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   Chapter 44 No.44

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 6993

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was after the long halt at midday that the weather changed. The horses, martyrized by insects, had been elaborately watered and fed with immense labour; officers and men had eaten rations and dust from their haversacks, and for the most part emptied their water-bottles; and the march had been resumed in a temper captious and somewhat exacerbated.

"Get your horse away; he's kicking mine!" said Captain Resmith impatiently to George, reflecting the general mood. And George, who was beginning to experience fatigue in the region of the knees, visited on his horse the resentment he felt at Resmith's tone.

At precisely that moment some drops of rain fell. Nobody could believe at first that the drops were raindrops for the whole landscape was quivering in hot sunshine. However, an examination of the firmament showed a cloud perpendicularly overhead; the drops multiplied; the cloud slowly obscured the sun. An almost audible sigh of relief passed down the line. Everybody was freshened and elated. Some men with an instinct for the apposite started to sing:

"Shall we gather at the river?"

And nearly the whole Battery joined in the tune. The rain persevered, thickening. The sun accepted defeat. The sky lost all its blue. Orders were given as to clothing. George had the sensation that something was lacking to him, and found that it was an umbrella. On the outskirts of Ewell the Battery was splashing through puddles of water; the coats of horses and of men had darkened; guns, poles, and caps carried chaplets of raindrops; and all those stern riders, so proud and scornful, with chins hidden in high, upturned collars, and long garments disposed majestically over their legs and the flanks of the horses, nevertheless knew in secret that the conquering rain had got down the backs of their necks, and into their boots and into their very knees but they were still nobly maintaining the illusion of impermeability against it. The Battery, riding now stiffly 'eyes front,' was halted unexpectedly in Ewell, filling the whole of the village, to the village's extreme content. Many minutes elapsed. Rumour floated down that something, was wrong in front. Captain Resmith had much inspectorial cantering to do, and George faithfully followed him for some time. At one end of the village a woman was selling fruit and ginger-beer to the soldiers at siege prices; at the other, men and women out of the little gardened houses were eagerly distributing hot tea and hot coffee free of charge. The two girls from the crossroads entered the village, pushing their bicycles, one of which had apparently lost a pedal. They wore mackintoshes, and were still laughing.

At length George said:

"If you don't mind I'll stick where I am for a bit."

"Tired, eh?" Resmith asked callously.

"Well! I shall be if I keep on."

"Dismount, my canny boy. Didn't I tell you what would happen to you? At your age-"

"Why! How old d'you think I am?"

"Well, my canny boy, you'll never see thirty again, I suppose."

"No, I shan't. Nor you either."

Captain Resmith said:

"I'm twenty-four."

George was thunder-struck. The fellow was a boy, and George had been treating him as an equal! But then the fellow was also George's superior officer, and immeasurably his superior in physique. Do what he would, harden himself as he might, George at thirty-three could never hope to rival the sinews of the boy of twenty-four, who incidentally could instruct him on every conceivable

military subject. George, standing by his sodden horse, felt humiliated and annoyed as Resmith cantered off to speak to the officer commanding the Ammunition Column. But on the trek there was no outlet for such a sentiment as annoyance. He was Resmith's junior and Resmith's inferior, and must behave, and expect to be behaved to, as such.

"Never mind!" he said to himself. His determination to learn the art and craft of war was almost savage in ferocity.

When the Battery at length departed from Ewell the rain had completed its victory but at the same time had lost much of its prestige. The riders, abandoning illusion, admitting frankly that they were wet to the skin, knowing that all their clothing was soaked, and satisfied that they could not be wetter than they were if the bottom fell out of the sky, simply derided the rain and plodded forward. Groups of them even disdained the weather in lusty song. But not George. George was exhausted. He was ready to fall off his horse. The sensation of fatigue about the knees and in the small of his back was absolute torture. Resmith told him to ride without stirrups and dangle his legs. The relief was real, but only temporary. And the Battery moved on at the horribly monotonous, tiring walk. Epsom was incredibly distant. George gave up hope of Epsom; and he was right to do so, for Epsom never came. The Battery had taken a secondary road to the left which climbed slowly to the Downs. At the top of this road, under the railway bridge, just before fields ceased to be enclosed, stood the two girls. Their bicycles leaned against the brick wall. They had taken off their mackintoshes, and it was plain from their clinging coloured garments that they too were utterly drenched. They laughed no more. Over the open Downs the wind was sweeping the rain in front of it; and the wind was the night wind, for the sky had begun to darken into dusk. The Battery debouched into a main road which seemed full of promise, but left it again within a couple of hundred yards, and was once more on the menacing, high, naked Downs, with a wide and desolate view of unfeatured plains to the north. The bugles sounded sharply in the wet air, and the Battery, now apparently alone in the world, came to a halt. George dropped off his horse. A multiplicity of orders followed. Amorphous confusion was produced out of a straight line. This was the bivouacking ground. And there was nothing-nothing but the track by which they had arrived, and the Downs, and a distant blur to the west in the shape of the Epsom Grand Stand, and the heavy, ceaseless rain, and the threat of the fast-descending night. According to the theory of the Divisional Staff a dump furnished by the Army Service Corps ought to have existed at a spot corresponding to the final letter in the words 'Burgh Heath' on the map, but the information quickly became general that no such dump did in practice exist. To George the situation was merely incredible. He knew that for himself there was only one reasonable course of conduct. He ought to have a boiling bath, go to bed with his dressing-gown over his pyjamas, and take a full basin of hot bread-and-milk adulterated by the addition of brandy-and sleep. Horses and men surged perilously around him. The anarchical disorder, however, must have been less acute than he imagined, for a soldier appeared and took away his horse; he let the reins slip from his dazed hand. The track had been transformed into a morass of viscous mud.

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