Liam O’Flaherty, The Return of the Brute [extract].

[Bibliographical note: available at Book Consult: Publishing Consultancy and Creative Writing Support & Tuition - online; accessed 30.03.2011.]

 “You could do me a good turn if you wanted to,” whispered Lamont.
 “How d’ye mean? I can’t get myself out of it.”
 “Give me a blighty one.”
 “What?”
 “Lots have done it, haven’t they?”
 “That’s enough now,” whispered Gunn, in a voice that was both angry and panic-stricken. 'Pull yourself together. You’re a fine mucking-in chum to have. By God!”
 Lamont dropped his face on his arms, against the muddy sandbags of the parapet. Gunn took him roughly in his arms and muttered: 'Listen. I know what’s the matter with you. I’m going to give you a good punch in the jaw if you’re not careful. You’re just nagging like a woman. Chuck it.”
 “Let me alone,” said Lamont, in a broken whisper. 'Only for mother, I’d do myself in. They’d tell her.”
 “You’ll do no such thing,” said Gunn. 'I’ll see to that. I’ve no mother, but at your age I could stick this on my own legs, without no mother. Aye! And a double ration of it, boy. Damn this rain! That’s the cause of it. Rain. Mud. Lice. Curse it!”
 He looked up at the sky and clenched his fist, as if threatening heaven.
 He was a huge fellow, so burly that he looked stocky, although he was well over six feet in height. He looked a typical fighter, with a thick neck, square jaws and a body like a full sack. His right ear was battered. There was a scar on his left cheek. He was thirty-two years old and he had laboured for wages since his boyhood, but his body had not become demoralised by enslaved toil. Nature had taken great pains with this seemingly crude and large individual, endowing him with muscles and sinews that refused to be stiffened by monotonous labour, and with a spirit that hardship could not conquer. He had a simple soul, which shone though his great, blue eyes; giving the lie to the cruel strength of his neck, his jaws, his heavy-lipped mouth, his massive shoulders, chest and thighs.
 He was like a mastiff, that most ferocious-looking and most gentle of all animals; who, however, when roused or made vicious by brutal treatment, becomes as ferocious as he looks.
 He looked down at Lamont and said, 'You’ll drive me daft. I’m blowed if I know why I muck in with you. Strike me stiff, if I do. You’re like a woman.”
 Then he shuddered and looked into the darkness.
 “You’ve been out here now,” he said, 'for three months. You should be getting used to it by now. But you’re not.”
 “I can’t help it,” whispered the youth, 'I’m all in.”
 Gunn shuddered again and struck himself a violent blow on the chest. Then he cursed and said with extraordinary anger:
 “Now listen to me. I’ve been out here over two years on this lousy front and I’m as fed up with it as you are. I don’t give a curse who wins this rotten war and I’d like to run my bayonet through the fellahs that started it. We’re just fighting for a gang of robbers, as ‘79 Duncan said. I’ve got my eyes open now, although I hadn’t when I enlisted. I came thousands of bloody miles to enlist. Jumped freight all the way from Seattle, Washington, to New York, and then to Liverpool as a trimmer on a liner. See? I walked into it. But if I ever get desperate, same as you are, I’m not going to try and get out of it by wounding myself or running across No Man’s Land to bloomin” Fritz with my hands up.”
 He spat and added:
 “That’s a coward’s way out of it. I promised to soldier and soldier I will, though I hate their guts, from the lousiest Lance-Jack to the Skipper.”
 He spat again, cursed, looked at Lamont and said almost nervously:
 “Jesus! You put the wind up me. I was married once to a woman, way up in Nova Scotia, when I was working on a weekly boat. She was just like you. She had me worn to a ghost. I left her, by Jesus, one night, after giving her a bloody good hiding. I went out west and never saw her again.”
 He peered down into the post, towards the corner where Corporal Williams lay asleep under an elephant frame. The Corporal was just a dun blur, from which sounds of snoring came. The dim forms of his comrades lay tossing in their sleep at the bottom of the hole, some of them with their feet in muddy water. Gunn tipped Lamont and whispered, jerking his head towards the Corporal:
 “If he heard what you said, d’ye know what you’d get? Eh?”
 Lamont shuddered, wiped his face with his sleeve and said:
 “I don’t care. They can put me up before the firing squad whenever they like. I’m fed up.”
 Gunn ground his teeth.
 “Then what the hell did you enlist in this mob for?” he said. 'This is the worst regiment in the whole army. Ye knew that. It’s the best regiment too! For I’ve seen our fellahs, by God, go through worse than hell. They’re gathered from all corners of the earth, the toughest of the tough. You should have joined the Army Medical Corps.”
 “I wish I had no mother,” whimpered Lamont.
 “I can’t stand this,” growled Gunn to himself. 'As sure as hell I’m going to get into trouble over this kid.”
 Lamont had joined the battalion three months previously at a rest camp. When they saw him, the tough soldiers greeted him with jeering laughter. He was a beautiful boy, with pink cheeks, dazzling white teeth like a girl and big blue eyes. He did not swear or drink and it was obvious at once that he had never been used to any hardship. Almost as soon as he arrived he began to receive parcels of food and cigarettes with every post. It became known that his people were well-to-do and that he had a mother who doted on him and that he was an only child.
 Gunn took him under his protection and cared for him like a father or a big brother. At first it made Gunn very happy. There had been no gentle influence like this in his rough and nomad life. He almost shed tears when he got a letter from Lamont’s mother thanking him for being kind to her boy. 'God will bless you for it. He is the light of my eyes. My heart would break if anything happened to my darling boy.” Gunn had also reached the age when a virile man, who has no children, begins to look upon youth with longing; when the fear of death and old age begins to conquer the arrogant confidence of youth.
 But after a while he became aware that the boy was sapping his strength. The boy lived on his nerves. Not only did he have to do the boy’s work, but he had to comfort him, to lend him courage.
 And now the boy’s cowardice was sapping his sense of discipline; that extraordinary religion of the soldier which is proof against the greatest tortures; something that is brutally beautiful.
 “Listen,” he said, 'that’s the worst act of cowardice a soldier can commit. And what’s more, you can’t get away with it. If a man could do that without feeling ashamed of himself, d’ye think there’d be a man left on this front? But, ye see, them blokes back there are too cute.” He nodded his head to the rear. 'You can’t beat them.” He touched his forehead. 'Up there they’ve got it. Brains! We’re mugs. Look at it that way. Supposing it wasn’t a cowardly thing to give yourself a blighty one? Let’s say you do it and get back the line. What happens? They’ll cop you. Sure as hell. They’ve got blokes hired specially for copping self-inflicted wounds. They’ve got smart at it now. At first, you could get into hospital by eating a bar of soap. Now, if you try on any silly stunt, they put you in dock till you get better and then you’re for it. I know. I’ve been out here nearly two years and I’ve seen many a man, good men too, chancing their arms. Thirty-Nine Townshend tried to wound himself in the head when we were in the straw trenches. The blighter blew his brains out by mistake. Eighty-Four Flynn broke his leg with an entrenching tool at Neuve Chapelle. They copped him. Ginger Moriarty was caught by an officer trying to wound himself in the thigh with his rifle. He got what was coming to him all right. Christ! They’ve got an hospital away back there for self-inflicted wounds. There’s nothing to it.”
 He dug his fist into Lamont’s back and said:
 “Savvy?”
 “I’ll get out of it somehow,” said Lamont with strange coolness.
 Gunn peered at him in the darkness, almost with terror. A stupid fellow, the youth’s curious feminine cunning unnerved him, and made him also feel the temptation to do something shameful and desperate. The youth’s obstinate determination to save himself from the horrible life of the trenches roused in Gunn a dangerous desire for freedom. This desire was dangerous for Gunn because he was a brave soldier, who knew there was no means of escape, other than death or disablement inflicted by the enemy.
 Terrified by the temptation inspired by the boy’s words and manner, he instinctively glanced again towards the corner where the Corporal snored.
 “Quit that!” he whispered savagely, turning back to Lamont. 'What are ye driving at now? Desertion? ‘Fifty-Seven Flood tried that at Armentières. What happened to him? Caught on the wires and riddled with bullets. Disgraced his bloody company. Jerry’d make ye sorry ye came if ye got there. He doesn’t want his own men trying that on, so he’d make an example of ye.”
 “I’ll get out of it somehow,” said Lamont coldly.
 “God Almighty!” muttered Gunn.
 They became silent, standing side by side, looking out into the darkness over the parapet. With their steel hats and their oil-sheets, which they wore, laced about their throats, over their great coats, they looked like ghouls in the gloom, buried to their waists in a hole; while all round them the earth lay naked, turned into mud, holed, covered with the horrid débris of war, emitting a stench of rotting, unburied corpses.
 From the pitch-dark sky the rain fell, unceasing and monotonous, like the droning of brine water falling on a floor of black rocks from the roof of a subterranean cave where moaning seals are hidden and flap about upon their ledges; sounds from a dead world; the mysterious gloom of the primeval earth, where no life had yet arisen; no sap of growing things; nothing but worms and rats feeding on death.
 Clods of dislodged mud slipped from the sides of holes, flopped into blood-stained pools, sank and turned into slime.
 The silence was horrid.

 

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