The Winter Offensive
by W. W. Jacobs
N.B.–Having regard to the eccentricities of the Law of Libel it must be distinctly understood that the following does not refer to the distinguished officer, Lieut. Troup Horne, of the Inns of Court. Anybody trying to cause mischief between a civilian of eight stone and a soldier of seventeen by a statement to the contrary will hear from my solicitors._
Aug. 29, 1916.–We returned from the sea to find our house still our own, and the military still in undisputed possession of the remains of the grass in the fields of Berkhamsted Place. As in previous years, it was impossible to go in search of wild-flowers without stumbling over sleeping members of the Inns of Court; but war is war, and we grumble as little as possible.
Sept. 28.–Unpleasant rumours to the effect that several members of the Inns of Court had attributed cases of curvature of the spine to sleeping on ground that had been insufficiently rolled. Also that they had been heard to smack their lips and speak darkly of featherbeds. Respected neighbour of gloomy disposition said that if Pharaoh were still alive he could suggest an eleventh plague to him beside which frogs and flies were an afternoon’s diversion.
Oct. 3.–Householders of Berkhamsted busy mending bedsteads broken by last year’s billets, and buying patent taps for their beer-barrels.
Oct. 15.–Informed that a representative of the Army wished to see me. Instead of my old friend Q.M.S. Beddem, who generally returns to life at this time of year, found that it was an officer of magnificent presence and two pips. A fine figure of a man, with a great resemblance to the late lamented Bismarck, minus the moustache and the three hairs on the top of the head. Asked him to be seated. He selected a chair that was all arms and legs and no hips to speak of and crushed himself into it. After which he unfastened his belt and “swelled wisibly afore my werry eyes.” Said that his name was True Born and asked if it made any difference to me whether I had one officer or half-a-dozen men billeted on me. Said that he was the officer, and that as the rank-and-file were not allowed to pollute the same atmosphere, thought I should score. After a mental review of all I could remember of the Weights and Measures Table, accepted him. He bade a lingering farewell to the chair, and departed.
Oct. 16.–Saw Q.M.S. Beddem on the other side of the road and gave him an absolutely new thrill by crossing to meet him. Asked diffidently–as diffidently as he could, that is–how many men my house would hold. Replied eight–or ten at a pinch. He gave me a surprised and beaming smile and whipped out a huge note-book. Informed him with as much regret as I could put into a voice not always under perfect control, that I had already got an officer. Q.M.S., favouring me with a look very appropriate to the Devil’s Own, turned on his heel and set off in pursuit of a lady-billetee, pulling up short on the threshold of the baby-linen shop in which she took refuge. Left him on guard with a Casablanca-like look on his face.
Nov. 1.–Lieut. True Born took up his quarters with us. Gave him my dressing-room for bedchamber. Was awakened several times in the night by what I took to be Zeppelins, flying low.
Nov. 2.–Lieut. True Born offered to bet me five pounds to twenty that the war would be over by 1922.
Nov. 3.–Offered to teach me auction-bridge.
Nov. 4.–Asked me whether I could play “shove ha’penny.”__
Nov. 10.–Lieut. True Born gave one of the regimental horses a riding- lesson. Came home grumpy and went to bed early.
Nov. 13.–Another riding-lesson. Over-heard him asking one of the maids whether there was such a thing as a water-bed in the house.
Nov. 17.–Complained bitterly of horse-copers. Said that his poor mount was discovered to be suffering from saddle-soreness, broken wind, splints, weak hocks, and two bones of the neck out of place.
Dec. 9.–7 p.m.–One of last year’s billets, Private Merited, on leave from a gunnery course, called to see me and to find out whether his old bed had improved since last year. Left his motor-bike in the garage, and the smell in front of the dining-room window.
8 to 12 p.m.–Sat with Private Merited, listening to Lieut. True Born on the mistakes of Wellington.
12.5 a.m.–Rose to go to bed. Was about to turn out gas in hall when I discovered the lieutenant standing with his face to the wall playing pat- a-cake with it. Gave him three-parts of a tumbler of brandy. Said he felt better and went upstairs. Arrived in his bed-room, he looked about him carefully, and then, with a superb sweep of his left arm, swept the best Chippendale looking-glass in the family off the dressing table and dived face down-wards to the floor, missing death and the corner of the chest of drawers by an inch.
12:15 a.m.–Rolled him on to his back and got his feet on the bed. They fell off again as soon as they were cleaner than the quilt. The lieutenant, startled by the crash, opened his eyes and climbed into bed unaided.
12.20 a.m.–Sent Private Merited for the M.O., Captain Geranium.
12.25 a.m.–Mixed a dose of brandy and castor-oil in a tumbler. Am told it slips down like an oyster that way–bad oyster, I should think. Lieut. True Born jibbed. Reminded him that England expects that every man will take his castor-oil. Reply unprintable. Apologized a moment later. Said that his mind was wandering and that he thought he was a colonel. Reassured him.
12.40 a.m.–Private Merited returned with the M.O. Latter nicely dressed in musical-comedy pyjamas of ravishing hue, and great-coat, with rose- tinted feet thrust into red morocco slippers. Held consultation and explained my treatment. M.O. much impressed, anxious to know whether I was a doctor. Told him “No,” but that I knew all the ropes. First give patient castor-oil, then diet him and call every day to make sure that he doesn’t like his food. After that, if he shows signs of getting well too soon, give him a tonic. . . . M.O. stuffy.
Dec. 10.–M.O. diagnosed attack as due to something which True Born believes to be tobacco, with which he disinfects the house, the mess-sheds, and the streets of Berkhamsted.
Dec. 11.–True Born, shorn of thirteen pipes a day out of sixteen, disparages the whole race of M.O.’s.
Dec. 14.–He obtains leave to attend wedding of a great-aunt and ransacks London for a specialist who advocates strong tobacco.
Dec. 15.–He classes specialists with M.O.’s. Is surprised (and apparently disappointed) that, so far, the breaking of the looking-glass has brought me no ill-luck. Feel somewhat uneasy myself until glass is repaired by local cabinet-maker.
Jan. 10, 1917.–Lieut. True Born starts to break in another horse.
Feb. 1.–Horse broken.
March 3.–Running short of tobacco, go to my billet’s room and try a pipe of his. Take all the remedies except the castor-oil.
April 4, 8.30 a.m.–Awakened by an infernal crash and discover that my poor looking-glass is in pieces again on the floor. True Born explains that its position, between the open door and the open window, was too much for it. Don’t believe a word of it. Shall believe to my dying day that it burst in a frantic but hopeless attempt to tell Lieut. True Born the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
April 6.–The lieutenant watching for some sign of misfortune to me. Says that I can’t break a mirror twice without ill-luck following it. Me!
April 9.–Lieut. True Born comes up to me with a face full of conflicting emotions. “Your ill-luck has come at last,” he says with gloomy satisfaction. “We go under canvas on the 23rd. You are losing me!”