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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.




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“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.




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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.




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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


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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.




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“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.”




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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


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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'


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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


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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


  ― (359) ―
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.

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