A sky the colour of old bruises hung low over the battlefields of France, and rolled with ponderous dignity towards the German lines.
Brigadier-General Sean Courtney had spent four winters in France and now, with the eye of a cattleman and a farmer, he could judge this weather almost as accurately as that of his native Africa.
‘It will snow tonight,’ he grunted, and Lieutenant Nick van der Heever, his orderly officer, glanced back at him over his shoulder.
‘I shouldn’t wonder, sir.’
Van der Heever was heavily laden. In addition to his service rifle and webbing, he carried a canvas kitbag across his shoulder, for General Courtney was on his way to dine as a mess guest of the 2nd Battalion. At this moment the Colonel and officers of the 2nd Battalion were completely unaware of the impending honour, and Sean grinned in wicked anticipation at the panic that his unannounced arrival would create. The contents of the kitbag would be some small compensation for the shock, for it included half a dozen bottles of pinch bottle Haig and a fat goose.
Nevertheless, Sean was aware that his officers found his informal behaviour and his habit of arriving suddenly in the front lines, unannounced and unattended by his staff, more than a little disconcerting. Only a week before, he had overheard a field telephone conversation on a crossed line between a major and a captain.
‘The old bastard thinks he’s still fighting the Boer War. Can’t you keep him in a cage back there at H.Q.?’
‘How do you cage a bull elephant?’
‘Well, at least warn us when he’s on his way–’
Sean grinned again and trudged on after his orderly officer, the folds of his great-coat flapping about his putteed legs and, for warmth, a silk scarf wrapped around his head beneath the soup-plate shape of his helmet. The boards bounced under his feet and the gluey mud sucked and gurgled beneath them at the passing weight of the two men.
This part of the line was unfamiliar, the brigade had moved in less than a week previously, but the stench was well remembered. The musty smell of earth and mud, overladen with the odour of rotting flesh and sewage, the stale lingering whiff of burned cordite and high explosive.
Sean sniffed it and spat with distaste. Within an hour he knew he would be so accustomed as not to notice it, but now it seemed to coat the back of his throat like cold grease. Once again he looked up at the sky, and now he frowned. Either the wind had shifted into the east a point or two, or they had taken a wrong turning within the maze of trenches, for the low cloud was no longer rolling in the direction that fitted with the map that Sean carried in his head.
‘Are you still right?’
And he saw at once the uncertainty in the young subaltern’s eyes as he looked back.
The trenches had been deserted for the last quarter of a mile, not a single soul had they passed in the labyrinth of high earthen walls.
‘We’d better take a look, Nick.’
‘I’ll do it, sir.’ Van der Heever glanced ahead along the trench, and found what he was looking for. At the next intersection a wooden ladder was fastened into the wall. It reached to the top of the sand-bagged parapet. He started
‘Careful, Nick,’ Sean called after him.
‘Sir,’ the young man acknowledged, and propped his rifle before swarming upwards.
Sean calculated they were still three or four hundred yards from the front line yet, and the light was going fast. There was a purple velvet look to the air beneath the clouds, not shooting light at all, and he knew that, despite his age, van der Heever was an old soldier. The glance he took over the top would be swift as a meerkat looking out of its hole.
Sean watched him crouch at the top of the ladder, lift his head for a single quick sweep and then duck down again.
‘The hill is too much on our left,’ he called down.
The hill was a low, rounded mound that rose a mere hundred and fifty feet above the almost featureless plain. Once it had been thickly forested, but now only the shattered stumps stood waist-high and the slopes were dimpled with shell craters.
‘How far is the farm house?’ Sean asked, still peering upwards. The farm house was a roofless rectangle of battered walls that stood foursquare facing the centre of the Battalion’s sector. It was used as a central reference point for artillery, infantry and aircorps alike.
‘I’ll have another look,’ and van der Heever lifted his head again.
The Mauser has a distinctive cracking report, a high and vicious sound that Sean had heard so often as to be able to judge with accuracy its range and direction.
This was a single shot, at about five hundred yards, almost dead ahead.
Van der Heever’s head snapped backwards as though he had taken a heavy punch, and the steel of his helmet rang like a gong. The chin-strap snapped as the round helmet spun high in the air and then dropped to the floorboards in the bottom of the trench and rolled on its rim into a pool of grey mud.
Van der Heever’s hands remained locked closed on the top rung of the ladder for a moment, then the nerveless fingers opened, and he tumbled backwards, falling heavily into the bottom of the trench with the skirts of his greatcoat ballooning around him.
Sean stood frozen and disbelieving, his mind not yet accepting the fact that Nick was hit, but, as a soldier and a hunter, judging that single shot with awe.
What kind of shooting was that? Five hundred yards in this murky light; one fleeting glimpse of a helmeted head above the parapet; three seconds to set the range and line up, then another instant of time to sight and fire as the head bobbed up again. The Hun that fired that shot was either a superb marksman with reflexes like a leopard – or the flukiest sniper on the western front.
The thought was fleeting and Sean started forward heavily and knelt beside his officer. He turned him with a hand upon the shoulder and felt the sickening slide in his guts and the cold grip on his chest.
The bullet had entered at the temple and exited behind the opposite ear.
Sean lifted the shattered head into his lap, removed his own helmet and began to unwind the silk scarf from around his head. He felt a desolation of loss.
Slowly he wrapped the boy’s head into the scarf, and immediately the blood soaked through the thin material. It was a futile gesture – but it served to keep his hands occupied and detract from his sense of helplessness.
He sat on the muddy floorboards, holding the boy’s body, his heavy shoulders bowed forward. The size of Sean’s bared head was accentuated by the thick curls of dark wiry hair shot through with splashes and strands of grey that sparkled frostily in the fading light. The short thick beard was laced with grey as well, and the big beaked nose was twisted and battered-looking.
Only the black curved eyebrows were sleek and unmarked, and the eyes were clear and dark cobalt blue, the eyes of a much younger man, steady and alert.
Sean Courtney sat for a long time holding the boy, and then he sighed once, deeply, and laid the broken head aside. He stood up, hefted the kitbag on to his own shoulder, and set off along the communications trench once again.
At five minutes before midnight, the Colonel commanding the 2nd Battalion stooped through the blackout curtains that screened the entrance to the mess, and beat the snow from his shoulders with a gloved hand as he straightened.
The mess had been a German dugout six months before, and was the envy of the brigade. Thirty feet below ground level, it was impregnable, even to the heaviest artillery barrage. The floor was of heavy timber boarding and even the walls were panelled against the damp and the cold. A pot-bellied stove stood against the far wall, glowing cheerfully.
Gathered about it in a half circle of looted armchairs sat the off-duty officers.
However, the Colonel had eyes only for the burly figure of his General, seated in the largest and most comfortable chair closest to the stove, and he shed his great-coat as he hurried across the dugout.
‘General, my apologies. If I’d known you were coming – I was making my rounds.’
Sean Courtney chuckled and rose ponderously from the chair to shake his hand. ‘It’s what I would expect of you, Charles, but your officers have made me very welcome – and we have kept a little of the goose for you.’
The Colonel glanced quickly about the circle and frowned as he saw the hectic cheeks and sparkling eyes of some of his younger subalterns. He must warn them of the folly of trying to drink level with the General. The old man was steady as a rock, of course, and those eyes were like bayonets under the dark brows, but the Colonel knew him well enough to guess that he had a full quart of Dimple Haig in his belly, and that something was troubling him deeply. Then it came to him. Of course –
‘I’m terribly sorry to hear about young van der Heever, sir. Sergeant-Major told me what happened.’
Sean made a gesture of dismissal, but for a moment the shadows darkened about his eyes.
‘If I’d only known you were coming up into the line this evening, I would have warned you, sir. We have had the devil of trouble with that sniper ever since we moved up. It’s the same fellow, of course – absolutely deadly. I’ve never heard of anything like it. Dreadful nuisance when everything else is so quiet. Only casualties we’ve had all week.’
‘What are you doing about him?’ Sean asked harshly. They all saw the flush of anger darken his face, and the Adjutant intervened swiftly.
‘I’ve been on to Colonel Caithness at 3rd Battalion, and we did a deal, sir. He has agreed to send us Anders and MacDonald–’
‘You got them!’ The Colonel looked delighted. ‘Oh I say, that’s excellent. I didn’t think Caithness would part with his prize pair.’
‘They came in this morning – and the two of them have been studying the ground all day. I gave them a free hand, but I understand they are setting up the shoot for tomorrow.’
The young Captain who commanded ‘A’ Company pulled out his watch and studied it a moment. ‘They are going out from my section, sir. As a matter of fact, I was going to go down and give them a send-off, they will be moving into position at half past twelve. If you’ll excuse me, sir.’
‘Yes, of course, off with you, Dicky – wish them good luck from me.’ Everybody in the brigade had heard of Anders and MacDonald.
‘I’d like to meet that pair.’ Sean Courtney spoke suddenly, and dutifully the Colonel agreed.
‘Of course, I’ll come out with you, sir.’
‘No, no, Charles – you’ve been out in the cold all night as it is. I’ll just go along with Dicky here.’
The snow came down thickly out of the utter darkness of the midnight sky. It damped down the night sounds in its thick muffling cloak, muting the regular bursts of a Vickers firing at a hole in the wire on the battalion’s left.
Mark Anders sat wrapped in his borrowed blankets and he bowed his head to the book in his lap, adjusting his eyes to the yellow wavering light of the candle-stump.
The rise in temperature that accompanied the first fall of snow and the changed quality of sound entering the small dugout awakened the man who slept beside him. He coughed, and rolled over to open a chink in the canvas curtain beside his head.
‘Damn,’ he said, and coughed again, the harsh hammering sound of a heavy smoker. ‘Damn it to hell. It’s snowing.’ Then he rolled back to Mark. ‘You still reading?’ he demanded roughly. ‘Always with your nose in a bloody book. You’ll ruin your shooting eyes.’
Mark lifted his head. ‘It’s been snowing for an hour already.’
‘What you want all that learning for?’ Fergus MacDonald was not so easily distracted. ‘It won’t do you no good.’
‘I don’t like the snow,’ said Mark. ‘We didn’t reckon on the snow.’
The snow complicated the task ahead of them. It would cover the ground out there with a sensitive mantle of white. Anybody moving out from the trench into no-man’s-land would leave tracks that the dawn light would instantly betray to an observant enemy.
A match flared and Fergus lit two Woodbines and passed one to Mark. They sat shoulder to shoulder, huddled in their blankets.
‘You can call off the shoot, Mark. Tell ’em to shove it. You’re a volunteer lad.’
They smoked in silence for a full minute before Mark replied.
‘That Hun is a bad one.’
‘If it’s snowing, he probably won’t be out tomorrow. Snow will keep him in bed also.’
Mark shook his head slowly. ‘If he’s that good, he’ll be out.’
‘Yes.’ Fergus nodded. ‘He’s that good. That shot he made last evening – after lying up all day in the cold, then five hundred yards if it was an inch, and in that light–’ Fergus cut himself off, and then went on quickly, ‘But you’re good also, lad. You’re the best, boy.’
Mark said nothing, but carefully pinched out the glowing tip of the Woodbine.
‘You’re going?’ Fergus asked.
‘Get some sleep then, lad. It’s going to be a long day.’
Mark blew out the candle flame as he lay back and pulled the blankets over his head.
‘You get a good sleep,’ Fergus said again. ‘I’ll wake you in plenty of time,’ and he resisted the paternal urge to pat the thin bony shoulder under the blanket.
The young Captain spoke quietly with one of the sentries on the forward firing step, and the man whispered a reply and pointed with his chin along the darkened trench.
‘This way, sir.’ He went on down the boards, swaddled in clothing so that he had the shape of a bear, and Sean towered head and shoulders above him as he followed.
Around the next revert, through the soft curtains of falling snow, there was the subdued red glow of a brazier from the shallow dugout in the side of the trench. Dark figures squatted close about it, like witches at a sabbat.
‘Sergeant MacDonald?’ One of the figures rose and stepped forward.
‘That’s me.’ There was a cocky, self-assured tone to the reply.
‘Present and correct,’ said MacDonald, and one of the other figures rose from the circle about the brazier and came forward. He was taller, but moved with grace, like an athlete or a dancer.
‘You are ready, Anders?’ the Captain went on, speaking in the soft half-whisper of the trenches, and MacDonald replied for him.
‘The lad is fighting fit, sir.’ He spoke with the proprietary tone of the manager of a prize-fighter. It was clear that the boy was his property, and that ownership gave him a distinction he would never have achieved on his own.
At that moment another flare burst high overhead, a brilliant white and silent explosion of light, softened by the snow.
Sean could judge a man like he could a horse. He could pick the rotten ones, or the big-hearted, from the herd. It was a trick of experience and some deeper inexplicable insight.
In the light of the flare his eyes flickered across the face of the older Sergeant. MacDonald had the bony undernourished features of the slum-dweller, the eyes too close set, the lips narrow and twisted downwards at the corners. There was nothing to interest Sean there and he looked at the other man.
The eyes were a pale golden brown, set wide, with the serene gaze of a poet or a man who had lived in the open country of long distant horizons. The lids were held wide open, so that they did not overlap the iris, leaving a clear glimpse of the clean white about the cornea so that it floated free like a full moon. Sean had seen it only a few times before, and the effect was almost hypnotic, of such direct and searching candour that it seemed to reach deep into Sean’s own soul.
After the first impact of those eyes, other impressions crowded in. The first was of the man’s extreme youth. He was nearer seventeen than twenty, Sean judged – and then saw immediately how finely drawn the boy was. Despite the serenity of his gaze, he was stretched out tight and hard, racked up with strain close to the snapping point. Sean had seen it so often in the past four years. They had found this child’s special talent and exploited it ruthlessly, all of them – Caithness at 3rd Battalion, the ferrety MacDonald, Charles, Dicky and, by association, himself. They had worked him mercilessly, sending him out time and again.
The boy held a steaming tin mug of coffee in one hand, and the wrist that protruded from the sleeve of his coat was skeletal, and speckled with angry red bites of body lice. The neck was too long and thin for the head it supported, and the cheeks were hollow, the eye-sockets sunken.
‘This is General Courtney,’ said the Captain; and as the light of the flare died, Sean saw the eyes shine suddenly with a new light, and heard the boy’s breath catch with awe.
‘Hello, Anders, I’ve heard a lot about you.’
‘And I’ve heard about you, sir.’ The transparent tones of hero-worship irritated Sean. The boy would have heard all the stories, of course. The regiment boasted of him, and every new recruit heard the tales. There was nothing he could do to prevent them circulating.
‘It’s a great honour to meet you, sir.’ The boy tripped on the words, stuttering a little – another sign of the terrible strain he was under – yet the words were completely sincere.
The legendary Sean Courtney, the man who had made five million pounds on the goldfields of the Witwatersrand and lost every penny of it in a morning at a single coup of fortune. Sean Courtney, who had chased the Boer General Leroux across half of Southern Africa and caught him at last after a terrible hand-to-hand fight. The soldier who had held Bombata’s ravaging Zulu impis at the gorge and then driven them on to the waiting Maxims, who had planned with his erstwhile enemy Leroux and helped build the Charter of Union which united the four independent states of Southern Africa into a single mighty whole, who had built another vast personal fortune in land and cattle and timber, who had given up his position in Louis Botha’s Cabinet and at the head of the Natal Legislative Council to bring the regiment out to France – it was natural the boy’s eyes should shine that way and his tongue trip, but still it annoyed Sean. At fifty-nine I’m too old to play the hero now, he thought wryly – and the flare went down, plunging them back into the darkness.
‘If there’s another mug of that coffee,’ said Sean. ‘It’s bloody cold tonight.’