Drug for the Major

English novelist and short-story writer, GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD came to the Atlantic with his first and often reprinted story, ”The Salvation of Pisco Gabar,”and on the strength of it the Atlantic bought every new story he wrote in the next twelve months. A born linguist who graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford, he sold toys in Rumania, was a bank clerk in Spain, and finally built up enough savings in American radio to become a free lance. Atlantic readers will remember his well-liked novels, Rogue Male, Arabesque, and Fellow Passenger.

by GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD

HE WAS a severe creature, the Major, seldom smiling, always aloof. How he amused himself — if he ever did — when there was no war, one couldn’t imagine. He was a most unlikely person to be a successful leader of partisans in enemy country, for he lacked all the lighter human interests. His men did not love him, but they had to respect him. His patience was as coldly Napoleonic as his manner. Every operation he undertook had been a deliberate, foolproof success.

Brigadier Callender could only hope that this brilliant managing of luck would continue. He wished he were anywhere else in the world but on that naked Greek hillside. At the same time there was no denying that this was the very glory and height of boy’s book soldiering. His own job was purely administration, but what he administered were all the little British forces operating behind the enemy lines in Greece, Italy, and Yugoslavia; and, since he was not the sort of soldier who preferred his facts on paper, he did at times appear in person to those of his charges who could be reached at all. He could do a lot to comfort such individualists, each of them forced by isolation to exaggerate his own private and military problems. He was double the age of most of them.

Sixteen men were waiting in a very slight fold of a hillside so open that anyone could see its emptiness at a glance. They were more or less dressed in British uniform; if captured, they could only hope that the Germans would consider it more, not less. Their presence — since they had taken up their position before dawn — could not possibly be imagined by the enemy post guarding the bridge three hundred feet below, where the rock-cut road leaped from one bank of the gorge to the other. They had waited all day. They were waiting now for the road patrol to pass. They would then blow the bridge and wait again till nightfall to get away.

The Major seemed to have a genius for waiting. There he sat, apart as usual, his back against a rock, drafting what looked like a particularly difficult letter, with his leather briefcase open on his knees. Ever since Callender had dropped into this little command — descending god-like upon Mount Olympus — and found himself helplessly committed to an operation for which it was already on the move, he had never seen the Major without his briefcase. It was slung on his hip together with his maps, inseparable from his person as if it contained the most secret documents in the whole Middle East. Tactful questioning had not produced the slightest evidence of what it did contain.

Callender looked over his companions in the hollow. All but the Major were on edge, some fidgety, some unnaturally tense. Three were silently playing cards, with olive stones for chips. The second-in-command was trying to write home and making a poor job of it. The simpler and more blessed were asleep, but twitching. One or two were trying to read what they already knew by heart. The Sergeant-Major was carving a recognizable donkey out of a mandrake root.

The silence of autumn afternoon sang through the mountains and resolved itself into the rattle of a tracked vehicle and the whine of trucks in bottom gear. That, presumably, was the road patrol. No one moved. Only the Major rolled over to the skyline and had a look at the enemy. The patrol halted, then rumbled on over the bridge and up the pass. The Major returned impassively to his correspondence.

After half an hour he put his papers back in the briefcase and locked it. This simple action, methodical as that of any businessman arriving at his suburban station, seemed to be a recognized signal. Books were pocketed. The sleepers awoke. Cards were returned to a haversack, olive stones swept into a cigarette tin.

In single file the commando crawled down the sheltering fold until they were within seventy yards of the enemy post, and cover was no more than the foot-high brush of the hillside. The operation was astonishingly swift and efficient — almost, Callender thought, humane. Not one of the eight Germans guarding the bridge was wounded. Their post was scientifically planned. Their defense was tactically correct and predictable. Consequently they were all dead.

The charges took eighteen and a half minutes to lay. Then there was no bridge, and the road itself was only safe for foot passengers. Before the dust wholly settled, the commando had vanished into that inadequate hollow and resumed its former occupations. Callender found the second period of waiting intolerable. The road below, on both sides of the gorge, began to hum with enemy activity; and what was happening in the valleys across which they had to withdraw he could, as a soldier, imagine. Only the Major knew if the chance of the sixteen to return to the mountain cave which they called headquarters was really as good as he insisted it was.

The Brigadier reminded himself that patience had been the essence of soldiering since the Siege of Troy. Looking back through his memories of an infantry subaltern in 1916, he found them dominated by the periods of waiting. Action was a mere flash of blinding light dividing the endless mists of doing nothing. But at least, in those days, they had known what was in front of them and what behind. These chaps didn’t. Yet they waited till their plan was perfected; waited, at the mercy of a cough, for the moment of action; waited again for the chance to escape. And all this behind the enemy lines.

He longed as never in his life for a cigarette, which of course was forbidden. The readers of books could not keep their attention fixed. The cardplayers went through the motions of enthusiasm, but the deals grew slower until they were finally abandoned. Only the Major was imperturbable. Out came the briefcase, now white with stone dust from the bridge, and to work he went. He tore up what he had written before the action and started again. Surely the man, unapproachable as he was, would permit the congratulations of a senior officer? Callender crawled over to him, slopped tactfully, and was beckoned on.

“If only,” said the Major in a savage whisper, “I could do that to GHQ!” He jerked a thumb in the direction of the bridgeless gorge.

“Your wish is shared by quite half the Army,” the Brigadier answered mildly; “generally for the wrong reasons.”

You people could be a lot worse.”

“We try. I know how dense we must seem to you sometimes. But we do try.”

The Major’s whispered wrath boiled up again. “By God, you do! Look at the trouble you go to just to get us mail! How’s that for administration? And what’s the good of it, sir? What’s the good of it?” The exasperated exclamation was odd and revealing. The Major might well have asked what was the good of writing home when you were not allowed to say a word of what you were doing, what you were seeing, or how you lived. But to complain that he could still receive letters! Trouble at home, probably.

Callender made an opening move. “What did you do in peacetime?”

“Me? Cotton.”

The Major’s brusque reply called up a picture of some hardheaded north-countryman for whom bales of cotton had taken the place of human faces. He offered no details of what he did with his cotton.

“Is there anything I can do for you if I — when I get back?” the Brigadier asked, trying again.

“Yes. Find out who writes letters marked OOA/117/42/K and have him dropped in the drink.”

Callender recognized OOA as originating from the Pay Department. That the Major should be annoyed at some obtuseness in dealing with his pay and allowances was not surprising.

“I’ll do that, of course,”he smiled. “But I meant — well, more private troubles. For example, if there’s anything which can only be handled by a —” the Major’s cold eyes were embarrassing — “by a personal friend, would it be any help if I were to ask him to lunch?”

“I’m not married,” said the Major bluntly.

At blessed last it was night. The Major led his party over the ridge and down into the broad, cultivated valley beyond — very slowly, of course, but without any marked hesitation. The unseen pattern of fords and field paths ahead of them did not seem to share the mountain silence, but it was impossible to pinpoint a definite sound.

The second-in-command felt his way from the rear up the single file of unhurried, carefully stepping men. ”I imagine they’ll be holding the Ktipito track in force, sir.”

“I have no use for imagination,” the Major snapped. “I like to know.”

The boy was only a shadow on the night, but Callender could see from his cheerful bearing that he did not resent the snub. All of them were accustomed to the Teutonic lack of frivolity in their leader’s mind. In a way it was a guarantee for his understanding of the enemy.

“I’m going on until I bump into them,”the Major added.

Callender’s staff training leaped to his lips in protest. But on second thought the Major was right. Reconnoitering was impossible. He couldn’t separate his command or he’d never see half of them again.

At the crossing of the main road they did bump into the enemy — if you could call it a bump when you saw him first and merely waited interminably for him to go away. The Major did not even pay him the compliment of lying down. He sat primly with his back against a fig tree. His whole familiar attitude suggested that if there had been light for writing he would have opened his briefcase. That his mind worked on the correspondence was certain.

When movement was safe and the road crossed, the ground began to rise and again there was stone underfoot. The enemy was not so silent, not so sure as they that darkness was an ally. The Major, leading, bumped in person. His commando knife — which Callender so disliked for its air of flamboyant self-consciousness — was effective. So was the drill, even to the catching of the lieutenant’s body as he fell. He was elderly. He should not have been turned out for this kind of duty. He should not have visited his posts alone.

The Brigadier never knew what else they passed on the Ktipito track. He doubted if any of them did. But the point which mattered was that whatever existed outside the twenty-yard range of their exceptional night sight had been passed — and the Major, on any less familiar route, could never have been sure of that.

At dawn they were among the high rocks where even Greeks did not try to scratch the pockets of soil and even the angriest of German commanders could perceive that search for them would be fruitless. A Greek guide and a mule were there already. The guide had laid out the rations and wine as if for a picnic. He had astonishingly provided a white tablecloth. It was his personal gesture of hospitality.

“I’ll send you back with him after breakfast,” the Major said to Callender. “We shall wait.”

Waiting again? How could he endure it? And it wasn’t just for rest. The night march, though it included some tough climbing, had been welcome even to the middle-aged Callender after the interminable motionless hours. No, that Napoleonic major had decided to wait a day or two just to find out what steps the enemy had in fact taken, just to avoid guesswork and impatience if ever they undertook a second operation in those valleys.

After breakfast some slept, some smoked. The Major took out his briefcase, scrubbed off a dark stain on the leather, and set to work.

“I can take the mail,” Callender offered.

“It’s all ready for you at our headquarters.”

“Nothing urgent — here?”

“Urgent?” the Major barked, the harshness of strain in his exasperated voice. “No, nothing urgent!” He hauled a pile of official correspondence from that precious briefcase and slammed it on the baked ground in front of Callender.

The Brigadier noticed that the case was left empty. “That’s all?” he asked.

“All? Good God, the bloody file’s an inch thick!”

It was. Neatly pinned together and indexed were carbon copies of the Major’s penciled letters to the Pay Department and their formal replies.

“They owe me twenty-nine pounds, seventeen shillings,” said the Major, “and I am going to get it.”

The gist of the correspondence was clear at once to Callender’s practiced eye. Twenty-nine pounds, seventeen shillings had been knocked off the Major’s pay for the simple bureaucratic reason that he had spent the money and not accounted for it. Nobody, however, expected the details of expenditure from secret funds to be precisely entered. The Major had merely to write out a voucher, sign it, and get it countersigned by his commanding officer.

But that was not the Major’s style. He derided the Pay Department. He parodied their formalities and their references. His bitter incoherence was such that OOA/117/42/K had himself become affected, and caught the ungraciousness of his correspondent.

“You see, sir! All my spare time taken up writing to those . . .”

The Major let loose upon the Pay a string of oaths so sincere that they had the sting of ecclesiastical curses. Callender vaguely perceived that they were directed to the wrong address. The Pay was eminently cursable. It wasn’t much good to curse the enemy or the brutality of killing or the never-ending responsibility for the lives of sixteen men and a host of civilian helpers.

OOA/l17/42/K did partly deserve the fury which he had invoked. Callender, when he returned to his office, could straighten out the Major’s problem in three minutes on the telephone.

He was about to say so, opened his mouth — and shut it. It would be cruelly unintelligent to deprive the Major of his grievance. If the drafting, the filing, the absurd indexing of this correspondence were ended, what recreation would be left, to support the tormented hours of waiting, for a man who took no pleasure in his fellows or himself, wouldn’t talk and didn’t read?

“There is no way for me to interfere in a financial matter of this sort,”he said gently. “But they’ll see sense in the end if you go on trying to settle it yourself by letter.”