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  ― (227) ―

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,


  ― (235) ―
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


  ― (253) ―
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.

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