Produced by David Widger
By W.W. JACOBS
THE WINTER OFFENSIVE
July 12, 1915.--Disquieting rumours to the effect that epidemic of
Billetitis hitherto confined to the north of King's Road shows signs of
July 14.--Report that two Inns of Court men have been seen peeping over
July 16.--Informed that soldier of agreeable appearance and charming
manners requests interview with me. Took a dose of Phospherine and went.
Found composite photograph of French, Joffre, and Hindenburg waiting for
me in the hall. Smiled (he did, I mean) and gave me the mutilated form
of salute reserved for civilians. Introduced himself as Quartermaster-
Sergeant Beddem, and stated that the Inns of Court O.T.C. was going
under canvas next week. After which he gulped. Meantime could I take in
a billet. Questioned as to what day the corps was going into camp said
that he believed it was Monday, but was not quite sure--might possibly be
Tuesday. Swallowed again and coughed a little. Accepted billet and felt
completely re-warded by smile. Q.M.S. bade me good-bye, and then with
the air of a man suddenly remembering something, asked me whether I could
take two. Excused myself and interviewed my C.O. behind the dining-room
door. Came back and accepted. Q.M.S. so overjoyed (apparently) that he
fell over the scraper. Seemed to jog his memory. He paused, and gazing
in absent fashion at the topmost rose on the climber in the porch, asked
whether I could take three! Added hopefully that the third was only a
boy. Excused myself. Heated debate with C.O. Subject: sheets.
Returned with me to explain to the Q.M.S. He smiled. C.O. accepted at
once, and, returning smile, expressed regret at size and position of
bedrooms available. Q.M.S. went off swinging cane jauntily.
July 17.--Billets arrived. Spoke to them about next Monday and canvas.
They seemed surprised. Strange how the military authorities decline to
take men into their confidence merely because they are privates. Let
them upstairs. They went (for first and last time) on tiptoe.
July 18.--Saw Q.M.S. Beddem in the town. Took shelter in the King's
Jug. 3.--Went to Cornwall.
Aug. 31.--Returned. Billets received me very hospitably.
Sept. 4.--Private Budd, electrical engineer, dissatisfied with
appearance of bell-push in dining-room, altered it.
Sept. 5.--Bells out of order.
Sept. 6.--Private Merited, also an electrical engineer, helped Private
Budd to repair bells.
Sept. 7.--Private Budd helped Private Merited to repair bells.
Sept. 8.--Privates Budd and Merited helped each other to repair bells.
Sept. 9.--Sent to local tradesman to put my bells in order.
Sept. 15.--Told that Q.M.S. Beddem wished to see me. Saw C.O. first.
She thought he had possibly come to take some of the billets away.
Q.M.S. met my approach with a smile that re-minded me vaguely of picture-
postcards I had seen. Awfully sorry to trouble me, but Private Montease,
just back from three weeks' holiday with bronchitis, was sleeping in the
wood-shed on three planks and a tin-tack. Beamed at me and waited. Went
and bought another bed-stead.
Sept. 16.--Private Montease and a cough entered into residence.
Sept. 17, 11.45 p.m.--Maid came to bedroom-door with some cough lozenges
which she asked me to take to the new billet. Took them. Private
Montease thanked me, but said he didn't mind coughing. Said it was an
heirloom; Montease cough, known in highest circles all over Scotland
since time of Young Pretender.
Sept. 20.--Private Montease installed in easy-chair in dining-room with
touch of bronchitis, looking up trains to Bournemouth.
Sept. 21.--Private Montease in bed all day. Cook anxious "to do her
bit" rubbed his chest with home-made embrocation. Believe it is same
stuff she rubs chests in hall with. Smells the same anyway.
Sept. 24.--Private Montease, complaining of slight rawness of chest, but
otherwise well, returned to duty.
Oct. 5.--Cough worse again. Private Montease thinks that with care it
may turn to bronchitis. Borrowed an A.B.C.
Oct. 6.--Private Montease relates uncanny experience. Woke up with
feeling of suffocation to find an enormous black-currant and glycerine
jujube wedged in his gullet. Never owned such a thing in his life.
Seems to be unaware that he always sleeps with his mouth open.
Nov. 14.--Private Bowser, youngest and tallest of my billets, gazetted.
Nov. 15, 10.35 a.m.--Private Bowser in tip-top spirits said good-bye to
10.45.--Told that Q.M.S. Beddem desired to see me. Capitulated. New
billet, Private Early, armed to the teeth, turned up in the evening.
Said that he was a Yorkshireman. Said that Yorkshire was the finest
county in England, and Yorkshiremen the finest men in the world. Stood
toying with his bayonet and waiting for contradiction.
Jan. 5, 1916.--Standing in the garden just after lunch was witness to
startling phenomenon. Q.M.S. Beddem came towards front-gate with a
smile so expansive that gate after first trembling violently on its
hinges swung open of its own accord. Q.M.S., with smile (sad), said he
was in trouble. Very old member of the Inns of Court, Private Keen, had
re-joined, and he wanted a good billet for him. Would cheerfully give up
his own bed, but it wasn't long enough. Not to be outdone in hospitality
by my own gate accepted Private Keen. Q.M.S. digging hole in my path
with toe of right boot, and for first and only time manifesting signs of
nervousness, murmured that two life-long friends of Private Keen's had
rejoined with him. Known as the Three Inseparables. Where they were to
sleep, unless I----. Fled to house, and locking myself in top-attic
watched Q.M.S. from window. He departed with bent head and swagger-cane
Jan 6.--Private Keen arrived. Turned out to be son of an old Chief of
mine. Resolved not to visit the sins of the father on the head of a
child six feet two high and broad in proportion.
Feb. 6.--Private Keen came home with a temperature.
Feb. 7.--M.O. diagnosed influenza. Was afraid it would spread.
Feb. 8.--Warned the other four billets. They seemed amused. Pointed
out that influenza had no terrors for men in No. 2 Company, who were
doomed to weekly night-ops. under Major Carryon.
Feb. 9.--House strangely and pleasantly quiet. Went to see how Private
Keen was progressing, and found the other four billets sitting in a row
on his bed practising deep-breathing exercises.
Feb. 16.--Billets on night-ops. until late hour. Spoke in highest terms
of Major Carryon's marching powers--also in other terms.
March 3.--Waited up until midnight for Private Merited, who had gone to
Slough on his motor-bike.
March 4, 1.5 a.m.--Awakened by series of explosions from over-worked, or
badly-worked, motor-bike. Put head out of window and threw key to
Private Merited. He seemed excited. Said he had been chased all the way
from Chesham by a pink rat with yellow spots. Advised him to go to bed.
Set him an example.
1.10. a.m.--Heard somebody in the pantry. 2.10. a.m.--Heard Private
Merited going upstairs to bed.
2.16 a.m.--Heard Private Merited still going upstairs to bed.
2.20-3.15. a.m.--Heard Private Merited getting to bed.
April 3, 12.30 a.m.--Town-hooter announced Zeppelins and excited soldier
called up my billets from their beds to go and frighten them off.
Pleasant to see superiority of billets over the hooter: that only emitted
12.50 a.m.--Billets returned with exception of Private Merited, who was
retained for sake of his motor-bike.
9 a.m.--On way to bath-room ran into Private Merited, who, looking very
glum and sleepy, inquired whether I had a copy of the Exchange and Mart
in the house.
10 p.m.--Overheard billets discussing whether it was worth while removing
boots before going to bed until the Zeppelin scare was over. Joined in
May 2.--Rumours that the Inns of Court were going under canvas.
May 5.--Rumours grow stronger.
May 6.--Billets depressed. Begin to think perhaps there is something in
rumours after all.
May 9.-All doubts removed. Tents begin to spring up with the suddenness
of mushrooms in fields below Berkhamsted Place.
May 18, LIBERATION DAY.--Bade a facetious good-bye to my billets;
response lacking in bonhomie.
May 19.-House delightfully quiet. Presented caller of unkempt appearance
at back-door with remains of pair of military boots, three empty shaving-
stick tins, and a couple of partially bald tooth-brushes.
May 21.--In afternoon went round and looked at camp. Came home smiling,
and went to favourite seat in garden to smoke. Discovered Private Early
lying on it fast asleep. Went to study. Private Merited at table
writing long and well-reasoned letter to his tailor. As he said he could
never write properly with anybody else in the room, left him and went to
bath-room. Door locked. Peevish but familiar voice, with a Scotch
accent, asked me what I wanted; also complained of temperature of water.
May 22.--After comparing notes with neighbours, feel deeply grateful to
Q.M.S. Beddem for sending me the best six men in the corps.
July 15.--Feel glad to have been associated, however remotely and humbly,
with a corps, the names of whose members appear on the Roll of Honour of
every British regiment.
THE WINTER OFFENSIVE
_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
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
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
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.
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!"
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