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The Soldier's Art

Anthony Powell




  Book 8

  A Dance to the Music of Time



  When, at the start of the whole business, I bought an army greatcoat, it was at one of those places in the neighbourhood of Shaftesbury Avenue, where, as well as officers’ kit and outfits for sport, they hire or sell theatrical costume. The atmosphere within, heavy with menace like an oriental bazaar, hinted at clandestine bargains, furtive even if not unlawful commerce, heightening the tension of an already novel undertaking. The deal was negotiated in an upper room, dark and mysterious, draped with skiing gear and riding-breeches, in the background of which, behind the glass windows of a high display case, two headless trunks stood rigidly at attention. One of these effigies wore Harlequin’s diagonally spangled tights; the other, scarlet full-dress uniform of some infantry regiment, allegorical figures, so it seemed, symbolising dualisms of the antithetical stock-in trade surrounding them … Civil and Military … Work and Play … Detachment and Involvement … Tragedy and Comedy … War and Peace … Life and Death …

  An assistant, bent, elderly, bearded, with the congruous demeanour of a Levantine trader, bore the greatcoat out of a secret recess in the shadows and reverently invested me within its double-breasted, brass-buttoned, stiffly pleated khaki folds. He fastened the front with rapid bony fingers, doing up the laps to the throat; then stepped back a couple of paces to judge the effect. In a three-sided full-length looking-glass nearby I, too, critically examined the back view of the coat’s shot-at-dawn cut, aware at the same time that soon, like Alice, I was to pass, as it were by virtue of these habiliments, through its panes into a world no less enigmatic.

  “How’s that, sir?”

  “All right, I think.”

  “Might be made for you.”

  “Not a bad fit.”

  Loosening now quite slowly the buttons, one by one, he paused as if considering some matter, and gazed intently.

  “I believe I know your face,” he said.

  “You do?”

  “Was it The Middle Watch?”

  “Was what the middle watch?”

  “The show I saw you in.”

  I have absolutely no histrionic talent, none at all, a constitutional handicap in almost all the undertakings of life; but then, after all, plenty of actors possess little enough. There was no reason why he should not suppose the Stage to be my profession as well as any other. Identification with something a shade more profound than a farce of yesteryear treating boisterously of gun-room life in the Royal Navy might have been more gratifying to self-esteem, but too much personal definition at such a point would have been ponderous, out of place. Accepting the classification, however sobering, I did no more than deny having played in that particular knockabout. He helped me out of the sleeves, gravely shaking straight their creases.

  “What’s this one for?” he asked.

  “Which one?”

  “The overcoat – if I might make bold to enquire?”

  “Just the war.”

  “Ah,” he said attentively. “The War …”

  It was clear he had remained unflustered by recent public events, at the age he had reached perhaps disillusioned with the commonplaces of life; too keen a theatre-goer to spare time for any but the columns of dramatic criticism, however indifferently written, permitting no international crises from the news pages to cloud the keenness of aesthetic consideration. That was an understandable outlook.

  “I’ll bear the show in mind,” he said.

  “Do, please.”

  “And the address?”

  “I’ll take it with me.”

  Time was short. Now that the curtain had gone up once more on this old favourite – The War – in which, so it appeared, I had been cast for a walk on part, what days were left before joining my unit would be required for dress rehearsal. Cues must not be missed. The more one thought of it, the more apt seemed the metaphor. Besides, clothes, if not the whole man, are a large part of him, especially when it comes to uniform. In a minute or two the parcel, rather a bulky one, was in my hands.-

  “Tried to make a neat job of it,” he said, “though I expect the theatre’s only round the corner from here.”

  “The theatre of war?”

  He looked puzzled for a second, then, recognising a mummer’s obscure quip, nodded several times in appreciation.

  “And I’ll wish you a good run,” he said, clasping together his old lean hands, as if in applause.


  “Good day, sir, and thank you.”

  I left the shop, allowing a final glance to fall on the pair of flamboyantly liveried dummies presiding from their glass prison over the sombre vistas of coat-hangers suspending tweed and whipcord. On second thoughts, the headless figures were perhaps not antithetical at all, on the contrary, represented “Honour and Wit, fore-damned they sit,” to whom the Devil had referred in the poem. Here, it was true, they stood rather than sat, but precise posture was a minor matter. The point was that their clothes were just right; while headlessness – like depicting Love or Justice blindfold – might well signify the inexorable preordination of twin destinies that even war could not alter. Indeed, war, likely to offer both attributes unlimited range of expression, would also intensify, rather than abate, their ultimate fatality. Musing on this surmise in the pale, grudging sunshine of London in December, a light wan yet intimate, I recognised the off-licence ever memorable for the bottle of port – could the fluid be so designated – that Moreland and I, centuries before, had bought with such high hopes that Sunday afternoon, later so dismally failed to drink.

  Looking back from a disturbed, though at the same time monotonous present, those Moreland days seemed positively Arcadian. Even the threatening arbitrament of war (the Prime Minister’s rather ornate phrase in his broadcast) had lent a certain macabre excitement to the weeks leading up to the purchase of the greatcoat. Now, some fourteen months later, that day seemed scarcely less remote than the immolation of the port bottle. The last heard of Moreland – from one of Isobel’s letters – was that a musical job had taken him to Edinburgh. Even that information had been sent long ago, soon after my own arrival at Division. Since then I had served a million years at these Headquarters, come to possess no life but the army, no master but Widmerpool, no table companions but Biggs and Soper.

  Meanwhile, the war itself had passed through various phases, some of them uncomfortable enough: France in defeat: Europe overrun: invasion imminent: the blitz opened over London. In this last aspect – more specifically – Isobel reported, too, a direct hit on Barnby’s frescoes in the Donners-Brebner Building, a pictorial memory dim as Barnby himself, now Camouflage Officer on some distant R.A.F. station. Latterly, things had looked up a trifle, in the Western Desert, for example, but in general the situation remained capable of considerable improvement before being regarded as in the least satisfactory. F Mess – defined by Widmerpool as “low, though not the final dregs of the Divisional Staff” – did not at all alter a sense that much was wrong with the world.

  After our first local blitz – when they killed a thousand people, at that stage of the war regarded as quite a large number for a provincial city in a single night – Major-General Liddament, the Divisional Commander, ordered the Defence Platoon (of which I had temporary charge) to mount brens within the billeting area between the sounding of Air-raid Warning and All Clear. This was just a drill, in practice no shooting envisaged, unless exceptional circumstances – dive-bombing, for example – were to arise; Command, of course, operating normal anti-aircraft batteries. Announced by the melancholy dirge of sirens, like ritual wailings at barbarous obs
equies, the German planes used to arrive shortly before midnight – it was a long way to come – turning up in principle about half an hour after sleep had descended. They would fly across the town at comparatively high altitude, then, wheeling lower, hum fussily back on their tracks, sometimes dropping an incendiary or two, for luck, in the immediate neighbourhood of the Mess, before passing on to the more serious business of lodging high explosive on docks and shipyards. These circlings over the harbour lasted until it was time to return. On such nights, after weapons were back in the armoury, sections dismissed to the barrack-room, not much residue of sleep was to be recaptured.

  The last jerky, strangled notes of the Warning, as it died away, always recalled some musical instrument inadequately mastered; General Conyers, for example, rendering Gounod or Saint-Saëns on his ’cello, or that favourite of Moreland’s (also inclined to play Saint-Saëns), the pirate-like man with an old-fashioned wooden leg and patch over one eye, who used to scrape away at a fiddle in one of the backstreets off Piccadilly Circus. Still sleepy, I began to dress in the dark, since switching on the light in the curtain-less bedroom would entail the trouble of rearranging the window’s blackout boards. Musical variations of different forms of Air-raid Warning might repay study. Where Isobel was living in the country, the vicar, as chief warden, issued the local Warning in person by telephone. Either to instil the seriousness of the notification, or because intoning came as second nature to one of his calling, he always enunciated the words imitatively, ululating his voice from high to low in paraphrase of a siren:

  “… Air-raid Warning … Air-raid Warning … Air-raid Warning … Air-raid Warning … Air-raid Warning … Air-raid Warning …”

  Such reveries floated out of the shadows of the room, together with the hope that the Luftwaffe, bearing in mind the duration of their return journey, would not protract with too much Teutonic conscientiousness the night’s activities. To-morrow, a Command three-day exercise opened, when, so far as the Defence Platoon was concerned, sleep might be equally hard to come by. Outside in the street the air was sharp, although by now meagre signs of the spring were appearing in the surrounding countryside, the hedgeless fields partitioned one from another by tumbledown stone walls. The moonlight had to compete with a rapidly increasing range of artificial illumination that made blackout nugatory. Section posts were to be inspected in turn. The guns were already setting up a good deal of noise. Once a minute fragment of shrapnel pattered with a tinny rattle, like attack from a pea-shooter, against the metal of my helmet. The bren section at the corner of the sports field, last to be visited, had their weapon mounted for aircraft action already and revealed, rather apologetically, they had just discharged a burst.

  “Got tired of hanging about watching them drop those things,” said Corporal Mantle, “so we shot down a flare, for goodness’ sake.”

  His spectacles gave him a learned, scholarly air, out of keeping with such impatience and violent action. He was a young, energetic N.C.O., whose name was to go in as candidate for a commission, unless the process were thwarted by Colonel Hogbourne-Johnson, recently showing signs of obstruction in that quarter.

  “We’ll have to account for the rounds.”

  “I’ll remember that, sir. Had a few in hand, as a matter of fact. Always just as well, in case there’s one of those snap inspections of ammo.”

  A shapeless, dumpy figure in a mackintosh came towards us out of the night, the garment so long it reached almost to his heels. This turned out to be Bithel. It was impossible to guess why he should be wandering about at this hour of the night in the middle of a raid. As officer in charge of the Mobile Laundry, his duties could scarcely be required at this moment. He came close to us.

  “You can’t sleep with this noise going on,” he said.

  He spoke peevishly, as if remedy, easily applicable, had been for some reason disregarded by the authority responsible.

  “I’ve run out of those pills of mine,” he went on. “Not even sure I’ll be able to get them any longer. Gone off the market, like so many other useful commodities these days. Thought it wiser to put on a helmet. Regulation about that anyway, I expect. I didn’t know you or any of the rest of Div. H.Q. were on duty on these occasions. Don’t Command organise the pom-poms? That’s what they’re called, I believe. Then there’s a Bofors gun. That’s ack-ack too, isn’t it? Swedish. I ought to know much more about the Royal Artillery and their functions. Don’t come your way as an infantryman, though I’ve picked up a bit since being at Div.”

  He smiled uncomfortably, looking, as always, as if he expected a rebuff. Some months before, he had shaved off the untidy moustache worn when – from some forlorn hope of the Territorial Army Reserve – he had first joined our former Battalion. The physical change, more in keeping with his other natural characteristics, additionally emphasised, in a large moonlike face, the unbelievably inexpert adjustment of his false teeth. That Bithel had lasted so comparatively long in charge of the Mobile Laundry was little short of a miracle. Survival was chiefly due to the fact that this unit was attached only for purposes of administrative convenience, never officially part of the Divisional establishment, therefore liable to be removed at short notice. Accordingly, it never received quite the same disciplinary attention; and, in any case, he was lucky in having Sergeant Ablett as subordinate, who probably did most of the administration. Another reason, too, may have played a part in delaying Bithel’s dislodgement, ultimately inevitable. He was accustomed to speak enthusiastically of his own affiliations with the theatrical world, boasts reduced on closer examination to having worked as “front of House,” for a few months, at the theatre of the provincial capital where for a time he had existed precariously. The job had come to an end when that playhouse had been transformed into a cinema, but some shreds of Thespian prestige still clung to Bithel, anyway in his own eyes, so that when the officer in charge of the Mobile Bath Unit – traditional impresario of the Divisional Concert party – went sick in the middle of rehearsal, the enterprise was handed over to Bithel, who, as producer and director, mounted a very tolerable show.

  All the same, ejection sooner or later could not be in doubt. Widmerpool, as D.A.A.G. conveniently placed for furthering this measure, was anxious to oust Bithel at the first opportunity; undoubtedly would have done so long before had the Laundry been of our own establishment. Widmerpool’s disapproval was not only on understandable general grounds; but, in addition, because he had – rather uncharacteristically, since usually well informed on such matters – swallowed Bithel’s intermittently propagated myth about being brother of an officer of the same name and regiment who had won a V.C. in the ’14-’18 war. There seemed no reason why even a V.C.’s younger brother should not fall short in commanding a Mobile Laundry, but for some reason, at an earlier stage, Widmerpool’s imagination had been temporarily captured by the legend, so that he felt bitterly about it when the story was shown to be patently untrue. Now, Bithel stood gazing at the bren with close attention, as if he had never before seen such a weapon.

  “So far as Div. H.Q. are concerned, only the Defence Platoon stands-to when there’s a raid – one of the General’s ideas to keep everyone on their toes,” I said.

  Bithel nodded gravely at this explanation of why we were on guard over the sports field. As it happened, he and I had hardly spoken since the night when, in his own phrase, he had “taken a glass too much” after traversing the gas-chamber at the Castlemallock School of Chemical Warfare. The peregrinations of the Laundry, by definition, kept its officer, a subaltern, in a state of almost permanent circuit throughout the formation’s area, while my own duties, however trivial, were too numerous and dispersed to offer much time for hobnobbing with other branches of H.Q. We had therefore done no more up to that moment than exchange an odd word together, usually as neighbours at periodical assemblies of all Headquarters officers to attend a lecture or listen to harangues delivered from time to time by the General. This was the first occasion we had met without
a crowd of other people round about.

  “Bit of a sweat to have to get up like this night after night,” he said. “Shall we take a turn up the field?”

  His sympathy was not without a touch of despair. Few officers could have looked less on their toes than himself at that moment.

  “Wait till I’ve checked this bren.”

  The section was found correct. Bithel and I strolled across the grass towards a broken-down cricket pavilion or changing room, a small wooden structure, not much more than a hut. The place had been the cause of trouble lately, because Biggs, Staff Officer Physical Training, had mislaid the key just at the moment when the civilian owners of the requisitioned sports field wanted to store benches or garden seats there. Widmerpool had complained greatly of time wasted on this matter, and, with justice, had been very cross with Biggs, to whom the hut and its key had become almost an obsession. I tried the door to see if it had been properly locked again after the key had been found and the seats moved there. It would not open. Biggs must have seen to that.

  The noise of the cannonade round about was deepening. An odour like smouldering rubber imposed a rank, unsavoury surface smell on lesser exhalations of soot and smoke. Towards the far side of the town – the direction of the harbour – thin greenish rays of searchlight beams rapidly described wide intersecting arcs backwards and forwards against the eastern horizon, their range ever reducing, ever extending, as they sliced purposefully across each other’s tracks. Then, all at once, these several zigzagging angles of light would form an apex on the same patch of sky, creating a small elliptical compartment through which, once in a way, rapidly darted a tiny object, moving like an insect confined in a bottle. As if reacting in deliberately regulated unison to the searchlights’ methodical fluctuations, shifting masses of cloudbank alternately glowed and faded, constantly redesigning by that means half-a-dozen intricately pastelled compositions of black and lilac, grey and saffron, pink and gold. Out of this resplendent firmament – which, transcendentally speaking, seemed to threaten imminent revelation from on high – slowly descended, like Japanese lanterns at a fete, a score or more of flares released by the raiding planes. Clustered together in twos and threes, they drifted at first aimlessly in the breeze, after a time scarcely losing height, only swaying a little this way and that, metamorphosed into all but stationary lamps, apparently suspended by immensely elongated wires attached to an invisible ceiling. Suddenly, as if at a prearranged signal for the climax of the spectacle – a set-piece at midnight – high swirling clouds of inky smoke rose from below to meet these flickering airborne torches. At ground level, too, irregular knots of flame began to blaze away like a nest of nocturnal forges in the Black Country. All the world was dipped in a livid, unearthly refulgence, theatrical yet sinister, a light neither of night nor day, the penumbra of Pluto’s frontiers. The reek of scorched rubber grew more than ever sickly. Bithel fidgeted with the belt of his mackintosh.