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 beand generally ishopelessly
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
Come along. he said, we'll report to the R.T.O. at once and get
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 manand this was all he cared forwould 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
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 morningtill two o'clock at
best We must have something to eat.
A selfish travellerI am profoundly selfishwould 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 stationit was then about 7 p.m. and quite
darkhe discovered a forlorn boya second-lieutenantwho 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 foodThompson's
foodwith 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
dinnerdinner was Thompson's name for our mealI 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
ora subject part of the school curriculum of our grandmothersthe
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.
SupposeI don't say it's likely or even possiblebut 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
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 seventhe train had been jogging along since
sixThompson 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
stoppedit stopped every ten minutes or sohe 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
marryquite 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
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
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
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
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
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.
And as for that rigmarole of yours about the cathedralwhat 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
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
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
I looked at her photograph five times at least last night while you
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
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
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,