Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fleur de Lys Part 4


IV


MARCH 1918

The cold did its best to take the heart out of one.

Hayes dug his hands deeper into his pockets and ducked his head against the wind. The trenches were more or less ditches along here, half blown away, flooded, heavily reinforced with sandbags. Every inch of the place stank of mud and shit and rotten flesh. Along the wall by the third gunbay, three hands stuck out of the sandbagged earth. The men shook hands with each one on the way down to the bay: it had become a company ritual. Edward rounded a corner into what should have been a firebay. The sentry gave him a look utterly devoid of any interest and turned back to lean his chin on his arm and stare out towards the enemy trenches. His second was curled up on the firestep, dead asleep. Around the next vague zigzag of the trench, six men were digging at an earthfall. Dull, morose faces watched him pass, uncaring of where he went or what he did. Men asleep, curled against the walls. Men hunched on firesteps in serious danger of hypothermia. Four sentries had frozen to death on duty in the last eight weeks. One of the few Corporals left to the company, pulled at his cap.

"Major."

"Hallo Neal." Hayes nodded at the earth fall. "When did this happen?"

"Shell about three this morning."

"Mr Lindley up this way?"

Neal jerked his head. "Gunbay. One of the guns busted this morning. Lot of use we were at Stand to with only one gun and less than a hundred rifles."

It was a fair comment. Edward moved on. His arrival in the gunbay went unnoticed, the four men were too preoccupied with the lewis gun. Lindley looked tired to death. He too had his hands deep in his greatcoat pockets and his cap was pulled low over his eyes, shading his face. He was always pale, but Edward, who knew him, recognised the slight discolouration of his lips. Andrews was talking about HQ and requisitions, his voice getting lost in the wind. The two gunners were reassembling the great gun which had been stripped down as far as possible in the front line. Andrews finished what he was saying and Lindley shrugged.

"I doubt it." he said in his soft voice, "I'll pass the message on. Send a runner up to me if it sticks again."

He turned and his face warmed into a smile at the sight of Edward.

"Hello Major."

There was gentle mockery in the title. Edward fell into step with him.

"Did you find the fault?"

"It was stuck." Cam said succinctly. "Rusted."

"And you've unstuck it?"

"Good lord no, I was flapping like a headless chicken. Andrews unstuck it. He took a mallet and whacked the thing a few times, it clicked straight back into action. We've cleaned it as far as we dare, but the thing needs stripping right down."

"That's impossible."

"I'd have thought it was better to have one gun out of action for twenty minutes than have a gun we daren't rely on. We've got enough trouble trying to man the thing."

Edward ran a harassed hand through his hair.

"I know, I've been promised replacements."

"My dear boy, haven't you always? Most of this entire line is now manned with eighteen and nineteen year olds, Dev hates it-"

There was the sudden whistle of a shell to the left. They automatically froze, Edward clutching Lindley's arm as the sound grew louder. It was too far over to be a real danger, but they still flinched at the explosion.

"That hit the support line." Cam said dispassionately, watching the smoke rise. "They had a hell of a night. Most of the heavy stuff went right over us and blasted them all over the shop. Half our back walls are down because of it. Come on. Giles is officially on duty, come and have some of Bullman's revolting coffee."

"What do we make of Giles?" said Edward, following him down into the dug out.

"The men like him."

"Ah."

It was enough. They'd shared this earthen hole long enough to read the slightest change in intonation. Edward watched the delicate outline of Cam 's thin jaw, knew he was worried, slightly depressed, and knew it was Cam 's own ability to distance and relax that he was using himself: one of the many characteristics learned and shared between the three of them from constant exposure to each other.

"He's very bright. Very confident."

"But?" Edward pulled up a crate to sit on. Lindley smiled faintly.

"But. There isn't an ounce of sensitivity in him. Dev talks to him exactly as he talks to all the other youngsters in the company, he doesn't worry about him. Oh he's completely reliable and very competent, just rather down to earth."

"The men look awful." Edward said abruptly. Lindley shot him a rather nervous glance.

"It's the noise. The shelling's been bad the last few days. A lot of rumours flying about."

"Choke them off."

"We do our best. It's so damned cold too, although at least the frost stopped the flooding. Morale's dead. Dev does his best, he hardly ever gets a moment to himself, but it's the weather that's the real problem. And the gunning. We haven't had a quiet night since poor old Dickson got smashed."

"Did you ever find out where he was sent?"

"You know what it's like trying to track men down, the field hospitals don't keep records. Dev didn't think he'd make it to Etaples, they couldn't stop the stump bleeding."

Silence.

"Some of the rumours may not be as unfounded as you think."

Lindley looked up sharply. "What? You mean an attack here?"

Edward put his hands down and met Lindley's intent eyes. A fragile face, flippant, too beautiful to trust in, just as the voice was too soft and very slightly, irritatingly camp. But Edward knew Lindley. The man had a mind like a steel trap when he wanted to: analytical, incisive. He'd held Deverel together when Blake was killed, again when Quentin, Blake's replacement, was blinded three weeks ago. Dickson's departure had hit them all hard, but none of it ever seemed to penetrate Lindley. So unlike Dev who reflected everything.

"I've heard things up at HQ." He said softly. Cam 's breath was released in a hiss.

"Something on this line? We can't do a thing! There's only six divisions n this entire section and every one of the companies is as depleted as we are! We can't stand up under an attack, never mind fend it off!"

"I don't know anything concrete."

Lindley shook his head. "Dev was called up to HQ this morning, Wharton telephoned at the crack of dawn."

"It wasn't about that. I came down to tell you actually: Wharton showed me a few things last night. A pack of solicitors papers arrived at HQ for Dev."

"My God, family?"

"Something to do with the brother that died- last winter was it? There's a title and estates involved apparently." Hayes lifted his shoulders in a shrug. "I don't know what it is he's signing or who his family is but Wharton was pretty impressed."

"You know he never writes to anyone, he wouldn't give a damn about an estate."

Hayes snorted with mild amusement.

"Don't be a fool, Dev's pure county. Of course he cares."

"He never talks about his family."

"He has to me once or twice."

They looked at each other, measuring. Edward broke eye contact first.

"I thought I ought to warn you. Chances are he'll come back a bit wound up."

He knew he'd infuriated Cam- he often did- but he shut out the angry eyes as he had done a hundred times, changed the subject and tried not to see the signs. Cam Lindley was an emotional character- rather more than Edward was ever comfortable with.



Deverel didn't return until past two am . Lindley was sprawled on his bed with a book. Deverel glanced at him and went to the other bed. It was too cold to take off coats and gloves.

"I suppose Hayes told you?"

Lindley leaned and slid the book into his open pack. "Said you had some papers to sign."

The candle light produced a vague, slightly holy glow. Cam was long on the bed, braced on one elbow with his head up to watch. His eyes were black in the dimmed light. Liquid eyes. Dev swallowed and looked away.

"From my father. Solicitor's pack. I should really have gone to London to do it, but Wharton got dispensation to witness. The old boy loved every minute of it."

"Inheritance?"

"Yes." A brief, cynical smile. "Signed the papers, shook hands. All over. Oh and a glass of brandy, ho ho, ticking off. Several of the red tag boys were there."

"Who ticked you off?" Cam asked, playing along with the slightly flippant tone. Dev wandered restlessly, touching items as he passed them.

"Wharton. I turned twenty one two hours ago."

He'd known Cam would say nothing stupid or formal. When it came it was gentle, almost bewildered.

"Oh God."

It worked. Lindley always knew exactly how to hit a nerve. Dev shut down hard on the floor and heard his voice turn ragged.

"I came out here when I was seventeen, Cam. I could have had another year of school."

Lindley lay still, watching him wander. "Your family let you join up?"

"Rob and I joined up together. We were always together."

Lindley moved to sit up, reach for him and press further- they both froze at the splash of feet outside.

"Excuse me sir." One of the runners appeared through the curtain. "Mr Giles' compliments and would you come at once."

"what's happened?" Lindley demanded as Deverel rolled to his feet. The runner looked pale in the candle light.

"There's been a direct hit on the communication trench. No way through to the forward trench."

Deverel swore, snatched up his helmet and ran up the steps. Lindley strained his ears through the heavy and constant shellfire. Two minutes later he made out more footsteps: not Dev's. The runner again.

"The Captain's sorry sir but could you come immediately."

Half way up the steps, Lindley recognised the runner. Cowan. Whenever any crisis hit, he was invariably off post and somewhere around Deverel. The company had grown used to simply over looking it: all the Wipers companies were laws unto themselves. Deverel was standing in the ruins of a smoking gunbay, eyes feral as he surveyed the wreckage. Cam swore softly.

"Really a direct hit."

"If they got this one, they'll get the others." Dev said shortly. "We’ll have to move the lot."

Move three, almighty guns that needed horses to position them. Cam drew a deep breath.

"I'll organise teams."

Dev pulled the notepad from his pocket and scribbled rapidly. "Cowan."

"Sir."

"Hayes is with A company, Hallet's gone off his head, there's only a couple of kid lieutenants left- give him this and the map, tell him what's going on. Say I don't expect him to come down here, but he'd better move their guns too."

Cowan pocketed the note and gripped his wrist before Deverel could pass him.

"Allright?"

He had to bellow over the gunfire. Deverel looked down at his hand. Long fingers, grasping tightly.

"It they've pinpointed the guns.."

Cowan pulled him closer and pushed up his head, taking advantage of the wreckage to screen them.

"I meant you."

Deverel looked at him blankly. "Haven't you anything better to do than watch me?"

"Of course I bloody haven't."

Dev smiled in spite of himself. "Nothing. Family."

Cowan searched his face. There was nothing they could do or say here, but the younger man was desperate- the kind of desperation in the last few weeks that he'd managed to keep at bay late at night, with a few rough and quiet encounters in derelict sections of the line that let the younger man go on, sated and with the dead look temporarily stalled from his eyes.

"What did the major want? I saw his moustache twitching when he left, it usually means we're in for it."

"You love Hayes, don't you?"

"He's a boy who WOULD stand on a burning deck and make everyone else bloody stand there too."

At last he got a full smile. "Shut up you, you'll get me shot."

"What's he telling you off for this time?"

"He isn't rowing me, he's nosing. I went through the legal papers up the line, inherited the estate from my brother. Hayes got wind of it and wants the whole story, just too much delicacy to ask."

"No wonder he's twitching."

"It's irritation." Dev glanced down at Cowan's hands. "Get that note up, it's urgent."

"On my way."

"Why do you always volunteer for runner work?" Dev asked abruptly. "Most of the men hate it. You do realise how many snipers watch this line?"

Cowan gave a wary glance around, tipped up his head and kissed him, quick and hard.

"I like the exercise."





******************************************





Two nights later the entire wiring party was systematically grenaded as they worked. There was nothing they could do. Lindley spent four hours in a haze of shouting, running, trying to keep a runner in contact with Dev, but men and earth were falling around them. There was no end to it. This was no strafing, this was bombardment and it meant something far more sinister.

"Sorry sir, Captain says th'wiring party's gone. Dead. All of them."

The man was trembling too hard to stand straight, eyes bulging. "They're all killed sir, there's hardly no wire left - can you go down to him sir?"

Lindley ducked another explosion, heard a scream- Beech, fighting his way over fallen earth and his fallen platoon. Lindley pulled him to his feet, shook him until he looked up, face blank with shock.

"Keep your men up, close under the parapet as you can." Lindley shouted in his ear. "Where's Giles?"

"He was with the Captain when the gun bay went."

"Get your men together."

Beech blundered forward. Lindley jogged back down towards the company HQ. He understood Deverel's message. If the wire was gone then an attack was imminent. There weren't the men to hold this line, there hadn't been for months. For the first time he heard rifle fire from the south.

Deverel was crouched, scribbling a message for a pale and shivering runner . Quick, strong movements, his hands amazingly sure.

"Battalion HQ." He said, folding it. "Bring the reply down soon as you can."

The runner dodged away up the line.

"Rifle fire." Lindley said briefly as Deverel straightened. "South of us."

Deverel gripped his arm hard. "The wire's down. Nothing left. We can't mend it under this."

"Most of the heavy stuff is still going over but the grenading's getting more accurate-"

"As soon as this bombardment lets up, they'll attack. I'm sure of it."

And he would know. He'd withstood these attacks before, he was entirely calm, grim, perfectly at home.

"We haven't the men or the guns." Cam said, stating the obvious for form's sake and watching Dev's face. This was his job, he'd been conditioned young and he was bloody good at it. The adrenaline was flowing and while he was scared, somewhere underneath Cam realised some part of him was actually enjoying it. He spoke rapidly, clearly.

"I've sent to Hayes for instructions, the best thing we could do is to fall back. There's a deserted trenchline about a mile and a half behind us. If we cut out of here now and wire ourselves in there we might have some hope of keeping the line intact."

"Orders were to stand our ground."

"We won't keep the line. If we give a little we may."

His eyes were blazing, hard and bright. Lindley watched him without apprehension. If Dev said they moved they moved.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Find Giles and warn him. Stick close if you can, I'll let you know as soon as a message comes."

"But we'll wait until A and B companies move?"

"We'll have to go together, the line has to be kept whole. How's Giles?"

"Quite cool."

Deverel gave him a twisted smile. A few yards away, rifle resting on the parapet, Cowan's hawked face was turned towards them. Once more he'd volunteered as a runner.

Exactly an hour later a runner brought a note and Lindley watched Deverel's eyes narrow as he read it. He looked up and gave Lindley a slight nod.



The Sergeant Major, Lindley and Giles stood around the table in the dugout, the map spread on the table in front of them.

"Everyone clear where we're going?" said Deverel. "Stay with your platoons and stay in sight of each other. It won't be straight running, the land back there is blasted to hell. Sergeant Major you'll have to go with Giles' platoon."

"What about the wounded sir?" the SM said quietly. Deverel's voice altered very slightly.

"Those able to move come with us. The rest we leave."

There was a soft, wordless sound from Giles. Deverel looked at him and spoke more gently.

"They've got more chance. The Bosche have got medics, they'll look after them. Get the word out, we've got about twenty minutes."

He looked around the circle of faces, all of them tense, white, fiercely controlled, scared. Twenty minutes later whistle blasts broke out along the line, passing from company to company, and the line retreated into open ground.

Continue on to Part 5 of Fleur de Lys

Copyright Ranger 2010

1 comment:

Linda said...

absolutely gripping. Well done.


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