Dance to the Music of Time, Volume 3, Page 2Anthony Powell
‘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 sixteen-hundred hours.’
‘That I will, sir.’
‘Your cap badge is not level with the top seam of the capband.’
‘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.
‘That went off all right,’ said Kedward, as if presentation to Gwatkin might have proved disastrous. ‘I don’t think he took against you. What must I show you now? I know, the ablutions.’
That was my first sight of Rowland Gwatkin. It could hardly have been more characteristic, in so much as he appeared on that occasion almost to perfection in the part for which he had cast himself: in command, something of a martinet, a trifle unapproachable to his subordinates, at the same time not without his human side, above all a man dedicated to duty. It was a clear-cut, hard-edged picture, into which Gwatkin himself, for some reason, never quite managed to fit. Even his name seemed to split him into two halves, poetic and prosaic, ‘Rowland’ at once suggesting high deeds:
. . . When Rowland brave, and Olivier,
And every paladin and peer,
On Roncesvalles died!
‘Gwatkin’, on the other hand, insinuated nothing more impressive than ‘little Walter’, which was not altogether inappropriate.
‘Rowland can be a bloody nuisance sometimes,’ said Kedward, when we knew each other better. ‘He thinks such a mighty lot of himself, do you know. Lyn Craddock’s dad is manager of Rowland’s branch, and he told Lyn, Rowland’s not all that bloody marvellous at banking. Not the sort that will join the Inspectorate, or anything like that, not by a long chalk. Rowland doesn’t care much about that, I expect. He just fancies himself as a great soldier. You should keep the right side of Rowland. He can be a tricky customer.’
That was precisely the impression of Gwatkin I had myself formed; that he took himself very seriously, was eminently capable of becoming disagreeable if he conceived a dislike for someone. At the same time, I felt an odd kind of interest in him, even attraction towards him. There was about him something melancholy, perhaps even tragic, that was hard to define. His excessively ‘regimental’ manner was certainly over and above anything as yet encountered among other officers of the Battalion. We were still, of course, existing in the comparatively halcyon days at the beginning of the war, when there was plenty to eat and drink, tempers better than they subsequently became. If you were over thirty, you thought yourself adroit to have managed to get into uniform at all, everyone behaving almost as if they were attending a peacetime practice camp (this was a Territorial unit), to be home again after a few weeks’ change of routine. Gwatkin’s manner was different from that. He gave the impression of being something more than a civilian keen on his new military role, anxious to make a success of an unaccustomed job. There was an air of resolve about him, the consciousness of playing a part to which a high destiny had summoned him. I suspected he saw himself in much the same terms as those heroes of Stendhal – not a Stendhalian lover, like Barnby, far from that – an aspiring, restless spirit, who, released at last by war from the cramping bonds of life in a provincial town, was about to cut a dashing military figure against a back-cloth of Meissonier-like imagery of plume and breastplate: dragoons walking their horses through the wheat, grenadiers at ease in a tavern with girls bearing flagons of wine. Esteem for the army – never in this country regarded, in the continental manner, as a popular expression of the national will – implies a kind of innocence. This was something quite different from Kedward’s hope to succeed. Kedward, so I found, did not deal in dreams, military or otherwise. By that time he and I were on our way back to the Mess. Kedward gratifyingly treated me as if we had known each other all our lives, not entirely disregarding our difference in age, it is true, but at least accepting that as a reason for benevolence.
‘I expect you’re with one of the Big Five, Nick,’ he said.
‘Big five what?’
‘Why, banks, of course.’
‘I’m not in a bank.’
‘Oh, aren’t you. You’ll be the exception in our Battalion.’
‘Is that what most of the officers do?’
‘All but about three or four. Where do you work?’
Banks expunged from Kedward’s mind as a presumptive vocation, he showed little further curiosity as to how otherwise I might keep going.
‘What’s London like?’
‘Don’t you ever get sick of living in such a big place?’
‘You do sometimes.’
‘I’ve been in London twice,’ Kedward said. ‘I’ve got an aunt who lives there – Croydon – and I stayed with her. I went up to the West End several times. The shops are bloody marvellous. I wouldn’t like to work there though.’
‘You get used to it.’
‘I don’t believe I would.’
‘Different people like different places.’
‘That’s true. I like i
t where I was born. That’s quite a long way from where we are now, but it’s not all that different. I believe you’d like it where my home is. Most of our officers come from round there. By the by, we were going to get another officer reinforcement yesterday, as well as yourself, but he never turned up.’
‘No, Territorial Army Reserve.’
‘What’s he called?’
‘Bithel – brother of the VC. Wouldn’t it be great to win a VC.’
‘He must be years younger than his elder brother then. Bithel got his VC commanding one of the regular battalions in 1915 or 1916. I’ve heard my father speak of him. That Bithel must be in his sixties at least.’
‘Why shouldn’t he be much younger than his brother? This one played rugger for Wales once, I was told. That must be great too. But I think you’re right. This Bithel is not all that young. The CO was complaining about the age of the officers they are sending him. He said it was dreadful, you are much too old. Bithel will probably be even older than you.’
‘You never know. Somebody said they thought he was thirty-seven. He couldn’t be as old as that, could he. If so, they’ll have to find him an administrative job after the Division moves.’
‘Are we moving?’
‘Quite soon, they say.’
‘No one knows. It’s a secret, of course. Some say Scotland, some Northern Ireland. Rowland thinks it will be Egypt or India. Rowland always has these big ideas. It might be, of course. I hope we do go abroad. My dad was in this battalion in the last war and got sent to the Holy Land. He brought me back a prayer-book bound in wood from the Cedars of Lebanon. I wasn’t born then, of course, but he got the prayer-book for his son, if he had one. Of course that was if he didn’t get killed. He hadn’t even asked my mum to marry him then.’
‘Do you use it every Sunday?’
‘Not in the army. Not bloody likely. Somebody would pinch it. I want to hand it on to my own son, you see, when I have one. Are you engaged?’
‘I was once. I’m married as a consequence.’
‘Are you really. Well, I suppose you would be at your age. Yanto Breeze – that’s Rowland’s other Platoon Commander – is married now. The wedding was a month ago. Yanto’s nearly twenty-five, of course. What’s your wife’s name?’
‘Is she in London?’
‘She’s living in the country with her sister. She’s waiting to have a baby.’
‘Oh, you are lucky,’ said Kedward, ‘I wonder whether it will be a daughter. I’d love a little daughter. I’m engaged. Would you like me to show you a photograph of my fiancée?’
Kedward unbuttoned the breast-pocket of his tunic. He took out a wallet from one of the compartments of which he extracted a snapshot. This he handed over. Much worn by constant affectionate reference, the features of the subject, recognisably the likeness of a girl, were otherwise all but effaced. I expressed appreciation.
‘Bloody marvellous, isn’t she,’ said Kedward.
He kissed the faded outlines before returning the portrait to the notecase.
‘We’re going to get married if I become a captain,’ he said.
‘When will that be, do you think?’
‘Not for ages, I suppose,’ he said. ‘But I don’t see why I shouldn’t be promoted one of these days, if the war goes on for a while and I work hard. Perhaps you will too, Nick. You never know. There’s this bloody eighteen months to get through as second-lieutenant before you get your second pip. I think the war is going on, don’t you? The French will hold them in the Maginot Line until this country builds up her air strength. Then, when the Germans try to advance, chaps like you and me will come in, do you see. Of course we might be sent to the help of Finland before that, fight the Russkis instead of the Germans. In any case, the decisive arm is infantry. Everybody agrees about that – except Yanto Breeze who says it’s the tank.’
‘We shall see.’
‘Yanto says he’s sure he will remain with two pips all the war. He doesn’t care. Yanto has no ambition.’
I had met Evan Breeze – usually known by the diminutive ‘Yanto’ – in the Mess the previous night, a tall, shambling, unmoustached figure, not at all military, who, as an accountant, stood like myself a little apart from the norm of working in a bank. Gwatkin, so I found in due course, did not much like Breeze. In fact it would be true to say he hated him, a sentiment Breeze quietly returned. Mutual antipathy was in general attributed to Gwatkin’s disapproval of Breeze’s unsmart appearance, and unwillingness to adapt himself to army methods and phraseology. That attitude certainly brought him some persecution at the hands of Gwatkin and others in authority. Besides, Breeze always managed to give the impression that he was laughing at Gwatkin, while at the same time allowing no word or act of his to give reasonable cause for offence. However, there was apparently another matter. When we knew each other better, Kedward revealed that Gwatkin, before his marriage, had been in love with Breeze’s sister; had been fairly roughly treated by her.
‘Rowland falls like a ton of bricks when he does, believe me,’ Kedward said, ‘when he takes a fancy to a girl. He was so stuck on Gwenllian Breeze, you would have thought he had the measles.’
‘She wouldn’t look at him. Married a college professor. One of those Swansea people.’
‘And Rowland married someone else?’
‘Oh, yes, of course. He married Blodwen Davies that had lived next door all their lives.’
‘How did that work out?’
Kedward looked at me uncomprehendingly.
‘Why, what do you mean?’ he said. ‘All right. Why should it not? They’ve been married a long time now, though they haven’t any kids. All that about Gwen Breeze was years ago. Yanto must have forgotten by now that Rowland could ever have been his brother-in-law. What a couple they would have been in one family. They would have been at each other like a dog-fight. Rowland always knows best. He likes bossing it. Yanto likes his own way too, but different. Yanto should clean himself up. He looks like an old hen in uniform.’
All the same, although Breeze might not possess Kedward’s liveliness, ambition, capacity for doing everything with concentrated energy, I found later that he was not, in his own way, a bad officer, however unkempt his turn-out. The men liked him; he was worth consulting about the men.
‘Keep an eye on Sergeant Pendry, Nick,’ he said, when he heard Pendry was my Platoon Sergeant. ‘He is making a great show-off now, but I am not sure he is going on that way. He has only just been promoted and at present is very keen. But he was in my platoon for a time as a corporal and I am not certain about him, that he can last. He may be one of those NCOs who put everything into it for two or three weeks, then go to pieces. You’ll find a lot like that. They have to be stripped. There is nothing else to do.’
It was Breeze, on the evening of the day I had been shown round the lines by Kedward, who took me to the bar of the hotel where the officers of the unit were billeted. After dinner, subalterns were inclined to leave the ante-room of the Mess to the majors and captains, retiring to where talk was less restricted and rounds of drinks could be ‘stood’. This saloon bar was smoky and very crowded. In addition to a large civilian clientele and a sprinkling of our own Regiment, were several officers from the Divisional signals unit located in the town, also two or three from the RAF. Pumphrey, one of our subalterns, was leaning against the bar talking to a couple of army chaplains, and a lieutenant I had not seen before, wearing the Regiment’s badges. This officer had a large, round, pasty face and a ragged moustache, the tangled hairs of which glistened with beer. His thick lips were closed on the stub of a cigar. In spite of the moustache and the fact that he was rather bald, he shared some of Kedward’s look of a small boy dressed up in uniform for fun, though giving that impression for qu
ite different reasons. In strong contrast with Kedward’s demeanour, this man had an extraordinary air of guilt which somehow suggested juvenility; a schoolboy wearing a false moustache (something more than burnt cork this time), who only a few minutes before had done something perfectly disgusting, and was pretty sure that act was about to be detected by the headmaster with whom he had often been in trouble before. Before I could diagnose more, Kedward himself came into the bar. He joined us.
‘I will buy you a bitter, Idwal,’ said Breeze.
Kedward accepted the offer.
‘Finland is still knocking the Red Army about on the news,’ he said. ‘We may go there yet.’
Pumphrey, another of our non-banking officers (he sold second-hand cars), beckoned us to join the group with the chaplains. Red-haired, noisy, rather aggressive, Pumphrey was always talking of exchanging from the army into the RAF.
‘This is our new reinforcement, Yanto,’ he shouted, ‘Lieutenant Bithel. He’s just reported his arrival at the Orderly Room and has been shown his quarters. Now he’s wetting his whistle with me and the padres.’
We pushed through the crowd towards them.
‘Here is Iltyd Popkiss, the C. of E.,’ said Breeze, ‘and Ambrose Dooley that saves the souls of the RCs, and is a man to tell you some stories to make you sit up.’
Popkiss was small and pale. It was at once evident that he had a hard time of it keeping up with his Roman Catholic colleague in heartiness and avoidance of seeming strait-laced. Dooley, a large dark man with an oily complexion and appearance of not having shaved too well that morning, accepted with complaisance this reputation as a retailer of hair-raising anecdote. The two chaplains seemed on the best of terms. Bithel himself smiled timidly, revealing under his straggling moustache a double row of astonishingly badly fitting false teeth. He hesitantly proffered a flabby hand. His furtiveness was quite disturbing.
‘I’ve just been telling them what an awful journey I had coming here from where I live,’ he said. ‘The Adjutant was very decent about the muddle that had been made. It was the fault of the War Office as usual. Anyway, I’m here now, glad to be back with the Regiment and having a drink, after all I’ve been through.’