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   Chapter 45 No.45

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 12749

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


It was night. The heavy rain drove out of the dark void from every direction at once, and baptized the chilled faces of men as though it had been discharged from the hundred-holed rose of a full watering-can. The right and the left sections of the Battery were disposed on either side of the track. Fires were burning. Horse-lines had been laid down, and by the light of flickering flames the dim forms of tethered animals could be seen with their noses to the ground pessimistically pretending to munch what green turf had survived in the mud. Lanterns moved mysteriously to and fro. In the distance to the west more illuminations showed that another unit had camped along the track. The quartermaster of No. 2, had produced meagre tinned meats and biscuits from his emergency stores, and had made a certain quantity of tea in dixies; he had even found a half-feed of oats for the horses; so that both horses and men were somewhat appeased. But the officers had had nothing, and the Army Service Corps detachment was still undiscoverable.

George sat on an empty box at the edge of the track, submissive to the rain. Resmith had sent him to overlook men cutting straight branches in a wood on Park Downs, and then he had overlooked them as, with the said branches and with waterproofs laced together in pairs, they had erected sleeping shelters for the officers under the imperfect shelter of the sole tree within the precincts of the camp. From these purely ornamental occupations he had returned in a condition approximating to collapse, without desire and without hope. The invincible cheerfulness of unseen men chanting music-hall songs in the drenched night made no impression on him, nor the terrible staccato curtness of a N.C.O. mounting guard. Volition had gone out of him; his heart was as empty as his stomach.

Then a group of officers approached, with a mounted officer in the middle of them, and a lantern swinging. The group was not proceeding in any particular direction, but following the restless motions of the uneasy horse. George, suddenly startled, recognized the voice of the rider; it was Colonel Hullocher's voice. The Brigade-Commander had come in person to investigate the melancholy inexcusable case of No. 2 Battery, and he was cursing all men and all things, and especially the Divisional Staff. It appeared that the Staff was responsible for the hitch of organization. During the day the Staff had altered its arrangements for No. 2 Battery of the Second Brigade, and had sent an incomplete message to the Army Service Corps Headquarters. The A.S.C. had waited in vain for the completion of the message, and had then, at dark, dispatched a convoy with provender for No. 2 with instructions to find No. 2. This convoy had not merely not found No. 2-it had lost itself, vanished in the dark universe of rain. But let not No. 2 imagine that No. 2 was blameless! No. 2 ought to have found the convoy. By some means, human or divine, by the exercise of second sight or the vision of cats or the scent of hounds, it ought to have found the convoy, and there was no excuse for it not having done so. Such was the expressed opinion of Colonel Hullocher, and a recital by Major Craim of the measures taken by him did nothing to shake that opinion.

"How exactly do you stand now?" the Colonel fiercely demanded.

"The men and the horses will manage fairly well with what they've had, sir," said the Major; and he incautiously added: "But my officers haven't had anything at all."

The Colonel seized the opening with fury.

"What the devil do I care for your officers? It's your horses and your men that I'm thinking about. It's to-morrow morning that I'm thinking about. I-"

The horse, revolving, cut short his harangue.

"Keep that d-d lantern out of his eyes!" cried the Colonel.

George jumped up, and as he did so the water swished in his boots, and a stream poured off his cap. The horse was being fatally attracted towards him. The beam of the lantern fell on him, illuminating before his face the long slants of rain.

"Ha! Who's this?" the Colonel demanded, steadying the horse.

George smartly saluted, forgetting his fatigue.

"You, is it? And what are you supposed to be doing? Look here-" Colonel Hullocher stopped in full career of invective, remembering military etiquette. "Major, I suggest you send Mr. Cannon with some men to find the convoy." The Major having eagerly concurred, the Colonel went on: "Take a few men and search every road and track between here and Kingswood Station-systematically. Kingswood's the rail-head, and somewhere between here and there that convoy is bound to be. Systematically, mind! It's not a technical job. All that's wanted is common sense and thoroughness."

The Colonel's gaze was ruthlessly challenging. George met it stiffly. He knew that the roads, if not the tracks, had already been searched. He knew that he was being victimized by a chance impulse of the Colonel's. But he ignored all that. He was coldly angry and resentful. Utterly for getting his fatigue, he inimically surveyed the Colonel's squat, shining figure in the cavalry coat, a pyramid of which the apex was a round head surmounted by a dripping cap.

"Yes, sir," he snapped.

By rights the tyrant ought to have rolled off his horse dead. But Colonel Hullocher was not thus vulnerable. He could give glance for glance with perhaps any human being on earth, and indeed thought little more of subalterns than of rabbits.

He finished, after a pause:

"You will be good enough, Major, to let this officer report to me personally when he has found the convoy."

"Certainly, sir."

The horse bounded away, scattering the group.

Rather less than half an hour later George had five men (including his own servant and Resmith's) and six lanterns round a cask, on the top of which was his map. There were six possible variations of route to Kingswood Station, and he explained them all, allotting one to each man and keeping one for himself. He could detect the men exchanging looks, but what the looks signified he could not tell. He gave instructions that everybody should go forward until either discovering the convoy or reaching Kingswood. He said with a positive air of conviction that by this means the convoy could not fail to be discovered. The men received the statement with strict a

gnosticism; they could not see things with the eye of faith, fortified though they were with tea and tinned meats. An offered reward of ten shillings to the man who should hit on the convoy did not appreciably inspirit them. George himself was of course not a bit convinced by his own argument, and had not the slightest expectation that the convoy would be found. The map, which the breeze lifted and upon which the rain drummed, seemed to be entirely unconnected with the actual facts of the earth's surface. The party mounted tired, unwilling horses and filed off. Some soldiers in the darkness, watching the string of lanterns, gave a half-ironical 'Hurrah.' One by one, as the tracks bifurcated, George dispatched his men, with renewed insistent advice, and at last he and his horse were alone on the Downs.

His clothes were exceedingly heavy with all the moisture they had imbibed. Repose had mitigated his fatigue, but every slow, slouching step of the horse intensified it again-and at a tremendous rate. Still, he did not care, having mastered the great truth that he would either tall off the horse in exhaustion or arrive at Kingswood-and which of the alternatives happened did not appear to him to matter seriously. The whole affair was fantastic; it was unreal, in addition to being silly. But, real or unreal, he would finish it. If he was a phantom and Kingswood a mirage, the phantom would reach the mirage or sink senseless into astral mud. He had Colonel Hullocher in mind, and, quite illogically, he envisaged the Colonel as a reality. Often he had heard of the ways of the Army, and had scarcely credited the tales told and printed. Well, he now credited them. Was it conceivable that that madman of a Colonel had packed him, George, off on such a wild and idiotic errand in the middle of the night, merely out of caprice? Were such doings-

He faintly heard voices through the rain, and the horse started at this sign of life from the black, unknown world beyond the circle of lantern-light. George was both frightened and puzzled. He thought of ghosts and haunted moors. Then he noticed a penumbra round about the form of what might be a small hillock to the left of the track. He quitted the track, and cautiously edged his horse forward, having commendably obscured the lantern beneath his overcoat. The farther side of the hillock had been tunnelled to a depth of perhaps three feet; a lantern suspended somehow in the roof showed the spade which had done the work; it also showed, within the cavity, the two girls who had accompanied the Brigade from Wimbledon, together with two soldiers. The soldiers were rankers, but one of the girls talked with perfect correctness in a very refined voice; the other was silently eating. Both were obviously tired to the limit of endurance, and very dirty and draggled. The gay colours of their smart frocks had, however, survived the hardships of the day. George was absolutely amazed by the spectacle. The vagaries of autocratic Colonels were nothing when compared to this extravagance of human nature, this glimpse of the subterranean life of regiments, this triumphant and forlorn love-folly in the midst of the inclement, pitiless night. And he was touched, too. The glimmer of the lantern on the green and yellow of the short skirts half disclosed under the mackintoshes was at once pathetic and exciting. The girl who had been eating gave a terrible scream; she had caught sight of the figure on horseback. The horse shied violently and stood still. George persuaded him back into the track and rode on, guessing that already he had become a genuine phantom for the self-absorbed group awakened out of its ecstasy by the mysterious vision of a nightrider.

Half a mile farther on he saw the red end of a cigarette swimming on the sea of darkness; his lantern had expired, and he had not yet tried to relight it.

"Hi there!" he cried. "Who are you?"

The cigarette approached him, in a wavy movement, and a man's figure was vaguely discerned.

"A.S.C. convoy, sir."

"Where are you supposed to be going to?"

"No. 2 Battery, Second Brigade, sir. Can't find it, sir. And we've got off the road. The G.S. wagon fell into a hole and broke an axle, sir."

"And what do you think you're doing?"

"Waiting for daylight, sir."

The man's youthful voice was quite cheerful.

"D'you know what time it is?"

"No, sir."

"How many other vehicles have you got?"

"Three altogether, sir. Six horses."

"Well, I'm from No. 2 Battery, and I'm looking for you. You've unharnessed, I suppose."

"Oh yes, sir, and fed."

"Well, you'd better harness up your other two carts like lightning and come along with me. Show me the way. We'll see about the G.S. wagon later on."

"It's about a hundred yards from here, sir."

For the second time that evening George forgot fatigue. Exultation, though carefully hidden, warmed and thrilled every part of his body. Tying his horse behind one of the vehicles, he rode comfortably on hard packages till within sight of the Battery camp, when he took saddle again and went off alone to find a celebrated inn near the Epsom Grand Stand, where Colonel Hullocher and other grandees had billeted themselves. The Colonel was busy with his Adjutant, but apparently quite ready to eat George.

"Ah! You, is it? Found that convoy?"

George answered in a tone to imply that only one answer was conceivable:

"Yes, sir."

"Brought it back?"

"Part of it, sir."

He explained the circumstances.

The Colonel coughed, and said:

"Have a whisky-and-soda before you go?"

George reflected for an instant. The Colonel seemingly had a core of decency, but George said in his heart: "I've not done with you yet, my fat friend." And aloud, grimly.

"Thank you very much, sir. But I shall ask you to excuse me."

Both the Colonel and the Adjutant were pardonably shaken by this unparalleled response.

The Colonel barked:

"Why? Teetotaller?"

"No, sir. But I've eaten nothing since lunch, and a glass of whisky might make me drunk."

Colonel Hullocher might have offered George some food to accompany the whisky, but he did not. He had already done a marvel; a miracle was not to be expected. He looked at George and George looked at him.

"No doubt you're right. Good night."

"Good night, sir." George saluted and marched off.

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