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  ― (67) ―

IV

And now their pride and mettle is asleep.

Shakespeare

THE next day they moved back to the sordid squalor of Méaulte, where they spent two nights housed in stables, and the draft ceased to have a separate existence, being absorbed by the various companies. There was a kit inspection, at which Bourne's tin hat was condemned, the fact being entered in a notebook by Sergeant-Major Robinson; and that piece of ritual concluded the matter for the time being, the company-quartermaster-sergeant having no surplus tin hats at his disposal. At Méaulte they were still within the battle-area, and there was nothing for them to do. Shem, Bourne, and Martlow idled about, looking at the interminable train of motor lorries, which passed through, day and night, without ceasing, and so densely packed that it was difficult to cross the narrow street between them. Little Martlow had a grievance. In the attack he had annexed the field-glasses of two German officers, who being dead had no further use for them. At Happy Valley, seeing him needlessly decorated with the loot of battle, the commanding-officer had said to him peremptorily: “Hand over those glasses to


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me, my boy. I shall see that they are forwarded to the proper quarter.” His action may have been correct, from the official point of view, but to little Martlow it was an unjustifiable interference with the rights of private ownership.

“And now the bastard's wearin' the bes' pair slung round 'is own bloody neck. Wouldn't you've thought the cunt would 'a' give me vingt frong for 'em anyway?”

“Your language is deplorable, Martlow,” said Bourne in ironical reproof; “quite apart from the fact that you are speaking of your commanding officer. Did you learn all these choice phrases in the army?”

“Not much,” said little Martlow derisively; “all I learnt in the army was me drill an' care o' bloody arms. I knew all the fuckin' patter before I joined.”

Shem grinned maliciously at Bourne, who could never offer any serious resistance to Martlow's rosy-cheeked impudence. Bourne had seen the boy blubbering like the child he really was, as they went over the top a couple of days earlier, but unaware that he was blubbering, and possessed at the same time by a more primitive fury than filled the souls of grown men. It was unsafe to give oneself the airs of riper experience with a boy of Martlow's breed. Probably life to him had always been a kind of warfare; and his precocity at times could be disconcerting.




  ― (69) ―

“Voulez-vous m'embrasser, mademoiselle?” he cried provocatively to a bovine female who replied only with a look of virtuous indignation. “Well, thank Gawd we're going back to decent billets where there'll be some chance of a bon time.”

They marched from Méaulte to Méricourt, and on the way an enemy plane swooped out of the blue and dropped two bombs, which exploding on the hard macadam sent gravel and road metal flying in all directions. In spite of their casualties the men were very steady, and though there was no cover, they moved quietly off the unenclosed road on to soft wet turf, which would stifle to some extent the effect of any more bombs. Some of our own planes at once attacked the Hun, and drove him off; a running fight ensued, but it was apparently indecisive. Evidently the enemy was challenging our temporary supremacy in the air with a new type of machine, for in the earlier stages of the battle he had not been very troublesome.

Bourne had been set to pulling a Lewis-gun cart, a job which he liked because it enabled him to get rid of his pack, which was carried on the cart itself. There were a couple of men behind, to hold the cart back with a length of rope when going downhill. Passing through Ville the men behind, in fooling with the rope, let the cart run forward, and one of the iron rests in front tore


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open the back of Bourne's left boot, and the flesh of his heel as well. It was a trivial thing, but painful, though he did not trouble about it. They had dinner just outside Méricourt, and then entrained; but the van in which Bourne found himself had nearer fifty than the forty men it was supposed to hold, packed into it. He contrived to keep by the door, sitting there with his feet on the footboard outside, so that he got the air, though he had no shade and the sun was fierce. The men at the back suffered considerably: they were both stifled and cramped: and, unable to sit, in standing with nothing to steady them, when the train swayed and jolted they fell and jostled against each other. A kind of impersonal bad temper, which could not find any very definite object, developed among them; there was some abuse, there were even threats and counter-threats, but no actual quarrelling. The general effect was one of a recalcitrant acquiescence in the dispensations of an inscrutable providence.

In the last couple of days their whole psychological condition had changed: they had behind them no longer the moral impetus which thrust them into action, which carried them forward on a wave of emotional excitement, transfiguring all the circumstances of their life so that these could only be expressed in the terms of heroic tragedy, of some superhuman or even divine conflict with the powers of evil; all that tempest of excitement


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was spent, and they were now mere derelicts in a wrecked and dilapidated world, with sore and angry nerves sharpening their tempers, or shutting them up in a morose and sullen humour from which it was difficult to move them.

Bourne often found himself looking at his companions as it were from a remote distance, and then it sometimes seemed to him that they had very little reason or sense of responsibility, apart from that which the business imposed on them. He was not supercilious in this; he was merely wondering how far what he felt himself was similar or equivalent to what they felt. It is a little curious to reflect that while each man is a mystery to himself, he is an open book to others; the reason being, perhaps, that he sees in himself the perplexities and torment of the mental processes out of which action issues, and they see in him only the simple and indivisible act itself. While he imagined that the other men were probably a little less reflective and less reasonable than he was himself, he frankly envied them the wanton and violent instincts, which seemed to guide them, or at least carry them, so successfully through this hazardous adventure. It was a piece of naivety on his part. They had accepted him, and he had mucked in with them quite satisfactorily. But there was a question which every man put to another at their first acquaintance: What did you do in civil life?




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It was a question full of significance, not only because it recognized implicitly the endless variety of types to which military discipline had given an apparent uniformity; but because it implied also that, for the time being, civil life had been obliterated, at least as far as they were concerned: it existed only precariously, and in a very attenuated form, somewhere in the rear of the embattled armies, but for all practical purposes it was not worth a moment's consideration. Men had reverted to a more primitive stage in their development, and had become nocturnal beasts of prey, hunting each other in packs: this was the uniformity, quite distinct from the effect of military discipline, which their own nature had imposed on them. There is an extraordinary veracity in war, which strips man of every conventional covering he has, and leaves him to face a fact as naked and as inexorable as himself. But when a battalion has been so thinned that it becomes negligible as a fighting unit, and it is withdrawn from the line to refit, there is a tendency for individual characteristics to reassert themselves; the pressure of the opposed force is removed, and discipline, until the establishment has been reorganized, is necessarily relaxed. The bad temper which steamed or exploded ineffectively among this van-load of angry men, childish as it was, was symptomatic. Bourne, who had scored in so far as he had air and could


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sit on the floor, nursed his sore heel and was as hot and as angry as the rest of them.

It was already dusk when they detrained, and Bourne did not notice the name of the station, though he imagined they were somewhere in the neighbourhood of St. Pol. They had a march of nine or ten miles in front of them; and another man having taken his place with the Lewis-gun cart, Bourne fell in between Shem and Martlow, and marched with his company again; but he was now quite lame, and tired easily. He was pretty well dead-beat before they came to the end, otherwise the march through the cool dusk was pleasant; a few scurrying rainstorms crossed their line, and evidently, from the state of the road, it had rained heavily there; but now the sky was mainly clear, with stars and a half-moon, which looked up at them again from the puddles, and there were long, straight lines of poplars which stood on either side of them, erect, like notes of exclamation. Bourne was a little indignant when Shem, a tough, sturdy and generous person, seeing him limping, offered to take his rifle. It was after eleven o'clock when they came to Beaumetz. As soon as they entered the village the battalion split itself up into several detachments, and Mr. Sothern, in charge of the party in which Bourne was included, was not quite sure whether he had found the right billets; but he told the men to fall out while he


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went in search of information, and they sat in the kennel of the muddy street. Except for lights in one or two windows there was not a sign of life. The men sat there quietly, tired enough, but with not a trace of bad temper left in them; a kind of contentment seemed to soak into them from the stillness of the place.

When they had found their stables for the night, Bourne took his boot off and examined his heel; his sock was hard with dried blood, and the wound itself looked dirty, so as there was a light showing in the house, he thought he would try for some hot water to bathe it, and he knocked persuasively at the door. It was opened by an old man with a patient, enquiring expression on his face. When Bourne, speaking lamentable French, explained his need, he was invited to enter, and then made to sit on a chair, while his host brought some hot water in a basin and insisted on bathing the wound himself. When it was clean he went to a sideboard, the room was a kind of kitchen-parlour, and brought out a bottle of brandy, pouring some into a cup so that Bourne's heart rejoiced in him; but the old man only took a strip of clean linen, which he folded into a pad, and after saturating it with brandy, he once again took up Bourne's foot in his capable hand, and squeezed the linen, so that the brandy fell drop by drop on to the broken flesh. It stung a little, and Bourne, rather


  ― (75) ―
sceptical of its healing power, would have preferred to take it internally; but against the old man's voluble assurances that it was bon, très bon pour les plaies he could find nothing to say. Finally, his host took up what was left on the linen pad and placed it on the wound, and Bourne drew a clean sock over it. He always carried an extra pair in his kit, but it was a mere chance that they were clean. Like most of the men he had dumped everything that was not necessary, even his spare shirt and underpants; for when a man has to carry nearly three stone of kit and equipment on the march, he becomes disinclined to take much heed for the morrow, and prefers to rely on the clean change provided at the divisional baths, in spite of the uncertain interval.

By the time the treatment was complete, Bourne's gratitude had almost left him bankrupt in the French language; but the old man increased his obligations by giving him a cup of steaming coffee, well laced with that sovran remedy for a torn and swollen heel, and they talked a little while. He could not persuade his host to take any payment, but he accepted a few cigarettes, which he broke up and smoked in his pipe. He was alone in the house, Bourne gathered, and he had a son who was at the front. His only other relation was a brother who was a professor of English at a provincial university. These two facts seemed to establish a degree of


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kindred and affinity between them, and when Bourne left to sleep in his stable he was invited to come in again in the morning.

He woke early, and not knowing where the cookers were, he took advantage of the invitation, so that he could beg some hot water for shaving. He was surprised by the effect of the brandy on his heel, as all the swelling had disappeared and the pain was no more than a slight discomfort when he flexed his foot. He found the old man ill, and brewing himself some tea, which he took only as a kind of physic, somewhat reluctantly. Bourne looked at his newspaper, in the hope of learning something about the war, but apart from a few colourless details from the French front there was nothing; no one knew anything about it; it was like one of the blind forces of nature; one could not control it, one could not comprehend it, and one could not predict its course from hour to hour. The spirit of the troops was excellent, the possibility of defeat was incredible; but to calculate the duration of the conflict was quite beyond the resources of the human mind: it was necessary to look at these matters from a scientific stand-point, and the scientific method was that of trial and error. Bourne only glanced hastily at all the solemn empty phrases, and was wondering whether he could get a new pair of boots from the shoemakers, unofficially to save time, before they paraded; and when the old man had at


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last brewed his tea, he got a little hot water and departed to shave. The snobs were also kind to him, and gave him a pair of boots which they assured him were of a type and quality reserved entirely for officers, being of the best Indian roan, a kind of leather of which Bourne had never heard.

“Strictly speakin',” said his friend Snobby Hines, “it's an officer's boot, but it's a very small size, so you may 'ave that pair, as they fit you. 'ope we stay 'ere a bit. It's quite a bon place, two decent estaminets an' some mad'-moiselles, not that I see anything much in these French girls, you know: my ol' curiosity at 'ome would make most of 'em look silly. Well, you can't 'ave everythink, so you've got to be content with what you git.”

Bourne did not trouble about the cryptic significance of these words, he agreed with everything unreservedly, this being one of the secrets of a happy life. He liked his new boots because the leather was strong but soft and pliable, and if they were a bit oily, well, that would keep the wet out, and one did not have to polish boots on active service. They paraded at ten o'clock, for a little extended order drill; but when they had fallen in Sergeant Tozer asked if there was any man capable of working a typewriter. There was no reply from the ranks, though Bourne had played about a little with a Blick. They moved


  ― (78) ―
out into the fields to drill. But at eleven o'clock the regimental appeared on the scene; and once again a typist was demanded, and as there was no reply, the regimental singled out Bourne, and cross-questioned him. He knew very well that Bourne was the most likely man, and when the latter admitted under pressure that he could use the machine, he was told to report at the orderly-room at one o'clock.

He was very unwilling to take the job. He was by no means an expert with a typewriter, but that did not trouble him; what he disliked was the fact that he would be sitting, for the greater part of the day, under the eyes of authority. He had no personal experience of the orderly-room staff, but, from hearsay alone, he had a very definite prejudice against the men composing it, and it was almost a relief to him to find from the very first moment that there were good grounds for it, because he was spared the trouble of attempting to adjust himself to these new conditions. His job was a temporary one, and it was his object to see that it didn't become permanent; with which end in view, obedience, and a certain amount of innocent stupidity, seemed the proper tactics to adopt. He had made his own place in the company, and he was quite willing to go back to it, that very night if they should think fit; and to find an ample compensation for the apparent


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set-back in the rowdy good-humour of his comrades.

The lance-corporal received him, with a suspicious air, and passed him on to the corporal, who wore a more truculent expression, and presented him to the colour-sergeant. He was a cat-like individual, who showed all his false teeth in a deprecating smile, and seemed to consider Bourne as only the latest of those many tribulations, with which God, in his inscrutable wisdom, had chosen to afflict a faithful servant. While this little ceremony was in progress, Captain Malet, upon whom the adjutant's duties had temporarily devolved, entered the orderly-room; and as they stood to attention, he acknowledged their existence coldly with a brusque salute; but when he sat at his table and turned over some papers, Bourne caught his eye, and a quick ripple of impish schoolboy humour flickered for an instant on the officer's face. He seemed always to find in Bourne some stimulus to mirth. Of course the others noticed it, with the air of not noticing it, with an almost ostentatious indifference, and wondered what this indecorous recognition might imply.

“Show Bourne what he is supposed to do,” said the colour-sergeant to the lance-corporal with an almost ingratiating benevolence, but with a slight stress on the word “supposed” that gave a sub-acid flavour to his oiliness; and Bourne sat down before a small Corona to learn


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his way about on it. It did not occupy his whole attention; he was aware that the others were scrutinizing him carefully, and his own rather delicate sensibility put out little groping feelers in an attempt to apprehend some of the realities of the situation. The colour-sergeant was of course the dominating factor, and the other two did not count, though in the rude phrase of better men, they should have chalked their bloody boots. When Captain Malet, who spent as little time as possible in that uncongenial atmosphere, went out again, they talked among themselves; and if the matter of their conversation was difficult for an outsider to follow, its manner was sufficiently illuminating. Bourne saw at once that his own particular job was a myth; even the lance-corporal, Johnson, was not overburdened with work, and all the typing done in the course of a day would not have taken up twenty minutes of his time. What these luxurious creatures really wanted was a man to skivvy for them; and, though Bourne as a rule avoided the use of coarse language, he knew precisely what he would be before he acted as a kind of general batman to the orderly-room; so when tea-time came, he did not enter into any unseemly competition with the lance-corporal for the honour of fetching the colour-sergeant's; but, taking his mess-tin, went off and sat with his own friends for half an hour.




  ― (81) ―

“ 'ow do you like it?” inquired Sergeant Tozer.

“Oh, it's cushy enough,” Bourne answered indifferently. “I don't mind it for a week or so; but it is not a job I want for keeps. I would rather be with the company.”

“Some people don't know their bloody luck,” said the sergeant tersely.

“I don't know. Your section were always fairly contented, except when Fritz strafed them unnecessarily.”

“Sergeant-Major Robinson wanted to know whether you would pinch 'im some notebooks from the orderly-room, an' a few pencils? 'e an' the quarter-bloke can't get anything out o' them buggers.”

“I'll pinch anything the sergeant-major wants,” said Bourne recklessly; “only he will have to give me time to learn my way about.”

He went back to the orderly-room, and was released from his arduous labours a little after half-past five; then, picking up Shem and Martlow, he went off to an estaminet, determined to have as bon a time as the place and their purses afforded. The battalion had been paid out at twelve o'clock, and the place was crowded with uproarious men, stamping time with their feet on the floor as they sang at the top of their voices:




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‘Mademoiselle, she bought a cow, Parley-voo,
To milk the brute, she didn't know how, Parley-voo,
She pulled the tail instead of the tit,
And covered herself all over with—MILK.…'

A storm of loud cheers and laughter at this unwonted delicacy of phrase drowned the concluding gibberish of the chorus. Bourne ordered a bottle of some poison concocted out of apples and potatoes labelled champagne, which had a little more kick in it than the vin rouge or French beer. Then the three of them crowded in among the men playing “crown and anchor,” with Snobby Hines rattling the dice-box.

“ 'oo's goin' to 'ave somethin' on the old mud-'ook? Come on, me lucky lads, if yer don't speckyerlate yer can't accumyerlate. Somethin' on the ol' mud-'ook jest to try yer luck. Y'all finished, then? Right! There y'are. It's the sergeant-major. I tol' yer so. An' off we go again, an' off we go again.”

Bourne struck a vein of luck, and as he had crushed in next to Thompson, the storekeeper, he gave him ten francs for services rendered at Sand-pits. He lost that in a few minutes, and Bourne gave him another ten, which went the same way. As Bourne's generosity seemed to dry up, Thompson asked him for the loan of five, and that vanished with an equal rapidity. Shem won a little, and Martlow lost, but lost cannily, buttoning up his purse when he found the dice running


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against him. But Bourne had a bit more than his share of luck, and as the disconsolate Thompson still hung about the altars of fortune, on which he had sacrificed already more than double his pay, Bourne gave him five francs, and told him to go and try his luck with wine or women, as he might do better at another game. Thompson took his advice, and turned away disillusioned from an unsympathetic world; and then, oddly enough, for a little while Bourne lost; but he played on, and his luck turned again. He got up having won about seventy-five francs, and they had another bottle of champagne before setting off through the darkness to their billets.

The old man still had a light in his kitchen, and Bourne decided to pay him a visit and inquire after his health. Bourne had a briar pipe in a leather purse, which a friend in England had sent him, though he never smoked a pipe; and he took it with him, and presented it to his host as a tribute of gratitude. The old man was surprised and delighted. He was quite well again, and offered Bourne some café-cognac; but Bourne refused, explaining that they would march away in the morning; though, if monsieur were agreeable, he would come in early and have some coffee. Monsieur professed himself enchanted.

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