The Common Secretary
AN architect called Geoffrey Skene and a bank clerk called Stephen Dormer, both of them coming from the town of Easthampton in England, met at a crossroads in French Flanders. It was not a coincidence. Each of them had a limited yearly holiday. Each was bound, sooner or later, to go back to look at the place where he had been involved in that incredible, unescapable, and most fortunately finished and done-with war. Although slightly acquainted, they had been too English to mention their identical destination to each other as they met, occasionally, in the street of their town; therefore, English-like, they met at an otherwise insignificant spot in what their ancestors, who had frequently fought there, had been used to call the Low Countries.
But Skene and Dormer had not come there from any profound interest in the past or the place. They had come, English leisure giving rein to English curiosity, to gaze at a spot on earth where they had so nearly died, so accidentally it now seemed, those years ago.
They had not found it.
When Skene came up to Dormer the latter, formed by years of routine and probity, was surveying a tourist map with some annoyance. Not to be able to find a place, if not in a directory at least on a map, was outside his experience, even in war time.
Skene, member of a liberal profession, took it lightly; after they had said, ‘Hallo, did n’t know you were coming here!’ both together, and frowned, he admitted: ‘Well, I’m blest if I know where it was!’
‘I can’t see where I’m wrong!’ replied Dormer, to his map, aggrieved. ‘ It’s the right distance from the canal! ’
‘When were you here?’ asked Skene, gazing abroad with trained surveyor’s eyes.
‘Ah. It’s been — knocked about a good bit since then.’
‘Yes, but I’d been here time and again.’
‘Of course; one had to come this way from the Somme to the salient.’
‘Exactly. The village started with a row of little houses. There were no outlying buildings.’
‘The row of trees beside the pavé just left off, and the buildings began. Then, after a bit, you came to the square.’
‘Well, come on,’ said Skene; ‘let’s pace it out.’
Around them lay the wet richness of Flanders. The road was clear, but about it the fields had a half-kempt, hummocky appearance.
‘A hundred!’ counted Dormer. ‘We ought to be in the square. Look here, on the map, where the word — er — “ Kick-and-push ” —’
‘Is that how you pronounce it? We used to call it “Kick-and-push.” Well, against that there’s a cross. That means the church — but where is it?’
‘Wait a bit!’ cried Skene, his voice rising. ‘What are all those bricks? Why, Dormer, you old ass, we’re there!’
‘Did n’t the cobbles go diagonally across the Grand Place? Well, look here!’
‘ Um! ’
‘There’s your church.’
‘That — mess, there! It is n’t three feet high!’
‘That’s the church, all the same. Ah, look there, those corrugated iron roofs — that’s the new village!’
‘Well, I’m — ’
‘Yes, you are. Come along and see.’
Skene led him, still grudgingly regarding his map, through what appeared to be the store yard of a bankrupt builder, down a muddy lane, where even the cobbles of the Route Nationale ceased.
‘This was mined,’ said Skene. ‘I remember hearing it go up!’
On the wooden door of the first elephant hut was a small dilapidated tin and enamel notice: —
‘There!’ said Dormer. ‘The Common Secretary, as the boys used to call him. I’d quite forgotten him.’
‘He has n’t forgotten us. Come on!'
They pushed open the door and entered.
The interior showed the creditable struggle which minor officialism was making against something so much bigger and more violent than itself. Here, in an army hut, on that abandoned battlefield that had so ruthlessly obliterated the village which was its sole reason for existence, had found shelter a little old man, his office chair, his desk, his stove, his cat, and all those pompous declarations and meticulous printed lists that go to govern rural France. The atmosphere, there in the midst of those fields slowly being reclaimed by agriculture, was the atmosphere of theory and ink of those tall buildings that line the Seine.
The little old man went on writing one of the interminable lists peculiar to his kind, in the official purple ink, for some time after the two Englishmen entered. It seemed as though he were allowing the official period to elapse before noticing them. When he did look up, he said nothing — waiting, no doubt, for them to state their business.
‘Good morning, M. Robinet,’ began Skene, in French.
‘ And how are you getting on, and all my good friends in the Commune of Kiecken puits?’
‘Monsieur, I do not know which persons are designated your friends!’
‘Oh, come, you must remember me!’
‘No, monsieur, I have not the pleasure.’
‘I was here in the war!’
‘Ah! That!’ The little old man sighed and wagged his head, weighted with memories. But apparently not one was of Skene, for he only remarked: ‘Yes, we had a heap of English here — and then the Americans.’
‘Well, I was Lieutenant Skene. I used to come and see you about billets and horse lines and all that.’
‘Ah! I saw so many. But what is there that I can do for your service?’
‘Why, nothing!’ Skene sounded a bit crestfallen. ‘I ’ll go and see some of the farmers. They’ll remember me.’
‘It is always possible. Only I would point out that many of my adminisirés have left!’
‘All right, I’ll go and see,’ repeated Skene, nettled.
‘Yes, you can always do that.’
So saying, the little old man gave the stove a poke with an English bayonet that hung on a nail, and resumed writing.
Outside, Skene said to Dormer: ‘Just fancy that! I must have seen him hundreds of times!’
' I never had much opinion of the French,’ replied his friend. ‘I found them very insular!’
They walked on, side by side, for some distance, until they were clear of the huts. On either side of them stretched the fields, queerly distorted as if by earthquake. Hardly a tree was to be seen, but everywhere stumps splintered at the top into a queer fan shape. They sat on one of these.
‘Do you suppose that chap would remember?’ Dormer was pointing to a figure ploughing the field just beyond them.
Skene made no attempt to find out. The neglect of M. Robinet still burned within him.
‘That old man I used to see sometimes as often as once a week. I must say he was a model of his particular sort. He kept wonderful books, containing all sorts of unnecessary details about his administrés, as he called them. He knew all their private histories, all their family feuds, and would give sly hints as to which were to be trusted and what might be conveniently hidden from me. Well, the war rolled on and on —’
‘Worse and worse!’ agreed Dormer. ‘ I know.’
‘And finally, in getting out of the Lys Valley, we had to come back this way. You may remember what a game it was, clearing the civilians of half the countryside out, and then making a stand while the army was reconstituted behind us. We were a crew. Details of all sorts. Labor Corps — tunnelers, cooks, scullions, grooms, clerks.
‘Well, after about three days of it we landed up here, at Kieckenpuits. It was empty, of course, doors all open, fires still burning in the stoves. My C. O. used to swear he found a cat asleep on the hearth of one house. However — ’
‘I’d believe anything about those days!' Dormer conceded.
‘I hope we set a proper guard. I don’t remember much except going into all these houses and eating and drinking everything we could find. Some sort of scheme of defense was formulated, the road barricaded; we dug in and covered up. And then—’
‘I know,’ Dormer supplied. ‘Old Fritz never came.’
‘That’s just it. Had we only known, he had taken some nasty knocks, and the edge of his offensive was already blunted. He was tired of outmarching his guns and getting it in the neck. We had a peaceful night of it, with the whole Lys Valley below us one great Crystal Palace Fireworks display. Loveliest sight you ever saw!’
‘Bit too noisy for me!’
‘It was noisy, but wonderful to watch. Then, when it got light, old Fritz found out that we were waiting for him, and he took a dislike to poor old Kieckenpuits — a long-range dislike!’
‘He was quite right.’
‘ Of course he was! What was the use of his walking up the road and being potted. He sat back and started on us with those five-point-nines of his!'
‘Nasty quick brutes!'
‘Quick! After the first salvo I got our chaps away from the church, because I realized we were a dot on the map, just the sort of shoot Fritz liked and did so well. I was too soon.’
‘No, about one minute. The next salvo, punctual as clockwork, caught the church tower. Just beside me a corporal from some East Anglian battalion said: “My ’eart, thar she goo, wallop.” It was the last word he ever spoke. A piece of stone as big as your head caught him between the shoulders and nearly went through him. It bent his head right over until he was looking backward, and upside down. Dead, of course. A gunner who was trying to find a place for an O-pip said it was a wonderful shoot. So it was!’
‘Old Fritz was wonderful!’
‘He was. He went bracketing up and down the main road and the crossroads, just like an old lady planting tulips. He kept on getting our poor devils, at one place or another, and I kept getting ’em away, when I could.’
‘I know. Most depressin’.'
‘It was. Just about half an hour after we had had too much of it, and I had to begin looking out that not more than two men went with a stretcher, it began to rain.’
‘Then Fritz shut up!'
‘Pre-cisely. Just like an old lady, thinking it was a horrid wet afternoon, and putting the rest of the tulips back in the box until it faired up!’
‘Perfect godsend, of course.’
‘Only just as depressin’. I was tired of it. After four years, to come to that. Well, next thing was a G.S.O. of sorts, from Corps Headquarters on a motor bike. He was earning his keep, that chap, dashing about forming “strong points.” At the moment, of course, Fritz was trying to work round on the low ground south of us, where there was no one in particular to stop him. This merchant took away half the machine-gunners we’d scraped together, promised us some rations, and went off to the right. I sat behind a pigsty - which was my headquarters, billet, and funk hole — and watched the road. Nothing happened for a bit, except a lot of noise. I suppose the G.S.O. stopped the Boche on the right, so the next thing was a commotion in front of us.’
‘Machine-gunning, and all that.'
‘Just so. I crawled about the churchyard until I found out who was loosing off our none too plentiful S.A.A. A Labor Corps sergeant, about seventy years old, swore he had seen someone moving, but, so far as I could make out, the men wore firing to keep their hearts up!’
‘Men will do that.’
‘Mind you, there was something in it. Fritz was shooting a bit. From the way the stuff was dropping I suspected that a stray Boche machine-gunner, at least a thousand yards off, was warming his tummy for exactly the same reason as ours were. There was nothin’ to be done, so I dodged back to my pigsty, where my servant had succeeded in boiling some water and making a mug of tea.’
‘Yes, nectar, the stinking stuff. While I was scalding my throat out with it I nearly spilled the lot for joy. There was someone coming up the road behind us. I soon sobered up, though. It was n’t a limber, it was n’t reënforcements; it was, as it got nearer, a little old man under an umbrella. The rain had ceased and a miserable sort of sunset struggled through — in Fritz’s eyes, fortunately. That made him nervous, and he started sloshing the whole place. Anyhow, by the time the little old man got up to where I was taking cover, there was any amount of loose lead, ricocheting all over the pavé, whee, whee!’
‘ So I called out to the chap to stop. He turned, and it was M. Robinet, the Communal Secretary!
‘“What are you doing there?" I called out to him.
‘“I am doing my duty. You do yours,” he replied, just as cross as two sticks. So I tried him this way: “Have a cup of tea?”
‘“I have no time for foolishness,” says he, fumbling his way up the blocks and sandbags of our barricade. The sentry on the barricade was looking alternately at me and at this apparition in the field of battle. I signed to him, “All right,” and shouted to old Robinet as he stood balancing on his wizened old legs on the pile of stuff we had made — it was a stiff climb for the old man, impeded with an umbrella. “Come back,” I said; “you’re going to your death!”
‘“I’m going to fetch the matrix of the cadastre!”’
Dormer stared for a moment, and then recollected. ‘The land-registry thing that the Government makes ’em keep.’
‘That’s it. Key to the land register, we should call it. It was so damn silly that I jumped over the barricade after him, calling to him to stop. The Boches were tuning up; and the office he used to occupy south of the churchyard — Let’s see: we are about where the Boches were that day — it would be there!’
‘Can’t make out much,’ grunted Dormer, frowning at the noncommittal landscape. ‘It’s all overgrown!’
‘Well, anyhow, I ran after him and caught hold of his umbrella. He left it in my hand and went on. I threw the beastly thing into the ditch. We got across the few yards which led to his office — how, I can’t think, since we were in full view of the Boche, who at once took the necessary steps, as they say in staff memoranda. The air was fairly thick with flying metal, but you remember that old Fritz was never so good at a sporting shot as on the map. So, amid the cheers of my men, we got to his rotten old office. A whizz-bang had lifted the roof, covered everything with dust, thrown the schoolbooks and official documents to every corner of the place. He went down on his knees and grubbed up a trap in the floor. He’d put the register in his cellar.
‘Meanwhile, of course, ever since we shinned over the barricade, I had been exhorting him to give it a miss, pointing out that the Boche had got his commune, and might as well have his cadastral map and register. It was no good. He snubbed me — in the middle of that battle of the European War that little old man told me off as if I were a naughty school kid. “I know quite well what I am doing,” he told me. “ I have no need of your enlightenment on the subject.” I took it in good part until he emerged with his register, done up in a handkerchief, from his cellar. Then I caught him by the scruff of the neck, pushed him through the back door and up the lane to the Labor Corps machine-gun emplacement. And it was time. While we were hauling him over the sandbags a five-nine hit the barricade on the road, and knocked it endways. We never found a trace of my poor old sentry.
‘ I was rushing about, seeing after my chaps, and old Robinet followed me and kept on pulling at my equipment to attract attention. Do you know what he wanted? His umbrella! “Where is it?” he demanded. “Gone to Hell. Go and find it,” I told him. “But you don’t understand,” he said; “that umbrella belonged to Monsieur le Maire. What shall one say to him?” I did n’t know. I had other things to think of. Just then the gunner-fellow managed to get a peep at the Boche and give his guns a chance. You know how it felt when, just as the whole show seemed lost, you found there was someone else carrying on the war — that they had n’t all packed up and gone home. The last I saw of old Robinet, he was trotting off back to St.-Omer — or wherever his Maire had moved to — with the cadastral matrix under his arm. You know also that that day was the turning point. The Boche never got any farther.'
‘No. That’s why there’s nothing worth seeing beyond this. I vote we go home!’
The two friends got up and shook themselves, and started homeward, amid the incoherent mounds and hasty tin and boarded reconstructions of the gradually obliterated battlefield. As they passed the door that bore the tin sign, Skene said, ‘ I must say goodbye!’ and opened it.
‘Good-bye, M. Robinet. I’ve been telling my friend how you saved the matrix of the cadastre!’
Between the desk and the stove two old eyes blinked at him. From the footstool the cat’s eyes blinked no less.
‘Come and have a drink?’ shouted Skene, suddenly feeling an urge toward friendliness.
‘Thank you, I have not the time to waste,’ muttered the old voice. The face was lowered above the papers. They were forgotten.
‘Oh, come on,’ grumbled Dormer.