some little time restlessly in the dark, some huts were assigned to them.

“I like marching at night,” said Martlow. “Don't you, Bourne?”

“Yes, I like it, kid; are you tired?”

“A bit. Shem isn't. Shem never tires.”

They laid themselves down, as they were to get a few hours' sleep; and Bourne, dropping off between the two of them, wondered what was the spiritual thing in them which lived and seemed even to grow stronger, in the midst of beastliness.




  ― (258) ―

XII

Yes, in this present quality of war
Indeed the instant action, a cause on foot
Lives so in hope, as in an early spring
We see the appearing buds, which to prove fruit
Hope gives not so much warrant, as despair
That frosts will bite them.

Shakespeare

BOURNE roused himself, and, after a few minutes of dubious consciousness, sat up and looked round him, at his sleeping companions, and then at the rifles stacked round the tent-pole, and the ring of boots surrounding the rifle-butts. His right hand finding the opening in his shirt front, he scratched pleasurably at his chest. He was dirty, and he was lousy; but at least, and he thanked God for it, he was not scabby. Half a dozen men from Headquarter Company, including Shem as a matter of course, had been sent off yesterday to a casualty clearing station near Acheux, suffering or rejoicing, according to their diverse temperaments, with the itch. The day after their arrival at Mailly-Maillet, the medical officer had held what the men described irreverently as a prick-inspection. He was looking for definite symptoms of something he expected to find, and because his inquest had been narrowed down to a single question, it may


  ― (259) ―
have seemed a little cursory. The men stood in a line, their trousers and underpants having been dropped round their ankles, and as the doctor passed them, in the words of the regimental sergeant-major, they “lifted the curtain,” that is to say the flap of the shirt, so as to expose their bellies.

Scratching his chest, Bourne considered the boots: if a sword were the symbol of battle, boots were certainly symbols of war; and because by his bedside at home there had always been a copy of the Authorised Version, he remembered now the verse about the warrior's boots that stamped in the tumult, and the mantle drenched with blood being all but for burning, and fuel for the fire. He lit a cigarette. It was, anyway, the method by which he intended to dispose of his own damned kit, if he should survive his present obligations; but the chance of survival seeming to his cooler judgment somewhat thin, he ceased spontaneously to be interested in it. His mind did not dismiss, it ignored, the imminent possibility of its own destruction. He looked again with a little more sympathy on his prone companions, wondering that sleep should make their faces seem so enigmatic and remote; and still scratching and rubbing his chest, he returned to his contemplation of the boots. Then, when he had smoked his cigarette down to his fingers, he rubbed out the glowing


  ― (260) ―
end in the earth, slipped out of the blanket, and reached for his trousers. He moved as quickly as a cat in dressing, and now, taking his mess-tin, he opened the flap of the tent, and went out into the cool morning freshness. He could see between the sparse trees to the cookers, drawn up a little off the road. The wood in which they were encamped was just behind Mailly-Maillet, in an angle formed by two roads, one rising over the slope to Mailly-Maillet, and the other skirting the foot of the hill towards Hédauville. It was on a rather steep reverse slope, which gave some protection from shell-fire, and there were a few shelter-trenches, which had been hastily and rather inefficiently dug, as a further protection. It was well screened from observation. The trees were little more than saplings, young beech, birch, and larch, with a few firs, poorly grown, but so far unshattered. Bourne strolled carelessly down to the cookers.

“Good-morning, corporal; any tea going?”

Williams stretched out his hand for the messtin, filled it to the brim, and then, after handing it back to Bourne, went on with his work, without a word. Bourne stayed there, sipping the scalding brew.

“Go up the line, last night?” Williams inquired at last.

“Carrying-party,” answered Bourne, who found his dixie so hot he could scarcely hold it,


  ― (261) ―
so he was protecting his hands with a dirty handkerchief. “I was out of luck. I was at the end, and when they had loaded me up with the last box of ammunition, they found there was a buckshee box of Verey lights to go, too. The officer said he thought I might carry those as well; and being a young man of rather tedious wit, he added that they were very light. I suppose I am damned clumsy, but one of those bloody boxes is enough for me, and I decided to dump one at the first opportunity. Then Mr. Sothern came back along the top of the communication trench, and, finding me weary and heavily-laden, said all sorts of indiscreet things about everybody concerned. “Dump them, you bloody fool, dump them!” he shouted. I rather deprecated any extreme measures. ‘Give me that bloody box,’ he insisted. As he seemed really angry about it, I handed him up the box of ammunition, as it was the heavier of the two. He streaked off into the darkness to get back to the head of the party, with his stick in one hand, and a box of ammo. in the other. I like these conscientious young officers, corporal.”

“ 'e's a nice chap, Mr. Sothern,” observed Williams, with a face of immovable melancholy.

“Quite,” Bourne agreed. “However, there's a big dug-out in Legend Trench, and between that and the corner of Flag Alley I saw a box of ammunition that had been dumped. It was


  ― (262) ―
lying by the duck-boards. It may have been the one I gave Mr. Sothern: ‘lost owing to the exigencies of active service.’ That's what the court of inquiry said about Patsy Pope's false teeth.”

Williams went on with his work.

“It won't be long before you lads are for it again,” he said in his quiet way.

“No,” said Bourne, reluctantly, for there was a note of furtive sympathy in Williams' voice which embarrassed him.

“The whole place is simply lousy with guns,” continued the cook.

“Why the hell can't you talk of something else?” exclaimed Bourne, impatiently. “Jerry chased us all the way home last night. Mr. Sothern, who knows no more about the bloody map than I do, tried a short cut, and wandered off in the direction of Colincamps, until we fetched up in front of one of our field batteries, and were challenged. Then an officer came up and remonstrated with him. After that, when we got on the road again and Fritz started sending a few across, you should have seen us! Leaning over like a field of corn in the wind.”

“A lot o' them are new to it, yet,” said Williams, tolerantly. “You might take a drop o' tea up to the corporal, will you? 'e's a nice chap, Corporal 'amley. I gave 'im some o' your


  ― (263) ―
toffees last night, an' we was talkin' about you. I'll fill it, in case you feel like some more.”

Bourne took it, thanking him, and lounged off. There was now a little more movement in the camp, and when he got back to his own tent he found all the occupants awake, enjoying a moment of indecision before they elected to dress. He poured some tea into Corporal Hamley's tin, and then gave some to Martlow, and there was about a third left.

“Who wants tea?” he said.

“I do,” said Weeper Smart, and in his blue shirt with cuffs unbuttoned and white legs sprawled out behind him, he lunged awkwardly across the tent, holding out his dixie with one hand. Smart was an extraordinary individual, with the clumsy agility of one of the greater apes; though the carriage of his head rather suggested the vulture, for the neck projected from wide, sloping shoulders, rounded to a stoop; the narrow forehead, above arched eyebrows, and the chin, under loose pendulous lips, both receded abruptly, and the large, fleshy beak, jutting forward between protruding blue eyes, seemed to weigh down the whole face. His skin was an unhealthy white, except at the top of the nose and about the nostrils, where it had a shiny redness, as though he suffered from an incurable cold: it was rather pimply. An almost complete beardlessness made the lack of pigmentation


  ― (264) ―
more marked, and even the fine, sandy hair of his head grew thinly. It would have been the face of an imbecile, but for the expression of unmitigated misery in it, or it would have been a tragic face if it had possessed any element of nobility; but it was merely abject, a mask of passive suffering, at once pitiful and repulsive. It was inevitable that men, living day by day with such a spectacle of woe, should learn in self-defence to deride it; and it was this sheer necessity which had impelled some cruel wit of the camp to fling at him the name of Weeper, and make that forlorn and cadaverous figure the butt of an endless jest. He gulped his tea, and his watery eyes turned toward Bourne with a cunning malevolence.

“What I say is, that if any o' us'ns tried scrounging round the cookers, we'd be for it.”

Bourne looked at him with a slightly contemptuous tolerance, gathered his shaving-tackle together, flung his dirty towel over his shoulder, and set off again in the direction of the cookers to scrounge for some hot water. He could do without the necessaries of life more easily than without some small comforts.

Breakfast over, they cleaned up and aired the tent, and almost immediately were told to fall in on parade with Headquarter Company. Captain Thompson, watching them fall in from the officers' tents, knocked his pipe out against


  ― (265) ―
his stick, shoved it in his tunic pocket, and came up the hill, carrying his head at a rather throughtful angle. He had a rather short, stocky figure, and a round bullet head; his face was always imperturbable, and his eyes quiet but observant. Sergeant-major Corbett called the company to attention and Captain Thompson acknowledged the salute, and told the men to stand easy. Then he began to talk to them in a quiet unconventional way, as one whose authority was so unquestioned that the friendliness of his manner was not likely to be misunderstood. They had had a good rest, he said (as though he were talking to the same men who had fought their way, slowly and foot by foot, into Guillemont!), and now there was work in front of them: difficult and dangerous work: the business of killing as many superfluous Germans as possible. He would read out to them passages from the letter of instructions regarding the attack, which as fresh and reconditioned troops they would be called on soon to make. He read; and as he read his voice became rather monotonous, it lost the character of the man and seemed to come to them from a remote distance. The plan was handled in too abstract a way for the men to follow it; and their attention, in spite of the gravity with which they listened, was inclined to wander; or perhaps they refused to think of it except from the point of view of their own concrete


  ― (266) ―
and individual experience. Above his monotonous voice one could hear, now and again, a little wind stray through the drying leaves of the trees. A leaf or two might flutter down, and scratch against the bark of trunk or boughs with a crackling papery rustle. Here and there he would stress a sentence ever so slightly, as though its significance would not be wasted on their minds, and their eyes would quicken, and lift towards him with a curious, almost an animal expression of patient wonder. It was strange to notice how a slight movement, even a break in the rhythm of their breathing, showed their feelings at certain passages.

“…men are strictly forbidden to stop for the purpose of assisting wounded. …”

The slight stiffening of their muscles may have been imperceptible, for the monotonous inflexion did not vary as the reader delivered a passage, in which it was stated, that the Staff considered they had made all the arrangements necessary to effect this humanitarian, but somewhat irrelevant, object.

“… you may be interested to know,” and this was slightly stressed, as though to overbear a doubt, “that it is estimated we shall have one big gun—I suppose that means hows. and heavies—for every hundred square yards of ground we are attacking.”

An attack delivered on a front of twenty miles,


  ― (267) ―
if completely successful, would mean penetrating to a depth of from six to seven miles, and the men seemed to be impressed by the weight of metal with which it was intended to support them. Then the officer came to the concluding paragraph of the instructional letter.

“It is not expected that the enemy will offer any very serious resistance at this point. …”

There came a whisper scarcely louder than a sigh.

“What fuckin' 'opes we've got!”

The still small voice was that of Weeper Smart, clearly audible to the rest of the section, and its effect was immediate. The nervous tension, which had gripped every man, was suddenly snapped, and the swift relief brought with it an almost hysterical desire to laugh, which it was difficult to suppress. Whether Captain Thompson also heard the voice of the Weeper, and what construction he may have placed on the sudden access of emotion in the ranks, it was impossible to say. Abruptly, he called them to attention, and after a few seconds, during which he stared at them impersonally, but with great severity, the men were dismissed. As they moved off, Captain Thompson called Corporal Hamley to him.

“Where will some of us poor buggers be come next Thursday?” demanded Weeper of the crowded tent, as he collapsed into his place; and


  ― (268) ―
looking at that caricature of grief, their laughter, high-pitched and sardonic, which had been stifled on parade, found vent.

“Laugh, you silly fuckers!” he cried in vehement rage. “Yes, you laugh now! You'll be laughing the other side o' your bloody mouths when you 'ear all Krupp's fuckin' iron-foundry comin' over! Laugh! One big gun to every bloody 'undred yards, an' don't expect any serious resistance from the enemy! Take us for a lot o' bloody kids, they do! 'aven't we been up the line and …”

“You shut your blasted mouth, see!” said the exasperated Corporal Hamley, stooping as he entered the tent, the lift of his head, with chin thrust forward as he stooped, giving him a more desperately aggressive appearance. “An' you let me 'ear you talkin' on parade again with an officer present and you'll be on the bloody mat, quick. See? You miserable bugger, you! A bloody cunt like you's sufficient to demoralize a whole fuckin' Army Corps. Got it? Get those buzzers out, and do some bloody work, for a change.”

Exhausted by this unaccustomed eloquence, Corporal Hamley, white-lipped, glared round the tent, on innocent and guilty alike. Weeper gave him one glance of deprecatory grief, and relapsed into a prudent silence. The rest of the squad, all learners, settled themselves with a more


  ― (269) ―
deliberate obedience: there was no sense in encouraging Corporal Hamley to throw his weight about, just because he had wind up. They took up their pencils and paper, and looked at him a little coolly. Weeper was one of themselves. With the corporal sending on the buzzer, the class laboriously spelt out his messages. Then he tried two men with two instruments, one sending, and the other answering and repeating, while the rest of the squad recorded.

“You've been at this game before,” he said to Weeper.

“I, corporal?” said Weeper, with an innocence one could see was affected; “I've never touched one o' these things before.”

“No?” said the corporal. “Ever worked in a telegraph office? You needn't try to come that game on me. I can tell by your touch.”

He was not in a humour to be satisfied, and the men, thinking of the show they were in for, did not work well. A sullen humour spread among them. Bourne was the least satisfactory of all.

“You're just swingin' the lead,” said Corporal Hamley. “Those of you who can't use a buzzer will be sent out as linesmen, or to help carry the bloody flapper.”

Things went from bad to worse among them. There was a light drizzle of rain outside, and this gradually increased to a steady downpour.




  ― (270) ―

Their sullen humour deepened into resentment, fretting hopelessly in their minds; and the corporal's disapproval was expressed now and again with savage brevity. Then the stolid but perfectly cheerful face of Corporal Woods appeared between the flaps of the tent.

“Kin I 'ave six men off you for a fatigue, corporal?” he asked pleasantly.

“You can take the whole fuckin' issue,” said Corporal Hamley, with enthusiasm, throwing the buzzer down on his blankets with the air of a man who has renounced all hope.

Shem returned, wet and smelling of iodine, at dinner time. All that day it rained, and they kept to the tents, but their exasperation wore off, and the spirit of pessimism which had filled them became quiet, reflective, even serene, but without ceasing to be pessimism. Mr. Rhys paid them a visit, and said, that, taking into account the interruption of their training by other duties, their progress had been fairly satisfactory. He, too, picked out Weeper Smart as an expert telegraphist, and Martlow as the aptest pupil in the class; as for the other new men, it would be some time before they were fully qualified for their duties. At a quarter to three he told the corporal that they might pack up for the day. If the weather had cleared they would have gone out with flags; but they had been on the buzzer


  ― (271) ―
all the morning, and in the monotony of repeating the same practice, hour after hour, men lose interest and learn nothing. From outside came the dense unbroken murmur of the rain, which sometimes dwindled to a whispering rustle, through which one could hear heavy drops falling at curiously regular intervals from the trees on to the tent, or a bough laden with wet would sag slowly downward, to spill all it held in a sudden shower, and then lift up for more. These lulls were only momentary, and then the rain would increase in volume again until it became a low roar in which all lesser sounds were drowned. There was little wind.

Mr. Rhys told them they might smoke, and stayed to talk with them for a little while. They all liked him, in spite of the erratic and hasty temper which left them a little uncertain as to what to make of him. From time to time, without putting aside anything of his prestige and authority over them, he would try to get into touch with them, and learn what they were thinking. Only a very great man can talk on equal terms with those in the lower ranks of life. He was neither sufficiently imaginative, nor sufficiently flexible in character, to succeed. He would unpack a mind rich in a curious lumber of chivalrous commonplaces, and give an air of unreality to values which for him, and for them all in varying measure, had the strength, if not


  ― (272) ―
altogether the substance, of fact. They did not really pause to weigh the truth or falsity of his opinions, which were simply without meaning for them. They only reflected that gentlefolk lived in circumstances very different from their own, and could afford strange luxuries. Probably only one thing he said interested them; and that was a casual remark, to the effect that, if the bad weather continued, the attack might have to be abandoned. At that, the face of Weeper Smart became suddenly illumined by an ecstasy of hope.

When at last Mr. Rhys left them, they relaxed into ease with a sigh. Major Shadwell and Captain Malet they could understand, because each was what every private soldier is, a man in arms against a world, a man fighting desperately for himself, and conscious that, in the last resort, he stood alone; for such solf-reliance lies at the very heart of comradeship. In so far as Mr. Rhys had something of the same character, they respected him; but when he spoke to them of patriotism, sacrifice, and duty, he merely clouded and confused their vision.

“Chaps,” said Weeper, suddenly, “for Christ's sake let's pray for rain!”

“What good would that do?” said Pacey, reasonably. “If they don't send us over the top here, they'll send us over somewhere else. It 'as got to be, an' if it 'as got to be, the sooner it's


  ― (273) ―
over an' done wi' the better. If we die, we die, an' it won't trouble nobody, leastways not for long it won't; an' if we don't die now, we'd 'ave to die some other time.”

“What d'you want to talk about dyin' for?” said Martlow, resentfully. “I'd rather kill some other fucker first. I want to have my fling before I die, I do.”

“If you want to pray, you 'ad better pray for the war to stop,” continued Pacey, “so as we can all go back to our own 'omes in peace. I'm a married man wi' two children, an' I don't say I'm any better'n the next man, but I've a bit o' religion in me still, an' I don't hold wi' sayin' such things in jest.”

“Aye,” said Madeley, bitterly; “an' what good will all your prayin' do you? If there were any truth in religion, would there be a war, would God let it go on?”

“Some on us blame God for our own faults,” said Pacey, coolly, “an' it were men what made the war. It's no manner o' use us sittin' 'ere pityin' ourselves, an' blamin' God for our own fault. I've got nowt to say again Mr. Rhys. 'e talks about liberty, an' fightin' for your country, an' posterity, an' so on; but what I want to know is what all us 'ns are fightin' for. …”

“We're fightin' for all we've bloody got,” said Madeley, bluntly.




  ― (274) ―

“An' that's sweet fuck all,” said Weeper Smart. “A tell thee, that all a want to do is to save me own bloody skin. An' the first thing a do, when a go into t' line, is to find out where t' bloody dressing-stations are; an' if a can get a nice blighty, chaps, when once me face is turned towards home, I'm laughing. You won't see me bloody arse for dust. A'm not proud. A tell thee straight. Them as thinks different can 'ave all the bloody war they want, and me own share of it, too.”

“Well, what the 'ell did you come out for?” asked Madeley.

Weeper lifted up a large, spade-like hand with the solemnity of one making an affirmation.

“That's where th'ast got me beat, lad,” he admitted. “When a saw all them as didn' know any better'n we did joinin' up, an' a went walkin' out wi' me girl on Sundays, as usual, a just felt ashamed. An' a put it away, an' a put it away, until in th' end it got me down. A knew what it'd be, but it got the better o' me, an' then, like a bloody fool, a went an' joined up too. A were ashamed to be seen walkin' in the streets, a were. But a tell thee, now, that if a were once out o' these togs an' in civvies again, a wouldn't mind all the shame in the world; no, not if I'ad to slink through all the back streets, an' didn' dare put me nose in t'Old Vaults again. A've no pride left in me now, chaps, an' that's


  ― (275) ―
the plain truth a'm tellin'. Let them as made the war come an' fight it, that's what a say.”

“That's what I say, too,” said Glazier, a man of about Madeley's age, with an air of challenge. Short, stocky, and ruddy like Madeley, he was of coarser grain, with an air of brutality that the other lacked: the kind of man who, when he comes to grips, kills, and grunts with pleasure in killing. “Why should us'ns fight an' be killed for all them bloody slackers at 'ome? It ain't right. No matter what they say, it ain't right. We're doin' our duty, an' they ain't, an' they're coinin' money while we get ten bloody frong a week. They don't care a fuck about us. Once we're in the army, they've got us by the balls. Talk about discipline! They don't try disciplinin' any o' them fuckin' civvies, do they? We want to put some o' them bloody politicians in the front line, an' see 'em shelled to shit. That'd buck their ideas up.”

“I'm not fightin' for a lot o' bloody civvies,” said Madeley, reasonably. “I'm fightin' for myself an' me own folk. It's all bloody fine sayin' let them as made the war fight it. 'twere Germany made the war.”

“A tell thee,” said Weeper, positively, “there are thousands o' poor buggers, over there in the German lines, as don' know, no more'n we do ourselves, what it's all about.”

“Then what do the silly fuckers come an'


  ― (276) ―
fight for?” asked Madeley, indignantly. “Why didn' they stay 't 'ome? Tha'lt be sayin' next that the Frenchies sent 'em an invite.”

“What a say is, that it weren't none o' our business. We'd no call to mix ourselves up wi' other folks' quarrels,” replied Weeper.

“Well, I don't hold wi' that,” said Glazier, judicially. “I'm not fightin' for them bloody slackers an' conchies at 'ome; but what I say is that the Fritzes 'ad to be stopped. If we 'adn't come in, an' they'd got the Frenchies beat, 'twould 'a' been our turn next.”

“Too bloody true it would,” said Madeley. “An' I'd rather come an' fight Fritz in France than 'ave 'im come over to Blighty an' start bashin' our 'ouses about, same as 'e's done 'ere.”

“'e'd never 'ave come to England. The Navy 'd 'ave seen to that,” said Pacey.

“Don't you be too bloody sure about the Navy,” said Corporal Hamley, entering into the discussion at last. “The Navy 'as got all it can bloody well do, as things are.”

“Well, chaps,” said Glazier, “maybe I'm right an' maybe I'm wrong, but that's neither here nor there; only I've sometimes thought it would be a bloody good thing for us'ns, if the 'un did land a few troops in England. Show 'em what war's like. Madeley an' I struck it lucky an' went 'ome on leaf together, an' you never seed anything like it. Windy! Like a lot o'


  ― (277) ―
bloody kids they was, an' talkin' no more sense; 'pon me word, you'd be surprised at some o' the questions they'd ask, an' you couldn't answer sensible. They'd never believe it, if you did. We jes' kep' our mouths shut, and told 'em the war was all right, and we'd got it won, but not yet. 'twas the only way to keep 'em quiet.

“The boozers in Wes'church was shut most of the day; but Madeley and I would go down to the Greyhound, at seven o'clock, an' it was always chock-a-block wi' chaps lappin' it up as fast as they could, before closin' time. There'd be some old sweats, and some men back from 'ospital into barracks, but not fit, an' a few new recruits; but most o' them were miners, the sort o' buggers who took our job to dodge gettin' into khaki. Bloody fine miners they was. Well, one Saturday night we was in there 'avin' a bit of a booze-up, but peaceable like, when one of them bloody miners came in an' asked us to 'ave a drink in a loud voice. Well, we was peaceable enough, an' I dare say we might 'ave 'ad a drink with 'im, but the swine put 'is fist into 'is trousers' pocket, and pulls out a fistful of Bradburys an' 'arf-crowns, an' plunks 'em down on the bar counter. ‘There,’ he says, ‘there's me bloody wages for a week, an' I ain't done more'n eight hours’ work for it, either. I don't care if the bloody war lasts for ever,’ 'e says. I looks up an' sees


  ― (278) ―
Madeley lookin' white an' dangerous. ‘Was you talkin' to me?’ says Madeley. ‘Aye,’ 'e says. ‘Well, take that, you fuckin' bastard!’ says Madeley, an' sloshes 'im one in the clock. Some of 'is friends interfered first, and then some of our friends interfered, an' in five seconds there was 'ell's delight in the bloody bar, wi' the old bitch be'ind the counter goin' into 'ysterics, an' 'ollerin' for the police.

“Then Madeley got 'old of 'is man, who was blubberin' an' swearin' summat awful, an' near twisted 'is arm off. I were busy keepin' some o' the other buggers off 'im, but 'e didn't pay no attention to nobody else, 'e just lugged 'is man out the back door an' into the yard, wi' the old girl 'ollerin' blue murder; and Madeley lugs 'im into the urinal, an' gets 'im down an' rubs 'is face in it. I'd got out the back door too, be that time, as I seed some red-caps comin' into the bar; an' when 'e'd finished I saw Madeley stand up an' wipe 'is 'ands on the seat of 'is trousers. ‘There, you bugger,' 'e says; ‘now you go 'ome an' talk to yourself.'—‘ 'op it,’ I says to 'im, ‘there's the fuckin' picket outside’; an' we 'opped it over some palin's at the bottom o' the yard; one of 'em came away, an' I run a bloody great splinter into the palm o' me 'and. Then we just buggered off, by some back streets, to The Crown, an' 'ad a couple o' pints an' went 'ome peaceable.”




  ― (279) ―

“Look at ol' tear-gas!” Martlow cried.

“Thought you didn't like fightin', Weeper?”

Weeper's whole face was alight with excitement.

“A like a scrap as well as any man, so long as it don't go too far,” said Weeper. “a'd 'ave given a lot to see thee go for that miner, Madeley. It's them chaps what are always on the make, an' don't care 'ow they makes it, as causes 'arf the wars. Them's the bloody cowards.”

“Is it all true, Madeley?” asked Corporal Hamley.

“It were summat like, but I misremember,” said Madeley, modestly. “But it's all true what 'e says about folks at 'ome, most on 'em. They don't care a fuck what 'appens to 'us'ns, so long as they can keep a 'ole skin. Say they be ready to make any sacrifice; but we're the bloody sacrifice. You never seed such a windy lot; an' bloodthirsty ain't the word for it. They've all gone potty. You'd think your best friends wouldn't be satisfied till they'd seed your name on the roll of honour. I tol' one of 'em 'e knew a bloody sight more'n I did about the war. The only person as 'ad any sense was me mother. She on'y fussed about what I wanted to eat. She didn't want to know anything about the war, an' it were on'y me she were afraid for. She didn't min' about aught else. ‘Please God, you'll be home soon,’ she'd say. An' please God, I will.”




  ― (280) ―

“An' then they give you a bloody party,” said Glazier. “Madeley an' I went to one. You should a seed some o' the pushers. Girls o' seventeen painted worse nor any Gerties I'd ever knowed. One of 'em came on an' sang a lot o' songs wi' dirty meanings to 'em. I remember one she sang wi' another girl, ‘I want a Rag.’ She did an' all, too. When this bloody war's over, you'll go back to England an' fin' nought there but a lot o' conchies and bloody prostitutes.’

“There's good an' bad,” said Pacey, mildly, “an' if there's more bad than good, I don't know but the good don't wear better. But there's nought sure in this world, no more.”

“No, an' never 'as been,” said Madeley, pessimistically.

“There's nought sure for us'ns, anyway,” said Weeper, relapsing. “Didst 'ear what Cap'n Thompson read out this mornin', about stoppin' to 'elp any poor bugger what was wounded? The bloody brass-'at what wrote that letter 'as never been in any big show 'isself, that a dare swear. 'e's one o' them buggers as is never nearer to the real thing than G.H.Q.”

“You don't want to talk like that,” said Corporal Hamley. “You've 'ad your orders.”

“A don't mind tellin' thee, corporal,” said Weeper, again lifting a large flat hand, as though by that gesture he stopped the mouths of all the world. “A don't mind tellin' thee, that if a


  ― (281) ―
see a chum o' mine down, an' a can do aught to 'elp 'im, all the brass-'ats in the British Army, an' there's a bloody sight too many o' 'em, aren't goin' to stop me. A'll do what's right, an' if a know aught about thee, tha'lt do as I do.”

“You don't want to talk about it, anyway,” said Corporal Hamley, quietly. “I'm not sayin' you're not right: I'd do what any other man'd do; but there's no need to make a song about it.”

“What beats me,” said Shem, sniggering; “is that the bloody fool, who wrote that instructional letter, doesn't seem to know what any ordinary man would do in the circumstances. We all know that there must be losses, you can't expect to take a trench without some casualties; but they seem to go on from saying that losses are unavoidable, to thinking that they're necessary, and from that, to thinking that they don't matter.”

“They don't know what we've got to go through, that's the truth of it,” said Weeper. “They measure the distance, an' they count the men, an' the guns, an' think a battle's no' but a sum you can do wi' a pencil an' a bit o' paper.”

“I heard Mr. Pardew talking to Mr. Rhys about a course he'd been on, and he told him a brass-hat been lecturing them on the lessons of the Somme offensive, and gave them an estimate of the total German losses; and then an officer at the back of the room got up, and


  ― (282) ―
asked him, if he could give them any information about the British losses, and the brass-hat said: No, and looked at them as though they were a lot of criminals.”

“It's a fact,” said Glazier; “whether you're talkin' to a civvy or whether you're talkin' to a brass-'at, an' some o' the officers aren't no better, if you tell the truth, they think you're a bloody coward. They've not got our experience, an' they don't face it as us'ns do.”

“Give them a chance,” said Bourne, reasonably; he hadn't spoken before, he usually sat back and listened quietly to these debates.

“Let 'em take my fuckin' chance!” shouted Weeper, vindictively.

“There's a good deal in what you say,” said Bourne, who was a little embarrassed by the way they all looked at him suddenly. “I think there's a good deal of truth in it; but after all, what is a brass-hat's job? He's not thinking of you or of me or of any individual man, or of any particular battalion or division. Men, to him, are only part of the material he has got to work with; and if he felt as you or I feel, he couldn't carry on with his job. It's not fair to think he's inhuman. He's got to draw up a plan, from rather scrappy information, and it is issued in the form of an order; but he knows very well something may happen at any moment to throw everything out of gear. The original plan is no


  ― (283) ―
more than a kind of map; you can't see the country by looking at a map, and you can't see the fighting by looking at a plan of attack. Once we go over the top it's the colonel's and the company commander's job. Once we meet a Hun it's our job.…”

“Yes, an' our job's a bloody sight worse'n theirs,” said Weeper.

“It's not worse than the colonel's, or the company commander's,” said Bourne. “Anyway, they come over with us. They've got to lead us, or drive us. They may have to order us to do something, knowing damned well that they're spending us. I don't envy them. I think that bit in the letter, about not stopping to help the wounded, is silly. It's up to us, that is; but it's up to us not to make another man's agony our excuse. What's bloody silly in the letter is the last bit, where they say they don't anticipate any serious resistance from the enemy. That is the Staff's job, and they ought to know it better.”

“We started talking about what we were fighting for,” said Shem, laughing. “It was Mr. Rhys started it.”

“Yes, an' you've been talkin' all over the bloody shop ever since,” said Corporal Hamley. “You all ought to be on the bloody staff, you ought. 'oo are orderly-men? Shem and Mart-low; well, tea's up.”




  ― (284) ―

Shem and Martlow looked at the straight rain, and then struggled into their greatcoats.

“All that a says is, if a man's dead it don't matter no more to 'im 'oo wins the bloody war,” said Weeper. “We're 'ere, there's no gettin' away from that, corporal. 'ere we are, an' since we're 'ere, we're just fightin' for ourselves; we're just fightin' for ourselves, an' for each other.”

Bourne stared as though he were fascinated by this uncouth figure with huge, ape-like arms, and melancholy, half-imbecile face. Here was a man who, if he lost his temper with them, could have cleared the tent in ten seconds; and he sat with them, patient under daily mockery, suffering even the schoolboy cheek of little Martlow indifferently, and nursing always the bitterness and misery of his own heart. Already dripping, Shem and Martlow dumped the dixie of tea in the opening of the tent, almost spilling it, as they slipped on the greasy mud, where many feet had made a slide by the doorway.

“I never knowed such a miserable lot o' buggers as you all are,” said Corporal Hamley. “'and me over that pot o' pozzy.”

“I'm not miserable, corporal,” said little Martlow. “We're not dead yet. On'y I'm not fightin' for any fuckin' Beljums, see. One o' them buggers wanted to charge me five frong for a loaf o' bread.”




  ― (285) ―

“Well, put a sock in it. We've 'ad enough bloody talk now.”

They ate, more or less in silence, and then smoked, contentedly enough. The rain was slackening, and there was more light. After they had smoked for a while, Glazier took his tunic and shirt off, and began to hunt for lice. One after another they all followed his example, stripping themselves of trousers, under-pants and even socks, until the tent held nothing but naked men. They would take a candle, or a lighted match, and pass it along the seams of their trousers, hoping that the flame would destroy the eggs. A hurricane lamp hung by a nail on the tent-pole, and after it was lighted they still continued the scrupulous search, its light falling on white shoulders studiously rounded as they bent over the task. They were completely absorbed in it, when the air was ripped up with a wailing sigh, and there was a muffled explosion in the field behind them. They stopped, listening intently, and looking at each other. Another shell, whining precipitately, passed overhead to end with a louder explosion in some fields beyond the little wood, and well over the lower road. Then there was a silence. They sighed and moved.

“If Jerry starts shellin' proper,” said the corporal, as they dressed themselves again, “you want to take shelter in them trenches.”




  ― (286) ―

“They're no' but rabbit-scrapes,” said Weeper.

“Well, you get into 'em,” said the corporal, “an' if they're not good enough for you, we can dig 'em deeper to-morrow.”

Nothing more was said. They were bored a little, lounging there, and smoking again, but they took refuge with their own secret thoughts. Outside, the rain had stopped. They were all going up the line with a big carrying-party that night. At about six o'clock they heard from the road below a heavy lumbering and clanking, and they listened with ears cocked. Then they heard hurrying movements outside.

“What is it?”

“Tanks! Tanks!”

They rushed out of their tent, and joined, apparently with the whole camp, in a wild stampede through the trees to the road below. None of them as yet had seen a tank. It was only a caterpillar tractor, which had come up to move a big gun to or from its lair. Officers hurried out to see what was the matter, and then returned disgusted to their tents. Sergeants and corporals cursed the men back to their own lines. As Bourne turned back with the others, he looked up to a clear patch of sky, and saw the sharp crescent of the moon, floating there like a boat. A bough threw a mesh of fine twigs over its silver, and at that loveliness he caught up his breath, almost in a sob.




  ― (287) ―

THE CATERPILLAR continued its muffled clanking along the road, and the wood filled with low voices, as the men, laughing in the darkness, turned back up the slope to their dimly-lighted tents. Bourne, who had lost Shem and Martlow in the downward rush, found himself beside Sergeant Morgan, the bombing sergeant, who for some little time past had nodded to him in a friendly way when they met, and then by degrees had come to know him better. He was a very decent, cheerful man. As they walked up the hill together, they came up with the regimental, to whom Bourne had scarcely spoken since they were at Beaumetz.

“Hullo, Bourne; it's a bloody long time since I've seen anything of you. How do you like sigs.? Come along to my tent for a while, and have a yarn. I hear you are going in for a commission.”

Sergeant Morgan, saying good-night, disappeared into the darkness between the trees, and Bourne followed the regimental to his tent, which was at the top of the wood, a little apart from the others. A hurricane lamp burned low in it, and there was no one else there but Barton, the regimental's batman, whom Bourne liked, knowing as he did that, but for Barton's careful shepherding, the regimental might have been in serious trouble recently, on one or two occasions.


  ― (288) ―
They sat and talked of the prospects of the show for a few minutes; and the regimental told him that they were going out to practise it in the morning with the rest of the Brigade, over some ground which had been taped out. A field day with the Divisional General, and most of his gilded staff. There would be a good deal of wind up before it was over.

“I'm laughing,” said the regimental; “my job will be with the ammunition column.”

“You may get it in the neck there, as well as anywhere else,” said Bourne, in a matter-of-fact way.

Barton went off on his own private affairs, and the other two talked in a desultory way, like men who have nothing much to say, but talk for the sake of company.

“You don't seem to be in a very good skin to-night,” said Bourne at last. “What's the matter? Has the Colonel been getting wind up about the practice to-morrow?”

“The Colonel's a bloody soldier, an' don't you forget it,” said the regimental, with an honest appreciation. “I don't know what's the matter with me. I'm bloody well fed up with it.”

“You ought to take a pull on yourself,” said Bourne, as though he were talking of the weather. “You have been inclined to run off the rails ever since we were at Mazingarbe.”

“That's all a bloody tale.…”




  ― (289) ―

“I didn't suppose it was all true,” said Bourne, quietly; “but you were canned-up, and you never know what you're doing when you're canned. You've been right enough since we left Noeux-les-Mines, and you ought to keep right now. I should be sorry if you made a mess of things. There are some who would be pleased, and you give them an opening …”

“You're all right, Bourne, I don't mind what you say, but pack it up now. I've got to travel my own bloody road, and I'm not asking for anyone's help. It's my own funeral. I know what a man's bloody friends are like, when he makes a slip. Oh, I don't mean you. You're all right, but you can't be of any bloody use one way or the other.”

“I know that,” said Bourne, shortly. “The trouble with you is that you get things, get promotion for instance, too easily. You're too contemptuous. The only thing you do damned well you don't think worth doing.”

They dropped again into idle question and answer, and after a little while Bourne left him, as presently he had to fall in with the carrying party.

They fell in under cover of the trees, just off the road, and Mr. Marsden was in charge. The mere fact that they were moving about in the dark gave an air of stealth to the business. The words of command were given, and the men


  ― (290) ―
numbered off, with lowered voices; then they swung out of the wood, turning right, and right again as they struck the main road, which, in rising over the hill, curved round slightly towards the left. There was starlight and a young moon, sharp as a sickle; and into the clear night great concrete standards, which had carried electric power, rose at regular intervals. On the reverse slope they were intact, broad at the base, pierced, so as not to offer too much resistance to the wind, and tapering as they rose, almost as obelisks; but the first to lift its peak above the crest of the hill had been damaged, and beyond that they had been all shattered by shell-fire, only the truncated bases remaining.

Mailly-Maillet began at the top of the hill. There was a branch road to Auchonvillers; the main road, running straight through the town, was in the direction of Serre, which the Hun held; and a third road on the left went off to Colincamps. The town itself, though extensively damaged, had not been completely wrecked, but the few inhabitants who remained there were preparing reluctantly, under military compulsion, to leave.

Just after entering the town, Mr. Marsden halted his men for a moment, and spoke to the military policeman in control. Then they continued straight through, keeping to the Serre road. Once through Mailly-Maillet, the ground


  ― (291) ―
fell away gradually, so gradually that the slope seemed almost flat. Most of the detail of the country, except for the shining road in front of them, was lost in darkness, or showed only as deeper shadow. They continued along the road a little way, and then turned off it to the left, across country now rough and derelict. A road running from Colincamps converged towards the road they had just left, to meet it at a point known as the sugar-refinery; and, just before striking that road, they came to the large dump called Euston, and halted there, while Mr. Marsden went to find the dump officer.

They were to carry up more ammunition. When Mr. Marsden returned, with the other officer, the boxes were checked; and even in the short interval of time which that business occupied, a couple of big shells had come whimpering overhead, searching for a battery, perhaps; and they heard, at no great distance, the eruption from the shells' explosion in the wet earth. Lower down the road Bourne could see a couple of ambulances drawn up, and from one very faint, very momentary gleam of light, he divined, rather than saw, the entrance to a dug-out which would be the dressing-station. When the boxes were checked and each man loaded, they crossed the road, and Bourne, who had been over the same ground the night before, noticed a new feature a few yards away from the beginning of


  ― (292) ―
the communication-trench called Southern Avenue: a large shell-crater, the size of a good pond, but empty of water, except for a little seepage, which showed that it had only just been made.

The sound of the big shells, and the sight of the crater, quickened their apprehension of danger, without raising it to the point of fear. One's sensibility seemed to grow finer, more acute, while at the same time it became somewhat distorted. In the distance a star-shell would rise, and as its light dilated, wavered, and failed, one saw against it the shattered trunks and boughs of trees, lunatic arms uplifted in imprecation, and as though petrified in a moment of shrieking agony. The communication-trench was deep, and one looked up out of it to a now tranquil sky, against which the same stark boughs were partly visible. Then on the right appeared the ruins of a shattered farm, an empty corpse of a building. There was for Bourne an inexplicable fascination in that melancholy landscape: it was so still, so peaceful, and so extraordinarily tense. One heard a shell travel overhead, or the distant rattle of a machine-gun, but these were merely interruptions of a silence which seemed to touch the heart with a finger of ice. It was only really broken when a man, stumbling on a defective or slippery duck-board, uttered under his breath a monosyllabic curse.…




  ― (293) ―

“Fuck.…”

That reminder of man's proximity broke for a moment the dream; but, otherwise, one seemed to be travelling through some sterile landscape in the moon, or some soulless region on the shadowy confines of hell. Coming out of the communication-trench, they turned to the right up Sackville Street, a breast-work only, giving one a sudden feeling of space and insecurity; and, continuing, they came on a more intricate system: Flag Alley, Flag Switch, Legend, and Blenau. In Legend there was a company in support, and they passed a sentry over a dug-out and one or two men. Then again was a long lifeless stretch. Just before they reached the fire-trenches they stood aside to allow a stretcherparty carrying down a man to pass. As he passed them they whispered encouragement.

“Good-luck, chum. Don't you worry. You'll be back in Blighty soon.”

He may not have heard them, he lay very still; but Bourne, whose ironical spirit was sometimes sardonic, felt with an irresistible conviction that their words were a ritual formula, devised to avert, somehow, a like fate from themselves. Even so, it showed how closely men were bound together, by some impalpable tie. They passed men on the firestep, men as fixed as statues when that ghastly light fell tremblingly on them from the sky; and one or


  ― (294) ―
two sprawled on the step, their backs propped against the side of the bay, snatching a little fitful sleep, their tin-hats tilted over their faces, and boots, puttees, and trousers plastered thick with mud that caked like mortar. Sometimes their eyes met a face, blank from the weariness that is indifference; and perhaps, because at this point they only moved forward a few yards at a time, they would exchange a few whispers.

“What's it like?”

“Oh, 'e strafed a bit this afternoon, but it's cushy enough.”

Bourne had never heard any other reply to that question, in all the hundreds of times he had heard it asked. A face of expressionless immobility, with hard inscrutable eyes, and that even, monotonous whisper.

“Oh, it's cushy enough.”

Presently Corporal Hamley motioned him forward into the next fire-bay. Shem followed him, and the others, for the moment, were barred. He saw Mr. Marsden talking to an officer, and then he found, that each man had to get out of the trench, and dump his stuff, where a depression made an area of dead ground. He climbed out, and saw for a moment the rather loosely hung strands of wire, between the pickets, against the sky; there was a fairish depth of it. Almost as soon as he stood upright, a bullet sang by his head; it was as though something spat at him


  ― (295) ―
out of the darkness. In the deeper part of the hollow, an officer checked the boxes, as they were dumped. As he returned to the trench, Shem got out with his box. Mr. Marsden was still talking, in a low voice, to the other officer. There were only three or four more men behind, and then they would go back.

Bourne passed out of the fire-trench by a slit, running slantwise, to a trench in the rear, where the other men waited. Shem joined him, and another man. Then there was a loud elastic twang, as a shell exploded fairly close to them; and they heard stuff flying overhead; and another shell came; and another. One no sooner heard the hiss of the approaching shell than it exploded. The two last men, a little shaken, joined them. Shells continued to come over, bursting with that curious twang, and occasionally a blast of air fanned their faces. Weeper, who was standing by Shem and Martlow, leaned on the muzzle of his rifle. His face had an expression of enigmatic resignation. Mr. Marsden did not come. The shelling was not very severe, but it seemed to increase slightly, and they wondered whether Jerry was going to start a real strafe. The range improved, too, and presently the word was passed along for stretcher-bearers. Their own stretcher-bearers, with Corporal Mellin, moved along to go to the fire-trench, but they were not


  ― (296) ―
wanted. Mr. Marsden arrived and stopped them.

“It's all right. Their own bearers are there. We may want you ourselves later,” he said, encouragingly.

They moved off; but even before they moved the shelling slackened, and then ceased. Bourne had noticed that one or two of the new men had seemed a bit windy, that is, restless and impatient, not really in a funk. Weeper's passive acquiescence in whatever Fate might have in store impressed him more. He was a little surprised at himself. The zip of the bullet by his head had disconcerted him a little, and yet probably it was only a stray, and perhaps not so close as he imagined.

They had a rum issue with their tea when they got back, and then a final cigarette before turning to sleep.




  ― (297) ―

XIII

He alone
Dealt on lieutenantry and no practice had
In the brave squares of war

Shakespeare

IN the morning, the whole camp seethed with hot and angry men, as was always the case when brass-hats, and general officers, disturbed the normal routine of their life. Preparations, for the rehearsal of the attack, were complicated by the issue of orders, that blankets were to be handed in, and the camp cleaned up, before the men paraded. They were to parade in full kit with pack complete, and a bread-and-cheese ration was issued to them. The unnecessary bad temper continued until they fell in on the road; and the Colonel came on parade, smiling slightly, as though he were well-satisfied, and looked forward to an amusing day. The high, clear voice, which always seemed to carry without much effort, rang out, and the battalion moved off in the direction of Bertrancourt.

After some miles, they turned off the road and continued over reaped fields, finally mounting a ridge and taking up a position with other battalions of their Brigade. There the men were allowed to fall out and eat. They could see at


  ― (298) ―
once, more clearly than they had realised from the instructions read out to them, the way they were to be disposed; and started a general discussion on the rival advantages and disadvantages of going over as the first or second wave; a discussion, which had no other effect, than that of confirming each individual disputant in the opinion with which he had originally started. It proved indirectly, however, that there was a considerable fund of obstinacy, combativeness, and tenacity of purpose among them, and these were clearly assets of military value.

The first excitement was provided by a hare. It was put up by some of the troops in front, who chivvied it about in all directions, until, doubling back, it came straight through their own H.Q. Company, almost running over Bourne's foot. He didn't move, pitying the poor hunted thing. They were in an angle of a field, along the boundaries of which ran a low fence of rabbit-wire, and as it was headed into the corner Martlow flung himself on it, caught it, and broke its neck scientifically with a blow from the edge of his hand.

“Why did you kill it?” exclaimed Bourne, as Martlow buttoned his tunic over the warm, quivering body. Bourne thought hares uncanny creatures.

“It'll go into t' pot,” said Martlow, surprised. Mr. Sothern came up, and offered him ten francs


  ― (299) ―
for it, and after some hesitation Martlow sold it to him.

Presently arrived magnificent people on horseback, glancing superciliously at the less fortunate members of their species whom necessity compelled to walk. Bourne, who loved horses, had seen nothing for months but mules, Rosinante, some sorry hacks ridden by their officers, and a few lusty percherons threshing corn on a kind of tread-mill outside a French farm. The sight of these daintily-stepping animals, with a sheen on their smooth hides, gave him a thrill of pleasure. He was less favourably impressed by some of the riders.

“That bugger will give his horse a sore back before the day is out,” he said, as one of the great men cantered by importantly.

“You're learnin' a lot o' bad words from us 'ns,” said Martlow, grinning.

“Oh, you all swear like so many Eton boys,” replied Bourne, indifferently. “Have you ever heard an Aussie swear?”

“No, 'n' I don't want,” said Martlow. “Them buggers 'ave too much spare cash to know what soldierin' means.”

They fell in, and there was another moment of suppressed bad temper. Most of the new signallers went with H.Q. runners, but Weeper Smart, though he was close to them, had to carry the flapper with H.Q. signallers. The flapper


  ― (300) ―
was a device by which it was intended to signal to aeroplanes. One could see by now that most of the men were keenly interested; they knew that the plan was intended to supply them with a kind of map, on the actual scale of the trenches they were to attack. Their interest did not fade out completely as they advanced; but they rapidly became aware of the unreality of it all. The files of men moved forward slowly, and, when they reached the tapes, followed the paths assigned to them with an admirable precision. Their formations were not broken up or depleted by any hostile barrage, the ground was not pitted by craters, their advance was not impeded by any uncut wire. Everything went according to plan. It was a triumph of Staff-work, and these patient, rather unimaginative men tried to fathom the meaning of it all, with an anxiety which only made them more perplexed. They felt there was something incomplete about it. What they really needed was a map of the strange country through which their minds would travel on the day, with fear darkening earth and filling it with slaughter.

Bourne, Shem, and Martlow, with the other orderlies, were following close behind the Colonel, when the superb individual, whose seat on a horse had seemed to Bourne to call for adverse comment, galloped up to them, and reined in his mount.




  ― (301) ―

“What are all these men?” he asked the Colonel, pointing almost at the embarrassed Bourne.

“These are my orderlies, sir,” answered the Colonel, and Bourne, from the angle at which he stood, saw his cheek-bone as he turned to the rider with an amiable smile.

“You seem to have a great many of them,” said god-like Agamemnon, with a supercilious coldness. They kept advancing slowly, and the horse was restive under his strange cargo.

“I don't think more than are usual, sir,” hazarded the Colonel with a bland diffidence.

Other important people on horseback, even the most important of them all, on a grey, arrived, and grouped themselves impressively, as though for a portrait. There followed some discussion, first apparently as to the number of the Colonel's runners, and then as to why they were not within the imaginary trenches as marked out by the tapes. The Colonel remained imperturbable, only saying, in a tone of mild protest, that they would be in the trenches on the day, though there were some advantages in separating them from the other men at the moment. They were all moving forward at a foot's pace, and apparently the Olympian masters of their fate were willing to admit the validity of the Colonel's argument, when there was a sudden diversion.




  ― (302) ―

They were passing a small cottage, little more than a hovel, where three cows were tethered to pasture on some rough grass; and the tapes passed diagonally across a square patch of sown clover, dark and green in comparison with the dryer herbage beside it. This was the track taken by a platoon of A Company under Mr. Sothern; and as the first few men were crossing the clover, the door of the hovel was flung open, and an infuriated woman appeared.

“Ces champs sont à moi!” she screamed, and this was the prelude to a withering fire of invective, which promised to be inexhaustible. It gave a slight tinge of reality, to operations which were degenerating into a series of co-ordinated drill movements. The men of destiny looked at her, and then at one another. It was a contingency which had not been foreseen by the Staff, whose intention had been to represent, under ideal conditions, an attack on the village of Serre, several miles away, where this particular lady did not live. They felt, therefore, that they had been justified in ignoring her existence. She was evidently of a different opinion. She was a very stubborn piece of reality, as she stood there with her black skirt and red petticoat kilted up to her knees, her grey stockings, and her ploughman's boots. She had a perfect genius for vituperation, which she directed against the men, the officers and the état-major, with a fine impartiality.


  ― (303) ―
The barrage was effective; and the men, with a thoroughly English respect for the rights of property, hesitated to commit any further trespass.

“Send someone to speak to that woman,” said the Divisional General to a Brigadier; and the Brigadier passed on the order to the Colonel, and the Colonel to the Adjutant, and the Adjutant to Mr. Sothern, who, remembering that Bourne had once interpreted his wishes to an old woman in Méaulte when he wanted a broom, now thrust him into the forefront of the battle. That is what is called, in the British Army, the chain of responsibility, which means, that all responsibility, for the errors of their superior officers, is borne eventually by private soldiers in the ranks.

For a moment she turned all her hostility on Bourne, prepared to defend her title at the cost of her life, if need should arise. He told her, that she would be paid in full for any damage done by the troops; but she replied, very reasonably for all her heat, that her clover was all the feed she had for her cows through the winter, and that mere payment for the clover would be inadequate compensation for the loss of her cows. Bourne knew her difficulties; it was difficult enough, through lack of transport, for these unfortunate peasants to bring up provisions for themselves. He suggested, desperately, to Mr. Sothern and


  ― (304) ―
the adjutant, that the men should leave the tapes and return to them on the other side of the clover. The adjutant was equal to the situation; and, as the rest of the men doubled round the patch to regain the tapes, and their correct position, on the other side, the General, with all his splendid satellites, moved discreetly away to another part of the field. One of the men shouted out something about “les Allemands” to the victorious lady, and she threw discretion to the winds.

“Les Allemands sont très bons!” she shrieked at him.

An aeroplane suddenly appeared in the sky, and, circling over them, signalled with a klaxon horn. The men moved slowly away from her beloved fields, and the tired woman went back into the hovel, and slammed the door on a monstrous world.

When Bourne rejoined the runners he saw the Colonel, in front of him, with shoulders still shaking, and they all proceeded, slowly and irresistibly, towards the capture of an imaginary Serre. When they had reached their final objective, there was a long pause; and the men, now thoroughly bored and disillusioned, leaned idly on their rifles, waiting. It was a victory for method. Presently there was another movement. Companies fell in on markers, the men seemed to wake out of a dream, and took a


  ― (305) ―
spontaneous interest in the proceedings, and the battalion moved off the field. The Colonel had a horse waiting for him on the road, and about dusk they came to Bus-les-Artois.

Bourne ran into Sergeant Tozer in Bus, and with Shem and Martlow they made a reconnaissance of the town, visiting the Y.M.C.A., and then an estaminet, where they fell in with Sergeant Morgan, the bombing sergeant. They talked for a little while on the events of the day, and the splendours of the Staff.

“Are them buggers coming over the top wi' us?” asked Martlow, innocently; and when the others laughed at him, he continued, indignantly. “Then what did they come out wi' us to-day for, swingin' their weight about? That bugger on the black 'orse spoke to the Colonel just as tho' 'e took 'im for a lance-jack. Wunner the Colonel stood it.”

He and Shem went off to the cinema; so Bourne, and the two sergeants, found a little place where they could get rum and coffee; after which they went off to bed.

They were signalling with flags in the morning when their work was interrupted, and with others in the field they were fallen in, in two ranks. The adjutant came up from the orderly-room, which was a small hut on the other side of the road. He was followed by two military policemen, between whom was Miller, cap-less, and no


  ― (306) ―
longer with a stripe on his arm. He was white and haggard, but his mouth was half-open in an idiotic grin, and the small furtive eyes wandered restlessly along the line of men drawn up in front of him. Bourne felt a strange emotion rising in him which was not pity, but a revulsion from this degradation of a man, who was now only an abject outcast. In a clear, anxious voice, rather like that of a schoolboy reading a lesson, the adjutant read out a statement that Lance-corporal Miller had been found guilty of deserting his commanding officer, and had been sentenced to be shot, the sentence being afterwards commuted to one of penal servitude for twenty years. The parade was dismissed again, and the miserable man was marched away to be exhibited to another company. Miller would not, of course, go at once to gaol, the execution of the sentence would be deferred, until the war ended. Men could not be allowed to choose gaol, as an alternative to military service. That was where the absurdity arose, as Bourne understood the matter; because one could foresee that, when peace was restored, a general amnesty would be granted which would cover all cases of this kind; and the tragedy, but for the act of unspeakable humiliation which they had just witnessed, became a farce.

“We're goin' up to take over trenches tomorrow,” said Corporal Hamley, “and this is


  ― (307) ―
just to encourage any other bugger who thinks o' desertin'.”

“It don't make no differ whether th'art shot be thy own folk or be Germans, if th'art shot,” said Weeper, pessimistically.

The corporal was right. The battalion paraded in fighting-order at ten o'clock next morning, and moved up the line to take over trenches. They marched by the Divisional Artillery H.Q. at Bertrancourt, to Courcelles-aux-Bois, a village the greater part of which was already derelict. From there a road ran up to Colincamps, at the corner of which stood a military policeman as control, beside a red board, the kind of wooden standard used by road-menders as a danger-signal, on which was painted in white letters: Gas alert on. The reverse side was painted with the words Gas alert off; but it seemed a matter of indifference to everyone which way the board was turned. After that point a wide interval was left between the various platoons. Almost as soon as they left Courcelles, the road, mounting the hill to Colincamps, was under direct observation of the enemy for about three hundred yards, so it had been camouflaged with netting, like fishing-nets, hung as a curtain between poles on the left side of the road. At the top of the hill was a bend, and, commanding the road, as well as another lesser road, was a more than usually substantial


  ― (308) ―
barn, a kind of bastion to the outskirts of Colincamps itself. Bourne thought what an ugly place it would be, if it were in the hands of Fritz.

They were moving in dead silence now, not that the Hun could overhear them; and the interval between the various platoons must have been about one hundred yards. It implied a lively sense of favours to come. Passing the barn, there was a sharp bend first to the right then to the left, and they entered the long straight street of Colincamps. Jerry had registered on the church-tower, which had a large hole in it, near the top, and the front of a house, on which still hung forlornly a sign, Café de la Jeunesse, had been stove in by another shell. There was not an undamaged house left, and some of the mud-built barns were collapsing, as an effect of repeated explosions in their neighbourhood. The street itself had suffered from heavy shelling, though some of the holes in the roadway had been filled in, when they did not allow of sufficient room for traffic to skirt them; the others had been converted into pools of very liquid mud. The same fine mud coated the whole surface of the roadway, and the mere pressure of one's foot was sufficient to set it oozing from the matrix, in which the metalling was, now somewhat loosely, imbedded.

The street ended, and the houses with it, on meeting a road linking it with Mailly-Maillet on


  ― (309) ―
the right, and on the left continuing to the sugar refinery, where it joined the main road from Mailly-Maillet to Serre. They turned left, downhill, the road curving into the valley, and there was another military control, with a dug-out under the road where he could shelter. From that point the road, so long as it was on the slope of the hill, would be visible from the enemy lines. Visibility was poor to-day, there was a fine ground mist which made the distance vague. Even in the daylight, there was something beautiful and mysterious in that landscape. A line of woods, well away from the road, but gradually converging on it, though of no great depth, and shattered by shelling, curtained their movements once they were down the hill. Leaving the road, and picking their way between gun-pits and dug-outs, they came again to Southern Avenue. The shell-crater was now half-full of water, but there was a new one about twenty yards away.

Thence, onward, they followed the route they had taken on working-parties, until they came to the big dug-out in Legend Trench, which was battalion headquarters. There were two entrances, and about thirty steps to the bottom. Part of it was screened off with blankets for the officers, and the rest was allotted to the men. There was a small recess near the stairs, in which the sergeant-major or quartermaster-sergeant


  ― (310) ―
sergeant could sit at a table improvised from a box, and where a few stores were kept. Four or five candles stuck on tins lit it, and the air was foul and smoky.

Shem, Bourne, and Martlow, were sitting close to the door, three minutes after they had taken possession, when the sergeant-major, after the adjutant had spoken to him, turned to them.

“ 'ere, you three men. You go back to Colincamps, an' in one of the first 'ouses you come to, there's a runner's relay-post; you'll find some Gordons there. You'll take over from them, see? Brigade messages will be 'anded to you, an' you'll bring 'em on 'ere; an' our runners will take you messages, which you'll carry on to Brigade at Courcelles. Got it? Well, get a move on.”

They got up, and as they were pulling in their belts, Weeper, who had been sitting next to Shem, looked up at Bourne with a snarling grin, and said something about a cushy job, and some people being always lucky. Bourne did not trouble to reply, thinking, after what he had seen of the road, that headquarter dug-out in the support trenches would have satisfied him. Martlow, however, had to say something.

“You 'ave a good sleep, ol' tear-gas, an' then you'll feel better.”

They climbed out of the dug-out, and set off back to Colincamps. They had a bread-and-cheese


  ― (311) ―
ration in their haversacks. One of them would have to draw their full rations later.

“I wonder why Smart has got a set on me,” said Bourne, reflectively.

“ 'cause you never take any notice of 'im when 'e starts grousin' at you,” said Martlow.

“I believe you're right,” said Shem; “but I'm a bit sorry for Weeper. He's always been an awfully good man up the line, at least they all say so in D Company. He hasn't got any friends; and he's so bloody miserable that he never will have any. You see, Bourne, you make friends with everybody, whether he's a cook, or a shoemaker, or a sergeant-major, or only Martlow and myself. Until you came along, well, I mucked in all right with the others, but I didn't have any particular chum, so I know what it feels——.”

Christ! Look out!” said Bourne, crouching, but his warning was unheard in the shrieking hiss and explosion which followed almost simultaneously. There was a huge eruption of mud, earth, and stones a few yards behind the trench. They waited, tense and white, spattered with mud.

“Let's get out o' this place,” said Martlow, in a shaken whisper, and, as he spoke, another came over. They held their breath as it exploded, further away than the first. Bourne was looking at Martlow, and saw that his underlip


  ― (312) ―
had fallen and was trembling a little. A third shell hissed for an appreciably longer time, and exploded nearer to the dump. They waited motionless.

“It's bloody lucky that first shell wasn't closer, or we should have been buried,” said Shem, with a rather lopsided grin, after an interval.

“Come on, kid,” said Bourne to Martlow. “You never hear the one that gets you.”

“I'm not worryin',” said Martlow, quietly.

“It must have been twenty yards off the trench,” said Bourne; “but I'm not getting out to see. I think it would be better to use Railway Avenue. Fritz seems to have got Southern pretty well taped-out; and I shouldn't like to be close to a big dixie like that in Sackville Street.”

“You can't tell,” said Shem, indifferently. “You've just got to chance it.”

They were moving along at a fair pace, and were soon clear of trenches. The mud, along the level by the dump, was greasy, and slowed them down a bit; but on reaching the road it was easier going. Bourne asked the control where the relay-post was; and they turned into the second yard on the right. There was not a sign of life there, and the houses, on that side of the street, had suffered more severely than on the other; little of them was left. Most of the


  ― (313) ―
buildings abutting on the street were byres and stables, at least at that end of the town. The houses stood farther back, just on the crest of the slope. Not seeing anyone, they shouted, and from a stable came a reply, and a great wooden door opened. They found three Gordons there, very far from gay. They were, however, very decent civil men, and they looked as though they had earned a rest. Their faces had forgotten, at least for the time being, how to smile. They looked at the colours sewn on their successors' haversacks and sleeves, which they knew meant business.

“We've come to take over from you,” said Bourne.

“Thought you weren't comin'. Saw some o' oor chaps gae by. …”

“Oh, the relief isn't complete yet,” said Bourne, cheerfully. “They took us up the trenches and then sent us back. If they can do anything backwards in the army, they will, you know. It's the tradition of the service. What's it like, here?”

“Oh, it's cushy enough,” answered the Gordon, in a resigned voice.

“I had a bet with myself, you would say that,” said Bourne.

They looked at him curiously, perplexed by his manner, as they completed the business of putting their equipment together, fastening on


  ― (314) ―
their water-bottles, haversacks, and entrenching-tools. Their packs they carried slung, that is, without fastening them to their cross-straps, a practice which is irregular. On active service, however, the authorities allowed the men to use a little intelligence with regard to minor details, except on great occasions. At last, taking up their rifles, they moved to the door.

“Gude day t' ye, an' gude luck, chums,” they said as they went out.

“Good luck,” answered their successors, in more matter-of-fact tones. Bourne looked after them a little wistfully. He didn't grudge them the relief. He wondered when they would all be turning their backs on this desolation.

“I'm goin' to 'ave a peek round the village,” said Martlow. “You won't want me, there'll be nothin' doin' yet awhile.”

“All right,” said Bourne; “don't go far away, and don't be long.”

He returned in about twenty minutes with all kinds of luxuries: tea mixed with sugar, four tins of bully-beef, a tin of Maconachie, and tins of pork and beans, the kind in which there was never any pork.

“I scrounged them from some R.E.'s,” he said, with a sober pride. “They're movin' out, an' 'ave a lot o' stuff they don't want to carry. I could 'ave got more if I'd wanted. They're


  ― (315) ―
that glad to be goin' they'd give you all they've got. So it don't matter if we don't get no rations till night.”

“Good lad,” said Bourne. “You are a champion scrounger, Martlow.”

He was thinking that the anxiety of the R.E.'s to get away did not indicate that it was a particularly cushy place. Shem had also been reconnoitring the position, and announced that there was a decent cellar, with most of a house in ruins on top of it, only about twenty yards away. Martlow then decorated the door with a paper on which he had printed with an indelible pencil RELAY POST in block letters.

“Well, we may as well have some tea an' bully,” said Shem.

It was after one o'clock, so they set to, and had a good comforting meal, and lounged about smoking until a little after two, when a message came from the trenches. One of the regular runners brought it, with Pacey. It was a regulation that two runners should take a message together, in case one might be wounded, but this was often disregarded owing to a shortage of runners: it was tacitly assumed that one of them would go at a time, so that in case of simultaneous messages both ways the post would not be without a man on duty. Shem and Martlow took the message to Brigade H.Q., just the other side of Courcelles, and Pacey and


  ― (316) ―
Hankin, the regular runner, sat and yarned with Bourne for a few minutes.

“You look all right 'ere, but Fritz 'as been bashin' the place about, 'asn't 'e?” said Pacey.

Part of the mud wall had come away, leaving only laths. After a cigarette, Pacey and Hankin set off back to the trenches. Bourne sat in a kind of reverie for about half an hour until Shem and Martlow returned, and idle talk continued for a time.

The whole air suddenly became alive, and crash after crash filled the town. They were stunned, and petrified, for a moment. More of the mud wall fell away, and there was a landslide of tiles. They cowered down, as though they wanted to shrink away to nothing. It was heavy stuff coming over. One shell struck the Café de la Jeunesse, and another corner of it went flying in all directions; loose tiles kept falling, and the walls rapidly became threadbare lath, merely from the effects of the concussion. Bourne felt himself shaking, but they couldn't stay there.

“Get into that cellar!” he shouted to them; and grabbing their rifles and water-bottles, which they had taken out, they moved out uncertainly. Bourne felt his breath coming heavily. Shells were bumping practically the whole length of the village. He didn't know what to


  ― (317) ―
do about the relay-post; and though he felt an awful fool, he decided.

“I'll be after you,” he shouted, and running, as a man runs into a rain-storm, he disappeared into the street. He turned the corner and continued downhill to the control's dug-out. On the hillside just beyond the control's dug-out a man lay dead. His tin-hat was blown some yards away, and the top of the head had been taken off, so that at a glance one saw some remnants of the scattered brains. Apparently the whole of Colincamps was going west, clouds of smoke and dust rose from it. Bourne fell down the steps of the dug-out. He couldn't say why he was there at first.

“There's a man dead outside, sergeant,” he said, dully.

“What the bloody hell are you doin' out in it? Are you sure 'e's dead?”

“Yes, sergeant; most of the head's gone. I'm at the relay-post, runners. I thought I had better tell you that we had left the stable, and gone into the cellar of the house.”

“I'm goin' out to see to that man.”

They doubled out to him, and finding that he was really dead, shifted him off the road; and went into the dug-out again.

“I'm going back now, sergeant.”

“You 'ad better wait a bit,” said the sergeant, in a kindlier voice. “You know it's against


  ― (318) ―
regulations for you chaps to go alone. There ought to be a pair of you.”

“I had better go back. I didn't know whether we ought to move, as I have not been on the job before. I'll go back to see how my chums are.”

“All right,” said the sergeant, in a curiously irritable way. “Write up on the door where you are.”

The shelling was still violent, but seemed to be worse at the corner in the direction of Courcelles, and to have extended on this side farther along the Mailly-Maillet road. As Bourne came out, he could see shells exploding by the dump, with some shrapnel bursting, woolly-bears they called them, overhead. He couldn't say whether it was with a prayer or a curse that he made for the corner of Colincamps, doubling up the short rise with difficulty. Collapsing houses had spilt their bricks half across the street. One wall, about sixty yards away from him, suddenly crumpled and fell. He wouldn't look at things. He found himself saying over and over again in soldiers' language: “I've been out of the bloody shit too long” : not uttering the words but thinking them with a curious intensity. His vision seemed narrowed to a point immediately in front of him. When he got to the stable they had left, he went straight to Martlow's notice, and drawing a rough arrow underneath the words “Relay Post,” wrote in rough blocks


  ― (319) ―
the words “In Cellar.” Then he went to it, noticing as he descended that the entrance was turned the wrong way. Shem and Martlow looked at him, but he could scarcely see their faces in the gloom.

“What's it like, now?” asked Martlow, with a very slight catch in his voice.

“Oh, it's cushy enough,” said Bourne, with desperate humour.

Suddenly he felt inexpressibly tired. He bowed his head and sat gazing into nothing, emptied of all effort. The shells bumped for some time longer, slackened, and then ceased. Bourne had the sensation that the earth was left steaming.

A DRIZZLE of rain began, and increasing by degrees filled the quiet with little trickling sounds. The cellar was comfortably furnished, as it had apparently been used as a funk-hole before, and by people of more importance than its present occupants. Its sole defect was that the entrance directly faced the Hun lines, and perhaps this inconvenience had prompted them to leave; but during their tenancy they had put in three beds, wooden frames standing about two feet off the floor, over which rabbit-netting had been stretched and nailed, as a substitute for spring-mattresses. Some rather thin Wilson canvas curtained the entrance. Bourne remembered


  ― (320) ―
that there was some thicker sacking, in the stable which they had left, and he proposed to get it, and nail it over the outside of the doorway. They went back, together, to their old quarters. Little of the stable was left except its frame, some laths, and a few tiles, still hanging precariously on the slats overhead, through which, now, the rain fell steadily. They wrenched some nails from the timbers, and Shem and Martlow fastened the extra sacking on the doorway of the cellar. Bourne wandered off by himself for a moment. He found that the premises included their own private latrine. He had been silent and preoccupied, since coming back from the control, and had said nothing about the man killed on the hillside. He didn't want to talk.

“Bourne's getting windy,” said Shem to Martlow.

“'e weren't windy goin' out in that lot,” said Martlow, repelling the suggestion.

“Yes, he was,” said Shem, chuckling; “that's just why he went.”

“If it comes to that, we're all windy,” grunted Martlow, loyally.

There was some truth in Shem's observation, all the same. Bourne came back in a few minutes, and having inspected the curtain, he lit a small piece of candle. Martlow was going out, and was told to report if any light were visible from outside.




  ― (321) ―

“There will be a message to take up the line, soon,” said Bourne, to Shem. “I might as well go by myself, I think. I want to try and scrounge a couple of candles from the quarter-bloke.”

“Then I'll take the midnight message to Brigade,” said Shem.

Martlow returned. The light did not show from outside, but it did, of course, when the curtains were twitched aside. They were too close together for them to hope that a man entering would lift first one and then the other. Bourne said they would have to cover or blow out the light, on entering or leaving. Then, as the candle was all they had, they blew it out and talked in the dark. Fritz sent three shells over, a regular interval between them. Our own guns had been completely silent during the strafe. Now, however, after an appreciable pause, a trench-mortar battery sent three back to the Hun; and then, after an interval to give emphasis and point to their reply, added another for luck. Bourne looked at his wrist-watch, and saw that it was a couple of minutes after six.

“That sounded like a regular stunt,” he said.

A few minutes later they heard a couple of men shouting above-ground, and Martlow, going halfway up the steps, called to them. Two runners from Brigade came in, and when the


  ― (322) ―
sacking curtain had been put in place, Bourne lit the candle.

“Thought you'd all gone west,” said one runner, “when I saw the bloody barn.”

“I left a notice on the door,” said Bourne, thoughtlessly.

“Well, I can't read it in the bloody dark, can I?” objected the runner. “'ere's the usual. We'll 'ave a fag, before we go back, chum. You chaps know 'ow to make yourselves comfortable.”

“It's the first duty of a good soldier,” said Bourne.

They talked about the strafe; now that it was over, none of them exaggerated its importance.

“Only a few shells came into Courcelles,” said the runner; “but we knew Colincamps and the dump were getting it.”

“I'm going now,” said Bourne. “Don't show any light.”

“You're getting wind-up,” said Shem, laughing.

“Wind-up! 'e's talkin' bloody sense,” said the runner. “You don't want to take any bloody chances up 'ere, I can tell you. It looks to me as though Jerry 'ad rumbled somethin' already.”

That was Bourne's notion, but he did not pursue the subject.

“D'you go alone?” they asked him.




  ― (323) ―

“Yes, we nearly always go alone,” answered Bourne. “Good-night.”

Martlow covered the light with a can, as Bourne moved out into the dark. It was very dark, and the rain was fine, searching and cold. He would keep to the road as far as the dump, it was no use trying a short cut, and the wet surface of the road was at least visible, lots of little pools gleaming in it. The control was not there. Some instinctive scruple moved Bourne to avoid the side of the road where he had found the dead man, and, looking to where they had carried the body, he saw that it had been removed.

The dump was empty. In another couple of hours it would be alive with men and transport. He had a kind of talent for moving about surefootedly in the dark. He did not mind the rain, and he loved the quiet. There were fewer star-shells to-night, and the rain made their expanding and contracting haloes even more mysterious than usual.

He handed in the message, and then spoke to Corporal Hamley, who was with Sergeant-major Corbet, about the strafe.

“Well, Captain Malet is out of it, now,” said the sergeant-major.

“What happened to Captain Malet, sergeant-major?” he asked, anxiously.

“Dug-out blown in; a beam fell on him, and


  ― (324) ―
broke both his legs. They were some time before they got him clear, they had to dig under the beam. They wanted to take a couple of rifles as splints for his legs, until they got him to the dressing-station; but he wouldn't have it. ‘You may want 'em more than I do,’ he said. ‘You get me a couple of miles away from here, and I'm laughing.’ When they were getting him out he smoked a cigarette, and didn't say a word, though they must have hurt him.”

“Anyone else hurt?” asked Bourne.

“A boy called Bates was killed, and two others wounded or hurt. I haven't heard all the details. B Company had a few casualties. We had a sentry over the dug-out wounded. Matheson. D'you know him? You came from A Company, didn't you? Thought so. Someone told me Captain Malet was going to get the Colonel to recommend you for a commission, wasn't he? What are you going to do about it, now?”

While the sergeant-major was speaking of Bates having been killed, Bourne tried to remember who Bates was; and, at the effort of memory to recover him, he seemed to hear a high, excited voice suddenly cry out, as though actually audible to the whole dug-out:

“What's 'e want to drag me into 't for?”

And it was as though Bates were bodily present there; the sergeant-major's voice seemed less


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real. In the light of the unsteady candles, each haloed in the fog of smoke, Bourne saw all the quiet men, some half asleep, some staring in front of them, thinking, and waiting. He felt as though he were under some extraordinary hallucination, but he answered the sergeant-major reasonably enough, said he would have a talk to him when they went out of trenches again, suggested speaking to Mr. Rhys; and all the time he heard his own voice saying things, which somehow did not seem to concern him, meaningless things which had to be taken very seriously. He knew no more of Bill Bates than that one phrase, passionately innocent:

“What's 'e want to drag me into 't for?”

“Could I get our rations now, sergeant-major?” he said, evenly. “I have brought a mess-tin, for our rum-ration; and I was going to ask if we could have some candles. We left the barn we were in, and moved into a cellar; and we need a bit of light.”

“Who told you to leave the barn an' go into a cellar?”

“Oh, Fritz did. And the barn came unstuck. After the tiles had fallen off, and the walls began to tumble down, I thought we ought to go to ground. I told the sergeant on control duty where we would be, and I left a notice on the door. We're in the same yard, but in the cellar of the house. As all that is left of the house is a


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couple of thousand bricks, piled up in a heap on top of the cellar, we ought to be fairly safe there; only the entrance faces the line, and we have to be careful to screen the light.”

“I can only let you have a couple of candles,” said the quartermaster-sergeant.

“Oh, make it three, sir,” said Bourne, in a tone of coaxing protest, and a little grudgingly the quarter-bloke dealt him out another, while Bourne talked to keep from thinking. “Just before I got to the control's dug-out, there was a man killed on the road. We lifted him to one side. He was a gunner, I think.… I can take the rum-ration in my mess-tin, sir.… It made us all a bit windy, I think. There's not quite so much of Colincamps left as when you last saw it, sergeant-major.”

“It's my belief Fritz has rumbled us,” said the sergeant-major in a whisper.

“What can you expect?” said Bourne, pointing to the bright yellow material sewn on his haversack. “We are decked out in all the colours of the rainbow, and then marched over the whole countryside in order to advertise the show. Anyone can see we are in war-paint. We are put into khaki, so as to be more or less invisible; and then rigged up in colours, so that we can be seen. It's genius.”

“That's so as the artillery can spot us,” said the sergeant-major soberly.




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“Whose, sergeant-major?”

“You're a sarky devil, you are.”

“There's your bag o' rations, and don't lose the bag, see?” said the quarter-bloke.

“All right, sir, thank you. I suppose I ought to be moving back. I am sorry about Captain Malet, but I suppose he's lucky. Do you think there's anything to go back, sir? I might save another man a walk.”

“Go and wait inside for a few minutes,” said the sergeant-major; they were all in the recess at the foot of the steps. “I shall be seeing the adjutant presently. It's all bloody rot having that relay post at Colincamps, in my opinion. The Brigade runners might easily come up here, and our runners go down to Courcelles. Wait a few minutes, and I'll see.”

Bourne went in and sat by Weeper, who neither moved nor spoke to him; and after a few minutes the sergeant-major came in.

“You may go back, Bourne; there probably won't be anything but the report at midnight. Good-night.”

“Good-night, sergeant-major,” he said, and, taking up his rifle, climbed up the stairs into the rain and darkness again.

When he got back to the cellar, he found that Martlow had brought in a stray terrier. The dog was obviously suffering from shell-shock, he was trembling in a piteous way, and Martlow


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said that when he had caught him, he had tried to bite. The only domestic animal which Bourne had met among these deserted ruins, had been a gaunt and savage cat, which, on seeing him, had cursed the whole human race, and fled precipitately. They had supper, and some hot tea with their rum, persuaded the dog to eat a little bully, and then lay smoking on their beds. They heard trains of limbers passing through the village. Bourne and Martlow curled up to sleep, and Shem waited for the night report to take it back to Courcelles.

In the morning at seven o'clock Fritz sent over his three shells, and the trench mortar battery barked out the same reply as on the previous night. Fritz's shells had fallen very close. Martlow went out first, and then put his head through the doorway to announce that the latrine had been blown up; where it had stood there was nothing but a large hole.

“Well, what do you want,” said Shem; “a bloody bathroom?”

The dog had another fit of shivering when the shells came over; but it recovered later; and Martlow took it outside for a short walk. Exploring the ruins a native instinct got the better of the dog's recently acquired caution, and it disappeared out of history in hot pursuit of a cat.

“ 'e were a good dog, that,” said Martlow, regretfully.




  ― (329) ―

XIV

Between the acting of a fearful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma or a hideous dream

Shakespeare

AFTER three days in the trenches, the battalion was relieved, and moved to Courcelles, where they were to remain for one night on their way to rest-billets at Bus. The village had been heavily shelled from time to time, but had not been damaged to quite the same extent as Colincamps, which offered, on the crest of the hill, a more conspicuous target. Courcelles was uncovered at one end, but screened partially by rising ground on two sides. As Corporal Williams had said of Mailly-Maillet, it was simply lousy with guns. There was visible evidence on every side that the local farmers had reaped a bountiful harvest. Bourne, carrying messages between Colincamps and Courcelles, had noticed three haystacks in a picturesque group standing a little way back from the road. Then, one night, he saw a very faint gleam of light coming from inside one of them. It was a lucid explanation of the apparent fertility of the countryside. Monster guns, too, were secreted somehow in the courtyards of houses in the village itself. The


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Hun had his suspicions, and would explore the possibilities of the situation, rather too frequently, with high explosive.

Their own battalion did not line up or parade for meals. When breakfast or dinner was ready, a couple of orderly-men would carry a dixie or a tea-bucket from the cooker to some convenient place, and the men, coming promptly, but rather casually, for their share, took it away to eat in tents or billets. They came together and dispersed again in a moment. There was practically no crowding.

Battalion headquarters in Courcelles was in a small chateau, which stood, with its farm buildings, on a little hill practically encircled by a road. On their first morning there, Bourne and Shem, coming from the barn in which they had slept, to get their breakfast from the dixie a few yards away, could see some little distance beyond the road the men of a Scots battalion, which was brigaded with them, lined up with their mess-tins waiting for breakfast. As Bourne and Shem were returning to their barn, leaving behind Martlow, who had followed them out, they heard a shell coming, and as they dived for cover, a terrific explosion. There was an instant's stillness; and then from across the road shouts and cries. Again a shell whined overhead, and exploded; and then a third. That was apparently the ration. The next moment Mart-low,


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with a white face, appeared in the doorway.

“Them poor, bloody Jocks,” he said in a slow, pitiful whisper.

What the casualties were they did not know, though various rumours gave precise, and different, details; one shell did all the damage, the others exploding in an empty field. The sympathy they felt with the Scotsmen was very real; the same thing might so easily have happened to themselves; and as they talked about it, the feeling turned gradually into resentment against an authority, which regulated, so strictly, every detail of their daily lives. The shell falling where it did, at that particular time, would probably have caused a certain number of casualties, even if the men had been moving about freely; but this kind of discipline, excusable enough when men have to be kept under control, as with a carrying party lined up at a dump, was unnecessary on this occasion. After all, the place was liable to be shelled at any moment; and, for that reason alone, it was wiser to avoid assembling a large number of men at any one point. They remembered their own experience at Philosophe.

“Bloody swank. They don't care a fuck what 'appens to us 'ns.”

They were angry and restive, as men are who expect that they may be ordered to make an attack at any time. That kind of feeling is not


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without value as a military asset, provided that behind the discipline, against which it is a natural reaction, there is sufficient intelligence and foresight to avoid mistakes. It does a man no harm to know that he may be sacrificed with some definite object in view; it was the kind of hazard which many Lewis-gunners faced continually, with great courage; but no man likes to think his life may be thrown away wantonly through stupidity, or mere incompetence. Officers and men alike grew careless as they became accustomed to danger, and then an incident of this kind, an event almost inevitable, filled them with surprise.

Whether it were justified or not, however, the sense of being at the disposal of some inscrutable power, using them for its own ends, and utterly indifferent to them as individuals, was perhaps the most tragic element in the men's present situation. It was not much use telling them that war was only the ultimate problem of all human life stated barely, and pressing for an immediate solution. When each individual conscience cried out for its freedom, that implacable thing said: “Peace, peace: your freedom is only in me!” Men recognized the truth intuitively, even with their reason checking at a fault. There was no man of them unaware of the mystery which encompassed him, for he was a part of it; he could neither separate


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himself entirely from it, nor identify himself with it completely. A man might rave against war; but war, from among its myriad faces, could always turn towards him one, which was his own. All this resentment against officers, against authority, meant very little, even to the men themselves. It fell away from them in words.

Later in the morning, Sergeant-major Corbet, speaking to Captain Thompson outside battalion-headquarters, saw Bourne crossing the yard. He called him up, and turning to the officer, said bluntly: “Captain Malet was going to send in this man's name for a commission, while he was with A Company, sir.”

He looked at Bourne with a stern and critical eye while he spoke. Captain Thompson recognized Bourne as one of the three culprits who had been before him at Reclinghem, but gave no sign of remembering the incident. He asked him a few questions, spoke sympathetically about Captain Malet; and said he would look into the matter.

“If Captain Malet thought of recommending you, I have no doubt you will make a very good officer,” he said.

That closed a brief and business-like interview. After it was over, Bourne confided in Shem, and saw at once that Martlow had kept his own counsel as to the chance words of Sergeant-major Robinson at Vincly. Shem, however, was not surprised.




  ― (334) ―

“I thought you would go sooner or later,” he said in a matter-of-fact way.

They moved back to Bus in the afternoon, marching through fine, steady rain. Days passed, and the weather showed no signs of mending; and as they settled down to the routine of a battalion holding the line, the attack, without fading from their minds, no longer seemed an imminent trial, becoming only a vague probability of the future. It had certainly been delayed. The colours, with which they had been so gaily bedecked, became a little dingy. Their life was now one unresting struggle against the encroaching mud, which threatened to engulf roads and trenches in liquid ruin. Daily, when out of the line, they were sent off with shovels and brooms to sweep it off the roadway, and shovel it up as a kind of embankment against the barns and stables bordering the road. What was too liquid to heap up, they trapped in sumps. A man pushing a broom through it would find two converging streams closing behind him. A train of limbers or lorries passing seemed to squeeze it up out of the road-metalling. Earth exuded mud. Most of it had the consistency of thin cream, and threatened, if it were neglected for a moment, to become tidal. They had to scrape it from their puttees and trousers with their jack-knives, and what was left hardened the serge to cardboard. When they became dry


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they were beaten against the corner of a hut, and the dust flew from them; but that was seldom. In the line there were trenches which could only be kept clear by pumping. Sometimes frost would congeal the mud, and then a quick thaw would cause part of a trench to slide in, and it had to be built up again: sand-bagged and revetted. They became almost indistinguishable from the mud in which they lived.

The weather grew colder too, and they wore their cardigans; then leather jerkins, lined with fleeces or thick serge, were issued to them, and in the resulting warmth the lice increased and multiplied beyond imagining. It was some weeks before they could get a bath; and then necessarily it was a make-shift. Half a company stood under trickling showers, while the other half-company pumped up water outside, and when the men were covered with a lather of soap the water invariably failed.

The strange thing was, that the greater the hardships they had to endure, for wet and cold bring all kinds of attendant miseries in their train, the less they grumbled. They became a lot quieter, and more reserved in themselves, and yet the estaminets would be swept by roaring storms of song. It may have been a merely subjective impression, but it seemed that once they were in the front line, men lost a great deal of their individuality; their


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characters, even their faces, seemed to become more uniform; they worked better, the work seeming to take some of the strain off their minds, the strain of waiting. It was, perhaps, that they withdrew more into themselves, and became a little more diffident in the matter of showing their feelings. Actually, though the pressure of external circumstances seemed to wipe out individuality, leaving little if any distinction between man and man, in himself each man became conscious of his own personality as of something very hard, and sharply defined against a background of other men, who remained merely generalised as “the others.” The mystery of his own being increased for him enormously; and he had to explore that doubtful darkness alone, finding a foothold here, a hand-hold there, grasping one support after another and relinquishing it when it yielded, crumbling; the sudden menace of ruin, as it slid into the unsubstantial past, calling forth another effort, to gain another precarious respite. If a man could not be certain of himself, he could be certain of nothing. The problem which confronted them all equally, though some were unable or unwilling to define it, did not concern death so much as the affirmation of their own will in the face of death; and once the nature of the problem was clearly stated, they realized that its solution was continuous, and could never be final.




  ― (337) ―

Death set a limit to the continuance of one factor in the problem, and peace to that of another; but neither of them really affected the nature of the problem itself.

As neither Bourne, Shem nor Martlow were sufficiently trained to take over the duties of signallers, when they were in the line they were employed not only as runners, but sometimes on ordinary duties as well. Once, when he was on duty with his old company, Bourne went out on patrol with Mr. Finch. Under cover, not of darkness, but of a thick fog, they crossed to the enemy wire, and had examined it for a considerable distance when they heard the movements of another party, and Mr. Finch signalled desperately to them to keep still.

“Ach, so!” came in a low voice through the fog; and, moving diagonally away from them, roughly in the direction of their own trenches, they saw the vague silhouettes of a German patrol. Crouching, but ready with shot or steel, they watched the vague shadows moving away in the mist. The enemy were apparently at a disadvantage in the matter of light. They were on slightly higher ground, inclined away from them; and not giving a thought to the possibility of a party of Englishmen being actually between them and their own trenches, they were searching ahead of them in what seemed the only direction from which danger might be expected.




  ― (338) ―

Bourne thought that the mere breathing of his companions would be sufficient to give them away, and, while he restrained his own, he felt an insane desire to laugh.

The enemy patrol faded again into the fog, from which they had never completely emerged; and when, after listening intently, one ceased to hear them, Mr. Finch, turning to them with a grin over his shoulder, beckoned for them to follow him. They continued for a little way along the wire, and then doubled back to their own trenches, passing over the vestiges of a ruined hovel. Apparently it had been one of those mud-walled affairs, with nothing very solid about it, but a brick-built chimney; and already it was practically merged in earth again; though the smoke-blackened bricks, most of them not only broken but pulverized, still resisted utter dissolution, and rose in a crescent-shaped heap a few feet from the surface of the ground. At a very little distance it might be taken for a slight hump in the earth.

They were well pleased with themselves on their return, and still more pleased to hear, later, that a Hun patrol reconnoitring their wire in the mist had been fired on, and had withdrawn, with what casualties it was impossible to say. The one thing they professed to regret was that Mr. Finch had restrained them from attacking the enemy patrol; but for him, they would have got


  ― (339) ―
the lot, they asserted; and if their dissatisfaction on that point ever reached the ears of Mr. Finch, he probably smiled and said nothing, because he was quite pleased, too, and wise beyond his years.

The rain continued, broken only by intervals of mist or fog, and spells of cold, which became more intense as the weeks drew on into November. The relay-post at Colincamps was abandoned; and they took their messages direct from the trenches to Courcelles. During one tour in the trenches Bourne was attached to Brigade, and took possession of a tent just outside Brigade Headquarters. It contained one bed, of the wooden frame and rabbit wire type, and Bourne placed his things on the bed, establishing a claim to it. Presently a large Jock, who described himself later as a native of Pe'er'ead, as though it were a place of which everybody must have heard, came into the tent, and looked at Bourne's things on the bed with displeasure.

“A 'ad you kip las' time a were 'ere,” he said indignantly.

“Did you?” Bourne inquired with mild interest. “Well, you don't expect your luck to last for ever, do you?”

A marked difference in their mode of speech seemed likely to increase the misunderstanding, and Bourne, rather ostentatiously drawing up his legs, and half reclining on the disputed piece of furniture, lit a cigarette, and waited for the situation


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to develop. The big Scotsman sat on the ground, and investigating the contents of his haversack, produced a lump of something wrapped in newspaper. It proved to be an extremely solid piece of plum cake: cutting it in two, he returned half to the newspaper, which he put back into the haversack, and, dividing the other portion in two, he held one piece out to Bourne.

“Thanks,” said Bourne, taking it.

One insuperable bar to conversation with a Scotsman is, that it is impossible to persuade him that an Englishman speaks English; but Bourne gave him a cigarette, and they smoked in what was at least an amiable silence. Then another Scotsman arrived, and Bourne's responsibility ended.

He met the man from Pe'er'ead in the line that night. They were both taking back a midnight report to Brigade, and, on leaving the trenches, made a short cut skirting the eastern side of Colincamps. They passed behind several batteries, each with its tiny glow-worm lamp suspended from an upright rod Passing over the crest of the hill they continued a little way down the reverse slope, and then decided to rest and smoke a eigarette. There was a tree there, undamaged, and they sat with their backs against it. Then, when they had finished their cigarette, the big Scotsman rose.




  ― (341) ―

“Let us no bide lang i' this place, laddie. They're aye shellin' this tree at ane o'clock.”

Bourne laughed softly, glancing at his wristwatch, which said it was within a minute or so to one o'clock; and they set off to strike the road. They were within a few yards of it when a big shell landed at the foot of the tree, and left nothing of it but some slivers. They looked at each other in blank wonderment and hurried down the road.

“Mon,” said the Scotsman, after a long silence; “it were proveedential.”

Bourne was always amazed by the superstition and the sentimentality of the ordinary man; he thought both, forms of self-flattery.

“You evidently suffer from second-sight,” he said, “and you don't know it.”

He became very bored by the monotony of those frequent journeys to and from the trenches. The attack remained a probability of the future, they never seemed to get any closer to it. Rumours floated among the men: it had been fixed for the day after to-morrow; it had been postponed again; it had been abandoned. They ceased to be fresh troops, becoming indeed, under the influence of bad weather, constant fatigues, and the strain of uncertainty, rather jaded. Nothing had been gained by delay. One rumour said that Hun prisoners, captured in a raid, had admitted that the Germans knew all


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about the proposed attack, having extracted the information from two British prisoners they had taken some weeks earlier.

One day at Courcelles, having come out of trenches on the previous night, the men were paraded, and asked to volunteer for a raid, with the object of securing some prisoners for identification purposes. Men volunteered readily enough, but, at the same time, even some of the volunteers grumbled that they should be asked to make a raid the day after they had been relieved. Work was thrown at them that way, with an implied doubt as to their fighting qualities, and they accepted the challenge resentfully. A party of ten men with Sergeant Morgan, under Mr. Barnes, reached the enemy trenches, bombed a dug-out, but had to kill the men they encountered, as they resisted capture. They brought back some papers and other evidences of possible value. Perhaps, as they brought back no prisoner, it may have been an additional cause for blame that they had suffered no casualties.

The men were able to form opinions as to their prospects from their own experience. They knew that the Hun was prepared, and that they would meet the same Prussians or Bavarians whose fighting qualities they had tested before on the Somme in July and August; and, if they did not know the strength of the position held by the Hun, they knew at least the difficulties of


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the ground over which they would have to attack, and the enormous handicap of the mud. They were neither depressed nor confident; it would probably be more accurate to say they were determined and resigned. The worst feature of the business was the delay; it fretted them into impatience. A rumour would make them suddenly tense, and then, the strain relaxing again, they would fall back into the attitude of passive endurance. One cannot keep the bow bent indefinitely. The weather, which was the cause of it all, grew steadily worse.

Then they got their orders; and they knew it, even before they were officially told. Truth travels as mere rumour does, but has its own distinguishing quality of unexpectedness. It no longer mattered now whether the delay or the subsequent decision were right or wrong; a decision had been reached, and was irrevocable. They were relieved, and went back to billets at Bus. There the orders were, to be prepared to move off the next morning. Men shouted across the huts to each other that the attack had been washed-out, and were asked derisively what kind of bloody 'opes they'd got. We're on the move, anyway, they cried in chorus. Yes, where? Blighty, some humorist shouted.

“Yes, you'll go to Blighty in a fuckin' ambulance, if you've any luck,” said Weeper, in a more sardonic vein.




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The first excitement subsided into a quieter but continuous murmur and movement, like the singing of tense strings. Swagger was there, but restrained; men tightened their belts, stuck out their chins, and threw a taunting challenge at fate. Their speech, though mainly in undertones, was quick and excited, even their movements seemed to have more speed, and their faces to grow sharper, as though whetted by that angry impatience which is a kind of anxiety. How much confidence they felt was the secret of their own hearts; they had enough courage to share with one another. The passion of their minds threw an unreal glamour over everything, making day, and earth, and the sordid villages in which they herded, seem brief and unsubstantial, as though men held within themselves the mystery which makes everything mysterious.

On the march to Louvencourt they passed an Australian driving a horse-drawn lorry, with a heavy load whereon he sprawled, smoking a cigarette with an indolence which Bourne envied. The Colonel wheeled his gray, and pursued him with a fire of invective practically the whole length of the column, to the man's obvious amazement, as he had never before been told off at such length, and with such fluent vigour, in language to which no lady could take exception. He sat up, and got rid of his cigarette, looking both innocent and perplexed. The men were


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delighted. It was quite time somebody was made to pay a little attention to their bloody mob.

In Louvencourt the signallers were billeted in a barn of a large farm, on the left-hand side at the corner where the road from Bus turned into the main street. The town itself had an inviting and civilised air compared to Bus, and seemed to promise some opportunities for pleasure.

“Let's have a spree to-night,” said Bourne, “even if we never have another.”

“No use talkin' like that,” said Martlow; “we'll 'ave many a bloody good spree together yet, me lucky lads.”

“Well, we'll have one to-night, anyway,” said Shem.

As soon as they were free, they sauntered out to see what the possibilities were. They soon found that the amenities of Louvencourt had attracted quite a number of unnecessary brasshats, as well as military police with an exaggerated notion of the value of discipline. They saw only one estaminet, which was closed for the greater part of the day, and only supplied the sour, flat beer of the country when it was open. French beer is enough to make any reasonable man pro-German. Somewhat out of humour, Bourne continued along the street until he came to the Expeditionary Force Canteen. The Chaplain had cashed him a cheque for five pounds the night before, and the shop-window was as rich in


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delicacies as any in London. Hams, cheeses, bottled fruits, olives, sardines, everything to make the place a paradisal vision for hungry men. Shem and Martlow continued down the street, and Bourne went inside and stood at the counter. He expected there might be some possible difficulty about wine, but he intended only to buy food, leaving the wine problem to be settled later. He wanted sweet things, macaroons, cake, and crystallised fruit, all of which he had seen displayed; and when a shopman dignified by uniform came up to him, he began by asking for these things. The man merely asked him for a chit; and when Bourne replied that he had not got a chit, that he would pay cash, the other man turned away superciliously, saying that they only served officers. Bourne stood there immobile for a moment. Another attendant spoke to him in a friendly way, and told him he could get cocoa and biscuits at a shed in the yard.

“Money has been collected from the public to provide Expeditionary Force Canteens for the men, and you say you only serve officers!” he said in a white heat.

“Well, it's not my fault,” answered the other, in a deprecating tone. “Those are our orders. You can get cocoa and biscuits round at the back; and you'll only get into trouble if you stay in here.”




  ― (347) ―

Cocoa and biscuits. Bourne strode out of the shop in such a blind rage that he bumped into one of the lords of creation in the doorway, and didn't stop to apologise. He described him afterwards, while his temper was still hot, as “some bloody officer got up to look like Vesta Tilley”; and it was a fair comparison, except in so far as the lady was concerned. The miracle of neatness turned a glance of offended dignity over his shoulder, hesitated, and then continued on his way, with an air of Christian forbearance under very trying provocation. Bourne strode off in the direction Shem and Martlow had taken, and almost collided with young Evans.

“What the 'ell's the matter wi' you?” inquired that cheerful individual, looking with an astonished grin at Bourne's congested face. Bourne grabbed his left arm.

“Look here, Evans; can you go into that bloody canteen and buy me anything I want, if I give you the cash?”

Evans caressed reflectively an unshaven chin.

“Well, I don't know as I could get you a bottle o' whiskey,” he said slowly; “tho' I 'ave faked a chit afore now to get some. I could get you most anythin' else.”

“Oh, I can get whiskey more easily another way, if I want it,” said Bourne, truthfully; “but I want you—come in here, and have a glass of bad beer, while we talk—I want you to get me


  ― (348) ―
a couple of bottles of the best champagne they have got; they'll let you have that more easily than anything else, because they'll feel quite certain it's for some bloody officer or other. …”

“What are you cribbin' the officers for?” exclaimed Evans with amusement. “Aren't you goin' in for a commission yourself?”

“If I were a colonel,” said Bourne; “mind you, only a colonel; and a man like that bloody lance-jack, who has never even smelt a dead horse in South Africa, turned one of my men out of a canteen started for the benefit of the troops by public subscription, I would get the battalion together, and I would sack the whole bloody institution from basement to garret, even if I were to be broke for it.”

“I'll get you all you want, without sackin' the bloody place,” said Evans reasonably, though he could not stop laughing. “Look 'ere, I've only come down to get some cleanin' kit. I'll be down again later, an' I'll work what you want all right. Don't you worry.”

Bourne gave him a list of things apart from the wine, and then handed him over some notes.

“I don't want you to chance your arm for nothing,” he said; “you keep twenty-five francs for yourself, and if you can come along to our billet at about half-past eight to-night, you can have anything we've got. I don't see why we shouldn't have a good time, even if we're not a


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lot of bum-boys attached to the staff of some bloody general or other. There will only be Shem, Martlow, myself, and perhaps Corporal Hamley. He's not a bad chap, though he had a bit of a down on us at first. Are you going over the top?”

“Too bloody true I am. I'd as lief go as stay be'ind in fuckin' detail camp.”

They finished the beer, and went into the street, Bourne pointing out where his billet was.

“I'll bring them things along between 'alf-past one an' two o'clock,” said Evans; “but I shan't be able to get down to-night. Look 'ere, there'll be a lot o' stuff to carry, wi' two bottles o' wine an' all. Couldn't you be outside the canteen at 'alf-past one? …”

“Shem and Martlow may go,” said Bourne, with a return to heat. “I am not going near the bloody place again. If I see that lance-jack outside, I'll make his face so that he won't be able to smile for a week. I don't want to get into the mush for bashing him only once, but if I could have an uninterrupted three minutes. …”

Evans turned away, laughing; he could not wait longer, as he was already a bit behind time. He met Shem and Martlow outside the Expeditionary Force Canteen, and they asked him if he had seen Bourne.

“Seen 'im, yes, I've seen 'im. They 'oofed 'im out o' the canteen, an' 'e's gone completely off


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the 'andle about it. What I like about ol' Bourne is, that when 'e does get up the pole, 'e goes abso-bloody-lutely fanti. 'e'as been lookin' for you two. Where've you been?”

“We went round the back an' 'ad some cocoa and biscuits,” said Martlow, innocently.

“For Gawd's sake don't mention cocoa an' biscuits to 'im,” said Evans. “You'd better go an' take 'im back to billets, before 'e starts fightin' a policeman. Everybody seems to be in a bloody bad temper to-day. All got wind-up, I suppose. Meet me 'ere at 'alf-past one, 'e'll tell you about it. Just because they wouldn't serve 'im, 'e wants the best they've got. Well, see you later.”

“Let's find Bourne,” said Martlow to Shem, as Evans went into the shop; “when 'e's like that, 'e'd quarrel with 'is own bloody shadder.”

They found him at last in their own billets, talking to Corporal Hamley, who was in a silent humour. He had recovered, but you could see he was still sore from injustice. Trying to make cheerful conversation, Shem inadvertently mentioned the incident of the Colonel and the Australian driver.

“You want a few thousand Australians in the British Army,” said Bourne angrily. “They would put wind up some of these bloody details who think they own the earth.”

“What are you talkin' about? What details?”


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inquired Corporal Hamley, who knew nothing about the matter.

“The whole bloody issue,” said Bourne, comprehensively. “Officers, and other ranks. You can't put eight hundred fighting men into the line, without having another eight hundred useless parasites behind them pinching the stores.”

He gave them a rapid, and somewhat incoherent, account of the episode which had ruffled him; and they could not quite make up their minds, either from what Evans had said, or from his own account, how far the trouble in the canteen had gone. The arrival of the orderly-corporal perturbed them still more.

“Bourne 'ere?” he asked, and then seeing his man, added: “You're to go before Major Shadwell at two o'clock, at 'is billet, by the orderly-room. You'll take 'im up, corporal.”

“What's the trouble about?” asked the corporal, alarmed at the possibility that one of his section might have disgraced himself.

“Oh, there's no trouble,” said Bourne, with a weary impatience. “It is probably about my commission.”

His interview with Major Shadwell did him a lot of good. It was a plain, matter-of-fact conversation. The second-in-command apparently knew all he needed to know about him, merely asking him a few questions and then explaining


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the procedure. At the same time, he managed to put into what was a only matter of routine, a touch of humanity. He was quiet, serious, and yet approachable. He made only one reference to the attack, and that was indirectly, when he told Bourne that the Colonel would see him after it was over. It seemed to reduce the attack to the right proportions, as being after all only a matter of routine too. As he walked back to billets with Corporal Hamley, after the interview was over, the corporal turned to him.

“Anyway,” he said, “Major Shadwell's the right kind of officer.”

“Yes,” said Bourne, a little preoccupied. “He's all right. He's in the cart with the rest of us.”

They carried on with their routine training for the next hour; but the work seemed irrelevant, and they were preoccupied and dreamy. After Corporal Hamley told them they might pack up for the day, they wrote letters home, and during this laborious business the stable became extraordinarily quiet and pensive. Suddenly reality cut across the illusion. Weeper turned a lachrymose face from one to the other.

“What would our folks think,” he said, “if they could see us poor buggers sittin' 'ere writin' all manner o' bloody lies to 'em?”

“I'm not writin' any bloody lies,” said Madeley. “I'm tellin' 'em I'm in the pink, an'


  ― (353) ―
so I am. An' I'm tellin' 'em everythin' 's all right, an' so 't is, up to the present.”

“What the 'ell are you tellin' 'em?” said Glazier, more brutally, turning on Weeper. “Nothin' but the bloody truth, eh? ‘Dear Mother, by the time you get this I'll be dead.’ ”

“If you do write the truth they rub it out in th' orderly-room,” said Martlow; “so you might just as well write cheerful. Me mother told me the first letters I sent 'ome was all rubbed out wi' indelible pencil, so as she couldn't read anythin', 'cept that it were rainin', an' your lovin' son Babe: that's the silly name they give me when I were a kid.”

“It's 'igh time they sent you 'ome again, now, to the bloody Veterans Corps,” said Glazier, kindly enough.

Bourne wrote three brief notes, and then lounged back on his folded great-coat and blankets. He could feel with his elbow the two bottles of wine and a tin of sausages in tomato sauce; the rest of the provisions had been distributed under Shem's or Martlow's kit. He was in much the same mood as the others were. One did not face the possibilities quite squarely until they were thrust on one, and yet one never lost completely the sense of them; whatever kind of hope or imagining held for a moment the restless mind, one heard behind it the inexorable voice: It must be, it must be; seeming to mark the


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dripping of time, drop by drop, out of the leaky vessel of being. One by one they finished their letters, and turned gradually to quiet conversation, the arrival of tea at last bringing with it, instantly, a general movement as much of relief as of appetite.

After tea, Bourne told Shem he was going to ask Sergeant Tozer to come to their supper; and he set off to A Company's billets. The sergeant was not there when he arrived, so he waited, talking to Pritchard and Minton. Conversation with them was inclined to become monosyllabic at the best of times; for, to them, speech was either an integral part of action, as it is to the dramatist for instance, or it was an imperfect means of ventilating their grievances. At the present moment they were inactive, and they had no grievance, except against war, which had become too much a part of the natural order of things to be worth discussing. So Bourne leaned against the door-post and waited. He saw Miller crossing the yard, and looked curiously at that degenerate face. It had in it a cunning which might or might not be insane. He gave Bourne a meaningless grin, and went into one of the stables. Minton and Pritchard glanced at him as he passed.

“They ought to 'ave shot that bugger,” said Minton, indifferently. “'e's either a bloody spy or a bloody coward, an”e's no good to us either way.”




  ― (355) ―

The indifference of this judgment was its remarkable feature. Bourne found himself contrasting Miller with Weeper Smart, for no one could have had a greater horror and dread of war than Weeper had. It was a continuous misery to him, and yet he endured it. Living with him, one felt instinctively that in any emergency he would not let one down, that he had in him, curiously enough, an heroic strain. Martlow, who had been brought up to read people's characters, said of him that he would be just as bloody miserable in peace time; and perhaps he was right. Bourne, contrasting the two men, had almost decided that Weeper's defect lay in being too imaginative, when it flashed on his mind that while his imagination tortured him with apprehensions, it was actually his strength. Yes: it was Weeper's imagination, not his will, which kept him going. Bourne did not know whether Madeley's or Glazier's tenacity ought to be described as will, but he was quite certain they had more will than Weeper had. They had less imagination, though they were not devoid of it. Miller might be one of those people whose emotional instability was not far from madness. Perhaps he was not a coward at all, and the men may have been right in their earlier judgment that he was a spy; though it was possible that he might be an English, and not a German spy; and then, quite suddenly, from amusing his mind


  ― (356) ―
with the puzzle presented to it by Miller's character, Bourne found himself probing anxiously into his own. It was only for a moment. As soon as one touched the fringe of the mystery which is oneself, too many unknown possibilities confronted one, everything seemed insecure and unstable. He turned away from it, with a restless impatience. He would not wait for Sergeant Tozer any longer; and turning out of the yard he came face to face with him. He refused Bourne's invitation.

“I must stay in billets to-night and keep an eye on things,” he said quietly. “There's a lot to do, one way an' another; an' I'll just 'ave a drink with Sergeant Gallion and the sergeant-major in the comp'ny office before turnin' in. 'ow are you keepin', pretty fit?”

Bourne's assent was somewhat qualified, and the sergeant smiled quietly.

“Got the bloody wind-up, eh? Well, we all 'ave. You're goin' over the top wi' us again, ol' son; comin' back to the comp'ny for the show, the three o' you. Don't let on as I said anythin' about it to you, you know; but that's what I 'eard. It'll be all right. You know the comp'ny, an' it'll be a dam' sight better than messin' about with the runners or sigs. as a spare man.”

Bourne agreed, and his relief was quite apparent. Captain Malet had hit on one cause


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of weakness, when he said that Bourne looked at a question upside down and inside out, and then did exactly what the average man would do in similar circumstances. It did not, as a matter of fact, delay him in action: it was only that he experienced a quite futile anxiety as to whether he were doing the right thing, while he was doing the only possible thing at that particular moment; and it troubled him much more in the interval before action. He had worried for some time as to what his job would be in the attack, and, the moment he knew he would be with the company, his mind cleared.

“I 'eard you were puttin' in for a commission,” the sergeant continued irrelevantly. “We'll 'ave a spree in Bus, after the show's over. I'm sorry I can't get down to-night.”

They parted; and Bourne walked back to his billet in a quieter frame of mind. He was not very confident, or very cheerful, but for the moment at least he was free from doubt, and was not groping forward apprehensively into the future. He had noticed recently in himself an increasing tendency to fall into moods, not of abstraction or of rapture, but of blankness; and in a moment of solitude he seemed to become a part of it, his mind reflecting nothing but his immediate surroundings, as the little puddles in the road reflected whatever lees and dregs of light lingered in the sky.




  ― (358) ―

But this mood was not dreaminess, he did not rouse himself out of it with any effort, or with a start, as one wakes again after lapsing into a moment's sleep. He was instantly aware of the presence of another in his neighbourhood, and always very keenly and definitely. After a few minutes, he met a couple of men in the twilit street.

“Good-night, chum,” they called out to him, softly.

“Good-night.”

And they were gone again, the unknown shadows, gone almost as quickly and as inconspicuously as bats into the dusk; and they would all go like that ultimately, as they were gathering to go now, migrants with no abiding place, whirled up on the wind of some irresistible impulse. What would be left of them soon would be no more than a little flitting memory in some twilit mind.

He turned into their billets, and found them deserted except for Martlow, who told him that Shem and Corporal Hamley had gone off together for half an hour, leaving him behind to mount guard over the provisions. Bourne sprawled beside him in the dry dusty litter; it was hay, not straw, the fine stems of it just strong enough to prickle where it touched the skin. Anyway, they would have some wine, some variation of food, and some quiet talk, before turning over to


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sleep. They were the masters of the moment at least, fate could not rob them of what they actually had now. Food and sleep they needed, in the interval remaining to them, as much of both as they could get. Once they went over the top, with the best of luck the world would be shattered for them, and what was left of it they would have to piece together again, into some crazy makeshift that might last their time. He could not believe that after the show was over, he would be sent back to Blighty, drilled as though he were a recruit again, and, after he had been smartened up, dressed in a Bedford cord suit and Sam Browne and sent back again, to take up an entirely different position in regard to the men. He would have to forget a lot; and, even while he was thinking how impossible it would be to forget, Martlow looked up at him with a grin on his puckish face.

“D'you remember the night we pinched all them pertaters an' swedes out o' the fields at Reclinghem, an' made a stew wi' some bully in a biscuit-tin? 'twere real good, that stew.”

Bourne laughed, a little absently, as one who feels he is being beaten by circumstances and must make the best of them. Men are bound together more closely by the trivial experiences they have shared, than by the most sacred obligations; and already his memory was haunted by outstretched hands seeking rescue from


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oblivion, and faces half-submerged to which he could give no name. Martlow only grinned more broadly, thinking he laughed at something funny in the episode itself.

“When I've got me bellyful, I don't care a fuck if it snows ink,” he continued. “The worst o' goin' over the top is that you get tired an' cold, an' empty. It's that empty feelin' in the pit o' the stomach what gets a man down. You feel as though all your guts had dropped out.”

They both looked up as the corporal and Shem came in, and Martlow turned on them at once with his inevitable questioning, while Bourne took out the bottles and tinned food from under the blankets.

“Oh, they're quite lively down the road,” said the corporal. “It puts you in quite a good skin to 'ear 'em all singin'. Shem an' I just went in an' 'ad a glass o' beer.”

They each took a tin of sausages in tomato sauce, and after debating for a moment whether it would not be better to heat them over the brazier, decided, partly from idleness, and partly from appetite, to eat them cold. Bourne uncorked a bottle of champagne, and was holding it over a mess-tin into which bubbled the creaming foam, when they all turned toward the doorway again, and Weeper Smart came in alone. He looked at them in some embarrassment, and crossing to his own corner, to which the glow


  ― (361) ―
from the brazier and the light from the hurricane-lamp scarcely penetrated, sat down dejectedly.

“Give us your mess-tin, Smart, and have a drink with us,” said Bourne.

Up went Weeper's flat hand.

“No, thank 'ee,” he said abruptly. “Tha needst not think a come back 'ere just to scrounge on thee. If a'd known a would 'ave stayed out yon.”

“Give me your tin,” said Bourne. “You're welcome. It's share and share alike with us. Where's the sense of sitting alone by yourself, as though you think you are better than the next man?”

“A've never claimed to be better nor the next man,” said Weeper; “an' a've got nowt to share.”

Bourne, taking up his mess-tin without waiting for him to pass it, poured out a fair share of the wine: he felt ashamed, in some strange way, that it should be in his power to give this forlorn, ungainly creature anything. It was as though he were encroaching on the other man's independence.

“You don't mind taking a share of my tea in the morning,” he said with a rather diffident attempt at humour.

“A've as much reet to that as tha 'ast,” said Weeper sullenly.

And then he was ashamed immediately of his


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surliness. He took up the mess-tin and drank a good draught before putting it down again, and breathing deeply with satisfaction.

“That's better nor any o' the stuff us poor buggers can get,” he said with an attempt at gratitude, which could not quite extinguish his more natural envy; and he moved up closer to them, and to the warmth and light. The wine may have taken some of the edge off his bitterness, but if he felt less unfriendly, he remained rather aloof, only touching on the fringe of their conversation. They were very conscious of his presence there, but gave no sign of it, merely passing him some food from time to time, as though it were a matter of course. They had finished the wine, and thrown away the bottles, when the rest of the section began to come back, singly or in twos and threes, some of them a little drunk. Bourne handed round the rest of the macaroons, all that remained of their feast; and they made ready to sleep.




  ― (363) ―

XV

He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe as cold a night as 'tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.

Shakespeare

THEY moved back to Bus on the third day after their arrival at Louvencourt, and were in their usual billets by about four o'clock in the afternoon. They had taken off their packs, and leaned their rifles up against the boarding of the hut, to rest awhile, when the post arrived, and they all crowded in front of the hut which served as Headquarter Company's office. It was a large mail. Shem had gone off on his own somewhere, and one of the first letters was for him, so Bourne took it; Martlow had a letter and a parcel: but the remarkable feature of that particular post was that there were fourteen letters and parcels for Bourne. There was no kind of preliminary sorting, everything lay in a heap on the floor, and the post-corporal dished them out himself that day. As a rule the orderly-corporal brought the letters up from the post-corporal's billet, and the quartermaster-sergeant called out the name of the man to whom anything was addressed, and then flung it towards him with an indifferent aim.


  ― (364) ―
But to get rid of the stuff early, and also because he wanted to talk to the quarter-bloke, the post-corporal had brought it up to the company before they had arrived back from Louvencourt; and there, the other N.C.O.s being busy, he dished it out himself, the quarter-bloke seated at his table, taking only a perfunctory interest in the proceedings, while he continued with some other work. It was remarkable that so many of his friends should have shown their solicitude for Bourne's welfare about the same time. After a couple of parcels and three letters had been thrown at him, the repetition of his name was answered by groans from the crowd, and even the post-corporal seemed to resent the fact that he should be expected to deliver so many things to one man.

“Bourne!” he shouted impatiently, and shied another letter through the air like a kind of boomerang.

The pile gradually decreased, but Bourne's name was reiterated at intervals, to be met with a chorus of derisory complaint.

“D'you want the whole bloody lot?” someone cried.

He was childishly delighted, and laughed at the kind of prestige which the incident brought to him. At last there were only a few letters left, and one rather large box of three-ply wood, with a label tacked flat on it. One of the few


  ― (365) ―
remaining letters was tossed to him, and at last only the box remained. The post-corporal lifted it in both hands and read the label.

“Bourne; 'ere, take your bloody wreath,” he cried disgustedly, and the sardonic witticism brought down the house. The box actually contained a large plum-cake. When Bourne got back to his hut, he divided the contents of his parcels among the whole section, keeping only the cigarettes, cake, and a pork-pie, which a farmer's wife of his acquaintance had sent him, for himself. Most of it was food, though there were a few woollen comforters and impossible socks, as well as a couple of books, with which one could not encumber oneself.

During their time in Louvencourt, they had not seen much of their officers, who had probably been receiving their final instructions; but now there was continual wind-up. A hot and exasperated officer would suddenly appear outside the huts, and the men were fallen in to receive his orders. The first was about overcoats. Each man was to go over the top with his overcoat, which was to be worn en banderole; and as most of the men did not know how to roll up their coats in this fashion, they had to learn the art from the few regular soldiers who did. It tried the patience of everybody concerned. When the overcoat had been rolled up into a tubular form, one end was inserted in the other and


  ― (366) ―
fastened there, and a man put his head and one arm through the kind of horse-collar which it formed, so that it rested on one shoulder and passed under the other arm. The first man to achieve this difficult feat of arms was an object of admiration to his fellows.

“ 'o's the bloody shit 'o invented this way o' doin' up a fuckin' overcoat?” shouted Glazier indignantly.

“It's a bloody wonder to me 'ow these buggers can think all this out. 'ow the 'ell am a to get at me gas-mask?” asked Madeley.

“You put on your gas-'elmet afterwards, see,” said Wilkins, an old regular who was explaining matters to them. “But it beats me 'ow you're goin' to manage. You'll 'ave your ordinary equipment, an' a couple of extra bandoliers, an' your gas-bag, and then this bloody overcoat.”

“A can tell thee,” said Weeper, “the first thing a does when a goes over the bloody top is to dump it. What bloody chance would us'ns 'ave wi' a bay'net, when we can scarce move our arms.”

“It's fair chokin' me,” said Madeley.

“Fall in on parade,” shouted Corporal Marshall putting his head through the door; and divesting themselves for the moment of this latest encumbrance, they turned out into the twilight. This time it was Captain Thomson, with the R.S.M. in attendance, and he went through a list of the


  ― (367) ―
things the men would be expected to carry: two extra bandoliers of ammunition, two bombs, and either a pick or shovel. But at least there was one unusual piece of foresight: the men were ordered to go to the shoemaker's shop and have bars of leather fixed across the hob-nailed soles of their boots, to prevent them slithering in the mud; and, with the initial unreason which so often accompanied orders, they were forbidden to leave billets until this order had been executed. There were only three cobblers, who started on the work at once, and it was arranged almost immediately afterwards that the work should be carried out section by section, so that the men did not have to wait about indefinitely. It was characteristic that the men did not grumble at this latest order, as they saw at once its utility, and the precaution seemed to give them some confidence. It soon became equally clear that the order about overcoats worn in banderole was a matter for some misgivings with the officers themselves.

“This overcoat business will have to be washed out,” said Captain Thompson to the regimental sergeant-major.

“They seem to think we're goin' straight through, sir,” said the regimental with a short, hard laugh.

And the few men who overheard them spread abroad what had been said. The men were all


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quiet, alert, and obedient. They had an almost pathetic anxiety to understand the significance of every order, and even in the matter of the banderole, which hampered the freedom of their movements considerably, after reflection they became ready to offset the disadvantages by the advantages of having an overcoat with them. Even the sharp impatience with which a harassed and over-driven officer spoke to them, or the curses of a sergeant bustled by the suddenly increasing pressure of his work, did not cause more than a slight and momentary resentment.

“They're all in it wi' us, now, an' one man's no better nor another,” said Weeper, when Humphreys said something about Mr. Rhys being a bit rattled. “They can do nowt wi'out us'ns; an', gentle-folk an' all, we all stan' the same chance now.”

The thought of that equality seemed to console him. The change in him was perhaps more apparent than real; all his pessimism and melancholy remained, but now his determination emerged from it. Looking at that lean, ungainly, but extraordinarily powerful figure, with the abnormally long arms and huge hands, one realized that he might be a very useful man in a fight. And yet there was nothing of cruelty in him. The unbounded pity he felt for himself did, in spite of his envious and embittered nature, extend to others. Glazier was the kind of person


  ― (369) ―
who killed automatically, without either premeditation or remorse, but Weeper was a very different type. He dreaded the thought of killing, and was haunted by the memory of it; and yet there was a kind of fatalism in him now, as though he were the instrument of justice, prepared for any gruesome business confronting him.

There was something in what Bourne, half in jest, had said to him, that he thought himself better than most men. He knew that the others, including perhaps Bourne himself, did not face the reality of war squarely. They refused to think of it, except when actually involved in battle, and such thought as they had then did not extend beyond the instant action, being scarcely more than a spontaneous and irreflective impulse; but most of them had made their decision once and for all, and were willing to abide by the consequences, without reviewing it. It was useless to contrast the first challenging enthusiasm which had swept them into the army, with the long and bitter agony they endured afterwards. It was the unknown which they had challenged; and when the searching flames took hold of their very flesh, the test was whether or not they should flinch under them. The men knew it. We can stick it, they said; and they had to retrieve their own failures, to subdue their own doubts, to master their own pitiful


  ― (370) ―
human weaknesses, only too conscious for the most part, even when they broke into complaints, that the struggle with their own nature was always inconclusive.

Bourne, Shem, and Martlow were ordered to report to Sergeant-major Robinson and have their boots barred with the rest of A Company. The cobblers worked hurriedly, in a ring of light surrounded by a press of waiting men. As each man got his boots back, he showed them to Mr. Sothern, who approved the work, rather perfunctorily, with a nod. When Bourne and his companions presented themselves to the sergeant-major, Mr. Sothern wanted to know why they were there; and when the sergeant-major told him that they would rejoin the Company on the following day until after the attack, the officer said they had better have their boots done at once, so as to get them out of the way. As soon as the job was finished, shouldering his way to the door, Bourne turned irritably to the other two.

“For God's sake let's get out of this bloody confusion, and go somewhere where we can see life,” he said, almost as though they were the cause of keeping him waiting about the camp. There was really very little confusion, in spite of the haste and strain.

“We'd better see the corporal first,” answered Shem quietly.




  ― (371) ―

He and Martlow both noticed the acerbity in Bourne's tone.

“You can go out for 'alf an hour or so,” said Corporal Hamley indifferently, “but you may be wanted later. There's a carryin'-party goin' up the line.”

It was not very welcome news, but they accepted the fact quietly; and merely walked down to the estaminet for a drink, and returned. They were detailed for a carrying-party sure enough; and set off on limbers for Courcelles, continuing for the rest of the way on foot. It was very misty and cold, and under the moon, never clearly visible, the cloud and mist seemed curdled milkiness. While they were drawn up waiting by the dump, they heard something ponderous coming towards them, and, looking sideways along the road, saw their first tank, nosing its way slowly through the stagnant fog. They drew in their breath, in their first excitement, wondering a little at the suggestion of power it gave them; for its uplifted snout seemed to imply a sense of direction and purpose, even though it was not, in bulk, as formidable as they had expected. A door opened in the side, and a gleam of light came from it, as a man inside questioned another in the road: there was a tired note even in their determined voices.

“If a can't be inside one o' them, a don't want


  ― (372) ―
to be anywhere near it,” said Weeper, with absolute decision.

The carrying-party moved off, just as the tank was being manoeuvred to change direction; and the men, their eyes searching the fog for it on their return, found it gone. They marched the whole way back to billets, and, tired after a long day, as soon as they had finished drinking some tea and rum, slept heavily.

When Bourne woke early in the morning, he heard the guns drumming in the distance, a continued dull staccato, which had in it momentarily, from time to time, a kind of rhythm. He listened intently, and the bombardment seemed to increase in violence; and but for a vague reflection that the Hun must have wind-up at the avalanche of shells assailing him, his mind was blank and empty. He moistened dry lips with a tongue scarcely less dry. The hut smelt damp and frowsty. He saw Martlow's small face, pillowed on his pack beside him, the brows puckered slightly, and the lips parted, but breathing quietly in a dreamless sleep; and he looked at him in a kind of wonder for a moment. Sleep was the only blessing they had. Bourne drew his knees up, dropping his chin towards them, and sat clasping his feet with locked fingers, while he brooded over nothing. Shem stirred on the other side of him, cleared his


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throat, and then lifted himself to lean on one elbow, listening.

“D'you hear that?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Bourne, with dry brevity, and Shem fell back again flat, his eyes contemplating the rafters. Bourne sat immobile for a moment or two, and then drew in a quick deep gasp of air, to exhale it again in a sigh. He remained still.

“What d'you do that for?” asked Shem.

“Do what?”

“Gasp like that. I had an aunt who used to do that, and she died o' heart.”

“I don't think that I'm likely to die of heart,” was Bourne's dry comment.

He lay down again, pulling the blanket up to his chin. It was only about half-past five; and in a few minutes they were both asleep again, while the rhythmic drumming of the guns continued.

After breakfast that morning, Bourne passed by the regimental's tent, and saw his batman, who had just finished shaving, sitting on a box by the doorway. Bourne noticed that his boots had been barred.

“I didn't think you were going over the top with us, Barton,” he said, his surprise giving his words the turn of a question.

“The regimental didn't want me to go,” said Barton, blushing and smiling; “'e tried to work


  ― (374) ―
it so as I shouldn't go, but they wouldn't 'ave it.”

He was smiling, even as he blushed, in a deprecating way.

“I don't know what 'e wanted to bother for,” he said reasonably. “It's only right I should go with the rest, and I'd as lief go as stay. You think o' things sometimes as seem to 'old you back; but it's no worse for me than for the nex' man. I think I'd rather go.”

The last words came from him with slow reluctance and difficulty; and yet the apparent effort he made to utter them, hurrying a little toward the end, did not imply that they were untrue, but only that he recognized a superior necessity, which had forced him to put aside other, only less valid, considerations. He was thinking of his wife and children, of the comparative security in which he had left them, and of what their fate might be in the worst event; but war is a jealous god, destroying ruthlessly his rivals.

“You're in B Company, aren't you?” Bourne asked him, trying to carry the conversation over these awkward reflections.

“Yes,” said Barton cheerfully. “They're a nice lot in B Company; N.C.O.s an' officers, they're a nice lot of men.”

“Well, good-luck, Barton,” said Bourne quietly, moving away, as the only means of relief.




  ― (375) ―

“Good-luck, Bourne,” said Barton, as though he did not believe in luck.

All day the business of preparation went on, with the same apparent confusion, haste, and impatience, but with quite a painstaking method underlying all that superficial disorder. To some, who did not understand the negligent manner of British officers and men, even the most efficient, the business may have seemed careless and perfunctory, when as a matter of fact all details were scrupulously checked, and all errors and deficiencies corrected. Bourne, Shem, and Martlow paraded with A Company, though their kit and blankets remained in the signals section hut, and were glad to find themselves in Corporal Jakes's section, under Sergeant Tozer. Jakes sometimes gave one the impression of being a stupid and stubborn fellow, but, as a matter of fact, he was a cool, level-headed fighting-man, with plenty of determination, but with sufficient flexibility of mind to make the best of any circumstances in which he might find himself. Like most men of his county he was short, broad, and ruddy, with plenty of stamina. Mr. Finch was more in evidence than Mr. Sothern in the morning. He would take a parade, as when he inspected gas-helmets, with the utmost seriousness and the most regimental precision, and the moment it was over, he would be laughing like a schoolboy, as though the excitement


  ― (376) ―
had gone to his head. Excitement was certainly increasing. In the intervals of that appearance of disorder, caused, mainly, by the haste with which parades and inspections succeeded one another, there was an apparent stillness, which was equally illusory. It might be broken by Mr. Finch's high-pitched laughter, suddenly cut off again, or by an explosion of anger from some individual man; but between these interruptions there was a glassy quiet. Men may conceal their emotion easily enough, but it is more difficult to hide the fact that they are concealing it. Many of them seemed oblivious of each other, as they sat, or waited about, with pondering brows, and one might pass a group of two or three hastening on their business, talking quickly together, and one caught a hint of something sinister and desperate in their faces. That was the oddest thing perhaps, the need for haste which obsessed them. Other men, recognizing one, seemed to warp their faces into a nervous grin, showing their teeth as a dog might, and then it would be wiped out by a pathetic weariness. One only caught such glimpses of the tension beneath the surfaces momentarily, and at unawares; and while it was more or less apparent in each individual, the general temper of the men was quiet and grave.

Bourne sometimes wondered how far a battalion recruited mainly from London, or from one


  ― (377) ―
of the provincial cities, differed from his own, the men of which came from farms, and, in a lesser measure, from mining villages of no great importance. The simplicity of their outlook on life gave them a certain dignity, because it was free from irrelevances. Certainly they had all the appetites of men, and, in the aggregate, probably embodied most of the vices to which flesh is prone; but they were not preoccupied with their vices and appetites, they could master them with rather a splendid indifference; and even sensuality has its aspect of tenderness. These apparently rude and brutal natures comforted, encouraged, and reconciled each other to fate, with a tenderness and tact which was more moving than anything in life. They had nothing; not even their own bodies, which had become mere implements of warfare. They turned from the wreckage and misery of life to an empty heaven, and from an empty heaven to the silence of their own hearts. They had been brought to the last extremity of hope, and yet they put their hands on each other's shoulders and said with a passionate conviction that it would be all right, though they had faith in nothing, but in themselves and in each other.

The succession of fatigues, parades, and inspections barely distracted their thought, so much a habit obedience had become. In one of the intervals, Martlow and Shem were sent off on


  ― (378) ―
some small fatigue to the stores, and as Martlow leaned his rifle against the side of the hut, he said something to Bourne, and, turning, hurried after Shem. Mr. Finch was standing only a few feet away, and he glanced at the boy talking to Bourne, looked after him as he turned and ran, and then turned to Bourne himself.

“Seems a bloody shame to send a kid like that into a show, doesn't it?” he said, in a kindly undertone.

“He was with us on the Somme in July and August, sir,” was all Bourne's reply, though that he, too, thought it a bloody shame was sufficiently obvious.

“Was he?” exclaimed Mr. Finch appreciatively. “Stout fellow. It's a bloody shame, all the same.”

He struck at a clod of mud with his stick.

“Bloody awful weather to go over in, isn't it?” he said, almost as though he were only thinking aloud. “However, we can only do our best.”

Some other men coming up, he moved off a few paces, and the drumming of the distant guns came to them. Bourne thought now that it did not sound so heavy as some of the bombardments on the Somme. Sergeant Tozer came on the scene, and when he went into the empty hut, Bourne followed him.

“What do you make of it, sergeant?” he asked.




  ― (379) ―

“I don't know what to make of it. What the bloody hell do you make of it, yourself? After all, that's what matters. I suppose we'll come through all right; we've done it before, so we can do it again. Anyway, it can't be more of a bloody balls-up than some o' the other shows 'ave been. Give us over that entrenching tool handle, that bloody snob drove a nail through my boot.”

He had unrolled one of his puttees, taken a boot off, and sat on the ground while he felt for the offending nail with his fingers, a look of exasperated patience on his face; having found it he tried to flatten, bend, or break the point off with the metal-bound end of the handle.

“Fuck the bloody thing!” he said fiercely under his breath.

Ultimately he succeeded in his object, and after feeling where the point had been, critically, with his fingers, he drew on his boot again.

“You don't want to get the fuckin' wind up, you know,” he said kindly.

“Who's getting wind up?” replied Bourne, resentfully. “Don't you worry about me, sergeant. I can stick it all right. If I do get it in the neck, I'll be out of this bloody misery, anyway.”

“That's all right, ol' son,” said the sergeant. “You needn't take me up the wrong way, you know. I'm not worryin' about you. I'm a bit


  ― (380) ―
windy myself. It'll be all right when we get started. We'll pull it off somehow or other.”

He stood up, and then stooped to pull his trouser down over the top of his puttee, turning himself sideways with one arm outstretched, and glancing down, afterwards, to see that it hung straight and neat. Then he chucked out his chest, flinging his head back so that his chin seemed more aggressive, and swung out of the hut into the mist.

“I'll lay our artillery is puttin' the bloody wind up them fuckin' Fritzes,” he said to Bourne over his shoulder, so that he failed to see Mr. Finch, who had returned. “If they haven't got a suspish already, they'll be wonderin'. … I beg pardon, sir, I didn't see you was there.”

“Shall we win, sergeant?” said Mr. Finch, laughing.

“Oh, we'll win all right, sir,” said Sergeant Tozer grimly, “but not yet.”

“Sergeant, about those bombs,” began Mr. Finch, and Bourne, saluting, walked off to the signallers' hut again.

They didn't do much that night. Going into an estaminet early, they had a bottle of wine between them, and then strolled from one end of the town to the other. It was a long, straggling town, with a large civilian element, and chinks of light came between the blinds of the windows. On their way back to billets they turned into the


  ― (381) ―
Y.M.C.A. to get some cocoa. They did not feel like drinking bad wine or beer in a crowded and noisy estaminet, and argued that in any case they would have a rum ration that night. The Y.M.C.A., however, was as noisy and as crowded as the estaminet; and there was a good deal of clowning. One man was singing I want to go home:

“Oh, my! I don't want to die,
I want to go 'ome!”

dancing, as he sang, with a kind of waltz step. At the next table were three men smoking and talking, so close that above the murmuring din one heard snatches of their talk. Bourne ordered cocoa, and paid for it; and they talked a little to Weston, the attendant, who had been in the Westshires at one time. Then he left them, and they sat there, smoking. One of the men at the next table was talking to the other two.

“ ‘What's the matter wi' the girl?’ the officer asked 'im. ‘I don' know, sir,’ said Sid, ‘she went into one o' them out-'ouses wi' Johnson; an' the nex' thing I 'eard was that Johnson 'ad gone for the doctor. Said she'd 'ad a fit.’—‘Oh,’ said the officer, ‘bloody tight fit, I suppose.’ ”

They all laughed, and Bourne looked at their sneering faces, and turned away again. He


  ― (382) ―
wanted to get out of all this senseless clamour; and as his eyes turned away, he chanced to see over the door a red strip on which was printed in white letters: “AND UNDERNEATH ARE THE EVERLASTING ARMS.” It struck him with an extraordinary vividness, that bare text sprawling across the wall above the clamour of those excited voices; and once again he knew that feeling of certitude in a peace so profound, that all the turmoil of the earth was lost in it.

“Shall we go back?” he asked the others quietly, and they followed him out into the mist and mud.

After they had had their rum-ration they took off boots, puttees, and tunic, and rolled themselves into their blankets, spreading their great-coats over them as well, because of the cold. Bourne felt quiet, and was almost asleep, when suddenly full consciousness came to him again, and, opening his eyes, he could just see Martlow looking abstractedly into the dark.

“Are you all right, kid?” he whispered, and put out a hand to the boy's.

“Yes, I'm all right,” said Martlow quietly. “You know, it don't matter what 'appens to us'ns, Bourne. It don't matter what 'appens; it'll be all right in the end.”

He turned over, and was soon sleeping quietly, long before Bourne was.

And the next day was the same, in all outward


  ― (383) ―
seeming. They got their tea, they washed, shaved, and had their breakfast, smoked, and fell in on parade, in the ordinary course of routine. The extra weight they were carrying was marked, but the overcoat worn banderole had been washed-out, a rumour among the men being that the Colonel had sent a man up to Brigade, equipped as they had ordered, to show the absurdity of it. As he arrived in front of A Company's huts, Bourne, Shem, and Martlow found groups of men talking among themselves.

“What's up?” he asked.

“Miller. 'e's 'opped it, again. I knew the bugger would. 'e's a bloody German spy, that's what 'e is. They should 'ave shot the bugger when they 'ad 'im! One o' them fuckin' square-'eads, an' they let 'im off!”

There was an extraordinary exultation in their anger; as they spoke, a fierce contemptuous laughter mingled with speech.

“Yes, they let a bloody twat like 'im off; but if any o' us poor fuckers did it, we'd be for th' electric chair, we would. We've done our bit, we 'ave; but it wouldn't make any differ to us'ns.”

The angry, bitter words were tossed about from one to another in derision. ‘Bourne was more struck by the severity and pallor of Sergeant Tozer's face, when he saw him in the hut. He did not ask any questions; they just passed


  ― (384) ―
the time of day, and then there was a pause, broken by Bourne.

“You shouldn't blame yourself, sergeant,” he said. “It's not your fault.”

“That's all right,” said Sergeant Tozer. “I'm not blamin' meself. On'y if I saw the bugger in the road I'd put a bullet into 'im; an' save 'em any bloody fuss with a court-martial.”

The men fell in; and Captain Marsden, with Mr. Sothern and Mr. Finch, came on parade. The final inspection was a very careful one. Bourne noticed that Marsden, who often spoke with a dry humour, restricted himself to a minimum of words. He saw that one of Bourne's pouches didn't fasten properly, the catch being defective. He tried it himself, and then tried the clipped cartridges inside, satisfying himself apparently that they fitted into the pouch so tightly that they would not fall out until one clip had been removed. Anyway he ignored it, and loosening Bourne's water-bottle, shook it to see if it were full. Bourne stood like a dummy while this was going on, and all the time Captain Marsden looked at him closely, as though he were trying to look into his mind. It angered Bourne, but he kept his face as rigid as stone: in fact his only emotion now was a kind of stony anger. Some of the men had forgotten to fill their bottles, and were told what bloody nuisances they were. Eventually it was over, and they


  ― (385) ―
went off to their huts for what little time was left to them. One had a vague feeling that one was going away, without any notion of returning. One had finished with the place, and did not regret it; but a curious instability of mind accompanied the last moments: with a sense of actual relief that the inexorable hour was approaching, there was a growing anger becoming so intense that it seemed the heart would scarcely hold it. The skin seemed shinier and tighter on men's faces, and eyes burned with a hard brightness under the brims of their helmets. One felt every question as an interruption of some absorbing business of the mind. Occasionally Martlow would look up at Shem or Bourne as though he were about to speak, and then turn away in silence.

“We three had better try and keep together,” said Shem evenly.

“Yes,” answered the other two, as though they engaged themselves quietly.

And then, one by one, they realized that each must go alone, and that each of them already was alone with himself, helping the others perhaps, but looking at them with strange eyes, while the world became unreal and empty, and they moved in a mystery, where no help was.

“Fall in on the road!”

With a sigh of relinquishment, they took up their rifles and obeyed, sliding from the field into


  ― (386) ―
the road, which was about five feet lower, down a bank in which narrow steps had once been cut, though rain and many feet had obliterated them. The details crowded there, to see them go. They fell in, numbered off, formed fours, formed two deep, and stood at ease, waiting, all within a few moments. A few yards on either side, the men became shadows in the mist. Presently they stood to attention again, and the Colonel passed along the ranks; and this time Bourne looked at him, looked into his eyes, not merely through and beyond him; and the severity of that clear-cut face seemed to-day to have something cheerful and kindly in it, without ceasing to be inscrutable. His grey horse had been led down the road a few minutes before, and presently the high clear voice rang through the mist. Then came the voices of the company commanders, one after the other, and the quick stamping as the men obeyed, the rustle as they turned; and their own turn came, the quick stamps, the swing half-right, and then something like a rippling murmur of movement, and the slurred rhythm of their trampling feet, seeming to beat out the seconds of time, while the liquid mud sucked and sucked at their boots, and they dropped into that swinging stride without speaking; and the houses of Bus slid away on either side, and the mist wavered and trembled about them in little eddies, and earth, and life, and time, were as if they had never been.




  ― (387) ―

XVI

We see yonder the beginning of day, but I think we shall never see the end of it.… I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle.

Shakespeare

THE drumming of the guns continued, with bursts of great intensity. It was as though a gale streamed overhead, piling up great waves of sound, and hurrying them onward to crash in surf on the enemy entrenchments. The windless air about them, by its very stillness, made that unearthly music more terrible to hear. They cowered under it, as men seeking shelter from a storm. Something rushed downward on them with a scream of exultation, increasing to a roar before it blasted the air asunder and sent splinters of steel shrieking over their heads, an eruption of mud spattering down on the trench, and splashing in brimming shell-holes. The pressure among the men increased. Someone shouldering a way through caused them to surge together, cursing, as they were thrown off their balance to stumble against their neighbours.

“For Christ's sake walk on your own fuckin' feet an' not on mine!” came from some angry man, and a ripple of idiot mirth spread outwards from the centre of the disturbance. Bourne got


  ― (388) ―
a drink of tea, and though it was no more than warm, it did him good; at least, it washed away the gummy dryness of his mouth. He was shivering, and told himself it was the cold. Through the darkness the dripping mist moved slowly, touching them with spectral fingers as it passed. Everything was clammy with it. It condensed on their tin hats, clung to their rough serge, their eye-lashes, the down on their cheek-bones. Even though it blinded everything beyond the distance of a couple of yards, it seemed to be faintly luminous itself. Its damp coldness enhanced the sense of smell. There was a reek of mouldering rottenness in the air, and through it came the sour, stale odour from the foul clothes of the men. Shells streamed overhead, sighing, whining, and whimpering for blood; the upper air fluttered with them; but Frits was not going to take it all quietly, and with its increasing roar another shell leaped toward them, and they cowered under the wrath. There was the enormous grunt of its eruption, the sweeping of harpstrings, and part of the trench wall collapsed inwards, burying some men in the landslide. It was difficult to get them out, in the crowded conditions of the trench.

Bourne's fit of shakiness increased, until he set his teeth to prevent them chattering in his head; and after a deep, gasping breath, almost like a sob, he seemed to recover to some extent. Fear


  ― (389) ―
poisoned the very blood; but, when one recognised the symptoms, it became objective, and one seemed to escape partly from it that way. He heard men breathing irregularly beside him, as he breathed himself; he heard them licking their lips, trying to moisten their mouths; he heard them swallow, as though overcoming a difficulty in swallowing; and the sense that others suffered equally or more than himself, quietened him. Some men moaned, or even sobbed a little, but unconsciously, and as though they struggled to throw off an intolerable burden of oppression. His eyes met Shem's, and they both turned away at once from the dread and question which confronted them. More furtively he glanced in Martlow's direction; and saw him standing with bent head. Some instinctive wave of pity and affection swelled in him, until it broke into another shuddering sigh, and the boy looked up, showing the whites of his eyes under the brim of his helmet. They were perplexed, and his under-lip shook a little. Behind him Bourne heard a voice almost pleading: “Stick it out, chum.”

“A don't care a fuck,” came the reply, with a bitter harshness rejecting sympathy.

“Are you all right, kid?” Bourne managed to ask in a fairly steady voice; and Martlow only gave a brief affirmative nod. Bourne shifted his weight on to his other foot, and felt the relaxed knee trembling. It was the cold. If only they


  ― (390) ―
had something to do, it might be better. It had been a help simply to place a ladder in position. Suspense seemed to turn one's mind to ice, and bind even time in its frozen stillness; but at an order it broke. It broke, and one became alert, relieved. They breathed heavily in one another's faces. They looked at each other more quietly, forcing themselves to face the question.

“We've stuck it before,” said Shem.

They could help each other, at least up to that point where the irresistible thing swept aside their feeble efforts, and smashed them beyond recovery. The noise of the shells increased to a hurricane fury. There was at last a sudden movement with some purpose behind it. The men began to fix bayonets. Someone thrust a mug into Shem's hands.

“Three men. Don't spill the bloody stuff, you won't get no more.”

Shem drank some of the rum and passed it to Bourne.

“Take all you want, kid,” said Bourne to Martlow; “I don't care whether I have any or not.”

“Don't want much,” said Martlow, after drinking a good swig. “It makes you thirsty, but it warms you up a bit.”

Bourne emptied the mug, and handed it back to Jakes to fill again and pass to another man. It had roused him a little.




  ― (391) ―

“It'll soon be over, now,” whispered Martlow.

Perhaps it was lighter, but the stagnant fog veiled everything. Only there was a sound of movement, a sudden alertness thrilled through them all with an anguish inextricably mingled with relief. They shook hands, the three among themselves and then with others near them.

Good luck, chum. Good luck. Good luck.

He felt his heart thumping at first. And then, almost surprised at the lack of effort which if needed, he moved towards the ladder.

Martlow, because he was nearest, went first Shem followed behind Bourne, who climbed out a little clumsily. Almost as soon as he was out he slipped sideways and nearly fell. The slope downward, where others, before he did, had slipped, might have been greased with vaseline; and immediately beyond it, one's boots sank up to the ankle in mud which sucked at one's feet as they were withdrawn from it, clogging them, as in a nightmare. It would be worse when they reached the lower levels of this ill-drained marsh. The fear in him now was hard and icy, and yet apart from that momentary fumbling on the ladder, and the involuntary slide, he felt himself moving more freely, as though he had full control of himself.

They were drawn up in two lines, in artillery formation: C and D Companies in front, and A and B Companies in the rear. Another shell


  ― (392) ―
hurtled shrieking over them, to explode behind Dunmow with a roar of triumphant fury. The last effects of its blast reached them, whirling the mist into oddying spirals swaying fantastically: then he heard a low cry for stretcher-bearers. Some lucky bugger was out of it, either for good and all, or for the time being. He felt a kind of envy; and dread grew in proportion to the desire, but he could not turn away his thought: it clung desperately to the only possible solution. In this emotional crisis, where the limit of endurance was reached, all the degrees which separate opposed states of feeling vanished, and their extremities were indistinguishable from each other. One could not separate the desire from the dread which restrained it; the strength of one's hope strove to equal the despair which oppressed it; one's determination could only be measured by the terrors and difficulties which it overcame. All the mean, peddling standards of ordinary life vanished in the collision of these warring opposites. Between them one could only attempt to maintain an equilibrium which every instant disturbed and made unstable.

If it had been clear, there would have been some light by now, but darkness was prolonged by fog. He put up a hand, as though to wipe the filthy air from before his eyes, and he saw the stupid face of Jakes, by no means a stupid man,


  ― (393) ―
warped into a lop-sided grin. Bloody fool, he thought, with unreasoning anger. It was as though Jakes walked on tip-toe, stealing away from the effects of some ghastly joke he had perpetrated.

“We're on the move,” he said softly, and grinned with such a humour as skulls might have.

Then suddenly that hurricane of shelling increased terrifically, and in the thunder of its surf, as it broke over the German lines, all separate sounds were engulfed: it was one continuous fury, only varying as it seemed to come from one direction now, and now from another. And they moved. He didn't know whether they had heard any orders or not: he only knew they moved. It was treacherous walking over that greasy mud. They crossed Monk Trench, and a couple of other trenches, crowding together, and becoming confused. After Monk was behind them, the state of the ground became more and more difficult: one could not put a foot to the ground without skating and sliding. He saw Mr. Finch at one crossing, looking anxious and determined, and Sergeant Tozer; but it was no more than a glimpse in the mist. A kind of maniacal rage filled him. Why were they so slow? And then it seemed that he himself was one of the slowest, and he pressed on. Suddenly the Hum barrage fell: the air was split and seared with shells. Frits had been ready for them all


  ― (394) ―
right, and had only waited until their intentions had been made quite clear. As they hurried, head downward, over their own front line, they met men, some broken and bleeding, but others whole and sound, breaking back in disorder. They jeered at them, and the others raved inarticulately, and disappeared into the fog again. Jakes and Sergeant Tozer held their own lot together, and carried them through this moment of demoralization: Jakes roared and bellowed at them, and they only turned bewildered faces to him as they pressed forward, struggling through the mud like flies through treacle. What was all the bloody fuss about? they asked themselves, turning their faces, wide-eyed, in all directions to search the baffling fog. It shook, and twitched, and whirled about them: there seemed to be a dancing flicker before their eyes as shell after shall exploded, clanging, and the flying fragments hissed and shrieked through the air. Bourne thought that every bloody gun in the German army was pointed at him. He avoided some shattered bodies of men too obviously dead for help. A man stumbled past him with an agonized and bleeding face. Then more men broke back in disorder, throwing them into some confusion, and they seemed to waver for a moment. One of the fugitives charged down on Jakes, and that short but stocky fighter smashed the butt of his rifle to the man's jaw,


  ― (395) ―
and sent him sprawling. Bourne had a vision of Sergeant-Major Glasspool.

“You take your fuckin' orders from Fritz!” he shouted as a triumphant frenzy thrust him forward.

For a moment they might have broken and run themselves, and for a moment they might have fought men of their own blood, but they struggled on as Sergeant Tozer yelled at them to leave that bloody tripe alone and get on with it. Bourne, floundering in the viscous mud, was at once the most abject and the most exalted of God's creatures. The effort and rage in him, the sense that others had left them to it, made him pant and sob, but there was some strange intoxication of joy in it, and again all his mind seemed focussed into one hard bright point of action. The extremities of pain and pleasure had met and coincided too.

He knew, they all did, that the barrage had moved too quickly for them, but they knew nothing of what was happening about them. In any attack, even under favourable conditions, the attackers are soon blinded; but here they had lost touch almost from the start. They paused for a brief moment, and Bourne saw that Mr. Finch was with them, and Shem was not. Minton told him Shem had been hit in the foot. Bourne moved closer to Martlow. Their casualties, as far as he could judge, had not been heavy.


  ― (396) ―
They got going again, and, almost before they saw it, were on the wire. The stakes had been uprooted, and it was smashed and tangled, but had not been well cut. Jakes ran along it a little way, there was some firing, and bombs were hurled at them from the almost obliterated trench, and they answered by lobbing a few bombs over, and then plunging desperately among the steel briars, which tore at their puttees and trousers. The last strand of it was cut or beaten down, some more bombs came at them, and in the last infuriated rush Bourne was knocked off his feet and went practically headlong into the trench; getting up, another man jumped on his shoulders, and they both fell together, yelling with rage at each other. They heard a few squeals of agony, and he saw a dead German, still kicking his heels on the broken boards of the trench at his feet. He yelled for the man who had knocked him down to come on, and followed the others. The trench was almost obliterated: it was nothing but a wreckage of boards and posts, piled confusedly in what had become a broad channel for the oozing mud. They heard some more bombing a few bays further on, and then were turned back. They met two prisoners, their hands up, and almost unable to stand from fear, while two of the men threatened them with a deliberate, slow cruelty.

“Give 'em a chance! Send 'em through


  ― (397) ―
their own bloody barrage!” Bourne shouted, and they were practically driven out of the trench and sent across no-man's land.

On the other flank they found nothing; except for the handful of men they had encountered at first, the trench was empty. Where they had entered the trench, the three first lines converged rather closely, and they thought they were too far right. In spite of the party of Germans they had met, they assumed that the other waves of the assaulting troops were ahead of them, and decided to push on immediately, but with some misgivings. They were now about twenty-four men. In the light, the fog was coppery and charged with fumes. They heard in front of them the terrific battering of their own barrage and the drumming of the German guns. They had only moved a couple of yards from the trench, when there was a crackle of musketry. Martlow was perhaps a couple of yards in front of Bourne, when he swayed a little, his knees collapsed under him, and he pitched forward on to his face, his feet kicking and his whole body convulsive for a moment. Bourne flung himself down beside him, and, putting his arms round his body, lifted him, calling him.

“Kid! You're all right, kid?” he cried eagerly.

He was all right. As Bourne lifted the limp body, the boy's hat came off, showing half the


  ― (398) ―
back of his skull shattered where the bullet had come through it; and a little blood welled out on to Bourne's sleeve and the knee of his trousers. He was all right; and Bourne let him settle to earth again, lifting himself up almost indifferently, unable to realise what had happened, filled with a kind of tenderness that ached in him, and yet extraordinarily still, extraordinarily cold. He had to hurry, or he would be alone in the fog. Again he heard some rifle-fire, some bombing, and, stooping, he ran towards the sound, and was by Minton's side again, when three men ran towards them, holding their hands up and screaming; and he lifted his rifle to his shoulder and fired; and the ache in him became a consuming hate that filled him with exultant cruelty, and he fired again, and again. The last man was closest to him, but as drunk and staggering with terror. He had scarcely fallen, when Bourne came up to him and saw that his head was shattered, as he turned it over with his boot. Minton looking at him with a curious anxiety, saw Bourne's teeth clenched and bared, the lips snarling back from them in exultation.

“Come on. Get into it,” Minton cried in his anxiety.

And Bourne struggled forward again, panting, and muttering in a suffocated voice.

“Kill the buggers! Kill the bloody fucking swine! Kill them!”




  ― (399) ―

All the filth and ordure he had ever heard came from between his clenched teeth; but his speech was thick and difficult. In a scuffle immediately afterwards a Hun went for Minton, and Bourne got him with the bayonet, under the ribs near the liver, and then, unable to wrench the bayonet out again, pulled the trigger, and it came away easily enough.

“Kill the buggers!” he muttered thickly.

He ran against Sergeant Tozer in the trench.

“Steady, ol' son! Steady. 'ave you been 'it? You're all over blood.”

“They killed the kid,” said Bourne, speaking with sudden clearness, though his chest heaved enormously. “They killed him. I'll kill every bugger I see.”

“Steady. You stay by me. I want you. Mr. Finch 'as been 'it, see? You two come as well. Where's that bloody bomber?”

They searched about a hundred yards to the right, bombing a dug-out from which no answer came, and again they collided with some small party of Huns, and, after some ineffective bombing, both sides drew away from each other. Jakes, with about ten men, had apparently got into the third line, and after similar bombing fights with small parties of Germans had come back again.

“Let's 'ave a dekko, sir,” said Sergeant Tozer, taking Mr. Finch's arm.




  ― (400) ―

“It's all right,” said the young man, infuriated; but the sergeant got his arm out of the sleeve, and bandaged a bullet-wound near the shoulder. They were now convinced they could not go on by themselves. They decided to try and get into touch with any parties on the left. It was useless to go on, as apparently none of the other companies were ahead of them, and heavy machine-gun fire was coming from Serre. They worked up the trench to the left, and after some time, heard footsteps. The leading man held up a hand, and they were ready to bomb or bayonet, when a brave voice challenged them.

“Who are ye?”

“Westshires!” they shouted, and moved on, to meet a corporal and three men of the Gordons. They knew nothing of the rest of their battalion. They were lost, but they thought one of their companies had reached the front line. These four Gordons were four of the quickest and coolest men you could meet. There was some anxiety in the expression of their eyes, but it was only anxiety as to what they should do. Mr. Finch ordered them to stay with him; and almost immediately they heard some egg-bombs. Some Huns were searching the trench. Sergeant Tozer, with the same party, went forward immediately. As soon as some egg-bombs had burst in the next bay, they rushed it, and flung into the next. They found and bayoneted a


  ― (401) ―
Hun, and pursued the others some little distance, before they doubled back on their tracks again. Then Mr. Finch took them back to the German front line, intending to stay there until he could link up with other parties. The fog was only a little less thick than the mud; but if it had been one of the principal causes of their failure, it helped them now. The Hun could not guess at their numbers; and there must have been several isolated parties playing the same game of hide-and-seek. The question for Mr. Finch to decide was whether they should remain there. They searched the front line to the left, and found nothing but some dead, Huns and Gordons.

Bourne was with the Gordons who had joined them, and one of them, looking at the blood on his sleeve and hands, touched him on the shoulder.

“Mon, are ye hurt?” he whispered gently.

“No. I'm not hurt, chum,” said Bourne, shaking his head slowly, and then he shuddered and was silent. His face became empty and expressionless.

Their own barrage had moved forward again; but they could not get into touch with any of their own parties. Then, to show how little he knew about what was happening, Frits began to shell his own front line. They had some casualties immediately; a man called Adams was killed, and Minton was slightly wounded in the shoulder by a splinter. It was quite clear by this


  ― (402) ―
time, that the other units had failed to penetrate even the first line. To remain where they were was useless, and to go forward was to invite either destruction or capture.

“Sergeant,” said Mr. Finch, with a bitter resolution, “we shall go back.”

Sergeant Tozer looked at him quietly.

“You're wounded, sir,” he said, kindly. “If you go back with Minton, I could hang on a bit longer, and then take the men back on my own responsibility.

“I'll be buggered if I go back with only a scratch, and leave you to stick it. You're a bloody sportsman, sergeant. You're the best bloody lot o' men …”

His words trailed off shakily into nothing for a moment.

“That's all right, sir,” said Sergeant Tozer, quietly; and then he added with an angry laugh: “We've done all we could: I don't care a fuck what the other bugger says.”

“Get the men together, sergeant,” said Mr. Finch, huskily.

The sergeant went off and spoke to Jakes, and to the corporal of the Gordons. As he passed Bourne, who had just put a dressing on Minton's wound, he paused.

“What 'appened to Shem?” he asked.

“Went back. Wounded in the foot.”

“ 'e were wounded early on, when Jerry


  ― (403) ―
dropped the barrage on us,” explained Minton, stolidly precise as to facts.

“That bugger gets off everything with 'is feet,” said Sergeant Tozer.

“ 'e were gettin' off with 'is 'ands an' knees when I seed 'im,” said Minton, phlegmatically.

There was some delay as they prepared for their withdrawal. Bourne thought of poor old Shem, always plucky, and friendly, without sentiment, and quiet. Quite suddenly, as it were spontaneously, they climbed out of the trench and over the wire. The clangour of the shelling increased behind them. Frits was completing the destruction of his own front line before launching a counter-attack against empty air. They moved back very slowly and painfully, suffering a few casualties on the way, and they were already encumbered with wounded. One of the Gordons was hit, and his thigh broken. They carried him tenderly, soothing him with the gentleness of women. All the fire died out of them as they dragged themselves laboriously through the clinging mud. Presently they came to where the dead lay more thickly; they found some helplessly wounded, and helped them. As they were approaching their own front line, a big shell, burying itself in the mud, exploded so close to Bourne that it blew him completely off his feet, and yet he was unhurt. He picked himself up, raving a little. The whole of their front and


  ― (404) ―
support trenches were being heavily shelled. Mr. Finch was hit again in his already wounded arm. They broke up a bit, and those who were free ran for it to the trench. Men carrying or helping the wounded continued steadily enough. Bourne walked by Corporal Jakes, who had taken his place in carrying the wounded Gordon: he could not have hurried anyway; and once, unconsciously, he turned and looked back over his shoulder. Then they all slid into the wrecked trench.

Hearing that all their men had been ordered back to Dunmow, Mr. Finch led the way down Blenau. His wounds had left him pallid and suffering, but he looked as though he would fight anything he met. He made a report to the adjutant, and went off with some other wounded to the dressing-station. The rest of them went on, crowded into a dug-out, and huddled together without speaking, listening to the shells bumping above them. They got some tea, and wondered what the next move would be. Bourne was sitting next to the doorway, when Jakes drew him out into a kind of recess, and handed him a mess-tin with some tea and rum in it.

“Robinson's gone down the line wounded, an' Sergeant Tozer's takin' over,” he whispered.

Presently Sergeant Tozer joined them, and looked at Bourne, who sat there, drinking slowly


  ― (405) ―
and looking in front of him with fixed eyes. He spoke to Jakes about various matters of routine, and of further possibilities.

“There's some talk o' renewing the attack,” he said shortly.

Jakes laughed with what seemed to be a cynical enjoyment.

“O' course it's all our fuckin' fault, eh?” he asked grimly.

Sergeant Tozer didn't answer, but turned to Bourne.

“You don't want to think o' things,” he said, with brutal kindness. “It's all past an' done wi', now.”

Bourne looked at him in a dull acquiescence. Then he emptied the tin, replaced it on the bench, and, getting up, went to sit by the door again. He sat with his head flung back against the earth, his eyes closed, his arms relaxed, and hands idle in his lap, and he felt as though he were lifting a body in his arms, and looking at a small impish face, the brows puckered with a shadow of perplexity, bloody from a wound in the temple, the back of the head almost blown away; and yet the face was quiet, and unmoved by any trouble. He sat there for hours, immobile and indifferent, unaware that Sergeant Tozer glanced at him occasionally. The shelling gradually died away, and he did not know it. Then Sergeant Tozer got up angrily.




  ― (406) ―

“ 'ere, Bourne. Want you for sentry. Time that other man were relieved.”

He took up his rifle, and climbed up, following the sergeant into the frosty night. Then he was alone, and the fog frothed and curdled about him. He became alert, intent, again; his consciousness hardening in him. After about half an hour, he heard men coming along the trench; they came closer; they were by the corner.

“Stand!” he cried in a long, low note of warning.

“Westshire. Officer and rations.”

He saw Mr. White, to whom Captain Marsden came up and spoke. Some men passed him, details and oddments, carrying bags of rations. Suddenly he found in front of him the face of Snobby Hines, grinning excitedly.

“What was it like, Bourne?” he asked, in passing.

“Hell,” said Bourne briefly.

Snobby moved on, and Bourne ignored the others completely. Bloody silly question, to ask a man what it was like. He looked up to the sky, and through the travelling mist saw the halfmoon with a great halo round it. An extraordinary peace brooded over everything. It seemed only the more intense because an occasional shell sang through it.




  ― (407) ―

XVII

… on their watch
In the dead vast and middle of the night.

Shakespeare

All the following day they were heavily shelled, and their own guns developed a terrific intensity of fire.

“There's too much fuckin' artillery in this bloody war,” said Jakes irritably, as though they had all failed to appreciate the fact. “You don't get no sleep.”

He had slept placidly through every interval of duty. Towards evening it became quieter, and they were relieved, marching back to Bus. The village, with its chinks of light in the windows, seemed indifferent and unsympathetic. It had a hard, cold reality, and was as squalid and comfortless as truth. Bourne was ordered to remain with A Company for the present; and he went across to the signallers' hut to get his pack and bedding. He saw Corporal Hamley, and faced the inevitable questions. He heard that Glazier had been killed in their own front line, and Madeley wounded, apparently by the same shell. Weeper, dumping the ridiculous flapper, had taken over Madeley's job: he was the only man close to the corporal's corner, and


  ― (408) ―
he listened without joining in the conversation. Then Bourne told them about Martlow. He spoke in level, almost indifferent, tones; there was not a trace of emotion in his voice; and yet he seemed to see the boy objectively in front of him. Corporal Hamley showed much more feeling; and when Bourne began to tell him about Shem, he rose abruptly, and got Martlow's kit, which Bourne had tried not to see. There was one thing that Bourne did not want to do, and yet he knew he would have to do it, however strongly he might resist it. Corporal Hamley's fingers were holding a letter, and Bourne could see the address, and below it, to the left, the firm, rather business-like handwriting, flowing across the page: My darling Boy. He looked across the hut with an indifferent air, and the address seemed to be scrawled upon the darkness.

“Poor old Shem,” he said softly. “I'm glad he got away with it.”

“Some buggers 'ave all the bloody luck,” said the corporal enviously.

And Bourne wondered why the dead should be a reproach to the living: they seemed so still, and so indifferent, the dead.

Corporal Hamley went out of the hut without speaking again, taking the boy's kit with him; the Company-office was only next door. Bourne collected his own things to go, and, as he was passing, Weeper Smart put out his hand.




  ― (409) ―

“A'm real grieved,” was all he said.

“Thanks. Good-night, Smart,” said Bourne, a little shakily, as their hands dropped again.

When he got back to A Company's hut, he found Sergeant-major Tozer with a crown on his sleeve.

“Are you going out to-night, ol' son?”

“I'm too tired, sergeant-major,” he said, reluctantly. “I think I'll get down to it early to-night.”

“That's all right,” said the sergeant-major, approvingly. “But there's some buckshee rum in the Company-office; an' you'll sleep better wi' a bit of a skinful. You come along with me.”

They found the regimental in A Company's office, talking to the quarter-bloke. The sorrow of men is often angry and recalcitrant.

“It was bloody hard luck,” he was saying in a low, uneven voice. “I can tell you I'll go a long way before I find another man like Barton.”

Still shaken and dazed, Bourne tried to realize that some shattered fragments of poor Barton lay out neglected in the engulfing mud, and these men were talking of him with kindly regretful voices, praising him for the qualities which he had really possessed; and then the unreasoning anger of the regimental broke out again.

“They might have given him a bloody chance.”




  ― (410) ―

“I suppose one man can't expect to have no more chance than another,” said Quartermaster-sergeant Hales quietly.

“I'm fed up with the bloody life,” said the regimental; and Bourne knew by his voice that he was looking for trouble; but they all sat there for some time, drinking rum, and talking about dead men. They had not suffered very heavily in casualties. When Tozer got up to go, Bourne was glad to follow him, and then surprised to find himself walking a little unsteadily: that much of the stuff wouldn't have gone to his head six months ago. He undressed partly, and rolled himself up in his blanket, feeling friendless and miserable. Then he fell into sudden sleep. He became aware of himself walking through a fog, only less thick than the mud underneath; it became almost impossible to breathe in it; and then he felt the mud sucking him down, he could not extricate his feet from it, and shells burst all round him with jagged red lightnings, and then terrible hands, terrible dead hands came out of that living mud and fastened on to him, dragging him down inexorably, and the mud seemed full of rusty cruel wire, and men with exultant bestial faces rushed at him, and he fought, fought desperately.

“ 'ere,” said Corporal Jakes, “what's the bloody fuss about?”

Bourne woke to find himself trying to strangle


  ― (411) ―
the astonished man who slept next to him, and Jakes disengaging him from his victim.

“It's all right, kid; 'e's on'y dreamin'.”

“Dreamin'! What's 'e want to go dreamin' all over the fuckin' 'ut for?” asked Bourne's exasperated victim.

Bourne muttered some unintelligible apologies, as he rolled himself up in his blanket.

“If you don't use any bad language when you're awake, you make up for it in your sleep,” observed Corporal Jakes, as he settled himself again to his disturbed slumbers.

In the morning, almost the first thing Bourne heard was that the regimental, after a quarrel with Reynolds, the orderly-room sergeant, had insisted on seeing the adjutant, in order to obtain an assurance of his own perfect sobriety. The adjutant had found the question too nice a one to be settled without medical advice; and the regimental was a prisoner awaiting a court-martial, as a result of the doctor's quite unqualified decision against him. Bourne found him in a bell-tent behind the huts, with the sergeant-major of D Company, whose prisoner he was. He was unrepentant, and full of contempt for life, talking to Bourne only of licentious nights in Milharbour. One could not help admiring the way he declined to share his troubles with anyone.

There was only one parade in the morning:


  ― (412) ―
roll-call; and Bourne had to give Captain Marsden details of Martlow's end, and of Adams's; and then to describe Minton's wound. Pritchard told about Shem's wound, and corroborated Bourne's evidence on some points about the others. It was a long, disconsolate business. In the afternoon they moved up to take over the new front-line to the right of Blenau: they were all indifferent; it was a matter of routine.

A COUPLE of days later, in the small hours of the morning, Bourne was on the firestep; and Corporal Jakes was asleep in the same bay. The weather had become much clearer. After a time Bourne seemed to forget his own existence; not that he was dreaming, or was unaware of the world about him, for every nerve was stretched to the limit of apprehension. Staring into the darkness, behind which menace lurked, equally vigilant and furtive, his consciousness had pushed out through it, to take possession, gradually, and foot by foot, of some forty or fifty yards of territory within which nothing moved or breathed without his knowledge of it. Beyond this was a more dubious obscurity, into which he could only grope without certainty. The effort of mere sense to exceed its normal function had ended, for the moment at least, not only in obliterating his own identity, and merging it with those


  ― (413) ―
objects of sense which he did actually perceive, but in dissolving even their objective reality into something incredible and fantastic. He had become so accustomed to them that they had ceased to have any reality or significance for him. The night was quiet. Puddles and flat wet surfaces reflected what was no more than a reminiscence of light. Against the sky-line he could see strands of wire, and the uprights leaning awry; and beyond them little waifs of diaphanous mist drifting into the darkness. The darkness itself changed continually, clearing at times to a curious transparency, and then clouding again. The moon was behind a bank of cloud in the west; but the stars sparkled with the brilliance they gain from frost. At intervals the silence became so intense that he almost expected it to crack like ice. Then the whine of a shell would traverse it, or several in succession pass overhead, a pack in full cry; and there were dull explosions, or the sudden stutter of a machine-gun in the distance. The mind, so delicately sensitive to the least vibration from the outer world, no longer recorded it in the memory, unless it had some special relevance. The sound for which he was waiting was that of a stumble in the dark, or of a shaken, creaking wire; and that for which his eyes sought, where darkness swallowed up the travelling wraiths of mist, was a crawling shadow advancing stealthily towards him. It


  ― (414) ―
was such an unearthly stillness, that he almost prayed for something to happen, so that he might kill, or be killed. Sooner or later it would come, out of the hostile night. He waited in motionless expectancy, his tin-hat tilted forward slightly over his eyes and gleaming very faintly, as his waterproof ground-sheet, worn cape-wise and tied at the neck with a bootlace through two of its eyelets, gleamed also, from the damp air which had condensed on it.

Corporal Jakes slept. Bourne could hear his breathing; but for that matter he could hear his own breathing, as though it came from a third man. Then, within that territory, which had become as it were his whole mind, something shifted; and he drew in his breath quickly, all his previously passive awareness concentrating itself purposively on one point. It was almost imperceptible, as though a clod of mud had shifted a little; but it continued, something separated itself from the mass, and the intaken breath escaped from him in a sigh of disgust, as a rat came hurrying, with a quick dainty movement of its twinkling feet, towards him. Seeing him, it stopped, a few yards from the parapet, its muzzle twitching sensitively, sat up, sleek and well-fed, to stroke its whiskers with its forepaws; and then, avoiding the puddles and shell-holes, turned aside in a direction parallel to the trench, not taking a straight path, but picking its way


  ― (415) ―
delicately along the ridges, as though to keep its feet dry.

Rats nauseated him. He shifted his stand slightly, feeling cramped and cold. His mittens were caked with wet mud, and the stock of his rifle was greasy with moisture. A thin stalk of silver shot up into the sky, curved over, and flowered into a sphere of light, which expanded, pulsating, to flood the pocked earth beneath it; falling slowly, it dwindled, and was engulfed again abruptly in darkness. For those few seconds Private Bourne was motionless, and then he changed his position, moving towards the other corner of the bay. A machine-gun stammered angrily. The sleeper roused himself and sat up, pushing his tin-hat back from his face.

“Is Fritz gettin' the fuckin' wind up?” he asked, sleepily.

“It's quiet enough,” answered Bourne, carelessly, in little more than a whisper.

“Stand easy, and I'll take a spell. It's about time they relieved you.”

He stood up on the step; and then they both swerved, ducking quickly as something ripped up the air between them, flicked a stone from the parados, and sang, like the vibration of a tense wire, into the air behind them. Bourne recovered from the instinctive movement first, slid his rifle into a new position, and, crouching a little closer to earth, waited.




  ― (416) ―

“That bugger's too bloody personal,” said Corporal Jakes with some appreciation.

Bourne said nothing: now that the tension of his solitary watch had been relieved, he felt tired and irritable. The movements and whispers of the other man only exasperated his angry nerves. A sniper's bullet has too definite an aim and purpose to be dismissed from the mind as soon as it is spent, like the explosion of a more or less random shell. Even a machine-gun, searching for possibilities with a desultory spray, did not have quite the same intimate effect. So Bourne crouched a little lower over his rifle.

The Hun certainly had become suspicious of that brooding quiet. Lower down the line, on the left, another star-shell rose to spill its hoary light over that water-logged desolation, and it had scarcely died when another took its place. Bourne was vainly trying to regain control over the narrow territory he had possessed so securely a little while ago. His impassive face was thrust forward, and the beaky nose between the feverishly bright eyes, the salient cheek-bones above the drawn cheeks, the thin-lipped mouth, set, but too sensitive not to have a hint of weakness in it, and the obstinate jaw, had a curiously still alertness in its expression. He raised his head a few inches, to get a clearer view, and then, directly to his front, a third shell burst into spectral radiance. He was motionless, in


  ― (417) ―
the glare, but his eyes turned searchingly half-right, toward a heap of shattered rubble, something over a hundred yards away, the remains of some farm-building. Jakes, too, confronted possibilities with a stolid indifference. Then the light died again, and Bourne turned to his companion.

“He hadn't spotted us,” he said under his breath; “he just took a chance at the trench.”

And Jakes looked at Bourne with a solemn face.

“Don't you trust the bastard,” he said with pointed brevity.

Sergeant-major Tozer with the relief came along the trench. They were a little overdue. When Jakes mentioned the sniper, the sergeant-major turned to Bourne.

“Where do you reckon he is?” he asked, quietly.

“In that building-rubbish,” answered Bourne, without conviction. “There's a heap of bricks left, where the chimney collapsed: that's where I think he is.”

“You don't want to think,” was Tozer's comment. “If Captain Marsden asks you anything about it, you want to be sure, see? They got Brigadier-General Bullock just about 'ere, an' that will give our chaps a kind of interest in the matter.”

He spoke a few words to the men on the fire-step, and led the way towards the dug-out, Jakes and Bourne following him.




  ― (418) ―

“There's a chance you're right,” said Tozer, without looking round; “an' if so, I want 'im shifted.”

Stooping in turn, they felt for the steps with their feet. Two had given, from the wet, and had been converted into a muddy slide. A third of the way down, a blanket, frowsty with damp, shut off the starlight from them. Groping in darkness they found at the bottom another blanket, muffling the light within. As Bourne entered, his nostrils dilated at the reek, as though some instinct of a beast survived in him. Each of the guttering candles had a halo round it. The smoke from them, and tobacco, and acrid fumes from a brazier, could not mask the stale smell of unwashed men, and serges into which had soaked and dried the sweat of months. Some few men who were awake looked up as they entered, showing impassive faces, with hard, bright eyes. The majority slept, a little restlessly, and were scarcely more than shadows in the uncertain light.

About a third of the dug-out, which had two entrances, had been screened off from the rest by blankets; and there the officers had their quarters.

“Captain Marsden wants to ask you something, corporal,” said Tozer. “Bourne, you'd better come, too.”

They passed behind the blankets, and Captain


  ― (419) ―
Marsden looked up, exactly as the men had done, and with the same impassive face and hard eyes, while Mr. Sothern slept with the same frowning brows. They were all equally damned.

“Corporal Jakes, sir,” said the sergeant-major, by way of introduction.

“Oh, yes,” said Captain Marsden, a trace of anxiety vanishing from his face. “Corporal, when you were out on patrol with Mr. Sothern, I hear that you saw a corporal dead in a shell-hole. Is that right?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Jakes, with no more than his usual solemnity; “ 'e were lyin' 'ead down in a shell-'ole, with 'is feet on the rim. It were a fairly fresh 'ole, sir. Not much water in it.”

“Ah,” said Captain Marsden. “Did you know Corporal Evans, of D Company?”

“No, sir. I 'ad 'eard the name, sir, but I can't say I knew 'im, not personally; 'e 'ad only come to the battalion lately, sir.”

“I see. If he had been Corporal Evans, who is missing, you could not have identified the body; but you are quite sure the body you saw was that of a corporal?”

“Yes, sir. I noticed 'e 'ad a couple o' stripes up. What I noticed was 'is overcoat. It were a good overcoat, nearly new; an' I've been lookin' out for a good overcoat a long while now, but I didn't 'ave time to get it A few shells


  ― (420) ―
came over, an' Mr. Sothern seemed in a 'urry like. …”

The officer looked with some severity at a face innocent of offence.

“You don't even know his regiment?” he continued, interrogatively. “No; of course, as you say, there was no time.”

He spoke in a low even voice, almost as though preoccupied with other matters. Then he looked up again.

“But I suppose you can describe him to some extent, can't you, corporal? Was he a small man? How do you think he had been killed?”

“ 'e were a biggish man, sir, bigger'n I am; seemed tallish, lyin' there. 'e were lyin' on 'is face, an' I could on'y see the back of 'is 'ead. I thing 'e 'ad been shot.”

“Corporal Evans was last seen the day we came up; but for all you know the man you saw might have been lyin' there for weeks, eh?”

“No, sir. 'e couldn't 'ave been dead long, because the rats 'adn't begun on 'im.”

“Ah, I see. Rats are rather bad round here, corporal, eh? Well, that's all we shall ever know, I suppose. I am very sorry about Evans, they tell me he was a good man. What do you want, Bourne?”

As he turned to Bourne his manner became perceptibly colder.

“Beg pardon, sir,” said Sergeant-major Tozer.


  ― (421) ―
“Just before being relieved, Corporal Jakes and Bourne were fired on by a sniper. Bourne thinks he saw him.”

Bourne was about to protest; but something in Captain Marsden's manner prevented him. Both men felt some embarrassment on such occasions as these, for although the conventions which separated officers from men were relaxed to some extent on active service, between men of roughly the same class they tended to become more rigid. Even when momentarily alone together, they recognized, tacitly, something a little ambiguous in the relation in which they stood to each other; and with a non-commissioned officer intervening, as in the present case, the difficulty became greater. Even before the lie which rounded off Sergeant-major Tozer's statement so effectively had been uttered, Captain Marsden had taken up an indelible pencil from the ramshackle table, on which one of the versatile army blankets did duty as a cloth, and was contemplating the point with an air of judicial detachment.

“Oh,” he said crisply. “Did you see anything, corporal?”

“No, sir,” answered Jakes; “but I could swear that bullet came atween us.”

“Really the only thing you could swear is that a bullet came unpleasantly close to you,” said Captain Marsden with a trace of sarcasm.




  ― (422) ―

Sergeant-major Tozer stiffened a little at his company-officer's apparent indifference.

“I'm afraid, sir, I spoke a bit 'asty. Private Bourne didn't exactly see where the shot came from, but as 'e seemed pretty certain, I thought you might like to know about it. Sniping 'as been rather troublesome in this sector. It was only about twenty yards from where Bourne was standing that the Brigadier was 'it, an' then there's this Corporal Evans, sir.”

“Well, Bourne,” said Captain Marsden, impatiently, “what have you got to say?”

“I think the shot came from that direction, sir. It is the sort of place in which I should post a sniper, if it were my job. It is difficult to judge from the sound, but I think the bullet came between us, and it certainly hit a stone behind us.”

“Well, I had better see for myself, I suppose. You needn't come, sergeant-major. Get a bit of rest before stand-to.”

There was a touch of kindliness in his voice, and the sergeant-major, without attaching too much importance to it, felt less ruffled. He found it always a little difficult to guess what his company-officer was thinking, or what effect any of his own suggestions might have on Captain Marsden's conduct of affairs.

Bourne followed his officer up the steps, and into the cold starlight, without speaking. After a few paces, Captain Marsden spoke.




  ― (423) ―

“You know, Bourne,” he said; “Sergeant-major Tozer thinks I am likely to pay more attention to what you say, and of course to some extent that is right; but it doesn't do to allow that kind of impression to spread. Oh, I know the place you mean. I wondered why Jerry had not included it in his trench system.”

Bourne did not see why Captain Marsden should take the trouble to explain to him. He felt rather resentful; but he had been strange in his behaviour since the attack.

“There's nothing there, sir,” he said. “Nothing but the remains of the chimney; no cellars …”

“How do you know that?”

“I went out there once, with Mr. Finch, sir; to look at their wire. Almost as soon as we got across we heard a Hun patrol coming towards us. We crouched down, we were in a dip in the ground, and could see them through the mist against the light. Mr. Finch motioned us to keep quiet. I expected every second that someone would loose off a round. Six buck Huns and only the pull of a trigger between them and peace, perfect peace. It was too easy. They looked like shadows on a window-blind. They had crossed the line we had taken, and passed diagonally behind us, between us and our own wire. After they had passed us, we went on for quite a long way, and coming back we passed through


  ― (424) ―
those building remains. There was nothing to be seen but a few light tracks.”

They were challenged by a low voice; and then Captain Marsden got up on the firestep, but could not pick up the mound of rubble even with his glasses. It needed a starshell behind it to make it clearly visible; even by daylight it was almost indistinguishable from its surroundings.

“Everything quiet?” he asked the boy beside him.

“Aye, sir; but sergeant-major, 'e said there were a sniper about. They send up a starshell now and again, but not close. A can just see t' place, but th' art not used to t' light yet.”

Captain Marsden searched the night again, but could not pick it up. He decided in his mind that as the boy had seen it under a starshell, he imagined he still saw it, an image remaining on the retina, after darkness had hidden the object again. Then a distant starshell revealed it, exactly where the boy had said it was. Captain Marsden made the most of his opportunity, and stepped down again.

“You keep your eyes skinned, m' lad,” he said, cheerfully. “You may see something interesting over there, yet. All right, Bourne; we shall go back. I suppose you'll get some tea, or something, and a smoke. I'm glad I came out, and glad you knew something about the place. I knew there were no cellars, but I was


  ― (425) ―
wondering how you had got to know. A good fellow, Finch; always knew how to concentrate on the job he was doing, and he did a lot of good work. Did very well in the attack, too, and got a nice Blighty. I'm glad you're going to become one of us, Bourne. You should have gone for a commission long ago. Perhaps the Colonel will see you after we are relieved.”

He acknowledged Bourne's salute, and left him; Bourne going into the dug-out by the other entrance. After duly slipping on the two damaged steps with the invariable surprise, and curses, Bourne found Sergeant-major Tozer and Corporal Jakes in their corner.

“There's a drop o' tea still 'to,” said the sergeant-major, “an' your rum ration.”

“What's 'e goin' to do about it?” inquired Jakes more directly.

“Well, he didn't let me into any secrets,” said Bourne; “but I believe, corporal, he wants you to go out and bury that man you saw.”

“It's a funny thing,” said Jakes with the utmost seriousness; “but I'd like to think I'd be buried, that is, if I were scuppered, you know. What gets me with the Captain is the way 'e talks to you, as though you weren't there. 'ave you noticed that, sergeant?”

Sergeant-major Tozer, on principle, disapproved of a corporal expressing any opinion


  ― (426) ―
about his company-commander; but for once he condoned a fault.

“What gets me,” he said, with even greater vehemence, “is the way 'e looks at you from be'ind 'is face.”

“Orderly,” came a voice from behind the blankets, and a runner emerged from stupor and answered in clumsy haste. Bourne lit a cigarette, after passing his tin to the other two, and then leaned back against the damp wall. He looked round cursorily on those faces, from which sleep had banished all expression save that of hopeless weariness. Pritchard and himself, apart from Tozer of course, were the only two men left of the men composing their section on the Somme in July. The rest were all strangers to him. Then he seemed to see Martlow in front of him: a freakish schoolboy, jealous, obstinate in all resentments, but full of generous impulses, distrusting the whole world, and yet open and impressionable when one had gained his confidence. He had come up to Shem and himself casually at Sandpits, after the last Guillemont show, and had sat with them ever since. It had been just a chance encounter. They had been three people without a single thing in common; and yet there was no bond stronger than that necessity which had bound them together. They had never encroached on each other's independence. If the necessity had been removed, they


  ― (427) ―
would have parted, keeping nothing of each other but a vague memory, grateful enough, though without substance. Shem was all right, he had gone his own way, but Martlow would go no farther: and Bourne would always see those puckered brows, and feel the weight of him. He closed his eyes.

The boy on the firestep watched his front intently. The expectation that he would see something move, or a sudden flash there, became almost desire. But nothing moved. The world grew more and more still; the dark became thinner; soon they would stand to. He could see the remains of the building now, almost clearly. There was nothing there, nothing, the world was empty, hushed, awaiting dawn. And then, as he watched it less keenly, something from the skies smote that heap of rubble, the shadowy landscape in front of him blurred and danced, and a solid pillar of darkness rose into the air even before he heard the explosion, spreading out thicker at the top like an evil fungus; spread, and dissolved again, and the heap of rubble was no longer there.

“Christ!” said the boy. “That were a good 'un.”




  ― (428) ―

XVIII

Fortune? O, most true; she is a strumpet.

Shakespeare

AFTER another tour in the trenches, their rest billets were changed, and they moved to huts in Bus wood. A court-martial reduced the regimental sergeant-major to the rank of a sergeant, and he was sent to A Company under Sergeant-major Tozer. He took it very well, but became rather unapproachable, though Bourne sometimes succeeded in drawing him out of himself. Tozer handled him tactfully, never consulting him, and yet taking his opinion, when he offered it, very much as though they were of equal rank. He knew how to nurse a sorry man. The men, too, no longer bore him any ill-will, his punishment wiped out any score they may have had against him; but his manner did not change perceptibly; even though his conduct became more circumspect, he still faced matters in his own rather arrogant and scornful way.

Bourne himself had become rather melancholy and unsociable. Chance threw him fairly often in the way of Morgan, the bombing sergeant, and they would go out together from time to time, to a house in Bus where they could get rum and


  ― (429) ―
coffee, and talk in quiet. Morgan drank very little, and was seldom seen in an estaminet. He was a keen, dapper, confident little man. Sometimes a tall man with a gipsy face, one of the bombers, would join them. Bourne had first seen him at Reclinghem, when they had been billeted together; and, as he never seemed to get any letters or parcels, Bourne had asked him to share in his occasionally. They had become more or less friendly, and one day Bourne asked him what he had done in civil life.

“I was at school,” he said, after a moment's hesitation.

Bourne looked at him in amazement, as he was at least thirty years old, and Whitfield explained quite simply, that he had been serving a sentence in gaol. Apparently he was a burglar, but he made no attempt to justify his choice of a profession which was both hazardous and ill-paid; and Bourne, recovering from a momentary bewilderment, accepted his statement as confidential, and kept the matter to himself. He liked Whitfield, who after all, as a bomber, was labouring in his vocation; but though he kept the man's secret, he once turned to Sergeant Morgan and asked him what Whitfield had done before the war.

“ 'e kept a bicycle-repair shop,” said Morgan. “ 'e's a bloody good man, you know; one of the best men I've got. I've recommended 'im for


  ― (430) ―
a stripe once or twice, but they don't seem to take no notice. 'e doesn't mind, but I'll keep on recommending 'im. You ought to come out with me some night, when we're up in the tronshay. A lot o' the men don't see it, but it's a good game really. You're free to do very much as you please. O' course you get your orders, an' they make up some kind of a plan; but that's all eye-wash. You've got to forget all that as soon as you start, an' make your own arrangements as you go on. I've taken out quite a lot o' officers now, an' they're all the same, pretty decent chaps as a rule. They draw up a plan, an' then they just come to me an' ask me to take a glance at it, an' see if it's all right. It's all right, sir, I always say to 'em; you just bung it in at th' orderly-room, an' we'll do what's possible. On'y one officer ever gave me any trouble, a chap attached to us, no names no pack-drill; but 'e were a bastard, 'e were. Military Cross, an' bar; reg'lar pot-'unter; an' we lost one o' the best corporals we've ever 'ad through that bloody man. Wouldn't be told, 'e wouldn't.”

Bourne knew something of the story, but he was not paying much attention. Very slowly, and less as a possibility than as a kind of dream, there woke in him a desire to see and explore a little of the Hun trenches again. The desire grew, fascinating him; and then faded again, as


  ― (431) ―
a dream might, for he knew the reality too well. They finished their rum and coffee, and walked back together to the huts.

“Where've you been?” said Sergeant-major Tozer. “I don't seem to get much time these days, but I was lookin' for you to-night. Thought we might go out an' see what was doin' in this bloody 'ole.”

“Sergeant-major,” said Bourne, “we won't go out. I'll try and scrounge a bottle of whiskey, and we'll have a spree to-morrow night in the company office, with Sergeant Hope and Corporal Jakes. Never mind how I'll get it. You're not supposed to know that: it's not in Infantry Training.”

All the talk in the camp on the following morning was about Miller the deserter, who had been arrested near Calais, and had been brought back under escort.

“Wish they'd shot the bugger, an' saved us the trouble,” was all Sergeant-major Tozer said.

“He gave you the slip all right, Sergeant-major,” said Sergeant Hope, with a laugh that sounded a little supercilious.

“He gave me the slip all right,” admitted Tozer; “but then he wasn't a prisoner.”

A new regimental sergeant-major had come to them from another battalion some days earlier. Hope knew him a little, and said he was a pukka soldier, reserved and strict, but very reasonable.


  ― (432) ―
He came into A Company's hut, and asked for Bourne, at half-past five that afternoon; and when Bourne came to him at the double, he was told to make himself look smart, as he was to go before the commanding-officer at six o'clock, about his commission. For the moment Bourne felt an almost uncontrollable desire to draw back, if possible; then he accepted the situation, and went to brush up and wash. While he was rolling on his puttees again, Sergeant Hope came to him.

“D'you mind asking the regimental to come along to-night, too?” he asked.

“You ask him, Sergeant,” said Bourne characteristically.

“No bloody fear,” said Hope. “I don't mind letting him know what's in the wind. He's a jolly good sport, is old Traill, though he does stand a bit on his dignity; it will be all right if you tell him it's just a kind of farewell drink together; but it wouldn't do for us to ask him. He would think we had put you up to getting it; but after you've seen the Colonel you could ask him.”

A little reluctantly Bourne agreed; but he felt awkward about it, because after all he did not know the regimental, and the whole business was, to say the least, irregular. As soon as he was dressed, the regimental looked him over.




  ― (433) ―

“As you are ready,” he said, “we may as well walk down. I want to have a talk to you.”

They set off together, walking slowly, and even stopping; and he had his talk. He knew as much about Bourne as anybody in the battalion knew, evidently; and his remarks were very much to the point. Discipline was discipline, he said; though one allowed a certain latitude to the reasonable man.

“You're quite right to be friendly with everyone, so long as you behave yourself, and don't try to take advantage. All the same, you know, some of the men with whom you're friendly may be all right in their place, but you don't want to judge the whole army by them. You will have to forget a lot, and begin again; that is, you will have to take a different view. You know the men. But when you're an officer you won't know your men. You'll be lucky if you know your N.C.O.s, and you'll have to leave a lot of it to them. You'll have to keep them up to the mark; but you'll have to trust them, and let them know it.”

He went into the orderly-room, and presently returned to take in Bourne. The Colonel was sitting at his table, which was covered by the invariable blanket, and apparently Bourne's business was only one of many matters engaging his attention. He seemed thoughtful and preoccupied, rather than tired, and he looked at


  ― (434) ―
Bourne with his inflexible blue-gray eyes, while he questioned him about himself and his life. His manner seemed to grow a little kindlier, without ceasing to be detached, as he proceeded. Then, without asking any more questions, he gave Bourne some advice which did not differ substantially from the regimental's.

“I shall make you a lance-corporal,” he said in conclusion. “It may be some weeks before the matter goes through; and you will have to go before the Brigadier-General for his approval. I think they're very lucky to get you, as I feel sure you will make a good officer.”

Bourne thanked him, saluted, and left. Outside, he waited for the regimental in a curious state of pleasurable excitement. The Colonel's praise and encouragement filled him with gratitude, but something warred against his elation; he felt through all his excitement some intractable regret, and could only say to himself what he had said through all the past months: One is bound to try, one is not bound to succeed. Then the regimental came out to him.

“Sir,” said Bourne, “as I may be going away at any time now, I asked Sergeant-major Tozer, and Sergeant Hope, and Corporal Jakes to have a drink with me to-night; and I should be very glad of your company too. I have got a bottle of Scotch whiskey.”

The regimental wondered how he had got it,


  ― (435) ―
and noticing Bourne's anxiety, he concealed a smile with a hand stroking his moustache.

“I suppose it's an exceptional occasion,” he said, quietly. “I'll come along at eight. After all, a bottle of whiskey will do less harm to five men than to four.

He walked into the dusk, and Bourne went to his hut.

“How did you get on with the C.O.?” said Sergeant Hope. “There's a letter there for you.”

Bourne picked up the letter with a shock of surprise. It was a cheap, shiny envelope with a thin black edge to it, addressed in a woman's handwriting, which was old-fashioned, precise, and easily recognized. He saw the post-mark, Squelesby.

“Oh, all right,” he said absently.

“Is the regimental coming in to-night?” Hope asked him.

“Yes,” he answered, even forgetting to add the customary “sergeant.”

Hope looked at him curiously, and said nothing more. Bourne, getting closer to the candle, opened the letter and read it. It was from Mrs. Martlow.

HE returned it to its envelope and buttoned it into his breast-pocket. Martlow had told his mother all about him, even that he would miss


  ― (436) ―
him when he went “to be made an officer”; and Bourne found himself remembering the walk back to Reclinghem from Vincly, and the old priest, hatless in the twilight, and the reproach in the boy's voice as he asked him whether what Sergeant-major Robinson had said were true. Presently he got up, and walked out between the trees for a little while. He felt restless. The extraordinary reserve and courage in this woman's letter, the painful way in which she reached out for Bourne, piecing him together out of her son's letters, as though he kept something of him which she had lost, that, too, seemed a reproach to him. He had heard nothing of Shem. Shem was in a hospital somewhere, recovering from his wound; but he had vanished completely, so completely that Bourne did not even expect to hear from him again. Men passed out of sight like that, and seemed to leave very little trace. Their term had been completed. Martlow, for some reason he could not grasp, persisted in his memory, seemed to be only out of sight, behind the hut, as it were, or even just on the point of coming through the doorway. Bourne went back and sat with Hope.

“You haven't had any bad news, have you?” Hope asked him.

“No, Sergeant. Oh, you mean the letter. No, it was only an answer.”

They went off together to the hut used as a


  ― (437) ―
company-office and store; and found Corporal Jakes there with Sergeant-major Tozer. Presently the regimental arrived; and, taking out his jack-knife, Bourne drew the cork slowly and softly, Jakes mimicking the sound of it with his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and immediately looking as though he had made a breach of good manners. Bourne paid more attention to the regimental and to Corporal Jakes than to the other two; because apparently the R.S.M. found it a little difficult to throw off a certain presidential air, and Jakes, feeling some constraint, looked rather as though his clothes were too tight. That awkwardness wore off. Some kind of warmth and excitement came into Bourne's blood as they laughed at his stories.

“You seem in a pretty good skin to-night,” said Sergeant-major Tozer. “Well, I suppose you'll 'ave a lance stripe up to-morrow; an' then it'll be good-bye in no time. Funny thing, life. We just sit 'ere an' talk as though we'd sit 'ere for ever, an' when one or two ol' friends drop out, an' one or two new uns come along, it don't seem no different some'ow. All the same, I expect we'll remember you longer'n you'll remember us.”

“Damn it,” said the regimental, very reasonably, “you can't forget a man who finds a bottle o' Scotch in a place like this.”

“Have some more, sir? Corporal?”




  ― (438) ―

“Just a spot more. Merci blow-through,” said the corporal.

“I mean we'll be still 'ere,” explained Tozer; “an' you'll be out of it. It won't seem real to you any longer.”

“You don't want to think about things,” said Corporal Jakes.

They all started talking in a desultory way about the war. The regimental was confident, but had no illusions. It could only end when Germany had been beaten; but the end seemed a long way off yet.

“I lost my elder boy,” he said quietly.

Bourne looked at him, at once. Here was a man with a personal feeling against the Hun; and it was curious how seldom one thought of men except as soldiers. One forgot that they were husbands, or fathers, or sons; they were just a lot of anonymous men.

They talked and drank together quietly while the whiskey lasted. It was a break; they became easy, comfortable, friendly with each other, and then they went their several ways to sleep.

Bourne was in orders for a stripe next day, and went to the tailors to get it sewn on his sleeve at once. He gave the tailors some money to wet it.

“I suppose you'll be goin' out on a bit of a spree wi' the S.M. an' Sergeant 'ope to-night,” said Snobby Hines, approvingly.




  ― (439) ―

“No. I'm going to kip,” said Bourne. “Sergeant Hope's on guard to-night.”

In the morning Miller, the deserter, had assumed heroic proportions. He was a prisoner in the police tent, right at the edge of a quarry, with three of the police sleeping there and a sentry outside. In the night he had crawled out under the skirt of the tent, and climbed down the quarry in the dark; then he had crept back into the camp and stolen one of the orderlies' bicycles.

“That bugger deserves to get off,” said Sergeant-major Tozer; but the unlucky Sergeant Hope, who was the person responsible, shoved a revolver into his pocket, took another bicycle, and scoured the country like a desperate man. Even when he returned, empty-handed, he could not say all he felt. In the afternoon they moved up to the front-line trenches.

BRIGADE had ordered them to make a raid to secure identifications, and the various companies were asked to provide volunteers. Weeper Smart, who had been down to the headquarters' dug-out to get something, had brought back the message. With Lance-corporal Eames and a man called Jackson, he had been attached to A Company as signaller for that tour in the trenches. He handed the message to Sergeant-major Tozer, who gave it to Captain Marsden;


  ― (440) ―
and they discussed the matter in a low tone of voice. The Hun had become a little troublesome in no-man's land, and it was a mistake to let him have too much of his own way.

“Mr. Cross will be in charge, with Sergeant Morgan and ten men.”

Bourne had been out with a fatigue party, draining a low-lying bit of trench which needed the pump daily. The trenches were rotten with wet, and when the frost gave the sides tended to collapse. He had brought his men back to the dug-out by the time Captain Marsden and Sergeant-major Tozer had digested the message, and Captain Marsden looked up and saw him, muddy up to the thighs.

“Lance-corporal, we're to make a raid tonight. I believe you know something about the lie of the land up here. Do you wish to make one of the party? We're asking for volunteers.”

“Lance-corporal Bourne is down for a commission, sir,” interposed Sergeant-major Tozer, “and per'aps …”

“I know all that,” said Captain Marsden, shortly. “What do you say, Lance-corporal?”

Bourne felt something in him dilate enormously, and then contract to nothing again.

“If you wish it, sir,” he said, indifferently.

“It's not a question of my wishes,” said Captain Marsden, coldly. “We are asking for


  ― (441) ―
volunteers. I think the experience may be useful to you.”

“I am quite ready, sir,” said Bourne, with equal coldness.

There was silence for a couple of seconds; and suddenly Weeper stood up, the telephone receiver still on his head, and his eyes almost starting from their sockets.

“If tha go'st, a'm goin',” he said, solemnly.

Captain Marsden looked at him with a supercilious amazement.

“I don't know whether your duties will allow of you going,” he said. “I shall put your name down provisionally.

A young man called Gaymer volunteered; no one else. They got some food, and sat in silence, smoking. After some time, Bourne, Smart, and Gaymer were told to report themselves outside H.Q. dug-out at once. The trenches by day were as forlorn and desolate as by night, but without the enveloping mystery. Everything was stark, bare, and cold; one crept within the skeleton ribs of earth. The party gradually came together, and the adjutant climbed out of the dug-out, and spoke to each man individually. He seemed a little perplexed as to what he should say. He looked at Bourne rather doubtfully.

“Feel you ought to go, Bourne?” he inquired, and passed on without waiting for a reply.




  ― (442) ―

Sergeant Morgan smiled at Bourne.

“It'll be all right,” he whispered. “We'll just take a peek at 'em, give 'em a bit of a surprise and come back.”

Bourne saw Whitfield there, and felt as though he would like to hunt in couples with him. Otherwise he felt quiet, almost indifferent, except for the sense of adventure that thrilled in him occasionally; and then, with that perversity of mind characteristic of him, he laughed at himself for a fool, and, when that phase passed, found himself thinking of Captain Marsden with an obscure resentment. Anyway, he argued, probably none of our actions are quite voluntary; if compulsion is not explicit, it is perhaps always implied; and then he found himself wondering whether the determination, which became stronger and stronger in him, was not after all his real self, which only needed the pressure of circumstances to elicit it. They moved off into an empty stretch of trench, and there the officer explained to them what they had to do, Sergeant Morgan intervening occasionally. They were shown a sketch plan of the enemy trenches, the point where it was proposed to enter, the post which, if occupied, they intended to attack; and then men were told off for their several jobs. Bourne found himself paired off with Weeper, with orders to hold the trench at a point where it made a junction with a communication


  ― (443) ―
trench running back to the support line, and give warning of the approach of any hostile party moving along the trench. They were told also that there might be a machine-gun post in their neighbourhood, but this was not clear. Their duty, in short, was to cover a flank and give protection to the raiders. If they were obliged to use their bombs, they were to retire immediately on the rest of the party, without ceasing to give what protection might be possible: if a signal were given by whistle, they were to go straight for the lane in the wire, and if unable to rejoin the others, they were to make their way back to their own trenches as best they could. They were cautioned as to the danger from their own sentries, and warned as to the necessity of answering a challenge promptly.

Mr. Cross, when he was satisfied that the men understood the plan as a whole, as well as their individual parts in it, turned to the sergeant, and asked him if he had forgotten anything. The sergeant seemed to be quite certain that he had not, but thought it as well to go over the whole plan again himself. He was less insistent than the officer on the value of team-work, and seemed more inclined to stress the fact what while the whole affair was a single action, in which their separate parts were co-ordinated, each man was expected to rely on himself and use his own judgment.




  ― (444) ―

“You want to get the ball out into the loose, an' keep it movin',” he said by way of metaphor; and they seemed to relish it, even if they didn't quite understand how it applied.

Then they went back to their several companies, with orders to assemble at nine o'clock by the junction of Delaunay and Monk trenches. Weeper and Bourne were alone together after a few paces.

“What 'opes 'ave us poor buggers got!” exclaimed Weeper.

“Why did you come, Smart? I thought it awfully decent of you,” said Bourne.

“When a seed that fuckin' slave-driver look at 'ee, a said to mysen, A'm comin'. A'll always say this for thee, tha'lt share all th'ast got wi' us'ns, and tha' don't call a man by any foolish nicknames. A'm comin'. 't won't be the first bloody raid a've been out on, lad. An' 't won't be t' last. Th'ast no cause to worry. A can look after mysen, aye, an' thee too, lad. You leave it to me.”

He was always the same; determination only made him more desperate. Bourne thought for a moment, and then, lifting his head, turned to his companion.

“I don't suppose Captain Marsden meant to put things that way, you know, Smart. It's just his manner. He would always do what he thought right.”




  ― (445) ―

Weeper turned on him a fierce but pitying glance.

“Th'art a bloody fool,” was all he said.

It was enough. Bourne laughed softly to himself. He had always felt some instinctive antipathy against his company-commander.

“I'll show the bastard,” he said to himself in his own mind; “if I get a chance.”

Chance. They were all balanced, equally, on a dangerous chance. One was not free, and therefore there would be very little merit in anything they might do. He followed Weeper down into the dug-out.

Sergeant-major Tozer was at the foot of the stairs, with Corporal Jakes.

“You want to look after yourself, see?” Tozer said, seriously. “Captain 'ad no right sendin' you like that.”

“ 'e's no bloody bottle, anyway,” said Jakes.

“You don't want to talk like that,” said the sergeant-major, and then, turning to Bourne: “There's a drop of 'ot tea there, wi' a tot o' rum in it, you can 'ave if you like.”

“No, thanks, Sergeant-major,” said Bourne; “but keep my ration for when I get back. And don't worry about me. I'm all right. I want to go.”

He knew that he did, then, very definitely. It was a part of his road, to whatever place it might lead; and he went to sit down by Weeper


  ― (446) ―
Smart. They talked together a little, not very much. They did not talk to anyone else; but, from time to time, one of the other men would look at them in a kind of disinterested speculation.

THE mist was luminous in the moonlight, but very variable, clouding and clearing, hurrying away on the wind, which was not strong enough to dissipate it entirely. One question was, would it last long enough? They had daubed their faces with mud. Starting at a walk, they dropped after a little while, and crawled slowly and cautiously forward. The mud had become moderately firm under the frost, which was not hard enough to coat the puddles with ice to crack under their weight with the sound of splintering glass. There were a few pauses, when Sergeant Morgan whispered to the officer; and once again Bourne felt inclined to laugh, for some of the men breathed heavily, like oxen, in the night. At last there was a definite pause; and Whitfield wriggled forward with another man. They waited, listening intently. It was very silent now. Suddenly a machine-gun started to chatter, but it was only an admonition. Once they heard the vibration of a wire, and a rattle, and, listening intently, they ceased to breathe. Bourne and Weeper were next to a man with a mace, some of the men called it a kosher-stick, and Bourne looked at it curiously. He felt very


  ― (447) ―
cool; but it seemed a long time to wait there. At last Whitfield came back. Then he led the way forward again, the sergeant following immediately afterwards, then came Mr. Cross, and the men with maces, and the rest of the party. Bourne found himself crawling over a mat of wire, rusty in the mud, loose strands of it tore his trousers to tatters, and it was slow work getting through; he was mortally afraid of setting some of the strands singing along the line. Every sound he made seemed extraordinarily magnified. Every sense seemed to be stretched to an exquisite apprehension. He was through. He saw Whitfield and the other man slip into the trench, and out the other side. Sergeant Morgan gave him the direction with his hand. Weeper passed him, and he followed, trying to memorize the direction, so that he would be able to find his way back to the gap in the wire. They crossed almost together, Weeper taking his hand and pulling him up the other side without apparent effort. The man was as strong as an ape. Then they wormed their way forward again, until they found their position, where the communication trench formed a rather sharp angle with the fire-trench. The fire-trench itself still showed the effects of their bombardment; after passing the communication trench it changed its direction in a rather pronounced way, running forward as though to converge


  ― (448) ―
more closely on the British line. They were now in a shell-hole, or rather two shell-holes which had formed one: Weeper looking down the communication-trench, and Bourne along the fire-trench. The mist was very light now, it looked as though it might almost clear. Bourne shifted his position slightly, to get more comfortable. He already had a bomb ready, with his finger in the ring of the safety-pin. As he moved, he saw, not ten yards away, a faint gleam of yellowish light, that had none of the spectral pallor of moonlight. He kicked Weeper, and pointed silently. The gleam came again. It came from a large shell-hole curtained over, probably by a camouflaged tarpaulin; and something moving inside pressed against the slit by which men entered, displacing it almost imperceptibly, so that there came from it, every now and then, a winking gleam of light. He heard Weeper mutter something no louder than a sigh. Farther, much farther, away, a star-shell shot up into the sky. Suddenly they heard a shout, a scream, faint sounds of struggle, and some muffled explosions from underground. Almost immediately the machine-gun in front of them broke into stuttering barks; they could see the quick spurting flashes in front of it; and Bourne threw his bomb, which went straight for the crack in the curtain. Ducking, he had another ready and threw that, but Weeper had


  ― (449) ―
already thrown. The three explosions followed in rapid succession. They heard a whistle. The machine-gun was out of action, but Weeper, leaping towards its wreckage, gave them another, and rushed Bourne into the trench. They saw through the mist their own party already by the gap, and Weeper's parting bomb exploded.

THE PARTY under Mr. Cross had made a slight encircling movement, and then, after creeping forward until within striking distance, rushed the trench. As the sentry turned, one of the maces crashed into his temple, and another man finished him with a bayonet. There were two other Huns in the same bay, and one had his arm broken with a mace, and screamed. Simultaneously the dug-out was bombed, and a couple of men hurled themselves on the third Hun, a Prussian sergeant, who put up a fight, but was overmastered, and lifted, booted, hustled out of the trench. They killed any survivors in the dug-out, and another Prussian had been killed in the next bay. While they were forcing the sergeant and the man with the broken arm towards the wire, they heard Weeper and Bourne bombing the machine-gun post, and Mr. Cross blow his whistle. Almost immediately a star-shell went up, and there was some blind desultory rifle fire. They had got their men through the wire. Suddenly the Hun sergeant, with a


  ― (450) ―
desperate effort, wrenched himself free, and faced them with lifted hand:

Halte!” he shouted, and flung himself on Sergeant Morgan. They went down together. Mr. Cross fired, and fortunately killed the Prussian.

“I hope you'll never do that again, sir!” said Sergeant Morgan, rising.

“Get his helmet off.”

The chain was tight in the thick fat under the chin. Taking his bayonet, the sergeant tried to prise it off, and cut through all the soft part of the neck so that the head fell back. The helmet came away in the end, and they pushed on, with their other moaning prisoner.

WEEPER was ahead when he and Bourne reached the gap in the wire. Starshell after starshell was going up now, and the whole line had woken up. Machine-guns were talking; but there was one that would not talk. The rattle of musketry continued, but the mist was kindly to them, and had thickened again. As they got beyond the trammelling, clutching wire, Bourne saw Weeper a couple of paces ahead of him, and what he thought was the last of their party disappearing into the mist about twenty yards away. He was glad to be clear of the wire. Another star-shell went up, and they both froze into stillness under its glare. Then they moved again, hurrying for all they were worth. Bourne felt


  ― (451) ―
a sense of triumph and escape thrill in him. Anyway the Hun couldn't see them now. Something kicked him in the upper part of the chest, rending its way through him, and his agonized cry was scarcely audible in the rush of blood from his mouth, as he collapsed and fell.

Weeper turned his head over his shoulder, listened, stopped, and went back. He found Bourne trying to lift himself; and Bourne spoke, gasping, suffocating.

“Go on. I'm scuppered.”

“A'll not leave thee,” said Weeper.

He stooped and lifted the other in his huge, ungainly arms, carrying him as tenderly as though he were a child. Bourne struggled wearily to speak, and the blood, filling his mouth, prevented him. Sometimes his head fell on Weeper's shoulder. At last, barely articulate, a few words came.

“I'm finished. Le' me in peace, for God's sake. You can't …”

“A'll not leave thee,” said Weeper in an infuriate rage.

He felt Bourne stretch himself in a convulsive shudder, and relax, becoming suddenly heavier in his arms. He struggled on, stumbling over the shell-ploughed ground through that fantastic mist, which moved like an army of wraiths, hurrying away from him. Then he stopped, and, taking the body by the waist with his left arm, flung it over his shoulder, steadying it with


  ― (452) ―
his right. He could see their wire now, and presently he was challenged, and replied. He found the way through the wire, and staggered into the trench with his burden. Then he turned down the short stretch of Delaunay to Monk Trench, and came on the rest of the party outside A Company's dug-out.

“A've brought 'im back,” he cried desperately, and collapsed with the body on the duck-boards. Picking himself up again, he told his story incoherently, mixed with raving curses.

“What are you gibbering about?” said Sergeant Morgan. “'aven't you ever seen a dead man before?”

Sergeant-major Tozer, who was standing outside the dug-out, looked at Morgan with a dangerous eye. Then he put a hand on Weeper's shoulder.

“Go down an' get some 'ot tea and rum, ol' man. That'll do you good. I'd like to 'ave a talk with you when you're feelin' better.”

“We had better move on, Sergeant,” said Mr. Cross, quietly.

“Very good, sir.”

The party moved off, and for a moment Sergeant-major Tozer was alone in the trench with Sergeant Morgan.

“I saw him this side of their wire, Sergeant-major, and thought everything would be all right. 'pon my word, I would 'ave gone back for 'im myself, if I'd known.”




  ― (453) ―

“It was hard luck,” said Sergeant-major Tozer with a quiet fatalism.

Sergeant Morgan left him; and the sergeant-major looked at the dead body propped against the side of the trench. He would have to have it moved; it wasn't a pleasant sight, and he bared his teeth in the pitiful repulsion with which it filled him. Bourne was sitting: his head back, his face plastered with mud, and blood drying thickly about his mouth and chin, while the glazed eyes stared up at the moon. Tozer moved away, with a quiet acceptance of the fact. It was finished. He was sorry about Bourne, he thought, more sorry than he could say. He was a queer chap, he said to himself, as he felt for the dug-out steps. There was a bit of a mystery about him; but then, when you come to think of it, there's a bit of a mystery about all of us. He pushed aside the blanket screening the entrance, and in the murky light he saw all the men lift their faces, and look at him with patient, almost animal eyes.

Then they all bowed over their own thoughts again, listening to the shells bumping heavily outside, as Fritz began to send a lot of stuff over in retaliation for the raid. They sat there silently: each man keeping his own secret.

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