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Authors: R. F. Delderfield

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There seemed nothing more to say and Paul felt trapped in a mesh of circumstances almost as frustrating and bizarre as those encompassing the German and his son. It was as though the entire structure of the estate and its way of life was crumbling and all one could do was to stand around wringing one’s hands and making fatuous comments on each new development. Will Codsall had disappeared, then Gottfried, now the old professor, whom he had always thought of as popular in the Valley, and others would be going soon, among them some of those who had created this mess on the floor. He supposed that he would get used to what was happening in time but the rhythm of the Valley had been so smooth and settled, and the process of readjustment was not easy, for he was unable to subscribe to the strident patriotism that had been surging down the Valley ever since Bank Holiday; so much of it seemed as shrill and childish as the recent behaviour of sober men like Tom Williams and Ephraim Morgan.

He said, as a valediction, ‘You were happy here, Professor, you won’t forget us easily?’

The old man smiled, drawing a mottled hand across his great walrus moustache. ‘No, Mr Craddock, I shall remember Shallowford with gratitude. I found what I sought here, the chance to live and work among kindly people and a single night’s stone-throwing cannot erase the memory of more than ten years’ peace!’

They shook hands and Paul left him, letting himself out of the shattered front door and crossing the road to the spot where his bay was tethered. The street was empty, so empty that Paul wondered if everyone had gone into hiding, but outside The Raven Pansy Pascoe came out of the shadows, calling softly, ‘Is ’un all right? Did they ’arm the poor ole toad?’ and Paul told her that the professor had escaped with a few cuts but that the police would be making enquiries in the morning.

‘Well,’ she said, philosophically, ‘I daresay that’ll put the fear o’ God into some o’ the gurt fools but it won’t bother Walt! He’s off first light an’ dam’ good riddance to ’un! Us ’aven’t ’ad a word o’ zense out of ’un zince it started!’

He wondered how she would manage on the meagre separation allowance and a house full of half-grown children but then he remembered that she was a Potter and that the Potters always managed somehow. He thanked her for telephoning and rode off up the empty street. Glancing over his shoulder he could still see the orange glow of the burning motor on the hillside; it looked, he thought, like a beacon warning the coast of invasion from the sea.

IV

T
here were changes that the sharp-eyed gulls did not see as they made their circuits waiting for the wind to change and enable them to return to their fishing grounds on the banks. By early November the Dell was beginning to assume its once familiar look of neglect and near-squalor, with tools and faggots scattered around, and rubbish accumulating behind the sheds and byres. Jem, the Bideford Goliath, who had reigned here ever since he quit his job at the fair and imposed his genial discipline upon the two Potter girls, had followed Will Codsall into the Army soon after the Miracle of the Marne, and although he was over thirty his giant frame had ensured acceptance by the fast-talking recruiting sergeant at the Paxtonbury Territorial centre. Jem had been followed, almost at once, by Smut, who had abandoned his greenhouses to the younger Eveleigh boy and gone gladly enough, as though, in soldiering, he saw an opportunity to recapture the excitement of a poacher’s life. John Rudd warned him that his prison record might result in rejection but John was wrong for when Smut admitted that he had served a term of imprisonment for belting a gamekeeper over the head with a gun butt the recruiting sergeant was delighted, saying this was precisely the type of recruit needed. Smut’s musketry instructor was equally impressed. At the initial five-round shoot-off Smut scored four bulls and an inner and that with a type of rifle he had never before fired. On the strength of this plus a pint or two of beer, the instructor withdrew him from the awkward squad and sent him on a sharpshooters’ course. It was astonishing how rapidly Smut reverted to type, how quickly and completely he forgot his patiently acquired horticultural skills and became, in effect, a poacher again. He found that he could still move across country quickly and noiselessly at night and interpret and locate the sounds made by blundering adversaries opposed to him in training exercises and with the rediscovery of his skills he sloughed off the new personality he had acquired after his release from gaol, progressing rapidly in his new profession. After Will Codsall he was the first of the Valley men to cross to France and move into the soggy ditches that already reached from Switzerland to the sea, and here he adapted himself far more easily than did most of the men of his battalion. Alone among them, save for a tramp or two lured into the recruiting office by the promise of beer and the leonine glare of Kitchener, Smut could spend successive nights lying out in the open in all weathers and he did not find a five-day spell of front-line duty very different from life as a boy in the Dell in Tamer’s time, or as a young man subsisting on what he could trap and kill between the Sorrel and the Whin. He had no personal quarrel with the Germans but he was more fatal to them than many of those who regarded all Germans as unspeakable swine. To Smut they were simply the equivalent of the hares, bucks and pheasants he had stalked in the past, and the techniques he employed against them were much the same. He would lie behind the parados for hours disguised as a roll of wet sacking on a pile of rubble, as still and patient as a famished cat at a mousehole. Whenever he caught a fleeting glimpse of a moving cap or a hunched shoulder in the trenches opposite, he would wheeze with satisfaction and gently squeeze the trigger of his specially-sighted rifle. Sometimes, if the weather was good, he would take a chance after making a kill and wait for a second victim but more often he would be inside his trench within seconds of his quarry hitting the ground. Then, after carefully notching his rifle, he would meander along to another sector, pick a fresh vantage point and begin another vigil. He would fire at almost anything that stirred but the mark that excited him most was a sun-reflecting
Pickelhaube
,
for this meant the passage of an officer and therefore a slightly longer notch on his scoreboard. He was held in high esteem by his officers not because of his sniping but because he was now a fully-licensed poacher and an enormous asset to men short of almost everything that made life bearable under conditions of constant danger and appalling discomfort. He never hurried and never acted impulsively. Before making a swoop he would study the routes of ration parties, just as he had marked out the rabbit-runs in Heronslea coverts and sometimes, when his platoon was desperately short of firewood, duckboards, sandbags, wiring stakes, plum and apple jam, bully beef and even the almost unobtainable navy rum, Smut would be permitted to lay aside his rifle and drift back towards brigade headquarters on some spurious errand. Here he would make a careful reconnaissance, and after selecting three or four of the more robust of his mates, return after dark to the areas he had memorised. Sometimes one or two of his carriers would be caught and mercilessly punished but Smut was never among this minority, for he never carried anything himself and could always melt into the darkness and try again the following night. They soon made him a corporal and he could have risen higher but he was content with two stripes, explaining that a third would cramp his style. The night he appeared at the entrance of his officer’s dugout with a case of Scotch whisky his Company commander swore that he would recommend Potter for the D.C.M., declaring that men had been decorated for far less but Smut talked him out of it. One of the very earliest lessons he had learned as a poacher was to remain inconspicuous and after some discussion he settled for ten shillings which he sent home to Meg, telling her that more would be coming for he was now doing a brisk trade in the sale of souvenirs.

Smut was not the only member of the Potter clan to find release in war. All three of his elder sisters had their burdens appreciably lightened when their men marched out of the Valley whistling ‘Tipperary’. Pansy let her cottage at an advantageous rent to a major at the camp on Blackberry Moor and moved herself and family into the farmhouse at the Dell and here, restored at last to the congenial company of the recently liberated Cissie and Violet, she began her war work.

The Potter girls were the first women in the Valley to make war show a credit balance. Although past their prime (Cissie and Pansy were on the wrong side of thirty and Violet was twenty-eight), they were still strong, vigorous, handsome, healthy women and the Lancashire Fusiliers, occupying the tented camp on the moor, were a jolly set of boys, all far from home and unfastidious. Often, of a winter evening, the Dell farmhouse erupted with song and laughter and even a man as formidable as the Bideford Goliath would have found it impossible to defend the fort as he had defended it against the raids of the Timberlake boys. The girls still thought of Jem affectionately and sometimes sent him parcels and money to eke out his rations and pay in the dismal Welsh camp, where he was learning to disembowel Germans with bayonet and Mills bomb but they did not wish him back, telling one another that war had opened their eyes to the pitiful state of servitude into which they had lapsed. Such work as was done on the farm was now performed by volunteers and paid for in kind, and whereas Jem laid the mark of his despotism on the fat posteriors of his handmaidens if they so much as winked at another man they now had a battalion of men at their disposal, with no question of any one man, or even two, claiming proprietorial rights over them. Meg, as usual, kept to herself and Hazel rarely appeared in the Dell. One way and another the Potter girls were set fair to enjoy the war, for when the Lancashire Fusiliers moved out the Shropshires moved in and the pleasant rhythm of life in the Dell hardly faltered.

In the last week of November there was a flare-up in the kitchen of Four Winds, where domestic scenes had once been commonplace but had been unknown since the Eveleighs had replaced the Codsalls. The cause of the only serious dispute that had ever broken out between the black moustached Norman Eveleigh and his wife Marian was Gilbert, their eldest boy, who had been whipper-in to the Sorrel Vale Farmers’ Hunt ever since Squire Craddock had reorganised it, in 1911. Gilbert was now nearly eighteen, a slim, serious-minded boy, whose appearance favoured his mother but whose character was more like his father’s. He was withdrawn and sparing with words but known in the Valley as a conscientious boy and the best rider to hounds for miles around. Squire Craddock liked and trusted him and the hounds, each of whom he could identify at a glance, adored him. The demands of the Government Remount Department, however, cost Gilbert his job. By early October there was hardly a horse left in the Valley, apart from those reserved for the plough and all prospects of hunting ended. Without consulting anyone Gilbert walked into Paxtonbury, added a year to his age and joined up, and this folly on his part disrupted a very united family for Mrs Eveleigh, who prized her eldest boy above all the rest of the brood, said she would disclose Gilbert’s correct age and get him discharged at once. To her dismay Eveleigh told her to hold her silly tongue, saying that he, for his part, was proud of the boy. Periwinkle Farm had contributed a man to Kitchener’s Army and the contemptible Dell had sent two; if Gilbert wanted to rescue the honour of Four Winds who were they to deny him?

All the children were present during this dispute and what astonished them more than their father’s stand was their mother’s obstinacy. Never, so far as any of them could remember, had Marian Eveleigh contradicted her husband but here she was actually screaming abuse at him, with the white-faced Gilbert trying to reason with both and although the matter seemed to end when Eveleigh also lost his temper and threatened to strike her, it was Marian who carried the day, for she flung herself out of the house, walked into Coombe Bay and telephoned the military depot at Paxtonbury so that Gilbert’s enlistment was declared void.

After that, although tempers gradually cooled, things were never quite the same between man and wife. It was as though the ghost of Four Winds had not been banished after all but was still lurking in one of the attics awaiting an opportunity to sidle into the bedrooms and kitchen and foment trouble between man, wife and children. In the event all that Marian’s defiance achieved was four months’ deferment, for Gilbert re-enlisted on his eighteenth birthday and the controversy seemed likely to flare up again for there were two more boys, aged sixteen and twelve, and by the time Gilbert had gone nobody could say if the war would last three years, ten years, or the remainder of everybody’s life.

It was not long before the Eveleighs, man and wife, were at one another’s throats again and the dispute on this occasion centred round their second daughter Rachel. Rachel Eveleigh had been going steady with Keith Horsey ever since the Coronation summer but it was only after they had been instrumental in bringing help to the crazy gypsy-child, Hazel Potter, that the Valley showed any interest in the association. Now it was generally understood that Keith would marry the farmer’s daughter as soon as he passed his finals at Oxford and was assured a good teaching post and Eveleigh was thought to look upon the match with satisfaction, for a parson’s son with a university degree was a rare catch for the daughter of a man who had begun as Codsall’s hired hand.

Keith Horsey, luckier than most young men that catastrophic summer, sat for his finals in June and the result, a double first gave him a choice of several careers. The couple had planned to marry in early spring but the war was rushing along at a speed that bewildered all but the very young and in mid-October Rachel informed the family that the wedding was being put forward to the last week in November.

The Valley was still apt to look suspiciously upon hurried weddings and none more so than the dour Eveleigh, whose unexpected opposition to the changed date was reinforced, it seemed, by sudden and inexplicable second thoughts regarding the groom. Challenged by Rachel and her mother to explain them he said that he had been told that Keith Horsey was associated with a group of students dedicated to the ideal of international brotherhood. Rachel looked blank at this but Marian laughed in her husband’s face, something else she had never done in more than twenty years of married life.

BOOK: Post of Honour
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