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Chapter Twenty-Two The Summons Comes for Mr Standfast
I slept for one and three-quarter hours that night, and when I awoke I seemed to emerge from deeps of slumber which had lasted for days. That happens sometimes after heavy fatigue and great mental strain. Even a short sleep sets up a barrier between past and present which has to be elaborately broken down before you can link on with what has happened before. As my wits groped at the job some drops of rain splashed on my face through the broken roof. That hurried me out-of-doors. It was just after dawn and the sky was piled with thick clouds, while a wet wind blew up from the southwest. The long-prayed-for break in the weather seemed to have come at last. A deluge of rain was what I wanted, something to soak the earth and turn the roads into water-courses and clog the enemy transport, something above all to blind the enemy’s eyes . . . For I remembered what a preposterous bluff it all had been, and what a piteous broken handful stood between the Germans and their goal. If they knew, if they only knew, they would brush us aside like flies.

As I shaved I looked back on the events of yesterday as on something that had happened long ago. I seemed to judge them impersonally, and I concluded that it had been a pretty good fight. A scratch force, half of it dog-tired and half of it untrained, had held up at least a couple of fresh divisions . . . But we couldn’t do it again, and there were still some hours before us of desperate peril. When had the Corps said that the French would arrive? . . . I was on the point of shouting for Hamilton to get Wake to ring up Corps Headquarters, when I remembered that Wake was dead. I had liked him and greatly admired him, but the recollection gave me scarcely a pang. We were all dying, and he had only gone on a stage ahead.

There was no morning strafe, such as had been our usual fortune in the past week. I went out-of-doors and found a noiseless world under the lowering sky. The rain had stopped falling, the wind of dawn had lessened, and I feared that the storm would be delayed. I wanted it at once to help us through the next hours of tension. Was it in six hours that the French were coming? No, it must be four. It couldn’t be more than four, unless somebody had made an infernal muddle. I wondered why everything was so quiet. It would be breakfast time on both sides, but there seemed no stir of man’s presence in that ugly strip half a mile off. Only far back in the German hinterland I seemed to hear the rumour of traffic.

An unslept and unshaven figure stood beside me which revealed itself as Archie Roylance.

‘Been up all night,’ he said cheerfully, lighting a cigarette. ‘No, I haven’t had breakfast. The skipper thought we’d better get another anti-aircraft battery up this way, and I was superintendin’ the job. He’s afraid of the Hun gettin’ over your lines and spying out the nakedness of the land. For, you know, we’re uncommon naked, sir. Also,’ and Archie’s face became grave, ‘the Hun’s pourin’ divisions down on this sector. As I judge, he’s blowin’ up for a thunderin’ big drive on both sides of the river. Our lads yesterday said all the country back of Peronne was lousy with new troops. And he’s gettin’ his big guns forward, too. You haven’t been troubled with them yet, but he has got the roads mended and the devil of a lot of new light railways, and any moment we’ll have the five-point-nines sayin’ Good-mornin’ . . . Pray Heaven you get relieved in time, sir. I take it there’s not much risk of another push this mornin’?’

‘I don’t think so. The Boche took a nasty knock yesterday, and he must fancy we’re pretty strong after that counter-attack. I don’t think he’ll strike till he can work both sides of the river, and that’ll take time to prepare. That’s what his fresh divisions are for . . . But remember, he can attack now, if he likes. If he knew how weak we were he’s strong enough to send us all to glory in the next three hours. It’s just that knowledge that you fellows have got to prevent his getting. If a single Hun plane crosses our lines and returns, we’re wholly and utterly done. You’ve given us splendid help since the show began, Archie. For God’s sake keep it up to the finish and put every machine you can spare in this sector.’

‘We’re doin’ our best,’ he said. ‘We got some more fightin’ scouts down from the north, and we’re keepin’ our eyes skinned. But you know as well as I do, sir, that it’s never an ab-so-lute certainty. If the Hun sent over a squadron we might beat ’em all down but one, and that one might do the trick. It’s a matter of luck. The Hun’s got the wind up all right in the air just now and I don’t blame the poor devil. I’m inclined to think we haven’t had the pick of his push here. Jennings says he’s doin’ good work in Flanders, and they reckon there’s the deuce of a thrust comin’ there pretty soon. I think we can manage the kind of footler he’s been sendin’ over here lately, but if Lensch or some lad like that were to choose to turn up I wouldn’t say what might happen. The air’s a big lottery,’ and Archie turned a dirty face skyward where two of our planes were moving very high towards the east.

The mention of Lensch brought Peter to mind, and I asked if he had gone back.

‘He won’t go,’ said Archie, ‘and we haven’t the heart to make him. He’s very happy, and plays about with the Gladas single-seater. He’s always speakin’ about you, sir, and it’d break his heart if we shifted him.’

I asked about his health, and was told that he didn’t seem to have much pain.

‘But he’s a bit queer,’ and Archie shook a sage head. ‘One of the reasons why he won’t budge is because he says God has some work for him to do. He’s quite serious about it, and ever since he got the notion he has perked up amazin’. He’s always askin’ about Lensch, too — not vindictive like, you understand, but quite friendly. Seems to take a sort of proprietary interest in him. I told him Lensch had had a far longer spell of first-class fightin’ than anybody else and was bound by the law of averages to be downed soon, and he was quite sad about it.’

I had no time to worry about Peter. Archie and I swallowed breakfast and I had a pow-wow with my brigadiers. By this time I had got through to Corps H.Q. and got news of the French. It was worse than I expected. General Peguy would arrive about ten o’clock, but his men couldn’t take over till well after midday. The Corps gave me their whereabouts and I found it on the map. They had a long way to cover yet, and then there would be the slow business of relieving. I looked at my watch. There were still six hours before us when the Boche might knock us to blazes, six hours of maddening anxiety . . . Lefroy announced that all was quiet on the front, and that the new wiring at the Bois de la Bruyere had been completed. Patrols had reported that during the night a fresh German division seemed to have relieved that which we had punished so stoutly yesterday. I asked him if he could stick it out against another attack. ‘No,’ he said without hesitation. ‘We’re too few and too shaky on our pins to stand any more. I’ve only a man to every three yards.’ That impressed me, for Lefroy was usually the most devil-may-care optimist.

‘Curse it, there’s the sun,’ I heard Archie cry. It was true, for the clouds were rolling back and the centre of the heavens was a patch of blue. The storm was coming — I could smell it in the air — but probably it wouldn’t break till the evening. Where, I wondered, would we be by that time?

It was now nine o’clock, and I was keeping tight hold on myself, for I saw that I was going to have hell for the next hours. I am a pretty stolid fellow in some ways, but I have always found patience and standing still the most difficult job to tackle, and my nerves were all tattered from the long strain of the retreat. I went up to the line and saw the battalion commanders. Everything was unwholesomely quiet there. Then I came back to my headquarters to study the reports that were coming in from the air patrols. They all said the same thing — abnormal activity in the German back areas. Things seemed shaping for a new 21st of March, and, if our luck were out, my poor little remnant would have to take the shock. I telephoned to the Corps and found them as nervous as me. I gave them the details of my strength and heard an agonized whistle at the other end of the line. I was rather glad I had companions in the same purgatory.

I found I couldn’t sit still. If there had been any work to do I would have buried myself in it, but there was none. Only this fearsome job of waiting. I hardly ever feel cold, but now my blood seemed to be getting thin, and I astonished my staff by putting on a British warm and buttoning up the collar. Round that derelict farm I ranged like a hungry wolf, cold at the feet, queasy in the stomach, and mortally edgy in the mind.

Then suddenly the cloud lifted from me, and the blood seemed to run naturally in my veins. I experienced the change of mood which a man feels sometimes when his whole being is fined down and clarified by long endurance. The fight of yesterday revealed itself as something rather splendid. What risks we had run and how gallantly we had met them! My heart warmed as I thought of that old division of mine, those ragged veterans that were never beaten as long as breath was left them. And the Americans and the boys from the machine-gun school and all the oddments we had commandeered! And old Blenkiron raging like a good-tempered lion! It was against reason that such fortitude shouldn’t win out. We had snarled round and bitten the Boche so badly that he wanted no more for a little. He would come again, but presently we should be relieved and the gallant blue-coats, fresh as paint and burning for revenge, would be there to worry him.

I had no new facts on which to base my optimism, only a changed point of view. And with it came a recollection of other things. Wake’s death had left me numb before, but now the thought of it gave me a sharp pang. He was the first of our little confederacy to go. But what an ending he had made, and how happy he had been in that mad time when he had come down from his pedestal and become one of the crowd! He had found himself at the last, and who could grudge him such happiness? If the best were to be taken, he would be chosen first, for he was a big man, before whom I uncovered my head. The thought of him made me very humble. I had never had his troubles to face, but he had come clean through them, and reached a courage which was for ever beyond me. He was the Faithful among us pilgrims, who had finished his journey before the rest. Mary had foreseen it. ‘There is a price to be paid,’ she had said —‘the best of us.’

And at the thought of Mary a flight of warm and happy hopes seemed to settle on my mind. I was looking again beyond the war to that peace which she and I would some day inherit. I had a vision of a green English landscape, with its far-flung scents of wood and meadow and garden . . . And that face of all my dreams, with the eyes so childlike and brave and honest, as if they, too, saw beyond the dark to a radiant country. A line of an old song, which had been a favourite of my father’s, sang itself in my ears:

There’s an eye that ever weeps and a fair face will be fain

When I ride through Annan Water wi’ my bonny bands again!

We were standing by the crumbling rails of what had once been the farm sheepfold. I looked at Archie and he smiled back at me, for he saw that my face had changed. Then he turned his eyes to the billowing clouds.

I felt my arm clutched.

‘Look there!’ said a fierce voice, and his glasses were turned upward.

I looked, and far up in the sky saw a thing like a wedge of wild geese flying towards us from the enemy’s country. I made out the small dots which composed it, and my glass told me they were planes. But only Archie’s practised eye knew that they were enemy.

‘Boche?’ I asked.

‘Boche,’ he said. ‘My God, we’re for it now.’

My heart had sunk like a stone, but I was fairly cool. I looked at my watch and saw that it was ten minutes to eleven.

‘How many?’

‘Five,’ said Archie. ‘Or there may be six — not more.’

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