The Valley of Bones, Page 2Anthony Powell
‘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 it 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 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 t
hat 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 turnout. 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 quite 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.’
I thought at first he might be a commercial traveller by profession, as he spoke as if accustomed to making social contacts by way of a kind of patter, though he seemed scarcely sure enough of himself for that profession. The way he talked might be caused by mere embarrassment. The cloth of his tunic was stained on the lapels with what seemed egg, the trousers ancient and baggy. He looked as if he had consumed quite a few drinks already. There could be no doubt, I saw with relief, that he was older than myself. If he had ever played rugby for Wales, he had certainly allowed himself to run disastrously to seed. There could be no doubt about that either. He seemed almost painfully aware of his own dilapidation, also of the impaired state of his uniform, at which he now looked down apologetically, holding out the flap of one of the pockets from its tarnished button for our inspection.
‘When I’m allotted a batman, I’ll have to get this tunic pressed,’ he said. ‘Haven’t worn it since I was in Territorial camp fifteen or more years ago. Managed to spill a glass of gin-and-italian over the trousers on the way here, I don’t know how.’
‘You won’t get any bloody
marvellous valeting from your batman here, I’m telling you,’ said Pumphrey. ‘He’ll be more used to hewing coal than pressing suits, and you’ll be lucky if he even gets a decent polish on those buttons of yours, which are needing a rub up.’
‘I suppose we mustn’t expect too much now there’s a war on,’ said Bithel, unhappy that he might have committed a social blunder by speaking of pressing tunics. ‘But what about another round. It’s my turn, padre.’
He addressed himself to the Anglican chaplain, but Father Dooley broke in vigorously.
‘If I go on drinking so much of this beer, it will have a strong effect on my bowels,’ he said, ‘but all the same I will oblige you, my friend.’
Bithel smiled doubtfully, evidently not much at ease with such plain speaking in the mouth of the clergy.
‘I don’t think one more will do us any harm,’ he said. ‘I drink a fair amount of ale myself in civilian life without bad results.’
‘You want to keep your bowels open anyway,’ said
Dooley, pursuing the subject. ‘That’s what I believe in. Have a good sluicing every day. Nothing like it.’
He held up his glass to the light, as if assessing the aperient potentialities of the contents.
‘Army food gives me squitters anyway,’ he went on, roaring with delight at the thought. ‘I’ve hardly had a moment’s peace since we mobilized.’
‘It makes me as constipated as an owl,’ said Pumphrey. ‘I should just about say so.’
Dooley finished his beer at a gulp, again giving his jolly monk’s laugh at the thought of man’s digestive vicissitudes.
‘Even if I’m all bound up, I always carry plenty of toilet paper round with me,’ he said. ‘Never be without it. That’s my rule. You can’t know when you’re not going to be taken short in the army.’
‘That’s a good notion,’ said Pumphrey. ‘We must follow His Reverence’s advice, mustn’t we. Take proper precautions in case we have to spend a penny. Perhaps you do already, Iltyd. The Church seems to teach these things.’
‘Oh, why, yes, I do indeed,’ said Popkiss.