By Evelyn Waugh
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To Christopher Sykes
Companion in arms
Sword of Honour
When Guy Crouchback’s grandparents, Gervase and Hermione, came to Italy on their honeymoon, French troops manned the defences of Rome, the Sovereign Pontiff drove out in an open carriage and Cardinals took their exercise side-saddle on the Pincian Hill.
Gervase and Hermione were welcomed in a score of frescoed palaces. Pope Pius received them in private audience and gave his special blessing to the union of two English families which had suffered for their Faith and yet retained a round share of material greatness. The chapel at Broome had never lacked a priest through all the penal years and the lands of Broome stretched undiminished and unencumbered from the Quantocks to the Blackdown Hills. Forbears of both their names had died on the scaffold. The City, lapped now by the tide of illustrious converts, still remembered with honour its old companions in arms.
Gervase Crouchback stroked his side-whiskers and found a respectful audience for his views on the Irish question and the Catholic missions in India. Hermione set up her easel among the ruins and while she painted Gervase read aloud from the poems of Tennyson and Patmore. She was pretty and spoke three languages; he was all that the Romans expected of an Englishman. Everywhere the fortunate pair were praised and petted but all was not entirely well with them. No sign or hint betrayed their distress but when the last wheels rolled away and they mounted to their final privacy, there was a sad gap between them, made by modesty and tenderness and innocence, which neither spoke of except in prayer.
Later they joined a yacht at Naples and steamed slowly up the coast, putting in at unfrequented harbours. And there, one night in their state room, all at last came right between them and their love was joyfully completed.
Before they fell asleep they felt the engines stop and heard the rattle of the anchor-chain, and when Gervase came on deck at dawn, he found that the ship lay in the shelter of a high peninsula. He called Hermione to join him and so standing together hand-in-hand, at the moist taffrail, they had their first view of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce and took the place and all its people into their exulting hearts.
The waterfront was thronged as though the inhabitants had been shaken from bed by an earthquake; their voices came clearly across the water, admiring the strange vessel. Houses rose steeply from the quay; two buildings stood out from the ochre and white walls and rusty pantiles, the church domed, with a voluted façade, and a castle of some kind comprising two great bastions and what seemed a ruined watch-tower. Behind the town for a short distance the hillside was terraced and planted, then above broke wildly into boulders and briar. There was a card game which Gervase and Hermione had played together in the schoolroom in which the winner of a trick called, ‘I claim.’
‘I claim,’ cried Hermione, taking possession of all she saw by right of her happiness.
Later in the morning the English party landed. Two sailors went first to prevent any annoyance from the natives. There followed four couples of ladies and gentlemen; then the servants carrying hampers and shawls and sketching materials. The ladies wore yachting caps and held their skirts clear of the cobbles; some carried lorgnettes. The gentlemen protected them with fringed sunshades. It was a procession such as Santa Dulcina delle Rocce had never seen before. They sauntered through the arcades, plunged briefly into the cool twilight of the church and climbed the steps which led from the piazza to the fortifications.
Little remained. The great paved platform was broken everywhere with pine and broom. The watch-tower was full of rubble. Two cottages had been built in the hillside from the finely cut masonry of the old castle and two families of peasants ran out to greet them with bunches of mimosa. The picnic luncheon was spread in the shade.
‘Disappointing when you get up here,’ said the owner of the yacht apologetically. ‘Always the way with these places. Best seen from a distance.’
‘I think it’s quite perfect,’ said Hermione, ‘and we’re going to live here. Please don’t say a word against our castle.’
Gervase laughed indulgently with the others but later, when his father died and he seemed to be rich, the project came to life. Gervase made inquiries. The castle belonged to an elderly lawyer in Genoa who was happy to sell. Presently a plain square house rose above the ramparts and English stocks added their sweetness to the myrtle and the pine. Gervase called his new house the Villa Hermione, but the name never caught the local fancy. It was cut in large square letters on the gate-posts but honeysuckle spread and smothered it. The people of Santa Dulcina spoke always of the ‘Castello Crouchback’ until eventually that title found its way to the head of the writing-paper and Hermione, proud bride, was left without commemoration.
Whatever its name, however, the Castello kept the character of its origin. For fifty years, until the shadows closed on the Crouchback family, it was a place of joy and love. Guy’s father and Guy himself came there for their honeymoons. It was constantly lent to newly married cousins and friends. It was the place of Guy’s happiest holidays with his brothers and sister. The town changed a little but neither railway nor high road touched that happy peninsula. A few more foreigners built their villas there. The inn enlarged itself, installed sanitation of a sort and a café-restaurant, took the name of ‘Hotel Eden’ and abruptly changed it during the Abyssinian crisis to ‘Albergo del Sol’. The garage proprietor became secretary of the local Fascists. But as Guy descended to the piazza on his last morning, he saw little that would have been unfamiliar to Gervase and Hermione. Already, an hour before midday, the heat was fierce but he walked as blithely as they on that first morning of secret jubilation. For him, as for them, frustrated love had found its first satisfaction. He was packed and dressed for a long journey, already on his way back to his own country to serve his King.
Just seven days earlier he had opened his morning newspaper on the headlines announcing the Russian-German alliance. News that shook the politicians and young poets of a dozen capital cities brought deep peace to one English heart. Eight years of shame and loneliness were ended. For eight years Guy, already set apart from his fellows by his own deep wound, that unstaunched, internal draining away of life and love, had been deprived of the loyalties which should have sustained him. He lived too close to Fascism in Italy to share the opposing enthusiasms of his countrymen. He saw it neither as a calamity nor as a rebirth; as a rough improvisation merely. He disliked the men who were edging themselves into power around him, but English denunciations sounded fatuous and dishonest and for the past three years he had given up his English newspapers. The German Nazis he knew to be mad and bad. Their participation dishonoured the cause of Spain, but the troubles of Bohemia, the year before, left him quite indifferent. When Prague fell, he knew that war was inevitable. He expected his country to go to war in a panic, for the wrong reasons or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in pitiful weakness. But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.
Everything was now in order at the Castello. His formal farewells were made. The day before he had visited the Arciprete, the Podestà, the Reverend Mother at the Convent, Mrs Garry at the Villa Datura, the Wilmots at the Castelletto Musgrave, Gräfin von Gluck at the Casa Gluck. Now there was a last piece of private business to transact. Thirty-five years old, slight and trim, plainly foreign but not so plainly English, young now, in heart and step, he came to bid good-bye to a life-long friend who lay, as was proper for a man dead eight hundred years, in the parish church.
St Dulcina, titular patroness of the town, was reputedly a victim of Diocletian. Her effigy in wax lay languorously in a glass case under the high altar. Her bones, brought from the Greek islands by a medieval raiding party, lay in their rich casket in the sacristy safe. Once a year they were carried shoulder high through the streets amid showers of fireworks, but except on her feast day she was not much regarded in the town to which she had given her name. Her place as benefactor had been usurped by another figure whose tomb was always littered with screws of paper bearing petitions, whose fingers and toes were tied in bows of coloured wool as aides-mémoire. He was older than the church, older than anything in it except the bones of St Dulcina and a pre-Christian thunderbolt which lay concealed in the back of the altar (whose existence the Arciprete always denied). His name, just legible still, was Roger of Waybrooke, Knight, an Englishman; his arms five falcons. His sword and one gauntlet still lay beside him. Guy’s uncle, Peregrine, a student of such things, had learned some of his story. Waybroke, now Waybrook, was quite near London. Roger’s manor had long ago been lost and over-built. He left it for the Second Crusade, sailed from Genoa and was shipwrecked on this coast. There he enlisted under the local Count, who promised to take him to the Holy Land but led him first against a neighbour, on the walls of whose castle he fell at the moment of victory. The Count gave him honourable burial and there he had lain through the centuries, while the church crumbled and was rebuilt above him, far from Jerusalem, far from Waybroke, a man with a great journey still all before him and a great vow unfulfilled; but the people of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, to whom the supernatural order in all its ramifications was ever present and ever more lively than the humdrum world about them, adopted Sir Roger and despite all clerical remonstrance canonized him, brought him their troubles and touched his sword for luck, so that its edge was always bright. All his life, but especially in recent years, Guy had felt an especial kinship with ‘il Santo Inglese’. Now, on his last day, he made straight for the tomb and ran his finger, as the fishermen did, along the knight’s sword. ‘Sir Roger, pray for me,’ he said, ‘and for our endangered kingdom.’
The confessional was occupied that morning, for it was the day when Suora Tomasina brought the schoolchildren to their duties. They sat on a bench along the wall, whispering and pinching one another, while the sister flapped over them like a hen leading them in turn to the grille and thence to the high altar to recite their penance.
On an impulse, not because his conscience troubled him but because it was a habit learned in childhood to go to confession before a journey, Guy made a sign to the sister and interrupted the succession of peasant urchins.
‘Beneditemi, padre, perche ho peccato…’ Guy found it easy to confess in Italian. He spoke the language well but without nuances. There was no risk of going deeper than the denunciation of his few infractions of law, of his habitual weaknesses. Into that wasteland where his soul languished he need not, could not, enter. He had no words to describe it. There were no words in any language. There was nothing to describe, merely a void. His was not an ‘interesting case’, he thought. No cosmic struggle raged in his sad soul. It was as though eight years back he had suffered a tiny stroke of paralysis; all his spiritual faculties were just perceptibly impaired. He was ‘handicapped’ as Mrs Garry of the Villa Datura would have put it. There was nothing to say about it.
The priest gave him absolution and the traditional words of dismissal: ‘Sia lodato Gesù Cristo,’ and he answered ‘Oggi, sempre.’* He rose from his knees, said three ‘Aves’ before the waxen figure of St Dulcina and passed through the leather curtain into the blazing sunlight of the piazza.
Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren of the peasants who first greeted Gervase and Hermione still inhabited the cottages behind the Castello and farmed the surrounding terraces. They grew and made the wine; they sold the olives; they kept an almost etiolated cow in an underground stable from which sometimes she escaped and trampled the vegetable beds and plunged over the low walls until she was, with immense drama, recaptured. They paid for their tenancy in produce and service. Two sisters, Josefina and Bianca, did the work of the house. They had laid Guy’s last luncheon under the orange trees. He ate his spaghetti and drank his vino scelto, the brownish, heady wine of the place. Then with a fuss Josefina brought him a large ornamental cake which had been made in celebration of his departure. His slight appetite was already satisfied. He watched with alarm as Josefina carved. He tasted it, praised it, crumbled it. Josefina and Bianca stood implacable before him until he had finished the last morsel.
The taxi was waiting. There was no carriage drive to the Castello. The gates stood in the lane at the bottom of a flight of steps. When Guy rose to leave, all his little household, twenty strong, assembled to see him go. They would remain come what might. All kissed his hand. Most wept. The children threw flowers into the car. Josefina put into his lap the remains of the cake wrapped in newspaper. They waved until he was out of sight, then returned to their siestas. Guy moved the cake to the back seat and wiped his hands with his handkerchief. He was glad that the ordeal was over and waited resignedly for the Fascist secretary to start a conversation.
He was not loved, Guy knew, either by his household or in the town. He was accepted and respected but he was not simpatico. Gräfin von Gluck, who spoke no word of Italian and lived in undisguised concubinage with her butler, was simpatica. Mrs Garry was simpatica, who distributed Protestant tracts, interfered with the fishermen’s methods of killing octopuses and filled her house with stray cats.
Guy’s uncle, Peregrine, a bore of international repute whose dreaded presence could empty the room in any centre of civilization – Uncle Peregrine was considered molto simpatico. The Wilmots were gross vulgarians; they used Santa Dulcina purely as a pleasure resort, subscribed to no local funds, gave rowdy parties and wore indecent clothes, talked of ‘wops’ and often left after the summer with their bills to the tradesmen unpaid; but they had four boisterous and ill-favoured daughters whom the Santa-Dulcinesi had watched grow up. Better than this, they had lost a son bathing from the rocks. The Santa-Dulcinesi participated in these joys and sorrows. They observed with relish their hasty and unobtrusive departures at the end of the holidays. They were simpatici. Even Musgrave who had the Castelletto before the Wilmots and bequeathed it his name, Musgrave who, it was said, could not go to England or America because of warrants for his arrest, ‘Musgrave the Monster’, as the Crouchbacks used to call him – he was simpatico. Guy alone, whom they had known from infancy, who spoke their language and conformed to their religion, who was open-handed in all his dealing and scrupulously respectful of all their ways, whose grandfather built their school, whose mother had given a set of vestments embroidered by the Royal School of Needlework for the annual procession of St Dulcina’s bones – Guy alone was a stranger among them.
The black-shirt said: ‘You are leaving for a long time?’
‘For the duration of the war.’
‘There will be no war. No one wants it. Who would gain?’
As they drove they passed on every windowless wall the lowering, stencilled face of Mussolini and the legend ‘The Leader is always right’. The Fascist secretary took his hands off the wheel and lit a cigarette, accelerating as he did so. ‘The Leader is always right’…‘The Leader is always right’ flashed past and was lost in the dust. ‘War is foolishness,’ said the imperfect disciple. ‘You will see. Everything will be brought to an arrangement.’
Guy did not dispute the matter. He was not interested in what the taxi-driver thought or said. Mrs Garry would have thrown herself into argument. Once, driving with this same man, she had stopped the cab and walked home, three hot miles, to show her detestation of his political philosophy. But Guy had no wish to persuade or convince or to share his opinions with anyone. Even in his religion he felt no brotherhood. Often he wished that he lived in penal times when Broome had been a solitary outpost of the Faith, surrounded by aliens. Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world. He never went to communion on Sundays, slipping into the church, instead, very early on weekdays when few others were about. The people of Santa Dulcina preferred Musgrave the Monster. In the first years after his divorce Guy had prosecuted a few sad little love affairs but he had always hidden them from the village. Lately he had fallen into a habit of dry and negative chastity which even the priests felt to be unedifying. On the lowest, as on the highest plane, there was no sympathy between him and his fellow men. He could not listen to what the taxi-driver was saying.
‘History is a living force,’ said the taxi-driver, quoting from an article he had lately read. ‘No one can put a stop to it and say: “After this date there shall be no changes.” With nations as with men, some grow old. Some have too much, others too little. Then there must be an arrangement. But if it comes to war, everyone will have too little. They know that. They will not have a war.’
Guy heard the voice without vexation. Only one small question troubled him now: what to do with the cake. He could not leave it in the car; Bianca and Josefina would hear of it. It would be a great nuisance in the train. He tried to remember whether the Vice-Consul, with whom he had to decide certain details of closing the Castello, had any children to whom the cake might be given. He rather thought he had.
Apart from this one sugary encumbrance, Guy floated free; as untouchable in his new-found contentment as in his old despair. Sia lodato Gesù Cristo. Oggi, sempre. Today especially; today of all days.
The Crouchback family, until quite lately rich and numerous, was now much reduced. Guy was the youngest of them and it seemed likely he would be the last. His mother was dead, his father over seventy. There had been four children. Angela, the eldest; then Gervase, who went straight from Downside into the Irish Guards and was picked off by a sniper his first day in France, instantly, fresh and clean and unwearied, as he followed the duckboard across the mud, carrying his blackthorn stick, on his way to report to company headquarters. Ivo was only a year older than Guy but they were never friends. Ivo was always odd. He grew much odder and finally, when he was twenty-six, disappeared from home. For months there was no news of him. Then he was found barricaded alone in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was starving himself to death. He was carried out emaciated and delirious and died a few days later stark mad. That was in 1931. Ivo’s death sometimes seemed to Guy a horrible caricature of his own life, which at just that time was plunged in disaster.
Before Ivo’s oddness gave real cause for anxiety Guy had married, not a Catholic but a bright, fashionable girl, quite unlike anyone that his friends or family would have expected. He took his younger son’s share of the diminished family fortune, and settled in Kenya, living, it seemed to him afterwards, in unruffled good-humour beside a mountain lake where the air was always brilliant and keen and the flamingos rose at dawn first white, then pink, then a whirl of shadow passing across the glowing sky. He farmed assiduously and nearly made it pay. Then unaccountably his wife said that her health required a year in England. She wrote regularly and affectionately until one day, still affectionately, she informed him that she had fallen deeply in love with an acquaintance of theirs named Tommy Blackhouse; that Guy was not to be cross about it; that she wanted a divorce. ‘And, please,’ her letter ended, ‘there’s to be no chivalrous nonsense of your going to Brighton and playing “the guilty party”. That would mean six months separation from Tommy and I won’t trust him out of my sight for six minutes, the beast.’
So Guy left Kenya and shortly afterwards his father, widowed and despairing of an heir, left Broome. The property was reduced by then to the house and park and home farm. In recent years it had achieved a certain celebrity. It was almost unique in contemporary England, having been held in uninterrupted male succession since the reign of Henry I. Mr Crouchback did not sell it. He let it, instead, to a convent and himself retired to Matchet, a near-by watering-place. And the sanctuary lamp still burned at Broome as of old.
No one was more conscious of the decline of the House of Crouchback than Guy’s brother-in-law, Arthur Box-Bender, who had married Angela in 1914 when Broome seemed set unalterably in the firmament, a celestial body emanating tradition and unobtrusive authority. Box-Bender was not a man of family and he respected Angela’s pedigree. He even at one time considered the addition of Crouchback to his own name, in place of either Box or Bender, both of which seemed easily dispensable, but Mr Crouchback’s chilling indifference and Angela’s ridicule quickly discouraged him. He was not a Catholic and he thought it Guy’s plain duty to marry again, preferably someone with money, and carry on his line. He was not a sensitive man and he could not approve Guy’s hiding himself away. He ought to take over the home farm at Broome. He ought to go into politics. People like Guy, he freely stated, owed something to their country; but when at the end of August 1939 Guy presented himself in London with the object of paying that debt, Arthur Box-Bender was not sympathetic.
‘My dear Guy,’ he said, ‘be your age.’
Box-Bender was fifty-six and a Member of Parliament. Many years ago he had served quite creditably in a rifle regiment; he had a son serving with them now. For him soldiering was something that belonged to extreme youth, like butterscotch and catapults. Guy at thirty-five, shortly to be thirty-six, still looked on himself as a young man. Time had stood still for him during the last eight years. It had advanced swiftly for Box-Bender.
‘Can you seriously imagine yourself sprinting about at the head of a platoon?’
‘Well, yes,’ said Guy. ‘That’s exactly what I did imagine.’
Guy usually stayed with Box-Bender in Lowndes Square when he was in London. He had come straight to him now from Victoria but found his sister Angela away in the country and the house already half dismantled. Box-Bender’s study was the last room to be left untouched. They were sitting there now before going out to dinner.
‘I’m afraid you won’t get much encouragement. All that sort of thing happened in 1914 – retired colonels dyeing their hair and enlisting in the ranks. I remember it. I was there. All very gallant of course but it won’t happen this time. The whole thing is planned. The Government know just how many men they can handle; they know where they can get them; they’ll take them in their own time. At the moment we haven’t got the accommodation or the equipment for any big increase. There may be casualties, of course, but personally I don’t see it as a soldier’s war at all. Where are we going to fight? No one in his senses would try to break either the Maginot or the Siegfried Lines. As I see it, both sides will sit tight until they begin to feel the economic pinch. The Germans are short of almost every industrial essential. As soon as they realize that Mr Hitler’s bluff has been called, we shan’t hear much more of Mr Hitler. That’s an internal matter for the Germans to settle for themselves. We can’t treat with the present gang of course, but as soon as they produce a respectable government we shall be able to iron out all our differences.’
‘That’s rather how my Italian taxi-driver talked yesterday.’
‘Of course. Always go to a taxi-driver when you want a sane, independent opinion. I talked to one today. He said: “When we are at war then it’ll be time to start talking about war. Just at present we aren’t at war.” Very sound that.’
‘But I notice you are taking every precaution.’
Box-Bender’s three daughters had been dispatched to stay with a commercial associate in Connecticut. The house in Lowndes Square was being emptied and shut. Some of the furniture had gone to the country; the rest would go into store. Box-Bender had taken part of a large brand-new luxury flat, going cheap at the moment. He and two colleagues from the House of Commons would share these quarters. The cleverest of his dodges had been to get his house in the constituency accepted as a repository for ‘National Art Treasures’. There would be no trouble there with billeting officers, civil or military. A few minutes earlier Box-Bender had explained these provisions with some pride. Now he merely turned to the wireless and said: ‘D’you mind awfully if I just switch this thing on for a moment to hear what they’re saying? There may be something new.’
But there was not. Nor was there any message of peace. The evacuation of centres of population was proceeding like clockwork; happy groups of mothers and children were arriving punctually at their distributing centres and being welcomed into their new homes. Box-Bender switched it off.
- "Highly entertaining."—Atlantic Monthly
- "An eminently readable comedy of modern war...frequently hilarious, sometimes touching."—Alice Morris, New York Times
- "Reading Men at Arms is like hearing a full keyboard used by a pianist who has hitherto confined himself to a single octave. Waugh is fully alive to the fact that no modern war is just a soldier's war. The drawing rooms, kitchens, and clubs of the home front interest him just as much as the barracks and the tents....To Waugh--and to the reader, after Waugh has waved his magic wand of characterization--mediocrity seems not only a human condition but a fascinating one."—TIME
- "A highly entertaining novel about some of the preposterious experiences of the Second World War....Men at Arms has none of the ponderous detail, none of the piled-on brutality, which have made so many war books a heavy burden. Waugh's sharp wit and sure touch of satire are always at work."—Edward Weeks, Atlantic Monthly
- On Sale
- Dec 11, 2012
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Back Bay Books