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The Soldier's Art, Page 2

Anthony Powell

  “There’s been a spot of bother about a cheque,” he said,


  “I think that’s what was really keeping me awake as much as lack of those pills. Things may work out all right because I’ve paid up – borrowed a trifle from the Postal Officer, as a matter of fact – but cheques are always a worry. They ought to be abolished.”

  “Perhaps they will after the war.”

  “That’ll be too late for me,” said Bithel.

  He spoke quite seriously.

  “Large sum?”

  “Matter of a quid or two – but it did bounce.”

  “Can’t you keep it quiet?”

  “I don’t think the D.A.A.G. knows up to date.”

  That was an important factor from Bithel’s point of view. Otherwise Widmerpool might find the opportunity for which he was waiting. I was about to commiserate further, when a deep, rending explosion, that seemed to split the earth, sounded above the regular thud-thud-thud of the guns, vibrations of its crash echoing back in throbbing, shuddering waves from the surrounding hills. Bithel shook his head, his attention distracted for the moment from his own troubles, no doubt worrying enough.

  “That must have got home,” he said.

  “Sounded like it.”

  He began to speak again, then for some reason stopped, apparently changing his mind about the way he was going to put a question. Having evidently decided to frame it in a different form, he made the enquiry with conscious diffidence.

  “Told me you were a reader – like me – didn’t you?”

  “Yes, I am. I read quite a lot.”

  I no longer attempted to conceal the habit, with all its undesirable implications. At least admitting to it put one in a recognisably odd category of persons from whom less need be expected than the normal run.

  “I love a good book when I have the time,” said Bithel. “St. John Clarke’s Match Me Such Marvel, that sort of thing. Something serious that takes a long time to get through.”

  “Never read that one, as it happens.”

  Bithel seemed scarcely aware of my answer. St. John Clarke’s novel was evidently a side issue, not at all the goal at which these ranging shots were aimed. Though rarely possible to guess, when in a mood for intimate conversation, what he would say next, such pronouncements of Bithel’s were always worth attention. Something special was on his mind. When he put the next question, there was a kind of fervour in his voice.

  “Ever buy magazines like Chums and the Boy’s Own Paper when you were a nipper?”

  “Of course – used to read them in bound annuals as a rule. I’ve a brother-in-law who still does.”

  It was Erry’s only vice, though one he tried to keep dark, as showing in himself a lack of earnestness and sense of social obligation. Bithel made some reply, but a sudden concentrated burst of ack-ack fire, as if discharged deliberately for that purpose, drowned his utterance.

  “What was that you said?”

  Bithel spoke again.

  “Still can’t hear.”

  He came closer.

  “… hero…” he shouted.

  “You feel a hero?”

  “No … I…”

  The noise lessened, but he still had to yell at the top of his voice to make himself heard.

  “… always imagined myself the hero of those serials.”

  The shouted words were just audible above the clatter of guns. He seemed to think they offered a piece of unparalleled psychological revelation on his own part.

  “Every boy does,” I yelled back.


  He was disappointed at that answer.

  “I’m sure my brother-in-law does to this day.”

  Bithel was not at all interested in my own, or anyone else’s, brother-in-law’s tendency to self-identification while reading fiction. That was reasonable, because he knew nothing of Erridge’s existence. Besides, he wanted only to talk about himself. Although wholly concentrated on that subject, he remained at the same time apologetic as well as intense.

  “Only I was thinking the other night – when Jerry first came over – that I was having the very experience I used to read about as a lad.”

  “How do you mean?”

  “ ‘Coming under fire for the first time’ – that was always a great moment in the hero’s career. You must remember. Where he ‘showed his mettle,’ as the story usually put it.”

  He laughed, as if trying to excuse such reckless flights of fancy, in doing so displaying the double row of Low Comedy teeth.

  ‘“The rattle of musketry from distant hills’ – ’a little shower of sand churned up by a bullet in front of the redoubt’?”

  These conventional phrases from boys’ adventure stories might encourage Bithel to plunge further into observations about life. The clichés did indeed stir him.

  “That’s it,” he said, speaking with much more animation than usual, “that’s just what I meant. Wonderful memory you’ve got. What you said brings those yarns right back. I was a great reader as a lad. One of those thoughtful little boys. Never kept it up as I should.”

  This was all a shade reminiscent of Gwatkin, my former Company Commander, poring secretly in the Company office over the Hymn to Mithras; but, whereas Gwatkin had meditated such literary material as a consequence of his own infatuation with the mystique of a soldier’s life, Bithel’s ruminations were quite other. In Bithel, memory of his former partiality for tales of military prowess merely gave rise to a very natural surprise that he was not himself more personally frightened at this moment of comparative danger.

  “Strictly speaking, one experienced raids – coming under fire, if you like – when still reading the Boy’s Own Paper. During the earlier war, I mean.”

  “Oh, I didn’t,” said Bithel. “The Zeppelins never came near any of the places we lived when I was a kid. That’s just why I was surprised not to mind this sort of thing more. I’m the nervy type, you see. I once had to give evidence in court, rather a nasty case – nothing to do with me, I’m glad to say, just a witness – and I thought my legs were going to give way under me. But this business we’re listening to now really doesn’t worry me. Worst moment’s when the Warning goes, don’t you think?”

  The question of fear inevitably propounds itself from time to time if a state of war exists. Will circumstances arise when its operation on the senses might become uncomfortably hard to control? Like Bithel, I, too, had thought a certain amount about that subject, reaching the very provisional conclusion that fear itself was less immediately related to unavoidable danger than might at first be supposed; although no doubt that danger, more or less indefinitely increased in motive power, might – indeed certainly would – cause the graph to rise steeply. In bed at night, months before the blitz struck the locality, I would occasionally feel something like abject fear, turning this way and that in my sleeping-bag, for no special reason except that life seemed so utterly out of joint. That was a kind of nervous condition – as Bithel had said of himself – perfectly imaginable in time of peace; perhaps even experienced then, now forgotten, like so much else of that lost world. In the same way, I would sometimes lie awake enduring torments of thwarted desire, depraved fantasies hovering about the camp-bed, reveries of concupiscence that seemed specifically generated by unprepossessing military surroundings. Indeed, it was often necessary to remind oneself that low spirits, disturbed moods, sense of persecution, were not necessarily the consequence of serving in the army, or being part of a nation at war, with which all-inclusive framework depressive mental states now seemed automatically linked.

  The raid in progress at that moment was, as Bithel had indicated, more spectacular than alarming, even a trifle stimulating now one was fully awake and dressed; so long as the mind did not dwell on the tedium of a three-day exercise the following day, undertaken after a missed night’s sleep. On the other hand, if bombs began to fall in the sports field, such light-hearted impressions might easily deteriorate, especial
ly if the bren were knocked out, removing chance of retaliation. (It might be added that all sense of excitement was to evaporate from air-raids three or four years later.) However, Bithel had ceased to require comment on his own meditations about “baptism of fire.” He now returned to those personal worries, predominantly financial, which were never far from his mind.

  “I do hope things will be O.K. about that cheque,” he said. “It all started with the Pay Department being late that month in paying Field Allowance into my banking account.”

  This situation did, indeed, arise from time to time, owing to absence of method, possibly downright incompetence, on the part of the Financial Branch of the War Office concerned; possibly due to economic ineptitudes, or ingrained malice, of what Pennistone used later to call the “cluster of highly educated apes” ultimately in charge of such matters at the Treasury. Whatever the cause, the army from time to time had to forego its wages; sometimes such individual disasters as Bithel’s resulting.

  “I can see there’ll be a fuss,” he said, “but with any luck it won’t come to a court-martial.”

  Two or three lesser reports, each thunderous enough, had followed the last big explosion. Now noise was diminishing, the barrage gradually, though appreciably, reducing its volume. Quite suddenly the guns fell entirely silent, like dogs in the night, which, after keeping you awake for hours by their barking, suddenly decide to fall asleep instead. There was a second or two of absolute stillness. Then in the far distance the bell of a fire-engine or ambulance clanged desperately for a time, until the echoes died sadly away on the wind. This discordant ringing was followed by a great clamour, shouts, starting-up of trucks, hooting … the sound of horns and motors, which shall, bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring…. Huge smuts, like giant moths exploring the night air, pervaded its twilight. The smell of burning rubber veered towards a scent more specifically chemical in character, in which the fumes of acetylene seemed recognisable. The consolatory, long-drawn out-drone came at last. At its first note, as if thus signalled, large drops of rain began to fall. In a minute or two the shower was coming down in buckets, the freshness of the newly wet grass soon obtruding on the other scents.

  “Buck up and get that bren covered, Corporal.”

  “Shall we pack it in now, sir?”

  “Go ahead.”

  “Think I’ll return to bed too,” said Bithel. “Doubt if I’ll get much sleep. Glad I brought a mac with me now. Need it more than a helmet really. Awful climate over here. Makes you swill down too much of that porter, as they call it. More than you can afford. Just to keep the damp out of your bones. Come and see us in G Mess some time. You’d like Barker-Shaw, the Field Security Officer. He’s a professor – philosophy, I think – at one of the ’varsities. Can’t remember which. Clever face. The bloke in charge of the Hygiene Section is a bright lad too. You should hear him chaffing the Dental Officer about sterility.”

  Our several ways parted. Corporal Mantle marched off his men to the barrack-room. I completed the rounds of the other bren sections, dismissed them, made for bed.

  F Mess was only a few minutes’ walk from the last of these posts. The Mess was situated in a redbrick, semi-detached villa, one of the houses of a side-street sloping away towards the perimeter of the town. Entering the front door, you were at once assailed by a nightmare of cheerlessness and squalor, all the sordid melancholy, at its worst, of any nest of bedrooms where only men sleep; a prescript of nature unviolated by the character of solely male-infested sleeping quarters established even in buildings hallowed by age and historical association. F Mess was far from such; at least any history to be claimed was in the making. From its windows in daytime, beyond the suburbs, grey, stony hills could be seen, almost mountains; in another direction, that of the docks over which the blitz had been recently concentrating, rose cranes and factory chimneys beyond which inland waters broadened out towards the sea – ”the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.” About half a mile away from the Mess, though still in the same predominantly residential area, two or three tallish houses accommodated all but the ancillary services of Divisional Headquarters. A few scattered university buildings in the same neighbourhood failed to impart any hint of academic flavour.

  “No room in this bloody Mess as it is,” said Biggs, Staff Officer Physical Training, expressing this opinion when I first turned up there. “Now you come along and add to the crowd, Jenkins, making an extra place at that wretched rickety table we’ve been issued with to eat off, and another body to occupy the tin sink on the top floor they call a bath – no shaving in the bathroom, remember, absolutely verboten. What are you supposed to be doing at Div. anyway?”

  A captain with ’14-’18 ribbons, bald as an egg, he had perhaps been good-looking in a heavy classical manner when younger; anyway, had himself so supposed. Now, with chronically flushed cheeks, he was putting on flesh, his large bulbous nose set between fierce frightened eyes and a small cupid’s bow mouth that kept twitching open and shut like a rubber valve. Muscular over-development of chest, shoulder and buttock gave him the air of a strong man at a circus – a strong woman almost – or professional weight-lifter about to present an open-air act to a theatre queue. His voice, harsh and unsure, registered the persecution mania that beset him, that condition, not uncommon in the army, of for ever expecting a superior to appear – bursting like the Demon King out of a trapdoor in the floor – and find fault. In civilian life sports organiser at a sea-side resort, Biggs, so I learnt later, was in process of divorcing his wife, a prolonged undertaking, troublesome and expensive, of which he would often complain.

  “I’m attached to the D.A.A.G.’s office.”

  “How long for?”

  “Don’t know.”

  “How’s Major Widmerpool got authority for an assistant, I should like to know?”

  “War Office Letter.”

  “Go on.”

  “It’s to help clear up a lot of outstanding stuff like court-martial proceedings and requisition claims.”

  “I’ve got a lot of outstanding stuff too,” said Biggs. “A bloody lot. I’m not given an assistant. Well, I don’t envy you, Jenkins. It’s a dog’s life. And don’t forget this. Don’t forget it. There’s nothing lower in the whole bloody army than a second-lieutenant. Other Ranks have got their rights, a one-pipper’s none. That goes especially for a Div. H.Q., and what’s more Major Widmerpool is a stickler for having things done the right way. He’s been on my own track before now, I can tell you, about procedure he didn’t consider correct. He’s a devil for procedure.”

  After that Biggs lost interest in what was not, indeed, a very interesting subject, except in the light indicated, that to acquire an understrapper at all was, on Widmerpool’s part, an achievement worthy of respect. No one but a tireless creator of work for its own sake would have found an assistant necessary in his job, nor, it could be added, in the ordinary course of things been allowed one, even if required. Widmerpool had brought that off. As it happened, a junior officer surplus to establishment was to some extent justified additionally, not long before my arrival at Division, by Prothero, commanding the Defence Platoon, falling from his motor-bicycle and breaking his leg. While he was in hospital I was allotted some of Prothero’s duties as well as those delegated by Widmerpool.

  “You’ll find there’s a lot of work to do here,” said Widmerpool, on my first morning. “A great deal. We shall be at it to a late hour most nights.”

  This warning turned out to be justified. There were, as it happened, several courts-martial pending, and another, convened in the past, the findings of which Widmerpool considered unsatisfactory in law. A soldier, who had temporarily gone off his head and assaulted two civilians, had been acquitted at his trial. Widmerpool was engaged in a complicated correspondence on this matter with the Judge Advocate General’s Department. Such things took up time, as most of the week was spent out of doors on exercises. Although, since days when we had been at school together, I had been seeing him
on and off – very much on and off – for more than twenty years by this time, I found when I worked under him there were still comparatively unfamiliar sides to Widmerpool. Like most persons viewed through the eyes of a subordinate, his nature was to be appreciated with keener insight from below. This new angle of observation revealed, for example, how difficult he was to work with, particularly on account of a secretiveness that derived from perpetual fear, almost obsession, that tasks completed by himself might be attributed to the work of someone else.

  On that first morning at Division, Widmerpool spoke at length of his own methods. He was already sitting at his table when I arrived in the room. Removing his spectacles, he began to polish them vigorously, assuming at the same time a manner of hearty military geniality.

  “No excuses required,” he said, before I could speak. “Your master is always the first staff officer to arrive at these Headquarters in the morning, and, apart from those on night duty, the last to leave after the sun has gone down. Now I want to explain certain matters before I go off to attend A. & Q.’s morning conference. The first thing is that I never turn work away, neither in the army nor anywhere else. To turn work away is always an error. Never let me find you doing that – unless, of course, it is work another branch is wrongly trying to foist on us, for which they themselves will ultimately reap the credit. A man fond of stealing credit for other people’s work is Farebrother, my opposite number at Command. I do not care for Farebrother. He is too smooth. Besides, he is always trying to get even with me about a certain board-meeting in the City we both once attended.”