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The sky over London was glorious, ocher and madder, as though a dozen tropic suns were simultaneously setting round the horizon; everywhere the searchlights clustered and hovered, then swept apart; here and there pitchy clouds drifted and billowed; now and then a huge flash momentarily froze the serene fireside glow. Everywhere the shells sparkled like Christmas baubles.
“Pure Turner,” said Guy Crouchback, enthusiastically; he came fresh to these delights.
“John Martin, surely?” said Ian Kilbannock.
“No,” said Guy firmly. He would not accept correction on matters of art from this former sporting-journalist. “Not Martin. The sky-line is too low. The scale is less than Babylonian.”
They stood at the top of St. James’s Street. Half-way down Turtle’s Club was burning briskly. From Piccadilly to the Palace the whole jumble of incongruous façades was caricatured by the blaze.
“Anyway, it’s too noisy to discuss it here.”
Guns were banging away in the neighboring parks. A stick of bombs fell thunderously somewhere in the direction of Victoria Station.
On the pavement opposite Turtle’s a group of progressive novelists in firemen’s uniform were squirting a little jet of water into the morning-room.
Guy was momentarily reminded of Holy Saturday at Downside; early gusty March mornings of boyhood; the doors wide open in the unfinished butt of the Abbey; half the school coughing; fluttering linen; the glowing brazier and the priest with his hyssop, paradoxically blessing fire with water.
“It was never much of a club,” said Ian. “My father belonged.”
He relit his cigar and immediately a voice near their knees exclaimed: “Put that light out.”
“A preposterous suggestion,” said Ian.
They looked over the railings beside them and described in the depths of the area a helmet, lettered ARP.
“Take cover,” said the voice.
A crescent scream immediately, it seemed, over their heads; a thud which raised the paving-stones under their feet; a tremendous incandescence just north of Piccadilly; a pentecostal wind; the remaining panes of glass above them scattered in lethal splinters about the street.
“You know, I think he’s right. We had better leave this to the civilians.”
Soldier and airman trotted briskly to the steps of Bellamy’s. As they reached the doors, the engines overhead faded and fell silent and only the crackling flames at Turtle’s disturbed the midnight hush.
“Most exhilarating,” said Guy.
“Ah, you’re new to it. The bore is that it goes on night after night. It can be pretty dangerous too with these fire-engines and ambulances driving all over the place. I wish I could have an African holiday. My awful Air Marshal won’t let me go. He seems to have taken a fancy to me.”
“You can’t blame yourself. It wasn’t to be expected.”
In the front hall Job, the night-porter, greeted them with unnatural unction. He had had recourse to the bottle. His was a lonely and precarious post, hemmed in with plate glass. No one at that season grudged him his relaxation. Tonight he was acting—grossly over-acting—the part of a stage butler.
“Good evening, sir. Permit me to welcome you to England, home and safety. Good evening, my lord. Air Marshal Beech is in the billiard-room.”
“I thought it right to apprise you, my lord.”
“The gutters outside are running with whisky and brandy.”
“So I was informed, sir, by Colonel Blackhouse. All the spirit store of Turtle’s, gentlemen, running to waste in the streets.”
“We didn’t see it.”
“Then we may be sure, my lord, the fire brigade have consumed it.”
Guy and Ian entered the back-hall.
“So your Air Marshal got into the club after all.”
“Yes, it was a shocking business. They held an election during what the papers call ‘the Battle of Britain,’ when the Air Force was for a moment almost respectable.”
“Well, it’s worse for you than for me.”
“My dear fellow, it’s a nightmare for everyone.”
The windows of the card-room had been blown out and bridge-players, clutching their score sheets, filled the hall. Brandy and whisky were flowing here, if not in the gutters outside.
“Hullo, Guy. Haven’t seen you about lately.”
“I only got back from Africa this afternoon.”
“Odd time to choose. I’d have stayed put.”
“I’ve come home under a cloud.”
“In the last war we used to send fellows to Africa when they were under a cloud. What will you drink?”
Guy explained the circumstances of his recall.
More members came in from the street.
“All quiet outside.”
“Job tells me it’s overrun with drunk firemen.”
“Job’s drunk himself.”
“Yes, every night this week. Can’t blame him.”
“Two glasses of wine, Parsons.”
“Some of the servants ought to be sober some of the time.”
“There’s a fellow under the billiard-table now.”
“One of the servants?”
“Not one I’ve ever seen before.”
“Whisky, please, Parsons.”
“I say, I hope we don’t have to take Turtle’s in.”
“They come here sometimes when they’re cleaning. Timid little fellows. Don’t give any trouble.”
“Three whiskies and soda, please, Parsons.”
“Heard about Guy’s ballsup at Dakar? Tell him, Guy. It’s a good story.”
Guy told his good story again and many times that night.
Presently his brotherinlaw, Arthur Box-Bender, appeared in shirt-sleeves from the billiard-room, accompanied by another Member of Parliament, a rather gruesome crony of his named Elderbury.
“D’you know what put me off that lost shot?” said Elderbury. “I trod on someone.”
“No one I know. He was under the table and I trod on his hand.”
“Extraordinary thing. Passed out?”
“He said: ‘Damn.’ ”
“I don’t believe it. Parsons, is there anyone under the billiard-table?”
“Yes, sir, a new member.”
“What’s he doing there?”
“Obeying orders, he says, sir.”
Two or three bridge-players went to investigate the phenomenon.
“Parsons, what’s all this about the streets running with wine?”
“I haven’t been out myself, sir. A lot of the members have been talking about it.”
The reconnaissance party returned from the billiard-room and reported:
“It’s perfectly true. There is a fellow under the table.”
“I remember poor old Binkie Cavanagh used to sit there sometimes.”
“Binkie was mad.”
“Well, I daresay this fellow is too.”
“Hullo, Guy,” said Box-Bender, “I thought you were in Africa.”
Guy told him his story.
“How very awkward,” said Box-Bender.
Tommy Blackhouse joined them.
“Tommy, what’s all this you told Job about the streets running with wine?”
“He told me. Just been out to look. Not a drop in sight.”
“Have you been in to the billiard-room?”
“Go and have a look. There’s something worth seeing.”
Guy accompanied Tommy Blackhouse. The billiard-room was full but no one was playing. In the shadows under the table lurked a human shape.
“Are you all right down there?” Tommy asked kindly. “Want a drink or anything?”
“I am perfectly all right, thank you. I am merely obeying the regulations. In an air raid it is the duty of every officer and man not on duty to take the nearest and safest cover wherever he may be. As the senior officer present I thought I should set an example.”
“Well, there’s not room for us all, is there?”
“You should go under the stairs or into the cellar.”
The figure now revealed itself as Air Marshal Beech. Tommy was a professional soldier with a career ahead. It was his instinct to be agreeable to the senior officers of all services.
“I think it’s pretty well over now, sir.”
“I have not heard the All Clear.”
As he spoke the siren sounded and the sturdy gray figure scrambled to its feet.
“Ah, Crouchback, isn’t it? We met at Lady Kilbannock’s.”
The Air Marshal stretched and dusted himself.
“I want my car. You might just call Air Headquarters, Crouchback, and have it sent round.”
Guy rang the bell.
“Parsons, tell Job that Air Marshal Beech wants his car.”
“Very good, sir.”
The Air Marshal’s small eyes looked suspicious. He began to say one thing, thought better of it, said “Thanks,” and left.
“You never were a good mixer, were you, Guy?”
“Oh, dear. Was I beastly to that poor wretch?”
“He won’t look on you as a friend in future.”
“I hope he never did.”
“Oh, he’s not such a bad fellow. He’s putting in a lot of useful work at the moment.”
“I can’t imagine his ever being much use to me.”
“It’s going to be a long war, Guy. One may need all the friends one can get before it’s over. Sorry about your trouble at Dakar. I happened to see the file yesterday. But I don’t think it will come to much. There were some damn silly minutes on it, though. You ought to see it gets to the top level at once before too many people commit themselves.”
“How on earth can I do that?”
“Talk about it.”
“Keep talking. There are ears everywhere.”
Then Guy asked: “Is Virginia all right?”
“As far as I know. She’s left Claridge’s. Someone told me she’d moved out of London somewhere. Didn’t care for the blitz.”
From the way Tommy spoke, Guy thought that, perhaps, Virginia was not entirely all right.
“You’ve come up in the world, Tommy.”
“Oh, I’m just messing round with HOO. As a matter of fact there’s something rather attractive in the air I can’t talk about. I’ll know for certain in a day or two. I might be able to fit you in. Have you reported to your regiment yet?”
“Going tomorrow. I only landed today.”
“Well, be careful or you’ll find yourself part of the general parcel-post. I should stick around Bellamy’s as much as you can. This is where one gets the amusing jobs nowadays. That is, if you want an amusing job.”
“Well, stick around.”
They returned to the hall. It was thinning out since the All Clear. Air Marshal Beech was on the fender talking to the two Members of Parliament.
“… You back-benchers, Elderbury, can do quite a lot if you set yourselves at it. Push the Ministries. Keep pushing…”
As in a stage farce Ian Kilbannock’s head emerged cautiously from the wash-room, where he had taken refuge from his chief. He withdrew hastily but too late.
“Ian. Just the man I want. Tool off to Headquarters and get the gen about tonight’s do and ring through to me at home.”
“The air raid, sir? I think it’s over. They got Turtle’s.”
“No, no. You must know what I mean. The subject I discussed yesterday with Air Marshal Dime.”
“I wasn’t there when you discussed it, sir. You sent me out.”
“You should keep yourself in the picture…”
But the rebuke never took full shape; the strip, as he would have preferred it, was not torn off, for at that moment there appeared from the outer hall the figure of Job, strangely illuminated. In some strictly private mood of his high drama Job had possessed himself of one of the six-branched silver candelabra from the dining-room; this he bore aloft, rigid but out of the straight so that six little dribbles of wax bespattered his livery. All in the back-hall fell silent and watched fascinated as this fantastic figure advanced upon the Air Marshal. A pace distant he bowed; wax splashed on the carpet before him.
“Sir,” he announced sonorously, “your carriage awaits you.” Then he turned, and, moving with the confidence of a sleep-walker, retreated whence he had come.
The silence endured for a moment. Then: “Really,” began the Air Marshal, “that man—” but his voice was lost in the laughter. Elderbury was constitutionally a serious man, but when he did see a joke he enjoyed it extravagantly. He had felt resentful of Air Marshal Beech since missing an easy cannon through stepping on him. Elderbury chortled.
“Good old Job.”
“One of his very best.”
“Thank heaven I stayed on long enough to see that.”
“What would Bellamy’s be without him?”
“We must have a drink on that. Parsons, take an order all round.”
The Air Marshal looked from face to happy face. Even Box-Bender’s was gleeful. Ian Kilbannock was laughing more uproariously than anyone. The Air Marshal rose.
“Anyone going my way want a lift?”
No one was going his way.
As the doors, which in the past two centuries had welcomed grandee and card sharper, duellist and statesman, closed behind Air Marshal Beech, he wondered, not for the first time in his brief membership, whether Bellamy’s was all it was cracked up to be.
He sank into his motor-car; the sirens sounded another warning.
“Home,” he ordered. “I think we can just make it.”
Bombs were falling again by the time that Guy reached his hotel, but far away now, somewhere to the east among the docks. He slept fitfully and when the All Clear finally woke him the rising sun was disputing the sky with the sinking fires of the raid.
He was due in barracks that morning and he set out as uncertainly as on the day he first joined.
At Charing Cross trains were running almost to time. Every seat was taken. He jammed his valise across the corridor with his suitcase a few yards from him, making for himself a seat and a defense.
There were Halberdier badges in most of the carriages and the traffic at his destination was all for the barracks. The men hoisted their kit bags and climbed on board a waiting lorry. The handful of young officers squeezed together into two taxis. Guy took the third alone. As he passed the guard-room he had a brief, vague impression that there was something rather odd about the sentry. He drove to the Officers’ House. No one was about. The preceding taxis disappeared in the direction of New Quarters. Guy left his luggage in the ante-room hall and crossed the square to the offices. A squad approached bearing buckets, their faces transformed as though by the hand of Circe from those of men to something less than the beasts. A muffled voice articulated: “Eyes right.”
Ten pig-faces, visions of Jerome Bosch, swung towards him. Unnerved, automatically, Guy said: “Eyes front, please, Corporal.”
He entered the Adjutant’s office, stood to attention and saluted. Two obscene fronts of canvas and rubber and talc were raised from the table. As though from beneath layers of bedclothes a voice said: “Where’s your gas-mask?”
“With the rest of my gear, sir, at the Officers’ House.”
“Go and put it on.”
Guy saluted, turned about and marched off. He put on his gas-mask and straightened his cap before the looking-glass, which just a year ago had so often reflected his dress cap and high blue collar and a face full of hope and purpose. He gazed at the gross snout, then returned to the Adjutant. A company had fallenin on the square; normal, pink young faces. In the orderly-room the Adjutant and Sergeant-Major sat undisguised.
“Take that thing off,” said the Adjutant. “It’s past eleven.”
Guy removed his mask and let it hang, in correct form, across his chest to dry.
“Haven’t you read the Standing Orders?”
“Why the hell not?”
“Reporting back today, sir, from overseas.”
“Well, remember in future that every Wednesday from 1000 to 1100 hours all ranks take anti-gas precautions. That’s a Command Standing Order.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Now, who are you and what do you want?”
“Lieutenant Crouchback, sir. Second Battalion Royal Halberdiers Brigade.”
“Nonsense. The Second Battalion is abroad.”
“I landed yesterday, sir.”
And then slowly, after all the masquerade with the gas-masks, old memories revived.
“We’ve met before.”
It was the nameless major, reduced now to captain, who had appeared at Penkirk and vanished three days later at Brookwood.
“You had the company during the great flap.”
“Of course. I say, I’m awfully sorry for not recognizing you. There have been so many flaps since. So many chaps through my hands. How did you get here? Oughtn’t you to be in Freetown?”
“You weren’t expecting me?”
“Not a word. I daresay your papers have gone to the Training Depot. Or up to Penkirk to the Fifth Battalion. Or down to Brook Park to the Sixth. Or to HOO. We’ve been expanding like the devil in the last two months. Records can’t keep up. Well, I’ve about finished here. Carry on, Sergeant-Major. I shall be at the Officers’ House if you want me. Come along, Crouchback.”
He and Guy went to the ante-room. It was not the room Guy had known, where he had sprained his knee on Guest Night. A dark rectangle over the fireplace marked the spot where “The Unbroken Square” had hung; the bell from the Dutch frigate, the Afridi banner, the gilt idol from Burma, the Napoleonic cuirasses, the Ashanti drum, the loving-cup from Barbados, Tipu Sultan’s musket, all were gone.
The Adjutant observed Guy’s roving, lamenting eyes.
“Pretty bloody, isn’t it? Everything has been stored away underground since the blitz.” Then from the bleakest spot in the universal desolation: “I’ve lost a pip, too.”
“So I saw. Bad luck.”
“I expected it,” said the Adjutant. “I wasn’t due for promotion for another two years in the regular way. I thought the war might hurry things along a bit. It has for most chaps. It did for me for a month or two. But it didn’t last.”
There was no fire.
“It’s cold in here,” said Guy.
“Yes. No fires until evening. No drinks either.”
“I suppose it’s the same everywhere?”
“No, it’s not,” said the Adjutant crossly. “Other regiments still manage to live quite decently. The Captain-Commandant is a changed character. Austerity is the order now. Trust the Corps to do it in a big way. We’re sleeping four in a room and the mess subscription has been halved. We practically live on rations—like wild beasts,” he specified woefully but inaptly. “I wouldn’t stay here long if I were you. By the way, why are you here?”
“I came home with the Brigadier.” That seemed at the moment the most convenient explanation. “You know he’s back, of course?”
“First I’ve heard of it.”
“You know he got wounded?”
“No. Nothing ever seems to come to us here. Perhaps they’ve lost our address. The Corps got on very nicely the size it was. All this expansion has been the devil. They’ve taken my servant away—a man I’d had eight years. I have to share an old sweat with the Regimental Surgeon. That’s what we’ve come to. They’ve even taken the band.”
“It’s too cold to sit here,” said Guy.
“There’s a stove in my office but the telephone keeps ringing. Take your choice.”
“What am I to do now?”
“My dear chap, as far as I’m concerned you’re still in Africa. I’d send you on leave but you aren’t on our strength. D’you want to see the Captain-Commandant? That could be arranged.”
“A changed character?”
“I don’t see any reason to bother him.”
They gazed hopelessly at one another across the empty grate.
“You must have had a move order.”
“No. I was just packed off like a parcel. The Brigadier left me at the aerodrome saying I’d be hearing from him.”
The Adjutant had exhausted all his meager official repertoire.
“It couldn’t have happened in peacetime,” he said.
“That is certainly true.”
Guy observed that this unknown soldier was collecting all his resolution for a desperate decision; at length: “All right, I’ll take a chance on it. You can use some leave, I suppose?”
“I promised to do something for Apthorpe—you remember him at Penkirk?”
“Yes, I do. Very well.” Exhilarated to find at last a firm mental foothold: “Apthorpe. Temporary officer who somehow got made secondincommand of the Battalion. I thought him a bit mad.”
“He’s dead now. I promised I’d collect his possessions and hand them over to his heir. I could do that in the next few days.”
“Excellent. If there’s any bloodiness, that catches them two ways. We can call it compassionate or disembarkation leave, just as the cat jumps. Staying to lunch in the mess? I shouldn’t.”
“I won’t,” said Guy.
“If you hang about, there may be some transport going to the station. Two months ago I could have laid it on. That’s all been stopped.”
“I’ll get a taxi.”
“You know where to find the telephone? Don’t forget to leave twopence in the box. I think I’ll get back to my office. As you say, it’s too cold here.”
Guy lingered. He entered the mess under the gallery which had lately resounded with “The Roast Beef of Old England.” The portraits were gone from the walls, the silver from the side tables. There was little now to distinguish it from the dining-hall of Kutal-Imara House. An AT came in from the serving door whistling; she saw Guy and continued to whistle as she rubbed a cloth over the bare boards of a table.
There was a click of balls from the billiard-room. Guy looked in and saw chiefly a large khaki behind. The player struck and widely missed an easy cannon. He stood up and turned.
“Wait for the shot,” he said with a stern but paternal air which purged the rebuke of all offense.
He was in his shirt-sleeves, revealing braces striped with the Halberdier colors. A red-tabbed tunic hung on the wall. Guy recognized him as an elderly colonel who had pottered about the mess a year ago. “Care for a hundred up?” and “Not much news in the papers today,” had been his constant refrain.
“I’m very sorry, sir,” said Guy.
“Puts a fellow off, you see,” said the Colonel. “Care for a hundred up?”
“I’m afraid I am just going.”
“Everyone here is always going,” said the Colonel.
He padded round to his ball and studied the position. It seemed hopeless to Guy.
The Colonel struck with great force. All three balls sped and clicked and rebounded and clicked until finally the red trickled slower and slower towards a corner, seemed to come to a dead stop at the edge of the pocket, mysteriously regained momentum and fell in.
“Frankly,” said the Colonel, “that was something of a fluke.”
Guy slipped away and gently closed the door. Glancing back through the glazed aperture he observed the next stroke. The Colonel put the red on its spot, studied the uncongenial arrangement and then with plump finger and thumb nonchalantly moved his ball three inches to the left. Guy left him to his solitary delinquency. What used the regulars to call him? Ox? Tiny? Hippo? The nickname escaped him.
With sterner thoughts he turned to the telephone and called for his taxi.
So Guy set out on the second stage of his pilgrimage, which had begun at the tomb of Sir Roger. Now, as then, an act of pietas was required of him; a spirit was to be placated. Apthorpe’s gear must be retrieved and delivered before Guy was free to follow his fortunes in the King’s service. His road lay backward for the next few days, to Southsand and Cornwall. “Chatty” Corner, man of the trees, must be found, somewhere in the trackless forests of wartime England.
He paused in the ante-room and turned back the pages of the Visitors’ Book to the record of that Guest Night last December. There, immediately below Tony Box-Bender’s name, he found “James Pendennis Corner.” But the column where his address or regiment should have stood, lay empty.
The last hour of the day at Our Lady of Victory’s Preparatory School, temporarily accommodated at Matchet. Selections from Livy in Mr. Crouchback’s form-room. Black-out curtains drawn. Gas fire hissing. The customary smell of chalk and ink. The Fifth Form drowsy from the football field, hungry for high tea. Twenty minutes to go and the construe approaching unprepared passages.
“Please, sir, it is true, isn’t it, that the Blessed Gervase Crouchback was an ancestor of yours?”
“Hardly an ancestor, Greswold. He was a priest. His brother, from whom I am descended, didn’t behave quite so bravely, I’m sorry to say.”
“He didn’t conform, sir?”
“No, but he kept very quiet—he and his son after him.”
“Do tell us how the Blessed Gervase was caught, sir.”
“I’m sure I’ve told you before.”
“A lot of us were absent that day, sir, and I’ve never quite understood what happened. The steward gave him away, didn’t he?”
“Certainly not. Challoner misread a transcript from the St. Omers records and the mistake has been copied from book to book. All our own people were true. It was a spy from Exeter who came to Broome asking for shelter, pretending to be a Catholic.”
The Fifth Form sat back contentedly. Old Crouchers was off. No more Livy.
“Father Gervase was lodged in the North turret of the forecourt. You have to know Broome to understand how it happened. There is only the forecourt, you see, between the house and the main road. Every good house stands on a road or a river or a rock. Always remember that. Only hunting-lodges belong in a park. It was after the Reformation that the new rich men began hiding away from the people….”
It was not difficult to get old Crouchers talking. Greswold major, whose grandfather he had known, was adept at it. Twenty minutes passed.
“… When he was examined by the Council the second time he was so weak that they gave him a stool to sit on.”
“Please, sir, that’s the bell.”
“Time? Oh, dear, I’m afraid I’ve let myself run on, wasting your time. You ought to stop me, Greswold. Well, we’ll start tomorrow where we left off. I shall expect a long, thorough construe.”
“Thank you, sir; good night. It was jolly interesting about the Blessed Gervase.”
“Good night, sir.”
The boys clattered away. Mr. Crouchback buttoned his great-coat, slung his gas-mask across his shoulder and, torch in hand, walked downhill towards the lightless sea.
The Marine Hotel which had been Mr. Crouchback’s home for nine years was as full now as though in the height of summer. Every chair in the Residents’ Lounge was held prescriptively. Novels and knitting were left to mark the squatters’ rights when they ventured out into the mist.
Mr. Crouchback made straight for his own rooms, but, encountering Miss Vavasour at the turn of the stairs, he paused, pressing himself into the corner to let her pass.
“Good evening, Miss Vavasour.”
“Oh, Mr. Crouchback, I have been waiting for you. May I speak to you for a moment?”
“Of course, Miss Vavasour.”
“It’s about something that happened today.” She spoke in a whisper. “I don’t want Mr. Cuthbert to overhear me.”
“How very mysterious! I’m sure I have no secrets from the Cuthberts.”
“They have from you. There is a plot, Mr. Crouchback, which you should know about.”
Miss Vavasour had turned about and was now making for Mr. Crouchback’s sitting-room. He opened the door and stood back to admit her. A strong smell of dog met their nostrils.
“Such a nice manly smell,” said Miss Vavasour.
Felix, his golden retriever, rose to meet Mr. Crouchback, stood on his hind legs and pawed Mr. Crouchback’s chest.
“Down, Felix, down, boy. I hope he’s been out.”
“Mrs. Tickeridge and Jenifer took him for a long walk this afternoon.”
“Charming people. Do sit down while I get rid of this absurd gasbag.”
Mr. Crouchback went into his bedroom, hung up his coat and haversack, peered at his old face in the looking-glass and returned to Miss Vavasour.
“Well, what is this sinister plot?”
“They want to turn you out,” said Miss Vavasour.
Mr. Crouchback looked round the shabby little room, full of his furniture and books and photographs. “I don’t think that’s possible,” he said; “the Cuthberts would never do a thing like that—after all these years. You must have misunderstood them. Anyway, they can’t.”
“They can, Mr. Crouchback. It’s one of these new laws. There was an officer here today—at least he was dressed as an officer—a dreadful sort of person. He was counting all the rooms and looking at the register. He talked of taking over the whole place. Mr. Cuthbert explained that several of us were permanent residents and that the others had come from bombed areas and were the wives of men at the front. Then the socalled officer said: ‘Who’s this man occupying two rooms?’ and do you know what Mr. Cuthbert said? He said, ‘He works in the town. He’s a school-teacher.’ You, Mr. Crouchback, to be described like that!”
“Well, it’s what I am, I suppose.”
“I very nearly interrupted them then and there, to tell them who you are, but of course I wasn’t really part of the conversation. In fact I don’t think they realized I was within hearing. But I boiled. Then this officer asked: ‘Secondary or Primary?’ and Mr. Cuthbert said: ‘Private’ and then the officer laughed and said: ‘Priority nil.’ And after that I simply could not restrain myself anymore so I simply got up and looked at them and left the room without a word.”
“I’m sure you did much the wisest thing.”
“But the impertinence of it!”
“I’m sure nothing will come of it. There are all sorts of people all over the place nowadays making inquiries. I suppose it’s necessary. Depend upon it, it was just routine. The Cuthberts would never do a thing like that. Never. After all these years.”
“You are too trustful, Mr. Crouchback. You treat everyone as if he were a gentleman. That officer definitely was not.”
“It was very kind of you to warn me, Miss Vavasour.”
“It makes me boil,” she said.
When Miss Vavasour had gone Mr. Crouchback took off his boots and socks, his collar and his shirt and standing before the wash-hand-stand in trousers and vest washed thoroughly in cold water. He donned a clean shirt, collar and socks, shabby pumps and a slightly shabby suit made of the same cloth as he had worn throughout the day. He brushed his hair. And all the time he thought of other things than Miss Vavasour’s disclosure. She had cherished a chivalrous devotion for him since she first settled at Matchet. His daughter Angela joked of it rather indelicately. For the six years of their acquaintance he had paid little heed to anything Miss Vavasour said. Now he dismissed the Cuthbert plot and considered two problems that had come to him with the morning’s post. He was a man of regular habit and settled opinion. Doubt was a stranger to him. That morning, in the hour between Mass and school, he had been confronted with two intrusions from an unfamiliar world.
The more prominent was the parcel; bulky and ragged from the investigations of numberless clumsy departmental hands. It was covered with American stamps, customs declarations, and certificates of censorship.
“American parcel” was just beginning to find a place in the English vocabulary. This was plainly one of these novelties. His three Box-Bender granddaughters had been sent to a place of refuge in New England. Doubtless it came from them. “How kind. How very extravagant,” he had thought and had borne it to his room for later study.
Now he cut the string with his nail scissors and spread the contents in order on his table.
First came six tins of “Pullitzer’s Soup.” They were variously, lusciously named but soup was one of the few articles of diet in which the Marine Hotel abounded. Moreover, he had an ancient conviction that all tinned foods were made of something nasty. “Silly girls. Well, I daresay we shall be glad of it one day.” Next there was a transparent packet of prunes. Next a very heavy little tin labeled “Brisko. A Must in every home.” There was no indication of its function. Soap? Concentrated fuel? Rat poison? Boot polish? He would have to consult Mrs. Tickeridge. Next a very light larger tin named “Yumcrunch.” This must be edible for it bore the portrait of an obese and badly broughtup little girl waving a spoon and fairly bawling for the stuff. Last and oddest of all a bottle filled with what seemed to be damp artificial pearls, labeled “Cocktail Onions.” Could it be that this remote and resourceful people who had so generously (and, he thought, so unnecessarily) sheltered his grandchildren; this people whose chief concern seemed to be the frustration of the processes of nature—could they have contrived an alcoholic onion?
Mr. Crouchback’s elation palled; he studied his gift rather fretfully. Where in all this exotic banquet was there anything for Felix? The choice seemed to lie between Brisko and Yumcrunch.
He shook Yumcrunch. It rattled. Broken biscuits? Felix stood and pointed his soft muzzle.
“Yumcrunch?” said Mr. Crouchback seductively. Felix’s tail thumped the carpet.
And then suspicion darkened Mr. Crouchback’s contentment: suppose this were one of those new patent foods he had heard described, something “dehydrated” which, eaten without due preparation, swelled enormously and fatally in the stomach.
“No, Felix,” he said. “No Yumcrunch. Not until I have asked Mrs. Tickeridge,” and at the same time he resolved to consult that lady about his other problem: the matter of Tony Box-Bender’s odd postcard and Angela Box-Bender’s odd letter.
The postcard had been enclosed in the letter. He had taken both to school with him and reread them often during the day. The letter read:
Lower Chipping Manor,
News at last from Tony. Nothing very personal poor boy but such a joy to know he is safe. Until this morning I didn’t realize how anxious I have been. After all the man who got away and wrote to us that he had seen Tony in the POW column might have been mistaken. Now we know.
He seems to think we can send him anything he needs but Arthur has been into it and says no, that isn’t the arrangement. Arthur says he can’t approach neutral embassies and I mustn’t write to America either. Only regular Red Cross parcels may be sent and they get those anyhow apparently whether we pay for them or not. Arthur says the parcels are scientifically chosen so as to have all the right calories and that there can’t be one law for the rich and one for the poor when it comes to prison. I see he’s quite right in a way.
The girls seem to be enjoying America tremendously.
How is Dotheboys Hall?
Tony’s card read:
Was not allowed to write before. Now in permanent camp. A lot of our chaps here. Can daddy arrange parcels through neutral embassies? This is most important and everyone says safest and quickest way. Please send cigarettes, chocolates, golden syrup, cocoa, tinned meat and fish (all kinds). Glucose “D.” Hard biscuits (ships) cheese, toffee, condensed milk, camel hair sleeping bag, air-cushion, gloves, hair brush. Could girls in U.S. help? Also Boulestin’s Conduct of Kitchen. Trumper’s Eucris. Woolly slippers.
There had been one other letter in Mr. Crouchback’s post, which saddened him though it presented no problem. His wine merchants wrote to say that their cellars had been partly destroyed by enemy action. They hoped to maintain diminished supplies to their regular customers but could no longer fulfill specific orders. Monthly parcels would be made up from whatever stock was available. Pilfering and breakages were becoming frequent on the railways. Customers were requested to report all losses immediately.
Parcels, thought Mr. Crouchback. Everything that day seemed to be connected with parcels.
After dinner, according to the custom of more than a year, Mr. Crouchback joined Mrs. Tickeridge in the Residents’ Lounge.
Their conversation began, as always, with the subject of Felix’s afternoon exercise. Then:
“Guy’s home. I hope we shall see him here soon. I don’t know what he’s up to. Something rather secret, I expect. He came back with his Brigadier—the man you call ‘Ben.’ ”
Mrs. Tickeridge had that day received a letter from her husband in which certain plain hints informed her that Brigadier Ritchie-Hook had got into another of his scrapes. Well trained in service propriety she changed the subject.
“And your grandson?”
“That’s just what I wanted to ask about. My daughter has had this postcard. May I show it to you—and her letter? Aren’t they puzzling?”
Mrs. Tickeridge took the documents and perused them. At length she said: “I don’t think I ever read Trumper’s Eucris.”
“No, no. It’s not that I’m puzzled by. That’s hair-stuff. Used to use it myself when I could afford it. But don’t you think it very peculiar that in his first postcard home he should only be asking for things for himself? It’s most unlike him.”
“I expect he’s hungry, poor boy.”
“Surely not? Prisoners of war have full army rations. There’s an international agreement about it, I know. You don’t suppose it’s a code. ‘Glucose D’—whoever heard of ‘Glucose D’? I’m sure Tony has never seen the stuff. Someone put him up to it. You would think that a boy writing to his mother for the first time, when he must know how anxious she has been, would have something better to say than ‘Glucose D.’ ”
“Perhaps he’s really hungry.”
“Even so, he ought to consider his mother’s feelings. You’ve read her letter?”
“I’m sure she’s got quite the wrong end of the stick. My soninlaw is in the House of Commons and of course he picks up some rather peculiar ideas there.”
“No, it’s been on the wireless.”
“The wireless,” said Mr. Crouchback in a tone as near bitterness as he possessed. “The wireless. Just the sort of thing they would put about. It seems to me the most improper idea. Why should we not send what we want to those we love—even ‘Glucose D’?”
“I suppose in wartime it’s only fair to share things equally.”
“Why? Less in wartime than ever I should have thought. As you say, the boy may be really hungry. If he wants ‘Glucose D’ why can’t I send it to him? Why can’t my soninlaw get foreigners to help? There’s a man in Switzerland who used to come and stay at Broome year after year. I know he’d like to help Tony. Why shouldn’t he? I don’t understand.”
Mrs. Tickeridge saw the gentle, bewildered old man gaze earnestly at her, seeking an answer she could not give. He continued:
“After all, any present means that you want someone to have something someone else hasn’t got. I mean even if it’s only a cream jug at a wedding. I shouldn’t wonder if the Government didn’t try and stop us praying for people next.” Mr. Crouchback sadly considered this possibility and then added: “Not that anyone really needs a cream jug and apparently Tony needs these things he asks for. It’s all wrong. I’m not much of a dab at explaining things, but I know it’s all wrong.”
Mrs. Tickeridge was mending Jenifer’s jersey. She darned silently. She was not much of a dab herself at explaining things. Presently Mr. Crouchback spoke again, from the tangle of his perplexities.
“And what is Brisko?”
“And Yumcrunch? Both these things are in my room at the moment and I don’t for the life of me know what to do with them. They’re American.”
“I know just what you mean. I’ve seen them advertised in a magazine. Yumcrunch is what they eat for breakfast instead of porridge.”
“Would it suit Felix? Wouldn’t blow him up?”
“He’d love it. And the other thing is what they use instead of lard.”
“Pretty rich for a dog?”
“I’m afraid so. I expect Mrs. Cuthbert will be very grateful for it in the kitchen.”
“There’s nothing you don’t know.”
“Except Trumper’s whateveritwas.”
Presently Mr. Crouchback took his leave, fetched Felix and let him out into the darkness. He brought down with him the tin of Brisko and carried it to the proprietress of the hotel in her “Private Parlor.”
“Mrs. Cuthbert, I have been sent this from America. It is lard. Mrs. Tickeridge seems to think you might find it useful in the kitchen.”
She took it and thanked him rather awkwardly.
“There was something Mr. Cuthbert wanted to see you about.”
“I am here.”
“Everything is getting so difficult,” she said; “I’ll fetch Mr. Cuthbert.”
Mr. Crouchback stood in the Private Parlor and waited. Presently Mrs. Cuthbert returned alone.
“He says, will I speak to you. I don’t know quite how to begin. It’s all because of the war and the regulations and the officer who came today. He was the Quartering Commandant. You know it’s nothing personal, don’t you, Mr. Crouchback? I’m sure we’ve always done all we can to oblige, making all sorts of exceptions for you, not charging for the dog’s meals and your having your own wine sent in. Some of the guests have mentioned it more than once how you were specially favored.”
“I have never made any complaint,” said Mr. Crouchback. “I am satisfied that you do everything you can in the circumstances.”
“That’s it,” said Mrs. Cuthbert, “circumstances.”
“I think I know what you wish to say to me, Mrs. Cuthbert. It is really quite unnecessary. If you fear I’ll desert you now when you are going through difficult times, after I have been so comfortable for so many years, you may put your mind quite at rest. I know you are both doing your best and I am sincerely grateful.”
“Thank you, sir. It wasn’t quite that… I think Mr. Cuthbert had better speak to you.”
“He may come to me whenever he likes. Not now. I am just going to take Felix off to bed. Good night, I hope that tin will be of help.”
“Good night and thank you, sir.”
Miss Vavasour met him on the stairs.
“Oh, Mr. Crouchback, I couldn’t help seeing you go into the Private Parlor. Is everything all right?”
“Yes, I think so. I had a tin of lard for Mrs. Cuthbert.”
“They didn’t say anything about what I told you about?”
“The Cuthberts seemed to be worried about the falling off of the service. I think I was able to reassure them. It is a difficult time for both of them—for all of us. Good night, Miss Vavasour.”
Meanwhile the talk in Bellamy’s had drifted irresistibly upward. That very morning in a deep bed in a deep shelter a buoyant busy personage had lain, apportioning the day’s work of an embattled Empire in a series of minutes.
“Pray inform me today on one half sheet of paper why Brig. Ritchie-Hook has been relieved of the command of his Brigade.”
And twenty-four hours later, almost to the minute, while Mr. Crouchback’s form was beginning to construe the neglected passage of Livy, from the same heap of pillows the ukase went out:
P.M. to Secretary of State for War.
I have directed that no commander be penalized for errors in discretion towards the enemy. This directive has been flouted in a grievous and vexatious manner in the case of Col. late Brig. Ritchie-Hook, Royal Corps of Halberdiers. Pray assure me that suitable employment has been found for this gallant and resourceful officer as soon as he is passed fit for active service.
Telephones and typewriters relayed the trumpet note. Great men called to lesser men, and they to men of no consequence at all. Somewhere on the downward official slope Guy’s name too appeared, for Ritchie-Hook, in his room at Millbank Hospital, had not forgotten his companion in guilt. Papers marked “Passed to you for immediate action” went from “In” tray to “Out” tray, until at length they found sea level with the Adjutant of the Halberdier Barracks.
“Sergeant-Major, we have Mr. Crouchback’s leave address?”
“Marine Hotel, Matchet, sir.”
“Then make out a move order for him to report forthwith to HOO HQ.”
“Am I to give the address, sir?”
“That wouldn’t do. It’s on the Most Secret list.”
Ten minutes later the Adjutant remarked: “Sergeant-Major, if we withhold the address, how will Mr. Crouchback know where to report?”
“We could refer it back to HOO HQ.”
“But it is marked ‘Immediate Action.’ ”
These two men of no consequence at all sat silent and despairing.
“I take it, sir, the correct procedure would be to send it by hand of officer?”
“Can we spare anyone?”
“There’s one, sir.”
“Jumbo” Trotter, as his nickname suggested, was both ponderous and popular; he retired with the rank of full colonel in 1936. Within an hour of the declaration of war he was back in barracks and there he had sat ever since. No one had summoned him. No one cared to question his presence. His age and rank rendered him valueless for barrack duties. He dozed over the newspapers, lumbered round the billiard-table, beamed on his juniors’ scrimmages on Guest Nights, and regularly attended Church Parade. Now and then he expressed a wish to “have a go at the Jerries.” Mostly he slept. It was he whom Guy had disturbed in the billiard-room on his last visit to the barracks.
Once or twice a week the Captain-Commandant, in his new role of martinet, resolved to have a word with Jumbo, but the word was never spoken. He had served under Jumbo in Flanders and there learned to revere him for his sublime imperturbability in many dangerous and disgusting circumstances. He readily gave his approval to the old boy’s outing and left him to make his own arrangements.
It was a hundred and fifty miles to Matchet. Jumbo’s few indispensable possessions could be contained in one japanned-tin uniform case and a pig-skin Gladstone. But there was his bedding. Never move without your bed and your next meal; that was a rule, said Jumbo. Altogether his luggage comprised rather a handful for Halberdier Burns, his aged servant; too much to take by train, he explained to the Barrack Transport Officer. Besides, it was the duty of everyone to keep off the railways. The wireless had said so. Trains were needed for troop movements. The Transport Officer was a callow, amenable, regular subaltern. Jumbo got a car.
Early next day, in that epoch of mounting oppression, it stood at the steps of the Officers’ House. The luggage was strapped behind. Driver and servant stood beside it. Presently Jumbo emerged, well buttoned up against the morning chill, smoking his after-breakfast pipe, carrying under his arm the ante-room’s only copy of The Times. The men jumped to the salute. Jumbo beamed benignantly on them and raised a fur-lined glove to the peak of his red hat. He conferred briefly with the driver over the map, ordering a detour which would bring him at lunch-time to a friendly mess, then settled himself in the rear-seat. Burns tucked in the rug and leapt to his place beside the driver. Jumbo glanced at the Deaths in the paper before giving the order to move.
Excerpted from Officers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Waugh. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 30, 2004
Its not really brilliant but it is enjoyable. Maybe even a model for later modern war novels. Interesting revelations of incompetence and boredom and savage racism. There is a scene where they are in Dakkar, Africa and there is a black soldiers head preserved by the bed side of an officer. I think this is officially against the rules of respecting the enemy soldier. Or is it Men at Arms?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 19, 2013
No text was provided for this review.