By Evelyn Waugh
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Here's how," said Guy.
"Cheers," said Apthorpe.
"Look here, you two, you'd better have those drinks on me," said Major Tickeridge, "junior officers aren't supposed to drink in the ante-room before lunch."
"Oh Lord. I am sorry, sir."
"My dear chap, you couldn't possibly know. I ought to have warned you. It's a rule we have for the youngsters. It's all rot applying it to you chaps, of course, but there it is. If you want a drink tell the corporal-of-servants to send it to the billiards-room. No one will mind that."
"Thanks for telling us, sir," said Apthorpe.
"I expect you work up quite a thirst pounding the square. The C.O. and I had a look at you this morning. You're coming along."
"Yes, I think we are."
"I heard from my madam today. All's well on the Matchet front. Pity it's too far for week-end leave. I expect they'll give you a week at the end of the course."
It was early November. Winter had set in early and cold that year. A huge fire blazed in the ante-room. Junior officers, unless invited, did not sit by it; but its warmth reached the humble paneled corners.
The officers of the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, from the very fact of their being poor men, lived in great comfort. In fashionable regiments the mess was deserted after working hours by all except the orderly-officer. The Halberdiers had made this house their home for two hundred years. As Major Tickeridge often said: "Any damn fool can make himself comfortable." In their month in the regiment neither Guy nor Apthorpe had once been out to a meal.
They were the eldest of the batch of twenty probationary officers now under instructions in barracks. Another similar group was said to be at the Depot. Presently they would be brought together. Some hundreds of National Service recruits were in training on the coast. Eventually in the spring they would all be interjoined with the Regular Battalions and the brigade would form. This was a phrase in constant use: "When the brigade forms…" It was the immediate end of all their present activity, awaited like a birth; the start of a new unknown life.
Guy's companions were mostly young clerks from London offices. Two or three had come straight from public schools. One, Frank de Souza, was just down from Cambridge. They had been chosen, Guy learned, from more than two thousand applicants. He wondered, sometimes, what system of selection had produced so nondescript a squad. Later he realized that they typified the peculiar pride of the Corps, which did not expect distinguished raw materials but confided instead in its age-old methods of transformation. The discipline of the square, the traditions of the mess, would work their magic and the esprit de corps would fall like blessed unction from above.
Apthorpe alone looked like a soldier. He was burly, tanned, mustached, primed with a rich vocabulary of military terms and abbreviations. Until recently he had served in Africa in some unspecified capacity. His boots had covered miles of bush trail.
Boots were a subject of peculiar interest to Apthorpe.
He and Guy first met on the day they joined. Guy got into the carriage at Charing Cross and found Apthorpe seated in the corner opposite to him. He recognized the badges of the Halberdiers and the regimental horn buttons. His first thought was that he had probably committed some heinous breach of etiquette by traveling with a senior officer.
Apthorpe had no newspaper or book. He stared fixedly at his own feet for mile after mile. Presently by a process of furtive inspection Guy realized that the insignia of rank on Apthorpe's shoulders were not crowns but single stars like his own. Still neither spoke, until after twenty minutes Apthorpe took out a pipe and began carefully filling it from a large rolled pouch. Then he said: "This is my new pair of porpoises. I expect you wear them too."
Guy looked from Apthorpe's boots to his own. They seemed very much alike. Was "porpoise" Halberdier slang for "boot"?
"I don't know. I just told the man I always go to, to make me a couple of pairs of thick black boots."
"He may have given you cow."
"Perhaps he did."
"A great mistake, old man, if you don't mind my saying so."
He puffed his pipe for another five minutes, then spoke again: "Of course, it's really the skin of the white whale, you know."
"I didn't know. Why do they call it 'porpoise'?"
"Trade secret, old man."
More than once after their first meeting Apthorpe reverted to the topic. Whenever Guy gave evidence of sophistication in other matters, Apthorpe would say: "Funny you don't wear porpoises. I should have thought you were just the sort of chap who would."
But the Halberdier servant who looked after them in barracks—one between four probationary officers—found great difficulty in polishing Apthorpe's porpoises and the only criticism ever made of his turn-out on parade was that his boots were dull.
Because of their age Guy and Apthorpe became companions in most things and were called "Uncle" by the younger officers.
"Well," said Apthorpe, "we'd better get a move on."
The luncheon break allowed no time for dawdling. On paper there was an hour and a half but the squad drilled in suits of privates' dungarees (battle-dress had not yet been issued) and they had to change before appearing in the mess. Today Color Sergeant Cook had kept them five minutes after the dinner call in expiation of Trimmer's being late on parade that morning.
Trimmer was the only member of the batch whom Guy definitely disliked. He was not one of the youngest. His large, long-lashed, close-set eyes had a knowing look. Trimmer concealed under his cap a lock of golden hair which fell over his forehead when he was bare-headed. He spoke with a slightly refined Cockney accent and when the wireless in the billiards-room played jazz, Trimmer trucked about with raised hands in little shuffling dance steps. Nothing was known of his civilian antecedents; theatrical, possibly, Guy supposed. He was no fool but his talents were not soldierly. The corporate self-esteem of the Halberdiers did not impress Trimmer, nor did the solemn comforts of the mess attract him. The moment work ended Trimmer was off, sometimes alone, sometimes with a poor reflection of himself, his only friend, named Sarum-Smith. As surely as Apthorpe was marked for early promotion, Trimmer was marked for ignominy. That morning he had appeared at the precise time stated in orders. Everyone else had been waiting five minutes and Color Sergeant Cork called out the marker just as Trimmer appeared. So it was twelve-thirty-five when they were dismissed.
Then they had doubled to their quarters, thrown their rifles and equipment on their beds, and changed into service-dress. Complete with canes and gloves (which had to be but toned before emerging. A junior officer seen buttoning his gloves on the steps would be sent back to dress) they had marched in pairs to the Officers' House. This was the daily routine. Every ten yards they saluted or were saluted. (Salutes in the Halberdiers' Barracks were acknowledged as smartly as they were given. The senior of the pair was taught to count: "Up. One, two, three. Down.") In the hall they removed their caps and Sam-Brownes.
Theoretically there was no distinction of rank in the mess "Except, Gentlemen, the natural deference which youth owes to age," as they were told in the address of welcome on their first evening; Guy and Apthorpe were older than most of the regular captains and were, in fact, treated in many ways as seniors. Together they now went into the mess at a few minutes after one.
Guy helped himself to steak-and-kidney pie at the sideboard and carried his plate to the nearest place at the table. A mess orderly appeared immediately at his elbow with salad and roast potatoes. The wine butler put a silver goblet of beer before him. No one spoke much. "Shop" was banned and there was little else in their minds. Over their heads two centuries of commanding officers stared dully at one another from their gilt frames.
Guy had joined the Corps in a mood of acute shyness born of conflicting apprehension and exultation. He knew little of military life save stories he had heard from time to time of the humiliations to which new officers were liable; of "subalterns' courts martial" and gross ceremonies of initiation. He remembered a friend telling him that in his regiment no one noticed him for a month and that the first words spoken to him were: "Well, Mr. Bloody, and what may your name be?" In another regiment a junior officer said "Good morning" to a senior and was answered: "Good morning, good morning, good morning, good morning, good morning, good morning, good morning. Let that last you for a week." There had been nothing at all like that in the hospitable welcome he and his fellows received from the Halberdiers. It seemed to Guy that in the last weeks he had been experiencing something he had missed in boyhood, a happy adolescence.
Captain Bosanquet, the adjutant, coming cheerfully into the mess after his third pink gin, stopped opposite Guy and Apthorpe and said: "It must have been pretty bloody cold on the square this morning."
"It was rather, sir."
"Well, pass the word to your chaps to wear great-coats this afternoon."
"Very good, sir."
"Thank you, sir."
"Oh, you two poops," said Frank de Souza, the Cambridge man, opposite. "That means we'll have to let out all our equipment again."
So there was no time for coffee or a cigarette. At half past one Guy and Apthorpe put on their belts, buttoned their gloves, looked in the glass to see that their caps were straight, tucked their canes under their arms and strode off in step to their quarters.
"Up. One, two, three. Down." They acknowledged a fatigue party called to attention as they passed.
At their steps they broke into a run. Guy changed, and began hastily adjusting his webbing equipment. Blanco got under his fingernails. (This was the time of day which, all his life since school, Guy had spent in an easy chair.) It was permissible to double in drill suits. Guy arrived on the edge of the barrack square with half a minute in hand.
Trimmer looked terrible. Instead of buttoning his great-coat across the chest and clipping it tight at the throat, he had left it open. Moreover he had made a mess of his equipment. He had let one side-strap down at the back, the other in front with monstrous effect.
"Mr. Trimmer, fall out, sir. Go to your quarters and come back here properly dressed in five minutes. As you were. One pace back from the rear rank, Mr. Trimmer. As you were. On the command 'Fall out' you take one pace back with the left foot. About turn, quick march. As you were. Swing the right arm level with the belt as the left foot goes forward. Now get it right. Fall out. And let me not see any laughter, Mr. Sarum-Smith. There's not an officer in this squad so smart as he can laugh at another. Any officer I see laughing at another officer on parade will find himself up before the adjutant. All right. Stand easy. While we wait for Mr. Trimmer, we'll just run through a little Corps history. The Royal Corps of Halberdiers was first raised by the Earl of Essex, for service in the Low Countries in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It then bore the name of the Earl of Essex's Honorable Company of Free Halberdiers. What other sobriquets has it earned, Mr. Crouch back?"
" 'The Copper Heels,' and the 'Applejacks,' Sergeant."
"Right. Why the 'Applejacks,' Mr. Sarum-Smith?"
"Because after the Battle of Malplaquet a detachment of the Corps under Halberdier Sergeant-Major Breen were bivouacked in an orchard when they were surprised by a party of French marauders whom they drove away by pelting them with apples, Sergeant."
"Very good, Mr. Sarum-Smith. Mr. Leonard, what part did the Corps play in the First Ashanti War…"
Presently Trimmer returned.
"Very well. Now we can get on. This afternoon we are going to the kitchens where Halberdier Sergeant-Major Groggin will show you how to tell meat. Every officer must know how to tell meat. Many frauds are attempted on the military by civilian contractors and the health of his men depends on the alertness of the officer. All right? Then, Mr. Sarum-Smith, will you take command. At the command, 'Move,' step smartly out of the ranks, about turn, face your men. Move. This is your squad now. I'm not here. I want them without arms, marched in a soldierly fashion to the kitchen yard. If you don't know where that is, follow your nose, sir. First run through the detail for piling arms, just for refreshment, and then give the executive order."
The detail for piling arms was the most elaborate part of their education to date. Sarum-Smith faltered. Guy was called out and faltered also. De Souza ran on confidently, but incorrectly. At last Apthorpe, the safe stand-by, was called on. With an expression of strain he got it right—"… the odd numbers of the front rank will seize the rifles of the even numbers with the left hand crossing the muzzles, magazines turned outward, at the same time raising the piling swivels with the fore-finger and thumb of both hands…" and the squad marched off. For the rest of the afternoon period they inspected the kitchens in great heat and the meat store in great cold. They saw vast, purple and yellow, carcasses of beef and were taught to distinguish cat from rabbit by the number of ribs.
At four they were dismissed. There was tea in the mess for those who thought it worth another change of uniform. Most lay on their beds until it was time for Physical Training.
Sarum-Smith came to Guy's room.
"I say, Uncle, have you had any pay yet?"
"Not a penny."
"Can't we do anything about it?"
"I did mention it to the Second-in-Command. He says it always takes some time to get through. It's just a matter of waiting."
"That's all right for those who can afford it. Some firms are making up their fellows' salaries so they don't lose by joining the army. Mine doesn't. You're quite happily placed, aren't you, Uncle?"
"Well, I'm not quite broke yet."
"Wish I wasn't. It's jolly awkward for me. Did you realize when we joined they'd make us pay for our food?"
"Well, we don't really. We pay for what we have to supplement rations. It's very good value."
"That's all very well, but I'd have thought the least they could do would be to feed us in war-time. It was a shock when I found my first mess bill. How do they expect us to live? I'm absolutely stony."
"I see," said Guy without enthusiasm or surprise, for this was not the first conversation of the kind he suffered in the last few weeks and Sarum-Smith was not a man whom he particularly liked. "I suppose you want a loan."
"I say, Uncle, you're a thought-reader. I would be glad of a fiver if you can spare it. Just till the army pays up."
"Don't tell everyone else."
"No, of course not. A lot of us are in a bit of a fix, I can tell you. I tried Uncle Apthorpe first. He advised me to come to you."
"Thoughtful of him."
"Of course if it's putting you in a fix…"
"No, that's all right. But I don't want to become banker for the whole Corps."
"You shall have it back the moment I get my pay…"
Guy was owed fifty-five pounds.
Soon it was time to change into flannels and go to the gym. This was the one part of the day Guy hated. The squad of probationary officers assembled under the arc lights. Two Halberdier corporals were kicking a football about. One of them kicked it so that it smacked against the wall over their heads.
"That's damned cheek," said a young man named Leonard.
The ball came again, rather closer.
"I believe the fellow's doing it deliberately," said Sarum-Smith.
Suddenly there was a loud authoritative shout from Apthorpe. "You two men, there. Can't you see there's a squad of officers here? Take that ball and get out."
The corporals looked sulky, picked up their ball and strolled out with a plausible suggestion of nonchalance. Outside the door they laughed loudly. The gym seemed to Guy to institute a sort of extra-territorial area, the embassy of an alien and hostile people, that had no part in the well-ordered life of the barracks.
The Physical Training instructor was a sleek young man with pomaded hair, a big behind and unnaturally glittering eyes. He performed his great feats of strength and agility with a feline and, to Guy, most offensive air of sang-froid.
"The purpose of P.T. is to loosen up," he said, "and counteract the stiffening effects of the old-fashioned drill. Some of you are older than others. Don't strain. Don't do more than you feel you can. I want to see you enjoy yourselves. We'll start with a game."
These games had a deeply depressing effect even on the youngest. Guy stood in line, took a football when it came to him from between the legs of the man in front, and passed it on. They were supposed to compete, one rank against the other.
"Come on," said the instructor, "you're letting them get away with it. I'm backing you. Don't let me down."
After the game came exercises.
"Make it smooth and graceful, gentlemen, as though you were waltzing with your best girl. That's the way, Mr. Trimmer. That's very rhythmic. In the old days a soldier's training consisted of standing stiff at attention for long periods and stamping the feet. Modern science has shown that stamping the feet can seriously jar the spinal column. That's why nowadays every day's work ends with half an hour's limbering up."
This man would never fight, Guy thought. He would stay in his glaring shed, rippling his muscles, walking on his hands, bouncing about the boards like an india-rubber ball, though the heavens were falling.
"At Aldershot today the advance courses are all done to music."
There would have been no place for this man, Guy reflected, in the Earl of Essex's Honorable Company of Free Halberdiers. He was no Copper Heel, no true Applejack.
After Physical Training another change of clothes and a lecture on Military Law from Captain Bosanquet. Lecturer and audience were equally comatose. Captain Bosanquet demanded no more than silence.
"… The great thing to remember is to stick in all the amendments of King's Regulations as soon as they're issued. Keep your King's Regulations up to date and you can't go far wrong."
At six-thirty they were roused, dismissed and the day's work was at last over. This evening Captain Bosanquet called Guy and Apthorpe back.
"I say," he said, "I looked in at your P.T. this evening. Do you think it does you any particular good?"
"I can't say I do, sir," said Guy.
"No, it's rather rot for people like yourselves. If you like, you can cut it out. Keep clear of the ante-room. Just stay in your quarters and, if anyone asks, say you are mugging up Military Law."
"Thanks awfully, sir."
"You'll probably find yourself commanding companies one day. Military Law will be more use to you then than P.T."
"I think I'll stay on in the gym, if I may," said Apthorpe. "I find that after the square I need limbering up a bit."
"Just as you like."
"I've always been used to plenty of exercise," said Apthorpe to Guy, as they returned to their quarters. "There's a lot of sense in what Sergeant Pringle said about jarring the spinal column. I think I may have jarred mine a bit. I've been feeling a bit off color lately. It may be that. I don't want anyone to think I'm not as fit as the rest of the crowd. The truth is I've lived hard, old man, and it tells."
"Talking about being different from the rest of the crowd, did you by any chance pass Sarum-Smith on to me?"
"That's right. I don't believe in borrowing or lending. Seen too much of it."
There were two baths on every staircase. Coal fires had now been lighted in the bedrooms. Toiling old Halberdiers, recalled to the colors and put on barrack duties, kept them stoked. This was the best hour of the day. Guy heard the feet of the young officers scampering down and out to local cinemas, hotels and dance-halls. He soaked in hot water and later lay dozing in the wicker Oxford chair before his fire. No Mediterranean siesta had ever given such ease.
Presently Apthorpe came to summon him to the Officers' House. Patrol dress was optional for probationary officers. Only he and Guy had bought it and this tended to set them apart and make them more acceptable to the regulars, not because they could afford twelve guineas which the others could not, but because they had chosen to make a private investment in the traditions of the Corps.
When the two "Uncles" in their blues arrived in the anteroom, Major Tickeridge and Captain Bosanquet were alone before the fire.
"Come and join us," said Major Tickeridge. He clapped his hands. "Music and dancing-girls. Four pink gins."
Guy loved Major Tickeridge and Captain Bosanquet. He loved Apthorpe. He loved the oil-painting over the fireplace of the unbroken square of Halberdiers in the desert. He loved the whole Corps deeply and tenderly.
Dinner was formal that night. The Mess President struck the table with an ivory hammer and the chaplain said Grace. The young officers, accustomed to swifter and sparser meals, found all this rather oppressive. "I call it a bit thick," Sarum-Smith had remarked, "the way they even make a drill-movement out of eating."
The table was lit with huge many-branched candlesticks which commemorated the military history of the last century in silver palm trees and bowed silver savages. There were about twenty officers in mess that night. Many of the young were out in the town; the older were in neighboring villas with their wives. No one drank wine except on guest nights. Guy had made the mistake of ordering claret his first evening and had been rebuked with a jocular: "Hullo, blood? Is it someone's birthday?"
"There's an Ensa show tonight. Shall we go?"
"I rather thought of sticking some amendments into the King's Regulations."
"I'm told the orderly-room clerk will do it for a pound."
"Looks better to do it oneself," said Apthorpe. "Still I think I'll come for once. The Captain-Commandant may be there. I haven't spoken to him since the first day."
"What d'you want to say to him?"
"Oh, nothing particular. Anything that crops up, you know."
After a pause Guy said: "You heard what the adjutant said about our probably getting companies."
"Doesn't that verge rather on shop, old man?"
Presently the hammer sounded again, the chaplain said Grace and the table was cleared. The removal of the cloth was a feat of dexterity which never failed to delight Guy. The corporal-of-servants stood at the foot of the table. The mess orderlies lifted the candlesticks. Then with a single flick of his wrists the corporal drew the whole length of linen into an avalanche at his feet.
Port and snuff went round. The party broke up.
The Halberdiers had their own Garrison Theatre within the barrack walls. It was nearly full when Guy and Apthorpe arrived. The first two rows were kept for officers. In the center sat the full colonel, who by an idiosyncrasy of the Corps was called the Captain-Commandant, with his wife and daughter. Guy and Apthorpe looked for places, saw only two empty seats in the center. They hesitated, Guy seeking to withdraw, Apthorpe rather timidly advancing.
"Come along," said the Captain-Commandant. "Ashamed to be seen sitting with us? Meet madam and the brat."
They took their places with the distinguished party.
"Do you go home for the week-end?" asked the brat.
"No. You see my home's in Italy."
"Not really. Are you artistic or something? How thrilling."
"My home used to be in Bechuanaland," said Apthorpe.
"I say," said the Captain-Commandant. "You must have some interesting yarns. Well, I suppose I'd better get this thing started."
He gave a nod; the footlights went up; he rose and climbed the steps to the stage.
"We're all greatly looking forward to this show," he said. "These charming ladies and accomplished gentlemen have come a long way on a cold night to entertain us. Let's see we give them a real Halberdier welcome."
Then he returned to his place amid loud applause.
"It's really the chaplain's job," he said to Guy. "But I give the little fellow a rest now and then."
A piano began playing behind the curtain. The curtain rose. Before the stage was fully revealed, the Captain-Commandant sank into deep but not silent sleep. Under the Corps crest in the proscenium there was disclosed a little concert party comprising three elderly women, over-made-up, a cadaverous old man, under-made-up, and a neuter beast of indeterminable age at the piano. All wore the costume of pierrots and pierrettes. There was a storm of loyal applause. A jaunty chorus opened the show. One by one the heads in the first two rows sank into their collars. Guy slept too.
He was awakened an hour later by a volume of song striking him from a few feet away. It came from the cadaverous man whose frail northern body seemed momentarily possessed by the ghost of some enormous tenor from the south. He woke the Captain-Commandant, too.
"I say, that's not 'God Save the King,' is it?"
"No, sir. 'There'll Always Be an England.' "
The Captain-Commandant collected his wits and listened.
"Quite right," he said. "Never can tell a tune till I've heard the words. The old fellow's got a voice, hasn't he?"
It was the last item. Soon everyone was at attention. The tenor did more. He stood at attention while company and audience joined in the National Anthem.
"On these occasions we always have the performers in for a drink. You might round up some of the young chaps to do the honors, will you? I expect you've more experience in entertaining the theatrical world than we have. And, I say, if you're here for Sunday and have nothing better to do, come and lunch."
"Very glad to, sir," said Apthorpe, whose inclusion in the invitation was by no means clear.
"You'll be here, too? Yes, of course, do come. Delighted."
The Captain-Commandant did not go with them to the Officers' House. Two regulars and three or four of Guy's batch formed the reception committee. The ladies had shed all theatrical airs with their make-up and their fancy dress. They might have come in from a day's household shopping.
Guy found himself next to the tenor, who had shed his wig, revealing a few gray wisps of hair which made him appear somewhat younger, but still very old. His cheeks and nose were blotchy and bright-veined, his eyes watery in a nest of wrinkles. It was many weeks since Guy had looked into a sick man's face. He might have taken the tenor for an alcoholic, but he chose only coffee to drink.
"Find I don't sleep if I drink whisky nowadays," he said apologetically. "You're all wonderfully hospitable. Especially the Corps. I've always had a very warm corner for the Copper Heads."
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- Dec 11, 2012
- Page Count
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- Little, Brown and Company