OSBORNE: He’s a long way the best company commander we’ve got.
HARDY: Oh, he’s a good chap, I know. But I never did see a youngster put away the whisky he does. D’you know, the last time we were out resting at Valennes he came to supper with us and drank a whole bottle in one hour fourteen minutes—we timed him.
OSBORNE: I suppose it amused everybody; I suppose everybody cheered him on, and said what a splendid achievement it was.
HARDY: He didn’t want any ‘cheering’ on—
OSBORNE: No, but everybody thought it was a big thing to do. [There is a pause.] Didn’t they?
HARDY: Well, you can’t help, somehow, admiring a fellow who can do that—and then pick out his own hat all by himself and walk home—
OSBORNE: When a boy like Stanhope gets a reputation out here for drinking, he turns into a kind of freak show exhibit. People pay with a bottle of whisky for the morbid curiosity of seeing him drink it.
OSBORNE: You may find he’s—he’s a little bit quick-tempered.
RALEIGH [laughing]: Oh, I know old Dennis’s temper! I remember once at school he caught some chaps in a study with a bottle of whisky. Lord! the roof nearly blew off. He gave them a dozen each with a cricket stump.
He was so keen on the fellows in the house keeping fit. He was frightfully down on smoking—and that sort of thing.
OSBORNE: You must remember he’s commanded this company for a long time—through all sorts of rotten times. It’s—it’s a big strain on a man. […] If you notice a—difference in Stanhope—you’ll know it’s only the strain—
RALEIGH: It’s—it’s not exactly what I thought. It’s just this—this quiet that seems so funny.
OSBORNE: A hundred yards from here the Germans are sitting in their dugouts, thinking how quiet it is.
RALEIGH: Are they as near as that?
OSBORNE: About a hundred yards.
RALEIGH: It seems—uncanny. It makes me feel we’re—we’re all just waiting for something.
OSBORNE: We are, generally, just waiting for something. When anything happens, it happens quickly. Then we just start waiting again.
It was all right at first. When I went home on leave after six months it was jolly fine to feel I’d done a little to make her pleased. [He takes a gulp of his drink.] It was after I came back here—in that awful affair on Vimy Ridge. I knew I’d go mad if I didn’t break the strain. I couldn’t bear being fully conscious all the time—you’ve felt that, Uncle, haven’t you? […] There were only two ways of breaking the strain. One was pretending I was ill—and going home; the other was this. [He holds up his glass.] […] I thought it all out. It’s a slimy thing to go home if you’re not really ill, isn’t it?
OSBORNE: I believe Raleigh’ll go on liking you—and looking up to you—through everything. There’s something very deep, and rather fine, about hero-worship.
STANHOPE: Hero-worship be damned! [He pauses, then goes on, in a strange, high-pitched voice] You know, Uncle, I’m an awful fool. I’m captain of this company. What’s that bloody little prig of a boy matter? D’you see? He’s a little prig. Wants to write home and tell Madge all about me. Well, he won’t; d’you see, Uncle? He won’t write! Censorship! I censor his letters—cross out all he says about me.
OSBORNE: You can’t read his letters.
STANHOPE [dreamily]: Cross out all he says about me. Then we all go west in the big attack—and she goes on thinking I’m a fine fellow for ever—and ever—and ever. [He pours out a drink, murmuring ‘Ever—and ever—and ever.’]
OSBORNE: I remember up at Wipers we had a man shot when he was out on patrol. Just at dawn. We couldn’t get him in that night. He lay out there groaning all day. Next night three of our men crawled out to get him in. It was so near the German trenches that they could have shot our fellows one by one. But, when our men began dragging the wounded man back over the rough ground, a big German officer stood up in their trenches and called out. ‘Carry him!’—and our fellows stood up and carried the man back and the German officer fired some lights for them to see by.
RALEIGH: How topping!
OSBORNE: Next day we blew each other’s trenches to blazes.
RALEIGH: It all seems rather—silly, doesn’t it?
I was feeling bad. I forgot Raleigh was out there with Trotter. I’d forgotten all about him. I was sleepy. I just knew something beastly had happened. Then he came in with Trotter—and looked at me. After coming in out of the night air, this place must have reeked of candle-grease, and rats—and whisky. One thing a boy like that can’t stand is a smell that isn’t fresh. He looked at me as if I’d hit him between the eyes—as if I’d spat on him—
S-M: Well, then, sir. If they don’t get through the first day, they’ll attack the next day and the next—
STANHOPE: They’re bound to.
S-M: Then oughtn’t we to fix up something about, well [he gropes for the right words]—er—falling back?
STANHOPE: There’s no need to—you see, this company’s a lot better than A and B Companies on either side of us.
S-M: Quite, sir.
STANHOPE: Well, then, if anyone breaks, A and B will break before we do. As long as we stick here when the other companies have given way, we can fire into the Boche as they try and get through the gaps on our sides—we’ll make a hell of a mess of them. We might delay the advance a whole day.
S-M [diffidently]: Yes, sir, but what ’appens when the Boche ’as all got round the back of us?
STANHOPE: Then we advance and win the war.
Stanhope! I’ve tried like hell—I swear I have. Ever since I came out here I’ve hated and loathed it. Every sound up there makes me all—cold and sick. I’m different to—to the others—you don’t understand. It’s got worse and worse, and now I can’t bear it any longer. I’ll never go up those steps again—into the line—with the men looking at me—and knowing—I’d rather die here. [He is sitting on STANHOPE’S bed, crying without effort to restrain himself.]
If you went—and left Osborne and Trotter and Raleigh and all those men up there to do your work—could you ever look a man straight in the face again—in all your life! [There is silence again.] You may be wounded. Then you can go home and feel proud—and if you’re killed you—you won’t have to stand this hell any more. I might have fired just now. If I had you would have been dead now. But you’re still alive—with a straight fighting chance of coming through. Take the chance, old chap, and stand in with Osborne and Trotter and Raleigh. Don’t you think it worth standing in with men like that?—when you know they all feel like you do—in their hearts—and just go on sticking it because they know it’s—it’s the only thing a decent man can do.
OSBORNE: Haven’t you read it?
TROTTER [scornfully]: No!
OSBORNE: You ought to. [Reads]
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale?
How cheerfully he seems to grin
And neatly spread his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
TROTTER [after a moment’s thought]: I don’t see no point in that.
OSBORNE [wearily]: Exactly. That’s just the point.
RALEIGH: Good God! Don’t you understand? How can I sit down and eat that—when—[his voice is nearly breaking]—when Osborne’s—lying—out there—
[STANHOPE rises slowly. His eyes are wide and staring; he is fighting for breath, and his words come brokenly.]
STANHOPE: My God! You bloody little swine! You think I don’t care—you think you’re the only soul that cares!
RALEIGH: And yet you can sit there and drink champagne—and smoke cigars—
STANHOPE: The one man I could trust—my best friend—the one man I could talk to as man to man—who understood everything—and you don’t think I care—
RALEIGH: But how can you when—?
STANHOPE: To forget, you little fool—to forget! D’you understand? To forget! You think there’s no limit to what a man can bear?