The English Spirit

By the end of the South African war Sergeant Cane had got one thing very well fixed in his mind, and that was that war was an overrated amusement. He said "he was fed up with it," partly because that misused metaphor was then new, partly because everyone was saying it: he felt it right down in his bones, and he had a long memory. So when wonderful rumours came to the East Anglian village where he lived on August 1, 1914, Sergeant Cane said, "That means war," and decided then and there to have nothing to do with it: it was somebody else's turn, he felt he had done enough. Then came August 4th and England true to her destiny, and then Lord Kitchener's appeal for men. Sergeant Cane had a family to look after and a nice little house: he had left the Army ten years.

In the next week all the men went who had been in the Army before, all that were young enough, and a good sprinkling of the young men, too, who had never been in the Army. Men asked Cane if he was going and he said straight out, "No."

By the middle of August Cane was affecting the situation. He was a little rallying-point for men who did not want to go. "He knows what it's like," they said.

In the smoking-room of the Big House sat the Squire and his son, Arthur Smith, and Sir Munion Boomer-Platt, the member for the division. The Squire's son had been in the last war as a boy, and, like Sergeant Cane, had left the Army since. All the morning he had been cursing an imaginary general, seated in the War Office at an imaginary desk with Smith's own letter before him in full view but unopened. Why on earth didn't he answer it? Smith thought. But he was calmer now, and the Squire and Sir Munion were talking of Sergeant Cane.

"Leave him to me," said Sir Munion.

"Very well," said the Squire.

So Sir Munion Boomer-Platt went off and called on Sergeant Cane.

Mrs. Cane knew what he had come for.

"Don't let him talk you over, Bill," she said.

"Not he!" said Sergeant Cane.

Sir Munion came on Sergeant Cane in his garden.

"A fine day," said Sir Munion. And from that he went on to the war. "If you enlist," he said, "they will make you a sergeant again at once. You will get a sergeant's pay, and your wife will get the new separation allowance."

"Sooner have Cane," said Mrs. Cane.

"Yes, yes, of course," said Sir Munion. "But then there is the medal, probably two or three medals, and the glory of it, and it is such a splendid life."

Sir Munion did warm to a thing whenever he began to hear his own words. He painted war as it has always been painted, one of the most beautiful things you could imagine. And then it mustn't be supposed that it was like those wars that there used to be, a long way off. There would be houses where you would be billeted, and good food, and shady trees and villages wherever you went. And it was such an opportunity of seeing the Continent ("the Continent as it really is" Sir Munion called it) as would never come again, and he only wished he were younger. Sir Munion really did wish it as he spoke, for his own words stirred him profoundly; but somehow or other they did not stir Sergeant Cane. No; he had done his share, and he had a family to look after.

Sir Munion could not understand him: he went back to the Big House and said so. He had told him all the advantages he could think of that were to be had for the asking and Sergeant Cane merely neglected them.

"Let me have a try," said Arthur Smith. "He soldiered with me before."

Sir Munion shrugged his shoulders. He had all the advantages at his fingers' ends, from pay to billeting: there was nothing more to be said. Nevertheless, young Smith went.

"Hullo, Sergeant Cane," said Smith.

"Hullo, sir," said the sergeant.

"Do you remember that night at Reit River?"

"Don't I, sir," said Cane.

"One blanket each and no ground-sheet?"

"I remember it, sir," said Cane.

"Didn't it rain!" said Smith.

"It rained that night proper."

"Drowned a few of the lice, I suppose."

"Not many," said Cane.

"No, not many," Smith reflected. "The Boers had the range all right that time."

"Gave it to us proper," said Cane.

"We were hungry that night," said Smith. "I could have eaten biltong."

"I did eat some of it," said Cane. "Not bad stuff, what there was of it, only not enough."

"I don't think," said Smith, "that I've ever slept on the bare earth since."

"No, sir?" said Cane. "It's hard. You get used to it. But it will always be hard."

"Yes, it will always be hard," said Smith. "Do you remember the time we were thirsty?"

"O yes, sir," said Cane. "I remember that. One doesn't forget that."

"No. I still dream of it sometimes," said Smith. "It makes a nasty dream. I wake with my mouth all dry too, when I dream that."

"Yes," said Cane. "One doesn't forget being thirsty."

"Well," said Smith, "I suppose we're for it all over again?"

"I suppose so, sir," said Cane.