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Cupid in Africa is the life story of Bertram Greene, a young British gentleman, a poet, an artist, a musician, a wretched student and intellectual and a bitter disappointment to his father, honorable, upright and scrupulous Major Hugh Greene. In order to gain fathers respect Bertram enlists in the army. After doing his training in India he gets sent to North Africa, where he gets involved in very tough and bloody battles. During his time in combat Bertram is learning about himself a lot and he goes through a major change, becoming a proper man of war. Percival Christopher Wren (1875 - 1941) was an English writer, mostly of adventure fiction. He is remembered best for Beau Geste, a much-filmed book of 1924, involving the French Foreign Legion in North Africa. This was one of 33 novels and short story collections that he wrote, mostly dealing with colonial soldiering in Africa. While his fictional accounts of life in the pre-1914 Foreign Legion are highly romanticized, his details of Legion uniforms, training, equipment and barrack room layout are generally accurate, which has led to unproven suggestions that Wren himself served with the legion.
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“And the son shall take his father’s spear And he shall avenge his father” . . .
There never lived a more honourable, upright, scrupulous gentleman than Major Hugh Walsingham Greene, and there seldom lived a duller, narrower, more pompous or more irascible one.
Nor, when the Great War broke out, and gave him something fresh to do and to think about, were there many sadder and unhappier men. His had been a luckless and unfortunate life, what with his two wives and his one son; his excellent intentions and deplorable achievements; his kindly heart and harsh exterior; his narrow escapes of decoration, recognition and promotion.
At cards he was not lucky—and in love he . . . well—his first wife, whom he adored, died after a year of him; and his second ran away after three months of his society. She ran away with Mr. Charles Stayne-Brooker (elsewhere the Herr Doktor Karl Stein-Brücker), the man of all men, whom he particularly and peculiarly loathed. And his son, his only son and heir! The boy was a bitter disappointment to him, turning out badly—a poet, an artist, a musician, a wretched student and “intellectual,” a fellow who won prizes and scholarships and suchlike by the hatful, and never carried off, or even tried for, a “pot,” in his life. Took after his mother, poor boy, and was the first of the family, since God-knows-when, to grow up a dam’ civilian. Father fought and bled in Egypt, South Africa, Burma, China, India; grandfather in the Crimea and Mutiny, great-grandfather in the Peninsula and at Waterloo, ancestors with Marlborough, the Stuarts, Drake—scores of them: and this chap, his son, their descendant, a wretched creature of whom you could no more make a soldier than you could make a service saddle of a sow’s ear!
It was a comfort to the Major that he only saw the nincompoop on the rare occasions of his visits to England, when he honestly did his best to hide from the boy (who worshipped him) that he would sooner have seen him win one cup for boxing, than a hundred prizes for his confounded literature, art, music, classics, and study generally. To hide from the boy that the pæans of praise in his school reports were simply revolting—fit only for a feller who was going to be a wretched curate or wretcheder schoolmaster; to hide his distaste for the pale, slim beauty, which was that of a delicate girl rather than of the son of Major Hugh Walsingham Greene. . . . Too like his poor mother by half—and without one quarter the pluck, nerve, and “go” of young Miranda Walsingham, his kinswoman and playmate. . . . Too dam’ virtuous altogether. . . .
Gad! If this same Miranda had only been a boy, his boy, there would have been another soldier to carry on the family traditions, if you like!
But this poor Bertram of his . . .
His mother, a Girton girl, and daughter of a Cambridge Don, had prayed that her child might “take after” her father, for whom she entertained a feeling of absolute veneration. She had had her wish indeed—without living to rejoice in the fact.
* * *
When it was known in the cantonment of Sitagur that Major Walsingham Greene was engaged to Prudence Pym, folk were astonished, and a not uncommon comment was “Poor little girl!” in spite of the fact that the Major was admitted by all to be a most honourable and scrupulous gentleman. Another remark which was frequently made was “Hm! Opposites attract. What?”
For Prudence Pym was deeply religious, like her uncle, the Commissioner of the Sitagur Division; she was something of a blue-stocking as became her famous father’s daughter; she was a musician of parts, an artist of more than local note, and was known to be writing a Book. So that if “oppositeness” be desirable, there was plenty of it—since the Major considered attendance at church to be part and parcel of drill-and-parade; religion to be a thing concerning which no gentleman speaks and few gentlemen think; music to be a noise to be endured in the drawing-room after dinner for a little while; art to be the harmless product of long-haired fellers with shockin’ clothes and dirty finger-nails; and books something to read when you were absolutely reduced to doing it—as when travelling. . . .
When Prudence Walsingham Greene knew that she was to have a child, she strove to steep her soul in Beauty, Sweetness and Light, and to feed it on the pure ichor of the finest and best in scenery, music, art and literature. . . .
Entered to her one day—pompous, pleased, and stolid; heavy, dull, and foolish—the worthy Major as she sat revelling in the (to her) marvellous beauties of Rosetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini. As she looked up with the sad mechanical smile of the disappointed and courageous wife, he screwed his monocle into his eye and started the old weary laceration of her feelings, the old weary tramplings and defilements of tastes and thoughts, as he examined the picture wherewith she was nourishing (she hoped and believed) the æsthetic side of her unborn child’s mind.
“Picture of a Girl with Grouse, what?” grunted the Major.
“With a . . . ? There is no bird? I don’t . . . ?” stammered Prudence who, like most women of her kind, was devoid of any sense of humour.
“Looks as though she’s got a frightful grouse about somethin’, I should say. The young party on the bed, I mean,” continued her spouse. “‘Girl with the Hump’ might be a better title p’r’aps—if you say she hasn’t a grouse,” he added.
“Yes. Got the hump more frightfully about something or other—p’r’aps because the other sportsman’s shirt’s caught alight. . . . Been smokin’, and dropped his cigar. . . .”
“It is an angel shod with fire,” moaned Prudence as she put the picture into its portfolio, and felt for her handkerchief. . . .
A little incident, a straw upon the waters, but a straw showing their steady flow toward distaste, disillusionment, dislike, and hopeless regret. The awful and familiar tragedy of “incompatibility of temperament,” of which law and priests in their wisdom take no count or cognizance, though counting trifles (by comparison) of infidelity and violence as all important.
And when her boy was born, and named Bertram after her father, Dr. Bertram Pym, F.R.S., she was happy and thankful, and happily and thankfully died.
* * *
In due course the Major recovered from his grief and sent his son home to his place, Leighcombe Abbey, where dwelt his elderly spinster relative, Miss Walsingham, and her niece, Miranda Walsingham, daughter of General Walsingham, his second cousin. Here the influence of prim, gentle, and learned Miss Walsingham was all that his mother would have desired, and in the direction of all that his father loathed—the boy growing up bookish, thoughtful, and more like a nice girl than a human boy. Him Miranda mothered, petted, and occasionally excoriated, being an Amazonian young female of his own age, happier on the bare back of a horse than in the seats of the learned.
When it was known in the cantonment of Hazarigurh that Major Hugh Walsingham Greene was engaged to Dolly Dennison, folk were astonished, and a not uncommon comment was “Poor old Walsingham Greene,” in spite of the fact that the young lady was very beautiful, accomplished and fascinating.
Here also another remark, that was frequently heard, was that opposites attract, for Dolly was known to be seventeen, and the Major, though not very much more than twice her age, looked as old as her father, the Sessions Judge, and he looked more like the girl’s grandfather than her father.
It was agreed, however, that it was no case of kidnapping, for Dolly knew her way about, knew precisely how many beans made five, and needed no teaching from her grandmother as to the sucking of eggs, or anything else. For Dolly, poor child, had put her hair up and “come out” at the age of fifteen—in an Indian cantonment!
Little more need be said to excuse almost anything she might do or be. Motherless, she had run her father’s hospitable house for the last two years, as well as her weak and amiable father; and when Major Walsingham Greene came to Hazarigurh he found this pitiable spoilt child (a child who had never had any childhood) the burra mem-sahib of the place, in virtue of her position as the head of the household of the Senior Civilian. With the manners, airs, and graces of a woman of thirty, she was a blasé and world-weary babe—“fed up” with dances, gymkhanas, garden parties, race meetings and picnics; and as experienced and cool a hand at a flirtation as any garrison-hack or station-belle in the country. Dolly knew the men with whom one flirts but does not marry, and the men one marries but with whom one does not flirt.
Mr. Charles Stayne-Brooker was the pride of the former; Major Walsingham Greene facile princeps of the latter. Charles was the loveliest, daringest, wickedest flirt you ever—and Hugh was a man of means and position, with an old Tudor “place” in Dorset. So Charles for fun—and Hugh for matrimony, just as soon as he suggested it. She hoped Hugh would be quick, too, for Charles had a terrible fascination and power over her. She had been frightened at herself one moonlight picnic, frightened at Charles’s power and her own feelings—and she feared the result if Hugh (who was most obviously of a coming-on disposition), dallied and doubted. If Hugh were not quick, Charles would get her—for she preferred volcanoes to icebergs, and might very easily forget her worldly wisdom and be carried off her feet some night, as she lurked in a kala jugga with the daring, darling wicked Charles—whose little finger was more attractive and mysterious than the Major’s whole body. Besides—the Major was a grey-haired widower, with a boy at school in England and so dull and prosperous. . . .
But, ere too late, the Major proposed and was accepted. Charles was, or affected to be, ruined and broken-hearted, and the wedding took place. The Major was like a boy again—for a little while. And Dolly felt like a girl taken from an hotel in Mentone and immured in a convent in Siberia.
For Major Hugh Walsingham Greene would have none of the “goings-on” that had made Dolly’s father’s bungalow the centre of life and gaiety for the subalterns and civilian youth of Hazarigurh; whilst Mr. Charles Stayne-Brooker, whom he detested as a flamboyant bounder, he cut dead. He also bade Dolly remove the gentleman’s name finally and completely from her visiting-list, and on no account be “at home” when he called. All of which Dolly quite flatly and finally refused to do.
* * *
Mr. Charles Stayne-Brooker (or the Herr Doktor Karl Stein-Brücker, as he was at other times and in other places) was a very popular person wherever he went—and he went to an astonishing number of places. It was wonderful how intimate he became with people, and he became intimate with an astonishing number and variety of people. He could sing, play, dance, ride and take a hand at games above the average, and talk—never was such a chatter-box—on any subject under the sun, especially on himself and his affairs. And yet, here again, it was astonishing how little he said, with all his talk and ingenious chatter. Everybody knew all about dear old Charlie—and yet, did they know anything at all when it came to the point? In most of the places in which he turned up, he seemed to be a sort of visiting manager of a business house—generally a famous house with some such old-fashioned British name as Schneider and Schmidt; Max Englebaum and Son; Plügge and Schnadhorst; Hans Wincklestein and Gartenmacher; or Grosskopf and Dümmelmann. In out-of-the-way places he seemed to be just a jolly globe-trotter with notions of writing a book on his jolly trip to India. Evidently he wanted to know something of the native of India, too, for when not in large commercial centres like Calcutta, Madras, Bombay or Colombo, he was to be found in cantonments where there were Native Troops. He loved the Native Officer and cultivated him assiduously. He also seemed to love the Bengali amateur politician, more than some people do. . . . Often a thoughtful and observant official was pleased to see an Englishman taking such a friendly interest in the natives, and trying to get to know them well at first hand—a thing far too rare. . . .
There were people, however—such as Major Walsingham Greene—who affected to detect something of a “foreign” flavour about him, and wrote him down as a flashy and bounderish outsider.
Certainly he was a great contrast to the Major, whose clipped moustache, bleak blue eye, hard bronzed face and close-cut hair were as different as possible from Mr. Stayne-Brooker’s waxed and curled moustache over the ripe red mouth; huge hypnotic and strange black eyes; pink and white puffy face, and long dark locks. And then again, as has been said, Mr. Stayne-Brooker was only happy when talking, and the Major only happy (if then) when silent.
On sight, on principle, and on all grounds, the latter gentleman detested the jabbering, affected, over-familiar, foreign-like fellow, and took great pleasure in ordering his bride, on their return from the ten-days-leave honeymoon, to cut him dead and cut him out—of her life.
And, alas, his bride seemed to take an even greater pleasure in defying her husband on this, and certain other, points; in making it clear to him that she fully and firmly intended “to live her own life” and go her own way; and in giving copious and convincing proof of the fact that she had never known “discipline” yet, and did not intend to make its acquaintance now.
Whereupon poor Major Walsingham Greene, while remaining the honourable, upright and scrupulous gentleman that he was, exhibited himself the irascible, pompous fool that he also was, and by his stupid and overbearing conduct, his “That’s enough! Those are my orders,” and his hopeless mishandling of the situation, drove her literally into the arms of Mr. Charles Stayne-Brooker, with whom the poor little fool disappeared like a beautiful dream.
* * *
When his kind heart got the better of his savage wrath and scourged pride, the Major divorced her, and the Herr Doktor (who particularly needed an English wife in his profession of Secret Agent especially commissioned for work in the British Empire) married her, broke her heart, dragged her down into the moral slime in which he wallowed, and, on the rare occasions of her revolt and threat to leave him, pointed out that ladies who were divorced once for leaving their husbands might conceivably have some excuse, but that the world had a very hard name for those who made a habit of it. . . . And then there was her daughter to consider, too. His daughter, alas! but also hers.
From Hazarigurh Mr. Charles Stayne-Brooker went straight to Berlin, became the Herr Doktor Stein-Brücker once more, and saw much of another and more famous Herr Doktor of the name of Solf. He then went to South Africa and thence to England, where his daughter was born. Having placed her with the family of an English clergyman whose wife “accepted” a few children of Anglo-Indians, he proceeded to America and Canada, and thence to Vladivostok, Kïaou-Chiaou, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore; then to the Transvaal by way of Lourenzo Marques and to German East Africa. And every step of the way his wife went with him—and who so English, among Englishmen, as jolly Charlie Stayne-Brooker, with his beautiful English wife? . . . What he did, save interviewing stout gentlemen (whose necks bulged over their collars, whose accents were guttural, and whose table-manners were unpleasant) and writing long letters, she did not know. What she did know was that she was a lost and broken woman, tied for life to a base and loathsome scoundrel, by her yearning for “respectability,” her love for her daughter, and her utter dependence for food, clothing and shelter upon the man whom, in her mad folly, she had trusted. By the time they returned to England via Berlin, the child, Eva, was old enough to go to an expensive boarding-school at Cheltenham, and here Mrs. Stayne-Brooker had to leave her when her husband’s “duties” took him, from the detailed study of the Eastern Counties of England, to Africa again. Here he seemed likely to settle at last, interesting himself in coffee and rubber, and spending much of his time in Mombasa and Nairobi, as well as in Dar-es-Salaam, Tabora, Lindi and Zanzibar.
* * *
Meanwhile, Major Hugh Walsingham Greene, an embittered and disappointed man, withdrew more and more into his shell, and, on each successive visit to Leighcombe Priory, more and more abandoned hope of his son’s “doing any good” in life. He was the true grandson of that most distinguished scholar, Dr. Bertram Pym, F.R.S., of Cambridge University, and the true son of his mother. . . . What a joy the lad would have been to these two, with his love of books and his unbroken career of academic successes, and what a grief he was to his soldier father, with his utter distaste for games and sports and his dislike of all things military.
Useless it was for sweet and gentle Miss Walsingham to point to his cleverness and wisdom, or for Amazonian and sporting Miranda Walsingham hotly to defend him and rail against the Major’s “unfairness” and “stupid prejudice.” Equally useless for the boy to do his utmost to please the man who was to him as a god. . . .
When the Major learned that his son had produced the Newdigate Prize Poem, won the Craven and the Ireland Scholarships, and taken his Double First—he groaned. . . .
Brilliant success at Oxford? What is Oxford? He would sooner have seen him miserably fail at Sandhurst and enlist for his commission. . . .
Finally the disappointing youth went to India as private secretary and travelling companion to the great scientist, Sir Ramsey Wister, his father being stationed at Aden.
* * *
Then came the Great War.
Mr. Bertram Greene, emerging from the King Edward Terminus of the Great Indian Railway at Madrutta, squared his shoulders, threw out his chest, and, so far as he understood the process and could apply it, strode along with the martial tread and military swagger of all the Best Conquerors.
From khaki helmet to spurred brown heel, he was in full panoply of war, and wore a dangerous-looking sword. At least, to the ignorant passer-by, it appeared that its owner was in constant danger of being tripped up by it. Bertram, however, could have told him that he was really in no peril from the beastly thing, since a slight pressure on the hilt from his left elbow kept the southern end clear of his feet.
What troubled him more than the sword was the feeling of constriction and suffocation due to the tightness of the belts and straps that encompassed him about, and the extreme heat of the morning. Also he felt terribly nervous and unaccustomed, very anxious as to his ability to support the weight of his coming responsibility, very self-distrustful, and very certain that, in the full active-service kit of a British Officer of the Indian Army, he looked a most frightful ass.
For Mr. Bertram Greene had never before appeared on this, or any other stage, in such a part; and the change—from a quiet modest civilian, “bashful, diffident and shy,” to what his friends at dinner last night had variously called a thin red hero, a licentious soldiery, a brutal mercenary, a hired assassin, a saviour of his Motherland, a wisp of cannon-fodder, a pup of the bull-dog breed, a curly-headed hero, a bloody-minded butcher, and one who would show his sword to be as mighty as his pen—was overwhelmingly great and sudden. When any of the hundreds of hurrying men who passed him looked at him with incurious eyes, he felt uncomfortable, and blushed. He knew he looked an ass, and, far worse, that whatever he might look, he actually was—a fraud, and a humbug. Fancy him, Bertram Greene, familiarly known as “Cupid,” the pale-faced “intellectual,” the highbrowed hero of the class-room and examination-hall, the winner of scholarships and the double-first, guilty of a thin volume of essays and a thinner one of verse—just fancy him, the studious, bookish sedentary, disguised as a soldier, as a leader of men in the day of battle, a professional warrior! . . . He who had never played games was actually proposing to play the greatest Game of all: he who had never killed an animal in his life was going to learn to kill men: he who had always been so lacking in self-reliance was going to ask others to rely on him!
And, as his spirits sank lower, Bertram held his head higher, threw back his shoulders further, protruded his chest more, and proceeded with so firm a tread, and so martial a demeanour, that he burst into profuse and violent perspiration.
He wished he could take a taxi, but even had there been one available, he knew that the Native Infantry Lines almost adjoined the railway terminus, and that he had to cross a grass maidan1 on foot.
Thank heaven it was not far, or he would arrive looking as though he had come by sea—swimming. A few more steps would take him out of this crowd of students, clerks, artisans, and business-men thronging to their schools, colleges, offices, shops, mills, and works in Madrutta. . . . What did they talk about, these queer “city men” who went daily from the suburbs to “the office,” clad in turbans, sandals, dhoties, 2 and cotton coats? Any one of these bare-legged, collarless, not very clean-looking worthies might be a millionaire; and any one of them might be supporting a wife and large family on a couple of pounds a month. The vast majority of them were doing so, of course. . . . Anyhow, none of them seemed to smile derisively when looking at him, so perhaps his general appearance was more convincing than he thought.
But then, short as had been his sojourn in India, he had been in the country long enough to know that the native does not look with obvious derision upon the European, whatever may be the real views and sentiments of his private mind—so there was no comfort in that. . . . Doubtless the Colonel and British officers of the regiment he was about to join would not put themselves to the trouble of concealing their opinions as to his merits, or lack of them, as soon as those opinions were conceived. . . . Well, there was one thing Bertram Greene could do, and would do, while breath was in his body—and that was his very best. No one can do more. He might be as ignorant of all things military as a babe unborn: he might be a simple, nervous, inexperienced sort of youth with more culture and refinement than strength of character and decision of mind: he might be a bit of an ass, whom other fellows were always ragging and calling “Cupid”—but, when the end came, none should be able to say that he had failed for want of doing his utmost, and for lack of striving, with might and main, to learn how to do his duty, and then to do it to the limit of his ability.
A couple of British soldiers, privates of the Royal Engineers, came towards him on their way to the station. Bertram attempted the impossible in endeavouring to look still more inflexibly and inexorably martial, as he eyed them hardily. Would they look at him and smile amusedly? If so, what should he do? He might be a fool himself, but—however farcically—he bore the King’s Commission, and it had got to be respected and saluted by all soldiers. The men simultaneously placed their swagger-sticks beneath their left arms, and, at three paces’ distance, saluting smartly and as one man, maintained the salute until they were three paces beyond him.
Bertram’s heart beat high with pride and thankfulness. He would have liked to stop and shake hands with the men, thanking them most sincerely. As it was, he added a charming and friendly smile to the salute which he gave in acknowledgment of theirs.
He passed on, feeling as though he had drunk some most stimulating and exhilarating draught. He had received his first salute! Moreover, the men had looked most respectfully, nay, almost reverentially, if with a certain stereotyped and bovine rigidity of stare, toward the officer they so promptly and smartly honoured. He would have given a great deal to know whether they passed any contemptuous or derisive comment upon his appearance and bearing. . . . In point of fact, Scrounger Evans had remarked to Fatty Wilkes, upon abandoning the military position of the salute: “Horgustus appears to ’ave ’ad a good night at bridge, and took a few ’undreds orf Marmadook an’ Reginald. Wot?”
Whereunto Fatty had murmured:
“Jedgin’ by ’is ’appy liddle smile,” as he sought the smelly stump of a cigarette in its lair behind his spreading shady ear.
Enheartened, but perspiring, Bertram strode on, and crossed the broad grass maidan, at the far side of which he could see the parallel streets of the Native Infantry Lines, where lay the One Hundred and Ninety-Ninth Regiment, to which he had been ordered to report himself “forthwith.” Yesterday was but crowded, excited yesterday, terminating in a wild farewell dinner and an all-night journey. To-day was “forthwith.” . . . What would to-morrow be? Perhaps the date of the termination of his career in the Indian Army—if the Colonel looked him over, asked him a few questions, and then said: “Take away this bauble!” or “Sweep this up!” or words to that effect. He had heard that Colonels were brief, rude, and arbitrary persons, sometimes very terrible. . . . Approaching the end of the first long row of the mud buildings of the Native Infantry Lines, Bertram beheld a sentry standing outside his sentry-box, in the shade of a great banyan tree. The man was clad in khaki tunic, shorts and puttees, with a huge khaki turban, from which protruded a fringed scrap of blue and gold; hob-nailed black boots, and brown belt and bandolier. His bare knees, his hands and face were very far from being black; in fact, were not even brown, but of a pale wheat-colour.
The thoughts of Private Ilderim Yakub were far away, and his eyes beheld a little sungar-enclosed watch-tower that looked across a barren and arid valley of solid rock. In the low, small doorway sat a fair-faced woman with long plaits of black hair, and, at her feet, crawled a tiny naked boy . . . and then the eyes of Private Ilderim Yakub beheld a British officer, in full war-paint and wearing his sword, bearing down upon him. By Allah the Compassionate and the Beard of the Prophet! He had been practically asleep at his post, and this must certainly be the Orderly Officer Sahib or the Adjutant Sahib, if not the Colonel Sahib himself! Possibly even the “Gineraal” Sahib (from the neighbouring Brigade Headquarters) having a quiet prowl round. It must be somebody, or he wouldn’t be “in drill order with sword,” and marching straight for the guard-room.
Private Ilderim Yakub (in the days when he had been a—well—a scoundrelly border-thief and raider) had very frequently been in situations demanding great promptitude of thought and action; and now, although at one moment he had been practically asleep and his wits wool-gathering in the Khost Valley, the next moment he had sprung from his box, yelled “Guard turn out!” with all the strength of his leathern lungs and brazen throat, and had then frozen to the immobility of a bronze statue in the attitude of the salute.
In response to his shout, certain similarly clad men arose from a bench that stood outside a large thatched, mud-built hut, another, wearing a red sash and three white stripes on the sleeve of his tunic, came hurrying from within it, and the party, with promptitude and dispatch, “fell in,” the Sergeant (or Havildar) beside them.
“Guard!” roared that bearded worthy, “’Shun! Present arms!” and, like the sentry, the Sergeant and the Guard stood as bronze statues to the honour and glory of Second-Lieutenant Bertram Greene—the while that gentleman longed for nothing more than that the ground might open and swallow him up.
What on earth ought he to do? Had he not read in his newly purchased drill-book that the Guard only turned out for Emperors or Field-Marshals, or Field Officers or something? Or was it only for the Colonel or the Officer of the Day? It most certainly was not for stray Second-Lieutenants of the Indian Army Reserve. Should he try to explain to the Sergeant that he had made a mistake, and that the Guard was presenting arms to the humblest of God’s creatures that wore officer’s uniform? Should he “put on dog” heavily and “inspect” the Guard? Should he pretend to find fault? No! For one thing he had not enough Hindustani to make himself intelligible. (But it was a sign that a change was already coming over Bertram, when he could even conceive such a notion, and only dismiss it for such a reason.)
What should he do, in these distressingly painful circumstances?
Should he absolutely ignore the whole lot of them, and swagger past with a contemptuous glance at the fool Sergeant who had turned the Guard out? . . . It wasn’t his fault that the wretched incident had occurred. . . . He hadn’t made the mistake, so why should he be made to look a fool? It would be the others who’d look the fools, if he took not the slightest notice of their silly antics and attitude-striking. . . (Heavens! How they’d made the perspiration trickle again, by putting him in this absurd and false position.) . . . Yes—he’d just go straight past the lot of them as if they didn’t exist. . . . No—that would be horribly rude, to say the least of it. They were paying him a military compliment, however mistakenly, and he must return it. Moreover—it wasn’t the Sergeant-fellow’s fault. The sentry had shouted to the Guard, and the Sergeant had naturally supposed that one of those Great Ones, for whom Guards turn out, was upon them.
Should he march past with a salute, as though he were perfectly accustomed to such honours, and rather bored with them? Unless he were near enough for them to see the single “pip” on his shoulder-strap, they would never know they had made a mistake. (He would hate them to feel as horribly uncomfortable as he did.)
And if he did, where should he go? He must find the Officers’ Lines, and go to the Officers’ Mess and inquire for the Colonel. Besides, this was his regiment; he was attached to it, and these men would all see him again and know who and what he was. . . .
Of course—he would do the correct and natural thing, and behave as though he were merely slightly amused at the sentry’s not unnatural mistake and its results. . . . With a smart salute to the Guard, Bertram smiled upon the puzzled, imperturbable and immobile Havildar, with the remark:
“Achcha, 3 Sergeant. Guard, dismiss karo” 4—upon hearing which barbarous polyglot of English and Hindustani, the Non-Commissioned Officer abandoned his rigid pose and roared, with extreme ferocity, in the very ears of the Sepoys:
“Guard! Order-r ar-r-rms. Stannat eashe. Deesmees!” and with another salute, again turned to Bertram to await his further pleasure.
“Ham Colonel Sahib mangta. Kither hai?” 5 said that gentleman, and the intelligent Havildar gathered that this young and strange Sahib “wanted” the Colonel. He smiled behind his vast and bushy beard at the idea of sending a message of the “Hi! you—come here! You’re wanted” description to that Great One, and pictured the meeting that would ensue if the Colonel Sahib came hastily, expecting to find the Commander-in-Chief-in-India awaiting him.
No—since the young Sahib wanted the Colonel, he had better go and find him. Calling to a young Sepoy who was passing on some fatigue duty, he bade him haste away, put on his tunic, tuck his long khaki shirt inside his shorts, and conduct the Sahib to the Adjutant Sahib’s office. (That would be quite in order; the Adjutant Sahib could decide as to the wisdom of “wanting” the Colonel Sahib at this—or any other—hour of the day; and responsibility would be taken from the broad, unwilling shoulders of Havildar Afzul Khan Ishak.)
An uncomfortable five minutes followed. Bertram, longing with all his soul to say something correct, natural, and pleasant, could only stand dumb and unhappy, while the perspiration trickled; the Havildar stood stiffly at attention and wondered whether the Sahib were as old as his son, Private Mahommed Afzul Khan, new recruit of the One Hundred and Ninety-Ninth; and the Guard, though dismissed, stood motionless in solemn row beside the bench (on which they would sit as soon as the Sahib turned his back), and, being Indian Sepoys, emptied their minds of all thought, fixed their unseeing gaze upon Immensity and the Transcendental Nothingness-of-Non-existent-Non-entity-in-Oblivion, and tried to look virtuous.
Returning and saluting, the young Sepoy wheeled about and plodded heavily down the road, walking as though each hob-nailed boat weighed a ton. But pride must suffer pain, and not for worlds would this young man (who had, until a few months ago, never worn anything heavier than a straw-plaited sandal as he “skipped like a young ram” about his native hill-tops) have been without these tokens of wealth and dignity. What he would have liked, had the Authorities been less touchy about it, would have been to wear them slung about his neck, plain for all to admire, and causing their owner no inconvenience.
Following his guide through the lines of mud huts, saluted every few yards by passing Sepoys and by groups who sat about doorways and scrambled to their feet as he passed, Bertram found himself in a broad sandy road, lined by large stone European bungalows, which ran at right-angles across the ends of the Sepoys’ lines. Each bungalow stood in a large compound, had a big lawn and flower-gardens in front of it, and was embowered in palm-trees. Turning into the garden of the largest of these, the young Sepoy pointed to the big house, ejaculated: “Arfeecers’ Mess, Sahib,” saluted, performed a meticulously careful “about turn,” the while his lips moved as though he were silently giving himself the necessary orders for each movement, and solemnly marched away.
A pair of large old-fashioned cannon and a white flagstaff gave the place an important and official appearance. Beyond the big porch stretched to left and right a broad and deep verandah, in the shady recesses of which Bertram could see a row of chairs wherein lay khaki-clad figures, their feet, raised upon the long leg-rests, presented unitedly and unanimously towards him. Indeed, as he advanced with beating heart and sense of shy discomfort, all that he could see of the half-dozen gentlemen was one dozen boot-soles backed by a blur of khaki. Up to the time he had reached the flight of steps, leading up from the drive to the verandah, no one had moved. Mounting the steps, and coming to the level of the recumbent figures, ranged along the rear wall of the verandah and on each side of an open door, the unhappy Bertram, from this new standpoint, saw that the face of each officer was hidden behind a newspaper or a magazine. . . . Profound silence reigned as he regarded the twelve boot-soles, each crossed by a spur-chain, and the six newspapers.
Another embarrassing and discomfortable situation. What should he do? Should he cough—as the native does when he wishes to attract your attention, or to re-affirm his forgotten presence? It seemed a rather feeble and banal idea. Should he pretend he had not seen the six stalwart men lying there in front of his nose, and shout: “Qui hai!” as one does to call an invisible servant? And suppose none of them moved, and a Mess servant came—he had no card to send in. He couldn’t very well tell the man to announce in stentorian voice and the manner of a herald: “Behold! Second-Lieutenant Bertram Greene, of the Indian Army Reserve, standeth on the threshold!” And supposing the man did precisely this and still nobody moved, what a superlative ass the said Second-Lieutenant Bertram Greene would feel! . . . But could he feel a bigger ass than he did already—standing there in awkward silence beneath the stony regard, or disregard, of the twelve contemptuous boot-soles? . . .
Should he walk along the row of them, giving each alternate foot a heavy blow? That would make them look up all right. . . . Or should he seize a couple of them and operate them in the manner of the young lady in the Railway Refreshment Rooms or the Village Inn, as she manipulates the handles of the beer-engine? The owners of the two he grabbed and pulled would come from behind their papers fast enough. . . . Bertram moved, and his sword clanked sharply against a pillar. None of the readers had looked up at the sound of footsteps—they were resting from the labours of breakfast, and footsteps, as such, are of no interest. But, strange to say, at the sound of a sword clanking, they moved as one man; six papers were lowered and six pairs of eyes stared at the unhappy Bertram. After three seconds of penetrating scrutiny, the six papers rose again as one, as though at the sound of the ancient and useful military order, “As you were.”
Major Fordinghame beheld a very good-looking boy, who appeared to be taking his new sword and revolver for a walk in the nice sunshine and giving the public a treat. He’d hardly be calling on the Mess dressed up in lethal weapons. Probably wanted the Adjutant or somebody. He was quite welcome to ’em. . . . These “planter” cheroots were extraordinarily good at the price. . . . Lieutenant and Quartermaster Macteith wondered who the devil this was. Why did he stick there like a stuck pig and a dying cod-fish? Still—if he wanted to stick, let him stick, by all means. Free country. . . . Captain Brylle only vaguely realised that he was staring hard at some bloke or other—he was bringing all the great resources of his brain to bear upon a joke in the pink paper he affected. It was so deep, dark and subtle a joke that he had not yet “got” it. Bloke on the door-mat. What of it? . . . Captain Tavner had received a good fat cheque that morning; he was going on ten days’ leave to-morrow; he had done for to-day; and he had had a bottle of beer for breakfast. He didn’t mind if there were a rhinoceros on the doorstep. Doubtless someone would take it into the Mess and give it a drink. . . . Cove had got his sword on—or was it two swords? Didn’t matter to him, anyway. . . .
Captain Melhuish idly speculated as to whether the chap would be “calling” at so early an hour of the morning. It was the Mess President’s business, anyhow. . . . Why the sword and revolver? And mentally murmuring: “Enter—one in armour,” Captain Melhuish, the doyen of the famous Madrutta Amateur Dramatic Society, returned to his perusal of The Era. . . Lieutenant Bludyer didn’t give a damn, anyhow. . . . And so none of these gentlemen, any one of whom would have arisen, had he been sitting there alone, and welcomed Bertram hospitably, felt it incumbent upon him to move, and the situation resumed what Bertram privately termed its formerness.
Just as he had decided to go to the nearest reader and flatly request him to arise and direct him to the Colonel, another officer came rushing from the room whose open doorway faced the porch. In his mouth was a quill pen, and in his hands were papers.
“Lazy perishers!” he remarked as he saw the others, and added: “Come along, young Macteith,” and was turning to hurry down the verandah when Bertram stepped forward.
“Excuse me,” he said, “d’you think I could see the Colonel? I have been ordered to report to this regiment.”
“You could see the Colonel,” replied this officer, “but I shouldn’t, if I were you. I’d see the Adjutant. Much pleasanter sight. I’m the Adjutant. Come along to my office,” and he led the way down the verandah, across a big whitewashed room, simply furnished with a table, a chair, and a punkah, to a smaller room, furnished with two of each of the above-mentioned articles.
Dropping the pen and papers upon the table, the Adjutant wheeled round upon Bertram, and, transfixing him with a cold grey eye, said, in hollow voice and tragic tones:
“Do not trifle with me, Unhappy Boy! Say those blessed words again—or at once declare them false. . . . Did I hear you state that you have been ordered to join this corps—or did I not?”
“You did, sir,” smiled Bertram.
“Shake,” replied the Adjutant. “God bless you, gentle child. For two damns, I’d fall on your neck. I love you. Tell me your honoured name and I’ll send for my will. . . .”
“I’m glad I’m welcome,” said the puzzled and astonished Bertram; “but I’m afraid I shan’t be very useful. I am absolutely ignorant—you see, I’ve not been a soldier for twenty-four hours yet. . . . Here’s the telegram I got yesterday,” and he produced that document.
“Good youth,” replied Captain Murray. “I don’t give a tinker’s curse if you’re deaf, dumb, blind and silly. You are my deliverer. I love you more and more. I’ve been awaiting you with beating heart—lying awake for you, listening for your footprints. Now you come—I go.”
“What—to the Front?” said Bertram.
“You’ve guessed it in once, fair youth. East Africa for little Jock Murray. We are sending a draft of a hundred men to our link battalion there—awfully knocked about they’ve been—and I have it, straight from the stable, that I’m the lad that takes them. . . . They go in a day or two. . . . I was getting a bit anxious, I can tell you—but my pal in the Brigade Office said they were certain to send a Reserve man here and relieve me. . . . Colonel will be pleased—he never says anything but ‘H’m!’ but he’ll bite your ear if you don’t dodge.”
“I suppose he’ll simply hate losing an experienced officer and getting me,” said Bertram, apprehensively.
“He’ll make himself perfectly miserable,” was the reply, “but nothing to what he’ll make you. I’m the Adjutant, you see, and there’ll be a bit of a muddle until my successor has picked up all the threads, and a bit of extra bother for the Colonel. . . . Young Macteith’ll have to take it on, I expect. . . . He’ll bite your other ear for that. . .” and Murray executed a few simple steps of the can-can, in the joy of his heart that the chance of his life had come. No one but himself knew the agonies of mind that he had suffered, as he lay awake at night realising that the war might he a short one, time was rushing on, and hundreds of thousands of men had gone to fight—while he still sat in an office and played C.O.’s lightning conductor. A usually undemonstrative Scot, he was slightly excited and uplifted by this splendid turn of Fortune’s wheel. Falling into a chair, he read the telegram:
To Second-Lieutenant Bertram Greene, A.A.A.
You have been appointed to Indian Army Reserve of Officers with rank of Second-Lieutenant, and are ordered to report forthwith to O.C. One Hundred and Ninety-Ninth Regiment, Madrutta. A.A.A.Military Secretary.
“Any relation to Major Walsingham Greene?” enquired Murray.
“Son,” replied Bertram, “and nephew of General Walsingham.”
“Not your fault, of course,” observed Murray. “Best to make a clean breast of these things, though. . . . Had any sort of military training?” he added.
“Absolutely none whatever. Soon after war broke out I felt I was a disgrace to my family—they are all soldiers—and I thought of going home and enlisting. . . . Then I thought it was a pity if nearly twenty years of expensive education had fitted me for nothing more useful than what any labourer or stable-boy can do—and I realised that I’m hardly strong enough to be of much good in the trenches during a Belgian winter—I’ve been there—so I wrote to my father and my uncle and told them I’d like to get into the Indian Army Reserve of Officers. I thought I might soon learn enough to be able to set free a better man, and, in time, I might possibly be of some good—and perhaps go to the Frontier or something. . . .”
“Goo’ boy,” said the merry Murray. “I could strain you to my bosom.”
“Then I received some papers from the Military Secretary, filled them up, and returned them with a medical certificate. I bought some kit and ordered a uniform, and studied the drill-book night and day. . . . I got that wire yesterday—and here I am.”
“I love you, Bertram,” repeated the Adjutant.
“I feel a dreadful fraud, though,” continued the boy, “and I am afraid my uncle, General Walsingham, thinks I am ‘one of the Greenes’ in every way, whereas I’m a most degenerate and unworthy member of the clan. Commonly called ‘Cupid’ and ‘Blameless Bertram,’ laughed at . . . . Really he is my father’s cousin—but I’ve always called him ‘Uncle,’” he added ingenuously.
“Well—sit you there awhile and I’ll be free in a bit. Then I’ll take you round the Lines and put you up to a few things. . . .”
“I should be most grateful,” replied Bertram.
Macteith entered and sat him down at the other desk, and for half an hour there was a va et vient of orderlies, clerks, Sepoys and messengers, with much ringing of the telephone bell.
When he had finished his work, Murray kept his promise, gave Bertram good advice and useful information, and, before tiffin, introduced him to the other officers—who treated him with cordial friendliness. The Colonel did not appear at lunch, but Bertram’s satisfaction at the postponement of his interview was somewhat marred by a feeling that Lieutenant Macteith eyed him malevolently and regarded his advent with disapproval.
That afternoon the Adjutant very good-naturedly devoted to assisting Bertram to remedy his utter nakedness and ashamedness in the matter of necessary campaigning kit. Taking him in his dog-cart to the great Madrutta Emporium, he showed him what to buy, and, still better, what not to buy, that he might be fully equipped, armed and well prepared, as a self-supporting and self-dependent unit, provided with all he needed and nothing he did not need, that he might go with equal mind wheresoever Fate—or the Military Secretary—might suddenly send him.
After all, it was not very much—a very collapsible camp-bed of green canvas, hardwood and steel; a collapsible canvas washstand to match; a collapsible canvas bath (which was destined to endanger the blamelessness of Blameless Bertram’s language by providing more collapses than baths); a canteen of cooking utensils; a green canvas valise which contained bedding, and professed to be in itself a warm and happy home from home, even upon the cold hard ground; and a sack of similar material, provided with a padlock, and suitable as a receptacle for such odds and ends of clothing and kit as you might choose to throw in it.
“Got to remember that, if you go on active service, your stuff may have to be carried by coolies,” said the Adjutant. “About forty pounds to a man. No good trying to make one big package of your kit. Say, one sack of spare clothing and things; one bundle of your bed, bath, and washing kit; and the strapped-up valise and bedding. If you had to abandon one of the three, you’d let the camp-bed, bath and wash-stand go, and hang on to the sleeping-valise and sack of underclothes, socks, boots, spare uniform and sundries,” and much other good advice.
To festoon about Cupid’s person, in addition to his sword, revolver, water-bottle and haversack, he selected a suitable compass, map-case, field-glasses, ammunition-pouch, whistle and lanyards, since his earnest and anxious protégé desired to be fitted out fully and properly for manœuvres, and as though for actual active service.
Assurance being received that his purchases would be forthwith dispatched to the Adjutant’s bungalow, Bertram drove back to the Mess with that kindly officer, and gratefully accepted his invitation to dine with him, that night, at the famous Madrutta Club.
“What about kit, though?” enquired Bertram. “I’ve only got what I stand up in. I left all my—”
“That’s all right,” was the reply. “Everybody’s in khaki, now we’re mobilised—except the miserable civilians,” he added with a grin, whereat Bertram, the belted man of blood, blushed and smiled.
At dinner Bertram sat respectfully silent, collecting the pearls of wisdom that fell from the lips of his seniors, fellow-guests of the Adjutant. And his demeanour was of a gravity weighty and serious even beyond his wont, for was he not now a soldier among soldiers, a uniformed, commissioned, employed officer of His Majesty the King Emperor, and attached to a famous fighting regiment? Yes—a King’s Officer, and one who might conceivably be called upon to fight, and perhaps to die, for his country and for those simple Principles for which his country stood.
He was a little sorry when some of his bemedalled fellow-guests joked on solemn and sacred subjects, and spoke a little slightingly of persons and principles venerable to him; but he comforted and consoled himself with the recollection and reflection that this type of man so loathed any display, or even mention, of sentiment and feeling, that it went to the opposite extreme, and spoke lightly of things weighty, talked ribaldly of dignitaries, and gave a quite wrong impression as to its burning earnestness and enthusiasm.
After dinner, when the party broke up for bridge, billiards or the bar, he sat on, listening with all his ears to the conversation of the Adjutant and an officer, who seemed exceedingly well informed on the subject of the battle of Tanga, in German East Africa, concerning which the general public knew nothing at all.
Murray noticed his intelligent and attentive silence, and counted it for righteousness unto the boy, that he could “keep his head shut,” at any rate. . . .
And next day The Blow fell!
For poor Captain and Adjutant Murray, of the Hundred and Ninety-Ninth Infantry, it dawned like any ordinary day, and devoid of baleful omens.
There was nothing ominous about the coming of the tea, toast, and oranges that “Abdul the Damned,” his bearer, brought into the big, bare and comfortless room (furnished with two camp-beds, one long chair, one almirah6 and a litter on the floor) in which he and Bertram slept.
Early morning parade passed off without unusual or untoward event.
Breakfast was quite without portent, omen, or foreshadow of disaster. The Colonel’s silence was no more eloquent than usual, the Major’s remarks were no ruder, the Junior Subaltern’s no sillier, and those of the other fellows were no more uninteresting than upon other days; and all unconscious of his fate the hapless victim strayed into his office, followed by his faithful and devoted admirer, Second-Lieutenant Bertram Greene, who desired nothing better than to sit at his feet and learn. . . .
And then it came!
It came in the shape of a telegram from the Military Secretary, and, on the third reading of the fair-writ type, Murray had to realise that the words undoubtedly and unmistakably were:
To O.C. 199th Infantry, A.A.A.
Second-Lieutenant Greene, I.A.R., to proceed to Mombasa forthwith in charge of your draft of one hundred P.M.’s and one Native Officer, by s.s. Elymas to-morrow and report to O.C., One Hundred and Ninety-Eighth immediately. A.A.A.Military Secretary, Delhi.
He read it through once again and then laid it on his table, leant his head on his hand and felt physically faint and sick for a moment. He had not felt quite as he did then more than three or four times in the whole of his life. It was like the feeling he had when he received the news of his mother’s death; when his proposal of marriage to the one-and-only girl had been rejected; when he had been bowled first ball in the Presidency Match, and when he had taken a toss from his horse at the Birthday Parade, as the beast, scared at the feu-de-joie, had suddenly bucked and bounced like an india-rubber ball. . . . He handed the telegram to Bertram without comment.
That young gentleman read it through, and again. He swallowed hard and read it once more. His hand shook. He looked at the Adjutant, who noticed that he had turned quite pale.
“Got it?” enquired Murray. “Here, sit down.” He thought the boy was going to faint.
“Ye-e-s. I—er—think so,” was the reply. “I am to take the draft from the Hundred and Ninety-Ninth to the Hundred and Ninety-Eighth in East Africa! . . . Oh, Murray, I am
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