Ebooks - Fiction, Non-Fiction 1000s of Them - Tons of Free Stories to Read ~ Main Page

 

 

 

Journey's End by James Owen Hannay

An Extract from - Our Casualty And Other Stories

I had a long journey before me, and I looked forward to it with dread. It is my habit when forced to travel in France, the part of France chiefly affected by the war, to resign myself to a period of misery. I relapse into a condition of sulky torpor. Railway Transport Offices may amuse themselves by putting me into wrong trains. Officers in command of trains may detach the carriage in which I am and leave it for hours in a siding. My luggage may be—and generally is—hopelessly lost. I may arrive at my destination faint for want of food. But I bear all these things without protest or complaint. This is not because I am particularly virtuous or self-trained to turn the other cheek to the smiter. I am morally feeble, deficient in power of self-defence, a lover of peace with discomfort, rather than honourable strife.

I felt no small joy when I discovered that Thompson was to be my travelling companion on this particular journey. I had travelled with Thompson before. I knew that he always secured food, that he never lost his luggage, that he had an instinct for recognizing the right train when he saw it, and that he had a healthy disregard for the dignity of the official persons who clog the feet of wayfarers in France.

We met at the station. Thompson's breezy good humour gave me fresh confidence at once. He looked energetic, hopeful and charged with vitality.

“Come along.” he said, “we'll report to the R.T.O. at once and get it over.”

In France under existing conditions the traveller reports to the Railway Transport Officer when he starts his journey, when he finishes it and at all intervening opportunities. An R.T.O. must lead a harassed and distressful life. He sees to it that the traveller has a fair share of life's trouble.

This particular R.T.O. began by trying to get us into a wrong train. I suppose that was the line of least resistance for him. It was easier to put us into the first train that came along. We should have been off his hands, and another R.T.O stationed somewhere else, would have had the job of getting us switched back on to our proper track again. The first man—and this was all he cared for—would have been rid of us. Thompson was equal to the situation. He talked vigorously to that R.T.O.. Thompson holds no very exalted rank in the army. I often wonder he is not tried by Court Martial for the things he says. But the R.T.O., so far from resenting Thompson's remarks, offered us a sort of apology.

“I've been on duty ten hours,” he said, “and there's a whole battery of artillery lost somewhere along the line. It never was my fault; but every general in the whole army has been ringing me up about it. The telephone bell hasn't stopped all day. Damn! There it is again.”

It was; loud, angry and horribly persistent. Even Thompson felt sorry for the R.T.O.

“Never mind,” he said, “you'll get your Military Cross all right in the end. All you fellows do. Now buck up a bit and find our train for us. It's X. we want to get to.”

I mention this incident to show the kind of man Thompson is and his way of dealing with difficulties. Under his care I felt that I should travel safely and get to X. in the end. Comfort was not to be expected, but Thompson did all that could be done to mitigate our misery.

We made our start from a platform blocked with piles of officers' luggage and crowded with confused and anxious men. Subalterns in charge of drafts asked other subalterns what they ought to do and received counter inquiries by way of reply. Sergeants stormed blasphemously at men who had disappeared in search of tea. Staff officers, red tabbed and glorious, tried to preserve an appearance of dignity while their own servants staggering under the weight of kit bags, bumped into them. Hilarious men, going home on leave, shouted sudden snatches of song. A decrepit Frenchman, patient in the performance of duty, blew feeble blasts on a small horn. Thompson, alert and competent, found a compartment. He put me in and then he bundled in my valise. After that he found his own luggage, an enormous kit bag, two sacks, a camp bedstead, a hammock chair and a number of small parcels.

“Get them in somehow,” he said. “We'll settle down afterwards.”

Thompson did the settling afterwards. He so arranged our belongings that we each had a seat The door by which anyone else might have to get in at another station was hopelessly blocked. The small parcels were put on the rack above our heads. Thompson gave me a list of their contents as he put them in their places. They contained bread, butter, meat, biscuits, cheese, a bottle of wine and a flask of brandy.

“We're here till two o'clock to-morrow morning—till two o'clock at best We must have something to eat.”

A selfish traveller—I am profoundly selfish—would have been content to keep that compartment secure from intrusion. We had completely barricaded the door and no one could have got in if we had chosen to defend our position. But Thompson was not selfish. The train stopped at a station every quarter of an hour or so, and Thompson climbing up the barricade, opened the window and took a look out every time we stopped. At one station—it was then about 7 p.m. and quite dark—he discovered a forlorn boy—a second-lieutenant—who was trying to find room for himself and his belongings. Thompson hailed him. The next five minutes were passed in fierce toil by all of us. But before the train started Thompson got the boy and his belongings into our compartment. In my opinion no second-lieutenants ought to be allowed to possess a suit-case as well as a valise. This boy also had three top-coats and a Jaeger rug. We spent nearly half an hour settling down again after that. Then we dined, sharing the food—Thompson's food—with the second-lieutenant. He was a nice boy and very grateful. I thought him a little garrulous, but Thompson encouraged him to talk. He told us all about his job. It was his duty to go up in captive balloons and send down messages to the artillery. It was, by his account, a sea-sicky business, worse by several degrees than crossing the Channel in the leave boat. Thompson, who has a thirst for every kind of information, questioned and cross-questioned the boy. After dinner—dinner was Thompson's name for our meal—I prepared to go to sleep. Thompson arranged valises on the floor in such a way that I could stretch my legs. The boy went on talking. He told Thompson that he had dropped out of the ballooning business and that he was going to X. to submit to a special course of training. I forget what it was, bombing probably, or the use of trench mortars, possibly map reading or—a subject part of the school curriculum of our grandmothers—the use of globes. The army has a passion for imparting knowledge of any kind to temporary lieutenants. I went to sleep while Thompson was explaining just where the boy's particular course of instruction was given, a camp some three or four miles out of X. Thompson has an amazing knowledge of what naturalists would call the habitat of the various parts of the army.

At 3 a.m. I was awakened from my sleep. We had reached, an hour late, the junction at which we had to change. Thompson and the boy were both alert and cheerful. They had, I fancy, been talking all the time. Our junction proved to be a desolate, windswept platform, without a sign of shelter of any kind except a bleak-looking cabin, the habitation of the local R.T.O. Thompson roused him ruthlessly and learned that, with luck, we might expect our next train to start at six. I shivered. Three hours, the very coldest in the twenty-four, on that platform, did not strike me as a pleasant prospect Thompson used a favourite phrase of his.

“After all,” he said, “it's war; what the French call La Guerre.” He professed to have discovered, not from the R.T.O. but from a sleepy French railway official, that the train, our train in which we were to travel, was somewhere in the neighbourhood, waiting for its engine. It did not come to us from anywhere else; but made its start, so to speak took its rise, at that junction. Thompson and our new friend, the boy, proposed to get into the train when they found it.

Thompson can speak French of a sort, but he does not understand the language as spoken by the French people. I did not believe that he had really found out about that train. I declined to join in the search. He and the boy went off together. They came back in about half an hour. They said they had found a train standing by itself in a field and that it must be ours because there was no other. The reasoning did not seen conclusive to me, but I agreed to go and sleep in whatever train they had found. I suggested that we should leave our luggage on the platform and pick it up when the train got there at 6 a.m.

“That,” said Thompson, “is just the way luggage gets lost. Suppose—I don't say it's likely or even possible—but suppose the train we get into goes somewhere else. Nice fools we'd look, turning up in Paris or Marseilles without a brush or comb among us. No. Where I go I take my luggage with me.”

Thompson was evidently not so sure about that train as he pretended to be. But I had reached a pitch of hopeless misery which left me indifferent about the future. It did not seem to me to matter much just then whether I ever got to X. or not. We had to make three trips, stumbling over railway lines and sleepers, in the dark, falling into wet ditches and slipping on muddy banks; but in the end we got all our luggage, including the boy's top-coats, into a train which lay lifeless and deserted in a siding.

This time Thompson and the boy slept. I sat up stiff with cold. At half-past five a French railway porter opened our door and invited us to descend, alleging that he wanted to clean the carriage. I was quite pleased to wake Thompson who was snoring.

“Get up,” I said, “there's a man here who wants to clean the carriage and we've got to get out.”

“I'm damned if I get out,” said Thompson.

The Frenchman repeated his request most politely. If the gentlemen would be good enough to descend he would at once clean the carriage.

Thompson fumbled in his pocket and got out an electric torch. At first I thought he meant to make sure that the carriage required cleaning. Thinking things over I came to the conclusion that he felt he could talk French better if he could see a little. He turned his ray of light on the Frenchman and said slowly and distinctly:

“Nous sommes officiers anglais, et les officiers anglais ne descendent pas—jamais.”

The Frenchman blinked uncertainly. Thompson added:

“Jamais de ma vie.”

That settled the French porter. He was face to face with one of the national idiosyncrasies of the English, a new one to him and incomprehensible, but he submitted at once to the inevitable. He gave up all idea of cleaning the carriage and Thompson went to sleep again. The boy slept soundly through the whole business.

At half-past seven—the train had been jogging along since six—Thompson woke and said he thought he'd better shave. The proposal struck me as absurd.

“We can't possibly shave,” I said, “without water.”

Thompson was quite equal to that difficulty. The next time the train stopped—it stopped every ten minutes or so—he hopped out with a folding drinking cup in his hand. He returned with the cup full of hot water. He had got it from the engine driver. He and I shaved. The boy still slept, but, as Thompson pointed out, that did not matter. He was too young to require much shaving.

“Nice boy that,” said Thompson. “Son of an archdeacon; was at Cambridge when the war broke out. Carries a photo of his mother about with him. Only nice boys carry photos of their mothers. He has it in a little khaki-coloured case along with one of the girl he's going to marry—quite a pretty girl with tously hair and large eyes.”

“Oh, he's engaged to be married, is he?”

“Of course he is. That sort of boy is sure to be. Just look at him.”

As he lay there asleep his face looked extraordinarily young and innocent. I admitted that he was just the sort of boy who would get engaged to the first girl who took him seriously.

“Girl's out here nursing,” said Thompson. “V.A.D. Evidently has a strong sense of duty or she wouldn't be doing it V.A.D.-ing isn't precisely a cushy job. He's tremendously in love.”

“Seems to have confided most of his affairs in you,” I said.

“Told me,” said Thompson, “that the girl has just been home on leave. He hoped to get back, too, to meet her, thinks he would have got a week if he hadn't been ordered off on this course, bombing or whatever it is.”

Thompson washed while he talked. It could scarcely be called a real wash, but he soaped his face, most of his neck and his ears with his shaving brush and then dipped his handkerchief in the drinking cup and wiped the soap off. He was certainly cleaner afterwards; but I felt that what was left of the water would not clean me.

Later on Thompson secured some rolls of bread, two jam pastries and six apples. The bread and pastry I think he bought The apples I am nearly sure he looted. I saw a large basket of apples in one of the waggons of a train which was standing in the station at which Thompson got out to buy our breakfast They were exactly like the apples he brought back.

We woke up the boy then. It did not matter whether he shaved or not; but at his age it is a serious thing to miss a chance of food.

About midday we arrived at a large town. Thompson learned from the R.T.O. who inhabited the railway station there that we could not get a train to take us any further till ten o'clock that night. He said again that was war, what the French call guerre, but he seemed quite pleased at the prospect of the wait He spoke of looking for a proper meal and a Turkish bath. The bath we did not succeed in getting; but we had an excellent luncheon: omelette, fried fish, some kind of stewed meat and a bottle of red wine. The boy stuck to us and told us a lot more about his girl. His great hope, he said, was that he would meet her somewhere in France. I could see that what he really looked forward to was a wound of a moderately painful kind which would necessitate a long residence, as a patient, in her hospital. He was, as Thompson said, a nice boy; but he talked too much about the girl. He was also a well-educated boy and anxious to make the best of any opportunities which came his way. He told us that there was an interesting cathedral in the town and proposed that we should all go and see it after lunch. Thompson is not an irreligious man. Nor am I. We both go to church regularly, though not to excess, but we do not either of us care for spending week day afternoons in a cathedral. Thompson still hankered after a Turkish bath. I had a plan for getting a bedroom somewhere and going to sleep. We sent the boy off to the cathedral by himself.

The Turkish bath, as I said, was unobtainable We walked through most of the streets of that town looking for it. Then Thompson proposed that we should have afternoon tea. That we got in a small room above a pastry cook's shop. The girl who served us brought us tea and a large assortment of sticky pastry. Thompson hates sticky pastry. There is only one kind of cake made in France which he will eat. I knew what it was, for I had often had tea with Thompson before. I should have recognized one if I had seen it; but I could not remember the French name for it Thompson insisted on describing its appearance to the girl. He gave his description in English and the girl looked puzzled. I tried to translate what he said into French and she looked still more puzzled.

Then from the far corner of the room came a pleasant voice.

“I think brioche is the word you want.” It was. I recollected it directly I heard it. I turned to thank our interpreter. She was a young woman in the uniform of a V.A.D. She was sitting at a table by herself, was, in fact, the only other occupant of the room. I thanked her. Thompson joined in and thanked her effusively. There was not much light in the room and her corner was decidedly gloomy. Still, it was possible to see that she was a decidedly pretty girl. We both said that if there was anything we could do for her we should be very pleased to do it After the way she helped us out with the brioche we could scarcely say less.

“Perhaps,” she said, “you may be able to tell me when I will be able to get a train to——?”

She mentioned one of those towns of which the English have taken temporary possession, turning the hotels into hospitals, to the great profit of the original proprietors.

“Certainly,” said Thompson. “There's a train at 9 p.m. But you'll be travelling all night in that. If I were you I'd stay here till to-morrow morning and then——”

“Can't,” said the girl. “Properly speaking I'm due back to-day; but I missed the early train this morning and only got here an hour ago. The boat was horribly late.”

“Ah,” said Thompson, “you're coming back after leave, I suppose.”

The girl sighed faintly.

“Yes.” she said, “but I've had a fortnight's leave; I can't complain.”

“I'll just write down that train for you,” said Thompson.

He scribbled 9 p.m. on a piece of paper and carried it over to the girl. It seemed to me an unnecessary thing to do. Nine is a simple number, easy to remember. Some thought of the same kind occurred to the girl. She looked at Thompson, first with some surprise, and then, I thought, rather coldly. She was evidently not inclined to accept any further friendly offers from Thompson. He did not seem in the least abashed even when she turned her shoulder to us and looked the other way.

“Have you seen the cathedral here?” said Thompson.

The girl made no answer.

“I really think,” said Thompson, “that you ought to pay a visit to the cathedral. You'll like it, you really will. And you've got hours before you. I don't see how you can fill in the time if you don't go to the cathedral.”

“Thank you,” said the girl without turning round.

“I'm not going there,” said Thompson, “or I'd offer to show you the way. But you can't miss it. You can see the spire from the window. It's the finest specimen of early Gothic in the north of France. The glass is superb. There's an altar piece by Raphael or Botticelli, I forget which. The screen is late Italian Renaissance, and there's a tomb in the west transept which is supposed to be that of the Venerable Bede.”

The girl got up and walked out of the room. I was not surprised.

“Thompson,” I said, “what do you mean by behaving like a cad? Any one could see that she is a nice girl; a lady, not that sort at all.”

Thompson grinned.

“And as for that rigmarole of yours about the cathedral—what the devil do you know about Italian Renaissance, or Botticelli or early Gothic? I never heard such rot in my life. As a matter of fact I've always heard that the glass in this cathedral is poor.”

“All the same,” said Thompson, “if she goes there she'll be pleased. She'll find something she'll like a great deal better than stained glass.”

“As for the Venerable Bede,” I said, “he was buried in Oxford if he was buried anywhere, and I don't know that he was. He might have been cremated, or minced up by high explosives so that they couldn't bury him.”

“I thought I recognized her,” said Thompson, “I went over to her table and had a good look to make sure.”

“Don't pretend you know her,” I said “She certainly didn't know you.”

“I looked at her photograph five times at least last night while you were asleep.”

I thought this over for a minute. Then I said:

“You don't mean to tell me that she's the girl that boy is engaged to be married to?”

“The exact same girl,” said Thompson. “I couldn't be mistaken.”

I meditated on the situation.

“I hope,” I said, “that he won't have left the cathedral before she gets there.”

“No fear,” said Thompson, “he's a most conscientious boy. Having started out to do that cathedral he'll look at every stone of it before he leaves. He'll be there for hours yet. What I'm afraid of is that she won't go there.”

“She started in the right direction,” I said “I saw her out of the window.”

“I did my best anyhow,” said Thompson. “I told her I wasn't going there. She didn't like me. I could see that. If I'd let her think I was going to the cathedral she'd have marched straight off to the station and sat in the Ladies' Waiting-room till her train started.”

The girl, it appeared, did visit the cathedral and the boy was there. He was waiting for us on the platform at the railway station at half-past nine. He talked half the night to Thompson about his wonderful stroke of luck. Just as I dropped off to sleep I heard Thompson quoting Shakespeare. It was, to the best of my belief, the only time in his life that Thompson ever did quote Shakespeare.

     “Journeys end in lovers' meeting,
     Every wise man's son doth know,”

he said.