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Officers and Gentlemen
By Evelyn Waugh
Read by Christian Rodska
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To Major-General Sir Robert Laycock
K.C.M.G., G.B., D.S.O.
that every man in arms should wish to be.
He will recognize this story as pure fiction: that is to say of experience totally transformed. No real character is portrayed; various offices and appointments are mentioned without reference to any person who at any time held them. No unit, formation, command, organization, ship or club, no incident, civil or military, is identifiable with the realities of those exhilarating days when he led and I lamely followed.
The sky over London was glorious, ochre and madder, as though a dozen tropic suns were simultaneously setting round the horizon; everywhere the searchlights clustered and hovered, then swept apart; here and there pitchy clouds drifted and billowed; now and then a huge flash momentarily froze the serene fireside glow. Everywhere the shells sparkled like Christmas baubles.
‘Pure Turner,’ said Guy Crouchback, enthusiastically; he came fresh to these delights.
‘John Martin, surely?’ said Ian Kilbannock.
‘No,’ said Guy firmly. He would not accept correction on matters of art from this former sporting-journalist. ‘Not Martin. The sky-line is too low. The scale is less than Babylonian.’
They stood at the top of St James’s Street. Half-way down Turtle’s Club was burning briskly. From Piccadilly to the Palace the whole jumble of incongruous façades was caricatured by the blaze.
‘Anyway, it’s too noisy to discuss it here.’
Guns were banging away in the neighbouring parks. A stick of bombs fell thunderously somewhere in the direction of Victoria Station.
On the pavement opposite Turtle’s a group of progressive novelists in firemen’s uniform were squirting a little jet of water into the morning-room.
Guy was momentarily reminded of Holy Saturday at Downside; early gusty March mornings of boyhood; the doors wide open in the unfinished butt of the Abbey; half the school coughing; fluttering linen; the glowing brazier and the priest with his hyssop, paradoxically blessing fire with water.
‘It was never much of a club,’ said Ian. ‘My father belonged.’
He relit his cigar and immediately a voice near their knees exclaimed: ‘Put that light out.’
‘A preposterous suggestion,’ said Ian.
They looked over the railings beside them and descried in the depths of the area a helmet, lettered A R P.
‘Take cover,’ said the voice.
A crescent scream immediately, it seemed, over their heads; a thud which raised the paving-stones under their feet; a tremendous incandescence just north of Piccadilly; a pentecostal wind; the remaining panes of glass above them scattered in lethal splinters about the street.
‘You know, I think he’s right. We had better leave this to the civilians.’
Soldier and airman trotted briskly to the steps of Bellamy’s. As they reached the doors, the engines overhead faded and fell silent and only the crackling flames at Turtle’s disturbed the midnight hush.
‘Most exhilarating,’ said Guy.
‘Ah, you’re new to it. The bore is that it goes on night after night. It can be pretty dangerous too with these fire-engines and ambulances driving all over the place. I wish I could have an African holiday. My awful Air Marshal won’t let me go. He seems to have taken a fancy to me.’
‘You can’t blame yourself. It wasn’t to be expected.’
In the front hall Job, the night-porter, greeted them with unnatural unction. He had had recourse to the bottle. His was a lonely and precarious post, hemmed in with plate glass. No one at that season grudged him his relaxation. Tonight he was acting – grossly over-acting – the part of a stage butler.
‘Good evening, sir. Permit me to welcome you to England, home and safety. Good evening, my lord. Air Marshal Beech is in the billiard-room.’
‘I thought it right to apprise you, my lord.’
‘The gutters outside are running with whisky and brandy.’
‘So I was informed, sir, by Colonel Blackhouse. All the spirit store of Turtle’s, gentlemen, running to waste in the streets.’
‘We didn’t see it.’
‘Then we may be sure, my lord, the fire brigade have consumed it.’
Guy and Ian entered the back-hall.
‘So your Air Marshal got into the club after all.’
‘Yes, it was a shocking business. They held an election during what the papers call “the Battle of Britain”, when the Air Force was for a moment almost respectable.’
‘Well, it’s worse for you than for me.’
‘My dear fellow, it’s a nightmare for everyone.’
The windows of the card-room had been blown out and bridge-players, clutching their score sheets, filled the hall. Brandy and whisky were flowing here, if not in the gutters outside.
‘Hullo, Guy. Haven’t seen you about lately.’
‘I only got back from Africa this afternoon.’
‘Odd time to choose. I’d have stayed put.’
‘I’ve come home under a cloud.’
‘In the last war we used to send fellows to Africa when they were under a cloud. What will you drink?’
Guy explained the circumstances of his recall.
More members came in from the street.
‘All quiet outside.’
‘Job tells me it’s overrun with drunk firemen.’
‘Job’s drunk himself.’
‘Yes, every night this week. Can’t blame him.’
‘Two glasses of wine, Parsons.’
‘Some of the servants ought to be sober some of the time.’
‘There’s a fellow under the billiard-table now.’
‘One of the servants?’
‘Not one I’ve ever seen before.’
‘Whisky, please, Parsons.’
‘I say, I hope we don’t have to take Turtle’s in.’
‘They come here sometimes when they’re cleaning. Timid little fellows. Don’t give any trouble.’
‘Three whiskies and soda, please, Parsons.’
‘Heard about Guy’s balls-up at Dakar? Tell him, Guy. It’s a good story.’
Guy told his good story again and many times that night.
Presently his brother-in-law, Arthur Box-Bender, appeared in shirt-sleeves from the billiard-room, accompanied by another Member of Parliament, a rather gruesome crony of his named Elderbury.
‘D’you know what put me off that lost shot?’ said Elderbury. ‘I trod on someone.’
‘No one I know. He was under the table and I trod on his hand.’
‘Extraordinary thing. Passed out?’
‘He said: “Damn”.’
‘I don’t believe it. Parsons, is there anyone under the billiard-table?’
‘Yes, sir, a new member.’
‘What’s he doing there?’
‘Obeying orders, he says, sir.’
Two or three bridge-players went to investigate the phenomenon.
‘Parsons, what’s all this about the streets running with wine?’
‘I haven’t been out myself, sir. A lot of the members have been talking about it.’
The reconnaissance party returned from the billiard-room and reported:
‘It’s perfectly true. There is a fellow under the table.’
‘I remember poor old Binkie Cavanagh used to sit there sometimes.’
‘Binkie was mad.’
‘Well, I daresay this fellow is too.’
‘Hullo, Guy,’ said Box-Bender, ‘I thought you were in Africa.’
Guy told him his story.
‘How very awkward,’ said Box-Bender.
Tommy Blackhouse joined them.
‘Tommy, what’s all this you told Job about the streets running with wine?’
‘He told me. Just been out to look. Not a drop in sight.’
‘Have you been in to the billiard-room?’
‘Go and have a look. There’s something worth seeing.’
Guy accompanied Tommy Blackhouse. The billiard-room was full but no one was playing. In the shadows under the table lurked a human shape.
‘Are you all right down there?’ Tommy asked kindly. ‘Want a drink or anything?’
‘I am perfectly all right, thank you. I am merely obeying the regulations. In an air raid it is the duty of every officer and man not on duty to take the nearest and safest cover wherever he may be. As the senior officer present I thought I should set an example.’
‘Well, there’s not room for us all, is there?’
‘You should go under the stairs or into the cellar.’
The figure now revealed itself as Air Marshal Beech. Tommy was a professional soldier with a career ahead. It was his instinct to be agreeable to the senior officers of all services.
‘I think it’s pretty well over now, sir.’
‘I have not heard the All Clear.’
As he spoke the siren sounded and the sturdy grey figure scrambled to its feet.
‘Ah, Crouchback, isn’t it? We met at Lady Kilbannock’s.’
The Air Marshal stretched and dusted himself.
‘I want my car. You might just call Air Headquarters, Crouchback, and have it sent round.’
Guy rang the bell.
‘Parsons, tell Job that Air Marshal Beech wants his car.’
‘Very good, sir.’
The Air Marshal’s small eyes looked suspicious. He began to say one thing, thought better of it, said ‘Thanks,’ and left.
‘You never were a good mixer, were you, Guy?’
‘Oh, dear. Was I beastly to that poor wretch?’
‘He won’t look on you as a friend in future.’
‘I hope he never did.’
‘Oh, he’s not such a bad fellow. He’s putting in a lot of useful work at the moment.’
‘I can’t imagine his ever being much use to me.’
‘It’s going to be a long war, Guy. One may need all the friends one can get before it’s over. Sorry about your trouble at Dakar. I happened to see the file yesterday. But I don’t think it will come to much. There were some damn silly minutes on it, though. You ought to see it gets to the top level at once before too many people commit themselves.’
‘How on earth can I do that?’
‘Talk about it.’
‘Keep talking. There are ears everywhere.’
Then Guy asked: ‘Is Virginia all right?’
‘As far as I know. She’s left Claridge’s. Someone told me she’d moved out of London somewhere. Didn’t care for the blitz.’
From the way Tommy spoke, Guy thought that, perhaps, Virginia was not entirely all right.
‘You’ve come up in the world, Tommy.’
‘Oh, I’m just messing round with HOO. As a matter of fact there’s something rather attractive in the air I can’t talk about. I’ll know for certain in a day or two. I might be able to fit you in. Have you reported to your regiment yet?’
‘Going tomorrow. I only landed today.’
‘Well, be careful or you’ll find yourself part of the general parcel-post. I should stick around Bellamy’s as much as you can. This is where one gets the amusing jobs nowadays. That is, if you want an amusing job.’
‘Well, stick around.’
They returned to the hall. It was thinning out since the All Clear. Air Marshal Beech was on the fender talking to the two Members of Parliament.
‘…You back-benchers, Elderbury, can do quite a lot if you set yourselves at it. Push the Ministries. Keep pushing…’
As in a stage farce Ian Kilbannock’s head emerged cautiously from the wash-room, where he had taken refuge from his chief. He withdrew hastily but too late.
‘Ian. Just the man I want. Tool off to Headquarters and get the gen about tonight’s do and ring through to me at home.’
‘The air raid, sir? I think it’s over. They got Turtle’s.’
‘No, no. You must know what I mean. The subject I discussed yesterday with Air Marshal Dime.’
‘I wasn’t there when you discussed it, sir. You sent me out.’
‘You should keep yourself in the picture…’
But the rebuke never took full shape; the strip, as he would have preferred it, was not torn off, for at that moment there appeared from the outer hall the figure of Job, strangely illuminated. In some strictly private mood of his high drama Job had possessed himself of one of the six-branched silver candelabra from the dining-room; this he bore aloft, rigid but out of the straight so that six little dribbles of wax bespattered his livery. All in the back-hall fell silent and watched fascinated as this fantastic figure advanced upon the Air Marshal. A pace distant he bowed; wax splashed on the carpet before him.
‘Sir,’ he announced sonorously, ‘your carriage awaits you.’ Then he turned, and, moving with the confidence of a sleep-walker, retreated whence he had come.
The silence endured for a moment. Then; ‘Really,’ began the Air Marshal, ‘that man –’ but his voice was lost in the laughter. Elderbury was constitutionally a serious man, but when he did see a joke he enjoyed it extravagantly. He had felt resentful of Air Marshal Beech since missing an easy cannon through stepping on him. Elderbury chortled.
‘Good old Job.’
‘One of his very best.’
‘Thank heaven I stayed on long enough to see that.’
‘What would Bellamy’s be without him?’
‘We must have a drink on that. Parsons, take an order all round.’
The Air Marshal looked from face to happy face. Even Box-Bender’s was gleeful. Ian Kilbannock was laughing more uproariously than anyone. The Air Marshal rose.
‘Anyone going my way want a lift?’
No one was going his way.
As the doors, which in the past two centuries had welcomed grandee and card sharper, duellist and statesman, closed behind Air Marshal Beech, he wondered, not for the first time in his brief membership, whether Bellamy’s was all it was cracked up to be.
He sank into his motor-car; the sirens sounded another warning.
‘Home,’ he ordered. ‘I think we can just make it.’
Bombs were falling again by the time that Guy reached his hotel, but far away now, somewhere to the east among the docks. He slept fitfully and when the All Clear finally woke him the rising sun was disputing the sky with the sinking fires of the raid.
He was due in barracks that morning and he set out as uncertainly as on the day he first joined.
At Charing Cross trains were running almost to time. Every seat was taken. He jammed his valise across the corridor with his suitcase a few yards from him, making for himself a seat and a defence.
There were Halberdier badges in most of the carriages and the traffic at his destination was all for the barracks. The men hoisted their kit bags and climbed on board a waiting lorry. The handful of young officers squeezed together into two taxis. Guy took the third alone. As he passed the guardroom he had a brief, vague impression that there was something rather odd about the sentry. He drove to the Officers’ House. No one was about. The preceding taxis disappeared in the direction of New Quarters. Guy left his luggage in the ante-room hall and crossed the square to the offices. A squad approached bearing buckets, their faces transformed as though by the hand of Circe from those of men to something less than the beasts. A muffled voice articulated: ‘Eyes right.’
Ten pig-faces, visions of Jerome Bosch, swung towards him. Unnerved, automatically, Guy said: ‘Eyes front, please, Corporal.’
He entered the adjutant’s office, stood to attention and saluted. Two obscene fronts of canvas and rubber and talc were raised from the table. As though from beneath layers of bedclothes a voice said: ‘Where’s your gasmask?’
‘With the rest of my gear, sir, at the Officers’ House.’
‘Go and put it on.’
Guy saluted, turned about and marched off. He put on his gas-mask and straightened his cap before the looking-glass, which just a year ago had so often reflected his dress cap and high blue collar and a face full of hope and purpose. He gazed at the gross snout, then returned to the Adjutant. A company had fallen-in on the square; normal, pink young faces. In the orderly-room the Adjutant and Sergeant-Major sat undisguised.
‘Take that thing off,’ said the Adjutant. ‘It’s past eleven.’
Guy removed his mask and let it hang, in correct form, across his chest to dry.
‘Haven’t you read the Standing Orders?’
‘Why the hell not?’
‘Reporting back today, sir, from overseas.’
‘Well, remember in future that every Wednesday from 1000 to 1100 hours all ranks take anti-gas precautions. That’s a Command Standing Order.’
‘Very good, sir.’
‘Now, who are you and what do you want?’
‘Lieutenant Crouchback, sir. Second Battalion Royal Halberdiers Brigade.’
‘Nonsense. The Second Battalion is abroad.’
‘I landed yesterday, sir.’
And then slowly, after all the masquerade with the gas-masks, old memories revived.
‘We’ve met before.’
It was the nameless major, reduced now to captain, who had appeared at Penkirk and vanished three days later at Brookwood.
‘You had the company during the great flap.’
‘Of course. I say, I’m awfully sorry for not recognizing you. There have been so many flaps since. So many chaps through my hands. How did you get here? Oughtn’t you to be in Freetown?’
‘You weren’t expecting me?’
‘Not a word. I dare say your papers have gone to the Training Depot. Or up to Penkirk to the Fifth Battalion. Or down to Brook Park to the Sixth. Or to HOO. We’ve been expanding like the devil in the last two months. Records can’t keep up. Well, I’ve about finished here. Carry on, Sergeant-Major. I shall be at the Officers’ House if you want me. Come along, Crouchback.’
He and Guy went to the ante-room. It was not the room Guy had known, where he had sprained his knee on Guest Night. A dark rectangle over the fireplace marked the spot where ‘The Unbroken Square’ had hung; the bell from the Dutch frigate, the Afridi banner, the gilt idol from Burma, the Napoleonic cuirasses, the Ashanti drum, the loving-cup from Barbados, Tipu Sultan’s musket, all were gone.
The Adjutant observed Guy’s roving, lamenting eyes.
‘Pretty bloody, isn’t it? Everything has been stored away underground since the blitz.’ Then from the bleakest spot in the universal desolation: ‘I’ve lost a pip, too.’
‘So I saw. Bad luck.’
‘I expected it,’ said the Adjutant. ‘I wasn’t due for promotion for another two years in the regular way. I thought the war might hurry things along a bit. It has for most chaps. It did for me for a month or two. But it didn’t last.’
There was no fire.
‘It’s cold in here,’ said Guy.
‘Yes. No fires until evening. No drinks either.’
‘I suppose it’s the same everywhere?’
‘No, it’s not,’ said the Adjutant crossly. ‘Other regiments still manage to live quite decently. The Captain-Commandant is a changed character. Austerity is the order now. Trust the Corps to do it in a big way. We’re sleeping four in a room and the mess subscription has been halved. We practically live on rations – like wild beasts,’ he specified woefully but inaptly. ‘I wouldn’t stay here long if I were you. By the way, why are you here?’
‘I came home with the Brigadier.’ That seemed at the moment the most convenient explanation. ‘You know he’s back, of course?’
‘First I’ve heard of it.’
‘You know he got wounded?’
‘No. Nothing ever seems to come to us here. Perhaps they’ve lost our address. The Corps got on very nicely the size it was. All this expansion has been the devil. They’ve taken my servant away – a man I’d had eight years. I have to share an old sweat with the Regimental Surgeon. That’s what we’ve come to. They’ve even taken the band.’
‘It’s too cold to sit here,’ said Guy.
‘There’s a stove in my office but the telephone keeps ringing. Take your choice.’
‘What am I to do now?’
‘My dear chap, as far as I’m concerned you’re still in Africa. I’d send you on leave but you aren’t on our strength. D’you want to see the Captain-Commandant? That could be arranged.’
‘A changed character?’
‘I don’t see any reason to bother him.’
They gazed hopelessly at one another across the empty grate.
‘You must have had a move order.’
- "Deft and amusing, sober and compelling. And it offers, incidentally, one of the most graceful salutes of many seasons to the flexibility of the English language."—New York Times
- "Wise, amusing, and beautifully written. And because Officers and Gentlemen verifies a deepening seriousness and charity in Mr. Waugh's art, it extends and renews the promise of his brilliant talent."—R.T. Horchler, Commonweal
- "A very good novel indeed....Those who have served in the various American military forces will close the book reminded again that the more it changes the more it's the same."—Curtis Bradford, The New Republic
- "An often very funny book....Every bit as good as Men at Arms, whose splendid characterications and fine writing led many in 1952 to predict that its author had begun the best English fictional account of World War II."—TIME
- On Sale
- Dec 11, 2012
- Hachette Audio