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   Chapter 43 No.43

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 13940

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The early sun, carrying into autumn the tradition of a magnificent summer, shone on the artillery camps. The four guns of the No. 2 Battery of the Second Brigade were ranged side by side in the vast vague space in front of the officers' hutments. Each gun had six horses in three pairs, and a rider for each pair. On the guns and the gun-teams everything glittered that could glitter-leather, metal, coats of horses, faces of men. Captain Resmith rode round, examining harness and equipment with a microscope that he called his eye. George rode round after him. Sometimes Captain Resmith spoke to a N.C.O., sometimes even to a man, but for the most part the men stared straight in front of them into eternity. Major Craim trotted up. Captain Resmith approached the Major and saluted, saying in his best military voice:

"The Battery is all correct and ready to move off, sir."

The Major in his drawing-room voice replied:

"Thank you, Captain Resmith."

Silence reigned in No. 2 Battery, except for the faint jingling restlessness of the horses.

Then Colonel Hullocher and his Adjutant pranced into sight. The Adjutant saluted the Major and made an inquiry. The Major saluted, and all three chatted a little.

George, who had accompanied Captain Resmith into the background, murmured to him, as cautiously as a convict talking at exercise:

"He's got his knife into me."

"Who?"

"The Colonel."

"Don't you know why?"

"No. I was specially recommended to him."

"Well, that's one reason, isn't it? But there was a difficulty between him and the Major as to when you should come. The old man got the better of him-always does. But he's a good officer."

"Who?"

"Hullocher. Shut up."

These two had reached familiarity with the swiftness characteristic of martial life.

During the brief colloquy Resmith had sat very upright on his horse, the chin slightly lifted, the head quite still, even the lips scarcely moving to articulate. Colonel Hullocher seemed now to be approaching. It was a false alarm. The Colonel and his Adjutant pranced off. After a long time, and at a considerable distance, could just be heard the voice of the Colonel ordering the Brigade to move. But No. 2 Battery did not stir for another long period. Suddenly, amid a devolution of orders, No. 2 Battery moved. The Major, attended by his trumpeter, and followed by the Battery staff of range-takers, director-men, telephonists, and the serjeant-major, inaugurated a sinuous procession into the uneven, rutted track leading to the side-road. Then the guns one by one wheeled to the right, the horses' hoofs stamping into the damp ground as they turned, and became part of the procession. Then the quartermaster and other N.C.O.'s and men joined; and last were Captain Resmith, attended by his trumpeter, and George. Resmith looked over his shoulder at the Third Battery which surged behind. There were nearly two hundred men and over a hundred and fifty horses and many vehicles in the Battery. The Major was far out of sight, and the tail of the column was equally out of sight in the rear, for the total length of Major Craim's cavalcade exceeded a mile; and of the Brigade three miles, and two other similar Brigades somewhere in the region of Wimbledon were participating in the grand Divisional trek.

Captain Resmith cantered ahead to a bend in the track, and anxiously watched a gun-team take the sharp curve, which was also a sharp slope. The impression of superb, dangerous physical power was tremendous. The distended nostrils of horses, the gliding of their muscles under the glossy skin, the muffled thud of their hoofs in the loose soil, the grimacing of the men as they used spur and thong, the fierce straining of straps and chains, the creaking, the grinding, and finally the swaying of the 90-millimetre gun, coddled and polished, as it swung helplessly forward, stern first, and its long nose describing an arc in the air behind-these things marvellously quickened the blood.

"Good men!" said Captain Resmith, enthusiastic. "It's great, isn't it? You know, there's nothing so fine as a battery-nothing in the whole world."

George heartily agreed with him.

"This is the best Battery in the Division," said Resmith religiously.

And George was religiously convinced that it was.

He was astoundingly happy. He thought, amazed, that he had never been so happy, or at any rate so uplifted, in all his life. He simply could not comprehend his state of bliss, which had begun that morning at 6.30 when the grey-headed, simple-minded servant allotted to him had wakened him, according to instructions, with a mug of tea. Perhaps it was the far, thin sound of bugles that produced the rapturous effect, or the fresh air blowing in through the broken pane of the hut, or the slanting sunlight, or the feeling that he had no responsibility and nothing to do but blindly obey orders.

He had gone to sleep as depressed as he was tired. A sense of futility had got the better of him. The excursion of the afternoon had certainly been ridiculous in a high degree. He had hoped for a more useful evening. Captain Resmith had indeed taken him to the horse-lines, and he had tried a mount which was very suitable, and Captain Resmith had said that he possessed a naturally good seat and hands, and had given him a few sagacious tips. It was plain to him that Resmith had the Major's orders to take him in tutelage and make an officer of him. But the satisfactoriness of the evening had suddenly ceased. Scarcely had Resmith begun to expound the orders, and George to read the thrilling words, 'Second Lieutenant G.E. Cannon to ride with Captain Resmith,' when the mess had impulsively decided to celebrate the last night in camp by a dinner at the hotel near the station, and George, fit for nothing more important, had been detailed to run off and arrange for the rich repast. The bulk of the mess was late to arrive, and George spent the time in writing a descriptive and falsely gay letter on slips of yellow Army paper to Lois. The dinner, with its facile laughter and equally facile cynicism, had bored him; for he had joined the Army in order to save an Empire and a world from being enslaved. He had lain down in his truckle-bed and listened to the last echoing sounds in the too-resonant corridor of the hutments, and thought of the wisdom of Sir Isaac Davids, and of the peril to his wife, and of the peril to the earth, and of his own irremediable bondage to the military machine. He, with all his consciousness of power, had been put to school again; deprived of the right to answer back, to argue, even to think. If one set in authority said that black was white, his most sacred duty was to concur and believe. And there was no escape....

And then, no sooner had he gone to sleep than it was bright day, and the faint, clear call of bugles had pierced the clouds of his depression and they had vanished! Every moment of the ear

ly morning had been exquisite. Although he had not been across a horse for months, he rode comfortably, and the animal was reliable. Resmith in fact had had to warn him against fatiguing himself. But he knew that he was incapable of fatigue. The day's trek was naught-fifteen miles or less-to Epsom Downs, at a walk!... Lois? He had expected a letter from 'Nunks' or his mother, but there was no letter, and no news was good news, at any rate with 'Nunks' in charge of communications. Lois could not fail to be all right. He recalled the wise generalization of 'Nunks' on that point ... Breakfast was a paradisiacal meal. He had never 'fancied' a meal so much. And Resmith had greatly enheartened him by saying sternly: "You've got exactly the right tone with the men. Don't you go trying to alter it." The general excitement was intense, and the solemn synchronizing of watches increased it further. An orderly brought a newspaper, and nobody would do more than disdainfully glance at it. The usual daily stuff about the war!... Whereas Epsom Downs glittered in the imagination like a Canaan. And it lay southward. Probably they were not going to France, but probably they would have the honour of defending the coast against invasion. George desired to master gunnery instantly, and Resmith soothed him with the assurance that he would soon be sent away on a gunnery course, which would give him beans. And in the meantime George might whet his teeth on the detailed arrangements for feeding and camping the Battery on Epsom Downs. This organization gave George pause, especially when he remembered that the Battery was a very trifling item in the Division, and when Resmith casually informed him that a Division on the trek occupied fifteen miles of road. He began to perceive the difference between the Army and a circus, and to figure the Staff as something other than a club of haughty, aristocratic idlers in red hats. And when the Battery was fairly under way in the side-road, with another Battery in front and another Battery behind, and more Artillery Brigades and uncounted Infantry Brigades and a screen of Yeomanry all invisibly marching over the map in the direction of Epsom, and bound to reach a certain lettered square on the map at a certain minute-when this dynamic situation presented itself to the tentacles of his grasping mind, he really did feel that there could be no game equal to war.

The Battery 'rode easy,' the men were smoking, talking, and singing in snatches, when suddenly all sounds were silenced. Captain Resmith, who had been summoned to the Major, reined in his horse, and George did likewise, and the Battery passed by them on the left. The Major's voice was heard:

"No. 2 Battery. Eyes- right !"

George asked:

"What's this?"

"C.R.A.'s ahead," murmured Resmith.

Then another officer cried:

"Right section. Eyes- right ."

And then an N.C.O. bawled:

"A sub-section. Eyes- right ."

Then only did George, from the rear, see the drivers, with a simultaneous gesture, twist their heads very sharply to the right, raise their whips, and fling the thongs over the withers of the hand-horses, while the section-officer saluted.

Another N.C.O. bawled:

"B sub-section. Eyes- right ."

And the same action followed.

Then another officer cried:

"Left section. Eyes- right ."

So the rite proceeded.

Resmith and George had now gone back to their proper places. George could see the drivers of the last gun gathering up the whip thongs into their hands preparatory to the salute. C sub-section received the command.

And then, not many yards ahead, the voice of an N.C.O.:

"D sub-section. Eyes- right ."

Heads turned; whips were raised and flung outwards; horses swerved slightly.

"Get ready," muttered Resmith to George.

The figure of the C.R.A., Brigadier-General Rannion, motionless on a charger, came into view. George's heart was beating high. Resmith and he saluted. The General gazed hard at him and never moved. They passed ahead.

The officer commanding the Third Battery had already called:

"Battery. Eyes-right."

The marvellous ceremonial slipped rearwards. George was aware of tears in his eyes. He was aware of the sentiment of worship. He felt that he would have done anything, accomplished any deed, died, at the bidding of the motionless figure on the charger. It was most curious.

There was a terrific crash of wood far behind. Resmith chuckled.

"One of those G.S. wagons has knocked down the Automobile Club 'Cross-Roads' sign," he said. "Good thing it wasn't a lamp-post! You see, with their eyes right, they can't look where they're going, and the whip touches up the horses, and before you can say knife they're into something. Jolly glad it's only the Am. Col. Jones will hear of this." He chuckled again. Jones was the Captain commanding the Ammunition Column.

The order ran down the line:

"Eyes- front ."

Soon afterwards they came to some policemen, and two girls in very gay frocks with bicycles, and the cross-roads. The Battery swung into the great high road whose sign-post said, 'To Ewell and Epsom.' Another unit had been halted to let the Artillery pass into its definitive place in the vast trek. It was about this time that George began to notice the dust. Rain had fallen before dawn and made the roads perfect; but now either all the moisture had evaporated in the blazing sun, or the Battery had reached a zone where rain had not fallen. At first the dust rose only in a shallow sea to the height of fetlocks; but gradually it ascended and made clouds, and deposited a layer on the face and on the tongue and in the throat. And the surface itself of the road, exasperated by innumerable hoofs and wheels, seemed to be in a kind of crawling fermentation. The smell of humanity and horses was strong. The men were less inclined to sing.

"Left!" yelled a voice.

And another:

" Left !"

And still another, very close on the second one:

"LEFT!"

"Keep your distances there!" Resmith shouted violently.

A horn sounded, and the next moment a motor-car, apparently full of red-hats, rushed past the Battery, overtaking it, in a blinding storm of dust. It was gone, like a ghost.

"That's the Almighty himself," Resmith explained, with unconscious awe and devotion in his powerful voice. "Gramstone, Major-General."

George, profoundly impressed (he knew not why), noticed in his brain a tiny embryo of a thought that it might be agreeable to ride in a car.

A hand went up, and the Battery stopped. It was the first halt.

"Look at your watch," said Resmith, smiling.

"Ten to, exactly."

"That's right. We have ten minutes in each hour."

All dismounted, examined horses for galls, and looked at their shoes, took pulls at water-bottles, lit cigarettes, expectorated, coughed, flicked at flies with handkerchiefs. The party also went past, and shortly afterwards returned with the stretcher laden.

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