The Valley of BonesAnthony Powell
THE VALLEY OF BONES
A Dance to the Music of Time
HEINEMANN : LONDON
SNOW FROM YESTERDAY’S FALL still lay in patches and the morning air was glacial. No one was about the streets at this hour. On either side of me in the half-light Kedward and the Company Sergeant-Major stepped out briskly as if on parade. Some time in the past – long, long ago in another existence, an earlier, less demanding incarnation – I had stayed a night in this town, idly come here to cast an eye over a countryside where my own family had lived a century or more before. One of them (rather a hard case by the look of it, from whom Uncle Giles’s failings perhaps stemmed) had come west from the Marches to marry the heiress of a small property overlooking a bay on this lost, lonely shore. The cliffs below the site of the house, where all but foundations had been obliterated by the seasons, enclosed untidy banks of piled-up rock against which spent Atlantic waters ceaselessly dissolved, ceaselessly renewed steaming greenish spray: la mer, la mer, toujours recommençée, as Moreland was fond of quoting, an everyday landscape of heaving billows too consciously dramatic for my own taste. Afterwards, in the same country, they moved to a grassy peninsula of the estuary, where the narrowing sea penetrated deep inland. There moss and ivy spread over ruined, roofless walls on which broad sheets of rain were descending. In the church nearby, a white marble tablet had been raised in memoriam. Those were the visible remains. I did not remember much of the town itself. The streets, built at constantly changing levels, were not without a bleak charm, an illusion of tramping through Greco’s Toledo in winter, or one of those castellated upland townships of Tuscany, represented without great regard for perspective in the background of quattrocento portraits. For some reason one was always aware, without knowing why the fact should be so inescapable, that the sea was not far away. The poem’s emphasis on ocean’s aqueous reiterations provoked in the mind a thousand fleeting images, scraps of verse, fragments of painting, forgotten tunes, disordered souvenirs of every kind: anything, in fact, but the practical matters required of one. When I tried to pull myself together, fresh daydreams overwhelmed me.
Although they had remained in these parts only a couple of generations, there was an aptness, something fairly inexorable, in reporting under the badges of second-lieutenant to a spot from which quite a handful of forerunners of the same blood had set out to become unnoticed officers of Marines or the East India Company; as often as not to lay twenty-year-old bones in the cemeteries of Bombay and Mysore. I was not exactly surprised to find myself committed to the same condition of service, in a sense always knowing that part of a required pattern, the fulfilment of which was in some ways a relief. Nevertheless, whatever military associations were to be claimed with these regions, Bonaparte’s expressed conviction was irrefutable – French phrases seemed to offer support at that moment – A partir de trente ans on commençe à être moins propre à faire la guerre. That was exactly how I felt myself; no more, no less. Perhaps others of the stock, too, had embarked with reservations on a career by the sword. Certainly there had been no name of the least distinction for four or five hundred years. In mediaeval times they had been of more account in war; once, a long way back – in the disconcerting, free-for-all manner of Celtic lineage – even reigning, improbable as that might now appear, in this southern kingdom of a much disputed land. One wondered what on earth such predecessors had been like personally; certainly not above blinding and castrating when in the mood. A pale, mysterious sun opaquely glittered on the circlet of gold round their helmets, as armed men, ever fainter in outline and less substantial, receded into the vaporous, shining mists towards intermediate, timeless beings, at once measurably historical, yet at the same time mythically heroic: Llywarch the Old, a discontented guest at the Arthurian Table: Cunedda – though only in the female line – whose horse men had mounted guard on the Wall. For some reason the Brython, Cunedda, imposed himself on the imagination. Had his expulsion of the Goidels with great slaughter been at the express order of Stilicho, that Vandal captain who all but won the Empire for himself? I reviewed the possibility as we ascended, without breaking step, a short, very steep, very slippery incline of pavement. At the summit of this little hill stood a building of grey stone surrounded by rows of spiked railings, a chapel or meeting house, reposing in icy gloom. Under the heavy portico a carved scroll was inscribed:
Kedward came smartly to a halt at the entrance of this tabernacle. The Sergeant-Major and I drew up beside him. A gale began to blow noisily up the street. Muffled yet disturbing, the war horns of Cunedda moaned in the frozen wind, as far away he rode upon the cloud.
‘This is the Company’s billet,’ said Kedward, ‘Rowland is meeting us here.’
‘Was he in the Mess last night?’
‘Not when you were there. He was on his rounds as Captain of the Week.’
I followed Kedward through the forbidding portals of Sardis – one of the Seven Churches of Asia, I recollected – immediately entering a kind of cave, darker than the streets, though a shade warmer. The Sergeant-Major formally called the room to attention, although no visible presence stirred in an ominous twilight heavy with the smell of men recently departed, a scent on which the odour of escaping gas had been superimposed. Kedward bade’ the same unrevealed beings ‘carry on’. He had explained earlier that ‘as bloody usual’ the Company was ‘on fatigues’ that week. At first it was not easy to discern what lay about us in a Daumier world of threatening, fiercely slanted shadows, in the midst of which two feeble jets of bluish gas, from which the pungent smell came, gave irregular, ever-changing contours to an amorphous mass of foggy cubes and pyramids. Gradually the adjacent shapes contracted into asymmetrical rows of double-decker bunks upon which piles of grey-brown blankets were folded in a regulated manner. Then suddenly at the far end of the cave, like the anthem of the soloist bursting gloriously from a hidden choir, a man’s voice, deep throated and penetrating, sounded, rose, swelled, in a lament of heartbreaking melancholy:
‘That’s where I fell in love,
While stars above
Came out to play;
For it was manaña,
And we were so gay,
South of the border,
Down Mexico way …’
Another barrack-room orderly, for that was whom I rightly judged the unseen singer to be, now loomed up from the darkness at my elbow, joining in powerfully with the last two lines. At the same time, he swung his broom with considerable violence backwards and forwards through the air, like a conductor’s baton, finally banging it with all his force against the wooden legs of one of the bunks.
‘All right, all right, there,’ shouted the Sergeant-Major, who had at first not disallowed the mere singing. ‘Not so much noise am I telling you.’
As one’s eyes grew used to the gloom, gothic letters of enormous size appeared on the walls of the edifice, picked out in red and black and gold above the flickering gas-jets, a text whose message read straight across the open pages of a huge volume miraculously confronting us high above the paved floor, like the mural warning at Belshazzar’s feast:
‘Thou hast a few names even in Sardis
which have not defiled their garments:
and they shall walk with me in white:
for they are worthy.’
Rev. III. 4.
‘Some of these blankets aren’t laid out right yet, Sergeant-Major,’ said Kedward. ‘It won’t do, you know.’
He spoke gravely, as if emphasising the Apocalyptic verdict of the walls. Although he had assured me he was nearly twenty-two, Kedward’s air was that of a small bo
y who had dressed up for a lark in officer’s uniform, completing the rag by rubbing his upper lip with burnt cork. He looked young enough to be the Sergeant-Major’s son, his grandson almost. At the same time, he had a kind of childish dignity, an urchin swagger, in its way quite impressive, which lent him a right to be obeyed.
‘Some of the new intake was taught different to fold them blankets,’ said the Sergeant-Major cautiously.
‘Look at that – and those.’
‘I thought the lads was getting the idea better now, it was.’
‘Never saw anything like it.’
‘A Persian market, you might think,’ agreed the Sergeant-Major.
Cleanshaven, with the severely puritanical countenance of an Ironside in a Victorian illustration to a Cavalier-and-Roundhead romance, CSM Cadwallader was not as old as he looked, nor for that matter – as I discovered in due course – nearly so puritanical. His resounding surname conjoined him with those half-historical, half-mythical times through which my mind had been straying a minute or two before, the stern nobility of his features suggesting a warrior from an heroic epoch, returned with dragon banners to sustain an army in time of war. Like the rest of the ‘other ranks’ of the Battalion, he was a miner. His smooth skull, entirely hairless, was streaked with an intricate pattern of blue veins, where coal dust of accumulated years beneath the ground had found its way under the skin, spreading into a design that resembled an astrological nativity – his own perhaps – cast in tattoo over the ochre-coloured surface of the cranium. He wore a Coronation medal ribbon and the yellow-and-green one for Territorial long service. The three of us strolled round the bunks.
‘Carry on with the cleaning,’ said Kedward sharply.
He addressed the barrack-room orderlies, who, taking CSM Cadwallader’s rebuke as an injunction to cease from all work until our party was gone, now stood fidgetting and whispering by the wall. They were familiar later as Jones, D., small and fair, with almost white hair, a rarity in the Battalion, and Williams, W. H., tall and dark, his face covered with spots. Jones, D., had led the singing. Now they began to sweep again energetically, at the same time accepting this bidding as also granting permission to sing once more, for, as we moved to the further end of the room, Jones, D., returned to the chant, though more restrainedly than before, perhaps on account of the song’s change of mood:
‘There in a gown of white,
She stooped to pray …’
The mournful, long-drawn-out notes died for a moment. Glancing round, I thought the singer, too, was praying; then saw his crouched position had been adopted the better to sweep under one of the bunks. This cramped attitude no doubt impeded the rendering, or perhaps he had paused for a second or two, desire provoked by the charming thought of a young girl lightly clothed in shimmering white – like the worthy ones of Sardis – a picture of peace and innocence and promise of a good time, very different from the stale, cheerless atmosphere of the barrack-room. Rising, he burst out again with renewed, agonised persistence:
‘… The Mission bell told me
That I mustn’t stay
South of the border,
Down Mexico way . .
The message of the bell, the singer’s tragic tone announcing it, underlined life’s inflexible call to order, reaffirming the illusory nature of love and pleasure. Even as the words trailed away, heavy steps sounded from the other end of the chapel, as if forces of authority were already on the move to effect the unhappy lover’s expulsion from the Mission premises and delights of Mexico. Two persons had just come through the door. Kedward and the Sergeant-Major were still leaning critically over one of the bunks, discussing the many enormities of its incorrectly folded bedclothes. I turned from them and saw an officer approaching, accompanied by a sergeant. The officer was a captain, smallish, with a black moustache like Kedward’s, though much better grown; the sergeant, a tall, broad shouldered, beefy young man, with fair hair and very blue eyes – another Brythonic type, no doubt – that reminded me of Peter Templer’s. The singing had died down again, but the little captain stared angrily at the bunks, as if they greatly offended him.
‘Don’t you call the room to attention when your Company Commander comes in, Sergeant-Major?’ he asked harshly.
Kedward and CSM Cadwalladar hastily straightened themselves and saluted. I did the same. The captain returned a stiff salute, keeping his hand up at the peak of the cap longer than any of the rest of us.
‘Indeed, I’m sorry, sir,’ said the Sergeant-Major, beginning to shout again, though apparently not much put out by this asperity of manner. ‘See you at first, I did not, sir.’
Kedward stepped forward, as if to put an end to further fault finding, if that were possible.
‘This is Mr Jenkins,’ he said. ‘He joined yesterday and has been posted to your company, Captain Gwatkin.’
Gwatkin fixed me with his angry little black eyes. In appearance, he was in several respects an older version of Kedward. I judged him to be about my own age, perhaps a year or two younger. Almost every officer in the unit looked alike to me at that very early stage; Maelgwyn-Jones, the Adjutant, and Parry, his assistant sitting beside him at the table, indistinguishable as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, when I first reported to the Orderly Room the evening before. Later, it was incredible persons so dissimilar could ever for one moment have appeared to resemble one another in any but the most superficial aspects. Gwatkin, although he may have had something of Kedward’s look, was at the same time very different. Even this first sight of him revealed a novelty of character, at once apparent, though hard to define. There was, in the first place, some style about him. However much he might physically resemble the rest, something in his air and movements also showed a divergence from the humdrum routine of men; if, indeed, there is a humdrum routine.
‘It’s no more normal to be a bank-manager or a bus-conductor, than to be Baudelaire or Genghis Khan,’ Moreland had once remarked. ‘It just happens there are more of the former types.’
Satisfied at last that he had taken in sufficient of my appearance through the dim light of the barrack-room, Gwatkin held out his hand.
‘Your name was in Part II Orders, Mr Jenkins,’ he said without smiling. ‘The Adjutant spoke to me about you, too. I welcome you to the Company. We are going to make it the best company in the Battalion. That has not been brought about yet. I know I can rely on your support in trying to achieve it.’
He spoke this very formal speech in a rough tone, with the barest suggestion of sing-song, his voice authoritative, at the same time not altogether assured.
‘Mr Kedward,’ he went on, ‘have the new intake laid out their blankets properly this morning?’
‘Not all of them,’ said Kedward.
‘Why not, Sergeant-Major?’
‘It takes some learning, sir. Some of them is not used to our ways yet. They are good boys.’
‘Never mind whether they are good boys, Sergeant-Major, those blankets must be correct.’
‘Indeed, they should, sir.’
‘See to it, Sergeant-Major.’
‘That I will, sir.’
‘When was the last rifle inspection?’
‘At the pay parade, sir.’
‘Were the Company’s rifles correct?’
‘Except for Williams, T., sir, that is gone on the MT course and taken his rifle with him, and Jones, A., that is sick with the ring-worm, and Williams, H,. that is on leave, and those two rifles the Sergeant-Armourer did want to look at that I told you of, sir, and the one with the faulty bolt in the Company Store for the time being, you said, and I will see about. Oh, yes, and Williams, G. E., that has been lent to Brigade for a week and has his rifle with him. That is the lot I do believe, sir.’
Gwatkin seemed satisfied with this reckoning.
‘Have you rendered your report?’ he asked.
‘Not yet, sir.’
‘See I have the nominal roll this evening, Sergeant-Major, by sixte
‘That I will, sir.’
‘Your cap badge is not level with the top seam of the cap-band.’
‘I’ll see to it as soon as I get back to the Mess.’
Gwatkin turned to me.
‘Officers of our Battalion wear bronze pips, Mr Jenkins.’
‘The Quartermaster told me in the Mess last night he could get me correct pips by this evening.’
‘See the QM does so, Mr Jenkins. Officers incorrectly dressed are a bad example. Now it happens that Sergeant Pendry here, who is Battalion Orderly Sergeant this week, will be your own Platoon Sergeant.’
Sergeant Pendry grinned with great friendliness, his blue eyes flashing in high-lights caught by the gas-jets, making them more than ever like Peter Templer’s in the old days. He held out his hand. I took it, not sure whether this familiarity would conform with Gwatkin’s ideas about discipline. However, Gwatkin seemed to regard a handshake as normal in the circumstances. His tone had been austere until that moment; intentionally, though perhaps rather unconvincingly austere. Now he spoke in a more friendly manner.
‘What is your Christian name, Mr Jenkins?’
‘Mine is Rowland. The Commanding Officer says we should not be formal with each other off parade. We are brother officers – like a family, you see. So, when off duty, Rowland is what you should call me. I shall say Nicholas. Mr Kedward told you his name is Idwal.’
‘He has. I’m calling him that. In practice, it’s Nick for me.’
Gwatkin gazed at me fixedly, as if not altogether sure what I meant by ‘in practice’, or whether it was a term properly to be used by a subaltern to his Company Commander, but he did not comment.
‘Come along, Sergeant Pendry,’ he said, ‘I want to look at those urine buckets.’
We saluted. Gwatkin set off on his further duties as Captain of the Week – like the Book of the Month, I frivolously thought to myself.