The Lieutenant and Others - H.C. McNeile - ebook

The Lieutenant and Others ebook

H. C. Mcneile

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The Lieutenant and Others – a collection of stories written during the First World War. A novella written and published at the height of the war in 1916 by a soldier is approaching a real deal in its self-deprecating and ironic views on life in wartime. Here we can see a lot of dangerous moments that soldiers went through in the First World War. The book will not leave anyone indifferent.

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Liczba stron: 164

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Contents

PREFACE

I. THE LIEUTENANT

II. THE END OF "WIPERS"

III. THE BLACK SHEEP

IV. JAMES AND THE LAND MINE

V. THE SIXTH DRUNK

VI. THE MINE

VII. DRIVER ROBERT BROWN

VIII. THE COWARD

IX. EBENEEZER THE GOAT

X. THE PEPNOTISED MILK

XI. WILL YOU TAKE OVER HIS HORSE, SIR?

XII. THE AFTERMATH

PREFACE

It is perhaps unnecessary to state that none of the sketches in this book refer to any particular individual. They are not arranged in chronological order; they do not pretend to be anything more than mere impressions of the grim drama now being played across the water.

Some of those pictured in these pages have gone across the Vale of Shadows: may the earth lie lightly on them, one and all. Others there are who, perchance, may think they recognise themselves here and there: to them I dedicate the book.

The setting in most of the sketches is the salient of Ypres: there may be some who will recognise–not, I trust, without a throb of pleasure–Hooge, Frizenburg, the Meningate, and other health resorts of that delectable neighbourhood.

But should I lift in the smallest degree, for those who wait behind, the curtain that shrouds “somewhere in France,” and show them the tears and the laughter, the humour and the pathos that go to form the atmosphere over yonder, I shall be well satisfied.

I am no artist in words, but–“Each in his separate star shall paint the thing as he sees it for the God of things as they are.”

I. THE LIEUTENANT

A FORTNIGHT IN FRANCE MAY 10 TO MAY 24, 1915

§ I

Gerald Ainsworth was the only son of his parents–and they made something in tins. He had lots of money, as the sons of people who dabble in tins frequently do. He was a prominent member of several dull night-clubs, where he was in the habit of seeing life while other people saw his money. He did nothing and was generally rather bored with the process. In fact, he was a typical product of the twentieth century–with his father’s house in the country full of footmen and ancestors, both types guaranteed by the best references–and his own rooms in London full of clothes and photographs. He was a very fair sample of that dread disease, “the Nut,” and it was not altogether his own fault. Given an income that enabled him to do what he liked, certain that he would never be called on to work for his living, he had degenerated into a drifter through the pleasant paths of life–a man who had never done one single thing of the very slightest use to himself or anybody else. Then came the war, and our hero, who was not by any means a bad fellow at heart, obtained a commission. It was a bit of an event in the family of Ainsworth–nee Blobbs–and the soldier-ancestor of Charles I.’s reign smiled approval from the walls of the family dining-room: as I have said, it was guaranteed to behave as all well-brought-up ancestors are reputed to do.

Gerald was becomingly modest about it all, and, to do him credit, did not suffer from uniformitis as badly as some I wot of. It is possible that a small episode which occurred in the drawing-room of the baronial hall had something to do with it–for, I will repeat, he was not a bad fellow at heart. And this was the episode.

*     *

*

Coming in one Saturday afternoon on week-end leave in the full glory of his new uniform, he found the room full of girls–his income would in time be over five figures, his return for the week-end had not been kept secret, and there may or may not be a connection. Also there were his mother and father and one very bored man of about thirty in plain clothes.

“This is my son, Gerald,” cooed the old lady. “So splendid of him, you know, joining the Army. This dreadful war, you know. More tea, my dear. Poor things, out there–how I pity them. Quite terrible. But don’t you think it’s splendid, the way they’re all joining?”

The bored man in mufti looked more bored. “Why?” he asked resignedly.

“Why!” echoed a creation on his right indignantly. “How can you ask such a thing? Think of all the hardship and suffering they’ll have to endure. Isn’t that enough?” and she glanced tenderly at Gerald, while six other creations bit savagely at muffins because she’d got it out first.

“I don’t quite follow the argument,” answered the bored man patiently. “If a man has no ties, I don’t see that there is any credit in his joining the Army. It is his plain duty, and the gravest discredit attaches to him if he doesn’t. Don’t you agree with me?” and he turned to Gerald.

“Certainly,” answered Gerald, with the faintest hesitation. The line of argument was a little new.

“And what regiment are you going to join?” remarked another creation, with dangerous sweetness.

The bored man smiled slightly. “The one I’ve been in for ten years. I’ve just come back from Central Africa and cross the day after to-morrow.”

As I have said, it is possible that this small incident tended to make the disease of uniformitis a mild one in our hero’s case, and to bring home to him exactly what the pukka soldier does think of it all.

Time went on as time will do, and over his doings in the winter I will not linger. Bar the fact that he’d been worked till he was just about as fit as a man can be, I really know nothing about them. My story is of his coming to France and what happened to him while he was there till, stopping one in the shoulder, he went back to England feet first–a man, where before he had been an ass. He was only in France a fortnight, from the time he landed at Havre till the time they put him on a hospital ship at Boulogne; but in that fortnight he lived and, not to put too fine a point on it, deuced nearly died as well; so he got his money’s worth.

*     *

*

And now, for I have lingered too much on the introduction of my hero, I will get to business.

*     *

*

The train crept on through the night–now pulling up with a series of nerve-shattering jolts, then on again at its apparently maximum speed of twenty miles an hour. In the corner of a so-called first-class carriage Gerald Ainsworth stared into the darkness with unseeing eyes. The dim shapes that flashed past him seemed like the phantasmagoria of a dream. For the first time for three days he had the time to think. He recalled the lunch in Southampton when he had said good-bye to various people who seemed to have a slight difficulty in speaking. He remembered dining in the hotel whose sacred portals are barred to the civilian, still in ignorance of where he was going–to France, the Dardanelles, or even farther afield. Then all the bustle of embarking the regiment and, later, disembarking. And now he was actually under way, starting on the Great Adventure. There were others in the carriage with him, but only one was asleep and he did not belong to the regiment. To him the Adventure had ceased to be great; it was old and stale, and he had spent most of his time cursing at not being able to raise a motor-car. For when you know the ropes–be it whispered–it is generally your own fault if you travel by supply train. But of that the man who sat staring out of the window knew nothing. All he knew was that every minute carried him nearer the unknown–the unknown of which he had read so much and knew so little.

His equipment was very new and beautiful–and very bulky. Prominent among it was that abomination of desolation the fitted mess-tin. Inside it reposed little receptacles for salt and pepper and plates and dinner napkins and spirit lamps that explode like bombs. Aunts are aunts, and there was none to tell him that the roads of Flanders are paved with fitted mess-tins. His revolver was loaded–in fact, five of those dangerous weapons reposed in the racks. The gentleman who slept was armed only with a walking-stick...

Gerald Ainsworth muttered impatiently under his breath as the train stopped for the twelfth time in an hour.

“Putrid journey, isn’t it?” said the man opposite him, and he grunted in acquiescence.

Somehow he did not feel very much like talking. He recalled that little episode in the drawing-room of months ago; he recalled the man in mufti’s cool, quiet face–his calm assumption that there was no credit in coming to fight, but merely disgrace if you did not. He realised that he and his like were on trial, and that the judge and jury were those same quiet-faced men who for centuries–from father to son–have carried the name of England into the four corners of the world, without hope of reward–just because it was their job; those men who for years have realised that the old country was slipping, sliding down from the place that is hers by right of blood; those men who were hanging on, waiting for him and his like to come and do their bit. He realised that the trial for which he had trained so hard was approaching; that every minute carried him nearer the final test, from which he might or might not come alive.

*     *

*

And how many of those others–his judges–lay quiet and still in unmarked graves?...

In the dim light he looked critically at his hand. It was perfectly steady; shame-facedly–unseen–he felt his pulse, it was normal: he was not afraid, that he knew–and yet, somehow, in the pit of his stomach there was a curious sort of feeling. He recalled the first time he had batted at school before a large crowd: he recalled the time when, lying on an operating table, he had seen the doctor fiddling with his instruments: he recalled those horrible ancient newspapers in the waiting-room at his dentist’s: and grimly he realised that the feeling was much the same. It was fear of the unknown, he told himself savagely; moreover, he was right. Yet he envied fiercely, furiously, the man sleeping in the opposite corner who came to war with a walking-stick...But the man who came to war with a walking-stick, who slept so easily in his corner, who swore because he could not get a motor-car, had had just that same sinking sensation one night eight or nine months ago.

He recalled the girls whose photographs adorned his rooms in London; he recalled the night-clubs where women, of a type, always kind to him, had been even kinder since he had put on a uniform; he recalled the home his father had bought–the home of a family, finished and done with, wiped out in the market of money, wiped out by something in tins; and somehow the hollowness of the whole thing struck him for the first time. He saw himself for what he really was–the progeny of an uneducated man with a business instinct, and yet the welcome guest of people who would have ignored him utterly had the tins proved bad. And suddenly he found himself face to face with the realities of life–because in that slow-going, bumping train his imagination had shown him the realities of death. So far the only shells he had ever heard had been fired at a practice camp in England; so far he had never seen a man who had died a violent death; but that train, crawling through the still summer night, and his imagination supplied the deficiencies. He was face to face with realities, and the chains of England seemed a bit misty...And yet a week ago they had seemed so real. Can Bernhardi have been right, after all, in some of the things he said? Is war necessary for a nation? Does it show up life in its true colours–when money ceases to be the only criterion?

*     *

*

Bernhardi may have been right, but, anyway, he is a horrible fellow.

When Gerald Ainsworth woke up the train had grunted to a final halt at a biggish station, and the early morning sun was shining in a cloudless sky.

§ II

Ainsworth fell out of the train endeavouring to buckle the various straps that held together his Christmas tree of equipment. In the intervals of getting his platoon sorted out he looked about him with a vague sort of feeling of surprise. Somehow he’d expected things would look different–and behold! everything was just normal. A French sentry with his long-pointed bayonet at the crossing just outside the station seemed the only thing alive besides himself and his men. The man opposite, who had slept so soundly, had disappeared, swearing volubly, to lie in wait for a motor-car. And then happening to look at the colonel he found him in earnest consultation with an officer, who sported a red band on his arm. This extremely crusty individual he subsequently discovered boasted the mystic letters R.T.O. on his band–which for the benefit of the uninitiated may be translated Railway Transport Officer And though as a rule their duties do not carry them within range of the festive obus, or shell, yet their crustiness–the few who are crusty–may be forgiven them. For to them come wandering at all hours of the twenty-four men of all sorts, sizes, and descriptions, bleating for information and help. The type of individual who has lost his warrant, his equipment, and his head, and doesn’t know where he is bound for, but it is somewhere beginning with a B, is particularly popular with them early in the morning. However, that is all by the way.

*     *

*

They filed out of the station and the battalion sat down beside the road, while the cooks got busy over breakfast. Periodically a Staff officer hacked by on a rustic morning liver-shaker, and a couple of aeroplanes, flying low, passed over their heads bound on an early reconnaissance. They were still many miles from the firing line and, save for a low but insistent muttering, coming sullenly through the still morning air, they might have been in England. In fact, it was a great deal more peaceful than training in England. The inhabitants passing by scarcely turned their heads to look at them–and, save for the inevitable crowd of small children who alternately sucked their dirty thumbs and demanded, “Cigarette, souvenir,” no one seemed at all interested in their existence. Everything was very different from the tin-god atmosphere of England.

At last a whistle blew and there was a general tightening of belts and straps. The battalion fell in, and with its head to the east swung off along the dusty road towards the distant muttering guns. As a route march it was much like other route marches–except that they were actually in Flanders. The country was flat and uninteresting. The roads were pavé and very unpleasant to march on. Ainsworth’s pack felt confoundedly heavy, and the top had come off the pepper receptacle in the fitted mess-tin. They passed some Indians squatting in a field by the roadside, and occasionally a party of cavalry horses out on exercise–for the cavalry were up in the trenches, and when they’re up there they leave the horses behind. Also gilded beings in motor-cars went past periodically, to the accompaniment of curses and much dust. The battalion was singing as it swung along, and in front a band of a sort gave forth martial music–the principal result of which was to bring those auditors not connected with the regiment cursing from their bivouacs at the unseemly noise.

*     *

*

And then miles away in the distance they saw a line of little white puffs up in the blue of the sky–a new one appearing every second. It was Archibald–or the anti-aircraft gun–“doing the dirty,” that fruitful source of stiff necks to those who see him for the first time.

But I will not dwell on that route march. It was, as I have said, much like others, only more so. That evening a very hot, tired, and dusty battalion came to rest in some wooden huts beside the road–their home for the next two or three days. The guns were much louder now, though everything else was still very quiet. Away about four or five miles in front of them a great pall of smoke hung lazily in the air–marking the funeral pyre of ill-fated “Wipers.” For that was their destination in the near future, as Ainsworth had already found out from the adjutant.

Opposite them, on the other side of the road, a cavalry regiment just out of the trenches was resting. Everything seemed perfectly normal–no one seemed to feel the slightest excitement at being within half a dozen miles of the firing line. The officers over the way were ragging–much as they did at home. After a cursory glance at his battalion, to size it up, none of them had paid the slightest attention to them. The arrival of some new men was too common a sight for anyone to get excited about–but Ainsworth could not be expected to know that.

He had strolled out just before dinner, and as he reached a bend in the road the evening Rightfulness in Ypres started. For ten minutes or a quarter of an hour a furious shelling went on, gradually dying away to comparative quiet again.

“Is anything happening?” he asked of a passing cavalry subaltern.

“Not that I know of,” returned the other in some surprise.

“But they’re shelling very hard, aren’t they?”

“That! That’s nothing–they do that most nights. Are you just out? Where are you going?”

“Wipers, I think. What’s it like?”

“Damnable,” rejoined the other tersely, and with that the conversation languished.

For all that, when Gerald pulled the blankets up to his chin that night the feeling in the pit of his stomach had gone. He felt that he’d started to bat–that he was actually in the dentist’s chair.

*     *

*

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