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   Chapter 42 No.42

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 13979

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The same afternoon, indeed within about two hours of his entrance into the Army, George found himself driving back from Wimbledon to London in a motor-bus.

Colonel Hullocher had vanished out of his world, and he had been sent to another and still more frowzy public-house which was the Headquarters of No. 2 Battery of the Second Brigade. He was allotted to No. 2 Battery, subject to the approval of Major Craim, the commanding officer. Major Craim was young and fair and benevolent, and at once approvingly welcomed George, who thereupon became the junior subaltern of the Battery. The other half-dozen officers, to whom he was introduced one by one as they came in, seemed amiable and very well-mannered, if unduly excited. When, immediately before lunch, the Major was called away to lunch with Colonel Hullocher, the excitement of the mess seemed to boil over. The enormous fact was that the whole Division-yeomanry, infantry, and artillery-had been ordered to trek southward the next morning. The Division was not ready to trek; in particular the Second Brigade of its artillery, and quite specially Battery No. 2 of the Second Brigade, was not ready to trek. Nevertheless it would trek. It might even trek to France. Southward was Franceward, and there were those who joyously believed that this First Line Territorial Division was destined to lead the Territorial Army in France.

All the officers had a schoolboyish demeanour; all of them called one another by diminutives ending in 'y'; all of them were pretty young. But George soon divided them into two distinct groups-those who worried about the smooth working of the great trek, and those who did not. Among the former was Captain Resmith, the second in command, a dark man with a positive, strong voice, somewhat similar to George in appearance. Captain Resmith took George very seriously, and promised to initiate him personally into as many technical mysteries as could be compressed into one afternoon. Then a Major Tumulty, middle-aged and pale, came hurriedly into the stuffy room and said without any prologue:

"Now I must have one of you chaps this afternoon. Otherwise I promise you you won't get all the things you want."

Silence fell on the mess.

"The C.O. isn't here, sir," said Captain Resmith.

"I can't help that. I'm not going alone."

"Cannon, you'd better go with Major Tumulty. Major, this is Mr. Cannon, our latest addition."

George only knew about Major Tumulty that he was Major Tumulty and that he did not belong to No. 2 Battery. So far as George was concerned he was a major in the air. After drinking a glass of port with the mess, Major Tumulty suddenly remembered that he was in a hurry, and took George off and put him into a scarlet London-General motor-bus that was throbbing at the door of the public-house, with an ordinary civilian driver at the steering-wheel and a soldier on the step. George felt like a parcel; he had no choice of movement, no responsibility, no knowledge. The mentality of a parcel was not disagreeable to him. But at times, vaguely uneasy, he would start out of it, and ask himself: "What is wrong?" And then the vision of a distant, half-forgotten street called Elm Park Road would rise in his mind and he would remember: "My wife is very ill, and everything is upset at home."

The motor-bus travelled a few yards and stopped; and out of yet another office a soldier carried, staggering, a heavy bag with a brass lock, and dropped it on the floor of the bus between the Major and George; and the bus, after a good imitation by the soldier-conductor of a professional double ting on the bell, went away afresh.

"That's money," said the Major, in his mild, veiled voice, pointing to the bag.

Little by little George learnt that the Major had 'won' the bus 'out of' the War Office, and had been using it daily for several days for the purpose of buying and collecting urgent stores and equipment. The bus had become celebrated within the Division in an astoundingly short time, and on this, the last day preceding the trek, the various units had burdened the good-natured Major with a multitude of commissions.

"I try to keep accounts," said the Major. "But I know I've made a loss every day. I've been in the T.F. ever since there was one, and it has always cost me money. Now, I shall put you in charge of this little book."

The little book was a penny account-book, with pages lettered in pencil A, B, C, D, etc., and items scribbled on each page.

"The letters show the batteries," the Major explained. "I've got a key to the batteries somewhere in my pocket. And here's what I call my grand list." He produced a roll of foolscap. "I like everything orderly. It saves so much trouble, doesn't it? I mean in the end. Now, as I buy things I shall strike them off here, and I want you to strike them off in your book and put down the price from the bill. I always insist on a receipted bill. It saves so much trouble in the end. I meant to bring a file or a clip for the bills, but I forgot. You understand, don't you?"

George answered solemnly and sharply:

"Yes, sir."

The Major weakly cried:

"Hall!"

"Yessir!" The soldier-conductor came to attention.

"Did you tell him to go to Harrods first?"

"Yessir!"

"I think we might go and sit on the top," said the Major. "It's a nice afternoon."

So the two officers went and sat on the top of the motor-bus. The Major gossiped with soothing tranquillity. He said that he was a pianoforte manufacturer; his father, from whom he had inherited, had traded under a German name because people preferred German pianos to English; he now regretted this piece of astuteness on the part of his father; he was trying to sell his business-he had had enough of it.

"Hi! You!" he called, standing up quite unexpectedly and leaning over the front of the bus to hail the driver. "Hi! You!" But the driver did not hear, and the bus drove forward like fate. The Major, who had hitherto seemed to be exempt from the general perturbation of Wimbledon troops, suddenly showed excitement. "We must stop this bus somehow! Why the devil doesn't he stop? I've forgotten the rope-shop."

" I'll stop it, sir," said George, maintaining an admirable presence of mind in the crisis, and he rose and pushed down the knob of the signal-rod at the back of the bus. The bus did actually stop.

"Ah!" murmured the Major, calmed.

The soldier raced upstairs.

"Hall!"

"Yessir."

"Do you know a rope and string shop near the Granville Theatre of Varieties at Walham Green?"

"No, sir."

"Well, there is one. Tell him to stop at the Granville."

"Yessir."

The Major resumed his bland conversation. At Putney they saw the first contents-bill of the afternoon papers.

"How do you think things are going, sir?" George asked.

"It's very difficult to say," answered the Major. "This Mons business is serious."

"Yes, sir."

The discovery of the rope-shop involved a po

liceman's aid. When the rope had been purchased and new silver brought forth from the bag, and the receipt made out, and the item struck off and the amount entered, and the bus had started again, George perceived that he would soon be passing the end of Elm Park Gardens. Dared he ask the Major to deflect the bus into Elm Park Road so that he might obtain news of Lois? He dared not. The scheme, simple and feasible enough, was nevertheless unthinkable. The bus, with 'Liverpool Street' inscribed on its forehead, rolled its straight inevitable course along Fulham Road, pursued by the disappointed glances of gesturing wayfarers who wanted it to take them to Liverpool Street.

After about two hours of fine confused shopping the Major stopped his bus at a Tube station in the north of London.

"I mustn't forget my pens," said he. "I have to spend three-quarters of my time mewed up in the office, and I don't grumble; but I'm very particular about nibs, and if I don't have my own I cannot work. It's useless to expect it."

Then to the soldier:

"Hall! You go down to Partridge & Cooper's, at the corner of Chancery Lane and Fleet Street, and buy a sixpenny box of their 'No. 6 Velvet' pen-nibs. You understand: 'No. 6 Velvet.'"

"Yessir. With the bus, sir?"

" With the bus. Here's sixpence." He took a coin out of the bag, locked it, and gave the key to George. "And keep an eye on this bag, my boy. You will then come back and wait for us-let me see-outside Piccadilly Tube Station in Jermyn Street."

"Yessir."

The Major and George entered the North London station and proceeded to the lift.

"Tickets!" demanded the lift-man.

The Major halted and gazed at him.

"On service!" said the Major, with resentment and disdain. "A fortnight ago you civilians were raising your hats to us. Now you ask us for tickets! Haven't you grasped yet that there's a war on? Don't you think you'd look better in khaki?" He showed excitement, as at every personal encounter.

The lift-man bowed his head, inarticulately muttering, and the officers passed into the lift, having created a certain amount of interest among the other passengers. The Major was tranquillized in a moment. They came to the surface again at Piccadilly Circus, where at the lift a similar scene occurred.

"Do you know anything about pyjamas?" said the Major.

"Well, sir-"

"I never wear them myself. I'm rather old-fashioned. But I have to buy three pairs-suits for Colonel Hullocher-at Swan & Edgar's. Oh! Bother it! Have you any money? I forgot to take some out of the bag."

The Major purchased the pyjamas with George's money, and his attitude towards the shopman during the transaction was defiant, indicating to the shopman that, though personally he, the Major, never wore pyjamas, he was an expert in pyjamas and not to be gulled. George took the resulting parcel and the receipted bill, and they walked across to Jermyn Street, where surely the bus, with the sixpenny box of pens, was waiting for them. It was perfectly magical. As the vehicle swung with them into the Circus the Major exclaimed:

"We're getting on very well. What do you say to some tea?"

"Certainly, sir."

The bus, having stopped by order at the second tea-house on the left in Piccadilly, was immediately assaulted, without success, by several would-be passengers. A policeman, out raged by the spectacle of a bus stationary at a spot where buses are absolutely forbidden to be stationary, hurried forward in fury. But the Major, instantly excited, was ready for him.

"This motor-bus is a military vehicle on service, and I'll thank you to mind your own business. If you've any complaints to make, you'd better make them to Lord Kitchener."

The policeman touched his hat.

"They have music here," said the Major mildly, entering the tea-house. "I always like music. Makes things so much jollier, doesn't it?"

During tea the Major inquired about George's individual circumstances, and George said that he was an architect.

"Student of bricks and mortar, eh?" said the Major benevolently. "How long have you been in the Army?"

"Rather less than half a day, sir."

The Major, raising his eyebrows, was very interested and kind. Perceiving that he had virgin material under his hands, he began to shape the material, and talked much about the niceties of the etiquette of saluting. George listened, yet at intervals his attention would wander, and he would be in Elm Park Road. But the illusion of home was very faint. His wife and family seemed to be slipping away from him. "How is it," he thought, "that I am not more upset about Lois than I am?" The various professional and family matters which in his haste he had left unsettled were diminishing hourly in their apparent importance. He came back to the tea-house with a start, hearing the Major praise his business capacity as displayed during the afternoon. The friendly aspect of the thin, pallid face inspired him with a sort of emotional audacity, and in ten words he suddenly informed the Major of his domestic situation.

"H'm!" said the Major. "I'm a bachelor myself."

There was a pause.

"I'll give you a tip," said the Major, resuming the interrupted topic. "War is a business. The more business capacity you have, the more likely you are to succeed. I'm a business man myself."

On leaving the tea-house they discovered the military vehicle surrounded by an enchanted multitude who were staring through its windows at the merchandise-blankets, pans, kettles, saddles, ropes, parcels, stoves, baskets, and box of nibs-within, while the policeman strove in vain to keep both the road and the pavement clear. George preceded the Major, pushing aside with haughty military impatience the civilians so reluctant to move. He felt as though he had been in the Army for years. No longer did his uniform cause him the slightest self-consciousness.

At Wimbledon in the dusk the bus was met by several military wagons each from a different unit, and each anxious to obtain goods. This piece of organization rather impressed George.

"Well, my boy," said the Major, "you'd better go and report yourself. You've been a great help to me."

George saluted according to the Major's own doctrine, and departed. At Battery Headquarters he met Captain Resmith.

"How did you get on with Auntie?" asked Resmith in his loud, firm voice.

George winked.

Resmith gave a scarcely perceptible smile.

"Look here," he said. "I'm just going round the horse-lines. If you'll come with me I'll show you a thing or two, and we can choose a mount for you. Then after dinner if you like I'll take you through the orders for to-morrow. By the way, there's a telegram for you."

The telegram read:

"Girl. Everything fairly satisfactory. Don't worry too much. Laurencine sleeps here.-NUNKS"

The telegram was entirely characteristic of his stepfather-curt, exact, realistic, kind.

He thought:

"Three girls, by Jove!"

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