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  ― (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


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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.




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“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


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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:


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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


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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


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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


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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.




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“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


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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.


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“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.




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“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


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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


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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


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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


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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.”

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